Posts tagged with: agriculture

[Part 1 is here.]

Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, details how the growth of government-corporate cronyism during the past 120 or so years has been largely a phenomenon of the socialist left. Wendell Berry misses this crucial historical insight in his running critique of capitalism, and his missing it draws him into flatly inaccurate claims, as when he asserts that “the United States government’s agricultural policy, or non-policy, since 1952 has merely consented to the farmer’s predicament of high costs and low prices; it has never envisioned or advocated in particular the prosperity of farmers or of farmland …”

This makes it sounds as if the government is largely uninvolved in agricultural markets, letting the winds of the free market blow wherever they wish. It’s true that the U.S. government has moved away from buying and destroying food as it did under FDR in the Great Depression, a statist attempt to prop up commodity prices while countless Americans went hungry. But even since 1952, and in a dizzying number of ways, the American government has been busy erecting all manner of protections for American agriculture, from fat subsidies on rice and other grains to import quotas on sugar, price supports on milk, and a long-running policy of paying farmers and ranchers to idle parts of their land. (more…)

800px-Hartmann_Maschinenhalle_1868_(01)In a marvelous speech on the origins of economic freedom (and its subsequent fruits), Deirdre McCloskey aptly crystallizes the deeper implications of her work on bourgeois virtues and bourgeois dignity.

For example, though many doubted that those in once-socialistic India would come to see markets favorably, eventually those attitudes changed, and with it came prosperity. As McCloskey explains:

The leading Bollywood films changed their heroes from the 1950s to the 1980s from bureaucrats to businesspeople, and their villains from factory owners to policemen, in parallel with a similar shift in the ratio of praise for market-tested improvement and supply in the editorial pages of The Times of India… Did the change from hatred to admiration of market-tested improvement and supply make possible the Singh Reforms after 1991? Without some change in ideology Singh would not in a democracy have been able to liberalize the Indian economy…

…After 1991 and Singh much of the culture didn’t change, and probably won’t change much in future. Economic growth does not need to make people European. Unlike the British, Indians in 2030 will probably still give offerings to Lakshmi and the  son of Gauri, as they did in 1947 and 1991. Unlike the Germans, they will still play cricket, rather well. So it’s not deep “culture.” It’s sociology, rhetoric, ethics, how people talk about each other. (more…)

Blog author: ehilton
posted by on Thursday, September 26, 2013

apple harvestIt is time to pick the apples. Row after row of trees, marked Gala and Honeycrisp and Red Delicious: an abundance of fruit that must be harvested in a relatively short time. And there is more to it than just yanking a piece of fruit off a branch:

[T]he job is more difficult than you may think, so WZZM 13 sent reporter Stacia Kalinoski out into [orchard owner] May’s orchard to show what the work is really life…

Stacia Kalinoski did just that and found out picking apples really is, as May says, “an art form.”

The trick to picking the fruit without the stem or the spurs of the tree is to twist.

“When you yank that apple you will get finger bruises on that apple,” he said.

But the twist takes practice and is what slows new workers down. Stacia also learned you’ll also bruise the apple and others just by lightly tossing it in the bag.

“Lay that apple in that bag,” explained May. “You’re handling eggs right now.”

(more…)

Blog author: jballor
posted by on Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Golden RiceA piece of news analysis over the weekend by Amy Harmon, a national correspondent for the New York Times, captures well the dynamics of the current debates about the merits of genetically-modified organisms (GMO’s).

Harmon writes specifically about the case of Golden Rice, which has some attributes that should inoculate it against common concerns about GMO’s. Golden Rice is not monopolized by a corporate entity, and has been developed specifically to address urgent health concerns in the developing world:

Not owned by any company, Golden Rice is being developed by a nonprofit group called the International Rice Research Institute with the aim of providing a new source of vitamin A to people both in the Philippines, where most households get most of their calories from rice, and eventually in many other places in a world where rice is eaten every day by half the population. Lack of the vital nutrient causes blindness in a quarter-million to a half-million children each year. It affects millions of people in Asia and Africa and so weakens the immune system that some two million die each year of diseases they would otherwise survive.

