Agriculture's Big Lie
A Kansas editor says our assembly-line approach to
growing our food is actually contributing to world hunger -- and
explains why buying local and buying organic is so important.
By Ira Boudway
July 15, 2005
If George Pyle thought at all about farming when he
joined a Kansas newspaper 27 years ago, he thought it sounded like a
pretty boring beat for a young reporter. Beyond that, he was ready to go
along with what most people seemed to believe: Agriculture was destined
to become completely industrialized, and farmers should rejoice at being
relieved of such humble work. But after joining the editorial staff at
the Salina Journal -- where Bob Dole famously referred to him as
"that liberal editor from Salina" during the '96 campaign --
Pyle found that to be able to do his job he had to care about farming.
"For a Kansas newspaper editor to have no opinion
on farm issues," he writes in the prologue to his new book,
"Raising Less Corn, More Hell," "would be akin to a
Florida counterpart having no thoughts on Medicare." The more
questions he asked, the more he began to doubt the prevailing wisdom
among land-grant university professors and agribusiness managers that
fewer and fewer farmers ought to be growing more and more food on ever
larger plots of land.
In the course of three decades as a newspaper writer,
Pyle went from feeling that the "farm beat" was like covering
the progress of a glacier to understanding that the real story of
agriculture in America is quite dramatic. In Pyle's view, our farming
culture is based on one big bad idea and one big fat lie.
"The bad idea," he writes, "is the
increasing concentration -- economic, political, and genetic -- of the
ways in which our food is produced." The lie behind it is that
"the world is either short of food or risks being short of food in
the near future." With the help of an editorial writers'
fellowship, and later as the director of the Prairie Writers Circle at
the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, Pyle took time away from his daily
deadlines to research a book on the American farm economy.
"Raising Less Corn, More Hell" is dedicated
to the memory of his father, who was raised on a Kansas farm, but Pyle
is no sentimentalist when it comes to the fate of family farms. What the
agricultural economy needs, he argues, is a truly free market -- not one
kept afloat by federal subsidies and unaccounted environmental damage.
The root cause of hunger, he claims, is usually a lack of money.
Yet the fear of not having enough food has driven the rise of chemical
fertilizers, massive machinery, genetically modified seed, and whatever
else will help squeeze greater yields out of every acre.
Meanwhile, the true costs of the industrial system --
eroded soil and depleted aquifers, polluted water and air, desperate and
indebted farmers, rundown main streets, unhealthy diets, and a food
supply at risk -- are not factored into the price of food.
Even as we push to grow more, the government
subsidizes farmers for growing less. The subsidies continually fail to
keep up with gains in production, leading to a surplus of food that
costs less than it should. This gets shipped abroad and cripples the
efforts of third-world countries to develop their own agricultural base.
And so the system fails even on its promise to feed the world.
In "Raising Less Corn, More Hell," Pyle has
collected the various strands of the long-standing case against
industrial agriculture into a compact polemic or -- perhaps more fitting
for the work of a practiced editorial writer -- into one long,
impassioned Op-Ed. He recently spoke with Salon from his desk at the
Salt Lake Tribune.
* * *
You mention in your prologue that when you started
as a newspaper writer in 1977, you didn't imagine yourself ever writing
a book arguing against industrial agriculture. How did you wind up
thinking that was what you should write?
Well, I didn't think I'd be writing anything about
agriculture. It seemed dull. And the prevailing wisdom at the time was
that even farmers thought it was dull and that pushing them out of the
business and turning it over to industry was doing them a favour,
sparing them the unremitting toil of bumpkins. As a reporter and then
later as an editorial writer I tended to accept the idea that this was
the way things were going and that there wasn't any point in protesting
it. But there were other voices, from farmers and from consumer
activists, who were trying to tell me that that wasn't the case, that
there were other ways to go and that some decisions that had been made
by large agribusinesses and by government were distorting the natural
process as opposed to its just being this natural evolution of things.
I think a lot of people might be surprised by the
title of your book, by the suggestion that we should be growing less of
anything. Could briefly explain why growing less is a good idea?
Most of the problem both for farmers and for people in
the world who are hungry or malnourished is not an undersupply but an
oversupply that ripples through the economy. Starting in the Depression,
the problem was that even dirt-poor, uneducated farmers were producing
way more crops than the economy could afford to buy. So the idea was
that we would take some land out of production, even destroy crops, and
just give farmers money so they can stay in business at least another
year. That way they won't just plant and produce as much as they can.
