(This column won a bronze medal for press editorial in the 2010 Canadian Farm Writers’ Federation awards).
I ‘ve started noticing a bit of a trend in popular media — the bashing of farmers, especially those who grow crops we all depend on.
These horrible people — or so the theme goes — are ruining the environment by producing large volumes of corn and soybeans and they’re making us fat to boot.
There are two sides to every story and the farmer’s is rarely heard or included in the barrage of popular media and consumer criticism about agriculture. So let me debunk a few of these myths.
Yes, farmers grow corn and soybeans — and much of Ontario’s crop is used to feed livestock, not people. But some is also exported, like Canadian food grade soybeans, for example, which are popular with Japanese consumers.
Yes, farmers use nutrients to help their crops grow, but so do consumers who apply fertilizer to their lawns, gardens and flower pots. Fertilizer is expensive and there aren’t too many farmers who are eager to spend more money growing their crops than they absolutely have to — especially when there is no guarantee of what price you are going to receive for your crop at the end of the season, and you have no idea whether Mother Nature will cooperate with you or not.
That’s why farmers use other techniques, such as crop rotation, in order to preserve the fertility of the soil. Crop rotation means that you are regularly switching which crops you grow on what fields so that you don’t deplete the soil’s nutrients. They also use livestock manure to fertilize their crops — much the same as urban gardeners who stock up on bags of sheep manure at the garden centre every spring.
Here in Ontario, there are few who have done more to contribute to environmental improvements than farmers. Greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by the equivalent of taking 125,000 cars off the road through improved soil conservation measures.
Farmers have spent at least $600 million on environmental improvements and 300,000 days in environmental training. Over 70% of them have voluntarily participated in the Environmental Farm Plan program and the use of crop protection products has decreased by over 50 percent in the last 20 years.
Crops like corn and soybeans are also increasingly being used to create new “bio-products”, made from a plant-base instead of using petroleum-derived ingredients. This includes products like car parts, adhesives, lubricants, plastics and rubber, paints and solvents, foams and beauty products.
These bio-products are better for the environment and they are helping us lessen our dependence on the world’s depleting fossil fuel stocks. To me, these are definitely positive outcomes of crop production.
Now to the issue of weight. It is true that there are many of us in North America who are a little or even a lot heavier than we could be or should be. But when did that become the fault of the farmer?
Farmers grow products that they’ll be able to sell come harvest time. They can’t stay in business if they don’t. And once their corn or soybeans have left their farms, farmers have no say whatsoever over what happens to that crop, how it is processed or where it ends up.
And whatever happened to personal responsibility?
Ultimately, as consumers, we have the final say over what and how much we eat and the amount of exercise we choose to get. Granted, the availability of cheap fast food makes eating badly very easy and very tempting — but companies wouldn’t be producing these products if we weren’t buying them.
It is up to us as consumers to demand change if that’s what we want. But we aren’t going to effect that change by simply pointing the finger at farmers and blaming them for broader societal problems like environmental damage and obesity.
There are more players in the equation who have a role to play, and that includes us as consumers and the food choices we make.