“Agriculture is now a motorized food industry, the same thing in its essence as the production of corpses in the gas chambers and the extermination camps, the same thing as blockades and the reduction of countries to famine, the same thing as the manufacture of hydrogen bombs”
— Martin Heidegger
It might seem a strange comparison to some, but over the years in my work in agriculture in the United States, as well as internationally, I can’t help but compare the devastating impact of a possible nuclear war to industrial agriculture. Both can have ruinous impacts on the planet, our environment and our human health in the short and long term (in the case of industrial agriculture this is already happening). Nuclear war would accomplish its devastation immediately then leading to calamitous long-term effects. Industrial agriculture accomplishes its devastation certainly at a slower pace and also with long-term effects. I think it is because of its “slow” destruction of our natural world, most of us are not as alarmed about industrial agriculture and its impacts as we should be. The fact is, we thankfully have not had a full-scale nuclear war but we do, as mentioned, have the on-going dangerous ramifications from industrial agriculture.
What is industrial agriculture? It is known as intensive agriculture with considerably higher inputs per acre compared to traditional farming. Some aspects of industrial agriculture include the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and patented seeds by corporate agribusiness (GMOs referring to “genetically modified organisms”); use of synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers; use of chemical laden pesticides; use of huge farm equipment; factory farms for animals that are abusive to the animals and feed them with growth hormones and antibiotics that then has an appalling effect on humans (i.e. anti-biotic resistance and much more).
Some alternatives to the industrial agriculture model are: diverse production with many different crops to prevent outbreak of disease and to encourage beneficial insects; use of traditional seeds not genetically modified; no use of poisonous chemicals; as much as possible, and importantly, the maintenance and support of small independently owned family farms and/or cooperatively owned land and farms that do not require huge machines for production; free range settings for animals; individuals in urban and rural areas growing their own healthy foods.
Industrial agriculture is supported and largely created by corporate agribusiness after WWII and some of the largest and most detrimental corporate agribusiness companies today include the pesticide and GMO corporations known as the “Big 6” that are:
BASF, Bayer, Dupont, Dow Chemical Company, Monsanto, and Syngenta. They are so called (the Big 6) because they dominate the agricultural input market — that is, they own the world’s seed, pesticide and biotechnology industries.
According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), corporate concentration of the agricultural input market “has far-reaching implications for global food security, as the privatization and patenting of agricultural innovation (gene traits, transformation technologies and seed germplasm) has been supplanting traditional agricultural understandings of seed, farmers’ rights, and breeders’ rights” (Source Watch).
Regarding industrialized food and its impact here is an example:
“Like much of the industrialized world, the US is in the midst of an alarming obesity epidemic: the prevalence of obesity in US adults in 2009-2010 was 35%, while 60% of Americans are now classified as overweight. With the obesity epidemic comes chronic diseases, such as Type II diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, all of which have been linked to the so-called “Western” diet: a diet full of high fat and processed meats, carbohydrate- and salt-laden junk food, and sodas sweetened with high fructose corn syrup (HFCS)” (Sustainable Table).
As with an increase in the destructive power of nuclear bombs after WWII by the U.S. and Russia, so to after WWII there was an increase of destructive methods and ideas leading to dire ramifications on humans and the environment with the growth of industrial agriculture after WWII. This was primarily the use of chemicals and manipulation of seed genes and DNA.
Adversaries in Nuclear Arms Race and in Industrial Agriculture
In the nuclear arms race there are countries and political and economic interests that battle each other that have in the past been considered adversaries such as the United States vs Russia.
Corporate agribusiness has two major the enemies or adversaries and they are nature and independent family farmers throughout the world who save seed.
Nature? Rather than working with nature, scientists chose to “fight” it as with chemicals to destroy weeds. This is but one example. Scientists destroy the integrity of many of our traditional seeds by genetically modifying them. This, rather than the society listening to and adhering to small farmers worldwide who know how to work with nature to produce healthy food, prevent plant disease and maintain the integrity of the soil, such as through diverse crop production and by saving seeds.
