On a Sunday in October 1981 (either the one before or the one after the first World Food Day, www.worldfooddayusa.org/...), I spoke in a Southern Baptist pulpit for the first and last time. The topic of my talk was the immorality of using U.S. grain to make fuel for vehicles, now most ubiquitously manifesting as ethanol. I can't remember the Bible verses I used, and I'll spare you a reenactment.
It was an unremarkable talk I am sure, except to me in that I knew that sitting in my church during the talk would be a young up-and-coming southern Democratic congressman named Al Gore, whom I hoped to influence on behalf of the world’s hungry. He, his friendly wife Tipper, and their delightful then young children went to Mt. Vernon Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia, and so did I while I attended graduate school in the early 1980s. My talk must have been unconvincing because Mr. Gore went on to be a major ethanol advocate—until recently, when he oddly enough united with Big Oil to fight ethanol subsidies. (www.bloomberg.com/...)
I’m still against U.S. grain use for producing biofuels. But I'm also opposed to the oil and industrial livestock industries, which are opposed to ethanol subsidies for their own selfish reasons. I also recognize the potential air pollution control value of using some sugar cane-based ethanol as a fuel additive (en.m.wikipedia.org/...). And, in my own hopefully holistic way, I’m pro-farmer—although how we define farmer is something of profound interest to me too.
Fair disclosure, I live in and love rural America, have a background in both environmental and soil sciences, and some members of my extended family farm corn for ethanol on the old Georgia homesteads of my maternal grandparents on feuding opposing sides of a lonely country road. I'm also a person who studies agricultural history in his spare time. The subject of this piece is important to me, but, although I am known in my real life as an environmentalist, I do not want to have blinders on. I will not be bringing a solely green vantage point, which I can't anyway since I'm now very much a watermelon—green on the outside and variable shades of pink and red on the inside.
In part 1 of this three part series I will briefly identify some key energy and trade issues relating to U.S. agriculture, describe associated contradictions and injustices of the Trump administration, and argue that the left must not sit this debate out but rather be fully engaged in the short and long terms for humanity’s sake. In part 2 I will critique past socialist agricultural approaches, acknowledging both successes and failures, because the left must be honest about what it has to offer to the challenges humanity faces and be willing to learn from the past if it's to be useful in the present and future. In part 3 I will try to outline a humane socialist future for U.S. agriculture working within both local and international contexts. So, let's begin.
I see the end of the Democratic Party’s popularity with white Americans in farming areas as being not purely a matter of the racist southern strategy of Richard Nixon. Many white rural Americans originally loved the Southern Baptist Naval Academy peanut farmer from Plains. In addition to racism, however, the economic base of the rural economy was in the beginning stages of a political-economic crisis toward the end of the Carter Administration to a degree not experienced since the Great Depression. (site.iptv.org/...)
The Cold War mentality reared its ugly head, on top of nascent over-indebtedness and a Fed move to tighten credit, and much of the Democratic Party’s political problems today outside of urban areas became profound.
A Democratic president, caricatured as weak because of the Iran hostage crisis, decided to take decisive action that his party has never gotten over politically. Many farmers, having withstood and to some extent adjusted to Nixon’s Ag Secretary’s Earl Butz’s push to get bigger or die, paid the price of President Carter’s decision to impose a grain embargo on the Soviet Union (en.m.wikipedia.org/...). Using food as "a weapon” against communism had the endorsement of the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org/...) even after it was showing itself to be ineffective.
Seizing the low-hanging rural economic initiative, the otherwise red-baiting Reagan campaigned against the embargo. A culturally-confused and befuddled rural white electorate joined with urban Reagan Democrats and for the most part has never looked back—despite David Stockman giving the former the finger. The Soviet market disappeared and never came back.
Morning came again for some in rural America. But it was only a matter of time for most. The 1980s farm crisis reached its zenith by the second Reagan term, but for the most part, the Democratic Party had other priorities. Small farm America largely died, and with it small town America. Most local shopkeepers and even many local rural bankers lost their shirts along with the farmers whose farms were liquidated. Dedicated Democrats like Tom Harkin could not manage to bring enough relief to overcome Reagan’s superstructure of optimism and swagger.
Grain-state Democrats and Republicans pushed and still push for new trade deals to provide substitute foreign markets, along with ethanol subsidies and tariffs. China and Japan now provide desperately desired markets.
Another large percentage goes to Mexico and Carribbean nations, where vast numbers of former small farmers have been driven into regional or national urban areas or effectively forced to emigrate to seek work in U.S. urban labor pools, on large U.S. plantations, in industrial agriculture sweat shops, or other even more desperate fields, where they become symbols for Trumpism.
For a time many environmentalists provided support for ethanol. (www.ethanolhistory.com) Now many environmentalists sound like Austrian economists when it comes to conventional U.S. farmers, but still a “huge” percentage of U.S. corn goes to make ethanol.
President Obama flirted with a reduction in ethanol mandates (www.politico.com/...) but after the election that gave us Trump went back to full throttle. (www.google.com/...) The oil industry, channeling its voice through special advisor on regulatory reform Carl Icahn and Secretaries of State and Energy Rex Tillerson and Rick Perry, is now teamed with industrial livestock interests in a pitched battle with midwestern, and now also nearly fully Republican, Big Agriculture representatives for influence in the Trump White House. Big Agriculture wanted a midwesterner to run USDA to support ethanol, and this for a time prevented former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue (m.motherjones.com/...) from getting the nod. This is why USDA was the last Cabinet post to get a nominee.
Like the Republican Platform (prod-cdn-static.gop.com/...), the brand new Trump version of the White House website is trying to cast the agricultural economy as being held back on the supply side by the evil Feds (including the EPA’s alleged mistreatment of the fossil fuel sector). Agriculture is only mentioned under the “America First Energy Plan”: "Less expensive energy will be a big boost to American agriculture, as well.” (www.whitehouse.gov/...)
This is the first major contradiction I wish to point out going forward arising from Trump’s own rhetoric and biases. Without the EPA, Big Ag would lose a lot of money because of lost demand for ethanol. Trump on the campaign trail in Iowa was pro-ethanol and, while his word is not his bond, he probably doesn't want to displace much of what is left of the rural conventional ag economy. But no one really knows what the Donald will do or sign.
The other major contradiction in the Trump White House I will end with is that of agriculture exports and Trump’s professed desire to end free trade. The Republican Platform strongly supports agriculture exports. It can be expected that East Asian export markets for U.S. grain, as well as Mexico, will hold out this issue over Trump’s head in any future re-negotiations or threats of trade tariff wars. (www.ers.usda.gov/...)
Although Trump may ultimately be too concerned about his rural political base to further upset its economic base, the Democratic Party agriculture platform planks, while well-meaning, lacked a comprehensive program for rural America:
In a 55-page document, the section dedicated to agriculture is afforded less than half a page of text. A few additional mentions also pop up in the platform’s poverty, tribal nations, and public lands and waters sections. While we appreciate that party platforms have the unenviable task of trying to address the entire host of issues faced by our next president, we remain disappointed at the lack of attention paid to our nation’s farm and food system, and the family farmers who are its lifeblood.
In part 3, I will try to provide some suggestions for a better, and progessively socialistic, U.S. policy. A narrow environmental perspective (e.g., www.nwf.org/...) will not be sufficient. This will all hit the fan before we know it as legislative focus turns to the 2018 Farm Bill. (www.agweb.com/...) But before I can do that with any credibility, I want to acknowledge what this policy should not be. Please check back for part 2 on that and related matters.