Sustainability: Agriculture’s Pathway to Reclaiming Center Stage

Sustainability: Agriculture’s Pathway to Reclaiming Center Stage

May 22, 2008 Michael R. Dimock

Here is the speech I gave for the Sustainable Agriculture Resource Consortium (SARC, www.sarc.calpoly.edu) at the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo College of Agriculture last week, May 16th.

Sustainability: Agriculture's pathway to reclaiming center stage in the American social and political landscape

Thank you for inviting me to share some thoughts with you about a subject of common interest: agriculture and future of California.

I am delighted to be on this wonderful campus again. As a graduate of the California Ag Leadership Program, Class XXXI, I had the opportunity to spend time here studying public speaking with Robert Flores. I hope he will be pleased with my talk today, if not the content, at least, the structure.

As President of Roots of Change, I am involved in a very interesting project that is attempting to align a wide diversity of food system actors around a common strategy that aims to create a sustainable food system in California by the year 2030. This is very big idea. The whole concept of sustainable agriculture and food systems is fluid and evolving, but there are definite stakes in the ground that may be taken as signposts to be followed.

I recognize I am sure you do, that this lack of clarity around sustainability can be frustrating for people who must deal on a daily basis with earthbound realities on the farm or ranch where market rules, regulations, finances, and long-held perceptions create a powerful framework guiding action.

So in the time I have, I hope to describe why I think the concept of sustainability provides a great opportunity for producers and how Roots of Change is working to assist them and other food system actors in the years ahead.

Let me begin with my thesis:
In the last 100 years, the people and leadership of this nation have lost their focus on agriculture as our perception of producers moved from being the foundation of community to being a source of cheap food. This transformation in perception does not reflect agriculture's fundamental role as the basis of civilization and it in fact threatens the future of California agriculture and civilization itself.

The emerging crisis related to energy, food, and climate change provides the opportunity, the necessity actually, for agriculture to reemerge as a fundamental force in the state’s collective consciousness.

I posit that this opportunity will be most constructively realized if farmers and ranchers proactively align themselves with the public interest in sustainability by positioning themselves as a primary solution to many problems faced today.

Let me pick apart my thesis with some in formation and definitions that may help clarify what I am talking about.

I asserted that the nation has lost connection with the meaning and importance of agriculture. So let me give you some evidence.

•    In 1900, farmers made up 38% of the nation’s workforce.
•    In 1908, President Roosevelt established the Country Life Commission to study the challenges to farm women and the difficulty of keeping kids on the farm.
•    Between 1900 and 1920, nearly 2 dozen major, groundbreaking bills were introduced and passed in the Congress related to assisting farmers, ranchers and rural communities.
•    In the same period, the Farm Bureau, California Fruit Growers Exchange and a multitude of other producer associations were formed and agriculture reached its peak as a percentage of the nation’s export value at 45%.
•    Even as late as the 1930s, federal law related to road building focused on providing “farm to market transportation.”
•    And of course almost everyone in the nation was connected directly by family or friend to a farm or ranch.
In a nutshell, the nation was investing in the success of the agricultural sector. We were committed to creating a framework for its full development in ways that benefited millions of people and thousands of communities.

Now if we look at the last 30 to 40 years, the nation’s focus on agriculture has been quite different.

At both the federal and state level, it has been primarily about the societal problems or challenges that our agricultural system has become enmeshed in:
•    Toxic chemicals on food
•    Spraying to combat pests
•    Pollution of water and air
•    CAFOs and factory farms
•    Farmer worker compensation, health and safety
•    Food quality and safety
•    The debate over GMOs
•    Processed food and obesity
•    Subsidies and trade agreements and violation of WTO rules

Today the news is mostly about fights, struggles and problems! When there is good news it usually relates to organic, local, and high quality food, mostly produced on small farms and ranches.

What does this tell us? I would posit that it tells us that the system we have in place has internal contradictions that must be resolved. Expectations among producers and the public are not in sync.

Let’s explore this a bit. I want to begin with the word “commodity” because its usage indicates some of the problem.

Here is the definition from Merriam-Webster:
1:  …an article of commerce especially when delivered for shipment: a mass-produced unspecialized product…
2: …convenience…
3: …quantity…
4: a good or service whose wide availability typically leads to smaller profit margins and diminishes the importance of factors (as brand name) other than price
5: one that is subject to ready exchange or exploitation within a market.
I think the term's usage reveals a mindset that agriculture and the nation have adopted. Its common usage corresponds to phrase I often hear when speaking with producers or their representatives: "farming is a business" or "agriculture is an industry." In this framework producers provide commodities as inputs into the industrial food system.

I believe this is a dangerous reduction of agriculture’s importance. Yes, agriculture is a business, and, it is also the basis of life and underpinning of civilization, which has huge implications.

Undifferentiated commodities are what kill the economics of farmers and ranchers, particularly in a global economy that does not offer an even playing field. US producers, and particularly California’s, must live with more costs related to societal expectations around health, environment, and standards of social justice.
The reduction in meaning of agriculture as a source of commodities, i.e. cheap food and fiber, has stripped us of power, prestige, and potential and this places California and civilization in great peril.

Producers are caught in multiple layers of contradiction:
•    Cheap food in a society with high standards.
•    Impacts from globalization and urbanization, where global competition drives prices down and the need to mitigate impacts on the urban fringe drives costs up.
•    Expectations for rapid and high return on investment from capital markets and slow and low returns on investment in the farming sector.
•    The largest and richest farmers feed the poorest people and the smallest and poorest farmers feed the richest people.
•    The minority of farms feed the most number of people and the majority of farms feed the least number of people: in California 10% of the farms produce 60% of the food.

