by: Wes Ishmael

When you spend most all day, every day, wrapped up in the cattle business or some other sector of agriculture, it's too easy to believe the rest of the world sees things from an identifiable viewpoint.

“I would say flat out, the advocates for alternative agriculture have already won the cultural war,” says Robert Paarlberg, Ph.D., the Betty Freyhof Johnson '44 Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wellesley College. “Their viewpoint is now dominant. It's hard, outside of an agricultural school at a state university in the Midwest to find anyone willing to stand up and have a good thing to say about our modern style of farming.”

Paarlberg spoke at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln as part of the Heuermann Lecture series. His presentation was entitled Our Culture War Over Food and Farming. Paarlberg is also author of the book "Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know." You can view the archived lecture at

Besides teaching at Wellesley, Paarlberg is an Associate at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. He has a chance to teach students from all over the nation and world.

“Most of them come to my classes with their minds already made up about our current food and farming system. They've all seen Food Inc. and read Omnivore's Dilemma, which expose weaknesses of conventional food and farming systems. They believe our current food and farming system is generating foods that are unsafe and unhealthy, that our conventional food and farming systems are environmentally unsustainable and producing social outcomes rife with injustice.”

In fact, Paarlberg says, “Many young people today have been persuaded that the task of completely reinventing our food system from the bottom up is a social cause of significance and worth comparable to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's and the woman's movement of the 1970's. It's an idealistic goal to correct what they find to be seriously wrong with the existing system. You can risk social ostracism if you dare to put a contrary view forward.”

Imagine that.

Conventional Agriculture Versus Alternative

Paarlberg likens it to a cultural war comprised of three primary parts: the battle for the cultural ground (ideas), competition for market share, and he says, “…competition to control the instruments of government policy—taxes, regulations and mandates that governments use to redistribute resources and to shape social outcomes.

On one side are advocates and defenders of conventional agriculture, which focuses on high productivity, utilizing science and free markets to help accomplish that goal.     

On the other side are critics of conventional agriculture who advocate alternative agricultural production focusing on smaller, local, diversified agricultural operations.

Paarlberg sees three dimensions of cultural differences between defenders of conventional agriculture and advocates of alternative agriculture:

Production and scale versus diversity. “Defenders of conventional farming believe that high productivity is the goal and are willing to let agriculture become highly capitalized, highly specialized and highly industrialized and to operate on a large scale if necessary, Paarlberg says. “Critics say distribution is the problem not production. They say the only sustainable and socially just kind of production system is one that has small, diversified farms rather than large specialized ones.”

Science versus traditional knowledge. “Advocates of conventional agriculture are comfortable using science and technology to develop high levels of production,” Paarlberg explains. “Critics are skeptical. They believe you can only get so far with a reductionist technical fix. They say we're much better off trusting traditional knowledge rather than exotic laboratory science. You shouldn't try to engineer nature or dominate it (they say). You should learn from nature, learn to imitate it and put in agro-ecological systems that function more like natural eco-systems.”

Corporations versus communities. “Conventional agriculture is comfortable competing in a relatively open market place, with competition between large corporate entities and farms that are also quite large,” Paarlberg says. He adds that participants in conventional agriculture are, “…willing to accept regulations from democratically elected representatives in government but are quite comfortable with a market economy in which large corporate entities play the lead role.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Paarlberg explains, “Critics of the contemporary system are deeply skeptical about the role of large companies in our lives in and general and food and farming in particular. They're mistrustful of the government in Washington DC because they suspect our democratically elected representatives have been excessively influenced by campaign contributions from large corporate entities. They don't trust regulators because, once again, they think government has been captured by corporate interests.

“Advocates for alternative agriculture would like to see more influence returned to the local communities. If local communities don't have a voice, then non-government organizations, social advocates and social activists promoting environmental sustainability and social justice will serve as the voice for those local communities.”

A Sustainable Path Forward?

With all of this in mind, cattle producers should be encouraged by the March 17 release of the draft Principles and Criteria for Global Sustainable Beef. The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) developed it over the course of more than a year.

Whether or not you agree with GRSB's principles and criteria, encouragement should come from the fact that folks with a vested interest in the success of cattle and beef, besides producers themselves, are part of the Herculean effort.

GRSB officially formed in 2012 and includes international members from across the beef value chain. It includes the likes of McDonalds Corp., Walmart/Sams Club, JBS, Tyson Foods, Certified Angus Beef, Rabobank, and National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

“These principles and criteria establish a global framework for ensuring sustainable performance in beef production,” says Ruaraidh Peter, GRSB Executive Director. “The definition covers all elements of the global beef value chain, including production, processing, distribution, sale and consumption. GRSB members believe sustainability is a journey of continuous improvement that requires the shared participation and responsibility among all actors – from producers to consumers. The GRSB definition provides a broad road map for this journey, allowing different regions to establish specific indicators, metrics or practices.”

It's hard to quibble with the group's vision: “We envision a world in which all aspects of the beef value chain are environmentally sound, socially responsible and economically viable.”      

It's hard to complain about GRSB's mission: “The mission of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is to advance continuous improvement in global beef value chain sustainability, through leadership, science, and multi-stakeholder engagement and collaboration.”

BRSB's definition of sustainable beef makes sense, too.

“GRSB defines sustainable beef as a socially responsible, environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes our planet, people, the animals, and continuous progress,” said Cameron Bruett, President of the GRSB and Head of Corporate Affairs at JBS USA. “Our membership has worked in a collaborative fashion to boldly confront the challenges in every segment of the beef value chain. The core principles for global sustainable beef production seek to balance a broad range of issues including natural resources, community and individual development, animal well-being, food, efficiency and innovation.”

You can see the draft document at The public is invited to provide input and comments to the draft definition through May 16, 2014. After that, the document will be updated to reflect input received during the public comment period. Comments, along with any improvements to the draft definition, will be published for public review.

During is lecture, Paarlberg, who has roots in production agriculture, offered an example of laughable comments made by politicians who obviously have no notion of how agriculture works. But, he added, “Those who operate America's highly successful farming system in states like Nebraska can't afford to laugh anymore at the sometimes poorly informed opinions that outsiders have about what they're doing because conventional agriculture in the United States is under strong attack.”

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