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The Last Farm Crisis | The Nation

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The Last Farm Crisis

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Who Pays for Fast Food?

About the Author

William Greider
William Greider
William Greider, a prominent political journalist and author, has been a reporter for more than 35 years for newspapers...

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The short answer is nearly everyone, one way or another, even those who have never encountered a Big Mac or extra-crispy KFC. The economies of scale gained from bigness do matter, but only up to a point. The real source of efficiency in consolidated agribusiness is a long-familiar operating principle of capitalist enterprise--push the true costs of production off the company's balance sheet and onto someone else. "They maintain their profitability by shifting costs off on the community," said William Weida, an economist at Colorado College who counsels many grassroots groups opposing hog factories. "You don't put in a proper lagoon. The costs of dealing with animal waste are avoided by the owners and shifted to the surrounding population as health problems, traffic, social problems and pollution--odors, chemicals and pathogens in air or water. You don't pay the worker more than you absolutely have to. You do take advantage of every public subsidy available. But the biggest cost issue is that hogs are a lot like humans and are sensitive to disease. That means the life of these projects is only about twelve years because the buildings become so contaminated they can't use them any longer. Too many hogs die. Then they pick up and leave, and the community is stuck with the damage."

Oddly enough, one of the government's most vigorous champions of supply-contract farming and the hog-factory system is the Federal Reserve, which is supposed to regulate money and credit, not agriculture. Its Center for the Study of Rural America at the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank last spring sponsored a conference on rural economic development titled "Beyond Agriculture." Mark Drabenstott, the center's director, has relentlessly promoted the factory concept as the inevitable wave of the future and argues that corporate consolidation allows rural communities to put aside farm issues so they can pursue brighter prospects for development.

One speaker at the Fed conference, an Italian official from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, suggested that small farmers may still be needed on the land, if only to protect the lovely landscape. "It is true in Tuscany," Mario Pezzini allowed, "that, if you remove all the olive trees, the beauty of the region will be destroyed."

A much grimmer portrait of the future was described by Professor Thomas Johnson, an agricultural economist from Missouri. Johnson warned the Fed conference of the emerging specter of "isolated rural communities" where most of the large factory farms and packinghouses are located. The food factories will operate with the most advanced technologies, yet local public services, especially education, will be minimal. Incomes will be significantly lower, populations stable or declining, the tax base weak and eroding. "These communities will rival inner cities as the primary destination of international immigrants," Johnson said. "These immigrants will largely work at close to minimum wages for value-added agricultural processing or other manufacturing firms." The pattern is already visible in rural backwaters and on Indian reservations--sites chosen by agribusiness on the assumption that very poor people will not object to anything that promises a little income.

In other words, this very sophisticated corporate system for food production is in the process of creating new pockets of poverty across prosperous America--places where people without much income or influence dwell in an environment that is ruined both physically and socially. If you think about history, this is what coal and steel and other emerging manufacturing industries did a century ago, when immigrant workers and others were clustered in coal camps and mill towns. Government is still dealing with the messes those industries left behind, and taxpayers will someday pay for the new ones that agribusiness is generating. In a variety of ways, cheap food assigns its true costs to many unwitting victims.

First, consider the situation of workers. The consolidating packinghouse industry first boosted its "efficiency" by breaking unions and busting down wages, next by drawing hapless immigrant workers into slaughterhouse jobs that were already dirty and dangerous. Then the companies sped up the assembly lines--and the Agriculture Department accommodated high-speed production by "modernizing" its own inspection system. Professor Ronald Cotterill, an antitrust authority at the University of Connecticut's Food Marketing Policy Center, described current working conditions as "now clearly more dangerous and debilitating than at any time since Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle," in 1906. Some brave workers are rebelling. In Omaha, a joint organizing campaign led by the United Food and Commercial Workers and the Industrial Areas Foundation's church-based community organization, Omaha Together One Community, has signed up a majority of the workers at the ConAgra beef packinghouse. The workers are demanding union recognition.

Then there is public health. Salmonella poisoning has staged a comeback, thanks to the greater efficiencies in slaughterhouses and meat inspection. Just as the assembly line was sped up for workers, factory farms also speed up the birth-to-slaughter cycle of animals with heavy injections of growth-accelerating antibiotics and hormones. Europeans, fearful of the chemical residues in food, prohibit these practices, and the US government responds by denouncing such concerns as barriers to free trade. No one really knows what the consequences will be for human health. The Organization for Competitive Markets warns: "It is likely that the rapid buildup of pathogens and chemicals in our surface water--much of which is due to the improper handling of animal wastes--will lead to some kind of major disease outbreak or health problems in the next few years." Health issues include overuse of antibiotics; the emergence of new, antibiotics-resistant pathogens; the effects on children of bovine growth hormone in milk products; and the risk of unintended genetic migrations from biotech seeds. The monarch butterfly, we are informed, may pay the price for GM corn. Government regulators often prove to be unreliable guardians of safe food. In Britain the threat of mad-cow disease was actively kept from the public until people started dying. In the United States, Aventis won EPA approval to sell its GM corn seeds by promising to keep the corn segregated from human consumption, but it went into taco shells.

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