RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Consumers Get What They Think They Want

My husband and I were camped in a heartland motel with cable TV the night before the Iowa caucus, and it was a pleasure to see candidates on TV actually talking about farm policy. That discussion has been missing since the Carter years. Not that things were so great in the 1970s, but since we've left farmers out of the discussion the nation has paid big.

First, taxpayers and consumers paid when a farm crisis in the mid-1980s drove millions of farmers off the land, ruined small-town economies and concentrated land ownership in fewer hands. Now, consumers and taxpayers pay again as farm policy continues to concentrate ownership -- today it's the ownership of packing houses and processors -- in fewer and fewer hands.

The policy of the USDA in the last 30 years has been industry-driven rather than farmer-driven. The industry benefits from concentration of ownership because if just a few players can control food "from seed to shelf" or "from gate to plate," those players can set the prices.

The bigger industrial powers have squeezed out the little ones by setting prices low, then demanding subsidies to make up the difference. It's familiar rhetoric by now: Most of the subsidies go to just a few industrial producers. As the little challengers give up, the big ones become mightier and, eventually, we end up with one or two suppliers for all of us.

What have we lost? Worker protections. Environmental protections. And, as we note occasionally, our own health has suffered as consumers forgo fresh, vitamin-rich, local foods and buy increasing amounts of processed foods served up by the multinationals.

Any thoughtful anthropologist could have come up with the recipes for today's factory-prepared foods: Fat, salt and sugar. Hamburger, mustard and catsup. Deep fried potatoes with salt washed down with soda.

Fat, salt and sugar are the three elements we've craved since the days when food was hard to find. In the few generations since we survived on roots, berries, and game, our bodies haven't learned to tell when we've had enough grease, salt and sweets.

Research dollars have gone to providing more of the things consumers crave while a disease like BSE, or Mad Cow Disease, has gone mysteriously unexplored. Poor policy, driven by industry. Government research dollars have been dedicated to raising larger amounts of food quickly, and to hell with quality.

Government research, driven by industry, led to the decision to add leftover animal parts to animal feed. Each piece of the decision made perfect sense to researchers learning how to produce large amounts of food quickly. First, confine and raise huge herds in a small space. Exercise, which allows animals to walk off some of their fat, is an enemy if the goal is to raise animals to a large size very quickly, so good-bye to the wide open spaces.

To raise the animals even faster, researchers needed a source of protein more potent than grains like soybeans and corn. The researchers added bone meal and blood meal, two dry and relatively tasteless leftovers that could be mixed easily with the grains that animals are accustomed to eating. To make these palatable, researchers used molasses, a sweetener originally raised by farmers as their own sweetener. This was a familiar additive that didn't raise too many eyebrows; it had long been a treat for hard-working horses.

After researchers recorded gains with the bone meal and blood meal, they became more adventurous until animal feed became a dumping ground for all the leftovers of the livestock industry. "Offal," as the leftovers are called, consists of skin, bones, brain, intestines and so forth. These unprofitable parts are heated to a high degree, then dried, powdered, and added to grains and put in bins and 50-pound sacks marked "chicken feed," "hog feed," "cattle chow" and so on.

Research dollars didn't go to figure out if diseases were being transmitted from animal to animal this way. Instead, lobbying by the drug industry insisted that dollars go to learn how to use antibiotics in animal feed to snuff out sickness. It quickly got so that antibiotics were routinely added to animal feed, so much that more than half the antibiotics produced in this country are added to animal feed today. Fast gain was also the reason for implanting hormone pumps in animals.

All this manipulation was powered by tax dollars given to researchers at the insistence of industry. John Kerry told farmers in Audubon, Iowa, on Dec. 24, 2003, "You've got the USDA ... almost a wholly owned subsidiary of corporate agriculture." He argued that there should be a ban on corporate ownership of livestock, and an end to the inequitable subsidy system. In Iowa, where the Des Moines Register suggested 20 years ago that we abolish the USDA, these ideas have legs. Will Kerry carry them with him in the coming months?

It's clear that farmers have a lot at stake, but why should everyone else care? Here's our latest wake-up call: It's called BSE, or Mad Cow Disease. With BSE we face a new challenge. The "prion," or bit of protein, that causes Mad Cow Disease, isn't a virus or bacteria. Antibiotics and other medications can't kill it. In fact, rather than being alive, a prion behaves more like an indestructible molecule, like, say, water. It may change in form, but it's not destroyed by high heat, X-rays, or frigid cold.

When a certain type of BSE prion gets into a nervous system, at least into certain warm-blooded nervous systems, it induces molecules around it to fold, quickly forming spongey paths that affect behavior and lead to death.

We shouldn't be surprised that researchers have absolutely no idea what to do about these prions, or even how long prions have been around, because, for the last 30 years, the policy has been about raising a lot of food quickly, and concentrating the production of fat, sugar, and salt in the hands of a few.

The spread of BSE calls consumers to learn something about where their food comes from and who controls the food supply. Consumers need to support the alternatives -- the small, the slow, the time-tested methods that are still practiced by a few local producers. And we need to change policy so that these local producers can survive.

In Iowa, one candidate after another professed their love of local production and they vowed to cancel export agreements like NAFTA that benefit industry. Consumers and taxpayers need to push that policy agenda. Without those policy changes, the future is bleak indeed.

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

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