Most farmers can't afford to do what an industry would
do in a flooded market -- slow down the production line or lay people
off. If you're halfway through the year and it looks like your field of
wheat is not going to make much money, but there's a big market for
sunflower seeds, it's too late to tear up the wheat and plant sunflower
Ideally, if you match the supply with the demand,
farmers can make a living off the market -- not off the government. But
every time you take land out of production, that's accompanied by a new
strain of hybrid corn or a new process, so that even though there are
fewer acres, there are more crops. Taking land out of production doesn't
lower the yields; it also doesn't raise the number of people who are
Is the problem of not having enough cash to buy the
food mainly encountered in the developing world?
Well, you'll see it in poor neighbourhoods in America,
but, yeah, just about in every case, whether it's in the developing
world or in New York, hunger is caused by too little money, not by too
little food. And even in cases where there have been huge famines in
Africa and Asia, it's not because there wasn't any food, it's because
they didn't have any money to buy food with. There would be relief
efforts, but sometimes in the next country, the next province or the
next village, you would have plenty of food. The people who were hungry
were hungry because they were broke.
If we were to grow less and to get away from
subsidies, would that help put cash in the pockets of people who can't
afford to buy enough food?
It's the only thing that we might do. I can't
guarantee that this would be successful in Africa, but I do know that
what we're doing hurts, and what the European Union is doing as well.
They have a slightly different way of subsidizing their farmers, but the
effect is the same. We sell or give rice, cotton and corn on the world
market for less than it really costs to produce it -- and certainly for
less than farmers in Africa or Asia can afford to produce it -- so they
go out of business or become simple subsistence farmers.
They move to the cities. There aren't enough jobs for
them, so you get huge slums and disease, AIDS, prostitution, child
slavery, ripe planting grounds for distrust and terrorism, because
they're not able to make the agricultural base of their economies work.
Now, if tomorrow we did what I think is the right
thing, phase out the subsidies and support our own farmers by paying
them to care for land instead of maxing out production and consequently
stop flooding foreign markets, they wouldn't all automatically turn into
successful farmers in Africa. They've got lots of problems with bad
government, corruption and war that make it difficult.
You mention in your prologue that many advocates
for small farms are dismissed for "fuzzy-headed nostalgia."
You're pretty careful to distance yourself from that kind of sentimental
reasoning. How do you make your case without indulging in it?
It is difficult. I do think that the real advocates,
especially those who are also farmers, they understand that it's a
market they're in. They understand that they have to have a product that
people want to buy. They are hoping that the government will not get in
their way, that academia will not put all of its efforts into inventing
things that are good on a huge scale and have little application on a
small scale, like GPS systems for levelling fields. I think they think
that they can do pretty well in a truly open market, as opposed to the
one that's distorted by our failure to enforce environmental and
antitrust laws. That would give them a chance.
So they're generally not plucking at our heartstrings
deliberately, but that's certainly the way it's spun by the apologists
for industrial agriculture, who say you shouldn't try to cling to a way
of life that's gone the way of all things, and you shouldn't expect us
to risk having less food or risk having more expensive food just to save
Uncle Henry and Auntie Em. The successful organic farmers don't expect
to be taken care of out of charity. They want to make a living by
selling a better product.
Another way you often see this spun is that the people
who are against industrial agriculture are spoiled urbanites who can
afford to buy organic vegetables and grass-fed beef and like to feel
self-righteous about it.
How do you respond to the suggestion that this
cause is a luxury of the privileged?
Well, you do run into that. I mean there's a downtown
farmers' market here in Salt Lake City on Saturday mornings, and the
place is lousy with Volvos and people who come down because they've got
some disposable income and don't have to work that day. But these
changes are more and more reaching into your average supermarket. When
you consider that out of every disposable consumer dollar that's spent
on food, two cents of it gets to the farmer, I don't think it would be
so horrible if four cents got to the farmer. That would help them out a
lot, and it wouldn't hurt us at all.
Would you say that moving toward a small-farm model
is not something that just makes life a little bit sweeter for those who
can afford it but is a necessary change?
Yes, in the long term. I mean it starts out, like a
lot of things start but, as something to gladden the bleeding heart. You
feel good about helping the farmer and about feeding your children
organic food instead of Twinkies.
The most successful farmers in the niche markets are
those who just are lucky enough or foresighted enough to be close to a
city, often close to a university town, places where there's an educated
kind of folks who are taking the lead. They're the first ones to seek
out organic food, locally produced food, to want to see the face of
their farmer in their produce, as the Japanese say.
And they're the ones who get it started, but once
somebody gets established in a farmers' market, the regular supermarkets
start carrying that stuff and start promoting that they have organic
food and have local food. They haven't bragged about that in the past
partly because they felt that people like industrial food, that people
like the idea that it comes from this stainless steel, pressure-washed
factory somewhere, even when it didn't.
