What’s wrong with American agriculture?
Food sovereignty: In the neo-liberal discourse system, people’s understanding of capital tends to be viewed singularly from the perspective of capitalists (that is, from the perspective of pursuing maximum economic benefits), thus ignoring the capitalist economic system. There are many contradictions and problems. In the field of agricultural production, what the capitalists are pursuing is to rely on agricultural products to earn the largest margin profits. They will not take into account the painful price paid by agriculture, farmers and the overall ecological environment. The sustainability of agriculture cannot be guaranteed, and countless acts of fishing and killing chickens to obtain eggs.
We all know that the sustainability of agriculture is the basic condition for human beings to survive for generations. Only by decapitalizing in the agricultural field can we truly realize sustainable food supply, sustainable ecological balance, and sustainable human development. At present, many scholars in China regard the American agricultural model as the model and goal of China’s agricultural development. However, from the perspective of an American Marxist scholar, this article exposes various problems of the existing industrialized agriculture in the United States and gives us some necessary reminders.
About the Author
Fred Magdoff is an emeritus professor of plant and soil science at Vermont State University, an associate professor of crop and soil science at Cornell University, and an American eco-Marxist scholar.
From a humanitarian and ecological perspective, many aspects of the capitalist economic system are unreasonable-although it is quite reasonable from the limited perspective of capitalists pursuing profits. For example, the management wants to keep employees’ wages as low as possible, but it is a problem for the entire economic system, resulting in insufficient effective demand.
In terms of the environment, the capital has a lot of unreasonable behaviors. These are the highest goals to create profits. The side effects of unreasonable behavior are destroying the ecosystem and may directly harm humanity itself.
Specific to the topic of agriculture, I recommend a well-known statement in the third volume of Marx’s “On Capital”: “Reasonable agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (although the capitalist system promotes the development of agricultural technology), and reasonable agriculture What is needed is either the hands of self-sustaining small farmers or the control of united producers. ”
The US food system consists of several parts before food reaches the public. “Agriculture” actually includes cultivating crops and raising livestock for human diets, animal feed production, conversion into chemical raw materials and fuels, and fiber production (such as cotton). But farmers need upstream inputs, such as fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, equipment, animal hormones, antibiotics, feed additives, agricultural machinery fuels, and grain drying, etc. These are all commercialized. Looking further down the farm, agricultural products are first acquired and then processed by one or more companies. The product is then shipped to retail stores and sold to the public. There is no cycle in this system-energy or matter flows from one place to another.
Taken as a whole, the food system consists of: (a) industrial enterprises making inputs; (b) farms; (c) purchasers of agricultural primary products; (d) processing processors; (e) retailers; (f) )public. The agricultural sector—agricultural conglomerates—includes (a) to (c), but the main processing processes (such as grinding) are also included.
Purpose and output of agriculture
The main purpose of most agricultural production in the United States is to sell primary products at the highest profit. Some farmers set up a niche market, or process it on their own farm (such as cheese and jam) and sell it directly to consumers to obtain “added value.” However, the overwhelming majority of agricultural products are sold to large regional or national markets. The maximum profit depends on:
1. Types of crops and seasons
2.Livestock species, breeding place, breeding method
3. Inputs, such as fertilizers, pesticides, agricultural machinery, fuel, etc.
4. Production scale and mechanization scale
5. Hiring agricultural workers and workers’ treatment
6. Product sales time and use of futures contracts
7. Whether to sign a contract directly with the processor
Case logic deduction
These issues are entangled with each other-one decision may directly lead to other parties taking specific decisions. As an example, suppose there is a farmer in the United States “cornbelt” area. Generally, the farmer in the area chooses to grow corn and soybeans, so he makes the same decision. Infrastructure to handle these crops is also in place-including upstream inputs, market arrangements, storage, transportation, etc. In this case, you might think that the farmer’s decision is reasonable in every way. In fact, from the perspective of the economic system, the farmer’s decision is indeed formally reasonable. However, the decisive question is: Are the results of these decisions reasonable in a wider perspective, environmental or social? Let’s take a closer look.
