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

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.