Civilization Shift

Field of wheat under the blue sky, with bright sun on horizon
Field of wheat under the blue sky, with bright sun on horizon

In the twentieth century, American agriculture abandoned its traditions of family farming. This was no small change. Like the centuries-long enclosure movement in England whereby the landlords used the law and violence to privatize the commons and throw out of the land uncounted number of peasants, American large farmers have been using the power of the state to bring about a civilization shift in rural America.

They transformed a way of life for raising food and sustaining democratic society to a massive factory industrializing both farming and food and farmers, making rural America a colony for the extraction of profit.

This tragedy left behind millions of broken family farms, contaminated water and land, and a wounded rural America.

According to the 1884 "Transactions of the California State Agricultural Society," "there will be too few farms and these too large. A republic cannot long survive when the lands are concentrated in the hands of a few men. Any man will fight for his home, but it takes a very brave man to fight for the privilege of working for half wages."

This premonition has come to fruition.

According to the 1902 Reclamation Act, the federal government would deliver water to farms no larger than 160 acres. Landowners with farms larger than 160 acres would have to sell their excess land to the federal government. Unfortunately, these democratic ideas were never translated into policy.

Large landowners and agribusinesses in the West have been corrupting the county, state, and federal governments. They siphon off billions of dollars of public subsidies while they cannibalize the family farmers and wreck the communities and ecology of rural America.

In the Westlands of California, for example, 10 farmers own about 260,000 acres of irrigated land. It costs the federal government $ 2,200 a year to deliver enough water to irrigate an acre in the Westlands. Every year each Westlands farmer with 960 acres of irrigated land receives subsidized federal water worth more than $ 2 million.

In 1987, David Lavender, a student of California history and politics, encapsulated the situation: "Mom-and-pop farms? Oh, sure, run by computers from a boardroom high in some San Francisco financial tower." ("California: Land of New Beginnings," University of Nebraska Press, p. 435.)

John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath in 1939 to protest the destruction of rural America by the emerging mechanical monster of anonymous and impersonal corporate power. He warned the American people of the undemocratic agribusiness in the countryside.

Steinbeck condemned the coming into being of huge farms, mechanical operations that pushed one-crop farming over thousands of acres of land, building animal factories and treating animals no different than pieces of machinery.

This is the model of "development" and agricultural "production" that dominates American agriculture to this very day.

Most of the students of this transformation, especially agricultural economists, praise agribusiness, equating it to modernity, science, efficiency and profit.

One of the critics of agribusiness is Wenonah Hauter, director of Food and Water, a DC-based environmental organization. Her book, Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America, goes beyond the usual technical and trivial assessments of American agriculture. She cites plenty of statistics demonstrating the abuses and size of the new agrarian emperors of rural America.

For example, agriculture alone consumes more than twice as much water as all other human and industrial uses together; 75 gallons of water go into the making of a pound of corn; a beef hamburger is equivalent to 600 gallons of water that go into the growing of enough corn for its production; American farmers irrigate their crops with 30 trillion gallons of water per year.

The same astounding statistics illustrate the gigantic concentration of power among the few agribusiness colossi that run America's food: Cargill, Tyson, JBS, and National Beef control 80 percent of all cattle. In 1992, 30 percent of hogs were raised in factory farms; in 2004, 80 percent of the hogs came out of factory farms and, by 2007, 95 percent of America's pigs were raised in factory farms. Four companies, Smithfield, Tyson, JBS, and Excel, control 66 percent of this hog kingdom.

Hauter also tells us that 20 corporations produce most of America's food; four grocery stores control 50 percent of all sales; the "farmer" earns 3 to 5 cents off a box of corn flakes; and 1 out of 3 food dollars goes to Walmart.

Foodopoly is about a "handful of corporations that control our food system from seeds to dinner plates." The book is cramped with facts; it is well reasoned and written; it is powerful because it examines the real reasons behind the making of agribusiness: government laxity and refusal to enforce the anti-trust laws. The "root causes of the food crisis," she says, are "deregulation, consolidation, and control of the food supply by a few powerful corporations."

Hauter says we need a national policy to "fix" the food monopoly. It's not enough, she says, to vote with our forks. She recommends "old-fashioned political activism." Her hope is for "midsize farming operations" that may become the seed for "a sustainable food system."