This week the United States Department of Agriculture released a disheartening record-breaking report. Disheartening because the record broken was the percentage of Americans who experienced “food insecurity” in 2008. 14.6% of Americans last year didn’t have enough food to put on the table; in other words 17 million households went to bed hungry at some point during the year. In a nation as prosperous as ours, the statistic is troubling; in light of ongoing attacks on our farm families and modern agriculture, the number is infuriating.
The most popular buzzword in society today is “sustainable.” Loosely defined, the idea is that practices we adopt in producing food should be able to be sustained over the long-term, ad infinitum. This is a noble and perhaps necessary philosophy, and yet the term has been largely hijacked by specific groups of what I term “food elitists” bent on driving the food system to only their specific niche or ideology. Take for instance one individual I chat with online who believes that the solution to our societal ills will come if we quite literally demolish all modern supermarkets and grocery stores and only buy our food from farmers’ markets. Or, take the vegan/environmental extremists who insist that by eating meat we are “killing the planet” because cows expel methane gas as they digest their feed.
The problem with these concepts, and dozens more like them circulating in elite circles of food conversation online and elsewhere is they fail to take into account the exponentially growing numbers of mouths to feed in this country and around the world. One United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization study suggests farmers will need to produce as much as 70% more food than we are producing today by the year 2050, just to keep pace with current consumption. That task, to me, is among the most daunting challenges facing modern society.
The stability of a nation/state is at its core tied to its ability to feed the populace. Studying the history of various countries, peoples, and empires, one of the surest signs of rebellion or governmental overthrow. The Fall of Rome, while precipitated by many things, was due in no small part of the government’s inability to provide sufficient food to its people, in particular to its military complex. With that in mind, while I doubt the United States will be in significant enough hunger hardship that folks will riot in the streets, there are a number of nations where this scenario might very well be conceivable.
So back to the core concern, the attack on farm families and modern agriculture; the impetus is on each of us to foster a renewed understanding of where are food comes from. One of the great challenges in forging the partnership between farmers and consumers is that farmers don’t always understand consumers, and consumers don’t often understand modern farmers. Studies by the Center for Food Integrity found conclusively that consumers inherently trust farmers on an extremely high level, and that at the same time, they don’t consider modern food production to be farming in the traditional sense. The average consumer, when asked to consider a farmer, has in mind the bucolic pictures of yesteryear with red barns, white picket fences, and Farmer Fred in his bib overalls.
I love that heritage as much as the next guy; my Grandpa Charlie wore those bib overalls, and while I’ve never had a red barn or white picket fence, my fond memories of childhood are rolling fields of grazing cows and Dad planting the garden with Grandpa Coby’s Allis Chalmers WD-45. Today’s modern farm family shares those very same values, and at the same time, places an equal value on knowledge, technology, and modern agricultural science. The disconnect is the transfer of understanding that both farmers and consumers share these same values, and have the same end-goal: keeping people fed with safe, wholesome, and tasty food.
We as farmers have to do a better job of telling that part of the story, that we are the same people of integrity and character we’ve always been, and that at the same time we’ve moved in the 21st Century like everyone else. Biotechnology, precision farming techniques, and modern livestock housing are all part of that progression. Helping 17 million hungry Americans put enough food on the table, and producing the U.N.’s projected 70% more food requires us to continue reaching forward, embracing new techniques and technologies. We’re not abandoning our core values, nor are we opposed to the values held in high esteem by consumers; we are applying those values with sound science and using the most up-to-date practices to meet the growing demand for our produce.
Join me in thanking a farmer this week; the task of feeding our world isn’t getting any easier. Farmers are producing more food than ever before on far fewer acres than they used 100 years ago; oh, and with fewer Americans involved in farming to begin with. Solving our nation’s hunger problems is only sustainable if the farmer can continue to farm.