RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

On Food Security

At a time like this, it may seem silly taking up column space to discuss food. Since the industrial revolution, food has been devalued. Farmers and farm animals seem ridiculous -- look at the comic strips "Garfield" and "The Far Side."

But food security -- the access of all people at all times to the food they need for an active and healthy life -- is an important concern.

If you've eaten some fresh produce today -- lettuce, tomato, some perishable--and you haven't raised it yourself or bought it at the farmer's market, you've eaten something raised outside the United States. Ninety-eight percent of our produce is imported.

The Mexican border is the busiest border in the world because most of our produce comes from south of it. The banana is America's favorite fruit. How many states grow bananas? None. We import 12 bananas per person per year. Dole is the biggest provider, buying from low bidders all over the world. Low bidders are what we once called third-world countries.

Importing our food means that if petroleum is scarce, borders are closed, bridges are blown up, food cannot get to consumers.

After the Sept. 11 "events," as we call them, airports were closed. By Tuesday night, florists were calling local growers because flowers were not arriving from foreign growing fields. Luckily, if you need flowers you can use flowers made of paper, plastic or silk.

Twenty-four hours after the "events," a grocer's order bounced around growers' e-mails for 300 pounds of onions. No one could fill it. It takes months to raise hundreds of pounds of onions. Read the sentence beginning "Luckily" again, substituting "food" for the word "flowers." Doesn't work.

I usually don't talk about food security because, frankly, it makes me nervous. And, putting local produce farmers out of business was a bad idea before Sept. 11. Reason One: Food quality. The countries where our food is raised have no restrictions on how they raise food. Some still use DDT, banned in the US since 1976. At the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in San Diego, April 29-May 6, 2000, researchers announced "people who had been exposed to pesticides were approximately two times more likely to develop Parkinson's disease than people not exposed to pesticides."

Field workers in China, Mexico and our South American growing fields, are exposed to pesticides every day. That human burden comes on every piece of fresh produce we buy.

Two: Other governments do not have laws to control where corporations get the land they use to grow things. On continent after continent, self-sufficient indigenous people are moved to cities as their land is turned into fields to raise crops to sell. According to Successful Farming in an article about soybean agriculture in Brazil, farm labor families live in semi truck cabs because they have no place for homes.

American farmers cannot compete with farm laborers that raise their families in truck cabs. So, for American farmers to make a living, we offer government subsidies. Farmers are keenly aware that this is farmer welfare, but it's the only way to survival. And, payments go to only the wealthiest few farmers raising a few selected crops for corporations. Farm policy must be changed.

In January 2001, at the University of Missouri-Columbia a team of rural sociologists led by Bill Heffernan and Mary Hendrickson released "Consolidation in Food Retailing and Dairy: Implications for Farmers and Consumers in a Global Food system." From that study:

"Horizontal integration through consolidation has occurred very rapidly in the last three years. Five firms -- Kroger, Albertson's, Wal-Mart, Safeway and Ahold USA control 42% of retail food sales, up from 24 % three years ago." Does anybody think an independent farmer -- and by independent I mean one that is in business for themselves rather than raising as a contractor for a corporation -- can sell to Wal-Mart?

"Vertical integrations formally connects retailers back to the production and processing stages of the food system." Kroger has meat supply agreements with Cargill. Wal-Mart obtains meats from IBP, Farmland, Smithfield and Tyson. These meats are raised by contractors who raise thousands of animals owned by the corporations.

A hog confinement uses 50 gallons of water per day per animal. A sustainable farm uses 50 gallons of water per day for ten animals. An average confinement contains 10,000 animals. You do the math.

As bad as the pollution is the end of competition. The animal prices are set and there is no free market system, no auction.

"The impacts of global forces that will drive further restructuring in the agro/food system and are just beginning to become evident." The study suggests there will be six or fewer global food retailers in about ten years. Wal-Mart will be the only US-based one. Today, there are fewer than six major processors.

You may think that because there are different brand names that there are different processors, but ConAgra extruded the margarine into your tub of Parkay, Blue Bonnet, Fleischmann's, Chiffon, Touch of Butter or Move Over Butter. This Thanksgiving, you could enjoy an all-ConAgra meal from the turkey (Butterball) to the whipped cream (Reddi-whip), the Brown 'N Serve rolls. Get on their web site to see all the brands they own.

ConAgra isn't the only processor, however. Philip Morris gets 10% of your food dollar. They own Kraft, Oscar Mayer, Miller Beer, and hundreds of smaller brands. Think Philip Morris cares about your health?

"Retailers are already in a position to dictate terms to food manufacturers who then force changes back through the system to the production level.""Forcing changes" derails the regulatory process. For example, retailers realize that consumers will pay more for poultry they believe is fresh. In 1995 a consortium of food lobbyists asked for a re-write of the legal definition of the word "frozen." Today, the legal definition of "frozen" is "held at a temperature below 0 degrees Fahrenheit." Chicken freezes hard at 24 degrees, but raw poultry can be labeled "fresh" or "never frozen" if it has never been held at zero degrees.

Labelling lobbyists are tireless. They're dancing around "organic" right now, and they insist that GMO ingredients need no labelling because they are no different than ordinary ingredients. A bit of a double standard there, the GMO ingredients are patented because they are different. It depends on what the corporations want.

"As the balance of power shifts to retailers, smaller entities in all parts of the food system are left out." Retailers make 2.5% of their income -- and that's the same as their margin of profit -- on shelf fees charged to producers. According to the Tampa, Fla., Tribune, in 1999 it cost $50,000 to put a jar of pickles on the shelf in all the grocers of Tampa. Bottom line: Unless you're Paul Newman, it's tougher than Hell to start a new company, buy local ingredients, and pay those fees.

American farm families have left the land. Remember milk cows, those peaceful black and white bovines that munched on grass all day, moving calmly to the milk parlor morning and evening to provide us with milk, butter and cheese? Today, Nestle, Unilever and Kraft are the dominant dairy processors, and they make their processed cheeses from the cheapest sources, importing dried milk concentrates from other countries.

Because of US farm policy, our farmers have raised almost nothing but soybeans and a little corn and milo this year -- and that's coast to coast and north to south. According to the USDA, US wheat production is down 13%.

We study war strategy and never talk about where the food came from for the troops. India starved when the British raped it for war rations in the 1940s. Therein lies some of the age-old resentment of the Middle East.

It's time for a farm policy that focuses on American sustainability. Write the people you've sent to Congress and tell them.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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