A Hard Time With Consistency

June 9, 2009

Beheading awaited a French Queen in the 1700s when she was reported to have said, “let them eat cake,” after learning the peasants had no bread.

Yet with more than 1 billion hungry people around the globe today, praise awaits the modern day version of this statement—”let them eat organic.”

In the world where organic disciples live, all Americans have the means to buy locally grown organic fruits and vegetables; obesity is caused by farm policy; and efficiencies gained over the past decades are not necessary to feed a growing world population. Too bad this reality only exists in a handful of select socioeconomic circles.

And that’s what makes a recent TIME article, “Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food,” so appalling.

“Unless Americans radically rethink the way they grow and consume food, they face a future of eroded farmland, hollowed-out countryside, scarier germs, higher health costs—and bland taste,” read the article, which was written almost as an advertorial for organic food production.

The article disregarded the huge environmental strides made by agriculture over the past decades—improvements made possible by the technologies and economies of scale that TIME now apparently wants to eliminate. The smaller, inefficient farms of the past were far worse pollutants than today’s larger, conventional farms—and they didn’t produce nearly enough food to meet today’s demands.

The fact that locally grown organic food is impossible to produce on a massive scale didn’t deter TIME, either. Farms would just have to get smaller, less efficient and oh yeah, a lot of people would need to give up their careers to staff the farms, according to the story.

Does anyone really think the former dot-commers of Silicon Valley; the ex-bankers of New York; or the laid-off unionized autoworkers from Detroit will be in any hurry to move to rural America to work a vegetable harvest for minimum wage?

As for the higher price of organics, TIME had this to say: “Once you factor in crop subsidies, ecological damage and what we pay in health-care bills…conventionally produced food looks a lot pricier.”

Try explaining that one to the checkout clerk next time you’re looking for a bargain on cage-free, organically fed chicken with a side of locally grown broccoli fertilized with manure from free-range cattle.

The irony of TIME assuming everyday folks can easily afford organics is on full display when you read the litany of articles published by TIME in 2007 and 2008 complaining about the rising cost of food—many of which blamed farmers and federal policy for the predicament.

One of those pieces “Will Farm Bill Lower Grocery Tabs?”, almost sadly noted that the reduced spending in the current farm policy won’t help lower grocery bills.

Now a year later, TIME has done an about face, blaming the farm bill for making food too cheap.

TIME’s two-faced story takes an even stranger twist when you look back at the cover article written 30 years earlier applauding U.S. agriculture for evolving from small farms and marveling at the new efficiencies of modern-day food production.

That article, “The New American Farmer,” applauded growers in the ’70s for embracing technologies that help the environment and boost yield; for growing the nation’s economy; and for helping feed and clothe an exploding world population.

It even pointed out that only with technology and growth could farmers survive in a business where profit margins are so thin—the opposite point that TIME is making now.

That 1979 article accurately described the new American farmer like this:

Pat Benedict is archetypal of the farmers who make U.S. agriculture the nation’s most efficient and productive industry and by far the biggest force holding down the trade deficit. Revolutionary changes are sweeping the croplands, making agriculture an increasingly capital-intensive, hightechnology, mass-production business. As a result, U.S. farmers are dividing into two distinct classes. Small farmers, who do not have the technical expertise, are rapidly leaving the land. Large farmers, like Benedict, who know how to use credit and the latest in agricultural science, are gaining an ever greater share of the market. They produce most of the food that the U.S. eats and almost all that it sells to the world.

So what does Pat Benedict, TIME’s previous cover boy, think of their latest work?

“Organics clearly have an important role to play in agriculture today, and it’s great that consumers with the means to pay a premium for organics have plenty to choose from,” he explained. “But to propose scrapping conventional farming in favor of organics is preposterous. It would lead to hunger around the world and chaos in rural communities. You’d literally have riots on the streets.”

Something Marie Antoinette was familiar with at the time of her alleged “let them eat cake” slip-up.

Useful Resources:

Agriculture responds to TIME

Feeding the World in a Responsible Way