Where Have All the Farmers Gone?
Since 1992, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been developing plans to expand the network of locks and dams along the Mississippi River. The Mississippi is the primary conduit for shipping American soybeans into global commerce--about 35,000 tons a day. The Corps' plan would mean hauling in up to 1.2 million metric tons of concrete to lengthen ten of the locks from 180 meters to 360 meters each, as well as to bolster several major wing dams which narrow the river to keep the soybean barges moving and the sediment from settling. This construction would supplement the existing dredges which are already sucking 85 million cubic meters of sand and mud from the river's bank and bottom each year. Several different levels of "upgrade" for the river have been considered, but the most ambitious of them would purportedly reduce the cost of shipping soybeans by 4 to 8 cents per bushel. Some independent analysts think this is a pipe dream.
Around the same time the Mississippi plan was announced, the five governments of South America's La Plata Basin--Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina, and Uruguay--announced plans to dredge 13 million cubic meters of sand, mud, and rock from 233 sites along the Paraguay-Parana River. That would be enough to fill a convoy of dump trucks 10,000 miles long. Here, the plan is to straighten natural river meanders in at least seven places, build dozens of locks, and construct a major port in the heart of the Pantanal--the world's largest wetland. The Paraguay-Parana flows through the center of Brazil's burgeoning soybean heartland--second only to the United States in production and exports. According to statements from the Brazilian State of Mato Grasso, this "Hidrovia" (water highway) will give a further boost to the region's soybean export capacity.
Lobbyists for both these projects argue that expanding the barge capacity of these rivers is necessary in order to improve competitiveness, grab world market share, and rescue farmers (either U.S. or Brazilian, depending on whom the lobbyists are addressing) from their worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Chris Brescia, president of the Midwest River Coalition 2000, an alliance of commodity shippers that forms the primary lobbying force for the Mississippi plan, says, "The sooner we provide the waterway infrastructure, the sooner our family farmers will benefit." Some of his fellow lobbyists have even argued that these projects are essential to feeding the world (since the barges can then more easily speed the soybeans to the world's hungry masses) and to saving the environment (since the hungry masses will not have to clear rainforest to scratch out their own subsistence).
Probably very few people have had an opportunity to hear both pitches and compare them. But anyone who has may find something amiss with the argument that U.S. farmers will become more competitive versus their Brazilian counterparts, at the same time that Brazilian farmers will, for the same reasons, become more competitive with their U.S. counterparts. A more likely outcome is that farmers of these two nations will be pitted against each other in a costly race to maximize production, resulting in short-cut practices that essentially strip-mine their soil and throw long-term investments in the land to the wind. Farmers in Iowa will have stronger incentives to plow up land along stream banks, triggering faster erosion of topsoil. Their brethren in Brazil will find themselves needing to cut deeper into the savanna, also accelerating erosion. That will increase the flow of soybeans, all right--both north and south. But it will also further depress prices, so that even as the farmers are shipping more, they're g etting less income per ton shipped. And in any case, increasing volume can't help the farmers survive in the long run, because sooner or later they will be swallowed by larger, corporate, farms that can make up for the smaller per-ton margins by producing even larger volumes.
So, how can the supporters of these river projects, who profess to be acting in the farmer's best interests, not notice the illogic of this form of competition? One explanation is that from the advocates' (as opposed to the farmers') standpoint, this competition isn't illogical at all--because the lobbyists aren't really representing farmers. They're working for the commodity processing, shipping, and trading firms who want the price of soybeans to fall, because these are the firms that buy the crops from the farmers. In fact, it is the same three agribusiness conglomerates--Archer Daniels Midiand (ADM), Cargill, and Bunge--that are the top soybean processors and traders along both rivers.
Welcome to the global economy. The more brutally the U.S. and Brazilian farmers can batter each-other's prices (and standards of living) down, the greater the margin of profit these three giants gain. Meanwhile, another handful of companies controls the markets for genetically modified seeds, fertilizers, and herbicides used by the farmers--charging oligopolistically high prices both north and south of the equator.
In assessing what this proposed digging-up and reconfiguring of two of the world's great river basins really means, keep in mind that these projects will not be the activities of private businesses operating inside their own private property. These are proposed public works, to be undertaken at huge public expense. The motive is neither the plight of the family farmer nor any moral obligation to feed the world, but the opportunity to exploit poorly informed public sentiments about farmers' plights or hungry masses as a means of usurping public policies to benefit private interests. What gets thoroughly Big Muddied, in this usurping process, is that in addition to subjecting farmers to a gladiator-like attrition, these projects will likely bring a cascade of damaging economic, social, and ecological impacts to the very river basins being so expensively remodeled.
What's likely to happen if the lock and dam system along the Mississippi is expanded as proposed? The most obvious effect will be increased barge traffic, which will accelerate a less obvious cascade of events that has been underway for some time, according to Mike Davis of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Much of the Mississippi River ecosystem involves aquatic rooted plants, like bullrush, arrowhead, and wild celery. Increased barge traffic will kick up more sediment, obscuring sunlight and reducing the depth to which plants can survive. Already, since the 1970s, the number of aquatic plant species found in some of the river has been cut from 23 to about half that, with just a handful thriving under the cloudier conditions. "Areas of the river have reached an ecological turning point," warns Davis. "This decline in plant diversity has triggered a drop in the invertebrate communities that live on these plants, as well as a drop in the fish, mollusk, and bird communities that depend on the dive rsity of insects and plants." On May 18, 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a study saying that the Corps of Engineers project would threaten the 300 species of migratory birds and 127 species of fish in the Mississippi watershed, and could ultimately push some into extinction. "The least tern, the pallid sturgeon, and other species that evolved with the ebbs and flows, sandbars and depths, of the river are progressively eliminated or forced away as the diversity of the river's natural habitats is removed to maximize the barge habitat," says Davis.
