USDA Census (Part II): Destroying the Land, Destroying the Planet

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Part II of a two-part series on the USDA farm census

The latest U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census reveals two patterns of development in the agricultural sector. One is the praiseworthy increase in the number of small farms that we discussed in Part I. The other is a pernicious increase in the number of big farms.

The census showed that about 6 percent of the nation’s farms produce 70 percent of its food. From a different angle, farms with more than $1 million in sales produced 59 percent of the nation’s food in 2007, up from 47 percent in 2002.

So despite the countervailing trend of small farms, our food production system is still a concentrated, industrial food production system. And that means an emission-spewing food production system.

Here’s why:

One component is industrial beef production. It’s no secret that that beef production is unsustainable. Livestock production generates 18 percent of global GHG emissions, including 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide (296 times the global warming potential of CO2) and 37 percent of all human-induced methane (23 times the warming of CO2),

As a Pew study tersely put it, the “industrial model concentrates on growing animals as units of protein production” while paying zero attention to the ecological impact of such practices, which includes massive energy costs to feed those animals, as well as deliberate ignorance of the nitrogen cycle — the use of animal fecal matter to fertilize cropland. Manure, since it is primarily water, can’t be transported long distances, so feedlot manure can’t easily be used as natural fertilizer for cropland.

Large farms, then, rely heavily on artificial fertilizer, which means more greenhouse gas emissions — producing one pound of artificial nitrogen releases 3.7 pounds of CO2.

So the monoculture plantations that occupy the country’s core are those industrial feedlots’ counterpart. Their huge expanses of corn, wheat, and soybeans require massive inputs of petrochemical fertilizers and the use of titanic tractors and combines that use vast amounts of oil to till the fields and harvest the crops.

Monocultures like these run ramshackle over ecological laws. They do not have the capacity to withstand massive pest infestation. Pests attack specific types of plants, and thus unmixed fields are far more sensitive to attacks. Additionally, crops in monocultures are selected for productivity, rather than their ability to resists predators, worsening the problem and making their reliance on chemical pesticides even more acute.

As Fred Kirschenmann of the Leopold Center notes:

Any time you have a density of species, nature will intervene. … It introduces diseases or other mechanisms to bring that species back into some interaction at an appropriate scale with other species in the ecosystem. So what we have done in effect with these large monoculture specialized system is to defy nature. We have been pretty successful at defying nature, but only because we’ve had cheap energy to do it.

Indeed, about one-third of farmers’ operating costs come from gasoline, fuel, and fertilizer, according to the USDA census.

Additionally, large farms are inefficient even by the warped yardstick deployed by mainstream economics. As sustainability analyst L. Hunter Lovins comments, it is by now well-known that small farms are more productive than large ones. Studies have confirmed that alternative farming systems tend to use less synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, and antibiotics than farms run on organic or agro-ecological models

Large farms are also ground zero for the much-touted bio-fuels that purport to replace oil — but really starve the poor in the service of a mistake, since corn, switch grass, and wood biomass respectively require 29, 45, and 57 percent more energy than they produce.

Still, as Vilsack said at a Feb. 10 event, farmers must accept the “political reality that U.S. farm program direct payments are under fire both at home and abroad and therefore farmers should develop other sources of income.” Vilsack was obliquely alluding to the massive ethanol subsidies that contribute to the proliferation of monoculture plantations.

Which provides some hope that the current administration will arrest the increase in industrial agriculture in this country. As writer Michael Pollan puts it:

He’s definitely sounding a different note than his predecessors. … Whether they’ll be reflected in policies remains to be seen.