Our Chemical-Dependent, Profit-Driven, Industrial Ag Complex is Not Going Quietly

John Ikerd

An advertisement extolling the many benefits of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), an insecticide later banned worldwide under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The ad was featured in the June 30, 1947 issue of Time magazine.

In an attempt to stem the tide of grow­ing pub­lic con­cern, the indus­tri­al agri­cul­tur­al estab­lish­ment has mount­ed a nation­wide pro­pa­gan­da cam­paign designed to, in their words, increase con­fi­dence and trust in today’s agri­cul­ture.” The board mem­bers of one front group, the U.S. Farm­ers and Ranch­ers Alliance, include the Amer­i­can Farm Bureau Fed­er­a­tion, John Deere as well as major agri­cul­tur­al com­mod­i­ty orga­ni­za­tions. Board mem­bers Mon­san­to and DuPont have each pledged $500,000 per year to the campaign.

A recent study by Friends of the Earth, an inter­na­tion­al net­work of envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions, doc­u­ments sim­i­lar front groups” that have been spend­ing more than $25 mil­lion per year to pol­ish the tar­nished pub­lic image of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture. This doesn’t include the cam­paigns of indi­vid­ual indus­tri­al agri­cul­tur­al apol­o­gists that are car­ried out through pub­lic schools, 4‑H and Future Farm­ers of Amer­i­ca, local civic clubs, and state and local mass media. That said, the agri­cul­tur­al estab­lish­ment seems to con­sid­er their PR cam­paign as lit­tle more than a hold­ing action” against grow­ing pub­lic con­cerns. They are using their polit­i­cal pow­er to estab­lish leg­isla­tive pro­tec­tions that would pre­vent effec­tive regulation. 

(Chart: Cen­ter for Food Safe­ty)

All 50 states already have some form of right-to-farm law, but they must be strength­end. The ear­ly laws, begin­ning in the 1980s, were enact­ed to min­i­mize the threat to nui­sance lit­i­ga­tion and pro­hib­i­tive state and local gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion of nor­mal farm­ing prac­tices.” Cur­rent polit­i­cal ini­tia­tives, how­ev­er, allow the agri­cul­tur­al estab­lish­ment to define indus­tri­al farm­ing prac­tices” as a legal­ly pro­tect­ed eco­nom­ic right. Indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture’s advo­cates know it’s vul­ner­a­ble to grow­ing pub­lic con­cerns and they’re doing every­thing in their pow­er to pro­tect it.

The agri­cul­tur­al estab­lish­ment has essen­tial­ly aban­doned their ear­li­er strat­e­gy for demand­ing that reg­u­la­tion of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture be based on sound sci­ence.” They seem to under­stand that the sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence sup­port­ing the grow­ing pub­lic con­cerns is now clear, com­pelling, even over­whelm­ing. I per­son­al­ly think it has become mis­lead­ing to cite a few spe­cif­ic stud­ies when there is so much sci­en­tif­ic infor­ma­tion doc­u­ment­ing the envi­ron­men­tal, social, eco­nom­ic, and pub­lic health prob­lems asso­ci­at­ed with indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture. I have start­ed rely­ing on meta-stud­ies, where sci­en­tists or teams of sci­en­tists review dozens or hun­dreds of cred­i­ble stud­ies and draw log­i­cal, gen­er­al­iz­able conclusions.

For exam­ple, after review­ing more than 350 stud­ies doc­u­ment­ing the fail­ures of indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture, a 2016 inde­pen­dent study by the Inter­na­tion­al Pan­el of Experts on Sus­tain­able Food Sys­tems (IPES-food) con­clud­ed:

Today’s food and farm­ing sys­tems have suc­ceed­ed in sup­ply­ing large vol­umes of foods to glob­al mar­kets, but are gen­er­at­ing neg­a­tive out­comes on mul­ti­ple fronts: wide­spread degra­da­tion of land, water and ecosys­tems; high GHG emis­sions; bio­di­ver­si­ty loss­es; per­sis­tent hunger and micro-nutri­ent defi­cien­cies along­side the rapid rise of obe­si­ty and diet-relat­ed dis­eases; and liveli­hood stress­es for farm­ers around the world.”

In sup­port of fun­da­men­tal change, the report continues:

What is required is a fun­da­men­tal­ly dif­fer­ent mod­el of agri­cul­ture based on diver­si­fy­ing farms and farm­ing land­scapes, replac­ing chem­i­cal inputs, opti­miz­ing bio­di­ver­si­ty and stim­u­lat­ing inter­ac­tions between dif­fer­ent species, as part of holis­tic strate­gies to build long-term fer­til­i­ty, healthy agro-ecosys­tems and secure liveli­hoods. Data shows that these sys­tems can com­pete with indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture in terms of total out­puts, per­form­ing par­tic­u­lar­ly strong­ly under envi­ron­men­tal stress, and deliv­er­ing pro­duc­tion increas­es in the places where addi­tion­al food is des­per­ate­ly need­ed. Diver­si­fied agroe­co­log­i­cal sys­tems can also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health.”

