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Cover story

The changing face of farming in America

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

You need a few things at the store for tomorrow morning’s breakfast: milk, bread, bacon, cereal, eggs. Just a quick stop. The choices are myriad -- whole milk or 2 percent; wheat bread or rye; white eggs or brown -- but chances are you know what you want. On a good day, you’re in and out in 10 minutes and all set for the morning meal. Or are you?

U.S. consumers take for granted shelves groaning with a vast array of foods. Store aisles glisten, and soft music guides shoppers past pyramids of shiny produce -- plums in November and strawberries in February, luscious looking vegetables year round -- and row upon row of eye-catching packages touting lower fat, lower sodium, better taste, quicker preparation.

In a country that boasts the lowest per capita food prices of the industrialized world -- just 10 cents of every disposable dollar -- as long as shelves are well stocked, comparatively little thought has been given to food. But increasingly, what we eat and how it affects our bodies, how it got to us, who grew it, how it was grown and how its growth affected the environment and the community, is becoming food for thought.

A closer look at the political, economic, social and health implications of that grocery list unearths some disturbing questions.

Milk -- Did the dairy farmer inject the cows with recombinant bovine growth hormone, the controversial substance that increases an animal’s milk production but is banned in other major countries because of studies showing it could be linked to cancer?

Bread -- Was the grain grown by an independent, Midwestern wheat farmer struggling to stay afloat amid falling commodities prices, diminishing federal subsidies and multinational interests muscling him from all sides? Did he have space-age technology built into his combine that allows him to glean crop yield information from satellites and map a grid of his field, telling him exactly where and when he needs to fertilize?

Bacon -- Was the pork from one of the massive hog producers and packers gaining control of the industry and polluting rural communities with stench and tons of waste?

Cereal -- Does the package tell you whether the corn was patented and genetically engineered? Was it was grown with pesticides?

Eggs -- Were the chickens raised organically, allowed to range freely or penned in cages? If the carton says the eggs are organic, what does that mean?

Today’s food production is a far cry from the operations of a farmer of a century ago whose annual yield fed about eight people. According to the Illinois-based agri-giant Archer Daniels Midland Co., each American farmer now feeds about 212 people, thanks to better technology and higher yields. The company has nicknamed itself the “supermarket to the world,” explains senior vice president Martin Andreas, because it offers its multinational buyers “one-stop shopping with quality and consistency.”

“McDonald’s buys flour from us in Shanghai because they know our flour will be uniform in quality and at a low, competitive price,” said Andreas. But according to Brad deVries, communications director for the Washington office of the Midwest Sustainable Agriculture Working Group and the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, many of the farmers producing the grain for that flour don’t feel quite as connected.

Growing abstract commodities

Today’s domestically grown food travels an average of 1,300 to 1,800 miles and changes hands up to six times before reaching the table. This is often true even if that table is right back in a community where the food was grown. “So many people in farming today are producing what feels like an abstract commodity -- feed corn, soy beans -- things that go into livestock systems or industrial food systems. Not something that goes into people’s mouths,” said deVries.

And the links are blurred in more ways than travel time or how the raw food is eventually used. What happens out of sight of the consumer as farming is taken over by giant concerns can range from unpleasant to downright dangerous.

For instance, although the Environmental Protection Agency has ranked pesticides in food as one of the nation’s most serious health and environmental problems, billions of pounds of pesticides still are used in this country each year as farmers wage war against some 80,000 plant diseases, 30,000 species of weeds and more than 10,000 different kinds of insects. With increased pesticide use comes heightened resistance in weeds and insects. Scientists have identified more than 400 kinds of insects, some 150 species of bacteria and fungi and more than 50 species of weeds that have developed pesticide resistance.

Many pesticides widely used on food are known to cause cancer, and the EPA has identified dozens of pesticides that could leave carcinogenic residues in foods. Others are believed to cause birth defects, genetic mutations and sterility. The National Academy of Sciences has reported that the potential risks posed by cancer-causing pesticides in our food could result in more than 1 million additional cancer cases in the United States over the next 70 years.

