Read Time: 5 Minutes
A Primer in Agriculture
Our Daily Bread, a silent and mesmerising film focused on industrial farming in Europe, inspired me to read up on industrial farming in the US. Anyone who seeks out organic or sustainably grown food in grocery stores or farmers’ markets, probably has an idea about Big Ag and its effects on Little Us. We are at least vaguely aware of corn and soy surplus issues and subsidies, even though they rarely get a blip on our screens. But our chemically enhanced fields with their amber waves of grain are just part of the Gordion knot, that we should examine. A good place to continue our education is by reading Perilous Bounty by Tom Philpott. As a restaurant cook, farm hand, writer and sleuth, Philpott has been on every side of our dinner plates. If you have some time, read his articles in Mother Jones.
He dives into the devastating state of industrial agriculture in our midwest, with its legacy of ongoing destruction of the area’s famed but increasingly fragile soil. (Industrial agriculture on the west coast has an additional problem – water allocation). All this adds up to a complex problem, hindered by the wrong kind of government intervention, lack of any proper supervison, and misdirected subsidies. Making matters even worse, it is a form of 21st century serfdom for tillers of the soil.
So Now We Are Three
In spite of the growing organic and sustainable agriculture movement, the majority of our food supply is still grown, harvested and shipped by megafarms whose owners buy their seed, the necessary chemicals to keep them growing, and machinery from remarkably few companies. And we are not talking about just the US; this form of agricultural commerce is world-wide.
Before 2016, fewer than a dozen companies competed with each other for the world’s supply of patented seeds, fertilizers, pesticides tailored to the specifics of those seeds, and the equipment needed to maintain the type of fields that they are planted in. Bayer of Germany last year completed the purchase of Monsanto (and swallowed the payouts of their lawsuits), the American biotech company whose sizable portfolio of litigation is perhaps better documented than their monopoly on seed distribution. DuPont, which merged with Dow Chemical, provided the chemicals tailored to protect the seedlings from disease and encourage rapid growth. Syngenta, in Switzerland, another monstrously large seed and pesticide company, has been purchased by ChemChina. And the machinery end of the market is pretty much in the pocket of John Deere. According to Philpott, AGCO and CNH Industrial own most of the rest globally.
Little Us & Big Data
It would not be an exaggeration to say that three companies now own 60% of the world’s seeds and 70% of the chemicals and pesticides needed to keep these plants viable from sprouting to harvesting, wrote John Vidal for The Guardian. And now even most food plants’ genetic traits are “owned” by one of these brands.
So basically, whether you are a buyer for Costco (one of the biggest wholesale purchasers of comestibles in the world) or a food shopper in any grocery store, three mega companies (or as Philpott labels them, oligopolies) control a vast percentage of what you eat. And all that accumulation of fun data you are worrying about from social media is literally small potatoes compared to the changes that are occurring in global agriculture from harvesting and profiting from data-driven technologies.
Then And Now
A farmer repairing his tractor before going out into the fields is fast becoming a quaint image of yesteryear. With larger farms swallowing up smaller tracts of arable land, they need larger and more complex equipment, which is now more often leased than purchased. These farmers have become subject to company owned “repair systems” and annual repair policies. They are beholden in ways akin to, say, miners forced to live in company housing and buy from the company stores in earlier times. It is also not unlike the updates and repairs we pay for on our computers and smartphones, just much larger and more financially insidious. There is even a rebellion among some farming organizations to gain access to repair manuals for these massive and expensively leased machines, to enable them to break free from steep, company-driven service requirements. But if you look closely at the websites of any of the major global equipment companies, they make a lot of money from their lending services to these strapped farmers. And in a loop that is hard to credit, they offer financing to buy seed, fertilizer and pesticides from their fellow travellers. These same companies are now investing in weather data gathering, satellite installations and bio engineering to make their seeds resistant to their own pesticides so that only their plants can survive in fields that are stripped of organic protocols.
With seeds, chemicals, data research and lobbying power in the hands of this small group of immensely powerful companies, a justifiable fear is that the small farmer will be wiped out in the face of the competition. And as naturally arable land is worn away through well documented abuse, then Sub-Saharan lands become the next target for global food supply. And in that case, the companies that own the rights and the ability to modify seeds through genetic sequencing, and their accumulation and control of atmospheric data, will be in the driver’s seat for food access, regardless of where you reside. We are indeed a global village, and it’s a little terrifying. But don’t despair! Future posts will explore the merits of Philpott favorites like the Green New Deal and programs to benefit mid-size farmers. Stay tuned, and in the meantime, keep clinging to our treasured farmers’ markets and organic food — they’re part of our fight for freedom from Big Ag.