If You Mess with Farming, You Screw Us All
So, you go into any grocery store, bakery, dessert shop and think, “Holy hell. This stuff’s getting expensive! WTF?”
Naturally, we assume fuel prices have done it all, but part of the price increase is decades of wasteful, destructive agriculture policies. Wheat prices are soaring (yayz for the commodities brokers!) and the number of acres devoted to wheat has dropped by 24 million — or just over 25% since 1981.
From the Washington Post, via MSNBC
U.S. farmers are expected to plant about 64 million acres of wheat this year, down from a high of 88 million in 1981. In Kansas, wheat acreage has declined by a third since the mid-1980s, and nationwide, there is now less wheat in grain bins than at any time since World War II — only about enough to supply the world for four days. This occurs as developing countries with some of the poorest populations are rapidly increasing their wheat imports.
U.S. wheat yields per acre have increased little in two decades, partly because commercial seed companies have all but abandoned investments in improved varieties, preferring to focus on the more profitable corn and soybeans. Subtle warming changes in the climate and the recent availability of new plant varieties that thrive in cold, dry conditions have pushed the corn belt north and west.
In 1996, Congress gave a strong nudge to these changes by passing legislation allowing wheat growers for the first time to switch to other crops and still collect government subsidies. The result is that farmers received federal wheat payments last year on 15 million acres more than were planted. [my emphasis]
Oh goody. So, Americans – in the form of taxes – are paying farmers not to produce wheat and we’re paying through the nose whenever we buy wheat products because we’re paying farmers not to produce wheat. Lovely.
And this isn’t a problem for America only. Developing nations count on us to supply them with cheap wheat to cushion their own production. Except that other wheat-producing nations are stopping exports in order to conserve their harvests for their citizens. Add in the falling value of the dollar:
The U.S. government stopped holding large stocks of wheat in the 1980s, but the United States, nearly alone among wheat producers, allows countries to shop here even when others have shut off exports.
This free-trade policy resulted in a run on the 2007 U.S. wheat crop this year by foreign buyers taking advantage of the favorable dollar exchange rate to stock up, even as Ukraine, Argentina and Kazakhstan blocked exports.
Those of you who feel smug about driving your ethanol-fueled vehicle? Stop.
The ethanol boom, in particular, is providing strong incentives to keep former wheat acres in corn. Within a year, Braaten will be able to truck his corn to three modern ethanol refineries, one already built and two others near completion. These huge distilleries will need corn from an area about the size of Rhode Island, and many of the acres will come at the expense of such traditional crops as wheat and sugar beets.
And, of course, corn seeds are a money maker for the corporations.
These seeds are protected by patents and licensing agreements, requiring farmers to buy a new batch each year. That produces strong financial incentives for the companies .
Even then, there is no assurance that farmers will buy the seed year after year. That is because of the nature of the wheat plant, an unusually complex organism originating in the Middle East thousands of years ago. Unlike hybrid corn, which loses its productivity after the first year, seeds from improved wheat varieties can be saved and replanted for several years without significant loss of yield.
But in the end, under the rule of the Bush Corpos, feeding America is just another way to make a fortune. Unless, of course, you’re the farmer.
Unfortunately for America, few will notice there’s a problem until they’re standing in breadlines.