The US Agriculture System Is a Disaster for Farmworkers and the Planet

Tom Philpott

US-style industrial farming has ravaged two of the world’s most fertile regions, California’s Central Valley and the Midwest’s corn belt. But we can build an agriculture system that delivers food in a sustainable way — and empowers farmworkers, too.

Vue Her is a farmer on a ten-acre field in Singer, California. (US Department of Agriculture / Flickr)

Interview by
Doug Henwood

It’s hardly breaking news that US-style industrial farming can pump out plenty of cheap, often low-quality food, at enormous environmental and social cost. So great is that cost that the whole system could do itself in fairly quickly.

Tom Philpott, the food and agricultural correspondent for Mother Jones, is just out with a book, Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It. Philpott looks at two crucial US growing regions: California’s Central Valley, where roughly a quarter of our food comes from, and the corn belt, where much of our meat comes from.

The Central Valley is running out of water, though it’s also at great risk of being flooded with ten or fifteen feet of water any year now. And the corn belt, one of the most naturally fertile regions on earth, is losing massive amounts of its rich soil to erosion and is punishing the earth with vast amounts of chemical pollution.

How severe is the damage, and how might we avoid doom? Doug Henwood recently spoke with Philpott on his Jacobin Radio show Behind the News, which you can subscribe to here. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.


DH

You focus on two geographical areas that are crucial to US and world food production, the Central Valley of California and the corn belt (particularly Iowa). So let’s take them in turn. What about the Central Valley? Where is it exactly, and how much food does it produce? What is the scope of the ecological challenges?

TP

The Central Valley is this huge valley that is sort of the spine of California. It goes from southern California nearly up to the Oregon border, and is bound on one side by the coastal mountain range and on the other side by the Sierra Nevada.

It’s a really amazing place to grow food in a lot of ways. It’s got a Mediterranean climate — long, hot summers, very mild winters — that has provided year-round food production. Even though its rainfall would tell you that it’s more or less a desert, it’s pretty unique in that it’s got this huge mountain range, the Sierra Nevada, that captures a huge amount of snow in the winter that is then melted and released in the spring, and goes through this incredible federal and California-funded network of irrigation infrastructure to send all the water to farms.

The problem is that capitalist agriculture in the area has gotten so big and so productive that it’s outstripped its water resources. It uses way more water than the Sierra Nevada snow melt can provide. Farmers have responded by digging wells and sucking down the aquifer. Now you’re getting subsidence, which is when the ground settles and sinks.

That’s bad news, because it snarls up bridges, roads, tunnels, and other transportation infrastructure, and it also messes up irrigation infrastructure. You get canals that have weird dips in them that cause water to leak. That creates more demand for water pumping from underground, which creates more subsidence. So you’re in this really bad cycle.

The other thing is that as you get lower and lower in the aquifer where you’re getting water from, there are higher and higher concentrations of salt, which makes it impossible to grow food. We’re already seeing salinification happening in the southern Central Valley.

You also get naturally occurring chemicals like arsenic that concentrate in the water and make it poisonous. And so you’ve got areas, mostly low-income farmworker areas, that have either no access to water or poisonous water, and households making $15,000 to $20,000 a year, spending hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, a year on bottled water. It’s a really, really bad situation. It’s a race to the bottom of the aquifer.

DH

The Central Valley is also a region that suffers extremes of precipitation, right? They’ve had droughts in recent years, but then if you go back in the nineteenth century, there was a catastrophic flood in 1861–62.

TP

When scientists look back at the historical record, they find these massive floods recur every hundred to two hundred years. The last one, which you’re talking about, put the entire Central Valley under ten feet of water. It was considered a freak event. It completely rearranged agriculture in California, or at least in the Central Valley.

The really scary thing I was finding out from my research is that climate change both makes the likelihood of severe droughts increase — we’re looking at periods that make the 2011 and 2016 droughts look like child’s play — but we’re also looking at massive storms, even bigger than the one that happened in 1861–62. A lot of scientists are talking about how it’s extremely likely within the next twenty years that we’ll see something like that.

There’s almost no preparing for it. You think about the Central Valley at the time, it was sparsely populated. Now, it’s got all these fast-growing cities like Fresno, Bakersfield, and Stockton that are becoming population magnets.

DH

And now the Central Valley also provides an enormous amount of our food. What do they produce there, and how important is it?

TP

Altogether, the Central Valley itself provides about a quarter of the food that we eat in the United States. Lots and lots of produce. Lots of stone fruits. There’s some residual cotton.

One thing that we’re seeing is as water gets scarcer, the logic is not, “Hey, let’s do something that uses less water.” The logic is, “Let’s get the most money per drop of water.” What that has meant is this rapid transition to growing nuts, almonds, and pistachios. These are very high-value crops. They’re very much in demand in places like China and the United States.

But it takes literally millions of dollars to put in a large almond grove. That means that when you go through a period of drought, you’re going to keep watering it. As economist say, “It hardens demand for water.” You can’t fallow it for a year because you’re going to lose the entire investment. So we’re seeing this rapid transition to high-value permanent crops that put the area at yet more risk for both flooding and drought.

