Debate Question 1
Is Big Ag or Agroecological Farming better for family farmers?
The CEOs of Monsanto, Walmart and Tyson corporations – Hugh Grant, Doug McMillon, and Donnie Smith – have so far ignored the Bartlett Brothers’ challenge for a debate. Their silence indicates they are unwilling or unable to defend their industry.
We can guess how they would likely respond to this first debate question. Undoubtedly they would attempt to greenwash their brands by claiming that Monsanto’s GMOs are loved by farmers for the labor saving effect on their vast crop monocultures, or that Walmart now provides farmers the largest market for organic food products in the world, or that the happy caged chickens of Tyson are treated humanely by their farmers. We can make mince meat of such arguments!
This first debate question may be the most comprehensive of all the questions since it addresses the practitioners of farming, the ones upon whom the agricultural system depends. We believe a farmer is more than just a producer of goods for a market or a manager of resources, but also a part of an ecological and human community. The family farmer is traditionally and realistically the only practitioner of agriculture that can be considered agroecological, one that maintains or increases soil fertility and ecological diversity over time.
The family farmer is the woman or man with the vision and knowledge of agriculture passed down from previous generations or other farmers, honed by experimentation and supplemented with books and training. The family farmer produces food or fiber on a given piece of land, in relationship with neighbors and the local community, adapted to the particular ecosystem and soil conditions, and utilizing mostly their own or their family’s labor to do so. At a recent food sovereignty conference in Uganda, the family farmer was defined as a kind of scientific practitioner observing natural phenomenon 24/7, observing the changing conditions, weather patterns, climactic changes, selecting the most adapted genetic resources available, utilizing time-proven tools and planting customs, adjusting these to new conditions, all within a very constrained economic and logistical context with limited infrastructure for irrigation, tillage, cultivation, food processing, storage, and transport to market to sell the surpluses.
Why Agroecological Farming is better for family farmers
- Agroecological farming is healthier for both the farmer and for the eater. Food is produced from soil whose health has been nurtured through the application of organic material, cover cropping and other management practices, not through chemical fertilizers that can contaminate drinking water supplies. Crop health is addressed through crop rotation, sophisticated forms of cultivation, organic pest management and the use of naturally resistant crop and animal varieties, not through synthetic pesticides or genetically altered organisms designed to resist those pesticides. Specifically, agroecological farming produces more nutritious food1 and reduces human contact with known toxins2 found in pesticides, herbicides and fungicides.
- Agroecological farming is more profitable. By working with ecological principles and taking advantage of free resources provided by natural systems, a farmer can minimize outside inputs3 in an agricultural operation. Using cropping methods to capture nitrogen from the air, recycling nutrients through compost and animals, and encouraging beneficial organisms to thrive in the soil and surrounding environment all reduce the need to pay for fertilizers and pesticides. More control over the means of production leads to more control over the profits. In addition, the current demand for ecologically produced food commands a high premium in the marketplace, resulting in up to 3 times more profit4 per acre compared to conventional systems.
- Agroecological farming is more resilient and stable in the face of disasters and extreme weather events. Numerous studies and experiences show that a healthy soil results in healthy crops that are able to withstand challenging growing conditions better than chemically treated soil and crops. Side by side trials at Rodale Institute showed that organic farming systems out-produced5 conventional ones by 31% during periods of drought. In a volatile economic climate, agroecological farming tends towards more diversity and therefore more stability in a farmer’s income. According to the United Nations IAASTD Study6, agroecological farming has the best chance of feeding humanity with healthy food in a sustainable manner far into the future.
- Agroecological farming provides a farmer with a community, not just a job. This type of farming, which must necessarily be of a modest scale, encourages vibrant rural communities7 with many supporting businesses and provides 30% more jobs8 per hectare than conventional farming. It is the basis for a harmonious and stable tenancy upon lands inherited from our ancestors and the foundation for a society of full employment, relative economic equality, and a meaningful democratic process. Big Ag and the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the 1% – including the largest producer of agro-toxins and patented seeds Monsanto, the largest U.S. corporation Walmart, and enormous confined animal producers such as Tyson – are at odds with dynamic and democratic rural communities.
- Agroecological farming is family friendly. It creates a healthy and safe environment and supports diverse biological communities. This results in clean water to drink and thriving rivers and wildlands in which to fish and hunt. An agroecological farming operation provides multiple roles for family members, young and old, with more human scale equipment and tasks. Ultimately, agroecological farming provides an inheritance. It builds the soil that then provides hope and expanded opportunities for future generations. Agroecological farming points the family farm into expanding organic markets, community support and good will, and redirects financial stability into a sustainable future.
Agroecological farming therefore is the basis for an emotionally and spiritually fulfilling life for family farmers, women and men and their children and grandchildren, who would be upheld by society for the contributions they make towards feeding humanity and keeping the community and environment healthy. The economic pressures and policies encouraged by Big Ag have unfortunately wiped many family farmers in this country off the face of the land with the attitude of “get big or get out”. The trend towards a global economy threatens to expand that effect throughout the world. Such a prescription is unsustainable and destructive and together we must fight back against that agenda.
This is why we are challenging the Big Ag CEOs to this debate. Don’t take this personally, Hugh, Doug and Donnie. We only want to have a healthy public debate!
We await your participation starting in February, if you are sporting enough to respond to our challenge!