Saturday, December 28, 2013

Serfs on the Land

"Foodopoly – the Battle over the Future of Food and Farming in America,” by Wenonah Hauter, 2013

This book describes the clusterf*** of Big Meat, Big Ag, Big Pharma, Big Bio-Tech and a tiny little government – the FDA, EPA, FTC, DOJ & USDA.  In meticulous detail, Hauter lays out the confluence of big capital and captured government, extending an analysis of oligopoly and bi-partisan neo-liberalism to the farm sector.  Frequently forgotten by some radicals, land and food issues are fundamental to any society, and are illustrative markers of who holds power and how.  After all, what is more basic than food?

Hauter is a farm activist and working organic farmer who represents middle and small farmers.  Yet her analysis is not limited to the representation of the needs of beleaguered middle farmers, but extends it to the workers in slaughterhouses, the treatment of animals, the health of consumers and the condition of the land.  All combine as victims and targets of the oligopoly of food corporations that now have a profit stranglehold on the U.S. food economy.  While not a Marxist, Hauter confirms four basic propositions of Marxism – increasing monopoly/ oligarchy is basic to the capitalist system; the depopulation of small and medium farmers, EVEN in the U.S., is essential to its functioning; profit is the only motivator for this system; privatization and patenting of everything is inherent, including seeds, animals and food itself. 

We are all familiar with the ‘enclosure of the commons’ in England at the start of capitalism, which is now spreading across the world as peasants and small farmers are forced off the land into cities.  For the first time in history, most people in the world now live in cities.  This process of proletarianization also happened in the U.S., something no one talks about.  It was explicit government policy in the 1950s.  Farm numbers dropped drastically since the 1930s, as farmers were forced to become workers.  This process is essential to the growth of capitalist monopoly in the land.  Now the few medium farmers, growers and ranchers remaining are contracted ‘serfs’ who sign contracts with meat or food companies, contracts which govern their price, debt and responsibility.  These contracts are always more beneficial to the big firms than to the farmer because of the power of monopoly.  The contracts force many farmers into debt-bondage, which has resulted in the bankruptcy of many.  Farmers who reject the deals are black-listed.  In essence, most farmers, who used to have some form of independence, are now beholden to a company like Tyson, Monsanto or Cargill. 

Prices for product are determined by the Big Ag firms.  As an example, a bucket of KFC chicken bought in NY city costs $19.09 in Manhattan.  .25 cents goes to the chicken grower, about $3-$5 go to JBS, a massive corporate food ‘integrator’ and the rest to KFC itself.  The workers at KFC?  A tiny, tiny chicken bone.  The grower is working almost for free, or even at a loss. 

Hauter has charts showing the control major corporations have over each sector of the food economy. She quotes from many farm activists across the country, detailing their somewhat hidden struggles against the travesties of food capital.  Her book contains a history of the fight in the U.S. between corporations and farmers. She shows how the gains of the Progressive movement during the Teddy Roosevelt administration like anti-trust and food safety laws, and the gains by the labor movement during the Franklin Roosevelt administration like unions and farm price supports have all been weakened to the point of irrelevance.   Nor is she some sad Democratic party loyalist who blames everything on Republicans.  She clearly shows that this process is almost fully bi-partisan, with Bill Clinton’s regime putting the finishing touches on corporate control of the land by law and policy, and Obama’s merely following in its footsteps. 

Hauter as an example highlights the revolving door between the FDA, Monsanto and various lobbying firms on the issue of rBGH drugs and one lobbyist/government official, Michael Taylor.  rBGH, a milk production growth hormone, is banned in the European Union for its harmful role in human health, but allowed in the U.S. due to pressure from Big Pharma. Taylor, who wrote the government regulation, worked for Monsanto, Bush, Clinton and now Obama.  

As another example, the normal use of antibiotics on animals was first opposed 35 years ago, as it decreased human resistance to disease, resulting in the deaths of thousands.  Corporations feed tetracycline and penicillin to animals due to the conditions they are kept in on factory farms, conditions which would make any animal sick.  Yet only in the last few weeks of 2013 did the FDA finally issue ‘guidance’ to companies on the overuse of antibiotics with animal feed.    The weakness of the ruling is stunning.  Companies now have 3 more years to comply.  The FDA does not track antibiotic use, relying only on private corporate monitoring.  ‘Captured’ veterinarians can still prescribe it.  And there is a ‘prevention’ loophole that will allow the continued use of antibiotics as a ‘growth’ item. 

Hauter comes up with a great phrase to describe these kind of ‘regulations’ applied to factory food – “pseudo-regulation.”  It is a fig leaf to make the public think ‘all is well.’ It is a placebo the political parties use to placate their base, especially the Democrats.  Hauter calls for a new politics around monopoly and food, and mentions the need for 'movements.' She still believes in a 'functional market', whatever that is. She does say you need a new global commons with 'collectively shared assets.' She knows you cannot 'shop your way' to a better food system.  She knows that the local trend will not solve the major problem.    (See review of the book, "No Local," below.)

As long as big capital controls the food supply and the government, nothing will change. Each Farm Bill is an exercise in Big Ag's power, as they are its main beneficiaries.  Farm Bill subsidies back up oligopoly, mono-crops and unhealthy food.  The situation can only be changed through a mass anti-capitalist movement.  Following in the footsteps of the Democratic Party or trying to reform them is the road of delay and defeat.  As history has shown, 'better regulations' are always being reversed.  Hauter’s book supplements prior analyses of neo-liberalism’s role in finance and industrial firms, in government policy, educational institutions, the media and news companies.  It is essential to a fully-rounded view of what has happened to the rural U.S. and its people, separating the nostalgia of the land and farming from the real thing.

(Prior reviews on corporate control and food issues, “Salt, Sugar, Fat” and "Behind the Kitchen Door," below.)

And I bought it at Mayday Books.
Red Frog
December 28, 2013

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