Local is the “new organic”

Written by  Deena Shanker for Quartz


Local food is following organic into the mainstream

As consumers pay more attention to what they eat, the desire for food produced nearby is starting to gain more traction. In a survey of more than 1,000 US consumers conducted by Cowen and Company, 39% of respondents ranked “where food comes from/’what’s in my food’” as either very or extremely important, beating the 29% who placed the same level of importance on healthfulness. And while both “local” and “organic” labels are (often mistakenly) considered indicators of health, 43% of participants said that they would be most likely to purchase groceries with a “locally sourced” label, compared to organic’s 19%.

These consumers seem to be putting their money where their mouth is: Sales of local food increased to $11.7 billion in 2014 from about $5 billion in 2008, according to the USDA. “Local food is rapidly growing from a niche market to an integrated system recognized for its economic boost to communities across the country,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told NPR’s The Salt. (Sourcing foods locally also increases food security, even if its environmental benefits are sometimes questionable.)

Supermarkets and restaurants, meanwhile, are trying to meet this demand. Grocery stores are stocking local foods in their produce sections and offering customers the opportunity to sign up for shares in Community Supported Agriculture, Supermarket News reported earlier this month. (CSAs are subscription services between farms and customers, where the full season is paid for upfront and a box of fresh produce is delivered or picked up each week.)

Online grocer FreshDirect has a “Local” section of its site that even lets consumers shop according to the state the food is from.

Chefs see the growing interest in local ingredients, too. In a recent “What’s Hot” survey on restaurant trends conducted by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), 82% of the nearly 1,300 chefs surveyed identified locally sourced meats and seafood as a hot trend on menus, while 79% said the same about locally grown produce. That made them the top two trends out of the 198 listed. “Organic produce,” meanwhile was number 25. (The bottom two: Chicken wings at 13% and gazpacho at 10%. So 2012.)

To get in line with that trend, restaurants put the word “local” or “locally” on 11.3% of US menus in 2014, according to data from Datassential. That’s still behind organic’s 18.7%, but it’s catching up. In each of the past four years, “local” has been added to menus at a faster pace than “organic.”

atlas_NJe1wc1t@2x (2)While grocers and restaurants are trying to meet the demand for local food, factors like geography, logistics and weather can make this a challenge, especially if the menus weren’t originally designed with local ingredients in mind. LYFE Kitchen, a chain that incorporates sustainability into everything from its building design to the way it cleans tables, only realistically aims for 20-30% of its springtime ingredients in its New York location to be locally sourced, Fortune reported.

Startups like Good Eggs and Nextdoorganics can get local groceries to individual customers in a handful of cities, but anyone that cooks or sells in large quantities faces bigger hurdles. The NRA recommends cultivating relationships with nearby growers, shrinking menu offerings, and managing customer expectations—all local, all the time is a nearly impossible goal for even the most dedicated eatery.

Original Post

Local food could be a “big deal”

FarmersMarketBy Dan Nosowitz

Eating a local diet—restricting your sources of food to those within, say, 100 miles—seems enviable but near impossible to many, thanks to lack of availability, lack of farmland, and sometimes short growing seasons. Now, a study from the University of California, Merced, indicates that it might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. “Although we find that local food potential has declined over time, our results also demonstrate an unexpectedly large current potential for meeting as much as 90 percent of the national food demand,” write the study’s authors. Ninety percent! What?

Researchers J. Elliott Campbell and Andrew Zumkehr looked at every acre of active farmland in the U.S., regardless of what it’s used for, and imagined that instead of growing soybeans or corn for animal feed or syrup, it was used to grow vegetables. (Currently, only about 2 percent of American farmland is used to grow fruits or vegetables.) And not just any vegetables: They used the USDA’s recommendations to imagine that all of those acres of land were designed to feed people within 100 miles a balanced diet, supplying enough from each food group. Converting the real yields (say, an acre of hay or corn) to imaginary yields (tomatoes, legumes, greens) is tricky, but using existing yield data from farms, along with a helpful model created by a team at Cornell University, gave them a pretty realistic figure.

Still, the study involves quite a few major leaps of faith because it seeks not to demonstrate what is possible for a given American right now but to lay out a basic overview of the ability of local food to feed all Americans. It’s not just projecting yields for vegetables grown on land that is today dominated by corn and soy. The biggest leap of faith is perhaps an unexpected one and is surprisingly underreported: Why do we even want to adjust our food supply to be local in the first place?

“Local food is kind of largely rejected by a lot of scientists from earth and environmental fields because the greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation of food from the farm to the retailer is actually really small compared to all the other emissions,” said Campbell, an associate professor at UC Merced. (Zumkehr is one of his students; the two fused their research to attempt to answer this question.) We take it for granted that eating locally must provide a huge boost to our environmental bona fides, but if the only consideration is emissions from the trucks, trains, and planes that bring us food from elsewhere, we’re mistaken. Looking at our diet as a whole, the total amount of emissions that come from transportation is somewhere around 10 percent—hardly the biggest factor. The bulk of emissions emerge from the farm itself, from the actual growing and production of the food.

So, Why Should You Care? Campbell thinks there’s a distinct connection between eating locally and tackling those farm-based emissions. The elephant in the room, he said, is the move from an animal-based diet to a plant-based one. Environmental and food scientists trying to reduce emissions are focused much more intently on that switch than on local food, but Campbell sees the two as related, largely because those who eat locally also tend to eat a much higher concentration of plants. “You walk into a farmers market and into a grocery store, and it’s like two different worlds, you know?” he said. “A grocery store has some vegetables hidden off to the side, and at a farmers market it’s all about the vegetables. That’s not a trivial issue.”

To tie all of those new acres of vegetables imagined in the study to local consumers, each acre was assigned to a nearby city, with no overlaps. This is tricky, especially in dense megalopolises like the Northeast Corridor and Southern California; land in, say, northeastern Pennsylvania lies within 100 miles of both New York City and Philadelphia. “We added this optimization model that decided which units of land to allocate to which particular cities to maximize the total number of people in the U.S. who could be fed locally,” said Campbell.

So that 90 percent number doesn’t mean that any given American can have 90 percent of his or her food needs met by local food, nor does it mean that 90 percent of all Americans will have all of their needs met by local food. Instead it’s a national average: In some parts of the country, people could have all of their needs met, but in, say, New York City, only about 30 percent of the people could have their food needs met by local food (assuming that we tear up all current crops and plant more smartly). Oddly enough, not all major cities have this problem. Chicago, for example, is a wonderland in terms of local food potential. “Chicago stands out. All the high-population cities seem to have lower potential, but Chicago has a lot of cropland around it,” said Campbell. Chicago’s advantage is partly because, unlike in the Northeast, Southern California, or even South Florida, it doesn’t have any major satellite cities nearby. But it’s also because there are a ton of farms within even 50 miles of Chicago, much more than in the Northeast, for instance.

Dense cities aren’t just difficult to feed because they’re dense; the Northeast also suffered a huge collapse in nearby farmland as farming moved to the Midwest in the 20th century. But that farmland, or a lot of it, anyway, could still be resuscitated and used to feed the cities. Campbell sees that as a possibility with a huge amount of potential. “If you put the farms close to the cities, it opens up new opportunities to basically recycle water and nutrients between the cities and farms instead of relying on things that might require fossil fuels,” he said. A robust urban composting program, for example, could supply nearby farms easily, reducing the reliance on fertilizers that maybe aren’t so good for the environment. (Cheap synthetic nitrogen fertilizers put a massive strain on the environment in about a dozen ways; using less of them can only help.)

