Carbon Cycle #62

     Agriculture. It's easy to see how people can't relate to the subject or find it easy to ignore agricultural issues. Very few people in our country are farmers anymore. The Census Department stopped keeping track of their numbers in 1993 considering their numbers to be "statistically insignificant". Very few people know farmers or have even set foot on a farm. There is such a distance between us and our food. We're removed, removed from our food and how it got to our table. We're removed from the land, we don't know about it so we don't care about it. "(Americans) no longer care where or how they get their food, as long as it is firm, fresh, and cheap," writes Victor Davis Hanson in his book "Fields Without Dreams". A man frustrated with the futility of trying to be a small scale family fanner in the 90's, struggling against not only nature but also an increasing corporate presence and an apathetic public. It can be difficult to see the relevance of caring about something like agriculture, but in the words of Wes Jackson, an agricultural pioneer, "if you eat food you should be concerned with agricultural issues." If you can't muster up the energy to care, to care about what sustains you and what you sustain with your food dollar, if you just can't see the relevance to your life enough to act on your knowledge by supporting agricultural practices that you see as healthy and speaking out against those that you oppose then we'll just have to call your death a suicide.
     In my last column I discussed the amazing work being done by Wes Jackson and his colleagues at the Land Institute to bring the concept of perennial polyculture into being. This method contrasts sharply with the present method of agriculture known as annual monoculture, a system of large-scale mostly corporate farms reliant on increasing amounts of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers to grow the same few row crops year after year. Actually the term "monoculture" is a bit deceptive, as it would seem to imply the growing of one crop. It actually refers to the rotation of a very few crops, namely corn and soybeans. I wanted to discuss this system of annual monoculture, a hugely damaging form of agriculture, and how it began the systematic genetic erosion, the shrinking and thus the weakening of the gene pool through the commercial emphasis on a few limited varieties of crops along with the destruction of subsistence agriculture and wilderness areas. This erosion of genetic diversity continues by leaps and bounds today through the increasing globalization of our food supply and the emphasis on intellectual property rights and genetic engineering.
     Our current method of agriculture, this annual monoculture with its chemical dependence and limited rotations, is a relatively new phenomena with roots only going back as far as the end of World War H. Many of the pesticides and chemicals used in agriculture today had their beginnings as chemical weapons developed during WWII. Before the availability of these chemical "solutions", farmers depended on methods of control that would fall much closer to the concepts of organic or Integrated Pest Management (I.P.M.). These pre-war pest management techniques included systems of complex crop rotations (crop rotation refers to the order in which crops are planted in the same field season after season.), land left fallow or devoted to pasture and the retaining of strips of weeds or native plant life as means of disrupting pest cycles and building soil fertility. With the introduction of the seeming "silver bullet" of chemical pesticides and fertilizers these healthy and sustainable methods fell by the wayside.
     Around the same time as chemical pesticides were being introduced, the government began a system of subsidies which rewarded farmers who planted crops deemed "cash grains", such as corn and wheat, in effect financially penalizing farmers who grew any other crop, used their land as pasture, or left it unplanted to build or maintain fertility. These subsidies acted as incentives to severely limit the number of crops farmers had in rotation, pushing them towards this concept of monocropping made possible by the introduction of these new chemicals. Previously, limited crop rotations couldn't have been achieved because such an unhealthy system couldn't have been maintained for any length of time without being overrun by pests or weeds and seriously reducing yields; such a system must be propped up with chemicals. So most farmers chose to give up the diverse crop rotations as well as the commonplace small-scale livestock production. Livestock production was then taken over by specialized large-scale feed lots. As the livestock moved off of the small American farm, so did the cropping of both hay and oats because they both have little economic value if not fed to livestock. The industrialized production of cattle introduced soybeans as the second major crop in the monoculture rotation of corn and soy. Today this system has grown to the point where between 83-97% of all corn planted in this country is in rotation with soybeans (The occasional third crop in this rotation is wheat but two or even three crops can't provide adequate diversity needed to maintain an ecosystem). With the limited grazing of the cattle on these huge feed lots, soybeans took their place as the major fodder of these animals, providing adequate protein without requiring the use of pasture. Most types of livestock are horribly ineffective at transferring protein, requiring many times the amount of protein in feed in relation to the amount they will produce as meat. So the demand for soy as livestock feed is huge. Even today a mere 3% of the soy crop is used for human consumption, the rest goes to feed livestock. The huge market for soybeans reinforced the financial advantage of monocropping.
