The Full Measure of America’s Farming and Food Crisis

The Full Measure of America’s Farming and Food Crisis

“Perilous Bounty” went to press just before the pandemic changed life, so there’s nothing about the human devastation the administration and the meat industry have been indifferent to. The reader is likely to feel dramatic irony, particularly toward the end, as Philpott optimistically warms to the Green New Deal advanced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey and endorsed by Bernie Sanders, then still a presidential candidate. There’s nothing about worker abuse, because Philpott’s scope is the environment. At the conclusion, as Philpott documents the craven coddling of the fertilizer industry, the reader wants to yell: “But no — it got worse! So much worse!”

Philpott’s driving question throughout the book is “Who profits from this massive bounty?” Not the farmers, and, except for artificially depressed prices for health-damaging ultraprocessed food, not consumers.

One of his answers is landowners, including many foreign buyers, who know that “farmland investments are also largely immune from economic shocks, performing well even when stocks and bonds plunge.” (Though Philpott doesn’t have the space to document them, some states have tried and failed to protect huge swaths of their land from overseas land grabs.) And then there are the companies that sell fertilizers, seeds and pesticides — four “massive companies” that “loom over the $11 billion U.S. fertilizer markets” and “a ‘Big Six’ of agrochemical seed companies that towered over farmers in the Midwest and globally alike,” to whom the author devotes considerable space, and who design their products to work like interlocking hardware and software.

Is there a way out, and a way forward? Like all of us who write about food and farming, Philpott goes in search of the counterexample — a farmer who does things right. His, Tom Frantzen, a farmer in Chickasaw County in northeast Iowa — “mustached, 60-something, balding and dressed in a rumpled button-down blue work shirt” — restores rye to its natural rotation as a cover crop that protects soil over the winter, when barren corn and soy fields are particularly vulnerable.

Frantzen and another farmer, David Brandt, who’s just far enough south (a half-hour southeast of Columbus) to add wheat as his cover crop, report healthier soil and healthy profits, and Philpott excitedly mentions a 2012 study that documents higher yields and lower runoff. “The kicker,” he concludes with a flourish, is that “the region’s farmers won’t take an economic hit from moving beyond growing just corn and beans. … Growing a wider variety of crops requires more labor and management, but those expenses are balanced out by drastically reduced expenditures on agrochemicals.”

But, of course, neighbors aren’t rushing to cancel their charge accounts with their fertilizer dealers. Subsidized crop insurance for corn and soybeans is too reassuring to give up. The only way they might change is through the magic of the market: consumer pressure. “If farmers could get a premium price for crops,” Philpott says, “meat and milk ‘grown with biodiversity’ or some such label, farmers would have an incentive to add them to their rotations.”

Well, we all need to dream. As most of us, and surely the author, dream of rebuilding an agriculture system that at last puts racial equity at its center, we can’t lose sight of the land, water and air that need the loudest and longest advocacy. “Perilous Bounty” will line up many new recruits.

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