Healing Our World Commentary: Choosing Fish or Farms

By Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D.

It's Not About Choosing Fish or Farms

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

-- Wendell Berry

Farmers in Klamath Falls, Oregon have been protesting the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation's decision to allocate almost all the water in the Klamath Basin Project to protect the endangered or threatened fish Upper Klamath Lake. The farmers claim that the U.S. government is putting fish before people and that environmentalists have a stranglehold on the nation.

Upon closer examination, this conflict reveals a more serious issue - what do we do about farming practices that are not sustainable and are resulting in environmental destruction and societal dysfunction?

Farming practices that have been adopted since the U.S. encouraged a shift to chemical intensive, corporate owned agribusiness after World War II that is highly wasteful of resources and destructive of ecosystems.


Small farm near Ames, Iowa (Photo by Scott Bauer courtesy U.S. Dept. Agriculture)
Farming used to be a rather straightforward process that was done in relative harmony with the surrounding environs. For thousands of years, fertile fields produced vegetables and grains that were eaten by humans and animals. The resulting waste products were put into the soil, the land was re-seeded, often with seeds from last season's crop, and the cycle began again.

But beginning in the 20th century, a new pattern emerged, described by Kirkpatrick Sale, in his book, "Human Scale," as "bigness." Bigger became better in nearly every walk of life and farming particularly suffered, as huge yields were demanded from overworked soils.

These increasingly infertile soils are treated with synthetic fertilizers, often byproducts of the chemical and petroleum industries. The fields are then treated with insecticides and herbicides and given large amounts of water to attempt to restore the moisture that the chemicals remove from the soil. The resulting food is then processed heavily, loosing much of its nutritional value in the process, and transported great distances. The resulting waste products from the consumers of these foods and from the farm animals, is not used on the land. Rather, it is flushed away with water, burned into the air, or put into rivers and oceans.

Productivity declines on these acres and Sale describes this new cycle as, "A broken, ... energy intensive, highly exhaustive, and somewhat poisoned loop."

This new pattern of agriculture - now referred to as agribusiness - is not well suited to the rural family farm. Rather, large corporate owned industrialized farms have taken advantage of the new style of chemically dependent American agriculture.


Hooded sprayers operated by field technician Victor Valladares direct herbicide just to areas between rows of grain sorghum (Photo by Jack Dykinga courtesy USDA)
Such large farms, some measuring many housands of acres, and increased by over 500 percent in the last 50 years while more than three million one family farms have gone out of business.

The environmental and social consequences of this fundamental shift are grave.

During a three week period of time in Missouri, "two corporate hog factories created more environmental degradations in the form of fish kills and dead streams than was created by all of agriculture in the previous decade," said Roger Allison, executive director of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center in his 1998 testimony to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

From 1940 to 1975, U.S. farm output increased by 90 percent while fertilizer use increased by 900 percent.

Corporate farms make extensive use of fossil fuel burning machines and excessively use high priced energy, contributing to unstable and steadily rising prices.

Millions of pounds of pesticides are used each year, primarily to produce perfect looking fruits and vegetables, not to prevent crop losses. Most of the pesticides applied end up in the air, groundwater, ocean, lakes, and streams. These pesticides have been found in cities hundreds of miles away from the farms that use them.

Huge amounts of water are wasted on farms, since infertile or marginal soils must be watered heavily. Also, many huge corporate farms are located in dry regions of the nation that should never have been used to grow crops. Over 134 billion gallons of water is used every day to irrigate crops.

Sale points out the grave consequences to society of large corporate farms in the form of the "destruction or diminution of many thousands of rural communities, an exodus of millions of rural poor into cities that proved unstable to absorb the burden, and greater control over rural life by a smaller number of larger institutions."

Author and farmer Wendell Berry said that modern agribusiness "forces a profound revolution in the farmer's mind: once his investment in land and machines is large enough, he must forsake the values of husbandry and assume those of finance and technology. Thenceforth his thinking is not determined by agricultural responsibility, but by financial accountability and the capacities of his machines."


Irrigation of crops by spraying leads to waste from evaporation. (Photo courtesy Oregon State University Nutrition and Food Management Department)
Farming practices in the U.S. are largely governed by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF - or the Farm Bureau). Many farmers, environmental groups, and social change organizations consider the AFBF to be a gigantic agribusiness and insurance conglomerate. And, claims Defenders of Wildlife in a 1998 white paper on the AFBF, "The organization's nonprofit status allows it to use the U.S. tax code to help build a financial war chest with which it pursues an extreme political agenda, while doing little for - and sometimes working against - America's family farmers."

The Defenders report says that the AFBF spends a great deal of time and money opposing pesticide regulations and environmental laws such as the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. It has large investments in the automobile, oil and pesticide industries, and often supports factory farming rather than family farming. They regularly oppose government regulation to reduce air and water pollution and pesticide use and to protect wildlife, habitat, rural amenities and food quality.

It is critical of efforts to counter global warming. It has opposed the registration and licensing of firearms, and has advocated repeal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, one of the nation's key civil rights laws.

Billions of dollars of government subsidies may be the most troubling aspect of modern agribusiness. These subsidies also promote environmental harm by encouraging overproduction and dependence upon pesticide and water intensive crops. While the 1996 Farm Bill (The Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act) began a program to eliminate overproduction subsidies, many forms of subsidies are still in place.

Studies have consistently shown that a one family farming operation is much more efficient than giant agribusinesses. Sadly, even many family farms have adopted the pesticide and chemical dependent, water wasting practices of the bigger corporate operations.

Organic farmers have shown that you can be successful by returning to farming systems that rely on ecologically based practices. Organic farms use environmental and biological pest management and virtually exclude the use of pesticides and synthetic chemicals in crop production. They also prohibit the use of antibiotics and hormones in livestock production.

Farmers everywhere must return to sustainable practices that are more in harmony with the Earth around them. They must put sustainable husbandry first, end their dependence on government subsidies, and stop fighting environmental protections. If the fish die, then eventually, so do we.


1. Read what family farmers have to say about the Farm Bureau at http://www.inmotionmagazine.com/fb2.html

2. Check out family farming issues at http://www.familyfarmer.org/

3. Read the Defenders of Wildlife report on the Farm Bureau at http://www.familyfarmer.org/awg.html.

4. See a discussion of the top players in corporate agribusiness at http://www.purefood.org/corp/greed.cfm.

5. We should be able to feed the world, but greed interferes. See some ideas about how to change this at http://www.applesforhealth.com/GlobalHealth/boostfarm2.html.

6. See a discussion about pesticide residues in your food.

7. The Friends of the Earth thinks subsidies should end. See their argument at http://www.foe.org/eco/scissors2000/agriculture.html.

8. Visit the The Center for International Food and Agriculture Policy at http://www.cagw.org/policy/foodag/pf.foodag.home.htm.

9. See the benefits of organic agriculture at http://www.organicadvocates.org/org2.html.

10. Find out who your Congressional representatives are and e-mail them. Tell them it is time to stop encouraging big corporate farms and to return to ecologically sustainable family operations. If you know your Zip code, you can find them at http://www.visi.com/juan/congress/ziptoit.html.

{Jackie Alan Giuliano, Ph.D. is a writer and teacher in Seattle. He can be found considering joining an organic food co-op. Please send your thoughts, comments, and visions to him at jackie@healingourworld.com and visit his website at http://www.healingourworld.com}