At the same Future of Food Conference where Britain’s Prince Charles advocated for organic agriculture, a U.S. senator inveighed against federal farm programs and genetically modified crops.
John Tester, D-Mont., who told the Georgetown University audience, “I speak to you as a farmer who has made his living off the land, lived my whole life with my hands in the dirt,” says farm programs have weakened agricultural diversity and made it harder for family farms to stay afloat.”
Tester, who with his wife grows grow organic wheat, barley, and other crops on a farm that has been in their family more than 100 years, says also that “the rise in GMOs and who controls seeds is particularly disturbing.”
The U.S. has “done an incredible job of increasing food production” through better farming techniques, chemicals, and fertilizers,” he acknowledges. “We have only to look at the agriculture trade balance and the amount of food we export to realize how productive we are.” But, he says, these accomplishments have “come at a cost.”
A hundred years ago, Tester says, “We had crop diversity, because it was essential to profitability. Farmers knew a diverse rotation is good for insect and pest control, to help manage plant disease, good for plant vigor, and good for soil health.”
But over the last 100 years, he says, “We’ve seen far less diversity as far as crop rotations go and far less diversity and competition in marketing our crops.”
Another factor in consolidation and lack of diversity has been U.S. farm programs, he says.
“When I was growing up, participating in the farm program was something my parents considered a patriotic duty; it was set up to support and improve rural communities. But if you look at the last 50 years of farm programs, you’d be hard-pressed to say they have encouraged diversity, because payments go to a select few crops. You’d also be hard-pressed to say they have saved rural America or promoted family farm agriculture.”
Today, Tester says, the majority of farmers have off-farm jobs “just to make ends meet.” Farmers are able to control just a few things — labor, conservation, farming techniques, and seeds, he says, “but with GMOs, farmers don’t control seeds, multi-national agribusiness does.
“We’ve heard over and over that these transgenic plants are our only hope to feed the planet as our population grows. I’m here to tell you, I don’t buy it. What it has done is to take away options from family farmers and options away from consumers. Farms won’t be able to control seeds, and you won’t know what you’re eating. Once the genie’s out of the bottle and GMOs are introduced, there’s no going back.”
The “good news,” Tester says, is that “the nation’s local food movement is growing … because more people realize the future of food relies on … consumers who understand it’s going to take smart policies at all levels to keep our food system strong.”
Consumers “are being empowered,” he says. “Their voices are being heard — people are listening.”
A few months ago, Tester added an amendment to a food safety bill “that was a much-needed overhaul of our nation’s food safety as applied to vegetables and manufactured foods.”
He says “the nation’s biggest food companies poured a whole lot of dough into a lobbying effort to fight this common sense amendment; the corporate giants released everything they had against us. But in the end we won, because common sense prevailed. Smart, sustainable food policy is common sense, and if you fight for it, you can win.”
Family farmers find it increasingly difficult to compete in a consolidating, centralizing agriculture, Tester says.
“Consider: just four meat packing companies control 84 percent of our nation’s beef. Just 10 percent of our nation’s egg producers produce 99 percent of the eggs we consume; and only two-tenths of 1 percent of the nation’s food manufacturers produce 53 percent of the nation’s food. There’s a reason Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz said in the 1970s, ‘You need to get big or get out.’”
Monoculture agriculture was accelerated after World War II with the advent of farm chemicals and water-soluble fertilizers, Tester says, and universities began to rely much more on private funds than public funds to bankroll their agricultural research.
“That private research can steer toward projects with bigger potential for profits for agribusinesses and thus those increased profits attract more research dollars to increase profits — and the cycle goes on and on.”
Nobody quarrels with the senator’s or Prince Charles’ right to farm however they wish. But however much they urge it so, the food needs of a burgeoning world population can’t be met with manure and local farmer’s markets.