November 9th John Ikerd, Professor Emeritus of
Agricultural Economics, University of Missouri,
gave the keynote address to the Tilth Producers
conference in Yakima, Washington. His talk, "The
Family Farm on the Cutting Edge," provides
an incisive analysis of industrial agriculture
and the emergence of what he calls "the New
We've divided his address into three parts.
In part one, Professor Ikerd described the increasing
corporate control of U.S. agriculture, which has
resulted in exploitative contract farming, reduced
farm incomes, rural pollution -- and which will
ultimately lead to an increased dependency on
imported foods as multinationals abandon U.S.
farmers for cheaper labor markets elsewhere.
In part two, Ikerd sees hope in the interest
a growing number of Americans have in supporting
farming that is good for farmers, animals, communities
and the environment.
1, November 27, 2002: The logical
consequences of industrial agriculture.
Part 3, December 12, 2002: The
emergence of a new breed of farmers.
DEC. 3, 2002: Many consumers, members of
the public, seem to agree with many of the economists in this
country who argue that we need not be concerned about becoming
dependent upon the rest of the world for our food. They don't
see anything wrong with a corporately controlled, industrial
agriculture, and they are not particularly concerned. As long
as the corporations can give them food that is quick, convenient,
and cheap, they are not going to ask too many questions. They
aren't all that concerned about where their food comes from,
who produces it, how it is produced, and what the consequences
are for rural people and for the land. Many trust the competitive
forces of a "global free market" economy to ensure
that the needs of society are met.
However, a growing number of people are concerned about the
corporate industrialization of agriculture.
- They are concerned about what it is doing to the lives
of farm families who are losing control of land that has
been in their families for generations.
- They are concerned about people in rural communities who
have supported and been supported by those family farms.
- They are concerned about the low-pay and long hours in
the food processing factories that have moved into some
of these chronically depressed rural areas.
- They are concerned about the landfills, toxic waste dumps,
and giant livestock feeding operations that pollute the
once pristine rural environment with dangerous chemicals,
biological wastes, and hazardous stench.
- They are concerned about the ability of the soil to continue
to produce after the topsoil is eroded and it is saturated
with chemicals and about the quality of water subjected
to similar abuses.
- They are concerned about the safety of their food and
safety of the people who work to produce it.
- They are concerned about the negative impacts of an industrial
agriculture on the people who farm the land, who live in
rural areas, who eat the food.
- They are concerned about those of future generations who
will still be as dependent upon the land for their sustenance,
their very survival, as we are today.
They are concerned about the sustainability
This growing concern for agricultural sustainability is
raising some "common sense" questions about our
It asks, how can we equitably meet the
needs of people in the present, while leaving equal or
better opportunities for those of the future--not just
how can we make food quick, convenient, and cheap?
It asks, how can we develop an agriculture
that is ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially
responsible-not just how can we make agriculture more
It asks, how can we ensure our long run
food security-not just our current abundance?
Sustainability asks, how can we sustain a desirable quality
of human life on this earth, individually, socially, and
ethically--both for ourselves and for those of future generations?
farms: The three essentials
Sustainable farming systems must be ecologically
sound, economically viable, and socially responsible. All
three are essential; more of one cannot offset a lack of
either of the other two. The three dimensions of sustainability
are not a part of some formal or legal definition, but instead,
are a matter of common sense. If the land loses its ability
to produce, the farm is not sustainable. If the farmer goes
broke, the farm is not sustainable. And if a system of farming
fails to support society, it will not be supported by society,
and thus, is not sustainable. The economic, ecological,
and social dimensions of sustainability are like the three
dimensions of a box. All are necessary. A box that is lacking
in height, width, or length, quite simply is not a box.
A farming system that is lacking in ecological integrity,
economic viability, or social responsibility, quite simply
is not sustainable.
||"A box that is lacking in height,
width, or length, quite simply is not a box. A farming
system that is lacking in ecological integrity, economic
viability, or social responsibility, quite simply is
There is growing evidence that current concerns for the
sustainability of agriculture are well founded--that a corporate
industrial food system, in fact, is not sustainable. The
threats to the natural environment and to the quality of
life of farmers, rural residents, and members of society
as a whole have continually risen as we have industrialized
American agriculture. The same technologies that support
our specialized, standardized, large-scale farming systems
are now the primary sources of growing environmental degradation.
Commercial fertilizers and pesticides--essential elements
in a specialized, industrialized agriculture--have become
a primary source of growing concerns for environmental degradation
and food safety. And, industrialization has transformed
agriculture, created for the fundamental purpose of converting
solar energy to human-useful form, into a mechanized agriculture
that uses more non-renewable fossil energy than it captures
in solar energy from the sun.
No one set about intentionally to destroy the ecological
integrity, social responsibility, or economic viability
of American agriculture. We simply lost sight of the fundamental
purpose of agriculture, to meet the needs of people-as consumers,
as producers, as members of rural communities, and of society.
In our preoccupation with making agriculture more productive,
we have taken the thinking out of farming; we have degraded
the occupation of farming, and diminished the intellectual,
social, and economic rewards of being a farmer. In our preoccupation
with increasing economic efficiency, to bring down the cost
of food, we neglected to monitor what was happening to the
overall quality of life of people. In our preoccupation
with increasing production today, we neglected to monitor
the ecological legacy we were leaving those of future generations.
We don't need a lot of data, facts, or figures to understand
what has happened to American agriculture; it's just plain
What will emerge?
This time of "great transition" is not unique
to agriculture. A new era of development is beginning to
emerge in virtually every sector of modern society. The
old industrial era is dying and a new era of sustainability
is struggling to be born. Agriculture is at a slightly different
phase of transformation than is much of the rest of society.
