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Peak Food and the Coming Agricultural Crisis: How Did We Get Here?

by Chris Hinyub, published

Relying on bureaucratic largesse and federal agencies to dictate our farming practices has proven a slippery slope, one that has kept California farmers’ legs churning while the economic position of their farms has been declining. Industrial farming concerns that lobby to federal agencies cannot be trusted to draft sound, sustainable farm policy for the state. If the perilous condition of our global food system is any indication, history is on the side of those who favor reform in the vein of “less is more.” The principles of free markets and Localism must be revived to positively transform this system on the brink.

In order to facilitate local food economies, California will have to look back before the Nixon era of Big-Ag and before the Gilded Age’s misguided preconceptions about big industry in general for corrective advice. For too long Americans have been conditioned to place our faith in technological progress and industrial efficiency to remedy our every problem.

Farmers, and thus the consumers who rely on their labor, have generally ceded their economic independence to certain surrogate powers by limiting the options of what they can produce and stifling the ecological awareness about the source of that food. So how did we, as a people, give up our right to pursue our own happiness with locally produced commodities in locally driven economies? The root of the problem took hold many years ago and its fruits are apparent in other areas of our economy. A common mistake of the general public is to see the emergence of this new wave of government regulation and subsidization of large private corporations as a shift in federal policy, one called for by political elites who espouse the need for change.

What we are witnessing in these instances is no functional difference in policy, just a new phase of our long ago decided upon system of plutocratic corporatism. The most recent round of market interventions by our Congress under the guise of “public investment” laid bare the true guiding principles of our economic way of life. We can no longer sugar coat the shared convictions of its bipartisan political supporters – the more tax-dollars lawmakers get to aimlessly spend to secure their careers, the better off the status quo will be. When these legislators parade the term “Conservatorship,” those with common sense hear socialism. When they exclaim the need for change in Washington, the initiated foresee a continued reliance on unsound federal monetary policy and increased deficit spending and inflation to prop up the infinitely expanding (and apparently infinitely expandable) mass. These are the age-old sentiments of the “new agents of change.”

Such a system is hardly new in the sense that it had been visited upon much of the industrialized world in the 20th century, though in more palpable forms. But it has been a relatively new experiment for Americans, one that has just reached gestation. The genie is out of the bottle for sure, but we have seen his “magic” at work in the agricultural community in America for almost four decades.

First, a little history: It is important to remember that the global food economy is a fairly new invention. After WWII, America embarked on a policy path that would subjugate individual states to the whims of a few supranational agribusiness corporations and break down integral supports to local food economies. As benevolent as unrestricted global trade seemed, it prevented California and every other state from feeding themselves. One of the catalysts for increased production and “efficiency” of cash crops was the postwar surplus of phosphates and other weapons grade materials that were to find a market with agricultural applications. The chemical industry’s slogan “better living through science” had already taken hold of the urban mainstream of America and was quickly finding creedal status with farmers throughout the mid-part of the century. The industrial farming model that would emerge in the 1970s came to be known as the Green Revolution, a “revolution” with as much socio-political impact as any other in history. The emerging industrial farmer class would imbibe the Conservatorship philosophy now taken for granted in the upper echelons of government.

The practical implications for farmers, big or small, were witnessed in the direct subsidy checks granted to corn producers who had the ability (and ambitions) to outgrow the increasing supply of corn they themselves were responsible for. Prices drowned in the ensuing glut of subsidized commodities. A perpetual cycle of capital-intensive upgrades in the areas of mechanization and land exploitation (some farmers quit rotating their crops to keep pace) made small, sustainable farmers, and local food markets everywhere in America “economically non-viable.”

Wherever mechanized practices and chemical inputs were used it depleted much of the essentially irreplaceable carbon-rich topsoil layer requisite for sustained farming. In fact, if anything can be viewed as capital – as something to be saved and invested with in a food economy – it is the microbial laden topsoil of arable land. This is a naturally renewed resource that at current rates of loss is quickly becoming nonrenewable. Believe it or not, Science has not found a replacement for soil.

It was during this Green Revolution that the once agrarian contingent of our nation believed and acted upon the vapid words of then Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who extolled the virtues of industry and called upon all farmers to either “get big or get out.” Under the auspices of Nixon and then Ford, Butz brought up, “civilized,” and all together industrialized the last frontier of our national culture with the gratuitous subsidies bestowed on farmers willing to invest (with borrowed money, of course) in the mantra of Agribusiness. Big ambitions required big ideas, big numbers and big machines.

Such an inspiring juggernaut it was. We watched as it appeared to feed the world and marveled at the sheer numbers and quantities it could account for, remaining for the most part numb or blind to the perpetual debt inherited by the new industrial-farmer class and the unsupportable tax it demanded of our land, environment, rural communities and individual well beings. We stopped growing poly-cultures, finding the production of two crops in vast swaths much more “efficient.” After all, the federal government wasn’t paying farmers to diversify, just to put up big numbers. It needn’t matter that man can’t live off corn alone, leave that problem to the newly emerged experts in white coats–the food scientists. Value added commodities became the order of the day, something small farmers had little interest in or means of pursuing, but industrialists savored (and no doubt perpetuated) the need for ready-made, factory-farmed food for an expanding urban consumer base. What we didn’t predict, or much know to even be concerned about, was the system’s inherent self-destructiveness.

The costs of the Green Revolution to California have been great: thanks to soil erosion, the state now hosts less arable land, a less economically secure and more globally dependent citizenship and the unenviable task of providing cheap food for a broke nation.

This is part three of a series on local farming and its benefits to Californians. Part I and Part II.

My next installment will continue to account the costs, both material and socio-political, of our current system and reinforce the need for a new, localized food system.

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