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This is a power struggle. And right now, corporations control all the power.
When enough stars align, when enough bad things happen all at once that the food system is at risk, we will know it, and the pain will be acute.
I really couldn’t think of responsible and effective ways to mitigate those risks short of reinventing the food system.
If there’s any upside to Covid, it’s that everyone in this country experienced the downside of the hyperglobalisation regime.
The system that the monopolists had built was built to fail. It was built to break.
You control your money, you control your destiny.
The one thing that I would love to see is for government and policies to be shaped around people.
Globalisation, as we’ve known it for the last 40 years, has failed. Hyper-efficient systems were designed to drive down the costs of goods and services, but Covid and the war in Ukraine showed the vulnerability of our supply chains.
And now, real people and policymakers alike are rethinking what those should look like. In this film we’re going to look at globalisation and its impact on farming and food. Nothing is more crucial than agriculture, and yet crops like these have become commodities, with a handful of global companies controlling everything from meat processing to grain production. All around us you see cash crops like corn, for example, most of which is grown not to feed people, but to feed cattle that contribute to global emissions, obesity, and other systemic problems. I want to show you why cheap food, which is what the system is designed to produce, isn’t cheap when you count the cost to people, the planet, and our food security, and what some of the solutions might be in a deglobalising world.
So I grew up in rural Indiana, and I feel really at home on the farm. But I do think that farming in America is changing. It’s at a pivot point. And so I wanted to take a road trip and really understand and meet the farmers, the people, the policymakers, the communities that are part of this change.
We travel through Iowa, the biggest corn-producing state in the US. And for the most part this is how farming looks in the US – endless rows of corn and soy. But I was heading for the south to Missouri because I wanted to meet some farmers who were trying to do things differently.
These farmers have a long history with the land, and they see the future in sustainable, community-focused farming.
I’m Joe Maxwell. I’m the president and co-founder of Farm Action. The Maxwell family came in in covered waggons and settled a large part of this region. The farms have been in the family for over 100 years.
My name is Chelsea Davis. I’m the owner of The Root Cellar, which is a local food hub located in Columbia, Missouri. Something that’s really important to me is making sure that family farmers have a voice.
I was a cook in the military. And the one time everybody gets together it’s at the chow line. Nothing brings people together like good food.
There’s not a lot of diversified farms left across the countryside, but we raise corn, soybeans, wheat, some alfalfa, and then we have livestock. On this farm, we have sheep.
You grew up in Indiana.
Unlike on most US farms, Joe isn’t locked into a contract to sell his corn to a big grain corporation. He tells me that he uses manure from a neighbour’s cattle farm rather than just chemical fertilisers. That’s a resilient local supply chain right there.
Now, all of us, unfortunately, are beginning to get more and more squeezed, and we’re really farming more and more for what the government subsidies are.
Joe says deregulation means that the big corporations who buy the crops have all the power, and smaller-scale independent farming is increasingly difficult.
The thing that we’re really focusing on is looking at food, and not just feed.
Now, I’m not suggesting that we should quit raising corn and soybeans. I’m not saying that at all. But it shouldn’t be all we’re doing. And raising it for a price that’s below production cost, and depending on taxpayers to hold us up, while we see Brazil’s JBS, or China’s Smithfield, or US Cargill, it’s corporate power around the world, has a lock on it. And they push farmers to raise corn and soybeans, corn and soybeans, corn and soybeans.
The big agriculture companies argue that the huge scale of their operations helps to mitigate volatility in a complex and cyclical market. They point to how they’ve helped agriculture to become efficient. And US agriculture has become incredibly efficient. Just look at how output has almost tripled in the last 70 years while inputs have remained the same.
So this kind of efficiency is really what globalisation is all about – the idea that companies can move jobs and goods all around the world, and that makes it ever cheaper for consumers to buy all types of products and services.
In the past century global trade has not only grown, with exports around 40 times larger, it’s grown as a proportion of GDP. But if you look more closely, the growth has mostly benefited emerging market countries like China, where cheap capital has supported cheap labour, and it’s the top 1 per cent in rich countries like the US, who’ve captured 27 per cent of the growth.
That 1 per cent is the asset-owning class in America, the people in the C-suites and on Wall Street who pushed for the outsourcing that lowers costs for companies and raises share prices. But that concentration of wealth and power has a tremendous effect on how and what we farm.
