Speaking of Industrial Agriculture

Speaking of industrial agriculture, can you name the following product?

As far as I know, it is the only product which is so undesirable and so uneconomical, and would do so poorly in the open market, that the U.S. government must:

  • Massively subsidize its production;
  • Protect it from foreign imports (which are produced much more cheaply and efficiently) through high tariffs; and
  • Mandate its use by consumers.

What is it?

Food, Inc.

Last night, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I finally made the time to sit down and watch Food, Inc. It’s an outstanding documentary film about modern industrial agriculture, where it came from, the strategies it uses to sustain itself, and what the rest of us can do to supply alternatives. If you haven’t seen it already, I highly recommend you do so. Put it in your Netflix queue, rent it at your local video store, or buy it from Amazon. Just watch it.

The film is at its best in discussing corn, and how elements of corn (and/or soybeans) have found their way into nearly every corner of the supermarket. I would’ve liked more detail about the ways in which federal agriculture policy subsidizes corn production, but the bottom line is that corn comes to the market below its real cost. Chemical and food companies have found countless ways to break this artificially cheap commodity apart into component pieces and reassemble them into the dizzying array of ingredients you see listed on package labels — and these “processed to death,” calorie-laden products end up cheaper than more wholesome alternatives. Ever wondered why a package of Twinkies is less expensive than a bunch of carrots? Even though the former is among the most highly engineered and chemical-intensive products in the supermarket and the latter is just several roots yanked out of the ground and rinsed off?

The sections about confinement agriculture, feedlots, and factory meat processing are eye-opening. The narrative was especially powerful in drawing a line between the inhumane ways in which animals are treated to the dehumanizing ways in which agricultural workers are treated. Everything — animal and human— is simply another element of industrial production.

One of the film’s bigger “lightbulb moments” for me was the degree to which the fast food industry has shaped the way food is produced for all markets. McDonald’s, Burger King, and the rest are enormous customers who want their products to taste exactly the same every time. They thus have enormous power to dictate the standardization of beef, pork, chicken, and potato production. And because those products need to be cheap enough for the Dollar Menu, growers need all kinds of “efficiencies” (i.e. feedlots and other animal concentration camps) to reduce their own costs.
The sections showing Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm in Virginia are by far the best in the film. Salatin’s books (in particular You Can Farm and Pastured Poultry Profits) greatly inspired us as we were starting out, and it was even more inspiring to see his farm in living color. Salatin has put together a real, workable model of how wholesome food can be produced profitably. It’s no wonder that people drive a hundred miles to fill their freezers with Salatin’s meat. Although we are not attempting to run a pastured poultry enterprise, his production techniques have provided our family with outstanding chicken, turkey, duck, and goose.
I could’ve done without the long section with a grieving mother who is now a “food safety activist” seeking to enact legislation named after her son, who died from a e coli infected meat. Although I certainly empathize with her grief, and cannot imagine the pain she has had to endure, I really don’t think additional regulations and inspections of mammoth industrial food facilities are the answer; as the film itself shows later, the very agencies charged with creating and enforcing regulations are frequently headed and staffed by former executives and lobbyists from the industrial food companies themselves. In political science, we call this revolving door phenomenon “regulatory capture.” In the case of industrial agriculture, it results because the only people with enough experience and expertise to understand the industry are those with extensive ties to the industry itself.
The film’s biggest shortcoming, in my mind, is that it doesn’t do enough to connect the dots between “food safety legislation” and regulatory capture. My sense is that the former is useless — or even counterproductive — unless something is first done about the latter. And given the complexity of the industry, I’m not sure anything can be done about it. The result is a regulatory environment designed by and for the protection of agricultural conglomerates, but too byzantine and expensive for small producers to understand or abide by. The entirely foreseen and intended outcome is even less competition from farmers like Joel Salatin. Want to be able to sell your meat to local restaurants, which would provide a very nice and stable customer base for any farmer? You’ll need to have your animals butchered at a USDA-inspected slaughterhouse. Good luck finding one of those anywhere near your farm. And, by the time you transport your animals there and go back to pick up the meat, good luck turning a profit. And don’t even think about starting your own small dairy or cheesemaking operation until you’re ready to spend a fortune building something that abides by state regulations. Then, have fun with the inspectors showing up to pick through your property whenever they feel like it. I realize that some of these measures are essential for large producers, but there ought to be more exemptions for small entrepreneurs.
The bottom line, though, is that this is a very important documentary. I apologize that it took me over two years to see and review it here. If you haven’t yet seen it, I highly recommend that you do so.

