Sustainable Agriculture: It's A Matter of People

John Ikerd
Professor Emeritus
University of Missouri

Sustainable agriculture is not just a passing fad. It's not going to go away. Sustaining agriculture ultimately is about sustaining people -- not just agriculture. People are becoming increasingly concerned about today's agriculture -- about its ability to meet the needs of people today and still leave opportunities for people in the future. People are becoming increasingly concerned about the safety and healthfulness our food supplies as we increase our reliance on an impersonal, global food system. People are becoming increasingly concerned about the natural environment as agriculture moves into the final states of corporate industrialization. People are beginning to realize that since corporations are not people they have no concern for farmers, for rural residents, or even for consumers -- in any other sense than as markets for their products. Corporations have no heart, they have no soul -- their only concerns are profit and growth. People are becoming increasingly concerned about an agriculture that has no commitment to people.

Sustainable agriculture became a public issue because of the concerns of people about people. Sustainable agriculture first came to national attention during the farm financial crisis of the 1980s. Farmers were caught up once again in a reoccurring squeeze between declining prices for agricultural commodities and rising prices for fertilizers, pesticides, fuel and other farm inputs. The first USDA program was called Low Input Sustainable Agriculture, or LISA, because farmers were concerned about reducing their reliance on increasingly expensive inputs. Land Grant universities were directed to help farmers find ways to reduce their purchases of off-farm inputs. The SA part of the LISA program was supported by organic farming advocates -- motivated by their concern for food safety and the environment. But, the LISA program was mostly about helping financially distressed farm families -- about helping people keep and care for their land.

The corporate agribusiness community reacted to LISA with outrage. How could USDA and the Land Grant Universities even consider a program that might reduce the demand for agricultural inputs? They had worked hard to hook farmers on agricultural chemicals, and they weren't about to give up their "junkies" or their "dealers" without a fight. So agribusiness, and their industrial agriculture allies, set about to discredit and destroy the LISA program. They used everything from making jokes about the name, to raising the specter of mass starvation, to phony "research plots" using "no fertility or pest management" to represent LISA farming systems. It was a disgrace, but it worked. USDA abandoned the LISA program and shifted the emphasis from reducing inputs to natural resource management through a new Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program.

SARE seemed less a threat to agribusiness than did LISA, but still met with great resistance from the agricultural establishment. The resistance was more passive than before but no less aggressive. The first reaction was to cry foul because agriculture was being singled out as a polluter -- even though other industries had been "under the EPA hammer" for nearly two decades. The next strategy was for agribusiness to appear to stand by the side of farmers, as trusted stewards of the natural environment -- but only so long as the defense included farmers' continued use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides. Next, they promoted "wise use" of inputs by peddling costly, high-tech precision farming systems that often as not called for more, rather than fewer, inputs. Finally, agribusiness started capitalizing on environmental concerns in their marketing schemes -- peddling first more costly high-tech inputs and then biotechnology as means of protecting the natural environment.

The agricultural establishment has not, and will not, embrace the social dimension of agricultural sustainability. A sustainable agriculture must sustain people -- not just people as consumers, but people as farmers, rural residents, and members of a civil society. Ultimately, a society will not sustain an agricultural system that will not sustain its people -- people as producers and citizens as well as consumers. We need look only to the communistic farming systems of the former Soviet Union for a prime example. A socially irresponsible agriculture can do great harm to society, as it did in communist Russia. A corporate dominated, vertically integrated agriculture, which looms of the American horizon, is a centrally planned agriculture -- no different in concept from a communist economy. It is not a socially responsible system, and thus, quite simply is not sustainable.

Sustainable agriculture research and educational programs are being challenged today as never before. Funding for the USDA SARE program is challenged each budget year and stays alive only through the diligent efforts of politically active nonprofit organizations and grass roots support groups. So far, SARE appears to be holding it own. However within the last year, several major Land Grant Universities have dropped their sustainable agriculture programs and others have integrated them into other less controversial program areas.

Public universities have become increasingly reliant on corporations to fund their research programs. In most cases, this means increasing emphasis on biotechnology. Biotechnology has not and will not be embraced by the sustainable agriculture movement. Biotechnology is a tool designed to manipulate and dominate nature, and sustainability ultimately will require that we instead farm in harmony with nature. The universities quite simply are not willing to jeopardize their chances for multimillion-dollar corporate funded biotech projects by protecting a few-thousand-dollar publicly funded sustainable agriculture program.

Perhaps even more important, public universities have lost faith in their ability to be of significant benefit to people -- at least to people directly. They argue that they serve the public through their work with corporations -- that scientific discoveries must be "commercialized" before the science becomes of use to the public. They seem to have forgotten that discoveries can be commercialized through individual decision-makers, through farmers and other independent business people, not just through corporations. It just easier and more comfortably for Universities to work with a large agribusiness than to work with a similarly large group of individual farmers or citizens.

The universities seem to have forgotten that tax dollars are not only to be used to support research that benefits the public, but to support only research "that the private sector will not adequately support." Agricultural colleges were publicly funded because farmers were too small to do their own research, and agricultural research had clear public benefits. The giant agribusiness corporations are perfectly capable of funding their own research -- all of it. In addition, these corporations don't operate in competitive markets. Thus, most of the benefits will end up as corporate profits, not lower prices for consumers or higher prices for farmers. Why should the taxpayer be footing any part of the bill?

As public institutions worked less directly with people, for the direct good of people, they have lost the support of people, and their public funding has declined. Taxpayers were getting fewer benefits, and ultimately, they refused to pay for benefits they weren't getting. They asked their legislators to hold the line or to cut funding for public research and education. So now the universities are turning to corporate support, because of lagging public support, and the public is getting even fewer benefits for their tax dollars. It's a vicious circle from which there is no easy way out.

Sustainable agriculture will never be funded, or even tolerated, by agribusiness because it is fundamentally about reducing reliance on off-farm inputs, protecting the natural environment, and empowering people to free themselves from corporate domination. Sustainable agriculture will never be funded, or even tolerated, by large farm commodity groups, because it is promotes diversification rather than specialization -- it is about people rather than production. If sustainable agriculture research and education is to be funded, it will have to be funded publicly, by the people.

Sustainable agriculture promotes smaller, more-diversified family farms because of its focus on people. It seeks greater economic rewards to farmers, rather than more profits for input suppliers. It seeks ways to farm in harmony with nature, rather than to conquer nature. And it seeks to support farming as a quality way of life, as well as a way to make a living. If agriculture is to be sustainable, we must have enough farmers to sustain the productivity and ecological health of the land. Thus, sustainability will require more, rather than fewer, farmers -- more who understand their particular parcel of land, who know how to take care of it, who are motivated to care for it, and who have the time and money to care for it well. In a sense, sustainability demands that farmers "love the land." And, each farmer can "love" only so much land.

Sustainable agriculture promotes greater concern among people -- people making conscious, purpose decisions for the common good rather than relying on the impersonal forces of the marketplace. The invisible hand of theoretical economics that is supposed to transform individual greed into the common good has been mangled in the machinery of corporate consolidation. The markets will not ensure that the hungry will be fed. The markets will not ensure that people willing to work will have an opportunity to work. The markets will not ensure that future generations will have adequate resources for food, clothing, and shelter. The only way to ensure that the needs of the present and future are met is to make conscious, purposeful decisions to care for the natural environment and to care for other people.

This is the mandate of sustainable agriculture -- to care about people of this generation and for all generations to come. It's a mandate that too few are yet willing to accept, but a mandate that ultimately cannot be denied. Sustainable agriculture must be about sustaining people through agriculture, not just sustaining agriculture.

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