The Competition is Killing Us (Essay)

[I wrote this for an essay competition a year or so ago. It was not short-listed or otherwise noted. I thought it was not bad. You can see the winning essay here ($) or message me and I’ll email it. I wasn’t that impressed, but I wouldn’t be, would I? You can judge for yourself.]

Is there, at bottom, any real distinction between esthetics and economics? —Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac and Other Writings

For a week or so when I was a kid my father came home from the farm every evening stinking of rotten potatoes. There was a glut and much of the previous season’s crop had not been sold. It was rotting in storage and he was digging it out and dumping it. We kids complained about how he smelt, thoughtless of his day-long immersion in the stench and disgusting sludge and oblivious to the bitter reality of another season’s hard labour gone for little return.

Most seasons the price of potatoes was low, and he didn’t get much of an income. Some years the price was so low it was hardly worth the cost of getting the spuds out of the ground, let alone the cost of the full cycle of production, let alone a decent income to support his family. About once a decade we had a good crop when other areas had poor crops and the price would rocket up by ten times or more. But that didn’t make us rich. It allowed Dad to pay off his debts and perhaps to buy a much-needed new tractor, or even a new car.

There had been a Potato Marketing Board that smoothed some of the crazy price gyrations, but it was abolished soon after we moved to that farm. Poor timing. I suppose the Board was considered poor economic practice, an unwarranted interference in the market. Even back in the fifties the market was commonly allowed to rule, at least when it was only little people whose lives it buffeted.

Wendell Berry is an American writer who calls himself an agrarian. Right away we see he is of a time and a place. The name Wendell is not so familiar to non-Americans and agrarian is not that common a term, in my experience confined mostly to history lessons about turnips in England. Berry’s place is a small patch in rural Kentucky and his time is the past eight or so decades. He wrote in Another Turn of the Crank that he thinks good farming is a high and difficult art. He has described the effects of modern agriculture on the land and communities of rural America as a catastrophe.

Perhaps it reflects his formative rural years in the 1940s, or just his meaty prose and original take on the world, but I find myself tripping over Berry’s phrasing. I have to hold the start of the sentence more deliberately, so as to register the point made by the end. Sometimes I have to go back and read again. He is good for my mental digestion, seeing to it that I chew properly before swallowing. He is also systematic, setting out all his points carefully in turn, serving the potatoes, the spinach, the meat, and seeing you clean your plate before he moves on to dessert. All of this seems to reflect the man himself: considered, disciplined, refusing to be hurried.

In The Art of Loading Brush Berry describes a cooperative association of tobacco growers that was formed in the 1940s and functioned until it was outlawed in 2004. He and I hasten to be clear that tobacco is a harmful product whose use is to be discouraged, but tobacco was nevertheless a staple crop in his region for generations. The point here is not about tobacco, it is about production, land and community, and it is made with unusual clarity.

The role of the Association was to ensure a reasonable living for producers, and to accomplish this it did two main things: it supported a reasonable price and it limited production. It had some support from government in the form of seasonal loans, but it was not a net drain on government funds.

The Association set a floor price. That price was chosen to be sufficient to cover costs and provide producers with a reasonable living. The criterion for a reasonable living was rough parity with city dwellers. Any product that could not be sold for the floor price or above was purchased by the Association, to be stored and sold later as opportunity might present. If too much product was accumulating in storage, production quotas for the coming year were reduced. The goal was to restore a reasonable price, not an extortionate price. In this way producers gained a reasonable living and buyers were charged a fair price. That is how markets are supposed to work, with the full costs of production reflected in the final price and the needs of supplier and purchaser balanced so each gets a fair deal. But most markets do not work that way.

The Association functioned well for decades, and producers agreed to limit their own production in the interests of a fair deal for everyone. In other words they cooperated. The region comprised mostly small, family farmers. Tobacco was a main crop but the farm production was mixed, with farms typically raising pigs, cows and hens and growing a range of grains and other food. There was a considerable degree of self-sufficiency in the region. Local growers, manufacturers, tradespeople and craftspeople provided much of the basic needs of the region’s communities. In this way many and diverse livelihoods were supported in a local economy that was an integral part of a community of communities.

Because farmers received a reasonable income they were able to care well for their land, meaning not only the soil and crops but also other on-farm vegetation, local woods, watercourses and so on. The healthy landscape supported a population of wild creatures that kept the regional ecology in balance, so pests did not become a major problem. Because farms had typically been in a family for generations, a body of local knowledge and lore was accumulated, so children grew up naturally learning how their local environment worked, and how to keep it healthy and productive.