It doesn’t matter how good of a businesswoman or man that you are on the farm, because you have no control over that market. Big meat and their feed meat complex buddies – the Cargills, ADMs, and Bunges, they control the grain trade in this country.
I believe economic justice was what the fight was always about.
I think the one thing that I would love to see is for government and policies to be shaped around people, not industrial ag that’s talking in their ear all the time. They have the money, and a lot of time that feeds what policies we create. You see it every day. And so we really need to be working with producers who produce what I would consider real food, not just commodities.
Control your money, you control your destiny. The way these large corporations, they control what you plant, and when you plant, and what you get paid. Basically, that puts them in charge of everything.
So what does that concentration of power and that ‘efficiency’ mean in practise? Well, big companies want cheap corn. So they lobby the government, which provides subsidies to farmers, in part via preferential crop insurance.
But the corn is not really destined for your dinner table. Instead, it mostly goes into cattle feed, biofuel like ethanol, and other exports, and the sorts of filler calories that go into fast and frozen foods. It also means farmers aren’t growing crops that might be more useful to society like, say, fruits and vegetables. Instead, much of it is imported, picked pre-ripe, with fewer nutrients to withstand the shipping. And by the way, US consumption of all vegetables, dairy, and fruit is below the recommended guidelines.
Also, agriculture is already a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, with the concentration on cattle only worsening the situation. Oh, and monocultures? They’re bad for the soil.
So this whole system makes big profits for big agricultural companies, which then plough some of that money back into more corporate lobbying, which just fuels the entire dysfunctional cycle. And so you’ve got the system where these globalised, very fragile, highly ‘efficient’ supply chains are enriching Wall Street but starving Main Street and driving small farmers out of business.
Just because we can do something as a human doesn’t mean we should. Government owes the people, in my opinion. We build the economy of a country, we people.
There’s a lot of things happening behind the scenes that they don’t want you to see. So they can bring beef in from Argentina. They can cut it up, repackage it, now it’s product of the USA. That’s incredibly deceiving to a consumer.
Corporation, as a good friend of mine says, it’s not a living thing.
It doesn’t have a soul to save or an ass to kick.
Their whole purpose in life is to make all they can for a shareholder, for the investor. That’s why we have to have government. We need safeguards. We need safeguards in place that allow the market to work so that opportunity exists for people.
So President Joe Biden has been making a lot of the right noises. And in July of 2021 he actually signed a very important Executive Order that marked a really profound economic shift away from consumers and rising asset prices and more towards income-led growth and workers.
Earlier this year he talked specifically about competition and farming, noting that four big corporations control more than half of the markets in beef, pork, and poultry. Over the years their grip on the market has only tightened. And while their profits and prices go up, farmers are getting less.
Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism, it’s exploitation. That’s what we’re seeing in meat and poultry, in those industries now. Small, independent farmers and ranchers are being driven out of business, sometimes businesses that have been around for generations.
Big Ag denies abusing its position. Cargill’s meat operation employs 28,000 people in 19 states.
We are providing a consistent food supply and strengthening the resilience of the food system to mitigate disruptions. We welcome competition to the industry and support the dynamics of a free market.
Farming has long been an icon of American politics, and when I grew up we all saw Dorothea Lange’s photos of Dust Bowl migrants. And in the 1980s, the Farm Aid concerts raising money for family farmers were really big news.
Rain on the scarecrow, blood on the plough.
But here are some the bare facts about farming today. In 2020, US farm output was $134.7bn, accounting for 2.6mn jobs, or 1.4 per cent of US employment. But if you count agriculture, food, and related industries, it has a much bigger impact: $1.055tn, and 19.7mn full and part-time jobs. Americans spend almost 12 per cent of their household budget on food. That number is biggest for those at the bottom, who are suffering most from food inflation right now.
On the next step of my journey, I wanted to talk to experts on globalisation, trade, and agriculture and see how the challenges to the status quo are playing out at the highest level.
What we did for 200 years is we said any concentration of power, any concentration of control, and any concentration of capacity is dangerous. It’s dangerous politically, dangerous to our personal liberty. So we used competition policy, anti-monopoly, to break things up.
But as the 20th century went on, we saw play out in agriculture the same thing that played out in other parts of the market, which is faith that markets will solve it all, faith that we can let the big get bigger.