Harmon also observes that “beyond the fear of corporate control of agriculture, perhaps the most cited objection to G.M.O.’s is that they may hold risks that may not be understood. The decision to grow or eat them relies, like many other decisions, on a cost-benefit analysis.”

Get_Your_Hands_DirtyAs I argue in my latest book, Get Your Hands Dirty, there is a theological basis for the development of genetically-modified foods. The cost-benefit sorts of reasoning has its place, but as I argue, “The limits of all these arguments about GM food are essentially the same: they argue primarily, if not solely on the basis of pragmatic concerns. While these arguments are attractive, especially to American common sense, they are neither comprehensive nor adequate in and of themselves.”

A Christian examination of GMO’s cannot be limited simply to arguments about expediency. It is necessary to first establish that a moral basis exists for this type of human activity. As I examine the case of GM foods through the lens of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation, I conclude that such a “biblical-theological framework provides some important general affirmations of the genetic engineering movement with regard to food. This reality is in some respect directly related to the truth of human exceptionalism, the priority of human life over and against that of animals and particularly plants.”

So while expediency cannot be the sole arbiter validating GMO’s, the human cost associated with either acceptance or rejection of such foods are relevant. There are some legitimate concerns about GM foods, at both the level of principle and practice. There are no perfect solutions. But even so, as I put it, our “default position should be in favor of innovations which have a realistic possibility of substantively increasing the fruitfulness of the earth.”

Monsanto PlantWriting over at the Live58 blog, Catherine Sinclair describes her transition from uncertainty regarding GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) to outright opposition: “After doing some more research, I’ve come to the conclusion that we should avoid GMO as much as possible.” This a conclusion that we might think is counter-intuitive, to say the least, for an organization committed to ending the scourge of global hunger and poverty.

Sinclair’s main indictment of GMOs comes down to the agribusiness giant Monsanto: “Because they are companies seeking profit, seed developers like Monsanto do whatever they can to control the agricultural industry.”

It’s important to distinguish the theoretical and ethical basis for genetic modification from the actual behavior and practice of corporations like Monsanto. Too often the two are conflated. In my new book, Get Your Hands Dirty, I have an updated discussion of a theological framework for evaluating GM foods. As I caution at the conclusion of my examination of GM foods, “nothing in this framework presumes any particular policy outcome in the realm of law, and so, for instance, concerns about the use of property rights as a means to tyrannize or monopolize particular industries ought to be considered.”

Making such a distinction allows an approach that is more nuanced and responsible than simply identifying Monsanto with GMOs in general. So, for instance, a self-identified “hippie” writes in Slate:

I think Monsanto is evil, that patenting seeds and suing farmers is unethical, and that some GMO crops (like Roundup Ready Soybeans) lend themselves to irresponsible herbicide and pesticide use and cross-contamination.

But I’m also not going to let my anti-corporate sentiments get in the way of a diverse and promising field of research. (emphasis added)

Genetic modification and the cronyism that is so endemic to big agribusiness simply aren’t identical. That distinction strikes me as a helpful starting point for responsible discussion of GMOs.

For a critical but balanced examination of GMOs in theological context, check out Brad Littlejohn’s treatment of his “inner Luddite” at Mere Orthodoxy.

Blog author: mbrandenburg
posted by on Thursday, May 30, 2013

When we consider poverty alleviation, what areas should be focused on to yield effective and sustainable results? In the blog article, “The fruits, the roots, and the soil,” PovertyCure’s Mark Weber asserts that it is oftentimes the neglected aspects that are most necessary for long-term prosperity. We can often be lured by attractive, short-term assistance approaches, rather than recognizing and building the strong foundations that allow individuals and communities to thrive. We need to focus on the soil.

