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“It'd be a mistake to turn back the clock on modern commercial farming. A lot of the precision ag precision agriculture applications that are doing the most to protect the environment require sophisticated skills and expensive machinery. It only pays off if you have a large farm.”

— Robert Paarlberg, Author, Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat

Many activists for sustainable farming envision a future of small, local and highly labor intensive farms, rather than today’s commercial agriculture operations.

But if the goal is to protect as much of nature as possible, larger and more specialized farms can accomplish this goal better than smaller ones, argues Robert Paarlberg, author of Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat. He says it would be a mistake to rewind to the farming practices of the mid-1900s and forgo the technological advancements of recent years.

In this episode of the Strip-Till Farmer podcast, brought to you by SOURCE by Sound Agriculture, Paarlberg talks about the research that went into his book, his advice to commercial farmers and farm organizations about advocating for sustainability, what those groups need to do to combat the myths surrounding sustainable agriculture and more.

Paarlberg is also speaking about Resetting the Table: Straight Talk About the Food We Grow and Eat at the 2022 National Strip-Tillage Conference in Iowa July 28-29. Sign up today to join Strip-Till Farmer for 2 days of learning and unlimited networking with thought leaders like Robert, plus dozens of other industry experts and cutting-edge strip-tillers.

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The Strip-Till Farmer podcast is brought to you by SOURCE®️ by Sound Agriculture.

Wake up your soil and unlock more per acre with SOURCE®️ by Sound Agriculture. SOURCE is a biochemistry that activates microbes in the soil to provide more nitrogen and phosphorus to corn and soybean crops. It’s simple to use with a low use rate, tank mix compatibility, and flexible application window. Use the Performance Optimizer tool to determine where SOURCE will work best to increase yield or reduce nitrogen - either way you win. Visit Sound.Ag to learn more.

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Full Transcript

Michaela Paukner:
Welcome to this episode of the Strip-Till Farmer Podcast Series. I'm Michaela Paukner, Associate Editor of Strip-Till Farmer. Thanks to SOURCE by Sound Agriculture for supporting this Strip-Till podcast series. Wake up your soil and unlock more per acre with SOURCE by Sound Agriculture. SOURCE is a biochemistry that activates microbes in the soil to provide more in nitrogen and phosphorous to corn and soybean crops. It's simple to use with a low use rate, tank mix compatibility, and flexible application window. Use the performance optimizer tool to determine where SOURCE will work best to increase yield, or reduce nitrogen. Either way, you win. Visit sound.ag to learn more. That's S-O-N-D dot A-G.

Michaela Paukner:
Many activists for sustainable farming envision a future of small local and highly labor intensive farms rather than today's commercial agriculture operations. But if the goal is to protect as much of nature as possible, larger and more specialized farms can accomplish this goal better than smaller ones, argues Robert Paarlberg, author of, Resetting the Table Straight Talk About the Food we Grow and Eat. He says it would be a mistake to rewind to the farming practices of the mid 1900s and forego the technological advancements of recent years.

Michaela Paukner:
In today's episode of the Strip-Till Farmer podcast, Robert talks about the research that went into his book, his advice to commercial farmers and farm organizations about advocating for sustainability, what those groups need to do to combat the myths surrounding sustainable farming, and more.

Robert Paarlberg:
I got interested in agriculture and agriculture policy because my dad grew up on a farm in Indiana in Lake County, Indiana during the Depression, not an easy time to be farming. Then he went on and got a PhD in agricultural economics, eventually. He went to Purdue University and then to Cornell. He taught agricultural economics at Purdue. And then became a senior government official in the agricultural field. So, I found his work to be very interesting. And although, I only worked on my uncle's farm in the summer times off and on, I thought that learning a little bit more about agriculture and international food and agriculture could make a good career for me.

Robert Paarlberg:
I went into political science and international relations instead of agricultural economics. But I had an advantage because I'd grown up with a lot of agricultural economists. I could understand their language. And so, they were willing to include me in their activities. And in the academic world, agricultural economists tend to dominate agricultural policy. And if you can't speak their language, you're liable to be excluded.

