The food movement loves farmers. Family farmers, peasant farmers, new farmers, old farmers, farm laborers, urban farmers… they’re our heroes.
But we hate industrial agriculture. Okay, “hate” is a strong word. How about this: we’d like to see it radically transformed. To see it made more resilient, less dependent on petroleum-based fertilizers, and safer for ag workers, farmers, and eaters. To do away with resource-intensive, environmentally destructive forms of monoculture, factory farms and feedlots; with the overuse of pesticides, insecticides, and antibiotics; with pollution and runoff and greenhouse gasses.
From a recent Twitter chat about “agvocating” in real life:
But here’s the thing: a lot of our beloved farmers farm using industrial ag methods. (Not necessarily those pictured here; they were just sharing the issues they hear a lot about.) And because Twitter and online comments sections don’t lend themselves to nuanced discussion, people get into arguments, and some of the arguments get ugly.
Even among the people (on both sides) whose goal is productive communication, the assumption is often that the other side has been “misinformed” or “misled” and needs to be “educated.” Too often, people get stuck on some version of:
Foodie: “X is dangerous / bad and you are wrong / a bad person for doing it.”
Farmer: “X is safe and it’s the best / only option, and you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The trouble — aside from the wedge this drives between two communities with overwhelmingly similar passions and goals — is that it’s an argument about whether the farmer’s choice of methods is right or wrong. It ignores the bigger questions: what other options are available to the farmer — realistic options, given the market and their resources — and what would it take for them to change to a different method?
On Monday’s Edible Education 101 lecture, Michael Pollan talked about how the food movement can improve farming: by making sustainable farming a better option than the industrial model.
Your average large farmer… they are a small business up against monopolies, essentially. There are very few people who buy your corn, there are very few people who buy your beef. There are four big beef processors, there are three or four people who buy corn, and they determine the price. And you have to take the price.
And one of the things the food movement represents, or could represent to farmers like that, is an alternative. A way to break out of what’s called “the commodity trap.” It’s very hard to make money selling commodities. There’s always someone coming along doing it a little bit cheaper than you are….
So I think we need to come to them with opportunities. Not with insults, and not with criticisms. Because the food movement represents new markets.
All of us, food people and ag people, want basically the same thing: safe, healthy food, grown under safe, healthy conditions; food that consumers can afford to buy and that farmers can make a living by producing. If you’re upset about a farmer using GMOs or pesticides or CAFOs or whatever, find out why they use that method. Be polite, and listen to what they say. Tell them what you’re concerned about, and what’s important to you. Find out what the changes you want to see would require, and what they would cost.
Instead of fighting with farmers, fight the companies that dictate how they farm. Find companies that offer the products you want, and support them — loudly. Push lawmakers to change the structure of government support and subsidies, to shift them towards sustainable production of healthy food. And one more thing: work locally to raise the minimum wage, so consumers can afford to pay what it really costs to produce good food.