Tom Philpott is dogged in his pursuit of the truth about America’s farms. In addition to spending several years working on a small organic farm in North Carolina, Philpott has been tracking the companies and other forces shaping the agriculture industry, and their impact on the environment for a decade and a half.
As a food writer for Grist and then as the food and ag correspondent for Mother Jones since 2011, Philpott has amassed a wealth of exacting knowledge—and a healthy dose of skepticism—about one of the nation’s least transparent industries.
In the process of writing his first book, Perilous Bounty: The Looming Collapse of American Farming and How We Can Prevent It, Philpott spent several years visiting and amassing research about California’s Central Valley and the Corn Belt, the two poles around which the U.S. agricultural industry revolves. The results are stunning—and at times difficult to read.
As he writes, the Central Valley and the former prairielands of the Midwest are “both are in a state of palpable and accelerating ecological decline.” He continues:
At the moment, the effects are mostly felt by the workers who make the farms, groves, and feedlots hum, and who are subjected to increasingly tough conditions; in addition to the baseline rigors of their jobs, they endure fouled water, putrid air, and the decay of public services that accompany a declining population. But while their plight is easy for many Americans to ignore, there’s something else afoot in these regions that will affect every U.S. resident who eats: to grow our food, I argue in this book, the agribusiness interests that dominate the Central Valley and the Corn Belt are also actively consuming the ecological foundations that support agriculture itself.
Civil Eats talked with Philpott about water, soil, his apprehensions about technological fixes in the food system, and the pivotal role of policy when it comes to reversing the course of environmental destruction in farm country.
This book reads like an expansion of the writing you’ve been doing for more than a decade. Can you talk a bit about your intention in writing it?
What I wanted to do with the book is make the food production crisis as palpable to people as the climate crisis has been made by stuff like the current wildfires, storms, and power outages. I want to tie food production into climate change and elevate it in the conversation.
It’s a distillation of what I’ve been working on and thinking about since I started writing about food politics back in 2005. Over those years of being on the beat, you really get drawn into focusing on these two areas—the Corn Belt and California— as two major poles of American food production. And I thought it was really important that in both of those places, where industrial agriculture has taken root, you get essentially unlivable societies.
It’s a real struggle for clean water—especially in the case of California’s ag regions—but also in the Corn Belt. You also have bad air pollution in both places and, despite the huge amounts of money being made in crop value, you get a really bad economy: dying towns and lack of public services.
“I thought it was really important that in the Corn Belt and California, where industrial agriculture has taken root, you get essentially unlivable societies.”
And that’s the sort of thing that you and I care about, but a lot of people feel like, “Well, how does that affect me? I get cheap food out of the deal.”
But the last California drought really got me thinking hard about the long-term prospect of this kind of agriculture there. Where is it going? We all read the science coming out of that, and it’s not going anywhere good. It’s like there’s literally a race to the bottom of the aquifer.
The 2014 groundwater legislation [the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which mandates that groundwater be managed sustainably by 2042] was very surprising and super necessary. And if it’s effective, it will mean real changes in production and some hard decisions that have to be made. And this is a region that’s feeding us all, so we’re not going to be able to rely on that bounty because [big farms] will suck all the water away or because government regulations stop them from sucking all the water away.
Around that time is when I discovered Rick Cruse and his work on soil erosion. And I was like, “Wow. It’s the same situation in Iowa.” These are the two pillars of the food system, and they both are literally consuming the resources that make them possible. And where does that leave us as a society? So, I realized these [impending disasters] were something that people outside agricultural regions—in cities like New York and Miami—would want to know about.
You write a lot about the water-thirsty almond industry and the few large companies that have shaped it, and you describe almonds as a “high-end snack food” that is displacing fruit and vegetable production. A number of folks have compared almonds’ water footprint to the footprints of meat or dairy and they’re clearly more efficient. How do you square all that?