The outlook for the Hidrovia project is similar. Mark Robbins, an ornithologist at the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas, calls it "a key step in creating a Florida Everglades-like scenario of destruction in the Pantanal, and an American Great Plains-like scenario in the Cerrado in southern Brazil." The Paraguay-Parana feeds the Pantanal wetlands, one of the most diverse habitats on the planet, with its populations of woodstorks, snailkites, limpkins, jabirus, and more than 650 other species of birds, as well as more than 400 species of fish and hundreds of other less-studied plants, mussels, and marshland organisms. As the river is dredged and the banks are built up to funnel the surrounding wetlands water into the navigation path, bird nesting habitat and fish spawning grounds will be eliminated, damaging the indigenous and other traditional societies that depend on these resources. Increased barge traffic will suppress river species here just as it will on the Mississippi. Meanwhile, herb icide-intensive soybean monocultures--on farms so enormous that they dwarf even the biggest operations in the U.S. Midwest--are rapidly replacing diverse grasslands in the fragile Cerrado. The heavy plowing and periodic absence of ground cover associated with such farming erodes 100 million tons of soil per year. Robbins notes that "compared to the Mississippi, this southern river system and surrounding grassland is several orders of magnitude more diverse and has suffered considerably less, so there is much more at stake."
Supporters of such massive disruption argue that it is justified because it is the most "efficient" way to do business. The perceived efficiency of such farming might be compared to the perceived efficiency of an energy system based on coal. Burning coal looks very efficient if you ignore its long-term impact on air quality and climate stability. Similarly, large farms look more efficient than small farms if you don't count some of their largest costs--the loss of the genetic diversity that underpins agriculture, the pollution caused by agro-chemicals, and the dislocation of rural cultures. The simultaneous demise of small, independent farmers and rise of multinational food giants is troubling not just for those who empathize with dislocated farmers, but for anyone who eats.
An Endangered Species
Nowadays most of us in the industrialized countries don't farm, so we may no longer really understand that way of life. I was born in the apple orchard and dairy country of Dutchess County, New York, but since age five have spent most of my life in New York City--while most of the farms back in Dutchess County have given way to spreading subdivisions. It's also hard for those of us who get our food from supermarket shelves or drive-thru windows to know how dependent we are on the viability of rural communities.
Whether in the industrial world, where farm communities are growing older and emptier, or in developing nations where population growth is pushing the number of farmers continually higher and each generation is inheriting smaller family plots, it is becoming harder and harder to male a living as a farmer. A combination of falling incomes, rising debt, and worsening rural poverty is forcing more people to either abandon farming as their primary activity or to leave the countryside altogether--a bewildering juncture, considering that farmers produce perhaps the only good that the human race cannot do without.
Since 1950, the number of people employed in agriculture has plummeted in all industrial nations, in some regions by more than 80 percent. Look at the numbers, and you might think farmers are being singled out by some kind of virus:
* In Japan, more than half of all farmers are over 65 years old; in the United States, farmers over 65 outnumber those under 35 by three to one. (Upon retirement or death, many will pass the farm on to children who live in the city and have no interest in farming themselves.)
* In New Zealand, officials estimate that up to 6,000 dairy farms will disappear during the next 10 to 15 years-dropping the total number by nearly 40 percent.
* In Poland, 1.8 million farms could disappear as the country is absorbed into the European Union--dropping the total number by 90 percent.
* In Sweden, the number of farms going out of business in the next decade is expected to reach about 50 percent.
* In the Philippines, Oxfam estimates that over the next few years the number of farm households in the corn producing region of Mindanao could fall by some 500,000--a 50 percent loss.
* In the United States, where the vast majority of people were farmers at the time of the American Revolution, fewer people are now full-time farmers (less than 1 percent of the population) than are full-time prisoners.
* In the U.S. states of Nebraska and Iowa, between a fifth and a third of farmers are expected to be out of business within two years.
Of course, the declining numbers of farmers in industrial nations does not imply a decline in the importance of the farming sector. The world still has to eat (and 80 million more mouths to feed each year than the year before), so smaller numbers of farmers mean larger farms and greater concentration of ownership. Despite a precipitous plunge in the number of people employed in farming in North America, Europe, and East Asia, half the world's people still make their living from the land. In sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, more than 70 percent do. In these regions, agriculture accounts, on average, for half of total economic activity.
Some might argue that the decline of farmers is harmless, even a blessing, particularly for less developed nations that have not yet experienced the modernization that moves peasants out of backwater rural areas into the more advanced economies of the cities. For most of the past two centuries, the shift toward fewer farmers has generally been assumed to be a kind of progress. The substitution of high-powered diesel tractors for slow-moving women and men with hoes, or of large mechanized industrial farms for clusters of small "old fashioned" farms, is typically seen as the way to a more abundant and affordable food supply. Our urban-centered society has even come to view rural life, especially in the form of small family-owned businesses, as backwards or boring, fit only for people who wear overalls and go to bed early--far from the sophistication and dynamism of the city.
Urban life does offer a wide array of opportunities, attractions, and hopes--some of them falsely created by urban-oriented commercial media--that many farm families decide to pursue willingly. But city life often turns out to be a disappointment, as displaced farmers find themselves lodged in crowded slums, where unemployment and ill-health are the norm and where they are worse off than they were back home. Much evidence suggests that farmers aren't so much being lured to the city as they are being driven off their farms by a variety of structural changes in the way the global food chain operates. Bob Long, a rancher in McPherson County, Nebraska, stated in a recent New York Times article that passing the farm onto his son would be nothing less than "child abuse."
As long as cities are under the pressure of population growth (a situation expected to continue at least for the next three or four decades), there will always be pressure for a large share of humanity to subsist in the countryside. Even in highly urbanized North America and Europe, roughly 25 percent of the population-275 million people--still reside in rural areas. Meanwhile, for the 3 billion Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans who remain in the countryside-and who will be there for the foreseeable future--the marginalization of farmers has set up a vicious cycle of low educational achievement, rising infant mortality, and deepening mental distress.
