Food for Life: The Brink of Opportunity

The grower of trees, the gardener, the man born to farming, whose hands reach into the ground and sprout, to him the soil is a divine drug.

"... He enters into death yearly, and comes back rejoicing. He has seen the light lie down in the dung heap, and rise again in the corn. His thought passes along the row ends like a mole. What miraculous seed has he swallowed that the unending sentence of his love flows out of his mouth like a vine clinging in the sunlight, and like water descending in the dark?" —Wendell Berry

At a recent meeting of sustainable agriculture leaders in Washington, DC, many of us were bemoaning our slow progress. Laura Freeman, who founded and runs what has become a $60 million lean hormone-free beef business, was there. “I don't get your pessimism,” she told us. “I used to have to knock on doors to get my product into stores. Now I can't keep up with the demand!”

She's right. Increased consumer demand for quality is again drawing more creative energy into farming. The demand for organic food is rising faster than 20 percent each year, and the market is booming for meat without hormones or antibiotics.

Despite consumer enthusiasm, however, there are a great many obstacles to a more sustaining food system. Large corporations, with support from Washington, DC, are consolidating control of agriculture, from the “input” side to the processing and marketing “output” sectors. Farmers, who have little bargaining power, find themselves increasingly caught up in a corporate controlled assembly line. The most recent variant of this system has farmers paid a few cents a pound for raising hogs or chickens on contract with a corporation.

In the most fertile and productive regions, farms are the largest and the most enmeshed in the export economy. Even where farmers do manage to disentangle themselves from the system of raw material production and begin to create unique products, they are not home free; large companies often buy out such enterprises when they reach a threshold of success. Organic dairy marketing around the United States is now largely controlled by one company, Horizon.

Since 1984 the real price of a USDA market basket of food has increased almost 3 percent while the farmer's share has fallen by 36 percent. Farmers now receive about 20 cents out of every consumer dollar spent on food; Phillip Morris/Kraft Foods alone receives 10 cents of every US consumer food dollar. During the 1990s, the annual rate of return on investment for retail food chains was 18 percent; for food manufacturers, it was 17 percent. Farmers had to get by on just over 2 percent.

I remember once hosting a picnic at my farm for a delegation of Honduran farmers along with several Kentucky farmer neighbors. The conversation was pretty awkward until we got around to the prices for coffee and tobacco and the power of big companies to control markets. Then the Honduran and Kentucky farmers discovered that they had a great deal in common.

Rachel Carson wrote that a tablespoon of fertile soil contains more organisms than there are people on Earth. Industrial farming treats the soil as a medium into which nutrients are added and extracted. Large machinery frequently obliterates the old conservation terraces, contour strips, and wildlife refuges. Since World War II, erosion and soil degradation have eliminated from global production an area equal to the cropland of two Canadas. Including the farmland paved over to build parking lots, strip malls, and housing developments, we have 40 percent less available grain land per capita than we had in 1950.

The most productive of the remaining land often requires irrigation. Worldwide, agriculture accounts for about 65 percent of all the water removed from rivers, lakes, and aquifers for human activities, compared with 22 percent for industries and 7 percent for households and municipalities. Large irrigation projects draw down aquifers containing water reserves that have been stored over centuries. In some regions irrigation leaves salts in the topsoil, eventually rendering it infertile. California's lush farmland in the arid Central Valley draws water from hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles away, draining fish runs and water supplies for people and ecosystems elsewhere.

For eons, people depended on farming ecosystems in which the landscape was an interdependent mosaic of animals, crops, wildlife, and people. Industrial agriculture dismantles this system and separates livestock from crop farming. Livestock are concentrated on concrete feedlots where they require routine doses of antibiotics – a practice scientists now suspect is contributing to the development of antibiotic resistant pathogens. The manure, which is such a valuable asset in traditional farm systems, becomes a pollutant that damages ground and surface water, and makes life miserable for neighbors. Because animals are concentrated in isolated locations, manure is no longer available to farmers elsewhere, so fertilizer has to be mined or made from oil and transported on trucks and ships. Without farm animals to feed, crop farmers have no reason to grow the grasses, clovers, and alfalfa that rebuild soil structure and nitrogen reserves.

Industrial agriculture may produce high yields of commodities, but its costs to society and to the environment cause a profound form of bankruptcy.

Depleting neither land nor people

Shifting to a more sustainable system is not merely an aesthetic choice; it is a necessity if we are to feed our burgeoning population at a time of increasing climate instability. Industrial agriculture depends upon predictability and optimum weather conditions – both of which are hard to come by as the climate becomes less stable.

Sustainable agriculture is inherently more localized and flexible than industrial agriculture. Both are knowledge-based, but sustainable agriculture adds a layer of particularity. Farmers come to know their land, climate, and seed strains, and are able to respond to changing weather patterns and specific insects and diseases. And sustainable farming builds the life of the soil, helping crops withstand infestations and droughts.

How might we foster such resilient, sustaining systems that, in Wendell Berry's words, “deplete neither land nor people?”

We might start by exploring the pioneering examples of sustainable agriculture that are proliferating despite the obstacles. Many dairy farmers now make artesian cheese instead of just selling raw milk. A few hog farmers are putting their pigs back on pasture and marketing directly. Former farm workers in California are becoming farmers on their own land.

