Archive for October, 2007

The Politics of Fertilizer

“All progress in capitalist agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the worker, but of robbing the soil.” ~Karl Marx

“The United States undertook – first unofficially and then as part of a deliberate state policy – the imperial annexation of any islands thought to be rich in this natural fertilizer. Under the authority of what became the Guano Island Act, passed by Congress in 1856, U.S. capitalists seized ninety-four islands, rocks, and keys around the globe between 1856 and 1903, sixty-six of which were officially recognized by the Department of State as U.S. appurtenances. Nine of these guano islands remain U.S. possessions today.” ~ from Hungry for Profit, page 45.

In The Jungle, lead character Jurgis has truly plummeted to the depths of desperation when he accepts a job at the fertilizer plant. In the vicious reality of the stockyards, an assembly-line position slicing into the abdomens of animal corpses is preferable to shoveling fertilizer. It’s the stench. Un-washable, it permeates fabric and clogs pores.

Jurgis and the inescapable odor were on my mind as I began reading Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment, edited by Fred Magdoff, John Bellamy Foster, and Frederick H. Buttel. Though a mere slice of its spanning denunciation of agribusiness, this anthology provides fascinating insight on the fertilizer industry. From guano imperialism to chronically deficient soil, the politics of fertilizer are inextricably linked to the abuse of land, labor, and animals.

There is an intriguing military connection to the production and usage of agrochemicals, including nitrogen fertilizer. After all, “many of the pesticides used in agriculture were originally developed for military purposes as defoliants and nerve agents.” The process of producing nitrogen fertilizers is “the same process as the production of explosives.” The conclusion of World War II “freed up a large capacity to make nitrogen fertilizers” for domestic use. In a naïve attempt at resourcefulness, farmers were encouraged to make use of “the widespread availability of nitrogen fertilizer” (Magdoff, 51).

The adoption of this new approach meant the discarding of historically reliable methods. Pre-agrochemicals, agriculture relied on legume crops “to supply non-legumes with sufficient fertility” (Magdoff, 52). Legume crops, such as clover and alfalfa, were doubly useful in that they “convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use” and were also utilized as feed for ruminant farm animals (Magdoff, 52). With the removal of legumes and the purchase of fertilizer, there was no longer a necessity for farm animals in vegetable production. Thus the split between the growing of produce and the raising of farm animals for food into two entirely separate agricultural activities.

In many ways “this breakdown of the physical connection between the animals and the land producing their feed has worsened the depletion of nutrients and organic matter from the soils producing these crops (Magdoff, 53). Unattached to crop production, animal agriculture “became concentrated in certain regions: beef feedlots in the southern Great Plains, poultry in Arkansas and on the Delmarva Peninsula (composed of parts of Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia), and hog production in certain parts of the Midwest and in North Carolina)” (Magdoff, 53). From these locations, “geographically remote from where crops are grown,” the “animal wastes cannot economically be returned to the land in a nutrient-recycling process” (Magdoff, 79). The result is that “crop farms must use large amounts of synthetic fertilizers to compensate for the loss of vast quantities of nutrients” (Magdoff, 53).

The depletion of nutrients within the soil is a dilemma complicated by far more variables than just the availability of fertilizer. Over-farming, agrochemical dependency, and monoculture production have transformed once fertile soil into the malnourished farmland of today.

Yet is farm animal waste a requisite for successful farming? Surely I am not the only vegan grimacing at the thought of factory farm waste nourishing my vegetables. Even organic fertilizers include a variety of products derived through animal suffering.

Reading both Hungry for Profit and Vandana Shiva’s Stolen Harvest: the Hijacking of the Global Food Supply, I was frustrated by the insinuation that healthy farming practices inevitably include farm animals. Shiva in particular emphasizes a codependent relationship between farm animals and farming. “By using crop wastes and uncultivated land,” she writes, “indigenous cattle [in India] do not compete with humans for food; rather, they provide organic fertilizer for fields and thus enhance food productivity” (Shiva, 58). Of course, Shiva is lauding this sort of practice for the benefits it provides to independent farmers. Any benefit experienced by the cattle in question is only relative to the hideous torture of animals by factory farmers. The indigenous cattle described by Shiva, though perhaps treated more kindly for their importance to the family’s livelihood, are nonetheless objectified, commoditized, and exploited.