Independent family farmers who save seed? The other major enemy of corporate agribusiness is the millions of independent family farmers throughout the world who save seed. In fact, throughout the world corporate agribusiness is trying to establish laws that will not allow farmers to save seed that farmers have done since the dawn of agriculture, some 12,000 to 10,000 years ago. I am sure it seems extraordinary that small independent farmers who save seed are considered the adversaries of these huge companies, but they are. Corporate agribusiness tries to marginalize independent farmers to have total control of the seed industry. We allow this at our peril. Soil and climates vary throughout the world. Farmers know this. They thankfully save these traditional seeds to accommodate to their soil and climate. Our independent farmers worldwide are our “geniuses” rather than the scientists serving at the behest of corporate agribusiness that try to undermine independent farmers and control them.
Nuclear War/Industrial Agriculture and Life’s Basics
The impact of both of these destructive operations (impact of a nuclear war and industrial agriculture) can be divided into four stages: Instantaneous; Near Immediate; Short Term; Long Term.
But first some basics! What are our primary needs in order to live? We need food, water, and oxygen. And the quality of the food, water and oxygen we intake are tantamount to the quality of our lives and health overall. All three of these are presently compromised under industrialized agriculture and would be as well as a result of a nuclear war.
Impacts of Nuclear War
Governments have been engaged in politics to prevent a nuclear war since the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. So far, thankfully, this prevention has been successful.
In 1995, I visited Hiroshima, Japan and visited the museum about the atomic bombing and its impact. The sad memories and effects linger.
The effects of the atomic bomb in Japan were devastating.
Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects of the atomic bombings killed 90,000-166,000 people in Hiroshima and 39,000-80,000 in Nagasaki; roughly half of the deaths in each city occurred on the first day. During the following months, large numbers died from the effect of burns, radiation sickness, and other injuries, compounded by illness and malnutrition (Wikipedia).
The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had 15 kilotons (Little Boy) and 21 kilotons (kilotons) respectively. After WWII and the subsequent Cold War both the U.S. and Russia developed far more powerful nuclear bombs that were ultimately detonated. These were the 15,000 kiloton nuclear bomb in the U.S. and the 50,000 kiloton bomb in Russia that was 3,333 larger than what was dropped on Hiroshima (Visual News).
Below is a brief summary of the likely impacts of a nuclear bomb that in the short and long term catastrophically effect being able to live in the first place on the planet but also our three basic needs: food, water and oxygen. All three would be compromised at untold levels given the tremendous power of the “advanced” nuclear bombs – 3,333 times larger than the Hiroshima atomic bomb. But below is a scenario from the experts.
People in the open where the bomb drops would be vaporized immediately.
90% of the people in buildings, shelters etc. would be killed immediately due to blast, heat and fires. Survivors close by the bomb site are another story. “…most of these will suffer from fatal burns, will be blinded, bleeding from glass splinters and will have suffered massive internal injuries. Various individual fires will combine to produce a fire storm as all the oxygen is consumed….People in underground shelters who survive the initial heat flash will die as all the oxygen is sucked out of the atmosphere” (The global health effects of nuclear war).
There would be sizeable radiation fall-out in the surrounding areas. “The effects of exposure to high levels of radioactive fall-out include hair loss, bleeding from the mouth and gums, internal bleeding and haemorrhagic diarrhoea, gangrenous ulcers, vomiting, fever, delirium and terminal coma. There is no effective treatment and death follows in a matter of days.” The surrounding water becomes polluted with radioactive contamination (The global health effects of nuclear war).
There would be dramatic effects on the climate throughout the planet affecting the ozone layer, rain patterns, unstable temperatures and an enormous impact on food production. “A nuclear conflict involving as few as 100 weapons could produce long-term damage to the ozone layer, enabling higher than “extreme” levels of ultraviolet radiation to reach the Earth’s surface, new research indicates (see GSN, March 16, 2010) (NTI).
(For more information about oxygen and the ozone layers go to “The global health effects of nuclear war“.)
As the scenario suggests that much of the planet would be impacted in the long term – our soil polluted, our water radiated, our oxygen compromised through plant loss, “healthy” water loss and ozone protection loss.
Impacts of Industrial Agriculture
Interestingly enough, the modern 20th century industrial agriculture started after WWII and it was relative to bombs. Nitrogen had been used for making bombs and after the war it was no longer needed for this purpose.
