November 27th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Why I Just Spent Three Days Going on about the History of Farm Policy

About a week ago, my old and dear friend nancylebov sent me a link to a magazine article that's on the web, one of the sample articles on the web site of the sustainable, appropriate-tech agriculture movement magazine Acres USA. It was by Joel Salatin, it ran in their September 2003 issue, and it's entitled "Everything I Want to Do is Illegal." Now that I've gone over the history of farm policy and practice with you, read it, then come back.

Recognize what it is that he's trying to do? He's trying to use the exact same practices that free, independent farm families have used since the Stone Age, practices that are long-since proven safe and effective -- just not as efficient as industrialized farming, let alone as efficient as centralized high-density corporate-run factory farms. But because those high-density (and therefore massively polluting), corporate-run, chemical- and machine-dominated agribusinesses way outproduce not just him, but all the remaining family farmers in America put together, nobody left in the US Department of Agriculture, or in any state legislature or local zoning board, even remembers that farmers like him exist. So they write laws that are based on the assumption that all farms run the way the US manual of standard farming practices says they should be run. Why wouldn't they? Given that sooner or later every farmer needs to take out a loan (right?), the banks will eventually make sure that all farms are post-Green-Revolution, industrialized, corporate-owned agribusinesses.

Farmers like him, who run farms that you'd actually be quite comfortable living next to no matter how picky a suburbanite you are? They obviously don't exist, because they can't. "We" made sure of that a long time ago. And when guys like him call attention to themselves, and ask for exceptions to rules that make perfect sense when you apply them to a 10,000 hog "farm" but make no sense when applied to him, nobody lifts a finger to help. To do so would be to encourage low-density farming, and we have mouths to feed -- and that's the charitable explanation. Agribusiness corporations like Archer Daniels Midland and chemical fertilizer/pesticide manufacturers like Monsanto regularly top the list of campaign contributors, to both parties. You can be charitable and assume that what that really means is that they're exercising their Constitutionally guaranteed right to back primary candidates who already agree with them. Or you can crunch numbers to make it look remarkably like the fact that the politicians who didn't start out agreeing with big agribusiness mysteriously started doing so after receiving big checks, if you're feeling uncharitable. Choose the explanation that suits you.

To make the exceptions necessary for guys like him to survive would be to allow people like him to market their produce as "organically grown." Which so outrages the US Department of Agriculture, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Food and Drug Administration that they spent at least ten years trying to stop any food from being labeled that, and when grudgingly backed into a corner wrote rules that all but guarantee that (contrary to what you'd expect) almost all "organic" food at the grocery store will be the exact opposite of what you'd expect, just factory-produced still-chemical-soaked food with a different brand name. Why did they spend so long fighting the organic label altogether? Because in their opinion, marketing any food as "organic" suggests that the rest is "inorganic," that is to say, that there's something wrong with food that's grown according to the rules in the US manual of standard farming practices. As far as they're concerned, that's a slander against an entire industry. They decide what standard farming practices should be, not you the consumer, and letting anybody advertise their food as magically better for you or your children based on some Stone-Age idea of what are better economic, ecological, or nutritional practices is to allow nothing more or less than fraud against the consumer, since they "know" with 100% certainty that Stone Age farming practices produce food that is no better for you than factory-grown food. Don't agree? Tough. Nobody actually running for office cares what you think, we've got mouths to feed.

Except ... well, except that we don't, do we?

We caught up with the the point where agriculture could successfully feed the world at least ten years ago. At this point, giant piles of food go into incinerators because there are no mouths to feed it to, rot and then are shoved into landfills, or go looking for yet more government subsidies for bogus boondoggles like ethanol-based fuels. If there was ever a time where we could afford to stop designing the manual of standard agricultural practices to maximize yield, to allow a variety of strategies some of which would maximize yield and some of which would maximize other factors like land conservation, education, international and local political stability, and so on, now is surely the time.

But no, it's actually much worse even than that. You know how I'm always ranting about single-valued logic? In this case, it works like this. Food is good. So more food is better than less food. So anything that produces more food is better than anything that produces less food, always, and the ideal goal of society is to produce infinite food, because only infinite amounts of food would be perfect. Our agriculture policies reflect this bias.

Virtually every agricultural product in America, now, is both subsidized so we'll have more of it and propped up via price supports because we have too much of it. My poster child for this is Posilac, or by its generic name, recombinant bovine somatrophin (rBST). rBST is a hormone that tricks a cow's udders into producing milk continuously, not just on demand. It does absolutely incredible things for efficiency in milk production. Assuming you have enough feed, rBST injections can triple the amount of milk produced per milk cow. And it's not only legal in the USA (despite some safety arguments that sound pretty legitimate to me, because I don't care how they process the milk afterwards, I'm not enthused to know that it started out with a lot of puss and blood in it), it's practically mandatory. Because it triples the amount of milk per cow, any farmer that uses it produces milk at a fraction of the cost that a farmer who doesn't use it does. So he can sell milk much cheaper and still keep his farm afloat, and does. Except that in most of the cases in America now, "he" is actually "they," meaning not what you think of when you think of a dairy farmer, some family in Wisconsin with 40 or 100 head of cattle, but some giant shareholder corporation with untold thousands of cattle.

But wait, it gets better. Because this technology and others make it so easy for the factory farms to produce milk so cheaply, and there's no way that healthier or less centrally controlled farms can match that price, the only way to "save family farms" is for the government to buy up surplus milk, using taxpayer dollars, and destroy it so that it doesn't drag the price down by flooding the market. Which does exactly nothing to actually save family farms, because 90% of those subsidies go to the exact same giant agribusinesses that are enthusiastically using that money to destroy family farms. To that end, various Presidents and Congresses of both parties have proposed, at one time or another, to cap the per-recipient farm subsidies, setting them at levels where individual family farms would still get the full subsidy but the three or so biggest corporations would get less. And when they did, those same three corporations ran extensive TV ad campaigns accusing the politicians of trying to destroy the family farm by cutting farm subsidies that family farmers depend on. In point of fact, those ads were absolute total lies ... but people believed them, and called their Congressmen each time to make sure those bills got killed, just as the big three agribusiness companies were counting on.