Hired Hands on Their Own Land
In the 18th and 19th centuries, farmers weren't so trapped. Most weren't wealthy, but they generally enjoyed stable incomes and strong community ties. Diversified farms yielded a range of raw and processed goods that the farmer could typically sell in a local market. Production costs tended to be much lower than now, as many of the needed inputs were home--grown: the farmer planted seed that he or she had saved from the previous year, the farm's cows or pigs provided fertilizer, and the diversity of crops-- usually a large range of grains, tubers, vegetables, herbs, flowers, and fruits for home use as well as for sale--effectively functioned as pest control.
Things have changed, especially in the past half-century, according to Iowa State agricultural economist Mike Duffy. "The end of World War II was a watershed period," he says. "The widespread introduction of chemical fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, produced as part of the war effort, set in motion dramatic changes in how we farm--and a dramatic decline in the number of farmers." In the postwar period, along with increasing mechanization, there was an increasing tendency to "outsource" pieces of the work that the farmers had previously done themselves--from producing their own fertilizer to cleaning and packaging their harvest. That outsourcing, which may have seemed like a welcome convenience at the time, eventually boomeranged: at first it enabled the farmer to increase output, and thus profits, but when all the other farmers were doing it too, crop prices began to fall.
Before long, the processing and packaging businesses were adding more "value" to the purchased product than the farmer, and it was those businesses that became the dominant players in the food industry. Instead of farmers outsourcing to contractors, it became a matter of large food processors buying raw materials from farmers, on the processors' terms. Today, most of the money is in the work the farmer no longer does-or even controls. In the United States, the share of the consumer's food dollar that trickles back to the farmer has plunged from nearly 40 cents in 1910 to just above 7 cents in 1997, while the shares going to input (machinery, agrochemicals, and seeds) and marketing (processing, shipping, brokerage, advertising, and retailing) firms have continued to expand. (See graph, page 18.) The typical U.S. wheat farmer, for instance, gets just 6 cents of the dollar spent on a loaf of bread-so when you buy that loaf, you're paying about as much for the wrapper as for the wheat.
Ironically, then, as U.S. farms became more mechanized and more "productive," a self-destructive feedback loop was set in motion: over-supply and declining crop prices cut into farmers' profits, fueling a demand for more technology aimed at making up for shrinking margins by increasing volume still more. Output increased dramatically, but expenses (for tractors, combines, fertilizer, and seed) also ballooned-while the commodity prices stagnated or declined. Even as they were looking more and more modernized, the farmers were becoming less and less the masters of their own domain.
On the typical Iowa farm, the farmer's profit margin has dropped from 35 percent in 1950 to 9 percent today. In order to generate the same income, this farm would need to be roughly four times as large today as in 1950--or the farmer would need to get a night job. And that's precisely what we've seen in most industrialized nations: fewer farmers on bigger tracts of land producing a greater share of the total food supply. The farmer with declining margins buys out his neighbor and expands or risks being cannibalized himself.
There is an alternative to this huge scaling up, which is to buck the trend and bring some of the input-supplying and post-harvest processing--and the related profits-back onto the farm. But more self-sufficient farming would be highly unpopular with the industries that now make lucrative profits from inputs and processing. And since these industries have much more political clout than the farmers do, there is little support for rescuing farmers from their increasingly servile condition-and the idea has been largely forgotten. Farmers continue to get the message that the only way to succeed is to get big.
The traditional explanation for this constant pressure to "get big or get out" has been that it improves the efficiency of the food system--bigger farms replace smaller farms, because the bigger farms operate at lower costs. In some respects, this is quite true. Scaling up may allow a farmer to spread a tractor's cost over greater acreage, for example. Greater size also means greater leverage in purchasing inputs or negotiating loan rates--increasingly important as satellite-guided combines and other equipment make farming more and more capital-intensive. But these economies of scale typically level off. Data for a wide range of crops produced in the United States show that the lowest production costs are generally achieved on farms that are much smaller than the typical farm now is. But large farms can tolerate lower margins, so while they may not produce at lower cost, they can afford to sell their crops at lower cost, if forced to do so--as indeed they are by the food processors who buy from them. In shor t, to the extent that a giant farm has a financial benefit over a small one, it's a benefit that goes only to the processor--not to the farmer, the farm community, or the environment.
This shift of the food dollar away from farmers is compounded by intense concentration in every link of the food chain--from seeds and herbicides to farm finance and retailing. In Canada, for example, just three companies control over 70 percent of fertilizer sales, five banks provide the vast majority of agricultural credit, two companies control over 70 percent of beef packing, and five companies dominate food retailing. The merger of Philip Morris and Nabisco will create an empire that collects nearly 10 cents of every dollar a U.S. consumer spends on food, according to a company spokesperson. Such high concentration can be deadly for the bottom line, allowing agribusiness firms to extract higher prices for the products farmers buy from them, while offering lower prices for the crop they buy from the farmers.
An even more worrisome form of concentration, according to Bill Heffernan, a rural sociologist at the University of Missouri, is the emergence of several clusters of firms that--through mergers, takeovers, and alliances with other links in the food chain--now possess "a seamless and fully vertically integrated control of the food system from gene to supermarket shelf." (See diagram, page 20.) Consider the recent partnership between Monsanto and Cargill, which controls seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, farm finance, grain collection, grain processing, livestock feed processing, livestock production, and slaughtering, as well as some well-known processed food brands. From the standpoint of a company like Cargill, such alliances yield tremendous control over costs and can therefore be extremely profitable.
But suppose you're the farmer. Want to buy seed to grow corn? If Cargill is the only buyer of corn in a hundred mile radius, and Cargill is only buying a particular Monsanto corn variety for its mills or elevators or feedlots, then if you don't plant Monsanto's seed you won't have a market for your corn. Need a loan to buy the seed? Go to Cargill-owned Bank of Ellsworth, but be sure to let them know which seed you'll be buying. Also mention that you'll be buying Cargill's Saskferco brand fertilizer. OK, but once the corn is grown, you don't like the idea of having to sell to Cargill at the prices it dictates? Well, maybe you'll feed the corn to your pigs, then, and sell them to the highest bidder. No problem-Cargill's Excel Corporation buys pigs, too. OK, you're moving to the city, and renouncing the farm life! No more home-made grits for breakfast, you're buying corn flakes. Well, good news: Cargill Foods supplies corn flour to the top cereal makers. You'll notice, though, that all the big brands of corn fla kes seem to have pretty much the same hefty price per ounce. After all, they're all made by the agricultural oligopoly.
