THIS BLESSED EARTH: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm
WW Norton & Co
America has too much and it’s killing the world. There are too many pesticides sprayed on too much maize and soy, fed to too many farm animals. With too many antibiotics, the animals grow too fast in too little space.
The US food system’s abundance has led to scarcity. Fewer breeds of livestock and crops — their genetics controlled by a handful of companies — and the overuse of antibiotics leave consumers with scant choice and doctors with fewer drugs to fight the superbugs that have been created. Blame Henry Ford and the soybean.
Two new books paint a picture of how government and industry helped consumers and farmers in the short term but left Americans with a world of ills.
This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm by Ted Genoways, follows a multigenerational farm family in Nebraska from harvest to harvest, flashing back to the pivotal moments in history that paved the way there.
Maryn McKenna’s Big Chicken shows how adding antibiotics to chicken feed brought cheap protein to the table and a public health crisis — antibiotic resistance — to the world.
Soy is now an integral part of the US food system, but its beginnings had nothing to do with food. Soybeans were grown as a possible answer to the looming petroleum shortage of the early 20th century. Their biggest initial booster wasn’t a food company but, as Genoways lays it out, Ford.
In the 1920s, the US was overrun with grain, leaving farmers wondering what they would do with it all. An article entitled "Wanted: Machines to eat up our crop surplus" appeared in the magazine Farm & Fireside in 1927, suggesting that the government could fund research into turning those grains into industrial products.
Ford liked the idea. He relied on petroleum to build his cars and to power them. The plan could create more demand for his farm equipment, the same gear that helped create the grain glut. He just didn’t want the government driving this economic overhaul. So he expanded his company’s agricultural laboratory and oversaw efforts to turn plants into plastics and biofuels.
After the 1929 stock market crash, the US department of agriculture looked to the world to find new crops to save farmers. From China, William Morse, a US department of agriculture scientist long interested in soybeans, collected thousands of varieties for US researchers.
Ford got wind of the project and instructed his team to take a closer look. It found that the soybean could produce lubricants and plastics, as well as oils and a high-protein meal. That’s when things started moving fast for the multitalented bean. In 1931, Ford poured $1m into research.
The following year, 300 varieties were being cultivated on 3,000ha in Michigan; the year after that, 5,000ha. Soon farmers were planting 140,000ha of soybeans. Ford was buying it all, and selling it, too — he offered soy-based baked goods and ice cream at the company commissary and said he could see a time when cars "could be made from by-products of agriculture".
The Ford machine churned up a booming market in soy for American farmers. In 1934, during a drought that killed maize and wheat, soy prevailed against linseed and canola, with a harvest of 23-million bushels. By decade’s end, nearly 100-million bushels were harvested.
During the Great Depression, Genoways writes, soybeans were bringing in more money for farmers than barley and rye.
It was too good to last. In 1938, a giant oil reserve was discovered in Saudi Arabia and the need for cheap alternatives to petroleum all but vanished.
Soybeans found new life as livestock feed. That brought its own challenges, as McKenna explains in her book about the rise of antibiotics in agriculture.
While the demand for protein to feed soldiers in the Second World War helped triple chicken production, the industry lost its guaranteed market at the end of the war and found itself with more birds than it could sell.
Nearly all the chickens eaten in the world now have genetics controlled by two companies, Aviagen and Tyson Foods’ Cobb-Vantress.
Suddenly, the feed supply, fishmeal, was too expensive. Soybeans weren’t. The problem was that, with soy as feed, the birds weren’t growing as fast.
"People talked about needing to add a nutritious boost," McKenna writes.
At Merck, researchers had discovered that a byproduct of making the streptomycin antibiotic, which began with manured soil as a raw material, could be fed to chickens to fatten them up. In 1948, a rival company, Lederle Laboratories, was doing the same with a byproduct of its antibiotic Aureomycin.
Meanwhile, the industry was moving chickens indoors, their lives now bereft of natural foods such as insects, and of sunlight. The antibiotics altered their metabolism to help them adjust to their unnatural life. By 1955, American farmers were giving animals 230,000kg of antibiotics a year.
Some raised the alarm about frightening consequences. In 1945, Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, warned that using doses that were too low to wipe out infections, as was common practice in agriculture, could lead to the evolution of more resistant microbes. By 1955, this was happening. A penicillin-resistant strain of the staphylococcus bacterium infected 5,000 mothers and newborns near Seattle. Lederle’s veterinarians had warned that sales of Aureomycin as a growth promoter could lead to antibiotic resistance.
Today, 80% of antibiotics produced in the US are fed to farm animals. The UN has called antibiotic resistance "one of the biggest threats to global health".
In 2016, a report commissioned by former British prime minister David Cameron estimated that in 2014, there were 700,000 deaths a year from bacterial infections caused by superbugs. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria can travel in food, water supplies, dust and on clothing, yet the Federal Drug Administration has lagged behind European regulators in getting antibiotic use on farms under control.
Nearly all the chickens eaten in the world now have genetics controlled by two companies, Aviagen and Tyson Foods’ Cobb-Vantress. As Genoways points out, the genetics of the livestock feed supply — maize and soy — are similarly homogeneous.
Up to 90% of the crops in the soybean market and 75% of those in the maize market are "Roundup Ready", as Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer have dubbed them, genetically modified to be resistant to the widely used pesticide Roundup. That lets farmers apply the pesticide heavily — breeding pesticide-resistant weeds.
However, McKenna is hopeful. Consumers are changing the direction of how food is produced. In the US, Perdue Farms’ chicken flock is now 95% antibiotic-free. In 2014, Chick-fil-A committed to relying on an antibiotic-free chicken supply within five years. Bell & Evans Holding, a private poultry producer using feed additives such as oregano oil and fennel instead of antibiotics, processes 60-million organic market and nonorganic market birds annually.
"Despite all the bad stuff that has happened, we got a consumer movement that is much more activist," McKenna said.
Genoways is less optimistic about consumers’ ability to push agriculture in a healthier direction. "It’s easy to say that we want farming to be more sustainable, and in reality, farmers themselves want that," he says.
"But if we really want things to change, we need to elect people who know about this stuff and make things better for farmers and consumers. The negative impacts are long-lasting, while the improvements are short-lived."