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Multiply Smallnesses – American Agriculture – From Consumption to an Ecology of Hope

Multiply Smallnesses - American Agriculture - From Consumption to an Ecology of Hope - The InnerView with Gary Holthaus

Part 1

In the introduction to your Handbook and Field Guide to the 2007 Farm Bill, you state: “For sixty years now the rhetoric about our farm bills has been the same every time: ‘This is the way to save the family farm.’” Then you lay waste to that sweet sentiment in the very next sentence: “And it has been true. We’ve saved the Cargill family farm, the Monsanto family farm, the ADM family farm, and the Bunge, Louis Drefuss, Syngenta family farms—while our neighbors’ farms have been lost.” To the political powers that be, such irony is generally considered activist, if not downright subversive. Was it well-received by the farming families and rural advocates you work with?

GH: The ones I heard from really liked it. We had a site visit from the Bush Foundation and they said it was courageous. I thought it was just honest. I don’t think of myself as a courageous guy but I try to be forthright and just say it the way I see it. And the greatest threats to American agriculture are, without a doubt, Cargill, Monsanto, ADM, and Drefuss, etc. Those are the guys who are the most dangerous. Period. Yet nobody wants to talk about that or say that.

ALT: Why? Is it because of the power these corporations wield through money spent on lobbying efforts, or their industrial practices in growing food?

GH: All of it, and more. Monsanto, especially, has been really eager to quash competition. Any criticism of Monsanto, and people can expect attorneys knocking at the door. So, it’s really hard to fight those guys. They are powerful.

Even so, one of the conclusions that I came to when I was working on the Farm Bill is that these corporations are way more fragile than they appear to be. The reason is, they’re far more tied into oil than the rest of agriculture, and they’re also tied, especially Cargill and ADM, into international trade and long-distance hauling. That’s all going to come to a screeching halt here, I think.

ALT: Tell me more about the fragility of these corporations.

GH: Yes, what makes them fragile is two things. At some point, the World Trade Organization—which has very few positive credentials as far as I’m concerned—will finally force the U.S. to abandon the commodity subsidies. Those guys, Cargill and Monsanto, and their farmers, live off of those commodity payments. They can’t make a living without ‘em. So if the WTO gets up on its hind legs and says the U.S. has to stop—and Brazil just recently won a case about that—industrial farming as we know it is going to come to a screeching halt.

Not only that, but taxpayers have the misconception, I think, that somehow, every farmer is standing around with his hand out, when in fact 90% of the money goes to about 20% of the folks that farm. That’s the reason we need payment limitations, because people are ripping us off on that end of it. And we know which people.

One way to look at this is, because they have such huge volume, those corporations operate on a pretty narrow margin. They make billions of bucks, but anything that throws a little sand in the gears is a huge threat. When the commodity payments go, and the cheap oil is gone, I ask myself, “Who’s gonna be farming twenty years from now?” It’ll be the guy with eighty cows, grass fed, pasture raised, keeps them for sixteen or eighteen years, milks them twice a day, doesn’t worry about the production because he’s paying the mortgage off …

ALT: You’re describing nineteenth century farming, not “modern”.

GH: Yeah. Those guys. I know some guys that are doing that, and paying off the mortgage faster than they ever thought they would. They’ll still be farming twenty years from now, and they’re going to get it all figured out so they’ll do fine. These giant corporations on the other hand are like cast iron. Two knocks and they’ll fracture.

ALT: You’re saying that the solution to the food problems of the world is to go local, sustainable, small? What are the chances that the picture is really going to look like that over the next century?

GH: Well, that’s what it has looked like until just the last thirty or forty years or so. And people were feeding themselves.

ALT: What about the humanitarian claims of Cargill, Monsanto and ADM, that they’re revolutionizing agriculture to feed the world? That the growing human population, 7 billion now, cannot be fed through the old ways of agriculture, that we have to have these industrial methods and these GMO’s and all the rest of it?

GH: Regarding the humanitarian claims, that’s a lie. It is a lie. They know they’re not feeding the world. We know they’re not feeding Americans for Pete’s sake, let alone the world! Some folks at IATP, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, in Minneapolis, did a study of where the grain goes when it goes down the Mississippi and is disbursed. Point zero seven percent (.07%) of it went to the least developed nations of the world. Those are the ones where all the hungry people are.

