A Diet Rich in Profit
Food. It is something not many Americans give much thought to. We go to the store, and as long as we have money, we buy food. But how the rows and rows of produce, meat and food in packages have come to have such a consistent look has a long history. Their present production, processing and manufacture have deep political and economic impacts.Each year, seed, chemical and food processing corporations introduce new technologies focused on capturing a greater market share and greater profits. At the same time, the companies exert political pressure to ensure profits. Working with elected officials through lobbyists and with the U.S. Department of Agriculture in applying regulations, companies have convinced the federal government to relax food safety regulations each year.But new technologies always have unintended consequences. A few companies, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), Monsanto, Cargill, DuPont, Novartis and a few others, are now able to dictate grain farming practices and shifts in the agricultural economy with biotechnologically altered products and processing techniques. Companies exercising greater control over the food supply (and policing themselves) say people won't be hurt by biotechnologically enhanced fruit vegetables and grains, or the use of antibiotic- or hormone-treated meat. With profit in mind for every innovation, corporate public relations have focused on "education" to ease fear and gain footholds in markets rather than changing the way the food supply is manipulated.PR can't change the fact that farmers and consumers have largely lost control of the conventionally produced food supply. Grain processing giant Cargill and the huge chemical and seed concern Monsanto recently joined to integrate processing and production technologies, furthering a trend in which corporations are becoming more vertically integrated. Some corporations, such as mega-sized hog producer Premium Standard Farms, own grain processing facilities, hog production facilities, trucking lines and packing plants."The way the companies characterize it," says Sierra Club member Scott Dye, "is 'conception to consumption,' 'squeal to meal,' 'pig to pork chop.'" The farmer and consumer never enter the picture except as cost and market variables."Good, better, worstThe advent of modern farming began in earnest in the second decade of the 20th century, when advances in mechanization, the internal combustion engine (long used in farming, but widely available and accepted on the farm only after 1910) and plant selection transformed the American farm almost overnight.Commodities became serious business, combining the abundance of farm production with speculative capital. Abundance and capital also brought on a farm depression never before seen in the world after 1919. Increases in production lowered prices, necessitating even more production, even more bank loans and the need for more land. New farming equipment cost money, which brought banking and finance into farming. Farmers had to give up some independence since the banker knew commodities markets and what they believed the farmer had to grow to be able to pay back loans on land and equipment.When the farm depression of the 1920s hit, many farmers were forced off the land. But in an odd turnabout, lowered demand for farm products during the Great Depression allowed some farmers to return to traditional diversified farming just to feed themselves and their neighbors. Other farmers and speculators swallowed up bankrupt farms. But nobody was making money, so banks, already in sorry shape, kept clear of farm loans. The unstable and inconsistent nature of raising livestock, grain and vegetables kept corporate interest in the American farm kept at bay, that is, until chemical companies, which grew as a result of the demands of World War II, needed to find a way to stay in business after the fighting was over."At end of World War II, fledgling chemical companies hit the ground running with one customer Ü the U.S. government," says Howard Lyman, author of the best-selling book Mad Cowboy and a former Montana cattle rancher-turned-vegan (a person who eats no animal products). Lyman and Oprah Winfrey are the focus of a 1996 food disparagement lawsuit by Texas cattle ranchers angered over Winfrey's alleged badmouthing of beef on national television."People would never stand for government support of chemical industry," Lyman says. "The companies began a concerted effort to suck in a new customer. Through extension and land grant universities they promoted 'better living through chemistry.'"Sustainable family farmers were bad risks. They wouldn't borrow money, couldn't be forced out with debt and never needed government or corporations to do business. The corporations saw that and needed to change it."Chemicals (and bankers) on the plateChemical companies sold convenience, says Lyman. Chemicals and farm specialization on single-crops made it possible. This took not only the backbreaking work out of farming, but also much of the calculation based on crop rotation, weather, pests, fungi and weeds. Farmers using cutting-edge farm innovations, hybrid seed, chemical fertilizer, more effective machines, could make more money than their neighbors. But they soon discovered each new advance diluted commodity prices with greater yields, forcing them to the next round of technological advance."Widespread use of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers have taken a lot of time-consuming burden off of farmers," says Dye. "They took farmers out of tractor seats. But instead, farmers found they