     As fewer and fewer types of crops were grown, field size grew out of necessity. The profit margin involved in bulk production of one or two crops was much thinner than before. So as the Secretary of Agriculture at the time, Ezra Taft Benson said, "Get big or get out." So without the stress of juggling multiple crops, farmers increased the size of their operations, fences came down, equipment specialized and the march towards industrialized farming began.
     These two landmark events pushed agriculture towards the chemical-reliant monocropping system we have today. Virtually everyone admits that this system is not the best. Even Robert Shapiro, a chief executive at Monsanto, acknowledges that "current agricultural practice isn't sustainable: we've lost something on the order of 15% of our topsoil over the past 20 years or so, irrigation is increasing the salinity of soil, and the petrochemicals we rely on aren't renewable." The United Nations contends that because of poor farming methods approximately 300 million hectares (a hectare is about 2.5 acres) of farmland worldwide has been severely degraded while 1.2 million more hectares show moderate fertility loss. The lack of diversity caused by monocropping has had broad ramifications: increasingly vulnerable crops, genetically impoverished varieties, lowered water quality, eroding soil, troubled wildlife populations, and an overall less vibrant ecosystem. Within the past few years these symptoms have become more pronounced, causing severe soil degradation, dramatic swings in yields and uncontrollable disease and pest outbreaks. For example, Illinois farmers recently discovered that a certain corn pest, the western rootworrn beetle, was surviving in the field even when it was planted with soybeans. That isn't supposed to happen - fed anything but corn the beetles generally die. A two crop rotation traditionally kept them in check by breaking the breeding cycle. That strategy is now failing, leaving farmers with the options of either spraying the soy as well as the corn for the beetle or implementing a more complex crop rotation. The monoculture system is unhealthy and unmanageable without the increasing amounts of chemicals that continue to be dumped on our food.
     With all the problems becoming evident with the monoculture system and its primarily two crop rotation, the need for the implementing of at least a more complex rotation seems obvious. Yet the system of monocropping remains unchanged despite its many drawbacks. For the reasons one must look a bit closer at the structure of agriculture. A lot of farmland is rented year to year so farmers can't afford to allow a field to lie fallow or to be planted with a non-cash crop because the rent needs to be paid. In addition, the landlords and especially lenders who have extended credit, which is vital to most farmers, get really nervous and would probably refuse to extend credit to any farmer who was planning on planting any crop that doesn't have an immediately visible pay-off. Plus, many of the crops that work well in long term, more complex rotations like oats or forage have become obsolete because they only pay-off when they can be fed to livestock. The vital importance of maintaining livestock as part of sustainable agriculture is just becoming apparent to me and I plan to delve deeper into the subject in an upcoming column.
     One of the largest obstacles to more complex rotations and sustainable agriculture in general is that the entire agricultural infrastructure, all the storage, transport and processing systems, is completely set up to handle the "Big Three" of corn, soy and wheat. Any other cropfalls outside of the system and becomes a logistical nightmare for the farmer to process, get to market, and sell. This acts to further keep farmers within the monoculture system.
     Almost everyone concerned, economists, agronomists, and ecologists, agrees that there are very few incentives for individual farmers to work to increase diversity and strive for sustainability. While doing so on a large scale would benefit all farmers through improved soil health and fertility, it's very difficult for the individual farmer to see an immediate payback. The market is increasingly pressuring the farmer to make decisions that are only good in the short term. Perhaps biodiversity's best ally is consumer demand for and willingness to pay premium prices for organic crops; crops grown in chemical free soil and with chemical free pest control. For example, organic soybeans have been fetching two to three times the price of conventionally grown ones. This sort of price difference may push farmers "back' to earlier and healthier cropping systems, such as more diverse crop rotations and integrated pest management. But again this requires that farmers step out of the government subsidized ag-loop that I mentioned above and embrace new practices that they may be unfamiliar with and not have the know-how or equipment to deal with.
