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[lofo List] New book looks at economic devastation in an Iowa meat-packing town
New book looks at economic devastation in an Iowa meat-packing town
BY TOM PHILPOTT
It’s become axiomatic that to peer deep into our reliance on fossil
energy is to gaze upon human wreckage: bombed-out Baghdad slums,
desolated Nigerian townships, or Appalachian communities eviscerated
by the removal of mountaintops.
The food system has its own war zones, its own spaces of suffering and
despair. Like the energy giants, food corporations generally manage
these scenes off-stage, as hidden as possible from public view.
Consider thousands of Florida tomato pickersliving in poverty and,
occasionally, slavery; or meat-packing workers, toiling in conditions
so dire that Human Rights Watch was not long ago moved to issue a
damning report. Or consider the more banal, everyday indignities
endured by low-wage workers at fast-food outlets, institutional
kitchens, and grocery-selling retail giants like Wal-Mart, ably
documented by writers like Eric Schlosser, Liza Featherstone, and
This week’s New York Times Book Review shines a hard light on one of
those scenes, in Walter Kirns’ compelling review of Nick Reding’s book
Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town.
I have not gotten a copy of Reding’s book yet. If we believe Kirns,
it’s a doozy. The book focuses on an Iowa town whose main legit
business is a meat-packing plant. It’s chief underground activity,
until recently, was the meth trade.The two are evidently intimately
related. Writes Kirns:
The agricultural conglomerates that have gobbled up Oelwein and
similar farm towns may feed the world, but they starve the folks who
work for them, breeding a craving for synthetic stimulants that
conveniently sap the appetite while enlarging the body’s capacity for
toil. These offal-streaked Dickensian mills are also magnets for
desperate immigrant laborers who, in some cases, blaze the smuggling
trails that run up into the Corn Belt from Mexico, home to the gang
lords who own the superlabs that, increasingly, dominate the meth trade.
“Vicious cycle” is not an adequate term. As Reding painstakingly
presents it, the production, distribution and consumption of
methamphetamine is a self-catalyzing catastrophe of Chernobylish
dimensions. The rich, with their far-off, insulated lives, get richer
and more detached, while the poor get high and, finally, wasted.
Reding is working in terrain mapped out by Osha Gray Davidson in his
searing 1996 book Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural
Ghetto, which surveyed the human wreckage of the 1980s farm crisis.
Crushed between high debt loads and low crop prices, midwest farmers
exited their fields by the hundreds of thousands in the 1980s. The
small-town businesses that catered to them saw their profits vanish—
and a social and economic crisis engulfed the Farm Belt, not unlike
the ones that simultaneously gripped the great de-industrializing
cities of the North. in Broken Heartland, Davidson documents the human
costs: rising rates of alcoholism and child abuse; the paradox of
hunger amid some of the globe’s most fertile soil.
In the years since, ownership of the Midwest’s farmland has
consolidated dramatically—fewer and fewer farmers control ever larger
tracts of land, with ever more expensive machines and inputs. And hog
rearing and pork packing has become increasingly concentrated—with
devastating effects on communities, as I saw during a 2007 trip to
Iowa. The region’s towns continue their long decline. With prices of
inputs like fertilizer and genetically modified seeds sky-high, a drop
in corn and soy prices would almost surely bring a renewed era of
misery. Even though it’s ultimately rooted in land, the Farm Belt’s
economy is stunningly fragile.
The work of writers like Reding and Davidson is important, not because
it tugs at the heartstrings or affirms lefty critiques of corporate-
controlled agricultural. Policy makers should read it carefully.
Heading into a an era of climate change, scarce oil, and intense
global competition, do we really want a large chunk of our workforce
deskilled and disgruntled, vulnerable to the false consolation of
toxic substances? Do we really want our best farmland under the heel
of a few transnational input suppliers, meatpackers, and grain traders?
Grist food editor Tom Philpott farms and cooks at Maverick Farms, a
sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge
Mountains of North Carolina. Follow Tom’s Twitter feed here.
Daryl H. Hepting, Ph.D.
Associate Professor * Computer Science Department * CW 308.22
University of Regina * Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada S4S 0A2
firstname.lastname@example.org * http://www.cs.uregina.ca/~hepting
tel: (306) 585-5210 * fax: (306) 585-4745 * cell: (306) 596-6312
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