A 21st Century Social Contract Between Agriculture & the Public

A 21st Century Social Contract Between Agriculture & the Public

January 8, 2010 Michael R. Dimock

ROC President, Michael Dimock, joined former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman and Texas State University food system researcher and author, Dr. Jimmy McWillams, on a panel for the Farm Foundation's Agriculture Roundtable on January 8th in San Antonio, Texas. The Roundtable is a national membership organization representing much of the nation's production agriculture leaders. Following their presentation, Glickman, McWilliams and Dimock engaged in a 90-minute dialog with these leaders. It was a penetrating and constructive, offering further evidence that a major shift is underway. Important elements of production agriculture are seriously engaging the challenge of creating a sustainable food system.


Presentation to the Farm Foundation Roundtable
January 8, 2010
San Antonio, Texas

Ladies and gentleman, I want to thank you for this exciting opportunity to share the podium this morning with former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman and Dr. McWilliams. I value this opportunity to consider, with you all, this vitally important issue of the emerging social contract between agriculture and the public. I feel the survival of our farms and ranches depends on a renewed contract.

Before I describe what I think the emerging contract is, let me set some context by talking a bit about Roots of Change. Practically speaking, Roots of Change is a philanthropic fund investing in people and projects. We have built a network of nearly 32,000 people who are unified by their pursuit of a sustainable food system in California by the year 2030. There are hundreds leaders from farms and ranches, food businesses, nonprofits, small towns, government agencies, and tens of thousands of consumers within the ROC network.

ROC has committed to network formation and support because our theory of change holds that the best way to make the food system sustainable is to connect and support the people within the system that have the knowledge, positions, relationships, and commitments required to successfully manage a rapid transformation. ROC implements three primary activities to support this network of stakeholders.

We convene stakeholders face-to-face and we also offer fellowships, grants and contracts in order to help them: a) embrace system thinking and science, and/or to resolve conflicts (particularly among farmers and environmentalists and farmers and labor advocates) and hopefully through sustained dialogs to arrive at new ways of thinking about a problem that will improve the food system; b) we also convene stakeholders, particularly NGOs, so they can coordinate plans and accelerate or expand projects; and c) we include in the realm of convening our communication with ROC's online community. We link and communicate using our Facebook pages, twitter, our website and email blasts. The posting of educational information spawns on-line dialog and builds agricultural literacy.

The second big thing we do is to write grants or find funding for allied organizations to implement projects that aim to improve the food system.

Last, but not least, we advocate for increased investment in food system work by foundations, government, and citizens. Given the impact of food and farming on the environment and society, philanthropic support is very low.

So now let me turn to the emerging social contract. First, clearly a new social contract is emerging. We believe it will increasingly be defined by the desire for health, economic recovery, and long-term sustainability of the economy and nation.

My sense is that the food and agriculture industry is in a period similar to the financial industry in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There are serious signs of trouble based on external and internal challenges, particularly around food safety, labor supply, water quality and quantity, energy pricing, diabetes, and other nutrition related disease.

Consequently, respected and highly visible authors, filmmakers, journalists, policymakers, and cultural heroes (like chefs, musicians, and actors) are increasingly critical of the food and agricultural system. Retailers like Wal-Mart and food service providers like Sysco are demanding change.

It is interesting to note that Christine Quinn, the Speaker of the New York City Council, who wants to move out of Mr. Bloomberg's shadow, in the hope of becoming that City's next Mayor (or so reports the New York Times), has stated that her defining political focus will be coordination of the city's food policies. Roots of Change is working closely with Mayors Newsom in San Francisco and Villaraigosa in Los Angeles on their food policies. The big city mayors of Chicago, Boston, Detroit and Seattle are also focused on food and agriculture. To me this indicates that the "good food movement" is real and will get larger over time and that urban centers will increasingly seek power over America's agriculture and food policy.

This new public focus is a sea change. Before now and for the last 100 years, the people of this nation have increasingly lost their focus on agriculture. The perception of US farmers and ranchers as the foundation of community, which was evident until maybe even the late 1950s, has been lost. Now agriculture is perceived as a source of cheap food, fiber and beverage. This transformation in perception does not accurately reflect agriculture's fundamental role as the basis of civilization. This diminution of agriculture – in fact – threatens the future of civilization itself.

The growing crises related to energy, health, and climate change provides the opportunity for agriculture to reemerge as a fundamental characteristic in the nation's identity, a central player once again.

I believe that this opportunity will be most constructively realized if agriculture proactively aligns with the public interest in green jobs, health and sustainability. Agriculture seen as a primary solution to many problems faced today creates the basis for a new social contract.

The New Social Contract

First, what do I mean by sustainability. At ROC we broadly define it as follows: a sustainable system provides food perpetually and ensures that the underlying ecosystems and resources remain abundant and viable. It maintains the health of the soil, people, animals, and plants. The economics underlying the system allow owners, workers, and investors to live and benefit from the system at a level that maintains their wellbeing, life-long participation, and commitment to the system's continuous improvement.

