The Last Farm Crisis
by William Greider
The Nation magazine, November 20, 2000
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 1 990s, 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
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.
Toward that end, the Organization for Competitive Markets
(OCM), an interstate group of farmers, ranchers, political leaders
and professionals that Stokes heads, assembled an unusual cross-section
of kindred spirits at a church retreat center in Parkville, Missouri,
a few months ago. Around the conference table for three days,
sharing expertise and background papers, were agricultural economists
from major land-grant universities in the Midwest and South, antitrust
experts from law school faculties, rural sociologists and community
advocates, environmentalists and leading critics of such notorious
practices and products as hog factories and genetically manipulated
seeds. They produced a comprehensive "vision statement"
on how Americans might seek to replace industrialized agriculture
with a "whole-food system" that incorporates humane
values and quality, that moves farm economics away from high-tech,
capital-intensive bigness and toward the diversity that is possible
if smaller farms survive. Their report and papers (available at
www.competitivemarkets.com) provide an intellectual starting point
for serious conversation about food between city and countryside-the
threads that might become fabric for a political alliance that
could have far more strength than embattled farmers alone. The
warm, serious spirit of the Parkville gathering reminded one of
Seattle, where the turtles and Teamsters discovered their mutual
This political initiative, however, raises an ironic banner
for left-liberal social reformers because it calls them to rally
on behalf of "competitive markets." That may seem a
wrenching twist for many who have devoted their political energies
in recent decades to holding back the market ideology's relentless
encroachment on public space and public values, and to fighting
the many battles over deregulation and privatization. Nevertheless,
if people's social values are to prevail in this fight, it has
to begin by defending the marketplace against the collusive power
of emerging monopolies. Aroused citizens must likewise reawaken
government and push it to confront this new landscape of concentrated
economic power. The legal doctrine called antitrust got its name
from oil, banking and many other "trusts" 100 years
ago combines that pursued the same brazen impulse to strangle
free markets and control prices to the injury of smaller competitors
and the public. A century ago, the Populists and Progressive reformers
understood the centrality of free exchange of goods, honest pricing
and markets free of collusion to the vitality of democracy and
individual freedom. This generation has to relearn the economics.
Then it must invent a robust new vision that challenges the present
circumstances of globalizing market power.
In fact, a feisty new politics is already bubbling up around
the nation, based on this same understanding. In Wyoming and the
northern plains, citizen activists are forcing passage of laws
to control the megafarms. The Western Organization of Resource
Councils includes six state councils, from Idaho to the Dakotas,
that unite independent ranchers with environmentalists against
the big guys. In North Carolina angry citizens were already confronting
the hog factories that pollute coastal rivers and estuaries before
Hurricane Floyd came along and unleashed ruinous tides of manure
overfiowing from the hog-farm lagoons. In dozens of states the
activists are also organizing direct-marketing devices that will
sustain smaller farmers: open-air produce markets, cattle ranchers
selling grass-fed beef to consumers by subscription orders and
other conduits that boost farm incomes by cutting out agribusiness.
These efforts seem frail alongside the corporations, but the big
guys are no longer dismissing organic-food marketing, as they
did a generation ago.
Rita Wilhelm, a graphic designer and mother of three from
Annville, Pennsylvania, seems typical of the grassroots action.
She was alarmed when a hog factory was built down the road- 9,200
animals clustered in barns on 120 acres, with manure lagoons and
an overpowering stench. "I grew up in the country,"
Wilhelm said, "but this is far beyond making a living-this
is making a killing." She and neighbors-after discovering
that Republican Governor Tom Ridge was already on the other side,
weakening environmental regulation to attract these strange new
factories-organized Pennsylvanians for Responsible Agriculture,
which now connects similar activists in thirty-nine groups across
seventeen counties. Her local colleagues include farmers, an environmental
engineer, even two township supervisors.
Their primary issues are not only the destruction of water
supplies and clean air but also unsafe food. "If you're going
to eat synthetically produced food with all the chemicals and
everything, you're going to get that out of it, and now that's
showing up in health problems," Wilhelm said. The group's
new website (www.pfra.org), she hopes, will help local farmers
to find direct customers for their free-range beef, pork and poultry.
With help from a young environmental lawyer, Thomas Linzey from
Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, the group has lobbied county and township
boards to enact an anti-corporate farming ordinance- legislation
Linzey borrowed from nine states in the West and Midwest. As president
of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, he has promised
to defend, for free, the first corporate challenge to these legal
barriers that local governments are erecting.
This same story pops up regularly across the nation. The homegrown
activists have come to this realization: If there is any hope
of liberating the food system from corporate control, they must
first help rescue smaller producers from their fate, so they can
endure to develop the alternative modes of farming (actually,
old farming methods, in many instances) that will deliver food
in ways that are both nature-friendly and humane. "I think
the conversation changed when we started talking about markets,"
Linzey observed. "Then you could bring together a much larger
group of interests." He added, "We are literally in
a war with the agricultural extension offices, because their regulatory
system is set up simply to support large, concentrated production."
The Vanishing Market
Let's name some names. The dominating leaders in grain trade
and processing: Cargill (which swallowed Continental, the second-largest
grain trader), Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), ConAgra. Beefpacking:
IBP, ConAgra, Cargill (as owner of Excel). Cattle feedlots: Cargill,
Cactus Feeders, ConAgra. Pork processing: Smithfield, IBP, ConAgra,
Cargill. Hog growers: Smithfield (the largest pork processor has
bought the largest and second-largest hog producers, Murphy Family
Farms and Carroll's Foods), Cargill, Seaboard. Biotech and seeds:
Monsanto, DuPont/ Pioneer, Novartis, Aventis. Supermarkets: Kroger,
Albertson's, Safeway, AHOLD (Giant), Winn-Dixie, Wal-Mart.
As the repeated names suggest, a few far-flung firms are positioned
on many sides of the market at once and, indeed, are incestuously
connected through a dizzying galaxy of "strategic alliances"
and cross-ownership. Smithfield, the world's largest hog producer
and pork processor, recently bought a 6.3 percent stake in its
putative rival, IBP, the second-largest pork processor. ADM already
owned a 12.2 percent share of IBP. This crossownership will continue,
as IBP itself is to be acquired in a friendly takeover by the
Wall Street brokerage firm Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette (which
was recently bought by Credit Suisse First Boston). Some analysts
are watching to see if Smithfield makes a rival bid for the meatpacking
giant. Cargill and Monsanto have fashioned a labyrinth of joint
ventures that runs from fertilizer and seeds to grain and raising
cattle, hogs, turkeys and chickens, then on to the slaughterhouses.
Sector by sector, four firms control 82 percent of beefpacking,
75 percent of hogs and sheep, and half of chickens. Major supermarket
chains are now concentrated regionally, though not nationally.
Four firms hold 74 percent of market control in ninety-four large
cities; experts anticipate a new merger wave that could swiftly
increase that percentage while doubling the four firms' overall
national concentration up to 60 percent. And so on. As antitrust
theory would predict, this kind of market leverage ought to give
companies a pricing advantage over farmers and ranchers, and it
has, according to Wisconsin law professor Peter Carstensen. The
spread between prices paid for livestock and the wholesale price
of meat has widened in the past few years by 52 percent for pork
and 24 percent for beef, he reported.
et these extraordinary levels of concentration unfolded without
government opposition. The consolidation quickened after Ronald
Reagan's antitrust division at the Justice Department swept away
the old rules and thresholds for opposing mergers and takeovers.
Reagan's lawyers effectively gutted the theory with a narrow laissez-faire
interpretation that declared bigness no longer a problem if it
could not be proven, in advance, to distort consumer prices. Cheap
food was consecrated as the only issue that matters to the public.
The Clinton Administration, notwithstanding its activism against
Microsoft, has been generally passive on big mergers of all kinds
and nearly as pliant as the Reaganites were (among leading seed
companies, sixty-eight acquisitions occurred between 1995 and
1998). Consumers may judge for themselves whether they have benefited
at the checkout counter.
The disadvantage for farmers was compounded greatly as the
companies moved aggressively into vertical integration-acquiring
top-to-bottom elements in the chain of production. Owning feedlots
or signing output contracts with individual farmers for poultry,
hogs, cattle and, in some instances, grain and soybeans has given
the processing companies their own "captive supplies."
Their privately held stores of livestock mean giants like IBP
no longer have to rely on auction-price purchases in the open
market for most of their supply. In fact, according to farmers,
the companies regularly deploy this leverage to depress market
prices for the independent producers.
Such practices are ostensibly illegal, and the Agriculture
Department has belatedly promised to look into them. Mike Callicrate,
a feedlot owner in St. Francis, Kansas, has filed a class-action
damage suit against IBP on behalf of cattlemen, one of a number
of promising legal challenges under way. "Captive supplies
are just devastating to the cash market," Callicrate explained.
"IBP would come to your feedyard and bid you a very low price-a
bid not to buy, we call it-because they are just searching around
for the weakest cattleman. Who needs to sell today? Of course,
they intimidate him too, by saying, 'If you don't take this price
today, we're not going to buy your cattle three weeks from now.'
When he does take the low price, the word goes out instantly and
everyone else gets nervous. Then IBP takes the price down further
because they don't need the cattle right now; they've already
got their own supply [in feedlots or under contract]. What's their
motivation? They just want cattle to be available at lower prices
when they do want to buy. You've got a very well organized buyer
dealing with very disorganized sellers."
The final blow to small producers came in 1996, with enactment
of the Freedom to Farm Act, the law intended to phase out the
federal government's price-support payments and production restraint
mechanisms (better known among farmers now as the "Freedom
to Fail" Act). The Clinton Administration, much as it did
in welfare reform, made common cause with Republican ideologues
to repeal a New Deal landmark. The premise was that market forces,
once liberated from the Feds, would gradually reconcile supply
and demand in farm output, mainly by persuading many marginal
farmers to get out of the business, thereby insuring decent prices
for those who survive. The law failed utterly to do either. As
surpluses and collapsing prices engulfed farm states, politicians
from both parties blinked. Instead of gradually reducing the federal
support payments (supposedly to zero after seven years), the public's
subsidy for farmers has doubled and tripled in size-$16 billion
in 1998, $23 billion last year-as Congress repeatedly enacted
"emergency" relief measures. With that great trauma,
the last act for agriculture began to unfold.
Among the consequences, the capital-intensive treadmill for farmers
sped up, and they became even more eager to embrace whatever innovation
promised to boost returns. Just as farm prices were cratering,
Monsanto and others began promoting genetically altered seeds
for corn and soybeans with cost-cutting promises, and this new
technology swept the landscape. "These farmers are so desperate
for profitability," Fred Stokes said, "they grab whatever
is offered to them. Offering GM seeds is like selling them a bag
of cocaine." His grain-growing colleagues in the Organization
for Competitive Markets affirm that they have seen no bottom-line
benefits from GM seeds. As agricultural experience has long demonstrated,
the first farmers to adopt new production technologies will enjoy
higher returns, but the effect soon wears off when everyone is
using the same stuff. The result is still higher yields and greater
productive capacity-more surpluses than the market can absorb.
Exports, as many farmers have figured out, are not going to
save them. The logic promoted by agribusiness and the Agriculture
Department-not to mention global-trade boosters in and out of
government-was that greater efficiency would allow lower prices
on US crop exports and thus give US farmers the edge to grab market
share from other grain-growing nations. Roughly the opposite has
occurred during the past thirty years, despite the inflated promises
that accompany each new trade agreement (most recently with China).