As these vertical food conglomerates consolidate, Heffernan warns, "there is little room left in the global food system for independent farmers"--the farmers being increasingly left with take it or leave it" contracts from the remaining conglomerates. In the last two decades, for example, the share of American agricultural output produced under contract has more than tripled, from 10 percent to 35 percent--and this doesn't include the contracts that farmers must sign to plant genetically engineered seed. Such centralized control of the food system, in which farmers are in effect reduced to hired hands on their own land, reminds Heffernan of the Soviet style state farms, but with the Big Brother role now being played by agribusiness executives. It is also reminiscent of the "company store" which once dominated small American mining or factory towns, except that if you move our of town now, the store is still with you. The company store has gone global. With the conglomerates who own the food dollar also owning the political clout, it's no surprise that agricultural policiesuincluding subsidies, tax breaks, and environmental legislation at both the national and international levelsudo not generally favor the farms. For example, the conglomerates command growing influence over both private and public agricultural research priorities, which might explain why the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), an agency ostensibly beholden to farmers, would help to develop the seed-sterilizing Terminator technology-- a biotechnology that offers farmers only greater dependence on seed companies. In some cases the influence is indirect, as manifested in government funding decisions, while in others it is more blatant. When Novartis provided $25 million to fund a research partnership with the plant biology department of the University of California at Berkeley, one of the conditions was that Novartis has the first right of refusal for any patentable inventions. Under thos e circumstances, of course, the UC officials--mindful of where their funding comes from--have strong Incentives to give more attention to technologies like the Terminator seed, which shifts profit away from the farmer, than to technologies that directly benefit the farmer or the public at large.
Even policies that are touted to be in the best interest of farmers, like liberalized trade in agricultural products, are increasingly shaped by non-farmers. Food traders, processors, and distributors, for example, were some of the principal architects of recent revisions to the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT)--the World Trade Organization's predecessor--that paved the way for greater trade flows in agricultural commodities. Before these revisions, many countries had mechanisms for assuring that their farmers wouldn't be driven out of their own domestic markets by predatory global traders. The traders, however, were able to do away with those protections.
The ability of agribusiness to slide around the planet, buying at the lowest possible price and selling at the highest, has tended to tighten the squeeze already put in place by economic marginalization, throwing every farmer on the planet into direct competition with every other farmer. A recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization assessment of the experience of 16 developing nations in implementing the latest phase of the GATT concluded that "a common reported concern was with a general trend towards the concentration of farms," a process that tends to further marginalize small producers and exacerbate rural poverty and unemployment. The sad irony, according to Thomas Reardon, of Michigan State University, is that while small farmers in all reaches of the world are increasingly affected by cheap, heavily subsidized imports of foods from outside of their traditional rural markets, they are nonetheless often excluded from opportunities to participate in food exports themselves. To keep down transaction costs and to keep processing standardized, exporters and other downstream players prefer to buy from a few large producers, as opposed to many small producers.
As the global food system becomes increasingly dominated by a handful of vertically integrated, international corporations, the servitude of the farmer points to a broader society-wide servitude that OPEC-like food cartels could impose, through their control over food prices and food quality. Agricultural economists have already noted that the widening gap between retail food prices and farm prices in the 1990s was due almost exclusively to exploitation of market power, and not to extra services provided by processors and retailers. It's questionable whether we should pay as much for a bread wrapper as we do for the nutrients it contains. But beyond this, there's a more fundamental question. Farmers are professionals, with extensive knowledge of their local soils, weather, native plants, sources of fertilizer or mulch, native pollinators, ecology, and community. If we are to have a world where the land is no longer managed by such professionals, but is instead managed by distant corporate bureaucracies intere sted in extracting maximum output at minimum cost, what kind of food will we have, and at what price?
No question, large industrial farms can produce lots of food. Indeed, they're designed to maximize quantity. But when the farmer becomes little more than the lowest-cost producer of raw materials, more than his own welfare will suffer. Though the farm sector has lost power and profit, it is still the one link in the agrifood chain accounting for the largest share of agriculture's public goods--including half the world's jobs, many of its most vital communities, and many of its most diverse landscapes. And in providing many of these goods, small farms clearly have the advantage.
Local economic and social stability: Over half a century ago, William Goldschmidt, an anthropologist working at the USDA, tried to assess how farm structure and size affect the health of rural communities. In California's San Joaquin Valley, a region then considered to be at the cutting edge of agricultural industrialization, he identified two small towns that were alike in all basic economic and geographic dimensions, including value of agricultural production, except in farm size. Comparing the two, he found an inverse correlation between the sizes of the farms and the well-being of the communities they were a part of.
The small-farm community, Dinuba, supported about 20 percent more people, and at a considerably higher level of living--including lower poverty rates, lower levels of economic and social class distinctions, and a lower crime rate--than the large-farm community of Arvin. The majority of Dinuba's residents were Independent entrepreneurs, whereas fewer than 20 percent of Arvin's residents were--most of the others being agricultural laborers. Dinuba had twice as many business establishments as Arvin, and did 61 percent more retail business. It had more schools, parks, newspapers, civic organizations, and churches, as well as better physical infrastructure--paved streets, sidewalks, garbage disposal, sewage disposal and other public services. Dinuba also had more institutions for democratic decision making, and a much broader participation by its citizens. Political scientists have long recognized that a broad base of independent entrepreneurs and property owners is one of the keys to a healthy democracy.
