Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, April 15, 2007

What is farming for?

by Jules Pretty

Leopold Letter (Winter 2003 Vol 15 No 4)

What is farming for? Clearly, the first response is to produce food.

During the last fifty years farmers have been spectacularly successful at increasing food production. They have intensified the use of non-farm resources such as pesticides, fertilizers and machinery, to produce much more from the same amount of land - three times the amount of wheat, barley and other grains, potatoes and sugar beets from the same area of land, while milk yields per cow have more than doubled.

The price we pay for any item of food, however, does not tell the full story of the costs involved in its production.

Unlike other economic sectors, agriculture is inherently "multi-functional". It does more than just produce food, fiber and oil. It has a profound impact on many other aspects of local, national and global economies and ecosystems. These side-effects can be either negative or positive; but the negative costs are not reflected in the prices paid by producers or consumers. "Externalities" of this kind distort the market by encouraging activities that are costly to society even if the private benefits are substantial.

A heavy truck that damages a bridge, or pollutes the atmosphere, externalizes some of its costs - and others pay for them. Similarly, the use of a pesticide imposes costs on others if it leaks away from fields to contaminate drinking water, or builds up as a dangerous residue in foods.

Modern agriculture has caused significant pollution from pesticide, nitrate, soil and bacterial losses. This costs GBP 250 million a year to remove from drinking water, paid for by water consumers, not by the polluters. So the farming sector, in effect, receives a subsidy for its polluting behavior. Modern farming has brought a severe loss of rural biodiversity, from the removal of hedgerows, monocultural rotations and use of pesticides and herbicides. We have the food, but no longer the skylarks or poppies or corncrakes. Human health also has been affected through the use of BSE, pathogens that show up in our food supply and overuse of antibiotics.

Yet there is another side to the story. The positive side-effects of agriculture offer a new way forward. More sustainable farming is very good at producing public goods: things we can all enjoy and that contribute to the economy.

Farming produces attractive landscapes we want to visit. Each year visitors and tourists in Great Britain spend 551 million days in the countryside, spending more than GBP 14 billion per year - more than four times as much as the subsidies to farmers from the government.

Agriculture also can absorb carbon in soils and trees to provide new carbon sinks, helping to mitigate climate change. It can hold water in wetlands to provide flood control. It can nurture the farmland birds we all feel are part of our heritage. It contributes to rural jobs. Many of these may end up being significant new sources of money for farmers.

This is the future for farming - as a multi-functional sector, building natural and social assets in the countryside, while providing us with wholesome food from farmers we trust. Each on their own may not represent fundamental change, but together they offer opportunities for all farmers.

The primary goal for agricultural and rural policy must be sustainable agriculture, which minimizes the use of inputs that damage the environment or harm human health, and which integrates food production processes with regenerative processes, such as nutrient cycling, nitrogen fixation, soil regeneration and natural enemies of pests.

Can agriculture play a positive role in rural development? The dominant pattern of rural development has been to attract external capital, technologies or institutions to rural areas. But this is an expensive and risky approach. An alternative way focuses on "endogenous" patterns of development: growing from within. The priority is to look first at what natural, social and human resources are available in rural areas, and then to ask: can anything be done differently to harness the resources more productively, without causing damage to these assets?

This more locally-based approach forces us to look differently at the structure of rural economies. Every time someone buys something from outside the local economy, money leaks out. Each time raw materials are exported, value is added elsewhere, not in the locality. Each time natural resources are depleted or polluted, the local capital base diminishes.

If policies and processes are designed to plug these economic "leaks", the renewable asset base can grow while also increasing the flow of desirable goods and services. There are five principles for plugging the leaks in rural economies.

First, use local renewable resources.

Second, recycle financial resources by spending locally.

Third, add value to primary produce before it is exported from the locality.

Fourth, connect stakeholders to create trust and new linkages.

And fifth, build human capital.

Beyond these key principles, there are wider policy issues that the government must come to grips with if it is to pursue a multi-functional, sustainable future for agriculture and rural economies. In particular, should farmers receive public support for the multiple public benefits they produce above and beyond food? Should those who pollute pay the cost? These should be policy priorities.

It is not all crisis. There are good things happening in farming. Sustainable farmers employ larger numbers of people; farmers' markets and schemes that deliver fruit and vegetables to homes promote direct links between consumers and producers. There are a growing number of examples of responsible corporate practice for land stewardship, and progress on the careful protection of some of the jewels in our biodiversity crown.

But to encourage these developments there can be little doubt that a fundamental shift in farm and countryside policy is essential.


Jules Pretty is director of the Centre for the Environment and Society at the University of Essex in England. He was a guest of the Leopold Center's ecology initiative in October 2003.


Published by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Ames, Iowa 50011, (515) 294-3711

Bill Totten


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