Sociologist: U.S. Agriculture More Sustainable, Contrary to Critics' Claims

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- Though activists opposed to conventional agriculture continue to score victories in cultural wars on a number of fronts, conventional agriculture is more sustainable than critics are willing to admit, a sociologist told an audience at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln on Thursday.
Ag critics are pushing for more organic farming and smaller farms, although data show large-scale agriculture continues to make gains in a number of areas, said Robert Paarlberg, a political science professor at Wellesley College, adjunct professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and associate in the Harvard University Weatherhead Center for International Affairs.
"Who's winning? I would say flat out that advocates for alternative agriculture have won out," he said. "Their ideas are dominant. It is hard to find anyone willing to stand up for traditional agriculture. Most of them come to my classes with their minds made up.
"They've read books exposing weaknesses of the farming system. They believe farmers are generating foods that are unhealthy. Many young people today have been persuaded that the task of reforming the food system from the bottom-up is a cause similar to the civil rights movement."
Paarlberg said this viewpoint is "so dominant in my part of the country" that he often risks "ostracism" at dinner parties where he steers conversations "away from this issue for personal protection."
Paarlberg said activists often point to a growth in the number of farmers markets from 1994 to 2012 as an indication of progress away from large-scale agriculture production. In 1994, there were about 1,700 farmers markets where producers sold goods locally, he said. That number jumped to about 7,800 in 2012.
Still, Paarlberg said the local share of total farm sales in the U.S. "remains quite small" at just 1.9% in 2007.
"Our food system was mainly localized 100 years ago," he said. "It has been delocalized as shipping costs have become more affordable and container technologies have improved. Consumers today want tropical products. They want fresh fruits all year round. Consumers also want local foods and are willing to support a local food niche."
Organic food sales in the U.S. have grown dramatically from 2000 to 2010, Paarlberg said, from about $6 billion to $27 billion. Still, the market share is less than 5%, he said.
"This is not anywhere near threatening large-scale agriculture," Paarlberg said. "Most organic foods on the market are no longer 'alternative,' as they're grown on large farms."
Organic products' footprint on the landscape remains small. In 2008, less than 1% was certified organic, he said.
More U.S. production isn't moving to organic, Paarlberg said, because organic systems have higher production costs, higher labor costs, and crop yields are significantly lower than conventional crops.
Activists often say conventional, large-scale agriculture isn't sustainable.
"The best data we have suggests the opposite of what critics said would happen to conventional agriculture -- that it isn't sustainable and would collapse," Paarlberg said.
Farming in the U.S. has become less input-intensive. Total input use has been declining since the 1980s, Paarlberg said. Fertilizer use has been declining since 1981, and pesticide use peaked in 1973, he said.
For every bushel of corn produced from 1980 to 2011, he said, farmers have used 30% less land, are losing 67% less soil, have cut irrigation water use by 53%, and have reduced energy use per bushel by 43%.
"Critics find this an inconvenient truth they'd rather not share with their audience," Paarlberg said. "This is an enviable record of sustainable agriculture driven primarily by technological change in a highly competitive market arena."
One area in which activists have scored what Paarlberg said was a "partial victory" is food crops containing genetically modified or engineered organisms, often referred to GMOs.
"Corn, soybeans and cotton GMOs dominate the market," Paarlberg said. "For food crops, opponents have won. We're not planting GMO wheat, rice or potatoes, and there's almost no GMO fruit and vegetables. Opponents of GMOs have won a sweeping victory."
Activists have gained a victory outside of the U.S. as well, he said. In Asia and Africa, Paarlberg said, few farmers are able to grow GMO crops. In 44 of 47 African countries, it is not legal to plant GMOs.
"This technology has been stopped dead in its tracks," he said. "This global rejection of GMOs is something activists would like to lock in with required labels for GMO products." He said such labels would be "stigmatizing" to the industry.
When it comes to animal agriculture, Paarlberg said concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, continue to be "under attack."
The emergence of the CAFO system has been effective in driving down production costs, he said.
Industry performance has been "exceptional," Paarlberg said. The industry welcomed tougher safety standards in 2010 and performance has been good.
When it comes to environmental issues, he said, the livestock industry has struggled with air and water pollution. Yet, the industry remains largely protected from stronger regulations coming from Washington, D.C., Paarlberg said.
On the antibiotic front, he said activists are scoring gains in the culture wars because of concerns that animals will create resistant strains of diseases.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has started a three-year phase-out of antibiotic use for weight gain in livestock, Paarlberg said, "I don't think the change is going to cripple the industry."
Animal activists have made the biggest gains on the animal welfare front, he said, especially when it comes to the use of battery cages in egg production. In addition, major U.S. food producer Smithfield has made a pledge to source only cage-free pork by 2017.
Paarlberg said he believes U.S. agriculture can continue on for some time divided between conventional and alternative food systems, but that conventional agriculture "will have to make concessions."
"But we're not going back to barnyard animal systems and to crops without fertilizer," he said.

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