The Politics of Food

A look into the politics of food makes it clear how and why Americans no longer have the right to grow and eat whatever they want.

Farmer with corn crop

When corn became subsidized, farmers began overproducing it in the same way they had wheat and cotton. To find a market for all that extra corn, the United States began producing massive amounts of inexpensive high fructose corn syrup.

Photo by Fotolia/Jeno

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Consumers should be concerned about where their food comes from. In Food Tyrants (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013), homesteader and writer Nicole Faires opens our eyes to a wide-scale problem that isn’t going away. With hands-on knowledge and a new view of the American farmer, Faires suggests the answer lays in the soil and provides the information necessary to make informed, healthy food choices. The following selection, from Chapter 1, offers a glimpse into the politics of food that run America.

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“I saw all the people hustling early in the morning to go into the factories and stores and the office buildings, to do their job, to get their check. But ultimately it’s not office buildings or jobs that give us our checks. It’s the soil. The soil is what gives us the real income that supports us all.”
—Ed Begley, Jr.

The Abridgement of Freedom

“I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.”
—James Madison

You may not realize it yet, but you do not have the legal right to grow and eat anything that you want, and food has become a very complex issue. However, this right was not lost overnight, because originally food was not political. Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution would have included agriculture if any of the founding members or later leaders believed that the government had any say in the matter. Our relatively young food “industry” was still safe in the 1920s, when President Coolidge vetoed a complex price-fixing bill for various crops. He said, “I do not believe that upon serious consideration the farmers of America would tolerate the precedent of a body of men chosen solely by one industry who, acting in the name of the Government, shall arrange for contracts which determine prices...Such action would establish bureaucracy on such a scale as to dominate not only the economic life but the moral, social, and political future of our people.”

These politics of food he meant to avoid, however, is now a staple of most of the food industry legislation in America today. Only ten years after Coolidge, Hoover introduced the Farm Board, which fixed the price of wheat and cotton. The Farm Board had good intentions, but its policies had far-reaching consequences. If the price of wheat or cotton dropped too low, the government would step in and buy it at the fixed price. This relative financial security convinced many farmers to start producing wheat and cotton, and pretty soon they had too much of it. Supply far outstripped demand. That’s when President Roosevelt created the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Rather than paying farmers too much for a worthless crop, the government now paid them not to grow wheat or cotton. By that logic, any business that got into trouble by poorly estimating the market should be “bailed out” and paid to prevent stupidity. But this only applied to farmers.

These subsidies had a completely unexpected result many years later. When corn became subsidized, farmers began overproducing it in the same way they had wheat and cotton. So, to find a market for all that extra corn, the United States began producing massive amounts of inexpensive high fructose corn syrup, which became a major ingredient in many, many manufactured foods. We’re now very aware how bad high fructose corn syrup is for us, and yet the USDA, which is responsible for publishing healthy food guides for millions of children, has no problem handing out money for it.

However, to truly find a solution for our nation’s food problems, it is necessary to go all the way back to the foundation of food: the soil. When we talk about the loss of our right to healthy food, what we are really talking about is losing our freedom to access soil to grow it. When we talk about the toxic state of the factory farms supplying the majority of our food supply, what we are really discussing is the gross mismanagement of our land. We are so quickly destroying our ability to feed ourselves that in a short while we will be completely dependent on others. This all comes down to dirt.

It is no longer possible to allow others to retain responsibility for our food supply without severely endangering a healthy future for the next generation. This means that the current rhetoric of Know Your Farmer will need to become much more personal. It should be Everyone Is a Farmer. I am hopeful that someday we will live in a culture where growing food is a matter of course, something almost everyone will do on balconies and backyards, and farms will dot urban landscapes on every corner, employing vast numbers of willing unemployed workers. This is the path to the restoration of our full freedoms, but it will not come without a cost. The deeply entrenched corporate agenda of the USDA, the millions of dollars corporations pour into legislation, and our own voracious appetites stand in the way.

The Loss of Farmland

“Quit thinking about decent land use as solely an economic problem. Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
—Aldo Leopold

According to the American Farmland Trust, America lost farmland at a rate of one acre per minute between 2002 and 2007, totaling 4 million acres, and that rate has only increased. Urban development, suburban sprawl, and commercial building all find farmland appealing for the same reasons it is good for farming: It has been cleared and leveled and has good drainage. Unfortunately, not all soil can grow plants. Decent farmland is actually relatively rare in comparison to the rest of the terrain. Rocky places, forests, floodplains, mountains, rivers, lakes, and canyons don’t make good farmland and are more than likely not worth transforming.

Why don’t farmers just stop selling their land? The number one reason is that farmers are getting old. USDA farm census numbers show that in 1997 the average farmer was fifty-four years old, and by 2007 the average had become fifty-seven. This would not be a terrible problem if more than1 percent (as opposed to 38 percent in 1900) of the population actually farmed the land and those farmers were not aging. Most of the next generation doesn’t seem interested in taking over these farms, and so the farmers sell land to finance their retirement or even medical bills. As the demand for land increases, the next generation of farmers finds itself priced out of the market by wealthy developers.