Chicken -- a relatively low-fat source of protein -- is widely considered a benign part of a healthful diet. But the July/August 1996 issue of The Animals’ Agenda, an animal-rights publication, Dr. Karen Davis describes the inhumane conditions under which the majority of industry-raised chickens in this country survive.

Of the 2.4 million egg-laying hens in the United States, Davis wrote, over 97 percent are confined in cages in which four to nine hens have a total average space of 48 square inches per hen. “Modern poultry ... are confined by the thousands in stressful, densely packed houses permeated with excrement in the form of accumulated droppings, feed ingredients and excretory ammonia fumes. Disease is inevitable.”

Davis goes on to quote a May 1991 article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which reported that every week, “millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers.’ ”

Ed Nicholson, spokesman for Tyson Foods in Springdale, Ark., the largest chicken processor in the country, rejected that view of the industry. “There are some very sound biological reasons for the confinement of chickens,” he said. “There are all kind of pathogens that wild birds carry,” and that might be picked up by chickens if left in the open, Nicholson said.

Birds are further protected, he said, because workers wear clothing that is changed as they go from one poultry house to another.

He also said it would take substantially more resources to get birds to market weight if they were grown in the open. He said it takes 1.8 to 1.9 pounds of feed per pound of live weight to grow chickens in confinement. Forty years ago, when birds were being raised outside, it took four pounds of feed to accomplish the same weight, he said.

Nicholson said Tyson does not routinely feed its chickens antibiotics or hormones as some animal rights activists charge.

The concerns of animal rights activists have provoked a response from academia and government, according to Ralph Ernst, a poultry specialist with the University of California, Davis. His university recently opened an animal welfare center, and the California Department of Agriculture now employs a veterinarian who works on the issue of animal rights.

While the conditions under which animals are raised and slaughtered is a serious one for the scientific community, he said that some criticism of the industry is unrealistic and unwarranted.

On the caged vs. free-range debate, Ernst commented, “If you put chickens out to range in the densities they’re talking about, it would cover a fair amount of North America. ... It’s not feasible.”

Most of the poultry in the United States is raised as humanely as possible, he said. “It makes good economic sense to raise the birds properly because it’s more profitable.”

As for cages, he said that animal rights activists object to them because they view them as jails. “I don’t think chickens have that perspective,” he said. “We grow them from Day 1 in these facilities. I don’t think chickens can reason like we can.”

In the past decade, hog farming in the United States has changed dramatically. More than half of all family farms raising pigs have gone out of business in the past decade, and 45 percent of the pork slaughter market is now controlled by four firms. According to the Humane Farming Association in San Rafael, Calif., the shift is due in part to the development and widespread feeding of drugs and vaccines that have enabled the pigs, which in their native habitat spend their days grazing and rooting, to survive in extremely close confinement.

The evolution of factory farming has taken its toll on the environment. According to the Humane Farming Association’s publication, Bringing Home The Bacon, in order to produce 350,000 pigs annually, one Colorado hog operation consumes nearly 2 million gallons of fresh water every day.

“Waste is pumped into huge, open pits where it collects until it is dispersed over the land ... in excess of the soil’s ability to assimilate it. Among the results are uncontrolled runoff and the contamination of surface and ground water,” the publication states.

Prices take a dive

Factory farming is also being blamed by some for the most recent dive in hog prices, which are slowly creeping up after plunging to record lows last fall, when farmers were losing up to $75 per pig. The Associated Press reported in late January that some analysts were blaming the low prices on overproduction by megahog farms. Federal officials also are investigating allegations of price-fixing by large meat-packers, the AP reported.

The story of America’s food has become like a tangled root embedded in the hardpan soil of this country’s history. It conjures up Rockwellian images of holiday tables brimming with the bounty of the farm. But over the past half century, the direct line from field to table has stretched and blurred.

The settlement and shape of the United States grew out of agriculture: Farming displaced American Indians, stripped the land of its forests, helped lead to the establishment of democratic principles and the overthrow of European control; it played a role in the settlement of every state; and the demand for free or cheap farm labor wove our multicultural fabric, at first through African slaves brought in chains to our shores and later through Hispanic immigration.

