Agricultural “Signs of the Times”
agricultural “signs of the times” are complex and sometimes contradictory.
Since our Conference last addressed these questions,1 much has remained the
same. U.S. agriculture has demonstrated remarkable productivity and quality,
thanks to the hard work, skills, and sacrifices of farmers and farmworkers. U.S.
agriculture has given Americans and the world plentiful food, fiber, and other
products at affordable prices. However, we live in a world where many are still
hungry. We live in a nation where many family farmers are still struggling and
where many have lost farms in recent decades. We live in a society where many
farmworkers are still denied the opportunity to live a decent life.
We are also facing new challenges: for example, increasing
concentration at every level of agriculture, increasing focus on agricultural
trade as a measure of economic vitality, and increasing globalization tying
together our lives and livelihoods wherever we live. (See data box “U.S.
Agriculture: What Is Happening to Farms and Farmers?” and data box “Global
Agriculture: What Is Happening to Hungry People and Farmers Around the World?”)
Fewer people are making important decisions that affect far more people than in
the past. These choices have serious moral implications and human consequences.
These forces of increasing concentration and growing globalization are pushing
some ahead and leaving others behind. They are also pushing us toward a world
where the powerful can take advantage of the weak, where large institutions and
corporations can overwhelm smaller structures, and where the production and
distribution of food and the protection of land lie in fewer hands. (See data
box “Concentration and Vertical Integration: What Is Happening to Our Food from
Field to Shelf?”)
With these reflections, we offer brief summaries of trends
and relevant statistics. They are not a comprehensive analysis of the forces at
work in agriculture. They focus more on problems than progress, more on human
costs than economic achievements, more on who is left behind than on who is
moving ahead. Beyond the numbers are images and contrasts that haunt us.
- We return home from the supermarket with its
many choices and turn on the television to watch a young girl half a world away
pick through a garbage dump for something, anything to eat.
- We know U.S. agriculture is changing in so
many ways, but farmers still depend on whether it rains and on other forces of
- We are urged to eat foods that promote
health, but most of us never think about the health and safety of those who
harvest those fruits and vegetables. We are stunned by the headlines when
eighteen people die in a tractor trailer in Victoria, Texas, or in a desert, people
who came seeking a better life, hoping to work in our fields.
- We have learned that more than half of the
coffee industry’s permanent labor force has lost their jobs as world coffee
prices plummeted, affecting tens of thousands of workers and farmers throughout
- We celebrate the hard work and sacrifice of
so many farm families and the traditional community values in rural towns.
However, many of us do not realize how these virtues and values are sometimes
threatened by powerful economic interests and other forces that make it more
and more difficult for smaller farms and communities to survive and thrive.
- We heard the sad story at one of our
listening sessions of a mother in Zimbabwe who stood in line for days to get
food for her two young children. As she waited, she watched both children die.