As many of us prepare to escape the summer heat by taking a holiday at the beach or at higher altitudes, spare a thought for the farmers working through the summer in full sun and against the elements. Before you toss that steak on the BBQ, spread those perfect strawberries on your ice cream or pour an oil dressing on your fresh summer salad, please take this moment to consider what an amazing job this small population does to ensure that you have safe, nutritious, affordable food. This did not happen by accident and you are not merely entitled to such privileges.
Somehow the privileged few are doing a lot of talking and we are forgetting what it takes to farm today. We have all seen the images:
- Chipotle’s malevolent Scarecrow ad suggesting farming has created a rural wasteland;
- the children exploited in Only Organic’s New MacDonald promotion for organic food;
- peasant groups led by activists like José Bové who feel that French farmers only need to worry about feeding their communities;
- the mystical seed view from Vandana Shiva of farmers as victims of a broken system driven by Monsanto and that evil Bill Gates.
Much of this is brilliant marketing by organic industry opportunists or snake-oil salesmen able to do quite well off of public fear and vulnerability. But it has led to an “arrogance of ignorance” shift. It seems that everyone with a garden or a window box is better placed to tell farmers how to grow food. Now agroecologists are even daring to call themselves scientists.
Food is emotional and emotion breeds religion. Organic activists and lobbyists are the high priests of this new religion developing a fundamentalist dogma that rejects conventional traditions and cultures. Zealots need fear to draw upon (as an identity of self-worth and transient transcendence). And in this “good versus evil” salvation scenario, these New Age post-modern activists have identified evil as the conventional farmer:
- too lazy to try agroecology;
- too careless to nurture our lovely planet;
- too dependent upon the evil chemical industry;
- too willing to poison people with crops that destroy Mother Nature’s pure bounty of virgin seeds.
But where does the science of farming and agri-technology stand in light of the darkness of this ignorant dogma?
Growing more with less
I had an interview with a German journalist recently. She seemed unable to accept the following points about conventional farming:
- That insecticide dose levels have been on a steady decline since the 1970s and at the moment are refined at the minimal level to control infestations allowing for more opportunities for integrated pest management.
- Innovations in precision farming and systemic pesticides are poised to reduce chemical exposure levels further.
- Farmers are developing more complex means of protecting soil via conservation agriculture, including no-till farming and multiple seed variety cover-crops terminated with herbicides. Wider crop rotations are adding to soil management knowledge.
- Yields continue to increase even as farmers put more land aside for biodiversity strips, margins, bird tables and set asides. As stresses on biodiversity continue, we will need more agri-tech, not less.
- With these technologies, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult for small farms to afford the equipment and tools. In the western, developed countries, it is increasingly obvious that small-scale, labour-intensive farming is unprofitable and there are, in any case, insufficient workers willing to manually tend the fields.
- Plant biologists are developing new breeds that require far less fungicide (like the blight-resistant cisgenic potato). The New Breeding Techniques are set to provide so many new solutions for farmers that will further reduce inputs while increasing outputs.
- Smallholders in developing countries are themselves identifying new strains to deal with banana wilt in Uganda and Golden Rice in the Philippines. The development of transgenic Bt brinjal (eggplant) in Bangladesh is saving farmers from almost daily (often unprotected) pesticide applications.
Why didn’t this journalist accept these realities? Quite simply, she did not want to believe me, and in the Age of Stupid, facts are optional. It makes better copy for her to present a world of good versus evil than to report on innovations that are promising for poor populations.
The PR-imbibed organic activists are presenting a passionate mission to save the world, and that emotional story sells more than science finding a way to use fewer pesticides or protect farmers. With farm labour populations below 2% in most developed countries (down from 80% two centuries ago), good news about farmers just doesn’t sell to an urban population (that in any case would need some serious educating about the reality of farming). It would be easier for this journalist to sell the emotions of well-meaning flower children taking on the evil chemical industry manipulating stupid farmers who are intent on poisoning the general public. That’s what her readers want to hear.
In short, she was not doing her job!
The Real Story: Agri-technology
The real story is how scientists and farmers are working together to solve enormous challenges facing the world by making food production more successful, safer and more reliable with fewer inputs … be it the Asian small cotton or egg-plant farmer or the South American large-scale rancher, the African smallholder or the Canadian prairie arable farmer.
The real story is how advances in farming has led to the economic expansion, from the yield explosions brought about by the introduction of herbicides in the 1960s to the Asian Green Revolution that unleashed an unprecedented amount of human capital to drive the Asian economic miracle. Today fewer farmers are feeding more people and helping drive economies unburdened with the daily search for sustenance.