“This is kind of the first attempt to quantify what the potential is, so we decided with the first number to just see what the upper limit is, the greatest possibility,” Campbell said. This isn’t a change that we could just put into effect with a few clever laws or behavioral changes; it would require an overhaul of the entire economic system and would probably cause the collapse of the world economy as we know it.

But that isn’t the point. The point is to have a baseline, an upper theoretical potential, of whether feeding the country locally is even possible. It certainly seems that it is. The next step, both for Campbell and Zumkehr and for the others that will inevitably riff on their work, is to refine this data. Right now it doesn’t include any climate data, for example: An acre of land in Michigan does not have the same growing season as an acre of land in California’s Central Valley. (Currently, the model takes an average of the annual production of each acre, but it doesn’t include any tips for how to conserve the harvest so that it feeds people above the Mason-Dixon Line during the winter.) Another issue: Our food preferences now are significantly global, and there are lots of important and popular foods that can’t be grown in the U.S. at all (think coffee or chocolate).

It’s important to understand the limits of this study, but it would be equally foolish to disregard it. This is research that thoughtfully begins the conversation about legitimately feeding the country locally. It’s a conversation that’s going to get louder and more important in the years to come.

Original Post

Author Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He has written for Popular Science, The Awl, BuzzFeeᴅ, Modern Farmer, Gawker, Fast Company, and elsewhere.

Please follow the “best little year-round farmers’ market” in downtown Amherst

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A little over a year ago, a small group of your neighbors opened a creative new venture designed to provide an outlet for small local farms and start-up crafters right here in downtown Amherst.  New producers don’t have many opportunities to sell small quantities of what they make and grow.  ATL gives them the chance to get a start!

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All Things Local Cooperative Market is an experiment in localization, where neighbors support neighbors and a strong sense of community can grow.   Local farms and crafters provide us with the quality products that we love….. and we support those vendors by shopping at the local market.

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Veganism: A Solution to World Hunger

By Emilee Herrick; UMass Sustainable Food and Farming Student

Out of the 7 billion humans on this planet, 925 million of them suffer from the effects of hunger, and 870 million people are affected by malnutrition. Each year, five million people will die of starvation; 2.5 million will be children under the age of five. Based on these statistics, one might think that the world, as a whole, cannot produce enough food, however that is not the case. We produce enough plant-based foods to feed the entire world, so why are there people suffering the effects of starvation?


The meat, egg, and dairy industries are leading contributors to world hunger. A vast majority of plant foods produced each year, specifically corn, grains, and soybeans, are fed to livestock rather than people. The University of Minnesota conducted a study on the connection between agricultural resources and world hunger. They concluded that if all crops were grown for direct human consumption, there would be a 70% increase in the world’s food supply, and 4 billion more people would have access to food to eat. Such an increase would be able to sustain the world’s current population, as well as the estimated two to three billion increase by the year 2050.

endhungerAccording to the Worldwatch Institute, “Meat consumption is an inefficient use of grain—the grain is used more efficiently when consumed directly by humans. Continued growth in meat output is dependent on feeding grain to animals, creating competition for grain between affluent meat-eaters and the world’s poor.” To produce one pound of meat: cows need thirteen pounds of grain, pigs require seven pounds of grain, and chickens must consume four and a half pounds of grain. If that grain were instead going directly to people, we would have more grain and fewer hungry people.   Another exemplification of this inefficiency is in the decrease of available calories when animals are processed.   Researchers of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment found that 36% of calories in crops are being fed to animals, but when the animal is processed into meat, only 12% of those calories are available to people.

feedingIn order to combat world hunger, we must reduce or abstain from animal-based products and rely more on plant foods.   In a world where the population is driven primarily by personal wants and excessive luxuries, we must think about the detrimental factors that our mere desire to eat and produce animal-based products has on us at an individual level as well as a societal level. As a population, we have all of the research and statistics to prove just how unsustainable our consumption habits are on all levels, but today people seem too focused on their own wants than about whether others have met their basic needs.


You may contact the author at: Emilee Herrick

An Agriculture Revolution – Back to the Basics

By Brent Holiday

A batch of oak and corn bread using some of the acorns that I gathered last fall. They tend to look like a loaf of super dense rye pumpernickel, and have become a significant part of my diet.

A batch of oak and corn bread using some of the acorns that I gathered last fall. They tend to look like a loaf of super dense rye pumpernickel, and have become a significant part of my diet.

My camera is zoomed in on the woodpecker at the top of the tree. As I am about to snap the picture, it hops to another branch. I will never be able to get the bird back into focus unless I zoom out and start all over again. Sometimes it is better simply to start over from scratch. This is where I believe we are at with agriculture. As our target is now increasing New England food production to 50% by 2060 (1), we might benefit from adopting a new form of agriculture to meet our future needs.

One of the major drawbacks of our current system is that it sharply contrasts with nature’s desires, especially here in New England. We have to fight to grow our food, and nature is a persistent opponent. Getting to 50% will be a battle, but it doesn’t have to be accomplished at the expense of the environment. I believe that if we work with nature, we can overcome some of the physical constraints that we face when growing food. The next few paragraphs illustrate how I believe we are fighting against nature as well as make suggestions for a new sustainable agriculture that mimics how nature functions here in New England.


In New England we have forests but this hasn’t always been the case. In the 1800’s large tracts of forest were cleared to graze animals and raise crops. This seemed to work for a while, but keep in mind that by the early 1800’s we had already decimated the salmon population in Southern New England through a combination of damming, pollution, and overfishing(2). Yet eventually, the farms reverted back to forests as the land was abandoned. Clearing the land was necessary to grow wheat, rye, oats, and corn. They can certainly be grown or raised in some places in New England, however if nature is any indicator, then these crops should not be part of the long term solution.

More appropriate would be using trees as food, since they naturally grow here. Opposed to eating wood? Considering that you already eat wood pulp (3) in your processed foods, this really isn’t such a radical suggestion. However, I think reaping the fruits and nuts that they offer might be more popular. We wiped out our most prolific source of forest carbohydrates, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), by introducing a fungus about a hundred years ago. Yet the American/Chinese hybrid chestnuts are viable substitutes for the extirpated species. You might even see some of these already at your nearby farmer’s market or Co-op. We also have oaks, which can provide plenty of carbohydrates as well.


It’s pretty wet here, with precipitation year round. All of this water leads to wet soils. In the past we have spent a great deal of effort draining these wet soils so that we could grow grass crops and graze cattle, both of which are generally more adapted to well-drained soils. Turning the beavers into funky hats helped to reduce the amount of wet soils, as the beavers’ dams raised water tables and slowed the amount of time it took precipitation to drain out of the watershed. Some consider them a keystone species, as they drastically alter habitats, which serve to influence the populations of other wildlife species. Perhaps we should take a closer look as what the beaver provides (4). The ponds and marshlands that beavers create are some of the most productive ecosystems that we have on Earth, more productive than both deciduous forests and agricultural land. Farming beavers may entice some more than others (I won’t give away my bias), but we can replicate the systems that they create by forming our own earthworks to catch and store water. We could then take advantage of the productive capacity of marshlands by raising crops such as wild rice (Zizania palustris) and cattails (Typha latifolia). Don’t forget the potential for aquaculture.


