Moving past the romanticism of food
"I wish we could do away with some of the romanticism surrounding agriculture. By embracing technology, research and innovation, we can deal with today's problems and move toward a better tomorrow."
As part of our recent Future of Food series , I spoke to Jayson Lusk, a distinguished professor and head of the Agricultural Economics Department at Purdue University in Indiana. We talked about technology and changing practices in food and agriculture and what the future of both might look like.
One part of our conversation keeps rattling through my head at odd times. I asked Jayson whether the mindset around technology can change as people learn more about sustainability and soil health and about how research keeps improving production while also sustaining or even improving the environment.
You see, we hear regularly how some consumers want things to go back to the "old" ways of agriculture. They don't like technology mixed up with their food. Everything is a conspiracy to make them less healthy.
I asked Jayson, "Is that something we still have to overcome — that you can't go back to the old ways and produce what we produce today?"
His answer is what I keep contemplating: "There's certainly ... very much a romanticism that still exists in the in, the general public mindset," he said.
That word — romanticism — is what sticks with me. Why is there a bucolic vision of farming and ranching? Why is there a romantic idea of a past that never was?
The truth, of course, is that many people used to be involved in agriculture, and it was never an easy life. A lot of people had their own chickens for eggs and meat, their own cow for milk. They grew more of their own food. But the very rich never had to do the work to produce their own food, and the very poor didn't have the land access to do it. Subsistence farming was about survival. And the farmers of yesterday likely would have jumped at the opportunity to use modern equipment and technology rather than the back-breaking labor to which they were confined.
So I'm not sure what people are picturing when they think of the good old days, but the reality is pretty simple — those old days weren't as good as they think they were, and going back to them would certainly mean much more food insecurity than already exists.
Over the years, improvements to agriculture have accelerated, allowing fewer farmers and ranchers to feed more people on less land. Our grocery stores are full of options across a vast array of prices, varieties and farming systems. Is it a perfect system? Of course not. Nothing is. But it's hard to argue that the people involved aren't striving to improve it.
I don't hear a lot of people waxing poetic for the days of party line telephones or heading to the cobbler to be fitted for a new pair of shoes. Instead, most of us are fine with using our smart phones to order a new pair of shoes in minutes. The world has become more efficient, and the only place consumers seem to be annoyed by that is in the world of food.
I wish we could do away with some of the romanticism surrounding agriculture. By embracing technology, research and innovation, we can deal with today's problems and move toward a better — though still not perfect — tomorrow.
The world isn't the same as it was when our grandparents or great-grandparents were our ages. Agriculture needs to keep pace with today's world, and we shouldn't be scared of that. Farms aren't going to look the same as they once did; nothing does. All any of us ever can do is try to be a little better tomorrow.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at email@example.com or 701-595-0425.