Tag Archives: Agriculture

Hubris

I like the word “hubris.” It kind of rolls off your tongue. It is one of those words that sounds like what it means. The word comes from the ancient Greek word which meant to shame or humiliate someone for the gratification of the abuser. An act of hubris was against the law and considered one of the greatest crimes in ancient Greek society. In modern usage it means overconfident pride or arrogance.

We are often guilty of hubris.

Take for example the public relations campaign which brags that American farmers feed the world.  We cite statistics like the commonly touted assertion that each American farmer feeds 155 people. That is the number that some farm groups’ public relations efforts and the news media give us. That number is compared to the 26 people each farmer is said to have fed in 1960. The implication is that we, American farmers, are nearly 6 times as productive and efficient as were farmers in the 1960s.

I must admit, I’ve always wondered how the number of people we each supposedly feed is calculated. Are the people fed the number of people in the U.S. or around the world? Are these the people who eat an adequate diet or just enough to stay alive? I’ve searched and searched and can’t find an explanation. My rough calculations indicate that we think we’re feeding half of the world’s population with our work. Is that hubris? My math points out one of the major flaws of simplistic statistics. In 1960 there were 4 million farmers in the United States. There are now just over 2 million farmers in America. So, if our farms are twice as big and there are now half as many farmers, that statistical manipulation means our real production has not increased as much as it might appear.

It is arrogant to believe that we feed the world. More than 13 percent of the world’s population is undernourished.There are 795 million undernourished people in the world today. That means one in nine people do not get enough food to be healthy and lead an active life. Hunger and malnutrition are in fact the number one risk to health worldwide — greater than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Most of the world’s hungry are women and children. A child somewhere in the world dies from malnutrition every six seconds. A large percentage of the world’s poor and hungry are rural and, ironically, are farmers.

The world is not being fed.

We, American farmers, don’t even feed Americans. We export millions of tons of grains and livestock products, but we are dependent on imported food for most of the fruit, vegetables and nuts we eat. Our country is now a net importer of food. We buy more than we sell. Even in this land of abundance, 12.4 percent of all children live in households that do not always have enough food to eat. Use of food pantries and feeding programs is estimated to have increased by 40 percent in the last year. Growing numbers of small, rural communities are becoming “food deserts” as grocery wholesalers decide small town stores are not profitable enough to justify shipping food to them.

In our hubris we assume that farmers in developing countries do not know how to farm. We have promoted our way of farming in places where our system of expensive purchased inputs and monoculture do not work. Poverty, lack of tools, access to land and even hunger itself make our capital intensive form of farming unsustainable. Our agricultural techniques and crops may not be well suited to the climate, the soil, the culture or the resources of the community. While the number of hungry in the world in 2010 was down slightly from 2009, the number is still higher than in 2008. We’ve hardly solved the problem. In addition we are told we will need to double food production in the next 50 years to feed of the world’s growing population.

Increasing American farmers’ production twofold to feed the world’s growing population is going to be a challenge regardless of the techniques and technology used. Maybe it is our own hubris telling us we must. Perhaps feeding the rest of the world is not something we need to do. Research is pointing to new kinds of farming which incorporate soil building through the planting of nitrogen fixing trees and cover crops. Water management and plant breeding by farmers of indigenous crops for their own farms can help rural people feed themselves and others. Increasing the productivity on these farms is relatively easy and cost effective. Research is showing that productivity of small farmers in developing countries can be doubled in 10 years by using what is being called “agroecology,” a system that mimics nature, grows its own fertility and grows food for the farmer and for others. This makes sense as a way to feed the world because half of the world’s undernourished are farmers and rural residents.  At the same time, soil erosion is decreased, organic matter increases in degraded soils and carbon is sequestered from the atmosphere.

