Big agriculture's big lie

A Kansas editor says our assembly-line approach to growing our food is actually contributing to world hunger -- and explains why buying local and buying organic is so important.

Published July 15, 2005 7:44PM (EDT)

If George Pyle thought at all about farming when he joined a Kansas newspaper 27 years ago, he thought it sounded like a pretty boring beat for a young reporter. Beyond that, he was ready to go along with what most people seemed to believe: Agriculture was destined to become completely industrialized, and farmers should rejoice at being relieved of such humble work. But after joining the editorial staff at the Salina Journal -- where Bob Dole famously referred to him as "that liberal editor from Salina" during the '96 campaign -- Pyle found that to be able to do his job he had to care about farming.

"For a Kansas newspaper editor to have no opinion on farm issues," he writes in the prologue to his new book, "Raising Less Corn, More Hell," "would be akin to a Florida counterpart having no thoughts on Medicare." The more questions he asked, the more he began to doubt the prevailing wisdom among land-grant university professors and agribusiness managers that fewer and fewer farmers ought to be growing more and more food on ever larger plots of land.

In the course of three decades as a newspaper writer, Pyle went from feeling that the "farm beat" was like covering the progress of a glacier to understanding that the real story of agriculture in America is quite dramatic. In Pyle's view, our farming culture is based on one big bad idea and one big fat lie.

"The bad idea," he writes, "is the increasing concentration -- economic, political, and genetic -- of the ways in which our food is produced." The lie behind it is that "the world is either short of food or risks being short of food in the near future." With the help of an editorial writers' fellowship, and later as the director of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, Pyle took time away from his daily deadlines to research a book on the American farm economy.

"Raising Less Corn, More Hell" is dedicated to the memory of his father, who was raised on a Kansas farm, but Pyle is no sentimentalist when it comes to the fate of family farms. What the agricultural economy needs, he argues, is a truly free market -- not one kept afloat by federal subsidies and unaccounted environmental damage. The root cause of hunger, he claims, is usually a lack of money. Yet the fear of not having enough food has driven the rise of chemical fertilizers, massive machinery, genetically modified seed, and whatever else will help squeeze greater yields out of every acre.

Meanwhile, the true costs of the industrial system -- eroded soil and depleted aquifers, polluted water and air, desperate and indebted farmers, rundown main streets, unhealthy diets, and a food supply at risk - are not factored into the price of food.

Even as we push to grow more, the government subsidizes farmers for growing less. The subsidies continually fail to keep up with gains in production, leading to a surplus of food that costs less than it should. This gets shipped abroad and cripples the efforts of third-world countries to develop their own agricultural base. And so the system fails even on its promise to feed the world.

In "Raising Less Corn, More Hell," Pyle has collected the various strands of the long-standing case against industrial agriculture into a compact polemic or -- perhaps more fitting for the work of a practiced editorial writer -- into one long, impassioned Op-Ed. He recently spoke with Salon from his desk at the Salt Lake Tribune.

You mention in your prologue that when you started as a newspaper writer in 1977, you didn't imagine yourself ever writing a book arguing against industrial agriculture. How did you wind up thinking that was what you should write?

Well, I didn't think I'd be writing anything about agriculture. It seemed dull. And the prevailing wisdom at the time was that even farmers thought it was dull and that pushing them out of the business and turning it over to industry was doing them a favor, sparing them the unremitting toil of bumpkins. As a reporter and then later as an editorial writer I tended to accept the idea that this was the way things were going and that there wasn't any point in protesting it. But there were other voices, from farmers and from consumer activists, who were trying to tell me that that wasn't the case, that there were other ways to go and that some decisions that had been made by large agribusinesses and by government were distorting the natural process as opposed to its just being this natural evolution of things.

I think a lot of people might be surprised by the title of your book, by the suggestion that we should be growing less of anything. Could briefly explain why growing less is a good idea?

Most of the problem both for farmers and for people in the world who are hungry or malnourished is not an undersupply but an oversupply that ripples through the economy. Starting in the Depression, the problem was that even dirt-poor, uneducated farmers were producing way more crops than the economy could afford to buy. So the idea was that we would take some land out of production, even destroy crops, and just give farmers money so they can stay in business at least another year. That way they won't just plant and produce as much as they can.

Most farmers can't afford to do what an industry would do in a flooded market -- slow down the production line or lay people off. If you're halfway through the year and it looks like your field of wheat is not going to make much money, but there's a big market for sunflower seeds, it's too late to tear up the wheat and plant sunflower seeds.

