The concentrated ills of concentrated agribusiness

A review of Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry.

Also published on Resilience.

If you are a government-approved American hog farmer, you drive: a) a dusty pickup truck, from your barn to your local small-town feed store; b) a huge articulated tractor, through your thousand-acre fields of corn and soybeans; c) a private jet, which you fly from your midwestern corporate headquarters to a second or third home in Florida.

Barons, by Austin Frerick, published by Island Press, March 2024.

If you’ve read Austin Frerick’s new book Barons (Island Press, March 2024), you’ll pick the private jet. The hog farmer won’t drive to a small-town feed store, because small towns in agricultural areas are losing most of their businesses. The hog farmer won’t use a big tractor to till fields of corn and soybeans; as a hog specialist who raises no grain, he or she will buy feed “inputs” from big grain farmers who raise no animals.

But as two prominent US Department of Agriculture secretaries advocated, farmers should “get big or get out”. And a hog farmer who has really “got big” will want that private jet, either to get to a second home on the Gulf Coast or to make quick trips to Washington to lobby for subsidies and tax breaks.

In his highly readable book, Frerick describes the businesses of barons who dominate seven sectors of the US food industry. In the process he illuminates much in recent American history and goes a long way towards diagnosing environmental ills, socio-economic ills, and the ill health of so many food consumers.

Although two of the barons, Cargill Inc. and JAB Holding Company, are well over a hundred years old, all seven barons have seen explosive growth in the 40 years since the US government switched to very lax anti-trust regulations. Except for JAB (a little-known Luxembourg-based company that has recently swallowed coffee supply chains around the world), all the highlighted barons are US-based, and all are very much involved in international trade.

One of the companies is neither a grower, processor, nor retailer of food – its core businesses are in marketing and in owning and licensing genetics. Driscoll’s is the major brand of strawberries and several other berries sold in supermarkets in the US as well as in Canada. (Frerick writes that they control about one-third of the US berry market.) The company buys from 750 growers in two dozen countries, employing more than one hundred thousand people. The growers work to Driscoll’s specifications, but Driscoll’s has no legal responsibility to those hundred thousand workers.

Now that American consumers have learned to buy fresh – albeit nearly tasteless – fruit twelve months of the year, it’s essential for Driscoll’s to have suppliers in countries with different seasons. This has other business advantages, Frerick writes: “the Driscoll’s model is based on shifting farming out of the country to companies that don’t need to worry about US minimum wage laws or environmental regulations.”

For two of the barons profiled, most of the production as well as most of the environmental damage occurs closer to home. Jeff and Deb Hansen, who own that private jet from the opening paragraph, rule an empire known as Iowa Select which brings five million pigs to market each year. “Today,” French writes, “Iowa raises about one-third of the nation’s hogs, about as many as the second-, third-, and fourth-ranking states combined.”

Dairy barons Sue and Mike McCloskey own a vast complex in Indiana called Fair Oaks Farms. Besides being an (indoor) home to 36,000 dairy cows, and the midwest’s largest agri-tourism destination, Fair Oaks produces about 430,000 gallons of manure every day.

The huge hog, chicken, dairy or beef operations favoured by the current rules of the game share this problem – they produce far more manure than can be safely used to augment local soils. The result, in many locations across the country, is polluted groundwater, runoff that disrupts river and lake ecosystems – and an overpowering stench for residents unlucky enough to live just downwind.

For workers in the hog, dairy, berry, slaughter, and grocery businesses profiled by Frerich, working conditions are often dangerous and the pay is low. The book reflects on Upton Sinclair’s century-old classic The Jungle, in which immigrant workers toil for meagre wages in filthy and dangerous Chicago slaughterhouses. In the decades after Sinclair’s book became a runaway bestseller, workers unionized and working conditions and wages in slaughterhouses improved dramatically. Today, however, many of the unions have been defeated, many slaughterhouses have moved to small towns where there is little other opportunity for employment, and most workers once again are new immigrants who have little ability to fight back against employers.

The most widely recognized name in Barons is Walmart. The mega-retailer is far and away the largest grocer in the US. As such, there are obvious advantages in buying products in huge, uniform quantities – in short, products that barons in the hog, dairy, grain, and berry sectors are ideally suited to provide. It matters not whether these products are truly nutritious. What matters is whether the products are cheap and, in line with WalMart’s directives to suppliers, cheaper year after year. Still, French explains, not cheap enough for WalMart’s own employees to afford – WalMart employees in many states require government assistance just to feed their families.

