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Agricultural Apocalypse: Eating Our Way to Oblivion

“The food business is far and away the most important business in the world. Everything else is a luxury. Food is what you need to sustain life every day. Food is fuel. You can’t run a tractor without fuel, and you can’t run a human being without it either. Food is the absolute beginning.”

⎯Dwayne Andreas, former chairman, Archer Daniels Midland

Aisle Five: Browsing the Global Garden

You are in the supermarket, exhausted after another wearying day at the office (or the factory). You just want to get home and eat, and now your senses are pummeled by the brightly packaged bounty all around you. You are at once awakened and overwhelmed. What will you pick from this vast corporate garden?

It’s an astounding selection, a global cornucopia that appears⎯at first glance⎯to be fairly affordable (at least for the economically comfortable). Shiny, freshly waxed fruits and vegetables, radiantly colored, beckon from overflowing bins; there’s nary a bruise or nonconforming shape in sight. Broccoli, oranges, bananas, asparagus, melons and pineapples are piled high in the middle of winter. Crops hailing from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Chile, Argentina, every productive corner of America, and elsewhere, display the terrific powers of industrial agriculture, seemingly boundless international trade, and rapid long distance transport of perishable foods.

A short stroll away, past a rainbow of fruit cocktails and juices and columns of dairy products, lie coolers stuffed with all kinds of meat, chicken and fish⎯sliced and diced, “lean” and “choice cut,” marinated and filleted. A few more swivels of the shopping cart reveal long fluorescent boulevards of packages and cans, each promising to save you time and enliven your taste buds. There are pre-cut and flavored fruits and vegetables (produce with “value added”), fully prepared kids’ lunches, multi-colored chips, soups and stews, frozen dinners, a whole kingdom of precision-flavored cereals, sauces, and powdered meals. Just add water and plug in the microwave. It’s a bachelor’s (or working mom’s) paradise.

In today’s American supermarket, there are no seasons, no limits. The world’s harvests and manufactured meals are at your fingertips. It’s like a miraculous gastronomic democracy⎯Roman Empire-style excess readily available to the common man and woman. The supermarket appears to symbolize the best of democratic capitalism, offering consumer choice and a largess born of amazing productivity. But what makes this unprecedented harvest possible? How does all this food actually get here? Is it really as cheap and convenient as it seems? On this side of the balance sheet, things look too good to be true.

In fact, this veneer of epicurean egalitarianism conceals a less glamorous set of realities. Our most basic necessity has become a force behind a staggering array of social, economic and environmental epidemics⎯a toxic cornucopia of poison-laminated harvests, extreme labor abuse, treacherous and secretive science, and, at the reins, a few increasingly monopolistic corporations controlling nearly every aspect of human sustenance. The way we make, market, and eat food today creates rampant illness, hunger, poverty, community disintegration, and ecological decay⎯and threatens our future food supply. Welcome to Silent Autumn.

Consider for a moment the other side of the ledger:

- The way this extraordinary bounty is made is putting our future at risk⎯eroding topsoil and water supplies, poisoning the ground and polluting rivers and streams with millions of gallons of pesticide and literally tons of toxic manure runoff from huge animal factory farms.

- That meat and chicken in your cart is filled with growth hormones and pesticides, nothing likely to kill anyone, but enough to pose possible long-term health risks. What can⎯and does⎯kill is all the bacteria in the meat, a plague exacerbated by the way animals are “farmed” and processed in enormous warehouses and lightning-speed assembly lines. More than 5,000 people die each year from foodborne illnesses, and hundreds of thousands more require hospital care.

- Thanks in part to all that meat and dairy, and the proliferation of fat and sugar in processed foods, nearly one third of Americans are obese and close to two-thirds are overweight.

- Those meat factories, by virtue of their intense speed and volume, maim and cripple tens of thousands of workers each year⎯many of them immigrants shipped up from Mexico and Central America, discarded and replaced every few months. Our meat supply, and much of our fruit and vegetable harvests, depend on this steady flow of cheap, highly exploited, disposable labor.

- The system that produces and transports this superabundance runs on oil and diesel. The average food item on your supermarket shelf has traveled at least 1,500 miles, and all that long-distance transport requires millions of gallons of diesel fuel. On today’s industrial farm, giant tractors and combines spew diesel fumes and kick up dust pollution, while huge single-crop harvests are coaxed by 15 million tons of petroleum-based fertilizers each year. Experts such as Cornell University’s Dr. David Pimentel have found that U.S. agriculture⎯largely through its reliance on petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides⎯uses some 400 gallons of fossil fuels a year to feed every American. That’s more than 100 billion gallons of oil and oil equivalents used in the United States each year just to manufacture food.

- The bulk of the food in your shopping cart⎯especially the meat, dairy and packaged products⎯is owned by a handful of exceedingly powerful corporations that exercise increasing control over what we eat, how it is made, how much it costs, and who produces and profits from it.

