This blog was originally published in European Seed
Out in the Belgian countryside, I was recently stuck in traffic behind a large tractor (manoeuvring his vehicle on narrow roads during planting season). While I marvelled at the equipment (growing up on a farm, I learned to drive a Massey Ferguson at the age of eleven), my friend was cursing the farmer. Where did this hatred come from?
More and more, environmental activists (by and large cosmopolitan zealots) have turned their confrontational communication skills away from industry and onto those who grow the food we eat. Conventional farmers (those who use seed technology, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides) have been brandished as “industrial agriculture” – portrayed as an evil profession that pollutes the planet for profit and does not care about our well-being.
In the campaigners’ simplistic black and white view of the world, these farmers apparently stand in contrast to the ideals of the organic farmer, who loves the land and cares for consumer health (bringing their products to local markets and representing a romantic vision of communal living off the land). This fits the idealistic reaction against agri-science’s solutions to meet the food needs of a growing (and increasingly affluent) global population. Their solution is that we can all farm out of our urban window boxes and roof gardens and put an end to conventional industrial farmers who are choking the planet and poisoning the land (not to mention blocking traffic).
Some examples of their perceptions:
- Activist documentaries like “Food, Inc” or “Dirt! The Movie” present an image that vilifies farming as a profit-driven weapon of industrialisation that has saturated the planet, mistreated animals and destroyed human health.
- Neo-Malthusian groups like Friends of the Earth present a portrait of conventional, “industrial agriculture” as a diseased patient whose prospects are bleak unless we perform radical surgery.
- Activist scientists like Dave Goulson portray farmers as stupid and misinformed, arguing that they use pesticides without thinking, unaware that they do not work. They are systematically killing all of the bees and hence, shortly, all of humanity. Farmers need educating!
- Californians criticise agriculture for sucking the water table dry during the present drought leaving them with little to water their lawns and golf courses. There are even boycotts of almonds to try to stop farmers. These farms also apparently encourage the inflow of illegal immigrants.
- In the EU it is widely perceived that farmers do not actually have to grow anything and they live merely on subsidies. The EU Common Agricultural Policy pays these farmers to represent a “heritage”.
The romanticisation of the organic farmer as some rustic saint from an eco-religion that pines for the good ole days has grown with the viral power of social media – repeated regularly within like-minded thought silos. While sickeningly naïve (and potentially catastrophic to conditions for food security with a growing population), we need to be aware that the growing pressure on farmers to adapt 18th century farming practices runs the risk of either destroying the profession or public trust.
What does a farmer need to turn a seed into sustenance? First a reliable seed technology is necessary. Water is essential as is warmth. The land needs nutrients which the plant extracts and passes to the consumer. The farmer also needs tools to protect the crop from pests and other natural obstacles. Most importantly, farming is a labour of love.
The environmental activists are trying to block seed technology, limit irrigation, restrict fertilisers and ban the most effective pesticides. While they may think that farmers can feed the world on the basis of love alone, this is just unrealistic.
The vulgarity of vilifying farmers is that the social media communications success of these naïve idealists is hurting the means of putting food on our plates.