An “Unsettling” look at industrial agriculture

The flaws of industrial agriculture and the current backlash against it came into sharp focus a couple of weeks ago, following the death of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, well-known for his exhortations to farmers to “Get big or get out” and to plant from “fence row to fence row.” Between the success of books like Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” and the brutal revelations of “downer” videos and frequent food recalls, the cracking fault lines in Big Ag are sending tremors through the American food system, despite the optimistic views held by Butz and other agricultural “experts” over the years.

To some people, however, the growing awareness of these problems is both overdue and desperately needed. One voice in particular has repeatedly issued a clarion call for a thoughtful approach to agriculture and eating over the past 30 years, and the public is at last starting to pay attention.

In 1977, Wendell Berry published a small book called “The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture” in which he laid out in no uncertain terms the grave dangers of the “get big” philosophy and the reliance on petrochemicals and industrial production methods. Berry didn’t just focus on the damage done to the physical resources of soil, water, plants, and animals: he examined agriculture’s role in society and how our relationship to food and farming reflects our relationships to each other and to the created world.

Berry’s prophetic words startled his early readers and offended agribusiness experts, but 30 years later, his words still ring true — perhaps even more so than before. And since his message serves as a strong counterpoint to the policies pushed by “experts” like Earl Butz, I knew it was time to re-read the book and learn from Berry once more.

Who grows there?

The interconnection of people and land –- the true culture within agriculture — is a constant theme in Berry’s works (including his poetry and novels). A staunch supporter of other small farmers like himself, he delivers a sharp attack on the idea that to “get big” and to become efficient and specialized in farming is a worthy endeavor.

Such specialization, he notes, limits both the knowledge that farm “experts” possess about the interactions between species and the earth as well as the number of people who hold any worthwhile understanding of how their food is produced. By reducing the American population to a nation of food consumers, with very few producers throughout the citizenry, industrial agriculture forces us into dependence on the small number of corporations that control the bulk of agribusiness, and it strips us of any pride and self-sufficiency we would find in producing our own food.

That one American farmer can now feed himself and 56 other people may be, within the narrow view of the specialist, a triumph of technology; by no stretch of reason can it be considered a triumph of agriculture or of culture. It has been made possible by the substitution of energy for knowledge, of methodology for care, of technology for morality.

Berry shows that poor eating habits, poor farming, and the “institutionalized” waste that is a hallmark of our current food system resulted from the migration of rural populations to the cities (who then become a large portion of the urban poor) and the subsequent decreased number of farmers. “We are eating thoughtlessly,” he declares, stating an early version of the message now delivered by Pollan and a host of other authors.

This lack of connection to how our food is grown thus also keeps us from understanding our role in the cycle of agriculture and of life itself. All the people who are “free of the ‘drudgery’ of food production” also become “free of any involvement or interest in the maintenance phase of the cycle. As their bodies take in and use the nutrients of the soil, those nutrients are transformed into what we are pleased to regard as ‘wastes’ -– and are duly wasted,” causing us to pollute our soil and water resources.

The solution Berry offers is simple: “The responsible consumer must also be in some way a producer. Out of his own resources and skills, he must be equal to some of his own needs.” This self-sufficiency then influences how we live our lives and develop our cultural ethos:

We are working well when we use ourselves as the fellow creatures of the plants, animals, materials, and other people we are working with. Such work is unifying, healing. It brings us home from pride and from despair, and places us responsibly within the human estate. It defines us as we are: not too good to work with our bodies, but too good to work poorly or joylessly or selfishly or alone.

Boast in the machine

But this attitude toward work –- and, by extension, to our connection with the rest of nature –- has, in Berry’s opinion, been largely superseded by our heavy reliance on machines to make us more “productive” and “efficient” and to “save time.” And by depending on machines for our work, he continues, “we began to mechanize both the Creation itself and our conception of it. We began to see the whole Creation merely as raw material, to be transformed by machines into a manufactured Paradise.”