The distinctions between Dinuba and Arvin suggest that industrial agriculture may be limited in what it can do for a community. Fewer (and less meaningful) jobs, less local spending, and a hemorrhagic flow of profits to absentee landowners and distant suppliers means that industrial farms can actually be a net drain on the local economy. That hypothesis has been corroborated by Dick Levins, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota. Levins studied the economic receipts from Swift County, Iowa, a typical Midwestern corn and soybean community, and found that although total farm sales are near an all-time high, farm income there has been dismally low--and that many of those who were once the financial stalwarts of the community are now deeply in debt. "Most of the U.S. Corn Belt, like Swift County, is a colony, owned and operated by people who don't live there and for the benefit of those who don't live there," says Levin. In fact, most of the land in Swift County is rented, much of it from absent ee landlords.
This new calculus of farming may be eliminating the traditional role of small farms in anchoring rural economies--the kind of tradition, for example, that we saw in the emphasis given to the support of small farms by Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan following World War II. That emphasis, which brought radical land reforms and targeted investment in rural areas, is widely cited as having been a major stimulus to the dramatic economic boom those countries enjoyed.
Not surprisingly, when the economic prospects of small farms decline, the social fabric of rural communities begins to tear. In the United States, farming families are more than twice as likely as others to live in poverty. They have less education and lower rates of medical protection, along with higher rates of infant mortality, alcoholism, child abuse, spousal abuse, and mental stress. Across Europe, a similar pattern is evident. And in sub-Saharan Africa, sociologist Deborah Bryceson of the Netherlands-based African Studies Centre has studied the dislocation of small farmers and found that "as de-agrarianization proceeds, signs of social dysfunction associated with urban areas [including petty crime and breakdowns of family ties] are surfacing in villages."
People without meaningful work often become frustrated, but farmers may be a special case. "More so than other occupations, farming represents a way of life and defines who you are," says Mike Rosemann, a psychologist who runs a farmer counseling network in Iowa. "Losing the family farm, or the prospect of losing the family farm, can generate tremendous guilt and anxiety, as if one has failed to protect the heritage that his ancestors worked to hold onto." One measure of the despair has been a worldwide surge in the number of farmers committing suicide. In 1998, over 300 cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India, took their lives by swallowing pesticides that they had gone into debt to purchase but that had nonetheless failed to save their crops. In Britain, farm workers are two-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide than the rest of the population. In the United States, official statistics say farmers are now five times as likely to commit suicide as to die from farm accidents, which have been traditio nally the most frequent cause of unnatural death for them. The true number may be even higher, as suicide hotlines report that they often receive calls from farmers who want to know which sorts of accidents (Falling into the blades of a combine? Getting shot while hunting?) are least likely to be investigated by insurance companies that don't pay claims for suicides.
Whether from despair or from anger, farmers seem increasingly ready to rise up, sometimes violently, against government, wealthy landholders, or agribusiness giants. In recent years we've witnessed the Zapatista revolution in Chiapas, the seizing of white-owned farms by landless blacks in Zimbabwe, and the attacks of European farmers on warehouses storing genetically engineered seed. In the book Harvest of Rage, journalist Joel Dyer links the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed nearly 200 people--as well as the rise of radical right and antigovernment militias in the U.S. heartland-to a spreading despair and anger stemming from the ongoing farm crisis. Thomas Homer-Dixon, director of the Project on Environment, Population, and Security at the University of Toronto, regards farmer dislocation, and the resulting rural unemployment and poverty, as one of the major security threats for the coming decades. Such dislocation is responsible for roughly half of the growth of urban populations across the Third World , and such growth often occurs in volatile shantytowns that are already straining to meet the basic needs of their residents. "What was an extremely traumatic transition for Europe and North America from a rural society to an urban one is now proceeding at two to three times that speed in developing nations," says Homer-Dixon. And, these nations have considerably less industrialization to absorb the labor. Such an accelerated transition poses enormous adjustment challenges for India and China, where perhaps a billion and a half people still make their living from the land.
Ecological stability: In the Andean highlands, a single farm may include as many as 30 to 40 distinct varieties of potato (along with numerous other native plants), each having slightly different optimal soil, water, light, and temperature regimes, which the farmer--given enough time--can manage. (In comparison, in the United States, just four closely related varieties account for about 99 percent of all the potatoes produced.) But, according to Karl Zimmerer, a University of Wisconsin sociologist, declining farm incomes in the Andes force more and more growers into migrant labor forces for part of the year, with serious effects on farm ecology. As time becomes constrained, the farmer manages the system more homogenously--cutting back on the number of traditional varieties (a small home garden of favorite culinary varieties may be the last refuge of diversity), and scaling up production of a few commercial varieties. Much of the traditional crop diversity is lost.
Complex farm systems require a highly sophisticated and intimate knowledge of the land-something small-scale, full-time farmers are more able to provide. Two or three different crops that have different root depths, for example, can often be planted on the same piece of land, or crops requiring different drainage can be planted in close proximity on a tract that has variegated topography. But these kinds of cultivation can't be done with heavy tractors moving at high speed. Highly site-specific and management-intensive cultivation demands ingenuity and awareness of local ecology, and can't be achieved by heavy equipment and heavy applications of agrochemicals. That isn't to say that being small is always sufficient to ensure ecologically sound food production, because economic adversity can drive small farms, as well as big ones, to compromise sustainable food production by transmogrifying the craft of land stewardship into the crude labor of commodity production. But a large-scale, highly mechanized farm is simply not equipped to preserve landscape complexity. Instead, its normal modus is to use blunt management tools, like crops that have been genetically engineered to churn out insecticides, which obviate the need to scout the field to see if spraying is necessary at all.
