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Heffernan warning to farmers: transformation needed for food system, global economic organization

(Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2002 -- CropChoice news) -- The following story comes via the Agribusiness Examiner (http://www.ea1.com/CARP)

ROBERT PORE, THE GRAND ISLAND INDEPENDENT (NEBRASKA): Continuing economic concentration in the nation's food industry, along with globalization, threatens this country's food security, said William Heffernan, a professor in the department of rural sociology at the University of Missouri.

"We have to understand that, in the name of democracy, we have to begin talking about changing it," he said. "It is not just the food system but the whole economic organization of the globe that we have set up, because it is a ridiculous system that serves a handful of people..There has to be hundreds of ways to set up alternative economic organizations of our planet compared to what we have right now. We just need to be creative and start talking about that."

Heffernan, along with Steve Cady, executive director for the Organization for Competitive Markets, based in Lincoln, spoke on Friday at the Nebraska Farmers Union convention being held in Grand Island.

With the continuing trend of concentration in U.S. agriculture and throughout the world by a handful of multinational corporations, Heffernan said, this nation must rethink its whole food system and the issue of food security.

When corporate farming begins to dominate production agriculture, he said, farmers become either hired labor for corporate farming interests or contract employees, and rural areas only see the return of labor from these large mega-farms, with the profits going to corporations. That compares to family-run farms and ranches and small businesses, where more of the returns stay within the community.

"That is why rural communities are in economic trouble," he said.

Heffernan also pointed to a University of California ag economist, Steven Blank, who has written a book called The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio, which says this country doesn't need farmers. Heffernan said Blank advocates that the United States can buy food more cheaply from foreign countries and use farmland for "high-value uses" such as recreation and urban expansion.

"The question is whether we are going to have any farmers in this country, and if you use a narrow market view, the answer is that we don't need any," Heffernan said. "We are talking about the future of the food system for this country, and if we let our national food policy and international stuff under the World Trade Organization continue, basically all of our food system will go off shore." But reforming the system will be difficult because a number of very powerful people are benefiting from the concentration of food production. "They are making billions of dollars, and they are taking it over," Heffernan said.

The focus of the Nebraska Farmers Union convention is the 20th anniversary of Initiative 300. Cady, of the Organization for Competitive Markets, said Initiative 300 is a precursor for getting passed through Congress a national ban on packer ownership of livestock. While the Senate passed an amendment to the farm bill last year to ban corporate ownership of livestock, the House of Representatives defeated it.

With Initiative 300, Cady said, Nebraska already has a ban on packer ownership of livestock prior to slaughter, along with processor ownership of farmland. One of the problems facing producers' profitability is the control of competitive markets by a handful of large, international corporations.

Cady said that, in recent years, because of dwindling competitive markets for producers to sell their commodities, they have had to survive off government payments instead of free market enterprise and competition. He said the livestock ownership ban by corporations will be reintroduced in the Senate next year. Critics of corporate livestock ownership say that it would hurt livestock producers, Cady said.

But he noted that four large packing companies --- Tyson, Swift, Cargill and Farmland National Beef Packing Co. --- already control 81% of the beef slaughter industry. The same is true with the pork slaughter industry, with four large companies --- Smithfield, Tyson, Swift and Cargill -- controlling 60% of pork slaughter in the United States.

Cady said the big beef and pork packing companies are opposed to the corporate livestock ownership ban and are willing to pour a lot of financial resources into the issue because it would begin to limit their control of the industry. "We need to stop that game," he said. "We can't have this, but we have an uphill battle."

A lot of that uphill battle has to do with the current political climate in Washington, D.C., Cady said. "We have a president really focused on foreign relations, and the economy is hurting," he said. "Look at the disaster payments. We can't even get their attention on that. What would happen if something affects our imports? Even now we are going to start seeing food and product shortages.

"We need to be at least capable of supplying ourselves with a food supply. The pressure is only going to grow for us to think about these issues." The continuing trend of corporate control is impacting not just the agricultural industry but a lot of other industries, such as medicine, entertainment and the media, Cady said.

"We have way too much corporate power," Cady said. "It is different now because many of these large interests are multinationals. One of the issues is we have to make the consumers aware of how vulnerable they are on these issues. When we watch the farm-to-retail price spread widening," he said, "the retailers are making more money, the consumer is paying more money than they need to, and the farmer is not making enough. We need to balance that a little bit."

He said a huge factor in food production for the future is how to maintain a food system the country can actually use for its people. "The question is how much food do we want to produce for this country and how self-sufficient are we going to be," Cady said. "We need to change the direction we are headed.

"Do we like where we are going? No. Family farmers and communities need to understand that and, if they don't like it, speak up, because our elective representatives need to hear that. If we don't have people living in the country to support the infrastructure in Nebraska, we have problems. We need thriving, prospering communities out here in Nebraska."