by GRAIN | 20 Dec 1997

December 1997

Janet Bell

United States (US) trade and agriculture representatives like to present the US as the world's breadbasket, consistently producing ever-increasing amounts of safe and nutritious food for a hungry world. Janet Bell looks behind the rhetoric, and finds instead that the endless drive to maximise production is having a grave effect on both US society and the environment. As corporations increasingly dominate the sector with industrial farming methods, the impressive yields of today are being put at serious risk, raising the sceptre of an empty breadbasket in future.


The 1996 World Food Summit was held in Rome against an uncomfortable backdrop. The previous Summit's promise to eradicate world hunger within ten years had failed miserably and delegates had to acknowledge that close to 800 million people around the world still go hungry every day. This time the Summit's declaration didn't even have the eradication of hunger as a goal, but merely talked about reducing the number of hungry people by half. The main difference between the two summits was that this time the political will to address the hunger problem had largely disappeared. Concrete commitments were replaced with vague references to `the market', as governments attempted to pass on their responsibilities to the transnational corporations.

The US delegation nevertheless, was in an ebullient mood. US Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, was quick to remind everyone that, "We're the leading supplier of food to the world" and to reassure them that "the US is more prepared and dedicated than ever to feeding a hungry world." The US message was that many Southern countries should stop worrying about growing food for themselves and rely instead on the global market, and US farmers in particular, to feed them. "Domestic market reforms have unleashed the full potential of American agriculture", Glickman boasted. "Our farmers now plant for world demand instead of for government programmes.".

So, amidst the doom and gloom of Malthusian population projections, can we breathe more easily and take comfort that US farmers are going to take care of everything? How capable is the US agricultural machine of increasing food output to help feed the world's growing population? And what would be the consequences for Southern countries forced to take US advice and abandon their agricultural roots?

There is no doubt that the US produces mountains of food. In 1994, the US food supply provided an estimated 3,800 calories for each US citizen per day, enough to supply everyone with more than one and a half times their average daily needs. US consumers enjoy the cheapest food in the world: nowhere else do people spend such a small percentage of their income (12%) on feeding their families. So blasé are Americans about the abundance of their food supply that they throw away massive quantities 40 billion kilos (28% of edible food supplies) in 1995. At the same time, the country still manages to export huge quantities of food. In fact, agricultural exports are critical for the US balance of payments. According to the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Research Service, "The US trade deficit for the federal fiscal year 1995 was a massive $37.4 billion. The bright spot in that picture, the shining star, is agricultural exports. The US sold a record $59.8 billion in farm goods around the world. The country exports more wheat than steel, more meat than aluminium, and more fruits and vegetables than ships, trucks and boats combined." The 1997 harvest should also prove cause for celebration as it was a bumper year for many crops, with record and near-record harvests of soybean and corn.

On the surface, US capacity to help solve the world's hunger problem seems promising. US policy makers and advisors certainly seem optimistic. As the US Senate was advised in March this year, "With adequate increases in agricultural research that are modest in terms of our other spending - and with free trade in farm products - we should be able to feed the world's population in 2050 without taking any more from nature". However a closer look at the sustainability of US agriculture and the real costs its industrial model incurs reveals that in the long term the country may have trouble feeding its own population, let alone the rest of the world.

Marketing food security

The strategic plan of the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has two goals. These are to, "Open, expand, and maintain global market opportunities for agricultural producers" and to, "Enhance world food security and assist in the reduction of world hunger". A massive 73% of resources is spent on promoting the global market leaving food security trailing with the remainder of 27%. To the USDA, these goals represent a win-win scenario, but to others with less faith in the global market, they appear to be mutually exclusive.