Michaela Paukner:
So, yeah. Like you said, that's a huge advantage to be able to bring another perspective to the table.

Robert Paarlberg:
Yes. Very few political scientists study agricultural policy. So, when the economists are looking around for someone to talk to them about political institutions and public policy, they stumble across me. And I'm usually at the table more often than other political scientists would be.

Michaela Paukner:
So, throughout your career, what has been some of the scope of your research that you've done?

Robert Paarlberg:
I've actually written 10 books. And some of them grew out of the research and consulting I did with organizations like the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and Us Agency for International Development, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Some just grew out of my own interests. And the research was funded by my academic institutions. That was Wellesley College originally. And then more recently, Harvard University.

Robert Paarlberg:
The first book I ever wrote was about food power. It was about the use of embargo's like the grain embargo that Jimmy Carter announced back in 1980 to try to punish the Soviet Union for invading Afghanistan. And now, we're trying to punish the Russians with various sanctions. So, it's interesting how these topics come around again. I did a book on the reform of US agricultural policy with Chicago University Press. Then I started working on biotechnology.

Robert Paarlberg:
I did a book on the regulation of genetically engineered crops in developing countries. Then I did a book on agriculture in Africa. I have worked in a dozen or so countries in Africa over the years, and half a dozen in Asia, half a dozen in Latin America. I looked at the particular challenges facing smallholder farmers in Africa. I did a book that compared the problem that the United States has with excess fossil fuel consumption to the problem the United States has with excess food consumption.

Robert Paarlberg:
The United States has obesity rates that are roughly twice as high as on the continent of Europe. And our per capita fossil fuel consumption is also roughly twice as high. So, I wrote a book to try to explain all that. I wrote a book that was mostly a textbook called, Food Politics What Everyone Needs to Know. And it's still being assigned to undergraduates here and there. And, my most recent book was an attempt to write for a wider audience.

Robert Paarlberg:
This is not designed for academic specialist. It's done through a trade publisher, Alfred Knopf in New York. And it was my attempt to respond to the charge that our food system is completely broken. I don't think it is. I think part of our food system is badly broken. And that's the food manufacturing companies that turn healthy products that come from our farms into obesity inducing, virtually addictive, ultra-processed products loaded up with too much salt, sugar, and fat. But I don't think commercial agriculture in the United States is the source of our dietary health problems.

Michaela Paukner:
And that book is, Resetting the Table, correct?

Robert Paarlberg:
Yes, that's right. That's my latest book. It just came out a year ago.

Michaela Paukner:
Okay. So, you are joining us at the 2022 National Strip-Tillage Conference in July to talk about some of the research and things that you've discovered when you were writing the book, Resetting the Table. Can you introduce the book? Some of the themes that are in it? And what you've learned as you've been writing it?

Robert Paarlberg:
Yes, as I say, I wrote the book because I got tired of reading complaints from journalists and activists that were saying our food system is completely broken. And they usually say these problems start on the farm. They complain about today's large specialized capital intensive farms. They advocate a return to small local diversified and even organic farms. But in my book, I say it'd be mistake to turn back the clock on modern commercial farming.

Robert Paarlberg:
I agree that the critics that our food system is broken, especially in terms of dietary health. We face a dietary health crisis in the United States today. 42% of adults in the United States are clinically obese. We have serious problems with diabetes, heart attack, stroke, and cancer, linked to obesity. Obesity related diseases kill 300,000 Americans a year. We consume too little fruits and vegetables. Only 1 in 10 Americans consumes the recommended daily helping of fruits and vegetables while we consume too much meat.

Robert Paarlberg:
These are serious problems. But I don't say they start with our farming system. They originate with the food manufacturing companies that take the healthy products grown by our farmers, and ultra-process them, and add too much salt, sugar, and fat. They do that intentionally. They put those ingredients together in carefully designed combinations to ensure that these foods will become virtually addictive, that to ensure that they hit a bliss point, it's called, in our mouth.