- Due to this intensifying corporate takeover, nearly 20,000 farmers are economically disappeared each year, the victims of market centralization and the profit exigencies of food corporations and supermarkets. When these farms go under, the social and economic fabric of rural communities and small towns are shattered. And whole generations of highly skilled producers of food are lost.

These are just some of the immense costs we never see on our supermarket receipts. But we pay them nonetheless, in the form of taxes and public spending: in excess of $10 billion a year in public health costs to treat food-related illnesses, not to mention high cholesterol and heart disease; environmental expenses for monitoring and cleaning up factory farm runoff spills that have discharged millions of tons of animal manure into rivers and streams; workers’ compensation costs and public medical bills for injured farmworkers and meat factory employees, who typically have no insurance; unemployment and welfare payments to foreclosed farmers and often many of the surrounding businesses that rely on those farmers. The list goes on. It is part of the hidden price we all pay⎯subsidizing a few powerful corporations and a system that is at its core unsustainable.

The Bad Miracle

How is it that the most essential ingredient in human life⎯trumped only by oxygen and water in our hierarchy of necessities⎯has become a force of such destructive magnitude? Since the 1950s we have heard the feverish boasts of agribusiness: giant new machines raking in phenomenally massive harvests; the miraculous ever-increasing productivity of the American farm; breadbasket and “supermarket to the world.” No one can deny that the modern industrial super-farm produces unprecedented bounty.

Until recently we have heard little about the severe consequences, what a recent anthology (Fatal Harvest, Island Press, 2002) calls “the tragedy of industrial agriculture.” There is growing awareness of individual issues like obesity, poisonous hamburgers, the many perils of a “fast food nation.” But most of the costs and casualties of Big Food are far-removed from supermarket shelves. “The present land economy rests on a foundation of general ignorance,” argues famed writer-farmer Wendell Berry. “Most of us don’t know how we live and at what costs, either ecologically our human… For how long can we maintain an industrial superstition that we can beat the world by destroying the world’s capacity to produce food?”

Our ignorance is nurtured by, and also strengthens, the growing corporate stranglehold on our food system. In recent years, leading firms like Tyson Foods, Safeway, ADM, and Cargill have gobbled up competitors and consolidated their near-monopoly control over the entire food chain. In just three years, between 1997 and 2000, the top five food retailers in America (Kroger, Albertson’s, Wal-Mart, Safeway, and Ahold USA) nearly doubled their market share⎯growing from 24% of all retail food sales, to an amazing 42%. The top four beef producers occupy an almost unprecedented 80% of the U.S. meat market. Each time the Justice Department approves another merger or takeover, both farmers and consumers lose power over what we grow and eat, how it is grown, how much it costs.

Every day agribusiness claims new victims: farmers are erased from the landscape, never to return; local and regional brand-name food companies and supermarkets are sucked up by ever-larger corporations; windborne corporate-patented seeds from genetically engineered crops descend on neighboring fields, effectively destroying sustainable organic alternatives. We are rapidly losing control over “the absolute beginning” of life.

New Food, Same Old Story

Reams of books and studies debate the impact of genetically modified (GM) food on our health and the environment. There is evidence suggesting that corporate-patented super plants pose a real ecological threat, and endanger biodiversity. And they may pose significant hazard to those with allergies, since a few GM crops (particularly corn and soybeans) are ubiquitous and not labeled. One example: Brazil nut proteins are inserted into soybeans; one study found this particular concoction cost reactions in people allergic to the nut. Most genetically engineered foods, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “carry fully functioning antibiotic-resistance genes”⎯⎯⎯which could potentially “reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics to fight disease when these antibiotics are taken with meals.”

The truth is, much of the time we don’t really know what we’re eating. Critics acknowledge the science here is not conclusive. Indeed, that’s the problem: with our government’s blessings, a few politically influential firms (most famously Monsanto) have almost overnight turned our corn and soybean harvests into genetically engineered experiments. We consumers are the guinea pigs. The USDA accepts Monsanto’s field tests at face value, without verification, and gives them the green light to continue. So much for the precautionary principle: first, do no harm⎯⎯to profits.

Genetically modified food is billed by industry (and government) as the next great thing to solve world hunger, a technological marvel that, for instance, infuses staple foods like rice with vitamin boosters. But experts have repeatedly demonstrated that hunger and malnutrition are caused not by any global food shortage, but instead by severe economic inequalities and lack of distribution and access. There is, without any newfangled food technologies, more than enough food to feed the world. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the world’s total food supply as of 2001 contained 2,800 calories and 76 g of protein per person, per day⎯more than enough to sustain a burgeoning population and stamp out hunger, if distributed equitably. Yet despite this global abundance, some 842 million people⎯798 million of them in poor “developing” countries⎯are undernourished.

The real problem is not a food shortage, but the fact that the same miraculous productivity that stuffs our supermarkets and fattens our waistlines, dumps its excesses onto developing countries⎯often destroying their internal markets and burying poor Third World farmers in an avalanche of cheap American food. This is a problem of economics and policy, not science.

