By Donella Meadows
–July 3, 1986–
The super-tractor of the future will have sensor beams, sweeping out 20 yards ahead as the tractor moves forward. The beams will detect soil nutrients and feed the information to the computer in the cab. Taking ground speed into account, the computer will issue instructions to the fertilizer mixer in the rear. As the tractor passes over each spot in the field, the mixer will deliver exactly the nutrients needed on that spot for that crop for that year.
“The farmers will save millions,” said the equipment manufacturer who was describing the super-tractor. “They won’t have to pay for all those unnecessary fertilizers.”
“Only farmers who already have millions will be able to afford it,” responded an unimpressed hog farmer from Iowa. “And the darn thing will break down Saturday morning of Memorial Day weekend, and you won’t be able to get parts till Tuesday.”
That’s the way the discussion went at meetings of a panel assembled by the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) to advise the U.S. Congress about the future of American farming. First someone would talk about the incredible productivity of American agriculture and the great technological breakthroughs on the horizon. Then someone else, usually a farmer, would bring us back to reality.
Bovine growth hormone, a biotech executive told us, will be available to dairy farmers before 1990. It will increase milk production per cow by 25 percent.
“Who needs it?” asked the farmers. Surplus milk production already costs taxpayers nearly $3 billion per year. Farmers will buy the hormone to get a competitive edge on other farmers. The richest farmers will buy it first. The result will be a decrease in dairy farmers, not an increase in milk. Everyone expects this result, and no one wants it. But you can’t stop progress. You can’t stop biotech companies from marketing a hormone and making a profit.
After two years of talk and study, the OTA put together a report for Congress, which concluded:
“As America enters the era of biotechnology and information technology, agricultural productivity will increase significantly, and the structure of agriculture and rural communities will change forever. Approximately one million farms (about half the current number) will disappear between now and the year 2000, mostly moderate-size and small farms. About 50,000 large farms will then account for 75 percent of U.S. agricultural production.”
If we totalled up, over the whole society and into the future, all the costs and benefits of this agglomeration of farms, we would not call it progress.
The people displaced from agriculture are not inefficient hicks. Most of them are forced out not because their yields are low, but because their competitors are big and have access to special subsidies and tax write-offs. (Over half of federal farm subsidies go to the largest 1.2% of the farms.) The nation is losing independent entrepreneurs with experience, responsibility, and commitment.
The rural communities left behind are devastated. The OTA study found that the counties in the U.S. with the biggest farms are also the counties with the highest levels of poverty. Large-scale farming reduces an independent, democratic profession to a feudal system of wealthy landlords and seasonally-employed, underpaid laborers.
Another unmeasured cost is the slow degradation of the soils and waters, the health of animals, and the quality of foods. Very large-scale farming must be done primarily by machines and chemicals, rather than by human attention and labor. The soil is compacted by heavy equipment and sterilized by chemicals. It loses its humus, its microbe populations, its ability to retain water and resist erosion.
Fertilizers and pesticides run off to contaminate ground and surface water. Animals raised for maximum weight-gain in tight confinement are dosed with hormones and antibiotics. Plants are bred for shipping and processing, not for taste or nutrition.
Large-scale farming gives back to the land only the minimum fertilizer needed for this year’s crop. It hypes up a cow’s metabolism without wondering what happens to the quality of the milk or the longevity of the cow, much less to the community of farmers. It rewards a mentality that treats living things as if they were machines. The costs to the nation of that mentality will be revealed only slowly, but they will be enormous. The OTA report gives many useful suggestions for preserving the family farm, such as stopping federal subsidies to large-scale farms. It would possible and even easy to have family-size, highly-productive farms using modern technologies that enhance rather than cheat the land.
But we will never do so until we recognize clearly that the present agricultural system is not working. It is oriented to profit and power, and it is squeezing out those who are oriented to health and sustainability. We need to listen less to the theoreticians who tell us about terrific new tractors and to listen more to the farmers.
Here’s how one farmer, writing from Geary County, Kansas, describes what is happening.
“Irrigation circles going up and down hills watering corn where corn was never intended to grow.”
“Fragile pastureland growing wheat and blowing away.”
“A big hog complex built by a lawyer, banker, and feed company. For them a tax write-off but producing more hogs than a dozen family farms.”
“Sell a bushel of wheat now for $2.97 and buy a box of Wheaties for $1.68.”
“Something is wrong.”
(The OTA report “Technology, Public Policy, and the Changing Structure of American Agriculture” is available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC 20402.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1986