Agricultural export growth is seen as essential to ensuring future US wealth and well-being. As the powerful agro-industrial and biotech lobby pointed out in a letter to President Clinton in the run-up to the Group of Eight summit in June 1997, "The entire US agricultural food and fibre distribution chain is our nation's largest single industry, accounting for nearly one out of every six jobs, and approximately 16% of the Gross Domestic Product. Exports, which account for as much as one-third of domestic agricultural commodity production, are key to agriculture's overall economic health and future growth. This is especially true under the new Farm Bill, which gradually reduces domestic farm programs and increases the importance of maintaining continued access to foreign markets.". The letter goes on to point out that, "every billion dollars in additional US agricultural exports will create as many as 17,000 new jobs," which makes it unsurprising that the FAS has the goal of doubling the number of US companies exporting agricultural products from 7,000 to 14,000 by 2002.

The USDA uses the goal of warding off hunger as an excuse to justify the aggressive way the country pushes for biotechnology based farming both at home and abroad. At the Food Summit, Glickman made this out to be a question of morality, saying, "without biotechnology, we will be forced to exploit highly erodible farm and forest land. This may meet our short-term needs, but in the end our legacy to future generations will be a barren earth.".

Overall, the US vision comprises a very self-serving approach to its agricultural policy. It is a reminder that feeding the world should not be confused with wanting the world to be well fed. The US is interested in feeding the world not because of a sense of compassion or justice, but largely because it helps with its balance of payments.

US food balance

On the face of it, the US seems more than capable of feeding itself, since it exports more food than it imports (see Figures 1-2). Only 17% of US imports are considered to be non-competitive with US products (ie. the US does not produce the same or comparable products). Without these, US citizens might have to adjust their diets a little, giving up their penchant for coffee, chocolate and bananas, but there would certainly still be more than enough food to go around.

Figure 1. In 1994 the top ten export products of the agricultural, fishery and wood sectors, accounted for 53% of the total US$ 53.3 billion.

Source: GRAIN from USDA Agricultural yearbook 1996


The USDA's agricultural strategy is to maximise yields in order to boost the US balance of payments and to help feed the world. But in reality, high-yield strategies are not feeding the world at the moment, let alone in the future. Some 78% of exports from rich countries go to other rich countries and 68% of exports from poor countries go to rich countries, while people go hungry at home. Food produced in excess of demand serves to reduce commodity prices received by farmers, not to feed hungry people. And while the high yield strategy makes the US food supply look formidable, a closer look reveals that it is not as secure as agro-industry and policy makers would have us believe. It comes with huge hidden costs, the bills for which have been left unpaid for decades and continue to accumulate. At some point, however, the US will have to pay up, letting go of its image as the land of plenty.

The real costs of US agriculture

US agriculture has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. In that time, the number of farms has declined from more than six million to less than two million. As the number of farms has decreased, the percentage of food produced by the largest farms has increased substantially. This has been achieved by dramatically changing the face of farming. Many of the largest farms raise just one or two crops -- corn and soybeans, pigs or broccoli, or millions of chickens. The 400,000 largest farms produce about 80% of the US food supply, and resemble factories more than farms. Of 50,000 feedlots in the US, the largest 390 market 65% of the cattle. These massive `farms' are highly dependent on fossil fuels, pesticides, plastics, energy-intensive buildings, machinery, and government subsidies.

These farms take in huge amounts of external inputs at one end and discharge vast quantities of animal, fertiliser or pesticide wastes into their environment at the other. Farming has been transformed from a biological process into a computerised, industrial production and distribution system. The costs of this industrial model for agriculture are phenomenal and extremely wide-reaching, yet largely unrecognised.

Fossil fuel frenzy

Industrial agriculture uses huge amounts of fossil fuels: to run machinery, heat feedlots, refrigerate produce, make pesticides, fertilisers and other chemical inputs, and so on. One kilo of nitrogen fertiliser requires 1.85 kilos of oil equivalent for its manufacture, packaging, transportation, distribution and application. One kilo of grain-fed beef requires the equivalent of four litres of gasoline to produce. Energy use patterns in agriculture rise and fall according to oil price fluctuations. Between 1978 and 1993, energy use (excluding electricity) dropped 25% overall, but current levels used are still astronomically unsustainable.

