RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMullen

ABCs of Agriculture

Perhaps you know just enough about agriculture to be thoroughly befuddled by the buzz about genetically altered soybeans. These are the soybeans grown with seeds that survive a thorough drenching with weed killers that kill every other green thing. You may have used these weed killers to kill the grass that comes up in sidewalk cracks or to eradicate an especially bad patch of poison ivy.

Why would anyone want a soybean that lives in a dead field? The answer is that farmers think yields will be higher from beans grown without weed competition. Farmers have been persuaded of this, even though 1997 yields were average, the seed costs more, and the farmers are required to sell to specific corporate markets.

Eighty percent of the early seed sales in the U.S. are genetically altered seeds, which means that in 1998 everything you use, from baby formula to salad dressing will be made with grains that have only recently appeared on the planet.

If this information is just enough to baffle you, it's time to review the ABCs of Farming:

A is for Agriculture, the art of turning solar energy into forms humans can store and use when we need it. A is for American Farmer, who feels compelled to extract ever more dazzling harvests from land that is seriously depleted, land which may even be desert without the addition of chemicals.

B is for "Bigger is Better," which probably ought to be our national motto. Universities solemnly intone that, without Bigger Agribusiness, there won't be Enough. The farm magazines scream, "Get Big or Get Out," and rake in advertising dollars to promote bigger machines for bigger acreages. Every year, U.S.D.A. reports there are fewer farmers working larger farms.

C is for Consumers, the Captains of the Canoe. Memorize this: Common Consumers Coolly Choose Cakes, Cookies, Candies, Convenience Comestibles and Crunch Cereals Cooked in Corporate Kitchens. And C is for Children, Cartoons, Commercials, Cash registers and Ca-Ching!

D is for Debt. After buying his land at $1,000-$3,000 per acre, the Farmer buys equipment, fertilizer and seed. Tractors start at $40,000. Combines $100,000, used. The Farmer always has a debt hanging over his head. To make the money to service his debt, he plows every inch of available land, right up to the ditches and fences.

E is for "Even more Erosion," which is what you get when you plow up to a ditch or neglect buffer strips next to waterways. E is also for Earthworm, a helpful critter that aerates land so the plant roots can absorb more. And E is for Extinct, which Earthworms practically are in farm fields because of pesticides, yearly deep plowing and heavy equipment that compacts their habitat. And E is for Enough, which there apparently never is.

F is for Freak of Nature -- miles of fields growing all the same crop. Nothing on earth exists naturally like these monocultures. F is also for Fertilizers, which nourishes the monocultures so the dazzling yields are possible.

G is for Gasoline, which runs the farm machines and the 18-wheeler trucks that carry the seed and chemicals to the fields, then carry the harvest to the processor, then carry the processed food to the warehouse, then carry the warehoused, processed foods to your grocery store.

G is also for Genetic Engineering, which means that corporations manipulate genes and tell farmers the new combinations will benefit mankind and increase yields and by now you understand that farming isn't Old McDonald any more. Farmers carry a monstrous lot of D-is-for-debt because they're convinced that Bigger is Better. They grow what the seed companies and the magazines say will bring more profit. (See "P.")

H is for hope. That's what farmers live on from year to year. Hope that the weather will be perfect and the chemicals will work like they're supposed to. Hope that prices stay high enough to pay off the debt, the kids' Nike shoes, and even give the family a little vacation. That never happens.

I is for -icides: Pesticides, herbicides, to control the enemies that can devestate a crop overnight. A huge acreage of one plant--a monoculture--is a treat for the bugs, rusts and fungi that enjoy it. -Icides are made with petrochemicals.

J is for Just to see if you're paying attention, answer this question:

"Bigger is better" is a quote from:

(a) the Agribusiness Department of your State University;

(b) your favorite farm magazine;

(c) the U.S. Association of Implement Dealers;

(d) all of the above.

K is for Knowledge, as in "a little is a dangerous thing." Only fifty years after the discovery of the first antibiotics, and we're acting like we have the world figured out well enough to manipulate the gene pool for all time.

L is for Limits. (In our world, there aren't any. We take land from indigent people, we go to war for petroleum, we pretend that our abundance is due to our superior science.)

M is for Monopolies, which the U.S.D.A. is always investigating but never disciplining. Is 82 percent of the market, up from 36 percent in 1980, too much for four beef packers? M is also for Mega-farms, those industrial facilities where a state's worth of animals and a state's worth of excrement are confined to one township. And, M is for Media, who are generally pawns of the advertisers but are beginning to admit that Manure stored in pits doesn't really smell like Money (Muchas Gracias!)

N is for Nutrition, which we so little understand that we marvel at our large, early-blooming children, and ignore asthma, childhood cancer rates and other health concerns.

O is for Oprah.

P is for Profit. The Farmer gets about 10 cents of every dollar spent at the grocery store. The industrial giants, including processors, transporters and marketers, often owned by the same multi-national corporations, gets the rest.

P is also for Perennials, plants that come back every year without planting. Unfortunately, A is for Annuals like corn, milo and soybeans--plants that must be re-planted every year. Growing annuals means there's always a Farmer buying seeds. See "P is for profit."

Q is for Quick As A New York Minute, and that's how fast things change.

R is for crops genetically altered to resist an -icide that kills all weeds but doesn't hurt Farmers or Land. Believe that?

S is for Shareholders in big corporations. They can make changes by getting together and demanding that management think about the longterm impact of what they're doing.

T is for Tax dollars paid to multinational corporations that export food. One in three acres goes for export. Think that Export Enhancement Program money goes to farmers? See "P is for profit."

U is for the University Ag Departments. Who pays for the one in your state? T is for taxes? Better check those figures again!

V is for Vegetarians, that Virtuous clan who do not participate in the meat-based diet. Trouble is, most grocery store veggies are raised on land that's too depleted to function without massive doses of chemicals and trucked to the store from miles away, losing the bit of nutrition it manages to store.

W is for Who and Where are the Farmers of yore? Better find one, Quick, and thank him for sticking around.

X is for X-change your grocery store habits for a new way of shopping with a local farmer who works for you and not a corporation.

Y is for You. Feeling good about what your family eats.

Z is for "Zat's the truth, folks, as best as I can tell it."

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

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