Raising Less Corn, More Hell
A revelatory, alarming, urgent and fiercely witty essay on the many wrong ways in which our food is produced — what it all means and what can be done about it.
In Raising Less Corn, More Hell George B. Pyle shows us how the famous breadbasket of America is being bought up by large corporations, who produce less food per acre than the small farmer, push those farmers further into debt, pollute the earth and wear out the soil, and even license the very stuff of life: grain and seed. Meanwhile those farmers are promised a better future if they play ball with the corporations, but caught between the brutal new market and antiquated government support systems, they are forced to grow too much of the wrong crops — crops that will be fed to animals who cannot tolerate them, shipped as dubious "aid" to struggling countries, drive the farmer's take-home pay ever downward, and make us all fatter.
Pyle, native Kansan and editorialist for the Salt Lake Tribune, delivers a powerful, learned and lively attack on the status quo and shows us how unless we take a close look at our larder — right now — we risk turning much of rural America into a permanent environmental and economic wasteland. We are feeding ourselves and the rest of the world too much trash, he says, at environmental, ecological, and even security costs that are too high to pay.
What is happening to agriculture — the loss of small farmers, the concentration of ownership, the industrialization of production, the creation of a chemical-dependent culture and the urge to monkey around with our food's genes — is not inevitable, and it is not good. Modern trends and theories in agriculture are depopulating the countryside, spoiling the land, squandering the water, poisoning the food, deepening the global divisions between rich and poor and threatening whole ecosystems.
These trends are promoted by the greed of agribusiness giants, aided and abetted by our government. It is allowed by consumers and voters because of common, sincerely held and utterly wrong assumptions that only tons of pesticides and fertilizers stand between us and famine, that food is no different than any other consumer product in its ability to be industrialized, and that decisions that move people off the farm and into the city — whether in Illinois, India or Ivory Coast — are doing everyone a favor. In order to keep these beliefs widespread in our culture, government, industry, academia and farm organizations treat the citizens of this and other nations like so many mushrooms — in the dark and covered with manure.
The independent farmer is what environmentalists call an "indicator species" — necessary and misunderstood for the same reasons that people often miss the real importance of the spotted owl or the snail darter. Like those creatures, independent farmers are not to be saved for their sake alone, but as proof that the overall ecosystem remains healthy. If the independent farmer thrives, we know the world is geared to allow that. And, if the world is geared for the survival of the farmer, only then can we have hope that it will be able to support the rest of us.
Thoreau said, "In nature is the salvation of the world." And in the independent farmer, in his unique ability to care for the land, in her need to protect her local environment for the sake of her children, is the salvation of nature.
George B. Pyle was born in Kansas City, Mo. He has been a newspaper reporter and editor, radio talk show host and television commentator in Kansas. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Editorial Writing in 1998. Now an editorial writer for The Salt Lake Tribune, he lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and two sons.