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    Can Agriculture Change with a side dish on Mr. Foer

    I just read a post by a #twitter friend of mine, Zach (@ZacharyCohen). His post is here: What is wrong with me is what is right with me. I like this post and totally relate. I ran into these same issues that he speaks about regarding life in corporate america. It is, dare I say, a gauntlet that is difficult and maddening to navigate.

    Now let's take part of the message, or what I take away as part of the message, and superimpose that on to agriculture. Zach is correct, we live in a kinetic world. We are by no means static. This message is never more evident when one thinks about agriculture, the business of growing our food, feed, and fiber - and now fuel. Agricultural practices are not static. They have never been, nor will they ever be.

    As we march, some would say sprint, into the future, the practices and methodologies utilized by farmers will change; they must. The art form, based in science I might add, of farming will adapt. Take the recent advances in Precision Farming. Everything from Variable Rate Technologies, Sub-Inch Guidance, to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Agriculture will adapt and continue to improve. As more and more scientific models become commercialized and cost effective, producers of our food, fuel, fiber, and feed will adopt and use. We are getting better every day. Below is a high level diagram depicting what we in the "conventional" ag space are concerned with. Diagram courtesy of the National Natural Resource Management System, Indian Space Research Organization

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    When we look at the needed debates on the production of one of life's vital components, it becomes evident that many of the discussions are founded on the idea that the current production methodologies are static. I don't think this is intentional, but it is the case. I believe there is an assumption on the #Profood "side" that "conventional" farmers and ranchers don't want to change or are afraid of change. I could not disagree more.

    Now commence the tangential discussion....

    Let's take a 36,000 foot view of switching to organic methodologies for wheat. As anyone who makes their living off the land will tell you, migrating over to producing organically takes at least 3 years, usually 5. The USDA requires a 3 year limbo period before you obtain the Certified USDA Organic label. Now, we would all love for the production of food to be all altruistic, but even in 3BL terms, you need to make a profit. So while you are waiting for that certification, you have substantial added costs that cannot be recouped in the market place. I am also not convinced that organic methodologies are sustainable (another post will cover this topic)

    Part of our issue also lies in the complexity of the food supply chain. It is easy, and sometimes warranted, to investigate and push back on the food system. There are a few players involved who are greedy and malevolent. We should not, and don't stand for the terrible practices that take place with these institutions. What happens is that the 98% of good, responsible farmers get caught in the crossfire. A perfect example of this is a recent episode of The Ellen Show where Jonathan Foer "educates" everyone on eating meat. He actually made a comment that "more than 99% of animals that are raised for meat are raised on factory farms." Huh? News to me.

    I wonder what the hundreds of thousands (or millions) of viewers thought about the US farmer after that 11 minutes?

    Anyone have a guess....anyone...Bueller??

    There is already a gaping chasm between farm and fork, and individuals like Mr. Foer are part of the problem. If you want to go after bad practices in the food industry, go for it! I will help. If you make ridiculous statements that 99% of the food, in this case meat, we eat comes from a producer who is outright deplorable, then I have a serious issue with that.

    How many individuals do you think were influenced enough to, as Rob Smart (@jambutter) states, rightly so, get their asses back into the kitchen? None

    How many individuals were encouraged to interface with a farmer to find out more about agricultural production? None. And why would they. Mr. Foer unequivocally stated that it is hidden and no-one would give him access. God forbid Mr. Foer ask an ag university or use the mighty Google search engine.

    End of tangential discussion.....

    My sincere apologies for the tirade above, but come on, Mr. Foer did not help close gaps; he made them worst.

    The collective we in the business of producing food, feed, fuel, and fiber care deeply about our profession. We all want to satisfy the needs of the environment, population, and future generations. The notion that we don't because of a disagreement on very complex, dynamic, and scientific positions is just blatantly false.

    A factual statement. The collective you (Profood) are no more Profood than the collective we. We are all profood.

    Examples:
    Profood believes in eating and cooking with fresh ingredients at home - so do we
    Profood believes in producing food sustainably - so do we
    Profood believes in local food economies - so do we
    Profood supports CSA's, and organic - so do we
    Profood believes in educating the consumer - so. do. we.

    There is room, scratch that a NEED, for all of us, and if there is a position out there that we are going to deliver on the challenges we face without "conventional" farming, I suggest a re-evaluation. There are so many issues we face, from GHG's and climate change to reduced resources (land, water, etc..), food insecurity, cost of food, sound food policy, trade issues, and the list goes on. In the final analysis, a blend of practices is needed. This isn't a fight.

