Why do we want to be independent of industrial agriculture?

(If you want to flip past my introductory ramblings, you can go straight to the real dirt here.)

Here is a story about how naive I once was.  When I was a kid, I always thought that farmers were a bunch of Old MacDonalds (you know, the one who had a farm, E-I-E-I-O).  And on their farms they had some chooks, a cow, a pig, a vegie garden etc.  I believed, in a vague, not-really-having-thought-about-it kind of way, that farmers knew every square metre of their land, understood the cycles of nature, and could sniff the air and know it was time to plant onions.  When I was little, I really wanted to live on a farm.

I had a child’s romantic notion of bustling chickens in the yard, Betsy the milk cow trundling by, and rambling patches of tomatoes, pumpkins and lettuces.  Even as a kid I assumed Betsy’s poo was put on the vegie garden, seeds were saved, extra surpluses sold at the local market.  I had a naive notion about farmers having a relationship (no, not that kind) with the food they were producing: that Old MacDonald patted, with the satisfaction of a job well done, each box of surplus vegies bound for market.  Ha ha ha.  And when Mum washed the vegies at home, I thought it was so we didn’t accidentally find a present from Betsy in our dinner.

Sometimes it takes a very precise life situation to bring an epiphany.  For years, I knew about industrial agriculture, but I hadn’t cross-referenced it with my Old MacDonald fantasies.  Until one day in my early 20s I found myself working as a temp at a government agricultural advisory agency in England.  I was peripherally involved in producing a newsletter that advised farmers when to plant their crops, and what to spray them with, when.  Here was I, suburban vegie gardener, helping the government tell farmers when to plant their onions.  Didn’t they already know?  Apparently not.

It took me years before I really assimilated the full extent of my naivety, and of the difference between Old MacDonald and real modern-day food production.  It was only after spending many hours on some research for a video project (on cultural differences in farming) that I noticed I had become uneasy about … what? … something to do with supermarkets, and food, and no-one knowing how to save seeds or even grow their own vegies.  When something very big is wrong, at first it’s hard to pinpoint what it is.  Industrial agriculture is very big.

It turns out that Old MacDonald was once not too far from the truth, and small diversified farms actually did produce everybody’s food.  But late last century, without consumers really paying attention, food production underwent a fundamental revolution.  Industrial agriculture huffed and puffed, and Old MacDonald went whee-whee-whee all the way home.  The whole thing happened without consultation (consultation with whom? well, with me, in particular) and in hindsight, largely without benefit to anyone except the agribusinesses who support the industry.  The change is so recent (and still occurring) that the repercussions are only just coming to light.

For me, the unease grew as I learnt more.  It wasn’t just the factory farms/pesticide residues on my food/mad cow disease/loss of biodiversity/increasing centralisation of food production etc, although it included all those things.  It wasn’t just that I was disappointed that my childhood fantasy was an illusion, although maybe if I’m honest there was a bit of that too.  It was the combination of all those things, and what it means about us (or more specifically, me) that we accept all those things as normal.  Some suit somewhere has put their own wallet before our health, our environment, animal welfare, our food choices, the survival of numerous food-producing cultures and a gazillion other factors that give meaning and depth to our existence.  And the thing is, we’ve let them.  We’ve sold our sovereignty for the sterile seductions of a supermarket, and now we’re helpless because we’re dependent.

Admittedly, the unease was interspersed with long periods of apathy, because what can you do?  We all need to eat, right?  You can make token gestures: avoid buying factory-farmed meat, and frequent organic farmers’ markets (if there’s one near you), and to a certain extent grow your own vegies (which I did).  But if you have a job, and live in a non-rural area, it’s actually very difficult (and expensive, which leads to the money trap) to source all your food in a way that doesn’t support industrial agriculture.  Much easier to flee to the shallow and blissful waters of pretending nothing is wrong.

Except that eventually, for me, the unease would sneak back.  And every time, it would be met by this apparently insurmountable problem: I worked, and I lived in a non-rural area, so in order to eat I often had no choice but to support the industrial agriculture system by buying its products.  I rebelled against industrial agriculture, but I – and everyone I knew – was dependent on it for food, which is really the same thing as saying: for life.

So when the opportunity arose to work towards liberating myself from dependency on a system that I didn’t want to support, I grabbed it with both hands.  And here I am on The Creek.

The following contains a number of my practical reasons for wanting to avoid industrial agriculture.  There is also, for me, the very visceral unease that arises in response to such a fundamental shift in how we produce the food we eat.  By training (years of indoctrination as a scientist), I still harbour deep suspicion of visceral or emotional responses, so hesitate to use one as an argument against industrial methods of food production.  Personally, if I hear an argument supported by an emotional appeal, my knee-jerk reaction is to discard the rest of the case, no matter how persuasive, on the basis that the arguer is an hysterical nutter.