Almonds are a fantastic food. They’ve got an incredible fat profile, a great amount of protein and fiber. You should eat them if you can afford them. The thing we need to keep in mind is that the geographical range [of where they can grow] is really small. It’s essentially a Mediterranean climate. They need hot summers without a whole lot of rain and warm, relatively mild winters. Not very many places in the world that have that combination. So, California is a great place to grow almonds, but they can’t ever be a staple for humanity. Legumes would be much better to focus on as staple foods. And, of course, what we do now is idiotic: We grow a bunch of legumes [soybeans] and feed them to animals and lose all kinds of protein and energy in that pathway.
“Of course, what we do now is idiotic: We grow a bunch of legumes (soybeans) and feed them to animals, and lose all kinds of protein and energy in that pathway.”
So, I think almonds are something that we need to treat as really precious. Americans eat 220 pounds of meat a year, and that’s obviously way too much. But we can’t eat anywhere near that many almonds every year. It’s a fine line, and I have been accused—probably correctly—of over-demonizing almonds. But you can’t keep hardening demand for water in California. And you don’t want to put the whole Central Valley in almonds because if there’s a bad snowpack year (or five), you have to keep them watered. And that’s going to cause problems.
Your comparison to agriculture in Saudi Arabia was very instructive. Do you want to talk a little bit about that?
In the early 1980s, the Saudi government made this decision to try to become self-sufficient in wheat. And so they put in these huge wheat farms, and in 25 years they had basically tapped out the aquifer. And now they’re forced to be major importers of wheat but also lots and lots of alfalfa from California. So, it’s a good example of the fact that that you really have to use your aquifer wisely.
And until the groundwater Act in 2014, that just wasn’t a consideration [in California]. And there are interests that are going to want to keep those almond groves watered. If you look at the studies that have come out about what the Ground Water Act means for farming in the Central Valley, they reckon that about 800,000 acres are going to have to come out of production. But I think they’re assuming that the Sierra Nevada snowpack stays about where it is. And if you look at the science, the snowpack is going to continue declining unless we do something really serious about greenhouse gas emissions. So, I’m wondering if that 800,000 acres is a realistic number.
In addition to addressing the distribution of water, you also go deep on the nutrients in the farming system and how we distribute them. You quote Wendell Berry, who described separating crops and livestock as “taking one solution and dividing neatly into two problems.” What did he mean and why does it matter?
When you farm one of the first things you realize is that you have to figure out a fertility strategy. You’re taking [nutrients out of the soil], so you’ve got to put some back in. That’s really the key to any kind of farming. [All farms used to have both crops and animals and the nutrients in the animals’ waste fed the crops.] And industrial farming had a big breakthrough when they made it really easy with nitrogen fertilizer, and the kind of broke that chain.
And when they moved to split livestock farming from crop farming and began keeping livestock in one place, there was suddenly an abundance of manure, or nutrients. Manure is heavy, it’s disgusting, it’s hard and expensive to move. And so right around where your giant CAFOs are located, you have very cheap fertilizer. But 100 miles away, it’s more expensive to use manure than it is to buy [synthetic] nitrogen fertilizer. So, it created an overload of manure near the CAFO. And CAFOS tend to be clustered geographically. Most CAFOs in Iowa are in a few counties. So, then you get this complete over-abundance in these regions and massive, unthinkable nutrient pollution.
What surprised most when you toured ag regions in Iowa?
The scale of the problem surprised me. I’d been reading about these the [soil] erosion problem in Iowa, and then they had these brutal storms last spring. And I was able to go and look at it with the master of erosion, Richard Cruse. And it was stunning. It was one of those it’s-worse-than-you-think kind of things. And you read all this stuff about how cover crops are growing 20 percent a year in Iowa, and I knew, in my head that less than 5 percent of Iowa is in cover crops. But just to drive through there in June when the corn crop [was delayed] and it was just a giant mud pit. I saw patches of cover crops here and there, but it was very, very rare.
