Big agriculture may not be perfect, but has a place in the future of food



Since the beginning of time, the business world has focused on size. The pursuit of scope and scale to lower cost of production, increase efficiency, and expand markets has been celebrated from the hallways of Boeing and CN Rail to farms in Saskatchewan and Ontario. In Canada we have big farms and we have small farms, and many in between, and one size does not fit all, but is big agriculture best?

A recent article in Foreign Policy discussed this question and the counter argument in a follow-up. The debate over whether operational size matters is one that we cannot solve here, but it is something that frames governmental policy, gains attention from suppliers, and has become a significant part of the environmental and ecological policy debates as well.

In “Big Agriculture is Best,” Ted Nordhaus, executive director of the Breakthrough Institute, and Dan Blaustein-Rejto, director of food and agriculture at the Breakthrough Institute, argue that the industrialized food system has moved millions of people out of poverty and had a positive impact on the environment. While the title stinks of clickbait, the authors make some interesting points on how scale has benefits.

A month after the article was printed, a counter argument was published entitled “Big Agriculture is Leading to Ecological Collapse,” written by Matthew Sanderson from Kansas State University and Stan Cox, research scholar in ecosphere studies at the Land Institute in Kansas.

I personally believe that there is room for everybody of all sizes in this industry. This is a complicated subject that creates outrage and opinion on all sides of the debate. Although there are likely statistical definitions for “big agriculture,” the term is used as a synonym for factory farming and modern agriculture. Depending on who you have this debate with you might be surprised what the average Canadian or American views as “big agriculture.” Your small-to-mid-sized farm would likely be defined as big to the average consumer.

I will spare you the debate over defining big agriculture but want to focus on the perception and realities of this question posed by the authors in Foreign Policy.

Is big agriculture best?

What rattles in my head is whether this has to have an all-or-nothing outcome. Should we have it where only the largest of the largest farms are able to operate in this environment? Activists want to see big agriculture eradicated, to create a new food system dependent on small holder-style food production in the U.S. and in Canada. In my opinion the challenge is creating an environment so farms of all sizes can thrive instead of size (big or small) being a prerequisite to entry or survivability.

What Nordhaus and Bleistein-Rejto do, though, is bring up a number of very interesting points as it applies to what the benefits of big agriculture are. While mainstream media and activists argue that big agriculture is a polluter, factory-like, and heartless towards animals, the authors note “in some ways, it is not surprising that many of the best fed, most food-secure people in the history of the human species are convinced that the food system is broken. Most have never set foot on a farm or, at least, not on the sort of farm that provides the vast majority of food…”

We know that this lack of connection to the industry is a challenge, which is why groups like the Canadian Center for Food Integrity and Ag More than Ever, and Agriculture in the Classroom exist in the first place.

They argue that some consumers have developed a romantic view of food production that chases the lore of a past that never existed in most of our farms’ lifetimes, and is completely disconnected from the economic output of the current industry structure.

“In the popular bourgeois imagination, the idealized farm looks something like the ones that sell produce at local farmers markets. But, while small farms like these account for close to half of all U.S. farms, they produce less than 10 per cent of total output. The largest farms, by contrast, account for about 50 per cent of output, relying on simplified production systems and economies of scale to feed a nation of 330 million people, vanishingly few of whom live anywhere near a farm or want to work in agriculture. It is this central role of large, corporate, and industrial-style farms that critics point to as evidence that the food system needs to be transformed.”

Looking at agriculture only through an economic lens is not reasonable considering other variables like the environment. In my opinion, much of the anti-big agriculture movement has also been tied to the anti-corporate movement that chased Monsanto for years.

One of the points the authors make that really stuck with me as I think about growing economies like China and India was: “No nation has ever succeeded in moving most of its population out of poverty without most of that population leaving agriculture work.”

As people become wealthy by moving to the city, working in manufacturing, services, and technology, there are less people to farm which allows for and drives agriculture consolidation. An important parallel driver of this consolidation trend has been the efficiency and productivity gains of mechanization. With the development of precision agriculture, robotics, and artificial intelligence, is there any reason to believe that this consolidation trend stops?

The idea that the food system should be railroaded into one big-size-fits-all is creating a structure consumers are concerned about with grocers, packers, tech companies, telecoms, and drug companies.

There are “persistent misperceptions” about agriculture, “most especially among affluent consumers,” that seem to disregard the economic realities of the average consumer. Although I agree that today’s modern agriculture practices present under-appreciated benefits for the rank and file of society, the idea that there is only one way, as say the authors, is wrong.

A lot of times in agriculture we talk about how so many people are disconnected from the farm, and we talk about that from a communication standpoint and the negatives of that; the authors of this story reverse that, flip it, put it on its head from the standpoint that shows that North American society moved so many people out of poverty. “But over the long term, the living standards and life opportunities offered in the modern knowledge, service, and manufacturing economies have proved vastly greater than anything possible under the agrarian social and economic arrangements that most Americans over the last two centuries happily abandoned—and that too many Americans today romanticize.”

The further we get away from a memory, the more we romanticize about how awesome it was, and we forget some of the negatives, the challenges, and the struggles that came with that. Food production is a good example. When you think about the way that some people are trying to push food production back into a distant time in the past, I think a lot of times they forget about some of the challenges, the struggles, the hardship that those people faced. It’s not necessarily consumer greenwashing, but there’s an element here of ‘this is how I would like my food produced,’ even though it doesn’t necessarily fit the realities of economics, and according to the authors, some of the social benefits as well.

Nordhaus and Bleistein-Rejto continue: “Debates about the social and environmental impacts of America’s food system cannot be disentangled from the basic reality that in a modern industrialized society, most people will live in cities and suburbs and will not work in agriculture. As a result, most food will need to be produced by large farms, with little labor, far away from the people who will consume it.”

Although in agriculture we begrudge the disconnect that people feel to our society contribution, it is a natural evolution as a society urbanizes and the economy matures.

We’re having a hard time filling jobs in primary agriculture today. If we’re supposed to go back to more small farms, where is the labour force going to come from to do that work? Remember, in some of these cases, when we think back to this romantic view of the way food production was and should be in the future, that also doesn’t involve technology. You see the pictures, the stock photos that are used in some of these stories, and it’s often not the most advanced technology being used.

One of the loudest arguments against big agriculture is the perception of environmental harm.

“In the contemporary environmental imagination, highly productive, globally traded agriculture is a bad thing—poisoning the land at home and undermining food sovereignty abroad. But in reality, a pound of grain or beef exported from the United States almost always displaces a pound that would have been produced with more land and greenhouse gas emissions somewhere else,” write Nordhaus and Bleistein-Rejto.

The counter-argument written by Sanderson and Cox argues that “By now, it is vitally clear that earth’s systems — the atmosphere, oceans, soils and biosphere — are in various phases of collapse, putting nearly one half of the world’s gross domestic product at risk and undermining the planet’s ability to support life. And big industrialized agriculture — promoted by U.S. foreign and domestic policy — lies at the heart of the multiple connected crises we are confronting as a species.”

Regenerative agriculture is getting a lot of attention right now as agriculture tries to rebrand its sustainability practices. For some, true regenerative agriculture could only be practised by small farms, and as larger operations grasp onto the concept, those looking to be niche will align with a new sexy, marketing word.

Near the end of the article, Nordhaus and Bleistein-Rejto point toward a future where big agriculture builds on its already clear strengths, to improve on the food system by:

  • Doubling down on technology and productivity through precision farming;
  • Liberalizing trade agreements can improve global food security, benefit agriculture, and bring substantial environmental benefits; and,
  • Stop growing crops for biofuels and incentivize farmers to produce food for export markets.

The future of the food system is yet to be determined, but additional production system options attempt to supplant the current models. Synthetic meats and vertical farms look to create options for consumers with lower environmental footprints by encompassing the true definition of factory farming. I have always found it ironic that the same consumers against big agriculture would be totally comfortable with Google or another tech conglomerate controlling the food space.

As I addressed earlier, how you define “big” is going to depend whether you are in or out of the industry. But modern day large-scale agriculture has provided under-appreciated value to society and still has room to improve. Missing from this entire discussion has been profitability. For farmers and ranchers, bigger does not mean more profitable.

Inside the industry we have seen the rise and decline of the mega farm, the consolidation in the supply chain, as well as among producers. We talk about attracting new entrants but the capital requirements, including the price of land, are such a barrier. I have always wanted to further study farm profitability relative to size. There is so much attention paid to number of head, gross revenue, and acres farmed and not return on assets or ROI. On Wall Street they talk about earnings per share, while in agriculture we focus too much on size being the determinant of farming success.

At a time where government struggles to listen to or trust farmers and their organizations while trying to re-organize food systems based on climate and health goals, agriculture must find a way to the table. Big agriculture has room to improve but the many benefits of modern agriculture to society are hard to argue with.

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