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Our Food Supply: A Farmer's Perspective
by Leland Eikermann, National Family Farm Coalition
The current food system is in one hell of a mess. Our food comes from 2000 miles away or from Mexico or Honduras. We need only look at the history of the Roman Empire, which thrived for eleven centuries until they let the ownership of agriculture become centralized and the work be done by slaves. Then, the Romans grew crops for export relying on other countries for their food. Do we, as a nation, want to rely on other countries for our food? We could relive a situation like the oil embargo of the early seventies.
The food production which will be most affected under NAFTA will be fresh fruits and vegetables. If a pesticide is banned in this country, it is merely shipped to another country where that pesticide is sprayed on the food and is then shipped to the US. This is called the Circle of Poison. Only 1-2% of the fresh fruits and vegetables coming into our country are checked and 40% of those foods do not pass inspection. Those transporting the food often just wait until the border inspection stations are closed. Sometimes, by the time the tests get back, the contaminated food has already made it through the channels and to the consumer. DDT was banned in this country in 1973 but is still used in Mexico. NAFTA will only exacerbate the Circle of Poison. Producers in the US will not be able to compete with cheap labor and the lax environmental restrictions in Mexico.
NAFTA will not help small producers. Only the multinational corporations and the very wealthy in each country will benefit. For reasons of national security, corporations cannot be allowed to control food production. Some of the multinationals involved in agribusiness include Cargill, Con-Agra, RJ Reynolds, Phillip Morris, and Tyson Foods. Tyson is now having much of its chicken slaughtered in Arkansas and deboned in Mexico, because the labor is so cheap.
I try to sell directly to my consumers. There is nobody between us to take a profit that should be mine, as the person who planted the seeds. Most of the people who are planting the seeds do not participate in the profit—the food processor is taking the profit. Whether it is Kellogg's, ConAgra or whoever, their profits were 20-25% in the 1980s, while farmers were in a lower cash flow situation than in the 1920s. In the 1980s, 2,000 farms per week were lost, and we're losing about 2,500 per week. US Department of Agriculture policies support cheap raw materials for the processors rather than the growers. We spend more on packaging than we do on the commodity.
Grain is dominated by a few multinational corporations. In straight grain farming, there is no way to make a profit, because Cargill controls the market—they write the Farm Bill. Those who serve on corporate boards set the international grain standards. They stand to profit from having more relaxed standards for the grain companies and stricter standards for the farmers.
We need to do away with subsidies and have a reasonable profit paid at the farm gate. This would have very little effect on the price of food for the consumer. Non-sustainable, inhumane animal husbandry systems, or intensive confinement operations, are already the norm in the US. Cheap grain is necessary to maintain the corporate ideal of efficient meat production: confinement systems. If grain was priced at the cost of production to the farmer, confinement animal systems would disappear. This technology is easy to move around--the corporations go wherever the regulations are least and labor is cheapest.
Dairy farmers and vegetable farmers will be ruined in both the US and Mexico. Since we raise corn a little cheaper here Mexico can, competition under NAFTA would destroy Mexican farmers. Because of Mexico's food safety standards, Monsanto has been exporting BST to Mexican dairy farmers, and BST milk is being passed on to Mexican consumers. The Mexican dairy farmers are not making a profit. But Monsanto is, because most of the biotechnology is patented by the corporations.
Our government tells us how lucky we are because we only pay 12% of our disposable income on food. They never mention the hidden costs, such as the irrigation water subsidy in Arizona and California, the subsidy on transportation of food, the ecological damage from the overuse of oil in shipping, soil erosion, groundwater contamination from excessive animal waste and chemical applications, and the health and social costs.
The present farming system is a bleeding process with overuse of non-renewable resources. The whole system is run for this week's bottom line of the corporation. Because of the hidden costs and the struggle of small farmers with the corporate powers, we need to make food distribution local or regional instead of global. If not, what will be left for the next generation?