The dust bowl of the 1930s is symbolic of the violence unleashed in rural America and the rest of the world by industrialized farming or agribusiness, which mechanized what used to be a way of life on the land into a factory for the extraction of profits.
Industrialized agriculture found expression in large farms that turned out to be unsustainable and incompatible with democracy.
In the early 1940s, Walter Goldschmidt, an anthropologist working for the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), exposed the effects of large farms and agribusinesses. He documented rural America’s undoing by agribusiness: When, for instance, large farms/agribusiness surround a town, there is a precipitous decline in the quality of life; schools, churches, stores and culture decline. The town attracts transient people, shrinking and becoming a slum-like subsidiary of the large farms.
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The USDA fired Goldschmidt, while continuing lavishing technology and subsidies on America’s large farmers.
In 1983, another researcher, Dean MacCannell, professor of rural sociology at the University of California-Davis, issued a severe warning that repeated and complemented the findings and warning of Goldschmidt: the size of farms matters in agriculture. Large farms destroy rural America.
MacCannell said agribusiness policies “cut against the grain of traditional American values.” His studies showed that giant farmers were becoming America’s “neo-feudal” lords who, with government assistance, were converting rural America into a third world of poverty, injustice, exploitation and oppression.
When large farms are in or near small farm communities, he said, they ruin the rural communities, sucking all life out of them: “In the place of towns which could accurately be characterized as providing their residents with a clean and healthy environment, a great deal of social equality and local autonomy,” he explained, “we find agricultural pollution, labor practices that lead to increasing social inequality, restricted opportunity to obtain land and start new enterprise, and the suppression of the development of a local middle class and the business and services demanded by such a class.”
In 1990, Linda Lobao of Ohio State University published the results of her sociological study on the adverse effects of industrialized farming on rural communities. Her data came from 3,000 US counties.
In 2006, Curtis Stofferahn of the University of North Dakota updated Lobao’s work. In summarizing the findings of 50 years of social science research, he reached the following conclusions: Industrialized agriculture “disrupts the social fabric of communities … poses environmental threats where livestock production is concentrated; and is likely to create a new pattern of ‘haves and have nots.'”
The most lasting of the effects of farming industrialization include the decline of democracy, poisoned water and food, high rates of debilitating disease and death from poisoning and monstrous malformations of the newborn, in both the wildlife and humans of America’s countryside.
Farmers die from cancer at twice the rate of urban people.
In 1920, there were 925,710 black farmers in America. In 2000, there were about 18,000 left, a catastrophic decline of 98 percent.
The results of pro-agribusiness policies have created a new American agriculture dominated by a few thousand giant companies and large farmers. These giant “growers” produce so much that they bury medium and small farmers, leading them to extinction. One by one, family farmers “go out of business,” leaving behind them an empty and devastated rural America.
Some of the surviving small family farmers make it as “hobby” farmers. Others have no option but to become the modern equivalent of medieval serfs, earning about $10,000 per year.
Researchers politely describe them as “contract” workers, laboring for a handful of agribusiness companies. Several of those companies are meat factories that produce bacon burgers and chicken nuggets. These animal factories pollute the land and rivers on a massive scale.
In 1958, American ecologist Carl Buckingham Koford decried ranchers, farmers and government agencies using sodium fluoroacetate, a chemical known largely by a number, 1080, to exterminate wildlife, especially beneficial rodents.
“Aside from killing prairie dogs,” Koford said, “continuous distribution of compound 1080 has had other effects on animal communities. The chemical is extremely toxic and kills other grain-eating mammals, such as cottontails. The poison is stable, even in animal tissue, so that carnivores which feed on poisoned rodents are often killed. Coyotes (canis latrans) have nearly disappeared from the plains because of secondary poisoning. In addition, application of poison brings about a cataclysmic alteration in the relative populations of different mammals, followed by various coactions between species and changes in their effects on plants and soils.”
Spreading poison in dog towns has annihilated more than the dogs that eat the poison. Just as rural towns fall apart when their family farmers go under, so does the community of wild animals around a prairie dog town go to pieces when prairie dogs get into trouble.
