Last week, Wisconsin farmers rightfully protested Michael Pollan’s environmentalist, anti-technology book “In Defense of Food.” Pollan’s ideas are an attack on modern farming and Western culture in general.
He doesn’t reveal this conclusion directly, but through a concerted attack on the values upon which Western culture and farming depend. For example, he disapprovingly states: “The industrialization of our food … is systematically and deliberately undermining traditional food cultures everywhere.”
But industry by definition replaces tradition. The car “undermined” the tradition of traveling by horse, the light bulb “undermined” the tradition of reading by oil lamp and supermarkets “undermined” the tradition of having limited food choices. To be against undermining tradition is to be against industry, technology and innovation.
As Bill Bruins, president of the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation, points out, “A nostalgic part of Pollan’s message is he wishes life would slow down; we’d all grow a garden and cook meals like his great-grandmother. … I wonder if he’d ask the medical profession to go back in time, or if he’s coming to Madison in a horse and buggy.”
Excellent point. Let’s ask farmers the same question: Aren’t farmers and their lobbyists in Washington seeking their own form of stagnation and resentment against industrial advancements and superior competition?
Decade after decade, farmers have been running to Washington for aid to prop up the prices of their products, buy their surpluses and pay them not to produce. This favoritism at taxpayers’ expense is allegedly justified, not because the industry of farming is failing but because it is too productive.
In response to falling milk prices, the Dairy Farmers of America ran to Washington this week to sick antitrust regulators on their competition. As The Wall Street Journal reported, “Some dairy farmers are irked that Dean Foods’ lower cost of milk supplies helped increase the company’s net income for the second quarter.” And so they run to Washington, indignant that they somehow aren’t getting their fair share.
And while these lobbyists rationalize their actions as attempts to increase competition and prevent price “manipulation,” it is, in fact, the lobbyists that seek actual price manipulation. Their real agenda is to gain favorable treatment and throttle more productive companies. In short, they are attacking the successful for being successful.
The National Milk Producers Federation, whose stated mission is to “promote programs that will help reduce price volatility and protect producer income,” lobbies lawmakers to purchase cheese and other products using taxpayer money. Under the Dairy Product Price Protection Program, the USDA purchases millions of pounds of dairy products a year at statutory-mandated prices in order to prop up the price of butter, cheese and milk.
When milk prices were rising a few years ago, farmers were doing well and expanding their herds, but now supply exceeds demand and prices are falling. Such is life. These are the kinds of risks and rewards that any business has to deal with. But, like Pollan’s unfounded nostalgia for tradition, the farm lobby claims an unfounded right to price stability and income protection.
But neither nostalgia for farming nor the fact that a farmer used to make a profit (last year, or the year before or a decade ago) justifies attempts to stabilize, protect or otherwise maintain the status quo. Fundamentally, such protectionist policies are an attack on industry and innovation.
Industry, by its nature, is dynamic and competitive. If some farmers cannot make a profit or manage the risks involved, they will go out of business. And the traditional family farm may be replaced as more productive enterprises win out. To oppose this by denouncing industry ? la Pollan, or attempting to throttle it ? la farm lobbies, is to undercut the very values that successful farming depends on. Namely, it goes against Western values of free trade, production and technical innovation.
It is admirable that many farmers recognize Pollan’s book for what it is — an attack on production, technology and innovation — and stand up for their values. It would be equally admirable if they recognized the farm lobby for what it is — an attempt to thwart economic realities and maintain the status quo — and stood up and defended the values of freedom and production and everything this implies.
Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student in the biological sciences.