The big corporations have no interest in feeding the world. They want to sell their products to people who can afford to pay, and the people who can’t afford to pay them are not going to be fed. And the way the economy is structured all around the globe now is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, more and more poor people… so, Monsanto has to know that, don’t they? It’s the deliberativeness behind the claim that they’re doing humanitarian work here that scalds me, because it’s not true.

ALT: Why do you think that these corporations are so effective in pushing through their agenda legislatively? The Farm Bill hasn’t really changed in sixty years. Small farmers are losing their land and Monsanto and Cargill and ADM are getting bigger. Why?

GH: I think it’s because they learned, actually not that long ago, twenty years maybe, that contributions make a big difference in what comes out of Congress. We’re talking state legislatures as well as the national Congress, because they’re just as vulnerable to the influence of big money. In the farm states, state legislatures have a lot to say about what happens with agriculture.

So one reason big corporations are so successful is because they can wear a $2,000 suit and go around the Hill—that’s impressive. Another reason is that they can afford to keep attorneys at the table at every committee meeting all year long. When us non-profits send somebody down to Washington DC, we talk to as many congressmen as we can, use what influence we can, and then we get the bill and it looks pretty good and we come home. What the corporate attorneys do is go to every committee meeting that comes after the bill is passed, when the regulations are established, and what often happens then is that the law can say one thing and the regulations wind up saying something that’s different. Monsanto and Cargill and ADM can afford to play that game, but Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society can’t do that; we’re lucky to get to DC once a year. So it’s partly their influence, partly the money it takes to be persistent at that level, and it’s partly that they can buy the best PR in the world, and they can put whatever spin they want on things.

ALT: I understand that we’ve had a local and sustainable kind of farming up until the last half century, but now we’re into the corporate agribusiness model that you claim is unsustainable. How likely is it that we will go back to that earlier model, and what’s going to make that happen?

GH: My biggest fear is that circumstances will drive the giant corporations out of business and make things very difficult for the rest of us. That will happen because there is a juggernaut of forces converging on us that no human has ever seen before, no matter how far back they go.

ALT: Could you name those forces?

GH: Sure. The six great species die outs that scientists talk about, we’re in one now. The last time that happened was like seventy-five million years ago. We have no human record to help us figure out what to do about that, no guidance from the wise elders of the past. We’re on our own on that one.

Then there is the end of cheap oil. It’s coming way faster that we thought. For awhile I thought we’d have $100 a barrel oil in 2008, but it’s going to be here by the end next week. It’ll be $150 a barrel oil in the next decade, maybe before. A lot of the reserves that oil countries claim are there don’t exist. They learned their lesson from Exxon: all you have to do to increase assets is to estimate—it’s like the old preacher used to say about Sunday service; the best way to increase church attendance is to estimate. The oil isn’t there. We’re now burning up 9 gallons of oil for every gallon that we find anywhere, and that’s a deficit spending that has an obvious conclusion.

ALT: It’s unsustainable.

GH: I used to think it was going to be a couple, three or four decades before we’d have to deal with that. The way they talk about it now, it’ll be in the next 10 years.

Yet another of the forces that’s converging on us is climate change. And what that does is screw up the weather patterns that we’re familiar with, that we depend on to grow crops. Storms now drop more water on us in one setting than they used to over a whole summer, and they wash things out; then the weather dries up, and we’re droughted out.

Then there’s the loss of ground water: we’re draining our aquifers faster than they can replenish themselves, and China and India are doing it even faster than we are.

Now add in erosion, and on top of that the loss of nutrition in the soil that’s left, because of GMO crops and pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers—all artificial—that destroy the micro-organisms that make the soil healthy. And there’s more, you could go on and on with this list of forces that are converging on us.

ALT: Overpopulation?

GH: Overpopulation, absolutely. But, we’ve always produced enough food to feed everybody in the world. Always. And we still are. The problem is distribution rather than numbers. The numbers are important, no question, but the University of Michigan just had a study out indicating that organic agriculture by itself can feed the world, no question.

PH: That’s quite a claim.

GH: They’ve got a lot of data to back it up. And, they’re not the only ones. The Brits have done studies that indicate the same thing. There isn’t much doubt in my mind; of course we can if we live in a world of people cooperating.

