An Internal Climate Adaptation System for Happy and Healthy Farmers
There is a growing and looming mental health crisis that requires immediate attention and all hands on deck. Across the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe, farmers, ranchers and allied agriculture producers are experiencing alarming rates of stress, depression and suicide. Data in India and Sri Lanka are also frightening. Empirical studies conducted thus far indicate that chief causes of these mental health issues primarily stem from financial insecurity, climate changes and disruptions, loneliness, and social isolation. Compounding this issue is the aging out of farmers without adequate replacement. In developed countries, the median age of farmers is surprisingly high (late middle age for most countries studied) because young people either do not want to start working in such a stressful field or because even when they try, it is exceedingly difficult to succeed. Agricultural colleges are having a hard time recruiting a new generation of farmers. One could argue that the viability and sustainability of the agriculture profession is at risk. What we need is an internal climate adaptation system strategy.
In this strategy, we perceive that the root cause of this farmer mental health crisis is a result of shifts in economic values that are at odds with local, cultural values, which only becomes more pronounced as those economic values spread. With the development of neoliberal economic models in Western Europe and Anglo-America, the importance of the human element has been diminished and the importance of economic profitability and efficiency has taken the spotlight in decision-making processes. Farming in today’s world, far from being treated as the necessary societal backbone that it is, has been reduced to profitability projections, spreadsheet data and Marshallian scissors that slice through ethical concerns with indifferent precision.
Some economic policies even serve to continue to isolate farmers socially, as is the case with so-called “rural sacrifice zones,” in which areas become less desirable for most people to live in as a result of how and where money flows through a given community. And these economic models and practices — which are no doubt highly profitable — are being exported to the Global South and adopted in cultural contexts without any consideration as to whether those models are compatible with local cultural values and practices. In short, today’s economic practices put profitability over ethics, and the cost of this value shift is measured in hundreds of thousands of human lives.
But while this picture of the situation is rather bleak, hope is not yet lost. If we are right about our diagnosis, then there are steps that can be taken to reverse this situation so we can get back to keeping our farmers happy and healthy who, in turn, will keep our nations fed and productive.
In this strategy, we propose the Ethical and Economic Sense Framework (EES) that calls for a reevaluation of priorities and values that place ethics and the value of human well-being at the forefront of decision-making practices, rather than profitability and efficiency. By doing so, we not only alleviate the mental health issues that farmers face, but we also plan for the long-term benefits of our societies. Happy and healthy farmers are productive farmers, after all.
Reevaluating priorities and values is not where the EES begins and ends, though. Once policymakers decide that the value of human lives and well-being are more important than short-term profits, there must be decisions made about what should be done about it. Various studies have suggested that policymakers should implement insurance policies for crop loss and other financial exercises to prop up the agriculture economy. But we believe that this only solves part of the problem. Isolation and a feeling of loneliness are also major concerns that financial band-aids won’t fix.
We think that, more importantly than financial fixes, farmers should have access to a supportive and empathetic community. We recommend agricultural mentorships, farmer-led organizations, mental health support networks and training for laypersons as paraprofessionals to help identify and address symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. Creating a strong network of support for farmers by farmers trained as paraprofessionals should alleviate feelings of social isolation and the symptoms of mental illness if they are taken seriously and implemented carefully.
Alongside policies that help farmers financially, this approach can do much to solve the farmer mental health crisis and restore agriculture as a respectable profession that we all recognize as fundamental and necessary for modern societies. But all of this requires policymakers and communities to take the importance of ethics and care for other humans seriously, instead of continuing to favor the neoliberal brand of economic success that reduces human beings — even outside of the agricultural sector — to mere replaceable cogs in the great economic machine.