Water, Soil, Toil: What is your philosophy of agriculture?

We recently hosted philosopher and agricultural ethicist Dr. Paul Thompson for a lecture in Nebraska. The goal of the event was to help us think more deeply about issues surrounding agriculture.

Before his lecture, Dr. Thompson wrote in the Omaha World Herald:

The American food system is being pushed and pulled from many directions. Soils and water are under pressure, and the prospects for regulation are uncertain. Consumer interest in healthful and local foods is creating opportunities for some producers, but the social structure of the food supply chain creates barriers to the realization of those opportunities.

These are but a few of the challenges faced by farmers, as well as firms that work within the food system at every level, from farm supply to grocery stores and restaurants. It may be time to take a step back and reconsider our philosophy of agriculture. What do we actually expect from our food system, and what support and allowances are we willing to make in order to get it?

In his lecture, Dr. Thompson presented two ethical frameworks for approaching agricultural dilemmas. The first is an agrarian philosophy of agriculture. It has roots in Jefferson’s view of farmers as “the most valuable citizens.”

For Jefferson, farmers held a special place in American society. Engaged in a trade that tied them to the land, and thus to community and state, Jefferson argued that farmers exemplified the locally engaged citizens that were the backbone of American democracy.

This philosophy lives on today. Ironically it is often evoked to promote both renewed efforts at community-based agriculture and to protect the largest farmers from consumer criticism or government regulation.

Dr Thompson then talked about an industrial philosophy of agriculture. This philosophy expects our food system to deliver a menu of safe and efficiently produced goods, similar to the expectations we hold of any other industrial sector of our economy. In his piece in the Omaha World Herald, Dr. Thompson wrote:

Like manufacturing, health care, entertainment or transportation, we expect to apply our own individual values in choosing which products of the food system we purchase and enjoy. Some of us will value convenience and low price, while others will value amenities or aesthetic qualities.

Which philosophy do you subscribe to? Do you believe that farmers, tied to land and community, exemplify the locally engaged citizen that is the backbone of American democracy? Or do you believe farmers are engaged in an industrial practice that is not that dissimilar from health care or manufacturing?

Perhaps you’d like to believe both. If so, a tension will arise, as Dr. Thompson noted:

[W]hat has been driving the move toward more sustainable or local food production comes from a revival of sentiments that harken back to Jefferson and Lincoln, but even advocates for a food movement may work from an industrially oriented philosophy of agriculture.

We evaluate sectors by the products they produce and the jobs they provide. We expect business practices that are fair and do not harm third parties.

If you attended the lecture, you likely left without a clear-cut answer. Instead participants walked away with a new way to think about the challenges. Hopefully, you gained a better understanding of the competing ideas that underlay our contemporary debates about food and agriculture.

If you were unable to attend, we videotaped Dr. Thompson’s lecture.