Barons is not a long book – under 200 pages, not including the footnotes – but Frerick covers a lot of ground. He does not spend a lot of time discussing solutions, however, beyond some very good ideas sketched briefly in the Conclusion. Still, for people not already deeply familiar with industrial agribusiness and its associated environmental, labour, health and political ills, Barons is a compelling read.

Image at top of page: “State of the art lagoon waste management system for a 900 head hog farm,” photo by Jeff Vanuga for the United States Department of Agriculture, public domain, accessed on Wikimedia Commons.

Essential voices for the turn away from car dependency

A review of When Driving Is Not An Option

Also published on Resilience

In forward-thinking municipalities across North America, elected officials and staff members can learn important lessons by taking on the Week Without Driving Challenge. As Anna Letitia Zivarts describes it, “participants have to try to get around for a week without driving. They can take transit, walk, roll, bike, or ask or pay for rides as they try to keep to their regular schedules ….”

When Driving Is Not An Option, published by Island Press, May 2024

In most municipalities, the challenge leads to a difficult but eye-opening week. That’s because in most areas getting around without driving is inconvenient, dangerous, very time-consuming, or next to impossible. As Zivarts writes,

“Even for participants who might already bike, walk or take transit for some of their weekly trips, we’ve heard that the experience has helped them comprehend the difference between taking the easy trips and taking all trips without driving.” (all quotes from When Driving Is Not An Option, Island Press, May 2024.)

Zivarts is a low-vision mom with the neurological condition nystagmus, and a wealth of information and insight about mobility. She started the Disabled Mobility Initiative in Washington state in 2020. “My first goal was making nondrivers visible,” she writes. “I was tired of hearing from elected leaders that ‘everyone’ in their communities drove, so spending more money on bus service or sidewalks just wasn’t necessary. I knew it wasn’t true ….”

In fact, many studies have shown that in most areas of the US, approximately 30% of residents do not drive. When Driving Is Not An Option makes clear that nondrivers are a varied group. Some don’t drive because they have a disability, some because they are too young to drive, some because they can’t afford to drive, some because they have entered the last seven to ten years of life during which an average American can no longer drive safely.

If transportation departments and urban planning staff do not include the voices of nondrivers, they are unlikely to develop policies and infrastructure that will reflect the needs of their whole communities.

In particular, Zivarts notes, planning departments must take care to listen to involuntary as well as voluntary nondrivers. She describes voluntary nondrivers as “people who have the financial resources, immigration status, and physical ability to own and drive a vehicle but choose not to.”

While she makes a strong case for a coalition that includes both voluntary and involuntary drivers, her book highlights “the expertise and lived experience … that comes from involuntary non-drivers, with an emphasis on the expertise of low-income, Black, Brown, immigrant, and disabled people, caregivers, and queer and trans people.” And she does a superb job of bringing us the insights from this wealth of expertise.

For much of my adult life I’ve been among the voluntary nondrivers. I have also had periods when due to disability I’ve been unable to drive, and as a senior I anticipate a time, coming soon, when I won’t be able to drive. But in recounting the experiences of the wide range of nondrivers she has worked with, Zivarts offers many perspectives that were new to me.

The problems and shortcomings – with existing infrastructure, municipal planning policies, traffic engineering standards, and university curricula for would-be planners and engineers – are manifold. Zivarts’ book is excellent in describing specific problems, and equally good at linking the issues of mobility justice to other struggles. So we learn about the connections between car-dependent transport policies and housing affordability, the inequitable distribution of environmental hazards, and the challenges of climate mitigation and adaptation.

The book’s subtitle is “steering away from car dependency”, and to accomplish that goal we need not just clear knowledge but also an effective coalition that draws on as many groups as possible. Zivarts quotes former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn:

“Politics runs on power, and those defending and benefiting from the status quo have power. Whether those directly benefiting from the billions spent on road expansion or those who have their transportation choices and convenience deeply subsidized, not just by dollars, but by the lost lives, lost health, and lost opportunity of those most damaged by overbuilt roads and pollution. To beat that kind of entrenched privilege and power takes more than white papers, it takes organizing.”