Seeing the world around us as a vast mine of natural resources to be used, instead of as a whole ecosystem, then, has led us to think of ways to make “better” use of those resources, to make the land more productive, even to use the food we grow as a “weapon” (against hunger, poverty, or the enemy in both World Wars). This perpetual emphasis on production -– on more -– can only destroy what it seeks to use, according to Berry, as it tends to “increase the price of land, increase overhead and operating costs, and thereby further diminish the farm population. Thus the tendency, if not the intention, of Mr. Butz’s confusion of farming and war, is to complete the deliverance of American agriculture into the hands of corporations.”

Unfortunately, this emphasis on production and use of resources, as in so many other areas of industrial production, has broken the traditional cycle of life, death, and rebirth. What goes into the “machine” of industrial agriculture –- be it petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers, corn and other grains for feed, or gasoline -– comes out as food and pollution, as found in chemical-laden waterways or manure lagoons in CAFOs. Berry contrasts this “highly simplified economy” of production and consumption with “the moral order appropriate to the use of biological energy,” which closes the circle by returning “wastes” to the soil to be broken down and to nourish new life.

Lest we feel too smug about how our technology, despite these problems, still manages to feed (or overfeed) a nation with its abundance, Berry makes a bitter comparison between how we exploit the natural world to fuel the agribusiness machine and how we treat ourselves:

…it is clear to anyone who looks carefully at any crowd that we are wasting our bodies exactly as we are wasting our land. Our bodies are fat, weak, joyless, sickly, ugly, the virtual prey of the manufacturers of medicine and cosmetics. Our bodies have become marginal; they are growing useless like our ‘marginal’ land because we have less and less use for them.

As in so many of Berry’s works, he draws strong lines between agriculture, culture, community, and our physical being. If we poison the soil and air and water, we destroy ourselves. If we invest our time and care in the land, we build our own health.

Get small

So how does Berry propose that we change the face of American agriculture?

I do not believe in the efficacy of big solutions. I believe that they not only tend to prolong and complicate the problems they are meant to solve, but that they cause new problems. On the other hand, if the solution is small, obvious, simple, and cheap, then it may quickly and permanently solve the immediate problem and many others as well.

He does not propose that we all return to farming, but he does encourage a greater engagement with our world and with the sources of our food. For those who don’t have a farm, he encourages gardening and food preservation as a good way to nourish ourselves. For those who do farm, he emphasizes an “ordered” diversity, making room for a wide variety of creatures and species rotating around the farm in order to replenish the soil’s nutrients. For us all, he advocates awareness, the willingness to say no to the large agribusinesses, and the effort to develop a more general knowledge of our land and our communities than the specialists and experts can offer.

Earl Butz’s legacy of big industrial farms has left us in the precarious situation of a food supply running out of control and out of steam. Wendell Berry’s consistent message of upholding the small farm and the wholeness of our food cycle has only become more attractive and necessary during the 30 years since the publication of “The Unsettling of America.” Fortunately, he continues to speak out and write today on how we can regain the health of our land, our communities, and ourselves, starting at the smallest level.

No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.

Photo credits: cornfields, iStock photo; hayfields and pond, author.

5 Responsesto “An “Unsettling” look at industrial agriculture”

  1. ExPat Chef says:

    Nice tribute, “A Continuous Harmony” by Wendell Berry is just inches away from me as I type.

  2. Gravel says:

    I never thought I’d see the day when the mighty Mr. Berry was featured in Gourmet magazine, but there is a nice article about him in the Feb 2008 issue.

  3. Ed Bruske says:

    Jennifer, my plan has always been to read the complete Berry oeuvre in sequence, but I’ve never gotten it together. You’ve inpsired me to go out and get this book.

  4. ExPat Chef, I’ve not heard of that title. Guess I’d better check it out!

    Thanks for the tip, Gravel… I’ll have to look up that article.

    Ed, that’s a challenging task you’ve set for yourself. But at least if you’re going in sequence, you’ll be able to offset the deep reading of Berry’s essays with the earthy wonder of his poetry and the simplicity of his stories. Hope you have a good long reading session ahead!

  5. Daniel says:

    I didn’t quite know where to put this, but this post seems as good as any. In a recent conversation with a friend it hit me that the movement toward local food procurement compares to industrial agriculture like The Starfish and The Spider by Brafman and Beckstrom. I recommend this book as a versatile tool to understand centralized and decentralized organizations. Really versatile: my house church is discussing it to better understand the role of institutional versus organic expressions of faith.