Article: Don’t blame farmers for the farm-subsidy mess

By Tom Philpott; Published on Grist

Agricultural and food products are not like other commodities. Their price is that of life, and below a certain threshold, that of death.

— Marcel Mazoyer and Laurence Roudart, A History of World Agriculture from the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis

Last month, after Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini dared question the virtue of certain U.S. farmers, many sustainable-agriculture proponents lashed out in fury.

More recently, another high-profile observer, Environmental Working Group president Ken Cook, also made remarks about farmers that could be read as unkind. But while Petrini had to face down angry questioners and issue an apology, Cook’s jibes generated not a peep in the sustainable-ag blogosphere, where Cook enjoys high esteem.

In one sense, the divergent reactions can be explained by looking at whom the two men insulted. Petrini took a poke at small-scale organic growers producing for a nearby community, while Cook aimed at Midwestern grain farmers — the kind who practice what I and other observers often denounce as “industrial agriculture.” It may be no surprise, then, that the sustainable-ag community rose to defend the small-scale farmers, and looked the other way when the big guys got roughed up.

But in another sense, the response is puzzling. The farmers Petrini tweaked are niche growers. Altogether, they supply perhaps 3 percent of the nation’s food. But Cook went after the people who supply the great bulk of the calories that sustain a nation of 300 million.

If the former group disappeared — a specter I don’t raise lightly, since I work on a small-scale organic farm — the quality of our food supply would decline appreciably. But in the unlikely event that the Midwestern grain farmers shut down operations, we’d likely experience a full-on famine.

By pointing this out, I don’t mean to demean Ken Cook, whose work on our convoluted farm-support system I admire and have been citing for years. But I do want to challenge some of the discourse coming from the sustainable-ag community as congressional debate around the 2007 farm bill enters its stretch run — especially the idea that merely ending subsidies will sort out our agricultural woes. Just Another Day at the Office?

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