could farm larger areas with the same time investment."Simultaneously, dependence on chemical fertilizer grew as single-crop farming depleted soils and created problems with wind and water erosion. Single crops spread over wide areas became susceptible to failure when pests acquired immunity to pesticides, making the farmer even more dependent on chemical companies to create new products to eradicate the problems.Debt forced farmers to give up diverse crops and animals that would provide income when rain or drought threatened the traditional farm. "As a result, control of the food supply went from the family farm to Wall Street," says Lyman. "The companies were into getting people hooked on chemicals and speculators on lower commodity prices, while processors, chemical and seed companies never lost a dime. During World War II, when commodity prices were protected, no one sold a farm. But with the accumulation of debt after the war, bankers made more decisions."Moreover, Lyman says, farmers lost the ability to escape the cycle. "Today, as a farmer, you can put your finances together and tell the banker that you're going into organic farming, and he will laugh you out of the bank. He's rolling over dollars on chemicals, equipment and seed. Who survives is his decision."From chemicals to biotech seedToday, about 70 percent of the U.S. grain harvest goes not to feed the world but to feed livestock. Americans are literally eating the environment. An American cow in a feedlot, for instance, eats 16 pounds of grain to produce one pound of beef, enough calories to feed 32 people a sit-down vegetarian dinner. Each pound of beef also takes one gallon of gas to produce, making beef consumption environmentally devastating, and even more so considering the United States is a net importer of beef, mostly from the Third World. There, rainforest falls at an ever-increasing rate to make way for livestock.Speaking at a recent agricultural conference, Cargill's Manager of Biotechnology Peter Mascia told farmers, processors and university researchers that the next wave of farm innovation was biotechnologically enhanced crops. Biotechnology, said Mascia, will increase the specialization of crops, which will be altered for specific characteristics. It will also increase yields unlike any innovation before.Mascia's wave has already splashed against the shore, inundating the American farmers and consumers. "In 1970, researchers began genetic experimentation," Mascia said. " The first patent for a genetically altered seed was granted in 1985. It is fair to say that 50 percent of the corn crop and 50 percent of the soy crop will be in genetically altered crops this year. The lowering of commodity prices will increase the biotechnology development and the rate of new products that development will generate. Biotechnology is a revolution."But biotechnology will revolutionize only one thing: seed, chemical and food processing company profits. Farmers are stuck in the same production/profit cycle, and the consumer is never consulted. As an example, Monsanto introduced the first of its Roundup Ready brand of seeds in 1995. Since then, says Monsanto Senior Research Scientist Dusty Post-Beittenmiller, 40 million acres has been planted the genetically altered bean.Not only could these Roundup Ready brand crops, corn, soybean, canola and wheat, produce heavier yields, they could withstand being sprayed with Roundup herbicide. Roundup is extremely effective at killing plants and has been used for two decades in farming. It is used for clearing fence lines of weeds and brush. Its users like Roundup because of its effectiveness and its relatively short life span in the environment.Roundup can, however, damage plants its users mean to protect. Non-lethal doses cause a host of plant deformations in perennial crops, such as orchard trees and grapes. In annual crops, like wheat and corn, even small doses of the herbicide can reduce individual plant yields, and Roundup transported by wind can cause significant crop damage.Monsanto's view of Roundup Ready plants is one of profit. "Biotechnology adds value from the crop to the consumer," Post-Beittenmiller says. "How to capture that value is critical to Monsanto as a company. We are in the game with others. We have to capture value and get past regulations."In addition, nutritional traits offer risk reductions for chronic illness and cancers, which will be the next wave of biotechnology. But key to achieving this is collaboration between the stakeholders, the producers who grow the crops, the processors who deliver the crops to market."Capturing value is what Monsanto is all about. Creating plants resistent to damage from Roundup will be a boon to the company, which will be able to put a lock on the seed market. Monsanto has been flooding the market with Roundup Ready products, selling increased yields and ease of crop management to farmers. Farmers aren't reminded, however, that as more and more farmers use biotechnological altered crops, commodity prices will drop, demanding that they produce more to make the same amount of money.Plus, once farmers buy Monsanto seed, they must use Monsanto products, they have no choice. Monsanto's crops aren't resistent to DuPont herbicides and vice versa. In addition, farmers regularly have to sign agreements with the chemical giants to return all leftover seed to the company to get more for the next season, ending the age-old ability for the farmer to create his own wealth.Not saving seed also has repercussions for species variation and diversity. Farmers saving their seed and exchanging it with others in their areas