America's Agricultural Angst


In this high-tech information age few look to the most basic industries as sources of national economic power. Yet no sector in America is better positioned for the future than agriculture--if we allow it to reach its potential.

Like manufacturers and homebuilders before them, farmers have found themselves in the crosshairs of urban aesthetes and green activists who hope to impose their own Utopian vision of agriculture. This vision includes shutting down large-scale scientifically run farms and replacing them with small organic homesteads and urban gardens.

Troublingly, the assault on mainstream farmers is moving into the policy arena. It extends to cut-offs on water, stricter rules on the use of pesticides, prohibitions on the caging of chickens and a growing movement to ban the use of genetic engineering in crops. And it could undermine a sector that has performed well over the past decade and has excellent long-term prospects.

Over the next 40 years the world will be adding some 3 billion people. These people will not only want to eat, they will want to improve their intake of proteins, grains, fresh vegetables and fruits. The U.S., with the most arable land and developed agricultural production, stands to gain from these growing markets. Last year the U.S.' export surplus in agriculture grew to nearly $35 billion, compared with roughly $5 billion in 2005.

The overall impact of agriculture on the economy is much greater than generally assumed, notes my colleague Delore Zimmerman, of Praxis Strategy Group. Roughly 4.1 million people are directly employed in production agriculture as farmers, ranchers and laborers, but the industry directly or indirectly employs approximately one out of six American workers, including those working in food processing, marketing, shipping and supermarkets.

Yet none of this seems to be slowing the mounting criticisms of "corporate agriculture." A typical article in Time, called "Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food," assailed the "U.S. agricultural industry" for precipitating an ecological disaster. "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," the article predicts, "will end sooner or later."

The romantic model being promoted by Time and agri-intellectuals like Michael Pollan hearkens back to European and Tolstoyan notions of small family farms run by generations of happy peasants. But this really has little to do with the essential ethos of American agriculture.

Back in the early 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville noted that American farmers viewed their holdings more like capitalists than peasants. They would sell their farms and move on to other businesses or other lands--a practice unheard of in Europe. "Almost all the farmers of the United States," he wrote, "combine some trade with agriculture; most of them make agriculture itself a trade."

Despite the perceptions of a corporatized farm sector, this entrepreneurial spirit remains. Families own almost 96% of the nation's 2.2 million farms, including the vast majority of the largest spreads. And small-scale agriculture, after decreasing for years, is on the upswing; between 2002 and 2009 the number of farms increased by 4%.

This trend toward smaller-scale specialized production represents a positive trend, but large-scale, scientifically advanced farming still produces the majority of the average family's foodstuffs, as well as the bulk of our exports. Overall, organic foods and beverages account for less than 3% of all food sales in the U.S.--hardly enough to feed a nation, much less a growing, hungry planet.

Then there's the even more fanciful notion--promoted by Columbia University's Dickson D. Despommier--of moving food production into massive urban hothouses. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times he argues we are running out of land and need to take agriculture off the farm. According to Despommier, "The traditional soil-based farming model developed over the last 12,000 years will no longer be a sustainable option."

Yet Praxis Strategy's Matthew Lephion, who grew up on a family farm, points out that such projects hardly represent a credible alternative in terms of food production. Urban land is far more expensive--often at least 10 times as much as rural. Energy and other costs of maintaining farms in big cities also are likely to be higher.

Furthermore the notion that America is running out of land--one justification for subsidizing urban farming--seems fanciful at best. The past 30 years have seen some loss of farmland, but the amount of land that actually grows harvested crops has remained stable. Though some prime farmland close to metropolitan centers should be protected, agriculture has over the past decades returned to nature--forests, wetlands, prairie--millions of acres, far more than the land that has been devoted to housing and other urban needs.

However ludicrous the arguments, the Obama administration remains influenced by green groups and is the cultural prisoner of the lifestyle left, with its powerful organic foodie contingent. That leaves farmers and the small towns dependent on them with little voice.

The ability of greens and others to wreak havoc on agriculture can be seen in the disaster now unfolding in California's fertile Central Valley. Large swaths of this area are being de-developed back to desert--due less to a mild drought than to regulations designed to save obscure fish species in the state's delta. Over 450,000 acres have already been allowed to go fallow. Nearly 30,000 agriculture jobs--held mostly by Latinos--have been lost, and many farm towns suffer conditions that recall The Grapes of Wrath.

Not satisfied with these results, the green lobby has prompted the National Marine Fisheries Service to further cut water supplies, in part to improve the conditions for whales and other species out in the ocean. Given these attitudes, farmers, including those I have worked with in Salinas, are fretting about what steps federal and state regulators may take next.

