Is there a possible way to avoid a disaster that could threaten the existence of life on earth?” Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma helps provide an answer, and that answer is “yes”, but with some qualifications. Here’s why:
Pollan starts with a study of corn, which is the largest crop https://agamerica.com/power-of-10-top-10-produce-crops-in-the-u-s/ grown in the United States. Part of the reason why is that a single corn kernel produced up to 300 new ones.
US Agricultural policy and corn monoculture
US federal government policy guarantees corn farmers a price for their crop. That plus the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides has created the corn monoculture, which dominates US food production. It’s also made the farmers dependent on the federal handouts while nearly 15 billion bushels of corn are produced per year in the US.
As for what to do with all the surplus corn, again modern chemistry took care of that, partly through the creation of such products as high fructose corn syrup, which is added to huge numbers of processed foods. But the single greatest user of corn and corn by-products is the beef industry; 60% of the corn produced in the US goes to feed cattle on the feed lots, known as “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations” or CAFO’s.
Here, the cattle are concentrated by the thousands in huge, open air pens and fed a mixture of products, most of which cows did not evolve to eat. Corn and corn by products are the major ingredient. Because cows (which are ruminants) evolved to eat grass, not corn, they do not digest the corn easily and are subject to infection and disease as a result. That’s partly why they have to be fed antibiotics on their way to their date at the slaughter house.
The alternative to present farming methods is one that mimics the processes of nature, and it is to those processes that we should look.
In what is now the United States, bison had played a huge role. A ruminant (just like cows), there were some 60 million of them. They were forced by predators – mainly wolves – to bunch up together and also to frequently be on the move. This accomplished several things: It prevented the bison from grazing the grass down to the very roots, which would have prevented the grass from regenerating itself as well as from the more ground-hugging types from growing altogether. It also meant that the bison were a constantly moving fertilizer (manure) spreader.
What Pollan describes is a farming method that mimics this process. It’s commonly called “regenerative farming”, although it could also be called “grass farming”. Pollan describes this method through a description of one such farm – “Polyface Farm” run by a farmer named Joel Salatin.
Salatin divides his pastures into small “paddocks” enclosed with mobile electric fences. He moves the cattle from one paddock to another every few days, similar to how bison were constantly on the move.
This method is called “regenerative”, because it regenerates the soil. Modern monoculture farming simply looks at soil health in terms of proper NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) amounts and balance. Rather than this industrial view of nature, soil is almost like a living thing, especially when one looks at the humus, which is as Pollan explains “what’s left of organic matter after it has been broken down by the billions of big and small organisms that inhabit a spoonful of earth – the bacteria, phages, fungi and earthworms responsible for its decomposition” if they haven’t been killed off by harsh chemicals. This decomposition is an ongoing process. “A whole group of other organisms slowly breaks humus down into chemical elements plants need to grow, elements including but not limited to, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. This process is as much biological as chemical” The rich humus also enables this soil to retain a lot more water.
As for the grass, it grows in phases. Salatin explains that it’s vital to have the cows graze at the peak of the first growth phase, after it’s started to grow but before the growth levels off. This allows the lower-to-earth grasses such as clover to grow. A legume, clover fixes nitrogen to the soil with its roots. It also stimulates the just grazed grass to grow again. In doing so, the grass puts most of its energy into growing above the soil, shedding much of its roots, which then decay below ground, enriching the soil.
After the cattle, Salatin brings in the chickens who, among other things, eat the fly larvae growing in the cow manure. Scratching and clawing at the manure to get at the larvae, they also help spread it. Also, by eating the larvae, they eliminate a huge mass of flies, thereby eliminating the need for Salatin to bathe his cattle in pesticides. The chickens, too, leave their nitrogen-rich droppings in the paddock.
Here’s where the issue of carbon emissions and sequestration (removal of carbon from the atmosphere) comes in. According to Pollan “if the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year.
