Topic 7 Readings Agriculture, Food, and the State

Food, and therefore agriculture/farming/herding, has always been a critical piece of any economic system ever since complex societies formed millennia ago.  Agriculture continues to be a difficult issue in organizing an economic system today but unlike for hundreds of years, the problem really isn’t “how to grow enough food for everybody”.  Worldwide, thanks to technology like tractors & fertilizer, improved science of agriculture, and improved food preservation/distribution, we’ve actually solved the “not enough” problem in the last hundred years. Now the problems are difficult. The hunger or malnutrition remains a problem in many places but it’s a distribution/access/income problem while too much food is actually wasted or destroyed.

No the problems tend to three fold in my view. First, there are power relations. Picking and harvesting food is still often low-paying, difficult, painful labor fraught with risks from pesticides and other dangers. Higher income people in developed countries such as the US increasingly aren’t interested in such work, so it’s necessary to use labor from less developed countries. But what are the conditions they work under? Do we use immigrants and grow here (benefitting our landowners)? Or do we let them grow in their country and import the produce (who gets the profit?)? This labor problem is made much harder because farming is very capital intensive. And capital intensive industries tend towards corporate concentration and not the free-market competitive ideal we like to think.

Second, modern corporate agriculture with its heavy dependence on fertilizers and mass production techniques is often not sustainable environmentally. Yet free-markets tend to reward short-term profit taking – particularly when corporations are involved.  How should the modern state and society ensure enough food to eat today while also ensuring a livable world tomorrow?

Finally, farming and the life of the farmer is often a part of a nation’s mythology and culture. Nowhere is this more significant than in the US. We grow up with a image of the small “family farm” growing corn in the Midwest or the individual rancher raising beef cattle in the West.  That was true 110 years ago when each 1 farmer/rancher in society could only grow enough food on average to feed maybe 4-5 people. But today, each worker in agriculture can produce enough food on average to feed nearly 90-100 people.  We simply don’t need all the farmers if the purpose is simply to feed the country. But independent farmers are part of the culture (try watching the Country Music Channel for 3o minutes without seeing several farmers!).  But the truth is most of the remaining farmers on “family farms” don’t make any money farming. It’s really a lifestyle/culture decision, not an economic one. But that has political consequences.

This topic’s readings looks like a long list, but it’s actually relatively short on “reading”.  Most of it is collections of data, graphs, maps, pictures. I want to look over some of these, think about the implications, and contribute to the conversation.  Again, you can participate by blogging on your own blog and categorizing it as ECON260, commenting/replying to this post, or by starting a new front-page post on this site.

Topic 7 – Food, Hunger, Agriculture
Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Optional Readings, if you’re interested in going deeper: