Stand with Standing Rock

A rational agriculture is incompatible with capitalism

Soy Brazil
Soy farm in Brazil. Photo: Yasuyoshi Chiba, AFP
Fred Magdoff, Monthly Review, Mar 1 2015 - 19:30

From humanitarian and ecological viewpoints, many aspects of the capitalist economic system are irrational; although they are certainly rational from the more limited standpoint of the individual business or capitalist seeking to make profits. For example, because most people lack their own means to produce an income, they must sell their labor power to companies, which in turn must normally pay a high enough wage for the reproduction of workers and their families. However, although requiring people to work in order to live, the economic system does not guarantee a job for everyone who wants and needs to work. Nor do the available jobs necessarily pay sufficient wages for a decent existence (although government regulations may in some cases compel employers to move in this direction). Practices that make eminent sense for the individual capitalist or company, such as paying only the minimum wage necessary in order to obtain sufficient workers with the needed skills, end up being a problem not only for workers, but the capitalist system itself. Low worker income contributes to problems of effective demand.

With regard to the environment there are scores of examples of irrational behavior by capitalist businesses that have the ultimate goal of making profits. Many practices and side effects of the way the system functions degrade the ecosystem and its processes on which we depend and may also directly harm humans. For example, it is not rational to introduce chemicals into the environment, including into products we use daily, that are either toxic or cause illnesses of various types. Yet there are over 80,000 chemicals used in the United States; few of them are tested for their effects on people or other species, and many commonly used ones are suspected to be carcinogens or have other detrimental effects.

For this discussion I would like to focus on a well-known passage from the third volume of Marx’s Capital: “a rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system (although the latter promotes technical improvements in agriculture), and needs either the hand of the small farmer living by his own labour or the control of associated producers.”

The U.S. food system can be thought of as being composed of a number of parts before the food reaches the public. “Farming” is the actual process of raising plants and animals for human food, animal feed, conversion to industrial chemicals and fuels for vehicles, and fiber (such as cotton). But there are “upstream” inputs required by farmers such as commercial fertilizers, pesticides, seeds, equipment, animal hormones, antibiotics, mineral feed supplements, fuel to run the equipment, and dry some crops. “Downstream” from the farm, its products are first purchased and then processed and manufactured by one or more corporations. Products are then transported from the processors and manufacturers to retail outlets for sale to the public. There are no cycles in this system as energy and nutrients flow from one location to another.

When viewed as a whole, the food system is composed of the following chain: (a) input industries; (b) farms; (c) purchasers of raw farm products; (d) processors/manufacturers; (e) retail stores; and (f) the public. The agricultural sector—“agribusiness”—is considered to be composed of (a) through (c), but basic processors (grinding, for example) are also part of the sector.

The Purposes and Outcomes of Agriculture

The main purpose of almost all farm production in the United States is to sell raw products at the highest possible profit. There are farmers producing for niche markets and/or “adding value” by processing at the farm (making such items as cheeses and jams) and selling directly to the public. However, the overwhelming quantity of food produced is by farmers selling undifferentiated commodities into a large regional or national market. This goal to maximize profit margins (selling price minus cost of production) governs:

  • What crops are planted in a given year and over time (type of rotation).
  • Which farm animals are raised, if any, where they are raised, and how they are treated.
  • The inputs used such as fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, and needed fuels.
  • The scale of production and mechanization.
  • The extent of hired farm labor and treatment of laborers.
  • When products are sold and use of futures contracts.
  • Whether direct production contracts with processors are entered into.

A “Logical” Progression

These questions are intertwined—one decision may directly lead to particular decisions on other aspects. As an example, let us look at a farmer in the U.S. Cornbelt region (the Cornbelt is centered in Iowa and Illinois, but includes large areas of Minnesota, eastern Nebraska, Missouri, western Indiana and parts of western Ohio, and the eastern Dakotas). The farmer decides to grow corn and soybeans, as many Cornbelt farmers do (often exclusively so). The infrastructure needed to deal with these crops is in place—suppliers of needed inputs, market arrangements, storage, and transportation of the crops to markets. As we go through the example you might say to yourself that the aspects discussed appear to be absolutely rational decisions. And they actually are formally rational, given the economic system in which the farmer operates. But the critical question is: are the results of such a progression of decisions and practices substantively rational from wider environmental or social points of view? Let us take a look.