DH

The other area you write about is the corn belt in the Midwest, especially Iowa. What are the challenges there?

TP

If California is basically where your fruits and vegetables come from, Iowa and the corn belt is where your meat comes from. The great bulk of meat that you’ll see in a supermarket was grown by livestock that have been fattened on corn and soybeans. Over the years, the region had a fairly diverse agricultural legacy post-settlement. But over the last half-century or so it’s winnowed down to corn and soybeans, plus lots and lots of hogs. Essentially you feed the hogs corn and soybeans, and transform corn and soybeans into meat, a higher value product.

Planting just two crops over tens of millions of acres causes all different kinds of problems. The most blatant one is that they’re both planted at the same time in the spring, and harvested more or less at the same time in the fall. And in between the fall harvest and the spring planting you’ve got bare ground, extremely vulnerable to the elements.

We’re seeing soil erosion on a level that is just staggering. I’ve got this great soil scientist source at Iowa State University named Richard Cruse. What he figures is that the region is losing topsoil at a rate about sixteen times the rate of natural reproduction — meaning that there’s a race to the bottom of the United States’, of the Midwest’s, incredible store of topsoil.

DH

This style of farming is destroying one of the most fertile pieces of land on earth, right?

TP

Yeah. It’s at least as rare as the Mediterranean climate of the Central Valley. There are four or five places on earth where you had these prairie-derived topsoils: the US Midwest, the Pampas of Argentina, the black soil lands of Ukraine, and there really aren’t very many more. The United States has got the biggest one.

They’re all under severe pressure from corn and soybeans. And it’s the same agribusiness companies that supply the seeds, the pesticides, that buy the product, and turn it into meat. It’s pretty staggering.

DH

That’s one of the interesting things about the economics of it. The farmers are not small operators necessarily. It’s not “Little House on the Prairie” stuff. But they’re under intense competitive pressure, and they have to deal with very concentrated suppliers.

When they produce their grains or meat, they have to sell them to very concentrated processors. So they’re stuck in this very competitive market of their own, but between two powerful sets of oligopolies. It’s a very strange business.

TP

It is. The profits generated from it essentially accrue to these oligopolies, the buyers, and the input suppliers. I think the question that looms over it is, “Why do the farmers do this? Why don’t they do something different?” The answer comes down to farm policy, which is a creation of the New Deal. The idea was to manage supply and create a balance between the amount of food produced by farmers and the demand among consumers, and give both a fair shake.

It took a neoliberal turn well before the big neoliberal turn in the United States. Eisenhower’s Department of Agriculture chief, Ezra Taft Benson, hated that program and wanted to open it up to market forces. That really took root under Earl Butz under Nixon, and took another step forward under Bill Clinton, at the height of the neoliberal era. The basic idea was to sell farmers on this lie that, “Hey, produce as much as you can. Don’t worry about overproduction because we’ll open up markets to sell it abroad.”

One thing that messes it up is that Brazil figures out how to do industrial agriculture in its savannah region. Argentina is transforming its Pampas into a great integrated system of corn, beef, and hay, and turning it into a corn and soybean megalith. Ukraine is rapidly transferring over to corn and soybean agriculture.

So, the foreign markets have been opened, but now there’s all of this foreign competition so they’re still in a state of oversupply. The US government makes up the difference with these commodity payments and insurance subsidies that were always supposed to be temporary. You know, “We’re going to have this export boom that’s going to sort everything out.”

And that export boom is not coming. It’s really screwing farmers over, and these giant corporations make out like bandits.

DH

Those giant corporations also produce immense amounts of really toxic materials, which are poisoning not only the locals, but bodies of water as far away as the Gulf of Mexico.

TP

Yeah, it’s this taxpayer-funded calamity. Millions of people in the Midwest have to pay extra in their water bill to filter out, let’s say, the nitrates. Some of the stuff you can’t filter out, so there’s that. And then the nitrates and phosphorus from fertilizers create algae blooms on lakes that can be quite poisonous and have created a massive algae bloom down in the Gulf of Mexico.

This year, there was a smaller than normal algae bloom in the Gulf of Mexico — there were some late storms that diluted the flow of agrochemicals — and people were celebrating it. This year, it’s only the size of Rhode Island and that’s considered to be a victory. It gets as big as New Jersey and Connecticut.

This started around 1970, when the industrialization of agriculture and the focus on corn and soybeans began. Now, it’s just this annual fact of life that sucks if you’re a fisherman in the Gulf of Mexico.

DH

So now, facing these disasters, what can we do about it? For example, the Central Valley of California — how could that be reconfigured in a more sustainable way?

TP

The overarching thing is that we have to take pressure off of California as this place that we all get our food. A good practice would be to invest in local and especially regional food systems. Now, I don’t mean the sort of three-acre farm that I worked on in North Carolina — those are important, but they’re not going to get us there. We need to be thinking about regional food security, regional food production, and looking at midsize farms.

