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“Betty Crocker” Farming On The Way Out

“If you build something up to be a house of cards, it can be easily knocked down. We can’t live in a house of cards.”

– RENE VAN ACKER

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When 400 of the world’s experts got together at a symposium six years ago to brainstorm a way to increase biological fixation of nitrogen, which solutions were picked and in what order?

“What should we do first and where can we make the biggest gains?” was the question asked by the survey, according to Rene Van Acker.

The No. 1 solution, which could be done in a short period of time and with almost no research effort, was to implement existing knowledge of inoculation, amelioration, and agronomic best practices.

The second, was making changes in cropping systems to include more use of legumes and incorporation of legume-based residues.

The third option, which would have offered, less and much slower gains, was to have a breeding program to better match legumes with improved rhizobial strains.

“Finally, they said genetic engineering,” said Van Acker. “There is a disconnect between this and what you hear in the media, where it’s the exact opposite. We keep hearing that we need genetic engineering to increase biological fixation in monocots. It’s nonsense.”

Things can be “hunky-dory” in agriculture, but “not great” in farming at the same time.

Why?

That’s due to the “cost-price” squeeze that farmers have been under for the past several decades, according to Rene Van Acker, an associate dean at Guelph University’s Ontario Agriculture College.

“At the same time as we see tremendous increases in food prices, we don’t see concomitant increases in commodity prices. Our agriculture is particularly susceptible to that,” said Van Acker, in a keynote presentation on “Reconstructing Ownership of your Cropping System” at the Western Canadian Holistic Management conference in Russell last month.

Along with the “green revolution” in the postwar era, the accelerating trend towards centralization and standardization has resulted in a separation of elements in the economic system and natural cycles on the planet.

“So, from a global ecological standpoint, you get separations where there can’t really be separations. When you drive those separations for a long time, you get into problems,” said Van Acker, who left the University of Manitoba in 2006.

That contradiction hits hardest in agriculture, which is fundamentally dependent on a living system. Therefore, using an “engineering” perspective to solve problems that are mainly biological nature is wrong, he added.

The same is also true for traditional economics, which assumes that the decline in the number of farms in Manitoba, from 60,000 in 1941 to 20,000 in 2006, is completely natural. But if that logic were to be followed through to its natural conclusion, there must be a point in which there are no farms at all left in the province, he said.

From a public policy perspective, there should be some discussion on what the appropriate number of farmers should be, he added, whether it is 2,000 or 30,000, instead of “just letting it happen.”

“The people out there who say that this is natural, should remember that the economy is not natural. Economies are all manipulated and man made.”

The farms that are left over under the dominant economic model have similar characteristics, he added. They are high risk, highly capital intensive, have few cash engines, involve heavy reliance on the spread between commodity prices and purchased inputs, and are built on simple production strategies sustained by highly specialized and therefore biologically fragile systems.

“The management focus is primarily financial; rarely social or biological, and the farms must be large because of inherently narrow margins.”

Especially since the Space Age, when problems arise, North American culture looks to technology to provide the solutions, which are then patented and protected. Technology itself then becomes a commodity that drives the economy into ever-greater realms of complexity, usurping traditional and generational knowledge.

“With technology we don’t need biological functionality – or we think that we don’t need it – and we drive out any hope of multi-functionality because those simple systems can’t deliver. For the farmer, we drive out value and control,” said Van Acker.

“Finally, we get to the point that the thing becomes an absolute recipe. We drive out any need for community, because it becomes the sort of activity that a robot can put in practice.”

When farming became as simple as making a Betty Crocker cake mix, he added, ownership of the cropping system – and as a consequence, the profits – were surrendered by the farmer, along with the natural resiliency of biologically complex systems.

The financial crisis that began in the fall of 2008 has awakened society in general to the frailty of overly complex, opaque systems, he added.

“If you build something up to be a house of cards, it can be easily knocked down. We can’t live in a house of cards.”

The good news is that groups like Holistic Management International are discovering alternative ways to do things, and creating a “wave” moving in the opposite direction that puts farm families and rural communities back in the driver’s seat.

“The other good news is that society is on board, and driving things that way,” he added. “There is a wave building in society. I get bombarded with it because Guelph is only 45 minutes away from downtown Toronto.”

Observations gleaned from his students has surprised him with the degree of interest they have in food, which in the majority is moving far and beyond the simple caloric perspectives of previous generations.

“They are interested in the nature of food, which is perplexing to me, but it’s a good thing,” he said. Instead of seeing this trend as a threat of more regulation, farmers should welcome the demand for more multi-functionality and even public scrutiny because it represents a reversal of fortunes for farming.

“We should be cheering, hallelujah, finally urban people are intimately interested in agriculture.” [email protected]

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