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The C-Word: Why Compromise Shouldn't Be a Dirty Word in Agriculture

It's not acceptable to fail to grow enough food to meet demand, but neither is it acceptable to cripple already stressed ecosystems and water sources with substances that are known to be harmful.
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The most important thing we learn as children is, arguably, how to share. Nursery schools teach it, parents encourage it, and peers and siblings provide positive reinforcement for this behavior. At once a skill and a developmental marker, sharing offers a crash course in empathy, without which society cannot function.

But somewhere along the road from childhood to adulthood, the messages we receive about sharing grow considerably murkier. Whereas sharing is only ever perceived in children as a strength, the adult version of sharing--what we call compromise--is often interpreted with greater ambiguity.

"Uncompromising" has become synonymous in American politics with "principled." Although we regard inflexibility as a right, a rigid stance is actually a rare luxury. When it comes to true necessities--things like food, water, and shelter--the cost of intransigence is too high to justify. Regardless of what anybody thinks or feels, we need these things. End of story.

Farming is concerned with the provision of these basic necessities. This sounds straightforward, but it's not. The last fifty years of American agricultural history can be framed in several different ways. From one angle, they embody a creative struggle to identify better and better ways of meeting human needs. From another angle, they represent the hijacking of the systems developed to meet these needs by market interests that continue to propel agriculturalists down a superhighway of increasing consolidation, mechanization, and capitalization. Yet another angle refocuses on the process by which American farmers have hardened their allegiances to two opposing teams.

The relationship between so-called "conventional" and so-called "alternative" agriculture has emerged as a rigid dichotomy, and it represents as much a cultural divergence as it does a difference in methodology. Because this conflict is cultural, it becomes a conflict not just of practice, but of principles.

The goal of agriculture--all agriculture--remains the same: to feed the world. I hesitate to use this trite expression, which has been employed as a weapon against non-commodity farmers and even taken up as a marketing campaign by everybody's favorite villain, Monsanto. The goal of agriculture is many things: To turn a profit. To cultivate a particular landscape. To generate political leverage, nationally and internationally. To build community. But I'd argue that these goals are negotiable, whereas producing food for people to eat is not.

Conventional and alternative farmers agree that they both aim to produce food, but they disagree about what it means to pursue this goal in a responsible manner. Is it okay to spray a pesticide that might have adverse effects for pollinators in order to save a crop from insect predation? (Conventional: yes; alternative: no.) Is it okay to accept lower yields if it allows you to skip the synthetic nitrogen fertilizer? (Conventional: no; alternative: yes.) When the other side fails to see things their way, each team condemns the other for foolishly threatening our most basic needs: Dr. Joseph Mercola warns that the use of genetically modified crops "virtually guarantees future crop collapses and subsequent famine"; Alex Avery writes, "Hezbollah and organic-food fanatics have some things in common."

Farmers aren't engaged in a dialogue--it's a shouting match, with each team lobbing insults and then tuning out the reply. This is a miserable situation, benefiting only those who profit from such misery.

The problem is, neither pure conventional nor pure alternative offers an acceptable set of tradeoffs when it comes to getting the job done. It's not acceptable to jeopardize pollinators upon which all agriculture depends, but neither is it acceptable to surrender entire crops (and associated farm income) to pests. It's not acceptable to fail to grow enough food to meet demand, but neither is it acceptable to cripple already stressed ecosystems and water sources with substances that are known to be harmful. An acceptable balance, then, must lie somewhere in between: a compromise.

Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson are political scientists at the University of Pennsylvania who study the role of compromise in democracy. They remind us that when two parties refuse to compromise, the result is gridlock. "The resistance to compromise is a problem for any democracy because it stands in the way of change that nearly everyone agrees is necessary, and thereby biases the political process in favor of the status quo," they write. Being uncompromising doesn't mean you get your way. Instead, the undesirable status quo prevails.

Gutmann and Thompson propose that "the most successful compromises... often engage the parties in modifying their own views about what is acceptable in the process of crafting the compromise." That's to say, the first step toward compromise is for both parties to compromise on their principles regarding compromise.

I'm beginning to get antsy for this process to start. The challenges of agriculture are only intensifying. Record storms, record heat, record, drought, record population growth--we hurdle forward into an increasingly uncertain future, leaving a trail of tattered superlatives in our wake. And despite the best efforts of both conventional and alternative farmers, the search for a safer, more reliable, more sustainable means of food production is becoming increasingly desperate.

Both sides have pushed their respective parameters to the accomplishment of incredible feats: conventional growers obtaining corn yields of 171 bushels per acre, alternative growers choreographing the rotation of forty different crops on a single plot of land. But what about growing 8 crops in rotation in order to yield, collectively, 100 bushels per acre? These numbers are nonsensical, but you get the idea. Instead of pushing each approach to its most extreme expression, we could try bringing the two together in search of that holy grail of sustainability: balance.

Compromise is a prerequisite to the balance we seek, and it will not be painless. Secretary of State John Kerry recently came under tremendous criticism for the concessions he made in a nuclear deal with Iran. Willingness to engage in negotiations (or compromise) is, by its very nature, an assent to mutual sacrifice. Success doesn't mean going home with every box ticked--it means preventing nuclear war. Or, in the case of agriculture, figuring out a way to feed ourselves for years and years into the future.

This will require that both conventional and alternative farmers take a good hard look at their practices in order to sift out genuinely sound principles from mere dogma. It will require that all farmers be willing to think creatively outside of the lines of agricultural identity politics and so, to some extent, let go of those identities.

Already, people are pushing back against the rigid categories of "conventional" and "alternative." Do we need to own land in order to farm it well? What are the untapped benefits of integrated pest management? How can technology serve small, diversified farms as well as large, monoculture operations? The first step toward cooperative solutions is admitting that these are open questions.

The process of answering these questions and many others will be messy and confusing and uncomfortable. It will also be worth it. Our most basic needs are at stake, and the "less bad" scenario offered by no cooperation still means not meeting those needs. It means the endangerment of the health and safety of our environment, our communities, and our economies. The status quo isn't undesirable. The status quo is untenable.