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
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
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
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,
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