A Parity Farm Bill for a Future with Family Farms and Monarchs
by George Naylor
Once again, so many groups are focused on the “Farm Bill”, the key piece of legislation that could possibly put some constraint on the agribusiness appetite for cheap commodities and global markets to sell bulldozers and biocides. It’s been the hope of the family farm movement that a good farm bill will assure “fair prices for farmers” and secure a future for family farms rather than endless consolidation, further industrializing agriculture. It will take a lot more public awareness and repurposing of our government before that happens.
Members of NOFA battle in concrete ways the slings and arrows of a food and agriculture system that is destroying the earth. Can your knowledge and dedication be spread far and wide so that virtually everybody will be dedicated to stopping the destruction? Unless everybody focuses on the essential changes needed in a Farm Bill, I’m afraid that umpteen environmental organizations focusing on “their” issues and lobbying our corporate-financed Congress to change our agricultural system and save the planet has as much chance to succeed as a snowball in Iowa on the Fourth of July in 2050.
“The rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.” “Get big or get out.” “Inflation is hurting the poor.” I’m sure you’ve heard these sentiments many times. An agricultural economist at Iowa State University told my wife, “It’s the nature of agriculture to consolidate.” So where is this all to end? One big farm with genetically modified crops that will resist being drenched in pesticides? Genetically modified livestock that will convert genetically modified corn and soybean meal more efficiently in next-generation CAFOs? Lots of poor people (serfs?) and a few multi-billionaires?
Our modern industrial agriculture system uses 91% of the approximately one billion pounds of pesticides used in the United States. Now’s the time to honor the 60th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking and inspirational book Silent Spring. If you haven’t read the book, read it now. If you have read the book, read it again! She says that we must recognize that we shouldn’t call these toxic chemicals pesticides, we should call them biocides. Her scientific logic and citings convey that their effects on all living beings can be deadly, destructive of our genetic heritage, and crash ecosystems that will lead to a global disaster. She dedicated her book to her contemporary philosopher and humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer, whom she quotes: “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.”
The effects that biocides have on human health is frightening, but Carson warns that an even greater tragedy could be the damage to our ecosystem—the system we cohabit with the rest of nature. This damage was all too apparent to me and my wife, Patti, as we traveled from Iowa to a National Family Farm Coalition meeting in Massachusetts this summer—continuous corn and soybean fields devoid of any other plants all the way into New York State. Can you imagine what other living things those fields are devoid of? Over 250,000 square miles in the US are used to grow genetically modified corn and soybeans engineered to not be affected by the most omni-powerful herbicide known, glyphosate. Now that the inevitable resistance that Rachel Carson warned about made this Monsanto bioweapon obsolete, new generations of genetically altered crops have been made to resist glyphosate along with 2,4-D (Enlist technology) and dicamba (Extend technology). So there are virtually no milkweeds for Monarch reproduction or flowering plants for the nutrition of that now endangered species. The US Fish and Wildlife Service has declared that this incredible butterfly warrants endangered status, and Center for Food Safety will launch a campaign in 2023 to get the full protection of the Endangered Species Act.
Since I have never raised Roundup Ready crops, my 85-acre oat field had lots of milkweeds, which I dodged with the windrower, along with red clover that provided nectar to fuel the Monarchs’ migration.
From the time I started farming in 1976, I’ve been involved with movements (like the American Agriculture Movement) and many organizations and coalitions (like the National Family Farm Coalition) dedicated to passing a good Farm Bill. We found that the concerns for family farm justice and stewardship of the land were bedrock positions of farm movements going way back. The catastrophes of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression led farm groups to make demands of the Roosevelt administration in 1933 to change our agriculture system forever to prevent more of the same. After all, it was obvious that red topsoil blowing all the way from Kansas and Oklahoma to Washington, D.C. was more than an act of God. So was the farm depression of the 1920s—combined with the Roaring Twenties—that led to the Great Depression when even more farms were being foreclosed and unemployment reached 25%.
The Roosevelt administration responded with a plethora of programs as part of the New Deal. While all of the agricultural features of the New Deal were experimental, it should be recognized that methods aimed at achieving Parity and land stewardship became functional and achieved success.
Why is it so important for all our citizens to understand Parity? First, people need to understand that the dystopian agriculture we have today resulted from the logic of the market under every Farm Bill after 1952 that was intended to replace Parity with a “market-oriented” policy. What we have today was inevitable from the logic of free markets where the name of the game is to make as much money as possible or to hang on to the farm by maximizing production no matter what the costs are to the environment or society. Understanding parity will show that we don’t have to stick with this out-of-control system.