     Through the introduction of chemicals and government subsidies agriculture has been dramatically restructured from numerous small-scale diverse operations to huge monoculture based farms consolidated under a few corporate owners. This emphasis on the specialized and mechanized two crop system has limited the biodiversity of our country's landscape by replacing the cropping of numerous grains and other crops as well as the replacing native areas, pasture and fallow ground with vast fields of predominately corn and soybeans. Native and less commercially viable crop species are pushed aside and plowed under in our rush towards chemically dependent corporate agriculture and the concentration of the control over our own food supply into the hands of the corporate elite.
     The privatization of the world's food supply through the patenting of genetic information by a few huge transnational corporations has been a long time coming but has recently reached a frenetic pace. To get a sense of perspective on this issue, we must again look back to the end of WWH when in an effort to rebuild the world economy, a global free trade agreement called the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT). GATT was established originally to negotiate lower tariffs (taxes on imports) in order to stimulate commerce. In reality it has acted to the benefit of big business. In the agricultural spectrum it has expanded the markets for huge grain traders by driving out national and local producers of food who can't compete with the heavily subsidized exports from the United States or Europe. This crippling effect of the agreement on foreign agriculture was planned and deliberate. In 1985 Senator Rudy Boschwitz from the big agriculture state of Minnesota wrote to Time magazine that "(i)f we do not lower our farm prices to discourage these developing countries from aiming at self-reliance now, our world-wide competitive position will continue to slide." GATT reduced regional self-reliance and expanded the dependence on large corporations by making the grain imported from, for example, the U.S. cheaper than the grain produced locally in the developing countries of the world. GATT not only stifled regional self-reliance but also pushed local varieties of grains or other crops out of production, continuing the emphasis on fewer and fewer crop species and adding to the limiting of the world's biodiversity.
     Huge grain traders and exporters try to get grain prices down as low as they can so they can buy at those low prices and then sell at higher prices. Low prices allow grain traders to undersell their competition on a worldwide level, giving them access to new markets where the local price is higher. The prices that these grain traders demand is unrealistically low and only achievable through massive subsidies provided by the American taxpayers and the exploitation of the American farmer. The American people are lining the pockets of these massive transnational corporations. These corporations have convinced the Congress that what is good for corporations is somehow good for the American people. Through their massive lobbying efforts these companies have convinced Congress to continue to drive grain prices lower and lower with complex systems of subsidies and less secure federal loans. This allows huge traders like the Cargill company, the biggest grain trader in the world (whose executive Daniel Amstutz served as the chief negotiator on the Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture, just to give you some idea how incestuous this all is) to make money hand over fist.
     Many people mistakenly believe that all these subsidies benefit the farmers or that these really low prices are passed on to the consumer. In reality neither is true. Prices to the consumer continue to rise while the price paid to the fanner continue to drop and the middlemen, these huge traders and processing companies, make all the money. Between 1981 and 1987 consumer prices rose 36% as the prices paid to farmers fell from three quarters the cost of production to half the cost of production. Yet Congress year after year listens to Cargill and their ilk and continue to lower prices to the point where American farmers receive around 4 cents out of every food dollar spent. (The biggest share goes to the "marketing" element which includes the processors, brokers, traders, and shippers.) That meager percentage continues to shrink, causing 5 million families to lose their farms in recent decades. Sadly, the money made in agriculture is not made by the farmers it is made by the corporate element who never even get their hands dirty.
     Since its creation, GATT has conducted several "rounds" of negotiations each of which has been several years long. The last completed round was in Uruguay, known as the Uruguay Round. Before this last round the group was limited to dealing with tariff issues as barriers to trade, deciding how much various countries could tax their imports in order to protect their local economy. But in the Uruguay Round the participating countries broadened their scope as to what could potentially be barriers to free trade. Topics now allowed into consideration included such non-tariff areas as environmental policies and economic development strategies.
