What Is Agribusiness?
In this article, we use the term “agribusiness” to refer to large-scale, industrialized, vertically integrated food production, as opposed to smaller farms owned by and supporting families or individuals and their communities. This type of agribusiness is often referred to as “industrial agriculture,” which the Union of Concerned Scientists defines as “the system of chemically intensive food production developed in the decades after World War II, featuring enormous single-crop farms and animal production facilities.”
By Sally McGuire and Joann S. Grohman
In America we made a Faustian bargain regarding our food supply: We gave our food production to agribusiness in exchange for the promise of a better life. This arrangement has resulted in unintended consequences: the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, eroded soils, herbicide-resistant weeds, CO2 in the atmosphere, and the list goes on. It’s time to assess our bargain, determine the costs and decide whether the entities with which we contracted are going to hold up their end and go on feeding us. And if the bargain is off, what then? Then we need to support a New Green Revolution.
From Local Economies to Corporate Profits
Consider how food was grown in the United States 100 years ago. Farms were small, a few hundred acres or less. Most Americans were engaged with the land, with only 2 or 3 percent living in towns or cities. A typical foodshed covered less than 100 miles. Even in towns people grew vegetables and kept a few animals for eggs, milk and transportation. Manure was composted and put back on the land. People saved their own seed. Many people grew grain and took it to the local gristmill. Hard work? Of course, but meaningful work too.
This was the dominant economic system: an endless patchwork of small to medium farms with mixed agricultural production and with each farm having its own resident farmer and an assumption of permanence. It was a multifaceted community, interconnected and productive. Profits typically stayed in the local communities. It was like the parable of the bundle of sticks that couldn’t be broken, until more and more sticks were taken away.
Today the bundle is largely gone. It was traded for a system that we were assured would be far more productive and efficient. People moved to cities and lost their connection to the land. The “Green Revolution” was a catchphrase from the 1950s that came with the introduction of new breeds of wheat as well as synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. The 1980s brought the introduction of genetically engineered crops. Increasingly, animals were confined in small pens or cages and referred to as “units.” Food is now transported thousands of miles from where it is grown, most food items undergo factory processing, and a majority of profits flow to corporate headquarters.
Given that this system now produces nearly all our food, how long can this poster child of the Oilocene endure? Let us discuss some of the most worrying pinch points.
Reliance on a Few Crops
The vast bulk of America’s agricultural output now consists of a very few crops: wheat, corn, soy, rice, rape (i.e., canola), sugar beets. These few crops comprise the raw material for the finished products we buy in the grocery store as well as for biofuel and animal feed. Genetic diversity is severely reduced, leaving our crops vulnerable to disease. Most available seeds have been modified in ways that make it impossible for farmers or gardeners to save seed to replant. Seeds are owned by multinational corporations with precious little interest in sustainable harvest. A shortage of locally-reproducible seed has already become an issue in many regions of the country.
Issues with Synthetic Fertilizers
The use of artificial fertilizers is another disaster waiting to happen. In the past farmers rotated crops and, for additional fertility, made sure that animals were included in the rotation. This of course is no longer done. Millions of acres have not seen much in the way of restorative methods in a very long time; consequently in many places the soil has become severely degraded. It can no longer produce without more and more fertilizer, and this while the future availability and affordability of artificial fertilizer is very much in question.
The hydrogen component of artificial fertilizer comes from natural gas. Nitrogen fertilizer factories are large, dangerous, and fossil fuel-intensive. Phosphorus and potassium are mined, and phosphorus reserves are increasingly scarce. We could go back to using animal manure for fertilizer, but scaling that up would take a major overhaul, including overcoming entrenched opposition. Besides, so few farms have animals anymore. We may be forced to consider human waste as our only viable source of fertility, and plenty of it is being wasted.