The real story is how a group of privileged anti-industry, anti-trade, anti-technology Luddites are trying to turn back the clock on agri-tech and impose food insecurity on the globe’s most vulnerable populations.
The real story is that we need more technology to meet the important demands of growing global populations, changing climate and the need to restore biodiversity loss from land-use reallocations. Agriculture, like any science, continues to develop to meet the challenges. We seem to patiently accept continued progress in other technologies (the first cell-phones emitted enough radiation to pop popcorn kernels), but we demand immediate perfection with agri-tech. Problems hitherto unforeseen a generation ago (like soil or water management issues) are now being addressed on multiple fronts. Farmers are acting responsibly, working with the research community and often contributing manpower and land to test new techniques and technologies.
The organic industry lobby (groups like IFOAM, Organic Consumers Association and the Non-GMO Project) is trying to paint an image of conventional farmers as irresponsible and dangerous. They are using an image of farming more akin to the 1970s than the modern, precision-farming, conservation agriculture and IPM-driven commitments. They would want consumers to believe that only organic farmers protect the soil, limit chemical inputs and leave land for biodiversity. In reality, research, agri-tech inputs and entrepreneurial ingenuity has made conventional farming begin to meet today’s biodiversity needs far more efficiently via, for example, conservation agriculture techniques (while managing to feed more prosperous, growing populations).
Make no mistake, there isn’t a farmer out there who wouldn’t rather farm organically if they could. Crop protection tools are costly, time consuming and often require uncomfortable PPE. But farmers recognise that the these tools work and, from a pragmatic point of view, are a better alternative to losing crops, increasing other outputs, reducing yields and losing their soil from erosion or weed infestation. People often question why I attack organic farmers. I do not – I have a great deal of respect for someone who tries to reduce inputs, accepts the challenges and helps others seek alternatives. Their learnings can be beneficial to all farmers in finding the best available technologies (but this is for science to decide, not religion). I have no patience, however, for the lying lobbyists from the organic food industry and the loud-mouthed weekend gardeners who pretend they farm.
These activist ideologues are winning the lobbying debate. What has happened in Brussels over the last few years is quite difficult for farmers to comprehend. Good agri-tech tools have been taken out of the European agricultural toolbox leaving farmers to find other, less sustainable solutions. For example, when the EU banned a group of neonicotinoid insecticides, farmers were forced to return to spraying their crops with older, harsher pesticides that cost more (and killed more bees). The JRC ex-post evaluation of the neonic ban (still not published by the European Commission) revealed how unhappy farmers are with the alternatives and many now are simply removing flowering crops like oilseed rape from their rotation.
Are Farmers Stupid?
Activists like Dave Goulson like to portray farmers as stupid, don’t know any better and just need proper “training”. If anything, farmers are practical. If you try to sell them something and it doesn’t work, they are not going to come back to you the following season. All of the activist campaigns saying that agri-tech solutions (from seeds to tools to pesticides) do not work obviously have not talked to any farmers. They won’t pay for bad technology and they would be the first to look for other choices.
We hear activists chant many embarrassing things about farmers today. The Ninas and Adrians of the secret Baysanto protest campaign want to make farmers into poor, naive victims of the evil chemical industry (sure … I can just imagine these cosmopolitan zealots lying awake at night worrying about farmers!). To say the biotech industry is taking away farmers’ choices is ridiculous – just ask a farmer if he or she has sufficient choices. And as for the recent mergers in the agri-tech industry – on paper, it looks better for farmers. Crop protection companies are realising today that to compete, they need to offer full-service packages. The Bayer-Monsanto merger, for example, brings together a wide range of farm-specific services from advanced weather forecasting to pesticide dosing and recycling systems. Prices are always an issue, but today’s market-share is gained via services.
So while I get that there are things the activists really want to have us think, unless they try to farm, or at least try to speak to farmers, most of us would rather that they just shut the hell up. Only stupid people would try to make farmers out to be stupid.
Or: Are Farmers Risk Managers and Entrepreneurs?
To farm today, you have to be an entrepreneur. The family farm has changed from large numbers of children (all of that manual labour to pull weeds) to multi-generational enterprises with an array of management and technological skills and training.
Growing up, my parents were always going back to the then Vineland Experimental Farm looking for new solutions, willing to try new things to bring in a better harvest. I don’t think we were stupid people (but who am I to question the activists’ knowledge of conventional farmers?). Our barn was full of experiments my father had tried to develop, like the converted trampoline and “chainsaw shaker” to find an easier way to harvest plum trees … or the three-metre wide, elevated rolling mat to make strawberry picking less back-breaking.
