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 inventory skyrocket.

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; Center for Rural Affairs, PO Box 406, Walthill, Neb. 68067,, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, http.//


Laura Orlando is executive director of the Resource Institute for Low Entropy Systems and a D&S collective member.

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