The Culture of Agribusiness

It has been 30 years since Rachel Carson's Silent Spring sounded the alarm about the serious damage DDT was inflicting on the environment. Although others before her used the metaphor, it was her book that really drove home the point that the massive use of pesticides after World War II amounted to a "war on nature."While artificial bug and weed killers had been widely employed -- especially on cotton and in orchards -- since the late 1800s, the Second World War is generally cited as the period when the chemical era of agriculture really took hold. Consequently, according to Dr. Barry Commoner, not long after the war, "most pollution problems made their first appearance, or became very much worse."Commoner, writing in The Closing Circle (1971), his influential book on the then-emerging ecological crisis, points out that the war effort itself accelerated the development and use of methods and technologies that increased agricultural production -- and the pollution that resulted from the push for efficiency and bigger yields. He writes:"The 25 years preceding the war is the main period of the sweeping modern revolution in basic science, especially in physics and chemistry, upon which so much of the new productive technology is based. In the approximate period of the war itself, under the pressure of military demands, much of the new scientific knowledge was rapidly converted into new technologies and productive enterprises. Since the war, the technologies have rapidly transformed the nature of industrial and agricultural production. The period of World War II is, therefore, a great divide between the scientific revolution that preceded it and the technological revolution that followed it."With regard to agriculture during the past half-century, it is scarcely an exaggeration to state that World War II didn't so much end as turn the guns and bombs on the land. Technologies that were developed or promulgated for the war effort, most notably DDT and synthetic fertilizers, rapidly were brought to bear on American agriculture. The result of this battle for production is viewed in many quarters as a triumph in that yields of major crops have doubled or tripled from pre-war levels and efficiency in terms of human labor has increased dramatically. It is increasingly clear, however, that it was a Pyrrhic victory. We are beginning to fathom the real costs of our war on nature only now, as the environmental and social costs continue to mount. Why did U.S. agriculture, already the envy of most of the world with its chronic problem of food surpluses, embrace the values and technologies of the "military-industrial complex?" And how can it find its way back to the land?The PeacemakersEndeavoring to farm in an ecologically sound manner amounts to becoming a peacemaker with the earth. First and foremost it involves making a profound shift in how one sees oneself in regard to the natural world. The forces of nature -- those parts of creation beyond humankind's divination or control -- come to be seen as gifts and allies, rather than exploitable resources and enemies. Recall the image that was foisted on us a few years ago in the farm chemical ads and commercials that portrayed farmers who really meant business as Rambos and Top Gunners with bulging biceps and spray guns at the ready. In those ads the message is clear -- weeds and anything else that interferes with the crop production system are the enemy and must be eradicated. Complete control is the goal.Contrast that nature-as-adversary view of the world with that of farmers such as Dick and Sharon Thompson, who are pioneering organic ridge-till farming in central Iowa. Listening to Dick speak, it is clear that he doesn't really like to see weeds sprouting up between the rows of corn and soybeans, but he doesn't consider them his personal enemy either. By mid-summer, thanks to his rotary hoe and cultivator and shade from the crop canopy, his fields are as "clean" as those of his conventionally farming neighbors. At his public field days, he talks about how he has come to understand that weeds have a purpose and about the importance of letting weeds "express themselves" in the spring; he sees them as a valuable source of green manure after he hoes them into the soil. Through a combination of intelligence and good management, and most importantly, a difference in attitude, he transforms the weeds between the rows from a source of torment to a source of blessing.Or take the case of Gerard and Mary Radermacher, who have a 300-acre dairy farm near Rosen, Minnesota and have employed biodynamic organic farming methods for more than two decades. Their many years of farming without reliance on petroleum-based chemicals have taught them that "everything in nature has meaning" and that success in natural farming depends as much as possible on harmonizing farming methods with the rhythms and cycles of nature. For them, the soil is a living, biotic system in which weeds have both meaning and purpose. Mary explained a few years ago, in an interview with Land Stewardship Project staff:"We do have weed problems and we are still working at that, but it does get better. We can see in the long run that the way we are improving the soil (by fertilizing with composts and green manures) does help, but it is a very slow process to get that soil built up again so that everything is in balance."But the weeds are there for a purpose. You have to realize that they're not there to cause you anguish, that they are telling you something. Each weed likes