The Concentration Camp Isn’t Really that Bad

In an interesting followup to this summer’s story about massive egg recalls, the NY Times takes a look inside some of the more modern egg plants and the methods they’re employing to manage manure. The conveyor belt system sounds fascinating, and I imagine it saves an enormous amount of labor. It also seems to keep the facility much cleaner.

But this is the quote that struck me:

“We’ve had to completely change the way we look at things,” said Mr. Krouse, who is also chairman of the United Egg Producers, an industry association. “Thirty years ago, farms had flies and farms had mice, everything was exposed to everything else. They just all happily lived together. You can’t work that way anymore.”

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a fan of flies or mice or any other vermin. What bothers me is the industrial scale of these operations, and the necessarily attendant obsessiveness with making them “sanitary.” If you’re going to have 381,000 hens living under one roof in a concentration camp eggery, you can’t have everything exposed to everything else. You must compartmentalize, and obsess about sanitation. Otherwise, you quickly lose control.

But the problem with emphasizing the sanitation strikes me as possibly designed to convince the public that “that makes it okay” to produce eggs in this way. Sure, we have 381,000 hens under one roof. Yeah, they’re crammed into little cages. No, they don’t ever see the light of day. But we have some really great manure removal systems, and the eggs are really really clean. And the hens get vaccinated against all the diseases you’d expect them to catch while living in this kind of environment. So, eat up! Nothing to see here.

As for the Yeoman farm family, we’ll take the “messy” eggs laid by hens happily living together with the ducks and the geese and the sheep and the goats. The eggs that sometimes get manure on them, and that we have to wash. The eggs laid by hens that keep the barn mouse-free because any time one appears, they gang tackle it and use it as supplemental protein for their diet. As they do with the flies and the crickets and even frogs.

You can get away with that kind of “messiness” when you’re farming on a small scale. On a human scale. Producing outstanding food for humans who appreciate it.

Too Much Milk

From the Department of Unintended Consequences From Messing With Nature, today’s NY Times reports on a new development in the dairy industry: sexed semen, resulting in…

Three years ago, a technological breakthrough gave dairy farmers the chance to bend a basic rule of nature: no longer would their cows have to give birth to equal numbers of female and male offspring. Instead, using a high-technology method to sort the sperm of dairy bulls, they could produce mostly female calves to be raised into profitable milk producers.

Now the first cows bred with that technology, tens of thousands of them, are entering milking herds across the country — and the timing could hardly be worse.

The dairy industry is in crisis, with prices so low that farmers are selling their milk below production cost. The industry is struggling to cut output. And yet the wave of excess cows is about to start dumping milk into a market that does not need it.

“It’s real simple,” said Tony De Groot, an early adopter of the new breeding technology, who milks 4,200 cows on a farm here in the heart of this state’s struggling dairy region. “We’ve just got too many cattle on hand and too many heifers on hand, and the supply just keeps on coming and coming.”

I personally don’t have a problem with artificial insemination; it can be an excellent tool for improving a herd’s genetics, by bringing in genes that would otherwise be unavailable on a given farm. We know many small breeders who use it for sheep and dairy herds. But I do find it remarkable that no one seemed to see the consequences of widespread adoption of “sexed semen” coming.

Driving around the country here, there are several smallish dairy operations with herds of Holstein cows. And, if you look closely at the other small farms, you’ll often see individual Holstein steer calves being raised for meat. Holsteins are not the most efficient breed for meat, but provide a nice 4-H project for a farm kid and a good amount of beef for the typical rural family. In other words: even though male Holstein calves don’t fetch a lot of money, they do have some value.

If the agricultural sex-selectors really want to make a difference, by eliminating males which have no value at all (and are otherwise immediately exterminated), they ought to focus their energies on the chicken industry. Help the egg producers hatch 90% females in their Leghorn flock, and you’ll have made an enormous contribution. Unlike the situation with cattle, which must be bred (and therefore must continue producing calves) to keep them in milk, if the egg producers managed to hatch 90% females they could simply scale back the total number of eggs incubated. We could get the right number of replacement pullets, without hatching enormous numbers of cockrels which would need to be immediately euthanized.

Or, we could just encourage more yeoman farmers to raise traditional dual-purpose breeds of chickens. But that would be too easy.

The Puzzle of Dr. Norman Borlaug

Ever wondered why food today is so incredibly cheap and widely available? Why we no longer see so much footage of starvation and famine in third world countries? There are many reasons, of course, but much of it can be summed up in two words: Norman Borlaug. Dr. Borlaug passed away this weekend at the age of 95, and is generally recognized as the architect of the “Green Revolution,” the explosion of crop yields and farming productivity that occurred after World War II.

