Issues in American commodity farming
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Aside from food production, industrial agriculture also provides fuel sources and provides export opportunities. The three commodity crops are predominate: corn, soybeans and wheat. Every year, farmers use 50 million acres (200,000 km2) to 70 million acres (280,000 km2) for cultivating each of these three crops.
America's #1 commodity crop
America’s largest crop is corn (maize). Corn is a readily available, reliable, store able and versatile commodity. In the average American supermarket, corn derived ingredients can be found in one-fourth of everything on the shelves. This includes not only food items, but also cosmetics, toiletries, cleaning products and household goods. Aside from that, corn is also used for the feeding of factory farm animals, for the production of alcohol, and can be used as a fuel source for both heat production and vehicles. On top of being a versatile commodity, corn has been genetically modified in a way that facilitates industrial-agricultural harvesting and large yields. Between the years 1920 and 1980, US corn yields increased 333 percent and continue to improve. The strains of corn used for industrial farming are engineered to grow in a uniform, perfectly upright fashion that facilitates mechanical harvesting. Corn is also modified to thrive in crowded conditions; 1 acre (0.40 ha) of land can accommodate around 30,000 plants and produce roughly 180 bushels of corn, with each bushel weighing in at 56 pounds. Genetic modifications have made it possible for certain strains of corn to be naturally insect resistant. Cheap and readily available chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers have contributed greatly to high crop yields; corn has also been engineered to tolerate chemicals and to efficiently utilize petrochemical fertilizers. Increases in the productivity of corn have helped to keep food prices low. America’s number one crop has an undeniably important place in both the economy and in peoples' diets. Versatility, affordability and the promise of large yields makes corn the perfect capitalist commodity crop. While commodity corn farming has important benefits, it can also have negative effects socially, economically and environmentally.
Costs of commodity farming
The farmer and the economy
“The American farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything he buys at retail, sells everything he sells at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.” – John F. Kennedy
The price of corn has been declining steadily. Currently, the price of one bushel of corn is about one dollar less than the cost of growing it. In 2005, Iowa grain elevators were paying $1.45 per bushel ($57.10 per metric ton), while it was costing the farmer about $2.50/bu ($98/t) to grow it. This is a benefit for everyone except the corn farmer. While commodity prices are falling, the cost of production is rising. According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, production costs increased $22 billion in 2007, and they are expected to keep rising this year. Unfortunately, commodity corn farmers have little control over the price they receive for their product. In order for corn farmers to generate any profit, they basically take whatever price they can get for their crop. A working farm needs a particular amount of income to maintain itself, and with falling corn prices the only choice for the corn farmer is to grow and sell more corn. This in turn leads to overproduction and even lower prices. Government policies used to protect corn prices from collapsing by establishing a target price based on the cost of production. Whenever the market price fell below that number, farmers were given the opportunity to take out a loan from the government using the crop as collateral, in turn allowing the farmer to store the grain until the market bounced back. In the mid-1970s this structure was removed and there was no longer an established floor price for a bushel of corn. Instead, subsidies were put in place that would reimburse the farmer for the difference between the market price and a target price. This encouraged corn farmers to grow as much as possible and to sell their crop at any price. Federal payments to corn farmers account for about half of their income, which translates to about 25% of the $19 billion taxpayers pay yearly on farmer’s payments. Contrary to what many people think, the current rise in food prices is doing little if anything to increase profit for the farmer. As retail prices for food increase, the share of the food dollar that returns to the farmer has fallen. Farmers are only seeing a very small fraction (between 2 and 25% depending on the product) of the retail price. The extra cost is instead going towards production, processing, transportation and marketing, which all cost significantly more today than in the past few years. Corn farmers continue to produce an undifferentiated commodity, and the profits are shifting to those who are benefited by overproduction and low crop prices: the companies who process, package and market the final products.
Depopulation and the rural economy
The economic troubles faced by corn farmers can help to explain why so many farmers are losing their farms; with decreased profits, and increased production costs many cannot stay in business. These farmers have to move to find work elsewhere. Along with this, the preference for monocultural agriculture in producing commodity crops has contributed to the depopulation of many rural areas across the American farm belt. Farming used to include the cultivation of a diversity of crops and livestock on one plot of land. When agriculture revolutionized into an industry with the responsibility to produce as much of a certain commodity as possible, it became more efficient to move the animals and other crops off of the land and use the space to grow commodity crops exclusively. The large supply of corn and other grains that resulted from this change made it more efficient to feed and raise livestock in concentrated animal feeding operations indoors rather than in grass pastures; small scale livestock farmers could not compete with the output produced by factory farms using cheap corn-based feed. The simplified practice of cultivating one crop along with the introduction of the tractor and other mechanized farming equipment resulted in less of a need for labor. Therefore, the output of commodity crops from the industrialized farm increased, while the population of surrounding communities decreased. In the early 1900s one fourth of Americans lived on a farm. Currently, fewer than 2 million Americans still farm. According to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, America lost 219,500 farms between 1981 and 1986. The remaining fields were merged to form larger operations. A sustainable rural community depends on the income from successful farms. If people are moving elsewhere to find work, either as a result of a failed farm or the decreased need for labor resulting from machines, the local economy suffers. With fewer people to support the economy and to provide a tax base, local businesses, churches, schools and clinics may have to close their doors.
Chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers
Industrial agriculture also produces undesirable environmental effects. Large scale growing operations of commodity crops rely on the use of chemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. Modified corn is a greedy plant that consumes more fertilizer that any other crop. Without either of these, the soil alone could not have supported the large number of hybrid corn plants that helped America’s food industry explode. The production of both synthetic pesticides and fertilizers requires the use of natural gas and petroleum. Currently, it is relatively inexpensive to produce fertilizers and pesticides in this fashion, since the product is efficient and can be produced in huge quantities. Petrochemical fertilizers are preferred over sustainable options (manure) for these reasons. Fossil fuels are also crucial for transportation of product, manufacturing, and for running tractors and harvesting equipment. It is estimated that every bushel of corn requires the equivalent of between one quarter and one third of a U.S. gallon of petroleum to grow (37 to 50 liters per metric ton). For every acre of corn, about 50 U.S. gallons of petroleum are needed (470 L/ha). The use of fossil fuel in farming is standard; without this relatively affordable and convenient fuel source aiding in the fertilization, pest resistance, harvesting and manufacturing corn crops would not meet a high enough yield to satisfy the needs of the farmer or the demands of the consumer.
Concentrated animal feeding operations
The overproduction and low cost of commodity grains encourages the mass production of livestock in concentrated feedlots and has led to large expansions in cattle feedlots, hog factories and broiler productions. The USDA provides marketing assistance to agriculture, encouraging Americans to drink more milk, eat more eggs and eat more meat. Encouraging the increased consumption of these foods heightens the demand for commodity corn, since one of its main usages is animal feed. Large scale expansion of concentrated animal feeding operations contributes to air, water and soil pollution. Combined, the poultry, pork and beef industries produce six to ten times more waste than humans. The Environmental Protection Agency also explains that waste from animals from factory farms contains phosphorus, nitrogen, pathogens and veterinary pharmaceuticals (including hormones and antibiotics) which runoff and pollute the soil and water. Emissions of gases and particulates from the animals also pollute the air.
Crops do not end up using all of the synthetic fertilizer it is fed. The remainder ends up polluting surrounding land. Some of it will evaporate into the air where it will acidify the rain and produce greenhouse gases. It will also seep into the groundwater or run off into nearby bodies of water, thus polluting the drinking water of nearby communities. Poor soil health resulting from overproduction, excessive fertilizer use and inappropriate application of fertilizer causes runoff and leaching. Runoff into forests or marine areas can alter the ecosystem by fertilizing some plan species and poisoning others. The result of toxic runoff from commodity agriculture surrounding the Mississippi River can be seen at the hypoxic zone where the river meets the Gulf of Mexico. Here, algae grow rampant as a result of nitrogen fertilizer runoff thereby suffocating the animal life. This area has not reduced in size despite previous action plans for reduction made by the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient Task Force. This hypoxic zone threatens the $2.8 billion fishing industry that depends on the northern part of the Gulf, which could affect the economy at large.
- Union of Concerned Scientists, 2007
- Pollan 2006: 17–19
- Pollen 2006: 36
- Pollen 2006: 30–31
- Pollan 2006: 48–53
- Farm Bureau News, April 7, 2008 pg. 4
- Pollan 2006: 49–61
- Farm Bureau News, April 7, 2008 p. 4
- Stallman, 2008
- Sullivan, 2003
- Pollan 2006, 34–40
- Pollan, 2006: 41
- Pollan 2006: 45
- Naylor, 1999
- UCS, 2007
- EPA, 2007
- Pollan 2006: 46
- Pollan 2006: 47
- CSCOR, 2008
* Pollan, M. (2006). "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals". New York, New York. Penguin Publishing Group
* Stallman, B. (May, 2008). "Farmers Get Wholesale in a Retail World". http://www.fb.org/index.php?fuseaction=newsroom.agenda
* Ed. Finnerty, L. (April, 2008) FBnews. Vol. 87. No.7. http://www.fb.org/newsroom/fbn/2008/FBN_04-07-08.pdf
* Sullivan, P. (2003). "Sustainable Corn and Soybean Production". ATTRA: National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service http://attra.ncat.org/attra-pub/cornbean.html>/cite>
* Union of Concerned Scientists. (August 2007) "Industrial Agriculture: Features and Policy". http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_environment/sustainable_food/industrial-agriculture-features-and-policy.html#Features_of_Industrial_Agriculture
* CSCOR:Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research. (2008) "Gulf of Mexico Hypoxia Task Force Formally Approves 2008 Action Plan" http://www.cop.noaa.gov/news/events/HypoxiaAPapproved.html
* EPA: Environmental Protection Agency: Environmental Technology Opportunities Portal (2007). "CAFO Pollution Prevention Technology Plan" http://www.epa.gov/etop/forum/problem/cafo_p2tech.html
* Naylor, G. (1999). "Bringing Sanity to the Rural Economy". In Motion Magazine, August 29, 1999. http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/naylor2.html