The first decision to concentrate on one or two crops automatically means that a more ecologically sound and complex rotation of crops is not possible. A lack of farm diversification (and no farm animals) makes sense because farmers can then spend their time specializing as is done in other lines of business. A typical conventional farmer in the Cornbelt primarily grows corn and soybeans. The lack of rotation with a perennial sod-type crop (such as grass and legume hay that covers the entire soil surface all year long and helps build up organic matter) means that the soil is eroded more easily and groundwater is more polluted. Lack of a more complex rotation also makes weeds, insects, and diseases more problematic, requiring interventions, normally with pesticides. The reliance on two crops also means that if the prices for both crops decline to near or below the costs of production—as happened for corn and soybeans in the early fall of 2014—there is potential economic hardship for the farm. Government subsidies, including the federally subsidized income insurance program (with benefits overwhelmingly to the largest farms and the insurance industry), cushion the situation when revenue falls, such as when prices turn or a crop failure occurs. Thus one of the economic aspects of the irrationality of the system resulting from specializing on two crops and not spreading risk over a larger number of crops is partly remedied as a result of the political power of an agricultural lobby that includes farmers, input industries, processors, lenders, and, in this case, the insurance industry.

Planting corn after corn, or alternating between corn and soy, leaves the soil without living vegetation for more than half of the year. Although in undisturbed natural systems annuals die in the fall and deciduous trees lose their leaves, perennials live through the winter months. And in grasslands where the plants are dormant in the winter, they are active longer into fall and earlier the following spring than with annual crops such as corn and soy, and the soil surface is covered with their residue. In addition, the roots of living plants, even when dormant, reduce erosion by helping to hold soil in place. The problem of bare soil in the off-season is especially severe when the whole corn plant is harvested to make silage—usually to feed dairy or beef cows. When grown only for its grain, a lot of corn residue is left on the surface. While that is not the same as having a living crop in place, it is a lot better than a nearly bare soil surface. On the other hand, there is much less crop residue following soybeans than after corn. Planting cover crops to protect soil and groundwater over the late fall, winter, and early spring is becoming a more common practice. Routine use of cover crops helps to overcome this particular problem within a conventional agricultural system that exclusively raises annual crops.

Deciding how many acres of corn and soybeans to plant depends on the relative potential of profits of corn vs. soybeans—something that changes from year to year, and even shifts during the year. The projected prices that farmers will receive for corn vs. soybeans are important (and can be locked in if the farmer enters into a sales contract before the season begins). But also important are the relative costs of growing the two crops—with corn costing more, especially because of the needed nitrogen fertilizer and costs of drying harvested grain before sales.

Because per acre profits are low for these crops, more land is needed to produce sufficient total farm profits to maintain a family at current economic standards. For example, suppose the profit on raising corn or soybeans is around $200 per acre. Therefore a farm with one hundred acres of cropland with all of its fields planted to these crops will have a profit of $20,000. That is not very much money after working so hard for a full year. The result is that, unless you get an off-farm job to supplement income and provide benefits (and many farmers do this), you need to purchase or rent more land. And as the farm becomes larger it makes it more difficult for farmers to really know their land. As the old saying goes, “The farmer’s footprint is the best fertilizer.” The result of larger and larger farms is that most of the land on these operations never experiences the farmer’s footprint.

A larger farm means that bigger machinery is needed in order to cover the extensive area. The main effect of mechanization is to increase the efficiency of labor, resulting in less labor used per acre and per unit of crop produced (i.e., per bushel, pound, or kilogram). However, mechanization does not necessarily result in higher yields per acre, unless it allows a farmer to work in a more timely manner. This heavier and more costly equipment has a potential downside. Larger equipment allows farmers to work on their land when it is too wet, leading to compaction, as damage to soil structure occurs more easily with a wetter soil. Although smaller equipment can also cause compaction, it is easier to work soils at inappropriate times with large tractors, which have more power than smaller ones.

Specialization in corn and soybeans leads to more pesticide use. Both corn and soybeans are annual crops, thus weeds that do well under such conditions (without perennial crops in the rotation) proliferate. In general, these types of weeds are able to grow quickly along with the crop and to complete their life cycle before the crop is harvested, providing lots of seeds for the following year. In addition, insects and disease problems proliferate by growing such large areas of predominantly two crops. Soybean cyst nematode that infests soybean roots and causes significant reductions in yields can be controlled by a rotation for two years into crops that are non-hosts such as corn or wheat. While one year of corn between soybean crops will help, yield reductions of soybeans will still occur in infested fields.