Freshwater wetlands vastly out-produce our forests and cultivated lands in terms of primary productivity (vegetative growth), let’s harness this potential with aquatic food crops.

A New Frame of Mind

I have overlooked many other topics for the sake of brevity. My main purpose is to get you thinking. Increasing food production in New England will bring about major changes. Yards won’t be grass, and some of our beloved forests will undoubtedly have to disappear as we take on some of the environmental burdens that we currently externalize onto other areas. It is my hope that with a more regionally-suitable agricultural model we can mitigate some of the inevitable environmental impacts as we increase food production.

To see this become a reality, we need to abandon some of our preconceptions and traditional values. We readily accept change when it comes to other parts of our lives (how many of us still refuse to abandon the VHS, or are wary of trying the internet?), yet agriculture is something we are reluctant to see change.  A new agriculture will bring new foods. Are we willing to eat persimmons and chestnuts instead of bananas and bagels? Only time will tell.

This Northampton, MA resident moose relies on forests and wetlands for local food production. Maybe we should follow suit.

This Northampton, MA resident moose relies on forests and wetlands for local food production. Maybe we should follow suit.

  1.  http://www.foodsolutionsne.org/new-england-food-vision
  2. http://www.fws.gov/r5crc/Fish/za_sasa.html#lifehistory
  3. http://foodtechupdates.blogspot.com/2011/03/cellulose-additives-in-foods-good-or.html
  4. http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/leave-it-to-beavers-leave-it-to-beavers/8836/

Operation Harvest and Heal: one farm’s mission to nurture veterans, families, and local food

By Lily Sexton – April 14, 2015

In the Pioneer Valley, one can hardly travel a few miles without a farm sighting. Large dairy farms, small-scale organic production, lush displays of permaculture; this area grows amazing food. But though it may seem that the Valley has enough farmers as it is, Marcin Butkiewicz is settling farm land in an entirely unique way. Butkiewicz currently is working in Rwanda as a data systems analyst for Gardens For Health, a non-profit that partners with local health centers to aid malnourished children by teaching agricultural skills and nutritional knowledge to mothers and providing them with resources to improve their home gardens. It is easy to see his passion for food, farming, and the healing impact they can have on people.

On a sunny afternoon at the Montague Book Mill, Marcin and I met for a cup of coffee to talk about his project, Operation Harvest and Heal. Equal parts fully sustainable farm, non-profit CSA system, and therapeutic haven for returning veterans, it is easy to tell that the vision of Operation Harvest and Heal is the work of a man gifted with the ability to understand the ripple effects that positive change can have on a whole system. Perhaps this is because Butkiewicz has also seen the antithesis of this; the negative spiral of veterans returning from war. “[About] 75% of the homeless population in Boston is veterans. [A recent study] stated that 1.4 million veterans need to rely on food stamps to feed their children, which is ridiculous.” Marcin’s status as a veteran gives him unique insight into the struggles that men and women face upon returning from active duty, specifically the immense challenge of obtaining whole, healthy food when money is tight. “In Cambridge, [a CSA share] is anywhere from $700-1,000… This past summer I spoke at an event raising money for veterans to buy CSA shares. We started having conversations while we were raising that money for the CSAs [about the absurdity] of paying for commercial products when the structure behind them isn’t viable.” Conversations like these led Butkiewicz to create the Harvest portion of the Operation.

Harvest and Heal really go hand in hand for Butkiweicz, who found mental and emotional recovery in farming. “When I first got back I had a lot of trouble transitioning, like most veterans do, which is why most of them are not successful. The thing that helped me the most was gardening. I went out and just started growing and it was actually the most therapeutic thing that I’ve ever done… Emotionally, I was on a cocktail of medicines to ease anxiety when I first got back… Having something that I produced … that was self-sustaining and that I could take pride in, that I’d created- [and] it could sustain me too, if I wanted it to. It was an incredible revelation that woke me up in a sense.” Operation Harvest and Heal’s model will allow veterans and their families to take their recovery into their own hands, literally. Under Marcin’s leadership, veterans will be able to participate in the cultivation of a full array of vegetables and grains and many other tasks involved with growing food and materials to live off of. Says Butkiewicz, “Not only will they learn the skills, but they’ll have a trade, it’ll be official, they can get a job, they can get some therapy, they can grow their own food for their own family. [Then it can become] a group of people who are doing the work, so the size of the farm can grow more. I don’t care if I make a dime off of it. The idea also is to grow the local infrastructure and the local resources.”

Butkiewicz’s unique ability to communicate how his vision will benefit the local community is what makes local non-profits ultimately succeed. He seems to always be thinking four steps ahead, taking into consideration the community’s needs and wants and where it can improve. “A lot of people are disconnected from local food. There’s a lot of people who will go to the store, they’ll buy something, and that’s how they get all their food. Whereas up until the first markets in the fifties, up until then everything was local. So by growing awareness, by growing an identity with your local food sources, that becomes the meaning. [But] a lot of people can’t afford it; it’s only the upper echelons of society, unfortunately, that can afford resources like that… It’s kind of counterintuitive.”

By being an active presence in the local community, Marcin hopes to begin to bring healthy food to all by spreading awareness and education. “The idea behind [the local food movement] is good but with limited resources it creates more of a differentiation. If you create awareness, if you create appreciation through free education amongst the people who aren’t part of the [upper echelons of society], then it becomes part of their lives. They want to be local, they want to be able to grow local food.” Butkiewicz sees a major flaw in America’s reliance on supermarkets. Being able to buy many varieties of produce from all over the world has its perks, but ultimately this food has to travel very far to be offered. People do not have the opportunity to see the impact of their food, the farmer who grows it, the methods used; “There’s not a lot of identity with that.”

Operation Harvest and Heal is planning on having seeds in the ground by the spring of 2016. After the initial start-up costs, the farm should be able to sustain itself at little to no costs through seed-saving and sustainable practices, reasons Butkiewicz. The vision includes draft horse power down the road in order to maintain the farm’s non-mechanized policy.

As the Pioneer Valley continues to lead the region and the state in the local food movement, Operation Harvest and Heal, with its all-inclusive vision, will be a reminder of the core value that inspired the movement: local, healthy food is for everyone. It will aid veterans in discovering new skills in a healing environment and those who previously could not afford or have access to organic produce will be given that chance. Hopefully, one farm can begin to shift the negative spiral that too many veterans are faced with upon returning from duty.


You can contact Marcin at krasnoludek090@gmail.com.

A Rational and Just Farming System may be Incompatible with Capitalism

by Fred Magdoff, University of Vermont Professor of Agriculture

From humanitarian and ecological viewpoints, many aspects of the capitalist economic system are irrational; although they are certainly rational from the more limited standpoint of the individual business or capitalist seeking to make profits. For example, because most people lack their own means to produce an income, they must sell their labor power to companies, which in turn must normally pay a high enough wage for the reproduction of workers and their families. However, although requiring people to work in order to live, the economic system does not guarantee a job for everyone who wants and needs to work. Nor do the available jobs necessarily pay sufficient wages for a decent existence (although government regulations may in some cases compel employers to move in this direction). Practices that make eminent sense for the individual capitalist or company, such as paying only the minimum wage necessary in order to obtain sufficient workers with the needed skills, end up being a problem not only for workers, but the capitalist system itself. Low worker income contributes to problems of effective demand.

With regard to the environment there are scores of examples of irrational behavior by capitalist businesses that have the ultimate goal of making profits. Many practices and side effects of the way the system functions degrade the ecosystem and its processes on which we depend and may also directly harm humans. For example, it is not rational to introduce chemicals into the environment, including into products we use daily, that are either toxic or cause illnesses of various types. Yet there are over 80,000 chemicals used in the United States; few of them are tested for their effects on people or other species, and many commonly used ones are suspected to be carcinogens or have other detrimental effects.

For this discussion I would like to focus on a well-known passage from the third volume of Marx’s Capital: “a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (although the latter promotes technical improvements in agriculture), and needs either the hand of the small farmer living by his own labour or the control of associated producers.”1

The U.S. food system can be thought of as being composed of a number of parts before the food reaches the public. “Farming” is the actual process of raising plants and animals for human food, animal feed, conversion to industrial chemicals and fuels for vehicles, and fiber (such as cotton). But there are “upstream” inputs required by farmers such as commercial fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, equipment, animal hormones, antibiotics, mineral feed supplements, fuel to run the equipment, and dry some crops. “Downstream” from the farm, its products are first purchased and then processed and manufactured by one or more corporations. Products are then transported from the processors and manufacturers to retail outlets for sale to the public. There are no cycles in this system as energy and nutrients flow from one location to another.

When viewed as a whole, the food system is composed of the following chain: (a) input industries; (b) farms; (c) purchasers of raw farm products; (d) processors/manufacturers; (e) retail stores; and (f) the public. The agricultural sector—“agribusiness”—is considered to be composed of (a) through (c), but basic processors (grinding, for example) are also part of the sector.

The Purposes and Outcomes of Agriculture

The main purpose of almost all farm production in the United States is to sell raw products at the highest possible profit. There are farmers producing for niche markets and/or “adding value” by processing at the farm (making such items as cheeses and jams) and selling directly to the public. However, the overwhelming quantity of food produced is by farmers selling undifferentiated commodities into a large regional or national market. This goal to maximize profit margins (selling price minus cost of production) governs:

  • What crops are planted in a given year and over time (type of rotation).
  • Which farm animals are raised, if any, where they are raised, and how they are treated.
  • The inputs used such as fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, and needed fuels.
  • The scale of production and mechanization.
  • The extent of hired farm labor and treatment of laborers.
  • When products are sold and use of futures contracts.
  • Whether direct production contracts with processors are entered into.

A “Logical” Progression

These questions are intertwined—one decision may directly lead to particular decisions on other aspects. As an example, let us look at a farmer in the U.S. Cornbelt region (the Cornbelt is centered in Iowa and Illinois, but includes large areas of Minnesota, eastern Nebraska, Missouri, western Indiana and parts of western Ohio, and the eastern Dakotas). The farmer decides to grow corn and soybeans, as many Cornbelt farmers do (often exclusively so). The infrastructure needed to deal with these crops is in place—suppliers of needed inputs, market arrangements, storage, and transportation of the crops to markets. As we go through the example you might say to yourself that the aspects discussed appear to be absolutely rational decisions. And they actually are formally rational, given the economic system in which the farmer operates. But the critical question is: are the results of such a progression of decisions and practices substantively rational from wider environmental or social points of view? Let us take a look.

The first decision to concentrate on one or two crops automatically means that a more ecologically sound and complex rotation of crops is not possible. A lack of farm diversification (and no farm animals) makes sense because farmers can then spend their time specializing as is done in other lines of business. A typical conventional farmer in the Cornbelt primarily grows corn and soybeans.2 The lack of rotation with a perennial sod-type crop (such as grass and legume hay that covers the entire soil surface all year long and helps build up organic matter) means that the soil is eroded more easily and groundwater is more polluted. Lack of a more complex rotation also makes weeds, insects, and diseases more problematic, requiring interventions, normally with pesticides. The reliance on two crops also means that if the prices for both crops decline to near or below the costs of production—as happened for corn and soybeans in the early fall of 2014—there is potential economic hardship for the farm. Government subsidies, including the federally subsidized income insurance program (with benefits overwhelmingly to the largest farms and the insurance industry), cushion the situation when revenue falls, such as when prices turn or a crop failure occurs.3 Thus one of the economic aspects of the irrationality of the system resulting from specializing on two crops and not spreading risk over a larger number of crops is partly remedied as a result of the political power of an agricultural lobby that includes farmers, input industries, processors, lenders, and, in this case, the insurance industry.

Planting corn after corn, or alternating between corn and soy, leaves the soil without living vegetation for more than half of the year. Although in undisturbed natural systems annuals die in the fall and deciduous trees lose their leaves, perennials live through the winter months. And in grasslands where the plants are dormant in the winter, they are active longer into fall and earlier the following spring than with annual crops such as corn and soy, and the soil surface is covered with their residue. In addition, the roots of living plants, even when dormant, reduce erosion by helping to hold soil in place. The problem of bare soil in the off-season is especially severe when the whole corn plant is harvested to make silage—usually to feed dairy or beef cows. When grown only for its grain, a lot of corn residue is left on the surface. While that is not the same as having a living crop in place, it is a lot better than a nearly bare soil surface. On the other hand, there is much less crop residue following soybeans than after corn. Planting cover crops to protect soil and groundwater over the late fall, winter, and early spring is becoming a more common practice. Routine use of cover crops helps to overcome this particular problem within a conventional agricultural system that exclusively raises annual crops.

Deciding how many acres of corn and soybeans to plant depends on the relative potential of profits of corn vs. soybeans—something that changes from year to year, and even shifts during the year. The projected prices that farmers will receive for corn vs. soybeans are important (and can be locked in if the farmer enters into a sales contract before the season begins). But also important are the relative costs of growing the two crops—with corn costing more, especially because of the needed nitrogen fertilizer and costs of drying harvested grain before sales.

Because per acre profits are low for these crops, more land is needed to produce sufficient total farm profits to maintain a family at current economic standards. For example, suppose the profit on raising corn or soybeans is around $200 per acre. Therefore a farm with one hundred acres of cropland with all of its fields planted to these crops will have a profit of $20,000. That is not very much money after working so hard for a full year. The result is that, unless you get an off-farm job to supplement income and provide benefits (and many farmers do this), you need to purchase or rent more land. And as the farm becomes larger it makes it more difficult for farmers to really know their land. As the old saying goes, “The farmer’s footprint is the best fertilizer.” The result of larger and larger farms is that most of the land on these operations never experiences the farmer’s footprint.4

A larger farm means that bigger machinery is needed in order to cover the extensive area. The main effect of mechanization is to increase the efficiency of labor, resulting in less labor used per acre and per unit of crop produced (i.e., per bushel, pound, or kilogram). However, mechanization does not necessarily result in higher yields per acre, unless it allows a farmer to work in a more timely manner.5 This heavier and more costly equipment has a potential downside. Larger equipment allows farmers to work on their land when it is too wet, leading to compaction, as damage to soil structure occurs more easily with a wetter soil. Although smaller equipment can also cause compaction, it is easier to work soils at inappropriate times with large tractors, which have more power than smaller ones.

