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January 30, 2010

Farming is big business in US, but some green activists are seeking to destroy it

by Joel Kotkin

In this high-tech information age few look to the most basic industries as sources of national economic power. Yet no sector in America is better positioned for the future than agriculture--if we allow it to reach its potential.

Like manufacturers and homebuilders before them, farmers have found themselves in the crosshairs of urban aesthetes and green activists who hope to impose their own Utopian vision of agriculture. This vision includes shutting down large-scale scientifically run farms and replacing them with small organic homesteads and urban gardens.

Troublingly, the assault on mainstream farmers is moving into the policy arena. It extends to cut-offs on water, stricter rules on the use of pesticides, prohibitions on the caging of chickens and a growing movement to ban the use of genetic engineering in crops. And it could undermine a sector that has performed well over the past decade and has excellent long-term prospects.

Over the next 40 years the world will be adding some 3 billion people. These people will not only want to eat, they will want to improve their intake of proteins, grains, fresh vegetables and fruits. The U.S., with the most arable land and developed agricultural production, stands to gain from these growing markets. Last year the U.S.' export surplus in agriculture grew to nearly $35 billion, compared with roughly $5 billion in 2005.

The overall impact of agriculture on the economy is much greater than generally assumed, notes my colleague Delore Zimmerman, of Praxis Strategy Group. Roughly 4.1 million people are directly employed in production agriculture as farmers, ranchers and laborers, but the industry directly or indirectly employs approximately one out of six American workers, including those working in food processing, marketing, shipping and supermarkets.

Yet none of this seems to be slowing the mounting criticisms of "corporate agriculture." A typical article in Time, called "Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food," assailed the "U.S. agricultural industry" for precipitating an ecological disaster. "With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil--which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills--our industrial style of food production," the article predicts, "will end sooner or later."

Forbes 

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