The fate of “Fly-over America” was set by Federal policy changes in the early 1970s. Policies championed by the Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, during the Nixon administration eviscerated protections for small farmers and land use. The consequence was a bubble in grain and land prices with vastly increased farm debt followed by oversupply and massive bankruptcies of small farmers in the 1980s. Surviving farms had to grow bigger with still more debt and dependence upon corporations to guarantee a market. Today’s surviving corn and soy farms are industrial operations. The same is true for diary, poultry, and animal farms. Margins are razor thin. The product is yield.
Big Ag is Big Money
The search for yield without regard to environment, diversity, or cross-contamination was a primary factor in Monsanto’s stunning take-over of the seed business. Monsanto’s genes are inserted into roughly 95% of all soybeans and 80 percent of all corn grown in the US. Other beneficiaries of the decline of the small farm are entities like Archer Daniels Midland that source cheap grain to produce high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol. Cheap grain contributes to the profitability of massive feedlots. According to the non-profit organization Farm Aid, 87 % of the beef industry is controlled by just four corporations.
An interconnected web of powerful financial interests seeks out “return” wherever is big profit. Big Ag and big money hold hands. For example, Pinnacle Asset Management is the owner of the largest feedlot in the US. Other fiduciaries, Arcadia and Osprate Management, are partners in the slaughter business. What binds these interests? Profit. The beneficiaries of Big Ag are public and corporate pensions, insurance companies, endowments, and foundations.
The Blight of Big Ag
The argument may be made that Big Ag has benefited America by provision of plentiful and inexpensive food, as if Big Ag, itself, was responsible for nature’s bounty. On the contrary, Big Ag has denuded the land, decimated the soil microbiome, filled the soil with toxic pesticides, reduced the variety of grains and plants, reduced soil nutrients and minerals, contaminated the oceans, brought bees and helpful insects to the tipping point with knock-on effects among birds and other critters. Big Ag places short-term profits and yield above all other considerations.
Big Ag provides cheap fodder for fast food and every manner of flavored junk. These supply links contribute to America’s obesity epidemic, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. If a metric were needed, the externalized costs of Big Ag to the economy and individual citizens would mount to the trillions of dollars.
The revitalization of the food supply requires restoration of the land, elimination of toxic chemicals, botanical balance, and the reinstitution of plant and animal synergy. Traditional farming methods that employ no till planting, complementary beds, crop rotation, and the like yields plentiful harvests and healthy food. Traditional husbandry permits free-range movement and animals’ natural choice of grasses, grains, seeds, nuts, and roots and yields healthy meats.
Reforming Big Ag
The hegemony of Big Ag depends upon the cozy relation with legislators and regulatory agencies. Two simple changes in agricultural regulations would have far-reaching effects on food production. The first change would be to eliminate in agricultural production pesticides, fumigants, and the like known to be detrimental to human health or the environment. The second change would be to eliminate the use of antibiotics in feedlots. The first change, elimination of toxins, would decrease monocrop production of corn and soy and force an ecologically informed planting. The knock-on effect would be to make the class of fast food detrimental to human health more expensive. At the same time, the variety and quantity of fresh foods would increase, and local farming given a boost. The second change, elimination of antibiotics, would reduce feedlot populations and favor local “grass fed” sustenance. Livestock supply chains to supermarkets and fast food operations would be redrawn with pens closer to the source of supply. As with the first knock-on effect, local communities would benefit.
These changes will reduce profit for the Big Ag and its corporate and financial dependencies. The interdependence of Big Ag, the food economy, Wall Street, and financial institutions means that change in the status quo will be strongly resisted by state and corporate interests. Yet if we value our health, our children’s future, nature and our planet, we must modify the present food system.