Specialization in corn and soybeans leads to more pesticide use. Both corn and soybeans are annual crops, thus weeds that do well under such conditions (without perennial crops in the rotation) proliferate. In general, these types of weeds are able to grow quickly along with the crop and to complete their life cycle before the crop is harvested, providing lots of seeds for the following year. In addition, insects and disease problems proliferate by growing such large areas of predominantly two crops. Soybean cyst nematode that infests soybean roots and causes significant reductions in yields can be controlled by a rotation for two years into crops that are non-hosts such as corn or wheat. While one year of corn between soybean crops will help, yield reductions of soybeans will still occur in infested fields.

Reliance on pesticides for control of weeds, insects, nematodes, and diseases has led to what is known as a “pesticide treadmill.” Once you are on the treadmill, it is very hard to get off, because “pests” develop resistance to the pesticides used to control them. This means farmers must switch to pesticides that have different modes of action, and sometimes have to use multiple pesticides for a problem that was once taken care of by a single pesticide.

There is a vast body of literature on the toxicity of pesticides to humans and other “non-target” species. Pesticides routinely contaminate farm workers and those that live near farms, many vegetables and fruits, and water supplies. For example, the herbicide atrazine has been found to damage humans and other organisms, but nonetheless is still in widespread use and can be found in a large percentage of drinking water samples from agricultural areas.6 Many other pesticides are also commonly found in foods, as well as water supplies.7

Specialization in corn and soybeans leads to more fertilizer use than would be needed in a more complex rotation or on integrated farms raising both animals and crops. Although I will discuss this issue in more detail below, the small amount of actual nutrient cycling that occurs on these farms (when crop residue returns to the soil and decomposes), necessitates the annual input of significant quantities of fertilizers. These types of farms export all of the crop—the corn grain and soybeans—to locations far away to be used as animal feed, processing for food products (cereal, vegetable oil), food additives, or for ethanol for fueling cars. But the nutrients contained in the products exported off the farm all came from the soil and must be replaced with fertilizers.

The two crop, corn-soybean system is particularly “leaky,” with elevated levels of nitrates routinely reaching ground and surface waters. To get the highest yield from corn—which has an incredible two-month growth spurt as it increases in height and puts on more leaves and then switches from the vegetative state (growing more leaves and getting taller) to the reproductive stage (as the grain fills)—it needs to take up and assimilate nitrogen faster than can be supplied except by the most fertile soils or when corn follows a multi-year productive legume crop such as alfalfa. This makes it necessary to apply a high rate of nitrogen fertilizer to be sure that sufficient nitrogen is available when the plant needs it. Fertilizer nitrogen applications are now better matched with crop needs, but elevated nitrate levels are almost always found in soils at harvest time. Nitrate pollution of water is common in regions where this system is used because nitrate (NO3) is not well retained in soils—themselves negatively charged—and leaches easily into groundwater and tile drains, finding its way into ditches, streams, and rivers.8 With corn covering such a large portion of the land, high levels of nitrate pollution of ground water and drainage water occur. Elevated nitrate concentrations in drinking water forces some cities to use expensive procedures for reducing the concentrations to stay within the public health limit. Des Moines, Iowa, after spending close to $1 million last year to reduce nitrate levels in their drinking water taken from the Raccoon River, intends to sue three upriver counties that manage drainage districts.9 Nitrate from Midwestern cornfields is flushed down the Mississippi River, helping to create the large “dead zone” (actually a zone of very low oxygen levels) after the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Because larger areas are being farmed, anything that simplifies the system is attractive to farmers and allows them to farm even larger areas. This is where genetically modified (GM) seeds come in.10 The major advantage of the GM seeds that have so far been sold to farmers from companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta is that, by simplifying what needs to be done in the field, it is much easier to farm larger areas. This has influenced the choice of seeds, with, for example, Monsanto’s GM seeds that contain herbicide resistance such as Roundup Ready corn, meaning fewer trips over the field and the use of a single herbicide until, of course, weeds develop resistance to the herbicide used. Farmers now must use additional herbicides and higher application rates in order to control weeds that have become resistant to Roundup.

A new dimension has been added over the last decade with on-the-go electronic information gathering as farmers go over land for field preparation, planting, and harvesting. These costly additions to field equipment mean that the full suite of gadgets is primarily of use to very large farms. As a large-scale (20,000 acre) Iowa farmer put it, previously “a [Cornbelt] farmer with 1,000 acres could make a good living. I’m not sure that’s going to last.”11 The specialized equipment—that is almost completely automated and is able to collect information on yields, grain moisture content, and soil, to plow to within an inch of a desired row, steer itself, etc.—is only available for certain crops. Purchasing such equipment makes it easier to farm huge areas, locking farmers even more tightly into the “easy-to-grow,” “easy-to-harvest,” and “easy-to-sell” simplified system with two crops. And the company that controls so many crop varieties, Monsanto, has bought up companies that have gotten it into providing, processing and storing agricultural information for individual fields and farms. This has given Monsanto even more sway over agricultural production.

Other Systemic Irrationalities of Capitalist Agriculture

The discussion above followed the issues as they cascaded from an initial decision to pursue one type of farming, albeit one quite common in the U.S. Midwest. All of the decisions discussed above are absolutely logical given the initial decision to grow corn and soy for the general commodity market (instead of a niche market) in that region and given the incentives and demands of capitalist market relations; government subsidies certainly make this easier. Almost all large farms, those that produce the vast majority of the nation’s food, specialize in a few crops or one type of animal. But, all together, there are many different crops grown. In the large-scale commercial sector there are farms that specialize in tree fruits (or particular tree fruits), other fruits and berries, vegetables (or specialized groups of vegetables), other agronomic crops such as potatoes, wheat, sorghum, hay crops, cotton, peanuts, and so on. And there are dairy farms and others that raise beef cows, hogs, poultry, or sheep. They tend to specialize because that allows them to more easily standardize and hone their production system.

Rather than tracing decision sequences for each of these as I did above for the Midwest corn-soybean system, let us just look at various other types of irrationalities that develop in U.S. agriculture.

Hunger amidst plenty. There are still plenty of hungry people amidst all the abundance and waste of food. If the purpose of capitalist agriculture was to grow food in order to feed people, there could be no hunger in the United States. However, well over 40 million people are considered “food insecure”—this is in a country that literally grows more food than it knows what to do with. Even in countries such as India, food is exported at the same time that people are hungry. As a Wall Street Journal headline put it in 2004: “An Indian Paradox: Bumper Harvests and Rising Hunger.”12 The scourge of hunger and malnourished people occurs in most countries around the world. There is no “right to food,” although like clean air and water it is an essential good needed by everyone. Rather, it is a commodity like any other and if you do not have the money to buy it in sufficient quantity or quality, then you will have to get what you can from a charity group or a government program.

Food waste. One of the irrationalities of the food system as a whole is the immense waste that occurs—estimated to be about one-third of the food produced in the United States. A good part of this is waste at the household level, throwing away of food that usually ends up in landfills. However, a significant amount also occurs when farmers have more crops then they can sell, or when their produce does not meet the standards demanded by retailers for size and condition. According to a 2012 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, “One large cucumber farmer estimated that fewer than half the vegetables he grows actually leave his farm and that 75 percent of the cucumbers culled before sale are edible.”13 Additional waste occurs during processing and in the retail sector. Markets would rather have their shelves fully stocked as an indication of abundance, than look sparsely provisioned; they simply toss out what spoils. While some waste is probably unavoidable, much of the waste of food in the United States occurs because of the irrationalities built into the system.

