Public Perceptions of Modern Agriculture

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

What comes to mind when we hear the word “farmer”? We think of hard-working people who faithfully grow our food. What comes to mind when we hear the word “pesticide”? We think of the environment’s being drenched with poisons. The first perception is bang-on while the second is, let’s say, somewhat off the mark. Here’s why.

Today’s agriculture is a modern activity dependent on science and technology, responsible for the high-quality, inexpensive food we all enjoy. In fact, it’s so cheap that grain farmers are going broke trying to grow the stuff. Supermarkets overflow with choices undreamt of only a generation ago; we would be shocked to see empty shelves.

Farmers may wince at the term “cheap food”, but inexpensive food, delivered by efficient farming, is one of country’s most significant, but unheralded, social programs. Unlike most of the world’s population, low-income Canadians can afford to eat well.

Consider the following comparisons based on an analysis by the consulting firm Runzheimer International. Contrast the $2.82 (US) a Rio de Janeiro resident pays for a loaf of whole wheat bread with the $0.71 paid in Toronto. Both cities have serious poverty problems, but where would you rather be if you were poor? Milk costs $2.23 a gallon in Toronto versus $8.40 in Hong Kong and $7.44 in Tokyo. Overall, apart from the United States, Canadians pay the lowest food prices in the world – all because of modern agriculture and efficient distribution.

Not only that: there is a strong environmental case to be made for modern agriculture. For one, it allows us to farm less acreage, and to do it very efficiently, while reserving more land for environmental purposes. For example the Conservation Reserve Program in the U.S. has allowed the withdrawal of 50 million acres from cultivation.

But what about herbicides? Aren’t they poisons? Yes, but there is an environmental case for their use. Weeds can be controlled in only two ways: cultivation or chemicals. Cultivation breaks up the soil structure and can open the land up to wind and water erosion. Lost soil often ends up in our waterways with negative effects on fish habitat and water quality. Herbicides control weeds with no soil disturbance, using a farming technology called “zero-tillage”, whereby no soil is displaced, ever.

These good-news stories are lost amid the doom and gloom that are the stock in trade of the apocalyptic environmentalists. We’re living longer and more healthily. For example, most cancer rates are actually falling, which is partly attributable to the inexpensive, high-quality foods delivered by modern agriculture. So far based on sound science, the pesticide regulatory process has prevented catastrophically noxious chemicals from getting on the market. The inability of agriculture and agri-business to get these simple points across is baffling. Why don’t they just tell it like it is?

So the next time an activist lashes out at modern agriculture, take it with a grain of salt. After all, no matter what happens, chances are he’ll be rich enough to always buy food; you might not be so lucky because “boutique” groceries like organic foods are by necessity more expensive given their higher costs of production. Trust modern agriculture. It works for all of us.