The end of agriculture as we know it

Aug 26, 2008

A long commentary published today in the Southeast Farm Press warns that agriculture dodged a bullet with the passage of the 2008 Farm Bill, but that doesn't mean the industry will be able to do so indefinitely. The commentary draws liberally from a late-1990s book by UC Davis Cooperative Extension economist Steven Blank.

Blank paints a picture of America without agriculture in The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio. For the Farm Press article, writer Paul Hollis quotes the publication's first paragraph:

“America’s unsurpassed ability to produce plentiful and inexpensive food is coming to an end. The signals are all there, the economic trends are in position to bring about this inevitable conclusion. America, ‘the world’s breadbasket,’ is currently producing at its peak, but it is going out of the food business.”

The end of American agriculture, Blank wrote, should be no cause for alarm because it's the result of a natural process that is making us all better off.

Hollis says Blank is no "nutcase," noting his UC credentials. But, of course, not everyone agrees with his conclusions.

Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, dismissed Blank's notion that a nation shouldn't produce its own food when others can do it more cheaply. He listed these reasons for preserving American agriculture:

  • The sense of security that comes from knowing your community, or country, can feed itself
  • The beauty of an agricultural landscape
  • The outlook and kinds of local knowledge the presence of farmers brings to a community
  • The satisfactions of buying food from a farmer you know rather than the supermarket
  • The locally inflected flavor of a raw-milk cheese or honey

(Pollan's book was excerpted on the Mother Jones magazine Web site a few years ago.)

On this topic, Hollis, a writer for an agricultural trade publication, and Pollan, a Berkeley journalism professor and advocate for local food, tend to agree.

Hollis concluded his commentary with a concern about the next Farm Bill debate. "Let’s just hope that our leaders in Congress and the White House — whoever they might be at the time — recognize that American agriculture is about more than just numbers," he wrote.

By Jeannette E. Warnert
Author - Communications Specialist