Farmer John Is Killing You

Farrar, Straus &Amp; Giroux
Richard Manning
Against The Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization
Farrar, Straus &Amp; Giroux

For a few years now, I have been threatening to run for public office. As part of my platform, I will call for a single-payer health care system, the demolition of the skyway system in downtown Minneapolis, and--most important--the total abolition of agriculture. I arrived at the latter position after spending a great deal of time tooling around in a flat-bottomed fishing boat on the Minnesota River, which is the state's most grievously polluted waterway and, not coincidentally, the one that runs through the heart of the Minnesota farm belt.

I acknowledge that my policy could cause some hardships, including economic collapse, widespread starvation, and anarchy. But I am vowing to forge ahead. After all, in these degraded times, we need bold new ideas. Also, I believe my plan would greatly improve my fishing experiences.

If you're a farmer (or, like most people, a mere agricultural romantic), fear not: I am too lazy, too fearful of public speaking, and too much of a godless crackpot to ever win higher office.

But that doesn't mean I don't have a legitimate platform. As the Montana-based environmental writer Richard Manning argues in Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization, many of the woes of modern life are in some manner attributable to common agriculture practices--and the whole human race would be better off had the plow never been invented. It's not just about dirty water. To be sure, Manning touches on the topic. Agribusiness in the upper Midwest, he points out, is directly to blame for the gigantic dead zone that appears in the Gulf of Mexico each year--a fishless and plantless expanse that covers 18,000 square kilometers (roughly the size of New Jersey). This is a result of the excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers, which are used to grow excessive amounts of corn, which are used to cash in on excessive government subsidies. What does the public get? High fructose everything.

The devastation of the natural ecosystems is just one element of Manning's epic gripe. Agriculture--especially the industrial agriculture that has taken root in the past half-century--has led to an epidemic of other problems, among them malnutrition, obesity, and political corruption. Such complaints sound familiar to anyone interested in the organic farm movement, or who bothers to read news stories about Archer Daniels Midland and the other agribusiness villains. In Manning's words, these subsidy-gluttons and scofflaws seem to exist solely to "farm the government."

But Manning does not confine his beef against agriculture to its modern incarnation. Since its inception 10,000 years ago, he argues, agriculture has served to divorce humans from the essence of hunter-gatherer existence. It has dulled our senses, made us sedentary, created class systems, and caused widespread malnutrition. In other words, it has led to our "fundamental dehumanization."

"Gamboling about the plain and forest, hunting and living off the land is fun," Manning wryly observes. "Farming is not." It is also not very healthy. The physical stature of human beings began to shrink when we started to farm; only recently, in more prosperous countries where the food choices are more varied, have we regained the natural height of our hunter-gatherer forebears.

In general, the human diet remains wretched. Globally, more than two-thirds of our nutrition derives from just four not-very-healthy crops: corn, wheat, rice, and potatoes. We grow these foods not because they are what we need, Manning writes, but because they are what we know how to grow well. And because it is in the interest of agribusiness to produce commodities that can be processed and sold at a greater profit.

Like anyone who thinks a lot about the ecological trajectory of the planet, Manning can be overstrident and a touch humorless. In the last 20 pages of his thoroughly researched screed, Manning examines some possible solutions: an increased reliance on organic farming practices, a shift away from processed foods, and so on. It feels a little perfunctory. Though he doesn't put it this plainly, after nearly 200 pages of eco-apocalyptic pronouncements, you can't help but come to one conclusion: In the long run, we are all utterly fucked.

How's that for a campaign slogan?

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