Our Planet Pays the High Cost for Cheap Food

Over the last several weeks I’ve written a few short essays regarding the high cost of cheap food. First to our farmers, who grow it. Then to our rural communities, which are affected by the struggling farmers. But what about on a larger scale? What is the high cost of cheap food to our environment and to our planet?

This is a more complicated cost to calculate because there’s no specific monetary value to track or obvious disruption to our quality of life—unless your livelihood is directly affected by drift destroying your crop or your fishing business has been impacted by the ever-expanding dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico (now nearly the size of New Jersey) and places like it. But really, we are all impacted on a regular basis since a portion of the taxes withdrawn from our paychecks are used to help pay for the cleanup of these kinds of contaminated areas throughout the country.

We are told that agricultural chemicals are used to protect and promote the efficient and abundant production of our crops in America. They are widely used and we are told they are essential to keep our farmers in business and to keep us from starving. Both of those statements are lies. Organic trials throughout the county have demonstrated for years now that well-established organic farms see little reduction in yields, compared to county averages. While conventional farmers are going broke left and right as they struggle to pay for the expensive chemical inputs they’re told are necessary. But the way I see it, there are two big problems with the use of agricultural chemicals on our farms:

  1. First, most of the chemicals applied are not completely used up by their intended targets: the plants. Chemical fertilizers, for example, are applied at much greater rates than the plants can use. And the excess has to go somewhere! What’s left disrupts the life of the soil. If the chemical is soluble, it seeps into the ground water, affecting our water quality.
  2. And second, these chemicals—the pesticides and herbicides and insecticides and fungicides—are poisons! They not only effect their target but all other living things they come into contact with in different ways. And they are building up, more and more, in our environment and now in our bodies as their use increases.

Companies, like Monsanto, insisted for years that glyphosate, the active ingredient in RoundUp, was safe for humans and would break down quick in the sunlight and soil. Except now we’re finding glyphosate in our rainwater! And while it seems to have little effect on human cells, it has great effect on the billions of bacteria in our gut. And these bacteria outnumber our human cells, they help keep us healthy if they’re protected from harmful chemical poisons.

Chemicals and their negative effects on the land are even instigating violence! The environmental costs are adding up as we continue to pursue and support our “cheap” food. Is it worth it when so much is at stake? Especially when there are healthier, sustainable alternatives? How much are we willing to pay for our cheap food? And for how much longer can we afford to pay it?

Rural Communities Pay the High Cost for Cheap Food

rural railway in northern montana

A few weeks ago I started this series of short essays based on some of the themes from my Grain by Grain book (set to be released on March 5, 2019) on the high cost of cheap food. Today I want to focus on the high cost to our rural communities. This particular high cost comes in three main forms:

  1. The loss of farmers, and their families, to the community;
  2. The resulting loss of small businesses in the community;
  3. And the forever-changing patterns of buying, which is further compounding the problem.

In my first essay, I discussed the commodity mentality that farmers have been hoodwinked into accepting as normal. As grain farmers, we no longer grow food, but commodities. It’s a high-input game and the prize is the highest possible yield without much focus on net income. When commodity prices are high, this system can work. But a drop in commodity prices—like we have seen recently—spells disaster, particularly for the farmers. As a result over the years, farmers have gone broke or just given up and left their farms and communities with little-to-no opportunity for their children to return to take over the family farm. The cost of land and machinery impedes new families from moving in, so the net result is neighbors buy up the land and the rural population declines as farms get bigger and farmers become fewer.

But the loss extends beyond just the farmer: the community also loses the farmer’s family, decreasing vital human talent and resources. This is the glue that holds a community together, adding to its diversity and vitality. What’s more, fewer children attending rural schools reduces the viability of the local education system and schools begin to close, further eliminating teaching and staff jobs and putting even more strain on local businesses struggling to support their own families.

In my lifetime, I have watched this downward spiral in my own hometown of Big Sandy, Montana, which had a population of nearly 1,000 when I was growing up. Today, we have less than 600—that’s almost half of my friends and neighbors gone! And with the drastic reduction in population, local businesses have experienced similar losses. When I was a boy Big Sandy had a car dealership, two hardware stores, a couple of second-hand stores, a jeweler, a dry cleaner, a lumberyard and farm supply store and even a movie theater, all of which are completely gone without the residents to support them.

With the decrease of local commerce, buying habits have changed. Big box discount stores are drawing customers away from their small towns. Recent studies show that 48% of the revenue taken in by local stores stays right there in the community, adding to the local economy and supporting the families of our friends and neighbors. While the local contribution from chain stores is at a floundering 14% and that’s only if the store is in your community, if it isn’t then your community sees almost nothing. And buying habits are changing again—more and more folks are shopping online from large corporations that are often not even in the same state or region, let alone your local community. These types of businesses, whether they’re brick-and-mortar or online, suck money out of their local communities and give nothing in return other than cheap goods. But those cheap goods are coming at a very high cost to the local social and economic fabric.