The neoliberals came along and they said there’s waste in competition, and what we need to do is we need to concentrate all of this production, all of this control in the hands of a few people, because that will allow us to drive down the price.
And so you saw over time gradual deregulation, weakening of antitrust, pullback of the investments that USDA used to provide to support farmers and ranchers.
They revolutionised the entire structure of just about every sector of business on which we depend.
So who are ‘they,’ and how did ‘they’ do this, exactly? Lori Wallach blames the creation of the WTO on the thinking of the Reagan/Thatcher era. So on the surface it was all about free trade, but underneath that it was about the deregulation of markets.
So this entire thing is like some Trojan horse, where everyone’s like, trade agreements. Smart people are for free trade. But what was under the hood was an entirely different agenda. They were basically being handcuffed with these one-size-fits-all rules.
So for the first time ever there would be trade sanctions if you didn’t deregulate services, or broke up a monopoly, or set a floor of decency of labour standards or environmental standards, or you wanted to have domestic or local business procurement preferences. This is now a ‘trade barrier.’
Ronald Reagan comes in and you couldn’t do enough for business. America would be lifted up. You know, trickle down. Give to big, big is what we need. Don’t need regulations; we need to free these companies.
The WTO started up in 1995, but it was a Democrat, Bill Clinton, that actually lobbied for China’s entry into the WTO, which happened in 2001.
And the way he sells it is he says, listen, the future is about the service sector. The future is about having global rules that actually bring countries like China into our system.
So economically, the case is clear and compelling. But I would also like to emphasise here the national security aspects of this, and the human and political rights aspects.
Kind of the final nail in the coffin for rural America and many working families. But to them it was kind of like the shining moment of globalisation, right? So we focused on trade. The WTO, World Trade Organization, Nafta – doing these big deals, which ultimately only advanced Big Ag.
What would be the reason we would like not be allowed to ban DDT and other pesticides coming into our country against our laws? What, exactly, would be the reason to rollback Buy American? What does that have to do with trade? I’m for trade.
Lori wasn’t the only one raising a red flag. Remember all those anti-globalisation, anti-WTO protests like this one from Seattle in 1999?
What we had was really the perfect storm for the destruction of rural America, this new advancement within the Democrat party of the neoliberal.
It was this political argument of, are you backwards? Are you a protectionist? Are you someone stuck in the past?
The abandonment of democracy as it existed through economic prosperity and hope of opportunity that caused this country to thrive, both parties abandoned that and went for globalisation, and big.
People are furious at Big Pharma. They’re furious at Big Tech. They think their food system has gone to hell, and they are really mad about feeling disempowered on a trans-partisan basis.
I have done…
Your husband signed Nafta, which was one of the worst things that ever happened to the manufacturing industry.
Well, that is your opinion.
You go to New England, you go to Ohio, Pennsylvania, you go anywhere you want, Secretary Clinton, and you will see devastation.
So now, the public is struggling to find who represents us out here in rural America.
And Trump was doing his best to make a broad divide between those elitists, sell you out, working class people, Democrats, versus me. The whole thing was farcical. The guy’s a walking, talking multinational corporation. But he pulled it off.
And really threw states like Missouri from purple to just deep red.
So you can draw a direct line between globalisation and the election of Donald Trump. But let’s get back to food security and the debate about efficiency versus resiliency.
The development of these markets have faith that, well, extreme efficiency will solve all the problems. Well, efficiency that’s a short-term efficiency doesn’t respond well to shocks, and surprises, and unexpected pivots.
If there’s any upside to Covid, it’s that everyone in this country actually saw, personally lived, experienced the downside of the hyperglobalisation regime. The pandemic brought it home. This is why we have to make things. This obsession with single-sourcing, hyper-globalised efficiency, just in time, super corporations, is simply not reliable for supply chains. We need more diversified production.
And we see concentration at every level of the food system – at processing, at retail, at the level of fertiliser, and energy, and people just ripping off the farmer and ripping off the eater. Everywhere you look in America, you see a monopolist who has got us by the neck.
So the global financial crisis, global warming, Covid, conflict, cyber attacks, all of these things all happening at once, all of them are threats to our food security.
