E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


The external facts of food production

By Jim French
The Prairie Writers Circle

(Thursday, Oct. 10, 2002 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- It was the late 1980s. I found myself on a committee of Kansas farmers, environmentalists and agricultural activists looking at Kansas State University's agricultural research abstracts. Our mission was to evaluate research for sustainability. That is, we wanted to show that developments in agricultural technology affected not only production and profits, but also environmental quality, farm size and society.

These were the days when Jim Hightower had just published "Hard Times, Hard Tomatoes," a study linking land grant university research with the industrialization of the U.S. food system. In those same years, the University of California agricultural departments were being sued for violating the founding charters of this nation's land grant schools by not serving the interests of family farmers. The late '80s were also when thousands of farms went out of business and were absorbed by larger, more industrialized operations.

To say the least, K-State ag departments had little affection for our small band of gadflies. But they couldn't ignore us. I remember one lively exchange with a high-ranking university official. He defended the academic freedom of researchers and their right to pursue research support wherever it came from. We brought up accountability to environmental issues and social responsibility. He replied, "You are talking about externalities to research," as if this alone dismissed our concerns.

Yes, he was right. Our focus was almost totally on externalities: those things which may not be measurable variables within the research itself but, as a result of the developing technology, can have definite harms or benefits to the land, to communities and the general public.

For example, when the major packing plants established a goal of recruiting differing ethnic populations for low-paying, low-skill jobs, they externalized much of the costs involved. Yes, one might say that cheap food resulted and greater business profits followed. But how much more did taxpayers have to spend to add more services to public schools, more law enforcement and social services to account for the effects of poverty? These are the externalities that get passed along daily by our food system that is supposedly so efficient and inexpensive.

Agricultural researchers attempt to minimize variables to achieve a measurable and verifiable outcome. However, the public must deal with those variables once research is applied. We know the benefits that accrued to manufactured nitrogen fertilizer in the field. Once applied, though, we had to also take into account nutrient loading and degradation of our ground and surface waters, our growing loss of soil quality and the social impact of overproduction.

In 1978, sociologist Walter Goldschmidt wrote a landmark study of agriculture's effects on economics and social conditions in neighboring communities. It found that communities surrounded by industrialized farms with absentees owners display less economic development and more social problems than do rural communities set in the midst of small to medium-sized family farms.

In July of this year, Missouri economist David Peters revisited this hypothesis. By using data collected on children-at-risk in 2000, Peters looked at rural counties in Iowa, Missouri and Kansas. He looked at the number of free and discounted school lunches, teen-age pregnancies, low birth weights and high school dropout rates. All of these factors correlate highly with communities' socioeconomic health. Peters concluded that counties with "greater concentrations of farm proprietorships produce better socioeconomic conditions for children." He also noted that one of the strongest predictors of worsening conditions for children was the percent of a county's workers employed in animal slaughter and meat processing.

What do we as a society do about these externalities? We can't look only at the supermarket sticker. We must see what costs are passed on to clean up rivers and streams, build prisons, fund remedial education programs and prevent food-borne illnesses. In the future, we might have to foot the bill when pharmaceutical research being conducted in the cornfields of Kansas and Oklahoma infects the gene pool of our food system.

It is time to realize that these external facts are indeed essential facts that put all of us at risk.

- Jim French, a Reno County farmer and rancher, is a communications specialist for the Kansas Rural Center. He is a member of The Prairie Writers Circle, a project of The Land Institute, a Natural Systems Agriculture research organization in Salina, Kan.