The driver is all of these social and economic losses to small, rural communities is the quest for cheap food and cheap goods without regard of the cost to those that make them, not to mention the loss of friends and neighbors unable to support their families which results in fewer jobs and smaller communities. It’s really too bad the true price of these cheap goods isn’t listed on the price tag. If it were maybe we would think twice about who and what we really want to support with our purchases. It begs the question:

“How much is our community—our friends and our neighbors—worth to us?”

The answer to that question might make us see the true high cost of cheap and change some of our buying habits.

The Spirit of the Law Giveth Life*: Organic is More Than a Checklist

organic hay bales with bears paw mountains in the background

The organic movement has seen a huge boost in popularity over the last few decades. And that’s a good thing! That means more folks, more families, are choosing to grow, buy and eat more healthy, organic foods every year. And while I, of course, welcome anyone who wants to convert to organic systems, it worries me that some farms and large corporations are jumping on the organic bandwagon focused only on transferring their current industrial model to their organic operations just to cash in on a lucrative new market instead of studying and applying the non-extractive, regenerative, holistic approach—the bigger pictures, spirit of the organic movement.

For those of us who fought so hard all those years ago for unified, organic standards, I believe most of us had that vision of the bigger picture and focused on that rather than just following the letter of the law. We saw more than higher profit margins and a better bottom line. We saw farmers free of devastating financial circumstances brought on by the high cost of inputs and the low prices they received. We saw rural communities bolstered and restored by more prosperous farms and better-paid workers in the food sector. We saw the decline of pollution and soil erosion brought on by artificial mono-cultures, propped up with enormous inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And we saw better health for our families, our friends and our neighbors. Regenerative, organic agriculture, sustainable organic processing and trade are so much more than a burgeoning industry!

As a regenerative, organic farmer, I often see things first from a farmer’s perspective. And from that perspective, I have seen the growing hype over the word “regenerative.” Some in this group focus so hard on things like no-till as their rallying cry, that they believe using just a little herbicide, like RoundUp (glyphosate) is okay. And on the other hand, there are organic farmers and livestock producers that follow the organic standards to the letter while using an industrial model of inputs to feed the plants, neglecting the vital soil building elements and systems that keep both the soil and animals healthy. To me, organic that is not regenerative, and regenerative that is not organic, are both missing the spirit of what was originally intended. In a very true sense, one is not complete without the other.

I have a similar concern regarding the businesses that meet every standard, every qualification and rule it took us years to put into place—standards intended to both simplify and unify a then-splintered pro-organic community—but are still missing the spirit of the law. The big picture. For companies focused solely on their bottom line and filling their coffers, using the same industrial extractive model that is strangling our current food industry with its continual sellouts and concentration on wealth and power. And even worse, some of these larger newcomers are putting pressure on the USDA, lobbying to make the organic program more industrial by ignoring key guidelines, like the pasture rule—a rule that was carefully crafted and debated for years. What I would hope is for more of these companies to abandon their extractive, industrial model and focus on things such as the triple bottom line, which contributes to its communities by paying fair wages to its workers and to the farmers for their products, and to caring for the earth by reducing pollution. But the greatest contribution of a truly organic, regenerative system is the improvement of our health! Nutritious, health-promoting food has the ability to change the world for the better. That is the spirit of organic and why I have been a proponent for more than three decades.

In my upcoming book, Grain by Grain (to be released March 5th), I explore these issues and many others in greater detail, focusing on the true value of regenerative organic products. It’s not just all about meeting a list of guidelines. For me, organic is more than an industry or a bottom line, it’s a conversion of outlook. It’s a love for the earth, which we can demonstrate by caring for it. It’s a love for our neighbors, shown by producing healthy, nutritious food. It’s a love for our communities, by recognizing and appreciating the hard work of farmers and all the people working in the food sector by ensuring all receive fair wages to support and raise their families. It’s about human health, community health, and the health of our planet.

*2 Corinthians 3:6

Farmers Pay the High Cost for Cheap Food

northern montana farm

As I’ve mentioned many times: there is a very high cost for cheap food. In my last blog, I touched on this subject with an overview of each of the four entities that bear most of the financial burden of cheap food. But let’s talk about where it all starts—let’s talk about the farmers themselves.

Farming has always been a high-risk business, after all it’s literally at the mercy of mother nature! But there’s also the viability of the market and market prices, the availability of credit for capital purchases, access to land in general, and even the higher possibility for injury. Even death. As I said, high risk. So with all these risks, you might ask why anyone would even consider being a farmer. The answer is simple: Because we love it. But during the last 60 years or so, a new risk has been added to this already daunting list: The risk of adopting the current industrial model of agriculture which is determined to produce abundant, cheap food.

The industrial model was born with the general introduction of chemical fertilizers and pesticides after World War II. As the need for the military industrial complex diminished, the agrichemical industrial complex began to takes its place. After seeing the devastation in Europe, our government was more determined than ever to see that we had a cheap and plentiful food supply, starting with grain. Everything was focused on yields and an industrial model was adopted to achieve this goal. With increased yields, we were not only able to feed ourselves but we could sell the excess abroad, bringing in money that tipped the balance of trade in our favor for decades.

