IN A DIRT TURNOUT ALONG BLACKSMITH RD., NEAR LESLIE, GEORGIA – I’ve come here to talk with you today about agriculture, and U.S. agricultural policy.
Someone was telling me today that they thought it was unusual for an independent presidential candidate to have a policy on agriculture. To be honest, I think it’s rare even for a mainstream presidential candidate to talk about agriculture during the campaign. Except in Iowa. They come to Iowa, and they pronounce a few platitudes about subsidies and crop insurance, and as soon as the Caucuses are over, they forget they’ve ever heard of farmers.
Farmers, you see, aren’t much of a voting block. ADM, Cargill, Noble Group, on the other hand – the big players in international agribusiness – they have a powerful lobby, and there’s no real need for a mainstream presidential candidate to go public with his or her agricultural policy when all he or she has to do is to call a few of the big boys over for cocktails and hash it out with them in private. Cheney-style.
But that’s the real reason that I’m here to talk to you today about agriculture. Washington politicians now seem to take it for granted that the true constituents of a national agricultural policy are the ADMs and Cargills of the world, with some lip service paid to the independent family farmer along the way.
This top-down view of agriculture in this country is symptomatic of an even greater structural problem: over the course of four generations, the natural connections between, and awareness of, the food that we choose to eat, the processes by which it is grown and prepared, and the land from which it emanates, have been all but erased from the American consciousness. The only way most of us experience agriculture today is on the back-end of a shopping cart rolling down Aisle 3 at the Winn-Dixie, or in the drive-through at a Burger King – and with every order comes a heaping helping of denial.
Our lack of awareness about where our food comes from helps to mask serious systemic problems in American agriculture, what it is doing to our economy and our environment, and what we end up eating:
- The current subsidy system in this country, which was designed in the 1930s to help farmers manage risk, now favors large agribusiness over small family farms — ten percent of all farms now receive almost three-quarters of all subsidies. This inevitably contributes to the consolidation of farming activities in the hands of a small number of producers, disrupting rural community life and the health of rural economies. As I’ve said before, absentee corporate ownership tends to suck the life out of communities, and can quickly kill what remains of a community when “external economics” no longer make sense for an absentee corporate owner to remain there.
- Ninety percent of all subsidies go to the production of just five crops: wheat, corn, cotton, soybeans and rice. The current subsidy system discourages crop diversity by rewarding the planting of this select group of crops — usually from a narrow group of generic varieties pushed by multinational seed suppliers — without regard to the practical desirability of crop rotation.
- This generic, monocultural approach to agriculture is eroding biodiversity among both plants and animals. About 7,000 different species of plants have been raised as food crops in the history of human agriculture, but only fifteen plant and eight animal species are now relied upon for about 90% of all human food. Why should we care? When someone rips up huge areas of good land to plant generic seeds for sale into the international food processing supply-chain year after year, not only is the natural balance of the local ecology disrupted — which inevitably leads to the disappearance of certain varieties of plants and animals, and interferes with natural processes of pollination, soil regeneration and the building up of resistances to pests and disease — but in the end we find ourselves eating tasteless food, and gradually losing valuable technical knowledge, unique to our localities, of how we interact with, learn from, and can be nourished by, our local environment.
- Synthetic chemical pesticides and fertilizers, designed to enhance yields, are polluting our soil, our water and our air, to the detriment of our environment as well as to our health.
- Apart from the pollution, industrial agriculture is also contributing to the erosion of soil and the consumption of water at unsustainable rates. If you don’t think that’s serious, it’s worth noting that unsustainable uses of water and soil were among the primary reasons why the great ancient Mesopotamian civilizations ultimately failed. Remember, they used to call that part of the world “the fertile crescent.”
- And here’s the big one folks, the one that hits you where you live. If none of what I’ve told you is troubling thus far, consider this: agribusiness in the 21st century is almost irretrievably dependent upon fossil fuels. It uses them in the chemicals it sprays on our food, it moves the Earth with them, and it burns millions of gallons of them hauling lettuce from California to Kalamazoo, or grapes from Chile to Chattanooga. Oil went up over $90 a barrel today; and when fuel prices really bust through the roof, we will begin to see the price of fuel passed onto us in the form of higher prices at the supermarket, and we will begin to see certain staples disappearing from supermarket shelves. This is inevitable within a system of agriculture which favors meeting consumer demand from geographically disparate regions of the Earth, almost to the total exclusion of local production for local needs.
If we choose to look at agricultural policy as food policy in this country, then the constituency suddenly becomes everyone who eats … rather than a few agribusiness giants. And this is the first important point I want to make: our national agricultural policy is not supposed to be some political afterthought, a bit of esoterica hashed out behind closed doors. It means food, and it means life. It is a fundamental, defining aspect of American culture. And if it is sick, then we are sick — as a people.
The second important point I want to make is that to fix the system, we need not kill international agribusiness. In fact, we don’t want to — our production of wheat, corn and soybeans, in particular, gives us global strategic rewards that we would be unwise to ignore. But we do need to balance the structural advantages available in this country to large agricultural companies with a set of structural advantages that can be made available to sustainable, local agricultural enterprises.
What does sustainable agriculture look like? What kind of agriculture do we want to cultivate, to balance the iniquities of industrial agriculture in this country?
- First, and most significantly, it involves increasing the amount of local production for local use in our communities – for the ultimate improvement of our food security and for the reduction of our dependence on fossil fuels.
- Second, as a flipside to the agribusiness approach to agriculture in this country, sustainable agriculture is an ecology-based approach. It can be but does not have to be purely “organic,” but it certainly must be low-input and regenerative — “farming with nature,” promoting biodiversity, recycling, conserving water, protecting soil from erosion … and making a modest profit.
- Third, we have to take the manpower issue seriously. Increasing the number of people working for a fair wage in agriculture in this country is not a sign of economic “backwardness,” but a gesture toward our future as a people. We have some work to do to restore the nobility of farming as a profession within this country.
I think the first step, in order to promote the development of sustainable agriculture in this country, would be to cause the federal government to recognize the value of sustainable agriculture, to simply acknowledge that it is something that should be promoted within our country.
Then I would begin to address structural advantages. Much as I would bifurcate the securities regulatory schemes between large, multinational and small, community-oriented businesses, so would I bifurcate the regulatory schemes between large, multinational agribusiness and small, community-oriented sustainable farming enterprises – regulation needs to be scaled to the size of the enterprise so that the regulatory cost of small-scale farming does not overrun its feasibility; and there needs to be a significant component of community stewardship over sustainable farming activities.
In order to build a more robust market for the products of sustainable farms outside of commodity supply chains and corporate vertical integration, I would propose tax incentives for enterprises that sell a large percentage of agricultural goods from local sources.
Total U.S. agricultural subsidies number in the billions of dollars each year. Taking even a small percentage away from the current subsidy system and creating a “sustainable farming capital enhancement fund,” to assist in the development of community-supported agriculture and small farmer cooperatives, and to promote, through community-developed educational programs, natural and sustainable farming methods, would have a tremendous impact on the development of sustainable agriculture in the U.S.
The entire population of the world is capable of surviving on the products of current world food production, yet even here in the U.S., we live with extremes of hunger and of obesity. Our system is out of whack. By bringing agriculture back to our communities in a sustainable way, closer to our own doorsteps, the process of managing our way back to equilibrium will begin.
In the meantime, try something new. Buy from local farmers. Make time to cook for yourself, with fresh, locally-grown ingredients; invite your friends over for a home-cooked meal. Start a kitchen garden. You won’t regret the way these little things will change your life.
I thank you for listening, and I’ll be seeing you along the trail.