What is to be done?
This brings me to the second piece of my thesis.

The crisis of sustaining human civilization in a world of peak oil, global climate change, water and food scarcity, and peak population provides a context for agriculture to regain its rightful role as a sacred center of natioinal identity.

By becoming a solution in the effort to become sustainable, agriculture will move back to the center of human consciousness, social and political discourse. It will again be a primary focus of public and private capital investment and policy formation. It will win the required long-term commitment from the communities and institutions that are urban based and which rule the nation via votes and wealth.

But to regain this spot will require a change of mind set and in behavior from producers. It will require the same from urbanites and eaters.

What realities underlie this possibility, which I claim exists?

Agriculture is the ground zero of humanity's entry into the biological age. Farmers, farm workers, and ranchers are actually in more physical contact with the earth and its natural systems on a daily basis than any other sector of society. They are the human interface with nature.

We are learning from research and innovation by producers (organic, conventional, and those in between) that efficient farming and clean farming are intertwined. Natural systems, the balance between beneficial insects and pests for instance, can be leveraged in order to minimize inputs, human intervention and investment of money, of time, energy and materials. This not about old, pre-industrial techniques being reutilized, it is about understanding natural systems more deeply in order to find points of leverage that allow optimum stewardship of those systems in order to minimize human interventions that cause pollution or disruption of ecological and mineral cycles that sustain life.

This reality, this discovery, gets us to the issue of defining sustainable. I will keep it simple. Sustainable is not a specific state, but it is a process, a way of thinking that alters behavior.

It is about ensuring that our actions today do not degrade our ability to continue creating food and fiber from the resource base for as long as we hope humans will live on this planet. Furthermore, let’s admit that this will require a very long discovery process to find our way to a place that we can honestly declare as sustainable. I would posit that we as humans have always been in that process of discovery, but now we have experience, science, and language that allows us to go to another level. And we have evidence that our current system is overtaxing the resource base at many points within the system.

The same principle can be applied to human resources by the way; it is not just about soil and water. It is also about how we structure our relationships with those working in and benefiting from the system.

We must find a way to keep a labor force in place, satisfied, productive and healthy. We need farm workers who will remain in farming and not head to “better” jobs in construction, retail or food service. We need young people in the system born in this “biological age” who will replace those retiring from the field that were born in the industrial age. This is an immense challenge that is at the core of agriculture’s sustainability.

So sustainable agriculture is about environmental and social challenges being resolved, but obviously it is also about economics. To solve the economic challenge requires important social, political, and market changes. This brings me to perhaps the heart of the issue, what I will call the integrating factor.

I started by talking about the loss of the nation’s attention on agriculture. There is another lens wit which to view this problem. It is what we might call the bifurcation of urban and rural. It is a cultural divide, with dynamics also apparent in situations of ethnic prejudice and racism. Those of us working in agriculture or for agriculture are a minority. We do not have real political power. Evidence is emerging everywhere. If we want to regain control or at least influence over our destiny, we must have allies.

So the opportunity lies in the possibility that agriculture, farmers and ranchers and their representatives, will unite with urban people and institutions that are seeking a sustainable paradigm for economic activity. This will be the strategic means to regain power in the nation’s life. California is the place for this unification to begin.

Such a new relationship — a unification — requires changes in thinking and in behavior.

As I said, the policy battle, the majority of media coverage, and community fights frame agriculture as a source of problems. Roots of Change and our allies believe that agriculture is a major solution in the effort to become sustainable and thus is the salvation of the cities. We all forget that cities die very quickly without food, without water, without energy, all of which come from the countryside.

And agriculture dies without investment, markets and good policies from the cities. The two are interdependent and we must begin to talk about this. The world food crisis, which will grow to epic proportions over the next ten years, provides a window for change.

Imagine if farmers and ranchers declared them selves committed, without reservation, to production systems that eliminated or minimized the use of hydrocarbons, chemicals, and ceased using other methods that people fear and that make headlines. Imagine then that producers challenged the rest of the population to support their efforts with good policy and public and private capital.

Yes, such a declaration would require producer associations to speak as one voice. And we all know this is tough, but I believe this is feasible. Producers could do it if they decided to work together. It takes will power and leadership, and perhaps generational change. But that demographic change is upon us.  According to the 2002 census, the average age of a California farmer is 57 years!

In addition, urban populations are waking up to what is real in the world. They are increasingly malnourished, aging, concerned about energy, concerned about food (sources, quality and price), and environmental challenges like climate change, fires and storms. They want reassurance; they need good stewards to ensure a healthy life.

So I want to leave you with two questions before I close. Think about them, let me know what you think, and let’s take action based on the answers we generate:
1.    What could agriculturalists do to become the heroes, to win the hearts and minds of the urban power centers?

2.    What could urban power centers do to empower agriculturalists to be the sustainable human interface with ecological and social systems?

In closing, I want to take us back to this troublesome word “commodity.” I believe that when the farmers and ranchers, when the policy makers and bankers, and when the eaters stop using the term commodity because they understand how it reduces farmers and ranchers to cogs in an industrial system, it will be a sign that we are finding our way to a new paradigm for food and farming.

The producers of food are the heart of the matter, the key to quality of life, and the bridge to sustainable civilization. And I thank all of you for your interest in agriculture and food and for your decision to study the subject. I honor you for this. Roots of Change wants to work with you to realize the full potential of agriculture to be the steward of natural and human resources that our biological age demands.