As we left the Twin Cities and headed southwest towards the small town of Tracy – the ‘big city’ in the storied “Little House on the Prairie” TV series – the landscape gradually changed from thick pine trees to rolling grasslands. Corn and soybean crops swayed in the wind as far as the eye could see. We had entered the farming heartland of America, an area that covers large swathes of the Midwest. In an industrialised country like the US, agriculture is still an important sector. But the average American farmer nowadays is in his 60s with a college degree, overseeing thousands of acres of farmland. Mechanised farming and technological advances have taken out the hard labour from farming, while advances in seed technology have pushed up yields to record levels.
This is where things get disturbing. Nearly all cash crops planted these days in the US are genetically modified, tinkered at the molecular level to withstand pests and flourish in adverse conditions. This may sound like a boon for farmers and a means to feed the growing population of the world, but there’s a dark side to this rosy picture. The market for GM seeds is controlled by a handful of powerful companies who zealously guard their products. Farmers cannot replant seeds from the crops they harvest, and have to buy fresh seeds from these companies every season. Surprise checks are conducted on farms by representatives of these corporate giants, and plants are tested on the spot to determine if they are growing from new or reused seeds.
Many companies also make pesticides that complement their seeds. For instance Monsanto – the biggest player in this field – makes a pesticide called Roundup that kills everything except the seeds the company produces, forcing the farmers to buy both products. The crops that grow from these GM seeds are virtually indestructible and do not decay. After the snow melts and the new sowing season begins, farmers have to get rid of crop remnants that normally would have decomposed and disappeared into the soil. Many farmers have resigned themselves to this new agro order, and whatever outrage that lingers is soothed by bountiful yields and cash flows.
While more of a product usually results in lower prices, grain prices have been rising. This is because that ear of corn is not going to your table or the local farmer’s market. Voracious demand for fuel and meat means it’s going to be converted to ethanol and livestock feed, and what remains will be used to make high-fructose corn syrup and other food additives. On the other hand, a quarter of US soybean seeds go to China, while the rest is turned into oil, feed and other base ingredients.
GM crops have been linked to cancer and Europe has banned such “Frankenfood”, but America and many parts of the world have wholeheartedly embraced it. Incidentally, an organic farm in the US produces half the yield compared to a commercial farm, but gets double the price for its crops. Such a farm is also much smaller, and the gains are tempered by increased labour costs as weeds and vermin have to be eradicated without the use of pesticides. But considering that 40 percent of food around the world goes to waste, wouldn’t we be better off eating healthier paying a moderately higher price rather than buying cheap food that eventually gets wasted and may even be harmful?
For the ageing and affluent American farmer beholden to Monsanto and its ilk, this is a decision that is out of his hands.