Olivi­er De Schut­ter, co-chair of the inde­pen­dent pan­el, lat­er observed:

It is not a lack of evi­dence hold­ing back the agroe­co­log­i­cal alter­na­tive. It is the mis­match between its huge poten­tial to improve out­comes across food sys­tems, and its much small­er poten­tial to gen­er­ate prof­its for agribusi­ness firms. The way food sys­tems are cur­rent­ly struc­tured allows val­ue to accrue to a lim­it­ed num­ber of actors, rein­forc­ing their eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal pow­er, and thus their abil­i­ty to influ­ence the gov­er­nance of food sys­tems. Sim­ply tweak­ing indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture will not pro­vide long-term solu­tions to the mul­ti­ple prob­lems it gen­er­ates. We must change the way we set polit­i­cal priorities.”

Every major farm pol­i­cy since the 1970s, in one way or anoth­er, has sup­port­ed the indus­tri­al paradigm”

Con­trary to pop­u­lar opin­ion, the cur­rent indus­tri­al agri­cul­tur­al sys­tem is not a nat­ur­al con­se­quence of free mar­kets, but instead is the con­se­quence of a pre­med­i­tat­ed shift in agri­cul­tur­al poli­cies dur­ing the 1970s. His­tor­i­cal­ly, the fun­da­men­tal pur­pose of agri­cul­tur­al pol­i­cy has been to pro­vide domes­tic food secu­ri­ty. No nation, at least until now, has been will­ing to trust its food secu­ri­ty to the glob­al mar­ket­place. U.S. farm poli­ties from the 1930s through the 1960s were premised on the propo­si­tion that food secu­ri­ty could best be assured by keep­ing inde­pen­dent fam­i­ly farm­ers on the land. Fam­i­ly farm­ers had been the cul­tur­al foun­da­tion of Amer­i­can soci­ety and were com­mit­ted to main­tain­ing the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of their land — not only for the ben­e­fit of their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties but also for the food secu­ri­ty of their nation.

Farm pol­i­cy in the Unit­ed States was fun­da­men­tal­ly changed dur­ing the ear­ly 1970s — the Nixon-Butz era. The pol­i­cy objec­tives shift­ed from sup­port­ing fam­i­ly farms to pro­mot­ing the indus­tri­al­iza­tion of agri­cul­ture. But indus­tri­al­iza­tion is not defined by the shift from an agrar­i­an to a man­u­fac­tur­ing econ­o­my, which is sim­ply a symp­tom of indus­tri­al­iza­tion. The basic strate­gies of indus­tri­al­iza­tion are spe­cial­iza­tion, stan­dard­iza­tion, and con­sol­i­da­tion of con­trol. Spe­cial­iza­tion increas­es pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and eco­nom­ic effi­cien­cy (i.e. divi­sion of labor). Spe­cial­ized func­tions must be stan­dard­ized to cre­ate a com­plete and coher­ent prod­uct process (i.e. an assem­bly line). Stan­dard­iza­tion allows the pro­duc­tion to be rou­tinized and mech­a­nized, fur­ther increas­ing effi­cien­cy and sim­pli­fy­ing man­age­ment. This allows man­age­ment con­trol to be con­sol­i­dat­ed into larg­er, often cor­po­rate, eco­nom­ic enti­ties (i.e. economies of scale).

The chem­i­cal and mechan­i­cal tech­nolo­gies devel­oped for the war effort dur­ing World War II allowed agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion to be stan­dard­ized, rou­tinized and mech­a­nized. Fields and feed­lots could be trans­formed into bio­log­i­cal assem­bly lines and farms into fac­to­ries with­out roofs. Small, diver­si­fied, inde­pen­dent fam­i­ly farms could be con­sol­i­dat­ed into large, spe­cial­ized, cor­po­rate­ly con­trolled fac­to­ry farms.” Food secu­ri­ty would then be ensured not by fam­i­ly farms but by reduc­ing the cost of food pro­duc­tion and mak­ing good food afford­able for all — the cheap food pol­i­cy. In the mean­time, tem­po­rary food assis­tance pro­grams would fill in any remain­ing gaps.

The farm poli­cies of the Nixon-Butz era were designed specif­i­cal­ly to sup­port, sub­si­dize, and pro­mote spe­cial­iza­tion, stan­dard­iza­tion, and con­sol­i­da­tion of agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion into ever-larg­er farm­ing oper­a­tions. Every major farm pol­i­cy since the 1970s — price sup­ports, farm cred­it, crop insur­ance, dis­as­ter pay­ments, farm tax cred­its and depre­ci­a­tion allowances, etc. — in one way or anoth­er has sup­port­ed the indus­tri­al par­a­digm. Soil and water con­ser­va­tion and more recent organ­ic and sus­tain­able farm­ing pro­grams, adopt­ed under pub­lic duress, are under con­stant threat, with funds often divert­ed to sub­si­dize indus­tri­al farm­ing prac­tices. Plant fencerow to fencerow” and get big or get out” remain the watch­words of U.S. farm policy.

