'Foodopoly:' Exposing the Handful of Corporations That Control Our Food System From Seed to Dinner Plate
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Midsize family farmers have an average income of $19,277 -- a figure that includes a government subsidy. The cost of seeds, fertilizers, fuel, and other inputs is continuing to rise as these industries become more monopolized. Most farmers are scratching by, trying to hold on to their land and eke out a living. We are losing these farms at a rapid rate, resulting in the consolidation of smaller farms into huge corporate-run industrial operations with full-time managers and contract labor. Telling these farmers that all they have to do once the subsidies are taken away is grow vegetables for the local farmers' market is not a real solution for them or their communities. Rural communities are seeing the wealth and the profit from agriculture sucked into the bottom lines of the largest food corporations in the world.
Economically viable farms are the lifeblood of rural areas. Their earnings generate an economic multiplier effect when supplies are bought locally, and the money stays within the community. The loss of nearly 1.4 million cattle, hog, and dairy farms over the past thirty years has drained not only the economic base from America's rural communities, but their vitality. These areas have become impoverished and abandoned, and the only hopes for jobs are from extractive industries such as hydraulic fracturing or from building and staffing prisons.
Something is fundamentally amiss in a society that does not value or cherish authentic food that is grown full time on appropriate-size family farms. The benefits of farmers -- rather than corporate managers -- tending crops and the land are many. Fred Kirschenmann, a North Dakota farmer and a leader in the sustainable agriculture movement, along with his colleagues at the Agriculture in the Middle project write extensively on this point and poignantly outline the benefits of these vulnerable midsize farms in today's economic landscape. They fall between the large, vertically operated commodity operations and the small-scale ones that sell directly to consumers. Farms in the middle also provide wildlife habitats, open spaces, diverse landscapes, soils that hold rainwater for aquifers, perennials that reduce greenhouse gases by removing carbon from the atmosphere, and crop and pastureland that reduce erosion and flooding.
These are the farms that could be changed to provide sustainably grown organic food for the long term. Many are located in the Midwest and South, where there is no large population to buy directly from them, but they have the capacity to produce food for the majority of Americans-if given a chance.
Changing farm policy to provide that chance is key to preventing our nation's rural areas from becoming industrial sites and to truly remaking the food system for all Americans. We must address the major structural problems that have created the dysfunction -- from the failure to enforce antitrust laws and regulate genetically modified food to the manipulation of nutrition standards and the marketing of junk food to children. We need to move beyond stereotypes and simplistic solutions if we are to build a movement that is broad-based enough to drive policy changes.
Most people are several generations away from the experience of producing their own food. This leads to many misconceptions-from over-romanticizing its hard, backbreaking work to the dismissal of farmers as greedy, ignorant, and selfish “welfare queens.” Understanding the difficult challenges they face is critical to developing the policy solutions necessary for saving family farms and moving into a sustainable future. We need to develop a rural economic development plan that enables farmers to make a living while at the same time providing healthy, affordable food choices for all Americans.