An Economy of Fail

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.

UTNE
UTNE
In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.