Fact or Fiction?

In today's information age where everybody's got a venue and is pedaling something, it's hard to know when you're dealing with facts, someone's spin, or just plain fiction.

With some very powerful and monied interests lined up against U.S. farmers and ranchers, understanding the facts about exactly who produces all of our food and fiber in this country is made all the more difficult.

In fact, the Illinois Farm Bureau recently conducted a survey that uncovered some of the public confusion over who is responsible for feeding and clothing America.

The Hand That Feeds U.S. has tried to meet head on the many misunderstandings about farming over the past year. But, as the Illinois Farm Bureau survey revealed, there is still a whole lot of work to be done. Here are a few examples of the myths that are perpetuated and the facts that dispel them.

Fiction: Our country's food and fiber is grown by multi-billion-dollar agribusinesses like ADM, Cargill, and Kraft.

Fact: A whopping 98 percent of U.S. farms are family-owned. The number of non-family corporate farms—and percentage of sales from those farms—has remained virtually unchanged since 1978. Opponents of providing America's farm and ranch families with a safety net in the event of natural disaster and unfair global markets have found it is much easier to attack large corporations and agribusinesses than it is to attack families making their living on the farm or ranch.

Fiction: American farmers are heavily subsidized and protected.

Fact: The United States ranks near the very bottom among nations in both direct assistance and tariff protections. Farm safety net benefits to U.S. producers have dwindled to an all time low, now accounting for less than one quarter of one percent of the total federal budget.

Fiction: Farms bring in a lot of money, so that must mean that farmers are rich.

Fact: Farms have the potential to earn a lot of money, but gross sales should not be confused with net profit. It takes a lot of earnings to cover the huge labor, equipment, and input costs of running a farm. For example, according to USDA figures, a 650-acre Texas cotton farm will need to sell more than $500,000 in a year just to cover production costs.

Fiction: Farmers are to blame for the higher food prices seen in recent past years.

Fact: Farmers only see about 19 cents out of every dollar Americans spend to buy the food they grow. Even when crop prices drop, food manufacturers are not likely to pass along the savings to their customers, instead electing to boost their own profits.

Fiction: The corn that farmers grow for ethanol is used to fuel cars at the expense of feeding hungry people.

Fact: The corn used in ethanol is not generally the kind people eat. And ethanol production hasn't negatively affected livestock feed supplies, either: domestic red meat and poultry production has not changed since 2007, debunking any claim that expanding ethanol production is shorting meat and meat product supplies. Plus, corn ethanol uses only the carbohydrate portion of the kernel. All the protein, fiber, and net energy goes back into animal feed, creating a meal that has three times the amount of protein and energy as corn-all at a price that is 60 to 80 percent lower than corn. We think that's a great deal.

Fiction: It is farmers' fault that so many Americans are overweight and unhealthy.

Fact: Our farmers and ranchers produce wholesome, natural products that are staples of a healthy diet. The problems arise when food processors choose to turn the blessings of a bountiful harvest into unhealthy products that may taste good but have little nutritional value.

Fiction: Organic farming is the way of the future and will take over production agriculture.

Fact: People who prefer organics and can afford to buy them should certainly be able to do so, but the idea that we can feed the world with organics alone is unrealistic. In 2003, the National Center for Food and Policy calculated that in order to continue to produce current crop yields without herbicides—which are a no-no in an organic, locally grown world—an additional 70 million farmhands would be needed. In other words, one in four Americans would be pulling weeds on farms for a month out of the year.

Plus, according to the late Nobel Laureate Dr. Norman Borlaug, organic agriculture can only feed a world of 4 billion people, meaning 2.5 billion would need to check out early. And, all-organics all the time would be an environmental disaster: According to Jay Lehr, Ph.D., science director of The Heartland Institute, "Direct, field-to-field comparisons show organic farms produce up to 50 percent less than conventional farms," meaning that we'd need to put up to twice as much land under the plow to produce the same amount of food.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, it is inevitable that misinformation about farming will continue to swirl, with the opposition to agriculture being a rich and powerful bunch willing to put their money where their mouths are. But, if there is one message that we hope we can spread to even the most vehement critics of agriculture it is this:

Fact: Thanks to America's farmers and ranchers, our nation produces the safest, most abundant, most affordable food supply the world has ever known.

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