Dr. Borlaug’s New York Times obituary includes a fascinating description of just how profoundly his work transformed agricultural practices and the resulting outputs.

Dr. Borlaug’s initial goal was to create varieties of wheat adapted to Mexico’s climate that could resist the greatest disease of wheat, a fungus called rust. He accomplished that within a few years by crossing Mexican wheats with rust-resistant varieties from elsewhere.

His insistence on breeding in two places, the Sonoran desert in winter and the central highlands in summer, imposed heavy burdens on him and his team, but it cut the time to accomplish his work in half. By luck, the strategy also produced wheat varieties that were insensitive to day length and thus capable of growing in many locales, a trait that would later prove of vital significance.

The Rockefeller team gradually won the agreement of Mexican farmers to adopt the new varieties, and wheat output in that country began a remarkable climb. But these developments turned out to be a mere prelude to Dr. Borlaug’s main achievements.

By the late 1940s, researchers knew they could induce huge yield gains in wheat by feeding the plants chemical fertilizer that supplied them with extra nitrogen, a shortage of which was the biggest constraint on plant growth. But the strategy had a severe limitation: beyond a certain level of fertilizer, the seed heads containing wheat grains would grow so large and heavy, the plant would fall over, ruining the crop.

In 1953, Dr. Borlaug began working with a wheat strain containing an unusual gene. It had the effect of shrinking the wheat plant, creating a stubby, compact variety. Yet crucially, the seed heads did not shrink, meaning a small plant could still produce a large amount of wheat.

Dr. Borlaug and his team transferred the gene into tropical wheats. When high fertilizer levels were applied to these new “semidwarf” plants, the results were nothing short of astonishing.

The plants would produce enormous heads of grain, yet their stiff, short bodies could support the weight without falling over. On the same amount of land, wheat output could be tripled or quadrupled. Later, the idea was applied to rice, the staple crop for nearly half the world’s population, with yields jumping several-fold compared with some traditional varieties.


This strange principle of increasing yields by shrinking plants was the central insight of the Green Revolution, and its impact was enormous.

Particularly in sustainable agriculture circles, many point out that Dr. Borlaug’s Green Revolution, like every revolution, included its share of unintended consequences and created problems of its own. Chief among these: the industrialization and corporate domination of agriculture, the depopulation of the countryside, and squeezing out of small family farms. Modern farming is no longer conducted on a “human” scale, and the overwhelming majority of people in developed countries have lost all connection to where their food comes from.

I understand these sentiments well, and sympathize (at least in spirit) with much of the critique of modern industrial agriculture. However, I am under no illusions that it is possible — or even desirable — to put the genie of modern agriculture back into its bottle. Fertilizer is a prime example; the large confinement livestock operations have never been better at capturing animal waste, but even all that manure falls far short of what is needed to grow crops on the scale needed to feed the world’s population. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizers are a practical necessity. As Blake Hurst, himself a commercial farmer, points out in his excellent article, The Omnivore’s Delusion:

Norman Borlaug, founder of the green revolution, estimates that the amount of nitrogen available naturally would only support a worldwide population of 4 billion souls or so. He further remarks that we would need another 5 billion cows to produce enough manure to fertilize our present crops with “natural” fertilizer. … And cows do not produce nitrogen from the air, but only from the forages they eat, so to produce more manure we will have to plant more forages.

Hurst goes on to discuss the planting of cover crops (aka “green manure”) to supply nitrogen naturally, but demonstrates that this is both impractical and would remove a great deal of cropland from production. I love the Amish, and the way they farm, but we can’t pretend that Amish farming practices can feed the world.

Don’t get me wrong: I highly recommend the small-scale agriculture that our family is engaging in, and I hope that more families follow us in adopting this lifestyle. But it’s difficult to imagine “yeoman farmers” like ourselves ever being able to feed the world with what we’re doing. Heck, we can’t even (entirely) feed our own family this way…and we’ve met very few families who even come close.

We do produce all of our own eggs, and almost all of our meat, and what we can’t raise here (beef) we buy from a neighbor who does. But, even there, I need to be honest. Our egg layer and broiler chicks all come from a commercial hatchery. So do our ducklings, and our goslings, and our turkey poults. All the feed they consume was grown by “industrial” farmers and mixed up for us by the local grain elevator (with industrial-strength equipment). Our sheep are exclusively grass-fed, and our goats are largely grass-fed, but the does could not produce enough milk for us without supplemental grain from the elevator. Our egg chickens are free to forage, but their egg production would suffer badly without supplemental grain. In short, without the extraordinary crop yields and productivity of modern agriculture, we would not have the relatively inexpensive feed grains that ultimately make our family’s micro-farm possible.