Supplying the world with a typical American meat-based diet would deplete world oil reserves in just a few years. The annual beef consumption of an average American family of four (30 kilos each) requires more than 1000 litres of fuel and releases 2.5 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, as much as the average car over a six-month period. According to agronomist David Pimentel of Cornell University, "If all the grain currently fed to livestock in the US were consumed directly by people, the number of people who could be fed would be nearly 800 million.". This would be one way in which the US could help address the hunger problem and make its own agriculture more sustainable, but it is not a solution likely to find favour in a nation of meat-lovers.

Another way to reduce fossil fuel use would be to switch to organic farming which is much more energy efficient. A recent study found that organic maize production required 42% less energy than conventional production, and 57% less in terms of fossil fuel inputs for the same yield. Organic potato production used even fewer fossil fuels (67% less) than the conventional model, although yields were lower.

Pouring on pesticides

North America accounts for the highest level of pesticide use in the world. In 1995, the US spent $11.3 billion, or $43 per person, on pesticides. Of this, 70% ($7.9 billion) was used in agriculture (an average of nearly $4,200 per farm). In 1995, pesticide use continued to climb back up towards the 1982 peak. The USDA's Economic Research Service acknowledges a general rise in pesticide use since 1990, but states that the level, "continues to fluctuate with changes in planted acreage, infestation levels, adoption of new products, and other factors." However, a 1997 study by the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA) suggests that pesticide use is rising more rapidly than the USDA suggests. The study focused on California, which accounts for 20% of the US and 5% of world pesticide use. Reported agricultural pesticide use increased a massive 37% between 1991 and 1995, to 100 million kilos of active ingredient, used on the same overall land area. PANNA emphasises that these figures represent only reported use, and that actual use is higher. Farmers are having to use ever-increasing amounts of chemicals to remain effective, a common phenomenon for farmers on the chemical treadmill. The upward trend in pesticide use is likely to escalate as more farmers plant genetically-engineered herbicide-resistant crops, encouraging them to increase their chemical use.

Health hazards

More than 70 active ingredients in pesticides are known to cause cancer in animals and cancer is the most common reason for pesticide cancellation and suspension by the USDA. Much of the regulatory system surrounding the use of agrochemicals has centred on cancer risk. Yet the incidence of all US cancers, apart from lung cancer, has increased by about 40% in the last 45 years. In addition to cancer, pesticide use is also associated with other disorders, such as birth defects, neurological disorders, and endocrine disruption. In 1992, nearly half of the pesticides applied (weight basis) in the US were known endocrine disruptors. Related health costs from cancer, pesticide poisonings and fatalities have been estimated at almost $1 billion per year.

Figure 2. The top ten import products of the agricultural, fishery and wood sectors in 1994, accounted for nearly 59% of the total US$ 42.7 billion.

Source: GRAIN from USDA Agricultural yearbook 1996.


According to the USDA, the health risks associated with herbicides and fungicides increased 7-8 times between 1964 and 1992. The potential chronic risk from all other classified pesticides -- mostly soil fumigants -- increased about 75% in the same period. PANNA reports that in California, the use of the most toxic pesticides rose dramatically between 1991 and 1995 with the use of cancer-causing pesticides alone up by 129%. The total volume including: carcinogens, reproductive hazards, endocrine disruptors, Category I highly acute systemic poisons, Category II nerve toxins, and Restricted Use pesticides increased by 32%.

Amazingly, in many states across the US, toxic heavy metals, chemicals and radioactive wastes are being recycled as fertiliser. Until now, the USDA has only sampled fertilisers to see if they contain the advertised levels of beneficial elements, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. As a result, in Gore, Oklahoma, a uranium-processing plant gets rid of low level radioactive waste by licensing it as liquid fertiliser. In Camas, Washington State, lead-laced waste from a pulp mill is spread over crops destined for livestock feed. The USDA has only just started to recognise the need to test for hazardous elements.