Ideally, if you match the supply with the demand, farmers can make a living off the market -- not off the government. But every time you take land out of production, that's accompanied by a new strain of hybrid corn or a new process, so that even though there are fewer acres, there are more crops. Taking land out of production doesn't lower the yields; it also doesn't raise the number of people who are buying.

Is the problem of not having enough cash to buy the food mainly encountered in the developing world?

Well, you'll see it in poor neighborhoods in America, but, yeah, just about in every case, whether it's in the developing world or in New York, hunger is caused by too little money, not by too little food. And even in cases where there have been huge famines in Africa and Asia, it's not because there wasn't any food, it's because they didn't have any money to buy food with. There would be relief efforts, but sometimes in the next country, the next province or the next village, you would have plenty of food. The people who were hungry were hungry because they were broke.

If we were to grow less and to get away from subsidies, would that help put cash in the pockets of people who can't afford to buy enough food?

It's the only thing that we might do. I can't guarantee that this would be successful in Africa, but I do know that what we're doing hurts, and what the European Union is doing as well. They have a slightly different way of subsidizing their farmers, but the effect is the same. We sell or give rice, cotton and corn on the world market for less than it really costs to produce it -- and certainly for less than farmers in Africa or Asia can afford to produce it -- so they go out of business or become simple subsistence farmers.

They move to the cities. There aren't enough jobs for them, so you get huge slums and disease, AIDS, prostitution, child slavery, ripe planting grounds for distrust and terrorism, because they're not able to make the agricultural base of their economies work.

Now, if tomorrow we did what I think is the right thing, phase out the subsidies and support our own farmers by paying them to care for land instead of maxing out production and consequently stop flooding foreign markets, they wouldn't all automatically turn into successful farmers in Africa. They've got lots of problems with bad government, corruption and war that make it difficult.

You mention in your prologue that many advocates for small farms are dismissed for "fuzzy-headed nostalgia." You're pretty careful to distance yourself from that kind of sentimental reasoning. How do you make your case without indulging in it?

It is difficult. I do think that the real advocates, especially those who are also farmers, they understand that it's a market they're in. They understand that they have to have a product that people want to buy. They are hoping that the government will not get in their way, that academia will not put all of its efforts into inventing things that are good on a huge scale and have little application on a small scale, like GPS systems for leveling fields. I think they think that they can do pretty well in a truly open market, as opposed to the one that's distorted by our failure to enforce environmental and antitrust laws. That would give them a chance.

So they're generally not plucking at our heartstrings deliberately, but that's certainly the way it's spun by the apologists for industrial agriculture, who say you shouldn't try to cling to a way of life that's gone the way of all things, and you shouldn't expect us to risk having less food or risk having more expensive food just to save Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. The successful organic farmers don't expect to be taken care of out of charity. They want to make a living by selling a better product.

Another way you often see this spun is that the people who are against industrial agriculture are spoiled urbanites who can afford to buy organic vegetables and grass-fed beef and like to feel self-righteous about it. How do you respond to the suggestion that this cause is a luxury of the privileged?

Well, you do run into that. I mean there's a downtown farmers' market here in Salt Lake City on Saturday mornings, and the place is lousy with Volvos and people who come down because they've got some disposable income and don't have to work that day. But these changes are more and more reaching into your average supermarket. When you consider that out of every disposable consumer dollar that's spent on food, two cents of it gets to the farmer, I don't think it would be so horrible if four cents got to the farmer. That would help them out a lot, and it wouldn't hurt us at all.

Would you say that moving toward a small-farm model is not something that just makes life a little bit sweeter for those who can afford it but is a necessary change?

Yes, in the long term. I mean it starts out, like a lot of things start out, as something to gladden the bleeding heart. You feel good about helping the farmer and about feeding your children organic food instead of Twinkies. The most successful farmers in the niche markets are those who just are lucky enough or foresighted enough to be close to a city, often close to a university town, places where there's an educated kind of folks who are taking the lead. They're the first ones to seek out organic food, locally produced food, to want to see the face of their farmer in their produce, as the Japanese say.

And they're the ones who get it started, but once somebody gets established in a farmers' market, the regular supermarkets start carrying that stuff and start promoting that they have organic food and have local food. They haven't bragged about that in the past partly because they felt that people like industrial food, that people like the idea that it comes from this stainless steel, pressure-washed factory somewhere, even when it didn't. And now people are starting to understand that they can say, 'Well, you know, this comes from this guy down the road and we're going to charge you ten more cents for it.' And people will buy it.

