Paul D. Johnson
is a northeast Kansas organic market gardener
and a family farm legislative advocate for several
churches in Kansas. He is a member of the Prairie
Writers Circle at the Land Institute, Salina,
May 23, 2003: The industrialization of agriculture
seemed inevitable. The loss of farmers, soil and rural communities
apparently was deemed a small price to pay to create the most
"efficient" food system in the world -- a vertically
integrated wonder that uses eight calories of fossil fuel
to produce a single calorie of food.
But the sanity and safety of this food system are now finally
being debated and challenged. Our government must protect
the fairness of the food market, and our public universities
must provide an unbiased forum for the growing concerns about
industrial agriculture. But for the past several decades,
these institutions have been missing in action.
The consolidation came so quickly. The Department of Agriculture
reported this year that the number of hog farms in the United
States fell 70 percent since 1990. Their independent market
is essentially gone, as is that for chickens. Beef is following.
The number of dairies dropped 37 percent from 1992 to 2000,
according to the American Farm Bureau. And in my home state
of Kansas, the wheat state, control of the grain trade has
fallen to two corporations.
Meanwhile, adjusted for inflation, from 1984 to 1998 consumer
food prices increased 3 percent while the prices paid to farmers
dropped 36 percent.
The bottom line is pretty simple: cheap foreign labor, controlled
producers, inadequate environmental regulation and markets
dominated by a handful of huge corporations. On this list
is neither the health of the land nor the health of our communities.
But despite agribusiness’ clever use of the media,
this country’s food and farm debate finally is being
joined. There are many critical questions being asked about
the consequences of our food system.
Is there a connection between the epidemic of obesity and
this country’s fast-food diet? As animals have been
moved off pasture and medicated to survive confinement, is
the overuse of antibiotics for them resulting in antibiotic
resistance in bacteria that sicken humans? When pesticides
were genetically imbedded in corn, why wasn’t it tested
long term? What are the health implications of genetically
modified foods in general?
As "Living Downstream" writer and biologist Sandra
Steingraber has asked, what are the long-term consequences
of the synthetic chemicals found in pregnant women’s
amniotic fluid? Are rural Missouri men’s sperm counts
so much lower than in cities because of agricultural chemicals,
as University of Missouri researchers suspect? As a few corporations
have taken control of the seed business and meat-packing,
what constitutes an antitrust violation?
As consumers and taxpayers, we have a right to expect our
government and public universities’ involvement in this
But though the federal government has broad antitrust authority,
no serious effort to investigate the loss of independent food
markets has been made in the past 20 years. With the help
of former agribusiness scientists, the Food and Drug Administration
has ruled that genetically engineered food is "substantially
equivalent" to regular food and needs no long-term testing
Federal farm programs have accelerated the concentration
of farms and farm wealth. USDA payment data sorted by the
Environmental Working Group show 60 percent of commodity payments
go to 10 percent of the recipients. Federal research dollars
primarily subsidize chemical, biotech and intensive production
methods, to the benefit of agribusiness. Not priorities: helping
farmers lower input costs, improve soil quality and gain a
greater share of the consumer’s food dollar.
The magic and mystery of industrial agriculture are giving
way to a truer assessment of the real costs. Industrial agriculture
may dominate our food system for some time, but an alternative
system that is economically viable, environmentally sound
and socially just is growing rapidly. The interest in high-quality,
sustainably raised food is mushrooming. There is now a record
number of farmers' markets, and the organic trade has grown
20 percent per year for a decade.
Public institutions whose allegiance is truly to the public
interest must play a role in this evolving food debate. Consumers
have the choice to support a fair food system with their dollars.
And Americans have a right to expect their 2004 congressional
candidates to address the alarms raised about Big Agriculture.