Pesticides and Pollinators and Microbes
Pesticides, including herbicides, were once seen as the saviors of the world, another signature accomplishment of the Green Revolution. They killed weeds, insects and diseases affecting crops, but resistance has quickly built up, requiring ever more-toxic brews to kill ever more successful species. The weeds and bugs are winning this war. Possibly worse, bees also get killed. We once counted on both wild and tame bees to do the pollinating for us, but not anymore. In China, the situation is so dire that people have resorted to pollinating crops with a brush.
A few crops, such as wheat and corn, are wind pollinated, but many more are not, including squash and some other vegetables, and some fruit and nut trees. Modern pesticides are certainly a big part of the problem, but so is the practice of plowing “hedgerow to hedgerow,” which leaves too few places for wild bees to live. To make things worse, now even the hedgerows have been pulled up. This is definitely a major crisis bearing down on us. Don’t count on agribusiness to offer to clean up its mess though – other than inventing artificial bees, because there is, doubtless, money in that.
Herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizers wreak havoc on the living microorganisms in the soil so that after years of being doused several times annually, vast swaths of America’s soils are effectively dead. Agribusiness sometimes reacts to the destruction by simply moving on, an excellent example of externalizing its costs onto us. First agribusiness moved on to other American farms, then to the Amazon basin with a metastasized form of slash-and-burn agriculture, displacing residents and destroying their forests. Now agribusiness is buying millions of acres in Africa and elsewhere, forcing local farmers out. These local farmers are good people. Where will they go? What will they do? Squat in shantytowns; join ISIS? No business of the multinationals; we can worry about it if we want, and we certainly should since those farmers carried the local knowledge and locally adapted seeds that the world will need.
Grain to Meat to Money
One way that agribusiness turns its grain into added profit is by running it through those animal units – which used to be called cows or pigs or chickens and used to get their living as primary converters of captured solar power (grass, leaves, bugs) into meat, milk and eggs. Now they function more as converters of commodity grains into money. This process truly will not survive the end of the fossil fuel age, and it can’t go away too soon. Meanwhile, anyone who argues that feeding grain to animals is wasteful when that grain could be fed directly to people is missing the point. To the agribusinesses that run the CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), it isn’t wasteful at all. The system takes its cheap, raw material and turns it into another source of profit. If it’s cruel or polluting or if it destroys tropical rainforests, too bad: “We have to feed the world.”
All animals (including fish) that are raised in CAFOs are fed a commercial pelleted ration, and these rations are essentially similar. They are based on corn and soy, are supplemented in various ways according to individual species, and bear little resemblance to the animal’s natural food. Even cattle, incidentally, are grass eaters and not grain eaters. To grow this grain requires many thousands of acres as well as tons of fuel, herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer. Of special note, being an extra pinch point, are two essential amino acids, lysine and methionine. These must be added to pelleted feeds to support growth, as grain diets are inadequate without them. They are highly fuel-intensive to produce and are made in only a few factories worldwide. Lysine is made from sugar and bacteria; methionine from sulfuric acid, methanol, ammonia and propylene.
The food industry also turns its grains into endless processed foods for humans. The current push for “fake meat” simply turns those same raw materials (corn, soy, etc.) into yet another artificial food. You’d think we all would have noticed by now that processed food is inimical to health, but fake meat is advertised as being not only better for the planet (supposedly generating less CO2) but better for human health. Fake meat is poised to be one of the greatest moneymakers ever for Big Food since it bypasses CAFOs and produces a nice, fake, shelf-stable “food” that industry can pretend is clean, green and sustainable. Both real CAFO meat and fake meat depend heavily on abundant fossil fuel, so any problems with oil supply will inevitably leave us with neither.
Note that to get CO2 out of the atmosphere and into the ground using sunshine as the energy driver requires vegetation as the intermediary. To keep grass growing strongly, thus sequestering yet more CO2, requires fertilizer as well as something to keep cutting the grass and trampling the residue into the ground; that is, grazing animals. This is the arrangement that put carbon in the ground in the first place, but getting it to work properly requires that animals keep moving much as if they were followed by predators, so that the grass can rest and regenerate, and requires that older grazers are harvested so that new young ones can get to work. That’s how the natural cycle works. It’s the definition of green. Any system that requires plowing (which exposes carbon in the soil to oxygen in the air thus creating CO2) and that requires heavy machinery, artificial fertilizers and yet more fossil fuel for transport and processing – that system does no good to the planet. Nature always bats last.
