Agriculture in America

This is a guest post by David Ford.

Over the last few years, while researching the history of agriculture in America, I have had the opportunity to talk to dozens and dozens of farmers (usually over a cup of coffee). In these conversations, I learned that food insecurity, natural resource degradation, clean energy demands, and public health concerns are complex issues that our country (and world) need solutions for. 

What started as good intentions (famous last words from government) to help farmers during a crisis has evolved into the conventional production model for farming. This model emphasizes higher yields when growing crops and more pounds when raising beef and pork, all under the guise of “feeding the world.”

The changes to agricultural land in the United States are disturbing and sad due to the current production model (Stacked GMO traits, hybrid grain varieties, foliar fertilizer, seed treatment, and larger, more expensive equipment). From historical archives, we know that 140 years ago, my part of the Midwest (Iowa) was covered with a diverse mix of cool and warm-season grasses and broadleaf plants. European immigrants (yes, colonization) moved into the prairies, bringing with them the plow. Diverse prairies were turned under with tillage. Once more than a hundred species grew, now only a few grow. Overall, only fifteen crops supply 90 percent of the plant-based foods we eat. We lost over 90% of our vegetable seed varieties during the twentieth century. 

Loss of biodiversity has led to less nutrient cycling, which in turn has led to an increase in synthetic fertilizers. This led to increased weeds (weeds being high nitrogen users). An increase in weeds led to a rise in the use of herbicides. Most herbicides used today are chelators. They bind to metals such as zinc, manganese, magnesium, iron, and copper. 

The problem is that plants need these metals and nutrients to ward off disease. A lack of these nutrients can lead to a higher incidence of fungal infection. An increase in fungal disease leads to increased use of fungicides. Fungicides are detrimental to soil biology and pollinators. 

The lack of nutrients available to the plant also makes the plant more susceptible to pests. An increase in pest pressure leads to increased use of pesticides. Since most pesticides are not insect-specific many beneficial insects will also be killed. 

From a livestock perspective, the goal of producing more and more pounds per animal led to raising animals in confinement. Livestock diets changed from forages to high-starch grains affecting the animal’s health and longevity. These high starch rations fed to cattle in feedlots negatively impact the life of the animals and the nutritional value of the meat itself. 

Feedlots have nothing to do with the cattle business. Feedlot operations are in business to market feed and pen space. This industry moved hogs, chickens, and turkeys into buildings under the ruse that the animals would be “better off.” 

The U.S. government has propagated the conventional farming model with its cheap food policy. It wants to ensure that citizens have an abundant supply of calories. Notice I didn’t say an abundance of nutrients. The United States spends more on health care than any other country in the world, yet we are the most unhealthy. I wonder if there’s a connection…

Through their spending choices, the American public has indicated that they want this system, even as they choose to ignore the environmental degradation, the mistreatment of animals, and the overall decline in human health. 

This model has also led to tighter and tighter margins for producers. Lower margins mean producers must farm more and more land to make ends meet. Farm sizes increase, leaving fewer farms and fewer people farming the land. 

In 1938, the USDA’s Crop Insurance program was instituted. As with most government programs, good intentions often lead to disappointing results. The program that was intended to minimize risk has become a monster that dictates most of the cropping decisions made in the United States. Farmers know exactly the minimum amount of gross dollars per acre they will receive in any given year from crop insurance. Keeping their expenses below that amount is the only way the farmer’s profit. This knowledge also drives input suppliers to charge more for their products because farmers are guaranteed this revenue stream. Thus, the suppliers charge what they know farmers can pay to ensure their own profitability. Fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, and equipment continue to increase prices. The industry quickly gobbles up the profit offered by the revenue insurance. Tighter and tighter margins mean that producers are more reliant on the subsidies provided by government programs: crop insurance, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the Conservation Security Program, and a myriad of others. 

My conversations with those farmers mentioned above reveal that the system is broken and needs change. The governmental agencies are also aware that the system is broken and needs change. My current landlord is a third-generation farmer and perhaps has one of the largest farms in Jefferson County. He is mindful of the damage caused by monocropping and inputs to the soil. When I have these discussions, I am reminded of something my grandmother used to say: people only change when the pain of change is less than the pain of staying the same. 

Judge for yourself where the balance of pain is at the moment.

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