Saturday, October 3, 2015

Quote from Foodopoly: The Battle over the Future of Food by Wenonah Hauter

Chapter 1 Get those Boys off the Farm (first few pages)

Although most consumers-eaters-view food first and foremost as the sustenance necessary for life, Big Business thinks of our kitchens and stomach as profit centers. The unwavering determination by the leaders of a handful of powerful multinational corporations to concentrate ownership and control of the food production and delivery systems has created unprecedented consolidation down the entire food chain. Food and agricultural products have been reduced to a form of currency on income statements that cause a rise or fall of quarterly profits. The worth of these products is measured on the return on investment, or as an opportunity for mergers or acquisitions, that drive the strategy of the parent company. Their value is described in a Wall Street-speak of deals, synergies, diversification, and "blockbluster game changers."

Even hedge funds, those poorly regulated firms that played a role in causing the recent financial crises, have become some of the largest investors in food companies, farmland, and agricultural products. These firms invest the money of high-wealth individuals and institutions into broad segments of the economy-including food and agriculture. They have speculated in food commodity markets (contributing to price spikes in corn and soybeans) and bought restaurant chains (Dunkin Donuts), and are buying up farmland in the United States and developing world. A private investment company even owns Niman Ranch, the firm that pioneered producing pork more sustainably.

Hedge funds have been big propoenents of grabbing land--they have bought farmland worldwide--to capitalize on expectations of profitability from the catastrophic impacts of climate change on agriculture. The dramatic increase in the price of land in the U.S. Midwest over the past few years has led the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City to warn about the crash that could result from a farmland bubble. The U.S. Senate's Agriculture Committee Warns that "distortions in financial markets" will catch the country by surprise again.

This financialization of food and farming has wreaked havoc on the natural world. The long list of consequences of industrialized agriculture includes the polluting of lakes, rivers, streams and marine ecosystems with agrochemicals, excess fertilizer, and animal waste. Nutrient runoff (nitrogen and phosphorus) from row crops and animal factory farms, on of the foremost causes of the conditions that starve waterways and the ocean of oxygen, is creating massive dead areas of the ocean, such as one at the mouth of the Mississippi River the size of the state of New Jersey. Planting and irrigating row crops has caused serious erosion, as irrigation and rainwater was the topsoil away at the rate of 1.3 billion tons per year. And as soil scientists are fond of saying, "No soil, no life."

The relentless drive for profit by agribusiness has had long-lasting and negative effects on all aspects of society. Public health has been sacrificed on a diet of heavily advertised processed foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients, resulting in consumers who are overweight and poorly nourished. Obesity affects 35 percent of adults and 17 percent of children in the U.S., and causes a range of health problems from heart disease to diabetes. And while many Americans are overfed and dieting, one is six Americans frequently goes hungry.

No segment of society has been more affected by agribusiness and its allies in government over the past sixty years than farmers. After World War II, farmers became the target of subtle but ruthless policies aimed at reducing their numbers, thereby creating a large and cheap labor pool. In more recent times, federal policy has been focused on reducing the number of farms as labor has been replaced by capital and technology. . . . (shows numbers)

The struggle to eke out a living has intensified each decade since 1950, because farmers have been locked into a system of low crop prices, borrowed capital, large debt, high land prices, and a weak safety net. Unchecked corporate mergers and acquisitions have increased the economic pressure, since fewer farms are competing to sell the seeds, equipment, and supplies that farmers use everyday. At the same time they have fewer choices where to sell their products. A handful of agribusiness and food industry multinational corporations stand between the farmers who produce the food and the more than 300 million people who consume it in the United States.

Consolidation at the top of the food chain has affected every segment below, including farming. Large-scale industrial operations comprising only 12 percent of U.S. farms make up 88 percent of the value of farm production. Family farming stands on the edge of extinction; most small and medium sized farms are dependent on off-farm income for survival.

The loss of farms has caused a rural bloodletting, leaving rural towns and countries forlorn . . . .

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