By Brett Barth
The steady creep of prices at your grocery checkout might have you wondering about frosts and droughts and the many other challenges confronting agribusiness. That’s kind of you, really, but stop. Truth be told, these are roaring times in the U.S. Farming industry.
According to a recent report from The Council of Economic Advisors, net farm income in 2013 (a function of the handful of industrials that control most American farmland) hit a 40-year high and marked a 46 percent increase in growth since 2008. As President Obama noted in a recent speech, “agriculture is thriving.”
In the wake of such growth, it would seem the opportunity is ripe to scale down the damage created by our global food system. The system as it currently exists is an inefficient, wasteful commodity trade that enriches the private multinationals dominating global agriculture, while also devastating regional economies, degrading the environment, and diminishing the quality of the food we eat.
Not so long ago, there was a hint that the government agreed. In 2009, the USDA launched the “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” campaign to promote small food producers and the virtues of “locavoring.” There were solid economic reasons to do so: The agency’s Economic Research Service found that farms focused on selling locally or regionally not only boosted their revenue, they created more jobs.
Well, the Government is promoting the small farmer again, but this time its sights are set well beyond farm-to-fork economies. A new initiative called “Made in Rural America” has been announced to aid “rural” and “regional” farms in the expansion and sales of product. Not in surrounding communities, mind you, or for that matter, in the U.S. market at all. Instead, “Made in Rural America” proposes a massive education and counseling effort to bring rural farmers into the world trade game.
“I’ve seen how hard it can be to be a farmer,” President Obama explains. “Big corporate farms are doing well, but there are even more small farms, family farms, where folks are just scratching out a living.”
That’s probably true, but will “Made in Rural America” really help small farms? A couple of red flags are immediately apparent: First, the legislation fails to clearly define what it means to be “rural”; second, and more importantly, it fails to divulge “the game” it aims to promote.
The prime beneficiaries of global trade aren’t farmers but corporate middlemen, the distributors, transporters, and traders who take a combined profit of over 90 percent of every food dollar. With such a large combined profit at stake, trade-for-the-sake-of-trade has become an economic engine that drives worldwide agribusiness to needless and illogical ends.
Take, for example, the U.S. importation and exportation of the very same goods. Rice imported from Asia has grown from 4 percent of our domestic market to nearly 20 percent in the last 30 years. Meanwhile, the exportation of rice from the United States is also higher than ever before. We ship off nearly half our rice to Central America, Europe, and yes, right back at you, Asia.
And then there’s corn. The United States is King Corn, the world’s largest exporter, by far. Yet, curiously, the U.S. also imports corn. In fact, we buy more corn than Canada, Russia, Argentina, South Africa, India, and Ukraine combined than we export to foreign markets.
“We’ve had the strongest stretch of farm exports in our history,” Mr. Obama recently announced. “We are selling more stuff to more people than ever before. What we grow here and what we sell is a huge boost to the entire economy, but particularly the rural economy.”
Yes, but local food systems offer more direct economic benefits to the small farmer and not to corporate middlemen eager to crisscross goods wherever they’ll command the best price.
This global import-export mania creates myriad other problems, too. Imported food supplies drive indigenous farmers abroad out of business, which in turn deprives whole communities of fresh, nutritious food. Food trade promotes the destructive ‘monoculture’ farming of ‘cheap’ grains that will sell in the global market rather than healthful, natural foods that will provide nourishment. It creates hunger dependencies, which are too easily exploitable (the U.S. has the most expensive “food aid” in the world [source: Frederic Mousseau, “Food Aid or Food Sovereignty? Ending World Hunger in Our Time,” The Oakland Institute, October 2005.]) And global food transport results in soaring CO2 emissions.
All of this is necessary because the United States, as the saying goes, is the “breadbasket of the world.” Another axiom maintains that if the U.S. didn’t feed the world, 100 countries might go hungry. But that’s a shortsighted claim that assumes the current political, economic dysfunction that drives food distribution is natural. That’s hardly the case in places like Mexico, where the current hunger crisis coincides with massive reserves of locally farmed food held for trade rather than supplied to those at home who need it.
So could regional, or even purely organic, farming feed the planet? Not surprisingly, trade lobbyists insist the answer is no. But according to longstanding research from the Rodale Institute, the answer is yes. Recent studies from the Union of Concerned Scientists and The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology suggest the marginal difference between the yields of small, organic farming and large-scale, chemical farming wouldn’t matter if food were properly distributed and not scattered around the world.
“‘Can organic farming feed the world?’ is indeed a bogus question,” says Gene Kahn, a longtime organic farmer who is now vice president of sustainable development for General Mills. The real question is, can we feed the world? Period.
In other words, can we end the entrenched political and economic barriers to a sensible and sustainable food system?
Brett Barth is a cultural reporter who has covered everything from large-scale environmental disasters in the Gulf Coast to small inspirations like “Precycling” (that’s doing recycling one better by eliminating packaging altogether). He’s currently at work on a novel involving the use of land art to protect wildlife. He lives in Venice, California and in his spare time he makes mixed attempts to repurpose things.