Will The Real Sustainable Agriculture Please Stand Up

Recently, hereabouts, there has been a lot of activity concerning sustainable agriculture, farming. Locally, a few conferences have taken place amongst those already engaged in sustainable farming. There are also some folks hoping to enter into it in 2013. However, the portrait of this sustainable farming presented here in central Ohio does not look much like the one presented globally by the likes of activists like Vandana Shiva, Jerry Mander, etc. According to these writers, American agriculture (monoculture farming), touted by agribusiness as the greatest in the world, fails. They cite the obesity of the consumer as one symptom of this failure (I believe the statistics are at the level of 40% of Americans). If American monoculture farming were so incredible, why do those who eat all this great food look more like the steroid saturated livestock in the feedlots than the Greek ideal of svelteness? They ascribe this to the industrial processed food derived from the monoculture harvest. Another reason given is that so many Americans farmers rely on off the farm income in order to keep farming. The last census puts this at over 80% of family farmers are in this situation. Food is cheap, and hence farming is a precarious way to earn a living, a low paying job for most. Subsidies go to the large agribusiness farming operations/processors (not to the small individual farmer), hence monoculture farming with its overriding emphasis on a steady, predictable cash crop. Sustainable farming for these globally oriented interpreters has to do with sustenance. It has to do with livelihood as opposed to earning a living. It is not a job or entrepreneurial enterprise but something someone does with what they have, what is available in order to stay alive, to “sustain” their livelihood. Literally. Here in central Ohio (and I’m sure within much of American culture) “sustainable” is used pretty much within the same methodology as adjectives like “green” (shale gas is the green energy solution), “recyclable”, “carbon footprint” and “energy efficient”. That is, sustainable farming is one that doesn’t diminish the environment, always leaves more for the next go round, thus building up the soil as well as the nutritional content of what is consumed, etc. The disparity between the two interpretations enters with the place and role of subsidy. American sustainable farming is in competition with industrialized monoculture farming, both in technique as well as product marketing. Industrialized farming doesn’t tolerate competition, whether in the field (systemic insecticides spell death to the transgressor) or in the market (legislation that forbids labeling food in order to differentiate source, origin or composition). The higher price demanded for its product still is not enough to make American sustainable farming, well, sustainable. For American sustainable farmers, the “entrepreneurial enterprise” is not “something someone does with what they have, what is available in order to stay alive”. Rather, it is something someone does in competition with industrial agriculture, both in terms of accessing resources, like land and water, as well as securing market share. Within this competitive environment, being subsidized to start up, let alone continue such a practice of farming, is considered quite acceptable, if not downright essential. And there’s the rub. For Shiva, Mander, etc. it is the very subsidizing of agriculture that contributes to the elimination and degradation of “sustainable” farming. A lack of fairness is intrinsic to the practice of subsidy. Yet without the subsidy, whether through Government grants or off farm income, how sustainable would sustainable farming really be in the US? The irony that presents itself is that not only are the wealthy the only ones who can afford to consume a third world diet (to stay healthy), but they are also becoming the only ones who can afford the farming practices that produce such a diet.

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