Aug 27, 2009
“Farmers aren’t the enemy,” insists Time magazine in its current cover story. It’s just that everything we do is bad for people, animals, and the environment.
I’ve experienced acts of drive-by journalism before: Some reporter travels to farm country, spends a day or two staring at barns and cornstalks, and then returns to his air-conditioned office in the city. From this comfortable perch, he tries to lecture us hayseeds on agriculture.
Bryan Walsh of Time has taken this brand of arrogance to a new level. He actually thinks farmers are dooming America to “a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs--and bland taste.”
He forgot to mention that we’re also responsible for bad television, leaky faucets, and people who send text messages while they drive.
The United States would be a better place, Walsh claims, if farmers would change the basics of their business. He wants us to replace our corn fields and tractors with little plots of organic arugula and packs of weed-picking farmhands. Then, instead of loading our products onto trucks and trains for destinations near and far, we’ll put on our plaid shirts and sell our wares from horse-drawn carts at the local farmer’s market.
It’s a nice fantasy, especially for people who don’t value the incredible productivity and efficiency of modern agriculture, which makes it possible for Minnesotans to drink orange juice at reasonable prices in January.
Walsh has the decency to admit that the adoption of his radical theories would force grocery-store bills to skyrocket: “organic food continues to cost on average several times more than its conventional counterparts,” he writes. That statement is one of the few indisputable facts to be found in his entire article.
Sadly, attacking farmers has become fashionable among media elites. Last Sunday, New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof lamented that modern farming “has no soul,” whatever that means. (Anybody who thinks this way should meet a few real farmers, whose passion and dedication are as strong as ever.)
Fads are nothing new in journalism, of course. Just last year, Time was busy bemoaning the cost of what we eat: “Soaring food prices have erupted into a global crisis with potentially dire consequences for millions of people,” warned the magazine in its June 16, 2008 issue. Writer Vivienne Walt called for more chemical fertilizers and genetically modified crops--innovations that “could dramatically improve the world’s ability to feed itself.”
But that was so 2008, back in history days. Are journalists and their editors seriously supposed to keep track of their concerns from long ago?
Maybe Time’s staff writers should take a break from contradicting themselves and hold a debate: Walt vs. Walsh on the challenges and costs of food production. Meanwhile, I’ll stick to raising my crops, so that these scribblers can argue with full bellies.
As it happens, Walt was correct last year when she said that farmers must embrace modern technology in order to feed a booming world population. There is no other way to confront this important, ongoing problem.
Walsh’s conflicting advice in the current issue is sheer nonsense. He offers it in the name of “sustainability,” a buzzword whose true meaning he doesn’t even begin to understand. There’s nothing sustainable about turning our backs on safe and proven methods of food production, especially when human lives are on the line.
I have no quarrel with organic food. If Walsh wants to eat it, he should choose to buy it. Farmers, too, should be free to meet this market demand. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that organic food can feed a planet with billions of people. Instead, it would lead to less wilderness and more hunger.
I'm not eager to tell the writers and editors of Time how to do their jobs. I may be an occasional consumer of what they produce, but I’m no expert at publishing magazines. I certainly wouldn’t suggest that they replace their computers with typewriters or their printing presses with woodblocks. I do believe they should spend more time talking to the real experts on agriculture: farmers, ranchers, land-grant researchers, and so on.
Yet, they seem most interested in bossing us around: They want us to quit our modern practices in favor of primitivism.
We should make a deal. If journalists at Time and elsewhere will stop telling me how to work the land, soulfully or otherwise, I won’t tell them how to write articles. It will give me something good to read now and then--and it will keep them well fed, even if they decide to take the food on their forks for granted.
John R eifsteck, a corn and soybean farmer in western Champaign County Illinois, is a Board Member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).