One particular concern revolves around the movement against genetically modified food. Already there are calls for banning GMOs in Monterey County. Local officials worry this would cripple the area's nascent agricultural biotech industry as well as the long-term ability of existing farmers to compete with less regulated competitors elsewhere. The fact that a less advanced form of genetic engineering also sparked the "green revolution" that greatly reduced world hunger after 1965 seems, to them at least, irrelevant.

When viewed globally, the anti-big farm movement seems even more misguided. As Chapman University's professor of food science Anuradha Prakash observes, India's own organic farms serve a small portion of the market and cannot possibly meet the nutritional needs of the country's expanding population. "You just don't get the yields you need for Africa and Asia from organic methods," she explains.

A formula that works for high-end foodies of the Bay Area or Manhattan can't produce enough affordable food to feed the masses--whether in Minnesota or Mumbai. The emerging war on agriculture threatens not only the livelihoods of millions of American workers; it could undermine our ability to help feed the world.

This article originally appeared at

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His next book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will be published by Penguin Press February 4th, 2010.


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You Completely Ignore Externalities

Mr. Kotkin,

The factory farms and agribusinesses you defend in your article and portray as under attack by "greens" and "agri-intellectuals" do not provide transparency on the true cost of their products.

In my view, the "mainstream" farmers seem to be more under attack by the agribusiness and petrochemical companies than the so-called "high-end foodies." The system is set up so that the farmer gets rewarded for becoming as large as possible and increasing yields of monoculture crops. High yields ensure that the cost of corn and soybeans will stay low, thereby fueling availability of highly processed, unhealthy food. The only way for farmers to increase yields is to use large quantities of fertilizers and pesticides derived from subsidized fossil fuels. In the end, the farmers eek out a living on incredibly low margins and long workdays, while most of the profits accrue to large petrochemical and agribusiness companies. The huge overflow of pesticides and fertilizer seep into the watershed, threatening our water supply, and destroying ecosystems from Minnesota all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. This cost to society is ignored and not reflected in the price of our food.

The availability of water for this growing method is severely threatened; there is wide-scale environmental degradation; we're experiencing higher numbers of bacteria outbreaks; we've seen rising oil prices. The factory model is not sustainable and I would argue that the long term prospects for large scale farming are not as good as you portray. Many reasonable people are arguing for more sustainable ways of feeding the population, not for replacing large scale farming with a "Utopian vision of agriculture."

The real disaster unfolding in California's Central Valley is that the Latino (and other) laborers living in bleak communities near the growing fields have no access to fresh produce. Many of these communities don't even have a single grocery store and, ironically, no access to the fruits and vegetables grown there. An over-reliance on on fast food and other processed foods with high salt and sugar content leads to obesity and other health problems which bubble up elsewhere in the economy (namely health care). This microcosm is replicated in communities all across the country. The obesity crisis in our society spills across socioeconomic boundaries and threatens our ability to control health care costs. The many realities and costs of factory-scale food production are intentionally hidden from society. This lack of transparency keeps the public ignorant and boosts the food industry's ability to successfully market their products.

Are these really the methods we should be exporting to Africa and Asia? I would argue that there are much better ways to produce food sustainably and to provide a more rewarding and prosperous life for farmers. This is where we should be directing our efforts and policies.

Urban Farms, Dry-Land Farming, and Fish

What if we subsidized urban farming at the same rate we subsidize big agri-businesses to grow corn, soy, and wheat? Sounds fair to me.

The issue with water in arid environments is the water wouldn't be there in the first place if the Gov't didn't come in and invest billions in large scale water infrastructure projects. Farmers need to grow site appropriate crops were water is more readily accessible. There's a reason why people in arid climates around the world utilize dry-land farming techniques and grow drought tolerant crops.

It's not about saving "obscure" fish (every species is apart of a larger ecosystem). Just ask Cheney and Klamath Basin farmers on their impacts towards Salmon runs in the early 2000s where almost 80,000 salmon died.

I suppose the farmer is more important than the fisherman, too, speaking of the world's need for protein sources?

Agriculture needs less aid, not more

Mr. Kotkin,

For someone whose urban policy views are couched in a mind for free-market economics, I am surprised at this piece. Agriculture is one of the most coddled and subsidized industries in the U.S. The government should be giving less support to ag, not more. For an industry that comprises, at most, 1% of GDP and 1% of national employment, it has a completely outsized amount of influence on our national energy and environmental policy. For example, what do you have to say about the tariffs on imported Brazilian ethanol, so we can protect an inefficient corn ethanol industry in the States? Having two senators from every state is one of the biggest reasons why the ag industry has so much power - the small farm states have disproportionate representation.

So please consider the huge subsidies and protections that go into ag before decrying anti-ag policies.