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Farmers Attacked Again in Agricultural Studies

by E M

posted in Business

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Quite by coincidence, a number of farming analysis reports have been produced at about the same time in different countries of the so-called 'developed world'.
Now these reports have significant differences between them but many focus on the concept of sustainable farming - and they are also highly critical of current farming practices, machinery traders and so on.
The criticisms broadly come under a number of headings:
  • Farmers continue to mass-produce foodstuffs to maximize short-term yields at the expense of long-term sustainable development

  • This focus will inevitably lead to substantial depletion of the agricultural potential of vast areas of the planet, as things such as natural fertility and local water supplies are diminished

  • There is insufficient awareness in farming circles of the need for longer-term sustainable and environmentally-friendly agricultural practices.

Although some of these reports are rather more objectively balanced than others, it is hard not to see a common theme underpinning many of them suggesting that the farming community is somehow a (if not the) major 'bad guy' in terms of this important area. There is often a strong implication that a focus on profits today for farmers is drowning out any form of longer-term strategic planning.
Unsurprisingly, many in the global agricultural industry have reacted very poorly to several of these reports. Many feel victimised and picked-upon by what some regard as ill-informed and na've "champagne environmentalists" who are always looking for a new thing to become irate about during their Saturday night dinner parties.
So, which of the two views is actually closer to reality?
It is probably fair to make a generic criticism of some of these farming practices' studies.
Many are highly critical of 'short-termism' in the farming industry without taking into account the fact that farmers are only reacting to consumer demand. The consumer in the industrialized world has got used to cheap food and is demanding that it is ever cheaper. As comparatively few farmers can be accused of being rich and by contrast often operate in borderline 'economic survival mode' in things such as their finances and used equipment machinery, it is difficult to see them being guilty of achieving vast profit margins.
As a result, it's possible to believe that many such well-intentioned reports are pointing the finger at farmers when they should, in fact, by pointing it at themselves as part of the consumer base.
Even those reports that do touch on the complexity of this aspect of the debate, often argue rather simplistically that the consumer will just need to get used to paying more for their food in future for the benefit of the environment. While that may sound reasonable, is anybody seriously suggesting that the chronically poor in many parts of the world who are dependent upon the developed world's agricultural products, should be asked to pay more for their survival in order to protect rich people's environments?
Many farmers are also highly critical of environmentalist groups making assertions related to environmental damage which are poorly, if at all, supported by data. When reading such reports, it's difficult to escape the conclusion that some of the doomsday projections might be more credible if they had more supporting data and less qualitative speculation.
However, it will be unwise for the agriculture industry to entirely disregard these issues.
Anyone who has travelled extensively in what were once genuinely rural agricultural areas may be shocked at the clear devastation caused to the landscape and local wildlife by 'modern' farming practices. The long-term effects of this may well be catastrophic and that doesn't take into account some of the more technical issues such as soil fecundity and water tables etc.
What is perhaps required is for farmers and environmentalists to stop exchanging broadsides in the form of papers and refutations and to start working together to define a common framework for the objective analysis of these issues. That's just a short step from cooperating in defining joint remedial actions where required.
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