And now people are starting to understand that they
can say, 'Well, you know, this comes from this guy down the road and
we're going to charge you ten more cents for it.' And people will buy
In the epigraph to one chapter you quote from
former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson about how
easy it would be for terrorists to attack our food supply. Do you think
that it will take a catastrophe on the scale of Sept. 11 for us to see
some substantial changes?
I think the problem is that the industrial model is so
established and people in power still mostly believe in it. Even the
people who have taken this threat seriously are still not questioning
the future of this model's existence and its efficiency. They're just
trying to find a better way to circle the wagons. They're saying that we
need to have surveillance; we need to have walls; we need to keep dogs
and guns and barbed wire; we need to have laws saying you can't take
pictures of farms.
As for the idea that the best way to deal with this is
to decentralize the plants, the farms, the feedlots, the genetics, it
may take some kind of crisis to get that through some people's heads. I
mentioned in the book that after 9/11 there were some brokerage houses
that decided it was not a really smart idea to have everything all in
one place. The same logic applies with agriculture. Nature demands it,
really. Row after row of exactly identical stalks of corn is not
natural. And one of these days Mother Nature, even if no terrorist does
it, will look dimly on that and send us some kind of locust or germ or
bacteria and wipe them out.
Reading your book I was reminded of Thomas Frank's,
"What's the Matter With Kansas?" What do you think of that
book? Do you accept Frank's basic analysis that the people of the
Midwest have essentially sacrificed their own economic interests in
exchange for pandering over what he would call dead-end social causes?
I didn't read his book until I was nearly finished
with mine, but I think he's right. People are voting to give more and
more power to big business on a promise of, you know, protecting
themselves from gay marriage. I think that's true. A friend of mine [Dan
Glickman] was a congressman from Wichita and the only Democrat in the
state delegation for quite a while. His crowning achievement was to get
a law passed that made it less risky for the aircraft industry, which is
big in Wichita, to start making single-engine planes again. They'd been
worried about liability -- way down the road, after the plane had been
sold and sold and sold again.
Then somebody came along and ran against him who
worked for one of those aircraft companies. His main campaign was that a
sitting congressman was too far left on guns and abortion. And he beat
him. I remember a friend of mine, an editorial writer in Wichita, said,
'Well, that just proves those people who work at Boeing are more worried
about losing their guns than losing their jobs.'"
I guess the bad guys in this scenario are the
agribusiness corporations, Monsanto and ConAgra and such. I'm wondering
how you explain their willingness to pursue policies that, if your
analysis is right, are not good for anybody in the end.
Whether they're funnin' us or whether they truly
believe it -- and I tend to think that they truly believe it -- they
base their work on the idea that you need to produce more and more, that
there are starving people in Africa and, by God, it's our duty to feed
them. I think that they've said that often enough that they may believe
it -- continually blinding themselves to the idea that those starving
people in Africa will continue to starve until they have some money.
They continue to cling to this idea that one of these
days we'll have just the right trade program, or just the right
incentive, and all these people around the world will start buying our
corn and our wheat. And they'll be fat and happy and we'll be fat and
happy. But they don't have any money, and they're not likely to have any
money unless they have their own healthy agricultural base.
So what is your prescription for farmers and for
city dwellers and lawmakers? What are the most important things to be
The macro solution is to move away from the subsidies
and to start enforcing antitrust laws. If we enforce the antitrust laws,
there would be more people competing to buy the farmers' grain and they
might do a better job of surviving off the market instead of off the
government. Some argue that it would cost the consumer more, but I don't
think it would. If more suppliers had to compete to sell to farmers, and
if you had more bidders on their fat cattle, fat hogs and harvested
grain, farmers would turn a greater profit. Passing that increased cost
along to the consumer depends to a large degree on how many processors
there are and how many grocers there are. But even if that price does
get passed along, it's already so small it wouldn't make much
So the big answer is to enforce antitrust laws and
to change or get rid of subsidies. What about individual citizens who
have no connection to farming? What can they do?
Well, they can be more effective consumers. And more
people are doing that. Buy organic. Buying local is even more
important. If you've got organic that comes from a long way away or
local that you're not too sure about, it's better to buy local and cut
out the middle man. The cynical reason to do that is, if there's
anything wrong with it, you know where it came from.
So much of this stuff you got no idea where it comes
from. The beef goes into this huge maw and it's ground and re-ground and
distributed and packaged and repackaged. If you buy from the small
processing plant or directly from the farmer and there is something
wrong with it, then you just don't buy from him. And he'll notice.
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About the writer - Ira Boudway is an editorial fellow
in Salon's New York office. http://www.salon.com/books/int/2005/07/15/pyle/print.html