Reliance on pesticides for control of weeds, insects, nematodes, and diseases has led to what is known as a “pesticide treadmill.” Once you are on the treadmill, it is very hard to get off, because “pests” develop resistance to the pesticides used to control them. This means farmers must switch to pesticides that have different modes of action, and sometimes have to use multiple pesticides for a problem that was once taken care of by a single pesticide.

There is a vast body of literature on the toxicity of pesticides to humans and other “non-target” species. Pesticides routinely contaminate farm workers and those that live near farms, many vegetables and fruits, and water supplies. For example, the herbicide atrazine has been found to damage humans and other organisms, but nonetheless is still in widespread use and can be found in a large percentage of drinking water samples from agricultural areas. Many other pesticides are also commonly found in foods, as well as water supplies.

Specialization in corn and soybeans leads to more fertilizer use than would be needed in a more complex rotation or on integrated farms raising both animals and crops. Although I will discuss this issue in more detail below, the small amount of actual nutrient cycling that occurs on these farms (when crop residue returns to the soil and decomposes), necessitates the annual input of significant quantities of fertilizers. These types of farms export all of the crop—the corn grain and soybeans—to locations far away to be used as animal feed, processing for food products (cereal, vegetable oil), food additives, or for ethanol for fueling cars. But the nutrients contained in the products exported off the farm all came from the soil and must be replaced with fertilizers.

The two crop, corn-soybean system is particularly “leaky,” with elevated levels of nitrates routinely reaching ground and surface waters. To get the highest yield from corn—which has an incredible two-month growth spurt as it increases in height and puts on more leaves and then switches from the vegetative state (growing more leaves and getting taller) to the reproductive stage (as the grain fills)—it needs to take up and assimilate nitrogen faster than can be supplied except by the most fertile soils or when corn follows a multi-year productive legume crop such as alfalfa. This makes it necessary to apply a high rate of nitrogen fertilizer to be sure that sufficient nitrogen is available when the plant needs it. Fertilizer nitrogen applications are now better matched with crop needs, but elevated nitrate levels are almost always found in soils at harvest time. Nitrate pollution of water is common in regions where this system is used because nitrate (NO3–) is not well retained in soils—themselves negatively charged—and leaches easily into groundwater and tile drains, finding its way into ditches, streams, and rivers. With corn covering such a large portion of the land, high levels of nitrate pollution of ground water and drainage water occur. Elevated nitrate concentrations in drinking water forces some cities to use expensive procedures for reducing the concentrations to stay within the public health limit. Des Moines, Iowa, after spending close to $1 million last year to reduce nitrate levels in their drinking water taken from the Raccoon River, intends to sue three upriver counties that manage drainage districts. Nitrate from Midwestern cornfields is flushed down the Mississippi River, helping to create the large “dead zone” (actually a zone of very low oxygen levels) after the river empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

Because larger areas are being farmed, anything that simplifies the system is attractive to farmers and allows them to farm even larger areas. This is where genetically modified (GM) seeds come in. The major advantage of the GM seeds that have so far been sold to farmers from companies such as Monsanto and Syngenta is that, by simplifying what needs to be done in the field, it is much easier to farm larger areas. This has influenced the choice of seeds, with, for example, Monsanto’s GM seeds that contain herbicide resistance such as Roundup Ready corn, meaning fewer trips over the field and the use of a single herbicide until, of course, weeds develop resistance to the herbicide used. Farmers now must use additional herbicides and higher application rates in order to control weeds that have become resistant to Roundup.

A new dimension has been added over the last decade with on-the-go electronic information gathering as farmers go over land for field preparation, planting, and harvesting. These costly additions to field equipment mean that the full suite of gadgets is primarily of use to very large farms. As a large-scale (20,000 acre) Iowa farmer put it, previously “a [Cornbelt] farmer with 1,000 acres could make a good living…. I’m not sure that’s going to last.” The specialized equipment—that is almost completely automated and is able to collect information on yields, grain moisture content, and soil, to plow to within an inch of a desired row, steer itself, etc.—is only available for certain crops. Purchasing such equipment makes it easier to farm huge areas, locking farmers even more tightly into the “easy-to-grow,” “easy-to-harvest,” and “easy-to-sell” simplified system with two crops. And the company that controls so many crop varieties, Monsanto, has bought up companies that have gotten it into providing, processing and storing agricultural information for individual fields and farms. This has given Monsanto even more sway over agricultural production.