Why don’t we have sustainable agriculture now?

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by Ben Lilliston | March 24, 2009 • Dr. Richard Levins, Professor Emeritus of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota and former IATP Senior Fellow, gets to the heart of one of the biggest challenges we face in agriculture. In a March 1 speech at Iowa State University, Dr. Levins uses a matter-of-fact style to challenge some of the conventional ideas about why sustainable agriculture isn’t more widely practiced in the U.S., such as not having enough field research, farmer education or proof of the profitability of sustainable agriculture.

“Why has it been so difficult to bring about sustainable agriculture on a large scale in the United States?” Dr. Levins asks. “I think we would be closer to answering these questions if we face the fact that farmers no longer sit in the driver’s seat of our contemporary food system. We are entirely too quick to say, for example, that we have problems with farm chemicals because farmers use them, not because farm chemical companies develop, manufacture and promote them. Clearly, farmers are not the decision makers in poultry production and much of hog production due to contracting. Beyond that, the economic environment in which farmers work is increasingly established by agribusiness and retailers, not by farmers.”

As Dr. Levins points out, to make the system-wide transition toward sustainable agriculture, we must acknowledge who controls the food system. “Not only does money talk in our food system, more and more it shouts,” Dr. Levins writes. Farmers and consumers need more decision-making power in the food system. But, Dr. Levins writes, “We cannot pretend that they do when they are mere ants among elephants in our food system. Rather, we must contemplate an economic structure in which they have real and substantial control.” Read the full speech here.

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