Monday, July 6, 2015

How many of us does industrial agriculture feed?

We needed this morning's moisture and we're far enough from the course of the Sunrise River that I'm not concerned about flooding, although the Kinnickinnic River area southeast of here is reported to have received around 7 inches of rain this morning (scroll down the linked page to see a graph of the river stage), compared to 3 inches or so in our neck of the woods. We definitely seem to be settling into a Summer weather pattern of heat, humidity and hotspot downpours. Last week a friend who lives north of us mentioned that the hail in his area damaged his beans and tomatoes and black raspberries.

apple blossoms and buds
apple blossoms and buds
Photo by J. Harrington

I remember a past year's September hail damage to Minnesota's apple crop and a prior year's April frost damage to the buds. Those who study such things tell us that we should expect more sporadic severe storms as the climate changes and the atmosphere warms. I suspect that's going to have some unfortunate affects on our local food system and am beginning to wonder about the potential vulnerability of a Twin Cities' foodshed based on a forty-mile radius. I spent a lot of my planning career working on regional system plans, all before the time that there was much thought, or at least before I was doing much thinking about regional food systems. There was concern about protecting prime farmland from development, but not much more that I recall.

Although I try to leave my Eyore hat on the shelf as much as I can these days, here's a quick summary of various system vulnerabilities I've noticed in the news during the past several months:

agricultural fields, southwestern Minnesota
agricultural fields, southwestern Minnesota
Photo by J. Harrington

The pattern I think I see is an industrial agriculture effectively destroying our common wealth of surface and groundwaters, being a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, opposing, even though they're largely exempt from Clean Water Act requirements, the protection of public water supplies and becoming well on its way to being considered about as beneficial a player in our economy as those who mine coal by blowing the tops off of mountains. This is happening concurrent with the increased vulnerability of our food supplies and catastrophic disruptions of our drinking water supplies. Is this is what we, as a society, should expect from responsible citizens and corporations? We require cities to treat their (our) wastewater and stormwater. We require manufacturers to pretreat or treat their wastewaters. Why shouldn't we expect the same from industrial agriculture. How much of our healthy food comes directly from field corn and soy beans? If we're feeding the world while polluting our own water supplies, how long until we have to trade food for water? Which do we need more? This isn't isn't just the way it is, it's the way we let it be. Will Rogers noticed industrial agriculture's locational requirements when he said "Buy land. They ain't making any more of the stuff." He might have said the same about water. What happens on the land doesn't stay on the land.


By D. A. Powell
soon, industry and agriculture converged
                        and the combustion engine
sowed the dirtclod truck farms green   
                                  with onion tops and chicory

mowed the hay, fed the swine and mutton   
                      through belts and chutes

cleared the blue oak and the chaparral
                                    chipping the wood for mulch

back-filled the marshes
                        replacing buckbean with dent corn   

removed the unsavory foliage of quag
                                 made the land into a production
made it produce, pistoned and oiled
                              and forged against its own nature

and—with enterprise—built silos
                            stockyards, warehouses, processing plants
abattoirs, walk-in refrigerators, canneries, mills
                                                                & centers of distribution   

it meant something—in spite of machinery—
                      to say the country, to say apple season
though what it meant was a kind of nose-thumbing   
                                           and a kind of sweetness
                      as when one says how quaint
knowing that a refined listener understands the doubleness

and the leveling of the land, enduing it in sameness, cured malaria
as the standing water in low glades disappeared,
                                                       as the muskegs drained                              
typhoid and yellow fever decreased
                                  even milksickness abated
thanks to the rise of the feeding pen
                         cattle no longer grazing on white snakeroot

vanquished:    the germs that bedeviled the rural areas
                                                       the rural areas also
vanquished:    made monochromatic and mechanized, made suburban

the illnesses we contract are chronic illnesses:    dyspepsia, arthritis
            heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, asthma
                           chronic pain, allergies, anxiety, emphysema
                                       diabetes, cirrhosis, lyme disease, aids
            chronic fatigue syndrome, malnutrition, morbid obesity   
hypertension, cancers of the various kinds:    bladder bone eye lymph   
                     mouth ovary thyroid liver colon bileduct lung   
                               breast throat & sundry areas of the brain   

we are no better in accounting for death, and no worse:       we still die
we carry our uninhabited mortal frames back to the land
                      cover them in sod, we take the land to the brink   
          of our dying:    it stands watch, dutifully, artfully
enriched with sewer sludge and urea
                                             to green against eternity of green

hocus-pocus:    here is a pig in a farrowing crate
                                     eating its own feces   
human in its ability to litter inside a cage
                        to nest, to grow gravid and to throw its young

I know I should be mindful of dangerous analogy:
          the pig is only the pig
                         and we aren't merely the wide-open field
                                    flattened to a space resembling nothing

you want me to tell you the marvels of invention?    that we persevere
that the time of flourishing is at hand?    I should like to think it

meanwhile, where have I put the notebook on which I was scribbling

it began like:
                     "the smell of droppings and that narrow country road . . ."

Thanks for visiting. Come again when you can.
Please be kind to each other while you can.