Food systems today have been optimised for efficiency and low cost, relatively stable environmental conditions – which we enjoyed for several decades before climate change really began to take hold within the last decade or two – and they were optimised for peacetime and globalised trade regimes.
For a while it seemed like they had opened a door into this amazing new world. And we could all make a massive amount of money, and we could all have cheap stuff. And then one day we woke up and we realised the system that the monopolist had built was built to fail. It was built to break.
About 2015, we saw a really consequential shift from relatively steady gains in food security to an inflexion. And from 2015 till now, we have seen, in fact, in general a trend towards degradation of food security, globally speaking.
So that’s Molly Jahn, a world-leading expert on food security. We’ll come back to her and all the amazing things she’s doing later. But right now. I want to head back to Missouri, where all this big thinking meets the reality on the ground, and where past, present, and future are sharing the same porch. This is the Shoemyer farm, where family farming goes back for generations.
If you’re going to be anything aside from a big multinational company trying to do this, you have to have family, or you have to have a community. Is that fair?
I would say so.
Started in some tough times, and just been a lot of hard work to get to where we’re at today.
And you’ve been farming for?
75 years. I started when I was in high school. Had a crop of wheat, and had 15 acres.
I don’t really think I ever thought about doing anything different. But I had to grow into it, I guess. And there’s no better place to raise a family or live a life than out here in God’s country.
It’s clear to me that farming, like life, is about more than economics and economic theory. Place matters to people, and these things are not accounted for in our existing economic models. But I’m interested to know how a recent commodity boom has helped these farmers, and whether it will keep them locked into the old way of doing things or help them transition to something new. I hop on board Wes’s tractor as he plants some beans. They’re destined for ADM, one of the big grain corporations. Wes says at least they can provide a stable market.
Well, obviously, we’re ecstatic about the high commodity prices because that’s how we make our living. We don’t seem to usually get to enjoy that for very long. So you try to get ahead of it. And I mean, buy early, make a move that you probably wouldn’t have made this year, an investment that… don’t put it off.
So they know you’ve got a little jingle in your pocket. And when the commodity prices are really good, the guys that sell you the inputs or sell you the equipment, they want to get their share of it.
The other people that saw the farmers were going to have more money was fertiliser companies. They just jacked up the prices. We saw fertiliser almost triple in price. The farmer’s not getting that extra money.
Yes, Putin invaded Ukraine and only exasperated this problem. It only made it worse. But this was going on three or four months pre-invasion.
Food inflation only adds to all the existing problems already in our agricultural system. So you wouldn’t expect to find food deserts, for example, in the middle of farm country, but I was really struck by how little of what’s produced on farms in Missouri actually ends up on local plates. In some cases, farmers can’t even sell to local schools or hospitals without going through big financial middlemen hundreds or even thousands of miles away, which seems incredibly illogical.
Covid showed us how important local supply chains are for food security, environmental resilience and even nutrition. Chelsea’s food hub, The Root Cellar, doubled its subscriptions at the start of the pandemic.
When we have a crisis it wasn’t the big corporations who fed its communities, right? It was a local food system. For example, my shelves never went bare at The Root Cellar. I didn’t run out of meat. I didn’t run out of produce. I was able to supply all of the people who are shopping with me currently, and I was able to exceed that.
It made an impact on some people. It made them remember that I should be supporting the local folks here producing the food that I should be consuming, right?
RANA FOROOHAR: Farm-to-table. It’s a movement that was pioneered on the West Coast, and our next stop is San Francisco.
I’ve got to check out apricots. These are my favourite.
At the Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, farmers have been selling direct to consumers for 30 years. They figured out how to make it scalable and affordable.
Oh, I have to eat another one. They’re so juicy.
We have a whole group of urbanites, urban dwellers, who don’t understand where their food is coming from, how it’s grown, how much work and effort goes into it. And yet the care that those farmers spend on their soil affects water quality, air quality, even the resilience of our food system in the time of the pandemic, where we had large-scale infrastructure breaking down, supply chain issues. And what we really need to see is a regional, local food economy that can be far more adaptive to the needs of their communities.
So when it’s localised and smaller it is more responsive and it is more nimble. And farmer’s markets play a key role in that local food system.
Adaptive local markets, that’s what I want to find out about because farmer’s markets are one thing, but we’re in San Francisco, the home of high-tech. So we’re going to meet someone with a more radical vision.
