Corporations, Universities, and the Future of Conventional Agriculture

I happened across this article the other day which details a report by the group Food & Water Watch on the connection between corporate money and Land-Grant University research.  I have at least some familiarity with this relationship, as I currently live less than 2 miles from both “Monsanto Place” and “Monsanto Auditorium” at the University of Missouri.  That’s about $3 million in corporate donations within walking distance.

As I’ve discussed before, some of the research coming out of land-grant universities these days is appalling, and they know it.  While I think it’s helpful to point these shenanigans out to the public, I don’t spend too much of my time or energy on them.

Sure conventional ag as we know it may be causing problems, but conventional ag is necessary to feed our growing population; and fortunately for us (sort of) the damage is largely self-limiting.

Don’t believe me?  Lets take a look at the current trends in fossil fuels, water use, antibiotics, animal welfare, and herbicides.

Fossil Fuels: We all realize that fossil fuel prices are going nowhere but up.  And anyone who’s heard of Hubbert’s Peak can tell you that the trend is unlikely to letup.  There is a reason that the big equipment manufacturers are all competing to make more fuel-efficient tractors.

Water Use: Some of the biggest produce growing regions of the US are in quite arid climate zones. The sames goes for a lot of the grain-producing plains states which draw from the Ogallala Aquifer which is being rapidly depleted. Farmers in these regions are rapidly switching to new water-saving technologies just to stay in business.

“Only the highly efficient water users will survive and those are the growers getting on the train and going to drip systems or center pivots.”

Antibiotics: So the big problem with routine sub-theraputic antibiotic use in farm animals is that we’re seeing increased antibiotic resistance both in the animals and in people. The UDSA admits that using antibiotics in animal agriculture is causing problems.

“I believe it is more helpful to acknowledge that antibiotic use in animals contributes to the problem and that prudent antibiotic use should be encouraged in all sectors. The agricultural community must accept part of the responsibility.”

Combine the increasing consumer pressure for antibiotic-free meat with the increasing cost of antibiotics as more bacteria evolve resistance to the cheap ones, and we’re all going to see fewer antibiotics on the farm in the future.

Animal Welfare: A 2003 Gallup Poll found that 96% of Americans say that animals deserve at least some protection from harm and exploitation.  A solid 62% majority support passing strict laws concerning the treatment of farm animals. Consumers are capable of living with a background-level of cognitive dissonance in their lives (eating factory-farmed meat, while thinking it’s unethical to do so) but as soon as something pops up in the news, and brings the issue to the forefront we see action like California’s Prop 2, or Missouri’s Prop B. We also get distribution-side changes, where big buyers like McDonald’s demand changes in their suppliers practices.  I think that 20 years down the road animal ag is going to look a lot “kinder and gentler” than it does today.

Herbicides:  Discriminate herbicides, and the genetic-engineering that allows them have, for all their faults, both reduced total herbicide usage, and increased productivity. Unfortunately, this effect will not be long-lived.  There are more and more multiple-herbicide-resistant “superweeds” sprouting in fields all over the world. Much like antibiotic-resistant bacteria, herbicide-resistant weeds will continue to to out-evolve our chemical defenses until the herbicides are either too expensive, or cause too much consumer concern; like Dow Chemicals’ new “Agent Orange Corn.”

“Most important, weed biotypes already exist that are resistant to these herbicides; Thus, it would be naive to expect any of these new weed-control tools to solve all of our current weed-resistance problems.”

Considering all of these factors, I think that the conventional farms of the future will look a heck of a lot more like what’s going on at the Rodale Institute, and the land-grant universities would be wise to get ahead of the curve by investing in similar research.


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1 Comment

  1. Well-presented arguments.

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