Choosing to grow only one or two crops means that crop rotations that are better for the ecology cannot be adopted. However, the lack of diversity in crops and the lack of livestock on farms make sense, as farmers have more free time to focus on other business developments. The lack of perennial plants for rotation means that the land is more easily eroded due to bareness, and the surface water is more likely to be polluted. At the same time, it will cause problems such as weeds, pests, and diseases, and therefore requires inputs such as pesticides. Too much dependence on both crops also means that if the prices of both crops fall close to or even below the cost of planting-as happened in early autumn 2014-the farm will face economic difficulties. When prices fall or crops fail, government subsidies and insurance can reduce losses, but most of the insurance programs are used by large farms and insurance companies. In summary, the farm only produces two crops and does not spread the risk on a larger scale, which leads to an unreasonable aspect of the agricultural production-the economic risk of the farm. The political power of the agricultural lobbying group partially addresses this issue. The group includes farmers, upstream industries, processors, lenders, and in this case insurance companies.
Planting just one or two crops will also leave the land idle for more than half a year. Under natural conditions, the land will not be exposed for too long, and the trees will fall after autumn. Some perennial plants can overwinter, and the withered plants and their root systems can also protect the soil from erosion. If crops are used for making feed, the problem of exposed soil is even more serious because the crops are harvested more “cleanly”. Attention to cover crops can help solve this problem.
The area planted with corn and soybeans depends on the relative profit potential of corn and soybeans-this can change from year to year, even within a year. Because these crops have low profit per acre, farmers need more land in order to get enough profit. As the farm gets bigger, it becomes more and more difficult for the farmer to really understand his land. As the old saying goes, “The peasant’s footprint is the best fertilizer.” As a result of the growing farm area, the land has never experienced the peasant’s footprint again.
A bigger farm means more machinery. The main effect of mechanization is to increase labor efficiency, requiring less labor per unit area and unit output. However, mechanization does not necessarily lead to an increase in output per unit area (in fact, the higher the degree of mechanization, the lower the yield). Increasingly large agricultural equipment allows farmers to work in too wet seasons (which was not appropriate in the past), which easily leads to soil compaction.
Specialized cultivation of corn and soybeans requires more fertilizer than farms with more complex rotations, or integrated farms with both farming and animal husbandry. In addition, the minerals in chemical fertilizers are more likely to penetrate the surface and surface water, causing pollution. Cities therefore need huge investments to avoid harm.
As the size of the farm becomes larger, the system’s streamlined measures are gaining favor from farmers, which allows them to cultivate a larger area. Therefore, genetically modified seeds are widely used, and their main advantage is to simplify the labor required in the field. However, correspondingly, resistance to weeds and pests has also increased, so farmers can only continue to choose seeds produced by large companies on the one hand, and have to use more herbicides and pesticides on the other.
Portable electronic information collection devices have been promoted in the past decade, which can help farmers understand the land to facilitate land preparation, planting, and harvesting. These devices are valuable and are mainly used on very large farms, which also helps to expand the size of the farm. Specialized equipment-basically automated-is only suitable for individual types of crops (resulting in larger farms and more uniform crop types). Purchasing these equipment makes it easier to operate large-scale farms, limiting farmers to a simple system of only one or two crops that are “easy to grow”, “easy to harvest”, and “easy to sell”. And large companies such as Monsanto, which control crop varieties, have used agricultural information to control raw materials, processing, and storage. This gave Monsanto greater control over agricultural production.
Other systemic irrationality of agriculture under the capitalist system
The discussion above began with the decision to grow a single species of crop, which is quite common in the Midwestern United States. Only corn and soybeans are planted and sold to the ordinary commodity market (not the niche market). All subsequent decisions are based on this premise, coupled with the incentives and demand factors of capitalist market relations. ; Government subsidies have promoted this market relationship. Almost all large farms-they provide the vast majority of the country’s food-specialize in growing several crops or raising one type of livestock. But overall, the variety of crops and livestock is very rich. Farms tend to specialize because they can more easily standardize and adjust their production systems.
