Turning the Farming Clock Back in Time Means More Expensive Food

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Joe and Hazel French cutting grain in Fullarton Township near Mitchell, Ontario, circa 1950.

Agriculture has had a great run.  An era of technological innovation beginning about World War II has meant huge increases in farm productivity and food supply.

Even though the human population has grown far more in 70 years than in 100,000 years before, world food supply has increased even faster. Though the number of malnourished humans is still 790 million according to UN statistics, the percentage has dropped to 13%. It was 32% in 1970. The number of overweight or obese people is now much larger.

The real cost of growing food has plummeted too. Average families spend only about 10% of disposable income on food in many developed countries. The amount going to farmers has dropped further – down to only 1.5% of total family spending, the amount earned by January 6 each year. Most food dollars now go for processing, marketing and service rather than for farm products. About 30-40% of retail food is not even consumed by people – diverted to animal feed, compost or landfills.

This abundance is a direct result of superior agricultural technology including advanced breeding methods and genetics, more effective and less costly means of crop pest control, and better methods for soil management.

There is no technological reason why this trend cannot continue – and continue it must in parts of the world like sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia where hunger remains widespread and where human population growth will be largest in years ahead.

However, there are clear signs that the 70-year trend is ending.

One reason is environmental. Climate change will affect agriculture negatively in many countries, and agriculture must focus more on environmental impacts including fertilizer losses and greenhouse gas emissions.

A far bigger factor is a rejection of modern farm technology and the underlying science by an increasing portion of the consuming public. There’s a growing interest in organic foods, mostly produced using farm practices of decades past with crop yields averaging one-third lower. Demand for meat and eggs from ‘slow-growth’ farm animals and ‘free-range’ chickens may or may not be beneficial for animal welfare – but they mean lower productivity and higher costs.

Public reaction against genetically modified food (despite the strong scientific support for its safety and benefits) also means a shift back to older technology for some crops and the impeded introduction of new genetic traits for stress tolerance, pest resistance, better nutrition and less spoilage.

Where food was once promoted for what it contains, labelling for ‘does not contain’ now prevails.

Affluent developed-world consumers can afford the higher costs for foods grown using older technologies. Their willingness to pay much more for organic or non-GMO labelling shows that.

Of course, there are millions for whom higher food costs are a major burden, but their needs are often ignored in the public debate.

Farmers are adaptable. While they may question a return to older practices with lower productivity and higher costs, they respect the market. If higher market prices more than offset higher costs, then many farmers will respond.

In a blessed, large, sparsely-populated country like Canada, there should be enough food even with lower-yielding farm practices. The tragedy comes when this ‘first-world attitude’ includes aggressive efforts to prevent developing-world farmers from using new technologies for more food production – technologies to protect farm crops from the ravages of pests, climate and poor quality soils. Africa, already food deficient and facing a three billion population growth by 2100, cannot afford the luxury of old-tech-agriculture – increasingly prevalent here at home.

*Terry Daynard farms near Guelph, Ontario and is a former associate dean for agricultural research at the University of Guelph.

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