Today, over two-fifths of the land is devoted to food production, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and billions of tax dollars are spent each year on agricultural programs. Yet only a small fraction of U.S. farms produce three-quarters of all farm products. The number of family farms has dropped precipitously, by 300,000 since 1979 as multinational agribusiness corporations -- firms that collectively manufacture, process and distribute farm products -- gain more control over farm production, commodities and markets.

“Farmers are just a little cog in the wheel of a huge food system in which they have very little say,” said Joan Allsup, an Iowa chicken farmer who directs the Land, Church and Community project of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference in Des Moines, Iowa. “Our food systems are being dominated by a handful of huge food companies.”

According to a January 1998 USDA study, 94 percent of the nation’s farms are small farms, owned and run by families or individuals, yet they receive only 41 percent of all farm receipts. What’s more, small-scale farmers receive 13 percent less than they did in 1979 for every consumer dollar spent. At the same time, tobacco and food giant Philip Morris, owner of such supermarket linchpins as Kraft Foods, reaps 10 cents of every dollar spent on food in this country.

Four firms control over 80 percent of the beef market, and although meat prices at the supermarket remained unchanged last year, farmers and ranchers were getting 15 to 20 percent less for their cattle. Meat-packers, meanwhile, were recording record profits. Small scale pork producers have similar complaints.

It was during the 1980s that high interest rates and sharply decreasing land values gave agribusiness its foothold on the American farm scene. “We lost hundreds of thousands of farmers during that period,” said Allsup. “A lot of land was lost to outside investors who didn’t have a care for the land.”

The gloomy economic conditions of the decade also fed the cycle in which farmers moved to the city to find jobs, leaving their rural communities to become ghost towns and feeding the demand for urban housing, which in turn saw the loss of still more land to development.

Multinational corporations moved into the field, bringing with them industrial farming marked by the technological innovation, large capital investment and high labor efficiency that now dominate U.S. agriculture. Archer Daniels Midland, for example, touts a satellite guidance system in which radio signals from a network of satellites, picked up by receivers mounted on the cabs of combines and tractors, help farmers pinpoint hot spots in their fields that need to be monitored more carefully for fertility and yield. A map of the data is created, layering various nutrient levels, soil types, fertility and yield potential.

Hidden costs of mega farming

Such technology is credited with keeping per-capita food costs low. But there are hidden costs and a steep downside. Archer Daniels Midland buys 8 million bushels of grain a day on the U.S. open market to supply its processing plants and international export markets. “We see the farmer as our partner, 24 hours a day,” said Andreas. “It’s the farmer that is supplying us with all of our raw materials, and when we process his crops through our plants he turns around and buys back processed products like animal feed and ethanol.”

What’s good for the company, therefore, is good for the farmer, he said. “We’re both trying to add value to the crops.” The company’s so-called value-added commodities -- a $2 bushel of corn, for example, that’s transformed into high fructose and sold to soft drink manufacturers -- nets sweet profits for the agri-giant. “But the farmer is at the bottom of the ladder, manipulated by every single swing in the cycle,” said Judith Redmond, executive director of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers in Davis, Calif., a group that supports sustainable agriculture by linking farmers and consumers directly.

In the industrialized system, Redmond continued, the farmer, a contractor, “has absolutely no control. He’s told how to raise his pigs, when to feed his pigs, when to start giving antibiotics. Most farmers don’t start growing anything until they know they have a market for it. You sign up with one of those giants and you don’t have any control anymore.”

In the book Planting the Future, a publication of the Northwest Area Foundation in St. Paul, Minn., the tradeoffs of industrial farming are listed as soil, water and wetlands depletion; the massive displacement of farm families; and the consolidation of farms into ever-larger units; diminished financial independence and wider financial disparity among farmers.

