The Insanity of Modern Industrial Agriculture

Let us pause and pity the modern industrial farmer. He (and most modern industrial farmers are men) spends his life in a poisonous cloud. And because most farmers live close to their fields, his family joins him in his exposure.


American farmers are caught in a vicious cycle. They spray their fields with poison to kill weeds, and they spray their fields with poison to kill bugs. A few weeds and bugs survive and evolve to be resistant to the poison. First the farmer counters by using more poison, but each year the weeds and bugs get stronger and more numerous. Eventually the farmer must change to another, more expensive poison, or more likely, a toxic stew of poisons. And let there be no mistake about it: that toxic stew is not only a rich component of the farmer’s and his family’s environment; it’s increasingly a part of yours and mine too.

A story in this morning’s NY Times provides fresh evidence of the extent of the problem, although in a manner typical for today’s mainstream corporate media, it ignores the worst aspect of it. The headline is that the heavy use of Monsanto’s Roundup (chemical name glyphosate) has encouraged the evolution of tough new weeds that are resistant to it, so the farmers encountering these Roundup-resistant weeds are countering by tilling their soil and using more poisons on their fields. The additional poisons will make you, me, and the farmer less safe, and the additional tilling will increase erosion and make it more likely the farmer’s ever-more-toxic stew will end up in the air you breathe and the water you drink.

And more and more of it will remain as residue in the food you and I eat. That’s the horrible truth that the NY Times conveniently leaves out of the story. As farmers douse their crops with more and more poisons, the residual level of poisons in those crops keeps increasing as well.

I know, and you know, and anybody who actually steps back long enough to see the real problem knows, that what the farmer needs to do is to farm more like Lee and Amanda are learning to do at Longleaf Breeze. We use polyculture, mulch, our brains and a whole lot of work to keep those weeds and bugs under control without using any pesticides or herbicides. And here’s the sad truth: the farmer wishes he could do that, but he can’t. He’s invested too much in the equipment used for spraying poisons, and his fields are soaked in those poisons anyway, so he’s locked in. And because the chemical companies encouraged him to mechanize, his farm is now too big for him to farm it without using that toxic stew.

And because the schools of agriculture are totally co-opted by the chemical companies, the farmer knows only one way to farm, with chemicals. Although he understands application rates for seven different poisons and can keep a 12-port sprayer running like a top, he knows less about growing a tomato organically than the average back-yard gardener. No, he’d better keep doing it this way, thank you.

Only he can’t. As the world adjusts to the reality of life after peak oil, one of the first casualties will be an agriculture system that relies on petrochemicals for everything it does. Farmers are going to change. The smart ones already are. The rest will be left stranded, bankrupt, or worse.

And lest we think otherwise, “genetically modified” is simply a nice way of saying crops engineered to be soaked with more poisons. So when advocates of genetically modified crops insist that it would be good for the rest of the world to approach agriculture the same way Americans do, they’re really saying the rest of the world needs to be using more poisons like we do. Great for Monsanto; lousy for people.

The NY Times story includes a paragraph buried deep within it that is nothing short of chilling:

Bayer is already selling cotton and soybeans resistant to glufosinate, another weedkiller. Monsanto’s newest corn is tolerant of both glyphosate and glufosinate, and the company is developing crops resistant to dicamba, an older pesticide. Syngenta is developing soybeans tolerant of its Callisto product. And Dow Chemical is developing corn and soybeans resistant to 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange, the defoliant used in the Vietnam War.

I really don’t want to eat food that’s been soaked with 2,4-D, and I’m willing to bet that you don’t either. At some point, each citizen of the United States must decide where his or her breaking point lies, where he or she is willing to say no to convenience and yes to healthy food.

8 thoughts on “The Insanity of Modern Industrial Agriculture”

  1. I’m interested by how many people in suburbia here are planting vegetable gardens — that they weed by hand. We have one. Also we have many neighbors who have signed up for local CSAs that are organic. A good friend is running a 10-acre organic CSA in upstate Illinois.

