Mailing ListForum
City Places for City People
Rice Bowl, Dust Bowl: Agribusiness and the Future

by Lise Maring

We've all read the articles concerning our declining fisheries. It was in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and even our local newspapers. For the first time, we began to hear about how the oceans are being "mined" by large commercial interests with their miles and miles of nets.

But the world's fisheries aren't the only renewable resources that are suddenly becoming nonrenewable. Two other very vital resources are also in danger of being depleted. What you haven't read much about yet is that corporate interests--similar to those that are mining the oceans--are also in control, either by direct ownership or indirectly through ownership of food processing facilities, of much of the world's agricultural lands, and they are in the process of mining our soils and groundwater.

These interests comprise a handful of transnational food companies that distribute an amazing abundance of food products to the thousands of supermarkets across the country each and every day. Some days it seems as if there is an infinite supply of food, and the stores are veritable cornucopias with shelves that are always stocked full. These companies include such giants as Kraft Foods, ConAgra, and ADM. They depend on "economies of scale," which means large-scale processing and world-wide supply and distribution; this in turn requires consolidated farming and huge numbers of acres dedicated to monocultures of crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans.

Essentially, the small farms can not compete with the huge industrialized factory farms with their large pieces of specialized equipment. Many of these family farms end up being sold for housing developments or to the neighboring industrialized farms. Thus the number of small farms decreases each year, while the acreage per farm increases.

The six founding countries of Europe's Common Agricultural Policy had 22 million farmers in 1957; today that number has fallen to 7 million. Just 20 per cent of the European Union's wealthiest and largest farmers get 80 per cent of EU subsidies. Canada lost three-quarters of its farmers between 1941 and 1996, and the decline continues. In 1935 there were 6.8 million working farmers in the US; today the number is under 1.9 million.1

Agribusiness has had a great impact on our society, one we pretty much take for granted. Many colleges have now changed the title of their programs from Agriculture to Agribusiness. Here, students learn as much about economics, import and export law, international relations, and the stock exchange as they do about the various varieties of corn, the diseases of beef cattle, and the latest irrigation techniques.

So, that's progress, right? Technology and the market at their best. If this approach lowers our food prices, makes more food available to everyone, and gives us such a great variety to pick from, what's the problem?

Well, let's back up a minute and look at some other numbers--let's see what our culrtural and economic prejudices have cropped out of the big picture. According to the latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, there are over 291,000,000 people in the United States with one new hungry mouth being added every 10 seconds. The world population, on the other hand, is currently at 6,300,872,412 people and rising. The estimated population for the year 2050 is now at 9,078,850,714.

Landscape ecologist, Eric Sanderson, and his team found that 83 percent of the surface of our planet is already in use by us humans for such things as farming, mining, fishing, and as a place to live. They also found that most of the land that can be farmed for rice, wheat, or corn is already being used for that purpose.2

Between 1950 and 1981, the area in grain expanded from 587 million hectares (ha) to 732 million ha. By 2000 it had fallen to 656 million ha, and between 1950 and 2000, the cropland area per person shrank from 0.23 to 0.11 ha--an area half the size of a housing lot in suburban America.3

To bring it down to a more personal level, David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agricultural science at Cornell University, has estimated that each person in the United States requires 1.9 ha of cropland and pasture per year for their food needs, while a person in China requires only 0.4 ha because of the primarily vegetarian diet.4

And where is your 1.9 hectares of land located? It most likely isn't in your backyard. In essence, there are little pieces of it scattered all over the world. Most of our food travels an average of 1,200 to 1,500 miles before getting to our plates.

But, with all the technology and latest scientific knowledge that agribusiness has available, aren't they making the most efficient use of the land and increasing the yield each year? The answer is no. It turns out that the small farm, with its smaller acreage, but greater variety of crops, actually yields more per acre than the industrial farm. The reason for this is partly due to the very economies of scale that characterize agribusiness.12

In the United States, current agricultural practices are destroying the topsoil about 18 times faster than it can be replenished, and we depend more and more heavily on artificial fertilizers to fill the gap.4 Moreover, as Europe and Asia adopt the American agribusiness ways of agriculture, they can expect to see similar results.

"In fact, corn cultivation in this country is, for the most part, an energy-consuming environmental disaster," according to David Pimentel. "Corn is the number one cause of erosion or total soil loss in the United States. It uses more fertilizer than any other crop. It's the largest user of insecticides. And it's the largest user of herbicides."5

"And every year, from every plowed acre in Kansas, an average of two to eight tons of topsoil wash away."
Audubon Society

"One kilo of corn protein causes 22 kilos of topsoil loss. One kilo of beef protein causes 145 kilos of topsoil loss."