The rapid rise of factory farming has also had serious health implications for both humans and livestock. In 1982, feedlots with more than 16,000 head of cattle represented 5.7% of production; by 1989 this number had increased to 40%. Many poultry ‘farms’ stock more than a million chickens and pig production units with more than 2,000 sows are not uncommon. As Nicols Fox describes in a recent critique of the livestock industry, animals are often used "as garbage dumps for animal waste." The overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, overuse of antibiotics and poor feed quality has led to a dramatic increase in food-borne disease. For example, there are 266 million cases of food poisoning each year in the US, an average of one per person, resulting in 10,000 deaths. Agriculture is ranked by the US National Safety Council as among the three most hazardous occupations in the country, with an annual death rate in 1991 of 44 per thousand workers. Each year 300,000 farm-workers suffer pesticide related illnesses, and 36% of meat-packing employees are injured on the job. In Washington State, the insurance claim rate by agricultural workers was approximately 50% higher than by non-agricultural workers. Increases in pesticide use and factory farming are set to exacerbate existing costs, which are paid for by society as a whole.

Dust bowl revisited

Soil erosion is just one of a number of environmental impacts resulting from US agricultural practices. In the last two centuries an estimated 1 billion hectares (30%) of farmland has been abandoned because of erosion, salinisation and waterlogging. Currently about 90% of US cropland is losing soil above sustainable rates and over half of US pastureland is overgrazed and subject to high rates of erosion. According to the Worldwatch Insitute, each kilo of feedlot steak costs about 50 kilos of eroded topsoil.

The cost of all off-site environmental impacts of soil erosion (eg. sedimentation of rivers and streams, loss of wildlife habitat, water treatment costs, etc.), most of which is from agriculture, is estimated to be about $17 billion per year. An additional yearly loss of $27 billion is attributed to reduced soil productivity on-site. Together, the total cost of erosion from agriculture is about $44 billion per year, or about $100 per hectare of cropland or pasture. The cost of erosion has been estimated to increase production costs by a quarter each year.

The great thirst

The demands of agriculture on fresh water supplies is becoming a serious problem, particularly in the Midwest and Western states. Nearly half the water consumed in the US is used to grow feed for cattle and other livestock. Achieving high yields in crop production has also been dependent on using huge quantities of water for irrigation. Fresh water reserves have declined dramatically as a result. In California where 42% of irrigation water is used for feed or livestock production, water tables have dropped so low that major land subsidence is increasing. The country’s second largest river, the Colorado, never reaches the ocean because all its water is diverted to irrigate farmland and feed the desert cities of the Western states.

The great Ogallala aquifer, which stretches under much of the mid-west, holds about as much water as Lake Erie. In 1959, it was used to irrigate 2.7 million hectares and by 1981 this had nearly doubled to a quarter of the total area irrigated in the US. The aquifer has extremely limited recharge capacity and the water table has been dropping dramatically, in 1993 being only 83% of its predevelopment volume. Some 11% of farmers in Texas have already been forced to switch back to dryland farming because the water table has dropped too low for irrigation. Many farmers in Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado have had to do the same. According to one water resource engineer from Colorado, "If something is not done immediately to replenish the water that is being lost from the Ogallala Aquifer, there will be no more irrigation for most of the US". Nevertheless, the constraints presented by the country’s limited water resources are not usually taken into consideration in policy-makers’ ambitious projections for future agricultural production.


Social costs

Over the last 50 years, an average of more than 1,500 farms have disappeared each week. This dramatic decline has been accompanied by significant changes in ownership patterns. Between 1978 and 1992, individual farm ownership declined by 16% and non-family corporations increased by 38%, with the latter concentrating farm wealth at the expense of the former. Another significant shift has been the steady rise of production contracts, particularly in the livestock arena. Marketing contracts require a farmer to sell his or her product to a particular processor or intermediary, but allow the farmer to make all managerial and production decisions. Instead production contracts require farmers to adhere to certain production practices decided by the contractor. Although production contracts tend to reduce a farmer's risk, they also disempower the farmer. One 1995 study found that as the bargaining position of pork packers improved, the attractiveness of contract terms for the growers declined. The largest hog contractors prefer to contract with farmers that have no experience in hog production, so that they can train them themselves. Farmers' knowledge is being ignored and they are being transformed from valued scientists, business managers and growers, into unskilled workers on a production line. This shift has had serious impact on farmers' sense of worth and their status in society.

