Letter From Langdon: Not That ‘Simple’

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It’ll take a whole lot more than the demands of Bittman-inspired foodies to overcome the huge multinational alliance of chemicals, commodities, and crop inputs.

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USDA

Beginning in the 1950s and early ’60s, the number of farms declined and the size of farms increased.

Everyone needs to know that simply being a farmer doesn’t mean you don’t have to make a living like everyone else. So when I read food writer Mark Bittman’s columns in the New York Times about a “simple fix” for farming and food, I want to say, “Mark, show me the money!”

I really don’t mind what guys like Bittman say. Heck, I even agree with a lot of it. And I’ve thought that my golden years might be best spent on a downsized acreage raising crops, livestock, and poultry for food…just like I used to do and just like Bittman champions. The biggest difference between the old days and now is that in a few more years I’ll have my Social Security check to help sustain those underpaid foodie ambitions. 

Here’s the problem we have: It’s not only Monsanto but all the major seed companies — like DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-bred that holds close to 225 individual intellectual property rights — have gained control. They own not just seeds, but genes and varieties that make the seeds what they are. That makes seed more expensive because even when old patents expire, new patents go onto every seed they sell. 

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Out of Hand

Monsanto has a lock on the soy and corn seed market.

Even if off patent GMO seed remains pure, government regulations demand that someone pays to maintain GMO registration. It’s an economy of scale dedicated to making farmers pay into corporate earnings. That is as real as a tax levied by any government, because, thanks to current laws, that is essentially what tech fees have become. 

But when activists attack big agriculture and big expenses created by tech fees, mainstream farmers, the ones who outran grizzly bear ag economics, line up to defend their style of farming

The best argument against all this is that doing what we do the way we do it is unsustainable, because it is.

Back in the ’50s, instead of using super computers Eisenhower’s bureaucrats crunched numbers with pencil lead and adding machines. Agriculture was different, too. We had diverse markets for a variety of products. Soybeans and other legumes like alfalfa were grown for hay and fed to on-farm livestock. Grain was, too. 

Manure was hauled back to fields returning plant nutrients to the soil in reasonable amounts, replacing what was removed the year before. And when disaster struck? Even a dead cow had value to rendering plants that salvaged hide, horn, hoof, and tallow, cooking what was left into high protein livestock feed. 

Farms in the ‘50s were perfect examples of waste not, want not.

Today we mine plant nutrients out of the ground and haul this thousands of miles to our fields. We feed corporate-owned livestock in places where big crops won’t grow, placing nutrient laden manure where it doesn’t belong. We haul livestock to distant slaughterhouses, then load all the products and haul them yet again to towns and cities across the country and around the world.

This does not even come close to fitting the definition of sustainability. 

But to some, especially the government and big businesses that some call cartels, it is the perfect picture of economic efficiency. While Bittman and his foodie followers point out the folly of it, modern farmers like me defend it as the only way to feed a hungry world.

ashes back on the farm so I can grow corn for eternity. 

Eventually though it may not be the farm, but the highest bidder who gets my ashes as we relocate more recyclable plant nutrients away from actual farm growing points. 

Thanks to the calcium phosphate in his bones, someday grandpa may be worth more dead than alive.

We’ve been replacing on-farm plant nutrients with imported fertilizers for decades. Now even the value of hog manure has risen in response to higher overall fertilizer costs.  If this keeps up even plain old poop will be a commodity valuable enough to be trucked across the country, just like manufactured fertilizers are now.

The problem faced by local food isn’t so much public acceptance. It’s that even as USDA offers a few million dollars in grants for local market development, thanks to our laws, corporate powers in America are milking billion dollar profits from a food system they built. 

Those billions in profits that supposedly go toward more innovation and bigger crop yields are really spent to create more concentrated control of everything that grows on the farm.

In order to make widespread local, sustainable food production successful, seed patents and concentrated animal agriculture will have to take a back seat to sustainability. 

That would mean the death of the corporations’ cash cow.

It’ll take a whole lot more than the demands of Bittman-inspired foodies to overcome the huge multinational alliance of chemicals, commodities, and crop inputs.  

And there’s no way a few USDA programs can ever overcome legal status given to big food through patent law and commodity and livestock market monopoly shuffleboard. 

We need to create a real shelter for a food-based cottage industry on the family farm. The best way to do that is with laws that recognize a true vision and definition of what sustainability in food production really means.

Otherwise corporate predators will just keep on eating our lunch.

Richard Oswald is a fifth generation Missouri farmer, a Daily Yonder columnist and the president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

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