But what would this mean, practically speaking, for those working in agriculture? What would they be asked to do over time? I would like to offer 10 defining characteristics of a new social contract:

1.      Agriculture would move from an industrial model of production to a biological model, meaning it would seek to mimic nature, not a Ford assembly line, when producing food and fiber. An assembly line does not like diversity, but nature does because diversity, whether in nature, economics, or politics, is strategy for long-term health. Investors seek diverse portfolios. Regions seek diverse economies. So why do we not seek diverse farms and ranches that are resilient in the face of ecological and economic changes?

2.      The diversity principle requires that we eliminate all broad spectrum, long-lived, toxins in our efforts to control pests and weeds or increase fertility. These compounds kill indiscriminately and thereby disrupt natural biological cycles or spawn unintended disease in non-targeted species. Think of the impact of Atrazine on amphibians. So yes, we need more green chemistries that mimic naturally occurring compounds that nature has already learned to breakdown and metabolize quickly. But even better, we need to use nature to manage nature. More beneficial insects to control pests, more cover crops to control weeds, supply nitrogen, and provide habitat to beneficial species.

3.      We need to eliminate use of fossil fuels as a means to create fertility and power machinery. A major rationale for expanding local food systems is climate change. If farmers are not impacting climate, there is less reason to focus on local. Even if climate change was not a reality, a fossil fuel-based system is not sustainable, fossil fuels will eventually run out, becoming ever more expensive as they are depleted.

4.      We must end the maltreatment of farm and food system workers, even if it is the result of a few. We need to create an industry ethic that ostracizes bad actors. Further, lets transform food and farming jobs into careers that lead to advancement, pride of participation, long-term commitment through enhanced opportunity and quality of life. The divide between labor and operators is not good for anyone. As the technology sector has shown, when there is more alignment between management and labor, there is more innovation, job satisfaction, and productivity.

5.      Likewise, we must end the inhumane treatment of animals evident in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) because the public concern will only grow. The fight cannot be won on economic grounds. The more people know, the less they like CAFOs. Entire nonprofits have been born to stop them. Alternative livestock systems are showing us that when we understand each breed's life cycle and allow it to live stress free, we enhance flavor and product quality and consumers are willing to pay more.

6.      The nation was founded on a fear of tyranny and concentrated power. Thus, perceived ownership of the food supply by a few, using intellectual property rights or economies of scale, although legal and economical when viewed in a relatively brief time frame, will never be politically, ethically, or socially useful because concentrated power undermines public trust.

7.      Food safety is a constant and growing challenge. What are the increasingly frequent recalls telling us? Perhaps that e coli, salmonella, and other food borne bugs like huge processing or manufacturing facilities. I would bet that no prophylactic approach will be thorough enough to fully control germs and viruses, at least not for long. These things quickly mutate. Pathogens will always exist in a biological system. I believe a sound systemic solution will be more diversification and decentralization of production to limit the scale and scope of a persistent problem.

8.      We clearly need to end the loss of soil and over tapping of aquifers. To continue it will guarantee the end of agriculture and increase the anger of the public. We need to build soil and bank water. No till systems, intensive composting and cover cropping are the pathways. We need accurate water balances that are adhered to in all parts of the nation.

9.      We must accept or recognize the impact of genes on human consumption patterns. Most people will seek out sugar and fat because their genes are programmed to find it. So to align our industry with the public's best interest, we need to take the lead in weaning the nation from its unhealthy addiction to these substances. We need less processed and more fresh and whole foods. Otherwise, we risk that physicians and health insurance companies will become agriculture's worst enemies.

10.  Local and regional food systems are good. Big agriculture would benefit from embracing small farmers and ranchers, peri-urban and urban food producers who are the frontline of these regional systems. They can be seen as the diplomatic corps for all agriculture. Farmers and ranchers with direct relations to consumers in the urban centers, which are the base of political and financial power, are the best way to build agricultural literacy.

These are my ten basic building blocks for the new social contract. Every thing I have suggested is achievable because people are doing them all now in small and increasingly large ways. But these building blocks need to be assembled within a cogent and consistent framework. I have some thoughts on that as well.


The Framework for Building the Social Contract

To start with, it would be much better for the industry if agricultural products were no longer seen or described as "commodities." Here are two of the five entries from Merriam-Webster that define the word commodity: "a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (like brand name) other than price; one that is subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market."

Remaining competitive in a commodity system is a thankless task that has forced huge segments of the industry into insolvency. Food is the basis of life; it deserves to be valuable. It is undervalued because our current system defines it as so. Our thinking is flawed. Cheap food requires that we externalize costs because we cannot pay to mitigate or avoid impacts on the ecosystem, workers and communities, which gets us into a conundrum. If we do not end the negative impacts, we are increasingly regulated, taxed and/or both to cover the costs of those impacts. So commoditization of food is a losing game for growers, (but consider the fact that it is good for manufactures of processed food).

