Agricultural and food products are not like other commodities. Their price is that of life, and below a certain threshold, that of death.
– Marcel Mazoyer and Laurence Roudart, A History of World Agriculture from the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis

Last month, after Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini dared question the virtue of certain U.S. farmers, many sustainable-agriculture proponents lashed out in fury.

Ken Cook.

Photo: agri.astate.edu

More recently, another high-profile observer, Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook, also made remarks about farmers that could be read as unkind. But while Petrini had to face down angry questioners and issue an apology, Cook’s jibes generated not a peep in the sustainable-ag blogosphere, where Cook enjoys high esteem.

In one sense, the divergent reactions can be explained by looking at whom the two men insulted. Petrini took a poke at small-scale organic growers producing for a nearby community, while Cook aimed at Midwestern grain farmers — the kind who practice what I and other observers often denounce as “industrial agriculture.” It may be no surprise, then, that the sustainable-ag community rose to defend the small-scale farmers, and looked the other way when the big guys got roughed up.

But in another sense, the response is puzzling. The farmers Petrini tweaked are niche growers. Altogether, they supply perhaps 3 percent of the nation’s food. But Cook went after the people who supply the great bulk of the calories that sustain a nation of 300 million.

If the former group disappeared — a specter I don’t raise lightly, since I work on a small-scale organic farm — the quality of our food supply would decline appreciably. But in the unlikely event that the Midwestern grain farmers shut down operations, we’d likely experience a full-on famine.

By pointing this out, I don’t mean to demean Ken Cook, whose work on our convoluted farm-support system I admire and have been citing for years. But I do want to challenge some of the discourse coming from the sustainable-ag community as congressional debate around the 2007 farm bill enters its stretch run — especially the idea that merely ending subsidies will sort out our agricultural woes.

Just Another Day at the Office?

Cook is understandably quite critical of federal agriculture subsidies. His organization, the Environmental Working Group, has made a name for itself through its Farm Subsidy Database, a monumentally useful tool for gauging federal farm policy.

The database reveals, for example, that the federal government spent $164 billion on commodity programs between 1995 and 2005 — and that 10 percent of farms received 73 percent of that cash.

The database also exposes outright abuses of the farm program. Cook recently reported, for example, that absentee farm owners who reside in Manhattan and San Francisco draw hefty government payouts — from a program ostensibly designed to bolster rural economies.

If EWG didn’t exist, ag observers like me would have to grope futilely for such information on the USDA’s devilishly convoluted website. But while the Environmental Working Group skillfully exposes the inequities and absurdities of farm policy, the group sometimes oversimplifies the debate around it, portraying federal farm support as an unnecessary welfare program kept alive by whining farmers.

And in a post on his widely read blog Mulch last month, Cook mocked farmers who claim that the real beneficiaries of the federal subsidy system, as currently constructed, are agribusiness firms who sell farmers pricy inputs and buy their produce at cut-rate prices.

According to Cook, that’s nonsense. “Let’s be clear,” he insisted. “Farm subsidies go to, and benefit, the businesses and people who collect them, no matter what bills it helps them pay, no matter how bitterly or resentfully they pay them — with taxpayers’ money.”

And he didn’t stop there. Seeking to debunk the claim that farmers deserve special support, he equated the lot of farmers to that of the other 98 percent of the population. “I’ve often wondered,” he writes, “why so many farmers seem to think a New Yorker paying $2,300 a month for an efficiency, or a suburbanite buying a $4 latte for the cupholder of her $40,000 SUV, will register shocked sympathy upon hearing that a combine (whatever that is) costs $180,000 — when you couldn’t touch a 1 BDR condo for that price on either coast.”

For Cook, the idea that agribusiness is the real beneficiary of farm support is tantamount to an urban dweller taking the position that “your salary isn’t really paid to you, but to the bank that holds the note on your car or the mortgage on your home, or to the landlord who owns that $2,300-a-month efficiency you’re renting … You’re just the middleman, the pass-through. After all, is it really your paycheck if most of it flies out the window to pay the cell phone, restaurant, and dry cleaning bills, buy health insurance, keep your kid in college, or cover that vacation to Cancun?”

By Cook’s logic, farming is just another profession — and its practitioners are no more worthy of federal support than, say, software engineers and lawyers.

First, Let’s (Not) Kill All the Farmers

I think Cook is wrong on both counts — that is, subsidies don’t benefit the farmers who receive them, and farming is fundamentally different than other professions.

If subsidies were a boon to their recipients, then we’d expect to see farmers’ fortunes steadily climbing since the early 1970s, when the federal government began to replace its old supply-management system with the direct-payment strategy in use today.

In fact, as Tufts University researcher Tim Wise showed in a 2005 paper [PDF], real net farm income has at best stagnated in that period. And while farmers were seeing ever-rising cash payments from the government to maintain income levels little changed from the 1930s, the agribusiness giants have seen their fortunes soar. A quick glance at the share-price charts for GMO seed powerhouse Monsanto, industrial meat producer Tyson, and corn-processing behemoth Archer Daniels Midland tells the story.

It’s undeniable that in an era of unprecedented federal largesse for farm subsidies, farmers have had to run ever faster just to stay on the treadmill, while the companies who sell them inputs and buy their wares have thrived.

And Cook’s contention that farming is like any other profession — widely held by free-market economists who want to abolish farm support — is an illusion with its roots, I think, in the supermarket. In 1930, one in four Americans worked on farms. Thus nearly everyone personally knew a farmer, and most counted at least one among close relatives. Growing food was concrete, something people understood.

Today, one in 70 lives on a farm — and one in 750 on a full-time commercial farm — meaning that very few people even know someone who owes a living to the land. This distance has allowed food production to become yet another abstraction in a highly specialized society. It’s easy for some to dismiss it as another cog in the wheel, a role not unlike the mysterious work that, say, network administrators do to keep the office email humming.

Yet when network administrators fail, we suffer the inconvenience of the email being down. When farming fails on a large scale — a disaster that has periodically visited humanity since agriculture’s emergence 10,000 years ago — people starve. That’s why farming is fundamentally different, and why it is still deserving of some form of public support.

I join Cook and the EWG in deploring the farm program as currently structured, and I’ve learned much from their excellent work in bringing its flaws to light. But abandoning farmers to the clutches of a highly consolidated food-processing market, as he seemed to suggest in his post, won’t solve our enormous social, public-health, and environmental troubles related to food. Rather, we need to figure out ways to use public policy and, when necessary, the purse to create a food system that’s healthy for farmers and non-farmers alike.

[Correction: The original version of the column contained a reference to an editorial that the author mistakenly attributed to the Environmental Working Group. Actually, the Environmental Working Group was not responsible for the opinion expressed in the editorial. The author regrets the error.]