Robert Paarlberg:
It triggers the reward circuit in our brain, and makes us want to crave those foods again, even when we're not really hungry. I also include our restaurant chains in doing these things. And that includes casual dining restaurants, not just fast food restaurants. So, I spend a lot of time on our dietary health problems. I look at commercial agriculture overall. And I look at the charge that it's environmentally unsustainable.

Robert Paarlberg:
I don't think that, that charge can be fairly made these days. People who make that charge are working with an outdated notion of what commercial agriculture looks like in the United States. They're thinking about the farms we had 40 years ago that did use too much energy, too much land, too many chemicals resulting in too much soil erosion, and too many greenhouse gas emissions for every bushel that was produced.

Robert Paarlberg:
But thanks to the technical changes that have been made, including everything from drip irrigation to conservation tillage practices, to GPS positioning, digital soil mapping, the use of variable rate input applications, robotics, drones. So, many innovations have brought much greater precision to farming. And the result is a much lighter use of inputs for every bushel that's produced. Most of my students out here in Massachusetts think that corn production is terribly wasteful.

Robert Paarlberg:
It wastes energy. It uses too much land, too much irrigation water. It sends out too many greenhouse gas emissions. But if you look at corn production today compared to 1980, for each bushel of production, we use 30% less land. There's 67% less soil erosion. There's 53% less irrigation water applied, 43% less energy use. And 36% fewer greenhouse gas emissions. We've really become green through the use of much more sophisticated information intensive rather than resource intensive production technologies.

Michaela Paukner:
The farmers who are listening to this, the strip-tillers and many no-till as well, they know these kinds of things. But it sounds like the struggle is getting the public to be aware of all the things that they're doing to produce the amount of food that we need while also protecting the environment. So, what would you say are some things that the individual farmer can do to combat that myth that we need to go back to this labor intensive small farms in order to be sustainable?

Robert Paarlberg:
Well, that's a hard question, hard to think of what one individual farmer can do. From the vantage point of those who think modern farming is unsustainable, probably the missing bit of information that they have is how much more food is being produced today. And the United States is producing three times as much in its agricultural sector as it did in 1948, 3 times as much. And so, it's almost inevitable that significant environmental damage continues to be done. And we need to improve farming.

Robert Paarlberg:
But what the critics need to imagine is how much more damage would be done. If we tried to triple production using the antiquated methods of 1948, we'd have to triple land use. We would use far more energy, far more irrigation water would have to be applied. There'd be far more soil erosion. It's a counterfactual. It's something that people have to work hard to imagine what would things look like if we produce today's quantity of food using yesterday's methods?

Robert Paarlberg:
But you have to somehow show them those realities. And what I do, I'm here in Massachusetts, and we have a lot of farms in New England. But they don't produce very much food. And people in New England love these small local organic farms that sell produce in a roadside stand or at a farmer's market in the summer months. And when you visit the farm, it's beautiful. They have a diverse mixture of crops. And they have goats, and sheep, and chickens, and a few pigs. It just looks lovely. And these are friendly, smart, agreeable people. It's a wonderful summer treat to visit these farms.

Robert Paarlberg:
But most of my students think that this is the way all agriculture should look. But they don't realize how little food these farms produce. In my book, I point out that if you look at the farm sales made by all of the farms, large and small, in all of New England, and that includes Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, those represent only 1% of the total farm sales made every year in the United States. So, this is a lifestyle. It makes summer vacations in New England enjoyable. But it's not a way to provision the food needs of a modern society.

Michaela Paukner:
I also thought in your book, in the beginning of it, when you gave the example of the farmers you worked with in Uganda. Where here are these people doing everything by hand, and the way that a lot of people think we should go back to, to be sustainable. Yet, they're having trouble still feeding their kids too. So, it was a really good example for me to picture the gains that we've made with commercial agriculture, and how that's necessary to our food production.

Robert Paarlberg:
Yeah. So, I work in Africa. And I'm always disturbed to see how little progress smallholder farmers in Africa have made. And it's because they don't have any of the things that successful commercial farmers in the rest of the world have used to boost their productivity. The productivity of their labor, in particular. And to escape poverty. They don't have purchased fertilizers. They can't afford fertilizer. They don't have a good road system to either get their products out to the market or to bring inputs like fertilizer in at an affordable price.

