Looking Back at a Year of Ag Industry Consolidation Workshops, Ahead of Finale This Week | Civil Eats

Looking Back at a Year of Ag Industry Consolidation Workshops, Ahead of Finale This Week

Over the last year, in towns around the country, thousands of farmers, ranchers, and concerned citizens have packed auditoriums to overflow capacity–not for a rock concert or even a farm auction, but for the leaders of the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the USDA. The departments have been on a listening tour, taking them from Iowa to Alabama and Wisconsin to Colorado, to hear from food producers about how corporate consolidation in food and agriculture markets has affected their livelihoods. Next stop? Washington, DC, this Wednesday, December 8.

The listening sessions–or workshops, as they’re officially called–are part of a year-long investigation by the Departments on “Agriculture and Antitrust Enforcement in the 21st Century“–which is to say that the DOJ and USDA are finally examining corporate concentration in our food system. Given the numbers, the investigation may be overdue: Right now, the top four companies control 85 percent of the nation’s beef, 70 percent of pork, and 60 percent of the nation’s poultry. Three corporations process over 70 percent of the nation’s soy. Just one company controls 40 percent of our milk supply, and Monsanto holds patents on 80 percent of corn seed. Our food system has become one of the least competitive sectors of the marketplace–to an extent that Attorney General Eric Holder has called the issue “a national security matter.”

Holder and his USDA counterpart, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, have heard a wide range of views at the workshops, which have each focused on a particular production sector (seeds in Iowa, poultry in Alabama, dairy in Wisconsin, and livestock in Colorado). Panelists have included grain and dairy farmer members of the National Family Farm Coalition and Family Farm Defenders, small-scale ranchers with the independent cattlemen’s union R-CALF, researchers from Food & Water Watch, and members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, all asking for greater enforcement of antitrust laws. On the other side, representatives from Monsanto, Consolidated Beef Producers, International Dairy Foods Association, a professor who holds the Pioneer [Seed Company] Chair in Agribusiness at Iowa State University, and operators of massive feedlots have mostly defended the status quo.

From the latter group–as well as from most of the government representatives–there has been a lot of seductive rhetoric about the need for large-scale, industrial agriculture to feed a growing world population, and references to local and organic agriculture as a niche market. Other than statements by a couple of the small farmer panelists and during the public comment period, there has been little reference to the difficulties that independent farmers are having feeding themselves, or the fact that industrial agriculture hasn’t helped the one billion people worldwide who are currently suffering from chronic hunger. There has also been almost no mention of international research showing that to feed a growing population, we need much greater investment in local markets, local control of seeds and growing methods, and access to land. Studies like the UN- and World Bank-sponsored International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD), indicate that we should invest in sustainable agriculture so that it can grow beyond a niche market–and that we must break up the monopolies that control agricultural markets and make it impossible for newcomers to compete.

It was only in town hall forums the night before the official workshops in Iowa, Wisconsin, and Colorado that the urgency of the situation became clear. Across the country, the stories have been the same: grain prices so low they don’t cover the cost of inputs. Milk prices so low they don’t cover feed costs. Non-genetically modified seed harder and harder for organic farmers to find. Families forced to sell their farms after generations on the land. Former farmers struggling with debt and unable to find work because they have no off-farm skills. Low-income consumers–urban and rural–with no access to fresh food.

The stories of hardship from across the nation have also pointed to a more hopeful underlying theme: solidarity. At the town hall before the first workshop, in Ankeny, IA, a family farmer from near Des Moines talked about power: “Industry cannot turn one wheel unless people make those machines work,” he said. “We have the power here, and we need to understand what that power means.” Months later, prior to the fourth workshop, in Fort Collins, CO, a labor leader talked about being in a moment of “worker and farmer cooperation like this country has never seen before.”

In Iowa, the crowd chanting “bust up big ag!” was full of white farmers in their 50s wearing feed caps and faded jeans. In Colorado, it was ranchers in cowboy hats, pressed checked shirts, and big belt buckles who were on their feet calling for change. Around the country this year, it has been almost quarter of a million citizens who have signed petitions calling on DOJ and USDA to take swift action in this investigation. Similarly, in Brooklyn, New York last month, it was a diverse crowd of hundreds of mostly African-American urban and rural farmers strategizing and organizing at the first Black Farmers and Urban Gardeners Conference–just as in cities and small towns around the country, communities of all colors, ages, and experiences are joining together to create a more just and fair food system. The anger and powerlessness voiced at the town hall forums could have been spoken by any of these communities–as could the commitment to organizing and demands for change.

