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?
GP: People are hungry because they don't have the money to buy food, so from an economic point of view they might as well not be there. In fact, our glut depresses world prices, which makes it even harder for people in poor countries to make a living. African leaders have started to complain that if the United States didn't undercut the cotton market by dumping our overproduction, they could afford to buy their own AIDS drugs.
JH: Then why don't we encourage farmers to produce less? It would drive up prices for our farmers, too.
GP: That's what the original farm subsidies were supposed to do. [President Franklin] Roosevelt came along and paid farmers to produce less, and the idea was it would be just a year or two. The hope was that farmers would take some land out of production, production would go down, the market would then support farmers, and they'd go off the dole. But that never happened. Instead, they produced more and more. When you take land out of production, you choose land that wasn't very productive to begin with. Then on the land that is more productive, you have the latest strain and you irrigate and you fertilize; even as we grow on less and less land, we continue to produce more, with more chemicals.
JH: You also write that in each ag market -- grain and animal processing, for example -- four companies control something like 75 or 80 percent of the market.
GP: That's right, and when just 40 percent of the market is controlled by four or fewer players, it can crush fair trade. In agriculture, there's very little opportunity for the farmer to say, 'That guy down the road will pay me more,' because there are so few people buying. It's a take it or leave it situation. In cattle, you've got nowhere else to go because the stockyards are gone. The corporations haven't necessarily done it in smoke-filled rooms, but they've got the country divided up so if you want to sell a bunch of cattle you've basically got one place to sell to. It's like Stalin's agriculture system. It's centrally controlled. Maybe their people are smarter than Stalin's people, but they still have this idea that it's so many widgets that can be manufactured to so many specifications.
JH: You and I can agree that this system is unfair to farmers, but is it fundamentally incompatible with organic production? If consumers want chemical-free food, why can't industrial farming deliver?
GP: If you look at how big business runs agriculture today, you can see that they're going to try to game the system. They're big corporations, and they're going to do anything they can to increase their bottom line, and they see industrialization as a way to do this. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's primary function is to move this stuff -- to get America and the rest of the world to buy American farm products -- not to uphold its quality. The Food and Drug Administration could regulate organics, but its budget and power are limited by Congress, and we can't trust the federal government to certify things organic. You can't trust the system to stick to the rules.
JH: So what's the solution?
GP: Decentralization. Instead of one centrally controlled vertically integrated system, we need individual growers who respect their climate and their land instead of being forced into some preconceived notion of what they should be producing. What we really need is a true free market. And the corporations wouldn't know a free market if it fell out of the sky, landed on their face, and wiggled. You either need no middlemen, so the farmer sells directly to the consumer, or you need lots of middlemen bidding up the prices for farmers and driving consumer prices down. But here's the deal: A free market and capitalism are incompatible. In a free market, you hustle to get your better, cheaper product in front of the consumer. In capitalism, you just value capital. That's it. If we broke up the food monopolies, if we didn't undercut the market with farm subsidies, if we didn't manipulate prices with trade quotas and tariffs that favor certain corporations like big sugar, then we'd have a true free market. In the meantime, you're better off dealing with the little guy down the road. Local and direct is much more sustainable and responsible than organic from God knows where.