Commodity Farming, False Food Shortages, and Food Politics

Tom Laskaway wrote a superb piece at Grist last year looking at so-called ‘simple fixes’ for commodity farming; it’s well worth a read for the level of detail and discussion it contains. He outlines some of the historic and current problems with commodity farming in the US and explains why seemingly obvious and straightforward fixes can’t be readily applied, and the piece probes into the challenges facing farming and some of the options for getting out of the broken food system we’re currently trapped in. These reforms won’t be easy, he notes, with a system structured to support a specific kind of industrial agriculture, and a deck stacked against small farmers, sustainability, and functional farming systems.

One thing that particularly intrigued me about his piece was his section looking at how commodity farming contributed to the rise of feedlots:

It was the vast over-production of corn — far more corn than we could actually use — that helped fuel the rise of massive livestock feedlots. Today around 30 percent of the U.S. corn crop is fed to animals. Those billions of cattle, hogs, and chickens represent a lot of mouths to feed.

And with the turn to ethanol, some of those same feedlots got too expensive to manage, because suddenly people were planting crops suitable for fuel production, rather than feedlot corn. Consequently, the price of meat started to climb as production went down, because while meat was still obtainable, it was less cheap than it was before. Last year, scaremongering about a ‘bacon shortage’ even went around; while the issue actually was more that pork would be increasing in price because of fuel production and other farming pressures related to weather conditions, the media had people convinced that there wouldn’t be enough bacon.

Obviously, a national disaster in the face of a culture obsessed with bacon. The foodie fixation on baconifying everything is far from over, despite the rise of the cupcake, and people were terrified that their bacon supplies might dwindle and dry up. Hence, bacon hoarding to ensure a steady supply through the lean time.

While I am a bit tongue in (pig) cheek here, the discussion of the bacon shortage did underscore a bigger issue that’s going on with farming in the US. Producing meat is expensive, and it’s getting more costly as farming priorities shift; dedication of crops to fuel production and other non-food uses means that there’s less available for the production of meat, which in turn drives up operating expenses for feedlots. With drought conditions on top of that, it became even harder to meet the needs of food animals, and the end cost to consumers was significant in some regions of the country. Meat got more expensive because it cost more to produce, and that was a direct consequence of commodity farming.

First, these farming practices made meat cheap and readily affordable, creating artificially low prices that enticed people into regularly buying and using meat. Then, the same practices contributed to a spike in meat prices, driving costs up along with the value of other foods. People accustomed to eating meat on a regular basis had difficulty adjusting to the change and found themselves struggling with high grocery bills, all while threatened with looming talk of meat shortages that drove them to nervous purchases in the hopes of stockpiling food supplies against the day when the bacon section in the supermarket would empty out, leaving only a few tattered packages of tofu dogs (another commodity farming special) blowing in the breeze.

Laskaway points out that numerous studies have shown the benefits of crop rotation to promote soil health and increase yields. People have been rotating crops for thousands of years, and conditioning soil is a critical part of keeping a farm productive; as farmer pals are fond of reminding me, you need to treat the soil itself like a plant that requires care and growth, because soil is a complex network of living organisms. If you abuse the soil, it can’t support plant life, and you aren’t going to get the yields you want on your farm. You’re also going to start losing valuable topsoil, which means you’ll need to perform even more work to rebuild the soil so you can start growing things again.

The problem with rotation, of course, is that it doesn’t support the goals of commodity farming, which are focused on short-term yields. Moving crops, allowing fields to lie fallow, and growing compost crops doesn’t fit in the metric of commodity farming, where every square inch of soil counts and must be exploited for maximum outcome. If rotation was picked up by industrial agriculture, it would result in the creation of artificial food shortages; because instead of producing more than we need, farms might actually be producing something more closely approximating what we do need. That, in turn, would contribute to rising food prices, especially with the pressure of non-food demands on US crops like corn.

It would change not just the farming landscape, but also the culinary one. With the loss of an excess of commodities would come a radical shift in the use of corn, wheat, and soy as cheap fillers, along with the production of products basically invented to use up the excess. Corn starch, corn syrup, and a range of other products developed by the commercial food industry to turn byproducts into something of value wouldn’t be great ways to capitalise on excess anymore. Farm reform would utterly change the way people eat in this country, and it’s intriguing that so many of the people screaming about ‘the obesity epidemic’ are so reluctant to engage with agriculture policy and farming reform; if you think corn syrup is the devil and wheat additives make people fat, why aren’t you focusing on the source of these products, instead of the end consumers?