Could We Please “Restore Sanity” In The Discussion of Food/Farming?

Last week I attended the San Diego version of the “Rally to Restore Sanity.”  I’m glad I did.  Even in this Southern California bastion of political conservatism, there were at least 200 people meeting at Dick’s Last Resort to watch the DC event and to encourage each other that we are not alone as people who don’t like the hyper-partisan trend in politics.   I actually haven’t seen any reporting on the main or local versions of this event that captured it’s spirit or age-diversity.  I think maybe this sort of satire is a little too subtle for many people to understand.

Even so, I wish there was a rally or some other mechanism to “restore sanity” in the discussion of food politics.

Food Politics Are Not That Different

The Comedy Central team does a great job of pointing out the absurdity and imbalance in the world of cable news.  They call them out for promoting irrational fear (both from the right and from the left).  From my perspective as an agricultural scientist, there is a similar set of voices out there promoting fear about agriculture.  These sources present the same sort of “circus mirror view” of modern agriculture that John Stewart described for other politics at the DC rally.  In general politics, people carelessly throw around accusations of “racism,” or “socialism,” and compare people to Hitler.  In food politics the equivalent emotive terms are things like “industrial agriculture“,”profit-driven” and “Frankenfoods.”  In neither setting are people being given balanced information.

These voices relentlessly demonize farmers in a way that completely misrepresents the kind of hard-working, risk-taking, environmentally concerned people I know them to be.  They paint a monolithic image of farming as an environmental disaster with no recognition of the great advances that have been made.  These voices also demonize any “corporate” actors even though these are the entities that have invested the billions of dollars necessary to give us any hope of feeding the world over the next few decades.

These voices generate continual, breathless predictions of impending disaster related to GMOs, even though no such thing has happened after nearly 15 years of deployment of that technology on billions of acres of farm land.  There seems to be no statute of limitations when it comes to saying that “the sky is falling!”

Agriculture Has Problems and Challenges, But This Isn’t Helping

As Stewart pointed out, sources of frantic hyperbole do not cause our problems, but they make it far harder to solve our problems. It is no real surprise that the industry with the largest, physical footprint (billions of acres) would have real environmental issues.  What is not acknowledged by most of the fear purveyors is that we have learned  how to minimize or eliminate important problems and made real progress.  Now we should be talking about how to implement the best environmental practices on the hundreds of millions of acres of “conventional” farmland.  We can’t keep pretending that something like “Local” or “Organic” will ever be more than a small contribution to the overall challenge.

We need to discuss why not all farming is not being done in the best possible way.  It is not because of some “vast corporate conspiracy.” It is not because we lack for “family farms” or “responsible farmers.”    It is because we as a society do not “monetize externalities” (pay for the true environmental costs) in a way that would help farmers to afford certain changes.  It is because we don’t have farmland lease structures that make it practical for growers to make the multi-year investment that it takes to transition land into the sort of “drought proofed” and “pollution protected” soils that are possible.  We can make some significant progress, but not by demonizing each other.

As with the rest of our national politics, the stakes are high.  Feeding the world in an age of climate change while protecting the environment is a huge and critical challenge with major strategic, economic and moral implications.  The topic deserves sane discourse, not alarmism and demonization.  This is another sphere were we desperately need to “Restore Sanity.”

You are welcome to comment on this post or to email me at [email protected]

Rally poster image from Cliff1066

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Steve Savage is an agricultural scientist (plant pathology) with >30 years of experience in agricultural technology. He has worked for Colorado State University, DuPont (fungicide development), Mycogen (biocontrol development), and for the past 13 years as an independent. He also has a little vineyard in his back yard near San Diego. His speaking website is DrSteveSavage. His blogging website is Applied Mythology. You can follow him on Twitter @grapedoc