Zivarts lays out the stakes and the hope in a concluding paragraph that needs to be quoted in full:

“As the sky turns orange, the storms get stronger, and the waves higher, we are reminded of the immediacy of the threat and the moral prerogative to disrupt failed mobility and land use systems that are locking us into decades of carbon emissions. We also need to be reminded of the immediate daily and cumulative public health and environmental harms from tire dust, noise pollution, and traffic violence/enforcement, harms that wealthier, Whiter, nondisabled people are largely able to avoid. But those of us who can’t drive, because of disability, age, or income, see every day how automcobility is failing us. And we also believe that it must be changed. With our guidance, and a recognition of this leadership, we can and will create a different future.”

Photo at top of post from, public domain.

m is for mayapple


Each May I keep watch for my favourite woodland flowers, especially the mysterious Mayapple.

In frequent pilgrimages to the woods, I see Squill showing their colours, and spiders starting the summer with feasts of midges.

Lavender Squill

Forest Web

Then one day the Mayapples are shooting up out the ground, fully formed.

Mayapples at the foot of a stump

Within a few days the above-ground part of the plant has unfurled. Those that will blossom and then bear fruit have two leaves and one flower bud, visible as soon as the unfurling begins.

Mayapple after rain

I’m surprised to see a snail has climbed to the top of a Mayapple. But a closer look reveals no one is home in that beautiful shell. The empty shell was simply lifted from its winter resting place as a Mayapple emerged from directly underneath.

Snail at the summit

Over the next two weeks I visit the woods several times, eager to find the Mayapples in full blossom.

On dewy mornings, short grasses along the way have gone to seed and are happily soaking up moisture.

Jewelled grass

In the shade near Mayapple patches, Wood Geranium flowers bloom in shafts of sunlight that streak through the spotty springtime forest canopy.

Wood Geranium

A small branch at my feet, long since fallen away from a tree, is growing beautiful arcs of fungi.

Arc of fungi

At last, when I get down low and gaze through the dim light near the forest floor, I see white flowers.

Forest Canopies

Beneath the tall tree trunks are Mayapple leaves, beneath those are Mayapple blossoms, a few inches lower are Trillium blooms, lower still are Trillium leaves, and lower still, you’re getting close to the forest floor.

When you get close enough to a Mayapple blossom you are treated to a strangely rich scent, a foretaste of the delicious fruit that will soon form. If you’re lucky, the squirrels might leave one or two ripe fruits for you to taste in late July or early August. (You don’t want to cheat by grabbing an unripe fruit, which is poisonous along with all other parts of the Mayapple plant.) And if you don’t manage to sample the fruit, just getting a sniff of the flower is a worthy consolation prize.

Mayapple blossom

Do Ruddy Turnstones ask Red Knots for directions?

A review of The Internet of Animals: Discovering the Collective Intelligence of Life on Earth. 

Also published on Resilience.

A half-century ago, radio telemetry pioneer Bill Cochran heard something surprising while listening to migrating songbirds: when a Swainson’s Thrush called, a Veery answered. 

The Internet of Animals, by Martin Wikelski, 272 pages, published by Greystone Books on May 14, 2024.

This observation helped inspire a lifetime’s work for Cochran as well as for the much younger scientist and author Martin Wikelski. In The Internet of Animals, Wikelski recounted one of the many unconventional theories suggested by the Thrush-Veery call-and-response:

“The constant chirping back and forth in the night sky indicated that even though the birds had some innate tendency to migrate coded into their genes, they still communicated constantly on their journey. An even more radical interpretation of Bill’s data was that the only innate tendency the birds needed to have in their genes would be the drive to fly toward warmer areas in fall. … All the birds would need to do to find their way south to Central and South America would be to follow others flying along the nocturnal highway.” (The Internet of Animals, page 17)

Wikelski’s book, to be released on May 14, describes many successful radio telemetry projects, and offers tantalizing hints at what we might learn if the promise of the far more ambitious “Internet of Animals” is realized. But the hurdles to be surmounted are daunting.

For example, scientists around the world have had to develop communication tags that are light enough to be comfortable for diverse species of animals, durable enough to last an animal’s lifetime, powerful enough to communicate with orbiting satellites, and cheap enough to be manufactured in the tens or hundreds of thousands.

