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COVID and the Future of Agriculture

June 5, 2020

It’s far too early to say what the long term impact of the coronavirus will be on farming. The industrial food system has failed in obvious ways, from the ongoing catastrophe in the big meat packing plants to produce left to rot in the fields. This has resulted in a increased demand for local food, and a scramble by farmers like me to meet it. But both of these are already subsiding, at least for the moment. The big slaughterhouses are mostly managing to stay open - at a heavy cost to their employees and communities - while the surge in buying local is starting to subside. But there is no more clarity about what reforms, if any, can or should result.

A couple weeks ago I made a video that touched on some of these topics, which you can watch here if you haven’t already seen it.

A point I mention is the single-minded focus on efficiency that dominates farming in America. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am that this is the crux of the issue. Efficiency - specifically, producing the maximum possible each year - has long been the driving force in agriculture. This is completely understandable, since for most of human history simply producing enough to prevent famine has been a real challenge. But in the past century, and particularly in the past fifty years, as global agriculture has managed to consistently grow far more food than the human population could possibly need, and as the environmental costs and the damage to farming communities have mounted, increasing yields has remained the main goal. It no longer makes sense.

There are plenty of measurable metrics, from erosion to carbon sequestration to air and water quality that could and should replace it. We are collectively good enough at producing food that the regulatory framework in which agriculture operates should be shifted to incentivize goals beyond generating the maximum possible number of cheap calories.

There’s a lot of talk these days about regenerative agriculture, which would attempt to do just this. But I don’t think it’s unwarranted cynicism to look askance at some of the people who are buying in. General Mills has committed to “advance regenerative agriculture practices” on a million acres by 2030, and there will soon be a slew of competing certifiers, each with different standards, ready to put their seal on products. My guess is that at least some of these will end up consisting of whatever practices, like increased cover cropping, can be implemented on big corn and soy farms with minimal extra cost. It would still be an improvement, but it will not be a paradigm shift.

I am less sure than ever about many things in this world, and chief among them is what a realistic path to revitalizing rural communities by improving farming would look like. It definitely will not be as simple as applying regenerative agriculture label. All my other ideas, and I have plenty, never quite strike me as feasible when I really think about them. Luckily, the path forward for my farm is clear enough, even if the future of agriculture as a whole is not.

Garth Brown

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