Furthermore, just as bacteria are evolving faster than our antibiotics, and insects faster than our insecticides, so are weed plants evolving faster than the herbicides can keep up, thus more and more herbicide is needed to kill them each year on larger and larger pieces of land.11

It's not just Western countries' agricultural lands that are suffering topsoil loss. According to Janet Larsen of the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), the growing demands of the world's current human population are turning productive land into desert on every continent. The cultivation of marginal lands has caused extensive soil erosion everywhere, while billions of cattle, sheep, and goats have pushed pastures beyond their sustainable limits. In the western United States, cattle have left about 10% of already arid lands barren, and about two-thirds substantially degraded. Larsen believes desertification plagues up to one third of the earth's land area, affecting more than 1 billion people in 110 countries.8

In March, 2002, the FAO admitted that the number of chronically hungry people in the world is not decreasing as fast as they predicted in 1996. FAO concluded that the world's grain production would have to rise every year by 1.2% to meet the needs. This is 17% higher than what was being produced in the 1990s. But since we are already using all available croplands, this means the increase would have to come from the existing lands. Unfortunately, according to Lester Brown of the EPI, it may be a losing battle since grain yields have actually decreased rather than increased.7

In other words: bottom line, what we are doing to the fisheries, we are doing to the land. We are currently in the process of "mining" our soils. Because whatever value is in food comes from the soil, the air, and the fertilizer we put on it--and the fertilizer comes from soil (if it is manure) or from oil (if it is synthetic)--and oil is running out.

Now, let's take a look at the water situation. Only about 3% of the water on our planet is freshwater. Groundwater accounts for about 14% of that 3%, while ice sheets and glaciers account for about 85%. The rest is in lakes, streams, reservoirs, the air and soil, and rivers. In the United States, groundwater supplies about 50% of our drinking water, 40% of the water used for irrigation, and about 25% of the water used by various industries.

Just to give some idea of how much water it takes to keep things going in today's society, according to the EPA and John Ryan it takes about:

World water demand has tripled over the last half-century. According to Lester Brown of the EPI, governments are satisfying the growing demand for food by overpumping groundwater, a measure that virtually assures a drop in food production when the aquifer is depleted. Knowingly or not, governments are creating what Brown calls a "food bubble" economy.6

According to Brown: "Aquifers are being depleted in scores of countries, including China, India, and the United States, which collectively account for half of the world grain harvest. Under the North China Plain, which produces more than half of China's wheat and a third of its corn, the annual drop in the water table has increased from an average of 1.5 meters a decade ago to up to 3 meters today."6

"In the United States, the water table has dropped by more than 30 meters (~100 ft.) in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas--three key grain-producing states. As a result, wells have gone dry on thousands of farms in the southern Great Plains."6 In California's San Joaquin Valley, where large quantities of vegetables, such as tomatoes and lettuce are grown, the land subsided around 9 meters (~27 ft.) between 1925 and 1977 due to the extraction of groundwater.9

In other words, we are in the process of "mining" our very finite freshwater supplies, and it is a process that is invisible to most of us until our wells start to run dry.

We are pushing the sustainable limits of our world and are threatening to overwhelm it. It is not only the world's fisheries and fossil fuels that are becoming depleted. It is also our precious, life-sustaining resources of water and soil. To add to the uncertainty, we are changing our climate in ways that will transform the areas we now consider our prime agricultural lands into desert. But, according to Eric A. Davidson in his book "You Can't Eat GNP,", "·One economist argued that we need not worry much about the effects of global warming on the economy, because the only sector of the economy that he considered strongly influenced by the climate is agriculture, which contributes only 3 percent of the United States' GNP." One can only hope that this economist will not someday have to eat his own words.

We in the industrialized nations enjoy a fantastic range of foods, literally from soup to nuts, including a vast variety of seafood, grain products, meats, fruits, and vegetables. But many of us don't realize the heavy price we are paying for the luxury of importing food items from all over the world and at every season of the year. Unlike the prodigal son, we have no other home to return to if we choose to squander our inheritance and that of the future generations.

Lise Maring worked for several years at NASA's Langley Research Center and briefly at the Goddard Space Flight Center as a contractor employee. She is currently working as a technical editor/writer but has also been a systems analyst, a database administrator in NASA's technology commercialization program, an operations lead for a remote sensing data processing center, and chair of an interagency user services team for NASA's remote sensing-oriented Earth Observing System (which was part of the Mission to Planet Earth program.) She also runs several online groups that are community and/or environmentally-oriented and is the newsletter editor/writer for the York River Group of the Sierra Club.


  5. Weiss, Rick, "Corn-Burning Benefits Hinge on How Its Grown," Washington Post, January 27, 2003, Section A, Page A8.
  9. Glennon, Robert, "Water Follies: Groundwater Pumping and the Fate of America's Fresh Waters", Island Press, 2002.
  10. Ryan, John C. and Alan T. Durning, "Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everyday Things," Northwest Environmental Watch, Seattle, January 1997.
  11. McCarthy, Michael, "Superweeds Signal Setback for GM Crops",, June 23, 2003.