But since I’m writing this, I can do what I like, and I’m going to revisit my nutty emotional response to present-day food production, just for a paragraph.  I know that the whole Old MacDonald thing is a kid’s misconception of contemporary farming.  I know I’m leaving myself open to accusations of being a romantic flake who never grew up.  But it seems to me that in surrendering the growing of our food (our food! our actual food!) to the perils and abuses of industrial agriculture, we are losing something so important and fundamental it is almost impossible to articulate.  Most of the time, we have to suck it up and get on with our busy lives, because for most people, what’s the alternative?  But the loss remains, and everything is poorer for it.

So what is Industrial Agriculture exactly?

Here is part of what Wikipedia says about it:

Industrial agriculture is a form of modern farming that refers to the industrialized production of livestock, poultry, fish, and crops. The methods of industrial agriculture are technoscientific, economic, and political. They include innovation in agricultural machinery and farming methods, genetic technology, techniques for achieving economies of scale in production, the creation of new markets for consumption, the application of patent protection to genetic information, and global trade. These methods are widespread in developed nations and increasingly prevalent worldwide. Most of the meat, dairy, eggs, fruits, and vegetables available in supermarkets are produced using these methods of industrial agriculture.

Industrial agriculture relies on industrially-produced fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and more recently, genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Late last century, when people realised they could grow vast monocultures of a particular crop, and defend it from insects etc with petrochemical-derived sprays, largescale broadacre cropping became popular.  At the time, it was hailed as the green revolution that would feed the world.  Hooray! Suddenly land became more productive, with less labour.

Along with the new ideas about “progress” and “economies of scale” came an increase in factory farming.  Animals that had previously been raised in relatively small numbers, could be raised more cheaply per animal if you raised vast numbers of them at once.  When you crowd animals together, they get diseases, but production of fine new veterinary pharmaceuticals allowed crowding without too much disease.  Again, hooray!

So what’s wrong with Industrial Agriculture?

Better heads than mine have agonised over how best to express this.  I’ll have a go (below), but here are some other sources if you like.

The difficulty with this whole thing is that the issues are all interconnected, so picking a logical start point is impossible.  The revolution in food production is so profound that there’s no simple way to categorise the issues associated with it.  Even traditional categories for this sort of thing (eg economic effects/social effects/environmental effects) are difficult to apply here because many of the repercussions have both economic and social as well as environmental effects.  I’ve put a short reading list at the bottom of the page, if you’re curious enough to read further.

So, after the first flush of success, it became apparent that the new “big is better” agriculture had some serious flaws.  They weren’t considered to be serious by anyone who stood to make money out of the new system, because…well… they were making money.  Some of the flaws are:

1. Outsourcing of costs. Some people argue that the crucial benefit of industrial agriculture is that it allows more people to buy more food more cheaply.  But the problem with that argument is that it only takes into account the money you pay at the supermarket checkout.  It doesn’t take into account a number of other costs (monetary and otherwise) that the producers of the food have outsourced.  Who have they outsourced it to?  In most cases, You.  Or someone in another country, generally poorer than You.

Because of the high initial capital cost in running a “big is better” agricultural enterprise, it’s turned out that a high proportion of broadacre and factory farms, as well as large scale sheep and cattle properties, are owned by corporations. Some examples in Australia are: PrimeAg, Inghams Chicken and Macquarie Bank’s “Macquarie Pastoral Fund” (which trades as Paraway Pastoral Company).  Figures on what proportion of the means of food production they own aren’t always easily available (if you know where to find them, please contact us) but Paraway’s website claims they own 2.9 million hectares.  That’s a lot of agricultural land.  The purpose of corporations is to make money for their shareholders, so it’s natural for them to try to outsource as many costs of production as they can.  This means that if they don’t have to pay for cleaning up the river system that their pesticide run-off contaminated, they won’t.  They also don’t pay for any of the other outsourced costs of industrial agriculture (see below).  Who does?  You do, mostly.

2.  Depletion of soil fertility. Commercially available industrial fertilisers (I’ll call them NPK fertilisers because they usually contain mostly nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K)) don’t have the same range of nutrients and beneficial microorganisms in them that traditional fertilisers do, like good old farmyard poo and compost.  Over the years, the diversity and number of organisms in the soil, now widely accepted as necessary for healthy and sustainable soil, drops off.  So, many soils used in industrial agriculture, even if they’ve been “fertilised” regularly, are depleted of the very things that make them fertile.  The industrial ag solution is to buy more industrially-produced fertilisers and other soil amendments, but this increases only the level of the nutrients added by the fertilisers.  It doesn’t promote the growth of a healthy robust soil ecosystem.  As years go by, the soil becomes more and more depleted, and it becomes more and more expensive to buy all the extra fertilisers you need to grow anything in the soil.

