Perspective on agriculture shifting: speaker

There was a time when agriculture was a sacred cow — deemed to have a special role and status.

There was a time when agriculture was a sacred cow — deemed to have a special role and status. But most people now view it as just another sector of the economy.

That’s the perception of Paul Thompson, a professor of agricultural, food and community ethics at Michigan State University. He shared his views in Red Deer on Wednesday at the Western Canadian Dairy Seminar in Red Deer.

“Prior to World War II, and certainly prior to the 20th Century, virtually everybody assumed that agriculture played a very special role in society,” said Thompson.

This “philosophy of agriculture” linked the industry to a country’s culture and identity, he added. But the perspective inside and outside agriculture has since undergone a dramatic shift, with the sector expected to comply with the same rules as others.

Specifically, said Thompson, agricultural operations are now expected to be efficient and competitive, and not impose costs or harm on third parties. The public is less willing to extend special treatment to agriculture, devote entire government ministries to the industry or pay for developmental research.

“The view that agriculture is special has become less and less significant, both within agriculture and within the broader public.”

It’s instead been pushed into an industrial framework of risk analysis and regulation,” said Thompson, pointing to controls over the use of farm chemicals as an example.

In the food-versus-fuel debate that’s accompanied the emergence of biofuels, the use of crops for fuel production would have been considered a departure from our heritage under the old agricultural philosophy, he suggested. With the new industrial perspective, the reaction is to let market forces decide the best use.

Another example is animal welfare. Farmers were once entrusted to be the stewards of their livestock, but now are increasingly likely to be subject to third-party regulations, said Thompson.

He did note signs that many still see a special role for agriculture in defining our culture and identity. These include the growing demand for local, organic and fair trade products.

The Western Canadian Dairy Seminar is held annually in Red Deer, with speakers from across Canada and beyond presenting on a variety of topics related to the industry. This year’s seminar began Tuesday and continues until Friday.

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