I have been writing a few articles lately about food.
Oddly not in the culinary sense, given the profusion of cooking shows and what seems like an exponential growth in the number of celebrity chefs.
I am more interested in ‘How we will grow enough food‘ and whether we can cope with a global dietary change given ‘What we eat‘.
An observation made by a friend of mine who recently retired from a distinguished career as a public servant in agriculture and natural resource management gave me pause.
After observing the agricultural community in Australia for several decades his comment was that farmers take up practices that improve productivity and sustainability when times are good.
When it’s tough they just do what it takes to stay viable.
The implication of this logical and insightful observation is that future food production is dependent on how well farmers are doing now, in the immediate.
Those of us who get our food from commercial agricultural production (nearly everyone in agricultural economies) have become quite used to highly reliable food quality, variety and supply. And to keep the supply consistent the farmers relax and adopt sustainable practices when the weather is good and the seasons have behaved.
The likely response to drought, flood, frost and heat waves, or soil degradation is do what you can to get some kind of crop to market. This is because the market demand requires it and, as a business, the farm must at least cover its costs or it goes out of business.
The same response occurs when input costs rise. Do what you can to keep the business viable. In short, get some product to market.
This understandable response is a food security challenge, especially where the bulk of food production comes from the small to medium size businesses that we call farms.
If farm viability is so important to both the market and the individual business then there is little to stop exploitative practices when times are tough. At the margins risks will be taken just to keep the business going; because the alternative is the businesses go under. We do it in manufacturing, retail and service sectors so it should be no surprise that we do it in agriculture.
We will save the government subsidy issue for later. What we might think about is the challenge to good practice presented when times are hard.
The reality is that good practice will only be good if it results in some buffering of economic returns when times are tough. Sustainable practices are those that keep inputs to a minimum, make optimal use of the conditions even when its warm and doesn’t rain, and end up with some salable produce.
Where this is not possible, then the farm ceases to be a business. And given that in our current model we buy almost all our food, business failure makes food supply far less secure.
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