Let’s Make Parity Our National Policy

This speech by George Naylor was written as the keynote address to precede the panel, Farmers Leading the Food Movement, for the Food Tank Summit, Washington, D.C., April 21, 2016.

It’s an honor and privilege to speak here at the Food Tank summit.  I’ve been a farmer and farm activist for 40 years raising only non-GMO corn and soybeans on my family farm near Churdan, Iowa.  Now I’m transitioning half of my home farm to organic and starting an organic cider orchard with the help of my partner, Patti Edwardson, who also sells fruits and vegetables at the Greene County farmers market.  I’m not a prolific writer or speaker, but I try to be the proverbial Jack of all trades, so I would suggest you read my chapter in a book called Food Movements Unite! published by Food First, and of course the sections in which I’m featured in the seminal book, the Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen.  Also, look for the article I wrote on Huffington Post as a rebuttal to Jonathan Foley’s National Geographic article “A Five-Step Plan to Feed the World.”

I’ve known so many wonderful people trying to rectify our food and agriculture systems through the years so that the words, healthy food, family farmer, and conservation actually meant something concrete.  I’ve been thrilled so many times by the leadership of modern farmers who, like their ancestors, were trying to change policy or figure out a new market to stay in business.

On the other hand, there have been many theories claiming to represent real change in our food and agriculture systems for the better, but in fact were not.  These theories may have seemed logical, but in fact supported the status quo where all questions were boiled down to what was best for individuals, sometimes including corporations.  Of course, by an error of logic, the proposals were going to be good for us all, especially providing cheap food for poor people, and researchers had the science to back them up.  So I’ve learned in my 40 years of farming and farm activism that we need everybody and their ideas and actions to be part of the puzzle.  But most importantly we need to be part of the SAME puzzle—the puzzle for democratic, egalitarian social change that respects our ecological limits, rather than the puzzle that intentionally or unintentionally supports the status quo that only creates more and more problems for our democracy, our health, our society, and our environment. This will not only require a political revolution, but a revolution in how we think and how we unconsciously support the status quo.

When I had the privilege of representing the National Family Farm Coalition at meetings or trade agreement protests of the international movement of peasants, farmers, farm workers and fishers, called La Via Campesina, I would jokingly say that I came from the future.  I would describe the situation in my community of almost no remaining farmers , rural communities that have become rundown rural ghettos, the loss of biodiversity and soil erosion and water pollution—a virtual Silent Spring. Farmers in other countries were being told by their governments and scientists that the reason they could not make a living on their farms was because they farmed too few acres or hectares or fed too few head of livestock.  They were being told that they needed to get bigger, go in debt to buy the latest chemicals and seeds and machinery, invest in new export crops, and rent or buy more land or get out and move to the city.

Being from the future, I could tell them with confidence that that prescription to their economic woes was exactly what led to the agriculture and rural communities back in the U.S. that I had just described.  That prescription has failed miserably and is failing again in 2016.  Back home in Iowa, most remaining farmers farm thousands of acres, and yet some have already been told by their bankers that there will be no new loans to put in the next crop. Based on what I witnessed in the 1980’s,  I can say with confidence that next farm foreclosure crisis is just beginning.

The typical farmer owns probably only 10% of the land they farm, the rest is cash rented where landlords often take the highest bid from the biggest, most industrialized farmer.  Farmers through the years have invested in bigger and bigger livestock facilities.  A neighbor used to point to his empty silo and say it was his “Monument to Stupidity” just one of many farmer investments that became obsolete much faster than they expected.   Now, almost all the pigs and chickens and even market cattle are owned by corporations and fed in giant feedlots and Confined Animal Feeding Operations or CAFO’s as defined by the Clean Water Act.  The millions of gallons of manure along with the fencerow-to-fencerow farming of corn and soybeans mean Iowa’s lakes and waterways become more polluted every year.  Getting bigger, no matter how small a farmer you are or how big you are already clearly is no answer to a farmer’s problems.

When a big farmer is going broke, I often hear the sentiment, “Well do you really feel sorry for them?  They brought it on themselves.”  My answer to that is, “Well, we should all feel sorry for ourselves for losing one of our most precious institutions, the family farm.”  Farm depressions do not reverse farm consolidation; the land will continue to be farmed, but by some other farmer who pushes the pencil to pursue the inevitable answer of “getting bigger.”  In some cases, corporations are already doing the farming, and we are headed to a time of “farming without farmers,” where the bottom line drives every decision.

So today, I take my hat off to all the farmers we still have, small or large, produce or commodity farmers, and to those many young people who know there should be a place for them on the land producing healthy food for our people while taking care of Mother Earth.

