RADICALISM, n. The conservatism of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day.
— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary
The New York Times op-ed section threw a love bomb in the general direction of farmers ahead of Valentine's Day.
In the first of a planned three-part op-ed video series about the nation's food chain, released on Feb. 1, the paper opined about the state of the agriculture lobby, and pointed toward what appeared to be the mandatory enactment of conservation measures on farmers in the United States. The headline betrays the tone: "Meet The People Being Paid To Kill Our Planet."
Amid drone footage of industrial scale ag facilities, footage of Senate Agricultural Committee member Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) looking concerned on a couch when he clearly had
better other things to do, a bearded man eating what appeared to be the same piece of steak several times, and some earnest-sounding lawyers, a voiceover contrasted the national discourse over the environment with what aims to be a serious discussion about agriculture and America's food chain.
Some of the points the op-ed makes are head scratchers. For example, at one point, an environmental lawyer accuses farmers of putting poop into drinking water. That's true. It's also true that pretty much all poop (mine and yours included) eventually ends up in drinking water, the ocean or on farm fields or lawns.
It's been a bad couple of weeks for people suffering from agriculture-related misophonia. No sooner had the Times begun it's mouth-noise symphony than Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga), the ranking member of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management fired back at both Booker and the Times, saying "extremists" were "demonizing American farm families."
Scott correctly noted that farm families — whose numbers are declining — are suffering from higher prices for most inputs. A minority population of farmers raise the majority of the nation's food, Scott notes.
So between the lip-smacking op-ed and the red-meat-tossing congressman, where does the truth lie?
Despite the rhetorical flourish of the op-ed and some of its more dubious gee whizzery, some critiques remain valid. The three environmental concerns it raises are that plowing releases additional CO2 (which is twice true, both in the number of tractor trips across the field and in bacterial digestion in the wake of tilling), nitrous oxide resulting from nutrient management, and enteric fermentation, widely and unfortunately known by the "cow farts" shorthand.
The op-ed misses progress entirely.
If you found your way here, odds are pretty good you're already familiar with some of it. But let's recap:
In 2017, the USDA Census of Agriculture reported 96 million acres were no-till farmed nationwide. Even given that the process wasn't used before 1962, there's still room to grow: US cropland is estimated at about 251 billion acres. However, intensive tillage has declined at the same time, and reduced tillage is increasing.
Some anecdotal evidence points to reduced nutrients, including nitrogen, when no-till acres are employed. For example, Gabe Brown told farmers at the Dodge County Farmers for Healthy Soil and Healthy Water that he hasn't employed manufactured nutrients on his farm for years. Most intensive conservation agriculturalists like Brown say no-till is one thing that can help, but it's not the only thing.
Brown himself took a more conciliatory note than Scott. His consultancy, Understanding Ag, has worked with larger food companies, like General Mills, to help support regenerative practices.
"People tend to rail against easy targets," he says. "But I don't want to be so naive to think that we can change the world overnight. Would Gabe Brown like for more people to source their food locally and support their local economies? Absolutely. But let's be honest, that isn't going to happen overnight."
Cow burps (and their corollary, manure pools) remain a source of roughly a quarter of all methane emissions in the U.S., which is where the greatest opportunity for advancement in both cost-effective methodology and breadth of use lies. Globally, methane emissions from enteric fermentation are likely to increase as more developing countries increase demand for meat and meat products. Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. It doesn't stick around as long as CO2, but 12 years is longer than some marriages.
Maybe growers aren't where they need to be, but they're not where they were. That would put them alongside almost every other industry in meeting environmental goals.
Farmer perspective was largely missing from the opener in the series, though the Times went out of its way to lump farmers in with one of their lobbying groups, the the American Farm Bureau Federation. The Times introduced it in the much more on-target second piece, released Thursday.
That second piece also does a good job of putting consumers in the responsibility chain. We'll see where the third piece lands on Monday.
All of this is just dandy, by the way. This is an op-ed piece, not an investigation. The job is to raise the issue in an engaging way, not serve as the authoritative final word on the subject. Behold: here we are, talking about agriculture and the Times. Op-ed leans much more on entertainment than it does on comprehensive truth. It's harder to take when the entertainment is at your expense, as it will likely be for some growers, but in the immortal words of The Big Lebowski, "That's just, like, your opinion, man."
However, all those acres in no-till suggest that some of the growers share the environmental concerns highlighted in the Times video. What is more, growers are willing to put their livelihoods on the line to find a better way forward for their consciences, bank accounts and families. They've risked incomes, and suffered gentle mockery, pointed skepticism and outright scorn from friends and neighbors to accomplish this, and they're not done yet.
It would be a shame if, in the rush to score political points against Booker and the Times (though neither Booker nor the Times are standing in November's elections in Georgia), the gentleman from Georgia accidentally spilled some of his vitriol on them.
After all, today's extremist is tomorrow's conservative.