When you really look at it, America’s agriculture system, with its preference for big centrally managed factory operations over small locally run family farms, looks kind of, well, Communist.
And I’m not thinking about the kind of “socialism” that Fox News warns will descend on America if Obamacare isn’t repealed or if the rich have to pay more taxes.
No, I mean real old-school, Workers of the World Unite, back-in-the-USSR Communism. The kind with tank-and-tractor parades marching past stands of bemedaled generals in front of grey modernist office blocks draped in red banners exhorting all good comrades to meet the goals of the Five-Year Plan.
Big enterprises and central planning were at the center of pre-1989 Eastern Bloc Communism, where bureaucrats in government ministries set annual targets for the production of everything from truck tires to boxer shorts in factories scattered across the old Soviet empire from Minsk to Vladivostok.
To modernize their country quickly, Communist central planners sought efficiency. And to get maximum efficiency, you certainly couldn’t leave something as important as industrial policy to local yokels. You needed trained experts in Moscow to tell people everywhere else how to do it right. And that meant doing it big.
Well, the USSR is no more, but the love of large-scale enterprises and a centrally run economy lives on, at least when it comes to food production. Not so much in the Kremlin, though, but definitely in Washington, DC, according to a key advocate for small local farmers, Sally Fallon Morell.
Best known as author of the cookbook Nourishing Traditions and founder of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Morell also runs the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which hires lawyers for farmers who get in hot water with food safety regulators for trying to sell raw milk or bacon they cured on their own farm directly to people who want to drink or eat it.
“Hidden Marxism — the industrialization of agriculture was a key plank in the Marxist agenda,” Morell told me at a fundraiser held early in July for the legal defense fund. Showing how Morell walks her own talk about the need for organic local food, the event took place at the PA Bowen Farmstead, the sustainable farm that she runs with her husband Geoffrey in suburban Maryland just outside the DC Beltway.
“The US Department of Agriculture really thinks that small farms are bad and that we’d all starve without big farms,” Morell explained.
I’d always thought that industrial agriculture, with its cheap, drugged-up meat and sprayed produce, was just a plot by agribusiness conglomerates like Monsanto and ConAgra in cahoots with big food product and beverage marketers like Kraft and Coca Cola to divert as much of American families’ food spending as possible into big corporate pockets.
But Morell’s point is a different one. She rightly points out that big corporations would not have been so easily able to hijack America’s food system without help from big government do-gooders seeking to make the American farm a world model of efficiency.
And efficiency for the experts at the US Department of Agriculture meant running farms on factory principles, getting the most output from the least input through standardizing and mechanizing everything from plowing and planting corn and soybeans to fattening and finishing hogs and beeves — all done assembly-line style, of course.
“Get big or get out…adapt or die,” famously quipped Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz in the early 1970s, urging farmers to produce commodity crops in quantities large enough to make food even cheaper at home while ensuring a surplus for export markets.
Butz and his wrecking crew claimed that they were bringing science to farming. But their centrally planned system, while immensely profitable for agribusiness conglomerates, actually turned out to be an extremely unscientific and inefficient way to produce food.
The corporate-run industrial agriculture that Butz-style technocrats bequeathed America now relies so heavily on fossil fuel inputs in the form of pesticides and fertilizers along with fuel for tractors and harvesters that it takes on average ten calories of fuel to produce one single calorie of food.
Not to mention that factory-farmed food isn’t very healthy to actually eat.
When you consider its poor quality and inefficiency, centrally planned industrial agriculture on huge stretches of Iowa or Nebraska starts to look less like a free market and more like the collective farming of the old Soviet Union.
Let’s remember that, just as Washington helped consolidate family farms into big corporate operations around the US in the decades after World War II, Joseph Stalin had done the same thing in the USSR even earlier.
Starting in the late 1920s, Stalin confiscated millions of acres of peasant plots to create big collective farms run just like Soviet factories. By 1937, 99% of Soviet agriculture was collectivized. New collective mega-farms were supposed to feed the peoples of the USSR better than small locally run farms could. Yet, by the 1980s, the Communist Motherland fell victim to failures in grain harvests, forcing Moscow to import wheat from its capitalist enemies in the US.
So far, the US has dodged this particular bullet, though predictions abound that this year’s punishing drought will lead to a reduced harvest of corn, a commodity found in an astonishing 75% of US food products today. Meanwhile, numerous studies have shown that small-scale organic farming can feed the world, meaning that American family farmers could also satisfy domestic demand.
Back in Washington, things have changed a bit since the days of Earl Butz. On the one hand, the USDA has started to support programs that actually seem to help small farmers sell directly to consumers, including Buy Fresh Buy Local initiatives in states across the US.
On the other hand, along with other federal and state agencies, the USDA has added new health regulations for inspections and special equipment that are easy for factory farms to afford relative to their huge output but represent a major expense for small family farms. In many cases, such regulations are unnecessary to protect the consumer and may just be a way to control market access and keep small farmers out — basically, a form of protectionism for big agribusiness against competition from the little guy.
So, it turns out that technocracy favors battery poultry houses and massive monocropping operations run by big corporations over diversified family farms, even if science says the opposite.
Overall, in their zeal to squelch the growing trend towards direct farm-to-consumer sales just to prop up a centrally planned factory farming whose vulnerability to weather, disease and high energy costs makes it look more and more unsustainable, most government food officials today still act too much like the Soviet commissars of old, if you believe Morell and other advocates for local farmers like Joel Salatin and Wendell Berry.
“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” was the challenge Ronald Reagan issued to the Soviet leader in 1987, just a couple years before Gorbachev let the Germans do just that — tear down the Berlin Wall.
Let’s hope that Washington technocrats won’t be able to stop small farmers from tearing down the walls that still prevent them from selling fresh local food directly to eaters in rural areas and big cities alike. If the United States is to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, one of the first reforms America will need is a more resilient, sustainable and local food system.
Eaters and farmers of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. And your bar codes.
– Erik Curren, Transition Voice