The current versions of the tags typically contain: a GPS receiver, so that the tag can report its geographic position at any time; sensors that measure acceleration and magnetic fields in three dimensions; temperature, humidity and altitude sensors that report what kind of weather the animal is coping with; a battery to power a transmitter to send all this data to a satellite up to 465 miles (750 km) away; and a tiny solar panel to keep the battery charged. In Wikelski’s summary, “In just two decades we went from a battery-powered collar with a beeping transmitter with a limited life to an intelligent smartphone-style ear tag powered by the sun that an animal could wear all its life.” (p. 151)

No less daunting has been the challenge of securing cooperation from the space science establishments in several countries, some of whom are now in military conflict.

For years the team worked on permission to attach an antenna to the International Space Station. The antenna was installed and tested, and in 2021 “we started to get amazing data”:

“Our red-footed falcons were on their way from Angola back to Hungary; the Hudsonian godwits were making their nonstop flights from Chile across the Galápagos and Guatemala into Texas; the supposedly stationary black coucals, an African cuckoo, were migrating more than 620 miles (1,000 km) from southern Tanzania to northern Democratic Republic of Congo ….” (p. 151)

And then, in early 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, scuttling scientific co-operation between Russia, Western Europe and the US. Wikelski’s team had to devise a new method for receiving transmissions, settling on the use of CubeSat satellites yet to be launched. 

A Long-Billed Dowitcher, left, and Hudsonian Godwit, right, at Bowmanville Marsh on the north shore of Lake Ontario, October 5, 2022. Hudsonian Godwits, part of a family of ultra-long-distance flyers, are thought to make the migration between arctic and sub-arctic Canada and southern South America with as little as one rest stop. The appearance of this bird brought people from all across southern Ontario, many of them hoping to see a rare visitor for the first time. The Long-Billed Dowitchers nest in the western Canadian arctic and on the Alaska coasts, but they migrate only as far as the southern US and Mexico for the winter.

In his first discussions of a worldwide animal-tracking system made possible through satellites, Wikelski wryly recalls, he thought that it could be implemented in four years. He made that guess in 2003; if all goes well the system will start living up to its potential later this year, after the launch of a CubeSat antenna device. The hope is to have a second CubeSat receiver in orbit in 2025, and a third in 2026. “The goal,” he writes “is to have enough receivers in space to deliver near real-time data transmission ….” (p 215)

The Internet of Animals could give us much greater understanding of the behaviours of many animal species. In Wikelski’s vision, however, the benefits both to animals and to humans will go far beyond merely learning more about migration routes and timing.

If we can follow the daily movements of many animals from birth to death, he writes, we’ll have much better understanding of the decisions they must make and the challenges they must face – and therefore we’ll be better able to take effective actions to protect many species and the environments they live in.

It is also possible that through changes in behaviour, animals far from the sight of any humans may give us advance warning of potential new pandemics, or earthquakes, or severe weather:

“[I]f collectively animals tell us that something has changed in the environment, that their world now feels more dangerous, then we should listen. … [T]he natural intelligence of animals, the collective interaction of the most intelligent sensors we have on this planet, is perhaps our most important early warning system to help us anticipate natural catastrophes, at least on a local level.” (p 184)

One of the mentors Wikelski credits with inspiring the Internet of Animals was radio astronomer George Swenson. Much of Swenson’s career was spent developing instruments capable of collecting and sifting through radio waves that might turn out to be communications from an extraterrestrial intelligence.

Yet the legacy of Swenson’s work, Wikelski writes, might be that we get in touch with another intelligence, the collective intelligence of the many other animals that share this planet with us:

“Listening to animals might actually change our human way of thinking more profoundly than any unlikely message from outer space. As we start receiving messages from animals and truly listen to them, humans would also be more disposed to losing their culturally ingrained perception (at least in the Western world) that they are the God-give pinnacle of all life forms.” (p. 221) 

If such an enlightenment occurs, Wikelski believes the Anthropocene could be succeeded by “the Interspecies Age,” in which “we will be considering other living species when we make decisions about what happens next on our planet.”

“We are going to link the knowledge these other species have to our own knowledge,” he adds. “We are going to become partners.” (p 182)

The Internet of Animals relies on the latest products of high-tech manufacturing, and it is vulnerable to the turbulence of human power struggles. But at its heart the project is the life’s work of dedicated scientists simply doing their best to learn from animals.

Photo at top of post: Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones make a brief stop at the Port Darlington breakwater on Lake Ontario, June 5, 2022. While both species nest in the high arctic, Red Knots migrate to southern areas of the southern hemisphere, while Ruddy Turnstones nest along temperate zone coasts throughout North America as well as further south.