How agriculture ate the earth

  The next time you drink a Coke, take a second to consider that you’re suckling from the teat of evil. The culprit is not, despite what you’ve been taught to think, a soft-drink-peddling Fortune 500 company, but agriculture itself. And Richard Manning goes after it with a vengeance in his book Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization.

For about 10,000 years, since humans first toyed with agriculture, we followed a pretty simple formula: To grow more food, we plowed up more land and planted it. Then, in the 1960s, we ran out of land to plow up.

The solution was decidedly unnatural: We engineered massive irrigation projects to farm water from the mountains, and began cooking up petroleum- and phosphate-based fertilizers to plump up crop yields and keep the boom going. That, writes Manning, spread "the footprint of farming to mine, sterilize, and dewater the rest of the land … We no longer grow crops just on land; we have plowed up the biosphere."

But that’s only what agriculture did to the planet, to say nothing of what it’s doing to us. Take corn as an example. As the 20th century wore on, Americans were growing so much corn that we began disposing of the majority by feeding it to cattle. But even cattle couldn’t eat it all.

"What the situation required," writes Manning, "was a new idea that would treat us all like livestock."

That idea? Convert the surplus corn into high-fructose corn syrup, use it to make Coke, or PowerBars, or Newman’s Own spaghetti sauce (start reading product-ingredient lists, and you’ll find it everywhere), and pack it away in people. It’s only now that the apparent costs of this practice — widespread obesity and a rise in diabetes — are becoming widely recognized.

So what, besides fertilizer and cheap water, fuels the surplus-driven juggernaut that agriculture has become? Government subsidies, and a little grease from corn-processing giants like Archer Daniels Midland.

"The endurance of those subsidies, year after year, through Republican and Democratic administrations alike, is the prima facie evidence that farming has evolved its own inertia, independent of human needs," Manning writes. Then he delivers the kicker: "Humanity’s role is not to shape agriculture to its needs; rather, it is humanity’s job to figure out how to pay for and dispose of all of that grain that agriculture chooses to grow." While much of Manning’s thesis was worked out by agriculture’s revisionist-history crowd years ago, this book will make you think differently about your next trip to the grocery store.

Against the Grain: How Agriculture has Hijacked Civilization Richard Manning
240 pages, hardcover $24.
North Point Press, 2004.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -