A number of my friends love organic foods. They'll gush about ungodly expensive veggies and fruits like a fashion designer rhapsodizes about haute couture.
So. Should we all demand haute food in our supermarkets? Is mass farming gross and wrong for humanity in 2013? This farmer thinks not - and explains why.
I grew up on a farm in Knox County, Ill., and I still farm the family land. We grow corn, soybeans and wheat, and we raise hogs. A generation ago, we lost yield every year to corn borers, root worms and other pests. Today, with advanced technology and genetic engineering, our family farm is better protected and so are its products. We use fewer chemicals and produce better-quality crops.
Yet instead of celebrating that progress—especially with the recent debate around the labeling of "genetically modified" foods—some Americans are asking, in effect, why can't we just go back to the way we farmed in the 19th century?" Well, there's a reason for that. Several, actually:
• Food safety. The American food supply has never been as safe as it is today. During the industrial revolution, as manufacturers started to process and package food, poor hygiene and dirty manufacturing conditions (not to mention questionable ingredients) resulted in unhealthy products. Since then, America's farmers and ranchers have led the way in building a sophisticated food-safety infrastructure to improve the health of their animals and deliver fresh, clean produce.
Without modern sanitation and industry testing, we would see a lot more illness. As for genetically modified foods, despite all the hysteria, there has never been a single case where a GM food caused an illness or contributed to a contaminated product.
• Food choices. In this economy, as families grapple with utility bills, high college tuition costs and meager 401(k) savings, the ability to select from a variety of affordable, healthy choices in the grocery store aisle can offer some relief. Not long ago, what we ate was entirely dependent on the farmer's skill, the weather and other unpredictable variables. Preindustrial yields were low and stagnant before the introduction of machines, fertilizers, plant and animal breeding, pesticides and genetic engineering.
Americans are no longer limited to a small variety of local and seasonal food (unless that's what they choose). Modern agriculture is simply more productive, providing more variety at better prices.
• Stewardship. While early farmers didn't really think in terms of environmental stewardship, since the 1960s farmers have taken it seriously. New technologies allow American farmers to do more to protect the land's natural resources. Water-conservation technologies have been especially invaluable during this year's severe drought, thanks in large part to lessons learned during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Today's farmers also use new practices to improve the sustainability of the land and limit the use of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers. For example, a soil-testing process called "grid sampling," introduced just 20 years ago, significantly reduces the amount of chemicals used on farms. And the goal of much of the research into genetically engineered crops is higher yield with less water and chemical use.
Alternative energy is also a growing trend, with some farmers reusing manure from livestock and turning it into biodiesel that can power farm equipment. Others are installing solar panels and wind turbines to produce power for their farm or community.
• Sustainability. The large-scale, sophisticated farming of today is simply better equipped to produce the abundance of food needed to sustain the world's growing population. When I was a child, we had two horses pulling a two-row corn planter. Today, our tractor pulls a 32-row planter. America's farmers grow five times as much corn as they did in the 1930s—on 20% less land. The yield per acre has increased sixfold in the past 70 years, to 154 bushels today from just 24 in 1931.
Still, America's farmers and ranchers will need to produce about 75% more food per acre by 2020 in order to help feed the more than eight billion people the United Nations expects by 2030. To meet that goal, farmers and ranchers will use the latest and most effective technologies to produce more with less. I support organic and conventional farming. But organic farming cannot produce the amount of food that is demanded in today's world.
Indulging in a romanticized image of the farming industry stands in the way of progress. Do we want a smart, sophisticated approach to food supply that we can depend on for safety, healthy choices, environmental stewardship and long-term sustainability? Or do we want to return to food shortages, higher prices and the days of two horses pulling a corn planter?