The Henry Ford Approach to Food Production ~ Why you shouldn’t!

What gets sold is not what is reality. Bucolic idyll, green fields, stock roaming free, warm but not too hot, sunlight, all combining to give an image of healthy individuals engaged in a process of accumulating a surplus from the endless bounty of Nature.

The reality is different. Stock standing hock deep in their own faeces, grass eating ruminants given grain, six months to slaughter. These animals are then dissected, mixed and matched, ground up, blended, packaged and presented to consumers. Along with the presented meat are a battery of marketing tools. Think about this for a moment.

Through the whole of human existence we have not required advertising to inform us of the benefits of eating. Food was hunted, gathered, fished. We prepared it and then we ate it. A simple system that worked well most of the time. Then we were bombarded with advertising to consume food. Food! 

What has happened?

Over the past two hundred years the number of individuals involved in producing their own food has dropped precipitously. In the USA there are now so few farmers they do not rate a category in the US census. There are people growing vegetables, keeping chickens, rabbits and even milking goats in a backyard situation. Yet these are also so rare as it be considered eccentric. 

Stepping back in time not too far for most of the world outside the industrialised West, famine haunted the darker recesses of the human mind. “Flood, fire, famine.”, were the three threats to food security. Toss in war and corruption to make life a brutal struggle of living hand to mouth. All farms in these times were organic, more of which later. Farming was the activity of at least ninety percent of the population. It involved first feeding the farmer and the farmer’s family then surpluses would be sold to the urban markets. Now with any human activity, some people are better at it than others. Some are clever enough to choose the right parents and inherit large swathes of land with tenant farmers. Some are forced to ply their trade on much smaller blocks.

Ever since the entrapment of humanity into agriculture, the general tendency in society is the agglomeration of smaller land units into larger. This is a general statement and is subject to many exceptions. In classical Greece this failed to occur as the land was not suited to larger units. The political structures of the Greeks almost ensured this was not possible. In Sparta where all the land was worked by the helot slaves, individual small farm units were allocated to the Spartiates for their sustenance. Yet even here in the end times before the Battle of Leuctra, some Spartiates were more equal than others. 

Yet the general rule applies. As the number of yeoman farmers in the Roman republic reduced through the long years of the three Punic Wars, stay at home Senators with cash bought up many farms. These they were able to run with slaves, an increasing resource as a consequence of military victories. These absentee landlords could indulge in the political life of the capital whilst continuing to increase their wealth.

Land reform, a classic clash of poor versus rich creates social tensions. The efforts of the Gracchi, Bolivia, Lenin and Mao demonstrate this. In the English speaking world, land reform doesn’t figure prominently from the end of the First World War. We still had soldier settlements for veterans after both world wars but land size, water availability and production methods led to the inevitable agglomeration of these “yeoman” farming units into larger business units.

As we are yet to have our Gracchi moment, famines or political unrest based upon these phenomena, nation states are content to allow larger and larger business units to produce our food. We are sold two stark choices: Industrialised Agriculture or subsistence peasantry. Yet there is a middle path.

Having been distracted with shiny things like cars, refrigerators, cheap and plentiful food, in particular, meat and increasingly electronic items, the populations of the West in general and the English speaking West in particular have tended to not just accept practices like factory farmed pigs and chickens, cattle standing hock deep in faeces and fluffy, over sugared white bread, they have not even bothered to question if this was either desirable or the only way.

There have been voices in the wild. John Seymour, the grandfather of the modern self-sufficiency movement, John Jeavons, developer of the biointensive method, Bill Mollison who developed Permaculture and Masanobu Fukuoka implementer of Natural Farming. These individuals have shown a different way. Yet they remain voices lost to most of the populations of the West.

What we have is Fordian Agriculture. It is never called this for that would imply the forcing of life forms into the shape of industrial widgets. If we thought about this, we would see certain parallels with our own lives. Office cubicles are just carpeted sow stalls on one level. Realising this would destroy the carefully crafted marketing messages of the advertising industry. Green rolling hills populated with chickens, ducks, sheep, occasionally goats, beef cattle and gorgeous dairy cows does not match well with battery hens, sows who never move more than a few inches in any direction for the entirety of their lives, beef feedlots and 5000 head dairy herds on concrete pads chained to stanchions filling great manure lakes. Neither does it match the endless plains of identical hybrid maize across the American midwest.

Yet this is the food system we have. Clearly in Australia most beef cattle graze range lands, many dairy herds graze pastures but the move is towards confinement. With confinement comes Fordian principles. As the machine tools of a car factory turn out parts to be combined into vehicles so the confined dairy cows can be fed “inputs” and create “outputs”. As with a vehicle factory there will be “waste” products. Smoke stacks, machined metal filings and leftover paint from a vehicle plant so factory dairy farming “wastes” are represented by male offspring, deformed carcases from the breeding program, faeces and urine from the confined dairy herd.

In a different system of agriculture, “excess” males are an income stream and a source of manure as are faeces and urine. These are deposited by the cattle on the paddocks. The paddocks are grazed in rotation, that is, utilised and rested. The manures are cycled through the system. In a thoughtful system whose aim is to maintain the resources of farm, these Fordian “wastes” are simply outputs that become inputs. This system seems to be less productive but it is not. Because the land is used in a multiplicity of ways, it is in nett more productive. Such a system requires much more than a manual covering feeding times, weight gain and waste removal. This system requires thought, requires a land manager not a wage slave nor a an enslaved sub-contractor. Burger produced this way will cost more but they will not leave trails of pollution, time bombs of public health disasters and inhumanely kept animals.

We come down to a choice between quality and quantity. Given just the televised famines of the last half of the Twentieth Century, there are times when quantity is more important than quality. Milk powder based biscuits, safe to transport, easy to distribute and digest, full of preservatives and god only knows what actually keep people alive. So too did cannibalism in the Andean footballer’s plane crash. I suspect we can agree cannibalism is not a long term choice so why should manufactured stop gap relief supplies form the basis of our entire food systems?

The difficulty of “getting off” the advertised, manufactured food like substances designed by chemists with the help of psychologists and brain scans is they are designed to bring us back. I think it is not going too far to suggest a form of manufactured addiction.

Let us asked the question which made Cicero’s career in the law courts of late Republican Rome: Who benefits? Who benefits from the current food system? Who benefits from the land degradation? Who benefits from the inhumane treatment of animals? Who benefits from the endless acres of genetically identical corn or soybeans? Who benefits from GMOs? Who benefits from chemical sprays so toxic the people spaying them must wear full biohazard suits? Who benefits?

There is a theme within these questions. A theme I had not considered until I started this monograph. Leaving aside those who produce the potatoes and such like vegetables, those who grass raise their livestock and home vegetable growers, only one answer comes forward in response to the question: Who benefits? Corporations benefit.

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