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Know the West

Big Ag stands on shifting ground


Between 2006 and 2011, farmers on the western edge of the Midwest's farm belt in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and the Dakotas converted more than 1.3 million acres of grasslands to corn and soybean fields. Some people were seriously alarmed. Wildlife habitat was destroyed, and water, soil and the air itself suffered.

But that conversion of grassland into industrial-scale farming of single crops inspired sales of chemicals, fertilizer and seed -- farmers call these expenses "inputs" – that exceeded $260 million per year. Given that almost 175 million acres were planted with corn and soybeans in the United States in 2015, it's clear that the more land is industrially farmed, the more profit there is for what we call "Big Ag."

Soybean fields in Illinois.

Yet Big Ag's hold on the food market isn't as certain as it used to be. Fortune Magazine reports that America's top 25 food and beverage companies -- think processed-food makers – have lost some $18 billion in market share since 2009. Where did that market go?

My answer is that shoppers have read the news about the health consequences of eating too much sugar, fat and meat, and they are increasingly turning to foods that contain far less of these ingredients. "Wholesome," "organic" and "natural" are the ingredient descriptions that Americans care more about now. They have also begun to understand the relationship between healthy farming and healthy food. Progressive food shoppers are put off by crops grown with synthetic fertilizers, hormones, neonicotinoids, genetically modified organisms and glyphosates.

What once might have seemed like a fad now appears to be a genuine social movement. Fortune quoted one former ConAgra executive who described this movement as the most transformative, dynamic and disruptive consumer shift he has witnessed in his 37 years in the food industry.

Big Ag fought back with expensive public relations campaigns that sought to boost public support by employing well-worn themes. American consumers just didn't understand modern farming, they said. Ads sponsored by industrial agriculture groups implied that many people don't realize that food is grown on the land and does not magically appear wrapped in plastic in grocery stores. I suggest that Big Ag is missing the point entirely: It's not that today's consumers don't understand where their food comes from, it's that they do.

Another marketing theme proposed that industrial agriculture helps fulfill the responsibility of American farmers to "feed the world." This "feeding the world" slogan has been used for several decades to explain the need for production-oriented, large-scale monoculture agriculture. But is it reasonable to think that American farmers can and should feed the world?

Fred Kirschenmann, a sustainable agriculture expert and distinguished fellow at Iowa State University's Leopold Center, also manages his family's 1,800-acre organic farm in North Dakota. Kirschenmann regards the expectation that American farmers can feed the world as a distraction from more important agricultural issues, and a mischaracterization of farming's capabilities and objectives.

"There are ecological considerations that must be part of the discussion, and a whole range of social and political problems and the concept of waste that are also part of this discussion," he says. "Climate change is another consideration."

Who is perpetuating this mischaracterization? According to Kirschenmann, it is primarily the institutions and corporations that want to maintain the current system of monoculture agriculture. "These are the companies that sell inputs like fertilizers and other chemicals, and food processors and commodity groups," he says. "They use the expression because they think it gives them a moral high ground from which to pursue the type of agriculture they profit from."

In any event, just how successful have American farmers been in their so-called quest to feed the world? The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that about 795 million people of the 7.3 billion people in the world, or one in nine, are undernourished, and that this number is growing. This is happening even though in recent years American farmers are producing record soybean and corn yields. Kirschenmann also points out that America's most agricultural state, Iowa, where much of the land is devoted to a single commodity crop, actually imports 90 percent of its food.

The trend is clear: American consumers increasingly want to buy food as free as possible from artificial ingredients, pesticides, sugar and fat and hormones. And bigger may no longer be considered better when it comes to producing food.

Peter Carrels is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion syndicate of High Country News. He writes in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.