Conventional agriculture winning some, losing some in culture war

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The intellectual war over modern agriculture has been won by the "cultural elite," but agriculture's continued commercial and technological success still bode well for its future, a political scientist said.

That's not to say conventional agriculture won't have to make adjustments in the face of ongoing challenges from its detractors, said Robert Paarlberg, who spoke at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as part of the Heuermann Lecture series. Specifically, he predicted that the inroads activists already have made in the area of animal welfare will continue to force change in livestock agriculture.

Paarlberg, the Betty Freyhof Johnson '44 Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wellesley College, is author of the book "Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know." His lecture Thursday was titled "Our Culture War Over Food and Farming."

Conventional agriculture as practiced in states such as Nebraska "is under strong attack" from people who believe it is unhealthy, unsafe, environmentally unsustainable and socially unjust, Paarlberg said. These forces want a shift from large-scale, specialized, highly capitalized farming systems to smaller scale systems that integrate crop and livestock production. Instead of internationally traded foods, they want local foods and instead of genetically engineered food, they want organic food.

Paarlberg said this battle is being fought on several fronts – intellectual, commercial and policy.

Conventional ag already has lost on the first front, he added.

"As for who's winning in this cultural arena, I would say flat out the advocates for alternative agriculture have already won," Paarlberg said. "Students come to my classes with their minds already made up." They've taken in "Food Inc.," Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" and other popular media attacks on modern agriculture and "they see this as a social cause."

Paarlberg said he's found one risks "social ostracism" by defending conventional agriculture in his state of Massachusetts.

In the commercial arena, detractors have made some progress in promoting changes in diets. Meat consumption and overall calorie consumption have dropped and a recent study shows the obesity rate among preschoolers is down.

"The activists' critique of the way we eat ... is having an impact ... and I think that's an impact we should welcome and celebrate," Paarlberg said.

Activists' promotion of organic agriculture and local marketing of food have led to advances in those areas too, but Paarlberg noted, they still comprise a very small percentage of conventional agriculture and international food marketing, respectively.

Meantime, most critics of conventional agriculture have ignored, perhaps as "an inconvenient truth," the fact that their predictions that conventional farming practices were unsustainable have proven untrue.

In recent years, conventional agriculture has drastically cut inputs while continuing to increase yields. Total fertilizer use peaked in 1981, total pesticide use in 1973, Paarlberg said.

Technological advances have led to huge reductions in land use, soil erosion, irrigation water, energy and greenhouse gases, he added.

"If only the rest of our economy had done this well, we would have something to be proud of," Paarlberg said.

Two areas where critics of conventional agriculture have scored significant victories are animal agriculture and the use of genetically modified crops for human consumption.

Ballot issues in some states, as well as decisions made by some large customers, have led to changes in how livestock are cared for, and that trend is likely to continue, Paarlberg said. Activists also are making progress in challenging the use of antibiotics in livestock solely for weight gain.

While genetically modified crops are used widely for animal feed and industrial use, they have "been stopped dead in their tracks for human food use," Paarlberg said. Ballot issues to require mandatory labeling of foods containing any genetically modified ingredient failed in Washington and California and passed in Connecticut and Maine.

"Conventional agriculture will be obliged to make concessions," Paarlberg concluded, but "those concessions aren't going to push conventional agriculture away from its preferred model" of highly capitalized, large, science-driven practices.

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Wm F    
South Dakota  |  March, 04, 2014 at 10:25 AM

Parlberg insightfully describes the cultural war against agriculture, but overlooks developing trends that will alter the balance in the future. Diets will change. Demand for animal products will rise. The growing pandemic of diabetes and dementia is now scientifically linked to over-consumption of carbohydrates from grains and sugar and under-consumption of beneficial proteins and fats from animal products. To avoid the cost of early death and 30% of our aging population in long term nursing care, modern western diets must change. Read Grain Brain by Dr David Perlmutter, 2013. Agriculture will change. The integration of animal agriculture and crop production is already underway. 53% of American farm fields are degraded and underproductive due to over reliance on commercial nitrogen and loss of micro-nutrients and soil microbial matrix. These elements can easily be returned by improved tillage practices and improved recycling of animal wastes. Aerobic manure management has been demonstrated to eliminate odor and Green House Gas while providing 2x - 3x more available nitrogen and reducing manure management costs, time and energy consumption. Environmental pressure will increase – and that is a good thing! Air, water and soil quality challenges will not go away. We have our heads in the sand because we currently see these issues as added costs to agriculture. That perspective is completely wrong. Farmers will become even more productive and profitable by overcoming these environmental challenges. Improved and more effective environmental management tools are now at our disposal – and they produce greater profits for farmers and a better quality of life!

kansas  |  March, 04, 2014 at 11:41 AM

The Culture Wars are going to be lost, if we continue to react instead of act, and allow the enemy to set the tone and language used in the debates. We cannot be perpetually on the Defensive and we cannot let the choice of Language be theirs. And Language IS important. For example, "Conventional Agriculture" is a very poor choice of words to present the most Progressive & Modern industry ion the world, where advanced biotechnology and the latest in electronics and software are being used every day to produce more and better food - right? What if Medicine allowed itself to be described as "conventional" when compared to the latest in local, artisan witch doctoring using local herbs and 17th century practices? What if Doctors, Hospitals and Universities were constantly Defending their practices against attacks on the harmful drugs and chemicals used to treat and cure illnesses? Let's drop the Apologetic vocabulary and behaviors and go on the attack, shal we? Where are our leaders and those with consumer communications skills equal to those of our attackers?

Wm F    
South Dakota  |  March, 04, 2014 at 11:48 AM

Right on, Michael. Strongly Agree! Time to take back the lead.

Delaware  |  March, 04, 2014 at 02:28 PM

Well said!

Boston  |  March, 05, 2014 at 08:00 PM

> While genetically modified crops are used widely for animal feed and industrial use, > they have "been stopped dead in their tracks for human food use," What does this mean? The US eats tons of GMO crops and labeling was voted down by California and Washington state.

Michigan  |  March, 18, 2014 at 11:13 AM

I really like this point of view. Completely agree. It is incredibly hard to defend modern agriculture if your 'opponent' has been fed a multitude of negative words like 'factory farms', and has already made up their mind that anything you say is a lie. I for one am doing my best to keep on shedding the light on the great progress modern farms have made in the area of animal care and especially environmental solutions, and I am always pleading with people to leave their home/office and check out an actual farm, rather than basing their knowledge on 'facts' found on the internet.

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