John Phipps: The Rise of Agrinationalism

09:11AM Apr 27, 2020
Simply put, agrinationalism places national loyalty above economics, culture, and science when making food choices.
( AgWeb )

“Patriotism”, Samuel Johnson famously observed, “is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Recent economic events would suggest we should add “and the uncompetitive.” That said, it is unfair to equate patriotism with what is happening in our industry: a mashup of patriotism with nationalism. The former is founded on love of one’s country, that latter stresses disdain for other countries. I call this amalgam agrinationalism.

Nationalism has quietly redeemed its political stature since WWII. Despising the stranger and condemning the foreign have seeped downward to add ideological friction between not just nations, but also states and regions. Urban versus rural or coasts versus heartland are now familiar divides. Simply put, agrinationalism places national loyalty above economics, culture, and science when making food choices. As with most purity tests, there has to be a buck to be made from this trend somewhere.

Simply put, agrinationalism places national loyalty above economics, culture, and science when making food choices.

Proudly Protectionist Views

Elevating food as a fundamental indicator of correct political thought has created an unlikely merger of opposing factions. Both have seized on agrinationalism as helpful to their agendas. For conservatives, “[My country] First!” reinforces anti-globalism. On the other side, eating small and local complements commercial farming disapproval. Both are proudly protectionist. 

Country-of-origin labeling, heartfelt appeals to community, and even hard-to-verify assertions of superior qualities of domestic food are not unreasonable, and indeed hard to oppose. In an atmosphere of international trade collapse, the results self-justify: trade barriers raise import prices showing we should not have become “dependent” upon imports in the first place. Of course, this is like saying we should not have become dependent on electricity since we are susceptible to blackouts. 

As agrinationalism gains legitimacy, the costs are so gradually incurred (food inflation) that consumers barely notice, especially in an otherwise deflating shopping basket. What is harder to disguise is the narrowing of food choice. There are no American bananas, for example, and other produce becomes more seasonal. For domestic producers, the payoff is considerable as formidable competitors are locked out. 

Agrinationalists deftly sidestep such obvious deficiencies with critiques of competing imports. Arguable phytosanitary concerns (GM, chlorine-washing, etc.) are portrayed as evidence of lower foreign production standards. Employing imprecise criteria like sustainability, agrinationalists can wrap in a flag domestic products that would otherwise struggle to compete economically. 

The most accomplished proponent I have seen for agrinationalism is the UK National Farmers Union. Their state-of-the-art “Back British Farming” campaign is replete with informed, articulate advocates, emotionally engaging videos, and a level of persuasion a quantum leap above the US ag lobby. Meanwhile, their position is refreshingly clear: British products are better because they are British. Period. Other EU ag organizations are scrambling to match their lead.

I am certainly not telling Brits how to do farm policy, even though I think their strategy will prove mildly counterproductive. Protectionism weakens domestic industry resilience and increases reliance on public support. Agrinationalism also places other domestic economic sectors at risk of reprisal. Clearly food carries an emotional attachment that is not present for clothing, TVs, or especially hidden components of seemingly domestic products (iPhones). By combining a literal hunger with the agrarian nostalgia pervading global agriculture, eating “national “could resonate, reshaping commodity markets. 

Markets we hope to sell to have also created sharp environmental contrasts with US competition. American farmers struggle to defend products from carbon-emission and animal welfare criticisms. In addition, it is easy for other countries to contrast our record of on ag pollution. [See also: Lake Erie, Raccoon River]

“Back British Farming” may be a prototype for other agrinationalistic campaigns. US producers undoubtedly will object for valid economic reasons. They could also clamor for a similar regime here. But the clear implication of agrinationalism is major ag exporting countries like ours can expect increasing resistance from agrinationalistic polices. The small stakes for ag in a US-UK trade agreement shrink daily. Escalating global wealth means where food comes from may now matter more than price. Consequently, our production prowess may mean less in the smaller world market. 

Rethink Bulk Commodities

Tariffs alone have slashed our exporting prospects, but combined with agrinationalism, this 1-2 combination requires rethinking our bulk commodity business model. With antagonism awash in Chinese trade, our export markets face a sobering future. If nothing else, our exports will likely be shunted to larger, poorer populations, like Africa. This a bad enough news for grains but truly disturbing for high value products like proteins. 

When what you eat is viewed as a patriotism test, ag exporters will race to the bottom for non-ideological demand remnants. Should agrinationalism spread, our “feed the world” dream will diminish to a “feed the choiceless” reality.