There is no question that our dependence on foreign oil increases our nation’s sense of insecurity. Our dependence on foreign food will, in the future, create even greater potential conflicts. Shipping food across the world or even across our own country will become more impractical as the price of fuel increases. One of the biggest barriers to finding local food in rural communities is the lack of production. Small town farmers’ markets are growing, but the number of consumers wanting fresh, locally produced foods far outnumbers the vendors growing and selling produce. The use of “agroecology” on small acreages producing locally consumed fruits, nuts and vegetables could increase the availability of nutritious, fresh foods in rural communities in America as well. We could learn from successful projects in other parts of the world if we are not too proud to admit there might be more than one way to grow food.

Hubris is a dangerous thing.

Copyright © 2015 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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Ryan Taylor for Ag Commissioner

Unlike the editorial board of Forum Communications, I don’t think Doug Goering’s “work ethic” and supposed “knowledge of all aspects of agriculture and agribusiness” is good enough reason to reelect him as Agriculture Commissioner. Nor does his weathering “mini-storms” of his own making mean he the right choice for our state’s top farmer.

I agree with the Forum that Ryan Taylor “brings an impressive record to his candidacy. He knows farming and ranching, ag policy and the rapidly changing energy sector in the state.”

Don’t let Taylor’s cowboy hat and folksy manner fool you. He is highly intelligent, well-educated and articulate. He is honest, thoughtful, and a committed public servant. He is not naive about the challenges of balancing the interests of oil development and farming. In 2013 Taylor received a Busch Fellowship to study and compare our state’s energy policies and the way the Norwegians have successfully developed their oil resources. He has used his studies to develop well thought-out proposals for the coexistence of oil development with farming and ranching.

The Forum Communications Editors qualified their leaning toward the incumbent by saying, “Taylor has advanced good ideas, but they sometimes stray from sensible regulation of a vital industry to anti-oil rhetoric.”

The Commissioner’s role on the Industrial Commission is an important one. The Forum editorial board did not specify which of Taylor’s proposals are “anti-oil.” Perhaps they were thinking about Taylor’s “Farmers’ Bill of Rights” or his proposals for looking at oil as a “one time harvest.” The person elected as the Ag Commissioner is charged with putting the interests of agriculture ahead of other industries’. The Ag Commissioner’s job is to be “pro-agriculture.” If that looks “anti-oil” when conflict arises, that’s just as it should be.

His prejudice towards agriculture makes Ryan Taylor exactly the kind of Agriculture Commissioner we need in North Dakota.

I like food

I really like food. I think about food a lot.  Perhaps that is partly a result of spending a good portion of my life eating, cooking, and planning meals. I’ve also spent most of my life growing food both for me and my family and for others.

Some of my current preoccupation with food might stem from my efforts to shed the pounds that have crept up on me since the birth of my second daughter. The “baby fat” excuse is a feeble one, I admit. My daughter is 33 years old. Whatever the cause, my youthful ability to eat anything, in any amounts and still weigh a little over 100 pounds is just a distant memory. Sometimes I think I gain weight simply watching the Food channel. I know that when I diet, my husband loses more weight than I do.

I have made a sincere attempt to turn around the last thirty years of slowly becoming a bigger person. I monitor the calories I consume and try to at least match the intake with the calories burned. The second half of that equation is harder when I’m at my desk doing bookkeeping and writing and at my sewing machine working. When I’m not out chasing sheep, mowing grass and gardening, I burn far fewer calories. Perhaps restricting calories has made food even more appealing. I am even more obsessed by food than I usually am. Every magazine I pick up seems to fall open to some delicious desert recipe, pasta dish, or sauce for something. Still, my meals while dieting are nutritious and good tasting. I am not deprived.

Last week the Overseas Development Institute published a study that indicates that obesity is now becoming a growing problem for the poor, not only in this country, but around the world. Since 1980 the number of people in developing nations who are considered overweight has tripled. That might be good news. It means that more people have access to adequate calories. Or, it might be not all good news since being overweight creates different problems. It would seem that some of the weight gain in places like Korea and Mexico come from increased sugar consumption. Obviously we need to have more in our diet than calories. The health problems that come with obesity might be as much related to what is missing in a high calorie diet than the number of calories. High calorie, low nutrition foods tend to be cheap and easily accessible even in food scarce areas.