     One of the most notable events of the Uruguay Round of GATT was the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) which was designed to enforce GATT's concept of free trade on a global scale. The WTO was given executive, legislative, and judicial powers; the power to create laws, enforce them and punish those who break them. In effect, the WTO became the "muscle" behind the corporate interests of the Uruguay Round agreements. Well known consumer advocate Ralph Nader sees the WTO and the Uruguay Round agreements as a way to "strengthen and formalize a world economic government dominated by giant corporations, without a correlative democratic rule of law to hold this economic government accountable."
     The powers given to the WTO are unprecedented even in the history of GATT. Under the previous GATT system the participating parties were sovereign and could choose whether or not to participate in any of the treaties. Whereas the WTO requires members to agree to all of the agreements from the Uruguay Round in order to participate in the world trading club at all. Refusal to participate is almost unthinkable for any government, especially for developing countries who depend imported goods, such as food.
     Among the WTO powers is the power over the non-tariff obstacles to trade, defined as the power to "ensure the conformity of its laws, regulations and administrative proceedings with its obligations as provided" in the Uruguay Round agreements. Thus the WTO can force countries to change their national, state, or local laws to minimize the laws' "trade restrictive" effect or to bring them into compliance with weaker international standards. They could pressure a country to change, weaken, or get lid of completely an environmental protection regulation regarding pesticide use or a law requiring the labeling of genetically modified ingredients in food or any law at all really. The pressure is applied in the interest of "trade", which is just a euphemism for the money to be made by the corporate interests behind the WTO. This power allows them to act with their legislative and judicial powers in areas that had formerly been strictly dealt with by individual countries. The WTO does this by calling anything it wants to control "trade related". So these unelected corporate-minded trade officials can disregard or control virtually all the regulations that exists on a national level under the guise of protecting free trade. If they determine that a country's standards on pesticide use is too restrictive they can force them to change those standards or face stiff penalties. For example we can look at the ramifications of the European Union's ban on RBGH, the artificial growth hormone fed to American cattle to increase milk production. The WTO determined that the E.U. lacked sufficient scientific evidence that the hormone was a threat to human health and the E.U. didn't have the right as a sovereign nation or group of nations to err on the side of caution or to set their own standards. So now the E.U. has the discouraging options of discontinuing their ban, paying the U.S. Cattlemen's Association hundreds of millions of dollars a year in compensation, or facing massive trade sanctions. The E.U. chose to pay $124 million a year in compensation to retain the integrity of their food supply. National sovereignty is in jeopardy and regional autonomy is under attack by the power that these people who are responsible to no one wield in their own interest.
     The WTO is a permanent political body and can establish new obligations at any time that all members must adhere to with a three-fourths majority. So now previously sovereign, independent countries have a corporate "Big Brother" who has the ability to control their laws and their actions so they best serve the interests of those corporations behind the WTO. If a country attempts to object to a WTO regulation they set themselves up for massive monetary penalization or potentially crippling trade sanctions. Merely the threat of these penalties usually convinces the country to change their law or trade practice.
     Falling under the jurisdiction of the WTO with its powerful threat of sanctions is the enforcement of Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights or TRIps (notice the "trade-related" preface). Intellectual property rights (IPRS) are a global equivalent to national trademarks patents and copyrights and give the corporations who hold the intellectual property rights the worldwide protection of the WTO. It is interesting to note that the committee that conceived this idea was made of members from such companies as Bristol-Meyer, Dupont, General Electric, General Motors, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Time-Wamer and our fine friends at Monsanto.
     IPRs are privatizing the world's life forms and accumulated knowledge, concentrating the power in the hands of transnational corporations. Nowhere is this massive globalization as evident as in agriculture. IPRs are heavily utilized by giant agribusiness firms to protect their recent genetic modifications to various crop species. This protection is now heavily enforced worldwide thanks to the TRIPs agreement which demands that all WTO members must provide patent or likewise protection for these firm's genetically engineered plants. Thus privatizing something, in this example thousands of years of plant breeding, for the monetary benefit of these corporations that had previously been in the public domain.
