FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Weeding Out the Small Farmer

by JIM SCHARPLAZ Prairie Writer's Circle

Last summer, a field by my house was planted to soybeans. Walking past early in the growing season, I noticed that the field was completely free of weeds. The plant population had been reduced to the simplest possible — only soybeans grew there. These were genetically modified to resist the well-known herbicide with which the field had been treated. The herbicide had killed all other plants.

Genetically modified plants and modern herbicides are among many new technologies for farming. Some people are concerned about these technologies’ effects on human health. Others worry about the environment. I am concerned that the main purpose of these technologies is the complete industrialization of agriculture.

This does not bode well for farmers or the rest of us.

Historically, growing soybeans, especially controlling weeds in soybeans, has been very difficult. The family that grew the soybeans by my house are wonderful farmers. They have been growing crops there for more than 50 years. Their experience, study and inherited ability make them better able than anyone else to farm that field. Before genetically engineered soybeans, a field this weed-free would take all their skill, plus quite a bit of hand labor.

But much new technology “simplifies” farming, as the herbicide and genetically modified soybeans simplified the field next door. The knowledge required to grow the best particular plants in particular places, the valuable craft required to be a good farmer, is being lost. And the farmer is increasingly dependent on an industrial food system controlled by a very few, very large corporations.

A study by University of Missouri rural sociologists found that four companies own 60 percent of U.S. terminals for grain exports. Since then, agribusiness giant ADM acquired Farmland Industries’ grain division, and Cenex/Harvest States joined with Cargill. The researchers report that four companies slaughter 81 percent of our beef. The top five food retailers’ share of the U.S. market grew from 24 percent in 1997 to 42 percent in 2000.

The agricultural corporations co-opt the land-grant university research system so that tax dollars support research that ultimately will enhance their profits. Their legion of lawyers overwhelms the Justice Department’s antitrust division, and their lobbyists essentially write the increasingly complex farm bills.

These companies spent $119 million lobbying in 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This dwarfs the $6.8 million spent by environmental groups and even the $49 million spent by military contractors that year. Individuals change jobs back and forth between corporate agribusiness and the Agriculture Department until the two are indistinguishable.

Increasing industrialization is generally assumed to go with improvements in the standard of living. But big companies mean big mistakes. Recent events show that the people who run our largest corporations are far from perfect, and some are willing to commit crimes to cover their misdeeds, both accidental and deliberate. These things have affected nearly all of us to some extent. Many folks have lost investment capital or seen their retirement funds evaporate.

As bad as these losses have been, for an agriculture increasingly controlled by fewer decision-makers, mistakes could cause far greater problems. It’s not that farmers don’t make mistakes. The difference is one of magnitude. One farmer’s mistake has no measurable effect on our food supply. The mistake of one huge corporation could create catastrophe. Diversity in agriculture is our best guarantee of food security.

Farmers are the foundation of civilization. They are as essential to its stability as they were when agriculture began 10,000 years ago. New agricultural technologies must be judged: Is their purpose the industrialization and homogenization of farming, or the benefit of humanity?

Jim Scharplaz raises cattle in Ottawa County, Kan, and is on the board of the Kansas Rural Center. He is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute, Salina, Kan.

May 02, 2016
Michael Hudson – Gordon Long
Wall Street Has Taken Over the Economy and is Draining It
Paul Street
The Bernie Fade Begins
Ron Jacobs
On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan
Louis Yako
Dubai Transit
Bill Quigley
Teacher, Union Leader, Labor Lawyer: Profile of Chris Williams Social Justice Advocate
Patrick Cockburn
Into the Green Zone: Iraq’s Disintegrating Political System
Lawrence Ware
Trump is the Presidential Candidate the Republicans Deserve
Ron Forthofer
Just Say No to Corporate Rule
Ralph Nader
The Long-Distance Rebound of Bernie Sanders
Ken Butigan
Remembering Daniel Berrigan, with Gratitude
Nicolas J S Davies
Escalating U.S. Air Strikes Kill Hundreds of Civilians in Mosul, Iraq
Binoy Kampmark
Class, Football, and Blame: the Hillsborough Disaster Inquest
George Wuerthner
The Economic Value of Yellowstone National Park
Rivera Sun
Celebrating Mother Jones
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir and Postcolonialism
Mairead Maguire
Drop the Just War Theory
Weekend Edition
April 29, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Andrew Levine
What is the Democratic Party Good For? Absolutely Nothing
Roberto J. González – David Price
Anthropologists Marshalling History: the American Anthropological Association’s Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israeli Institutions
Robert Jacobs
Hanford, Not Fukushima, is the Big Radiological Threat to the West Coast
Ismael Hossein-Zadeh
US Presidential Election: Beyond Lesser Evilism
Dave Lindorff
The Push to Make Sanders the Green Party’s Candidate
Peter Linebaugh
Marymount, Haymarket, Marikana: a Brief Note Towards ‘Completing’ May Day
Ian Fairlie
Chernobyl’s Ongoing Toll: 40,000 More Cancer Deaths?
Pete Dolack
Verizon Sticks it to its Workers Because $45 Billion isn’t Enough
Moshe Adler
May Day: a Trade Agreement to Unite Third World and American Workers
Margaret Kimberley
Dishonoring Harriet Tubman
Deepak Tripathi
The United States, Britain and the European Union
Eva Golinger
My Country, My Love: a Conversation with Gerardo and Adriana of the Cuban Five
Richard Falk
If Obama Visits Hiroshima
Vijay Prashad
Political Violence in Honduras
Paul Krane
Where Gun Control Ought to Start: Disarming the Police
David Anderson
Al Jazeera America: Goodbye to All That Jazz
Rob Hager
Platform Perversity: More From the Campaign That Can’t Strategize
Pat Williams
FDR in Montana
Dave Marsh
Every Day I Read the Book (the Best Music Books of the Last Year)
David Rosen
Job Satisfaction Under Perpetual Stagnation
John Feffer
Big Oil isn’t Going Down Without a Fight
Murray Dobbin
The Canadian / Saudi Arms Deal: More Than Meets the Eye?
Gary Engler
The Devil Capitalism
Brian Cloughley
Is Washington Preparing for War Against Russia?
Manuel E. Yepe
The Big Lies and the Small Lies
Robert Fantina
Vice Presidents, Candidates and History
Mel Gurtov
Sanctions and Defiance in North Korea
Howard Lisnoff
Still the Litmus Test of Worth
Dean Baker
Big Business and the Overtime Rule: Irrational Complaints
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail