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Mini Rant, FWIW

July 30, 2009

Out of the blue, but the topic of organic vs conventional food came up at one of my online hangouts, and I put so much typing into a post that I figured it would be a waste not to add some easy content over here. It all ties in with my recent revelations that despite all of agriculture’s supposed laissez faire capitalism, it is conventional ag, not organic and direct marketers that really tow the statist line. Some will no doubt see where I openly plagiarized elements of Omnivore’s Dilemma.

The problem with conventional/chemical agriculture is not that the food isn’t any good. The problem with conventional/chemical agriculture is that it’s unprofitable. Farmers spend most of their time and money chasing ever more expensive inputs. Commodity agriculture demands monoculture, and monoculture walks hand in hand with inputs, and inputs really mean oil. Oil in chemicals, oil in fertilizer, oil in fuel, fuel for tractors, fuel for transporting commodities. Once you’ve traded your independence to the price of oil the word sustainable doesn’t so much mean ecology as it does business.

Back in the old days, farmers had many different crops that complimented each other, broke up the cycles of pest and disease. Iowa farmers would only raise corn every two years or so, because corn was a ‘taker’. So they’d run livestock, or plow down manure crops, and then use corn to harvest some of those nutrients. They’d save their corn back, using some of it to plant their crop next year. Farmers were self sufficient, their only real input was time, all that diversity meant that they had plenty of opportunities to feed themselves. For those that wanted the lifestyle, that wasn’t asking much.

But then a funny thing happened, WW2 ended, and left large ammonium nitrate explosive manufacturers without a market. What to do? First the US government considered air dropping the nitrogen over pine forests, as a boon to lumber companies. Then they got the bright idea to sell it to farmers. Suddenly farmers could plant corn every year! And so they did. What to do with all that corn? Well, you could feed to livestock. And so they did. Thus began vertically integrated livestock production. No longer would pigs and chickens be grown on farms as part of a diversified operation, they could be grown start to finish indoors. In fact the farmer wouldn’t even need to own them, the Tysons of the world could just outsource the raising of their animals to farmers. Assuming of course that the farmers went into debt building hundred thousand dollar buildings, a debt that now shackled them to corporate whims. A similar thing happened to beef. No longer would cattle be finished on grass, like the Argentineans still do, now they would be used to get rid of cheap surplus. That’s what a feedlot is, a dumping ground for corn.

Even then it wasn’t enough. So they came up with HFCS, and ten million other uses for government subsidized, over produced corn. Corn which is really just oil.

But this led to problems back on the farm. The monoculture led to pests, disease and weeds in the commodity crops. So seed companies came up with chemical resistant varieties, varieties that killed bugs, etc. Seed companies had to recoup their costs though, so you couldn’t keep your seed back, which added another input. Why not rotate again? Well you might not qualify for subsidies! Soon farmers really aren’t growing food as much as they are providing big companies with cheap industrial inputs. Not too mention keeping all their input suppliers in business. These two parties do not want to break the monoculture, their livelihood is built on it, so they come up with new laws that make it tougher for farmers to sell direct. They make claims that raw milk will kill you, or that a small farm is more dangerous than an industrialized slaughterhouse. They pat the farmer on the back, “But you’re feeding the world!”

So here we are. Commercial agriculture is a defacto government entity, kept in place by subsidies and regulations, in order to keep the little guy toiling for fascist interests. See, an organic farmer creates his own fertilizer, and doesn’t participate in most government schemes, if he direct markets he doesn’t need Tyson, Wal Mart, or even Whole Foods. But don’t worry; the well meaning state is looking to get them on the take as well, shackling once independent producers to their whims.

No doubt I could’ve added more on subsidies, (that’s another post, coming soon, I promise) ethanol, and upcoming regulations that will hinder entrepreneurship.


From → Food Policy, Nation

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