Robert Paarlberg:
Most smallholder farmers in Africa live more than two kilometers from the nearest all weather road. So, their household transport consists of carrying things. They don't have veterinary medicine for their animals. They don't have electricity. They don't have irrigation. Only a tiny percentage of farms in Africa are irrigated. They don't have good rural clinics. They don't have good rural schools. These farmers are living in a poverty trap. They're essentially cut off from modern technologies and from the commercial markets that they need to use to increase their income.

Robert Paarlberg:
And it's an irony because they can't afford fertilizer or pesticides, they're de facto organic because their road system is so poor food doesn't move around very much. So, their food system is de facto local. And people in the United States, some say, we should move from fast food back to slow food. But they should go to Africa and see how much time it takes women in Africa, and most farmers in Africa are women, how long it takes them, not just to plant and harvest their maize crop, but to then strip the ears, and soak them, and shell them, and dry them, and pound them.

Robert Paarlberg:
And then finally, cook them over a handmade fire into some porridge for their family. It takes more time than anyone will want to spend. And at the end of all those efforts, a significant portion of their children are still chronically malnourished because the food supply is so scant.

Michaela Paukner:
Before Robert talks about why larger farms are better positioned for sustainability, I'd like to thank our sponsor SOURCE by Sound Agriculture for supporting the Strip-Till Farmer Podcast Series. Wake up your soil and unlock more per acre with SOURCE by Sound Agriculture. SOURCE is a biochemistry that activates microbes in the soil to provide more nitrogen and phosphorus to corn and soybean crops. It's simple to use with a low use rate, tank mix compatibility, and flexible application window. Use the performance optimizer tool to determine where SOURCE will work best to increase yield or reduce nitrogen. Either way, you win. Visit sound.ag to learn more. That's S-O-N-D dot A-G. Now, let's get back to the conversation.

Michaela Paukner:
In the book, you're making the case that larger and more specialized farms can do a better job of protecting the environment than those types of small and labor intensive farms that a lot of sustainable farming advocates are envisioning. We've talked about this already, but why is that, that these larger farms will do a better job of that?

Robert Paarlberg:
Well, a lot of the precision agriculture applications that are doing the most to protect the environment require sophisticated skills, and expensive machinery. And expensive machinery doesn't pay off on a small farm. It only pays off if you have a large farm. That the leading adopters of, for example, variable rate technologies, variable rate application technologies, and GPS positioning, and soil mapping, digital soil mapping, are the larger farms.

Robert Paarlberg:
And if we had a nation of small farms, the adoption of those improved methods would lag well behind where it is today. Everyone complains, "Oh, well, we have a large farm model. 85% of what we produce is being produced by just the 7% of farms that are the largest." And that's true. But the fact that 85% of what we produce is coming from large, highly capitalized farms gives us an advantage in the uptake of these greenest technologies. Technologies that use the fewest resources for bushel production. And use those resources with the greatest precision.

Robert Paarlberg:
It's hard to make that case to people who've been told their whole life that we should have the countryside should be filled with a lot of small, local diverse traditional farms. People don't realize that our large commercial farms are almost entirely family owned. They don't look like the old, small, local diverse family farms of the 1920s. But they're still, for the most part, family owned.

Michaela Paukner:
And speaking of those large farms having the capital to adopt these things, I think of all that we're hearing right now about autonomous tractors and autonomous machines that can take on even more of the work, and while reducing compaction, and offering all these other benefits. And how it's going to be an expensive practice to adopt. But it could be something that is really good for the environment in general.

Robert Paarlberg:
Ah, yes. Yeah. There's a chapter in my book that looks at robotics. I don't talk about autonomous tractors. But I talk about a lot of robotic and autonomous equipment, especially for harvesting specialty crops. Strawberries, for example, lettuce. These robotic technologies are it's just like the rest of our economy. The great thing about agriculture, in my view, is that it's becoming a little easier to understand because it's looking a lot more than in the past, like the rest of our economy.

