Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The fault lines of industrial agriculture, Part I: an overview

"The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the 'state of emergency' in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain a conception of history that is in keeping with that insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism."
--Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," 1940 (see Benjamin, Illuminations, editor Hannah Arendt)


The news from industrial agriculture's trenches has been bleak lately, providing a stark glimpse at the fault lines that run through our food system--and possible openings for a new system that values the local, the delicious, the environmentally sane, and the socially just.

The crises of industrial agriculture
Hurricane Katrina has exposed just how much grain farmers rely on foreign markets to sop up their huge surplus. The hurricane knotted up the Mississippi close to the port, pushing down the price of grain and leaving farmers in the southern grain belt holding mountains of product they can't sell. (Farmers in the northern grain belt haven't harvested yet; the Mississippi is expected to be open by the time they do.)

Then there’s the energy crunch. Well before Katrina caused a spike in gas prices, analysts were already fearing that soaring fuel and fertilizer prices would force farmers to pay about $3 billion more in energy costs this year than they did last year.

In Montana, before Katrina reared up, a bushel of wheat was fetching $2.85--40 cents less than the cost of production. "I've lost more money in the past five years than I made in the previous 35," one farmer complained to the Billings Gazette).

While that farmer can still count on the USDA to step in and make up for at least some of those losses, the subsidy system is under attack. The World Trade Organization looks increasingly serious about forcing the industrialized nations to slash agricultural subsidies. The United States subsidies its farmers at the rate of about $17 billion per year, the bulk of which goes to large-scale grain farmers in the Midwest. The next Farm Bill, due in 2007, could well be considerably less generous.

Things aren't much better in central California, home to a huge concentration of the nation's fruit and vegetable production. Fuel and fertilizer prices, of course, are taking their toll. But unlike their counterparts in the Midwest, who rely on huge gas-guzzling combines to harvest their crops, fruit and vegetable farmers still need human hands for picking. For years, California landowners have quietly relied on a steady influx of cheap, undocumented workers from Mexico for that task.

Now, reports Associated Press, that stream is drying up. Nativist political pressure has inspired the federal government to more tightly enforce the southern border, making it more difficult and dangerous to cross. Meanwhile, a nationwide housing boom has been drawing more and more migrant workers out of the fields and orchards and onto construction sites, where the work is steadier and higher paid.

Raisin growers are complaining that a brewing labor shortage has put their harvest in jeopardy. "We just don't have enough people, and it's a perishable crop," one grower told the Associated Press.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than half of the nation's farm workers are here illegally. A dearth of undocumented workers could thus force up wages among pickers. As I've said before, that would seriously squeeze farm profits, since farm owners have little leverage to increase prices for their goods in a buyers' market dominated by a few huge processors and retailers.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the labor-rights movement among undocumented workers in California is showing signs of life. Last week, the United Farm Workers (UFW) declared victory in a two-year contract battle with Gallo, the behemoth that's responsible for one in four bottles of wine produced in California.

Now, all of these crises can and will be managed in ways that preserve the status quo. It's not for nothing that Bush chose Chuck Conner, former de facto lobbyist for industrial-food warhorse Archer Daniels Midland, as his deputy secretary of agriculture.

But it's not too late for sustainable-agriculture advocates to grab the initiative. Over the next weeks, Bitter Greens Journal will focus on the crises of industrial agriculture, and the opportunities they present for real change.

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