On corn, meat, and the myth of Big Farma

Why we shouldn’t target farmers for our farm bill frustrations

We're very pleased to run this guest essay by Elanor Starmer, an independent activist scholar who lives in California. Elanor recently published an important paper (PDF) on the livestock industry with Tim Wise of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. As the farm bill lurches to its conclusion amid shrill rhetoric about the "farm bloc," Elanor redirects our attention to the real beneficiaries of both federal farm policy and conventional attempts to reform it: the agribusiness giants that control the food system. This essay, first in a series, originally appeared on Ethicurean. ----- In a recent Grist column, Tom Philpott ran down the list of problems that this year's Farm Bill debaters have blamed, loudly and repeatedly, on subsidies: "everything from the obesity epidemic to the explosion in CAFOs in the late 1990s to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico ... [to] steamrolling farmers in Mexico, Africa, and elsewhere." Most mainstream media outlets and, points out Philpott, many progressive causes (Oxfam is one prominent example) are only too willing to point to subsidies as the delinquent dad when our food system spawns yet another bad seed. Philpott is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of complexity and nuance in the debate over subsidies. I'd like to voice my own frustration about a different but related issue here. I've noticed that in the debate over subsidies, both in the media and among progressive reform groups, there is often no distinction made between the subsidy policy itself and the farmers who receive payments. Commodity farmers, once considered the salt of the earth (almost literally), are now characterized quite differently: as a wealthy, powerful, politically savvy lobbying force capable of shaping the global food system to meet its needs, leaving the rest of us to pick up its mess. Call it Big Farma.


Why the Happy Meals-for-good-grades scheme deserves an ‘F’

Why is it acceptable to reward our children for successful academic performance with something that will harm them? How can we, as a society, allow this kind of corporate conduct when the most recent study on Body Mass Index (BMI) states that over 19 percent of American children are currently overweight or obese, and that a higher BMI in children is associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease as an adult?

Corn ethanol to the max

Bush to ethanol industry: don’t worry, you’re gonna get your fat mandate

The stock market is a glorified casino, and I’m no betting man. Plus I’m broke. But if I were flush and even a bit of a gambler, I’d be buying up shares in ethanol companies and corporations that sell inputs to corn farmers. Why? Because every U.S. politician who matters seems determined to engineer conditions that will make corn-based ethanol production triple over the next several years, reaching what most people consider its maximum of 15 billion gallons. The House and the Senate are divided over the energy bill, but both chambers have signed off on one aspect: a mandate …

Hillary and Big Meat

HRC taps a CAFO champion as co-chair of Rural Americans for Hillary

"A lot of pig shit is one thing; a lot of highly toxic pig shit is another. The excrement of Smithfield hogs is hardly even pig shit: On a continuum of pollutants, it is probably closer to radioactive waste than to organic manure. The reason it is so toxic is Smithfield’s efficiency. The company produces 6 billion pounds of packaged pork each year. That’s a remarkable achievement, a prolifigacy unimagined only two decades ago, and the only way to do it is to raise pigs in astonishing, unprecedented concentrations." – Jeff Tietz, "Boss Hog," Rolling Stone, Dec. 14, 2006 Why …

News flash: Don't drive your SUV to the farmers market

And other revelations from the latest big-media expose of local food

About a year ago, The Economist ran a big article purporting to show that eating locally is actually worse for the environment than typical supermarket fare. I debunked the article here. About six months later, the NYT op-ed page ran a piece making similar arguments. And I responded again. In both of these pieces, the authors discovered that in a built environment rigged to grow food in mass quantities, process it in huge factories, and haul it over vast distances, there are cases in which industrial food that travels 1500 miles uses less energy than organic fare consumed nearby. My …

How very 19th century

More on feedlots and distillers grains

Last week, I wrote about how feeding cows waste from the ethanol process, known as distillers grains, seems to increase incidence of the deadly pathogen E. coli 0157:H7. I added that — coincidentally or not — a recent spike in recalls of E. coli 0157:H7-tainted hamburger meat has coincided with a surge in distillers grains use in cow rations. Over the weekend, I learned that feeding distillers grains to confined cows is hardly a new practice. Reading Nature’s Perfect Food: How Milk Became America’s Drink, by UC-Santa Cruz sociologist and food-studies scholar E. Melanie Dupuis, I came across this passage: …

U.S. government wants to boost fish-farming industry

Eighty percent of American fish dishes are imported, and the federal government is eager to get the U.S. seafood market on equal footing (finning?) by kicking off industrial-scale fish farming in the Gulf of Mexico. Under regulations to be considered next month, fish born in laboratories would be transported to gigantic underwater cages capable of holding up to 100,000 pounds of sea critters; once at marketable size, the fish would be harvested and taken back to shore for consumption. Commercial fisherfolk have come out against the plan, fearing for their already hurting industry; green groups are also leery, pointing out …

There's sh*t in the meat

NYT on the surge in E. coli outbreaks

"There’s shit in the meat," declared a harried fast-food exec in the Richard Linklater / Eric Schlosser film Fast Food Nation. Well, yes, there is — and more this year than in past years, judging from the number of recalls of beef tainted with the deadly E. coli strain 0157. In an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Andrew Martin reports that the USDA has had occasion to issue 20 such recalls this year — "one recall shy of a record set in 2000 and matched in 2002." Worse, recalls are up sharply from six in 2005 and eight in …

Farm bill: Stick it to Big Meat

Back under debate in the Senate, the farm bill lurches ahead

The farm bill has been languishing in the Senate for weeks, buried under the weight of hundreds of specious, unrelated amendments. But the chamber reached a deal Thursday; each party agreed to float only 20 amendments. That means the bill is back on track. Majority leader Harry Reid vowed the Senate would hammer out a version by holiday break, meaning it would go to reconciliation and then to the president’s desk early in the new year. So now it’s crunch time. The agribiz giants will be hauling out the big guns, trying to shoot down anything that conflicts with their …