Thursday, 11 October 2012

Why commodity farming doesnt really feed people.

I'm going to say something that will draw fire from the Internet. In fact I am going to say 3 things;

The drive behind the mainstream industrial farming model is not to grow food.

Farmers in the mainstream industrial farming model are unable to make a living from farming alone.

Neither of these facts are the fault of the farmers themselves.

Whoever thinks that any kind of comfortable living can be made from modern, industrial farming alone is either hopelessly naive, recklessly arrogant or was transported here through time from before the 1940's. There is no way, no frigging way that you can support yourself and a family from industrial farming alone. It cannot be done, and I'll tell you why.

Note: The image of huge golden fields of wheat and corn are what comes to most peoples minds when they think of industrial farming. For that reason, I am concentrating on grain farming but the broad arguments can be applied to all types of industrial model farming.

Modern industrial grain farming is bloody expensive. Year after year, farmers have to pay out ridiculous sums. To start off in the spring, their annual supply of seed (Thanks to gene patenting laws (You SUCK U.S. Supreme Court!) farmers are severely penalized if they save some of their harvest for seed when they buy from Monsanto and affiliates.  See?) and the supply of various chemicals that these seeds need to reach harvest, and the mountains of cash required to keep their machinery running, and the insurances involved in the business of farming, and then the costs of keeping a house and family goes on top of that.

Okay, every industry has its costs, but lets remind ourselves that industrial grain farming is a one or two paycheque a year deal. One harvest = One paycheque, okay? Lets skip straight to harvest then.

So all of the various costs are in on one side of the ledger, and the farmers have their crop yield figures and they go to find out the price. Who determines the price? The stock market does. Thats right, wheat, corn, soy, rice and plenty more are speculatively traded on the Grain Futures Market.

Okay then, the farmers get their gross income by multiplying their tonnage by the market price which is determined by the Stock Market, fairly simple. Then all of the years costs come out and the remainder is the farmers net operating income. Plenty, right?

I do have the working figures if anyone's interested but to make it simple, the projected income figures for 2012 are available from an Agriculture and Agri-foods Canada paper that was published in February 2012. According to them, the projected average net operating income for 2012 (ie how much is expected to be made from the farm alone), taking all of the farms across all of Canada is $63,555. (See Footnote at end for some clarification of figures and links) The projected average farm family's total net income for 2012 however is expected to be $123,498. $123,498 - $63,555 = $59,943. In other words, one adult has to take a job off-farm to ensure a certain level of income. And before you start looking at me askance, at harvest the farmer and his/her family have to put aside all of the monies they'll need to get the farm rolling again in Spring -for fairly obvious reasons- and that's not a handful of change. So in reality, the real disposable income for a farmer's family is far lower than the figures say. I'll also fill you in on the fact that net operating incomes in the recent past have swung by 30% from one year to the next based on numerous factors that farmers cannot control, up to and including decisions made by foreign politicians in back-room deals. Do things look a bit wrong to you yet?

There are so many 'reasons' why modern agriculture became the way it is. You could point the finger at a dozen without even trying, from post-war factories wanting to keep their profit margins healthy to corrupt politicians and interest groups to suits waving pieces of paper and screaming maniacally. But name-calling and revisionist history isn't going to solve the problem we face. Let me boil it down for you.

Farmers are not encouraged to grow food.

Farmers are encouraged to grow commodities.

Commodities make a few people very rich.

Food does not make anyone rich.

Our agricultural model is not based on growing food, it's based on making money. Plain and simple.

You could make the argument that these commodities are traded for food and other things and that makes it okay. Well, no I'm sorry, but it really doesn't. For one, the industrial farming model requires huge swathes of land to make it “efficient” (quotation marks are to prevent spit-takes and angry comments by engineers and other people whose job it is to take efficiency seriously). For the sake of space, I'm just going to mention my beefs with this first fact and move on;
  • Concentrating land in the hands of the very few and shoving everyone else out
  • Complete destruction of diversity for literally as far as the eye can see
It requires very large machinery and immense amounts of fuel to plant, maintain and harvest these horizons of land. Then there's the mind-blowing toxic soup of man-made chemicals required to keep a monoculture going, and all of the pollution by the machinery. Then at the end of the day, the person who depends on this model working the most, the farmer, can barely make ends meet and ends up sinking more into debt. Every. Single. Year. While a very small number of people who have nothing whatsoever to do with the actual work takes the real money and flips the bird at everyone else.

When you look at what human beings really need, we don't need money. Money is an interchangeable unit, a tool to get us what we really need; food, water, happiness. Instead of growing food, farmers are growing money. And that's not what we need, we need a farming model based on growing food.

Luckily for us, there is a way of transitioning to this. Because this model of food grown close by, services met within communities, sustainable, joyful living, is, essentially what Permaculture is all about. But that's a bit simplistic really, because in reality a couple of other things have to change too.

Back in the pre-modern farming days, there was such a thing as urban farming, though I doubt it was called that. Everyone had some kind of garden and grew what they could. Nowadays, people are putting a new twist on the concept of urban farming and now there are roof-top veggie gardens, waste-ground reclamation, school projects. There are so many videos about urban farming on the internet and quite a few success stories, if you need inspiration in your day, go look some up. Using Permaculture methods it is possible to supply most of a communities food needs by using the available space and resources in, around and over the community itself. Not by plane, by foot.

So what about the farmers then? There are lots of people without the time, space, or inclination to grow all of their own food directly, and this is where farmers markets and CSAs come in. From annual vegetables to perennial fruits and berries to meat and dairy to coppicing wood, to specialized skills and crafts. Growing food should be the main drive of farming and farmers need to be able to go back to their #1 priority being feeding their local communities, not making money for distant plutocrats.

I think this is enough of criticism. In the next blog we will tackle a more technical side of Permaculture again.

I would like to invite everybody to leave some comments about our farming and food model and maybe we can come up with some ideas together on how to make a change in our direct community. 

I'll leave you with a link for an article about Haitian farmers who have decided that they already know how to best get their food system back on its feet.

Footnote: This is an average figure so very few people are making this exact amount but unfortunately they do not give a standard deviation so I don't know how accurate this average is on a per-farm basis. For an example of how widely from average the incomes can swing, the across Canada average of net operating income alone in 2009 was $22,693. In New Brunswick the ave for the same year was $17,261 and in Manitoba and Saskatchewan it was $28,983 and $31,145 respectively (StatCan for all Ca figures and find provinces on side). The paper used to gather the income figures used above was also published in February 2012 and the 2012 numbers are a projection ( for the .pdfs available from Agriculture and Agri-food Canada). When more current numbers are available I will update this post. 

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