The Fruits of Civilization (76) US Agriculture

US Agriculture

Agriculture as a way of life has been replaced by agriculture as an industry, driven by the goals of efficiency and productivity. Among the most profound changes has been a major departure from the core values of traditional farming. ~ American bioethicist and philosopher Bernard Rollin

America was long an agrarian society with urban centers. This held true into the 20th century.

In 1935, 54% of the population lived on 6.8 million farms. But the situation in American agriculture was not sanguine. From the late 19th century, US farmers politically banded together to fight industrial interests that threatened family livelihoods with their exploitative inequities. Grain merchants, meatpackers, banks, and railroads commonly vied against farmers’ interests.

Though central to the nation’s prosperity, farmers were fighting a losing battle. In 1850, farmers owned almost 75% of US wealth. By 1890 it was 25%.

By the turn of the 20th century, there was a running political battle between populist interests supportive of farmers and corporate interests that were tightening their grip on the economy. Meanwhile, the onset of the new century was prosperous for many farmers: prices increased as the number of farms declined.

Government policies to prop up food prices encouraged farmers to produce staggering surpluses during the 1st World War. Prices crashed in 1920, as European battlefields again became farm fields.

Wartime price supports in the US withered. President Wilson lowered tariffs to encourage imports, and so help Europe recover.

As world prices for grains and cotton collapsed, farms across the country went bankrupt. The Roaring Twenties were anything but for rural farming communities, as agricultural prices were half that of wartime levels. The Great Depression arrived early in the countryside.

On top of the depression, the Dust Bowl was an especial blow to farming in North America. Both were the creations of men’s folly.

Though President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs during the Great Depression have often been portrayed as socialist, they were in fact desperate moves to save capitalism. Roosevelt feared an alignment of farmers, labor unions, and the unemployed could become a potent political force that could organize a socialist revolution. So, he set about undercutting the coalition.

The New Deal was one of many blows against a rising socialist wave. The campaign continued into the 1950s with a variety of tactics by establishment politicians. Congressional persecution of ‘communist’ celebrities was one stratagem.

In 1942, corporate interests created the Committee for Economic Development (CED). It came to be one of the most powerful economic interests in the nation, dedicated to “action by government working with the free market, not against it.”

One of CED’s founders was American businessman Paul Hoffman, who became responsible for administering the Marshall Plan: the extensive American aid program for European nations after World War 2. Hoffman served as president of the Ford Foundation in the early 1950s, where he leveraged his power to accelerate the Green Revolution.

The dysfunctional food system that we suffer from today is the result of long-standing farm and food policies that were first proposed by some of the most powerful men in the country shortly after World War 2. These men envisioned a future in which most young rural men would supply cheap labor for manufacturing in the industrial North rather than continuing to farm, and in which a small number of large industrialized farms would supply the necessary food.

They foresaw a future in which food production would be globalized for economic efficiency and the “free market” would create the cheap inputs necessary for processed food. The visions that these powerful men had in the late 1940s and early 1950s were eventually enshrined in federal farm policy and in global trade agreements. ~ American anthropologist Wenonah Hauter