Headlines register the raging skirmishes over bizarre and scary new laboratory-arranged marriages between animals and plants. It’s clearly the hottest food topic today. But the GM food revolution is part of a far broader, long developing war between corporate agribusiness and, well, the rest of us (those who farm food, and those who eat it). The increasing manufacture of food away from its essence⎯⎯including everything from self-sterilizing seeds and flounder-infused tomatoes, to powdered potatoes and frozen dinners⎯diminishes both the diet and the market for fresh, unaltered produce. With so much attention fixed now on fast food and GM crops, one might easily conclude these are the only urgent problems to be remedied. But even if we strip away these much-discussed crises, even if they were somehow resolved overnight, we are left with an overall food system that causes phenomenal harm.

Value Subtracted

Nearly everything outside of the produce aisle is, as consumer economists put it, “value added” (processed in some way that makes it more profitable). Usually that value adds up to a long list of undecipherable chemicals and “flavors,” a little processing on the assembly line, and a lot of plastic. Then there’s all the hidden value⎯cost, really⎯that’s added by a host of intermediaries such as grain elevators, wholesalers and long distance distributors and corporate supermarkets that stand between the producers and consumers of food. Every time value is added off the farm, both farmers and consumers lose a little bit more money and control in the marketplace⎯and farmers’ role in the food chain gets smaller, their prospects for survival dimmer. Call it value subtracted.

But: does it really matter who makes our food, so long as we have it? Here’s why you (anyone who buys and eats food) should care. The very way we eat⎯not just what we eat, but how we eat⎯affects the future of food. Our buying and dining choices today affect our food options tomorrow. It’s not so simple as big-farm-versus-small-farm, or pesticides against organics, natural versus genetically mutated. The food we eat is the product of a whole system that is in the process of destroying itself⎯poisoning our air and water, grinding topsoil into useless dust, and putting farmers out to pasture. If we are to have a truly healthy cornucopia that sustains society, the entire system of making, distributing and marketing food must be sustainable.

What does that mean? Banning all pesticides is not, by itself, the solution (though it would save the lives of millions of birds and fish, and possibly tens of thousands of people). Nor is it enough to limit farm size and curtail factory farms and corporate food oligopolies. Niche markets promoting small farms and organic produce, though initially promising, almost invariably fall prey to elite, upscale pricing and corporate takeover. Any approach focusing on one part of the system⎯such as helping farmers, consumers or the environment⎯while producing some benefits, fails to address the deeper fundamental problem underlying the entire food system. Today’s food fight is not merely a struggle between small farms and big farms, nor simply over whether our tacos and corn dogs will be tainted with genetically engineered corn. It is about power and control over food⎯how it’s produced, by whom, and for whom.

What’s needed is a whole new way of thinking about food⎯one that encompasses health, affordability, accessibility, ecological sustainability, and an economics that enables farmers to keep growing food. We need a new economics of farming and food that sustains the whole system, not just one group or another. The way we make food⎯our essential life force⎯is eroding our ability to feed future generations. Farmers, so distantly romantic to the urban and suburban consumer, are as crucial as ever to our future survival⎯yet they are all but vanished from the public consciousness and the pastoral landscape. Once a nation of farmers, America has become profoundly detached from the source of its food.

Every five years Congress wages war over something called the Farm Bill, deciding much about our nation’s (and the world’s) food supply. Yet tellingly, it is portrayed and debated as a rural, “farm-state” issue rather than one that affects us all. What if, as writer Michael Pollan has suggested, we called it the Food Bill? Perhaps this would help stitch together in the public mind the no longer obvious connection between farming and food.

Beyond reforming the nomenclature, we need systemic overhaul: serious trust-busting to break up corporate control over food; redirecting subsidies from large-scale agribusiness to sustainable farms; aggressive regulation (and enforcement) of the meat industry’s shoddy food safety practices and mistreatment of its workers; an outright ban or major reduction in the 500,000 tons of toxic pesticides dumped on our food each year; and serious public investment in community food security projects that link together small local producers and consumers to supply healthy, affordable, sustainably produced food (the USDA ladled out just $4.6 million for such efforts last year). There are many other bright ideas afloat, promoted by groups and movements across the country⎯inspired instances of hope, neglected and opposed by the economic and political powers that be.

Lacking such serious changes, we all suffer: some quickly, from tainted meat and foreclosed farms, others gradually, from pesticide sprayings and fat-laden, carcinogenic diets. The only winners are short-term: large-scale subsidized farmers and agribusiness executives and shareholders. But even they must eat.


Christopher D. Cook

Christopher D. Cook is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Harper's, Mother Jones, The Nation, and elsewhere. He is the author of Diet for a Dead Planet: How the Food Industry Is Killing Us, from which this piece was excerpted. The book, published by the New Press, is due out in November. For more info, see


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2004

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