certain nutrients, maybe from deep down, maybe from shallow. And if that soil is lacking in a certain element, then that weed seems to flourish there to help bring the soil in balance. But when you try to stifle it with a spray, with something that is not natural or organic, that doesn't fit into the system of nature, it kills the weed for a while, but then [the weed] will come back thicker and stronger."It should be noted here that many conventional farmers were offended by the violent chemical company ads for pesticides; even farmers who rely on pesticides would rather have lower-priced chemicals than pay for multimillion-dollar ad campaigns. For their cynical part, the chemical companies have recognized that the public at large is becoming frightened and angered by those ads as the chemicals they tout show up in their drinking water and as residue on the food they buy. So today, instead of macho cowboy names like Lasso, Bronco and Roundup, or war names such as Cannon, Arsenal and Conquest, the newest generations of pesticides have names like Harmony, Asana and Accord. Today's commercials for the weed- and bug-killers are aglow with pastoral images, new-age music and clichŽs about the innate goodness of farmers.Moreover, as Wendell Berry points out in The Unsettling of America, the crisis in agriculture as agri-culture is overwhelmed by industrialization and becomes agri-business is part and parcel of a crisis in our culture as a whole. It is thoroughly unrealistic and naive to believe that farming can function as an island of purity and sustainability in a culture that does not honor the values that underlie sustainability. Yet perhaps it is not unrealistic to believe that agriculture can and must be an integral aspect of a greater cultural struggle toward sustainability, that farmers like the Thompsons and Radermachers are the models for what must become the conventional agriculture of the future.Why then did American agriculture embrace -- or perhaps more accurately, become enveloped by -- the military-industrial complex and the violence that comes with it? The most obvious answer is because the culture as a whole did. That is, as a result of the events around the mobilization and victory of WWII, and the decision by government and industry to remain a global military and industrial power, the United States became a national security state -- a country constantly posed for war. Agriculture merely played its role in that picture.Ignorance of (Natural) LawNot all the decisions that led to this position were made with ill intent. Certainly there were individuals in positions of authority and influence who put their own selfish desires for power and riches above considerations for the good of the whole. However, most of the mistakes we can see clearly today were the results of ecological ignorance and the belief that the ends justified the means -- the same flaws that lead us, undoubtedly, to make similarly disastrous mistakes today.Ignorance about ecology certainly did not begin with World War II, but the damage from ignoring ecological laws was greatly amplified by the powerful technologies developed and employed during the war. While advances in science and technology intensified agriculture's role in the war on nature, the religious and philosophic underpinnings of the conflict had been established centuries before, notably by Descartes. As "man" came to think of himself as the center of the world, nature came to be seen as a collection of resources to be exploited. As Wes Jackson and others have pointed out, explorers came to the New World to exploit its resources and settlers came to impose European agriculture on the continent, largely ignoring "the expectations of the land."The evolution of the free enterprise system further set the stage for agriculture's post-WWII war on the land; capitalism is based on the exploitation of natural resources, and competition rather than cooperation is its central value. While reformers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries have attempted to impose some measure of fairness on the competitive system, environmental protections have been few. "Resource accounting" -- the practice of ascribing a dollar value to unintended environmental damage involved in production -- has come into practice only in the past few years, and only marginally so far. And it is an imprecise and highly subjective science at best. How does one put a price on a priceless resource like unpolluted water, for example?Food/WarsAgriculture and domination were intertwined, then, from the dawn of capitalism. After World War II, the Marshall Plan solidified the alliance, as worldwide demand for U.S. agricultural goods pulled the agricultural sector out of a period of depression that had lasted for nearly two decades. Food and fiber production increased by one-third during the war years, despite the fact that five million people left their farms for military service or to work in cities. The government promoted all-out production as the farmer's contribution to the war effort and to the rebuilding effort after the war. It was okay to have a farm deferment from the draft as long as you produced as much as possible to help win the war.By 1944, articles were appearing in the popular farm press about revolutionary new inventions from the war effort that would soon be coming home to the farm. The most notorious of these products was DDT. Although chemists had known about the chemical's insecticidal qualities for decades, it was first widely utilized in the war to delouse