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Like the DOJ and USDA, I’ve traveled the country this year listening to producers and consumers tell of their experiences with the corporate-controlled food system. They, of course, have also gathered a great deal of information that I have not (including reading all 15,000+ comments that have been submitted on the issue). But they haven’t been at the town hall forums, hearing the themes of both suffering and solidarity echoing loudly in a way that is harder to hear in the official workshops, which have “balanced” panelists and long speeches. (With the exception of the Colorado workshop, whose almost 2,000 cowboys created moments of raucous free-for-all, to the dismay of DOJ.) My takeaway from this year’s investigation has been the extraordinary number and diversity of Americans being screwed by our food system, and the strength and consistency of the movement for change, particularly in the most unlikely places.

The final workshop is in Washington, DC, this Wednesday, December 8. It will focus on price margins (broadly: the difference between what the consumer pays and the producer receives)–making it the only one of the workshops to address the consumer side. After that—after a full year of investigation—the Departments have given little indication of what will happen. For thousands of people who have spoken out in and around the workshops, and millions more they represent, lives and livelihoods depend on DOJ deciding to take strong action to enforce existing antitrust laws and recommend new ones that would go even further to restoring fairness in food and agriculture markets. Let’s hope they’ve heard the movement.

You can keep showing DOJ the strength of the movement in support of strong action resulting from this investigation–if you’re near DC, come to the workshop on December 8, and to the community forum [PDF] on December 7. Or send a comment directly to DOJ. You can follow me at Wednesday’s workshop on Twitter @whyhunger and #USDADOJ.

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Siena Chrisman is a Brooklyn-based writer and researcher addressing agriculture policy and social justice. Her work has appeared in Modern Farmer, Edible Brooklyn, Grist, and others, and she is currently working on a book about the 1980s farm crisis. Read more at www.sienachrisman.com. Read more >

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  1. Scott in Boulder
    There's no need to break up big Ag. If people make informed choices and vote with their hard-earned monies, the changes will come about.

    Stop patronizing the chain grocers. Start your own victory garden. Buy produce in-season and can. Buy and read the Book Nourishing Traditions (Sally Fallon). It's chocked-full of wonderful ideas and recipes for healthful and wonderfully varied and inexpensive dishes.

    Farmers can scale down and move away from the Monsanto' dependencies and inputs. It's un-sustainable, unhealthy and un-natural. Go back to growing a variety of crops in stead of this monocultural madness and mayhem.

    The masses of people far out-number Big Ag, Big Agrachem and the politicos. Until people wake and realize the power is where you think it is, change lays in someone else's power.
  2. I write about a young farm wife and husband of a previous American generation. They struggled, but they held on to a family farm. That institution is now endangered.
  3. Suz in VA
    Scott in Boulder, it's much easier said than done. I'm assuming when you refer to "produce in-season" you are probably referring to produce sold at farmer's markets. Much of the in-season produce sold at chain grocers are not even close to being local. It's not that simple. Farmer's charge at a premium to cover their costs, which is of course very valid. However, for those who can't afford this premium, their options dwindle down to chain grocers.

    You say farmers can and should go back to growing a variety of crops. Siena emphasizes from the research she's done, Non GMOs are harder and harder for farmers to get, so unless they want to continue supporting their competition (i.e. Montasanto), they have little options.

    I am sick of hearing people say the power lies in consumers hands. I think it's such a cop out. We can only do so much, and though we may outnumber Big Ag, they are much more powerful because you can’t honestly say that everyone who makes the decision to buy food at chain grocers are completely informed about where their food is coming from, or have the opportunity to choose elsewhere.

    People are bombarded with advertisements everyday about food – 95% of ads on tv are for food with poor nutritional value. Many people choose shops that are convenient. With chain grocers left and right, the busy working mom may not be able to peruse around a farmer's market every sunday, or the single mom or dad may not have the money to afford premiums at stores like Whole Foods.

    So I wouldn’t put the blame on consumers completely. We all make choices, but whether they are informed or not is another story.

    Movements like this will help empower the people. This is exactly what we need. Educate consumers, allow farmers to do their job and feed their families. Without DOJ and USDA budding in the problem would only get worse. It's about time they get involved.
  4. Well Done! Great article.

    Something to think about: The agricultural producer is the only "manufacturer of a product" that does not set their own wholesale price for that product...

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