In the U.S. Midwest, as farm size has increased, cropping systems have gotten more simplified. Since 1972, the number of counties with more than 55 percent of their acreage planted in corn and soybeans has nearly tripled, from 97 to 267. As farms scaled up, the great simplicity of managing the corn-soybean rotation--an 800 acre farm, for instance, may require no more than a couple of weeks planting in the spring and a few weeks harvesting in the fill--became its big selling point. The various arms of the agricultural economy in the region, from extension services to grain elevators to seed suppliers, began to solidify around this corn-soybean rotation, reinforcing the farmers' movement away from other crops. Fewer and fewer farmers kept livestock, as beef and hog production became "economical" only in other parts of the country where it was becoming more concentrated. Giving up livestock meant eliminating clover, pasture mixtures, and a key source of fertilizer in the Midwest, while creating tremendous manure concentrations in other places.
But the corn and soybean rotation--one mono-culture followed by another--is extremely inefficient or "leaky" in its use of applied fertilizer, since low levels of biodiversity tend to leave a range of vacant niches in the field, including different root depths and different nutrient preferences. Moreover, the Midwest's shift to monoculture has subjected the country to a double hit of nitrogen pollution, since not only does the removal and concentration of livestock tend to dump inordinate amounts of feces in the places (such as Utah and North Carolina) where the livestock operations are now located, but the monocultures that remain in the Midwest have much poorer nitrogen retention than they would if their cropping were more complex. (The addition of just a winter rye crop to the corn-soy rotation has been shown to reduce nitrogen runoff by nearly 50 percent.) And maybe this disaster-in-the-making should really be regarded as a triple hit, because in addition to contaminating Midwestern water supplies, the ru noff ends up in the Gulf of Mexico, where the nitrogen feeds massive algae blooms. When the algae die, they are decomposed by bacteria, whose respiration depletes the water's oxygen-suffocating fish, shellfish, and all other life that doesn't escape. This process periodically leaves 20,000 square kilometers of water off the coast of Louisiana biologically dead. Thus the act of simplifying the ecology of a field in Iowa can contribute to severe pollution in Utah, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Iowa.
The world's agricultural biodiversity--the ultimate insurance policy against climate variations, pest outbreaks, and other unforeseen threats to food security--depends largely on the millions of small farmers who use this diversity in their local growing environments. But the marginalization of farmers who have developed or inherited complex farming systems over generations means more than just the loss of specific crop varieties and the knowledge of how they best grow. "We forever lose the best available knowledge and experience of place, including what to do with marginal lands not suited for industrial production," says Steve Gleissman, an agroecologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The 12 million hogs produced by Smithfield Foods Inc., the largest hog producer and processor in the world and a pioneer in vertical integration, are nearly genetically identical and raised under identical conditions--regardless of whether they are in a Smithfield feedlot in Virginia or Mexico.
As farmers become increasingly integrated into the agribusiness food chain, they have fewer and fewer controls over the totality of the production process--shifting more and more to the role of "technology applicators," as opposed to managers making informed and independent decisions. Recent USDA surveys of contract poultry farmers in the United States found that in seeking outside advice on their operations, these farmers now turn first to bankers and then to the corporations that hold their contracts. If the contracting corporation is also the same company that is selling the farm its seed and fertilizer, as is often the case, there's a strong likelihood that that company's procedures will be followed. That corporation, as a global enterprise with no compelling local ties, is also less likely to be concerned about the pollution and resource degradation created by those procedures, at least compared with a farmer who is rooted in that community. Grower contracts generally disavow any environmental liability.
And then there is the ecological fallout unique to large-scale, industrial agriculture. Colossal confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs)--those "other places" where livestock are concentrated when they are no longer present on Midwestern soy/corn farms--constitute perhaps the most egregious example of agriculture that has, like a garbage barge in a goldfish pond, overwhelmed the scale at which an ecosystem can cope. CAFOs are increasingly the norm in livestock production, because, like crop monocultures, they allow the production of huge populations of animals which can be slaughtered and marketed at rock-bottom costs. But the disconnection between the livestock and the land used to produce their feed means that such CAFOs generate gargantuan amounts of waste, which the surrounding soil cannot possibly absorb. (One farm in Utah will raise over five million hogs in a year, producing as much waste each day as the city of Los Angeles.) The waste is generally stored in large lagoons, which are prone to leak an d even spill over during heavy storms. From North Carolina to South Korea, the overwhelming stench of these lagoons--a combination of hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, and methane gas that smells like rotten eggs--renders miles of surrounding land uninhabitable.
A different form of ecological disruption results from the conditions under which these animals are raised. Because massive numbers of closely confined livestock are highly susceptible to infection, and because a steady diet of antibiotics can modestly boost animal growth, overuse of antibiotics has become the norm in industrial animal production. In recent months, both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States and the World Health Organization have identified such industrial feeding operations as principal causes of the growing antibiotic resistance in food-borne bacteria like salmonella and campylobacterv (see "Update," page 34). And as decisionmaking in the food chain grows ever more concentrated--confined behind fewer corporate doors--there may be other food safety issues that you won't even hear about, particularly in the burgeoning field of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). In reaction to growing public concern over GMOs, a coalition that ingenuously calls itself the "All iance for Better Foods"--actually made up of large food retailers, food processors, biotech companies and corporate-financed farm organizations--has launched a $50 million public "educational" campaign, in addition to giving over $676,000 to U.S. lawmakers and political parties in 1999, to head off the mandatory labeling of such foods.
Perhaps most surprising, to people who have only casually followed the debate about small-farm values versus factory-farm "efficiency," is the fact that a wide body of evidence shows that small farms are actually more productive than large ones--by as much as 200 to 1,000 percent greater output per unit of area. How does this jive with the often-mentioned productivity advantages of large-scale mechanized operations? The answer is simply that those big-farm advantages are always calculated on the basis of how much of one crop the land will yield per acre. The greater productivity of a smaller, more complex farm, however, is calculated on the basis of how much food overall is produced per acre. The smaller farm can grow several crops utilizing different root depths, plant heights, or nutrients, on the same piece of land simultaneously. It is this "polyculture" that offers the small farm's productivity advantage.