I was really impressed with the people organizing to defend communities against CAFO pollution and also just impressed by the sheer scale of the destruction of small-town economies.
I got this great tour from a guy named Nick Shute. He’s a clean water activist and farmer in Iowa. And he took me around and showed me algae-filled lakes and CAFOs right in this community. Afterward we went and got a beer, and I talked to the bartender for a while. He went into diatribes against all the advantages that these CAFO farmers have and the way that they’re destroying roads in the area. He complained about the stench of the manure and the awful water situation. But he was also absolutely convinced that Trump was going to sort it out.
In the book, you put forward a vision about relocating a portion of our nation’s produce production outside of California.
My vision is not that we end California agriculture by any means, just that we rely on it less, put less pressure on it, scale it down to the level of its water resources. And that would mean more [diverse] agriculture in other places. I cited a study about the Corn Belt, but I think you could do similar studies for lots of other places.
“If Sonny Perdue and Trump can keep coming up with ways to parachute cash into corn and soybean farms, they could create a program that invests in infrastructure for regional agriculture.”
These Iowa State University researchers said, “Okay, what would it take for the Corn Belt to be more or less self-sufficient in commonly bought fruit and vegetable products during our growing season (May to October).” He found that if you sell [$882.44 million worth of produce] on a very small amount of acreage, it was about the same average number of farmlands that is in that single Iowa county. So, without a whole lot of change in use of land, you could greatly reduce the reliance on California in the entire Corn Belt, and that includes cities like Chicago, the Twin Cities, all the metropolises in the region. And, of course, fruits and vegetables are a lot higher value than corn and soybean. So, that would be a big economic advantage. The problem would be infrastructure and labor.
But as a society, we can decide that we wanted those things to happen, we could make them happen, with a Green New Deal, or another jobs program.
Right. The increase in labor demand doesn’t have to be a problem.
Nor does the infrastructure. I mean, if [Agriculture Secretary] Sonny Perdue and Trump can keep coming up with ways to parachute cash into corn and soybean farms—first, there was a trade war and then it was COVID and now it’s the derecho—they could create a program that invests in infrastructure for regional agriculture.
You described visiting David Brandt, the Ohio-based regenerative farmer who has been using cover crops since the 1970s, meeting a neighbor who had just started adopting the same practices because for years, he says, “he had blinders on.” Brandt and a lot of his peers are seen as outcasts in their communities. And even though you point out that massive changes have happened on the farming landscape in a matter of just a few years, grassroots, farmer-led change can seem borderline impossible.
That’s a great point. We talk about how there’s all this inertia and it’s very hard to make change in farm country. And yet we’ve seen just in our lifetimes these spellbinding changes. I just read a study today that showed how the median dairy farm had 80 cows in 1987, and by 2017, that number was 1,300 cows. That represents a complete transformation in the landscapes and livelihoods of rural areas, especially in places like Wisconsin and Minnesota.
And so why is it that we can cite the Mardson Farm Study, which says if you added a third crop to your corn and soybean rotation it would make all the difference in terms of soil health, reduced pest pressure, and water quality—and yet it’s just not happening?
That change in dairy farming was driven largely by the price of milk dropping over that period. And so the 80-cow dairy wasn’t making a living for a family, and they had to get big or get out, as the phrase goes. So, those people adjusted on the fly to conditions that they have zero control over.
And your corn and soybean farmer is in the same position—the same price pressures are driving [consolidation]. But there is no countervailing push to say, “Hey, you’ll be compensated by adding a third crop.” In fact, if you’re adding a third crop, there’s a learning curve, and probably an initial income drop. And I think the unspoken story of that study is that it really does assume that you have livestock back on the land. It assumes [that the third crop gets fed to animals] and that you can sell the meat for a higher premium. It basically means putting a lot of animals back on the land. That’s a really radical change. And the only way that’s going to happen is government policy. But right now, those policies are propping up the current system instead.
