What’s Behind the Wholesome Image of the American Family Farmer?
February 24, 2011
This essay is in response to: How does our food production system drive our exposure to toxic chemicals?
of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the
most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and
wedded to its liberty and interests by the most lasting bonds.”
– Thomas Jefferson
we shall ... crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations.”
– Thomas Jefferson
The idea that American agriculture would
one day be dominated by “moneyed corporations” would have been unthinkable to
Thomas Jefferson – the man who, more than any other American, defined the
nation’s farmers as the paragons of republican virtue.
Over the last several decades, however,
Jefferson’s independent yet community minded “cultivators of the earth” have been
eclipsed by a few, large, often multinational corporations in deciding how America’s
food will be produced. In towns where family farmers once gathered to make
decisions that shaped the future of their communities, today it is often the case
that the most important decisions are made in corporate boardrooms hundreds of
miles away – or even on another continent.
The shift to corporate agribusiness has
done more than change the nature of American farming; it has also triggered an environmental
crisis. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home sits near the Rivanna River, which
flows into the James River and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay – an important and
once ecologically vital waterway that has been degraded over the course of
decades by agricultural pollution, in particular waste from factory farming of chicken.
The Chesapeake is not alone – from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes – and
in countless lakes and streams in between – pollution from agricultural activities is fueling algae
blooms, threatening wildlife and fouling drinking water supplies. Farming families and nearby communities suffer the impacts
of chemicals in the air they breathe and contamination of the water they drink.
That pollution is the result of an agricultural
system that increasingly produces the nation’s meat on farms that pack
thousands of animals onto small plots of land, producing waste on the scale of
entire cities and making pollution of nearby waterways a near certainty. It is
a system that increasingly feeds those animals with corn planted in vast plots
across the nation – corn that requires pesticides and fertilizers, some of
which wash into our waterways, to thrive.
It is also a system that is largely
molded to the design, and designed to the benefit, of a few massive
corporations, one in which family farmers still participate, but in which they
are increasingly vulnerable and lack the independence that Jefferson once
Four decades ago, Americans were confronted
by an environmental crisis of a similar scale – the massive water pollution
problems caused by industrial dumping into our nation’s rivers, streams and
lakes. Those problems were so intense that the Cuyahoga River caught fire and
nearby Lake Erie was considered “dead.”
At the time, few Americans waxed poetic
about the wholesomeness of the neighborhood sewage treatment plant, or
rhapsodized about the republican virtues of the steel mill. Instead, we acted
on the principle that no one – especially not powerful, well-resourced corporations
– has the right to pollute with impunity and endanger the public’s health and
our natural resources. We took action, and while the job of stopping industrial
pollution is far from done, we’ve made tremendous progress.
Today, however, corporate agribusiness giants
hide behind the wholesome image of the American family farmer to evade
responsibility for their pollution.
Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Perdue,
Tyson, Smithfield – these are among the corporations whose actions have
contributed to the devastation of American waterways. They are also corporations
with vast resources to implement better, more sustainable ways of producing
The time has come to hold corporate agribusiness
accountable for its pollution – just as Americans a generation ago did with
industrial polluters. It is up to Americans to insist on better practices that
repair the damage already done, and eliminate the massive burden that
agricultural pollution inflicts on our waterways and our health.