They Know Best.

Written By: Executive Director Tawny Tesconi
Published: May 12, 2021

They know best. Who are they? “They” are elected officials, public agencies, activists, and community members. And what are they experts at? Developing policies and crafting regulations for agriculture, an industry many of them know very little – or nothing about.

I am wary when I see a new project or funding program that declares it has been created to “support farmers” or “sustain agriculture”. I immediately dig into who developed the program and project, which organization funded the plan development, and most importantly, what is in the fine print. Nine times out of ten, it was crafted from outside the agriculture industry and there has not been a farmer or ag business sector expert included in the development process. And typically, using those same odds, the program that is headlined as the holy grail for the farmer typically has very little benefit to agriculture.

There are many examples to point to, but I thought I would share some of my favorites.

They know best – “controlled burns are bad”.  Hmm…guessing there is a lot of “told you so” in this example. Roughly 25 years ago the “theys” determined that controlled burns were not necessary and only created poor air quality and damaged wildlife habitat. Now the “they’s” are demanding that millions of dollars be spent on managing vegetation to restore habitats and mitigate wildfires. It would be a great grad student program to estimate the billions of dollars this decision has cost our golden state.

They know best – “birthing pens for farrowing sows are cruel and need to be banned”. This thought process must come from someone who has never tried to get a pregnant sow into a birthing pen. Would a farmer really put themselves through this process just for the fun of it? After generations of swine husbandry, farmers determined that preventing a mama sow from stepping on or crushing her piglets saved lives – “they” do not get the common sense on this one.

They know best – “agriculture is bad and is the cause of climate change.  We need to overregulate them to force them to be good land stewards.” Again, counterintuitive. Healthy soils and healthy animals result in higher productivity and increased net profits. Farmers and ranchers have the knowhow to do what needs to be done, but often do not have the means. Also, agriculture is the primary tool available to combat climate change. Big picture, from 1990-2017 the stats show that greenhouse gas emissions from all our world’s agriculture industry represented 10% of total emissions. A tenth of the problem is related to feeding the world’s population – but agriculture is often labeled as the cause of climate change.

Daily, I have dozens of news stories and studies that land in my inbox. The other day I had several reads that hit simultaneously that caused me to shake my head because the takeaway from these reports contradicted one another.

The first was a report titled “Benefits of Increased U.S. Public Investment in Agricultural Research” a study completed by the Farm Journal Foundation and the American Farm Bureau Federation. An interesting read, the report advocates for more public funding for agricultural research because of the constraints facing agriculture today and in the future. An eye-opening statistic mentioned in the introduction states that food production will need to increase between 60% to 70% over current levels by 2050 to meet the estimated food demand. This need is not only driven by an increase in population, but also from a higher demand for quality, animal-based foods that results from increased consumer income and worldwide development. Further, with urbanization, there is not going to be any additional lands available to grow crops or raise livestock, so farmers need technology focused on increasing yields and productivity.

Now, let us talk California leadership and their thoughts on agriculture which was gleaned from the other articles read. 

First, there is Governor Newsom’s 30 x 30 Executive Order that is part of an international movement to set aside 30% of the earth’s land are to preserve wildlife habitat and protect against climate change. I see that as likely decreasing the food production for California – wouldn’t you see it that way?

Then, there is a state assembly bill coming back from last year aimed at provide funding to help farmers transition from the crops they have been growing for generations to other less-resource intensive crops. Oh, and by the way, these earmarked funds will also go toward fallowing ag land in favor of wildlife habitat and riparian area restoration. Again, less land for farming and a shift from the quality proteins from animal products that the AFBF report demonstrates needs to see an increase in production.

And back to the conversation around keeping lands in food production.  According to the California Water Alliance (CalWA), 48% of the state’s water supply is used for environmental purposes, compared to 41% for agriculture and 11% for urban uses. William Bourdeau, Chair of CalWA, said the increased emphasis on the environment has reduced water supply to farmers, forcing them to fallow up to 800,000 acres annually.

California is the leader in innovation, technology, and research. Does food production need to suffer to save wildlife and our environment and vice versa? Should all the funding that is being dedicated to fallout from climate change be dedicated to water technology and water distribution, the elephant in the room? I constantly thirst for affordable science that can desalinate sea water and make it usable to increase water supply, lessen the effects of climate change, and likely decrease sea rise. But “they” know best.

What causes me the most angst about the “theys” is their self-proclaimed appointment to the position of teacher to our farmers and ranchers who have been growing food for thousands of years and who have a toolbox of knowledge and best practices passed down through the generations. What other industry can make that claim? Yet, I challenge you to point to an industry outside of agriculture where the “theys” believe “they” have the right to govern how a farmer performs day to day tasks. You do not see it the technology industry, with financial institutions nor manufacturing. You don’t even see it in government, but I am not sure you’d want that visual anyway.

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