Agriculture is a prominent topic in the current policy and market discussions regarding greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation. Crop practices and livestock management are scrutinized for energy intensity and GHG emissions and mitigation potential. Biofuels policies are criticized as a threat to food supplies. Food, the practices providing it, and the countryside from which it comes, continue to gain attention in the ongoing debate concerning economic and environmental sustainability. In this debate, a fundamental question is, “who drives decisions on the farm?” An obvious answer is, “Farmers do”.
This answer may be obvious, but it’s also inadequate. Let’s use the example of the humble yet wholesome loaf of bread. Farmers in today’s pricey commodities market receive about 15 cents per pound of wheat delivered to market. This wheat is then milled into flour, baked into bread, and packaged for consumers. If the final loaf weighs one pound, half of which is water, roughly 7.5 cents of the cost of bread is paid to the farmer, and the remainder of the purchase price is shared among food processors, distributors, and retailers. In the meat market, the farmer’s share is slightly greater. Of every dollar consumers spend on pork, for example, roughly 25 cents goes to the farmer. In the agricultural supply chain, the majority of value is created through the conversion of farm products into consumer products, and decision-making around farming practices is correspondingly upstream.
That is, decisions are driven by consumer expectations related to availability, convenience, price, quality, variety, etc., often in contradiction to farmers’ concerns for land or livestock stewardship. Farmers are told what to supply and at what price to deliver. Farmers decide (1) to participate in this price structure or to cease operations, and, if they choose to continue, (2) to develop practices that yield produce at the price point controlled by consumers and within the constraints imposed by policy-makers. Farmers have the freedom to innovate for environmental sustainability only if economic efficiency is a co-benefit. Thus, to a significant degree, consumers and policy-makers in the city decide how farmers manage the countryside.
Does this mean farmers are hapless and helpless victims of circumstance, unable to manage their own GHG performance and unable to contribute to social goals of GHG mitigation? Clearly not – agricultural communities continually demonstrate ingenuity and independence in issues ranging from soil conservation to rural development. However, farmers need the support and understanding of urban-based consumers and policy-makers. If consumers demand cheap food, farmers will continue to have limited opportunity to innovate. And, if policies focus on maximizing cheap production, farmers will continue to have little incentive to innovate. The demands of urban consumers and policy initiatives of the city will help determine the success of GHG mitigation in the countryside.
In future postings, we will explore agricultural opportunities for managing GHG emissions as well as agriculture’s potential to contribute clean technology developments. Let us know of you have particular questions around any of these areas and we will do our best to answer them in future postings. In closing, a key to the success of any agricultural enhancements of GHG management and mitigation is the understanding of the interdependence of the countryside and the city.