Perhaps the most important by-product of Dr. Borlaug’s Green Revolution is the shattering of Malthusian theories. Thomas Malthus argued that because population increases geometrically, but agricultural production only increases arithmetically, human populations would eventually outstrip the ability of farmers to feed them. Malthus and his modern disciples (such as Paul “Population Bomb” Ehrlich) therefore argued that stringent population-control measures were the only way to solve this dilemma.

But Malthus failed to anticipate the extraordinary manner in which technology and innovation could literally change the rules about agricultural output. As the late Dr. Julian Simon pointed out in numerous books and other research writings, human beings are not mere consumers of resources. Rather, we are truly “the ultimate resource.” Humans, because of our brains and intellectual ability, are equipped to solve problems and produce far more than we consume. Particularly when markets are allowed to function freely and offer incentives for meeting the needs of other people, and governments protect property rights, human beings have proven themselves capable of coming up with extraordinary breakthroughs to solve the problems of food production. As others have put it, every child is born with a mouth to feed — but two hands to help work. And, as Dr. Simon would add, a brain to help innovate.

And that leaves us with a puzzling final observation. Despite his personal experience in revolutionizing the way food is produced, and having witnessed first-hand the ability of human intellect to find new ways of feeding a growing world, Norman Borlaug was and remained an advocate for the population-control movement. His references to “the population monster,” and other similar formulations, even hint at an underlying misanthropy in his beliefs — as if the problem is too many people in the world, rather than not enough freedom and market incentives for innovators to find ways to supply the needs of those people. I greatly admire what Dr. Borlaug was able to achieve in his work, but am left wondering why he could not recognize the profoundly anti-Malthusian implications of his achievements.

What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall for the conversation that Norman Borlaug and Julian Simon might be having right now on the other side…

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent editorial today on the farm bill. As usual, the bill is an unbelievable hog trough for agribusiness; what particularly irks me this time, though, is the lip service to “reform.” Bottom line: don’t believe it. Big Ag is no different from any other K-Street supplicant. My only question is how high food prices will have to climb before we see voters revolt and pressure their congressional representatives to vote against this nonsense.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? May 14, 2008; Page A20

We can’t wait to hear how Members of Congress explain their vote this week for the new $300 billion farm bill. At a time when Americans are squeezed at the grocery store, they will now see more of their taxes flow to the very farmers profiting from these high food prices.

This year farm income is expected to reach an all-time high of $92.3 billion, an increase of 56% in two years, making growers perhaps the most undeserving welfare recipients in American history. But that won’t stop this bill from passing the House and Senate by wide margins. Speaker Nancy Pelosi was once a farm subsidy skeptic, but she now has some 30 freshman Democrats from battleground rural districts to protect. So more than $10 billion a year in giveaways to agribusiness is a necessary taxpayer sacrifice to keep her majority.

Ms. Pelosi calls the bill “real reform,” which is like calling Lindsay Lohan born again. For example: The bill perpetuates the so-called Hurricane Katrina gambit that allows farmers to lock in price-support payments at the lowest possible market price, and then sell their crops later at the highest possible price, and then pocket the high price and a payment from the government for the difference between the two. They in effect get paid twice for the same bushel of wheat.

A bigger scam is the new income limit to qualify for subsidies. Mr. Bush sought a $200,000 annual income cap, but Congress can’t bring itself to go below $750,000. Even that is a farce, because it doesn’t include loan programs and disaster payments, and it allows spouses to qualify for payments too. The White House and liberal reformers calculate that farm owners with clever accountants can have incomes of up to $2.5 million and still get a taxpayer handout.

Several weeks ago, Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin was asked by the Des Moines Register how many farmers in Iowa would be excluded under the new income cap. His answer: “two or three.” On tax policy Mr. Harkin and his fellow Democrats talk endlessly about soaking the rich, but on farm policy they favor soaking the middle class to pay the rich.

Nearly every crop – corn, wheat, sugar – has won increases in subsidy payments even as farm commodity prices explode. (See nearby chart.) Of the 17 most subsidized commodities, only rice and cotton will get a slight reduction in payments, while the bill extends the farm welfare net to lentils, chick peas, fruits and vegetables, and even organic foods. There are new programs for Kentucky horse breeders and Pacific Coast salmon fishermen, and your tax dollars will help finance the dairy industry’s “Got Milk?” campaign. Oh, and you still don’t even have to farm to cash in. Hundreds of millions of dollars will go to landowners based on their “historical planting average” even if they haven’t planted a seed in years.

