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Our agriculture needs a public threshing

By Paul D. Johnson
Prairie Writers Circle

(Friday, May 23, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- 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 now 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. But for the past several decades, these institutions have been missing in action.

The consolidation came so quickly. The Department of Agriculture reported this year that the number of hog farms in the United States fell 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. And in my home state of Kansas, the wheat state, 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.

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 agribusinessí clever use of the media, this countryís food and farm debate finally is being joined. 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 countryís fast-food diet? As animals have been moved off pasture and medicated to survive confinement, is the overuse of antibiotics for them resulting in antibiotic resistance in bacteria that sicken humans? When pesticides were genetically imbedded in corn, why wasnít 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 womenís amniotic fluid? Are rural Missouri menís sperm counts so much lower than in cities because of agricultural chemicals, as University of Missouri researchers suspect? As a few corporations have taken control of the seed business and meat-packing, what constitutes an antitrust violation?

As consumers and taxpayers, we have a right to expect our government and public universitiesí involvement in this debate.

But 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.

Federal farm programs have accelerated the concentration of farms and farm wealth. USDA payment data sorted by the Environmental Working Group show 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. Not priorities: helping farmers lower input costs, improve soil quality and gain a greater share of the consumerís food dollar.

The magic and mystery of industrial agriculture are giving way to a truer assessment of the real 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 is 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 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 raised about Big Agriculture.

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Paul D. Johnson is a northeast Kansas organic market gardener and a family farm legislative advocate for several churches in Kansas. He is a member of the Prairie Writers Circle at the Land Institute, Salina, Kan.