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Weeding Out the Small Farmer

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.

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