Simply increasing calories does not solve poor people’s food problems. In many places traditional, diverse diets have been replaced by foods high in refined sugars, white flour and processed foods. The changes have to do with loss of biodiversity and small farms, availability of locally grown greens and legumes and loss of access to land and traditional knowledge. Hunger is a complex problem only partly solved by increasing calories.

It has been a year since I spent a week in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. I saw very few Haitians who would meet the definition of being overweight. Many of the children suffer from inadequate nutrition, even if most have enough calories to get by. Their lack of nutrition is shown in skin disorders, infections, and impaired resistance to disease. Their malnutrition is made worse by drinking contaminated water and the resulting parasite and intestinal infections. The few overweight Haitians we saw at our health clinic suffered from untreated high blood pressure along with symptoms of inadequate nutrition in spite of their obesity.

The country of Haiti exports a sugar cane, coffee, tobacco, cotton, rice and mangoes. The island has the potential to be a tropical paradise. Almost all the food eaten in the country is imported. The once productive soil has been eroded and exploited. The forests are gone. Someone living in a tent with a few inches of space between it and the next tent cannot grow their own food. Most of the people of Haiti live in coastal cities and are unemployed or work only occasionally. There is no safety net and feeding programs funded by and administered by nonprofit agencies are spotty and local. While many of these charitable efforts work on a small scale, others are poorly organized and inadequate.

Yes, fewer people may starve for lack of enough calories today than they did 30 years ago. That is good news. My guess is that the statistics don’t tell the whole story. The very poorest are still starving. The overweight poor are still undernourished. There are those of us who suffer ill health and obesity in the middle of abundance.

Something to think about next time I reach for a snack.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

Pasta and climate change

It is impossible to visit with a North Dakota farmer without the conversation, at some point, turning to the weather. Our lives and livelihoods depend on the benevolence of the clouds and the thermometer. Rainfall in a good year is just barely adequate. We have friends from elsewhere in the world who laugh out loud when they learn that we measure rain in one-hundredths of an inch and adjust the temperature to account for the wind. We are justifiably obsessed with weather.

Recently “Newsweek” magazine ran an article by a Mark Hertsgaard, a journalist who has written about global climate change for more than 20 years. The article, titled “The End of Pasta,” looks at the drought of the last year and projections into the future. Hertsgaard concludes that as the weather changes, farmers will run out of places which are suited to grow durum wheat needed to make spaghetti and macaroni.

Hertsgaard quotes several North Dakota durum growers and points out that already the durum growing region has moved from eastern North Dakota to the West where it doesn’t get rained on at the wrong time. Several researchers from North Dakota State University and former Commissioner of Agriculture and National Farmers Union president, Roger Johnson, seem to support his conclusions.

Almost as disturbing as the picture Hertsgaard presents is the quote from North Dakota’s current Agriculture Commissioner, Doug Goehring:

‘…Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring says man-made climate change does not exist. Goehring says it does not bother him that the National Academy of Sciences, like its counterparts in every other industrial nation, has repeatedly affirmed otherwise. Goehring, a Republican, adds, “I think an agenda is being pushed.”’

I am surprised by Goehring’s remarks. On most subjects Commissioner Goehring insists that decisions be based on “sound science.” He has impressed me as an intelligent and forward-looking politician. In this case, his position seems to be more political than scientific. It would appear that he discounts the findings of scientists all over the world in favor of the belief that a nefarious “agenda” is being promoted by some radical group.

When we began farming in 1974, this was called the “Durum Triangle.” We and our neighbors regularly grew durum wheat and harvested a good quality crop most years. That is no longer the case. The rainfall patterns have changed and getting an unstained crop of high quality durum in the bin is a rare event. As the climate has changed, wheat has been replaced by corn and soybeans on growing numbers of acres. Part of the change has been the development of shorter seasoned varieties, but changing weather has also driven the trend.

Some researchers believe that increasing temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels will increase agricultural yields. Others believe that may be true only in the short term. As the weather changes and crops move to new growing regions, eventually diseases and insect pests will also move. There are other factors in crop production such as soil structures, fertility, water resources and topography which limit the number of places where any given crop will grow successfully. We are only just beginning to understand the many implications of shifting seasons and weather patterns will mean for future farmers.

