Peak Food and the Coming Agricultural Crisis: America’s Flawed Agricultural Policy

California’s dependence on a global food economy has placed local consumers
at great risk. A state’s
long-term economic security is predicated on its ability to feed
itself and to continue to do so without exhausting its natural
resources. Such security cannot be realized under our current global
food system.

Relying on foreign farmers to take up the slack of
non-diversified industrial farmers, by leveraging with a currency on
life support, is national masochism. With looming global economic
crisis, every state in the Union would do well to evaluate their own
productive capacities to feed themselves and then look to broader
markets to balance surpluses and shortages.

The destruction of
the agrarian class (the once substantial agricultural population in
this country that consisted mostly of small, diverse family owned
farms) has placed America’s middle-class in a precarious
position as our economy has turned to credit expansion to set
an artificial standard of living. With rampant inflation on the
horizon and the prospect of depleted oil reserves in the
not-to-distant future, the economic outlook for “middle-America”
is bleak. After all, what is a “free society” that gets
fat off of other people’s labor and depends on increasing trade
deficits to feed its people? How long can entire regions of our
country dedicate themselves to producing just one or two crops for
diminishing (technically for negative) returns?

Such a system is
obviously counterintuitive to small farmers, but the interesting
thing, and this is something we are now starting to realize as bread
nearly doubles in price year over year, is that the economic
viability of farmers of all sizes is put at risk
with destructive international trade agreements such as the General
Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT)
and with the subsidy ridden legislation that is the Farm

The tariff
reducing revisions of GATT drafted in the Uruguay Round of talks
(effective during the administrations of both Reagan and Bush Sr. and
continued to the present day) by representatives from the very
supranational corporations that stood to be the sole benefactors of
their localism-destroying policies are now eroding the competitive
edge large US farmers once held.

The author, poet and farmer Wendell
Berry, had these prophetic words to say about the then unfolding
agricultural policies of GATT in the early ‘90s:

restrictions lowered to international minimums and with farmers under
increasing pressure to make up in volume for drastically reduced unit
prices, this will become a competition in land exploitation…Land
rape and the use of toxic chemicals will increase, as will the
exploitation of people. American farmers, who must continue to buy
their expensive labor-replacing machines, fuel, and chemicals on
markets entirely controlled by the suppliers, will be forced to
market their products in competition with the cheapest hand labor of
the poor countries. And the poor countries, needing to feed their own
people, will see the food vacuumed off their plates by lucrative
export markets. The supranational corporations, meanwhile, will be
able to slide about at will over the face of the globe to wherever
products can be bought cheapest and sold highest.

Sadly, these words have
rung true and paint a well-rounded picture of the fundamental flaws
of our current food system.

As producers in
newly industrializing nations such as Brazil saturate the market with
cash crops, American farmers are finding it all but impossible to
With little in the way of regional price supports (not to be confused
with direct subsidies) or production controls, large farmers now risk
even the illusion of financial solvency. Charles Walters, Executive
Editor of Acres USA summarized the matter succinctly:

the commodity farmers are just a conduit for government subsidies
that go straight to the bank. Payments to farmers just keep the
bankers happy, to keep the loans paid—they’re not saving
the family farm. The only farmers making money today are those who
are farming organically or have found a little niche market.

Starting here in California, these “niche markets” Mr.Walters speaks of can be turned into burgeoning economies so more
farmers can get paid the price they deserve for food that is fit for
a human to eat. Ultimately, we should look to invigorating these
markets for future generations of Americans so they can enjoy a
proper standard of living.

my next installment, I will discuss the history of how America found
itself in this precarious position.