This is where most of our food comes from. Natural gas is used to pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere and bind it to hydrogen to create anhydrous ammonia. This is the Haber-Bosch method of producing synthetic fertilizer.
Synthetic fertilizer is applied to vast expanses of monocrop corn, soy, and wheat in regions that specialize in federally subsidized bulk production. Most corn and soy produced in North America is fed to livestock, not people. I took these photos in central Nebraska. Notice the automated center pivot irrigation equipment that draws from the rapidly depleting Ogallala Aquifer.
Doris Thompson is a retired farmer. She took over the farm decades ago when her husband passed away. Doris is now in her 90’s and leaves the farming to her son and daughter-in-law who are in their 70’s. None of the younger extended family members even live in Nebraska anymore. There is no obvious successor for the farm. I asked what will happen to the land. People shrugged. It will be auctioned off and consolidated with the remaining farms in the area.
Doris’s home is lovely, but it has no market value. Zero. When put up for auction no one bids on homes like hers. Her town has a population of either twenty seven or thirty two depending on who you ask. Humans have been replaced by large inputs of borrowed money, machines, and petrochemicals.
These are concentrated feed lots. This is the kind of facility where most meat, milk, and eggs come from. Profit margins are razor thin so only the largest most efficient and competitive farms survive. Corn, soy, and antibiotic rations go in one end. Protein and sewerage come out the other. This system is incredibly effective at producing unprecedented amounts of amazingly cheap food. But factory farms involve trade-offs. This kind of efficiency is vulnerable to any number of external shocks and supply chain disruptions. And most food production in North America is owned or substantially controlled by a handful of corporations.
Industrial production lends itself to economies of scale and specialization. Different regions have come to dominate particular crops: grain in the midwest, fruit and vegetables in California and Florida, pork in Iowa and North Carolina, poultry in the Deep South, and so on. Consequently food (both for human consumption and for animal feed) is constantly being transported across the continent. Many states no longer have the capacity to produce or process their own food. Slaughterhouses and other infrastructure have been highly concentrated in a few locations.
As a nation we tend to moralize about agriculture and food in the same way we moralize about sex. Is it the right kind? Is it being done correctly? Are the right people doing it? This conversation pits, “We need affordable food” against, “Food must be healthy, humane, and sustainable.” Like so many things about our national conversation on every subject these days I’m guessing things will stay pretty much as they are – until external reality intervenes. There’s a long list of things that can go very wrong very fast.