So what happens when all the broadacre farms become unusable for agriculture?  Where does the food come from then?  From the point of view of a corporation, that’s not such a big problem.  Scarce food means it’s more valuable therefore more profitable.  From the point of view of me, it means I’ll end up working more, to earn more money, so I can give it to a corporation in exchange for less food.  Hooray!

3. Food that is less nutritious. Growing food on land depleted in nutrients leads to food that is also depleted in nutrients.  The literature on this topic is controversial, but consider who funds the ones that show there is no difference in nutrient level.  At the time of writing, the most recent large-scale survey of studies comparing nutrients in organically-produced food with nutrients in food produced by non-organic methods concluded that, among other findings, organic plant products contain more dry matter (more nutrient dense), have higher levels of minerals, and contain more anti-oxidants (known to protect against cancers, heart disease and many other health problems).

Consider the rises in chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer.   There’s no way to prove conclusively that poor nutrition contributes to such diseases, but if a whole bunch of biochemical reactions in your body don’t get the right reagents (ie nutrients) how can you expect to get the right products and consequently, great health?  Even if you eat organic and nutritious food, you still have to pay for everyone else who doesn’t, through taxes or private health insurance.

4. Toxic industrial chemicals. There are a number of obvious health and environmental costs that come from using toxic agricultural chemicals.  Pesticides, herbicides and fungicides applied to crops and seeds can easily run off into local waterways.  They can still be on your groceries when you get them home.  They reduce biodiversity, since they’re not always specific to the pest they are trying to kill.  They’re designed to kill insects and weeds. Are you sure they’re safe to eat as residues on your supermarket lettuces?

5. The environmental costs of habitat destruction. Small diversified farms have a range of ecological niches that provide habitat for a wide biodiversity.  OK, so maybe not as diverse as say virgin rainforest, but The Creek has heaps of different birds, mammals, reptiles and plants that are definitely not present in a large-scale cropping system.  Why is biodiversity good?  Apart from the self-evident “for it’s own sake” argument, biodiverse ecosystems are more robust.  For example, they’re less prone to sudden plagues of a particular species.  In terms of growing food, biodiversity means (among other things) that agricultural pests are kept under control by their natural predators.

6. One of the biggies, as far as I’m concerned. People lose the ability to produce their own food, thereby becoming dependent on big agriculture to provide it for them.  Once you’re in this position:

  • your food choice is limited to what big agriculture deems economically viable.  Think how tomatoes, grapes and bananas used to taste, compared with how they taste now.  They’ve got nice strong skins for easy transport, though.
  • you lose your own specific link with the food chain.  This is a subtle thing, but for me, desperately profound.  It’s the underlying wonder of the Old MacDonald system.  Losing your connection with natural cycles through ignorance of how food is produced, or what’s in season, or even just through never being in your own garden, is a silent tragedy.  It often goes unnoticed because we’re too busy earning money so that we can give it to corporations in exchange for food.

That’s just 6 reasons I don’t like the industrial agriculture system.  I could easily go on (animal welfare in factory farms, human-transferrable disease incubation in the same, pollution generated by transporting food vast distances, increasingly centralised control of food production, theft of seed-saving rights from indigenous people etc), but I’d rather work towards something I want than against something I don’t.  So I’m off to plant some onions.

Stuff to read if you’re interested (in no particular order).  If you want to know publishers/dates etc, contact us.

  • “Animal Vegetable Miracle” by Barbara Kingsolver
  • “The Ethics of What We Eat” by Peter Singer
  • “Prodigal Summer” by Barbara Kingsolver (fiction)
  • “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson

Stuff to watch (docos etc).  You can probably find them by googling, but contact us if you need more details.

  • “One Man One Cow One Planet”(DVD)
  • “Our Daily Bread” (DVD)
  • “Food Matters”(DVD)
  • “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”(DVD)
  • “The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived The Oil Crisis”(DVD)
  • The Meatrix (A bit basic, but fun.  Watch at themeatrix.com)

A couple of links

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3 Responses to Why do we want to be independent of industrial agriculture?

  1. Joan Wharton says:

    Hi Sarah – I loved your critique of the food chain and the energy and passion of your writing. Congratulations on putting your vision and learning into production.

  2. Paul says:

    you have just articulated the many thoughts that have been swimming around my head over the past year, thank you. I hope that i can find my own space soon, and start living a similar life to the creek!

    • Sarah says:

      it took me a long time to figure out how to articulate it! I’m glad it’s been of some use. Very best of luck on finding your own space. I hope it happens for you as soon as possible.

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