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Subsistence farming better? I don’t think so

On my way home from a recent farmer interview I tuned my truck radio to National Public Radio’s usually engaging program  Radio Times and became mesmerized by a program on agriculture. Mesmerized might be the wrong word. Incensed seems more accurate.

A philosopher, environmental activist, eco feminist and author from India, Vandana Shiva, blasted genetically modified crop production, along with Monsanto and other companies that produce them, as well as taking to task most everything that has anything to do with modern agriculture.

Her dogma includes a belief that smaller is more efficient and that more of earth’s population should farm, tilling no more than about 100 acres each. She insisted that 10 farmers managing 100 acres each would be more productive than 1 farmer tilling 1,000 acres.

She claimed that American agriculture is ruining the soil, the atmosphere, the very planet by engaging in monoculture—corn and soybeans—when it should be practicing small-scale agriculture featuring a cornucopia of fruits, vegetables and grains.

To the credit of NPR, the host offered a study by the National Academy of Sciences that showed GMO crops to be more efficient and less harsh on the environment than is the case with conventional crop production.

Ms Shiva said the Academy of Science had no science to back up its claims and that her conclusions are all based on sound science. She mentioned that several times but never offered any study that supported her.

She also claimed that farmers don’t like GMO crops either because the seed is more expensive. I’ve heard farmers complain about the cost of seed but in the same breath they also insist that the convenience, yield advantage and fewer pesticide treatments make up the difference. I wonder how she arrived at her conclusion.

When asked where the additional farmers would come from to manage those 100-acre farms she said that many more Americans would like to get back to the land and farm. I don’t think so. She’s talking about subsistence agriculture. And since she doesn’t agree with using pesticides on cropland, that means hand weeding and natural insect and disease control.

I don’t know that many people who want to farm. We currently have less than 2 percent of our population farming, and farmers who could use manual labor to help with weeding, harvesting and other stoop labor jobs can’t find employees—hence the demand for migrant workers.

She insisted that many professional people as well as truck drivers and other skilled workers, would eagerly flock to those mini-farms and gladly take up hoes and scythes to tend the land. Both of my parents grew up on hard scrabble, subsistence farms. They often talked about the hardships of making do and doing without. It’s more romantic than realistic. I can’t imagine trying to support a family like that.

As I’ve said before, I have no axe to grind with small farms, organic agriculture or unique ways of producing food. It’s a great way for some people to make or supplement their living and to provide a local source of fresh food to their communities. It will not, however, feed the world.

I also wonder how Ms Shiva would go about dividing up those 1,000 acres into 100-acre parcels. Most farmers I know have spent years, often decades, building their farms. They’re not likely to turn loose of it just because an activist suggests they’re doing things the wrong way.

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