Sentimentality or a political campaign line like “I love farmers” won’t remedy our food and agriculture problems.  Agribusiness and other wolves in sheep’s clothing use the same devices.  We should all admire farmers who survive by being entrepreneurs, but to say that that is the only route to reform says that we don’t really recognize the many contributions and responsibilities of ordinary farmers.  Fortunately, some farmers defying the odds by farming agroecologically or organically are preserving inherited wisdom and developing new methods and techniques we will all need when our society recognizes that we can provide healthy food and leave a beautiful planet for future generations.  And likewise, simply telling people that they should change their diets—vote with their dollars—won’t do the trick either.  It’s my belief that a recognition of how market forces effect farmers and consumers behavior demands policy solutions to achieve that sustainable future.

So this, I think, is what we face: the issues are not healthy food, or water pollution, or decimated rural communities, etc., etc.; IT’S COMMODITIES, STUPID!  That means we need to de-commoditize food, whether by policy or developing local markets like many farmers here today.  I believe unless we recognize that industrialized agriculture depends on the production and consumption of commodities, and that our most basic assumptions of economic behavior actually assure the industrial status quo, the big problems I mentioned will never be solved and we will be wringing our hands at future summits much like I’ve done for the last 40 years.

The logic of commodity consumption and production is at the root of most of our environmental and social problems.  What percentage of our population is happy because we’re paying $2 per gallon for gasoline instead of $4? Almost everybody!  So our economists and politicians tell us “We” want cheap gas, and WE should be happy about the oil giants fracking and drilling in the gulf of Mexico.  Whatever Chevron wants, Chevron gets.  Any policy that would drive the price of energy up or place a tax on carbon would hurt poor people. Forget climate change, so drill baby drill.

The same illogic is used for food, if we bring our built-in cost comparing mindset into grocery stores and pick the most economical food.  Choosing healthy food produced in ecological ways on small family farms or creating policy to make that the norm would mean that food would cost more—industry says it isn’t worth it and it would hurt poor people.  Even labeling GMOs would cost too much. We should be grateful Monsanto, et.al. create chemicals, drugs, and hormones to make food “affordable.”  Thanks to corporate media, the real costs are out of sight, out of mind.  So simply by thinking cheaper is better, we are unconsciously cooperating with policy that guarantees our own demise.

We are not only recruited by our self-interest, but also public relations campaigns by THE INDUSTRIAL FOOD AND AGRICULTURE COMPLEX.  The latest version is what Jonathan Latham in his eloquent Independent Science News article, How the Great Food War Will Be Won, calls The Golden Fact.  This is the claim that only industrial agriculture with more and more technologies, including those that are needed to fix the problems caused by current technologies, is the only way we can feed a global population of 9 or 10 billion people in 2050.  Chemical salesmen tell farmers this is the reason they should buy all these GMO’s and chemicals.  My coop even tries to demonstrate how farmer’s yield will increase by throwing everything in the spray tank except the kitchen sink. Why not the kitchen sink?  Monsanto doesn’t sell kitchen sinks.  The biggest market for the chemical and biotech products is of course storable commodities.  We are talking feed grains, mostly corn, food grains, mostly wheat and rice, and oilseeds, mostly soybeans.  There are approximately 250 million acres of these storable commodities vs. only about 12 million acres of fruits and vegetables in the U.S.

As Latham says, we must combat this monstrous lie, or else we help in ruling out all other ecological ways of producing food, which we know can produce enough healthful food for all of us.  The feed grains and oilseeds compose most of the feed for producing industrial milk, meat and eggs—not food that most poor people will be able to afford shipped from many miles away.  Much of the corn and soybeans are used to produce biofuels and biochemicals—again nothing that will relieve anyone’s hunger.

Another propaganda angle of the Golden Fact claims that by increasing yields, we won’t need to convert virgin land like the rain forest to commodity production.  The opposite is actually true.  Any time you increase yields you cut the cost of production, which makes cultivation on marginal land even more likely.

As I mentioned, farmers are going broke back home growing commodities and spending big bucks on inputs.  Why do they do this?   Another big lie that we must erase is that farmers produce corn and soybeans and other storable crops because they are subsidized.  I know, almost everyone in the food movement, people that I love and respect, repeats this lie ad infinitum.  This is the truth: commodities like grains and oilseeds are storable—not perishable—and can be converted to cash throughout the year.  On the vast mother lode of arable soils we have, much of it far from city populations, these commodities were traditionally stored and fed to livestock. If 10% of these commodity acres were converted to fruits and vegetables, the production of fruits and vegetables would triple, and you’d see those farmers going broke and perishable food rotting in the fields.  We can use a lot more of produce raised locally, but to think that a corn and soybean farmer could convert much land to fruits and vegetables is unrealistic.  Farmers plant corn and soybeans in Iowa and many other states fencerow-to-fencerow because there are really no alternatives.

