RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Big Ag Creates Big Problems

Every so often, somebody says that if agriculture put 100% of its efforts in the growing of food, real vegetables and tomatoes and grass-fed beef and such instead of corn for ethanol and soybeans for biodiesel, there will be such a glut of food and prices will fall so low that all the farmers will be driven out of business. Or, says somebody else, there will be so little food that we’ll all starve. The script goes something like this: It might have worked in the past, maybe as recently as 1950, to raise enough food in our nation to feed ourselves, but now we are too many. And transportation is so good, that food from far away is much more practical than it ever was.

The argument from local-food advocates counters that we need more diversity in what farmers raise so that the land won’t be so stressed by continuous applications of chemicals and tillage for the same few crops. And we need more attention to creating a system that functions for the nearby folks, rather than creating huge stocks of something—grain or almonds or chickens—that have to find a market as exports.

Exports, we argue, are often subsidized by tax money and also may undersell farmers in other places. Those folks in less-developed countries, put out of business by our cheap products, end up losing their land and moving to urban slums, trying to make a living in the garbage heaps. And, their land, purchased by corporations, becomes part of the giant monoculture controlled by a few giant landowners. For examples, we can point to the acres of soybeans and cattle along the Amazon River in Brazil, once the homelands of indigenous tribes and the most diverse rainforest ecosystem on the planet.

We locavores argue for decentralized, local food systems. Each system will be unique to its ecosystem. Maybe the recall of 10 million pounds of flour will give us a new way to think about this. The idea that 38 people in 20 states can be sickened by one mill is in itself an argument for decentralization.

Wheat, most Americans will recognize, is the basis for our diet just as rice is the basis of much (but not all) Asian food. Lewis and Clark noted mill sites as they traveled across the wilderness, because a mill signified a good place to put a town and they were preparing a map for a future nation. Indeed, towns grew up around mills, the essential signs of civilization.

Even today most Americans eat a little wheat at every meal. With the most innocent soup or salad, we’ll have a cracker, a roll, a piece of bread, a cookie or piece of pie. And at our most excessive, we enjoy noodles, pasta, gravy, or even a coating of deep-fried flour over a shrimp. Check it out at the next covered-dish meal you attend: Most of the dishes contain a little wheat.

But, for all that, we only have a few mills. From hundreds of mills just after World War II, there are today fewer than 100, according to maps from the North American Millers’ Association, and those 100 are owned by 27 companies. Most are located in the heart of the nation. As are most wheat fields.

Climate change has played havoc with the wheat-growing cycle. Missouri farmers once could count on planting wheat in late October, having a little growth in the late fall, then dormancy through winter, then bloom—those grass-like heads of wheat are its flower—after the spring rains. It would ripen in the summer to be harvested in July when there was still time to plant the field with soybeans.

In 2014-15, planting went on as usual but the spring rains didn’t end on schedule. Instead, it rained into June and the blooming season. Much Midwestern wheat and into Canada was ruined by the rain which caused fusarium head blight, and its associated toxin, vomitoxin, which makes people sick. FDA says human foods can have one part per million (about one kernel in 80 pounds of wheat) or five ppm in feed for livestock. Farmers were reporting 10 parts per million, meaning that the wheat was unusable unless it could be cut with clean wheat, which was impossible to find. And 2015 was not an isolated year; the cycle also appeared in 2010. The same thing will happen every year that we have unusually wet conditions. Some researchers have reported that constant use of glyphosate (Roundup) increases the trouble with fusarium.

In short, the system with so much concentration of a few crops is fragile. And we’re back to the recall of 10 million pounds of flour, enough to feed more than 70,000 people for a year. This flour was possibly contaminated by e coli, a bacteria found in feces and in water that’s been contaminated by feces. It came from a mill in Kansas City, and the source of contamination is not clear as I write this. What is known is that the contaminated wheat made at least 38 people sick in at least 20 states.

This concentration of product from one place is a clear and present danger.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts Farm and Fiddle on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2016

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