The drive to larger farms in the United States, and now abroad, including countries in South America, has another social dimension in the massive displacement of people as their land is expropriated.14 In addition to displacement by expropriation, people are abandoning farms because they cannot compete with the low prices for imported food. Thus many Mexican farmers had to stop corn production when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into full force. And farmers throughout the Caribbean and in many other countries faced such pressures following IMF-mandated “structural adjustments” in which protective tariffs on food were lowered or eliminated. One of the great problems of the twenty-first century is: If, in the future, highly mechanized farmers operating at a large scale produce all of the food needed in the world, what will happen to the billions of people that are involved in farming? There are not enough jobs available as displaced farmers move to the city slums, so they try to get by in the “informal economy.” Thus, the growth of large farm units is creating dislocations and more food insecurity.

Decline in cycling of nutrients. The growth of cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries separated the people from the land that produced their food. And in the mid-to-late twentieth century, factory-scale farm animal production removed animals from the fields that produced their feed. Thus farms producing food and animal feeds need to import large quantities of fertilizers while at the same time huge quantities of nutrients accumulate in cities and factory animal farms, commonly causing pollution problems. The reliance on fertilizers has allowed farmers to overcome the continuous export of nutrients in the products they sell—but this has come at significant environmental costs in terms of energy as was well as pollution in the mining and production processes. It has also come at the cost of decreasing soil health as organic matter levels decreased dramatically.

In a future rational society we will have to find a way to ensure that most of the nutrients that flow from farms to cities participate in a “return flow” to farms. This same dynamic occurs with animals, although regarding them the answer is clearly to promote integrated livestock/crop farms. These farms—although not “rational” in the capitalist sense of maximizing profits—can have more ecologically sound rotations, export many fewer nutrients from the farm, and most nutrients taken up by crops are cycled on the farm itself in the form of crop residues and animal manures.

At the current time the problem with regard to lack of return flow of nutrients from people to farms is primarily a result of suburban sprawl. Aside from other issues about the suburbs, it means that farmland suitable for accepting human wastes is farther and farther from cities. Additionally, commercially generated contaminants in cities, and people using products that they dispose of down the drains, makes using sewage sludges as fertilizers questionable in terms of safety.

Inhumane treatment of animals, and feeding ruminants a high-starch diet. The raising of animals in large “factory farms” is done under inhumane conditions. Chickens for meat (“broilers”) are raised in barns of tens of thousands of birds. The chickens have been bred to gain weight rapidly—this, of course, means more rapid “turnover” and more profits—and have large breasts because of the preference for white meat. They are less active because so much of the energy they consume is converted into growth and thus spend most of their lives sitting on the floor—even as the manure accumulates during a growing cycle—usually losing their feathers on their breast and developing sores as well because of the almost constant contact with manure. The barns are only cleaned out after the chickens have been shipped but the litter (manure) may be reused for the next group of chickens by placing a thin layer of fresh litter such as wood chips on top of the old manure. Raised mostly in dim light (companies may forbid natural lighting), they live a short six-to-eight-week life entirely in the barn. They are fed a diet laced with questionable additives such as antibiotics that enhance growth, but many die under the crowded conditions, and one of the jobs on the operation is to go through the barn regularly and remove dead birds or those with deformities.

The incredibly rapid growth of meat birds—from 0.002 to 8.8 pounds in eight weeks, analogous to a baby that weighed 6.6 pounds at birth growing around 660 pounds in two months—produces abnormal birds.15 There is no question that chickens grow faster than humans, but the extra rapid growth caused by “improved” genetics and optimal feeding has created a most unfortunate animal. Because the birds have been bred to grow so rapidly their legs may not be able to support them, so there are always lame ones, unable to walk; they are usually euthanized. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof commented on the treatment of meat birds: “Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.”16 Caged layers may have it even worse, with little room and their entire lives within the small cage and no ability to even peck at the ground.

These problems are not confined to poultry. Hog gestation—with sows in crates in which they cannot turn around so as to make it “more efficient” for them to feed their piglets—is difficult to look at even in photos. Beef cows, which are ruminants, have evolved to be able to gain their entire energy diet from grasslands, with cellulose—a structural element of plants that we cannot digest—providing most of their energy as a result of the activity of microorganisms in their rumens. But in order to get them to gain weight rapidly, beef cows on feedlots, with thousands of animals, are fed diets high in corn grain, and soy to provide protein. (Growing corn and soybeans requires high rates of pesticides and fertilizers that would not be needed if cows were on pasture, where pests pose less of a problem and most of the nutrients are directly recycled onto the land as manure and urine.) Again, antibiotics and hormones have been part of the system in order to produce the most “efficient” weight gains.

Thus, because the pursuit of profit is the goal of raising these farm animals under industrial conditions—the only issue considered is how to do so as rapidly and cheaply as possible. As a recent exposé in the New York Times about the brutal treatment of farm animals in a large government financed research facility put it in its title: “U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit.”17 There has been pushback from the public on treatment of farm animals such as the 2014 bill passed by the New Jersey legislature that would have outlawed gestation crates for hogs, but was vetoed by the governor. A humane and ecologically sound system of raising farm animals for human food would allow the animals, raised in smaller flocks and herds, to do what they have done through their evolutionary history—let cows graze in pastures and chickens have space to walk, perhaps even run around, and peck in a clean environment and to be able to roost, and let sows give birth and feed their piglets in a relaxed and less restricted way.

Farm and processor labor issues are immense. Farm workers who apply pesticides and harvest crops, especially fruits and vegetables (both types of crops are difficult to mechanize) are usually treated abysmally. Their wages are low and their housing is generally substandard, if provided at all. State laws on treatment of farm workers, not usually very strong to start with, are commonly ignored. Workers, many of whom are undocumented, are in a subservient position and rarely complain. It takes a huge effort, such as with the workers who harvest tomatoes in the Immokalee area of Florida, to win modest demands. Workers in animal-processing facilities (slaughterhouses), have high rates of injuries, and are treated “only somewhat better than the hogs at a Hormel slaughterhouse.” Eric Schlosser describes many slaughterhouse workers this way: “Recent immigrants recruited to subvert unions and reduce wages. Undocumented immigrants living in fear, reluctant to report violations of the labor code. A packinghouse culture full of stress and danger and remarkably free of mercy.”18 Meanwhile, many animal rights groups which are so concerned over the inhumane treatment of farm animals (as they should be) are very quiet about the treatment of human workers.

With the large importation of food from western and northwestern Mexico, especially during the colder months in the United States, providing over half of annual tomato consumption, this has become an important component of the U.S. food supply. The mostly indigenous laborers brought in from southern part of the country work under harsh conditions, including near-slavery. A Los Angeles Times exposé on the conditions on these farms in Mexico found that:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It is common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences, and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
  • Major U.S. companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.19

Loss of biodiversity. There is loss of biodiversity as native plant species are eradicated in order to grow the crops desired for sale in the market. The loss of habitat for diverse species means that there is also a loss of natural control mechanisms. There is also loss of biological diversity in soils as few (or a single) crops are grown and soil organic matter is depleted. Another type of diversity loss is that of the genetic diversity of the crops themselves. In 2004 the UN’s Food and Agriculture organization estimated “that about three quarters of the genetic diversity of agricultural crops have been lost over the last century. And of 6,300 animal breeds, 1,350 are endangered.”20 Seeds from commercial companies have penetrated much of the world’s agriculture, displacing native varieties even in the areas of the species’ origin (where the highest genetic diversity is normally found). As private companies focus on few varieties that are themselves genetically uniform, this creates a lack of genetic diversity within the crop—making a field planted to one crop even more susceptible to insect infestations.

