The New Politics of Food
The contemporary triumph of free-market capitalism has revealed to farmers, if not to other Americans, the bitter last act in this drama. Farmers can see themselves being reduced from their mythological status as independent producers to a subservient and vulnerable role as sharecroppers or franchisees. The control of food production, both livestock and crops, is being consolidated not by the government but by a handful of giant corporations. While farmers and ranchers suffered three years of severely depressed prices at the close of the 1990s, the corporations enjoyed soaring profits from the same line of goods. Growers are surrounded now on both sides–facing concentrated market power not only from the companies that buy their crops and animals but also from the firms that sell them essential inputs like seeds and fertilizer. In the final act of unfettered capitalism, the free market itself is destroyed.
In farm country these developments are often described, with irony, as America’s top-down version of collectivization. “It’s interesting,” said James Horne, who leads an Oklahoma center for sustainable agriculture. “Our system of support payments for the farmers survived about as long as the Soviet system did, around seventy years. Now, here in the United States we’re doing exactly what the Russians are undoing in their agriculture. They’re decentralizing and we’re centralizing.”
Farmers tend to express the point more pungently. “We’re in a death struggle out here, and we’re getting our butts kicked,” said Fred Stokes, a former career Army officer who retired to raise cattle in his home state of Mississippi. Stokes calls himself a Reagan Republican, but frequently begins a statement by saying, “Now, I’m not a socialist but…”
“The thing that bothers me most is the Big Brother aspect of this deal,” he said. “It’s clear the government is more concerned with mining big profits for these corporations than it is with food security or family farmers. It’s all about more money for a handful of guys who will be the elites. The rest of us wind up swinging machetes. You talk about feudalism. This thing makes farmers indentured on their own land; they’re going to be the new serfs.”
The media’s usual take on this new farm crisis is a tearjerk feature story that begins with a worried farm couple poring over bills at the kitchen table, children crying in the background; and it closes with a romantic elegy for Jefferson’s doomed yeomanry. Too bad, but that’s the price of progress, end of story. I intend to skip over the pathos of farm families, widespread though it is, and focus instead on the intricate economics of monopoly power and why collectivized agriculture promises ruinous social consequences for the rest of us. Farming, as an industry, is inescapably different from other sectors–since weather is always a big wild card in production–but the patterns of concentration and control in food production provide a visible primer for what’s also been under way in the larger economy. The same great shifts in structure and market domination are fast forming in finance and banking, telecommunications, media and other sectors. The much-celebrated entrepreneurial spirit is steadily neutered–“rationalized,” the players would say–by the same rush of mergers, acquisitions and “strategic alliances” among supposed rivals. (See Adam Smith on how businessmen always yearn to escape from price competition through collusion.)
Some farmers and ranchers are mobilizing for a last stand–those at least who haven’t been thoroughly demoralized by recurring crises during the past twenty years. But this time, they recognize that farm rebellion is bound to fail unless they can persuade city folks–consumers, environmentalists, church activists and humanists, even animal rights advocates–that this political struggle involves much more than saving the family farm. Its purpose is also restoring the promise of safe and wholesome food, protecting consumers from monopoly pricing and stopping techno-agriculture’s harsh new methods for abusing the environment as well as animals. “To win this thing–and we’re way behind–we’ve got to connect with the general public and let them know they’ve got a dog in this fight,” Stokes explained.