It is Berry’s observation that when farmers sell into an open, unmanaged market they typically over-produce. If prices are high they want the extra income, and if prices are low they are desperate to make enough to get by. However the overproduction drives prices down, which induces farmers try to compensate by producing even more. That certainly fits my father’s experience. It also means the farmers don’t make enough to properly care for their land and landscape. Berry describes it as a version of the tragedy of the commons: if everyone tries to get more from the common, soon the common is eaten out and it fails. In the overproduction version, some farmers go out of business, others buy up their neighbours, and a cycle of get big or get out sets in, leading to large, industrialised operations whose focus shifts to money, as a matter of short-term survival, rather than to ensuring healthy food and land, and thus long-term survival.

The US corn belt demonstrates the effect of the get big or get out dynamic acting over several generations. Corn is a much bigger crop in the United States than tobacco, grown across a vast swath of the Midwest and the plains. It is curious, or perhaps not, that the city-based mainstream media have failed to alert us to a radical transformation of people’s lives, communities and the land they live in and work – what Wendell Berry called a catastrophe. The change is portrayed also by Richard Manning in Against the Grain. Manning is a resident of Montana and a writer, journalist and occasional hunter who eats what he kills. Manning believes we have lost something essential to our humanity through loss of contact with the natural world. That something might be called aliveness or awareness, a connection with a world of other living organisms.

Manning recounts a visit to an acquaintance who had got big in corn. As neighbours had gone broke this man had bought them out, removed fences, outbuildings, trees and other unnecessary accoutrements and focussed on growing an ever-expanding monoculture. His own farmhouse was hardly a farm house. It was a house and a small yard closely surrounded by a wall of corn. The couple’s children had grown and left, unwilling or unable to make the operation their life. His wife worked in a nearby town. He also took some work in the area because they were struggling to cover the costs of machinery, artificial fertilisers, pesticides and seed corn. Even though he was doing everything recommended and required by the agricultural system he was a part of, his was a still marginal operation.

A handful of giant companies buys most US grain, which means a grain grower is effectively in peonage to a company. A grain executive was once asked why the company did not just take over the farms it effectively controlled. The answer was that it would not be legal for the company to exploit the farmers to the degree the farmers exploited themselves.

Archer Daniels Midland is the United States’ and the world’s largest buyer of grain and also the largest processor of grain. It turns corn, wheat and soybeans, into a variety of substances such as sorbitol, lecithin, xanthan gum, wheat gluten, soy protein, lactic acid and, above all, high-fructose corn syrup. These in turn are used to create what passes for food in the supermarket. ADM brags that you won’t see them mentioned on the label but they are in soft drinks, breakfast cereals, fruit juice, barbecue sauce, salad dressing, tinned soup, icecream and a host of other processed products. Corn syrup is used instead of sugar. It is sweet, fattening and claimed to be a major contributor to obesity and related conditions like diabetes. The processing also removes many beneficial components in natural food, so we do not get the diversity of nutrients we need to be healthy.

Manning interviewed the CEO of ADM, Dwayne Andreas. Andreas was forthright. ‘The free market is a myth. Everybody knows that. Just very few people say it.’ He was referring not only to the power of the grain oligopoly, he was also referring to the huge public subsidies that flow from compliant politicians to the grain industry and into his company’s coffers. ‘The reason we don’t call it socialism is that socialism is a bad word.’ It is a bad word in a political culture built on that myth of a free-market economy.

Industrial agriculture is destroying its own base. Berry has watched the degradation of the land and communities of his beloved Kentucky valley. The corn belt manifests a later stage of the process. The soil is degrading and eroding. The product requires fertilisers and poisons that pollute the landscape, the rivers and the ocean into which the rivers flow. The land’s ecosystems are shrunken and fragile. The human part of rural America is depressed and depopulated. The production of so much food by so few people is called efficiency.

Charles Massy had an epiphany during a thunderstorm. He works the high, cold, dry land near Cooma in New South Wales. He had taken over the family farm as a young man and followed the standard practices of ploughing and using artificial fertilisers and pesticides. One day he ploughed a sloping paddock in preparation for sowing, but then a raging thunderstorm blew up. He watched as the pelting rain formed furrows, then gullies in his unprotected paddock, and much of the thin topsoil disappeared down the hill. He realised he had to change his ways.

Many years and much study later Massy, in Call of the Reed Warbler, advocates regenerative farming. This is farming that taps into the natural ability of the land to restore itself to a healthy state. Let us pause a moment on that word regenerative. Isn’t that what all farming, all life, is supposed to be? It is the miracle of living things on this living planet that life regenerates itself. It has been doing so for around four billion years, and it has become very good at it. If we have to call an innovative farming regime regenerative, what have we been doing instead?

