Twilight of the freedom to farm?

Are we living in the twilight of farmers’ freedom to farm?

Until the last few years farmers have been able to choose their crops, choose their methods and choose their products and tools based almost entirely on their own choices and decisions. It’s always been the way, until very recently. And it’s still the way, but maybe just for now.

Everywhere we look today there are verification systems, labeling initiatives, product pledges and corporate statements being made across the food industry. And in many provinces, states and countries controls and bans are being placed on various forms of agricultural production, not due to proven scientific risk but due to a popular perception of risk or badness. These developments have been steadily moving into the news pages of not just farm newspapers but have also become common items in urban dailies and regularly chattered about on radio. Social media, obviously, is full of sound and fury about anything to do with farming and food.

Just think of all these consumer issues: GMOs; neo-nicotinoids; glyphosate; organic-versus-conventional; animal welfare; water pollution; climate change. They’re all regularly getting mainstream public attention and all create the grounds for government restrictions and prohibitions for activists and concerned citizens, regardless of a balanced scientific assessment of true risk.

Within farming and agriculture it’s no less intense. The widespread development of glyphosate- and multiple-herbicide resistant weeds is terrifying farmers around the world. The continuing spread of clubroot and intensification of blackleg is threatening the sustainability of the canola industry, worrying many farmers about their biggest money-maker. Carbon taxes will cut into thin profitability, making the future of farming more challenging still.

What’s the bigger challenge to farmers: government bans or industry requirements? That’s hard to say right now. But they’re both significant.

Glyphosate isn’t about to be banned in North America. Farmers will still have that legal, cheap, effective, safe (and massively overused?) tool for years, in all likelihood. But already some buyers of grains have been requiring farmers to guarantee that they have not used pre-harvest glyphosate, and it’s hard to imagine those demands not growing to more and more buyers. It won’t take too many reports of glyphosate residues being found in baby food for the major players to simply require farmers and grain companies to certify that they don’t do pre-harvest glyph and that’ll be the end of that practice for most farmers.

Hog farmers are treading towards 2024 with the knowledge that most will have to replace their barns to fit the incoming animal code of practice that eliminates most gestation stall systems. It hasn’t been proven that the stalls are inhumane, but they don’t pass the smell test anymore and they’re going. Regardless, most of the major meat product makers and providers have said they won’t buy meat from gestation stall systems within a few years, so that system is done.

Sustainability standards and indexes are everywhere and farmers are gradually being forced to follow them if they want to continue supplying certain products to certain buyers. Does anybody think that pressure will become less?

None of this is necessarily a bad thing, Farmers can generally adapt to any moderate challenge and have repeatedly done so for decades. This evolution of expectations, labels, brands and certifications is just part of farmers finally becoming tightly integrated with the rest of the supply chain within which they are the fundamental source of supply.

But it means that farming in the future will probably be a lot more focused on observing the sensitivities of the buyer and consumer, and that means a lot more focus on growing what the buyer wants the way they want it grown, as much as it has been focused on growing what the farmer wants to grow the way that he thinks it can be grown best.


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