While these cheap food poli­cies have suc­ceed­ed in increas­ing agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tiv­i­ty and eco­nom­ic effi­cien­cy, they have failed in their only legit­i­mate pub­lic pur­pose: Indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture has failed to pro­vide domes­tic food secu­ri­ty.” In spite of reduc­ing the per­cent­age of the aver­age American’s dis­pos­able income spent for food, they have failed to pro­vide every­one with enough good food to sup­port healthy, active lifestyles. Indeed, the nec­es­sary shift in fed­er­al farm pol­i­cy must be sup­port­ed by pub­lic accep­tance of the fact that the cur­rent indus­tri­al agri­cul­tur­al sys­tem isn’t work­ing and isn’t going to work in the future.

Change is not just an option; it is an absolute necessity”

A far larg­er per­cent­age of peo­ple in the Unit­ed States are food inse­cure” today than dur­ing the 1960s. Near­ly 15 per­cent of Amer­i­cans are clas­si­fied as food inse­cure and more than 20 per­cent of our chil­dren live in food inse­cure homes. The tem­po­rary” food assis­tance pro­grams of the 1960s have been extend­ed and expand­ed but have failed to fill the gaps left by the indus­tri­al food sys­tem. In addi­tion, the diets of many Amer­i­cans are high in calo­ries but lack­ing in essen­tial nutri­ents, lead­ing to an epi­dem­ic of obe­si­ty and oth­er diet-relat­ed health prob­lems. Dia­betes, heart dis­ease, hyper­ten­sion, and var­i­ous diet-relat­ed can­cers, are pro­ject­ed to claim about one-in-five dol­lars spent for health care in the Unit­ed States by 2020 — eras­ing vir­tu­al­ly all of the gains in pub­lic health over the past sev­er­al decades. While the per­cent­age of America’s total eco­nom­ic out­put required for food dropped by one-half, the per­cent­age going to health care more than dou­bled.

In fail­ing to meet the basic food needs of the present, indus­tri­al agri­cul­ture has failed to meet even the first req­ui­site for agri­cul­tur­al sus­tain­abil­i­ty. And there is vir­tu­al­ly no pos­si­bil­i­ty that it can meet even the most basic food needs of gen­er­a­tions of the future, as it sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly pol­lutes the envi­ron­ment, threat­ens pub­lic health, and depletes and degrades the nat­ur­al and human resources that must sup­port long-run agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Change is not just an option; it is an absolute necessity.

The prob­lems in U.S. agri­cul­ture are sys­temic or ingrained in the indus­tri­al sys­tem of pro­duc­tion and can­not be effec­tive­ly addressed with­out fun­da­men­tal­ly chang­ing the agri­cul­tur­al sys­tem. This will require a fun­da­men­tal shift in agri­cul­tur­al and food poli­cies, begin­ning with farm policies.

(This essay was adapt­ed from Farm Pol­i­cy at a Cross­roads: A Time to Choose,” a pre­sen­ta­tion pre­pared by John Ikerd for the 10th Annu­al Farm and Food Lead­er­ship Con­fer­ence held in Bas­trop, Texas last Sep­tem­ber. To read Farm Pol­i­cy at a Cross­roads: A Time to Choose” in its entire­ty, which includes farm pol­i­cy sug­ges­tions, addi­tion­al research and end notes, click here. For more sus­tain­able agri­cul­ture infor­ma­tion or to sub­scribe to John Ikerd’s blog, vis­it JohnIkerd​.com. This con­tent is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion from the author.)

John Ikerd was raised on a small dairy farm in south­west Mis­souri. He received his BS, MS, and Ph.D. degrees in agri­cul­tur­al eco­nom­ics from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri. After work­ing in pri­vate indus­try, he spent 30 years in var­i­ous pro­fes­so­r­i­al posi­tions at North Car­oli­na State Uni­ver­si­ty, Okla­homa State Uni­ver­si­ty, Uni­ver­si­ty of Geor­gia and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri before retir­ing in ear­ly 2000. He now spends most of his time writ­ing and speak­ing on issues relat­ed to sus­tain­abil­i­ty with an empha­sis on eco­nom­ics and agri­cul­ture. He cur­rent­ly resides in Fair­field, Iowa and is the author of sev­er­al books includ­ing Essen­tials of Eco­nom­ic Sus­tain­abil­i­ty, Sus­tain­able Cap­i­tal­ism, A Return to Com­mon Sense and Cri­sis and Oppor­tu­ni­ty: Sus­tain­abil­i­ty in Amer­i­can Agri­cul­ture and A Rev­o­lu­tion of the Mid­dle.
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