I'M WRITING THIS ARTICLE just after the U.S. government has approved a substance likely to send thousands of cows to the slaughterhouse, drive thousands of family farms out of business, and expose thousands of consumers to potentially dangerous antibiotics. Naturally, that's not the way the U.S. government sees the substance. They see it as a technological breakthrough that will boost profits for dairy farmers and offer big payoffs for biotech investors.
I'm talking about the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's approval of bovine somatotropin BST for short a genetically engineered drug that increases cows' milk production by ten to twenty-five percent.
What's wrong with cows giving more milk? I'll explain that, but first a few words about what's wrong with BST itself.
Drugs in Your Milk
Some people worry that BST could be carried by milk to milk drinkers, though so far the evidence doesn't support that fear. A more important health danger, explained in a report from the General Accounting Office to the U.S. Congress (1) , is that higher milk production will lead to more cases of cow mastitis, and the antibiotics used to treat the mastitis might get into the milk.
One more problem with BST is that fear of milk contamination may keep people from drinking milk, which is valuable for developing spiritual intelligence. (See "Is Milk for Everyone?" BTG, Mar/Apr 1993.)
Adding to a Surplus
Now for the problems caused by cows giving more milk.
The U.S. already has a surplus of milk. A drug that boosts production will favor farmers with large herds, and squeeze farmers with smaller herds out of business.
Say I'm a Wisconsin farmer with 100 cows; using BST is like adding 20 cows to my herd. But Farmer Jones from California has 1,000 cows, and using BST is like adding 200 cows to his herd. Because his operating costs per cow are smaller than mine, he can still make money when milk prices drop. I'll be forced out of business.
Government price supports complicate things a bit, but this is the net effect. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin stated, "I am deeply concerned about the future of small family dairy farmers in Wisconsin and around the country. This product is going to accelerate the process that is already resulting in thousands of family farmers being forced off their land." (2) Of course, when farmers are forced off the land, their cows will be sent to slaughter. It's alarming to consider that in some areas market competition could practically wipe cows out.
New Taxes for Agriculture?
BST is in many ways typical of a long list of challenges facing farming that make me wonder just how much longer modern agriculture will be able to feed us. In the case of BST, for example, let's follow its use a few years down the road: Smaller herds like those in Wisconsin and New England will be phased out, and larger herds, like those in California and Texas, will grow. But both California and Texas have water shortages. What will happen to cows if those states slap a hefty water tax on farmers a few years from now? Cows can't produce milk without water.
Another impending tax problem for farmers is the carbon emission tax likely to come. Modern agriculture gets about ninety percent of its energy from fossil fuel. It also relies on fossil fuel to make fertilizer and hundreds of miles of plastic-sheet mulch for vegetables. And, of course, fossil fuel carries agricultural products over land, air, and sea.
Not surprisingly, one economic model by the USDA (3) shows that anything that pushes up the price of fossil fuels will have a higher impact on agriculture than on most other industries, which can switch to nuclear power, hydro-power, and so on. So far, there are no wind-powered or nuclear-powered tractors. A solar battery big enough to power a heavy tractor would probably sink it into the mud.
And Fewer Subsidies and Loans
Another problem for industrial agriculture is that it stands to lose the money it was getting from the government when the government had money. Several nations feel they can no longer afford large subsidies to farmers, or they are entering trade agreements that prohibit them. For example, in a Wall Street Journal editorial (May 26, 1993) entitled "Deficit Reduction Made Easy," Harvard economics professor Robert Barro recommends fourteen cuts to balance the U.S. deficit. Heading the list is "Farm-income stabilization (various subsidies and credits to farmers): $19.2 billion."
In October The New York Times ran a three-part series on large-scale abuses to the U.S. government system that supports agricultural trade. The Times followed the series with an editorial blasting a system that "enrich[es] a small group of wealthy growers … and multinational corporations."
Most likely financial pressures will bring a dramatic shift for farmers of industrialized countries. For example, the U. S. Department of Agriculture is considering dropping the Farmers Home Administration (FHA), its multi-billion-dollar lending arm. (4) . That means farmers will have to turn to their banks for the credit government used to provide. But according to Hoard's Dairyman (Nov. 1993), new banking reforms curb agricultural lending: "Record bank failures during the late 1980s chilled the banking industry and led the Federal Reserve to enact tougher banking regulations … Like it or not, credit is the lifeblood of a thriving agriculture. But we don't like what we see going on in ag lending."
