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Welcome to PSR's Environmental Health Policy Institute, where we ask questions -- then we ask the experts to answer them. Join us as physicians, health professionals, and environmental health experts share their ideas, inspiration, and analysis about toxic chemicals and environmental health policy.

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What’s Behind the Wholesome Image of the American Family Farmer?

By Brad Heavner

This essay is in response to: How does our food production system drive our exposure to toxic chemicals?

“Cultivators 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

“I hope 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 praised.

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 America’s food.

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.

Comments

Amy said ..

They only do what we let them do. Every dollar we spend is a vote for the world in which we want to live. Buy from local farmers, buy shares in community-supported agriculture, grow your own!

April 11, 2011
George Bradford Patterson II said ..

We must hold corporate agribusiness accountable for its pollution. They have devastated American waterways. They have vast resources to implement better, more sustainable ways of producing America’s food. We must 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. We must recognize the stark reality that 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.

February 27, 2011
P.Harris-Swenson, MA, IBCLC, LN said ..

And now these 'moneyed corporations' are citizens who can buy votes from our elected officials. We can vote with our wallets and stand up to the polluting agribusinesses. Urge your representatives to support an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that is not run by chemical company lobbiests nor former executives.

February 26, 2011
Alberto Angles said ..

The conditions created by the indiscriminate abuse of the land for pecunarie gain has its toll that has no parallel in the history of the world

February 25, 2011

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