By encouraging animal slaughter, the whole atmosphere becomes polluted more and more by war, pestilence, famine, and many other unwanted calamities.

Hare Krsna Devi Dasi

Hare Krsna Devi Dasi

Srimad-Bhagavatam 1.7.37, purport

AS I DESCRIBED in my last column, back in the fifties the U. S. government and the big grain companies thought they'd found the fix for the problem of surplus grain: sell some of it cheap abroad as food aid, and push foreign countries to raise meat so they'd buy grain at good prices to feed livestock. These programs would save the American farm economy and build America's humanitarian image.

No one seemed to care that food-aid programs crippled small farmers in the countries that got the grain. For centuries these farmers had grown staple foods for themselves and their neighbors using simple farming methods, usually plowing with animals. When the U. S. dumped cheap tractor-produced grain on the market, food prices sank so low these farmers could barely earn a living. Many gave up farming and tried to find work in the cities so they could at least buy food. But machines in the cities were putting people out of work. So now many who'd come from the farms had neither land to grow food nor money to buy it.

When well-off countries tried to help by sending even more food aid, they made the problem worse by wiping out more farmers. Governments and international agencies couldn't see the value of keeping traditional farmers on their land.

In the 1970's the international food situation changed. U. S.-Soviet detente opened the silos for huge American grain sales to the Soviet Union (much of it to feed animals). This meant the U. S. no longer had to sell grain cheap for food aid.

So grain prices went up around the world. Countries that had been getting grain cheap now had to pay full price.

About the same time, there were several shocks in oil prices. So on top of paying more for U. S. grain, now developing countries had to pay more for petroleum for their fledgling industries.

One way to get money was to borrow from the World Bank. But the Bank expected to be paid back, and by the 1980's it was calling for austerities to make sure countries could repay their loans. One important austerity was for countries to lean less on imports, including grains. But this again hurt the poor, as prices for food shot up beyond their reach.

Another form of "help" proved even more destructive. Experts believed that instead of importing food, third-world countries should grow more through the technology and miracle seeds of the "Green Revolution." But what should they grow more of? Cash crops to pay off international debts.

Profitable crops might be broccoli or strawberries or even carnations. But the biggest crop for bringing in cash was feed grains.

In Food Crops vs. Feed Crops, David Barkin, Rosemary Batt, and Billie DeWalt tell how, in country after country, feed crops for meat production edged out food crops as the Green Revolution advanced. In Mexico, for example, land traditionally used for corn and beans for people gave way to wheat and sorghum for animals. Productivity and profits went up. More people went hungry.

As food aid had pushed small farmers off their land by driving down crop prices, the Green Revolution pushed them off by driving up prices for land and rent. Farm land in the third world kept converging into the hands of a few. As wealthier farmers profited from credit and technological advances, they brought bigger harvests to market. This raised land values. So nearby subsistence farmers, unable to make enough to pay rent and taxes, got pushed off their land to join the hungry.

The Green Revolution featured new seeds called "high-yield." They were not inherently high yielding, but they yielded more in response to technological inputs chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and so on.

The ecological toll of the Green Revolution was devastating. Vandana Shiva, physicist and agricultural philosopher, tells of it in The Violence of the Green Revolution. Switching from thousands of types of local grains to a handful of new hybrids dangerously shrank the genetic pool of local seed types. Switching from cow manure and green manure to chemical fertilizers degraded the soil, making it poor in micronutrients and toxic. The irrigation needed for the new hybrids made some land soggy and salty and turned other land into desert.

Green Revolution crops gave more grain because they grew on shorter stems. But in India, for example, the straw of the plant was a chief source of fodder for cows, which provided manure for fuel and fertilizer. Short-stemmed grains meant less fodder and manure. Sending animals to the forest to make up for lost fodder put heavy pressure on the forest ecosystem. Many forests were lost.

Large areas gave way to mono-cropping, growing just one kind of crop for harvest. Pulses, oilseeds, millet, and greens became scarce, and local people suffered nutritional disorders. Meanwhile, new pests invaded the fields, only to be fought by pesticides that contaminated food, soil, and water.

And farmers had to pay for each damaging input. As they switched from systems nature had sustained for centuries to one where every input had to be paid for, small farmers were swept off their land. Even large farmers saw profits sink as input prices rose and productivity declined. Social unrest followed, and factions fought for land, water rights, and credit.

Of course, the market offered other ways to earn money. Instead of raising animal feed, some countries raised animals. In Brazil, thousands of acres of Amazon rain forest were cleared to raise cattle to give meat for fast-food restaurants around the world.

Meanwhile, back in the U. S., where huge-scale commercial farming had gotten its start, things were worse than ever. Soybeans and corn, two chief moneymakers in animal feed, were catastrophically eroding the soil. The typical Iowa corn farmer lost two bushels of topsoil for every bushel of corn he reaped. Irrigation for feed crops was depleting water supplies.

Input prices kept rising, but farmers often had no choice but to sell to a single company that made sure the farmers couldn't raise crop prices. The better the farmers produced, the lower the crop prices fell, and the more money the farmers lost. They were being wiped out. In 1860, half the people in America worked on farms; by 1990, only two out of every hundred.

And the price of inputs promised only to go up further. Months before the Persian Gulf war, the U. S. Department of Energy predicted that oil prices would double by the year 2015, to $40 a barrel. The Department of Agriculture warned that by the year 2000 the U. S. would become a net importer of phosphate rock, ammonium, and potash, the main items in commercial fertilizer.

Even more ominous, with the farm lobby shrinking, the government talked about offsetting the national debt by abolishing farm subsidies. Rural sociologist Harriet Friedman predicted, "When that happens, American farmers will be decimated."

All over the world, agriculture was suffering similar problems. Slaughtering the ox to replace him with a tractor, and replacing food grains with feed grains for meat, had failed to bring peace, abundance, and prosperity. Instead, as Srila Prabhupada said, it had polluted the world with conflict, pestilence, and famine.

Next issue, we'll begin to look at a Vedic alternative to our modern socio-economic mess.

Hare Krsna Devi Dasi has been in ISKCON since 1978. She spent several years on the Gita Nagari farm in Pennsylvania. She now lives in Maine, where you can write to her c/o The Ox Power Alternative Energy Club, 9B Stetson St., Brunswick, ME 04011.