These changes include one that Salatin insists on: Selling locally only. Since as Pollan explains, 80% of the fuel used in bringing food to the market is used by processing and transporting the food, consuming locally grown foods would be another important step. However, since Omnivore’s Dilemma was written (2007), it is reported that Joel Salatin has started shipping his food nation-wide. This shows the tremendous market pressures that capitalism brings to bear on the individual farmer.
There are also powerful interests opposed to these methods. First are the recipients of agricultural subsidies. According to Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/adamandrzejewski/2018/08/14/mapping-the-u-s-farm-subsidy-1-million-club/#2cfc7f2b3efc by 2018, “Over $11 billion in farm subsidies flowed to just 6,618 lucky recipients who received at least $1 million since 2008.” Of the 23 largest recipients, these subsidies ranged from $10 million to $23.8 million. Nor did the money even go to rural residents. “Residents living in America’s five most populated cities received $18 million in farm subsidies” and 25% of the subsidy money went to somebody who received at least $250,000.
As for the smaller farmer, like a drug addict hooked on meth, once she or he is hooked on government subsidies to raise corn, it’s nearly impossible to get off. That’s because after just a few years the soil has become so depleted (and also compacted by the use of heavy equipment) that it would take years to recover. Meanwhile, the mortgage and other debts have to be repaid.
According to Pollan, just two companies – Cargill and ADM – buy one-third of all the corn produced in the US. They control the corn-growing process from start to finish. All this means that there are powerful investments in keeping US agriculture as it is.
Then there is the chemical fertilizer industry, which invests $3.8 billion annually in new facilities (according to their report https://www.tfi.org/sites/default/files/tfi-stateoftheindustry-2018.pdf ). As far as pesticides and herbicides, the EPA stopped releasing reports on their total sales 20 years ago, according to Pesticide Action Network http://www.panna.org/blog/us-and-world-pesticide-use. However, they report that in 2012, agribusiness spent $12.6 billion on pesticides (90% of the total) and the expenditures for pesticides as a percentage of overall farming costs is increasing.
Corn is also essential to the food processing industry. According to Pollan, whereas 40% of the retail price of an egg (= unprocessed food) goes to the farmer whose chickens laid the egg, only 4% of the price of the ubiquitous corn sweeteners go to the corn farmer. (This also proves the labor theory of value!) As Pollan quotes farmers, “there’s money to be made in food, unless you’re trying to grow it!”
According to the capitalists – including Bill Gates, who salutes https://www.tfi.org/sites/default/files/tfi-stateoftheindustry-2018.pdf the chemical fertilizer industry – all these methods are necessary in order to provide inexpensive food. But is it really so cheap? The reality is that they have once again privatized the profits while socializing many of the costs – costs which include algae bloom from nitrate runoff into lakes and oceans, health care costs, and the costs of long term environmental damage including but not limited to global climate change.
Two revolutionary steps are necessary: One is to gear food production to social – including environmental – need rather than private profit. This would have to coincide with a conscious and systematic plan for such production. But neither of these steps is possible in isolation; they could only be fully realized in the context of a planned economy based on social and environmental need. And in any case, even if it were possible to plan food production based on human and environmental need inside a profit-driven (i.e. a capitalist) economy, just that change alone wouldn’t solve the global climate change crisis. What’s needed for that is the transformation of the entire economy, including transportation, industrial production, etc. through such planning.
Such a plan would have to include an integration of the countryside with more urban areas. True, more labor is required for grass or regenerative farming, but huge amounts of labor are potentially being freed up through the introduction of computers and mechanization in other industries.
Another part would have to be preserving wilderness areas. Three quarters of Polyface is actually forest. And Salatin explains how the forest areas are necessary for soil and general environmental health of the rest of the farm.
All of this and more would have to be considered in planning an economy.
As shown by the failure of the Soviet Union and similar governments, such a plan can only succeed if it is managed and controlled by the workers themselves, including such farmers as Joel Saladin. In other words, through a workers’ state.
And how we get there is a whole other topic!