He thinks his company can be the ultimate in local because instead of exporting food, he is exporting the environment in which we grow the food. All right, let’s do this.
So this is the farm.
This is our seeding area. So we bring in raw materials, coconut core. We crush the bricks down into particle sizes we can use. We fill trays here.
I wanted to be involved in ag, but the price of land was outrageous, and I realised there’s no chance that I could ever farm traditionally, simply because I couldn’t afford to buy the land or lease the land. As we have fewer younger people engaging in agriculture, not to be ageist, but we have less innovation. We have less people applying their brains to the problems that we’re trying to solve. And we have an industry that becomes stagnant, that holds still, that doesn’t grow.
We have this three-dimensional space. Imagine a cube, a box, and we’re doing agriculture inside of this box in a greenhouse. But all of our output is on a square-foot basis.
I thought, that’s weird. That’s odd. Why aren’t we doing three-dimensional production in three-dimensional space?
Fresh is the thing that matters to consumers. So you look at all these folks, and they’re all very motivated to have a stable supply. They’re all very motivated to have stable price. They’re all very motivated to have a predictable system. And it’s just this continuous evolution up the spectrum of control to something that’s more predictable, less risky.
So the trays will come out of germ, and they’ll get loaded into our seedling system over here. So we’ll go stick our heads in there.
This is kind of cool, the lights there. It looks like an art gallery. Oh, wow, amazing. So what are you growing right here?
This is lettuce.
And you had to invent some of the lights, and the plastics, and things like that, right?
No one built lights that did what we needed them to do for the price that we needed them to do it.
So we had to design a lot of our own lighting. The sensors, we had to design sensors because no one really built sensors that did what we needed sensors to do. Yeah, there are people that say, oh, this is really unnatural. And you’re like, do you know how your food is grown now? Right?
You go to this go to the Central Valley, and they’re flat, sandy fields. It’s been laser-levelled with heavy equipment. The reality is we live in an unnatural world. And it’s our job to exist with as light an impact as possible on that natural world and to influence the evolution of our planet as minimally as possible.
And so that’s the thing that we solve for, right? All of that land used to be full of native species, and butterflies, and deer, and wonderful things that lived a natural life, and it’s not that way anymore. It is completely tamed.
We tilled it over. We dumped the carbon in the atmosphere. And now we use that land to serve the cities, to serve the people that consume the food.
Once this tower is transplanted, it will roll out. So you’re going to see it zip out here. And our pick-up robot will swing over. See that big boom arm comes down?
It grabs the tower and then hangs the whole thing up.
We have globalism, which has caused people all over the world to want the same things. The question is, how do you grow a strawberry in Saudi Arabia, or Singapore, or these… like places completely unsuited to this very finicky fruit? The answer is, well, you can’t. You can’t do it outside.
In order to give people the best possible quality and the best possible price anywhere in the world, in any environment that isn’t suitable for the production of these products, you build an indoor farm, and you import the environment. So maybe one way to think about it is you’re manufacturing ideal growing land. That is a step towards decentralisation. We’re free to go anywhere. We’re free to grow anywhere.
When you think about land, it should be priced at what it can produce, not what some Wall Street investor thinks it will produce 50 years from now that’s completely divorced from the productive value of the land. And really, what we’re doing is the purest form of land manufacturing, where we say, you price the asset at what it can produce, at its value to people – real value.
It just rolls right through and just gets cut, just like that. So you see those spinning blades? They just cut the product right off.
Hey, awesome. All right, so we’re going to do a taste test of your various varieties of lettuce. So tell us what we’ve got here.
Yeah, so we’ve got kale, arugula, our crispy lettuce, and then our mizuna mix down here. The bok choy has kind of this nutty, umami kind of flavour, and then the mizuna comes with a little heat. It’s a really nice combo.
All right, let’s do it.
Wow. That literally tastes like you just picked it out of somebody’s garden.
Which, I guess you did.
Off your wall.
Came right off, probably this morning.
OK, so the kale is something that we’ve worked on for a while, and it’s a really nice, mild, grassy kale. Some of it has a very sweet kind of flavour to it.
Interesting. It’s actually milder than a lot of the kale that I would buy in my local grocery store.
So if we have crops today that don’t taste great, they’re probably a shadow. They’re a version of something that was much better in the past.
