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Economic Sense

RSS By: Matt Bogard,

Matt's primary interest is in the biotech industry and ag policy.

Campus Sustainability Day

Oct 21, 2009
By Matt Bogard

Apparently, October 21st is Campus Sustainability Day, and is being celebrated on many campuses across the country. I wonder what's on the menu on your local college campus?  With all of the attacks on modern agriculture that we have seen lately through articles written in TIME Magazine, from authors like Michael Pollan, Meatless Mondays in school systems, and proposed soda taxes and 'Calorie Added Taxes' on foods containing high fructose corn syrup, that is an important question to consider.  A quick google search revelas that plans on one campus include a viewing of the documentary King Corn ( see the Daily Sundial).  Another campus is featuring 'environmentally sensitive dining options.' 

While niche markets for local and organic food are emerging as one way to address the general public's concerns about sustainable food choices ( which has seen huge growth lately), how much does the general public know about the latest technological improvements that family farmers depend upon for their livelihood?  Many may not realize how sustainable these operations really are. We often get the idea from the media that our food industry has been taken over by industrial farms, but the numbers just don't support those notions. Family farms make up 98% of all farms in the U.S. and according to the USDA ERS (2007) non family corporations make up less than 1% of the total number of farms in the U.S. and have accounted for only 6-7% of farm product sales in every census since 1978.

How many people outside of the ag industry realize that family farms rely heavily on products like biotech Bt corn and glyphosate resistant corn and soybeans? A good review of the environmental benefits of biotechnology in crop production can be found  in  a report by PG Economics here. Nor can I forget the great strides made in the improved sustainability of milk and beef production through the use of improved pharmaceutical products and biotechnology. ( See Got (Green) Milk)

A reader recently asked  a good question, the answer to which relates to these issues:

"Swine flu, bird flu, mad cow, where does it end. My only qustion is whats going on in the livestock industry? It seems like its something all the time?"

I think what's going on largely has to do with the media, general ignorance of agricultural science, and to some degree antagonistic opinions related to free markets and agriculture, to the point where evidence is subordinated to emotional appeals. The fact that the media continues to use the term 'swine flu' in place of H1N1 to me is not only negligent, but reflects implicit contempt for the livestock industry, and whether intended or not, for family farmers. We continue to see publications with one sided support for things like soda taxes or politicians calling for policies  restricting antibiotic use in livestock. All despite the lack of scientific or economic evidence to support them. Cases for these policies are made by creating an image of  'industrial' farm strawmen to mask the fact that these policies will directly target the livelihoods of family farmers. The public remains uninformed ( taking opinion for fact like in the case of  TIME Magazine) and comes to the conclusion that all of these problems ( H1N1, obesity, antibiotic resistance,  climate change etc.) are the result of  'industrial agriculture' when nothing could be further from the truth.  

With a little better understanding at the farm gate level, I think many people will be surprised just how many sustainable food choices we really have! 

Additional Information:

Structure and Finances of U.S. Farms: Family Farm Report, 2007 USDA ERS

The Environmental Safety and Benefits of Growth Enhancing Pharmaceutical Technologies in Beef Production
By Alex Avery and Dennis Avery, Hudson Institute, Centre for Global Food Issues.

Capper, J. L., Cady, R. A., Bauman, D. E. The environmental impact of dairy production: 1944 compared with 2007. Journal of Animal Science, 2009; 87 (6): 2160 DOI: 10.2527/jas.2009-1781

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