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.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
David Yearsley
Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe
January 19, 2017
Melvin Goodman
America’s Russian Problem
Dave Lindorff
Right a Terrible Wrong: Why Obama Should Reverse Himself and Pardon Leonard Peltier
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail