The time has come to rein in agribusiness

The time has come to rein in agribusiness  

by George Naylor

Opinion | Vernon Broadcaster

January 13, 2010

You might be shocked to learn that our dairy foods are controlled by three companies, corn seeds by two companies, and 90 percent of our beef by three companies.

On Dec, 31, 2009, I submitted comments to the Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding market concentration in agriculture. After 33 years of family-farm activism, I’ve grown cynical about prospects for the government putting the interests of family farmers and our environment ahead of agribusiness’ blind appetite for profit.

Some lawmakers have assured their vote-gathering among farmers by railing against Big Ag, saying that antitrust laws should be enforced and large corporations divided. Only hearings and studies resulted from this political engineering. Nary a word of the real concerns or proposals was delivered outside home districts, and token legislation moved not one inch through the hoops of Congress.

Also, if the federal farm bill and international trade policy continue to provide cheap feedstuffs like corn and soybeans for livestock, won’t giant feedlots and factory farms that buy all their feed continue to replace responsible, self-contained family farms with humane practices and crop rotation? At the same time, this policy leaves crop production to increasingly huge, industrial grain and oilseed plantations around the world. One example of plantation farming without farmers is currently being conducted in Brazil by a U.S. farmer cooperative!

According to my regional co-op’s slick newsletter, they formed a joint venture with companies in Japan and Brazil to buy 400,000 acres in Brazil (including virgin land) to grow corn, soybeans and cotton for export. No farmers will be involved, just 600 employees. No doubt this model is already sprouting here in the Midwest.

U.S. citizens have a choice: Accept an economic future dictated by the selfish interests of corporate managers and stockholders, encouraging extreme disparities of wealth and power with our environment destroyed around the world, or demand a strong democratic government dedicated more to the common good.

I would also like to challenge the rhetoric of some groups that blame all of our farm and food problems on concentration, because I believe it’s based on faulty economic thinking and unproductive solutions. First of all, if current concentration is today’s problem, how do you explain all the raw deals farmers received when there was much more competition in meatpacking, retailing and food processing? If the government solicited proposals for breaking up the monopolies, what level of competition would be ideal? Even if market returns to farmers improved somewhat, would that be enough?

Secondly, while it’s obvious that big corporations scheme to eliminate competition and short-change both producers and consumers, concentration can be the result of other forces. More transparency in corporate behavior and regulation enforcement by a powerful and democratic government is required. Otherwise, even after a breakup, the most ruthless, irresponsible corporations will pursue industrial processes that put all their competitors — particularly ethical individual businesspeople — at a disadvantage.

Likewise, if our agricultural policy results in an unpopulated rural landscape with all economic opportunities moved to giant metro areas, mass marketing will overpower small regional companies. This kind of lopsided economic development has already extinguished local and regional markets, clearing the way for a resumption of irresponsible corporate consolidation.

We may have the first chance in decades for every level of our government to seriously address the grievous effects agribusiness monopolization has on consumers, farmers and our environment. The efforts by Department of Justice and USDA to collect input and hold workshops, including the March 2010 one in Iowa, suggest that the government is listening. Nevertheless, we can settle for nothing less than comprehensive reform to restore our food sovereignty and democratic control of our farm and food system.

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In reading George Naylor’s insightful commentary this morning I find myself thinking about how vulnerable Haiti is to the devastation of last night’s earthquake. News reports speak of the terrible destruction and death loss in the poorly constructed Port-au-Prince. Meanwhile there is little damage or injury reported in the countryside.

Like many vulnerable under developed countries, Haiti has long been a victim of resource extraction and exploitation by multinational corporations. The land has been used up and abandoned through the same industrial export oriented agriculture that George describes. The people, having been forced from their rural homes, are living in severely overcrowded and unhealthy conditions, unable to grow the food necessary to feed themselves.

The same pillage of land and people has been occurring in the U.S. for at least the last thirty years. We are now a net importer of food, unable to feed ourselves. Our farm families, having been forced from their land with low prices, are living in overcrowded cities. We must breakup big agribusiness and retail food corporations. We must adopt government policy that ensures we will always have the ability to feed ourselves good food from our own communities and family farms.

Years ago, I asked USDA Ag Secretary Dan Glickman why he didn’t enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act, preventing the meat packer cartel we have today. He responded that we need big companies to do business globally. He was speaking for big agribusiness then. Hopefully this administration will respond differently today.

Thanks to George for his words of wisdom. 

Mike Callicrate

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