Reliance on large quantities of fossil fuels. “Modern” large-scale farming relies on significant inputs of energy, almost all from fossil fuels. Certain aspects of farming are especially energy intensive. When considering large farms we think of the huge equipment and the diesel needed to fuel its activities. While it is true that the manufacture and use of machinery takes lots of energy, approximately one-third of all the energy used to grow corn is used to make and apply the nitrogen fertilizer! It takes a lot of energy to convert nitrogen gas in the atmosphere (N2) into forms that can be used by plants (ammonium and nitrate).

The fate of the crops that are grown depends on who is willing and able to pay the most for them such as a food processor, an ethanol manufacturer, or a beef cow feedlot owner. This is supposedly evidence that every product is going to its “highest and best use” because this is the very definition of the term. But is it really in the interests of humanity and the wider environment that food be grown in the cheapest way possible and then sold to the highest bidder, which could be an export market? Aside from in the dreams of a traditional economist, how in the world can the person or company able to pay the highest price be considered best use of a product? Was it really the “best use” for India, a country with so much extreme hunger, to export 210 metric tons of grain and 100 metric tons of vegetable oil to the United States?21

An interesting aspect of farming is that agricultural commodity price changes do not have the same effect on production as price changes in other types of businesses. As with all businesses, “When prices are high, farmers seek to maximize production to capture the higher prices and maximize total net income.” But the situation when prices are low goes against the dogma of conventional economics that lower prices should lead to decreased production.

When prices are low, farmers need to maximize production in order to reduce the per-unit cost of production, with the goal of covering variable costs and as much of the fixed costs as possible. Because farmers have high fixed costs relative to other businesses where labor—that can be idled—is the highest cost[,] they face challenges quite different from those faced by Main Street businesses. For farmers working in a low price period, any contribution increased production can make toward fixed costs helps reduce losses. And, this increased production then leads to a further reduction in price.22

Thus, farmers increase production when prices are high (as they “should”) and when prices are low (which they “shouldn’t”). A rational economic decision for each individual farmer goes against the supposed capitalist economic logic and ends up being irrational for the entire group of farmers together. (It is important to note that the main way farmers rapidly increase total production in response to high prices for all the crops they grow is to convert marginal land, frequently highly erodible, from conservation buffers or strips into cultivation for cash crops. This, of course, leads to environmental damage.)

Large corporations with political connections can get laws and regulations in place that change incentives to farmers as to which crops to grow. This can also influence food prices. For example, Dwayne Andreas, the former head of the agribusiness giant Archer-Daniels-Midland (ADM), was extremely well connected to U.S. presidents and influential members of Congress. ADM is one of the world’s largest purchasers, sellers, and processors of grains and is always interested in new uses for crops and possible ventures to expand their profits. Andreas and ADM were instrumental in getting the U.S. ethanol fuel mandates. This was sold to Congress as a way to produce “home grown” energy. The ethanol blending mandate—that ethanol make up initially 10 percent of all gas sold, and according to the law, should increase to 15 percent—was in essence both a price support for corn (about 40 percent of the U.S. crop going into ethanol production in 2012) as well as a support for the ethanol industry. If corn-based ethanol production actually amounted to a major energy savings, there would still be problems with the mandate. However, it turns out that growing the corn and producing the ethanol (which must be distilled three times to remove all the water) is very energy intensive. For this reason there may actually be a net energy loss in the whole process.23

Proletarianization of farmers producing poultry and hogs under contracts to large integrated corporations. Chicken broiler production is concentrated in certain regions such as the DelMarVa peninsula (containing small portions of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia), northern Alabama and Georgia, southern Mississippi, parts of Arkansas and western Oklahoma. These concentrated zones of meat bird production did not occur by accident. Large companies such as Tyson (headquartered in Arkansas and also into pork and beef), JBS USA (which bills itself as the largest “protein”—i.e., meat—company in the world), and Perdue decide where they want to have their processing facilities. They then contract with nearby farmers who must build barns to corporate specifications and supply the contract farmers with the baby chicks, feed, veterinary medicines, etc. The farmers own nothing but the barns and the manure, and are paid based on how many birds are produced and their rate of weight gain. The farmer is in reality a laborer for the corporation, who must follow directions or be “fired” when a contract is not renewed.24 The 2015 U.S. agricultural appropriations bill does away with modest protections for contract farmers that speak out about abuses in the industry or seek to organize with other farmers in order to have more favorable contract terms. And with all the large scale processing plants controlled by integrated corporations, independent farmers have no way to process large numbers of animals. The story is quite similar for hogs—zones of high concentrations of farms raising animals under contract to corporations.

Can Capitalist Agriculture be Improved Environmentally and Socially?

Of course! There are many things that have been done and more that can and should be accomplished in the future to deal with the ecological and social problems (irrationalities) created by capitalist agriculture. Some of these do not sufficiently threaten powerful interests that might be harmed, or the influential interests understand that, because of publicity, something must be done differently. In some instances something might be accomplished. I ran into this when talking to a group of agrichemical dealers and showed them that farmers were routinely applying too much nitrogen fertilizer to their corn crops. It was clear that something had to be done to lessen nitrate pollution of water, but to the fertilizer salespeople, it meant less income. But eventually fertilizer dealers understood that nitrate pollution is a problem and that, in order to avoid regulations, they could not oppose lower fertilizer application rates, proposed by universities, that better matched the needs of plants. Later, another dilemma developed when it was shown that farmers were overfeeding their dairy cows with unneeded phosphorus minerals; the people who sold minerals to dairy farmers were not happy, but had to go along with reducing phosphorus feeding rates. Better soil tests are helping farmers reduce the amount of fertilizers used, thereby lessening water pollution. The use of cover crops and reduced tillage are expanding so that growing primarily (or exclusively) annual crops does not result in as much soil erosion and water pollution.

Laws can be passed—if people can be mobilized to fight for change—for higher wages, and better treatment and working conditions, for farm laborers and for workers in animal slaughterhouses. A law could theoretically be passed so that contract poultry farmers, now considered to be independent contractors, can come under the labor relations laws and be allowed to organize and negotiate as a group without fear of being blackballed from future work in the industry—but, as mentioned above, the modest protections have been done away with in the 2015 agriculture appropriations bill.

With regard to farm labor, state laws on access to clean water and sanitation facilities could theoretically be strengthened and more strictly enforced, and better housing mandated. However, the power of the agricultural lobby and relative lack of power of farm labor stands in the way of strengthening farm labor protection laws.

And it is at least theoretically possible that hunger could be abolished here and abroad, because enough food is currently produced to feed everyone in the world. But while there is plenty of money to subsidize fossil fuel companies, give tax breaks to wealthy people, and to conduct wars, there is strangely not enough money to feed everyone.

