September 7, 2013


Farming as rocket science : Why American agriculture is different from the European variety (Lexington, Sep 7th 2013, The Economist)

Foreign rivals are right about the power of market forces in America, but wrong to see its farmers as passive victims. Americans have thought differently about agriculture for a long time--and not by accident. Settled in a rush of migration, peaking in the 1880s, Nebraska's prairies were parcelled out to German, Czech, Danish, Swedish and even Luxemburgish pioneers. From the start the plan was to convert Old World homesteaders to the scientific ways of the New World. As the system developed, Congress sent county agents from universities to teach menfolk modern farming and their wives such skills as tomato-canning. In the 1920s educational trains trundled through the prairies, pulling boxcars of animals and demonstration crops. At each stop, hundreds would gather for public lectures. Older folk resisted such newfangled ideas as planting hybrid corn bought from merchants rather than seedcorn from their own harvests. Enter the 4-H movement, which gave youngsters hybrid seeds to plant, then waited for the shock as children's corn outgrew their parents'. Later youngsters promoted such innovations as computers.

Because America was a new country, argues Greg Ibach, head of agriculture in Nebraska's state government, a primary concern was feeding a growing population and moving food large distances. Europeans fussed about appellations and where food came from. Americans "treated food as commodities".

Such differences of history and culture have lingering consequences. Almost all the corn and soyabeans grown in America are genetically modified. GM crops are barely tolerated in the European Union. Both America and Europe offer farmers indefensible subsidies, but with different motives. EU taxpayers often pay to keep market forces at bay, preserving practices which may be quaint, green or kindly to animals but which do not turn a profit. American subsidies give farmers an edge in commodity markets, via cheap loans and federally backed crop insurance.

Nebraska, a big beef and corn producer, feels bullish in more ways than one. There is much talk of China's meat-craving middle class and a fast-growing global population. Last year farming graduates at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln could pick from multiple job offers. America is "completely set up" to supply soaring world demand--as long as it can keep using GM crops and other technology, says Will Miller, a UNL student who reared enough heifers as a 4-H member to pay his way through college.

Posted by at September 7, 2013 5:33 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus