I’m back from Washington D.C., where I participated in the final workshop of the Department of Justice (DOJ) addressing corporate concentration in agriculture. First, many thanks to all of you who shared your concerns with me before I left. I was proud to be able to stand before the panel of DOJ officials and deliver your messages.
As at all the other workshops this year, the heartfelt testimony of family farmers, ranchers and poultry growers took center stage. These courageous individuals put the corporate suits who dared to show up and repeat their glib talking points to shame.
- Joel Greeno, a dairy farmer from Wisconsin, talked about his parents' farm foreclosure on their anniversary day, the loss of young people from farming and the collapse of rural communities as corporations move in. He urged the DOJ to move swiftly to conclude its long-standing investigation of the dairy industry giant Dean Foods.
- Valerie Ruddle, a poultry grower from West Virginia who works two jobs but is barely keeping afloat, explained that there is only one poultry processing company in her entire state. This company can manipulate the market, force down prices and bankrupt any grower who complains about unfair contracts. (When one well-heeled industry guy publicly scoffed at Valerie’s suffering, a surge of irate poultry growers took to the mic with more stories of corporate abuse.)
- Peter Michaelson, a cattle rancher from Montana, described how he started working on his dad’s farm at age six, when the farm supported four families. Now that farm can’t support one family (500,000 family operations have gone out of business since the 1980s; four companies now control 83 percent of the beef industry). Other ranchers — who also grow corn and soy — complained to me about Monsanto’s grip over the seed industry. They thanked PAN for our support.
Out to Lunch
Attempting to put a bright face on the consumer end of things, a guy from the Food Marketing Institute obsessively repeated his only three talking points until what initially came off as offensive eventually became so ludicrous that the audience actually began laughing. Said talking points:
- “Competition is thriving in America” (evidenced, the food industry guy actually said, by the fact that he can use his iPhone App to find the price of identical products in other stores);
- “9 out of 10 shoppers recommend the store where they shop,” proving how happy consumers must be; and
- “Americans spend only 5.5% of their household budget on food eaten at home – down from 19% in the 1940s” — a direct indicator, he claimed, of improved quality of life.
A few corporations stand between 300 million consumers & 2 million farmers.
The man's claims were easily dispatched when a representative from the Community Food Security Coalition got up and described her work as a dietician with senior citizens who are forced to make dinner from cat food and tomato soup out of ketchup. The unspoken question, “How can this be improved quality of life?” hung in the air.
When a handful of corporations stand between 300 million consumers and 2 million farmers, neither farmers nor consumers are in a position to benefit from the corporate capture of our food system. It's a question of power.
Putting Justice on the Menu
Speaking forcefully at the workshop’s end, Christine Varney, the DOJ’s assistant attorney general, stated: “We stand vigilant against violations of the antitrust laws. The knowledge we gained at the workshops will aid us in identifying and prosecuting conduct that violates the antitrust laws, and enforcement in the agricultural sector remains a priority.”
We plan to do more than hope that they walk this talk.
PAN and our partners will be closely watching for evidence that the DOJ is taking concrete steps to break up monopoly control of our food and farming systems. We will push DOJ to conclude its long investigation of Monsanto and call for a reversal of laws that criminalize farmers for saving and exchanging seed. We will urge USDA to finalize and implement its proposed new “Fair Livestock” rules. And we will continue to put the struggles of family farmers and rural and urban communities fighting for food democracy at the top of the 2011 agenda for change.