WON’T WE STARVE WITHOUT CROP SUBSIDIES?
In this section I hope to provide a fair assessment of the status quo of our current agricultural practices. What is the most fundamental philosophy at the heart of crop subsidies? Affordable food. There is absolutely nothing wrong this philosophy, so much so that it is the opinion of this writer that ALL food should be free. Crop subsidies have historically provided us with an abundance of cheap food. Additionally the capitalist/corporatist system that the subsidies are a bi-product of have been successful at developing the technologies to produce higher yields of produce every year. It’s a miracle…
The fear of famine is in the back of the American psyche. Crop subsidies have functioned to sooth these anxieties for as long as I have been alive (thirty years). It is axiomatic that large agribusinesses have been and will be vocal advocates of crop subsidies – this is their legal entitlement as corporations in our capitalist system. While this paper should not be construed as a condemnation of capitalism, I do believe that the evil of greed is allowed to run un-checked and unregulated in our current capitalist system.
One of the only books that one can find in support of high-yield farming is a manifesto by Dennis Avery, a former staff member for the USDA and one of Lyndon Johnson’s advisors on food and fiber, called Saving The Planet With Pesticides And Plastic. At the core of his book is the argument that high-yield farming (dependent on pesticides and genetic engineering) is using less land more responsibly thus allowing for our wilderness areas to remain rich with bio-diversity. His book is a veritable cornucopia of environmental and agricultural “myths” and “facts.” It’s obvious that he begins from a place of partisanship, polarization, delineating the “us” from the “them.” This divisive practice critiques itself. Indeed he interweaves this polarization of myth and fact so frequently and contradictorily that it becomes difficult to discern between myth and fact in this writing. For example, he characterizes the following quote from Thomas Berry in The Dream Of The Earth as myth: “Just now one of the significant historical roles of the primal people of the world is not simply to sustain their own traditions, but to call the entire civilized world back to a more authentic mode of being.” In the next paragraph he characterizes this John Dewey quote from Human Nature and Conduct as fact: “This doctrine of accord with Nature has usually marked a transition period. When mythology is dying in its open forms, and when social life is so disturbed that custom and tradition fail to supply their wonted controls…natural law is conceived of as the only true divine law. This happened in one form in Stoicism. It happened…in the deism of the 18th century with its notion of a benevolent, harmonious, wholly rational order of Nature.” These two quotes are indicative of the flow of his book as a whole. He provides quote after quote to determine myth from fact, while simultaneously writing his own perspectives that are sometimes a beautiful defense of nature and bio-diversity and other times simple negative reactions to organic farmers and the supposed “land-suck” that would happen if we stopped using pesticides.
Perhaps one of his most startling claims involves population growth. Throughout the history of humanity our population has gone up and up until the bubonic plague when there was a small dip, and from then to now our population has grown at exponential rates. Avery suggests that our current population trend will peak and level out around 8 or 9 billion. Taking this stance allows him to realistically claim that forests and other wildlife areas will be saved from human population. Hopeful as this might be, it is, of course speculative; let alone at odds with Malthus’ postulata.
The epilogue to Avery’s book speculates on a possible future of 2050. This future holds the capped population of 8-9 billion people thanks to birth control, and a reformed welfare system that discourages births. He suggests that there will be less economic pressure to work and that instead “work” will take surprising new steps and be defined differently. Work will no longer involve de-forestation (he suggests that genetically modified trees will be farmed) nor belong on an assembly line. Food will be produced on less land than present, but feed more people thanks to technological advances.
At the heart of Avery’s book is the belief that technology will allow us to be more efficient. I have no disagreement with this, but instead offer that Avery’s book is a flawed and harmful attempt at proposing future farming practices. I have shown above the degrading effects that high yield farming can have on our health, our environment and the economic conditions of developing countries dependent on US food. It remains to be seen whether or not a turn towards organic farming away from high yield farming will have have an adverse effect on the food supply. It seems fairly obvious that if the American people would insist on the Mid-West farmland to be used for growing food and not fuel (ethanol) that a sustainable, diverse and abundant harvest would become a reality.