"Enough Oil to Float a Battleship"
U.S. agriculture faces other shortages besides water and money. The USDA predicts that by the year 2000 the U.S. will be a net importer of potash, phosphorus, and ammonium the three main ingredients in commercial fertilizer.
And what about the petroleum we talked about before? Petroleum from the U.S. stands to become more expensive. In a report submitted to the U.S. Secretary of Energy, the National Petroleum Council says that the oil industry could spend at least $166 billion over twenty years to comply with existing and expected environmental regulations. (5)
So oil companies will focus on developing foreign oil fields. Though new oil fields make more oil available, depending on someone else's petroleum can present a government with unpredictable strategic challenges. This was brought home to me lately when a friend commented, "Well, you don't have to worry about running out of oil now they've got enough oil in Kazakhstan to float a battleship."
His imagery sounded ominous to me. It's true many oil fields are being developed around the world. Just read the headlines "Texaco Gets Aid to Invest in Russia," "Norwegian Production Predicted to Surge in 1994," "Oil Giants Skittish about China Field," "Mobil Returns to Vietnam." But if the food supply depends on these foreign resources, my question is, Which battleship will my children be on to defend these investments when international relationships turn sour? Even if our kids aren't directly fighting, oil wars can hurt us all by driving up oil prices, which can cripple agriculture.
The carbon emissions taxes I mentioned are meant to reduce global warming by so-called "greenhouse gases." But global industry may still send lots of those newly discovered oil reserves into the atmosphere. Environmentalists say that global warming may cause weather shifts that could make current agricultural patterns impossible. This has major implications for commercial-scale agriculture.
Other environmental challenges for agriculture include soil erosion, water shortages, and water pollution by manure, pesticides, and fertilizers.
Besides natural pollution, technology causes social pollution by forcing farmers off the land. In an article in The Calcutta Telegraph, Suryatirtha Ray concludes, "Having ruined both jobs and the soil, industrial agriculture is fast becoming economically unviable." (6) Ironically, agriculture's technological advancement is contributing to its own demise.
Politics and Trade
Global politics and economic trade agreements present more challenges for agriculture. For example, in today's paper I see a photo captioned, "Demonstrators trying to break barricades yesterday near the headquarters of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade in Geneva. Farmers from Europe, India and Japan protested the trade accord, saying it would ruin hundreds of million of farmers and uproot centuries-old traditions." (7)
Three thousand farmers demonstrated against the GATT, and several hundred of them fought with police. Protests like this point to impending social disruption that even the farmers themselves are aware of.
Politics and Technology
Dependence on modern technology, such as petroleum-powered tractors, implies dependence on politics. Like trade, sophisticated technologies exist within the context of complex international political relations. People are at the mercy of those who control the flow of resources. If international relations turn against a country, the country may no longer be able to rely on tractors, built and powered by resources from several different countries. Cuba provides an example of this vulnerability.
Technology is at risk with national politics as well. If agriculture depends on technology, we will be faced with massive food shortages when the political structure collapses. The tractors won't keep going by themselves without the political structure to make it possible to build, trade, and power them. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.8.7), Srila Prabhupada writes, "Eventually the state will not be able to collect taxes and consequently will not be able to meet its huge military and administrative expenses. Everything will collapse, and there will be chaos and disturbance all over the state." Those remarks, which Prabhupada wrote in 1974, are no longer just a possible prophecy. They are coming to pass right now, starting with the former Soviet Union and other countries.
Until society is organized on the principles given by Krsna in the Bhagavad-gita, there is scarcely any alternative to things getting worse and worse. And agriculture will be among the first and hardest hit sectors of society.
The Need for Sacrifice
Why is modern agriculture in such a state of crisis? Because its progress rests on materialistic principles, which are ultimately not sustainable. In the Srimad-Bhagavatam (4.18.7), Srila Prabhupada writes, "A huge arrangement exists for the production of large-scale industrial and agricultural products, but all these products are meant for sense gratification. Therefore, despite such productive capacities there is scarcity because the world's population is full of thieves."
Prabhupada goes on to explain, "One is mistaken if he thinks that by applying modern machines such as tractors, grains can be produced. If one goes to a desert and uses a tractor, there is still no possibility of producing grains. We may adopt various means, but it is essential to know that the planet earth will stop producing grains if sacrifices are not performed."
