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Know the West

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.