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Big Ag Is Not Best

May 29, 2021

A recent article in Foreign Policy praising industrial caught my attention. (Big Agriculture Is Best by Ted Norhaus and Dan Blaustei-Rejto.) What I noticed was not the list of points about scales of efficiency, which are common enough. Instead, what I’ve been thinking about since reading it is how it frames this argument in relation to non-farmers; anyone who doesn’t have lived experience as a farmer, the article suggests, cannot have a valid opinion on food production.

If only farmers - and presumably, given the authors’ occupations, think-tank wonks - need to be listened to when shaping food policy, then concerns about animal welfare, the environment, and the shape of rural communities do not need to be taken too seriously. To the extent that they are problems at all they are an opportunity to educate the masses on why industrial agriculture is actually the solution to such issues. In the end squeamishness about CAFO pig farms or corporate land ownership can only be the products of an uninformed or misinformed public, not reasons to question a trajectory of endless growth and consolidation.

I can see the appeal, of course. There is a sense of satisfaction I get from knowing about farming, and it’s easy for me to be dismissive when someone starts telling me why I should raise chicken without grain or feed pigs nothing but acorns. But it’s much more productive, I find, to try to explain why I do what I do. Explaining helps me think through my choices with a higher degree of clarity, and it also (I hope) encourages me to genuinely be more open to new ideas and other perspectives.

Another part of the article that bothers me is the way it dismisses the growth of organic agriculture as irrelevant, since organics are still such a small fraction of overall U.S. food production. By this logic, any promising change in farming can be written off until it reaches some undefined but presumably massive scale. 

In the interest of balance I’ll also mention a couple points that I do agree with. First, I give the authors credit for their full-throated denunciation of ethanol. The fact that nearly half of America’s corn crop is inefficiently turned into gas is the most wasteful, environmentally damaging, market distorting political boondoggle out there. It’s also true that farming as a whole must be reasonably efficient to support a modern economy. No one who knows much about subsistence farming would advocate it as a solution to the woes of industrial agriculture. 

But I nevertheless don’t think this means we must accept an ever-larger scale. We should instead seek to figure out how to have farms that can uses energy and land efficiently while also promoting biological diversity and human flourishing. Exactly what this looks like in different locales will necessarily vary, but it’s a goal worth pursuing.

Garth Brown

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