He says,

We poverty junkies spend a lot of time examining the fruits and the roots. But what of the soil? Humanitarians generally focus on the former, i.e. physical needs such as food, water, clothes, and medicine. Development types generally focus on the latter, i.e. infrastructure, agriculture, education, and various government or multilateral programs. Send out an agronomist to analyze a section of land for agricultural fertility, and his primary focus will be on the nature and fertility of the soil. We can have all the fancy technology in the world, we can genetically engineer seeds for pesticide resistance and higher yields, we can till the land with the powerful machines, but if the soil is sterile, nothing will grow.

Microfinance pioneer Muhammad Yunus touches on the soil issue in his poignant metaphor of the bonsai tree:

View the entire article on the PovertyCure Blog.

Blog author: sstanley
posted by on Wednesday, May 22, 2013

2013-03-15T151625Z_1_CBRE92E16FW00_RTROPTP_3_USREPORT-US-USA-AGRICULTURE-MERRIGAN_JPG_475x310_q85Tim Burrack, vice chairman and board member of Truth About Trade & Technology, recently wrote a commentary for the Washington Times about the agriculture industry in the U.S. and how it is becoming more and more European. He says there is fear of a “growing bureaucracy that is smothering freedom and innovation.” Burrack goes on to explain that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has taken

an unfortunate step toward Europeanization when it delayed the approval of two crops that will help farmers control weeds and produce more food. The decision didn’t receive much immediate attention outside the agricultural press, but it sent a troubling signal about the future of farm technology that should concern all Americans.

Scientists have developed  crops that can resist two common herbicides, dicamba and 2,4-D. These herbicides have been in use in American farms since the 1950s. This advancement means weeds will be killed, but the desired plants will survive.  Despite the fact that innovations like this are making food cheaper and more abundant, some argue “that the introduction of these crops will lead to the overuse of the two herbicides.” Burrack goes on:

Farmers lose either way. The Agriculture Department’s bad decision means that these new crops won’t go on the market and be available to me and other farmers next year as planned. We will have to wait until 2015 at the earliest. This postponement may not sound like much, but it contributes to a disturbing trend. In the United States, it’s becoming harder and harder to introduce agricultural technologies.

America has led the world in boosting crop yields. Food is safer, more abundant and more affordable than ever before. Rather than cheering on our ingenuity, however, bureaucrats increasingly want to hold it back.

We need sensible, science-based regulations — not shifting sands and unpredictable decrees from bureaucrats who seem unmoved by the needs of farmers and consumers.

Europe already has traveled far down this fateful path. Its embrace of the “precautionary principle” has made it all but impossible to approve agricultural innovations, stifling the Continent’s biotech industry. European farmers envy Americans, who can plant genetically modified crops. The Agriculture Department’s decision on herbicide-resistant plants suggests that they may not be so envious in the future.

Burrack concludes with this:

Samuel Gregg this year published Becoming Europe, a book on economic and cultural trends in the United States. He urged Americans to reject Europeanization and embrace their freedom-loving heritage. He also quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th-century Frenchman who studied our country: ‘The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.’

So here is a message for the Agriculture Department’s bureaucrats: Waste no time in repairing your crop-protection fault.

Read Tim Burrack’s commentary,  Sowing the Seeds of Farm Failure.

 

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Reuters article highlights the fact that U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack is praying for rain to help relieve droughts in the Midwest. The drought is having a significant impact on farmers and their crops. The negative affect will of course inevitably lead to higher food prices as the supply is cut. Experts say it could be the most severe dry spell since 1950.

The lack of rain and heat is really a simple reminder of our lack of control over the created order. Even with all of our technological advances and gadgets, we are still dependent on God. Sometimes it seems our culture and society has forgotten the source of life. Secretary Vilsack recognizes the need for prayer, and often times, governors, especially of farm states, will issue declarations for citizens to pray for rain.

God of course uses rain and droughts to get the attention of His people. The Old Testament is full of teaching on God’s use of droughts and rain to teach theology, obedience, judgment, and favor.