New food businesses range from small to large, corporations to cooperatives, and local to regional. Ben and Jerry's became famous not only for the flavors of their ice cream but also for their commitment to New England farmers. Dakota Pasta Growers Cooperative, owned and run by its wheat farmer members, has become the third largest pasta company in the country. In Minnesota alone, farmers annually direct-market beef from 32,000 head. In 1998 the USDA listed 2,746 farmers' markets, up from 1,755 in 1994. Local produce is appearing not only at farmers' markets but also on store shelves.

The best farmers have always known how to produce fruits, vegetables, grains, and meat while simultaneously building topsoil and providing a landscape for birds, deer, and neighbors. Now, governments and organizations are beginning to invest in farming that provides these benefits to society and to surrounding ecosystems. A large water authority in southern Germany pays farmers to convert to organic because those subsidies are cheaper than buying a new water treatment plant. The New York City Water Authority funds sustainable farming practices in the Catskills watershed for the same reasons. The Swiss government subsidizes mountain agriculture because of its tourism value. Some farmers in North Carolina are paid to protect the habitat of an endangered turtle, and farmers in the Great Plains are paid to restore prairie chicken habitat.

Three scenarios for the future

This is a time when many contradictory forces are in evidence, ranging from new sustainable innovations to consolidation of giant seed companies.

Who would have predicted the rise of consumer resistance to genetic engineering of food? Who would have guessed that the US Department of Agriculture would receive almost 300,000 responses to its attempt to water down the “organic” label? Who would have expected that farmers throughout the world would join with labor, youth, and environmentalists to help scuttle the WTO plans for expanding corporate dominance of global trade?

How might these forces play out?

Business as Usual: One scenario is that the food and agriculture system continues much as it is – industrialized, integrated operations produce all bulk commodities and many differentiated products while smaller farms produce for local markets. Green and local products grow in importance, but large companies increasingly dominate those that win substantial market appeal, like organics. Large operations are regulated to contain the worst impacts of industrial production. US farmers lurch from one farm bill to the next, some going bankrupt, some maintaining their footing, but evermore beholden to agri-business corporations for contracts, supplies, and markets. Agriculture continues on its unsustainable but seemingly unstoppable quest for global markets and profit.

We don't need a fortune teller to reveal where this path of business-as-usual leads because it's where we're heading now. Even if our pioneering efforts at sustainable agriculture prosper, in this scenario they fail to gain enough power to shift the momentum of the economic machine.

A Global Assembly Line: A second future for agriculture is more thrilling for the captains of agri-industry and more chilling for the rest of us. This future is characterized by even more rapid industrialization and globalization.

The prescription for A Global Assembly Line is laid out in an editorial, “US Agriculture Needs Leaders, Not Populists, to Survive,” published in the September 13, 1999, issue of Feedstuffs, a trade journal of grain companies that buy from farmers:

“Based on the best estimates of analysts, economists and other sources interviewed by this publication, American agriculture must now quickly consolidate all farmers and livestock producers into about 50 production systems … each with its own brands … and several lines. … However, putting these systems together will be a Rushmorean task that must begin now and be done with a sense of urgency. It is time to say to the voices of anger and fear and resistance that they either need to join the process or get off the mountain.”

It is those of us who question genetic engineering and global “free” trade who are referred to here as the “voices of anger and fear and resistance.”

Economists tell us that this world of industrialization and globalization is flexible, innovative, and that it stimulates new technologies. From a short-term point of view, it's a consumer's paradise, with as much choice as money can buy. We might question whether or not factory chickens and cardboard strawberries constitute a consumer's paradise, but much more is at stake. We simply cannot continue using up resources and dumping the by-products of our wasteful production processes.

A Different Meal in Every Town: There is another very different possibility emerging all over the US and Europe – a future we might call “a different meal in every town.” This future is characterized by entrepreneurial, green, regional food systems. People buy local food because they trust it. Large companies with integrated food chains capture some of the consumer desire for variety, but, more and more, farmers and their neighbors provide fresh local meat, cheese, and produce, and create recreational opportunities on farms.

Cattle and sheep are weaned from grain diets and put back on pasture, which their four stomachs were created to digest. Manure is an asset instead of a liability, and rotations with grass and legumes restore health to grain-belt soils. Good farming increases the soil's water retention capacities, which are greatly needed as many areas experience long summer droughts associated with a shifting climate.

The enormous research and educational budgets of the US Department of Agriculture and land grant universities are devoted to sustainability – replacing chemicals and machines with intelligence, learning from organic farmer pioneers.

Individuals become healthier, and cancer rates decline as we gradually eliminate the toxic load of pesticides from plants, soil, water, air, and our bodies.

Farmers join together in a wide variety of businesses to transform farm produce into higher value food and fiber, thereby capturing a larger portio of the money now spent on products transformed under corporate control.

We still eat bananas in Wisconsin, but trade is supplemental. As fossil fuel energy becomes scarcer, common sense tells us to recreate local and regional food systems just as it tells us to recreate local and regional democracy. In fact, local businesses and local democracy both form webs of social interaction that synergistically feed one another.

As we democratize the market economy, we learn to use public policy to restrict the power of large companies to control food chains. We ensure that farmers receive adequate compensation for their production not only of food but also for their stewardship of the countless ecological, cultural, and historical features of a working landscape.


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