Koford’s affection for prairie dogs was that of a biologist who understood nature. Rodents, he said, were beneficial species to man. They improved the soil and checked unwanted plants and shrubs. They were food to other animals, and enlivened the scenery. What more could we expect of any animal?
In 1962, biologist Rachel Carson denounced the massive poisonous sprays used with complete abandon in the United States. Carson was convinced toxic sprays threatened the natural world. She spoke about the coming of “silent spring.”
These sprays are probably responsible for many of the cancers killing millions of Americans. In 2008, Philip Shabecoff, former reporter for The New York Times, spoke about the “poisoned profits” of the chemical industry leading a “toxic assault” on America’s children.
Furthermore, farms and plantations appropriate most of the world’s freshwaters. The international peasant and family farmer civil society organization, Via Campesina, said that giant agriculture is pushing family farmers and peasants throughout the world to the brink of “irredeemable extinction.”
Giant agriculture found its greatest boosters in America and the former Soviet Union/Russia. These “superpowers” that once fought over global hegemony also “domesticate” nature by breaking it apart.
The Soviet Union destroyed the Aral Sea in the 1950s for the production of irrigated cotton – in one of the most dramatic and violent ecological crimes of the 20th century.
The United States plowed up its Great Plains for the industrial production of cattle, wheat and corn. The result of sod busting the fragile prairies was biological warfare against millions of buffaloes and genocide against the Native-American people who relied on the buffalo for their survival and culture.
Moreover, farming the semiarid Great Plains brought that vast region to the verge of cataclysm, with massive dust bowls in the 1930s, the 1950s and 1970s threatening to swallow farms, machinery, crops and people.
Yet, the United States failed to reform or abolish the industrial ranching and one-crop factory farming responsible to a large degree for causing the dust storms.
In addition, the plantations of America’s Great Plains use groundwater from the great Ogallala aquifer with abandon. The United Nations Environment Program said that America’s Great Plains are going through “another form of desertification – groundwater depletion.”
The same practices deplete water all over the vast southwestern region of the United States.
Agribusiness and large farmers in California and Arizona pump groundwater at ten or more times the rate nature recharges aquifers.
The Colorado River – a water highway 1,400 miles long starting from the Colorado Mountains and ending in Mexico and the Sea of Cortez – is, without doubt, the lifeblood of the arid southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico. It brings water to about 30 million people and irrigates more than 3.7 million acres of agricultural land in both the United States and Mexico. Yet, this life-giving river has to contend with an exceedingly brutal shackling of its nature and waters – no less than 29 dams capture its might and nearly every drop of its water, which rarely reaches the Sea of Cortez.
Other advocates of industrialization convert forested wetlands and uplands to pine forests, cotton plantations, or other cash crop farms. Such conversion of ecosystems to industrial systems wipes out biodiversity and kills wildlife on both land and water. New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and Oklahoma, for example, destroy 30,000 acres of wetlands and uplands every year for pine plantations alone. Huge amounts of poisons are used for the maintenance of those plantations.
It’s the globalization of this model of industrialized farming, camouflaged under the banner of science and modernism, which threatens the world’s ecology and cultures.
The industrialization of farming is being replicated throughout the world such that millions of farmer/peasants are losing land and livelihood, resulting in increasing violence and agrarian wars, landlessness and hunger.
In addition, countless millions of acres of good land have been made into desert. The more land goes to agribusiness production or cash cropping, the more acute pressures are exerted against poor people trying to survive.
Fortunately, alternatives to the anti-democratic and ecocidal agribusiness exist both in the United States and in every other society in the world.
These alternatives – biodynamic agriculture, organic farming, community-supported agriculture, biological agriculture, peasant or ecological farming – are forms of applied biology that have nature as their primary model.
They are desirable social and biological pathways to democracy and family agriculture. They have the potential to heal some of the wounds of agribusiness.
All these methods of raising food – and the peasants and small family farmers who practice them – share a respect for the land and the people who eat what they raise on that land. Their vision is one of democracy because only democracy is compatible with small farms. They follow ancient traditions of agrarian knowledge and practice, and some even merge that heritage with the latest in agroecological thinking.
Agriculture is too critical to human and social survival to be abandoned to a failed industrial model.