Farms bring to mind the pastoral beauty of rural land with country roads, barns, tractors and grain silos. We think of diverse fields of fruits, vegetables and amber waves of grain.
These scenes are real – but increasingly less common today than a generation ago. In many areas, agriculture has developed into a much more industrial practice, with dense fields of single crops, intensely sprayed with fertilizers and pesticides. Much of these crops are grown to feed livestock – not people.
Fair Farms released a report in 2016 that detailed the risks associated with the decreased diversity and increased “homogenization” of farm practices. The report, called “Diversifying the Agriculture Basket,” essentially warns that we are putting all of our eggs in one basket, as the saying goes.
The downsides of this trend toward monoculture crops and intense agriculture practices are increased economic and financial risk to farmers and concerns about public health. If farmers are only growing soy beans, for example, they have less bargaining power, greater debt burden and are in deep trouble if the soy bean market crashes. Much like a mutual fund for investments, diversity is key.
On the public health side, the report shows that chickens have lost up to 60% of their genetic diversity due to modern commercial breeding methods. The lack of diversity makes the poultry population much more susceptible to large-scale outbreaks of disease.
Fortunately, there is a path forward to make farm communities and our economy healthier and more resilient. If area farms diversified and produced more food for people, we would have increased food security and our economy would be less dependent on the markets of a few commodities – namely corn, soybean and chicken. More agricultural diversity would also result in healthier soils, lower poultry flock mortality rates, less demand for fertilizer and less reliance on pesticides and herbicides that may be harmful to human health and wildlife.
To realize this vision, Fair Farms is committed to finding new ways to support farmers who choose to grow on a smaller-scale. Government should incentivize diversified agricultural practices that are focused beyond large-scale poultry production. It can also lend a hand in establishing systems for the slaughter, processing and distribution of meat and poultry produced outside of the contract poultry system.
The days of the Norman Rockwell image of farming may be past, but we can still create a robust, sustainable food system by diversifying our agriculture basket.