Farmers are also the ultimate risk managers. From pre-planting to post-harvest, the number of uncertainties a farmer is exposed to is limitless (the choice of seed, the time to plant, the elements, pests and bacterial exposure, weeds, the soil condition, the time to harvest, labour and equipment inputs, market price, soil regeneration …). Where risk management is reducing the exposure to hazards, the ability to protect a crop from the terrible forces Mother Nature can throw at you (often at the same time) is about as hard as it gets. The best conversations I have had with farmers has been about their experiences negotiating spot prices. After all the risk management experience a farmer has developed, financial risk management is child’s play.
Why are farmers vilified?
I have met hundreds of farmers this year, visited their farms (I even returned to my old farm) and I think I can conclude that the reason they are so easily vilified by the fundamentalist zealots from the organic lobby is because farmers, generally speaking, are so damn nice.
A short story:
I gave a talk to a farming group in the south-east of England last March. During the question period, an organic farmer chose to take the microphone and lecture the room on how much better for “biodiversity” his practices were than the conventional farmers. The other farmers were uncomfortable but remained polite and did not challenge this person. While the organiser tried to move to another topic, I did take on this person and correct him on some of his misconceptions of modern agriculture. At the end of the evening several farmers came to apologise for this person’s behaviour. I was more interested in knowing why those in the room tolerated his outburst.
Farmers are tolerant. They are also a close community that takes care of their own. From coming together to build barns to helping those in trouble, farmers have had a long tradition of coming together to get the job done. People outside don’t see how “Ag can come together“. To speak out against other farmers is not inherent in rural communities. So when cosmopolitan zealots and weekend gardeners come out and tell farmers what they can or cannot do, the farmers politely listen (and wait for them to leave so they can go back to work).
Farmers are also honest. When I was asked once what I thought would happen regarding certain EU pesticide policies, I told a group of farmers the bad news of my viewpoint. I also added that if this policy madness continues, they would have to be prepared to break the law. This common Brussels Bubble mentality did not go down well. Farmers will reluctantly comply with regulations, however stupid, and do their best to adapt.
“Et tu Vytenis?”
The European Commission has done a great disservice to farmers.
The Common Agricultural Policy has imposed a sense of financial dependence on a solution-oriented profession. CAP’s sustainability-driven philosophy has built anticipated failure into the farming process. No farmer should plant a seed thinking it doesn’t matter whether it succeeds or not.
During this winter’s speaking tour of rural, southern England, many farmers admitted to me they had voted for Brexit knowing full well that the British support would be far less generous than the present CAP regime. They were voting for the capacity to farm and were willing to give up the support funds. Built into CAP’s failure by design, the European Commission felt they then had free reign to remove valuable crop protection tools to appease other stakeholders, namely the loud green activist lobby.
While DG Santé may feel they are doing no harm (the precaution prejudice), breeding a culture of failure and dependence not only hurts rural European communities, but neglects to realise that most developing countries simply mirror EU agricultural policy. Smallholders in Indonesia or Kenya do not have a Common Agricultural Policy to help farmers who will fail without proper agri-tech. I am disgusted by their “enlightened urban arrogance”.
Regulators by and large do not understand farmers. Most farmers work on a three-year six-crop rotation plan (or more) while the European Commission cannot decide policy on crop protection tools for the next six months. As more pesticides are removed from the farmers’ toolbox, they will have to take more crops out of their rotation options. This not only affects soil management, it also affects market prices and farming viability. I cannot fathom what farmers in northern Europe will do should it become impossible to grow sugar beets and potatoes if the European Commission makes good on its idiotic threat to ban all neonicotinoid applications.
It is hard enough to manage the risks from Mother Nature, let alone the waxing emotions from human nature. Farmers need long-term certainty on the policy front and the only thing regulators are offering them is uncertainty. I was in Dorset and Wiltshire during the lambing season just as Brexit talks were beginning. Several farmers said the same thing: they needed to know now if there were going to be tariffs on British lamb exports to France (New Zealand may soon have a free-trade agreement with the EU). It is not like you can just cull the herd in two years when a market disappears. And then what will they do?
If regulators don’t understand farmers, nor the media, should we be surprised how little positive information the consumer gets and how easily they can be misled by mischievous activist fear-mongers?
Thank a Farmer
If that steak on your BBQ is almost done, please remember the farmer who stayed up all night during the calving period to safely deliver and then raise that cow. If that lettuce is fresh and without deformities, think of the farmer who walked the fields looking out for slugs and rushing the produce from field to market. And as for that strawberry you just popped into your mouth, chances are the farmer’s son or daughter has burn marks from the knee-pad elastics and a sore back.
So please, spare at thought for the farmers working through this summer heat and stop pretending to be such an arrogant know-it-all! You are not entitled … farmers are entitled to your gratitude.