Noted researcher of ‘food culture' gives nod to conventional ag

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

WASHINGTON, March 21, 2012 -While riding a wave of conspicuous strength in the cultural marketplace, alternative agriculture still has a long way to go capture the hearts and minds of rank-and-file food consumers, according to a widely-followed ag and environmental policy observer.                   

“The alternative agriculture camp is gaining enormous strength in the cultural marketplace, but it hasn't yet significantly challenged conventional agriculture in the commercial marketplace,” said Robert Paarlberg, a professor of political science at Wellesley College and author of Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know. Paarlrberg shared his views on the culture war over food and farming in remarks last week to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

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The most vocal supporters of alternative farming, he said, are primarily environmentalists, social justice advocates, anti-corporate and anti-globalization activists, and cultural elites.

“In New York City or in the San Francisco Bay area, you will find the culture there is dominated by the alternative view rather than the conventional view” of agriculture, Paarlberg said. He linked the bi-coastal consensus to Michael Pollan's 2006 best-selling book Omnivores Dilemna, which served as the inspiration for the 2010 Academy Award-nominated film Food Inc.

Proponents of conventional ag - defined by Paarlberg as commercial farmers, agribusiness, scientists and economists - believe the most productive farming systems are engineered rather than “natural.”

The alternative camp, on the other hand, maintains that the best systems “are those that imitate nature and that the current challenge for agriculture is to preserve traditional rural livelihoods, protect biodiversity, and provide ecosystem services,” he said.

Paalberg pointed to legislative gains, most notably at the state and local level - “subsidies and support for a local style of agriculture that's off the commercial farming grid” - as evidence of support for the alternative approach. But that support, he argued, is considerably weaker in the commercial marketplace.

Even though the number of farmers' markets has doubled and the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) projects has increased ten-fold, “if you look at the percentage of food sales made through CSA's or farmers' markets it's still trivial, only 0.4% of all food sales,” Paarberg said, adding that only 4% of food sales are organic.

Why? Beyond lower yields, “labor costs are so much higher,” he said.

“The larger trend is not toward a more local food system, it's toward a more global food system” driven by a continued decline in transportation costs,” Paarlberg said. To the dismay of some audience members, he came out in favor of modern conventional agriculture and said the skeptics should “get over whatever anxieties” they have about it. In the long run, he expects crop production to remain hitched to conventional farming methods, but predicted that alternative agriculture would make “steady and significant gains” in the livestock sector.


Original story printed in March 21, 2012 Agri-Pulse Newsletter.

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