    These steps are a long way from the self-sufficiency that Lee and Amanda aspire to, but they do demonstrate the extent of worry about Big Agriculture.

    In full disclosure, I have distant relatives who are still cotton and soybean farmers.

    And the irony is, native Americans used to eat pigweed.

  2. Without overtaking Lee’s message board, let me also say there is tremendous injustice in the exposure of migrant farmworkers (who have no healthcare coverage) to toxic farm chemicals. Recently there was a drive here to donate long-sleeved shirts to provide at least a little protection for the farmworkers in tobacco fields. North Carolina has a seasonal migrant farmworker population of as many as 150,000.

  3. Lee, if the food is organic, does that automatically mean it is non-GMO? Someone asked me that question the other day and I wasn’t sure.

  4. I’m sorry; I just have to say this. I think it is so cool that I am having a chance to relate with two dear friends from high school on our web site, two friends with whom I would have no contact without the Internet. I suppose that’s one of the great things about technology, isn’t it?

    Chuck, I’ve been encouraged to hear from friend after friend, family after family, who have begun to grow food in a little corner of their world. They’re not always doing it without chemicals, but increasingly, they are. Just last week Amanda and I went to a meeting of the Elmore County Bar Association, of all things, and before you knew it there were 4-5 lawyers and their spouses in a huddle comparing notes on okra and seed potatoes and discussing the relative advantages and disadvantages of keeping nanny goats. And narry a word about what pesticide to use. The times they are a’changin’!

    Nancy, you’re asking an excellent question. The short, simple answer is yes. Genetically modified food crops are not allowed to be labeled as organic. The long answer is more complex. There’s no such thing as a closed system in agriculture; genetically modified seed from my neighbor’s fields could end up in my organic crop, carried there by the wind or by wildlife. But in general, organic means not GMO.

    You didn’t ask, but I will interject that the big corporate growers are slowly taking over the term “organic.” It’s a good start to buy food that’s organic, and we do ourselves. But food can be “organic” and still be grown with little or no attention to animal welfare or the health of farm workers to which Chuck refers. As one example, it’s healthy for chickens to get exercise in the fresh air and have a chance to scratch around on the ground looking for food. Chicken can be labeled as “organic,” though, as long as the chickens stay confined and have “access” to the outside through a window screen.

    The very best way to know your food is grown the way you would want it is to know the grower and to buy directly from that person. It’s a tough standard, though, and goodness knows we don’t always do it ourselves.

  5. I wonder, will society stratify by food sources? I feel privileged that I have the time and the land to raise a few vegetables; also the money and transportation to buy into a CSA, which requires me to take my turn every 4-6 weeks and drive 50 miles to the farm for pickup and delivery to the other members. I feel further privileged that I spent summers on my grandparents’ farm where I had to hoe, pick, pray for rain, etc and that I live only 11 miles from an enormous state farmers market.

    But… not everyone has time, money, land, transportation, or background/training. The less fortunate are stuck with their local grocery and whatever Big Agriculture sends there.

  6. Or worse. Many parts of urban America have become “food deserts” where the only food realistically available comes from fast food and convenience stores. They can’t even get to a decent grocery store, let alone a supermarket! Good for you, Chuck, for being aware of the plight of the urban poor. So few choices. And if they are so enterprising as to create an urban garden, what do they do to control theft from that garden?

  7. I don’t know how to solve the theft problem. One possibility is for a non-profit to acquire a large tract of land inside the city limits, fence the boundary, subdivide it internally with fences, and then lease out the individual plots to qualifying low-income households for a negligible annual fee. The entire facility could be under video surveillance.

    I am completing my sixth year on the board of a local food bank, where home-grown and locally-sourced food is definitely the future. Aside from safety concerns, the entry of Walmart, Cosco, etc into the grocery business has really tightened up management of the supply chain. Once upon a time, food banks could count on a steady supply of inventory overage that they could redistribute to the needy. Not any more.

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