Past Peak Oil
The issues mentioned are hardly the only crises resulting from the last 150 years of the Green Revolution. This revolution was and is completely dependent on cheap oil, which brings us to the concept of “peak oil.” As a reminder, “peak oil” never referred to the end of oil but to a point (now well passed) where half of the world supply of oil had been burned. The remaining half would be too deep, too difficult, too environmentally costly and/or just plain too costly to access and bring to market. Peak oil was discredited when life went on after the peak, about 10 years ago, but it is real and is still waiting in the wings. The effects were covered up by the fracking boom, which is certainly wildly costly as well as environmentally disastrous, but which produces a lot of fossil fuel. Fracking is a depressing spectacle if only in terms of a nation that would pollute and throw away its own water supply rather than confront a looming crisis. (Fracking requires millions of gallons of fresh water laced with various chemicals.) But for our purposes you just need to consider a massive global food machine, borne on a flood of cheap oil, and now with that oil dependence very much in question – and with the social structure, ingrained knowledge and infrastructure of our former food production arrangements gone; so far gone that many children now have no idea that milk comes from a cow, or eggs from a chicken.
Carbon Farming and a New Green Revolution
One good thing the various post-peak energy sources bought us was some extra time and with it the explosion of the computer age. Ten or 20 years ago, how many people had heard of the Zimbabwean holistic ecologist Alan Savory or the carbon farming techniques of the Marin Carbon Project? Circumstances have conspired to enable our understanding of regenerative agriculture to catch up. We now understand that the excess carbon in the atmosphere came from somewhere, namely the ground, and that we can work with nature to put it back. Word is spreading fast about regenerative agriculture, aka “carbon farming,” and thousands of people around the world are making it happen. With the aid of modern knowledge and the help of animal impact, which built the world’s topsoil in the first place, almost anywhere can be reclaimed – if millions of farmers can get back on the land to do the work. Agribusiness isn’t going to do it for us.
“Feeding the world” is a fake concept pushed by agribusiness, which wants us to think that it is better at producing food than are the small-scale farmers around the world. It is not. Consistently small farmers have been shown to be able to provide more food than agribusiness ever could. They can make their own fertilizer with household waste and such animals as they can keep, even if their livestock consists only of a guinea pig or a bucket of worms. Their other livestock can use their legs to find their own rations and don’t need to eat food from the other side of the planet that required thousands of gallons of fossil fuel to grow and transport.
One hundred families each growing food on their own land are far more likely to succeed in the long term than one mega-farm monocropping that same land using fossil water pumped up with fossil fuel and dumping tons of toxic chemicals. Those who worry about the amount of food available in the world would do far better to work toward solving the problems that beset small farmers so that they can get back to work farming. They’re the ones who are going to feed the world – families on their own land are not part of the problem. The very first thing that needs to be done is to get people back on the land so that they can get started.
We need a New Green Revolution. To help it along, start growing your own food, perhaps at a community garden, or buy a farm and start learning how to work with nature. Find some animals for food and fertility, and seeds that breed true. Buy from local, organic producers who sell at farmers’ markets or who practice community supported agriculture. If you don’t have a farmers’ market near you, start one. Support regenerative agriculture by eating the meat, milk and other products from certified organic farms that are trialing this add-on label.
Faulty food production is not the only thing that gave us the climate crisis, but changing the way we farm may be the only thing that has a real chance to get us out of it.
About the authors: Joann S. Grohman lives in Carthage, Maine, and is the author of “Keeping a Family Cow” and numerous other books and articles. Her daughter and collaborator Sally McGuire lives in Haines, Alaska.