Just came across this piece by UMN Professor Emeritus Richard A. Levins (not to be confused with the recently-honored Harvard Professor Dick Levins), “Why don’t we have sustainable agriculture now?” His answers to the question are unsurprising, to those who have paid attention, but it is obliging to see him spell out the facts at hand–that most of the power in our food systems is not held by farmers, nor consumers, and thus if we want changes, we have to think beyond simply acting as members of one of those groups, but rather, act to support and generate more power for those groups. In other words, more power for people–for citizens–and less for corporations.
I don’t know the copyright status of Levins’s piece, so here’s an excerpt. Read the rest here.
Why has it been so difficult to bring about sustainable agriculture on a large scale in the United States? Or, for that matter, why don’t we already have an agricultural system that would better fit most definitions of sustainable? Judging by our university efforts, we would have to answer both questions with something like “We don’t yet know how to do sustainable agriculture”. From this, we assume that if we did, agriculture would then become more sustainable.
In response, my friends in agronomy, animal science, and related fields busy themselves developing non‐chemical weed controls, cover crops, rotation schemes, and hoop houses. A person visiting our universities might also conclude that we have made relatively little progress in sustainable agriculture because farmers don’t know enough about sustainable practices. In response, we have education and outreach programs to show conventional farmers the errors in their ways. There is an implicit assumption that once farmers know more about sustainable practices, they will adopt those practices…
I think we would be closer to answering these questions if we face the fact that farmers no longer sit in the driver’s seat of our contemporary food system. We are entirely too quick to say, for example, that we have problems with farm chemicals because farmers use them, not because farm chemical companies develop, manufacture, and promote them. Clearly, farmers are not the decision makers in poultry production and much of hog production due to contracting. Beyond that, the economic environment in which farmers work is increasingly established by agribusiness and retailers, not by farmers…
Let me put it even more bluntly. Which do you think was larger in 2006, net farm income, or the cost for food packaging materials? The materials in which farm products were packaged were valued at over $10 billion more than the income of the farmers that produced those products. So we want to change the direction of an $881 billion dollar food system, and we look to a $59 billion component of that system to make the change. This flies in the face of the principal lesson I tried to get across when I was teaching ECON 101—“money talks.”
From Why Don’t We Have Sustainable Agriculture Now? by Richard A. Levins