    What is "wrong" with us, is what is right with us.

    3 comments:

    1. Hey Nate!

      Good post! I am not a fan of Mr. Foer and kind of wish he didn't come along and stick his toe in. I do imagine that number that he pulled out of his nether region was just that. People get nervouse and say things like that all the time. Not to defend it.

      What percentage is correct do you think? When we look at most major chains and big box stores, wehre most folks get their meat. What percentage is not factory farmed, and what percentage is?

      Thanks for this post. I do think that we have a great deal more in common than we have that separates us.

      There are ranting idiots and corporate PR opportunists in every discussion of civic interest - we shouldn't expect it to be different here.

      I think we both have the goal of making healthy and environmentally friendly food affordable, while making it possible for people to farm, and have ONE job, not two.

      I think that chart is interesting. There have been environmentalists around for what 40 years now (thinking starting with Rachel Carson.) And yes agriculture has responded over the years to the advocacy and work of people who have been deepening our definitions of sustainability for the last 40 years - but they are not given credit for moving us all onto that path. I think the us and them framing mostly comes from the corporations who have been forced to change their practices over the last 40 years.

      I think everyone in this discussion should read Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken. I think it would get us all on the same page faster than all this back and forth.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful approach to the topic.

    1. Liz,

      Many thanks for reading the post and the thoughtful response.

      While it is true that most meat in an average supermarket doesn't get sourced locally, the % is not 99% as Mr. Foer stated. It should also be noted that not every "large" enterprise is a factory farm (assuming that a factory farm in this instance is bad practices). As I am sure you have noticed, more and more supermarkets are carrying more locally produced food of all types. For example, we have a awesome butcher where I live. He has grown and now provides fruits and veggies from local sources, can tell you where the meat comes from, and supplies more than a few restaurants in the area. Good stuff!!

      I think he, Mr. Foer had an agenda with his statements....suppose we all do. I just feel that many people out there that are pushing out all their perceived negatives about production agriculture are doing a dis-service to all the hard working farmers and consumers out there. Our 24 hour news cycle is not a good venue for good news or the "just plain old review of what our farmers do day in, day out."

      You make a good point regarding the extremes on the barbell, if you will. You don't lift a barbell by focusing on the ends...you lift from the middle so EVERYONE benefits. We should be talking about where to lift.

      I do disagree that we should not expect agriculture debates to be different though. If we think like that, its like solving our issues with the same type of thinking that got us here in the first place. Different solutions require different thinking..

      I inserted the chart as I feel a very significant piece of what "conventional" farming has done/been doing gets labeled as un-sustainable. We are learning and progressing as fast as science will take us. After all, science is the foundation of producing our food. Emotional decisions, although passionate and not necessarily wrong, are not conducive to forging a path forward. Take the GMO debate. There are very intelligent, ethical scientist researching this and they get tainted due to fights outside of their control. It is my view that GM foods must be researched. We must! Not all food grows in all places. Then take into account a changing climate and viola, what grew in one place cannot any longer. And organic and CSA may not cut it in places like Bangladesh, Africa, and Sri-Lanka. Hell, even in China.

      Yes, we both share the same goal of healthy, environmentally friendly, affordable food for all. The first step in this from my point of view is the support of farmers. This means better food policy choices, ensuring that farmers get a FAIR price for their work and risk taking, and heavy support from the scientific, private, and academic communities.

      At the end of the day, I support all types of agriculture and believe each will play a part moving forward. I am obviously not referring to some of the bad apples (tried to do that -without a corny pun :-)) out there. For sure, they exist; but are by no means the norm.

      Thanks for the recommended reading; I will check it out and hope I can download on I-tunes for my driving trip to NE next week. I do enjoy a good book, audio or otherwise.

    1. Nate,

      I am a recent Twitter user (about two weeks). While trying to parse through the interesting posts at Twitter speed, I have seen and enjoyed some of your tweets. I just found your blog and I have enjoyed it. I am a big believer in looking at both sides of things and appreciated your approach to this as well.

      Mike Murphy
      FarmConnect.net

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    Agriculture passionado! I lead GeoVantage's Sales, Marketing, and Business Development activities. If you haven't explored the benefit of remote sensing for production agriculture, now is the time! Not one to rest, I am also a part of the Memes Associates team where we focus on assisting large companies in the agriculture space to "re-discover their inner entrepreneur" through the introduction of market disrupting technology(s) and services.  

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