The subsidies we often hear about are payments from the federal treasury to farmers to make up only partially for low grain prices. Please understand that these subsidy programs weren’t designed to make farmers rich or create the economic framework for diversified family farms.  On the contrary, while billions of dollars were used, these payments were only intended to keep the commodity system itself form self-destructing.  The only farmers that could survive specialized and applied economies of scale to replace production by farmers who could not stay in business.

Another very important aspect of this was that this cheap grain policy—a policy that didn’t aim to restrict production or set floors under prices to reflect all the costs of product, internal and external–made it very easy for industrial livestock companies to order all the feed they need over the phone.  They didn’t need to grow the feed themselves or take any responsibility for the environmental and social damage involved in producing mountains of corn and soybeans the chemical way. Tim Wise at Tufts University has written several important papers describing this phenomenon and debunking the idea that most of the subsidies go to “big farmers.”  Diversified farms that raised their own feed with sustainable crop rotations including hay and pasture along with responsible use of manure could not compete with this bifurcated system.  Michael Pollan refers to this as taking one good solution and creating two new enormous problems.  So, the subsidy system was an agribusiness scheme to have our citizens pay for the destruction of the very kind of sustainable farm we all want.

So what is the answer to all our food and agriculture problems?  We must look back to the lessons learned from the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, along with the lessons of New Deal farm policy.

The most important and effective features of the New Deal farm programs involved conservation-supply management to avoid wasteful, polluting over-production, a price support that actually set a floor under the market prices rather than sending out government payments, grain reserves to avoid food shortages and food price spikes, and finally a quota system that was fair to all farmers and changed the incentives of production.  Parity was the name associated with these programs because it meant the farmer would be treated with economic equality and prices would be adjusted for inflation to remove the destructive cost-price squeeze and the imperative for farmers to produce their way out of poverty.  It was understood that the farmer’s individual “freedom” to do whatever he or she wished with the land, would need to be tempered for the good of all farmers and society.  A social contract was established.

Let me explain why the quota system is so beneficial.  Under the current laissez-faire policy of planting fencerow-to-fencerow, a farmer is always going to try to produce more bushels to sell either out of greed or fear of going broke.  If a chemical input can seemingly increase income over the cost, it makes sense to use it.  But when all farmers follow suit, overproduction results in low prices and our land and water are degraded.   Instead, let’s say that each farm had a quota based on history of production and an assessment of how a good crop rotation along with conservation plantings could regenerate the soil and biodiversity.  If the farmer is compensated with a price that will stabilize his or her income, their thinking and practices will be just the opposite of the laissez-faire, free market straight jacket.  If a farm has a quota of 10,000 bushels of corn, that farmer will think, “How can I produce 10,000 bushels of corn with the least amount of chemicals and fertilizer and the most amount of conservation?  Maybe I could use some of the other land for soil saving hay and pasture to feed a new herd for grass fed beef or dairy.” That farmer would be well on the way of becoming organic.

This is the kind of thinking that should be included in any farm bill whether for the U.S. or any other country.  Unfortunately, it was the goal of U.S. farm bills since 1953 and free trade agreements like NAFTA and CAFTA and the WTO to force the fencerow-to-fencerow logic on all the farmers of the world. This free market policy is sometimes referred to as “The Washington Consensus,” a bipartisan consensus, I might add.  I am proud that the National Family Farm Coalition and many of our allies, including Food and Water Watch, the Center for Food Safety, and Farm Aid, stood with La Via Campesina in stopping the Doha Round of the WTO.

We citizens of the United States, with a heritage of democratic ideals and today’s food movement that values farmers, well-paid farm workers, properly labeled healthy food, and ecological food production have a great responsibility to make Parity our national policy.  We can make it happen here and we can demand that policy makers respect a democratic process needed in each country to achieve the kind of nutrition, farm population, and conservation within their traditions as they so desire.  So I’ll leave you with one phrase to sum up what we all need for a well-nourished, democratic and peaceful world:  another Via Campesina goal—Food Sovereignty.

Finally, I’d like to offer some wisdom for the farmers leading the food movement.  First, as my dad told me, “Farming is the best occupation anybody can choose.”  Second from the noted author, Edward Abbey:  “Do not burn yourselves out.  Be as I am—a reluctant enthusiast .  . . a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic.  Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure.  It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it.”