A complex agriculture, along with urban culture, is one of the fundamental pillars of human civilization, and one of the fundamental bulkwarks of American prosperity. For families and communities involved in farming and ranching it’s also a way of life that is cherished, oftentimes passed on through generations, taking on reverential if not religious overtones.
At the same time in today’s overwhelmingly urban culture, cooking has become prime time entertainment, dining a social event, and what a person eats is increasingly associated with a healthy body and mind – sometimes a sort of spiritual well being. This elevates agriculture to an important issue even among those who have never spent a day on a farm.
Sadly, recent years have seen mounting efforts to discount the value, in particular, of the industry’s productive core. A just published feature story in Time magazine – Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food – makes the following claim. “With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later.”
Yet it is industrial, highly commercialized agriculture that first transformed America – and increasingly such countries as Australia, Brazil, Argentina and Canada – major forces in the world economy. The trend towards smaller-scale specialized production is indeed a welcome addition to our agricultural economy, but it is principally large-scale, scientifically advanced farming that produces the vast majority of the average family’s foodstuffs and accounts for all but a tiny percentage of our exports.
The attack on “industrial” agriculture reflects a growing trend by environmentalists to subordinate all productive industry to their own particular agenda. Some extremists in the local food movement would discourage cold climate inhabitants from the luxury of a midwinter tropical fruit because of the energy used in shipping. Others propose elaborate schemes for urban farming so that land can be left to nature instead of cultivation.
For others agriculture is guilty of producing a calorie-heavy, protein-rich diet that has made Americans unhealthy. In this lexicon ranchers, corn, and wheat farmers are not far removed from Afghan poppy growers or coca cultivators in South America.
The assault on agricultural production and the food system as we know it is certainly not limited to the United States. Farmers in Great Britain, where the often well-heeled advocates of bucolic romanticism hold great sway, have faced withering criticism. The National Farmers Union recently stated that the pressures on land use and practices could seriously damage the agricultural economy, with serious global and moral consequences.
Farming, they argue, depends “crucially on the productive core business remaining profitable. Without this core, British agriculture would “wither on the vine”, reducing both the global supply of food and making the UK ever more dependent on imports.
When applied to the United States, the world’s largest food exporter, the consequences could be devastating. By 2050 the population of the planet will reach around 9 billion people with more than 85 percent of the world’s population located in developing countries. Roughly half will live in developing-country cities. In the United States the population is expected to grow by another 100-milion people by 2050.
In this context, taking steps to reduce large-scale efficient production does not seem to be either a practical or humane choice. Certainly, better production and stewardship practices should be implemented and consumers can and could do more to drive these practices by making better nutritional decisions and choosing more responsible lifestyles.
But these concerns should not obscure the fact that American agriculture stands at the core of meeting the challenge of feeding the world’s expanding population. It does this not only by producing a staggeringly diverse array of crops with amazing efficiency, but also by leading the world in the export of the agricultural technology that helps other countries, notably in the developing world, feed their own people.
Greater Food Security and a Stronger Economy
America’s agricultural producers have never been more productive and efficient than they are today. In 1953, the nation had a total of 5 million farms, working a total of 1.2 billion acres of land – the peak in production at that time. Over fifty years later, the number of farms in America has fallen by two-thirds, and the amount of land in use by producers has dropped by 25 percent, to around 900 million acres. Of the 2.2 million remaining farms, almost 96% are family owned. Even among the largest two percent of farms, 84% are family owned, challenging the commonly held perception of corporate domination.
The US food industry is now the biggest in the world. In 2006, it was a $1.4 trillion sector, accounting for 12.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 17 percent of the country's workforce – the second largest U.S. employer behind government. In some regional economies such as the Midwest and Upper Great Plains the demand by farmers here, and now increasingly abroad, for sophisticated machinery and equipment has spawned entire new industry sectors in electronics, wireless networks, and new material fabrication. The continual demand for new and improved practices in both crop and livestock production and processing has created new opportunities in the life sciences and biotechnology.
This represents both an economic achievement and a great environmental benefit. Inputs of capital, labor, and materials have remained nearly steady, yet overall output has increased over two and one half fold over the same period of time. At the same time, efficient agriculture has returned to nature – forests, wetlands, prairie – millions of acres, far more than the land that has been devoted to housing and other urban needs.
