McFarms Go Hog Wild
by Laura Orlando
Dollars and Sense magazine, July / August 1998
One man can take care of two thousand pigs in one barn. Twenty
pigs to a stall. A hundred stalls. I can pay him $25,000 and take
home at least 20% on my investment, which is hovering at around
$650,000, including the pigs." Jerry Sorokowski spat on the
ground and dreamed of money. "Multiply those barns and you
multiply your money," he continued. "Factory farms are
here to stay."
Corporate America can do the math too and in it they see a
fortune to be made. Hogs, cattle, and poultry can bring healthy
profits to corporate managers. The key to the bookkeeper is to
put enough animals in a small enough space to keep labor costs
low, land use minimal, and production predictable. The losers
are the farmers squeezed out by factory farms, local economies,
the environment, the animals, and the people that eat the animals.
They suffer the health consequences of "meat by Fordism."
Gee something screwy on the assembly line and the whole lot will
suffer. Works the same with pigs, cows, and chickens. A little
E coli can go a long way.
Agriculture is about more than plowing a furrow and planting
seed. Cash receipts for U.S. agricultural produces are expected
to top $198 billion this year. Add fishery products, imports,
and processed food, and expenditures swell to $620 billion. Big
dollars bring the consolidation of power. Here is where agribusiness
muscles out small farmers, ruining communities, degrading food
safety, and causing environmental devastation in the process.
In 1781 Thomas Jefferson wrote that the security of American
democracy is tied to a nation of small farmers. He later endorsed
small-scale domestic manufacturing, but still exhorted Americans
to shun large factories, saying, "we may exclude them from
our territory as we do persons affected with disease." To
Jefferson, the small producer-as owner, manager, and laborer-was
invulnerable to corruption.
We are no longer a nation of small farmers, but we are a nation
of dwindling-though still small-farms. According to the United
States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 94% of the nation's farms
are considered small, with gross sales under $250,000 a year.
Three-fourths are very small, with sales under $50,000. But they
are not the producers. Instead, 2% of farms generate 40% of gross
farm sales. Five corporations control 85% of the beef market.
Four corporations control 58% of all pork processing and forty
producers control one third of all hogs (103 million in 1995).
In the past 25 years, the number of poultry farms fell by 35%,
but production tripled to over seven billion birds. Corporate
livestock operations own not only the animals, but also large
shares of packing and processing facilities. Exclusive contracts
with processors give them an unfair market advantage. According
to Hogs Today magazine, North Carolina packing facilities shelled
out $51 per hundred pounds for corporate-owned hogs compared to
the $39 given independent producers' in 1993. No wonder the state
has lost two-thirds of its hog producers, while watching its hog
Putting more animals into smaller spaces has resulted in some
astounding environmental problems, waste management (or rather
lack thereof) being the most noticeable. What used to be called
manure is now called "waste" because the volume of excreta
in confined animal feed operations is so great and because these
factory farms grow no crops, it cannot be used on-site as a fertilizer.
Confined animals in America produce 130 times more excreta than
the entire U.S. population. That's five tons for every U.S. citizen.
One dramatic example is a hog operation being built in Utah designed
to produce 2.5 million hogs annually, with a potential waste output
greater than the entire city of Los Angeles, California.
Animal waste leaking from storage lagoons and running off
farmland contaminates ground and surface waters with high concentrations
of nitrates and phosphorous, both of which have an immediate impact
on ecosystems and human health. The nutrients in excreta deplete
oxygen levels in the water, choking out fish and other aquatic
life while fostering the excessive growth of algae, turning the
aquatic ecosystem on its head.
In 1995, 35 million gallons of hog manure slurry from breached
storage lagoons killed 10 million fish in North Carolina, one
of the top four pork producing states. More than 40 animal waste
spills killed 670,000 fish in the Midwest in the past year. In
1997, outbreaks of the toxic microbe Pfiesteria piscicida killed
approximately 450,000 fish in North Carolina and approximately
30,000 fish in the Chesapeake Bay. Pfiesteria is still causing
trouble and the only thing known for sure is that it has something
to do with animal excreta discharged into the water.
The most important health effect from consuming high levels
of nitrates is methemoglobinemia, more commonly known as Blue
Baby Disease. Once in a baby's body, nitrates challenge the red
blood cell's ability to transport oxygen through the bloodstream,
resulting in brain damage, and even death, if not corrected.
Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), ranking member of the U.S. Senate
Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, has called
for tighter regulations on animal waste pollution with the Animal
Agriculture Reform Act (S. 1323). President Bill Clinton jumped
on the bandwagon and asked the Environmental Protection Agency
to tighten regulatory oversight of large-scale feeding operations
with the Clean Water Act. But only front line activities; such
as the Hoosier Environmental Council, are calling for a moratorium
on factory farms. The animal "waste" problem in factory
farms is perhaps the best indication that there is something terribly
wrong with agriculture.
