Everywhere we look, we see bad news: radical terrorists on the warpath, massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, sluggish economic growth, a national debt that approaches $19 trillion, and a political class that seems out of touch with reality.
There’s a lot to complain about.
But this is the wrong time for that. It’s the season of Christmas—a moment for counting our blessings and expressing thanks for the good things that we often take for granted.
That’s why we should remember farmers and food production.
In 1900, roughly four in ten Americans worked in agriculture. Today, that figure is less than 2 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
In other countries, those numbers look very different. In India, half the population farms, according to the World Bank. In China, it’s close to 40 percent. Even Iceland, which we don’t associate with food production, has two to three times as many people working in agriculture, as a percentage of total population.
This is a remarkable gift: We all need food to survive, but only a tiny fraction of us have to produce it here in the United States. Everyone else can pursue other objectives, from advanced education to careers in business, medicine, and charity.
The downside to this blessing—sorry, even big silver linings have their clouds—is that much of the public has a poor understanding of what it takes to produce this bounty of food. Because of this, we find ourselves bogged down in needless debates over warning labels for food products we eat every day, such as those produced with genetic modification.
Back to the good news: The key to our success is an astounding level of productivity. Today’s farmers use the best tools of science and technology to get the most from the land and its resources.
Even the farm animals have it easier. In 1900, more than 21 million animals contributed to farm labor. Today, we no longer live on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” where the barnyard denizens dream of revolution. Instead, we’ve mechanized. People still use horses and mules for farm work, but tractors outnumber them by so much that the Census Bureau no longer asks questions about animal labor.
The tractors are better, too. They’re not only more efficient—they’re also more comfortable, precise and safer.
Ordinary consumers see none of this, but we farmers appreciate the upgrades. It’s worth keeping in mind that if our farming grandparents could see what we have, they’d be in awe.
In makes me wonder about the gadgets my own grandkids will have when they work the land.
Another blessing is economic opportunity. We hear a lot about the global economy, usually in the context of anxieties and challenges. It’s true that we now face more competitors than in the past. But that’s the glass-half-empty way of looking at it. The glass-half-full version recognizes that we also have something else: lots of potential customers.
About 95 percent of the world population lives outside our borders—and they need food, too. A century ago, U.S. farmers exported only a small portion of what they grew. Today, we ship huge amounts of grain and meat to other countries.
Although agriculture depends on exports more than most industries, the export economy creates opportunities for everyone. That’s why new free-trade agreements are so important: They make it easier for buyers and sellers to work together, without the political interference of protectionism.
We’re even keeping up with the task of feeding the world, even as the planet’s population booms. We struggle with the nemesis of malnutrition, of course—but we’re also worried about obesity, which is a problem that simply would have mystified earlier generations.
Best of all, we’re not fighting wars over food. We may have figurative conflicts over labels and trade, but we’re not dealing with literal battles over how we move food from farm to fork or fighting for our families because we have no food for them.
It may be a stretch to say we enjoy peace on earth in 2015, but because of farmers and food, we have a lot more peace to enjoy.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm produces for retail and wholesale markets. John is a volunteer board member of Truth About Trade & Technology, soon to become the Global Farmer Network.