Category Archives: Crops

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.

Cooperative Extension’s Finest Hour?

Even as Cooperative Extension faces the worst budgetary cutbacks in its almost century-long history, it is being called on to do the unthinkable:  To help farming reinvent itself by reducing its environmental footprint without eroding the high level of efficiency that characterizes the current model.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference earlier this year, Professor John Beddington, chief science adviser to the U.K. government, put this challenge into grim perspective, stressing that  global agriculture will have to produce 50 percent more food by 2030 to feed the growing population, projected to be 9.5 billion by mid-century.

Farmers are being called on to feed billions more, despite a future of drastically reduced supplies of fossil fuels and water resources — two resources critical to the success of modern agriculture within the last century.

That is the irony — and the opportunity — we face as Cooperative Extension educators.

For their part, British policy makers have already begun exploring ways to build a farm model that incorporates both sustainability and efficiency.

Stressing the need for Britain to grow more of its food while reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, Hilary Benn, the United Kingdom’s secretary of state for the environment, outlined the first new British agricultural policy in decades, one that possibly may offer insight into the kind of global farming model that eventually may emerge.

“We need to produce more food.  We need to do it sustainably. And we need to make sure what we eat safeguards our health,” he said in announcing the policy.

Benn said British consumers have a role to play by demanding greener food from retailers and by wasting less, and, equally significant, by growing more of their own food and developing local markets for these homegrown products.

He and other British policymakers believe this strategy would enhance community spirit as well as physical and community health.

But will it also secure what Beddington and other scientists wish to achieve within the next few decades: creating a farming market that is both sustainable and efficient enough to feed 3 billion more people?

To be fair, in addition to calling for expanding homegrown food production and local farm markets, many leading British researchers and policy makers also concede that that cutting-edge science will have an even more prominent role to play.

For his part, Beddington says that feeding the emerging world population will require production of more crops on less land and greater use of emerging technologies, especially the genetic modification of food and nanotechnology.

How these competing objectives ultimately will be balanced out is uncertain.  What is virtually certain is that some farming model that incorporates cost-efficiency and sustainability will emerge.  

Daunting as it is, this challenge presents us Extension educators with an immense opportunity, one that far surpasses the challenge we faced roughly a hundred years ago introducing mechanized farming practices to tens of thousands of family farms.

The important reality to bear in mind — one that we should proclaim to our clients and stakeholders frequently and unashamedly — is that no other public or private entity is as equipped to help our farmers build this new model.  Yes, public and private researchers have a critical role to play, but only we are equipped to provide the nation’s farmers with the big picture — and by big picture, I mean the complete set of skills and altered thinking required to make this transition.

Yes, as cloudy as the Cooperative Extension future often seems, we nonetheless have a vital role to play in the future — one that very well could be prove to be our finest hour.