In the epigraph to one chapter you quote from former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson about how easy it would be for terrorists to attack our food supply. Do you think that it will take a catastrophe on the scale of Sept. 11 for us to see some substantial changes?

I think the problem is that the industrial model is so established and people in power still mostly believe in it. Even the people who have taken this threat seriously are still not questioning the future of this model's existence and its efficiency. They're just trying to find a better way to circle the wagons. They're saying that we need to have surveillance; we need to have walls; we need to keep dogs and guns and barbed wire; we need to have laws saying you can't take pictures of farms.

As for the idea that the best way to deal with this is to decentralize the plants, the farms, the feedlots, the genetics, it may take some kind of crisis to get that through some people's heads. I mentioned in the book that after 9/11 there were some brokerage houses that decided it was not a really smart idea to have everything all in one place. The same logic applies with agriculture. Nature demands it, really. Row after row of exactly identical stalks of corn is not natural. And one of these days Mother Nature, even if no terrorist does it, will look dimly on that and send us some kind of locust or germ or bacteria and wipe them out.

Reading your book I was reminded of Thomas Frank's, "What's the Matter With Kansas?" What do you think of that book? Do you accept Frank's basic analysis that the people of the Midwest have essentially sacrificed their own economic interests in exchange for pandering over what he would call dead-end social causes?

I didn't read his book until I was nearly finished with mine, but I think he's right. People are voting to give more and more power to big business on a promise of, you know, protecting themselves from gay marriage. I think that's true. A friend of mine [Dan Glickman] was a congressman from Wichita and the only Democrat in the state delegation for quite a while. His crowning achievement was to get a law passed that made it less risky for the aircraft industry, which is big in Wichita, to start making single-engine planes again. They'd been worried about liability -- way down the road, after the plane had been sold and sold and sold again.

Then somebody came along and ran against him who worked for one of those aircraft companies. His main campaign was that a sitting congressman was too far left on guns and abortion. And he beat him. I remember a friend of mine, an editorial writer in Wichita, said, 'Well, that just proves those people who work at Boeing are more worried about losing their guns than losing their jobs.'"

I guess the bad guys in this scenario are the agribusiness corporations, Monsanto and ConAgra and such. I'm wondering how you explain their willingness to pursue policies that, if your analysis is right, are not good for anybody in the end.

Whether they're funnin' us or whether they truly believe it -- and I tend to think that they truly believe it -- they base their work on the idea that you need to produce more and more, that there are starving people in Africa and, by God, it's our duty to feed them. I think that they've said that often enough that they may believe it -- continually blinding themselves to the idea that those starving people in Africa will continue to starve until they have some money.

They continue to cling to this idea that one of these days we'll have just the right trade program, or just the right incentive, and all these people around the world will start buying our corn and our wheat. And they'll be fat and happy and we'll be fat and happy. But they don't have any money, and they're not likely to have any money unless they have their own healthy agricultural base.

So what is your prescription for farmers and for city dwellers and lawmakers? What are the most important things to be done immediately?

The macro solution is to move away from the subsidies and to start enforcing antitrust laws. If we enforce the antitrust laws, there would be more people competing to buy the farmers' grain and they might do a better job of surviving off the market instead of off the government. Some argue that it would cost the consumer more, but I don't think it would. If more suppliers had to compete to sell to farmers, and if you had more bidders on their fat cattle, fat hogs and harvested grain, farmers would turn a greater profit. Passing that increased cost along to the consumer depends to a large degree on how many processors there are and how many grocers there are. But even if that price does get passed along, it's already so small it wouldn't make much difference.

So the big answer is to enforce antitrust laws and to change or get rid of subsidies. What about individual citizens who have no connection to farming? What can they do?

Well, they can be more effective consumers. And more people are doing that. Buy organic. Buying local is even more important. If you've got organic that comes from a long way away or local that you're not too sure about, it's better to buy local and cut out the middle man. The cynical reason to do that is, if there's anything wrong with it, you know where it came from. So much of this stuff you got no idea where it comes from. The beef goes into this huge maw and it's ground and re-ground and distributed and packaged and repackaged. If you buy from the small processing plant or directly from the farmer and there is something wrong with it, then you just don't buy from him. And he'll notice.

By Ira Boudway

Ira Boudway is a freelance writer in Brooklyn and frequent contributor to Salon.

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