“As a farm leader, I know all too well that our nation’s traditional system of independently owned and operated family farms raised and sold our products into functioning markets that were accessible, competitive, transparent, and fair. This kind of market place is being replaced by the vertically integrated, capital and energy intensive, industrialized, corporate-owned version of the feudal system our ancestors fled.” (p. XIII) This bold statement in the book’s foreword by John K. Hansen, member of the National Farmers Union in the United States, summarizes well the central theme of this volume. Industrial agriculture has often been lauded as the salvation of a growing, hungry, global population. At the same time the global food system is increasingly being criticized because of monopolistic practices and its destructive environmental behavior. “In Defense of Farmers” addresses the many challenges that agricultural producers face today and aims to illuminate the critical role that farmers play in the future of agriculture. As this volume makes clear, the picture becomes increasingly bleak. As John K. Hansen continues: “Farmers now receive a smaller share of the consumer food dollar than in any time in history (…) The corporate economic interests that farm the farmers continue to increase their profit margins at the expense of both food producers and food consumers.” (p. XIV)
The book’s central message is that there is a great need to understand this increasingly complicated and industrialized food production system. Although not clear from the title, the focus is on US agriculture; only three contributions deal with other American countries: Canada, Brazil and Bolivia. Although the approach is hardly global, a wide range of themes is covered in the separate contributions: vertical farm integration, especially the vertically integrated chicken-meat production that displaces small- and medium-producers; the impact of digital technologies on farming; the threat of climate change and ground-water depletion; agricultural research funding; intensive soy bean production; rural depopulation.
It is clear that the editors and authors in this book take a firm position. What they call sustainable agriculture departs fundamentally from industrial farming as it still expands in and outside the US (also defined as conventional, chemical, intensive, industrial, modern, factory, mechanized, corporate, productivist, large-scale, capitalized agriculture, p. 5). Farmers have to play a leading role in the process of transformation. The first full chapter in the book “Power, Food, and Agriculture” makes this clear. “Thus, we believe food should not be treated like other commodities, and the people who produce food along with a stable agroecosystem, should be protected as critical to society.” (p. 13). This will not be an easy task, far from it. Peasant and smallholder producers around the world face increasing constrained choices with limited resources. Resistance and alternatives to the highly coordinated, capitalized, and industrialized agrifood system has been fragmented and only very partially successful. But there are successes, all around the world, mostly small and bottom-up. There are also organizations, platforms and initiatives that aim to coordinate activities and alternative knowledge such as the international peasant’s movement La Via Campensina, and the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). As expressed by US farmer’s leader John K. Hansen, “If we are serious about fighting for the future viability of our planet, we must move food production back toward more diversification, and more and better resource managers who have a stewardship ethic. Family farm and ranch agriculture is that system.” (p. XVI)