Farm Subsidies, Frankenfoods and Food, Inc.: What You Don't Often Hear in the Media About Farming

BlogHer Original Post

Genetic Modification and Frankenfoods

I asked my cousin: "Should I be scared of the tomatoes in the grocery store that taste like water and are the size of my head?

He thought "scared" was maybe harsh. He mostly deals in corn and soybeans and really can't comment on tomatoes. He believes in the FDA, which doesn't exist, as he pointed out, in many countries. He believes in small farms and big gardens, in CSA and in sustainable living. "More power to them," he said. "If anything, it should show people how difficult it is to raise a successful crop."

But.

"In this country, we always have 30 to 60 days' worth of corn and soybeans in storage at all times, because the farmers and elevators store it. I'm still delivering last year's crop. But what a fantastic place we live in that we're not hungry, that we can pick and choose what we want to eat. People in this country haven't been honestly hungry in generations -- how many countries in the world can say that?"

And I thought: Yes. How privileged we are to be able to make such choices. To not be hungry. Because we have grown enough food.

What It Takes to Farm Today

My cousin has a degree in farm operations from Iowa State University. "But," he said, "I didn't learn to farm in college -- I learned the science behind farming in college." He came home from school after running a tractor all through high school and learned the business behind farming. "I've had exposure to it my entire life, I have a degree, and I still make mistakes," he said. And they're expensive mistakes.

I asked what if? What if Rita Arens suddenly understood how to farm and wanted to make a go of it? He told me I would need $6k/acre (depending, again, on the area) to buy the dirt, somewhere around $200k plus per implement (tractors, combines, etc.), which have to be traded approximately every three years. And I would definitely need 20 percent down, in cash, to get the loan. "If you don't take care of your equipment, you will fail," he said. He actually used the word "fail" a lot, which is why I am still amazed anyone would take a chance on farming, let alone both sides of my family, and for so many generations.

Those Dangerous Chemicals

"What would happen if you didn't use herbicides and insecticides?" I asked.

"We couldn't feed America," he said. Basically, weeds (which you combat with herbicides) steal nutrients from the crops and also mix their seeds into the crop seeds upon cultivation, which affects the next generation's product quality. Insects (which you combat with insecticides) eat your crops before they can mature and be cultivated. And that, he said, is how Frankenfoods came about -- people breeding seeds to resist these natural predators.

In his mind it came from when corn mutated to resist corn borers and a bunch of other stuff that seriously made my head hurt. The science and chemistry behind farming is unbelievable. But there are also many natural processes that farmers do to combat insects: They rotate between corn and soybeans in the fields every year to avoid corn root worm establishing itself, a practice my cousin refers to as an "insecticide program," even though no chemicals are involved. It's mind-numbing to hear how many natural predators there are to our greatest food sources.

"Used properly," my cousin said, "pesticides and insecticides are not harmful to the environment. You know who the problem is? The guy who walks into Home Depot and buys Round-Up for the weeds that grow in the cracks of his driveway. He doesn't dispose of the extra properly." Not as though his livelihood depended on its proper disposal.

I hung up thinking about all I'd heard from my cousin, what I knew to be true from growing up around family farmers, what I read all the time about childhood obesity and cruelty to chickens and what have you. Here's the thing: It's like everything in life -- there are good apples and bad apples. But please don't walk away from this article without considering the other side of Food, Inc.: the family farmer who sees the stewardship of the land as the only path to survival, for him and every person in this country and abroad who depends on his crop surviving and being safe to eat, and who realizes there is only so much tillable soil, and God isn't making any more.

Rita Arens authors Surrender Dorothy and is the editor of Sleep is for the Weak. She is BlogHer's assignment and syndication editor.

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