Robert Paarlberg:
The rest of our economy is going digital. Well, so is agriculture. So, the rest of our economy is highly capitalized, large scale, and specialized. Well, so is agriculture. And these robotic technologies, like robots on the factory floor, can work 24 hours a day. They don't need a lunch break. A lot of autonomous farm equipment and robotic farm equipment works in the dark. It's no problem. The agricultural population of the past, the farm labor force of the past, has already mostly left farming.

Robert Paarlberg:
And the result of that was higher incomes for those who left and took higher paid work in town. And also higher incomes for those who remain behind. So, I'm not troubled by that trend. Like the rest of the economy, the most advanced segments of the rest of the economy are also finding ways to replace labor. Of course, what that means is you have to make adequate investments in the skill level of your workforce. You need to make adequate investments in education and in training.

Robert Paarlberg:
So, that those who leave agriculture or those who leave farm labor, for example, those who are picking strawberries in California today who might be displaced by robotic pickers, you have to make sure that they have the educational attainment they need to get a good employment off the farm, which is what most of them want. There're not a lot of Mexican strawberry pickers in California who dream that their children will be doing that 30 years from now. They know that there's better work out there. And they want, in agriculture, there's better work out there, and they want their children to qualify.

Michaela Paukner:
The epilogue of your book, Resetting the Table, is titled Straight Talk to Commercial Farmers. And in that section, you're arguing that commercial farming organizations should advocate for reforms to promote dietary health. So, what kinds of organizations should be doing that? And what should they be doing?

Robert Paarlberg:
I make this argument because I've noticed as concerns with dietary health have increased, too many people blame our poor dietary health on farming and not on the food manufacturing companies that I think are primarily to blame. But then when I go to big meetings, whether it's a Farm Foundation meeting, or a Farm Bureau Association meeting, I see representatives of the food industry there. They usually have a slot among the speakers. And they describe themselves as partners with America's farmers.

Robert Paarlberg:
They say, "We're the link between farmers and the American consumer." And the agricultural organizations in the audience don't seem to understand how dangerous that is. If these food manufacturing companies get away with using the popularity of farmers as political cover, when the companies are criticized in the years ahead, the farmers are going to be criticized too. And farmers are already being criticized for our poor diets, unfairly. We're told that farm subsidies are making us fat. That's absolutely not true.

Robert Paarlberg:
We're told that the products we grow are making us fat. And that's not true either. But until farmers are willing to stand up and endorse improvements in dietary health, even if that means criticizing the food companies that are giving us all of these unhealthy products, the sooner that happens, I think the sooner farmers will be protected from the criticism that's otherwise coming their way. I noticed, for example, during the 2010 debate in Congress over the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act that reformed school lunch menus. I think that was a good law.

Robert Paarlberg:
And I thought that farm organizations should get behind it and endorse it. But instead, every little commodity group that thought they might lose something, fought against it, whether it was potato growers who wanted to keep French fries on the menu, or tomato producers who wanted tomato sauce on pizza to be considered a vegetable. I thought that it was so conspicuously self-serving and so indifferent to the dietary health of America's school children. I thought those organizations missed an opportunity.

Robert Paarlberg:
I also thought they missed an opportunity by not getting on board Michelle Obama's Let's Move program, which focused specifically on childhood obesity. Here it's funny because even the big blue manufacturing companies endorsed that, even though they were at the source of most of the problems. But why wouldn't farm organizations be ready to stand up and agree in principle that dietary health is a serious concern? And we want to do something about it.

Robert Paarlberg:
I mean, I studied the SNAP program that was renewed in the 2018 farm bill. And the American Heart Association, and a few other public health organizations thought we should at least have a pilot program to see what the health benefits might be, if we removed sugar sweetened beverages from eligibility for purchase under the SNAP program. And I thought that was something farm organizations could get on board with. The total dollar value of the SNAP program wouldn't go down $1.

Robert Paarlberg:
So, you'd just be telling people if they wanted to drink sugary beverages, they'd have to pay for it out of their own pocket rather than at the expense of the taxpayer. But not a single farm organization had anything good to say about even that pilot program, which was only designed to get better information on what the health benefits might be.

