Saving Lives and Jobs Through Smarter Agriculture

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Soybean Farm
The eerie sight of genetically modified, Roundup-ready soybeans: not a weed in sight for hundreds of acres, not a job to be done for months / via

This will be received as the column from fantasyland. Big changes are in order, and the American system has prospered, historically, by the avoidance of big, sudden changes. The whole system is geared to resist such things. But then, that’s the point. A chorus of voices, from Jeffrey Sachs to the editors at The Economist, have been singing a hopeful tune about ending poverty all over the world. Both say it can be done if this and if that. The contingencies include a reversal of the trend toward concentration of wealth.  Now here’s what’s actually happening:

Robots are taking human jobs. Image by Franz Steiner / via
Robots are taking human jobs.
Image by Franz Steiner / via

According to expert predictions, almost half of the world’s jobs are about to disappear, victims of robotic technologies being adopted to increase efficiency and productivity.

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This, of course, will aggravate the already unsustainable trend of concentrating wealth and spreading poverty.

Couple this, now, with some facts concerning agricultural production. A century and a half ago, roughly 75 percent of the American population were farmers or farm workers. Farm workers now comprise 1 percent of the population, farmers another 2 percent. Meantime, the production of American farms has risen by 262 percent since 1950, with a reduction in inputs of seed, fertilizer and, especially, labor.

Add to that what the increased agricultural production has meant: not the ability or the failure to feed, after a fashion, a world population that exceeds all manageable proportions; but the catastrophic consequences of capitalistic requirements to produce calories at low cost and to broaden markets at any cost. More than 85 percent of the developed water in the Intermountain West is used by agricultural interests, who pay rates effectively subsidized by the federal government to raise crops that are in surplus.

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Oceans of corn are raised annually in the U.S., but only a tiny portion for food. Something like 40 percent goes for ethanol production, a subsidized activity that is proving environmentally disastrous. The great majority of the rest goes to feed livestock so that Americans—mostly—can eat too high on the food chain too much of the time. Steers are “finished” on the stuff because it makes them fat. It also makes them sick, so that they stand in crowded feedlots, up to their knees in fecal material and shot full of antibiotics to keep them alive long enough to slaughter. If you tried to eat the “field corn” they are fed, you’d find that it’s pretty much like chalk, and relatively free of nutrition. Of what’s left, some goes for direct human consumption, but most for the production of high-fructose corn syrup, which, in the quantities we find it in supermarket foods, amounts to a poison.

Soybean Farm
The eerie sight of genetically modified, Roundup-ready soybeans: not a weed
in sight for hundreds of acres, not a job
to be done for months / via

This barely begins to describe the insanity of our food production and the artificiality of the markets for food and fiber. But what’s it all got to do with robots? Here’s what:

A lot of problems could be solved at a single stroke. End this age of chemical agriculture. It’s only about 60 years old, and it is a massive mistake, nutritionally and environmentally. End the genetic modifications at the same time. Put Archer Daniels Midland and Monsanto out of business, along with the subsidiaries they call Congressmen.

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This would result in the sudden creation of jobs by the millions—healthy jobs in the fresh air, walking beans and picking fruit and chopping cotton. Many more jobs could be created by converting the center-pivot irrigation systems to sensible, conservative drip-irrigation technologies, and in covering the Western irrigation canals to inhibit evaporation and save wildlife.

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Couple it all with living-wage laws and you also bring illegal immigration to a screeching halt.

It would increase the price of food. A little bit. Food prices have much more to do with middlemen than with costs of production, but production would be more expensive. No problem. People would be working for living wages, remember?

Fantasyland? Oh, yeah. Congress as it is constituted, and especially as its members are funded, would consider this laughably far out.  It seems far too easy, too simple and too just even to be discussed. It seems too fundamental, and therefore vulnerable to charges of radicalism—as if we didn’t need some radical changes. Those, however, are not the problem with ideas like this. The problem is that such ideas challenge the financial status quo. People who get rich the way things are would have to find another way to get rich. That’s in impossible hurdle so long as those same people control the government. It’s the same problem that stymies treatment of climate change, wealth and income distribution, immigration reform and a swarm of other critically important issues.

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Which suggests that we’ve got some work to do on what kind of nation we’re going to be, and what kind of government we ought to have.

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