The following is an excerpt from In Defense of Farmers: The Future of Agriculture in the Shadow of Corporate Power (July 2019), edited by Jane W. Gibson and Sara E. Alexander. The book is part of the Our Sustainable Future series, which aims to critically engage with emerging issues in social and ecological dimensions of sustainability, with a special emphasis on the intersection of agrarian studies and political ecology.
We humans have tested many ways to feed ourselves. Some livelihood patterns—hunting and gathering, nomadic pastoralism, and swidden horticulture—have proved successful for millennia and still support small populations in marginal areas of our planet. The origins of our latest experiment with food production can be traced to the horticulturists who, simply at first, applied new energy to ecosystems. They burned competing vegetation and planted in the nutrient-rich ash, used hand-hewn tools such as digging sticks, domesticated plants by selecting the most desirable specimens, applied manure, and defended gardens against predators. The result was more energy available in the form of food for human consumption, making larger human populations possible, and driving food producers to increase productivity further. The use of domesticated draft animals, plows, and irrigation increased the land area under cultivation, required more human labor, and fortified private property institutions. Growing demand by non-food producers further stimulated the production of food surpluses. The industrial revolution brought more technological innovations based on steam, electricity, and fossil fuels, first to farms in the western world where railroads, highways, and the shipping industry delivered commodities to growing towns and cities. Populations continued to grow and people in industrial societies began to live much longer lives than their ancestors. Indeed, so successful has been this experiment in industrial food production that, as we are frequently reminded, the world’s population will reach ten billion by 2050, necessitating a 50 percent increase over 2013 food supplies. Thus, it is greatly disconcerting that producers of most of the world’s plant and animal foods today operate at such a disadvantage, under conditions over which they have less and less control, that their livelihoods are in jeopardy.
In our global food system, farmers respond to declining profit margins related to rising costs and falling commodity prices with an urgent pursuit of increased yields and production efficiencies that, according to the president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, has been insufficient to cover farmers’ costs of production in the United States for the last several years. Indeed, increased yields explain the precipitous decrease in crop prices, and, according to the Wall Street Journal, U.S. farm income has fallen for four years in a row, reducing farmer income by half since 2013. These alarming findings led the National Farmers Union to set up a farm crisis web page with information about debt, mediation, disaster relief, and suicide prevention.
Effects of the most recent cost-price squeeze mirrors the historic pattern seen in the United States, evident in the latest U.S. Census of Agriculture. The total number of farms continues to decline, despite growth in the smallest farms since 2000. Farm structure reflects continued development of a bimodal distribution in which midsize farms are gradually disappearing. The majority of small farms (80.2 percent with < 309 acres) control a disproportionately small share of total land in farms (30.6 percent), and a few enormous farms (4 percent with > 2656 acres) control a large and disproportionate share of land (24 per-cent). And while each region of the world is unique in its farming traditions, aspirations, growing conditions, and investment capabilities, the adoption of industrial production technologies and practices proceeds apace, including digital technologies. Technological diffusion is impelled by trade negotiators, especially from the United States, and agribusiness corporations working to remove all trade barriers to the globalization of industrial agriculture.
Despite technological innovations, new technologies that have boosted productivity have not been able to overcome a slowing down of yield increases. Degraded natural resources, biodiversity losses, and the transboundary spread of pests and diseases undermine efforts to increase productivity. Technologies that have driven yield increases and falling food prices also contribute to loss of soil fertility, deforestation, and climate change. These concerns add to problems of food waste in a world with 800 million chronically hungry people and two billion who experience nutritional deficits. Given population projections and these discouraging facts, not only are many farmers at risk of losing their livelihoods, but the majority of the world’s non-food producers, including those of us who are currently well-fed, are at increased risk of food shortages. Compounding this bleak prospect, increased income inequality in the world means a rising threat to access for those unable to pay for sufficient quantities of food.
The old saying that we do not know where our food comes from is indeed true, particularly if what we mean is that we know little about farmers and the system in which they labor. Instead, the popular imagination is fueled with images that fall into one of two camps. At one extreme, as purveyors of agricultural inputs and equipment would have it, farmers are hard-working heroes, expected to shoulder the responsibility of feeding the growing, hungry global population with the help of the latest in science and technology research. A counternarrative, produced by some environmentalists, depicts farmers who rely on industrial production practices as socially and environmentally destructive.
The elements of truth in these caricatures of industrial farming do little to help us understand either food system vulnerabilities or opportunities to prepare for a challenging future. And while only a few countries dominate the world market for agricultural exports, this system of production is a global affair. Whether depicted as heroes or villains, producers on every continent face enormous challenges, not least their dependence on nonrenewable and declining resources; shrinking profit margins and volatile, uncompetitive markets; land management problems related to tillage, monoculture production, and grazing; new threats to production caused by climate change; and loss of social, material, and moral support as rural communities decline. These issues speak to the need to understand the constituents and dynamics of the global food system, and to enlist the help of farmers to gain that understanding.