In a Nov. 12 statement, “Giving Thanks Through Action,“ Catholic Bishops Paul A. Zipfel of Bismarck, N.D., and James S. Sullivan of Fargo, N.D., called for a reversal of that trend. The bishops said record low prices for crops and livestock, combined with disease and weather disasters, had led to a ”crisis in rural life,“ and they called for ”a just agricultural system situated within an ethical framework rooted in principles of social justice found in sacred scripture and the church’s social teaching.“

Specifically, the statement said, the church should promote a system that includes assistance for first-time farmers, examination and even restriction of large-scale animal confinement operations, land use “consistent with ... the common good,” and even laws that prohibit corporate farms “to preserve farm ownership in the hands of family farmers.”

“Every farm bill since the 1930s has had as its stated objective the preservation of family farms,” according to John Ikerd, professor of economics and coordinator of the sustainable agriculture program at the University of Missouri in Columbia. “But the reality has been greater support of specialized agriculture as a means of increasing efficiency and reducing the cost of food to the consumer.

Focus on the checkout line

“Regardless of the jargon, the reality of legislation has been to provide support for the kind of policies that allow the larger operations to expand and make it increasingly difficult for family farms and smaller farms to survive.”

If the results so far of the most recent federal farm legislation is any indication, the plight of the family farmer will continue to worsen (see accompanying story).

Meanwhile, back at the grocery store, consumers are primarily concerned about getting through the checkout line. Subsidies and Washington’s agriculture policies are considered only insofar as how they stack up at the cash register. Even if industrialized agriculture means more efficient production and higher yield -- a premise not universally accepted -- the bottom line, what Americans pay for their food, is likely to go up, said Ikerd.

“As we move toward higher levels of concentration, I think you can expect to see increased profits of those food operations. That means they’re taking higher profits of whatever the consumer pays, which offsets anything that might be saved. So you reach a point where any savings that might have been passed on is absorbed as profits.”

American consumers, compared to their counterparts in other Western countries, remain relatively aloof about the quality of their food. Allsup warns that the sweeping free-trade treaties that have markedly increased the volume of imports, making it more difficult to monitor how the food has been grown and processed.

“As a result of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), we now have the ‘circle of poison,’ ” she wrote in 1997, “ ... (which) allows chemical companies to export chemicals banned in the United States for use on food, to be exported to other countries, then used for food production there. The food is shipped back into the United States -- the ‘circle of poison’ becomes complete.”

In their new book Against the Grain, authors Dr. Marc Lappe and Britt Bailey declare, “We are on the cusp of a major revolution in the way we grow our crops, a revolution fueled by biotechnology and driven by multinational corporations. This revolution is unique because it entails the first major agricultural transformation of food crops based entirely on genetic engineering.”

In a bid to enhance crops, to make soybeans tolerant to herbicides, for example, or to produce tomatoes that ripen slower, “transgenic” crops are being commercially released with newly inserted genes. At the same time, Lappe and Bailey reported, companies like Monsanto, a Goliath of the seed industry, have genetically linked crops to certain chemicals and contractually obligated farmers to use their own brand of herbicide.

Because so many of the innovations, ominous as they sound, have been developed behind academic and corporate doors with little public input, the authors continue, public response has been “strangely muted.”

In marked contrast, the whole concept of genetically engineered food has alarmed consumers in Europe, Canada, Great Britain and Australia.

In January, Canada joined a list of countries that have refused to allow dairies use of the recombinant bovine growth hormone, rBGH, which was approved for use in this country five and a half years ago after FDA scientists concluded that “no toxicologically significant changes” were observed in rats that ingested the hormone.

No labeling required

Looking further, Canadian scientists found that 20 to 30 percent of the rats that ingested high doses of the hormone developed antibodies to it, a sign that it remained active in the bloodstream, according to a report last month in The New York Times. And two Harvard studies last year found that a protein that is elevated in the milk of hormone-treated cows is a strong risk factor for breast and prostate cancer. There currently is no requirement that milk containing rBGH be labeled, so it is difficult to quantify the amount of milk containing rBGH that is produced and sold in the United States.

In its December newsletter, the U.S. organization Campaign for Food Safety reports that in Europe, public sentiment is turning more strongly against allowing genetically engineered food products.

