It will be news to most Midwestern farmers that they should turn an unused corner of their barns into a public relations department. But they do, and it looks like this may be happening.
At the moment, the farming debate in this country has been seized by a handful of city-based ideologues who have never been on a real farm and scorn farmers who till more than 20 acres and actually try to turn a profit.
The result is that the people who produce most of America’s food have been losing the debate. Now they’re fighting back.
A recent Associated Press story described how farmers and farm organizations are banding together to present their side of the story.
Part of this involves farmers sponsoring visits and tours of their farms: Illinois Farm Families are an example. Trade groups, such as the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliances, are getting their message out. Agribusiness companies, such as Monsanto, are part of this.
These farming forces – especially companies like Monsanto – are the folks the foodies love to hate, and they’ve been both vivid and successful in their demonization. Using terms like “factory farming” and “frankenfoods,” they’ve turned the farmers and the agribusiness companies which produce our food into villains.
This campaign has been led mostly by writers such as Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, neither of whom has bothered to spend much time finding out what farms are really like. At their side are a tribe of food-obsessed Americans, mostly city-dwellers – the vegans, locavores, foodies and other extremists for whom all big agriculture is bad agriculture.
This seems to have come as a shock to the big farmers, those who till a thousand acres or more or manage the biggest herds. These account for only 8 percent of all American farms but produce about 70 percent of our food. Increasingly, they’re producing for new markets in China and other emerging countries.
In other words, they feed the world. Since this is what they’re supposed to do, they’re surprised that anyone objects.
To some degree, they’ve brought the criticism on themselves. As we’ve written here before, farm bills providing huge subsidies to the biggest farmers are simply indefensible. Ditto for their resistance to any suggestions, especially including government regulations, that would curb over-farming and over-use of pesticides and other chemicals.
A proper public relations campaign cuts both ways. It tells the world what farmers are doing, but it also tells the farmers what they need to do to disarm their critics.
Mark Bittman, in his New York Times column, likes to portray big farmers as soulless businessmen, no different from Wall Street traders, clad in three-piece suits and plowing their estates in air-conditioned tractors. The fact is that most big farmers are third- or fourth-generation stewards of their land, the inheritors of a relentless process of farm consolidation, largely through the increasing potency of technology. This process has been going on for a century or more and isn’t going to stop. Indeed, it’s become essential to the prevention of global famine.
Farming is hard and lonely work. It’s also risky, relying on the vagaries of weather and the fickleness of markets. Farmers depend on a web of 21st-century commerce based on futures markets and on contracts with Cargill, Monsanto and other huge agribusiness firms.
In other words, it’s a multi-billion dollar business, just like other global businesses. In a world dominated by technology and global markets, it’s naïve to expect farming to be different.
This offends critics, who carry an outdated image of a 19th-century ploughman and think that the only real farmer is the market gardener who sells them heirloom edamame at farmers’ markets on Saturday.
For these critics, GMOs, or genetically-modified organisms, have been a godsend. There’s virtually no evidence that genetically-engineered foods are any more dangerous than, say, hybrid corn. But they sound terrible and have scared the daylights out of a generation of Americans who don‘t know anything about them.
Monsanto, as a center of GMO research, seems to have become the poster child for the industry. As such, it ranks right up there with Wal-Mart as the bête noire of the apocolyptocrats.
Again, Monsanto isn’t perfect: nothing that big ever is. But so far as GMOs go, it has a good story to tell and, according to the AP, has realized that it has to tell it. If there’s going to be another green revolution to increase yields enough to feed future generations, it will be powered by GMOs.