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The War on Food is Heating Up, Harvard Professor Says
A century ago, farming was tough business. Few machines helped farmers bear the brunt of labor. Commercial fertilizers were not yet common, and weed- and pest-control products had not been invented.
It was a grueling time. Yet many opponents of modern food production would like farmers to return to that era.
"Organic farming," says Robert Paarlberg, "is the way everyone grew food prior to the adoption of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer in 1910. But farmers don't want to go back to 1910."
Paarlberg, adjunct professor of public policy at Harvard University, told folks attending the University of Missouri's Crop Production Clinic in Columbia, Missouri last month there are two sides when it comes to modern food production: one defends modern methods of food production; the other abhors modern methods and is determined to change the way food is produced and consumed.
The Indiana-born and raised Paarlberg is a champion of modern food production (he has written eight books about food policy, including "Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know.")
However, consumers are bombarded with anti-food and anti-farming messages in books, movies, magazines and newspapers and have thus won this "contest of ideas." Farmers and agri-business are comfortable with corporations; they believe in science. Opponents like neither of these, and have caved into an "anti-establishment" message.
"The students I teach have read Michael Pollan's books and they've seen the movie Food Inc.," Paarlberg says. "They are convinced our food system is a disgrace and must be transformed. The preferable alternative is something small-scale or organic."
That has led to some change in consumers' diets. Since 2005, meat consumption is down about 15 pounds per year to 165 pounds per capita. However, there has not been much progress made on obesity. In 2015, 22 states have obesity rates above 30%. Five years ago, that was just 13 states. And while the number of farmers' markets have increased to 8,144 in 2013 (from 1,755 in 1994), only 1.6% of fresh produce sales in the U.S. are made through farmers markets or Community Supported Agriculture enterprises.
Critics of the U.S. food supply often point to organic agriculture as a more sustainable alternative. Yet, most organic food is produced on large, industrial-scale farms and 93% of organic food is sold at supermarkets.
"Very few commercial farms have made the switch to organic farming. It's not just the 3-year waiting period [the mandatory time without commercial applications to become organic]. Organic farming methods are much more costly. Yields for organic vegetables are only 40-60% those of non-organic farms. That makes land costs much higher," Paarlberg says.
The Battle Over GMO's and CAFOs
Meanwhile, conventional farms are becoming more productive while using fewer inputs. Paarlberg cites USDA Economic Research Service data that shows a 2.5:1 productivity to input ratio in 2010, compared to 1:1 in 1948.
Genetically modified commodities have improved efficiency for U.S. farmers, although are directly consumed by humans. Paarlberg is skeptical that GM salmon - approved in November - will ever make it to the market.
A troubling trend is that of state level initiatives for GMO labeling. "Vermont will have an initiative to enact mandatory GMO labeling in July," he says. "My guess is it will pass."
Many previous efforts at state level initiatives have been thwarted by farm groups and ag industry, but Paarlsberg believes an unintended consequence is that biotech companies look as if "they have something to hide."
The battle over GMOs is tame compared to that of Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). "This is where traditional agriculture has a struggle to defend itself. Antibiotic use and animal warfare are two things that crop producers don't have to worry about," he says.
Since 2002, there have been 10 successful state initiatives prohibiting gestation crates for sows and cages for chickens. While these are mostly in non-ag states, these initiatives have disrupted interstate trade. Meanwhile, antibiotic use in agriculture is now regulated by Veterinary Feed Directives, giving veterinarians more oversight and taking decision-making powers away from producers.
Boil all this down, and Paarlberg believes that opponents are winning a few of the battles, but not the war - yet.
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