A September 7, 2013 article in The Economist says American agriculture is different from the European variety because Americans treat food as commodities whereas Europeans are more concerned where food comes from and if it is produced in ways they view as acceptable.

The Economist article says the emphasis on science in American education and the Extension Service prepare American farmers to rely on technology and to be dispassionate about their methods of food production. 

Shortly after The Economist article appeared, Oklahoma State University agricultural economics professor Jayson Lusk wrote that European agriculture is not as productive as American agriculture because government regulation of agriculture is greater in Europe. 

Lusk also took offense that The Economist article attacked an organization in which he participated as a youth—4H, which The Economist said prepares future American farmers to use production methods the British publication took to task.   Lusk says America’s science, technology, independence and business gives US producers the edge.

When I visited Germany and France in April-May while on a 12-day tour of their healthcare systems I asked two dozen persons in these countries “What is your main concern about food production?”  The people I interviewed were farmers, food and clothing merchants, restaurateurs and consumers in southern Germany and central France. 

A summary of some of the findings was recently published in Farm World

Germany and France are only two of 28 European Union (EU) countries; the sample of opinions I obtained is not statistically representative of these countries or the larger EU.  While not strictly scientific, my informal poll findings cast additional light on differences between American and European agriculture.

Three quarters of the respondents indicated their prime concern was the ongoing agricultural trade talks between the EU and the United States.  They said their countries would have to go along with the outcomes of negotiations in order to remain in the EU.

Half of the ten German and French farmers I interviewed said they liked belonging to the EU but all were concerned they would have little or no “say” in a matter that could change their entire way of life if the EU allows importation of GMO seeds and products. 

They were apprehensive that GMO seeds and the use of herbicides that contain glyphosate would encourage large scale crop production and introduce what they see as American-style agriculture.  Most European farms are family operated businesses. 

The farmers said the economic squeeze they already feel would intensify if they have to compete with American products.  A German farmer who raises canola for biodiesel fuel, similar to how soy oil is added to produce biodiesel in the US, said he does not favor importation of American oilseeds or products even though his non-farming neighbors complain their canola cooking oil costs more as a result.

A French farmer explained he feels GMOs are not natural and he would not drink American milk products because most US milk contains added hormones or is tainted by GMO feed consumed by American cows.

Food and fiber merchants whom I interviewed included five street-side vendors and grocery store merchants who sold food and two clothing store proprietors.  All shun what they described as a “bigger is better” model of business. 

These shopkeepers dislike American-style chain stores, which they say threaten the European style of family businesses.  Adoption of American-style agriculture and business models would signal a return to the bygone era of feudalism when producers and merchants had to work for those who owned the land and businesses. 

We can’t compete, they said, with well-funded corporate lobbyists in the EU countries whom they perceive as gaining influence over EU decision-makers in the trade negotiations to allow importation of American goods that are produced with GMOs and pesticides which are mostly banned in Europe.   Health issues about GMOs, whether real or not, also worry them.

Not everyone agrees.  Some non-farmers and non-business owners, such as restaurant waiters and typical European consumers of agricultural goods, said there is nothing wrong with American food and the importation of American products. 

It’s cheaper, they said.  It’s time we change, they added.

The concerns of German and French people about food, fiber and biofuels are important to Americans because Europe is a large and mostly untapped market for American agricultural products. 

In my view, European farmers may differ from American farmers in some of the ways each group farms, but there are more similarities than differences.  And the similarities are due to more than that the majority of North American farmers trace their ancestors to European roots. 

We share the drive called the agrarian imperative to produce the food and the materials for fuel and fibers for clothing and shelter that are needed for our chosen styles of survival as humans.  European agriculture is older and more traditional in its methods.  Whether or not that is wrong remains to be seen.

Michael Rosmann is a Harlan, Iowa clinical psychologist (and fly-fisherman) who lives on the farm he shares with his wife.  Contact him at: www.agbehavioralhealth.com.