For those of you wondering if we can have a more civil discourse over food and agriculture in this country, American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman has an answer for you: Fat chance!
According to Stallman [MS Word], the top challenge facing farmers isn’t the rising cost of seed, fertilizer, and pesticides. Or the alarming growth of superweeds (a new report says that over 50 percent of fields in Missouri harbor weeds resistant to the herbicide RoundUp, upon which the entire GMO production style is based). Or the threat posed by climate change, which could reduce U.S. grain yields substantially soon and by 80 percent within decades.
No, the top challenge facing farmers is, and I quote, “the nonstop criticism of contemporary agriculture.”
Hoo boy. And Stallman’s just warming up:
[A] line must be drawn between our polite and respectful engagement with consumers and the way we must aggressively respond to extremists who want to drag agriculture back to the day of 40 acres and a mule.
Our adversaries are skillful at taking advantage of our politeness. Publicly, they call for friendly dialogue while privately their tactics are far from that.
Who could blame us for thinking that the avalanche of misguided, activist-driven regulation on labor and environment being proposed in Washington is anything but unfriendly.
The time has come to face our opponents with a new attitude. The days of their elitist power grabs are over.
General George Patton was very quotable. He said that in times of war, “Make your plans to fit the circumstances.”
To those who expect to just roll over America’s farm and ranch families, my only message is this: The circumstances have changed.
I would humbly submit that one does not invoke General Patton (a guy who liked to smack his underlings around when the mood struck) if one is seeking to establish a more civilized discourse. And in case you were wondering which extremists Stallman was referring to, it’s the ones that use “emotionally charged labels such as: monoculture, factory farmer, industrial food, and big ag.” You know, people like Barack Obama.
A good portion of Stallman’s speech was a call for unity among farmers — whether they are organic, grass-fed types or GMOers — and against, well, us. But that wasn’t all. There was also an attack on climate change legislation — and this is an angle I think proponents of the bill need to be prepared for — because it will “cut the number of acres devoted to food production” — possibly up to 59 million acres, he said — in favor of trees. This number is highly suspect, of course, having come from a USDA analysis that Ag Chief Tom Vilsack himself has declared flawed. There was also a hit on developing nations disguised as clear-eyed “realism” when Stallman suggested that they would never be able to take responsibility for feeding themselves:
Unfortunately, the hard facts are, that for parts of the world, we cannot improve the depth of topsoil, create rainfall, make the climate more temperate, or ensure economic and social justice for farmers.
Best just to send the GMOs and Roundup, I guess. Oh, and Stallman, representative of the part of the industry that benefits most from direct, cash payouts from the federal government — on the order of $12 billion a year — called for budget austerity for everyone else. Yes, the AFB is starting its own Deficit Reduction Task Force no doubt to do for the rest of government spending what they’ve done for agriculture. And remember, said Stallman, the only “sustainability” that matters is “economic sustainability.” Is that before or after you cash your subsidy check, Bob?
But most of the speech involved an extended, if veiled, suggestion that an attack on conventional agriculture is an attack on abundant, reasonably priced food. This is, of course, demonstrably false. The data shows that non-chemically intensive practices yield almost exactly the same. Yet another inconvenient truth that industry tries to ignore and anyway is sort of beside the point. What Stallman is really doing is setting the stage for the coming battle over agricultural subsidies, set for renewal in 2012. The way things are must not change, suggests Stallman. And lucky for Stallman, they probably won’t.
We received a taste of what’s to come just the other week when the USDA announced minimal changes to an eligibility rule for subsidies. It involved the current loose definition of what it means to be “actively engaged” in farming and was something that Obama had promised to fix during his campaign, even to the point of making it part of his Rural Agenda. What happened? Well, my sources suggest that none other than Senate Ag Chair Blanche Lincoln, she of the sub-40 percent polling numbers, couldn’t stomach the financial loss to her large-scale rice and cotton-growing constituents that tightening eligibility would entail. And so, reform got a sucker punch from bare-knuckled politics, which is pretty typical where ag policy is concerned. Sadly, there remains no political upside to opposing the agricultural status quo.
What’s truly discouraging in Stallman’s speech is that he and his compatriots don’t see the opportunity here. Forget throwing off the chains of industrial agriculture, what about calling for more farmers? Or trying to tap into the growing excitement over food and how it’s grown? Or touting agriculture as a promising and under-appreciated engine of future job growth? Or even reveling in the coming financial and technological windfall from climate change mitigation? Instead we get paranoid fantasies, accusations of climate hoaxes and even calls to privatize Social Security. Ah, well. Better luck next year, eh, Bob?