The Last Farm Crisis
There's also the issue of food security. Given the usual abundance of food, it's unsettling to hear agricultural experts explain how a sudden crisis could occur in the US food supply. According to William Heffernan of Missouri, "Biotechnology eliminates diversity, and there's a lot of uncertainty about what results from the homogenization of breeds, the entropy of the gene pool, the concentration of production that generates new pathogens." He adds, "The control of the animal genetics pool is concentrating, and the genetic base for domestic animals is narrowing. For example, more than 90 percent of all commercially produced turkeys in the world come from three breeding flocks. The system is ripe for the evolution of a new strain of avian flu for which these birds have no resistance. Similar concerns exist in hogs, chickens and dairy-cattle genetics." Food security may also be threatened by the fragile economic condition of producers and extreme price swings. "If we had two droughts in a row like 1988," Daryll Ray of Tennessee warned, "we would see the farmers slaughtering their animals and we would have food shortages."
And finally there is the cruel treatment of animals. In slaughterhouses, Missouri hog farmer Keith Mudd told me, the line moves so fast that on occasion workers are sawing the legs off an animal that is not yet dead (anyone who doubts this should read Gail Eisnitz's exposé, Slaughterhouse). The Humane Farming Association, based in San Rafael, California, circulates a film on hog factories that provides stomach-turning glimpses inside the production system--sows dead or dying, chewing frantically on the bars and metal flooring because they have been made psychotic by close confinement, where they cannot root or even turn around. Their piglets are removed soon after birth and the sows are swiftly reimpregnated--high-speed birthing that continues until, sore and exhausted, the animal drops. The film also shows hog production in Sweden, where growth-accelerating antibiotics are forbidden by law and the animals are raised and fattened in natural settings and normal routines. Animal-rights advocates remind us of this admonition: The ways in which people treat animals will be reflected in how people relate to one another.
Tractors and Tree-Huggers Unite!
State Senator Paul Muegge from Tonkawa, Oklahoma, a grain and livestock farmer who chairs the State Senate's agriculture committee, joked about his odd reputation in Oklahoma politics. "I'm known as a wacko tree-hugger myself," he admitted. "Me and a friend figured out awhile back we can't beat these tree-huggers; they're everywhere. So we started talking to them, and within a year we got some things worked out. We had alliances with family farmers and environmentalists on the hog-waste issue, and that coalition simply swept over the state." The white-haired Muegge is among those who encouraged the Organization for Competitive Markets to initiate the broader conversation on food.
The OCM vision statement doesn't attempt to strategize on the politics, but it lays out the big picture in persuasive detail and proposes some ambitious goals. Some of them are:
§ Reinvigorating antitrust enforcement. If the Justice Department remains passive, state governments and private lawsuits can lead the way. Litigation should not only explore the breakup of existing consolidations but also develop a broader antitrust doctrine that encompasses producer prices and the antisocial consequences of monopoly power.
§ Stabilizing the production system. OCM proposes a global food reserve, coordinated with other major grain-producing nations, that can reduce the highs and lows of price swings without re-establishing the old price-support system. Food reserves would also serve as the nation's "rainy-day fund," protecting against food-supply risks from weather or genetic catastrophes.
§ A whole-food system. By involving consumers, rich and poor, in agriculture policy, the government would change directions fundamentally. Instead of subsidizing the industrialized system, public funds would go to farmers who are making the difficult transition to alternative farming, which is both sustainable and humane but which has lower yields. Agricultural research, including at some land-grant universities now corrupted by corporate sponsors, would refocus on social objectives. Campaigns to require honest food labeling and to eliminate dangerous working conditions and antibiotics would also be obvious priorities.
No one should have any illusions about how difficult it will be to reform our current food system--or how hard it is for country folks and city folks to put aside their usual differences and learn to do politics on the same page. Still, as Tom Linzey says, the food system has to change for our own good and for the future's. The farmers, like Fred Stokes and Paul Muegge, who have started the conversation are opening a door to new politics, brushing aside old stereotypes that divide the millions of Americans who ought to be allies. If kindred spirits will return the favor, something important--maybe even powerful--could unfold.