Michaela Paukner:
Why do you think that these organizations aren't standing up and taking the side of the healthy option instead of the unhealthy option?

Robert Paarlberg:
Now, there are a couple of reasons. And I look forward to being at the meeting in July, maybe to get thoughts of farmers who know this from a different angle, and then they know it personally and up close. One reason is the traditional relationship between commodity producers and food manufacturing companies. The food manufacturing companies are your primary customer. They're not the ultimate customer. But they're the primary customer. Most of them are located out in farm country in the Midwestern part of the US.

Robert Paarlberg:
And so, there's a cultural affinity with these food manufacturing companies. Also, farmers notice that, well, these food companies are being criticized by food movement activists, and we farmers are also being criticized by food movement activists. So, maybe these are our natural allies and we should join together with them to fight back against the food movement activists. So, I think that's, as I say, a dangerous strategy. There's another reason. And for this, I can entirely blame farmers.

Robert Paarlberg:
Our political system now is polarized politically. Most food movement activists, of course, and most people who are promoting dietary health, identify more with the Democratic Party than with the Republican Party. Meanwhile, most farmers and the executives in most food manufacturing companies identify primarily with the Republican Party. So, it's politically awkward for commercial farmers and farm organizations who identify with the Republican _Party to reach across the aisle and look for ways to work with the American Heart Association, for example, which like most public health organizations, is more comfortable working with Democrats.

Michaela Paukner:
And what do you think needs to happen to get farm organizations aligning themselves with the more dietary helpful side of things?

Robert Paarlberg:
Well, it's frustrating because farmers and farm organizations wouldn't have to change the way they farm to do that. All they'd have to do is start paying a little more attention to the health concerns of public health, and dietary health, and consumer advocates. Right now, farmers say, "Well, we're giving you safe food." And it is safe when it leaves the farm. "We're giving you affordable food." And it is more affordable than ever before. But safe and affordable, that's the old story. We solved those problems a long time ago.

Robert Paarlberg:
What we now need is foods reaching consumers that aren't obesity inducing because they have too much salt, sugar, and fat. And to listen to those concerns and change the standard recital, the good things farms are doing for consumers neglects the real source of the trouble, which is I think that the dangerous things food companies are doing to the products of farms. And what's interesting also is these food companies are not 10 feet tall. They're under a lot of pressure now from consumers to clean up their labels, to get mysterious ingredients out of the products, to reduce added sugars, to reduce the ultra-processing. They're coming under the gun. So, you can't look at them as a source of protection anymore.

Michaela Paukner:
Right.

Robert Paarlberg:
They're going to be just as vulnerable as commercial farmers. And unless you can create some political space between you and these food companies, you risk going down with them.

Michaela Paukner:
And was there anything else you wanted to talk about today that you haven't mentioned?

Robert Paarlberg:
My book just won a prize. It was given a gold award by the Nautilus Book Award Organization, which runs an international competition. And my book won in the category for green sustainability. So, maybe that'll give me some political cover from those who think that my praise for commercial agriculture ignores environmental concerns.

Michaela Paukner:
Well, congratulations on the award. And it is like you said, it's interesting how it's been polarized to want healthy food and food that is produced in a way that's good for the environment and ultimately, everybody. Hopefully, you can help bring some people together.

Robert Paarlberg:
I hope so. I'll give it a try.

Michaela Paukner:
Thanks to Robert Paarlberg for joining me for today's conversation. He's slated to speak at the National Strip-Tillage Conference in Iowa on July 28th. Head to striptillconference.com to register for two days of learning from dozens of thought leaders like Robert, other industry experts, and cutting-edge strip-tillers. If you're looking for more podcasts about strip-till, visit striptillfarmer.com/podcasts, or check out our episode library wherever you get your podcasts. Finally, many thanks to SOURCE by Sound Agriculture for helping to make this strip-till podcast series possible. From all of us here at Strip-Till Farmer, I'm Michaela Paukner. Thanks for listening.