What Is Your Government Doing to Protect Small Farmers from Big Food?
It’s no secret that we ES-ers are all for locally sourced, minimally processed food. You may remember forkitude’s post about how big food conglomerates have an outsize say in what America eats. Clearly, we’re wringing our collective hands about such things. But apparently, not everyone agrees. I had an interesting conversation on this matter last week and received the surprising response that I was anti-business and a “borderline hippie.” I find it interesting how divergent food views have become and how efforts at improving the quality of food are often ridiculed or even worse, politicized.
Surprisingly, it appears our government may actually be listening. The US Department of Justice and the USDA recently convened a series of public workshops exploring corporate concentration and competition in food and agriculture. The five meetings, led by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, included discussions about the dairy, poultry and livestock industries and how corporate food is affecting small farmers and consumers.
While we do not know yet if these meetings will yield any real change, it was impressive to see how many small farm and community groups made sure they were heard. The big industry voices were not present, but that may be because they can relay their opinions through other channels (like lobbyists). Here are a few of the topics touched upon:
- Meat conglomerates are getting bigger and bigger. In 2007, Smithfield quietly took over Premium Standard Farms in a merger that combined the largest and second largest hog producers in the world. That merger left 2,500 independent hog producers with just one regional buyer for their animals — Smithfield, whose practices have been questionable to say the least.
- Seed prices overall have increased by a whopping 146% in the past 10 years. As an example, one company actually controls 93% of all soybean sales, so the majority of farmers must deal with this company regardless of price or other objections.
- An antitrust suit was filed against Dallas’ Dean Foods after their purchase of rivals gave them an almost 60% control of the dairy market in numerous states. That suit was quickly quelled with a $30 million dollar settlement.
There are many more stories like these, but the hearings give us some hope that the federal government is at least listening. At one, a poultry farmer was concerned that he and others would deal with considerable backlash from Big Meat solely for being part of the hearings. In response to the farmer’s concerns, the assistant AG for antitrust first spoke about how important the hearings were to her and her staff and proceeded to provide her telephone number with the insistence that the farmer call should trouble arise from his or anyone else’s testimony. These hearings definitely weren’t an end to such debates but at least they’re a start…It’ll be interesting to see what comes next.
Feed Us Back: What do you think is the most needed change in the “Big Food” system? Do you think the USDA will actually do anything? Or are you fine with Big Meat and Dairy the way it is?