Slow food and big ag: The world needs both to meet growing nutritional demands

By Merritt Melancon for CAES News

Whether it’s an argument for slow food or technologically advanced agriculture, most people oversimplify the narratives surrounding the modern food system.

Those who support exclusively organic and localized farming practices often won’t admit that technology might have a role to play in feeding the world’s growing population. Those who advocate for large-scale agriculture often won’t admit that farming practices could evolve to better protect the environment and animal welfare.

The truth is somewhere in between, argued author and agriculture policy expert Robert Paarlberg during the 2018 D.W. Brooks Lecture hosted by the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences on Nov. 8 on the UGA campus in Athens.

He called for Americans to embrace a multi-agricultural mindset.

“I have a vision for America’s farming future that I think that both foodies and ‘aggies’ can support,” Paarlberg said. “It’s not an either-or vision but it’s not a homogenized compromise either … It’s a vision for multi-agriculturalism. And I think it’s one that both foodies and aggies should be able to embrace.”    

Paarlberg is an adjunct professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, a visiting professor at Harvard College and an associate at Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. From 1976 `until 2015, he was a professor of political science at Wellesley College.

In his three books “Food Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know,” “The United States of Excess: Gluttony and the Dark Side of American Exceptionalism” and “Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa,” Paarlberg tackles the long-term impacts of agricultural policy.

His interest in the cultural schism that surrounds food started after discussing agriculture with students far removed from farm life. They had an interest in agriculture but held overly idealized visions of farming.

In his call for multi-agriculturalism, Paarlberg is calling for advocates of both slow food and industrial agriculture to recognize the need for and value of many types of farms. 

Paarlburg said the public should recognize that large farms have made great strides in ecological stewardship and still produce the vast majority of our food. They should also understand that there is still room for large-scale agriculture operations to improve.

He added that the traditional farming community should recognize that organic and locally-focused farms are vital to sustaining rural communities by supporting small businesses and adding needed populations to the landscape.

While their supporters may seem at odds with one another ideologically, large-scale, industrialized farms and small farms actually need each other to survive, Paarlburg said. 

“While 87 percent of our food comes from this system (of large-scale agriculture), 85 percent of our farms don’t fall into part of that category,” he said. “Industrial farms may be commercially dominant but they’re not demographically or culturally dominant. The vast majority of our farms, and hence the vast majority of our farmers, are smaller commercial operations, part-time farms, retirement farms, hobby farms …”

Both types of operations will be needed to feed the world’s growing population and keep rural communities viable, he said. 

A video recording of Paarlberg’s speech is available on the CAES YouTube channel.

In addition to Paarlberg’s talk, CAES students, faculty and staff gathered to recognize the winners of the 2018 D.W. Brooks Faculty Awards of Excellence.

This year’s winners included:

- Qingguo “Jack” Huang, professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, whose research into the remediation of organic compounds in polluted soil and water has gained international attention and earned him the 2018 2018 D.W. Brooks Award for Excellence in Research.

- Kari Turner, associate professor in the Department of Animal and Dairy Science, whose focus on inspiring undergraduates has helped to earn the department its excellent reputation for student-centered instruction and earned her the 2018 D.W. Brooks Award for Excellence in Teaching.

- Yen-Con Hung, professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, whose commitment to international outreach and collaboration has helped to build safer food systems around the world and earned him the 2018 D.W. Brooks Award for Excellence in Global Programs.

- Dan Suiter, professor and Extension entomologist in the Department of Entomology, whose training programs for structural and urban pest management professionals have been used across the Southeast and around the world and earned him the 2018 D.W. Brooks Award for Excellence in Extension.

- Lisa Jordan, Family and Consumer Sciences program development coordinator (PDC) for UGA Cooperative Extension’s Southeast District, whose dedication as PDC and nearly 20 years of work to expand the reach and reputation of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) in Chatham County earned her the 2018 D.W. Brooks Award for Excellence in Public Service Extension.

For more information about this year’s lecture and awards, visit

Merritt Melancon is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.