soldiers and to kill malaria-bearing mosquitos. It was praised not only because it was lethal to insects, but because it did not break down rapidly and therefore remained effective for a long time. It did not appear to harm people.By the war's end DDT and other chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides were widely available. They were generally hailed in the farm press as "miraculous," and the best weapon yet in the war against insects, and farm reporters waxed enthusiastically about chemistry's capacity to "totally eradicate" some insect pets. By the end of the decade, however, houseflies were showing resistance to DDT, while dairy farmers were warned to stop using it in milking parlors since it was showing up in milk.Other pesticides that came out of the war include organo phosphate insecticides (parathion, malathion), which developed out of pre-war German nerve gas research, and the herbicide 2,4-D, developed by the British. Twenty years later, 2,4-D -- which is still widely used in agriculture and on lawns -- became a weapon of war when it was combined with 2,4,5-T to form Agent Orange, millions of pounds of which were used to defoliate forests during the Vietnam war.In addition to the chemicals themselves, effective technologies for application of the poisons came out of WWII, most notably mechanical foggers and aerial sprayers. The foggers were often mounted on Jeeps, which also were developed for the war and were marketed as multi-purpose farm implements after the war. While spray planes were used prior to the war, primarily for the spraying of inorganic insecticides on cotton, the use of spray planes increased dramatically after WWII. This was the result of availability of new pesticides and thousands of surplus fighter planes, as well as an abundance of war-trained pilots who liked to fly.The BombWhile the effect of the development and use of the atomic bomb had a less obvious impact on agriculture than technologies that could be directly employed on the farm, its effects were nonetheless real. The Bomb contributed to the tremendous faith Americans came to place on dazzling technologies to solve all human problems. Within weeks after release of information about the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, stories appeared in the farm press about the great promise nuclear fission held for American agriculture -- tractors would run for a century on a capsule of atomic fuel the size of an aspirin, new super-yielding mutant plants would be created by radiation.In 1946 an article appeared in Science Digest that suggested blasting the polar ice caps to bits with atomic bombs in order to warm up the climate so crop production would increase. During the 1950s, under the Atomic Energy Commission's "Atoms for Peace" program called "Project Plowshares," conferences were held to discuss the prospects of using atom bombs like giant bulldozers to excavate canals and reservoirs for irrigation. Experiments continued through the 1980s on the use of nitrogen-rich low-level nuclear waste as a fertilizer. Today, food irradiation is on the verge of being widely used as the solution to the bacterial contamination of meat from mechanized packing plants.Heady VictoryThe fabulous promise of technologies developed during the war, coupled with the exhilaration of defeating the Axis powers, made for a heady time in the United States after the war. In 1941, Henry R. Luce, arguably the most influential publisher of the century (Life, Fortune, Time), had declared this "The American Century." If there were any doubt before, there was no doubt now that God was on our side. Included in this vision was the belief that thanks to our abundance of land and resources, our technological cleverness, and our sheer gumption, America would feed the world, or at least show everyone how to grow food right.Looking back, it is clear that the sheer enthusiasm for progress and all things American diverted attention from a critical evaluation of longer-range consequences, especially concerning the environment. When critics like J.I. Rodale and Louis Bromfield raised some doubts, they were dismissed as Luddites and cranks. The assumption was that if problems were created by progress, technology itself would come up with the solutions. That view still is widely held today.Brutalization of the American PsycheSeveral writers, including war veteran Paul Fussell in his book Wartime, point out that Americans, soldiers and non-soldiers alike, were hardened by the experience of WWII. He notes that at the beginning of the war Americans were outraged that Hitler could be so monstrous that he would order the bombing of a vital port city like Rotterdam when he knew civilians would be killed in the process. By the end of the war, all "Krauts" and "Japs" had been dehumanized in the minds of most Americans to the extent that most of the public supported the bombing of civilian targets like Dresden and Hiroshima in order to achieve unconditional surrender.Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that agriculture itself was coarsened by the war. How could people who had mobilized the greatest war machine in history in just four short years be expected to immediately hammer its swords into plowshares when gunfire ceased? How could an army of young men indoctrinated and trained for killing come home with an attitude of making peace with the earth?It should also be noted that the survival-of-the-fittest attitude so prevalent during wartime was extended in influential quarters toward farmers themselves. Luce declared in his "American Century" editorial that there were too many farmers. He called for the elimination of 3.8 million farms, so more workers could be available to work in industry. This view was reiterated by Nixon's controversial Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, and it continues to be held by many in power today, although few have the audacity to say it outright (instead, they attribute the continuing loss of family farms to inexorable adjustments in the economy). In any case, those 3.8 million farms have by now been eliminated. They are casualties in the industrialization of American agriculture.Fear of DepressionWorld War II had pulled agriculture -- and the rest of the economy -- out of the Great Depression. Fear that the U.S. would slip back into a depression fueled public policies after the war that maintained industrial and agricultural output, while pushing those farmers off the land who wouldn't or couldn't adapt to industrialization. The need for corporate America to maintain and increase production of goods coincided with the pent-up demand for consumer goods that resulted from war-created shortages of those goods. Farm machinery was worn out, tires were bare, and because of all those years of sacrifice and saving, there was money in the bank.In the years right after the war, most farmers upgraded their machinery and buildings, adapting to the new technologies that emerged from wartime research and development. Many made the big switch from animal power to tractors. Increasingly, farmers found themselves working less as husbandmen than as mechanics, removing them further from the direct link to the natural world that animal power had provided. In popular magazines such as Farm Journal, farmers were urged to think of themselves as specialists and businessmen and their farms as factories. They were encouraged not to save, but to go into debt, while government tax policies provided additional incentives for expansion and indebtedness. At the same time, farm wives were encouraged to emulate their city cousins by buying consumer products and relying more on consumer goods.This push toward industrialization and consumerism, coupled with the growing demand for food to help feed Europe, helps explain why commercial synthetic fertilizers were heavily promoted after the war. Markets were needed for the ammonium nitrate that was produced in government-built gunpowder plants during the war. After the war, the ordnance factories were sold to private companies and switched to full fertilizer production.The Cold WarIt is important to note that when those wartime ammonia factories were sold, as in the case of the Jayhawk Ordnance plant in Kansas which was sold to the Spencer Chemical Company in 1948, a condition was attached to the sale. The condition, mandated under a national security law, required that the new owners maintain the factory's capacity to quickly revert back to gunpowder manufacture. Because of the immediate tensions with the Soviet Union after the war, and the Korean War a few years later, the U.S. never really demobilized. Instead, we have remained in a constant state of readiness for war, engaging in active wars every few years. Even the food we trade or give away has become another weapon our government wields in its effort to establish its vision of world order.In conclusion, In examining the factors that created and perpetuate agriculture's contribution to the war on nature, it becomes clear that agriculture acted in concert with society as a whole, and that in large measure the policies and technologies that fueled the battle against nature were foisted upon farmers. To their credit, many farmers managed not to join in the battle; today they are the pioneers in what may become known as the biological epoch in agriculture. And more and more conventional farmers who were caught up in the battle are attempting to move their operations in a more sustainable direction, even though government policies, for the most part, continue to allow or reward practices that degrade the environment and ignore or penalize farmers who practice careful stewardship of the land.Meet Me at the CrossroadsIt is crucial to examine our past, even if it is embarrassing or painful, if we are to avoid making the same mistakes again. For my part, I hope everyone, not just farmers, will think long and hard about the history of DDT and nuclear energy before embracing food irradiation and genetic engineering.It seems to me that farming is at a crossroads, at a great divide between paradigms. On the one hand is the urge to further and more profoundly manipulate nature and take control; on the other is the emergence of what Wes Jackson calls the "marriage of ecology and agriculture." It's the desire to completely dominate nature right down to DNA versus the effort to learn from and harmonize with nature. One of the guiding voices in the movement toward harmony with creation is Father Thomas Berry. I'll conclude with a quote from his book, The Dream of the Earth:"The time has now come when we will listen to the community of creation or we will die. The time has come to lower our voices, to cease imposing our mechanistic patterns on the biological processes of earth, to resist the impulse to control, to command, to force, to oppress, and to begin to quite humbly follow the guidance of the larger community upon which all life depends."Ron Kroese is the president of the Michael Fields Agriculture Institute in East Troy, Wisconsin.

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