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Big agriculture vs. sustainable production: The future of farming

(Saturday, July 19, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Paul D. Johnson, The Denver Post, 06/15/03: The industrialization of agriculture seemed inevitable. The loss of farmers, soil and rural communities apparently was deemed a small price to pay to create the most "efficient" food system in the world: a vertically integrated wonder that uses eight calories of fossil fuel to produce a single calorie of food.

But the sanity and safety of this food system are finally being debated and challenged. Our government must protect the fairness of the food market, and our public universities must provide an unbiased forum for the growing concerns about industrial agriculture. For the past several decades, these institutions have been missing in action.

The consolidation came so quickly. While this country's population more than doubled between 1933 and today, the number of farms fell from 7 million to 2.16 million, with 170,000 of them accounting for 68 percent of production.

The Department of Agriculture reported this year that the number of hog farms has fallen 70 percent since 1990. Their independent market is essentially gone, as is that for chickens. Beef is following. The number of dairies dropped 37 percent from 1992 to 2000, according to the American Farm Bureau.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reports that three companies now account for 81 percent of U.S. corn exports and 65 percent of soybean exports. And in Kansas, control of the grain trade has fallen to two corporations.

Meanwhile, adjusted for inflation, from 1984 to 1998 consumer food prices increased 3 percent while the prices paid to farmers dropped 36 percent. In 1999, Americans spent $619 billion on U.S. food but only an estimated $121 billion found its way to farmers.

The bottom line is pretty simple: cheap foreign labor, controlled producers, inadequate environmental regulation and markets dominated by a handful of huge corporations. On this list is neither the health of the land nor the health of our communities.

But despite agribusiness' clever use and sponsorship of the media, this country's food and farm debate finally is getting notice. There are many critical questions being asked about the consequences of our food system:

Is there a connection between the epidemic of obesity and this country's fast-food diet?

As animals have been moved off pasture and medicated to survive confinement, is the overuse of antibiotics in animals resulting in resistance in the bacteria that sicken humans?

When pesticides were genetically embedded in corn, why wasn't it tested long-term?

What are the health implications of genetically modified foods in general?

As "Living Downstream" writer and biologist Sandra Steingraber has asked, what are the long-term consequences of the synthetic chemicals found in pregnant women's amniotic fluid?

Are rural Missouri men's sperm counts so much lower than those of men in cities because of agricultural chemicals, as researchers suspect?

As a few corporations have taken control of the seed business and meat packing, what constitutes an antitrust violation?

We have a right to expect our government and public universities to address these questions resolutely for all farmers, consumers and taxpayers.

Our agricultural colleges, the land-grant universities, are dependent enough on corporate money that what they research is powerfully swayed. But their funding is primarily with tax dollars, and there should be vigorous debate on what they do. Public and basic research on sustainable and organic farming will probably be done nowhere else.

Though the federal government has broad antitrust authority, no serious effort to investigate the loss of independent food markets has been made in the past 20 years.

With the help of former agribusiness scientists, the Food and Drug Administration has ruled that genetically engineered food is "substantially equivalent" to regular food and needs no long-term testing or labeling. An estimated 60 percent of the processed food in grocery stores today contains genetically modified ingredients derived from such widely bioengineered crops as soybeans and corn.

Federal farm programs have accelerated the concentration of farms and farm wealth. USDA payment data sorted by the Environmental Working Group show that 60 percent of commodity payments go to 10 percent of the recipients.

Federal research dollars primarily subsidize chemical, biotech and intensive production methods to the benefit of agribusiness. Helping farmers lower input costs, improve soil quality and gain a greater share of the consumer's food dollar are not priorities.

As a nation, we are probably spending enough on agriculture. The problem is our priorities. A sensible farm bill would challenge the agricultural markets' concentration. It would spend more on conservation and less on commodities for the very largest farms, capping payments, as is proposed in the Senate. It would redirect rural development programs to community-based, family-farm enterprises instead of subsidizing corporate livestock agriculture.

An example is the Conservation Security Program included in the last farm bill. This is the first conservation entitlement program for farmland in production. Instead of subsidizing grain prices, it aims to reward farmers for improving soil, rotating crops and developing grass buffer strips that improve water quality by filtering field runoff.

The magic and mystery of industrial agriculture are giving way to a truer assessment of its costs. Industrial agriculture may dominate our food system for some time, but an alternative system that is economically viable, environmentally sound and socially just is growing rapidly.

The interest in high-quality, sustainably raised food is mushrooming. There are now a record number of farmers' markets, and the organic trade has grown 20 percent per year for a decade.

Public institutions whose allegiance is truly to the public interest must play a role in this evolving food debate. Consumers must have the choice to support a fair food system with their dollars.

And Americans have a right to expect their 2004 congressional candidates to address the alarms that have been raised about Big Agriculture.