An Economy of Fail

Large-scale farming sends shock waves around the world

| January / February 2006

So what's wrong with industrial agriculture anyway? If it gets green, via organic standards, isn't that good enough? Not, says George Pyle, if you care about farmers, foreign policy, or the environment. A newspaperman born and raised in Kansas, the heart of industrialized agriculture, Pyle has produced one of the most thoroughly researched, scathing indictments of the American farm system ever written: Raising Less Corn, More Hell: The Case for the Independent Farm Against Industrial Food. Pyle argues that the cornerstones of industrial agriculture, including price supports, chemical inputs, and far-reaching corporate ownership have led to a cycle of overproduction and plummeting prices -- which leads, in turn, to more industrialization. Utne editor Joseph Hart interviewed him about how we got here and how to break free.

Joe Hart: We live in an industrial age, so why shouldn't farms produce on the same scale?

George Pyle: Because farmers are not making cars or computers; they're turning sunlight into protein. And there are some irreducible biological processes that don't translate into the industrial model. It just takes as long as it takes for a cow to reach weight. As much as we might try to bend and break the laws of nature, we're still bound by them.

JH: But proponents of industrial agriculture claim that we can't serve the world's markets without large-scale agriculture.

GP: Actually, overproduction and surpluses are the bigger problem. The world is glutted with wheat, corn, and soybeans, and it has been since just after World War I. Even during the dust bowl years, America was producing way more grain than the world could absorb.

JH: Yet world hunger persists. Why?