The key to understanding the proper development of agriculture lies in understanding the Lord's purpose in putting the fallen souls in the material world:
The material creation by the Lord … is a chance offered to the conditioned souls to come back home back to Godhead…. The Lord created this material world to enable the conditioned souls to learn how to perform yajnas (sacrifices) for the satisfaction of Visnu [the Supreme Lord] so that while in the material world they can live very comfortably without anxiety and after finishing the present material body they can enter into the kingdom of God.
(Bhagavad-gita As It Is 3.10, purport)
Krsna recommends three kinds of sacrifice: offering our food to Him before we eat it, performing our daily work for His sake, and chanting His holy names. In Bhagavad-gita (3.13), Krsna says, "The devotees of the Lord are released from all kinds of sins because they eat food which is offered first for sacrifice. Others, who prepare food for personal sense enjoyment, verily eat only sin."
Then He says, "All living bodies subsist on food grains, which are produced from rains. Rains are produced by performance of yajna [sacrifice], and yajna is born of prescribed duties." Prabhupada outlines the process:
Ultimately we have to depend on the production of the field and not on the production of big factories. The field production is due to sufficient rains from the sky, and such rains are controlled by demigods like Indra, sun, moon, etc., and they are all servants of the Lord. The Lord can be satisfied by sacrifices; therefore, one who cannot perform them will find himself in scarcity that is the law of nature. Yajna, specifically the sankirtana-yajna (chanting the names of the Lord) prescribed for this age, must therefore be performed to save us at least from scarcity of food supply.
(Bhagavad-gita As It Is 3.14, purport)
Is Krsna's Advice Practical?
Some people may question whether these three sacrifices offering our food to Krsna, doing our work for His sake, and chanting His holy names can solve the problems faced by modern agriculture. The answer is yes, if people perform the sacrifices in a genuine mood of humility, with a sincere desire to carry out the will of the Lord. Then they'll naturally do things that will solve the problems of agriculture. For example, devotees of Krsna don't eat meat. This one act stops violence, environmental dam-age, and agricultural over-consumption. Since Krsna loves the cows, a society striving to please Him will offer Him milk from protected cows, and grains produced and transported by protected oxen.
Practically speaking, if all society adopted this standard, modern commercial agriculture would end. Small family farms depending on ox power would more easily lend themselves to sustainability and conscientious stewardship of the land. Those farms would give young people the chance to engage themselves productively and creatively in work everyone would appreciate.
Millions of small farms dedicated to pleasing the Supreme Lord would end the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few gambling stock investors and ensure that everyone could produce food to offer the Lord. Eating that food after it is offered to Krsna would mean the end of hunger.
In contrast, the fatal flaw of modern commercial agriculture is that it is based on materialistic principles of sense gratification, with no reference to the desires of the Supreme Lord. It is doomed to collapse sooner or later, annihilated by its short-sighted, selfish policies. It is part of a culture with a deathly attraction for technology and the thrill of speculative investment profits.
The short-sighted, self-destructive mentality that creates and promotes a product like BST is all too typical of commercial agriculture. So I ask, How long can modern agriculture feed us? As long as farmers can get their loans? As long as there's no major oil war? As long as modern agriculture doesn't completely ruin the environment? As long as the country we're in stays politically powerful?
Can modern agriculture meet the growing challenges it faces? Will it feed my children? My grandchildren? Possibly but I don't want to bet their lives on it.
Recently my eleven-year-old son told me he wants to learn to work the oxen this summer. I see that as a better hope. Of course, someone could ask, How long can Krsna conscious agriculture sustain him? The answer is pretty simple: As long as he depends on Krsna.
1. "Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone: FDA Approval Should Be Withheld Until the Mastitis Issue Is Resolved," GAO/PEMD-92-26, Aug. 1992.
2. Press release from Senator Feingold's office, Nov. 5, 1993.
3. "A Global Analysis of Energy Prices and Agriculture," by Bradley J. McDonald, Stephen W. Martinez, Miranda Otradovsky, and James V. Stout, Agriculture and Trade Analysis Division, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture. Staff Report No. AGES 9148, Sept. 1991.
4. The Wall Street Journal, Sept. 1, 1993.
5. The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 2, 1993.
6. "Black edge to a green revolution," July 29, 1993.
7. "Compromises Edge GATT Nearer New Pact," The New York Times, Dec. 5, 1993.
Hare Krsna Devi Dasi, an ISKCON devotee since 1978, is co-editor of the newsletter Hare Krsna Rural Life.