As with agribusiness in general, the possible solutions to agrochemical dependence and chronic soil infertility would require radical agricultural reform. My concern is that many envision this utopia of small-scale, localized farming in the way that Shiva described. The question becomes not simply how to transform the global agricultural system, but how to do so in a way that excuses farm animals from enslavement. And thus the challenge becomes that much more difficult.


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Agricultural Dominion

The main winners from these policies [farm subsidies] are corporate livestock operations who buy absurdly cheap feed, making environmentally destructive factory farming possible.” ~from Food Is Different, page 40.

“In 2002 the U.S. approved a new farm bill, the so-called Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, which extended the basic U.S. subsidy system for another ten years, at an estimated cost to tax-payers of US$190 billion” ~from Food Is Different, page 39.



Listening to an Animal Voices’ interview with post-colonialism theorist Philip Armstrong, my interest was piqued by the concept of ‘seeding.’ Misleading as this term may seem, it has nothing to do with gardening. It is in actuality descriptive of seventeenth- century colonial groundwork for animal agriculture. As explained by Armstrong, “it was part of [the Europeans’] program of colonization, part of their program of discovery, and what we would now call globalization … they would seed oceanic islands with livestock which would then go feral and multiple and survive or not survive … and they could then be used by subsequent voyageurs.” Thus flocks of farm animals were deposited by ‘explorers’ on lands with imperial-profit potential.

I can only imagine the devastation that these non-native species wreaked on local habitats and wildlife population. It is troubling to view farm animals in this sense, as tools of imperialism. Centuries before genetically modified seeds were sold overseas the Western world was already priming the global stage for agricultural dominion.

This is a sharp reminder that utter disregard for both domesticated animals and their surrounding environment has long been the cultural norm. Sometimes we get away with pretending that the animal agriculture practices predating factory farming have awarded farm animals some since discarded dignity. As though the idyllic family farmer, hard at work on his bucolic homestead, before the invention of growth hormones and battery cages, had a genuine relationship with his animal property. To do so is to misconstrue the underlying problems, thereby obstructing possibilities for changes that would save lives.

One such example of this romanticizing of ‘peasant’ farming is This Land is Their Land: How Corporate Farms Threaten the World, an oddly author-centric work by Evaggelos Vallianatos. The book is peppered with unsupported veneration of Hellenic culture and pre-Christian farming practices. While the atrocious treatment of farm animals in current practices is implied, Vallianatos does not express any sympathy for the nonhuman animals victimized by agribusiness beyond the human health risks that result. His posited solutions call for agrarian reform within the existing system. Although his arguments initially sway toward anti-capitalist ideas, he ultimately proposes changes that would maintain many class and wealth disparities, not to mention an ever-pervasive speciesism and conventional animal exploitation.

Vallianatos is quick to blame inequitable farm subsidies as the villainous perpetuator of this current food production nightmare. However, while U.S. government subsidization of national agribusiness products ensure unfair world trade, these subsidies are only the results of a broader problem. As stressed by Peter M. Rosset, in Food Is Different, “eliminating subsidies won’t mean better prices for farmers or for consumers, because market concentration will still enable companies to dictate low prices to farmers and high prices to consumers” (Rosset, 51). Which is not to say that struggling for the abolishment of farm subsidies is futile, rather that it is not the end all solution.

