Big Ag’s toxic legacy: Broken soils, cokehead cows

June 19, 2016 by Frontline Copy

Edited excerpts from a talk I gave at a local California Democratic Club meeting in June 2016.

livestock, soil, Big Ag, biodynamics, regenerative agricultureby Faith Attaguile

If I could sum up what’s wrong with our food production and distribution system today, I’d have to say it’s that farmers no longer control the farm. Big Ag does. And folks, the situation is untenable.


Where it all started

Often, criticism of today’s industrial farming system ignores the fact that people have been messing up soil for thousands of years.

If you don’t think so, just ask the Greeks, Romans or Mayans.

However, there are two big differences between soil depletion then and soil depletion now. First, no previous civilization has had the kinds of toxins and pesticides to blast into the soil as we do now. We are spreading more of that poison around than ever before.

Second, there are few opportunities left today to “Go west, young man!” seeking new soils to exploit. What we have now — well, that’s what’s left. There just ain’t no more “west.”

Take the United States. After cutting down trees and polluting streams in Europe, people came to the North America to start anew. Finding indigenous peoples already established, European settlers (backed by a new government) killed and pushed these peoples out of the way in order to repeat the same destructive soil exploitation they were guilty of doing in Europe. It didn’t take long. By the early 1800s, those East Cost farmers who chose to stay, rather than move west to find more fertile soils, knew they had a problem: They just couldn’t grow crops like they used to.

It didn’t take long. By the early 1800s, those East Cost farmers who chose to stay, rather than move west to find more fertile soils, knew they had a problem: They just couldn’t grow crops like they used to.

Right about that time a German chemist (we’ll talk about him later) had discovered the importance of nitrogen and phosphorous as essential nutrients for plant health. So in the late 1830s, when someone discovered huge quantities of naturally occurring nitrogen and phosphorous in tons of bird poop piled up on the cliffs of Peru, it caught the attention of the farming world.

This bird poop, better known as guano, was just what European farmers—and now American farmers—needed for their depleted soils. So, between 1840-1880, a UK company put Chinese slave labor to work shoveling up centuries of accumulated pelican, booby and cormorant poop. In some places, the poop was 150 feet high. Once loaded with this precious poop, company steamships headed full speed ahead for profitable European and American markets.

At the end of the 40-year treasure hunt, Peru had exported 12 million tons of guano valued at $500,000. But the poop had run out. While poop is a renewable resource, the bird population wasn’t expanding as much as the demand.

And, without the golden guano to help out, American farmers went back to plowing and tilling their soils into nutrient depletion. Then, when their soils became so sick as to be valueless for crops, farmers began grazing livestock, devastating their soils even further.

Seeing the last event (grazing livestock) and being uneducated about the first (poor farming methods), people began blaming the mere presence of livestock as the problem. With few variations, that’s been the story up to today.

By 1900, when industrialization was in full swing, the problem wasn’t just with soils on the East Coast. Rich, beautiful midwestern prairie topsoil had also been torn up, ripped apart, exposed and depleted to make way for crop cultivation.

An end to the problem of soil depletion was needed, and fast. By that time, two schools of thought had emerged offering solutions to the problem: The mechanistic approach and the biological approach. Let’s take a closer look at them.

livestock, soil, Big Ag, biodynamics, regenerative agricultureThe mechanistic approach:
Justus Von Liebig

This farming method involves a mechanistic, or chemical, approach. It views the farm as nothing more than a machine to be dominated and driven by the higher intelligence of humans. Advocates of this approach say inputs—cogs in the machine you can put in or take out at will (like synthetic fertilizers)—are key to obtaining desired production outputs.

In large part, this school of thought grew out of the work of German organic chemist Justus Von Liebig.

Indeed, when the Peruvian guano boom took off in 1840, it was Von Liebig who affirmed the usefulness of the bird poop. But more importantly, his claim that particular arrangements of N-P-K are the foundation of life is what gave birth to the chemical/mechanistic approach of Big Ag.

livestock, soil, Big Ag, biodynamics, regenerative agricultureThe biological approach:
Rudolph Steiner and Sir Albert Howard

This school of thought proposes a biological, or carbon-centric, approach to farming. It views the farm not as a machine but as a living, breathing organism — its soil as the earth’s skin.

Humans are partners, facilitating and managing a beautifully choreographed “farm dance" involving multi-layered, ever-changing, symbiotic relationships between people, animals and nature.

The biological approach frames the perspective of the regenerative farming movement today. It owes a lot to Austrian thinker Rudolph Steiner’s work in biodynamic agriculture, a practice that views the whole of nature as greater than the sum of her parts.

This approach also owes a lot to Sir Albert Howard who, in the 1940s, developed the recipe for aerobic composting—a central tenet of today’s biological farming methods.

