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 American farmer."
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
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
- 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 food system.
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 economically efficient?
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?
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 not sustainable."
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 common sense.
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," he writes.
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
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."
If industrial 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"
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.