The Dirt On Our Farms
December 22, 2006
As a vegan who enjoys prowling the local farmer's market for new and delicious produce to cook up, I've long been convinced that the way most Americans interact with fruits and vegetables is fundamentally problematic, and that Big Agribiz is to blame.
We have an agri-culture that is not just unhealthy for humans (pumped full of toxins), but unhealthy for the planet (those toxins run off, and intsensive monoculture planting strips topsoil of its nutrients, turning it into dust), unsustainable (highly dependent on oil) and untasty (ever eaten a decent tomato grown in a family farm?). But I always assumed that the economics of agriculture in America—with huge, super-efficient factory farming—were unbeatable. It's just cheaper that way, and in America that's the only justification you need. This week The Washington Post told me I was wrong .
If you think the above assertions are typical vegan hyperbole, read Michael Pollan's powerful essay for The New York Times, “The Vegetable-Industrial Complex," for a description of how, for example, the modern industrial farming process has destroyed the organic cycle between produce and pastured cattle, creating entirely new problems of feedlot bacteria that are to blame for the deadly strains of E. coli that have been circulating lately. While more regulation might solve some problems, as Pollan points out, it's far more urgent that we radically rethink the way we grow our food. The federal government and Big Spinach “treat E. coli 0157:H7 as an unavoidable fact of life rather than what it is: a fact of industrial agriculture.”
Pollan is the author of “The Omnivore's Dilemma,” one of the best extensive examinations of why an American diet is ultimately unsustainable. As Pollan mentions, factory farming no longer uses organic fertilizer (cow manure and compost) to maintain the highly complex ecology of nutrient-rich topsoil.
Instead, it relies on an energy-intensive process of producing nitrogen-rich fertilizer from oil and cattle feed from natural gas. It requires about 10 calories of oil energy to produce every calorie of corn grown in the United States. Meanwhile the process, combining nitrogen with toxic chemical weedkillers, is literally destroying the soil that our food grows in. The chemically-enhanced crops we grow in monoculture, like corn, are sucking all the nutrients out of the topsoil, turning it into dust. For more information on “catastrophic agriculture,” the energy-intensive farming that requires the equivalent of“4,000 Nagasakis” in Iowa alone every year, check out “The Oil We Eat,” by Richard Manning.
The argument has always been against these “sentimental” reasons for wanting an organic, permaculture approach to supplant the Archer-Daniels-Midland model of agriculture is that, as elsewhere, economies of scale in agriculture are simply more efficient and better business.
And that's where Thursday's Post front-page story on how federal agriculture subsidies shape the business of farming blew me away. “Federal Subsidies Turn Farms Into Big Business,” their headline read. It's the first in a series examing the politics of farm subsidies, and I strongly encourage you to check it out.
We are told that much of what we see is simply the free market at work producing the best results. The reality is that big agribusiness is fueled, funded and made possible by federal government subsidies, which do not go to the increasingly-mythical American family farmer.
Furthermore, far from invigorating the farm economy, the subsidies to factory farms are destroying the economy of middle America.
Gary Nabhan, over at Yes magazine, has a great piece looking at how small farms selling their produce to their own foodshed (i.e., their local surroundings) instead of shipping them halfway across the world can have a positive impact on community wealth as well as community health. But Michael Pollan sums it up best:
Not that there’s anything wrong with sentimental reasoning. But we need to put pressure on a Democratic Congress to look past the easy storytelling of American farmers out there in some mythical heartland. We need to confront the facts of our agricultural policy: It harms Americans, makes us more dependent on foreign oil, warms the planet and hurts our economy. We need a policy that encourages small, labor-intensive farming over oil-dependent production as part of a local foodshed that reduces the need for shipping and brings money back to farming communities.
It's possible. Over in Castro's Cuba, the collapse of the Soviet Union doomed an economy based on energy-intensive industrial agriculture and cash crops. The Cuban government responded by mandating an agricultural revolution. Organics replaced industrial, and now Cuba is almost entirely self-sufficient when it comes to food—the country is actually de-industrializing and becoming more agrarian. In 1999 the Swedish parliament awarded the Cuban Organic Farming Group its Right Livelihood Award, often styled the “alternative Nobel.”
And if it happens to taste good, hey, so much the better.