create crops adapted to regional climate, pests, weeds and fungus. With biotechnologically altered seed, Monsanto makes all the choices for farmers, and has law to back them up. The company has sued dozens of farmers across the country for violating, even in the slightest way, the company's directive on returning seed.Once the seed market is cornered, companies like Monsanto will ultimately be able to pick and choose the products it produces dependent on the profits the company makes. Some may be good for humans in the short term. Post-Beittenmiller sees plants producing everything from antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, pharmaceutical products, products for women and children's health and food."When the Roundup Ready soy was introduced in 1995, the plants had been altered for its agronomic traits," she said. "That is the ability they had to increase yields and resist pests. In 1997, we began to create GMOs (genetically manipulated organisms) for their quality traits, the ability of the plant to create products we now produce in factories. From 2000-2005, we will be looking at plants as factories."On the other hand, government regulators are letting chemical giants determine how safe their products are for humans over the course of a lifetime.Most disturbing about the God-like manipulation of plants is a new technology, a self-policing seed that literally kills itself at the end of the growing season. The Nation reports in "A Seedy Business" that seed companies plan to introduce "terminator" seed around 2004, after all but a small percentage of the U.S. grain crops will be genetically altered.The USDA invented the "technology protection system" with $229,000 of taxpayer money with the Delta and Pine Co., which had 73 percent of the cotton seed market. The company quickly decided to license the technology to seed companies in the United States and abroad. The government didn't argue, since it stands to make a 5-percent royalty with each new sale.Not much is known about the safety of terminator technology. According to The Nation, chemical-cum-seed companies argue they need just such technology to protect high-cost, high-risk biotechnological investment. Since the plants produce a protein that kills the seed at the end of the growing season, it will be passed directly into the food supply, either into animals used for meat or into products that wind up on store shelves.The impact on ecosystems is also in question. While cotton will pollinate only cotton, no one knows whether the new terminator grains will pollinate other grasses, ending those species. Beans will also pollinate other closely related species, possibly putting these species in danger.Even if the terminator presents no environmental danger, the implications are phenomenal. Only four companies control 80 percent of the present seed market. With terminator technology, their control of the food supply is not far in the future.In the meantime, consumers are never asked if they want to eat genetically altered grains or if they want to eat meat produced with the grains. At present, the government requires no labeling, allowing Mascia's revolution to occur without most consumers even knowing.Capitalism's next slaveDan Nagengast of the Rural Crisis Center says that agriculture is the last American industry to be modernized. "There was no room for the family farm after (WWII)," says Nagengast. "Corporations pushed innovations. Operators assumed they could adopt industrial systems to farms and remain independent. In doing so, they produced more. But when the neighbors begin to produce more grain, more livestock, and you're dependent on income from those sources, you have to get bigger and bigger."There is no room at all for the family farm in the industrial system and hasn't been for at least 10 years. One year you run a slight profit then go two years or three years at a loss. Those that are left are eating up their fat, their machines are getting old, the loans from the bank are larger. In short, the system has no need for individual enterprises."The USDA reports that there are some 2.5 million family farmers. But many of these may be landowners who rent or lease their farms to farmers who find the need for more land to make a living. "There are really only 200,000 full-time commercial farmers," says Lyman. "The rest are doctors, lawyers, people who do it for a little extra money or because it is on their blood."But full-time farmers are an endangered species. Of the 200,000, in less than five years, half will be out of business."Lyman backs up his statement with a quick price report. The price for milk has dropped from $16 for 100 pounds to $10 in the last year. Independent hog farmers have to make between $38 and $40 per 100 pounds to break even, but hog prices earlier this year were at $8 per 100 pounds. Mega-cooperative Farmland recently moved to support prices to insure its members $15. The hog markets matched the price, but it has not yet broken the break-even point for independents."Farm margins are so slight," says Sierra Club member Craig Volland. "Most of the money is not going to farmer, but to seed, pesticide and fertilizer producers, financiers and output sectors (processing, wholesaling, retailing). With a estimated average margin of .7 percent, the biggest risk is the farmer himself."Farmers have been lulled by people "who are making a killing off of the food consumer and the food producer," says Lyman. "Cargill and ADM have had profits recently that were the largest ever, and the family farmer loses. Dollar for dollar, the family farmer is in worse shape now than in 1929."