Monday, August 19, 2013

Love the Land That Gives Us Life

1001 Books To Read Before Your Kindle Battery Dies, Part 19
George Pyle, Raising Less Corn, More Hell: Why Our Economy, Ecology and Security Demand The Preservation of the Independent Farm

Journalist George Pyle, like many Plains residents, considered farmers a vestige of outdated ways. Working ag beats, he shared Kansans’ common assumption that farming was boring, and farm failures merely inevitable. But as former farms morphed into massive, smelly “protein factories” and subsidized sweatshops, Pyle began investigating agriculture, and was appalled. The product was this book, probably more important now than when it first appeared.

Farmers have suffered by the transition to a business model of agriculture. Where independent farmers with local markets have incentives to steward the soil and balance production with preservation, business models warp agricultural values until, Pyle says, farmers resemble miners. Movement away from community relationships with farmers has created a bottleneck where perilously few companies sell us food that isn’t tasty or nutritious.

Corporations like Tyson and Archer Daniels Midland create apparent customer benefits: plentiful food, cheap as it’s ever been. But this comes at the expense of diminished nutrition, unprecedented vulnerability, and depleted, chemically dependent soil. Even those farmers who own their own land, a dying breed, find themselves indentured to corporations who do not have their, or the soil’s, best interests at heart.

Individual farmers may reject this “vertical integration” model that distorts ordinary capitalist markets, but they face monolithic resistance. Government agencies and private advocacy groups throw their support behind corporations. When neighbors pre-sell their livestock or harvest to distant conglomerates, inevitably distorting eventual market prices, farmers face two stark, unpalatable choices: get big or get out.

Pyle demonstrates, using long-range comparative statistics, that current farm policies, based on pulling more food from America’s soil, have been counterproductive, particularly direct cash transfusions. Most farm subsidies go to corporations and absentee landlords, while workers who actually nurture the soil get dregs. Even when money goes directly to farmers, it barely pauses before moving on to agribusiness monopolies like Monsanto and John Deere.

Back in the 1980s, struggling farmers organized “tractorcades” to protest lopsided policies and rigged markets. Long lines of John Deere green blocked major cities, including Washington. Whether such displays did anything to inform public sentiment remains debatable, but farmers’ use of tractors to elicit sympathy reflects that they themselves miss what has had the greatest impact on American agriculture, the infusion of an unsustainable assembly-line ethic.

Massive investments in petroleum-burning equipment, genetically modified seed, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and other high-tech gadgetry massively multiply yield. Yet plentiful yields, like anything plentiful, fetch less money. To bolster prices, America ships excess crops overseas as “food aid,” undercutting prices in poor countries with primarily agrarian economies. We’ve globalized poverty among dirt farmers.

One especially telling example features Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). This toxin occurs naturally, making it useful for chemically untreated crops, but it’s deadly to European corn borers, which decimate crops silently. Organic farmers love it because it protects fields without harsh chemicals. But they use it sparingly, lest corn borers become immune. So naturally, since 1996, agribusiness has marketed genetically modified corn that produces its own Bt. Constantly.

Agronomists warned that constant Bt exposure would breed genetically resistant pests. But corporations blanketed the market with ads for supposedly low-maintenance, chemical-free seed, drowning naysayers in noise. Pyle wrote, in 2005, that overuse of genetically modified seed made Bt-resistant blight downright inevitable. The University of Nebraska in 2013 reports that such resistance is upon us. And responsible organic farmers have one less tool in their arsenal.

It sounds nostalgically na├»ve when organic farm advocates advertise “heirloom seed varieties.” But corporate conglomerates demand such vast harvests that their indentured farmers plant whatever seed yields most, regardless of nutrition, flavor, hardiness, or soil conservation. This causes appalling genetic homogeneity in America’s fields, which leaves us vulnerable to even small fluctuations. Or did we learn nothing from the Irish Potato Famine?

Agriculture, Pyle says, suffers the same fate now plaguing finance, commerce, and other industries: a microscopic minority has accrued such economic and political might that market forces no longer apply to them. Farmers live in fear of ConAgra, Tyson, and McDonalds, and lack the unity needed to resist them. Legislators feed at lobbyists’ money teats. The responsibility for resistance falls to ordinary citizens. Will we answer that call?

God said: “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food.” Big agribusiness said: “Just kidding. We’ll make food easy, plentiful, and cheap.” Between those two, the land has demonstrated whom it favors; now we, as customers and farmers and eaters, must decide which narrative we believe, before the food we eat dies on the stalk.

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