But we don’t live in a world of people cooperating. So here’s what happens when that juggernaut comes at us, in the next 10 years or so. We will be forced to get very local, very fast. And it’s the long haul guys in the agriculture business that are going to be out of work because they can’t afford to haul and we can’t afford to pay if they do haul.

That’s what’s scary to me, because we haven’t developed the alternatives to that unsustainable system yet. There isn’t a farmers market in America that I know of where, say, 1500 people out of a 20,000 population, could go down, buy enough vegetables and preserve 600 quarts to get them through the winter.

ALT: Talk a bit about ethanol. When does the competition between fuel and food really start to heat up?

GH: That will start to happen I think within five or six years, partly because the ethanol industry is a sham.

ALT: Is that because the inputs roughly equal the outputs in terms of energy production?

GH: Well, that is part of it. Tad Patzek and some other folks have kind of tied the tail on that donkey and said that it’s marginal at best, and probably not even that good. So, it just gets a little freaky out there.

ALT: I understand that ethanol can’t be piped and so transporting it to market means trucking it on the highways, or on the rails, and that takes fuel—diesel, not biodiesel—to get it where it’s going in sufficient quantities. It sounds like ethanol is a net energy gain only if you live where they’re growing corn and processing it close by. But to go nationwide and get it into the urban areas far from farm crops …?

GH: I think that’s right. If it were small scale and close enough it might be workable. But, the real reason we’ve got ethanol is because we have for years raised surplus corn, and we’ve got to invent excuses to use the stuff. So, for instance, we turn it all into sugar, which goes into everything we eat, and then we wind up with this obese population and wonder why. Ethanol is just another excuse to use corn.

But there are other problems with corn. First, it is one of the thirstiest crops, and uses up an enormous amount of water in a world that increasingly has less of that resource. Second, it is one of the most erosion prone crops we grow. The soil is left without any cover for three or four months in the spring, and that’s the time when generally we get the most rain, and so we get the most run-off. Third, corn has now become really dependent on genetic modification. We don’t know one way or the other about whether this is healthy or not healthy. There’s never been a long-term study of it done on humans, yet proponents say, “Well, everybody’s eating it and we’re all still alive.” That’s not exactly a scientific process. The real science that has been done on it, particularly in England, indicates that it does have harmful effects. I mean, it kills rats. And the scientist who reported it kills rats was crucified professionally. He turned out to be one of the most eminent geneticists in the world, and ultimately was able to prove, and other scientists were able to replicate it, that his findings were right, so he’s back in the good graces of people who care about the truth—but it was the traditional corporate American story of what you do with the guy who brings you the bad news.

ALT: Kill the messenger.

GH: Yeah. And fourth, corn requires pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers to grow. That poisons the soil, and now, those toxic chemicals run-off into the creek and that’s what goes into the Mississippi, and that’s what creates the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It is all hooked together. The liabilities for corn ethanol, by my lights, are deadly serious. Whether you can get more energy out of ethanol as a fuel than what you put into producing it, becomes less important when measured against these other things.

ALT: Talk about the soil.

GH: Those pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are creating unhealthy soil. Something I learned talking to farmers was that there is a difference between healthy soil and nourishing soil. Healthy soil is full of micro-organisms. You can grow anything on it. But soil that requires nutrients—and you can always pump enough chemicals into the soil to grow another crop of corn, another crop of soybeans—is not healthy soil. Because once you stop pouring on the chemicals, you can’t grow anything on it anymore.

ALT: Given the cumulative impacts of these converging forces that you described a few minutes ago, changes in our expectations and lifestyle seem inevitable. But humans are very good at adapting when they have to. What do you think is in store?

GH: Well, I guess I think that we’re all going to move to small scale when it comes to agriculture.

ALT: Local?

GH: Absolutely local. Whether it’s organic or not is less important to me now than it was a few years ago. What I care about is whether or not it’s sustainable. We’re currently participants in a culture that cannot sustain itself.

A friend of mine a few years ago really shocked me. I’d gotten a little group together to help organize a conference about sustainable agriculture, and the first thing out of his mouth was, “There’s no point in talking about sustainable agriculture unless you’ve got a sustainable culture to back it up—and America doesn’t.” he said. “We’re so consumer-oriented we’re spending ourselves out of house and home.” I have never gotten that comment out of my head. It still plagues me, because I think he’s dead right. It is not a sustainable culture.

