I think it’s safe to say that our national agricultural system is failing. Despite having the potential to produce 2,500 calories per person, more than 925 million people go hungry every day. And this record-breaking heat wave sure isn’t helping. A recent New York Times article points out the obvious and disturbing effects heat and drought have on our crop system. What was recently thought to be a record-breaking corn harvest is looking scarce, driving up corn prices and giving the farmers throughout the Midwest a scare.
The issue begins with industrial farming. Large-scale farms dominate the market these days, crowding out smaller farms. A common argument for industrial farming is that it is the only way to feed our ever-growing population. Going on the premise that this is true (don’t worry, I’ll explain why it isn’t in a minute), there are still a bunch of problems with industrial farming. First off, look at the management practices. Herbicides and pesticides are thrown around their fields, which their genetically modified crops are resistant to. This practice is creating super-weeds, which have also developed a resistance to all the ‘cides. To expedite growing, farmers use nutrients (primarily phosphates/nitrates) en masse. The plants, then, leech the ground dry. Without proper crop rotation and land management, the topsoil just can’t keep up. So, lets add some more nutrients. Simply speaking, it isn’t sustainable.
But if it’s the only way to feed our kids, why not do it? Well, it isn’t the only way. Genetic engineering’s history is incredibly short. They only started planting GMOs in modest about 25 years ago. This whole industrial farming deal was really put into effect post-Dust Bowl, when the government sought to bring together agriculture and science through land grant universities. What we’ve found however is that large scale agriculture, while producing tons upon tons of food, is extremely wasteful. When looking at production per acre, small-scale farms are exceedingly more productive, more sustainable, and employ more workers.
Sounds like a win-win, right? So why not stop dead in our tracks and revert? Well, obviously, we can’t. And while there are a lot of reasons why we can’t, I blame Monsanto. Farming has become a multi-billion-dollar industry, with Monsanto leading the charge. Monsanto, a multi-billion-dollar company, has the agricultural market in virtual choke hold. A former Monsanto exec named Michael Taylor now heads off food safety for the FDA, and Justice Clarence Thomas also used to work for Monsanto. Their practices include monopolizing the seed market and genetically engineering food like corn, soy, and alfalfa. It’s safe, they say, because they’ve been doing it for 14 years. Right. Anyway, Monsanto has been known to aggressively protect all of their product, going at lengths to keep farmers from reproducing seeds on their own (to be fair, the SCOTUS did give them the right to. It pays off to have a judge). Monsanto essentially takes jobs out of the hands of farmers; a few farmers on a large farm using GMOs is much more profitable than having a bunch of farmers on a small farm.
Now, while we’d all like to believe that returning the land to the farmers and farming sustainably would fix all of our woes, we can’t ignore the economic implications. Industrial farming is much cheaper. Oh wait, that’s because industrial agriculture has the government pumping subsidies into it like a flat tire. Don’t believe me? Our government has given out over 240 billion in subsidies in the past 10 years, but only to the big guys. This effectively masks the true cost of industrial agriculture. Take away the subsidies, add the cost of long-term health care for the workers exposed to carcinogens, plus land and water restoration for all the pollutants left behind, and suddenly the price tag looks a little less like a Wal Mart sweater and a bit more like a Louis Vuitton belt. No one should bear the price of a Louis Vuitton belt.
I don’t expect a full reversal. I don’t even think that is necessarily the way to go. I think what needs to happen is that we examine our farm system with a critical eye, see what science can do for sustainable farming, and where all that subsidy money would be better located. Don’t tell Justice Thomas or Michael Taylor though.