Here’s more about nitrogen after the war and its use in industrial agriculture:
“At the conclusion of World War II the world’s and United States’ major chemical companies such as Dow, Shell and Du Pont found themselves with huge inventories of nitrogen used for making bombs during the war. Many of these chemicals and others produced for the war effort were soon packaged for agriculture for use here at home and as one of the not coincidental cornerstones for the so-called “green-revolution” abroad….
Along with this dramatic increase in chemical fertilizer and herbicides in the post war decades, there as been an explosion in what the chemical industry euphemistically calls “pesticides” or “plant food” but which in fact are often highly toxic and deadly chemical poisons” (Krebs).
Below is a brief summary of the impacts of industrial agriculture that in the short and long term catastrophically effect our three basic needs: food, water and oxygen.
Relatively soon after the introduction of contemporary industrial agriculture techniques, such as what Al Krebs referred to above as “pesticides” or “plant food” but which in fact are often highly toxic and deadly chemical poisons,” we witnessed the loss of soil integrity, our health being impacted, lower crop yields in some instances and farmer economic dependency on corporate agribusiness.
Natural and organic producers of food will say that what’s most important for growing healthy food is the soil – it’s all in the soil. In the south, the brilliant black agriculturalist George Washington Carver was a savior in that regard. He taught us that cotton production yields were down because of what cotton production did to deplete the soil of its minerals. He encouraged a rotation of cotton with legumes (peanuts, soy, etc.) to fix nitrogen in the soil.
As Atlanta’s urban farmer Rashid Nuri will say, “Carver saved the South.” Indeed!
By use of chemical laden pesticides and fertilizers, industrial agriculture was immediately undoing all the wisdom offered from Carver. We’ve gone back to square one!
Here’s the difference of plant based vs synthetic-based nitrogen:
The route that nitrogen follows in and out of soil and plants is called the nitrogen cycle….Plants such as beans and other legumes absorb nitrogen from the air, fix it into their system, and make it available to other plants. Many of sustainable-agriculture companion-planting arrangements are based on nitrogen-fixing plants…
Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is made from factory-produced ammonia. It is often combined with other synthetic nutrients to create compound fertilizers. Ammonia fertilizer produces quick growth effects on plants and has a detrimental long-term effect on the soil, plant and animal ecosystems. The excessive use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer distorts the natural nitrogen cycle. Rivers in the northeastern United States receive up to 20 times the natural level of nitrogen, and nitrates are the leading source of global air pollution (Bonnyhome).
Monsanto’s “Roundup Ready soybean seeds” became available in 1996. These seeds were genetically modified to resist Roundup. “Roundup” is the name the Monsanto Company called its product “glyphosate” – an herbicide used to kill weeds.
In discussion with an agricultural specialist in the south, who was at first encouraging farmers to use these seeds, found that in the second and third year crop production, the yield was considerably reduced. The farmer’s overall production was compromised and the agricultural specialist discouraged the farmer from using the Roundup Ready soybean seeds in the future. As soon became apparent, what was being attempted was dependency of farmers on the corporate agribusiness companies rather than what might benefit the farmer or non-farmers as well. It has appeared to be, for all intents and purposes, about greed.
Not long after, one of the dramatic impacts of corporate agribusiness with patented seeds, largely requiring pesticides and/or fertilizer, was, as mentioned, the dependency of farmers on the agribusiness companies, such as Monsanto. Prior to that, farmers had been relatively independent. Because of this new technology and dependency on corporations being forced on farmers through laws, insidious incentives and patented seeds, in the U.S. and throughout the world, farmers have gone into debt in ways they have never before. Never, until the 20th century, have farmers had to be reliant on corporate agribusiness and this has led to huge numbers of suicides.
“In the U.S. the rate of farmer suicides is just under two times that of the general population. In the U.K. one farmer a week commits suicide. In China, farmers are killing themselves daily to protest the government taking over their prime agricultural lands for urbanization. In France, a farmer dies by suicide every two days. Australia reports one farmer suicides every four days. India yearly reports more than 17,627 farmer suicides. — (Newsweek 2014)” (Huffington Post).
Here is more of a scenario from India:
“In the last 20 years, nearly 300,000 farmers have ended their lives by ingesting pesticides or by hanging themselves. Maharashtra state – with 60,000 farmer suicides – tops the list.