Since 1936, the number of U.S. farms has steadily declined.
As small farms go, so go rural jobs, the destruction of local
economies, high food prices, unsafe food, and environmental devastation.
Like the health care and financial industries, agribusiness is
consolidating, and it's taking jobs and a value system with it.
Three legislative initiatives helped accelerate the consolidation
of the agricultural sector: The 1996 Farm Bill, the North American
Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the General Agreement on Tariffs
and Trade (GATT). The 1996 Farm Bill changed most agricultural
commodity programs, particularly income support and supply management
programs for dairy and field crops. These changes tightened the
margins on small farmers who cannot go head to head with agribusiness
in today's marketplace. The trade agreements removed national
agricultural subsidies and protective tariffs that have supported
more traditional agricultural practices, helping transnational
capital assume a greater role in the industrialization of agriculture.
The World Bank and International Monetary Fund do their part as
well, forcing Third World economies to focus on export-oriented
policies in agriculture, which inevitably favor large-scale growers.
Animal waste on factory farms is only one environmental threat
posed by agribusiness. Genetic modification, part of the biotechnology
we are hearing so much about, holds great promise for the future
earnings of agribusiness. Chemical companies are beating a path
to rename themselves "life science" corporations. DuPont
plans to quadruple its sales of agricultural products to more
than $40 billion in 15 years. Monsanto, with $7 billion in revenues,
is investing heavily in both biotechnology and the seed business.
Monsanto bought Holden's Foundation Seeds for $1.2 billion last
year and is poised to buy the eighth largest seed company in the
world, DeKalb Plane Genetics. Why seeds? They can be owned by
corporations ad infinitum. They can be genetically tinkered with
to do things that the corporation can then market as value added
components, such as Monsanto's soybean seed genetically modified
to stand up to doses of its popular, highly toxic herbicide Roundup.
But they can also wreak economic and environmental havoc, as the
altered seeds, such as soybean or cotton, build immunity to time-tested
methods of thwarting disease and behave unpredictably in nature.
Plant breeder's rights and patenting laws that put limits
on farmers' ability to save and resell proprietary seed have been
the multinational seed companies' ace-in-the-hole. Seed corporations
have stopped farmers from saving or reselling proprietary seeds
by using intellectual property rights that make it illegal for
them to reuse or sell harvested seed. Now agribusiness is getting
a little help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
On March 3, Delta and Pine Land Co. and the USDA announced that
they received U.S. Patent No. 5,723,765 on a new genetic technology
designed to prevent unauthorized seed saving by farmers. The patented
technology genetically alters seeds so that they will not germinate
if replanted a second time. The patent is broad, applying to plants
and seeds of all species, including both transgenic (genetically
engineered) and conventionally bred seeds. According to USDA spokesman
Willard Phelps, the aim is "to increase the value of proprietary
seed owned by U.S. seed companies and to open up new markets in
Second and Third World countries."
What does this mean for you and me? Agribusiness externalizes
the cost of waste disposal, pollution control, deterioration of
food safety, destruction of rural social structures, and the political
consequences of concentrated economic power. Seeds no longer germinate
and instead are perpetually "owned" by companies like
Monsanto and Cargill. Small farmers are squeezed out and you pay
more for food that will be harmful to your health-all for the
health of agribusiness's bottom line.
Agribusiness and their supporters claim biotechnology and
industrialized agriculture will prevent food shortages and stem
the pressure on food stocks at a time when world population is
growing at a clip of 80 million people a year. It is the Second
Green Revolution out to save the world from hunger and malnutrition.
Peter Rosset, executive director of the Institute for Food and
Development Policy (Food First), says otherwise. "First,
there is no global food shortage. Food production per capita has
consistently outstripped population growth: today there is 15%
more food available per person in the world than there was 35
years ago. People aren't hungry because there isn't enough food;
they are hungry because they are too poor to buy the food that
is already available, and/or lack land to grow their own food.
Redistribution of land and income, not production increases, is
what is needed to end hunger."
Rejecting industrial food and choosing to make the link between
food and farming will save more than the family farm. Each of
us is part of agriculture. If agriculture becomes an industry
that is compelled only by commercial corporate values, we will
lose a part of ourselves while watching democracy slip away.
Resources: Frances Moore Lappe, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset,
"World Hunger 12 Myths, Second Edition" (forthcoming
Fall 1998, Grove/Atlantic and Food First Books); Rural Vermont,
15 Barre St., Montpelier, Vt. 05602 firstname.lastname@example.org;
Center for Rural Affairs, PO Box 406, Walthill, Neb. 68067, email@example.com,
U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics
Laura Orlando is executive director of the Resource Institute
for Low Entropy Systems and a D&S collective member.