Obviously, this move to sustainability is a long-term affair. It will take time because achieving sustainability is not an end point. It is actually a process of continuous improvement.  A human life span is insufficient to address the problem. Sustainability is really about millennia, not centuries. To be frank, Roots of Change has set 2030 as the time frame for changing thinking and setting a new direction, not necessarily becoming sustainable.  However, by then we should be able to see a shift from short-term profit maximization to maximization of long-term productivity and health if ROC is successful. We believe sustained productivity and health are the basis for profits earned over the longest term.

Linked to this concept of long-term thinking, it would be very useful to end the contradiction within the industry that, on the one hand, calls for unfettered property rights and unregulated capitalism, and on the otherhand, for a safety net (price supports or subsidy payments) for the industry. What is the quid pro quo for establishing a safety net? And I believe there does need to be a safety net. Biological systems are inherently in flux. So, what should the public get back for providing a safety net? That is the social contract.

So obviously I am not calling for the end of payments to farmers. I am calling for different payments and perhaps even more payments. Commodity programs and other subsidies provide the rules of the agriculture game.

I think it would useful, productive and appreciated by the public if we tied payments to health enhancement and resource stewardship. Let's pay more money for riparian buffers, species enhancement, and on farm energy production. Let's tie payments to diversity of scale, larger sums to smaller farms. Payments are the incentives. The current incentives render cheap calories. Let’s devise payments that render healthy farm business and healthy ecosystems and healthier people.We engineered the current system, so we can engineer a new one with new policy. Congress sees this and has built within the Farm Bill a corner stone, if not a foundation, for major change through the Conservation Security Program.

To reengineer the system we need allies. Luckily, agriculture has more allies in waiting than we could imagine. Powerful environmental, health, social justice, and community advocates want to align with agriculture to create a healthier world. If we join with them, they will help give agriculture the Congressional and State house votes needed to create  policy for the long-term health of farms and ranches and the environment. We need more people to vote and speak for agriculture's interests. A new social contract will give us those votes we need.

For instance, we need substantially more research and the public has little concept of that need now. So one message we must get out is that a healthy sustainable agriculture will require a research agenda as bold as that being called for in energy. The trend of reducing the research funds for agriculture must be reversed, but that will be impossible without broad public support.

This raises a controversial issue. I really don't think we should bet the farm on genetic modification. Resistance to GMO food is firm among certain consumers. And there is evidence that the hoped for results may prove much more illusive than once thought. Furthermore, the issues of concentration and tyranny over the food supply loom very large when GMOs enter the picture.

I would argue that it is much less problematic to think about learning to mimic natural systems in scaled up ways. How could we scale or massively replicate Joel Salatin's Poly-Face Farm model of multi-species livestock production? What could be done on the plains with cattle and hogs in large open ranges managed by collaborating producers using intensive range management?  How can we accelerate the work of Wes Jackson and create a perennial poly-culture of grains in the Great Plains? None of these systems bring in the problems associated with gene ownership and genetic pollution of organic and non-GMO conventional farms.

This brings me to my final point and I need to be very careful to be clear. I am a realist who looks at the past and says we can, we will, and we must change in unbelievably immense ways. Science and technology must be part of that change. Agriculture has a history of rapid change using technology. But I am very concerned about what appears to be an underlying hubris that permeates our perception of our ability to build and maintain industrial scale food production for a sustained period, particularly one based on fossil fuel.

In fact, it appears to me that our nation has been suffering a massive case of hubris in our economic, military and energy policy, as well as food. I was stunned at what happened to the CIA in Afghanistan last week. It was very tragic, but the more I read the details the more I felt it was another indicator of our loss of contact with reality about the world. Why do we see ourselves as immune to the blow back from systems we seek to "manage"?

We have myths that warn us about hubris. The ancient Greeks gave us Icarus who flew too close to the Sun and fell into the sea. The Old Testament teachings and those of Jesus contain warnings about believing we are not subject to larger dynamics. I posit that these would be both biological and social dynamics. I think of Noah's flood and I cannot help thinking about the melting of the polar caps. I am not talking about magical thinking here. I am saying that our culture has imbedded in collective memory long held stories that contain warnings for the human species as it evolves. We must be careful to not overstep and unleash nature's immune response.

Natural biological communities, which are the result of billions of years of evolution, are the key. They share energy, feed each other, and maintain a balance. Species are interdependent. We too are one of those species. To the extent we understand in depth the survival mechanisms of diverse communities of species and apply them to our agricultural and social systems, I think we will find that we will be well guided.

In short, nature is no longer our enemy. It once was, we had to fight to survive. I think we have evolved past the fight. It is time to relate to nature with a more collaborative approach.  We can learn to surf the dynamics of nature in order to efficiently produce food, fiber and fuel in ways that restore and maintain health, not degrade it.

I am absolutely certain that we can and will do it. We have no choice really. So let's show the public that farmers and ranchers are civilization's life stewards, the most important people in the world, who will perpetually and deftly tend the food supply, by tending large swaths of nature and well employing large numbers of people, for current and future generations. That social contract will be enduring.


Thank you.