Something strange and troubling is sweeping the fields of New Morning Farm in South Central Pennsylvania. Over the past few years, Jim Crawford has watched unfamiliar diseases strike at the 40 acres of organic vegetables he grows, destroying some crops entirely. Last year was the worst of his 45 years farming: Crawford finished $60,000 in the red. He’s not confident this year will be much better. It was a wet, humid summer, and the moisture incubated blight.
When Crawford was new to farming, he remembers, he’d open up local newspapers to see five, eight, even 10 ads at a time for farms that were going out of business. America has lost 4 million farms since 1935, though the amount of land used for agriculture has stayed about the same—operations just keep getting bigger. Crawford survived at first on idealism, and then by founding a wholesale cooperative and adopting a direct-marketing system to sell directly to residents of the Washington, DC, area. The small farm settled into a lean, but stable, equilibrium. Then came new diseases and pests, some that even a university lab couldn’t identify. Crawford wonders if they’re related to climate change. “We’re at a point ourselves of really questioning, can we keep going? Losing this kind of money, we can’t,” Crawford said recently. He’ll give it another year, with a new crop mix—but if that doesn’t work, who knows? “That just goes to show how unpredictable and risky what we do is,” he said.
It’s a time of deep uncertainty at every link in the global food chain. For the first time in a decade, the number of hungry and malnourished people in the world is rising. Climate change threatens breadbasket regions the world over. Nestlé and other multinational food companies peddle processed foods deeper into remote areas of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, igniting debate about whether they’re feeding hungry communities or making them sick; globally, deaths from diet-related illnesses are rising. The malnutrition of the future, as predicted by a recent New York Times report, is to be “both overweight and undernourished.”
Meanwhile, the corporations that produce seeds, process meat, and sell the final products back to us gobble each other up. In the mid-1970s, America’s four largest meatpacking companies controlled about a quarter of the beef market; today the top four control a staggering 84 percent. With antitrust regulators asleep on the job, extreme consolidation across the agriculture sector means farmers pay more for inputs like seeds and earn less for their own products. And as companies like Monsanto get bigger, so does their political clout, which affects not only what we eat but also public health.