Bull’s-Eye On Your Back

October 29, 2009 07:00 PM

Weather. Market fluctuations. Plant and animal diseases. Availability of credit. All of these are factors that make the business of farming a challenge for those on the front lines of providing the food and fiber that feed this great nation—and the world.
But the list of hurdles is growing to the point that it seems a bull's-eye is placed squarely on their backs. Trade actions that loop around to smack agriculture; actions not based on sound science; regulations; climate change; and growing criticism by nonfarmers of the very production practices that enable farmers to do their job are at the top of the list.
Consider the following obstacles:
  • Mexican trucking pilot project. The decision to end a pilot project under the North American Free Trade Agreement that allowed Mexican truckers to haul loads beyond a specified distance into the interior of the U.S. prompted Mexico to hit several U.S. products (ag products included) with tariffs to end shipments of the products.
  • China investigating shipments of U.S. poultry. The U.S. imposed import duties on Chinese tires for three years—and now China is investigating imports of U.S. poultry. Chinese officials insist the tire decision didn't
    prompt the investigation, but the timing seems more than just a coincidence.
  • H1N1 restrictions.Several countries have blocked imports of U.S. pork in the wake of the H1N1 flu virus, despite repeated statements by the World Health Organization and other international health entities that there was no danger of getting H1N1 from eating pork.
  • Farming practices. Several states have passed laws preventing the use of gestation crates for hogs. California has passed laws requiring that animals have room to turn around and flex their limbs.
Getting other countries to live by world trade rules isn't easy, but disputes can usually be ironed out with negotiations—or at least countries can be coerced into following internationally accepted rules and guidelines.
The tactics for addressing the criticism of farming practices are more problematic and, when it comes to feeding people, even emotional.
"In all my years with Farm Bureau, I can't remember a more challenging time,” says Mary Kay Thatcher, director of public policy for agriculture policy, commodities and livestock, American Farm Bureau Federation. "The average person just doesn't seem to get it [when it comes to U.S. agriculture].”
Randy Russell, of the Washington agricultural consulting firm Russell & Barron, has also seen the critics of production agriculture becoming more vocal. "They aren't interacting with agriculture, they are just criticizing it,” he notes. While lauding the efforts of those in agriculture and connected to agriculture, such as former House Ag Committee Chairman Larry Combest (R-Texas) and the Hand That Feeds U.S. effort, Russell says he still thinks agriculture is "just not doing enough.”
While saying those targeting agriculture have a right to make their views known, Russell warns they are "well funded and they're not going away.”
The culprits. What has contributed to the bull's-eye painted on farmers' backs? In part, the non-ag media has seemingly discovered U.S. production agriculture, seizing on instances of animal mistreatment or questionable facts to back up their attacks. Indeed, some even make the allegation that production agriculture in the U.S. is destroying the land and that the food it produces is making folks sick.
That statement is borne out by articles such as the Aug. 31, 2009, Time magazine cover story, "The Real Cost of Cheap Food.” The article's author, Bryan Walsh, lays out his case on the production of food today by arguing that U.S. agriculture produces "unlimited quantities of meat and grains at remarkably cheap prices. But it does so at a high cost to the environment, animals and humans.” Walsh says our current agricultural production system causes the erosion of fertile farmland and results in food that is "dangerous” to us, that the use of antibiotics in animals causes antibiotic resistance in humans and that the runoff from the overuse of fertilizer in the U.S. creates a "dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
While making these bold, charged statements about our food production system, Walsh correctly points out that, "as every farmer knows, if you don't take care of your land, it can't take care of you.” That is a rule that indeed every farmer knows and one that most practice.
Walsh also offers up the argument that organic agriculture, with production on a localized level on smaller farms with more labor involved, will improve the quality and safety of our food supply and return profits to farmers.
One of the farmers who is taking Time to task for this article is New Hartford, Iowa, farmer and U.S. senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). He took to the Senate floor and spoke at length about the article. While the Time writer used borderline scare tactics to make his points, Grassley used the facts.
He said that he and his son Robin "are not unlike tens of thousands of other farmers across Iowa and this country whose livelihoods depend on taking care of our soils,
waters and animals.”
The facts Grassley used to counter claims in the Time article include:
  • Nitrogen, phosphate and potash efficiency are increasing in corn production, according to USDA data compiled by the Fertilizer Institute. We are growing more bushels of corn per pound of nutrient applied.


  • There is increasing recognition that causes of hypoxia (the "dead zone”) relate strongly to man-made alterations of the entire system, including channelization of the Mississippi River, reversal of the Atchafalaya River and extreme loss of wetlands and barrier islands that filter nutrients and protect against storm surges—not solely nutrient issues.
"Even on my own farm, we use no-till on our beans, we minimum-till our corn and we've put in a wetland, a waterway and a grass strip, even though we have mostly flat farmland,” Grassley said. "Robin and I aren't required to do this. We do it because we know as stewards of our environment, our farm will benefit in the long run.”


  •  Livestock producers take their responsibility to provide safe and abundant food to the general public seriously. Dairy, poultry and livestock farmers have made a voluntary commitment to use antibiotics responsibly. By developing responsible-use guidelines, these industries have proactively taken steps to safeguard human and animal health.

  • The USDA–Economic Research Service reported that total food expenditures for all food consumed in the U.S. was $1.165 trillion in 2008, a 3.3% increase from $1.128 trillion in 2007. Prices are naturally rising because of the higher cost to do business, including transportation costs. Do we really think it's feasible to see these prices go even higher so that the Time writer can further promote his political agenda? Growing all of our food organically will take more land, cost more money, drive prices up and ultimately make food less affordable to those in need.
Russell lauds Grassley's Senate floor statement, saying, "Finally, people in commercial ag production are standing up.”
Thatcher agrees, noting she has seen farmers become more engaged. A Missouri farmer Thatcher knows contacted the entire Missouri congressional delegation to voice her concerns on climate change legislation, an issue the farmer admits is hard to get her "arms around” but one she feels has to be addressed.
"Is it ever enough?” Thatcher asks. "No, but people are rising to the occasion. Farmers and ranchers are now, more than ever, understanding what is going on.”
So what is the best way to remove the bull's-eye from farmers' backs? Russell thinks the challenge needs to be framed in this way: "I would pose the question to those attacking commercial ag production, and by commercial ag production I'm talking about a high percentage of the family farm operations, like this: How do you think we will feed another 2.5 billion people that will occupy the globe 40 years from now and double our food production if we don't embrace modern agriculture? In other words, how do we do all that with less resources, such as water and land?”
Unfortunately, one of the voices of reason, Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, passed away in September. As the father of the Green Revolution, he was responsible for feeding millions around the globe. Russell says that while Borlaug's voice is gone, "his body of work is now standing in stark contrast to those wanting to attack production agriculture.”
Borlaug's actions to modernize agriculture and bring it to Africa is "the message,” Russell believes. "That message is, what will modern agriculture look like in 10, 20 or 30 years? The U.S. is well positioned to be a key part of the solution. Remember, a hungry world leads to instability. Putting handcuffs on commercial production agriculture will have serious long-term global consequences, especially if we don't refocus on promoting commercial agriculture, including research into producing more with less.”
Doing more with less. That's what agriculture has mastered in order to provide the food and fiber this country and the world need. That might be the most effective tool for turning the bull's-eye on the backs of those in production agriculture into a well deserved pat on the back. 

You can e-mail Roger Bernard at rbernard@farmjournal.com.
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