There are some who downplay the loss of farms by rationalizing that 4 million acres isn’t really that much in relation to America’s total landmass, which is about 2.4 billion acres. But this farmland is the most valuable acreage in America because of its soil quality. Good farmland usually has a couple of feet of precious topsoil, but the quality is not simply measured by the quantity of nutrients it has. The structure of the soil is just as important because it can take decades or even hundreds of years to build up a mixture that is perfect. Besides humus (decayed organic matter), there are minerals, clay, and sand that come together to retain water, but still let it drain at the right rate and insulate roots at just the right temperature. This kind of rare and valuable soil is called loam.

Many farms in the United States have been cultivated since they were first cleared during the Colonial period. When the settlers arrived, they found much of North America fully forested, and so they had to clear the land by hand, removing trees and rocks. The forest floor made a rich base for plant life. Some of the land lay in fertile valleys that had been flooded by rising lakes and rivers and fertilized by fish. The early farmers worked the land carefully and sustainably and never pushed the soil beyond its limits. This practice continued until the 1920s, when war and mechanization changed how farming was done. Young men came home from the front only to leave again for city jobs. They were soon replaced by tractors. Farms began to focus on monoculture, or growing one type of food only, rather than producing meat, vegetables, and grain together in the aesthetic form we still picture in our minds today. The size of these farms increased as investors bought up generational farmland and conglomerated it.

Underutilized chemical factories left idle after the war were put to work creating chemical fertilizer, herbicides, and fungicides. On a large scale, the historical and fertile farmland of the past became contaminated by toxic materials and depleted of any nutrients, as farmers became completely dependent on chemicals. Farmers were stunned when they began experiencing mass crop failure and tremendous soil problems on farmland that had faithfully provided for generations, but it wasn’t until the catastrophic drought of the 1930s that people realized how bad the situation was. America’s heartland dried up, and the overgrazed and overplowed soil simply blew away for the next eight years. According to Cary Nelson, by 1934, the drought affected 75 percent of the United States, and the billowing soil carried by the wind created horrific dust storms that killed thousands of people. Sunday, April 14, 1935, became known to history as Black Sunday, as a mountain of dust rolling across the Plains turned day into night. People were stranded for hours as the tsunami of topsoil made its way across the Midwest and travelled all the way to Washington, DC. It was because of this storm that the region became known as the Dust Bowl.

Just a few weeks before Black Sunday, President Roosevelt’s advisor Hugh Hammond Bennett had testified before Congress that the nation desperately needed better soil conservation methods. When the dust obscured the sun, he pointed out the window to his colleagues and said, “This, gentlemen, is what I’ve been talking about.” Obviously there was very little argument, and Congress created the Soil Conservation Service under the USDA before the end of that year. Farmers were taught to use crop rotation, cover crops, better plowing techniques, and basic soil care, all skills their forefathers had been using only forty years before. Nelson found that planting windbreaks and alternative plowing strategies reduced erosion by 65 percent, but by that time there had already been a massive exodus away from the Midwest as crops failed. Skeletons of farms were strewn across the Plains as farmers abandoned farming for good, leaving the land to be repossessed by banks.

In 1942, J. I. Rodale promoted the word organic to describe a method of farming that did not use chemicals and took care of the soil, but it was forty years before that method was embraced and any real change began. The chemical industry was (and still is) a very powerful force, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that more than a few outspoken activists, scientists, and die-hard gardeners took any real notice of it. One hundred years after our departure from sustainable growing methods, farmers and consumers are finally beginning to recognize that some of the soil-conserving methods of the past are better for the soil—and for us. However, despite our awareness of the problem, and the massive drought of the 1930s, there has not been enough change. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2012 has seen the worst drought since the Dust Bowl, affecting 56 percent of the United States with moderate to extreme drought in June. At the time of this writing, much of the soybean, wheat, and corn crop has been lost, and better soil management practices could have prevented it.

The damage has already been done. Even though the number of sustainable farms has been increasing every year, available farmland has also been shrinking at a steady rate. Considering that the vast majority of farms are not using sustainable soil practices despite the efforts of the Soil Conservation Service (now known as the NRCS), our available fertile soil is decreasing through each mismanaged crop cycle. Add to this our increasing population and dependence on cheap imported food and the rate could be even higher.The USDA census estimates the United States lost 1.7 percent of its farmland within a five-year span, which means that with all factors considered, all of America’s farmland will probably be completely gone within three hundred years. That may seem like a long time, but consider the effect of losing just 20 percent of the farmland. A country so dependent on import for food is a country that will fall victim to rising prices, substandard quality, and even possible political turmoil. Food is so vital for survival that it becomes a mechanism of control. If you don’t see it, your children will within the next sixty years.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Food Tyrants: Reclaiming Our Basic Right to Healthy Food in a Toxic World by Nicole Faires and published by Skyhorse Publishing, 2013.