You can’t talk about agriculture in isolation from the rest of the culture. Now, biologists talk about a keystone species—you pull the keystone out and the whole ecosystem collapses—and nobody’s sure which critter that is, but there’s some speculation there is one. For me, soil is the keystone. Soil is keystone for the whole civilization, the human race and a lot of other critters as well. So whatever we’re doing we’ve got to start taking better care of the soil. All of us, city and country alike, have to learn something about soil. And we’ve got to figure out how to garden, and we’ve got to figure out how to preserve what we garden, so it can tide us over. We’ve got to figure out how to eat seasonally. We have to learn to do without strawberries in March or bananas in January.

There are some models out there for urban-grown local food. Havana is a prime example. They’re finally doing enough of it that they’re developing a new species: tiny plantain bananas that they eat fried, that they can even export. I mean, local works in that model! Chicago’s working on it. There are people all over the world working on it. So the first issue is to feed ourselves. We need to be working on local food systems: sustainable local food systems, right down to the family.

ALT: But Cuba only adapted like that under the duress of the embargo we imposed on them for the past 50 years. Perhaps humans need duress to progress?

GH: Well, however it happens, we have to wake up to these forces that are converging on us, and do something about it. But we haven’t gotten to that point yet, aside from farmers. The pressures of the Farm Bill haven’t been all that great, although I think there’s been more interest in the Farm Bill this year from non-farmers …

ALT: More interest than ever?

GH: … Yeah. There’s something stirring. I think the concern over the last twenty years for organics and healthy people, and the growth of farmers markets, these are all indicators that American urban culture is catching on. This is another area in which Europe and England are way ahead of us, with their farmers markets and the local food movement. We’ve got a long way to go to catch up, but at least we’re catching on, it seems to me. We’re just starting to shrug off our sleep and wake up to what’s happening to us.

I mean, think about the Ogallala aquifer, which is being drawn down measurably by irrigation every year, and it’s going fast—then think about 8 or 9 states from South Dakota to Texas that are dependent for their agriculture on that aquifer. In some areas of western Kansas and northern Texas, the water usable for irrigation is already gone. That’s scary. Think about the Mississippi and the Missouri, how dirty those rivers are. When that water gets to the Gulf there’s seven, eight, nine-thousand square miles of dead zone, where nothing can grow. Agricultural chemical run-off is largely contributing to that, but it’s also urban lawns and golf-courses. It’s endemic, systemic, all across the country, no matter where you go. Those are all issues that we could deal with—but the question is do we have the will, or the vision, to do it? Unfortunately we don’t have a media that talks about serious matters or we’d be having headlines about these things, and we would get people stirred up to think about ten years, twenty years from now. When my kids get to be my age they’ll have a hell of a life. It’s not going to be easy, and according to the report that was prepared for the Pentagon about global warming, it’ll be accompanied by violence.

ALT: I bet you’ve been called a doomsday person. Maybe even by your own kids or your students. There’s a large number of people who impose a news blackout on themselves because they just want to live their life and not think about it. It’s too scary or depressing, and they don’t feel they can do anything about it anyway. How would you respond?

GH: My kids are really with me on this. I don’t think they think of me as a doomsday person.

You know, I used to have a professor, years and years ago, his name was Howard Thurman. I’ve always thought, if the twentieth century had a genuine mystic, Howard was it. Black clergyman, no denomination I was ever able to discern, but I remember him saying in class one time, “You have to do what’s right because it’s right, not because there’s a reward, or because you can win…” Whether we come out of this OK or not is not a very important issue to me. What’s important is that we figure out how to do what’s best for all of us, not for just a few of us, and DO it. If it works out, that’s a bonus, but it’s not the reason to do it. You do it, as one of the farmers I was talking to says—he raises pigs using the deep straw system—because, “It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

End of Part One. To be continued next issue.
Gary Holthaus is the Director of the Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society, a non-profit concerned with education, advocacy, research and community building and author of From the Farm to the Table: What All Americans Need to Know about Agriculture. He is the author of several books, including Wide Skies: Finding a Home in the West, Circling Back, and Unexpected Manna.