The Agricultural Battleground

By: Zachary Hirschfeld

Our age demands a paradigm shift, which can be characterized in a number of different ways – sustainability, green, the 99%, #occupy, human rights, human inequality, social innovation (…and the list goes on). However, one battleground that doesn’t get much attention is what I believe to be the most important, the most comprehensive, and the most vital battle that we paradigm shifters face: Agriculture.

If you want an industry that envelops nearly every issue our society faces today, look no further than agriculture.

Particularly in the United States, the agricultural industry is completely out of whack and, if not revolutionized, agriculture will not serve a beneficial purpose as our society continues.

Agriculture is the most unequal battleground today.

The two staples of our diet – corn and soybean (both in more products than you think, check your nutrition labels) – are controlled by one company, Monsanto. 80 percent of corn, and 93 percent of soybeans are grown and sold by Monsanto. A host of other food products are controlled by Cargill.

The immense economic and political clout exercised by Cargill and Monsanto allows them to promote the harmful use of GMO seeds with deadly pesticides. Many people believe that after the downfall of DDT, pesticides were no longer used in the United States. This could not be further from the truth. Companies like Monsanto engineer seeds that are resilient to a specific type of pesticide, made by one of the powerful petrochemical companies. Through multi-million dollar lobbying, these companies then convince the government that these pesticides are safe to use, and convince farmers to purchase their farming techniques by saying that it’s the most efficient and profitable way to farm. What ensues is chemicals in our food, contaminants in our water, environmental degradation, and insurmountable debt on the farmer, whom is then forced onto a vicious treadmill run by big agriculture.

By reading the book “Organic Manifesto,” by Maria Rodale, you will get clear and cohesive perspective on big agriculture’s socio-politico-economic ramifications.

Rodale talks about the benefits of local, organic food production, which will aid our society’s challenges. Among many, these are a few of them:

Climate Change and fossil fuel emissions are directly related to agriculture. Our current system uses fossil fuel in every step of the food production process – from big tractors that run on gas, to the petrochemicals that we spray on the GMO seeds that are made using loads of energy, to the methane emissions from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), to the long distance transportation of the products from farm to table.

Human health is another issue. Big agriculture has a symbiotic relationship with fast food, and products containing high-fructose corn syrups. Big agriculture can afford to sell ingredients and food at an incredibly low price to vendors and brands that in turn sell these harmful foods to us. The low purchase cost creates a self-sustaining market. However, the harmful production practices and deadly pesticides in our food are externalized. We marvel at the high rates of cancer and illness in today’s society, yet we don’t look at what we are putting into our bodies.

Crony capitalism and big business politics are also perpetuated in our current agricultural system. We think ‘big oil’ is the only harmful industry getting preferential treatment on Capitol Hill. Cargill and Monsanto give thousands in campaign contributions to political figures, not including their effective lobbying abilities (Monsanto spent over $8 million lobbying in 2010 alone).

What’s more, these companies continue to demand enormous subsidies from the government. Not only do these subsidies perpetuate the dominance of agricultural monopolies, but they allow for the surplus dumping of food products overseas to developing nations. These developing nations see our products as cheaper alternatives to developing their own agricultural industries, and are also urged (often by law) to engage in foreign trade through IMF and World Bank economic restructuring. In Egypt, for instance, loans from the IMF have mandated increased foreign investment and trade. As a result, the agriculture they do have is exported to Europe and the United States, and all other food products are imported. The exported goods create profits for a select few, while the rest of the country is mired in poverty due to food insecurity and volatile market prices – precisely the cause of the Arab Spring!

Domestically AND internationally, big agriculture’s clout silences the voices of small, independent, organic farmers trying to grow healthy food at a reasonable price, and creates instability throughout the globe. Maybe the #occupy movement should occupy Monsanto’s headquarters instead of Wall Street!

By moving away from big business agriculture and supporting local, organic foods the consumer will have power over these companies. We need to start thinking about what we put into our bodies, and realizing what ripple effects our decisions have on everything in our society – from climate change to economic inequality. The battle over agriculture unites so many of today’s challenges that it simply cannot continue to go unnoticed.

[Image credit: katymcc, Flickr]

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