Creative Destructionism and Cooperative Extension’s Role in It

Recently, a Facebook friend reproved me for my professional affiliation with the Cooperative Extension, specifically for the influential role Extension played in reducing the number family farms in the 20th century.

Cooperative Extension, he wrote, “was created to get farmers off their farms and into factories.”

The end result: the original green revolution – it was even called that, as my friend stressed. With it came the “chemicals and mechanization and the destruction of the family farm to fill jobs and [to] ensure cheap food.”

I won’t argue with that — for that matter, neither would most of my coworkers. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told that my ultimate boss, Auburn University President Jay Gogue, a great admirer of the Cooperative Extension legacy, has offered a somewhat similar interpretation during his tours of county Extension offices.

By propagating the scientific methods that rendered farming considerably more efficient, Extension had a major hand in the formation of the modern farming model, one that embodies the same unrelenting pursuit of efficiency that characterizes modern capitalism in general.

Our cheap food supply is the most tangible expression of this unrelenting quest for efficiency – a fact of which I was reminded a few days ago after purchasing a large chocolate cream pie for slightly more than $5 dollars.

Only a couple of centuries ago – a mere blink of the eye in historical terms – such a luxury food, trimmed with thick dollops of white icing, yet eminently affordable for the masses, would have been far beyond the mental grasp virtually everyone, rich and poor alike. I can only imagine how a poor Irish tenant farmer who spent his entire life subsisting entirely on marginal potatoes, known as lumpers, would have regarded such a thing.

The large, calorie-laden pie, purchased at a mere pittance, is a testament to the effective use of virtually everything modern science and economics have revealed up to now. To be sure, though, operating at this level of efficiency resulted in the effective obsolescence of legions of marginal wheat and dairy farmers — not to mention, bakers.

Just as the market giveth, it taketh away – therein lies the paradox of modern farming and of modern capitalism in general.

The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter coined a remarkable phrase for it: creative destructionism, one of the great insights of modern economical thought.

Destruction is one of the operating costs of market efficiency. In its ruthless quest for efficiency, the market routinely casts off products and practices – and, consequently, people too – once deemed important, if not indispensable, by earlier generations.

Modern farming is no exception.

Call me heartless but, all things considered, I would contend this has been a good thing. After all, cheap food is only one of many tangible benefits that have accompanied the creative destruction associated with modern farming.

As Matt Ridley observes in his latest book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, one of the hallmarks of modern farming, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, staved off the the deaths of millions from mass starvation as supplies of guano, which served as the principal sources of nitrogen in the late 19th and early 20th century, approached exhaustion.

Yet, as Ridley stresses time and again, this only scratches the surface. The improved yields that have accompanied modern farming have also greatly reduced the demand for cropland.

As he observes, if the average yields of 1961 were still commonplace in 1998, an extra 7.9 billion acres of land would have been put to the plow – an area comparable to the entire continent of South America, minus Chile.

Likewise, the more recent adoption of new techniques, such as precision farming, have resulted in drastic reductions in herbicide, pesticide and water use.

New lines of genetically modified crops will soon be available that are not only more resistant to drought and common plant diseases but that are also designed to address serious Third World vitamin and nutrient deficiencies.

Yes, Cooperative Extension played an integral role in all of this. We have been creators as well as destroyers, albeit creative destroyers. Yet, on balance, I believe the material benefits stemming from our century-old involvement in agriculture have served humanity in ways most of us scarcely grasp.

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2 responses to “Creative Destructionism and Cooperative Extension’s Role in It

  1. there are lots of cheap foods on the market that taste like crap but there are good quality ones too ::

  2. The reported criticism of US extension ignores the problem of international competition. You can only choose to stand still in the productivity race if your competitors choose to do so as well. The policy choice for export competing industries was to either improve productivity so some would survive, or to ignore the challenge and none would survive.

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