A Big Old “Sustainable” Food Debate

I’ve done it again. I’ve allowed myself to get pulled into a debate with a group of organic and “sustainable” food activists. I get pretty passionate when one group of food marketers chooses to promote their product by denigrating and disparaging the rest of us who do things in a mainstream fashion. Visit the originating blog to get the whole story, but here’s my initial response:



Here’s the real crux of the argument: How can we best feed a growing population? At the end of the day, the conversation must focus on feeding Americans, and hungry people around the world. Here’s where the dichotomy, and unfortunately sometimes passionate discord, occurs.



The United Nations Food and Ag Organization estimates that by year’s end a BILLION people are at risk of going hungry, and furthermore, that by the year 2050 global food production must double to keep pace with current population growth models.



These are sobering statistics.



At the same time, food producers large and small are at odds in a forum designed to encourage healthy discussion about the most critical issues facing agriculture and the consuming public today. Modern agricultural production, led by Norman Borlaug’s Nobel-winning “Green Revolution” nearly half a century ago, has made unfathomable strides in keeping that ever-growing number of mouths fed. The use of modern farming practices, including advances in mechanical efficiencies, the use of GPS in crop production, biotechnology, and advanced animal husbandry, have allowed farmers to produce far more food with far less land than at any point in our nation’s history.



So, while I applaud citizens like the author here for taking an active role in food production, I question the source of vitriol so often directed at “mainstream” or “commodity” producers.



In other words, given the fact that American farm families must continue expanding food production, and given that modern production efficiencies can facilitate that necessary growth, why are we painting a target on those very farmers’ and their advocates? The challenge facing niche food producers embracing marketing tactics like “organic,” “sustainable,” “all-natural,” etc., is the implied assumption that mainstream food produced with modern practices is somehow “inorganic,” “unsustainable,” or “unnatural.”



Clearly, this implication is false.



As South Dakota rancher Troy Hadrick so eloquently posited, “From a farmer’s perspective, there are two questions that should have to be answered before any agricultural practice can truly be considered sustainable. First, will the farm and ranch families implementing the practice be able to generate enough income to continue farming or ranching? Will those families be sustainable? And second, will the practice help producers increase food production to keep up with a growing population? If the answer to either of these questions is no, then, from my perspective, it should not be considered sustainable.



If farmers and ranchers can’t make a living, they obviously won’t be around very long. That’s not what I would call a sustainable practice. Or if America’s farmers and ranchers are forced to use production methods that do not yield enough food for everyone would you consider that sustainable? I wouldn’t.” I couldn’t have said it better than that.



There is clearly a place at the table for food marketers using all of the aforementioned labeling and production methods. Mainstream agriculture will “circle the wagons,” however, when niche marketers attempt to unfairly impugn the integrity, motives, or methods without just cause or basis in reality.



Finally, to attack the moderator of #AgChat because her profession involves advocacy on a variety of business interests is poor debate tactic. Clearly Michelle is a passionate spokesperson for agriculture who is well-read and well-written. Her professional associations give some context to her loyalty to agriculture producers certainly, but listing some of her presumed clients should suggest only that she is respected as a communicator by some of the most successful businesses in the nation.



Similarly, one could posit that since the author is associated with NPR or The Huffington Post that certain assumptions could be made by those connections, but without actually delving into the substance of the author’s writing and body of work, those presuppositions could be completely irrelevant.



One parting thought: given the challenges of feeding a rapidly growing population with an increasingly diverse palate, shouldn’t we as food producers adopt a philosophy of remaining “size-neutral” or “marketing practice-neutral?” That, in my thinking, would be truly sustainable.



That was all it took. After a few minutes, a handful of radicals jumped on my back to criticize and and deride my position on the issue. Thinking I had taken the moral high road here, I was amazingly unsurprised at the personal attacks which ensued. Here’s my response to those criticisms:



Many issues to tackle at once here, but let’s start with the first most-abused myth about “big ag,” what I like to think of as the ultimate straw man: CAFO’s. The public is being led to believe that these food production facilities are somehow producing substandard or inferior food. This is a canard of colossal proportions. Food produced in these facilities is no different in terms of nutritive value than animals produced in the bucolic agrarian fashion espoused by those criticizing the more efficient production practice.



Similarly, there is no doubt that American’s consume a high quantity of processed foods, but I’ll argue that if you compare apples to apples products from one production system to the next, you’ll find no statistically significant difference in nutritive value. This myth of “empty calories” has nothing to do with organic vs. nonorganic, or any other production/marketing practice, but rather with basic lifestyle choices.



If I eat a gallon of ice cream per week, for example, the ice cream produced from organic milk will not vary in terms of nutritional content than milk produced conventionally. The “organic” ice cream, however, will be considerably more expense because the base input – the organic milk – is considerably more expensive to produce.



I applaud any food marketer willing and able to undertake the risk associated with adopting a niche production system to earn a higher price for his produce. If the free market will pay a farmer a higher price for abandoning certain tools and technologies, and that farmer can see a higher profit for his family, I’m all in favor.



What I am not in favor of is the sentiment I’m sensing in response to my previous content, that “real food is grown by small and medium farmers.” Food is food, period. Hungry people need to eat, and those of us who can afford the luxury of a higher-cost, less productive food system should not attempt to force our luxury onto those who cannot afford it, or who would not choose it for themselves.



Let’s put this in a greater context: I am the exact small farmer you claim to revere. I own four cows, grew up tending the family garden, still have a small rhubarb patch, and enjoy a cupboard full of home-grown green beans and tomato juice Grandma canned for me last summer. I am “your kind of people.” I am not, however, short-sighted enough to believe that production systems which require inherently higher levels of resources, including the petroleum my detractors referenced, and which produce fewer pounds of food per acre, will somehow magically solve the world’s food problems.



Farmers are farmers, and food is food. The concept of “food sovereignty” is exactly what I’m promoting: that we as free citizens have the right to choose and purchase the food which suits our own needs and tastes. The free market will set a price for a given set of goods and products, and we as consumers will make a determination as to our willingness to pay that price. It is irresponsible, however, for one set of food marketers, in this case the “sustainable lobby,” to claim that their product is superior simply by denigrating and disparaging the competing product.



In my case, I raise Shorthorn cattle to market as seedstock for other beef producers. I think there are definite advantages to raising Shorthorns, which is why I selected the. I do not, however, market my product by claiming that Angus cattle convert feed less efficiently and produce higher levels of methane. Such marketing tactics would be inappropriate and irresponsible.



The challenge of feeding this growing population is gargantuan enough that all food marketers will play a role. With that truth in mind, we should all adopt the production and marketing practices which suit our own business and lifestyle goals and tip our hat to the neighbor farmer who chose a different path.