In addition to their changing work role, individual farmers are simply finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. In 1994, 83% of farm households had earnings which placed them below the poverty line, making them dependent on off-farm income to support themselves. While the retail price of food increased by 18% between 1975 and 1993, the amount of each food dollar that reached the farmer actually declined from 35 cents to somewhere between 9 and 18 cents. This is largely the result of falling commodity prices promoted by US farm policy and its strategy to maximise production. In addition, imports of artificially cheap products from the South, often achieved through exploitation by Northern transnational corporations, are further depressing commodity prices.

It is a common misconception that farms have had to grow bigger because of economies of scale and that the loss of small farms is therefore inevitable. In reality, small farms can be as efficient if not more so, than large ones. Farms are getting bigger, not because this lowers their costs of production, but because they need more volume to generate income, especially given the increasingly tighter profit margins farmers are facing. The ruin of thousands of small farmers annually, results in the movement of rural populations to ever more crowded urban centres and in the depletion of natural resources.

Draining the gene pool

Biodiverse farming systems are critical for long term food security, because a large gene pool is essential to protect crops against disease and pests. The limited range of high-yielding seeds and breeds available to farmers has dramatically reduced the gene pool for crops and livestock over the last 50 years (See Table 3). The costs of genetic uniformity can be devastating, for example the 1970 Southern Corn Blight resulted in the loss of 15% of the country's most important crop because commercial varieties had no genes for resistance to the disease. Crop losses were estimated at $1 billion.

More recently, virulent forms of the famous potato blight which caused the Irish famine last century have been devastating potato harvests. Losses over the past several years are estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Genetic uniformity is, once again, the key to the problem, since none of the handful of varieties grown commercially are resistant to the pest. The consequences have been cataclysmic for many farmers. According to the US Agricultural Research Service, "Historically, growers sprayed for blight an average of once or twice a season .. But for the new strains, even increasing the number to 8 or 10 applications doesn't always work. So not only are growers incurring more costs, they're putting more chemicals into the environment and still losing." William Fry, a plant pathologist from Cornell University, cites the example of a single potato grower in New York state who lost $1million to the new strains, "Despite doubling pesticide expenditures, the disease cut marketable yields by 80% .. needless to say, he is no longer growing potatoes.".

The rise of genetic engineering makes genetic uniformity an even greater problem. According to Thomas Carter, a soybean geneticist from North Carolina State University, "Modern breeding techniques cause genetic bottlenecks, reducing diversity". He gives the example of the cyst nematode, which spread "amazingly rapidly" in US soybeans from 1950 to 1970. A source of resistance was found and developed in a single variety. This parent has now become very dominant in the soybean industry, further reducing the diversity of an already small gene pool. Genetic engineering exacerbates such genetic bottlenecks, increasing crop vulnerability, particularly when single gene resistance (such as the Bt gene) is exploited in a number of different crops.

According to Dilip Shah of Monsanto, genetically-engineered herbicide-tolerant soybean was grown on 4 million hectares in the US in 1997, accounting for 25% of soybean acreage. Bt-cotton was grown on 1 million hectares and Bt-corn on 1.4 million hectares. Although Monsanto's technology is being licensed to a number of seed companies, the number of genetic lines available is extremely limited. The company's recent strategy of buying up seed companies is particularly worrying, as this is likely to reduce still further the diversity of seed available to farmers. Monsanto insists that it is merely providing what farmers want, but the farmers themselves are caught in a trap. They buy the genetically-engineered products in the hope that enhanced short-term returns will allow them to keep one step ahead of their competitors. The net result of their increased yields will be a reduction in commodity prices, minimising farmers' profits, further reducing diversity and wreaking environmental havoc.