The Pure Food Campaign, in an editorial posted on-line, said consumer polls indicate that 95 percent of Americans want mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods. The budding resistance in this country to such products -- the editorial refers to them as “Frankenfoods” -- is fueled by articles such as one published in the March 14 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, which stated that the allergenic potential of new, genetically engineered foods is uncertain, unpredictable and untestable.

Also, the sheer scale of industrial farming and food processing broadens the scope of food contamination scares. In January, people in at least 13 states got sick and several died after eating hot dogs contaminated with the bacteria Listeria. Deli meats from the Michigan processing plant were voluntarily recalled, but not before being shipped throughout the country under a variety of brand names.

Ikerd points out that contamination can occur in any sized processing facility, “but when it happens at a big facility you’ve got contaminated product going all over the country.” Whether prompted by gene tampering, tainted-food scares, concerns about economic and social injustice or the entire cornucopia of woes, consumers are beginning to turn away from conventional sources and take a grassroots approach to their food.

Farmers’ markets are sprouting up in parks and parking lots across the country, and the demand for organic products is growing by more than 20 percent each year, according to Ikerd. The Organic Trade Association, a national association representing the organic industry in the United States and Canada, said sales of organic products totaled $3.5 billion in 1996. But even consumers’ hunger for organic products is a two-edged scythe.

Industrial agriculture isn’t blind to the growth market, and last year, when the USDA was attempting to hammer out a national definition of organic, the corporate players put pressure on the agency to include in that definition crops fertilized with metropolitan sewage sludge, products resulting from biotechnology and genetic engineering to control pests, and livestock and poultry raised in confinement.

Consumers and organic farmers did not sit idly by but submitted 200,000 comments to the USDA decrying the proposed standards, which ultimately failed. The agency went back to the drawing board and is expected to propose revised definitions this spring.

Meanwhile on the local level, some growers and consumers are attempting to reconnect the line that once brought food from field to table through community-supported agriculture -- CSA -- projects. Under those arrangements, consumers “subscribe” to an area farm or group of farms, and receive a weekly basket of whatever is in season. “People are definitely becoming more conscious of regional agriculture and harvest cycles and when food is available,” said Redmond.

Such trends are emerging, according to Ikerd, “because a small but growing minority of people are dissatisfied. And all major changes have their roots in a small but growing number of people who see the need to do things differently.”

Likewise, some U.S. farmers are shifting gears in how they operate. Sustainable agriculture -- working in concert with the land through crop rotation and reducing pesticides and chemical fertilizers, thereby renewing rather than depleting resources -- is gaining a foothold in rural America.

In 1991 in Iowa, for example, farmers who used sustainable agricultural methods produced twice as much net farm income per acre as conventional farmers. “The concept of sustainable agriculture ultimately will be the major driving force that most farmers and consumers really want,” predicted Ikerd, who points to farmers among cultures in Asia and Europe who have lived off the land for centuries.

“There’s a general awareness in all of the old countries of the world that you can’t exploit the resources and try to dominate nature, because eventually nature fights back. If you’ve been on the land for thousands of years, you realize that you have to work in harmony with nature.

“In our country we haven’t been at it very long, and there’s a difference in culture,” he said. “A lot of people have this mechanistic view of the world -- a blind faith in the technological fix for whatever ails us. My world-view is very much one that this is a living planet and there are constraints on what we can do here. If we destroy our ecosystem -- and we are a part of it -- we’ll destroy ourselves.”

In California, where some of the hottest debates rage around land and water and where hundreds of thousands of farm acres each year are lost to development, Redmond defines sustainability as “not only about resource issues, but also about how communities view themselves and whether they want agriculture to be part of their future.”

“We’re concerned that in California farming is not necessarily going to be part of the next decade.” If that’s the case, she said, rural communities would collapse, and because most of the state’s open space is agricultural, California’s landscape would be littered with even more urban sprawl.

Grocery stores, no doubt, would be part of each new development, their aisles jammed with a vast array of appealing packages. But, said Redmond, “local food supplies would be lost,” and with them would go the real choice that consumers today still have.

National Catholic Reporter, February 12, 1999