To illustrate the difference between these two kinds of measurement, consider a large Midwestern corn farm. That farm may produce more corn per acre than a small farm in which the corn is grown as part of a polyculture that also includes beans, squash, potato, and "weeds" that serve as fodder. But in overall output, the polycrop--under close supervision by a knowledgeable farmer--produces much more food overall, whether you measure in weight, volume, bushels, calories, or dollars.
The inverse relationship between farm size and output can be attributed to the more efficient use of land, water, and other agricultural resources that small operations afford, including the efficiencies of intercropping various plants in the same field, planting multiple times during the year, targeting irrigation, and integrating crops and livestock. So in terms of converting inputs into outputs, society would be better off with small-scale farmers. And as population continues to grow in many nations, and the agricultural resources per person continue to shrink, a small farm structure for agriculture may be central to meeting future food needs.
Look at the range of pressures squeezing farmers, and it's not hard to understand the growing desperation. The situation has become explosive, and if stabilizing the erosion of farm culture and ecology is now critical not just to farmers but to everyone who eats, there's still a very challenging question as to what strategy can work. The agribusiness giants are deeply entrenched now, and scattered protests could have as little effect on them as a mosquito bite on a tractor. The prospects for farmers gaining political strength on their own seem dim, as their numbers--at least in the industrial countries--continue to shrink.
A much greater hope for change may lie in a joining of forces between farmers and the much larger numbers of other segments of society that now see the dangers, to their own particular interests, of continued restructuring of the countryside. There are a couple of prominent models for such coalitions, in the constituencies that have joined forces to fight the Mississippi River Barge Capacity and Hidrovia Barge Capacity projects being pushed forward in the name of global soybean productivity.
The American group has brought together at least the following riverbedfellows:
* National environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and National Audubon Society, which are alarmed at the prospect of a public commons being damaged for the profit of a small commercial interest group;
* Farmers and farmer advocacy organizations, concerned about the inordinate power being wielded by the agribusiness oligopoly;
* Taxpayer groups outraged at the prospect of a corporate welfare payout that will drain more than $1 billion from public coffers;
* Hunters and fishermen worried about the loss of habitat;
* Biologists, ecologists, and birders concerned about the numerous threatened species of birds, fish, amphibians, and plants;
* Local-empowerment groups concerned about the impacts of economic globalization on communities;
* Agricultural economists concerned that the project will further entrench farmers in a dependence on the export of low-cost, bulk commodities, thereby missing valuable opportunities to keep money in the community through local milling, canning, baking, and processing.
A parallel coalition of environmental groups and farmer advocates has formed in the Southern hemisphere to resist the Hidrovia expansion. There too, the river campaign is part of a larger campaign to challenge the hegemony of industrial agriculture. For example, a coalition has formed around the Landless Workers Movement, a grassroots organization in Brazil that helps landless laborers to organize occupations of idle land belonging to wealthy landlords. This coalition includes 57 farm advocacy organizations based in 23 nations. It has also brought together environmental groups in Latin America concerned about the related ventures of logging and cattle ranching favored by large landlords; the mayors of rural towns who appreciate the boost that farmers can give to local economies; and organizations working on social welfare in Brazil's cities, who see land occupation as an alternative to shantytowns.
The Mississippi and Hidrovia projects, huge as they are, still constitute only two of the hundreds of agro-industrial developments being challenged around the world. But the coalitions that have formed around them represent the kind of focused response that seems most likely to slow the juggernaut, in part because the solutions these coalitions propose are not vague or quixotic expressions of idealism, but are site-specific and practical. In the case of the alliance forming around the Mississippi River project, the coalition's work has included questioning the assumptions of the Corps of Engineers analysis, lobbying for stronger antitrust examination of agribusiness monopolies, and calling for modification of existing U.S. farm subsidies, which go disproportionately to large farmers. Environmental groups are working to re-establish a balance between use of the Mississippi as a barge mover and as an intact watershed. Sympathetic agricultural extensionists are promoting alternatives to the standard corn-soybea n rotation, including certified organic crop production, which can simultaneously bring down input costs and garner a premium for the final product, and reduce nitrogen pollution.
The United States and Brazil may have made costly mistakes in giving agribusiness such power to reshape the rivers and land to its own use. But the strategy of interlinked coalitions may be mobilizing in time to save much of the world's agricultural health before it is too late. Dave Brubaker, head of the Spira/GRACE Project on Industrial Animal Production at the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, sees these diverse coalitions as "the beginning of a revolution in the way we look at the food system, tying in food production with social welfare, human health, and the environment." Brubaker's project brings together public health officials focused on antibiotic overuse and water contamination resulting from hog waste; farmers and local communities who oppose the spread of new factory farms or want to close down existing ones; and a phalanx of natural allies with related campaigns, including animal rights activists, labor unions, religious groups, consumer rights activists, and environmental group s.
"As the circle of interested parties is drawn wider, the alliance ultimately shortens the distance between farmer and consumer," observes Mark Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a research and advocacy group often at the center of these partnerships. This closer proximity may prove critical to the ultimate sustainability of our food supply, since socially and ecologically sound buying habits are not just the passive result of changes in the way food is produced, but can actually be the most powerful drivers of these changes. The explosion of farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture, and other direct buying arrangements between farmers and consumers points to the growing numbers of nonfarmers who have already shifted their role in the food chain from that of choosing from the tens of thousands of food brands offered by a few dozen companies to bypassing such brands altogether. And, since many of the additives and processing steps that take up the bulk of the food do llar are simply the inevitable consequence of the ever-increasing time commercial food now spends in global transit and storage, this shortening of distance between grower and consumer will not only benefit the culture and ecology of farm communities. It will also give us access to much fresher, more flavorful, and more nutritious food. Luckily, as any food marketer can tell you, these characteristics aren't a hard sell.
Brian Halweil is a staff researcher at the Worldwatch Institute.
