Back in 2007, while selling our former home/sailboat, one of the prospective buyers and I got to talking about farming. His brother was raising organic beef on a ranch somewhere out west, and was apparently having a tough time of it. The other ranchers in the area -- all conventional -- saw his organic methods as an indictment of their own, and treated him accordingly.
Though I haven't met any that seemed at all hostile, I often wonder if some of the surrounding farmers -- anyone who knows a bit about our small farm -- think the same of us. Perhaps others assume that I look down upon conventional farmers because of their methods.
As a former commercial forester, I've been one of the "bad guys" myself. People expressed their contempt for our company in various ways, whether that meant writing letters to the editor, sending us damning email, or slashing tires on our pickups at the local gas station. I was directly involved in everything from dousing the Cascade foothills with herbicides, to clearcutting, to helping with salmon-stream destroying logging roads. I chose forestry as a profession not because I was a proponent of any of these activities, but in part because I thought I might be able to lessen some of their impacts. I'd suspect that many farmers see themselves in the same position.
Farmers are typically independent business owners rather than employees, but they don't have much more latitude in their decision making than I did as a forester. Both foresters and farmers are working within the confines of a system that's been set up for them, with relatively lax bounds when it comes to practices with negative impacts. Those bounds are set in part by an unconcerned and ignorant public that grows less connected to the natural world by the day. Increasingly, they're also set by the large corporations that seek greater profit margins, using lobbyists and campaign "donations" to further degrade the regulatory environment. They even write the laws themselves!
In the anything goes environment that dominates agriculture nowadays, those with the least moral fortitude set the standard for profitability. The rest of the farmers who must compete with them must also emulate them or they'll drive themselves out of business. A public that purchases anything based on price alone drives the standards ever lower, punishing the rare farmer who might dare to forego the benefits of Atrazine or Roundup.
Americans, not surprisingly, spend less of their income on food than people in any other country. We also spend more than anyone else on healthcare. Coincidence?
People who have educated themselves and make the attempt to improve matters by purchasing organic or directly from responsible farmers still harbor price expectations based upon the prevalent industrial methods. The minority of farmers who cater to this expanding market typically find that the higher prices they can command still don't justify the additional expenses of responsible production methods. Thus the organic farmer with a second job.
Our personal and environmental health aren't just a concern for hairy sandal-wearing hippies, either. Even the pentagon brass is concerned. Perhaps they just need to consider the formation of a new Rascal Brigade? Just imagine if we had to mobilize our country as we did for WWII. Can you see them trying to make their way to the summit of Iwo Jima? Maybe an upgrade would be in order, for the special forces at least.
So who is to blame for the fact that our food and water are now loaded with harmful and often peristent chemicals? Who's to blame for the well documented drop in soil health and nutritional quality of the food it produces? Who's to blame for 50% cancer rates, diabetes rates trending to hit 30% in my son's generation, and 30% obesity rates?
It's the family buying groceries with an ever shrinking budget, and little concern for how their food was produced. It's the grocer who stocks them with concern only for salability and shelf-life. It's the doctor who treat cancers, never speaking out against the cause of his patient's ills. It's the industrial food processors and their executives, hoping to climb the corporate ladder to a bigger McMansion and nicer car. It's the regular people who invest in the food processors, demanding only shareholder return in hopes of a comfortable retirement. It's the bankers who finance such companies while turning a blind eye to their effects. It's a corporately funded media that doesn't dare to inform the public and thus risk their valuable advertising dollars. It's the farmer who dares not read anything beyond the MSDS on the pesticides they use, for fear of learning how his wife got her breast cancer or his son developed autism. Everyone is to blame, and everyone needs to try a little harder, perhaps even taking some risk to make the world a better place.