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In praise of Big Agriculture, and global trade

Summary:
Foreign Policy walks us through the merits of Big Ag:In the popular bourgeois imagination, the idealized farm looks something like the ones that sell produce at local farmers markets. But while small farms like these account for close to half of all U.S. farms, they produce less than 10 percent of total output. The largest farms, by contrast, account for about 50 percent of output, relying on simplified production systems and economies of scale to feed a nation of 330 million people, vanishingly few of whom live anywhere near a farm or want to work in agriculture. It is this central role of large, corporate, and industrial-style farms that critics point to as evidence that the food system needs to be transformed.But U.S. dependence on large farms is not a conspiracy by big corporations.

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Foreign Policy walks us through the merits of Big Ag:

In the popular bourgeois imagination, the idealized farm looks something like the ones that sell produce at local farmers markets. But while small farms like these account for close to half of all U.S. farms, they produce less than 10 percent of total output. The largest farms, by contrast, account for about 50 percent of output, relying on simplified production systems and economies of scale to feed a nation of 330 million people, vanishingly few of whom live anywhere near a farm or want to work in agriculture. It is this central role of large, corporate, and industrial-style farms that critics point to as evidence that the food system needs to be transformed.

But U.S. dependence on large farms is not a conspiracy by big corporations. Without question, the U.S. food system has many problems. But persistent misperceptions about it, most especially among affluent consumers, are a function of its spectacular success, not its failure. Any effort to address social and environmental problems associated with food production in the United States will need to first accommodate itself to the reality that, in a modern and affluent economy, the food system could not be anything other than large-scale, intensive, technological, and industrialized. 

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Vertical integration might bring significant benefits. Big agricultural corporations would have significantly greater incentive to invest resources into the long-term improvement of the land they own and farm, implement evidence-based farming practices, and spend on capital-intensive technology.

Large companies are also, counterintuitively, more responsive to demands for social responsibility, not less so. It is large, multinational corporations, not smaller regional operators, for instance, that have been willing to make zero-deforestation commitments in places like Brazil. That’s because, even though they can leverage their size and economic power to thwart reform, they are also easier to target, pressure, and regulate than more decentralized industries.

For these reasons, a food system that is bigger, more consolidated, and more vertically integrated might actually deliver better social and environmental outcomes than the one we have today. Either way, big farms and big agriculture are here to stay. They are a fundamental feature of global modernity, not a conspiracy by capitalists and corporations to poison people or the land.

Ultimately, improving the U.S. food system will require, first, appreciating it for the social, economic, and technological marvel that it is. It feeds 330 million Americans and many millions more around the world. It has liberated almost all of us from lives of hard agricultural labor and deep agrarian poverty. It has allowed forests to return across much of the United States while also sparing forests in many other parts of the world. It does all this while being extraordinarily efficient environmentally. A better food system will build on these blessings, not abandon them.

Relatedly, Sarah Taber's worth following on Twitter. She's an ag consultant in the US, debunks a fair few myths about family farms. She's not a huge fan of corporate models, but the idealization of family farms and of myths that small artisanal organic farms could possibly sustain modern societies - she really doesn't go for that either. Here's a thread on manure

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