New Internationalist

Farmer Exxon And Farmer Shell

Issue 108

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AGRIBUSINESS [image, unknown] The shape of things to come

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Farmer Exxon and Farmer Shell
Illustration: Clive Offley California represents the cutting edge of modern agriculture. Rolling fields of oranges, tomatoes, artichokes and countless other vegetables blanket the state in careful rows, creating an air of efficiency and plenty. But beneath the seeming order and calm there is another more ominous side to Californian farming. Richard Swift charts the growth of industrial-style agriculture in the 'golden state' and discovers some disturbing trends. Illustration: Clive Offley

Temperature rises rapidly as you drive east from San Francisco away from the cooling Pacific breezes and down into California’s Great Central Valley. The fields stretch as far as the eye can see row after row of the same crops. The visual monotony is broken only by the spray from thousands of slowly undulating spigots of the world’s most extensive irrigation systems.

California’s giant ‘factory farms’ produce the tender fruit, nuts and vegetables that have made the state’s agriculture a boom industry. Forty per cent of US farm receipts for fruits and nuts and 33 per cent of the country’s vegetables come from the state. But these startling figures have not been achieved without certain costs.

California is pioneering a new type of industrial agriculture which appears to be the wave of the future certainly for North America and possibly for the whole world, This industrial, corporate agriculture is based on extensive irrigation as well as a variety of expensive chemical and machine ‘inputs’ which are making the small family farm an unprofitable anachronism.

According to Don Vallerijo, director of California’s Institute for Rural Studies, there are ten million acres of irrigated farm land in the state. The cost of this infrastructure to the average taxpayer is enormous.

Industrial agriculture is also chemical agriculture. Chemical pesticides are so widely used Vallerijo estimates ‘we now apply about 300 million pounds of pesticides per year in California, which works out to about ten pounds per person'. And that doesn’t include herbicides to control weeds and the massive application of petroleum-based nitrogen fertilizers to maintain the fertility of the heavily-used soils.

Mexican farmworkers lost in a sea of celery.
Mexican farmworkers lost in a sea of celery.

The expensive trappings of industrial-style agriculture, means the prosperous farmer must operate on a large scale and have access to credit if he is to survive. Michael Perelman, a farmer and economist at California State University at the northern end of the Great Central Valley, says ‘our major farmers are not Farmer Jones or Farmer Brown, but Farmer Exxon and Farmer Shell'. The giant oil companies, he says, ‘have gone heavily into agriculture and they make enormous profits not only from the crops but also from opening up the land to speculation.’

The concentration of land ownership in California agriculture is spectacular, The largest 3.5 per cent of farm businesses use 59 per cent of the land. That’s a greater degree of concentration than in many Latin American countries. Don Vallerijo believes Californian agriculture is dominated by farm businesses that have grown from smaller, family farms.

Vallerijo sites the J.G. Boswell Company as an example. ‘They have about 140,000 acres under cultivation. They grow cotton and grain crops and in addition they have large cattle ranches.’ Boswell is the biggest in California but the largest farmer in the whole country is a local boy who has made it big.

‘His name is John Anderson; he has more than 200,000 acres as near as we are able to determine, spread over California, Arizona, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oregon.’

The effective and economical use of planting and harvesting equipment is closely tied to farm size. Most family farms just aren’t big enough to compete and can’t afford to lay out the cash for new equipment. The result is you grow bigger, merchandise and make a profit — or you die.

Don Vallerijo illustrates the point in the case of California’s lucrative tomato processing industry. The industry was originally dominated by the small family farm. But in the 1960s the University of California Agricultural School developed a tomato harvesting machine that would eliminate the seasonal workforce that traditionally picked the crop.

The new machine cuts the plant at the root, shakes out weeds, snakes and bugs and places the tomatoes on a conveyer system which separates the ripe tomatoes from the unripe tomatoes. According to Vallerijo, 'the machinery for picking processing-tomatoes doesn’t work efficiently without a huge acreage. In fact you really can’t break even unless you have over 100 acres. So most processing-tomato farmers were faced with expanding their acreage and buying the machinery or getting out. In 1962 we had 4000 farmers growing processing-tomatoes. By 1972 we had only 600 left.'