Second, this market-oriented policy was the product of a bipartisan consensus (referred to as “the Washington consensus” in modern neoliberal terms) written at the behest of imperialist multinational corporations and their multinational banks. It denied that a democratic government has a vital role in avoiding disparity and environmental destruction and propagandized that government should stay out of markets. (Farm Bureau’s mantra was “Farming is like any other business, so get the government out of agriculture.”)
Third, if we are ever to stop this insanity and create a truly sustainable civilization, we have to understand how a democratic government can programmatically prevent the robbery of nature and our fellow human beings. Otherwise, we will be limited by demagogues who capitalize on confusion and anger to maintain whatever remains of the status quo.
So how can we understand this fundamental economic principle of parity? The current state of inflation should help focus our attention. Two percent of inflation has been the goal of the Federal Reserve in normal times. Recent monetary and fiscal policy has led to soaring inflation so that much of the debt racked up by so many sectors of the economy will be paid off in cheaper dollars. Inflation is real. Ask somebody at the lower end of the wage scale. The federal minimum wage (another product of the New Deal) hasn’t been increased since 2009. Now you can see why inflation hurts poor people. If the minimum wage had been adjusted for inflation, wages would have kept up with inflation. Low-wage earners have been the victims of the “market-oriented” policy. (Farmer and economist Brad Wilson reports that today’s minimum wage is the lowest it’s been in real dollars since 1940!)
Much like the minimum wage, a parity farm program uses a price support mechanism to make sure that the purchasers of farm commodities pay a price that has been adjusted for inflation. The New Deal goal of parity used the average prices of agricultural commodities in the years 1910-1914, which they took as the base years because the farm economy was in balance with other sectors of the economy. Under the New Deal, farm prices maintained their buying power (i.e. 100% of parity) from 1941-1952. If corn prices had been adjusted for inflation, the price of corn paid by vertically integrated CAFO corporations today would be over $13 per bushel, instead of around $5 per bushel. I think livestock would be raised on family farms instead of in CAFOs had it not been for the “get big or get out” imperative forced by lower and lower corn prices that led to lower prices for livestock. All the billions of government subsidies never stopped the loss of family farms, because they only underwrote the cheap corn and soybean production so critical for the corporate takeover of livestock production. Parity programs would have kept livestock on the land so that more natural farming with sound crop rotations, reduction of soil loss using hay land and pastures, reaping nitrogen from legumes, and simplified no-chemical weed control would have been the norm. Creating an all-organic system for the nation would not have been all that difficult.
So even though we can say that a parity price is a “fair” price for a farmer who grows corn, more importantly, a parity price avoids a “misallocation of resources,” in this case the use of corn, other feed grains, and oilseed meals to feed livestock in CAFOs or livestock factories.
Policy fashioned on New Deal principles would have avoided wasteful overproduction of commodities through the use of quotas so that farmers wouldn’t be aiming at record-breaking yields every year. The myriad of “supply management” schemes through the market-oriented years since 1953 never aimed at parity prices because that mechanism would mean that the world would always be on the brink of food shortages. Instead, a parity program would rely on commodity reserves (the Ever-Normal Granary) to keep bountiful years from depressing prices and provide needed supplies when crop shortfalls occurred. In other words, parity prices do not require creating scarcity and farmers do not need to abuse the land to stay in business.
I believe it’s imperative that we base our policy choices on the lessons of history to lay the groundwork for the kind of revolutionary change in agricultural policy we need. Because parity price supports counter the profit motives of the industrialized food and agribusiness corporations, getting a Farm Bill with parity price supports has a snowball’s chance of passing. It may seem logical to advocate for various compromises such as price supports set at the “cost of production.” The cost of production is calculated by USDA referencing typical mono-crop large-scale farming with a multitude of chemicals and their related GMO varieties. Wouldn’t using the cost of production calculation just stabilize and lock in the status quo of industrial production of corn and soybeans to feed livestock in CAFOs?
NOFA members have shown how healthful, organic food can be produced on family farms and are setting the groundwork for a food system completely dedicated to organic principles. Obviously, we need a parity system to avoid family farmers becoming endangered species replaced by corporate farms managed by artificial intelligence, and more importantly to stop the march toward our final Silent Spring.
George Naylor has been farming his family’s farm since 1976 choosing to never raise GMO crops. George and his wife Patti began 7 years ago transitioning the farm to organic. Last year George, Patti, and his sons Dylan and Jackson celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Naylor farm. Their new farm project is an organic cider apple orchard. George was a member of the first Iowa Corn Promotion Board, was active in the 1980s Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, and worked on a farmer team writing the Harkin-Gephardt farm bill. In the early 2000’s he served as president of the National Family Farm Coalition and was a lead plaintiff in a national lawsuit against Monsanto. He currently serves on the boards of the Center for Food Safety and Family Farm Defenders. Patti and George blog.
contact - email@example.com