That’s why the final section of the book ends up [addressing the current] political problem. And the answer is to get out into the streets because the corporate power behind the system is so powerful and so sophisticated. We just saw it on full display at the Democratic National Convention’ “Leaders of American Agriculture,” symposium. [Note: the event was sponsored by Bayer (formerly Monsanto) and Corteva, company created after the merger of Dow and DuPont.]
So, even in 2020, we’ve got a Democratic Party that still really tightly aligned with these interests. And I think the public is going to push things in the opposite direction.
The climate is also a big lever, isn’t it?
Yes, the climate is also changing things. And you’ve got these companies trying to get ahead of that. They’re trying to say, “Buy our digital ag solutions, and we can help you adjust to climate change.” They’re saying, “Hey, let us run the carbon market.” Indigo Ag [a leader in the new carbon capture industry] was started by a bunch of former Big Ag people.
“I see a major tendency in our society to look for big technical fixes—with carbon capture, with digital ag.”
I covered this in 2009, when the Waxman-Markey bill was going through Congress and it was going to be a big cap and trade scheme. Before it got out of committee in the House, agriculture had been completely exempted from any emissions cap. But the ag interests were really smart. They said, “The farmers can benefit from the other side of it by getting paid for offsets.” And the offsets were stuff like chemical no-till, and no one’s even going test how much carbon it stores. They’re just going to get paid for the practice.
As we get more details on this Biden plan for a carbon market involving ag, I want to know what practices they’re actually talking about? Because if it’s no-till [that relies heavily on Roundup] they’re already doing it and it’s not storing any carbon. And it’s just giving farmers another payment for doing the same damn thing and not changing anything. But climate is also causing lots of chaos and could force some changes as well. It could force people into thinking maybe if we’re going to have more or more extreme spring storms, I should plant cover crops.
And that’s happening. David Brandt and the other charismatic figures in the Midwest, I think they are getting more attention and followers. It’s just happening at a pace that’s not up to the task.
What’s your big picture takeaway as you look ahead to how we might try to address these problems?
I see a major tendency in our society to look for big technical fixes. You see it in the climate space with [the prospect of] carbon capture. And it’s the same with agriculture; there are tech fixes out there, like we can make ag more efficient with digital ag.
I think there are some things that digital ag could do that would be really great. You could show a farmer a map of his field and say, “You’ve got 10,000 acres and 2,000 acres of them are costing you money when you plant corn and soybeans on them [the cost of seed and inputs are larger than what they can sell them for]. And if you just planted prairie grass there, your farm would become more profitable. Those are also the parts that are leaching the most fertilizer, so there would be fairly big environmental impacts.
Precision ag does do some of that, but the data isn’t necessary interpreted with that goal in mind.
Exactly. And it could be great in that way and it could have ecological benefits. Suddenly you’re getting habitats for pollinators, etc. You’re giving them a respite from pesticides. It’s not the solution, but it could improve things.
But when these [AgTech] platforms are owned by the big three seed and pesticide suppliers, is that how they’re going to deploy it? The companies’ current pitch—and this is how Monsanto sold itself to Bayer—is about, “Becoming a one-stop shop for farmers. You give us your data, you put our instruments on your combine and your tractor, and we’ll tell you what to plant and what pesticides to spray. And we supply them all.”
It’s like the Amazon of farming.
We’re not there yet, but I think those companies are really trying to dominate digital ag and if that happens, then [farmers won’t put any acreage out of production]. Instead the company would say, “Plant this other seed there. And instead of getting 75 percent of your usual yield, we will get you up to 85 percent.” You’ll see the company deploy the technology to make more profit for them instead of [helping the farmer or the environment]. So, those are the things that I worry about when it comes to our society’s fixation on tech fixes.
Well, technology is just a tool and you can use it in many ways, right?
Yes, and questions about who owns the technology, and what it’s being used for, become crucial.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Author photo © Gabriel C. Pérez.