Agricultural economist Daryll Ray of the University of Tennessee
has documented a stair-step decline in the US share of global
trade in corn, soybeans and wheat, starting in the 1970s. "What
the past fifteen years have taught us is that lower crop prices
do not cause competing exporters, including Canada, the European
Union, Brazil, Argentina and Australia, to fold up shop and give
the United States their market share," Ray explained. "When
US prices drop, our competitors quickly lower their export prices
as well." Importing countries, he added, do not increase
their food purchases significantly when supplies are plentiful
and prices lower. Nations, like people, buy what they need, but
they do not eat twice as much just because the food is cheap.
The more momentous consequence of the price collapse is that
in the past few years it drove many more farmers into accepting
the status of contract producers-growing crops or livestock under
fixed-price contracts with the corporations. Richard Levins, an
agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota, said these
production contracts covered about $60 billion by 1997, almost
one-third of farm-level crop and livestock sales, and have expanded
greatly since. Mainstream authorities regard supply contracting
as the future. "Old MacDonald's farm is being absorbed into
what might be called New McDonald's Farms," Levins observed.
In other words, farming begins to resemble a fast-food franchise
to run a burger joint or an auto dealership. The operator buys
the supplies and equipment from the brand-name company and produces
to its uniform specifications. "They are going to put cattle
in buildings, too," Levins predicted. "It's not there
yet, but cattle will be raised indoors eventually."
While contract status will effectively end the entrepreneurial
culture in farming, it also ostensibly frees small producers from
the harrowing instabilities of market prices. Or does it? Farmers
foresee that the supposed stability of contract farming will actually
leave them utterly dependent on the handful of agribusiness firms
and without alternatives. Neil Harl, a veteran agricultural economist
from lowa State University, explained: "Let's say we're down
to two huge hog-slaughtering firms, and each is 90 percent vertically
integrated. The new contract [offered to a hog-factory operator]
is considerably less attractive than the expiring contract. The
producer is told, Take or leave it. If the closest competitive
option for hogs is 900 miles away-and is also heavily integrated
clearly a producer in that situation is likely to be squeezed."
Agriculture's emerging pattern of organization begins to resemble
what is under way in other major sectors, including globalized
manufacturing. The model is no longer the huge industrial behemoth
but the "virtual corporation" that owns very little
in hard capital assets itself-that is, factories-but organizes
a complex, floating network of affiliated producers and subcontractors
who adhere to its brand standards-think of Nike. One can predict
that the consolidated food industry will likely respond to periods
of slack demand in the same way the auto industry or shoe manufacturers
do dropping subcontractors, closing factories, discarding workers.
One of the government's most vigorous champions of supply-contract
farming and the hog-factory system is the Federal Reserve.
The deeper implications are about power, as Jeremy Rifkin
explains in The Age of Access. If there is no other place for
smaller producers to sell, then access to the network becomes
the crucial privilege. And who exactly controls the access? Or
has the power to expel and punish weaker partners? This is among
the veils that a strong new antitrust doctrine must look behind.
Farmers at long last will find themselves in the very same
predicament that confronted industrial workers in other sectors
100 years ago. Harl believes that, unthinkable as it sounds, farmers
must sooner or later pursue labor's remedy-collective action-by
organizing unions that restore their bargaining power and by creating
producer cooperatives large enough to compete with the big guys.
"There was stability in Russia," Harl mused. "Russian
agriculture was stable because the center told everyone what to
do. And we will get stability if Cargill tells us what to do.
But is that what Americans want?"
Maybe they do. Most consumers have seemed at least indifferent.
Why cry for small farmers, a New York Times feature asked, when
modern consolidations are wiping out so many other local enterprises,
from independent bookstores to neighborhood groceries? But aside
from the questions of food quality and safety or social equity,
there is another threat that consumers might ponder: If this nexus
of collaborating corporations acquires the market power to control
total farm output and stabilize prices, then it will also have
the power to inflate food prices on behalf of greater profit.
In the last act, cheap food disappears right along with the free
Who Pays for Fast Food?
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 highspeed 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 packing house. The workers are demanding union
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.
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
expose, 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
* 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.
William Greider is The Nation's national affairs correspondent.