In the foregoing, we have specifically derived the series of decisions that farmers will take under the corn-soybean system in the Midwest. Below we take a look at other unreasonable aspects of American agriculture:
Hunger in the harvest
There are still a large number of hungry people, but the amount of food produced is sufficient and was wasted in various ways. If capitalist agricultural production is to feed the people, America should not have hunger. However, 40 million people in the United States now face a food crisis. Even in countries like India, food is still exported, despite the fact that many people are starving. As the Wall Street Journal reported in its 2014 headline, “The Indian Paradox: A Bigger Harvest and More Hunger” said. Hunger and undernourished people exist in most countries around the world. There is no “right to eat” here, although it is as necessary for everyone as clean air and drinking water. Of course, it is a commodity society now. If you don’t have enough money to buy it, you can only seek shelter from charitable organizations or government projects.
Another unreasonable aspect of the food system is food waste-it is estimated to account for about one-third of US food production. One of the “better” parts is the food that is thrown away in everyday life and eventually landfills. But a large part of the waste is because the farmers have excess food that they can’t sell, or the food they produce does not meet the retailer’s requirements. According to a 2012 report from the Natural Resources Conservation Commission, “The owner of a large cucumber farm estimates that less than half of the cucumbers he produces will eventually be shipped out (to the market), and 75% of the cucumbers eliminated before sale It is actually edible. “In addition, there is such waste in the process of processing and selling. Some waste is inevitable, but most of the US food waste is caused by the irrational part of the system.
Farms in some countries not only in the United States, but also in South America continue to expand, and many people’s land has been requisitioned and became landless. In addition to the land-losing groups caused by land acquisition, many people give up farmland because they cannot compete with low-priced imported food. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was fully implemented, many farms in Mexico had to abandon corn production. Caribbean farmers are under tremendous pressure due to the mandatory “structural adjustment” of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in which food protection tariffs have been reduced or even cancelled. Due to the increase in the mechanization of large farms, grain production has also increased, and the survival of billions of farmers in underdeveloped areas has been squeezed. There are not enough jobs available for these farmers who have been displaced to urban slums because of their homelessness, so they can only enter the “gray economic zone”. Therefore, the development of large farms has brought about displacement and more food crises.
Impaired nutrient cycling
The expansion of cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries separated people from the land that provided them with food. In the mid-to-late 20th century, factory-style livestock production separated livestock from land. Therefore, the farms that produce food and feed need to import a large amount of chemical fertilizers. At the same time, the accumulation of huge amounts of nutrients in urban and industrial farms will cause pollution problems. Reliance on chemical fertilizers has also led to reduced energy consumption, mining pollution and reduced soil fertility. In a reasonable society in the future, we must ensure that most of the energy flowing from the farm to the city flows back to the farm. Such farms-although not “reasonable” under the logic of capitalist maximizing profits-can achieve an ecological cycle.
Treat animals inhumanely
The environment for raising animals on large industrial farms is inhumane. Tens of thousands of broilers were kept together in a workshop and fed feed that allowed them to gain weight quickly. As a result, sitting alone and eating silly, they have no vitality. In addition, there are problems such as garbage. The extreme shortening of growth time for profit has created a large group of unfortunate creatures. This problem is not limited to poultry, but also livestock such as pigs and beef cattle.
Farms need to hire workers to spray pesticides and harvest crops, especially fruits and vegetables, which are difficult to mechanize, and they tend to be underpaid. Their wages are pitifully low and living conditions-if provided-are not up to the mark. The implementation of national laws on the treatment of farmworkers is not in place and is always ignored. Workers are in submissive status and rarely complain, and many of them are not registered. Animal protection organizations noting that animals are treated non-humanly also pay little attention to their situation.
In addition, there are problems such as lack of biodiversity, large consumption of fossil energy, and excessive proportion of cash crops.
Another interesting phenomenon is that the impact of fluctuations in agricultural product prices on production is not the same as in other industries. More production occurs when prices are higher, and less production occurs when prices are lower. When prices fall, farmers need to maximize production to reduce the cost per unit of production. Because farmers ’fixed costs are relatively high compared to other industries, they must increase production as much as possible to reduce losses when agricultural prices are low. However, a rise in production will lead to further declines in prices over the long term.