Last week while the media was focused on the release of the newest Iphone and the “controversy” over its lack of a headphone jack, a different company announced that it had created a tiny drone that could take the place of honeybees for pollinating crops. And two of the world’s largest suppliers of inputs for agriculture: Monsanto and Bayer Chemical, reached an agreement to merge.
It’s not hard to guess which of these three events will not make history in the long run.
In long piece in the New York Times magazine, Michael Pollan blasts President Obama for essentially cowering in fear of what Pollan calls “Big Food” and failing to take action to reign it in. He points to the likely approval of the Monsanto-Bayer merger as an example.
But the truth may be less dramatic and less conspiratorial. “Big Ag” really doesn’t have to spend much on lobbying or PR to get the support of politicians because most Americans have no connection whatsoever with their food or who produces it. They are not interested in hearing about consolidation in the meat-packing industry or anything remotely involving agricultural policy. They don’t care about nutritional labels or where and how the food is grown. As long as food is cheap enough and tastes good, they are happy. And “Big Ag” is really good at producing cheap food.
As far as what farmers may think about policies affecting them, politicians simply don’t care — there are not enough farmers left to matter when Election Day rolls around. A recent op-ed piece by President Obama focusing on rural areas essentially proves the point: he doesn’t mention agriculture a single time. From a farmer’s perspective, this is a shocking gaff, but it was probably intentional. Only 1% of Americans are currently employed in agriculture, and the number is shrinking every day. Less than 2,000 farms produce over 80% of the crops grown in the U.S. Despite all the farmers’ markets, farm-to-fork restaurants and Whole Foods, agriculture is racing towards a future where even the bees are robotic.
Most tasks on farms in the U.S. are already automated to a certain extent, from planting to harvest. But by the time that the recently signed bill changing the overtime rules for agricultural workers in California goes into full affect in 2020, self-driving or remotely operated machinery will have replaced tractors, combines and other equipment currently driven by a human being.
Meanwhile, those of us who do care about what we eat and how our food is grown have created an alternative universe of food and farming. And while that universe is constantly expanding — organic and natural foods is the fastest growing sector of the industry — it will likely always be a niche sector of the market and a tiny percentage of farmland. This alternative universe functions as a kind of safety valve for “Big Ag”, keeping a small minority of consumers from getting so mad that they force policymakers to take action.
In an alternative food universe where organic farming was the rule instead of the exception, miniature drones equipped with tiny lasers would hover around crops protecting them from bugs and mold. Instead, we have a world where Monsanto and Bayer will ensure that their chemical products remain the dominant form of pest control. And if honeybees disappear as a result, they will sell drones to replace them.
But look over there! Check out the new Iphone!
With apologies for the cynicism,