Our public officials, farm organizations, commodity groups and university researchers must consider ways to adapt North Dakota’s agriculture to a warmer and perhaps drier future. Our long term economy is still dependent on farming and the world will always need food. What kinds of crops will grow here ten, twenty or fifty years from now? What new varieties will be needed to withstand too wet, too dry, too hot conditions? How will we deal with the many demands for water the future may bring? How will we till the soil and transport our crops if carbon emissions are capped or oil continues to rise in price? What kinds of practices will we need to follow to keep topsoil in place when torrential rains fall, and rivers flood more frequently. How will we increase our fields’ organic matter? How will warming weather affect the microbial life in the soil? How can we protect the beneficial insects which pollinate our crops and prey on insect pests?

There is too much at stake to attribute the concerns of climate scientists around the world to a conspiracy of unnamed forces “pushing” an undefined agenda.

Copyright © 2012 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

Salt of the earth or just another business?

Farmers seem to be a conflicted group. On one hand, we like the image of the farmer as a steward of the land, a noble yeoman, the salt of the earth, a caretaker of his or her God-given piece of soil. We like the idea that farming is a lifestyle. We like feeling like our calling is greater than any other. We want the others to view us with respect and to give us special treatment for our part in feeding the rest of the world. This image fits many of my fellow farmers.

We also like to think of ourselves as astute business executives, making well-informed, objective decisions just like any other CEO.

So which is it? Are farmers working in a God-given call or are we part of the agricultural industry and are like any other business?

The proponents of Initiated Measure number 3 like to use the first image to promote passage of the so-called “Right to Farm” amendment. All farmers are good stewards. Farmers are never guilty of trespassing on others rights, committing cruelty to animals or making decisions based solely on economics without regard to good stewardship. According to the ads in favor of Measure 3, we are more noble and important than other kinds of business, and, therefore, we should be protected from the unreasonable sensitivities of crazy consumers, non-farmers and animal rights groups. No one should be able to tell us what to do on our farms.

On other issues, however, the same groups promote the image of farming as a business like any other.

The proposed constitutional amendment is so vague that it may create more problems than it solves. Will this amendment affect how the Department of Agriculture regulates pesticides, seeds and animal health? Will it affect licensing of agriculture related industries? Will it affect local zoning ordinances? How will this language affect disagreements between farmers? What will happen when one farmer’s “modern” farming practices destroy his neighbor’s crop? What is a “modern” agricultural practice? Are all modern practices good? Does “modern” always mean environmentally sound, neighborly, kind and ethical? Who gets to decide what practices fit that definition? The legislature? The courts? Farmers? Multinational corporations? Scientists? Economists? Consumers? Proponents claim that state regulations and local zoning won’t be affected, but I have yet to read an explanation of why these kinds of regulations would not be declared unconstitutional if this amendment is passed.

Why should agriculture be singled out for protection from regulation? If agriculture is just a business, what will keep other groups from seeking the same kinds of protections for the oil and coal industry, the insurance industry, the medical industry? How will we justify laws that regulate that a coal mine be reclaimed to it’s original level of agricultural productivity? Why should there be rules about disposal of fracking fluids? Should factories be required to control pollutants coming out of their smokestacks? How does this amendment allow for reasonable regulation of agriculture which protects the common good?

The proponents of this measure raise the specter of animal rights organizations like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) forcing through legislation that will end animal agriculture in the state. It would seem that the North Dakota Farm Bureau and other supporters do not trust North Dakota’s legislators, governor, and local bodies to protect the best interest of farmers. There is no instance in our state’s history where PETA or HSUS has been successful in accomplishing any of the things proponents of Measure 3 predict. Is there another reason for this amendment that is not being disclosed? Who will really benefit from the lack of regulation of so-called “modern” farming?

Changing our constitution should not be taken lightly. Measure 3 is not only an unnecessary alteration of our state’s governing document, it may turn out to be one of those things farmers wish they hadn’t asked for.