And so the question is, how do we get back to that past? How do we get back to that first experience with whatever kale was 100 years ago?
It’s so interesting, the idea that you go high-tech, you go extremely futuristic to get back to the past.
In terms of taste. Very cool. I’m definitely… my kids would for sure eat this.
There are some of these risks that you have in the business. And you say, well, why do I need a back-up generator for a farm, right? It’s a lot of cost to just run this thing once a year. But the catastrophic risk is high enough that you make the investment.
When enough stars align, when enough bad things happen all at once that the food system is at risk, we will know it, and the pain will be acute.
I was fascinated by what Nate had to say, but vertical farms are still a blip when it comes to agricultural production, and some people say that their own energy needs are actually problematic from an emissions standpoint. Emissions and costs are eventually going to come down, but the bottom line is that these farms aren’t yet a silver bullet.
We need something more transformative. And in Wisconsin I found the seeds of it.
Molly Jahn made her name as a plant breeder growing new disease-resistant varieties of fruits and vegetables. But ultimately, she wants to make food from air.
…species that grow here anyway. This is melons. This is Hannah’s Choice, named after my daughter Hannah.
Oh, my gosh!
Who is now grown up, but when she was little she could put away a cantaloupe all by herself.
The way in which you’re growing here, how would it differ from, say, traditional farming of vegetables?
Large-scale fields, for example, in the major production areas like Central Valley in California, Florida, you would see much more intensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
And one of the things that I emphasised throughout all my breeding programmes was disease resistance.
By genetically manipulating, you can make it possible to use less of the chemicals.
Or none. We find those plants that are still standing in the face of that disease and then move the gene that controls that disease into a cultivated type… usually with bigger fruit and tastier fruit. And then, pesticides are not necessary.
Agriculture is the dominant way human beings interact with the terrestrial landmass, and it does tremendous damage to resources we all depend on – climate, water, air, and health. So it’s clear that, if we allow ourselves the concept of a food system, that the food system we have today is failing those who depend on it, and it is at the heart of this binge on energy that links to climate change, links to water pollution, air pollution, soil degradation.
Molly and her colleagues want to go much further and use microbes to change the entire nature of food production and farming.
I did this big 180 in my work, from being a natural scientist to really trying to articulate and frame out the classes of risk in food systems. One of the tricks I learned from the financial community is the use of scenarios. You create an extreme, plausible scenario.
Nobody had ever tried to put scenarios together about risk in a food system, so I tried. It isn’t just conflict. It isn’t just weather. It isn’t just supply chain issues. It’s all of the above. There were some risks that were so large I really couldn’t think of responsible and effective ways to mitigate those risks short of reinventing the food system.
Jean-Michel is looking at how to help plants fertilise themselves without chemicals.
So what are we looking at right here?
So what you can see here are all these dots. These are plant cells. And inside of the plant cells they are filled with bacteria. And these bacteria are these nitrogen-fixing bacteria that give nitrogen to the legume. And so that’s the system that works in legumes that we would like to recapitulate in non-legumes – either cereals, but also biologic crops like poplar.
Let me just make sure. These guys here are bacteria that within this legume, within this plant, can actually produce their own fertiliser?
So they help the plant to grow.
A true and very famous symbiosis.
We spoke to some farmers, American farmers, that were saying they’re under pressure to try and increase their crop yields because of what’s happened in Ukraine. But at the same time fertiliser prices are going up, so they’re having to decrease what they’re using for fertiliser. Otherwise, they’ll cut into their own profit margins. So could this work circumvent some of that problem?
Absolutely. That’s the goal, is to be able to grow crops with fewer chemical inputs. And so here the idea is to use microbes to replace chemicals.
Is this a way, ultimately, to just change the entire calculus of food, water, energy, and how things get grown, and what it takes to do that?
Our agricultural systems developed in a frame where energy was considered essentially unlimited and very cheap. So we have substituted fossil energy for human labour, animal labour. The important thing to realise about this work is it really reshapes the energy budget of agriculture.
When you think of the Tree of Life, most people think of the things we can see, because we’re visual creatures. But the vast majority of the world’s biology is invisible. It’s too small to be seen.