Farmer's Declining Share of the Food Dollar, 1910-1997, with Projection to 2020
Most of what we spend on food-in fact, nearly all-goes to nontarmers. This means that while there's plenty of cash moving through the global food system, the money available for farmers keeps getting squeezed. Nettie Wiebe, a Saskatchewar farmer and former president of the National Farmers Union of Canada thinks that when society discounts the raw food product it's a small step to discount the farmer as of little or no value other words, it may be difficult for a society that does not respect its farmers to respect its food. Illustrations by Rolf Laub, Data from Stewart Smith. University of Maine.
ConAgra: Vertical Integration, Horizontal Concentration, Global Ombipresence Three conglomerates (ConAgra/DuPont, Cargil/Monsanto, and Novartis/ADM) dominate virtually every link in the North American (and increasingly, the global) food chain. Here's a simplified diagram of one conglomerate. INPUTS [left right arrow] Distribution of farm chemicals, machinery, fertilizer, and seed [down arrow] FARMS [left right arrow] [down arrow] GRAIN COLLECTION [left right arrow] [down arrow] GRAIN MILLING [left right arrow] [down arrow] PRODUCTION OF [left right arrow] BEEF, PORK, TURKEY, CHICKEN, AND SEAFOOD [left right arrow] [down arrow] PROCESSING OF [left right arrow] BEEF, PORK, TURKEY, CHICKEN, AND SEAFOOD [left right arrow] [down arrow] SUPERMARKETS [left right arrow] INPUTS 3 companies dominate North American Distribution of farm farm machinery sector chemicals, machinery, 6 companies control 63% of global fertilizer, and seed pesticide market 4 companies control 69% of North American seed corn market 3 companies control 71% of Canadian nitrogen fertilizer capacity ConAgra distributes all of these inputs, and is in a joint venture with Dupont to distribute DuPon'ts transgenic high-oil corn seed. [down arrow] FARMS The farm sector is rapidly consolidating in the industrial world, as farms "get big or get out." Many go under contract with ConAgra and other conglomerates; others just go under. In the past 50 years, the number of farmers has declined by 86% in Germany, 85% in France, 85% in Japan, 64% in the U.S., 59% in South Kore, and 59% in the U.K. [down arrow] GRAIN COLLECTION A proposed merger of Cargil and Continental Grain will control half of the global grain trade; ConAgra has about one-quarter. [down arrow] GRAIN MILLING ConAgra and 3 other companies account for 62% of the North American market. [down arrow] PRODUCTION OF ConAgra ranks 3rd in cattle feeding BEEF, PORK, TURKEY, and 5th in broiler production. CHICKEN, AND SEAFOOD ConAgra Poultry, Tyson Foods, perdue, and 3 other companies control 60% of U.S. chicken production [down arrow] PROCESSING OF IBP, ConAgra, Cargil, and Farmland BEEF, PORK, TURKEY, control 80% of U.S. beef packing CHICKEN, AND SEAFOOD Smithfield, ConAgra, and 3 other companies control 75% of U.S. park packing [down arrow] SUPERMARKETS ConAgra division own Wesson oil, Butterball turkeys, Swift Premium meats, Peter Pan peanut butter, Healthy Choice diet foods, Hunt's tomato sauce, and about 75 other major brands. KEY: [down arrow] Vertical integration of production links, from seed to supermarket [left right arrow] Concentration within a link
In the Developing World, an Even Deeper Farm Crisis
"One would have to multiply the threats facing family farmers in the United States or Europe five, ten, or twenty times to get a sense of the handicaps of peasant farmers in less developed nations," says Deborah Bryceson, a senior research fellow at the African Studies Centre in the Netherlands. Those handicaps include insufficient access to credit and financing, lack of roads and other infrastructure in rural areas, insecure land tenure, and land shortages where population is dense.
Three forces stand out as particularly challenging to these peasant farmers:
Structural adjustment requirements, imposed on indebted nations by international lending institutions, have led to privatization of "public commodity procurement boards" that were responsible for providing public protections for rural economies. "The newly privatized entities are under no obligation to service marginal rural areas," says Rafael Mariano, chairman of a Filipino farmers' union. Under the new rules, state protections against such practices as dumping of cheap imported goods (with which local farmers can't compete) were abandoned at the same time that state provision of health care, education, and other social services was being reduced.
Trade liberalization policies associated with structural adjustment have reduced the ability of nations to protect their agricultural economies even if they want to. For example, the World Trade Organization's Agreement on Agriculture will forbid domestic price support mechanisms and tariffs on imported goods--some of the primary means by which a country can shield its own farmers from overproduction and foreign competition.
The growing emphasis on agricultural grades and standards--the standardizing of crops and products so they can be processed and marketed more "efficiently"--has tended to favor large producers, and to marginalize smaller ones. Food manufacturers and supermarkets have emerged as the dominant entities in the global agri-food chain, and with their focus on brand consistency, ingredient uniformity, and high volume, smaller producers often are unable to deliver--or aren't even invited to bid.
Despite these daunting conditions, many peasant farmers tend to hold on long after it has become clear that they can't compete. One reason, says Peter Rosset of the Institute for Food and Development Policy, is that "even when it gets really bad, they will cling to agriculture because of the fact that it at least offers some degree of food security--that you can feed yourself." But with the pressures now mounting, particularly as export crop production swallows more land, even that fallback is lost.
Past and Future: Connecting the Dots
Given the direction and speed of prevailing trends, how far can the decline in farmers go? The lead editorial in the September 13, 1999 issue of Feedstuffs, an agribusiness trade journal, notes that "Based on the best estimates of analysts, economists and other sources interviewed for this publication, American agriculture must now quickly consolidate all farmers and livestock producers into about 50 production systems... each with its own brands," in order to maintain competitiveness. Ostensibly, other nations will have to do the same in order to keep up.
To put that in perspective, consider that in traditional agriculture, each farm is an independent production system. In this map of Ireland's farms circa 1930, each dot represents 100 farms, so the country as a whole had many thousands of independent production systems. But if the Feedstuffs prognosis were to come to pass, this map would be reduced to a single dot. And even an identically keyed map of the much larger United States would show the country's agriculture reduced to just one dot.
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2000|
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