There are a number of farmers that have environmental and social goals incorporated into their farming systems. Most notable among these are the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farms which are managed ecologically (many organically) and grow food for the purpose of feeding a specific group of people. Many have sliding-scale pricing for families or other ways to include those with low-incomes. Although operating very much in a capitalist society, these are essentially non-capitalist endeavors. However, many of these provide only a very basic living to the farmers. There are other small-scale farmers that have ecologically sound practices and good rotations and grow for varied outlets such as restaurants and farmers markets. However, some large-scale farms tout their “ecological” (or organic) practices as marketing tools, but from an economic point of view are just another brand of capitalist farms—doing perhaps less damage to the environment, but frequently not very pleasant to employees.

So while there are more rational social and ecological relations on some farms, these produce a miniscule proportion of the U.S. food supply. Although a growing portion of conventional farmers are using more environmentally sound practices such as planting cover crops and reducing tillage and better treatment of livestock, we are still left with a host of irrationalities in the system—from the simplified ecosystem created to the continued water pollution, to use of (and contamination of many with) pesticides, to poor conditions for farm and processing labor.

The Bottom Line

The pulls and pushes of the capitalist system, and the way it inherently develops as all sectors strive to maximize profits, produces an agriculture in which: (a) there are hungry people although there is an abundance of food; (b) there is little true cycling of nutrients, increasing the reliance on fertilizers at the same time that excess nutrients accumulate on factory animal farms and in the cities; (c) animals are raised inhumanely; (d) poor rotations are used; (e) farm labor and animal slaughterhouse labor is commonly treated unfairly (and/or cruelly); and (f) pollution with pesticides and fertilizers is widespread, among other problems. All of the common decisions and practices of conventional farmers and others in the agricultural system make eminent sense (that is, they are rational) only from the very narrow perspective of trying to make profits within a capitalist system. As Marx explained, “the dependence of the cultivation of particular agricultural products upon the fluctuations of market-prices, and the continual changes in this cultivation with these price fluctuations—the whole spirit of capitalist production, which is directed toward the immediate gain of money—are in contradiction to agriculture, which has to minister to the entire range of permanent necessities of life required by the chain of successive generations.”25

We must conclude that the way the capitalist agricultural system functions in the real world is environmentally and socially irrational.

But what exactly would a rational agriculture be like? I propose this definition: A rational agriculture would be carried out by individual farmers or farmer associations (cooperatives) and have as its purpose to supply the entire population with a sufficient quantity, quality, and variety of food while managing farms and fields in ways that are humane to animals and work in harmony with the ecosystem. There would be no exploitation of labor—anyone working on the farm would be like all the others, a farmer. If an individual farmer working alone needed help, then there might be a transition to a multi-person farm. The actual production of food on the land would be accomplished by working with and guiding agricultural ecosystems (instead of dominating them) in order to build the strengths of unmanaged natural systems into the farms and their surroundings.

To develop this type of agriculture will require building it within a new socioeconomic system—based on meeting the needs of the people (which include a healthy and thriving environment) instead of accumulation of profits.


  1. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1967), 121 (Chapter 6, section 2).
  2. There are, of course, other types of farms in this region such as vegetable, dairy, and hog farms. But corn and soybeans dominate the region’s agriculture.
  3. Land Stewardship Program, “Crop Insurance—How a Safety Net Became a Farm Policy Disaster; White Paper 2: Crop Insurance Ensures the Big Get Bigger,” December 2, 2014, http://landstewardshipproject.org.
  4. U.S. farms raising all crops and animals continue to get larger, although there are successful small and medium size farms. About 6 percent of all farms, representing 120,000 farms, raise three-quarters of the value of food produced. See Daniel Sumner, “American Farms Keep Growing: Size, Productivity, and Policy,” Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 1 (2014): 147–56, http://pubs.aeaweb.org.
  5. Fred Magdoff, “Pros and Cons of Agricultural Mechanization in the Third World,” Monthly Review 34, no. 1 (1982): 33–45.
  6. Mae Wu, Mayra Quirindongo, Jennifer Sass, and Andrew Wetzler, Still Poisoning the Well: Atrazine Continues to Contaminate Surface Water and Drinking Water in the United States, Natural Resources Defense Council, April 2010, http://nrdc.org. For a remarkable piece about the attacks by the pesticide industry on a researcher working on the health problems of Atrazine see Rachel Aviv, “A Valuable Reputation,” New Yorker, February 10, 2014, http://newyorker.com.
  7. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, Pesticide Data Program: Annual Summary, Calendar Year 2011, February 2013, http://ams.usda.gov.
  8. Clays and well-decomposed organic matter contain negative charges. This permits soils to hold onto positively charged ions of calcium (Ca++), magnesium (Mg++), potassium (K+), and ammonium (NH4+), and keep these essential nutrients for plants readily available for roots to take up.
  9. Dan Charles, “Iowa’s Largest City Sues Over Farm Fertilizer Runoff In Rivers,” National Public Radio, January 12, 2015, http://npr.org.
  10. The production of GM seeds still relies on traditional breeding programs to produce varieties with good basic traits such as yield and quality. The traits that confer herbicide resistance and/or the ability to actually produce their own insecticides are then introduced into these varieties from other species.
  11. Quentin Hardy, “Working the Land and the Data,” New York Times, November 30, 2014, http://nytimes.com.
  12. Roger Thurow and Jay Solomon, “An Indian Paradox: Bumper Harvests and Rising Hunger,” Wall Street Journal, June 25, 2004, http://wsj.com.
  13. Dana Gunders, Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40 Percent of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill, Natural Resources Defense Council Issue Paper, August 2012, http://nrdc.org.
  14. Fred Magdoff, “Twenty-First-Century Land Grabs: Accumulation by Agricultural Dispossession,” Monthly Review 65, no. 6 (November 2013): 1–18.
  15. R.F. Wideman, et al., “Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (Ascites Syndrome) in Broilers: A Review,” Poultry Science 92, no.1 (2013): 64–83.
  16. Nicholas Kristof, “Abusing Chickens We Eat,” New York Times, December 3, 2014, http://nytimes.com.
  17. Michael Moss, “U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit,” New York Times, January 20, 2015, http://nytimes.com.
  18. Eric Schlosser, “‘The Chain,’ by Ted Genoways,” New York Times, Sunday Book Review, November 21, 2014, http://nytimes.com.
  19. Richard Marosi, “Hardship on Mexico’s Farms, A Bounty for U.S. Tables,” Los Angeles Times, December 7, 2014, http://graphics.latimes.com.
  20. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Biodiversity for Food Security, 2004, http://fao.org.
  21. This figure is from 2013. See United States Department of Agriculture, U.S. Food Imports, Economic Research Service, “U.S. Food Imports,” http://ers.usda.gov.
  22. Daryll Ray and Harwood Schaffer, “Farm-level Production Decisions and Industry-level Impacts,” Policy Pennings Weekly Agricultural Column, November 14, 2014, http://agpolicy.org.
  23. Fred Magdoff, “The Political Economy and Ecology of Biofuels,” Monthly Review 60, no. 3 (July–August 2008): 34–50.
  24. See R. C. Lewontin, “The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture: Farmer as Proletarian,” Monthly Review 50, no. 3 (July–August 1998): 72–84.
  25. Marx, Capital, vol. 3, 617 (Chapter 37, “Introduction,” footnote 27).

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