Readings on Modern Agriculture

David Smithers airs concerns from Iowans on pollution and sustainability

I recently attended a anti-tar sands rally in St. Paul Minnesota and have been reading a book on the tar sand oil production (mainly in Alberta, Canada) from a author who is firstly an activist against mountain-top removal coal mining (practiced, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia.) As an anti-tar sands participant said to me, methane generated from the digestive systems of the animals we eat – farts – is more threatening in regard to global warming than fossil fuel extraction and use.

This prompted me to think about the economics of agriculture in Iowa and elsewhere. I share the results of a reading  journey. What I see are fairly seamless connections among modern agriculture and energy production with negative effects from both for people, the environment, and as sources of corruption of desired democratic politics.

Modern agriculture is defined by Fred Magdoff writing for Monthly Review as: “(1)input industries; (2)farms; (3)purchasers of farm products; (4)processors/manufacturers.”

In the Des Moines Register, May 15, I found several articles regarding agribusiness and its political economy – the interplay of political and economic factors surrounding agricultural production. Under capitalism this is bureaucratic, profit-driven and state-subsidized; under socialism the political economy of agriculture is based on community and democratic participation, including the needs of the environment.

David Pitt writes in the Register that in Iowa there are reported 725 impaired water bodies reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The last report in 2012 cited 630 impaired waterways. The avian influenza (bird flu) virus is wrecking havoc with at least 10 cases of the flu virus found across 15 states, according to Christopher Doering2. But of the 52 cases found in only 2 are from small operations, the rest are industrial scale operations.

Doering says this is resulting in the destruction of 26 million birds, mostly in the commercial flocks. Agricultural officials cite problems in commercial poultry even thought they are indoors. They are typically found in remote rural areas where wild birds are more  likely to stop; more workers , equipment and vehicles moving around can help disburse the virus and wild feces; ventilation fans that keep birds  cool. Backyard and small operations keep their chickens outdoors where warm temperatures and the sun have a better chance to kill the virus that those in crowded poultry houses.

Magdoff points out that in confined operations, poultry live a very short and unhealthy life fattened up on grain and growth hormones.The birds live with feces and urine piling up and rubbing their abdomens, causing sores, and with high levels of death. The main job of farm-workers is to cull the dead birds on a regular basis. Exposure to virus and substances, such as arsenic, and working in a dark environment endanger the birds, the workers and their family and friends in the community and the wider environment.

Nitrate and other bad water quality from agriculture upstream has prompted the Des Moines Iowa waterworks to sue. The Iowa Farm Bureau has formed a group misleadly called the Iowa Partnership for Clean Water, and has hired a marketing firm for 157,000 in TV and newspaper advertisements. Who’s who in the group?

One is a Des Moines City Council member. Another is the Republican mayor of Cedar Rapids, a potential contender for governor in 2018 and a major player in denying FEMA (Federal Emergency Administration) funds from working class families displaced by the 2008 Cedar River floods. Historic worker neighborhoods had houses removed and minuscule recompense delayed amid continued demand for property tax payments and strict costs for yard care born by displaced workers. Another member of the board is Democrat Patty Judge, former Lieutenant Governor and state Secretary of Agriculture. She and governor Tom Vilsack (now U.S. Secretary of Agriculture) and the then new candidate Chester Culver refused to campaign with and support the primary elected Democrat for state secretary of agriculture because Denise O’Brien was a populist progressive agriculturalist and farmer. The Republican state secretary has suited Democrats and Republicans since. I personally witnessed the snub of O’Brien at a labor sponsored candidate event in Cedar Rapids in 2010.

According to Pitt, ”Iowa’s  agricultural economy– leading the nation in pork and egg production– represents a challenge dealing with manure generated by more than 20 million hogs and 60 million chickens, although the flock in the past month has shrunk by 40 percent from a deadly strain of bird flu… It also tops in production of corn, a crop that needs an abundance of nitrogen fertilizer… [that] can leach into rivers, causing high nitrate levels [and] toxic algae blooms.”

The nation’s longest serving Governor, Republican Terry Branstad, the Secretary of Agriculture and the DNR chief say the voluntary nutrient reduction policy is working and with $57  billion over two years “collaboration with farmers, producers and commodity groups can continue to advance its water quality initiatives.” Apparently, the people are not part of the consideration of a rational agricultural policy!

The Des Moines waterworks has spent $900,000 in 2013 and $540,000 in recent months fighting nitrate contamination in drinking water. Future replacement of equipment will cost up to $183 million. The Iowa CCI (Citizens for Community Improvement) and the Washington-based Environmental Integrity Project have requested for seven years that frequent manure spillovers should be enforced by  the Iowa DNR to get federal Clean Water Permits, improve inspections and increase fines against repeat offenders.

Modern farming demands huge energy intakes. One consequence we are facing in Iowa and the rest of the upper Midwest plain states is bitumen oil and tar sands transport. In April 2015 Via Pacis, the voice of the Des Moines Catholic Worker, David Goodner says in his article3 “Letter writing, legislating, and litigating won’t be enough to get the job done– not by half. We have to stand up and fight back.” That’s part of creating and demanding democracy and environmental accounting in the political economy.

While Keystone XL may be on hiatus, there is still the proposed Bakken pipeline. It may be completed (with a $3.7 billion price tag) by 2016. It will cross the border in Iowa near Sioux Falls and tangents Iowa to the Southeast corner near Keokuk and on to Patoka, Illinois. From there oil will still have to be transported by rail (“bomb trains”) to refineries. Governor Branstad and former Texas governor Rick Perry are leading the who’s who rogues gallery here. Goodner says the publicly based resistance in a broader campaign must be trained, efforts escalated, and mobilized, to change the political calculus. To us, the most effective way to do that is through independent working class political action.

Fred Magdoff restated Marx’s argument in Capital that rational agriculture is incompatible with the capitalist system despite its promotion of technical improvements (which themselves are a double edged sword.) This can be seen especially sharply in U.S. agricultural capital’s focus on corn and corn ethanol, which receive generous public subsidies despite corn ethanol’s very low net energy gain compared to almost any other fuel source.

Modern agriculture is bad economics, bad energy production, bad for preventing unwanted climate change, and very bad for air, ground, and water pollution. For the people and the planet. A new farming paradigm is necessary. Socialism is central to that new paradigm.



1. “List of impaired bodies of water up 15% in 2 years: DNR [Iowa Department of Natural Resources] blames monitoring; others blame farm practices”

2. “Mini flocks vulnerable? Outbreak mostly spares Iowa’s Backyard Chickens”

3.  “Take mass Civil Disobedience to Stop Iowa Bakken Oil Pipeline”


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