Derelict barn in a wheat field in northern Wyoming, USA. Photo: AFP / Aaron McCoy / Robert Harding Premium

Books bashing Big Ag have become as common as cockroaches. Books applauding it are as rare as 600-bushel corn yields, which is to say almost non-existent.

Almost, but not quite. One grower – David Hula of Charles City, Virginia – has hit the 600 mark, scoring a verified 616.2 bushels per acre in 2019. And one author, Harvard professor Robert Paarlberg, has written in praise of large-scale commercial farming, most recently in his latest book titled Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat.

Photo: Urban Lehner

Paarlberg’s publisher describes the book as a “bold, science-based corrective to the groundswell of misinformation about food and how it’s produced.” Much of this corrective validates modern industrial farming.

To the oft-heard charge that Big Ag is ruining Americans’ health, Paarlberg’s verdict is: Not guilty. It’s not what farmers grow that has made Americans obese and diabetic, he says; it’s what Big Food does with what farmers grow, turning it into addictive products that are high in calories, sugar and sodium but low in nutrition. He doesn’t understand how justifiable criticism of Big Food has slithered into unjustifiable criticism of Big Ag.

To a second charge, that Big Ag is spoiling the environment, Paarlberg offers a more nuanced defense, starting with ag’s improved performance in recent decades. “Modern farming protects the environment not only by using less land compared to several decades ago; it also uses less water, less fossil energy and fewer chemicals for every bushel produced.” With increased use of precision ag techniques, he argues, it will do still better in the future.

Paarlberg speaks favorably of sustainable intensification – producing more food on existing farmland while using fewer inputs. It’s an idea that even appeals to some environmentalists, those who believe that among the best things people can do for the environment is leave it alone: leave undeveloped land undeveloped, forests uncut and wetlands wet, reserving them for wildlife habitat and carbon storage.

Believers in sustainable intensification want to feed a growing world population by increasing yields on acres already cultivated. They believe this can be done in an environmentally sound way by using modern technology precisely and efficiently.

Land use is the biggest problem Paarlberg has with organic agriculture. He cites a study concluding that “replacing conventional production with organically grown crops would require cultivating an additional 109 million acres of land, an area equal to all parklands and wildlands combined in the lower forty-eight states.”

As for local food, Paarlberg has a telling rejoinder to Michael Pollan’s famous comment, “Don’t eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.” Paarlberg’s great-grandmother ran a grocery store in Illinois. An 1888 inventory showed it sold exactly 14 items, none of them vegetables. The apples cost twice today’s price adjusted for inflation.

Paarlberg doesn’t back everything Big Ag does. He urges farmers to make more progress in eliminating runoff. “Modern industrial farming,” he says, “needs to move much faster down the ecomodernist path.”

Paarlberg is particularly critical of Big Livestock. In his view, confining animals is only ethical if “adequate protections are provided against physical discomfort and emotional distress.” He thinks many American confinement operations fail this test.

Hogs are raised on Duncan Farms near Polo, Illinois, USA. Photo: AFP/Scott Olson/Getty Images

Europe has much tougher animal-welfare rules and Paarlberg thinks the United States should “move more quickly toward the higher European standard.” He salutes the Humane Society of the United States for pushing states in that direction. He thinks “even a modest substitution of imitation meat for the real thing would be a gain” for the environment.

None of these views will win Paarlberg friends among those who raise cattle, pigs and poultry. But Paarlberg’s evenhandedness will make him a more credible voice for a reader with no connection to agriculture, one who perhaps is deciding what to think about the notion that “the agriculture system is broken.” She’s the audience that most needs to hear Paarlberg’s “corrective” views.

Paarlberg doesn’t think the ag system is broken, but he is scathing in his views of food companies. “They take perfectly healthy commodities produced on our farms and transform them into packaged goods harmful to personal health, then market them aggressively to our children,” he laments. Farmers and the groups representing them are wrong to treat food companies as political allies, he argues. Farmers should be standing up for public health.

“By endorsing better policies at the table,” Paarlberg says in the book’s final sentence, “farmers might finally get some of the credit they deserve for having improved their own performance on the farm.”

Former longtime Wall Street Journal Asia correspondent and editor Urban Lehner is editor emeritus of DTN/The Progressive Farmer. This article, originally published March 1 by that news organization and now republished by Asia Times with permission, is © Copyright 2020 DTN/The Progressive Farmer. All rights reserved.