From climate change to political uncertainty, it needs some very strong rose- tinted glasses to make the future seem bright. But there is a lot we could do to make things a little better – from reducing plastic and food waste to walking more and driving less. Over the last few weeks though it looked as if we’ve found another way to ‘cope’ with things – by making farmers into the new bogeymen (and women), responsible for everything from climate change to groundwater pollution, and to producing food that makes us fat.
Talk about biting the hand that feeds us…. Looking at events in the US can often be like taking a glimpse into a crystal ball: what happens across the Atlantic will soon be happening here, in particular in regard to food and farming. So, here’s what’s happening to US farmers right now: their outlook for this year’s harvest is looking pretty bleak. The weather has been atrocious, until the end of May many areas saw incessant rain and widespread flooding. Since June insurers have been trying to find out how many millions of acres of farmland couldn’t be planted at all
because it was simply too wet to get into the fields.
In the meantime, California has been heating up – again. In the Central Valley, where most of the US’ fruits and vegetables are grown and 80% of the world supply of almonds should be setting right now, daytime temperatures have hardly sunk below 100°F (37C). There is a serious concern for the wellbeing of agricultural workers who are expected to pick the crops, and while melons and tomatoes love heat – this is too much. The East Coast, from Pennsylvania all the way south to Florida, is suffering from an exceptional heatwave, too. Quality issues in fruit and veg are expected.
Things may have looked reasonably well for livestock producers, at least until August 9th. That was the day a fire wrecked a Tyson Foods slaughter facility in Kansas. Tyson Foods Inc is the world’s biggest processor and vendor of beef, chicken and pork. The facility in Kansas was able to slaughter 6,000 head of attle a day, one-fifth of US production. Lots of cattle and no facility to slaughter them means prices are dropping. Farmers will either have to sell cheap – or keep and feed their cattle on the farm for longer – their loss, either way.
And we haven’t even come to politics… The ruckus over immigration and the border wall, the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids, and deportation of undocumented workers, has taken its toll. Agriculture is desperately short of (seasonal labour). Sounds familiar?
In addition, President Trump has picked numerous trade fights, starting with Mexico and Canada. Dairy farmers have suffered most, prices have collapsed and farmers are going out of business at an alarming rate. Again: does this sound familiar? The trade war with China is hitting soy and corn producers hard, and in an aside last week about US imports into Japan the President threw US wheat farmers under the bus. In a CNN interview, the president of the US
National Farmers Union, Roger Johnson, summed things up: “Net farm income across the country right now is half of what it was six years ago. Every year it ratchets down. This trade uncertainty makes things far, far worse for farmers. And I think potentially what farmers are most worried about is the damage that’s being done to our reputations that are going to have long-term implications for our ability to regain some of these export markets that have been lost”.
Why am I telling you this? Because it could happen here(1)
We haven’t seen the same weather extremes as in the US, not yet. (Though after the July deluge in the Yorkshire Dales farmers there would probably beg to differ.) Many UK farmers are in dire straits already, in particular, diverse family farms struggle to stay profitable. We have farm families in this country who cannot afford to buy the food they produce. Helplines are dealing with an increasing number of calls from suicidal farmers(2).
What Trump’s trade war is to US farmers, a hard Brexit will be to UK farmers. Without a deal WTO rules will apply, and that means tariffs, in particular on lamb and beef. Raising sheep and cattle is what a lot of UK farmers do. Most parts of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are ideally suited to raising livestock on grass, while the areas in which arable crops can be grown are rather limited. In other words: Livestock farmers have few options to do something else – other than give up farming for good. And that is what half of the UK farmers may do, says a recent report (3).
Don’t worry, politicians tell us, we’ll strike a trade deal with the US in no time, there will be no food shortages. Sure, we will have enough to eat, it may even be cheap food – but what quality will it have? US farm lobbyists and US Agricultural Secretary Sonny Perdue ridicule consumer fears of chlorinated chicken. It is not the chlorine I’m worried about, but what it is hiding: You can get away with much lower hygiene standards if you douse everything in chlorine… A recent report by the Rodale Institute (4) found that 60% of conventional milk samples contained antibiotic residue, bovine growth hormones and traces of pesticides including chlorpyrifos, an insecticide that can harm the neural development of children.
So, I am wondering whether now really is the time to bite the hands that feed us. Instead of accusing farmers of ruining the planet, can we please support those who use regenerative and organic farming practices, look after the soil, provide good animal welfare standards, keep animals on grass wherever possible, and produce high quality, nutritious food. Personally, I am grateful for what they do, increasingly against the odds.
1 In case this line sounds vaguely familiar…. Check out Sinclair Lewis “It can’t happen here”. Written in 1935 Lewis the novel could be a dark playbook for our time.
Marianne Landzettel is a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK, the US, continental Europe and South Asia. She worked for the BBC World Service and German Public Radio for close to 30 years.
Follow her on twitter at @M_Landzettel
Images (c) and used with kind consent @M.Kunz
The Slow Food blog welcomes contributions on the topics of Food, Farming and Agriculture. The contents may not entirely match the views of Slow Food, but reflect the journeys of the authors. To write for us please click here