The corporatization of agriculture is the last gasp of a
dying age. However, the same basic forces now emerging to
create a new agriculture and a new rural America already
are fundamentally transforming much of the rest of the world.
And, those who expect to be successful in this new world
of the future, in farming or in any other occupation, must
be both willing and able to think.
Peter Drucker, a time-honored consultant to twentieth-century
industry, says this in his book Post-Capitalist Society:
"Every few hundred years in Western history there occurs
a sharp transformation. Within a few short decades, society
rearranges itself--its worldview; its basic values; its
social and political structure; its arts; its key institutions.
Fifty years later, there is a new world .... We are currently
living through just such a transformation."
The thing most certain about the future is that it will
be very different from today. The industrial era is behind
us, and something fundamentally different lies ahead. Although
agriculture is still caught in the grips of industrialization,
corporatization is the final phase of the industrial process.
Much of the rest of the developed world already is moving
beyond industrialization. The giant global corporations
of today are but an unfortunate remnant of this past era.
They exist not because they are more productive or efficient
than other forms of organization, but only because of the
economic and political power they were able to amass when
industrialization was in its prime. Multinational corporations
have lost their usefulness and value to society, and ultimately,
must lose their economic and political power.
Noted futurist, Alvin Toffler, in his book Powershift, points
out that many forecasters simply present unrelated trends,
such as industrialization, as if they would continue indefinitely.
But, by simply extending trends, they fail to provide any
insight of how trends are interconnected or when and why
trends might change. The agricultural press is filled with
such forecasts for the future of agriculture--simply extending
industrial trends into the indefinite future. Biotechnology
and information technologies are presented as nothing more
than new tools of industrialization. But, Toffler contends
that the industrial model of economic progress is becoming
increasingly obsolete, and he talks of a new knowledge-based
era of development.
||"The old industrial era is
dying and a new era of sustainability is struggling
to be born. Agriculture is at a slightly different phase
of transformation than is much of the rest of society.
The corporatization of agriculture is the last gasp
of a dying age. "
Drucker, in his book: The New Realities, talks of the "post
business society." He states, "the biggest shift-bigger
by far than the changes in politics, government or economics-is
the shift to the knowledge society. The social center of
gravity has shifted to the knowledge worker. All developed
countries are becoming post-business, knowledge societies."
Toffler agrees that "the most important economic development
of our lifetime has been the rise of a new system of creating
wealth, based on the mind." "Because it reduces
the need for raw material, labor, time, space, and capital,
knowledge becomes the central resource of the advanced economy,"
Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor, addresses future
trends in the global economy in his book, The Work of Nations.
He identifies Symbolic-analysts as the "mind workers"
of the future. They include all the problem-solvers, problem-identifiers,
and strategic-brokers. They include scientists, design engineers,
public relations executives, investment bankers, doctors,
lawyers, real estate developers, consultants of all types-people
who earn their living mostly by thinking. Like Toffler and
Drucker, Reich believes that future human progress will
result from symbolic-analysis, from mind work, rather than
routine production work or personal services.
Drucker points out an important, fundamental difference
between knowledge work and industrial work. He states that
industrial work is fundamentally a mechanical process, whereas,
the basic principle of knowledge work is biological in nature.
He relates this difference to determining the "right
size" of organization required to perform a given task.
"Greater performance in a mechanical system is obtained
by scaling up. Greater power means greater output: bigger
is better. But this does not hold for biological systems.
There, size follows function. It would surely be counterproductive
for a cockroach to be big, and equally counterproductive
for the elephant to be small." He concludes that differences
in organizing principles may be critically important in
determining the future size and ownership structure of economic
enterprises. Other things equal, the smallest effective
size is best for enterprises based on information and knowledge
work. According to Drucker, "'Bigger' will be 'better'
only if the task cannot be done otherwise."
agriculture is dead, why are there factory farms?
But if the industrial era is ending, why are we seeing the
rapid industrialization in some sectors of the agricultural
economy, specifically in hog and dairy production? In Joel
Barker's book: Paradigms, he points out that new paradigms
tend to emerge while, in the minds of most people, the old
paradigm is doing quite well. Typically, "a new paradigm
appears sooner than it is needed" and "sooner
than it is wanted." Consequently, the logical and rational
response to a new paradigm by most people is rejection.
New paradigms emerge when it becomes apparent to some people,
not necessarily many, that the old paradigm is incapable
of solving some important problems of society. Paradigms
may also be applied in situations where they are not well
suited, thus creating major new problems while contributing
little in terms of new solutions.
American agriculture provides a prime example of over application
of the industrial paradigm. The early gains of appropriate
specialization in agriculture lifted people out of subsistence
living and made the American industrial revolution possible.
But, more-recent technological "advances" clearly
have done more to damage the ecological and social resources
of rural areas than any societal benefit they may have created
from more "efficient" food production.
Industrialization of agriculture probably lagged behind
the rest of the economy because its biological systems were
the most difficult to industrialize. Agriculture by nature
doesn't fit industrialization; it has to be forced to conform.
Consequently, the benefits are less, the problems are greater,
it is becoming fully industrialized last, and it likely
will remain industrialized for a shorter period.
The increasing corporate control of agriculture today is
no longer a reflection of greater efficiency or lower cost
of production costs for industrial production methods. Instead,
it is a reflection of the ability of the giant corporations
to enhance their profits by controlling global markets for
agricultural commodities. Corporatization brings a century
of agricultural industrialization to its logical conclusion,
spelling the impending end of the agricultural industrialization
process. After corporatization will come something fundamentally
new and different. The corporatization of agriculture, thus,
creates an opportunity to develop a new and fundamentally
better paradigm for farming, a sustainable agriculture.