The concentration of power in agriculture becomes particularly startling when examining the animal agriculture industry. Only “four companies (Tyson, ConAgra, Cargill, and Farmland Nation) concentrate 81 percent of the beef-packing industry … Often the same companies are the dominant firms in several sectors. ConAgra, for instance, figures among the four largest firms in the beef, pork, turkey, sheep, and seafood sectors, with operations in 70 countries” (Rosset, 46). The influence that these massive corporations have over governmental policy is evident in the policies themselves. For example, “the US position, backed by WTO rules, is that while countries can discriminate against dangerous products based on ‘sound science,’ such discrimination can only apply to the final product itself and not to the process used to produce it” (Rosset, 32). Under these guidelines, the US disallows other nations from any discrimination “against products whose health and environmental safety are still largely unstudied – like genetically engineered (GE) foods, or beef produced with growth hormones, is not ‘science-based’ because ‘scientific evidence is still lacking” (Rosset, 32).

The impact on other countries, however, is far more severe than simply the inability to boycott unsafe food items. Globe spanning trade laws that open markets make it impossible for small-scale farmers to compete in a corporation dominated system. In post-NAFTA Mexico, for instance, “imports of soybeans, wheat, poultry and beef grew by over 500 per cent, displacing Mexican production” (Rosset, 62). The result is that a country like Mexico is no longer fed by its own farmers, but instead through the importation of surplus U.S. products, the quality of which is determined by those who stand to profit.

In the United States, corn is the crop produced in the highest volume. It “is grown on nearly 80 million acres (32 million hectares) and is used mostly for livestock feed, domestically or overseas” (Rosset, xvii). This corn is profitably produced in gross surpluses courtesy of taxpayer-funded subsidies. Much of it is dumped abroad, sold at prices below the cost of production that make it impossible for other farmers to compete.

The key is to remember the interconnectedness. The U.S. government hands out economically- devastating subsidies to corporate-backed growers, enabling agribusiness to produce genetically modified, pesticide-saturated grain at cutthroat prices via the labor of underpaid, unrepresented farmworkers. This grain, laced with antibiotics and hormones, is fed to factory farmed livestock who will be slaughtered and packaged by exploited human labor. When Americans purchase these disease-inducing animal products at absurdly low prices thanks to the government’s subsidies, the profit is channeled into corporate pockets. It brings to mind a framing of the vegan argument that I once heard from Pattrice Jones: Industrial agriculture is bad for the animals, bad for the workers, and bad for the consumers – the only entity that benefits whatsoever is the corporate power.

In the context of contemporary agriculture, the notion of seeding starts to seem less absurd and more in sync with the mentality of globalization. Today, agricultural policies and practices continue to be forcibly exported. The consequences to humans, nonhumans, and the environment are trivialized. Predictably, the imperial powers that be are poised to plunder.

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A Modern Jungle

“In 1962 … agricultural workers in the United States were virtually powerless … growers routinely used vigilante violence and terror to prevent the ‘unionization of farm labor on any basis.’ [Carey] McWilliams uncovered the existence of a concentration camp near Salinas that was built to imprison farmworker union activists. One grower claimed that the camp was constructed ‘to hold strikers, but of course we won’t put white men in it, just Filipinos.’ McWilliams characterized the authority that agribusiness exerted in California as ‘Farm Fascism.’ Growers’ federations, backed by the banking interests that controlled much of California agriculture, exerted enormous control over state legislature and raked in tens of millions of dollars each year in federal subsidies. In contrast, farmworkers received no federal benefits and had no voice in Sacramento or in Washington, D.C.” ~ from The Human Cost of Food, page 357.


There is a black and white photograph on page seventy of The Human Cost of Food: Farmworkers’ Lives, Labor, and Advocacy, that I keep returning to. The book’s only image of farm animals, this single photo, despite the unhelpful brevity of its caption, conveys more information about the human role in animal agriculture than is even hinted at in the entirety of this anthology. It is the picture of two young boys, presumably the children of Mexican farmworkers in North Carolina. They are standing inside a turkey barn, surrounded by hundreds of encaged birds, on a floor whitened by the carnage of feathers. Dejection and discontent are etched with aching clarity on their young faces. It is a photograph that, no doubt unintentionally, encapsulates a suffering transcending any barrier of species. It is a wordless exemplification of the inseparability of oppressions, of why I am reading about farmworker issues to begin with.