Australian agriculture has been renowned for its efficiency since the late nineteenth century, when mechanisation began in earnest and Australians were leading innovators of farm machinery. Perhaps that was a good thing, on balance, but settler Australians have mostly failed to understand the land they were trying to work using European methods.

The earliest explorers and settlers saw a beautiful land they repeatedly compared with an English gentleman’s estate, as Bill Gammage recounts in The Biggest Estate on Earth. Massy quotes one account of the effect of cattle and sheep on this ‘new’ land, from an early settler in southwest Victoria. Early on the settler identified thirty seven species in the native pasture. After two or three years herbaceous plants and the keystone perennial grasses declined. Annuals started to take their place, but the annuals did not last through the dry summer. Bare ground began to appear, which baked into clay pans. Deep erosion gullies formed, making it as hard to ride a horse over the land ‘as if it were fenced’. Something called silk-grass appeared, as he had seen in Tasmania before. After a decade the carrying capacity of the land had declined so much that he sold up and returned to England.

Australia in 1787 was a more verdant land than it is today, even in the interior ‘deserts’, according both to Gammage and to Bruce Pascoe in Dark Emu. It was also a highly managed landscape. Every part of the continent was carefully tended, crops were grown and many villages existed, along with extensive engineering works of aquaculture, both on the coast and along river systems. Through millennia the people had learnt to work with Australia’s unique climate and ecosystems to sustain a thriving landscape.

The regenerative agriculture promoted by Massy features a return to native pastures. It requires a complete withdrawal of artificial fertilisers and poisons. Only then can the native soil ecology of micro-organisms re-establish itself, allowing the native pastures to re-establish in turn. Adventurous farmers scattered around the continent have found that many of the old native plants do re-establish, having survived apparently in small remnant refuges. Farmers repeatedly gave Massy versions of the same message: ‘I just had to learn to get out of the bloody way, and the land knew how to heal itself’.

Another remarkable discovery is that a grazing system developed in Africa, imitating the habits of their native ungulates, also seems to work in Australia even though there were no native ungulates. The system is basically to move the stock frequently so the pastures are grazed briefly and then have a long recovery period.

The old deep-rooted, perennial grasses that anchor the native grasslands can thrive under this regime. The soil holds more carbon, and much more water. The land is more resilient and the whole planet benefits.

Australian agriculture is still dominated by European methods, and it has suffered its own version of get big or get out. If industrial agriculture is a bad idea in North America it is doubly bad here. It is a destructive economic model and it perpetuates an alien form of agriculture in a unique and ancient landscape.

The folly is compounded further by a retail grocery duopoly that forces farm-gate prices ever downwards. They are driving family dairies out of business, and even big feedlot dairies are squeezed. If local suppliers fail then Colesworth just buys from overseas. No worries mate.

Industrial agriculture, progeny of unrestrained markets, mines the soil and mines the energy and skills of the people, the farmers. But it is not just unsustainable in those terms. This system cannibalises itself. It chews up its producers and spits them out. Put that way, it obviously cannot continue for long. But we seem to struggle with recognising what is in front of us. Like Massy, we need to find a better way.

Like Massy, we must find our way back to some basics that might not be found quite where we expected. People are not just competitive. People are also social. If we do not relate to each other, if we do not accommodate to each other, at least some of the time, then we are not social, we are like solitary reptiles, and our humanity withers. Wendell Berry lovingly describes communities: communities of people and communities of species. There is give and take, a person has a role, a place they belong in. Love can exist. Beauty can be afforded – as it has long been by much less materially wealthy societies than ours.

Given a community of cooperating producers my Dad might have sold some of his crop at a reasonable price. He might not have had to shovel so much rotting waste.

Dwayne Andreas of ADM may well be a nice man at home. However at work he is required by the markets to be a brute competitor, a reptile who cares only about money and power, never mind the destruction his corporation wreaks. We could explore at length, but won’t here, why unrestrained competitive markets were never going to work. I did that in Sack the Economists. The economic theory behind free markets is an irrelevant mathematical abstraction, nothing at all like the real world. Free-market economists peddle snake oil, though mostly they don’t seem to realise it.

If we wish to survive, and to survive as fully human beings, we need to balance competition with cooperation, our yang with our yin. The Taoists figured that out a long time ago. We might then return to being good, connected, aware citizens of the biosphere. We might be healthy in body and soul and our children might rejoice in their future.

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