I also don’t mean eliminating California agriculture or taking it out of the mix in the US. I just mean de-emphasizing it in the Central Valley. And empowering farm workers — figuring out how to get farm workers fair wages, fair housing, and give them the right to clean water which is in the Clean Water Act.

In a perfect world, there would also be some expropriation of land because giant institutions, including Harvard and hedge funds, are going there, buying land, and running it completely with the interest of the next twenty years’ bottom line in mind.

Maybe we can figure out a way to do land reform and get farm workers in the area, having fled the agrarian crisis in places like Mexico and Guatemala, some farms so they could supply the region and not base the agriculture system completely on high-value snacks like almonds.

DH

In the book, you look at some people who are doing different things in the corn belt — rotating crops, mixing livestock and grain, covering crops. What’s that all about?

TP

There’s a set of farmers, loosely connected, who are figuring out that this system isn’t working for them and it’s destroying their land. They’re saying, “Why should we participate in a system where what we’re making in the marketplace is less than the cost of production and we’re losing soil doing it. Shouldn’t we try something else?”

These are innovative farmers. They’re not necessarily doing old-fashioned things. They’re figuring out how to use current technology, not necessarily biotechnology, but things like modern combines, to incorporate biodiversity: “This is an ecosystem that supported uncountable species of grasses and plants and animals. We’ve narrowed it down to two species, corn and soybeans, and we’re having all kinds of trouble. Maybe we should reintroduce some biodiversity.”

These examples are great, but they’re not taking off. They’re not convincing their neighbors en masse to do the same because farmers tend to be risk averse.

DH

They’re also operating in very thin margins.

TP

They’re operating in micro-thin margins and relying on these government payments that they can’t risk. If you’re not doing corn and soybeans, your subsidy rate is going to be a lot lower. It’s going to be a lot harder to get credit and things like that.

DH

So it’s a policy issue, right? There’s no way that people are going to change just on their own.

TP

Yeah. I think that Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal agenda is probably the best example — there are policies that would basically address everything that I talk about in my book. It talks about reinvesting in local and regional food systems. And there’s a lot in there about diversifying agriculture in the Midwest.

There is a myth that you hear a lot on the Right, and sometimes on the Left, that the state shouldn’t be involved with agriculture. I think that’s wrong. It’s an incredibly difficult business where you’re relying on the weather and all these other contingencies. If farmers fail, then societies fail. So I think there’s a social stake in having a robust food system, and the market doesn’t cut it.

If you look at Bernie’s plans there are things like paying farmers to store carbon in soil, which is tricky, but it’s becoming possible. Paying them for practices that we know make soil more resilient, and helping them build soil rather than sacrifice it every spring to storms.

Because agribusiness is so powerful and there’s so much money behind it, they invest a share of that profit into stuff like lobbying and funding campaigns. The once-every-five-year farm bill is a depressing process, because all the important questions are answered by the time it gets to the congressional committees. There’s never any real reform.

That was what was so hopeful to me about the Green New Deal and about Bernie’s plan — it was like, “Forget the farm bill. This is a climate problem. Let’s put this in climate policy and get social movements behind it.” I think that’s what it’s going to take in the end.

DH

A lot of people will hear what you’re talking about — more localized markets, smaller farms, more diversification — and say, “Well, that’s just not as productive. Food is going to be more expensive and less plentiful.” Is that true?

TP

It’s a bit of a caricature that the critique of the current system means that you have to transition to tiny farms. What would be powerful and resilient going forward would be to have a multiplicity of scales operating. I think, for a grain farm in the Midwest, an appropriate scale could be five hundred acres or one thousand — by no means tiny, but a lot smaller than some of these giant operations now, which can be five or ten thousand acres.

A proper cooperatively owned farm can manage that in a way that is really productive, even more productive than just these corn and soybean farms, but with a lot of ecological benefits. There is a lot of research that a more diversified system that’s not just doing corn and soybeans can actually be more productive, produce more food. It’s just more kinds of food than those two.

DH

But it’s a bit more labor intensive.

TP

It is. It is a bit more labor intensive, and it’s also what we call more management intensive. You have to put more thought into it. You can’t just sort out a problem by pushing a button and making all the weeds disappear because you’ve sprayed poisons on them. It definitely requires more labor, and more intuition and experience. But I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing if you can figure out a way to pay people more.

I think that gets us down to the whole problem of the broader economy. If you have a broader economy that is based on lots of heavily exploited, low-wage jobs, then you’re not going to be able to fix that in agriculture.

We actually need more skilled jobs. If we thought of it as a skilled job instead of just the lowest form of labor, I think that would take us a long way.

DH

Which takes us back to the Green New Deal, which is both a comprehensive ecological policy, but also a social justice one.

TP

That’s exactly right. That is why it’s such a brilliant policy, because it acknowledges that need for better-paid labor and for creating jobs. This could be part of the jobs creation program of a Green New Deal.