The suicide rate among Indian farmers was 47 percent higher than the national average, according to a 2011 census. Forty-one farmers commit suicide every day, leaving behind scores of orphans and widows.
In a country where agriculture remains the largest employment sector, it contributed only 13.7 percent to the GDP in 2012-13.
Agricultural investment in India is a big gamble. Farmers usually take out bank loans against land to buy seeds and fertilizer, pay salaries, and acquire irrigation equipment.
Local moneylenders often take the place of banks and boost interest rates year after year, creating a debt-trap for the farmers who rely on crop success – and prayers – for loan repayments” (Al Jazeera).
Much of the problem here is also because of the complicity of government and corporate agribusiness to require huge mono-crop production of grains, soy and corn, etc. As Richard Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz said in the 1970’s, “Get large or get out”. As a result of this demand for large-scale corporate agriculture primarily for export crops, thousands of small farmers were forced off the land. We as a society have been suffering all the more since then!
In the meantime, the increased use of pesticides and fertilizers begins to filter into water tables, rivers and ultimately the ocean, as well, making the water less safe and healthy.
After a few years with increased use of fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides, along with the selling of food laden with these poisons, we have begun to see the deterioration of the health of the U.S. and world population eating this food.
In addition, the likes of scientists linked to Monsanto and others think they can dominate nature. They can’t.
Monsanto’s roundup has been used to kill weeds. However, “Nearly half (49 percent) of all US farmers surveyed said they have glyphosate-resistant weeds on their farm in 2012, up from 34 percent of farmers in 2011” (Mother Jones). This has been nature’s response – “superweeds”. This requires, then, a higher concentration of chemicals to address these superweeds.
We are also witnessing “superbugs” developing in response to these chemicals that is also impacting the beneficial insects such as honeybees and butterflies. We need bees for pollination and we are witnessing a huge loss of these bee colonies throughout the U.S. and the world.
The health problems resulting from industrial agriculture are immense, and we learn more about this every day.
“Pesticides used in the production and processing of conventionally grown fruit, vegetables, and grains are a significant health concern. Pesticides have been linked to a number of health problems, including neurologic and psychological problems, cancer, and other diseases. These health risks are borne not only by consumers, but by farmworkers and communities near industrial farms. Children are especially susceptible to the harmful effects of pesticide residues due to their lower body mass and higher rates of consumption of affected products. In children, pesticide exposure can cause delayed development; disruptions to the reproductive, endocrine, and immune systems; cancer; and damage to other organs” (Sustainable Table).
Regarding oxygen, as the Union of Concerned Scientists has wisely noted: “Chemical fertilizers are running off the fields into water systems where they generate damaging blooms of oxygen-depleting microorganisms that disrupt ecosystems and kill fish” (Union of Concerned Scientists).
As stated earlier, industrial agriculture is engaged in a battle with nature and in some areas, such as water, it has been difficult for nature to strike back at the pollution as in the superweed scenario. Here is an example of pollution of water that we are now witnessing in the long-term use of the intensification of chemicals in agriculture.
“Based on data submitted by polluting facilities themselves, the group’s report uses information from the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory for 2012, the most recent data available. Major findings of the report include:
* Our nation’s iconic waterways are still threatened by toxic pollution – with polluters discharging huge volumes of chemicals into the watersheds of the Great Lakes (8.39 million pounds), the Chesapeake Bay (3.23 million pounds), the Upper Mississippi River (16.9 million pounds), and the Puget Sound (578,000 pounds) among other beloved waterways.
* Tyson Foods Inc. is the parent-company reporting dumping the largest discharge of toxic chemicals into our waterways, with a total of 18,556,479 lbs – 9 percent of the nationwide total of toxic discharges. Of the top ten parent-companies by total pounds of toxics released, four are corporate agribusiness companies (Tyson Inc., Cargill Inc., Perdue Farms Inc, and Pilgrims Pride Corp.).
* Corporate agribusiness facilities, the report also finds, were responsible for approximately one-third of all direct discharges of nitrates to our waterways, which can cause health problems in infants and contribute to “dead zones” in our waters. For example, pollution in the Mississippi River watershed has contributed to the massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico” (Environment America).