Farmworker advocates lament the near extinction of the family farm, condemn the global devastation of contemporary agribusiness practices, and criticize the abuse and exploitation of human labor worldwide. The interests of individual farm animals, however, never make the priority list. Often they are disregarded completely. Some might argue that human rights are incomparably more important. To do so is to overlook the overlap in these struggles. The mistreatment of human workers and enslavement of animals are both rooted in disrespect for sentient life and an industry motivated solely by profit.

I recently re-read The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s appalling depiction of the lives of workers in the Chicago meatpacking industry. The heart-wrenching storyline follows one immigrant laborer struggling to survive and support a family in the brutally unfair climate of the stockyards. And while the focus is on human misery, the thoroughly described plight of animals and perversity of the animal product industry has certainly turned the stomachs and stirred the consciences of countless readers.

Sinclair’s expose novel was written in 1906, long enough ago to seem safely historical. And while it is tempting to self-placate with the notion that those days of mercilessness are in the past, I know that improvements are only relative. Corporate corruption, racism, sexism, and the litany of other injustices against human and nonhuman animals detailed in Sinclair’s work persist today.

Yet these abuses are no longer exclusive to slaughterhouses, factories, and factory farms. As editors Thompson and Wiggins point out in their anthology’s introduction, “it is no stretch of the imagination to claim that the United States has its own sweatshop system in its fields and food production” (Thompson, 16). Indeed, the agribusiness powers that dictate the horrendous working conditions of a poultry plant ensure that laborers on cucumber farms suffer similar injustices.

In 2000, one unabashedly bigoted grower in North Carolina was quoted bragging that, “The North won the War on paper but we Confederates actually won because we kept our slaves. First we had sharecroppers, then tenant farmers and now we have Mexicans” (Thompson, 250).

While the corporations that stock our supermarkets with out-of-season produce are unlikely to voice such opinions, their business practices reveal a silent concurrence. Today “many of the power-holders in agriculture and commerce – including agribusiness owners, their lobbyists, special interest groups such as the Farm Bureau, and the politicians who respond to them – actively oppose even the most basic improvements to labor practices. Because of knee-jerk reactions to farm labor improvements, even the provision of bathrooms and drinking water in the fields is still a fighting matter (Thompson, 12). The Human Cost of Food is brimming with such examples of agribusiness’ simultaneous dependence upon and abuse of immigrant labor.

It comes as no surprise to me that an industry that callously objectifies the lives of sentient non-humans and the environment would similarly lack respect for the basic rights of the humans in its employ. Yet the extent of human labor abuse in non-animal agriculture is direr than I realized.

What does this mean for the animals enslaved within the inhuman monstrosity that is contemporary agribusiness? If the exploitation of millions of humans is not enough to provoke any genuine restructure of practice and policy, could the suffering of billions of farm animals ever be taken seriously?

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Back at the Books

The warmth has drifted elsewhere, soggy leaves are obstructing my windshield wipers, and the elementary school across my street has resumed hosting masses of backpack-lugging children. It’s official: fall is here. And with it, Fall Quarter.

I am back at the books, but this quarter my studies are taking departure from my summer plans. My seasonal focus will be that ugly enemy of vegans everywhere known as agribusiness. In particular, the economics and human labor issues of animal agriculture on a local and global scale. This blog will serve as a venue for some of my writings and responses to literature on these themes. As always, I am approaching these issues from an animal liberation angle.

In conjunction with my study of agribusiness, I am also embarking on a project to better understand the interworkings of human relationships with farm animals. A student partner and I are compiling interviews with individuals who interact with farm animals in a variety of circumstances. These will include farm animal rescuers, animal agriculture employees, individuals ‘humanely’ raising animals for profit, and people who care for farm animals as companion animals.

Do you or did you interact with farm animals for an extended period of time? Are you interested in participating in this project? If so, please let me know. I would love to talk with you.

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