On the Ricky Skagg’s album Ancient Tones, there is a song titled “Give Us Rain.” Part of the lyrics to the tune certainly speak to us today,

Grandpa raised a family on a worn out cotton farm
Borrowed money on his word, he never did nobody harm
Sometimes he’d get discouraged when a dry spell came around
He’d go out in the cotton field and he’d kneel down on the ground

Give us rain on this dry old ground today
Give us rain, wash the troubled times away
I believe you’re faithful, I’m not meaning to complain
But Lord we sure could use a little rain
Lord we sure could use a little rain.

We can’t say for certain what the lack of rain means, but we know that God can give us rain. We can use the reminder that we are a world dependent on God and His goodness for our life and sustenance.

In today’s Detroit News, Acton communications intern Elise Amyx offers a piece on farm subsidies. She looks at how Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow described this government support as “risk management protection” for farmers.

Stabenow, chairwoman of the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, conceded to the soybean farmers that “it’s wonderful that farming is prosperous now.” But she pointed to droughts in the South and the floods in the Midwest as proof that “you still face the same risk that farmers have always to deal with.” Some agribusinesses get paid seven digits to not farm areas of their farm in the name of “risk management,” but what sort of business person doesn’t take risks?

There is no doubt that farming is a difficult, volatile business filled with risk and uncertainty, but so are many other industries that do not receive any government handouts. Too many farmers view the government as a savior, who will reduce risk, create certainty and save the day if something bad happens. This is a dangerously dependent position to be in, and it is morally problematic when it comes at the expense of everyone else.

The glaring injustices built into farm subsidy policies explain why so many on both the political right and left routinely describe them as immoral.

Read Elise Amyx’s “Farming subsidies often do more harm than good” in the Detroit News.

Gas prices are not the only thing on the rise. As of yesterday, corn is at its highest level in three years at $7.60 a bushel and prices are not predicated to go down anytime soon. The United States government anticipates a shortage despite farmers’ intent to plant 5 percent more acreage of corn this year, a shortage is still predicted.

Reuters also indicates that rising corn prices will continue:

U.S. corn prices will keep rising to new highs over the coming months, a new Reuters poll has found, as demand from ranchers and ethanol makers proves better able to withstand record costs than many thought.

The forecasts will compound inflation concerns as higher feed costs filter through to beef and chicken prices. Analysts also warned that anything less than perfect growing weather for the spring crop could push prices even higher as traders fear tight conditions will extend well into next year.

As the article later states, the chances of having a perfect growing season with no weather related problems are very slim.

Reuters also asserts that food prices rose by 14 percent over the past three months which can be attributed to the rising use of ethanol and the ranchers demand for feed for livestock: “The rally has sharpened the focus on two imponderables: the price point at which livestock ranchers or ethanol makers will begin to cut back use, relieving demand pressures; so far, traders say there’s little evidence of this happening yet.”

Perhaps the United States should learn from China’s mistake. An article in the New York Times describes how the biofuel sector does affect the food supply and price, and how China’s ethanol use resulted in higher food prices:

It can be tricky predicting how new demand from the biofuel sector will affect the supply and price of food. Sometimes, as with corn or cassava, direct competition between purchasers drives up the prices of biofuel ingredients. In other instances, shortages and price inflation occur because farmers who formerly grew crops like vegetables for consumption plant different crops that can be used for fuel.

China learned this the hard way nearly a decade ago when it set out to make bioethanol from corn, only to discover that the plan caused alarming shortages and a rise in food prices. In 2007 the government banned the use of grains to make biofuel.

However, the article later explains that China is now using cassava, instead of corn. China may have not entirely learned their lesson as cassava is still a food crop used predominately in Africa and also in China during food shortages.

The article by the New York Times adequately closes with a quote from Olivier Dubois, a bioenergy expert at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization that gets at the root of the food and fuel argument: “We have to move away from the thinking that producing an energy crop doesn’t compete with food,” he said. “It almost inevitably does.”

Previous blog posts on ethanol, rising food prices, and the moral issues of the two can be found here, here, here, and here.