By Donella Meadows
–July 2, 1987–
Farm subsidies are over $20 billion a year, farmers go broke anyway, pesticides contaminate water and food, and topsoil washes down the river. Why is that year after year, under Republicans and Democrats, our agriculture system has persistent troubles?
Wendell Berry, a Kentucky farmer and a writer, says it’s because we operate from assumptions about agriculture that are just plain wrong. In his new book Home Economics, he lists six fallacies of modern agriculture — fallacies that most people believe deeply, especially in the High Places where farm bills are generated.
Here they are. Judge for yourself.
Fallacy 1. Agriculture may be understood and dealt with as an industry.
Industry deals with dead materials, mechanical processes, cold rationality, factories that wear out, workplaces that are distinct from places to live. Agriculture deals with living things, biological processes, nurture and care, farms that should last for generations, and workplaces that are also homes.
Treating a farm like a factory gives it the short life expectancy, the unlivability, the exploitive nature of the factory. The U.S. counties with the largest, most industrialized farms also have the highest rural levels of chemical contamination and of poverty. That’s no surprise, says Wendell Berry.
Fallacy 2. A sound agricultural economy can be based on an export market.
The 1985 Farm Bill was based on one simple idea — that our farmers have to compete on the international market. But Berry says a sound economy cannot be based on a market beyond its control. For stability, security, quality control, freshness, and low transport costs, every nation should produce food primarily for itself.
The farm should first supply the needs of the farm family, then the needs of the surrounding community. Distant trade should be in occasional surplus only. Surplus should be global insurance against emergency, not something for one nation to count on exporting and another on importing. A subsistence-based farm economy, Berry says, would give us a healthier food supply, a more diverse local agriculture, more local employment, and less vulnerability to the perturbations of global trade.
Fallacy 3. The “free market” can preserve agriculture.
The market sets a price for a farm product, but not for the sources of that product — the topsoil, the ecosystem, the farm family, the farm community. It treats those sources as free or expendable. Berry says, “If a squash on the table is worth more than a squash in the field, and a squash in the field is worth more than a bushel of soil, that does not mean that food is more valuable than soil. It means that we do not know how to value the soil.”
To lean back and expect a mystical mechanism called the market to lead to proper decisions is, says Berry, either lazy or felonious. Economics should come from human values, those values that can be set by the market and those that transcend the market. If farmers can’t “afford” to take soil conservation measures or cut use of dangerous chemicals or stop overdrafts of groundwater, if we can’t “afford” to keep farmers in farming, then we need some larger definition of the word “afford” than the market can give.
Fallacy 4. Productivity is the measure of agricultural success.
Berry is not impressed that the American farmer feeds “57 or 75 or God knows how many people”. What are the costs of that productivity, he asks, in soil, farms, and farmers, in pollution of water and food, in the vulnerability of the food supply?
To celebrate output without questioning input is like rejoicing in the water flowing out of the dam without wondering whether any water is flowing in to replace it. We should celebrate thrift, thriving, health, says Berry, not sheer output.
Fallacy 5. There are too many farmers.
Agricultural economists, not farmers, keep saying there are too many farmers. They never say that there are too many agricultural economists.
There is too much production in the United States, but that does not mean there are too many farmers. There are too few farmers to take proper care of the land. Farmers are being replaced by machines and chemicals not because there are too many farmers, but because we have chosen not to pay for food what it really costs, and not to pay farmers as much as agricultural economists or combine manufacturers. That is a social decision, not a law of nature.
Fallacy 6. Hand labor is bad.
The goodness of any labor depends on its scale, on its compensation, and on who is doing it for whom. Americans happily do hand labor in their gardens for no more compensation than fresh vegetables and praise from the family. Helping plants to grow is inherently good work, unless it’s done acre upon acre, day after day, in someone else’s field, at poverty wages.
Berry says, “any work is miserable, whether done by hand or by machine, if it is economically desperate.”
To my knowledge no one in decades has stood up in Congress and talked about farming as something to be done by more people on smaller farms with less mechanization and more care, producing less output of higher quality at less cost for greater profit. Maybe that’s a kind of farming that would work better than what we’ve got.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987