The days of Old McDonald are gone for good

The following editorial was published in the Guelph Mercury on May 27, 2010

These days, factory farming is a term used liberally when people talk about agriculture.

Its definition seems to vary depending on who is asked, and I’ve often wondered what it actually brings to mind when people hear it. I talk to people in the farming community all the time, and to them it’s an overused misnomer that activists use to demean and wrongly portray farming and food production.

To find out what non-farmers think I asked the question on Twitter last week, and the answers were quite a bit different.

One person wrote that it suggests there is some kind of easy, universal formula for pumping out food from the farm; another talked about farmers who feel trapped; and several brought up the bigger size of modern farms, the use of chemicals and medication, and the many animals that live – mostly indoors – on those farms.

All in all, it shows me people worry and wonder about what they feel farming has become – whether it’s the size of the farms, how crops are grown and animals are raised, or the fact that it can be hard for local farmers to survive in a consolidated, globalized world.

So why not go back to a simpler time? Why can’t we grow our food the way we did in the day of Old McDonald’s Farm – when farms were small, farm animals of all kinds roamed the barnyard, and everybody knew at least one person who lived on a farm? That would be an option if the world we were living in were still that of Old McDonald as well. But it isn’t.

Consider this: today, less than two per cent of our population – just under 685,000 according to Statistics Canada – grows food for the other 98 per cent of us. In 1931, when the farm population was counted for the first time, about three million people – or 32 per cent of Canadians – were involved in farming.

Few of us are willing to work on farms anymore. Despite help in the form of computerized feeders, robotic milking equipment and automatic irrigation, farming is still a seven-day-a week, 365-day-a-year job- and it’s still hard work.

As consumers, we’re no longer happy with just having enough food to eat. We want assurances that our food is being produced safely – which for farmers means audits, paperwork and protocols. We’ve become used to a year-round supply of asparagus, strawberries and sweet corn, and we also generally like knowing that the food we buy will be exactly the same each time we buy it.

We sometimes forget, though, that we’re dealing with the realities of Mother Nature, which also means we’ve had to move our animals indoors to protect them from extremes of our Canadian climate, keep them safe from predators, and be better able to look after them.

So even if we could go back to the days of Old McDonald, I’m not sure I would want to. We know much more now about good environmental practices and protecting resources.

The World Wildlife Fund in the U.S., a leading environmental group, has declared its support of using technology in modern farming because it will free up land for wetlands and wildlife. We’re also doing a better job at feeding more people – which will become even more important as our global population reaches seven billion sometime in the next year.

So how do we make sure we’re balancing our need to produce enough food with managing our resources wisely, taking proper care of livestock and being good to our environment?

Farmers in Canada are already doing those things, but as the answers to my unscientific Twitter survey showed, people don’t know about it and there’s a huge knowledge gap between farmers and consumers.

To me, this means consumers need to ask more questions about where their food comes from – and farmers need to do a better job of talking about what they do and why.

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