Thanks to industrial agriculture we are also seeing the destruction of rain forests for intensive crop production and cattle. This also has a dramatic greenhouse gas effect that the world can ill afford.
“Clearing and burning rainforests releases vast amounts of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, ozone and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere. Each year, deforestation contributes 23-30% of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according the Rainforest Action Network. This is more than double the emissions of all the world’s cars and trucks combined. When you save 2.471 acres of rainforest it cleans 1 ton of CO2 from our air” (Save Your World).
At the beginning of this article, I referred to what we humans need to survive being food, water and oxygen. All of these are being threatened by industrial agriculture. With the current industrial agriculture model in place, it is not known how long we can go on destroying our natural habitat, our water, pollute our air and continue to survive on the planet at least with any semblance of good health. Certainly our health will continue to be compromised and all to help corporate agribusiness raise more money for itself.
To observe the health impact of industrial agriculture and other pollutants please examine the map below from the World Health Organization and witness where most of the cancers are located as of 2012 – largely in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. And the west thinks it has a superior system that it wants the rest of the world to emulate? They, the western government and corporate leaders, must be fools!
Atlanta urban farmer Rashid Nuri says regarding the current trends, “Mother earth will be fine, it doesn’t need us humans. It’s been here for millions of years. The problem is that we won’t be able to live on it because we will have destroyed the environmental conditions on the planet we humans need in order to live.”
As stated above, nuclear war would be and industrial agriculture is catastrophic for our continued, as well as a possible “healthy”, existence on the planet by compromising our food, water and oxygen we humans need in order to live. Yet, in spite of all, the efforts over time are focused on preventing nuclear wars, which is important of course, but it needs to include ending the detrimental practice of industrial agriculture – and in the above I have just touched the surface.
In fact, scientists have been the culprit here at the behest of corporate agribusiness. The scientists along with corporate agribusiness are our adversaries by creating this mess.
Where do we go from here? From what I can see corporate agribusiness/industrial agriculture is capitalism on steroids and nothing else. So, for one, we should stop allowing Congress to bow down to corporate agribusiness companies, that are slowly but surely destroying our health and environment, while Congressional members continue to take money from these companies. Secondly, we should stop buying industrially produced food (if you can call it food, that is?). At every juncture where you suspect it is grown with huge amounts of chemicals, DON’T BUY IT! Many, of course, have wanted Congress to allow the labeling of genetically modified foods, but so far this is being denied the people. That doesn’t say much for a democratic government regarding the “right to know” and also speaks resolutely about the control of corporate agribusiness over Congress.
Importantly, and thirdly, we should also learn how to grow our own food and teach others how to do so. We do have models. During WWII there were some 20 million “victory gardens” throughout the country.
As part of the war effort, the government rationed foods like sugar, butter, milk, cheese, eggs, coffee, meat and canned goods. Labor and transportation shortages made it hard to harvest and move fruits and vegetables to market. So, the government turned to its citizens and encouraged them to plant ‘Victory Gardens’. They wanted individuals to provide their own fruits and vegetables.
Nearly 20 million Americans answered the call. They planted gardens in backyards, empty lots and even city rooftops. Neighbors pooled their resources, planted different kinds of foods and formed cooperatives, all in the name of patriotism.
Farm families, of course, had been planting gardens and preserving produce for generations. Now, their urban cousins got into the act” (Wessels Living History Farm).
We are thankfully seeing more demands for healthy food in America and urban organic agriculture continues to expand – this is a good sign!
Fourthly, not mentioned in the article is that the corporate agribusiness receives millions of dollars in subsidies from the U.S. government to continue this devastation. This needs to stop and instead, small family farmers and organic farmers overall should be the ones receiving government subsidies rather than corporate agribusiness.
I might add another suggestion here, and that is to honor our independent family farmers many of whom are growing healthy food for us. We need to honor their vast knowledge and skills that are so essential for our wellbeing. We would be in a far better situation if, instead of allowing them to be destroyed by corporate agribusiness, as has been the case since WWII, we had honored and assisted small family farmers in America. But we can start this now and join domestic and international groups that have this as their mission!
Krebs, A.V. “Corporate Reapers: The Book of Agribusiness”, Essential Information Incorporated (1992)