Genetic uniformity continues to be the silent crisis in US agriculture. As the gene pools of the world's most important crops and livestock continue to decline, it is only a matter of time before the next major disaster happens. Soybean is particularly vulnerable, and it is the crop that is spreading fastest across farmers' fields.

Subsidising the rich

For 60 years, the government has encouraged unsustainable farming practices by paying subsidies to farmers according to their acreage of a limited number of program crops, such as wheat, corn, soybean and rice. This has meant that farmers have had no incentive to diversify or rotate crops, and every incentive to chemically inflate their yields. Farmers received no subsidies for growing fruit and vegetables, or to hay and graze. As a result up to 70% of surplus wheat ends up as animal feed. Although supposedly designed to help family farms, the richest 2% of American farmers receive 27% of the subsidies. This came about as a result of Corporate and absentee landowners buying up the lands abandoned during the Dust Bowl years in the 1930s. Now they farm the government, instead of the land.

The fact that many farmers would not cover their costs without their subsidy payments is a reflection of artificially low market prices and huge costs of inputs that the industrial agricultural model demands. The US annual production inputs reached a record high of $184 billion in 1997 (an average of $97,000 per farm). In 1996, it cost Nebraskan farmers an average of $2.40 to produce a bushel of irrigated corn, yet more farmers sold more corn below cost price than above it.

The "Freedom to Farm" Bill (1996) replaces subsidies with guaranteed annual payments to farmers. These will initially be equivalent in dollar terms to subsidies ($5.6 billion) but would decline by $1.5 billion by 2002, when ideally they will be stopped. Theoretically, such a shift offers farmers the opportunity to diversify their farms and farm in a more sustainable manner. In reality, it is unlikely that more than a few will take the chance to do so, partly because old habits die hard and partly because the rest of the agricultural infrastructure (processing, marketing and transportation) remains resistant to such changes.

Instead of serving to support the family farm and a farming system which produces nutritious food, subsidies have served to degrade the environment, lower the quality of food available to consumers and increase the share prices of the food buying and processing corporations. The new system of payments to farmers is unlikely to change this situation in any significant way.

Corporate control

In the past, many states had strong anti-corporate farming laws to protect family farms, consumers and the farming way of life. These prevented corporations from raising livestock and crops, and limited the level of investment they could make in farming operations. In recent years, a number of states have relaxed their anti-corporate laws. In 1991 and 1993 respectively, Oklahoma and Missouri laws changed to allow corporations to raise poultry and swine, and Kansas now allows individual counties to make such decisions themselves. Such moves now allow many huge agribusiness concerns to complete the chain of vertical integration from seed to soya milk and piglet to pizza.

Even without being able to raise animals themselves, a few huge corporations already largely control food production (see Table 4), with the predictable result of profits being concentrated at the top of the chain. Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) dominates the beef packing market, earning a $257 million profit on sales of $12 billion in 1995. Its chairman was given a $5.2 million bonus on top of his $1 million salary, while IBP workers — mostly illegal immigrants from Mexico because US citizens won't do the work — were paid $7-10 an hour. Many of these mega-corporations, not content with achieving vertical integration of certain sectors of the food industry, are going for horizontal integration as well, in an attempt to complete their domination of the sector. Cargill, which tops the list of US privately owned companies, had revenues of $56 billion in 1996. Its interests span from meatpacking to freight operations, from fertiliser production to commodity trading, and steel production to grain milling. The company now controls about 25% of the world grain trade.


Recent years have also seen a conglomeration of the agrochemical, seed and biotech industries. This move places an even tighter stranglehold on farmers, who will see their options for planting and farming methods further eroded, and their bargaining power almost obliterated. In 1996, Monsanto spent $750 million to buy ownership interests in various other biotech companies including, Calgene (54%), DeKalb Genetics (40%), Ecogen (10%) and Agracetus (100%). In 1997, it bought the rest of Calgene for $217 million and announced joint ventures with Millenium and Mendel Biotechnology. 1997 has also seen Monsanto's first forays into the seed industry, with its purchase of Holden's Seeds for $1 billion (source of 35% of the parental lines used by independent corn breeders) and Agroceres, the largest seed company in the Southern hemisphere, brought for an estimated $70 million.

