than the adoption of any one type. The societal choice about agricultural systems is a social choice about what types of agriculture are desirable and therefore what the future of agriculture ought to be. The debate over the wisdom of the “alternative” futures is made difficult by underlying value systems or philosophies of agriculture that produce competing opinions about that future. (See Box 1-7 for a discussion of contending philosophies of agriculture that underlie many of the societal disagreements about these goals.) The competing

BOX 1-7

Contending “Philosophies” of Agriculture

The philosopher Paul Thompson (2010) notes that one way to explain why debates over sustainable agriculture are so intense is that there are different perspectives as to what should be the objectives of agriculture and how agriculture should be structured. One view is termed the industrial philosophy of agriculture. According to this view, agriculture is just another sector of an industrial society where products are produced at the lowest cost possible and in a manner that provides sufficient food and fiber for society. The trend to fewer and larger commercial farms is not seen as a problem; rather, it is a way to capture economies of scale and lower the costs of food, fiber, and energy production. Indeed, advocates of industrial-scale agriculture view it important to export this structure to other nations to assure worldwide food sufficiency. Essentially, this view sees landscapes in terms of commodities the land can produce; thus, industrial philosophy puts great emphasis on increasing yields per acre or pounds of meat per animal. Although there are concerns within this philosophy about fairness to labor, the vitality of communities, animal welfare, and negative impacts on the environment, it is argued that those issues can be addressed without overhauling the industrial structure of agriculture.

Thompson terms a countervailing viewpoint as an agrarian philosophy of agriculture (sometimes called alternative or multifunctional agriculture) that views agriculture as having an important social function above and beyond its ability to produce food, feed, fiber, and biofuel. The social functions include providing positive ecological services and protecting ecological integrity and functioning. Because ecosystems place limits on what kind of farming can be continuously conducted, the agrarian philosophy believes that farming should not be conducted in such a way as to significantly harm ecological functioning; indeed, farming would restore ecosystems by recognizing the complex ecological relationships among plants, soils, and livestock. The agrarian philosophy questions whether the practices of industrial agriculture—with its heavy reliance on purchased inputs, particularly agricultural chemicals—are sustainable. Proponents of this view frequently advocate for reducing or eliminating those practices. Also, the agrarian philosophy frequently focuses on social sustainability: that is, the need for agriculture to support and be a part of rural communities. The large scale of industrial agriculture, and the perceived negative effects of consolidation of farms and ranches on diverse family farms, hence, is not conducive to sustaining rural communities. There is also concern about the effect of industrial agriculture on the welfare of agricultural workers and farm animals. The social sustainability concerns get reflected in calls for “fair trade” or for eating locally grown foods and “humanely produced” animal products.

The two contrary philosophies1 illustrate that disagreements about agriculture’s sustainability have much to do with differing perceptions on outcomes and the desirability of the outcomes produced by various ways to organize agricultural production. That is, there are different philosophical beliefs about what the agrifood system should do for us as a society; sustainability is a social goal (Thompson, 2010).

Others dispute that there are important differences between the visions of what agriculture should be, but they note that many goals do not result in as many conflicts between the outcomes of various systems as have been portrayed. For example, with respect to yields, systems that move toward increased sustainability are not necessarily small-scale, traditional agriculture, and they can be as productive as conventional and industrial systems (as illustrated by Stahlbush Island Farms, Goldmine Farm, and the Lundberg Family Farms in the case studies in Chapter 7). On the other hand, small-scale, diversified farms might be better associated with certain types of robust rural communities (as illustrated by Peregrine Farm in Chapter 7).


1 Dobbs (presentation to the committee on March 27, 2008) and Josling (2002) also made this contrast.

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