RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Top 10 Food Issues

Reading the usual "top 10" stories of 2001 confirms the suspicion: Media wonks don't eat. Or breathe or drink water. To ABC-NBC-Fox-CBS-Disney-USA Today and your favorite corporate media, none of the food or farm news was important.

As if. Here are the REAL picks:

Story #10: Wal-Mart becomes #1 food seller. Beginning with a major push toward "Super Centers" in 1995, Wal-Mart has passed Kroger to become America's top-selling food merchant. The company is the biggest retailer in the world, with sales larger than the gross domestic product of Ireland and Israel combined. Grocery and dry goods sales may top $57 billion in 2001. Why is this story important? Because everything Wal-Mart sells comes cheap from a corporate buddy, so local producers can't get into the loop. Wal-Mart meats, for example, are raised by contractors who use confined animals feeding operations (CAFOs) to raise thousands of animals owned by the corporations. Wal-Mart obtains meats from IBP, Farmland, Smithfield and Tyson

#9: Tyson officials are indicted by a federal grand jury for conspiring to smuggle illegal aliens to poultry processing plants. Neighbors of giant Tyson plants have known for years that the workers are mostly rural people from countries like Mexico and Vietnam, pushed from their homes to overcrowded cities. Corporate meat processors help them illegally enter the US with false papers to work in plants. Worse case scenario: Jose Hernandez, 38, working for Premium Standard Farm, fell into a sausage grinder. The company paid OSHA a fine -- $9,450. "Apparently what a life is worth in Milan, Mo.," said one observer.

#8: Overuse of antibiotics in confined animal feeding operations has created supergerms that attack humans and can't be killed by antibiotics. An estimated 40% of antibiotics produced by major drug companies are used in the animal confinement business, to keep animals healthy and growing even though they're crammed together like rush-hour commuters on a subway. Passing through the animals, these antibiotics find their ways to streams and ground water. Some bacteria mutate to become immune to the antibiotics. These antibiotic-immune bacteria, loose in the environment, get into our drinking, cooking, bathing water. When we take in antibiotic-resistant bacteria and become sick, doctors do not have tools to bring us back to health.

#7: Insert your state's favorite air or water quality story here. Air and water quality degradation due to feedlots and CAFOs have been in the news in every state of the Union. Southern Californians are suffering from particulates in the air from 450,000 dairy cattle. Missouri neighbors organized as "CLEAN", aided by the EPA, have received a settlement for one lawsuit against their neighbor Premium Standard Farms, and may be gearing up for another lawsuit. In North Carolina, pfisteria reappeared in 2001.

#6: China enters WTO, and America's largest pork company buys 50% of a small, trusted Chinese processor called AFG. Smithfield now owns chunks of the market in China, Canada, Mexico, Japan, France, Spain, and Poland. They can buy low-from the "undeveloped" world-and sell high-to the developed. In the US, Smithfield sells pork products under the Smithfield, John Morrell and a number of other national and regional labels. The company reported sales totaling $5.9 billion for its fiscal year ended April 29.

#5: If you like corporate concentration, you'll love cloning. On Nov. 23, the Wall Street Journal reported that researchers "found that cloned cattle that grow to adulthood are, by a variety of measures, entirely normal ... " Two cloned mother cows even gave birth. The Journal says the corporation who owns the cattle have 60 orders at $25,000 each. Those won't be going to any family farmers we know. In other studies, clones have been found defective -- obese, or with defective immune systems. One batch of cloned chickens turned out blind. An improvement over regular chickens, say the corporate wizards, because blind chickens don't pick at each other when squashed together in confinement.

#4: Whose genes? A paper by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) summed up the leading stories about cross-pollination by GMO crops into neighboring non-GMO fields. "Farmers are being sued for having GMOs on their property that they did not buy, do not want, will not use and cannot sell," one farmer tells IATP. StarLink corn, a GMO developed by Aventis, has not been approved for human consumption, but the corn pollinated other corn fields and got into the human food supply. Attorneys general in six states have filed suit against Aventis to clear the farmers and pay for their losses. Summary: Farmers have saved the best seeds from their crops for two-thousand years. Now corporate scientists can patent the seeds, and make the farmers pay.

#3: The Pork Checkoff, a perennial top story. In 1997, family farmers gathered enough petitions to vote on whether or not to keep the mandatory pork checkoff -- a tax they pay to support The Pork Council, best known for creating the "other white meat" campaigns and placing ads and recipes in consumer publications, also supporting research into Confined Animal Feeding Operations that compete, unfairly using government money, against family farmers with small operations. In 2000, hog farmers voted down the checkoff. In January 2000, Secretary of Agriculture Glickman cancelled the checkoff. Shortly after she took office in in 2001, Bush Secretary of Ag Veneman made an inexplicable deal with the Pork Council to reinstate the checkoff. In 2002, it's in court. An interesting sidelight, the mushroom growers voted for a checkoff, a voluntary one, and it's doing fine because most mushrooms are grown by major corporations happy to deduct the checkoff payment. Well, most pork's being grown by major corporations now -- why are they afraid of the handful of family farmers?

#2: And to increase the visibility of government-industry relationships ... the Environmental Working Group opened a website in 2000 that reports on the the commodity subsidies corporate agriculture gets. The website oversimplifies a complex issue -- for example, the subsidies are paid to individual contractors even though they benefit the corporations, so the money looks like it goes to farmers. But this listing could change everything, by "outing" the corporate beneficiaries of taxpayer's largesse.

#1: The top story of the year -- or cluster of stories -- has to do with informed consumers. All over America, consumers are fighting back by supporting local farms, farmer markets, independent grocers, butchers, bakers, and independent restaurant owners. Eaters are finding out it's pretty easy to figure out where our food comes from -- just ask and ask and ask. Think about it this way: Visualize your favorite young person and ask yourself, "What kind of world do I want to leave for them?"

Happy New Year!

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

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