The wheat farmers of the dryland West adopted these new technologies almost immediately. And why wouldn’t they? Weeds had been increasing year after year due to a lack of crop rotations. And weeds are a pain! They reduce crop yields, plug combines at harvest, and brought so much moisture into the bins that there was a constant risk of mold. But with the application of 2,4-D, weeds disappeared. If your paycheck was being threatened and someone handed you a magic potion to fix it, you’d have done it too. It was a no-brainer and it was adopted by almost everyone in the wheat belt overnight.

By the late 1940’s, the land in our neighborhood here in northern Montana had been farmed for more than 20 years without putting anything back. The soil was starting to run out of nutrients and yields were stagnating. Slowly at first, but at an increasing rate, the application of chemical fertilizers increased yields significantly, especially when combined with higher-yielding varieties bred to respond to higher inputs. The goals for cheap, plentiful food had been achieved. Unfortunately, this industrialized model, like all artificial systems, was neither sustainable nor regenerative.

As higher yielding plants demanded ever-increasing doses of chemical fertilizers, costs for the farmer and the soil went up. After many years, alkaline soils common to the arid west started to turn acidic, which stunted plant growth and stimulated the release of deadly heavy metals like aluminum. But instead of reconsidering the wisdom of the industrial model, those pushing it advocated to apply more chemicals to the soil, such as lime, to reduce acidity and bred wheat that will not absorb the aluminum.

Naturally, chemical fertilizers stimulated more than the crops and the growth of weeds required more herbicides to control them. As herbicide use increased, so did weed resistance, which required more and stronger herbicides. See a pattern here? Herbicides now contaminate the soil, our waterways, and even our rainwater.

And these inputs, the chemical fertilizers and herbicides, are not free. In fact, they are unbelievably expensive! So how do farmers pay for all these inputs? For decades, the ag-chemical companies made sure federal subsidies were the answer. In the mid-80’s, before I switched to regenerative organic farming, my chemical bills ranged from 24 to 26 thousand dollars! My government subsidies very nearly came to the same amount. Meaning that I, as the farmer, was the middle-man in a transfer of federal funds from the government treasury to the chemical companies without any discussion or complaint.

Each year, farmers are required to pay for more and more inputs. Many crops now being grown are GMO crops and the GMO’s are owned by the companies that created them. These companies sell their genetically modified seed to farmers at exorbitantly high prices each year and even restrict farmers from saving seed to use the next year. To add insult to injury, and to entrap the farmers even more into the industrial model where they have less and less control, farmers are also required to buy the chemicals required to protect these GMO crops from weeds.

Does that sound fair or reasonable to you? So why are there still so many farmers participating in the growing industrialization of agriculture? Farmers are assured that by buying all of these expensive inputs, they will see higher yields and more gross revenue. What they fail to mention is the farmer’s net profit. As the cost of inputs continues to rise, the net profit continues to decline, until many farmers can no longer make a living.

When prices drop due to overproduction, according to market demand, the goal of cheap, abundant food is reached, but farmers are paying a very high price for cheap food.

Looking Back and Moving Forward—A New Year’s Reflection

sunrise between trees

New Year’s Day is one of my favorite days of the year! It’s the perfect time to reflect back on the previous year and makes plans for the next. I have finished the last entry of my daily journal for 2018 with a quarterly review of my goals for last year and I have begun the first entry of my 2019 journal with a list of goals to focus on in 2019. This also includes a review of the goals I have set for the next 40 years—I don’t have anything planned past my 110th birthday; I figure if I make it that far I’m going to take it easy for a while. I have always been in the habit of making more long-term plans but for the last couple of decades I have made it an annual ritual to review my written list on New Year’s Day. Some items are accomplished and get scratched off the list, some are abandoned and get dropped, and a few new ideas get added as the years roll by. It is a lot of fun for me.

Reflecting back on the first year of my three-year retirement plan, I am very satisfied with my progress. In 2018 I completed four of my five main goals:

We didn’t get the grant necessary to establish an organic research institute here in Big Sandy using part of our farm. But I’ve been working on some alternative ideas that may still make this possible. (More on that as it develops.) And there are always unexpected hiccups and challenges as a year progresses. We were very sad to see my son-in-law, Andrew, leave The Oil Barn® to work in Great Falls and we sure miss having the grandkids running around the farm every day. We are also still working to understand and resolve the occasional problem we have observed of trace amounts of glyphosate on some organic fields and crops. In addition to my belief that organic farming is the solution to global climate change and growing health crises and should be protected, I always want to understand as much as possible about the world around me and will continue to investigate and collect data on this.

Looking forward to this new year, I will be on the road. A lot. Between book tours around the country and the usual trade shows and organic conferences, 2019 promises to be a very busy year. I hope you’ll be able to attend one of my book tour events; be sure to keep an eye out on my Facebook events calendar for more details on the when and where. But I’m determined to stay home all month in August where I plan to work in my garden and harvest as much food as I can and hopefully start building a subterranean greenhouse. (Stay tuned for more on that later.)

I wish you a very happy, healthy and successful New Year! Be well, eat healthy, and be thankful.

Your friend,
Bob