Corporate control of the food supply means that profits override all other concerns, such as food safety, the environment and sustainability. The costs to US citizens associated with this shift are enormous. As many of the same transnationals effectively control international commodity markets they also exploit commercial interests in the South. So Glickman's `war against hunger' is in essence a license for transnational corporations to continue exploiting both the South and the North.

The way ahead?

Though the hidden costs of industrial agriculture paint a grim picture of the state of the US food supply, USDA officials seem undeterred by this reality and continue to keep up the image of the US as the land of plenty. The 1996 Farm Bill gives some clues as to the direction food production is headed. The so-called "Freedom to Farm" bill conjures up images of smiling, rosy-faced farmers unfettered from government restrictions skipping gaily into the global marketplace with overflowing sacks of corn and soybeans. But the real freedom is destined for the transnational corporations, which are getting organised to secure vertical and horizontal integration of the food system, both in the US and abroad. For farmers, the grip is tightening, not releasing.

As the yawning gap in the US balance of payments continues to widen, pressure will increase on the farming sector to increase production. This will mean both an intensification of existing farmland and an increase in cropping area. The 1996 Farm Bill sets the stage for both these strategies. Some 40 million acres of the 75 million set aside in the 1980s into the Conservation Reserve Program will be reclaimed to agriculture. Much of this is unsuitable to chemical-intensive farming, which is why it was set aside in the first place. In addition, the Farm Bill removes any forms of supply management (such as marketing quotas), meaning that there are now no incentives for farmers not to maximise their yields.

However, there are some positive signs that a change in direction for US agriculture could yet happen. For the 7th year in a row, US organic industry sales in 1996 grew by more than 20% to reach $3.5 billion. Dairy products are one of the fastest growing sectors of the organic market, with 1996 sales in natural food stores alone of at least $120 million, up from $30 million in 1995. There is also increasing consumer interest in direct marketing through farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSA). The numbers of CSA groups and farmers markets increased by 43% and 34% respectively between 1993 and 1996. In addition, the number of `alternative' vegetable seed companies which focus on maintaining a biodiverse seed base is on the rise. Their market share is still small, but it is growing, and the number of varieties available is increasing again after hitting rock bottom in 1981.

Along with the rise of direct marketing comes renewed confidence in the viability of the family farm. According to crop scientist Ann Clark of the University of Guelph, "Family farms can be economically competitive, even in the face of low commodity prices, if they achieve wider margins through lower input costs and can avoid domination by the processing/marketing sector by producing a more diverse array of foodstuffs intended for local consumption."

Unfortunately, but predictably, the surge of public concern about the state of the US food supply and the demand for cleaner food has led to threats to undermine the sustainable agriculture movement. One timely example is the USDA's takeover of the organic certification process (see box). Under heavy pressure from factory farm and biotech interests, the USDA is set to weaken decisively current organic standards, which are presently upheld and enforced by 40 private and state organic certification boards.

If the USDA's proposals stand, real organic farmers might as well pack their bags and go home. Not much "Freedom to Farm" for them anymore. In California, large-scale agribusiness (Dole, Con-Agra, General Mills and Heinz) is already making its first forays into the organic sector. The organic certification proposals are only one example that US agriculture is headed towards complete industrialisation of agriculture. Consumers and farmers need to shout a great deal louder to attract Washington's attention to ensure a more sustainable future for US agriculture.

Given the crisis that US agriculture is causing for society and the environment, export surpluses may become a bonus of the past. Furthermore, public disfavour around the world with US exports such as hormone contaminated beef, BST milk (Prosilac) and genetically engineered soya, shows that people are increasingly unhappy with the fruits of US industrial agriculture. Rather than change course by adopting sustainable policies, the US administration is trying to force feed contaminated food to its own population through domestic legislation, and to the world, through free trade measures under the World Trade Organisation (WTO). US secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman, describes the private sector as "the great untapped frontier in the world war on hunger." If the US is expecting to see the likes of Cargill and Monsanto take up positions on the front line, it will be sorely disappointed. They are busy fighting their own war -- for market domination and global control. Food is merely a means to this end.

