Fix our broken food system

June 3, 2012

The congressional wrangling over this year’s farm bill is even more tortured than usual. The legislation will guide U.S. agricultural, food, and nutrition policy for five years, and will spend hundreds of billions of dollars.

Yet the 900-page bill was kept secret until only a week before the Senate Agriculture Committee spent a few hours debating it. The full Senate is scheduled to consider the measure this week.

The farm bill is always a controversial balancing act of regional agricultural interests, vital funding for nutrition initiatives such as the food stamp program, and a host of projects and earmarks. The Senate version cuts support for programs that needy families depend on, fails to provide an adequate safety net to protect farmers when prices are too low, and does nothing to address the increasing power of big agribusiness over farmers, consumers, and the food system.

Many of the problems in our system stem from agribusiness having too much control over our food. A few big firms control everything from seed to supermarket.

These companies limit the choices farmers can make, can gouge them in the prices they pay for seeds and fertilizer, can shortchange them when they sell crops or livestock, and significantly reduce choices while raising the prices consumers pay at the grocery store.

Consolidation and lack of competition are especially acute problems in the livestock market. About four out of five cattle and two out of three hogs are slaughtered by just four companies in each sector.

With few national buyers, farmers rarely get a competitive price for their livestock. Locally, there are often only one or two meat packers buying livestock. Packers frequently won’t buy from independent producers.

Big meatpackers have the power to drive down the prices farmers get for hogs and cattle. Meatpackers often control and feed their own livestock, exerting unfair market power over farmers.

These companies can buy cattle and hogs when prices are low, and slaughter their own livestock when prices rise. In the long term, this lowers the prices farmers get for livestock, allowing meatpackers to manipulate prices.

Low livestock prices push farmers out of business. Between 1993 and 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Ohio lost 8,300 hog farms — three-fourths of its total — and 1,600 beef cattle operations, or one in 10.

Such losses hurt the rural economy. Fewer farms support fewer feed stores, equipment dealers, and local small businesses.

Consolidation in the meatpacking industry has pushed other firms out of business as well. In Ohio, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of slaughterhouses fell by 15 percent between 2001 and 2010. The number of slaughterhouse workers and their total wages fell by nearly half.

Lower livestock prices are not passed on to consumers. Prices of bacon and ground beef continue to rise, even as farmers and workers are paid less. With so few processors in the market, there is no incentive for big meatpackers to share savings with consumers.

U. S. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) is a champion of livestock fairness issues. He has defended the country-of-origin labeling law from attack by our trade partners. He supported livestock market fairness rules that the meatpacker lobby derailed.

Senator Brown can help move the 2012 farm bill in the right direction by supporting a proposed amendment to the legislation that would ban meatpackers from owning livestock. That proposal enjoys broad support among independent livestock producers.

The Ohio Environmental Council, Ohio Farmers’ Union, Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association, and other state groups endorse the packer ban. Senator Brown can stand up for Ohio farmers and consumers by committing to cosponsor and vote yes on the packer-ban amendment.

Alison Auciello is the Ohio-based organizer for Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer group that works to ensure clean water and safe food.