And once again the big sugar plantation owners in Florida walk away with the sweetest deal: Big Sugar bagged an increase in price supports and a guarantee of 85% of the domestic sugar market at these guaranteed prices. So taxpayers are on the hook for buying surplus domestically produced sugar at 23 cents a pound and selling it for ethanol for closer to three cents a pound.

If you wonder why urban Democrats would vote for this rural giveaway, the answer is they have been bought off with roughly $10 billion in extra funding for food stamps and nutrition welfare programs. Someone should tell them that their constituents might not need this cash if the farm bill didn’t help keep food prices high. And let’s not forget the Blue Dog Democrats who are supposed to be spending hawks. The farm bill busts the budget caps by at least $10 billion, but the Blue Dogs get $5.9 billion in handouts for their districts. So they will put their fiscal sermonizing on hold and vote “aye.”

Mr. Bush is promising a veto, to his credit, but the White House expects even many Republicans to vote to override. The House GOP swears it has learned its spending lesson after 2006. Yet House Minority Leader John Boehner, who opposes the bill himself, isn’t rallying GOP opposition. Perhaps there are too many Republicans who crave the handouts too.

Meanwhile, John McCain says “I would veto that bill” and will vote against it in the Senate. Strangely silent is Barack Obama. A major theme of his campaign is to battle corporate special interests in Washington on behalf of the “middle class.” Here is one of his first tests, and it’ll be fascinating to see if he sides with the well-funded commodity lobby over consumers and taxpayers.

In this election year, both parties are fighting to win the farm vote. But even in Chicago and New Jersey, it doesn’t cost $300 billion to buy an election.

Big Food Making You Sick?

This mother in Colorado seems to think so:

But some days, her imagination gets away from her and she wonders if it’s only a matter of time before Big Food tries to stop her from exposing what she sees as a profit-driven global conspiracy whose collateral damage is an alarming increase in childhood food allergies.

[snip]

Her theory — that the food supply is being manipulated with additives, genetic modification, hormones and herbicides, causing increases in allergies, autism, and other disorders in children — is not supported by leading researchers or the largest allergy advocacy groups.

That only feeds Ms. O’Brien’s conviction that the influence of what she sees as the profit-hungry food industry runs deep. In just a few dizzying steps, she can take you from a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese to Monsanto’s genetically modified seeds to Donald H. Rumsfeld, who once ran the company that created the sweetener aspartame.

[snip]

Ms. O’Brien encourages people to do what she did: throw out as much nonorganic processed food as you can afford to. Avoid anything genetically modified, artificially created or raised with hormones. Don’t eat food with ingredients you can’t pronounce.

Once she cleaned out her cupboards, she said, her four children started behaving better. Their health problems, which her doctor attributed to allergies to milk and other foods, cleared up.

“It was absolutely terrifying to unearth this story,” she said over lunch at a restaurant in Boulder, Colo. “These big food companies have an intimate relationship with every household in America, and they are making our children sick. I was rocked. You don’t want to hear that this has actually happened.”

Robyn O’Brien’s conspiracy theories may seem a little over the top, but her personal experience with Big Food is quite similar to our own. When our firstborn started on solid food, everything he ate seemed to be making him sick. This continued for years, as we experimented with different foods and had him tested for all kinds of allergies. Only when we threw out the processed foods and began cooking from scratch with organic brown rice did his health improve. Whether he was experiencing “allergies” or just “reactions,” I don’t know (and frankly don’t care). What did become clear is that something about the way modern “food” is processed to death was making him sick.

As I’ve posted on other occasions, getting control of our food supply was a big reason we moved to the country and began small scale farming. Yes, there are certain foods that make our kids sick no matter how they are raised or processed; even if we grew our own organic wheat and threshed it by hand, or our own open-pollinated organic corn, our kids couldn’t eat it. The key has been growing the things they can eat (eggs, chicken, lamb, goat, goat milk, fruits, vegetables) and buying organic, minimally-processed versions of the things we cannot grow (rice, beef, certain vegetables at certain times of the year, etc.)

It’s interesting that awareness of problems with “Big Food” seem to be spreading. My only fear is that with stories like these in the New York Times, some will come away thinking we’re a bunch of kooks. Robyn O’Brien might seem a bit paranoid, and perhaps she is. But she does seem to be exactly right about what Big Food was doing to her kids and ours.