And those are microbes. And we eat lots of microbes every day, and we are lots of microbes. Our bodies are filled with microbial cells. When we domesticated plants and animals, we pulled along lots of microbes that came with them, but we couldn’t see microbes, so we didn’t domesticate microbes for direct consumption.
So Molly is also contracted by DARPA, the government’s Defence Advanced Research Project Agency, to do just that in the hope that one day, we may have gizmos that you and I can roll into the sun when the power goes off, or you’ve no money in your account, and they could produce a microbe milkshake, or a bar, or a pudding on the spot, from almost nothing.
Essentially, we’re revisiting what humans did 10,000 years ago, but this time we have microscopes. So we can look at organisms that have tremendously versatile metabolisms. They can grow off air, water, and electricity. They create protein, fats, starches, and fibre, which is what humans need to eat. It’s not a big step to imagine that we would simply grow the microbes directly for consumption. And our dream at DARPA is that no human being would be greater than a 30-minute walk from a source of food.
And so in some ways this is the ultimate in deglobalisation. Instead of one country and a handful of companies making most of the world’s cash crops in these highly efficient but very fragile supply chains, you might have a paradigm in which everyone everywhere can make food on site, locally, from almost nothing. This is a long way from where we are now, but economic pendulums tend to swing. And right now, the pendulum is swinging away from globalisation and neoliberal economic models.
I’m Webster Davis, and I wrote a little poem about the hollowing-out of my hometown. My little poem goes like this. My hometown of Wallace, Missouri, went from being able to support four family-owned grocery stores to not being able to support one. Where, oh where, has prosperity gone? We had a drugstore. Now, we have to go to Walmart to get mum’s medicine. We had two Black churches. Now, we travel to pray. We had two feed stores. Now, we travel to buy hay. Where, oh where has prosperity gone?
One of the most fascinating things that the neoliberals pulled on us, they basically said, competition leads to higher prices. And the way to achieve lower prices is through monopolisation. I mean, this is a fantastic lie, a breathtaking lie.
So we’re in an epic fight. We’re in an epic fight between monopoly and a lot more rich diversity of smaller and competing businesses. We’re in an epic fight between shareholders who own stock and are looking for every quarter to maximise the profit and stakeholders.
We’re very fortunate in America that we have the leading agricultural market in the world. We want to make sure that our farmers and ranchers can compete in a global market, but we also recognise the importance of resiliency here at home.
I think we don’t usually give ourselves much credit as a species. We tend to think that we’re a foolish species. We’re generally pretty wise, right? And so our job now is to make sure that we impact this planet as little as possible as we grow and develop as a species, as we expand human consciousness, we’re not shrinking the natural world. We’re not destroying the planet that we live on.
America and its ideals that it was founded on is the greatest country. It’s struggling. It’s struggling to remember its foundation, its foundational values, that everyone in the United States has an opportunity and a hope for prosperity.
We’re struggling because for 40 years we’ve slowly given over to the world’s largest corporations all the power. And now, government has to wrestle that back – has to wrestle that back in the name of opportunity, and hope, and democracy. If we don’t, we will lose this country. Our democracy is on the chopping block.
There was a Tea Party. I am not talking about the political one. I’m talking about when a bunch of business folks got together and threw the tea in the water. Why? Because England – their country at the time – had granted a monopoly to the East India Company and shut out all those little business teahouses.
That’s how we started. We’ve got to wrestle that away. We may need to throw some tea in the water. But we’re on the cusp, and our very democracy is at stake, because you can’t grant that much power – economic power – to just a handful of companies. And that’s what our government’s done.
So we’ve come to the end of our tour through America’s food system. What have we learned? Well, I think that we’ve learned that we’re at a pivot point.
For 40 years, we’ve have a system, an economic system in this country that prioritised efficiency over resilience, lower prices above higher wages, and global above local. We’re rebalancing now, and we see that from antitrust and monopoly cases being brought in Washington, to scientists that are experimenting with more sustainable food production systems and agricultural methods, to high-tech solutions to really bring local farming that’s being done in places like California to the masses in vertical farms. All of it is about local that can be made global. It’s about decentralisation versus centralisation. And it’s about a new sort of economic system that may bring us to a better balance between consumption and production. I’m hopeful about what this means for America, and I’m hopeful about what it means, ultimately, for the world.
This is the first of a three-part series of films on globalisation. So look out for the next two, and please like, comment and share.