"Americans will never notice as the percentage of their food that is imported rises to 100 percent."
—Steven Blank in his book
The End of American Agriculture in the American Portfolio
He was called everything from blunt to an alarmist to wrongheaded. His book The End of American Agriculture in the American Portfolio brought about reactions of anger, disbelief, fright, but also agreement that proactive response was needed to change farm policy. Nearly a decade after his infamous book was written, what is Dr. Steven Blank, agricultural economist, now doing?
Then: Many farmers were outraged at the predictions and trends outlined in Blank’s book that was released in 2000 and reviewed in the Good Fruit Grower(February 15, 2000 issue). Though Blank admits that the title (which wasn’t his choosing) got many people upset, the book did serve its intended purpose as that of a "call to arms" for industry, he said.
The End of American Agriculture painted a bleak picture for the continuance of "traditional" agriculture. Blank, in his book, cited poor rates of returns for American farmers, tight credit from ag lenders, rising popularity of fast foods, and higher retail profits at the expense of producers. He also outlined trends resulting from globalization (such as imported foods, and the fact that expenses are local but prices are global), and highlighted the loss of productive farms to urban influence and sprawl.
Though written for an agricultural audience, the book got attention in Congress and stimulated discussion of policy changes.
"I became sort of a tongue-in-cheek cult hero—somebody who is saying what nobody wants to admit is true," Blank said.
Now: During a recent telephone interview, Blank said since his book, he has continued research on globalization, niche markets, and the life cycle of American agriculture. A second book, intended as a follow-up to the first but written in a more technical style with extensive statistical documentation (it’s three times the length of the first book’s 200-some pages), will be published in April 2008. The forthcoming book is titled The Economics of American Agriculture: –Evolution and Global Development.
Even though many unforeseen events have impacted American agriculture since the first book’s release (such as 9/11, the heightened attention to food security and safety, imported product recalls, obesity concerns, and production shifts related to biofuels), Blank stated that 99 percent of the predictions or trends he identified did, or are continuing to, come true.
But his optimism in "modern" agriculture is more pronounced in his second book, he said. Though "traditional" agriculture, where producers were independent and made their output decisions based on domestic cash markets only, is dead or facing its end, he said it is being replaced with "modern" agriculture. Modern agriculture requires producers to consider global markets, and often, to participate in supply chains integrated with agribusiness firms.
Although there are no golden rainbows on the horizon to change the course of global development and realigning of production areas, Blank pointed to technology and –innovation as the industry’s salvation.
Ride the wave
As an analogy, he uses a farmer (representing American agriculture) surfing down the face of a tsunami wave, with the tsunami representing globalization and the surfboard being technology.
"As long as American agriculture can stay on the surfboard and ride the wave, we can survive. Technology has kept us going in the past and will continue to keep us –competitive in the future. Just don’t fall off the surfboard."
As before, he believes that solutions to the survival of agriculture will come from those involved in agriculture.