Steiner’s and Howard’s perspective offered important practical ideas about farm sustainability, manure use, composting, crop rotation and animal husbandry. But the truth was that to be really successful using this labor-intensive approach, farmers would have to replace their wooden pitchforks with more modern equipment.

livestock, soil, Big Ag, biodynamics, regenerative agricultureA Manhattan Project for tractors?

At the time Steiner was developing his approach, and even later when Howard expanded on it, farms simply lacked the machines necessary to undertake successful biological farming. There were horses and mules—but no tractors, front-end loaders, manure spreaders or hydraulics. And there were no chippers, grinders or shredders for making the rich aerobic compost Howard promoted.

 The machines needed to spread tons of manure and mix tons of essential ingredients for good aerobic compost simply didn’t exist. It would take a heavy infusion of capital to make these practices feasible (and profitable) on the farm.

 Nope. A Manhattan Project for chemicals

 After World War II, a heavy infusion of capital finally did come to farms. But it wasn’t in forms promoting the biological approach. The capital infusion came in forms promoting the mechanistic approach.

 That’s not really surprising. After 1900, the mechanistic approach increasingly dominated discussions of soil fertility. Then, World War II came along. Munitions factories sprang up, making bombs out of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. After the war, there were tons of unused NPK-based munitions hanging around and lots of munitions factories closing down.

 It didn’t take a rocket scientist to see how easy it would be to convert munitions and munitions factories into fertilizer and fertilizer factories—and make a lot of money in the process.

 That’s how (as my favorite farmer Joel Saladin says) the Manhattan Project to develop weapons of mass destruction became the Manhattan Project to develop chemically-based industrial agriculture. The war on Hitler became a war on soil by mainlining it with chemical nitrogen and killing it with poisonous pesticides.

Enter: Big Ag poster boy, Earl Butz

Earl Butz was Big Ag’s dream come true. As US Secretary of Agriculture under both Eisenhower and Nixon, he advised farmers to “Get big or get out.”

He called on farmers to plant monoculture crops like corn “from fencerow to fencerow.” He promoted synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides as game changers in the rush to bigness.

Indeed, he was little else than a shill for agribusinesses. He promoted on-the-ground consolidation of farms and vertical integration of all aspects of agriculture such that today, five companies dominate seed and agricultural inputs:

  • Dow
  • DuPont
  • Syngenta
  • Monsanto
  • Bayer

livestock, soil, Big Ag, biodynamics, regenerative agriculture

Big Ag’s toxic legacy:
Drug and pesticide addition

Industrial farming today is addicted to chemical pesticides, synthetic fertilizers and antibiotics. How’s that working for us?

Not very good, it seems. Here’s a list of some of its ailments:

  • Take antibiotics. 80% of the antibiotics used in this country (about 29 million pounds/year) are used on CAFO farms. 90% of that 80% are used not for health reasons, but to make animals grow faster. The remaining is used to treat sick animals under 24/7 confinement, often standing with manure up to their knees or in cages where they can’t move.
  • Our food system is awash with GE foods passed through the regulatory process on the very thin premise of, “If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.” Most GE crops are made to withstand heavy doses of pesticides, and increasingly, farmers are applying heavier and more poisonous doses.
  • Herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant bugs, mutated out of these pesticide applications, are on the rise.
  • Soils are seriously depleted from synthetic fertilizers, monoculture production, soil exposure and livestock overgrazing.
  • Water sources are polluted from CAFO manures and synthetic chemicals.
  • Farmers have become serfs of agribusinesses that control a vertically integrated food production and distribution system.
  • Cities and towns suffer from food insecurity in their dependence on food imported from thousands of miles away.
  • Farm income concentration has made 1 in 10 farmers unable to support a family unless they take an outside job. There are about 211 million farms in this country. Do the math.

livestock, soil, Big Ag, biodynamics, regenerative agricultureSymbiotic farming, thriving towns

 How can we begin to mitigate and heal all this damage?

The answer is simple, although its application is a bit more complex. Healing our soil will come through farm diversity, not farm uniformity. It will come through local reconnections, not disconnections.

We can start here:

  • In towns and cities: Support more urban farms, from backyards to shared community gardens to school gardens. Engage people and children with the miracle of nature. Raise some chickens and keep some bees. Buy local: Reconnect with farmers markets and farmers producing food in regional areas outside the city. Build urban food security.
  • On farms: Apply the biological approach to farming. Work with nature, rather than on Build infrastructure needed to place sustainable, regenerative farming methods back on the map. Increase plant diversity and use crop rotation, aerobic composting, cover crops and farm animals, where livestock recycles carbon, minerals and water.

“But wait,” you exclaim. “Did you say, livestock? Isn’t livestock doing the Monster Mash on climate?”

The short answer is, “It all depends on how livestock is managed. Animals aren’t the problem, CAFOs are.”

For a longer, more detailed explanation, read my critical review of the film “Cowspirary.”  Now that’s a film that should be essential viewing for anyone interested in how to present fake facts as though the truth.

Do I have your attention now?

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