RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

A Revolution that Takes No Prisoners

About 30 minutes after I heard a Monsanto exec touting Africa's great gains in crop yield due to increased fertilizers and access to new corn seeds, I bumped into a friend, a farm wife who had worked the world's hardest jobs for years to help her corn-growing husband hang on to the farm and get their son through college.

Look out, Africa. The Green Revolution's coming your way.

We live on prairie where the ground was fair to good 50 years ago, but continuous plowing to raise corn and soybeans has washed much of the topsoil into the creeks and river. Note, please, that the erosion is no surprise, and that the devastation has been done under the careful eye of Washington policy makers and University of Missouri data crunchers.

Sounds like the new generation of advisers is leading Africa down the same sorry path.

Her husband had carefully followed the University Extension's advice to rotate corn and beans, because corn is a demanding crop that needs lots of nitrogen and soybeans replenish the nitrogen in the soil to a small extent. He had minimized his plowing and left the recommended amount of vegetation -- stems and stalks -- on the fields, but despite his care, the fields had become so depleted that his last three corn crops were failures. Now, with the biggest price boom in history in the corn market, due to the phony ethanol story, he can no longer raise corn.

For this farmer, now sick of the whole business, retirement may not be an option. He wonders whether the land will bring anything. Farmers don't have 401Ks. The land is their security, and if the land becomes desert, there's no security.

Africa's current agriculture includes small farms that raise vegetables and small flocks and herds of animals to feed a few families, much like America's of 50 years ago. It is marked by diversity and meeting the nutritional needs of the people. There isn't any surplus to export.

The Green "revolution," which started in the US when university scientists started applying leftover weapons-grade nitrogen and potassium to production fields, led to larger fields of fewer crops. We started raising corn to feed animals, and left off raising food for people.

The new techniques freed up people to get jobs in town, meeting the needs of industry. The Green Revolution also led to cycles of overproduction, cheap prices and, for farmers, expansion so that they could use the larger, more deep-plowing equipment as it came on the market from Ford and John Deere.

The surplus brought us more corn-fed beef and other livestock, even though livestock get along perfectly well without corn. If you want obese livestock, which is what we've been raising, you can get them by feeding corn and keeping them too cooped up to exercise.

And if you want obese kids, well, cheap corn can bring them. Cheap corn has led to high-fructose corn syrup in our children's snack foods and sodas, which experts say is the leading cause of childhood obesity and its twin, diabetes. So that's the American consumer side of the surplus corn story.

Corn overproduction fueled export of surplus grains to Africa and China. To cover the costs, the scheme fueled increasing subsidies so that farmers could make enough to meet their payments. These policies were invented on the fly, stopgaps to prevent one short-term crisis after another. Nobody ever said, "let's start raising melons and broccoli again," because industry set up a system to bring those in from faraway places.

And now we have the ethanol scam, a product that's subsidized at least four ways: Grants to build the processing plants, subsidies to raise the corn, discounts on taxes for fuel to transport it, bonuses paid to the gas stations that sell it. Every piece of data to support ethanol is phony.

So, if the "green revolution" is the future of Africa, expect a generation of boom and sloppy policies that benefit industry, and, then, depleted land.

But back to America and my friend's husband and the question: Where will we grow our food?

As our farmers have concentrated on enormous fields of corn, wheat, soybeans, rice and cotton, the five most-subsidized crops, the amount of food we import has grown steadily. In 1989, according to the USDA, we imported $229,928,000 in fresh tomatoes from places as close as Canada and Mexico and as far away as Chile, Netherlands, and Spain. In 2003, we imported more than 3 times as much -- a whopping $950 million. And this is a crop that can be raised in every state, even in barrels on a city balcony.

Canada and Mexico have been the major beneficiaries, as you'd guess, but their canneries are selling us fewer cans of processed tomatoes, sauce, salsa, and catsup. China's share of those processed products has grown. That means more dependence and less security.

Find the growers and processors in your neighborhood and support them. Taking back the food system is the first step on the path to take back our future.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2007

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