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
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
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
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 debate.
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 or labeling.
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
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.