Our agriculture system is in big trouble, which probably won’t surprise most of y’all. It’s a huge convoluted system, with misplaced rewards, and enough waste and inefficiencies to feed the whole world over from just what falls through the cracks.
Folks often ask me about one small sliver of the agriculture octopus’ tentacle, and I often struggle with how to clearly explain the monolithic, complicated American agricultural system. Recently, however, an idea hit me on a way to explain it to my grandparents, how to talk about in a way that they would surely understand. I want to dramatically illustrate the complexity Big Agriculture using a metric that I know everyone can relate to, so I’ll use the career arc of mega rapper Lil’ Wayne. Now I know your thinking, “but George, not another long-winded column about rap and agriculture,” but bear with me.
Just like Big Agriculture, Lil’ Wayne started from humble beginnings. They both were products of the time, and their surroundings, and they were both innovators.
Instead of just sticking to the path that had been laid out before them they both blazed an unexpected path to success. Mr. Wayne was barely a teenager when he was noticed as a gifted rapper, and he quickly created a buzz in the music world. Of course he was just one rapper, so he needed a network of other more experienced people to see that his potential was met.
Our mono crop agricultural system followed something similar. Post World War 1 we really hammered down on a few crops, and after some missteps, and a little dust bowl thing, we outpaced what other countries were able to pull off. Wayne had lyrical skill; the U.S. had open land, a favorable climate and lots of combustion engines.
Wayne after a couple of platinum records quickly rose to the top. He became fabulously wealthy, and earned the admiration of the teenagers of the world. An entire industry rose up around him to distribute, promote, market and create his Lil’ Wayne brand. Which created lots of people dependent on him to stay at the top as long as possible, so that they could all have a solid gold toilet. A whole bunch of people with a vested interest in seeing Lil’ Wayne maintain his glory. No one wants to rock the nest so that the golden gooses quits laying gold and sometimes platinum eggs.
American farming similarly, quickly outpaced itself; we found that five monocrops, cheap labor and fuel, and a big change in the American diet would quickly create fabulous wealth in the few hands that run the “Big Ag game.” The companies that hold this fragile system up have an oversized interest in seeing it maintained exactly this way for decades to come.
All of this has seemed to work out well for Mr. Wayne and Big Ag INC. But sadly, like all good tales, this one has its hardships as well. Turns out the tolls of being on top can really take it out of you. Like many celebrities, Mr. Wayne became more and more chemically dependant through the years in order to maintain his level of dominance. According to his lyrics. Mr. Wayne seemingly can’t function right without his “purple drink.” Big Agriculture can no longer function without its equivalent drink “Roundup.” The major problem with dependency is that it takes more and more of the substance involved to maintain the same level of productivity. You have to forever increase the dose to get the same results. For Wayne this increased dose has possibly led to health complications and a serious deterioration in the quality of his music. Big Ag’s chemical dependence has resulted in “superweeds” resistant to the chemicals created to destroy them.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that I, your humble writer, here at your service, am a hater. But hater I am not. I really enjoy Lil’ Wayne and also I truly believe in agriculture as a force for good. It’s not too late to turn this ship around, Mr. Wayne could still achieve more greatness if the people closest to him at the top of the house of cards were willing to tell him truthfully how far off the path he has wandered.
If Big Ag and Mr. Wayne wanted my advice I would say, add more organics to the diet, cut back on chemical solutions and work toward a holistic vision for the long-term future instead of just for immediate profits. I’m not saying just because it’s right it won’t be hard. Because as we all know “cash rules everything around me” (and them).
George O’Neal runs Lil Farm in Timberlake in Person County and is a member of the Carrboro and Durham farmers markets.