The relationship between agriculture and the environment is one full of controversy. As a young farmer it is a relationship I can honestly say I struggle with often. I could go on for days with examples of specific pros and cons from both sides of the issues between environmental groups and agriculture groups. The best way for me to explain my thoughts on the issue is to stick to the generalities, the details are to vast to try to cover them all in a timely manner.
Let’s begin with the fact that industrial, corporate, factory, call it what you want, agriculture has had some very evident and impactful effects on surrounding environments. The facts also reveal that agriculture has made huge efforts in the last two decades to improve on past practices. Is agriculture today perfect in terms of environmental stewardship? No, but what industry is?
Farmers and ranchers today, while albeit not perfect, are also leading the way in finding new innovative ways to be more efficient, bio-diverse and conscious of the environment around them. Some would argue that many of the improvements we see today’s farmers implementing and practicing are a result of government regulation that environmental groups lobbied for and that even more regulation is needed to see further improvement. I have some disagreements with that argument.
Many of the problems we face today are caused simply by the tarnished relationship between agriculture groups and the environmental groups. There is a lot of bad blood between the older generations of agriculture groups and environmental groups. That bad blood trickles down from the groups to individual farmers and environmental advocates. This causes a lot of clout when it comes to the specific issues, because there is usually a lot of history behind every issue. All the past disagreements have bred polarization. The polarization has all but removed any dialogue about the issues from the conversation anymore. Today both agriculture groups and environmental groups are often so wrapped up is swaying public opinion and proving that they are right, that the issues are left in whirlwind of rhetoric. Common ground, cooperation and common sense are anything but common anymore.
I’m fairly fortunate due to the fact that I have gotten to see a variety of the environmental issues first hand, both in the field and at ever so enjoyable hearings, technical feedback groups and public comment meetings. I didn’t grow up on a farm though; I grew up in a home with both parents working government jobs for their entire careers. My perspective is slightly different than many who are farmers or ranchers today because I didn’t grow up with a background in farming or ranching. My more recent experience combined with the lack there of in my past has helped me see through a lot of the clout that is created by the polarization between environmental and agriculture groups.
The reality is that farmers and ranchers will always have room for improvement when it comes to environmental stewardship. However, farmers and ranchers today are doing a lot more to improve from past mistakes than environmental groups would have you believe. We have to realize that many of the environmental issues we are going through today are a result of practices from 30 or 40 years ago. The problem is that environmental groups don’t care about what farmers are doing today because the leadership amongst environmental groups is too focused on winning the public relations battle then actually making tangible differences to improve the environment. It’s easy to point the finger at farmers and use their past practices as examples of gross negligence for environmental stewardship. At the same time Agriculture groups are so fed up with the blame game and the barrage of public relation campaigns environmental groups throw out demonizing today’s farmers, that they often come off as resentful or spiteful. The spite often doesn’t come off as spite towards the environmental groups either, but to the environment itself. This has led us to where we are today answering the question: which side is right?
As a farmer I don’t think either side is wrong or right. Both sides of this argument have been wrong and both have been right. Of course I am biased towards farmers because today I am one. With that I am also willing to admit that farmers and ranchers have not always had the most environmentally conscious practices. Today however, is not the past. Today’s agriculture practices are nothing like many of the negligent practices that were implemented in the past. I can agree with many things that environmental groups say and I can agree with many of the issues and problems they bring up. Where I disagree is in idea that today’s practices are still causing the problems we see today and how we fix the issues and problems that past practices created. Environmental groups have strong lobbying power and are constantly lobbying for more regulation. This is where I whole heartedly disagree with environmental groups.
Many of the environmental problems past practices of farmers and ranchers caused, have just become evident in the last 10 years. Most of those problem causing practices were simply a result of lack of awareness and knowledge. Today’s farmers are more knowledgeable and aware than ever before. Current trends in information technology are improving more and more every day and with it so are farmers. Farmers may not have understood the long term impacts of their practices 30 or 40 years ago, but today they do.
The majority of farmers and ranchers may not have been aware of how important the hydrologic cycle, bio-diversity and integrated pest management were 40 years ago. Today they do. Today farmers understand the environment in a bigger picture sense and have made changes to past practices that reflect that. Farmers and ranchers don’t need a government agency telling them what and how to do what they do best. They have learned from past mistakes and burdensome regulations are only making it harder for farmers to be innovative and efficient. In fact, all more regulations are going to do is create more resistance and animosity between farm groups and environmental groups. This does not result in improving environmental conditions; this only causes more rhetoric and public relation campaigns. Farmers, ranchers and consumers have become more aware and knowledgeable and the need for government regulation simply does not result in tangible benefits to the environment.
Combined with more knowledge and awareness amongst farmers and ranchers, consumers are also becoming more knowledgeable and aware. With that knowledge and awareness comes the fact that consumers are now demanding products that have been produced in more environmentally conscious ways. With that, food distributors are responding to consumers demands and beginning to audit their growers and processors using third party auditors. The third party audits, although tedious and time consuming, have many of the same requirements and goals as government regulations. What the third party auditors are missing is the inefficient and ineffectiveness of government regulations. It’s simple for any farmer, if they don’t adhere to the demands from processors and packers, they can’t sell their product. It’s pretty simple economics. The supply will always follow the trends of demand.
My goal here is to hammer down two main points. My first point is that although it may seem like farmers and ranchers are always fighting progress and on the defensive when it comes to environmental issues, in the field where it really matters, farmers and ranchers are improving their environmental stewardship and awareness every day. My second point is that the need for government regulation may have been debatably necessary in the past, today it is not. We simply don’t need more regulations. Farmers and ranchers are more knowledgeable and aware than ever before and so are consumers. Let the consumers and producers solve the issues we face today. Government bureaucracies that are focused more on keeping their departments in existence, rather than actually improving the quality of the environment, are not the answer to the issues our environment faces today.
Today consumers and food producers, for the first time in the industrial age, have the ability to communicate directly with each other. The consumer has more power than they have ever had and much of that power is a direct result of websites like KACF. If consumers demand it from the grocery store, grocery stores will demand it from packers and processors. If packers and processors demand it from farmers, farmers and ranchers will supply it. If we want to continue to improve the quality of the environment and continue to improve best practices in agriculture, it will be the relationship between consumers and producers that provide the most effective and efficient means in which to do so.