Like successful industrialists, American farmers and ranchers have taken advantage of the latest advances in engineering, technology, and science to do more with less, creating “arguably the most productive, efficient, and technologically advanced production agriculture sector in the world”. Indeed as many American manufacturing industries have fallen behind their foreign competitors, agriculture has remained in the forefront, a bastion of American competitiveness.
These increasing levels of productivity have allowed American agriculture to become a powerful player in world agricultural trade. As the nation has seen overall trade deficits mount to record levels in recent years, the agricultural sector has proven a notable exception. American farms, able to “produce far beyond domestic demand for many crops,” have looked to the world market to absorb their output. In 2008, the United States exported over $115 billion worth of agricultural products, a record high.
For the year, agricultural products made up ten percent of overall American exports, and the nation enjoyed an agricultural trade surplus of 35 billion dollars. While high commodity prices played their part in driving 2008’s export values higher, the agricultural sector has consistently shown export surpluses over the past 15 years, with the nation’s “share of the global market for agricultural goods,” averaging slightly over 20%.
On the domestic front, production agriculture – and the wider world of agribusiness – provides not only food, fuel, and fiber for Americans, but also a source of employment. Roughly 4.1 million people are directly employed in production agriculture as farmers, ranchers, and laborers; but up to 21 million Americans work in jobs that are tied in some way to agriculture –approximately one out of six participants in the U.S. workforce.
According to the USDA, the agricultural export industry supported as many as “841,000 full-time civilian jobs,” including “482,000 jobs in the nonfarm sector,” as of 2006. Production of food, fuel, and fiber involves support industries to supply the necessary inputs, and handle the product output, spurring economic activity in associated industries, including the “manufacturing, trade, and transportation sectors.”
The continual adoption of advanced technologies and methodologies by American farmers and ranchers also creates demand for advanced research and development activity, from both the public and private sectors.These, in turn, spawn educational and entrepreneurial opportunities in a multitude of scientific and engineering fields. USDA research suggests that “each dollar spent on agricultural research returned about $10 worth of benefits to the economy.”
Scaling Up Sustainable Agriculture
None of this suggests that there is not room as well for what is known as sustainable, usually smaller scale, agriculture. Organic agriculture, where farmers minimize external inputs and are not permitted to use artificial fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides, is the most widely recognized segment of the sustainable farming industry. U.S. sales of organic food and beverages have grown from $1 billion in 1990 to an estimated $20 billion in 2007, and are projected to reach nearly $23 billion in 2008.
This is clearly a growing industry, with organic food sales anticipated to increase an average of 18 percent each year from 2007 to 2010, according to an Organic Trade Association Manufacturing Survey. Yet organic foods and beverages account for less than 3 percent of all food sales in the United States – hardly enough supply or demand to feed a nation, much less a growing, hungry planet.
The same technology that drives commercial, large scale agriculture – and is largely paid for by its profits – could expand the role of this specialized sector. This includes a greater role for what is commonly called precision agriculture. With the aid of technologies such as global positioning (GPS), sensors, satellites or aerial images, and geographic information management tools (GIS), every input can be applied optimally to meet the exact needs of the crop, and can be tracked and tailored with precision. Precision agriculture can be used to reduce energy usage and environmental effects of production agriculture.
Precision agriculture builds on the strengths of America’s fundamental edge in innovation on the farm and in the factory. In the past, technology has been a major force in driving the shift of agricultural activities of the farm into the agribusiness input industries. Precision agriculture creates new and higher-value opportunities for agribusiness but also enables the farmer to apply the technology right in the field, thereby increasing the competitiveness and viability of farm operations of any size or ownership structure.
This suggests that there is, in many cases, a false dichotomy between industrial and sustainable agriculture. American agriculture now competes in a truly global marketplace with a cornucopia of opportunities that extend to both systems. Technology and a focus on productivity can help sustainable farming expand, but this should not be at the expense of the larger, commercial sector that not only funds most new research but will continue to play a dominant role in both feeding the world and sustaining that most endangered of species – the American economy.
Delore Zimmerman is the President of the Praxis Strategy Group an economic research and development strategy consulting company. Matthew Leiphon is a Research Associate with Praxis Strategy Group. Delore grew up in a small farming community in North Dakota, hauling bales and picking rocks for local farmers and ranchers. Matthew is from a North Dakota farm family and spends his fall weekends harvesting small grains and canola.