The fate of the small farmer in California mirrors the fate of the family farm throughout the United States and Canada. According to American agriculture critic Francis Moore Lapp6, ‘If you look at a line graph of what happened to the profit margins of farmers since World War II you see this sliding line going down across the page, You see profit margins squeezed because farmers’ costs of production are constantly going up and they can’t pass on those costs. Their profit margins are constantly shrinking and the only way they can stay in business is by constantly increasing the volume to make up what they are losing in per-acre profit.’

Besides concentration of land ownership, industrial agriculture has also sparked an unprecedented specialisation of food crops. Crop uniformity is the rule a monocultural pattern based on one or two crops per farm.

This is a major step from mixed farming which combined several crops with some livestock. Single-crop farming supposedly simplifies production by allowing for a uniformity of inputs (machinery, fertilizers and pesticides) and techniques. But some important facts have been left out of this equation.

  • Chemical use is now so intensive the ecological basis of agriculture is being undermined.
  • Pesticides are not only killing the pests for which they are intended but also the predatory insects that are the natural enemies of pests.
  • Continuous production, the failure to rotate crops and the use of heavy machinery is causing a steep decline in soil fertility.
Pesticide spraying in California uses up to 300 million pounds a year or ten pounds per person.
Pesticide spraying in California uses up to 300 million pounds a year or ten pounds per person. Photo: Camera Press

As Don Vallerijo says, ‘we have fields around here with nothing living except the plant that the grower wants: we have soil that’s as dead as you could imagine not an insect to be seen in it.’

Pests can develop an immunity to chemicals and there is a danger of breeding a generation of superbugs without any natural predators to restore the ecological balance. The Mediterranean Fruit Fly which played havoc with the state’s valuable tender fruit crop in the summer of 1981 may be the prototype.

In true West Coast style the ‘Medfly’ was absorbed into the cultural matrix of California life. People sported ‘Save the Medfly’ T-shirts, stores sold Medfly replica earrings and the coach of the Oakland Raiders football team made a radio commercial urging people to join in the battle against the dreaded bug.

But the crisis also had its serious side. Roadblocks checked cars for contaminated fruit and police were busy looking for people who kept shooting at the spray planes dumping Malathaon on the Medfly in the semi-urban areas south of San Francisco. Some observers estimate that California spent more on getting rid of the Medfly by intensive spraying the value of the fruit crop they were trying to save.

The massive use of chemicals in agriculture has lead to some serious health problems. The effects of many of the chemicals have not been thoroughly studied. Often nothing is done to restrict the use of a chemical until it is actually seen to be having negative effects. The most immediate victims of pesticide and herbicide use are the farm workers, many of them Mexicans, whose labour is still essential for the harvesting of many of California’s crops.

According to Don Vallerijo, ‘hundreds and hundreds of cases of farmworker poisonings are reported and probably thousands of cases are not reported. We have no idea of what we are doing; we have no idea whether these materials are going to cause genetic damage, birth defects, cancer in the future. No one really knows.’

The quality of food also suffers. Crop varieties are bred for quick ripening, long storage or to withstand the rigours of mechanical harvesting. The tomato developed to withstand the Davis mechanical harvester exceeds in impact strength the Federal Highway Standard for bumpers on automobiles. Industrial crops in combination with the trend towards fast food are contributing to a significant decline in the nutritional standards of North America.

The main argument in favour of an industrial approach to food production is that it is more ‘efficient’. Efficiency is used here in a restricted sense which excludes long-term costs such as environmental destruction and consumer and worker health.

But it is by no means clear that industrial agriculture is more efficient even in this narrower sense. The price of chemical inputs is increasing at such a rate that it is making organic methods of farming look more and more attractive. Once you have reached a certain point farm size doesn’t affect efficiency. For most vegetable crops yields per acre don’t increase once you have reached the relatively small farm size of 300 acres. What does increase, because of economies of scale, is the overall profit on the large corporate farms. And it is profit rather than efficiency that is the underlying motivation for industrial agriculture.

A great deal of the profit in California agriculture is not even realised on the farm but by the suppliers of farm inputs for chemical agriculture and by the retail monopolies and food processors who end up selling the food to the consumer. As the Californian approach to agriculture spreads, in different ways to different places, the basic decisions about what we eat and how much we pay for it will be made by fewer and fewer people.

Richard Swift works with the Development Education Centre in Toronto and is co-producer of From a Different Perspective a syndicated Canadian radio programme on international affairs.

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