XIV. Agricultural/Food Policy

“Concentration” is the word that best describes the agricultural/food sector of the U.S. economy. The largest nine percent of farms produce 60 percent of output. The top ten percent of farm operations typically take in 75 percent of crop subsidies. There are 300,000 large commercial farms. Most of these subsidized crops are fed to livestock, manufactured into oils, refined grains, processed food ingredients or ethanol.

A relative handful of agribusinesses and food manufacturers have a stranglehold on every link of the food chain. These few giant businesses can control how food is produced, the price at which it is sold and the prices that farmers receive. The percentage of the market controlled by the top four firms are as follows: pork packers – 66 percent; poultry processors – 58 percent; beef packers – 83 percent; fluid milk processors – 46 percent; and grocery retailers – 48 percent.

The top four supermarket chains control nearly half of the national market, but on the local level, the control may be as high as 70 percent.

Even in regard to seed, most of the soybeans and the corn cultivated in the United States is grown from seeds containing genetically engineered traits covered by Monsanto patents.

When farmers have tried to respond to price pressures generated by the control exercised by so few giant firms by shifting to more intensive, larger operations, they drive down the price of their product through over-supply.

In regard to chickens, pigs and cows, in particular, the concentration of so many animals creates huge volumes of animal waste. According to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, giant confined livestock and poultry operations produce half a billion tons of manure each year, more than three times as much as that produced by the entire U.S. population.

Recently, I attended a New Mexico Sierra Club event at which a representative of Food and Water Watch spoke as part of a 23-state tour to promote a fair farm bill. The new farm bill seeks to level the playing field by breaking up the agribusiness monopolies; creating agricultural reserves to ensure food security, rebuilding local infrastructure; and promoting environmental stewardship.

Since local markets tends to be more dominated by supermarket chains than is found in the national average, the Food and Water Watch representative called for the creation of local bodies that could negotiate with local food outlets to carry more of the locally grown produce. Farmers, he pointed out, also need help in getting their produce to market.

First Lady Michelle Obama has commendably taken on the cause of reducing the nation’s rapidly growing obesity problem. Writing in the November 19, 2011 Albuquerque Journal, Esther J. Cepeda says that one-third of all children and adolescents up to age 19 are overweight or obese: a rate that has more than tripled in the past 30 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

An expert panel was led to suggest that kids who haven’t hit puberty need cholesterol screenings — and diabetes screenings, too, for good measure.

Congress isn’t helping on the obesity front by caving in to heavy lobbying pressure to, as Cepeda puts it: “maintain a school lunch program status quo where high-salt foods rule, where the thin layer of tomato sauce in a  slice of pizza counts as a vegetable, and deep-fried potatoes are passed off as a healthful option instead of the once-in-a-while treat they should be.”

Two other scary future prospects to note: 1) the International Diabetes Foundation predicts that one in ten adults in the United States could have diabetes by 2030; and 2) obesity could carry an annual cost of $350 billion by 2018.

A food desert is a major problem in providing for equitable food distribution. The USDA defines a food desert as a low-income census tract in which more than 500 people or 33 percent of the population live at least a mile from a supermarket that does at least $2 million in annual sales. In rural areas, anyone living 10 miles from such a store is in a food desert.

Michele Obama believes that a more equitable distribution of supermarkets, especially in urban areas, would help the diets of those not now getting a good diet. Her contention is disputed by Barry Popkin, lead author of a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The study found that there is no evidence that building supermarkets will change peoples’ diets.

What Should Obama Do or Have Done?

The Food and Water Watch representative at the Sierre Club event in New Mexico said that the Obama administration had been working very closely with them on their fair farm bill but, more recently. has pulled back from that involvement. Thus, one thing the jObama administration can do is throw its full weight into getting the fair farm bill enacted into law.

President Obama has a bully pulpit but he has not used it to build public awareness of  how detrimental to the nation is the concentration of control by a few very large firms of the agricultural/food sector.  This sector may be another policy area in which the Obama administration mantra might not be “Yes we can!” but “Yes we can maintain the status quo.”

A final note is that no matter how commendable is Michele Obama’s crusade to reduce the nation’s obesity problem, there is only so much that first ladies can do. It is time to bring obesity reduction into the legislative arena and the capitulation of Congress to the agricultural/food lobbyists must be countered with the establishment of a more nutritious and healthy school lunch program.

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