Janet Bell is a writer and researcher living in Boulder, Colorado, USA. She can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]


Main Sources:

USDA Agricultural Yearbook, 1996.

USDA Strategic Plan, 1997-2002.

USDA Economic Research Service (1997), Agricultural Resources and Environmental Indicators, 1996-97 edition.

USDA SARE (1997), Adding Values to our Food System: An Economic Analysis of Sustainable Community Food Chains, Integrity Systems Cooperative Co, Everson,WA

USEPA (1997), Pesticides Industry Sales and Usage: 1994 and 1995 estimates.

PANNA (1997) Rising Toxic Tide: Pesticide Use in California 1991-1995, PANNA, San Francisco.

Jaenicke, E (1997), The Myths and Realities of Pesticide Reduction, The Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, Greenbelt, MA.

Welsh, R (1997) Reorganizing US Agriculture -- The Rise of Industrial Agriculture and Direct Marketing, Henry A. Wallace Institute.

Rosengrant, M et al (1997), Global Food Markets and US Exports in the 21st Century, Paper for Illinois World Food and Sustainable Agriculture Conference, May 28, 1997.

Pimentel, D et al (1995), Environmental and Economic Costs of Soil Erosion and Conservation Benefits, Science Vol. 267, 1117-1121.

Pimentel, D and Greiner, D (1997), Environmental and Socio-Economic Costs of Pesticide Use, in: Ed. D. Pimentel, Techniques for Reducing Pesticide Use, John Wiley.

Clark, A (1997), Farming at the Agriculture Environment Interface. Paper presented at 1997 conference in Maine.

Save Organic Standards in the US

Recent proposals by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) attempt to weaken organic food standards by allowing practices common to industrial agriculture. Booming demand by US consumers for organic produce has seen annual growth rates up to 20% in recent years, making it the fastest growing agricultural sector. Such success is seeing corporate agribusiness trying to muscle in on the act through the auspices of the USDA. As Ronnie Cummins, Pure Food Campaign Director notes, "The proposals represent a take over of the natural foods industry by agribusiness, chemical-biotech corporations, and giant supermarket chains.".

On 16 December 1997 the USDA announced their proposed national organic standards which define what can be legally certified and labelled as organic. Following their final approval, it will be illegal for producers and retailers to uphold and promote standards stricter than the USDA allows. Under the proposed USDA laws, there are no explicit prohibitions against:

* Genetic Engineering to produce foods.

* Factory Farming to raise farm animals.

* Toxic Sludge spreading on farmlands and pastures.

* Animal Cannibalism — feeding animal waste and carcasses back to animals, the practice that has led to Mad Cow Disease in the UK.

* Food Irradiation — using radioactive nuclear wastes to "kill bacteria" and prolong the shelf life of food products.

The public consultation period ends on 16 March so send letters, faxes, or emails to the USDA demanding that they maintain strict organic standards by explicitly prohibiting the unacceptable agricultural practices listed here. Demand also that they allow private and state organic certification bodies to maintain stricter organic standards than those the USDA requires. Tell the USDA to refrain from weakening or eliminating the power of the National Organic Standards Board to decide the criteria of what is organic.

Letters to the USDA should be sent to: USDA—National Organic Standards, Docket # TMD-94-00-2, USDA, AMS, Room 4007-S, AgStop 0275, P.O. Box 96456 Washington, D.C. 20090-6456, US

Fax: (Include Docket Number) (202)-690-4632

email: see USDA web site

The Pure Food Campaign's free electronic newsletter can be obtained, by sending an email to: [email protected], with the simple message: subscribe pure-food-action.

Pure Food Campaign/SOS (Save Organic Standards) Address: 860 Hwy 61 Little Marais, Mn. 55614 USA, Tel: (218)-226-4164 Fax: (218) 226-4157 email: [email protected]

Author: GRAIN
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