     Agribusiness companies are banking heavily on their genetically engineered crop seeds. In order to consolidate their presence in the industry, the agribusiness giants are buying up small seed houses and companies. "Transnational agri-chemical corporations went on a buying spree, purchasing small seed companies and replacing their regionally adapted (seed) collections with more profitable hybrids and patented varieties," comments Kent Whealy, the director of Seed Savers Exchange. He goes on to say that these collections were well adapted to local growing conditions, with resistance to regional pests and diseases and represented the collective work of generations of seedsmen. "Irreplaceable genetic resources were thoughtlessly destroyed by marketing decisions to maximize the short-term profits of corporations," he notes.
     The globalization of the seed industry has endangered the availability and the very existence of local specialized seed varieties and secured the position of genetically engineered seed on the worldwide market. In order to obtain that security the major agribusiness companies are scrambling to buy up competing companies who may help them achieve those ends. Monsanto has recently purchased Agracetus (a small company which somehow has a patent for all future genetically modified strains of soybeans and cotton), Calgene (the pioneers of the genetically modified food, the fine people who brought us the "FlavrSavr' tomato), and Holden Foundation Seeds (a huge company that provides one third of all the seed corn planted in the United States). The stranglehold that large companies are acquiring on segments of our food supply coupled with their shortsighted and profit-driven decision making is terrifying.
     In the light of their captive protected worldwide markets the stage is set for the whole world to be planted with one species of corn, "Roundup-Ready" corn. As genetically engineered crops spread at an alarming rate (Monsanto is aiming to have 100% of soybeans grown in the U.S. converted to their genetically modified species by the year 2000). The rapid growth of genetically engineered crops acts to limit biodiversity by drowning out other crop species and further destroying native species through the emphasis on large-scale production. Genetically engineered crops provide the greatest advantages to the largest scale farms; the more acres one plants with g.e. crops, the more money one saves. In effect pushing farmers towards larger and larger scale productions. The dominance of large-scale farming leads to a greater reliance on crop uniformity. Crop uniformity means relying on fewer and fewer strains, limiting the diversity of the big commodity crops like corn, soybeans and wheat.
     Historically it has been shown that limiting the genetic diversity of a crop species makes it very susceptible to disease, pests, and potentially massive crop failure. The potato blight that caused massive starvation in Ireland during the middle of the nineteenth century can be attributed to a lack of diversity in the potato crop. For 250 years Ireland and Europe had depended on only two crop varieties, two varieties that offered no genetic resistance to the decimating blight. Whereas when the same blight struck the Andes region, home to hundreds of different varieties of potatoes, many with genetic resistance to the blight, only a few crops were lost. In Ireland 2 million people died of starvation. Limiting the diversity of our crop species in the way that these agribusinesses are planning is just setting them up for another such massive crop failure.
     The emphasis on large-scale production also leads to the limiting of green spaces and patches of native vegetation. These areas were once kept around, as was previously discussed, because their numerous values were realized, However, in the mechanized specialization of modem farming green spaces are pushed aside in favor of the short term cover up of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Green spaces support agriculture by renewing soil, preventing erosion, harboring beneficial insects, purifying our air and water and helping to regulate the climate. Yet because none of these services have a traditional market value they are pushed aside for things that present a short-term monetary value. In order to change this, groups of scientists are working to come up with some sort of dollar amount for the services that these natural areas provide. "Assigning values, even if they are imprecise, helps make it clear that losing this stuff entails a cost," explains Gretchen Daily, a Stanford University conversation biologist. As odd as that sounds, trying to put a dollar amount on the worth of a patch of prairie or a stretch of forest, it seems to be working. New York City was recently convinced to put money into staving off development in the Catskill and Delaware watersheds which naturally filter its water instead of spending six to eight million dollars on a water treatment facility. Whatever it takes to make people realize that these areas are valuable, not "undeveloped" or "wasted" space, is a step in the right direction.
     The centralizing of the power over our food supply, especially into the hands of corporations who decisions are guided by short term visions and profit margins, is dangerous to the biodiversity of the world and dangerous to our food supply. These corporations do not have our best interests in mind; their decisions are guided by money. They lack the long-term vision and wisdom needed to guide our people and our world. They are not proper stewards of our land. If they fail to see the error of their path " the lord of the vineyard shall come and give the vineyards unto others."
— John/ Carbon Cycle / PO Box 11741/ Portland OR 97211
(address from 1999 - ed)