The cheap food fight: Farmers need to fight for their livelihood before it is soundly beaten by industrial agriculture’s price cuts

Farm & Countryside Commentary by Elbert van Donkersgoed

Editor's NOTE

This column was adapted from one of Elbert van Donkersgoed's weekly radio chats, called Corner Post, which are aired weekly on CFCO Radio in Chatham and CKNX Radio in Wingham, Ontario. Elbert is the Strategic Policy Advisor of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario, which is working hard to create a more satisfying and sustainable model for farming in the province. If you'd like to receive a transcript of Elbert's Corner Post address each week, send an email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message.

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Posted June 9, 2003: "Resistance is futile!" The phrase has been hardwired into my vocabulary. Watch a Start Trek episode in which the Borg civilization - no, the Borg technology is on yet another installment of its one and only mission: the total assimilation of all existing sentient races, including their cultural and technical achievements. "Resistance is futile!" will bolt itself into your vocabulary, too.

There are voices in North American agriculture making the argument that "resistance is futile" to the industrialization of farming - of turning plant and animal husbandry over to technical manipulation. I don't share their pessimism.

First, there are those who will continue to resist assimilation. Consider the Old Order Mennonites and Amish farming communities. Their relationship to technology remains fully one of choice. They have chosen for autonomy of community and dignity of labor. Even though many of us cannot join them in their rejection of so many labor-saving devices; they have won both our respect and a valued place among us.

Second, there are a growing number of farmers who are intentional about the type and amount of modern technology they adopt. Consider organic farmers. They have made a conscious choice to reject technical solutions that detract from farming as a part of ecological harmony. Organic farmers emphasize biological cycles, biodiversity, minimal off-farm inputs and the health & productivity of soil life, plants, animals while respecting people and community. They have the attention of a growing number of consumers.

Third, the industrialization of agriculture is dependent on a growing disconnect between farming as husbandry and food as culture. Industrial agriculture knows only one mantra: costs must continue to be cut. It has banked on the belief that consumers will always choose for the lowest price. They won't. Already industrial agriculture finds it necessary to "educate the consumer." As consumers demand more transparent information and resist prepackaged messages, industrial agriculture will discover that delivering cut-price commodities has also cheapened food as a cultural feature. Consider Toronto and its desire to be "world class." Food is essential to entertainment, tourism and culture. Why then does Toronto settle for cheap food?

Fourth, industrial agriculture needs a massive subsidy every day. Developed world subsidies for modern farming have climbed to one billion dollars per day, with the largest handout slices in the United States and the European Union. Look beyond the official political rhetoric that one billion dollars buys us family farms and rural communities. Less than 1% of North Americans are full-time farmers. Farm work has become technology-at-work. Subsidies keep industrial agriculture's technology bills paid.

Agriculture is husbandry. Resistance to its industrialization is growing - and should grow.


Details of the European Union's Round Table on research results relating to co-existence of GM and non-GM crops can be found at www.europa.eu.int/comm

A summary of the event on Strategies for Coexistence of GMO, Non-GMO, and Organic Crop Production sponsored by the Initiative for Future Agriculture and Food Systems (IFAFS) program of the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, can be found at www.biotech.iastate.edu/IFAFS/coexistence.html#OVERVIEW.


Corner Post can be heard weekly on CFCO Radio, Chatham and CKNX Radio, Wingham, Ontario. Corner Post is archived on the website of the Christian Farmers Federation of Ontario: www.christianfarmers.org. To be added to the electronic distribution list of Corner Post, send email to evd@christianfarmers.org with SUBSCRIBE as the message. To remove your name, send email with UNSUBSCRIBE as the message.