October 18, 1999
There are six billion people in the world, but some day it might take only a handful of corporations to feed them all.
The corporate farms of tomorrow will have the means, but their critics claim they won't have the will.
"Biotechnology promises all these great things when it comes to feeding people of the world, but the reality is that six major food clusters are controlling how this technology gets used," William Heffernan, professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri, said last week.
"They are honest about saying that they are in business to make money for stockholders, so if that's how they make decisions, the idea of feeding all the people of the world won't happen. Not when 21 percent of the world's population live in families with incomes of less than $400 a year."
Corporations, no matter how large they might be, don't deserve to bear that much guilt, they say.
"The notion of consolidation isn't unique to the food industry," said Scott Deitz, a corporate relations representative for giant food producer ConAgra. "It's in banking. It's in technology. It's in a lot of fields. But ultimately we're in business to satisfy consumers. That's what really enables us to satisfy stockholders."
As for the demise of the family farmer, Deitz says the number of farms in the United States peaked in the 1920s.
Who's going to control who gets to eat on the planet, what they eat and when they eat it remains largely a philosophical debate that is a long way removed from the typical Oklahoma City grocery shelf. However, family farm advocates say it is getting closer with every large corporate merger in the food sector and with the loss of each family farm in the United States.
Biotechnology and biosecurity. Genetic seed and the terminator gene. Designer hogs and vertical integration. Agriculture is speaking a complex new language today, but not everyone agrees on the meaning of the words.
To corporate food producers, the terms mean an unlimited supply of food and freedom of choice for consumers.
To many family farmers and activists, they mean just the opposite.
To the public, they mean very little.
While corporations clearly are winning the battle for the consumers' pocketbooks, their critics recently have turned up the heat in an attempt to win over the hearts and minds of Americans.
In Congress, there has been a call to slap a moratorium on mega-mergers in the food industry until the long-range impact on the economy and the health and safety of society can be better understood.
On the Atlantic seaboard, environmentalists are claiming that much of the stench and death left in the wake of Hurricane Floyd could have been avoided and a long- term environmental disaster averted if better restrictions had been placed on corporate hog farms that populate the coastal plains of North Carolina.
In New York last week, activists, scientists and attorneys from 12 countries converged on Blue Mountain Lake to discuss ways to shift the battle against genetically engineered organisms to U.S. soil.
The recent wave of high-profile environmental catastrophes, coupled with strong consumer opposition in Europe and around the world to "g.e.-free" products, is sending danger signals from corporate board rooms to the Oklahoma's High Plains.
"We have let the Sierra Club define agriculture in this country," said Paul Hitch, a third-generation cattleman and hog farmer in Texas County. "I used to be seen as a steward of the land. Now I'm a polluter that produces food that kills you. That's not right."
Ronald Knutson, director of the Agriculture and Food Policy Center, said it's difficult to know exactly how biotechnology advocates can please environmental activists.
"The activists are using the same types of tactics that they have used for years in opposition to chemical pesticides," he said. "Now when scientists have developed a non- chemical insect control by inserting a single gene into a plant, the activists oppose that."
The concerns go well beyond saving a tree, Mary Hendrickson, a professor in the department of rural sociology at Missouri, said.
"The No. 1 reason why biotechnology hasn't got a lot of consideration on the consumer side is nobody knows what's at stake. I'm not saying biotechnology is good or bad. It's just that the consumer doesn't have a choice, and they really don't know what's in their food."
As to claims that biotechnology and mega- farming have given consumers more choices, Hendrickson said, "there is a lot of variety in stores on one level, but when we talk about food labeling, the ability to provide food that's seasonal and regional, and the opportunity to support family farms and organic food, then consumers don't seem to get a vote."
The public has a negative view (73 percent) of the trend to larger and fewer farms, according to a recent poll commissioned by the American Farm Bureau Federation. But the same poll shows an 82 percent awareness of genetically modified food crops.
Biotech proponents want people to imagine a world where a child can receive a vital vaccine by simply eating a banana and where fruits and vegetables will contain more beta carotene and vitamins C and E.
"But the key point is that somehow we have to get to the point where we can feed 11 billion people at the same time the amount of land available to grow crops is diminishing," Deitz said.
Heffernan, the chief author of a comprehensive book family farm advocates refer to as their bible, sees a danger in putting such technology in private or corporate hands.
"While biotechnology has many opportunities, it's just like with nuclear energy," he said. "It is a matter of who makes the decisions."
Heffernan says the United States made a mistake by allowing corporations to patent the biotech research in agriculture instead of leaving it in the public domain "where these changes would have come about slower and allowed time for the consequences to be evaluated."
"Basically all of the turkeys produced today in the U.S. come from three basic breeding flocks. It's not as high in chickens, but in pork it's moving to the point where all large firms can trace their genetics back to PIC (Pig Improvement Co.)," he said.
In doing so, producers risk the danger that some form of mutation or alien flu variety could come along for which there is no resistance, Heffernan said.
While Mad Cow Disease almost overnight changed the way Europeans viewed the content of the food they ate, Americans have not come close to experiencing Heffernan's worst fears.
Where there's biotechnology, there will be biosecurity, the means to isolate a problem before it spreads, other researchers say.
Sen. Paul Muegge, a Kay County farmer and a worthy adversary of corporate agriculture in the Oklahoma legislature, said he is afraid that if a few corporations in the world control the genetics that then "they will control what I do on my farm. If the only way I will survive is to have a blankety-blank contract with a corporation, then I don't know if I want to survive."
How firm is the corporate world's grip?
ConAgra, for one, reported sales of $23.8 billion in 1998 and has 82,000 employees and operations in 35 countries.
Among its 70-plus brands are Armour, Banquet, Butterball, Healthy Choice, Hunt's, Parkay and Peter Pan.
ConAgra is one of the three largest flour millers in North America and ranks fourth in dry corn milling.
The company produces its own livestock and ranks third in cattle feeding and second in cattle slaughtering.
It ranks third in pork processing and fifth in broiler production and processing.
Nonetheless, Muegge's populist approach and personal appeal have evoked more than just sympathy, particularly where it counts -- the legislature. As chairman of the Senate agriculture committee, Muegge helped engineer legislation clamping down on large hog farms and has frustrated corporate farmers who claim they are getting a raw deal.
That legislation limited how close hog operations can be built next to nonprofit recreational facilities, including churches, and has put a temporary halt to the rapid expansion of the hog industry in Oklahoma.
"Our environmental standards relative to the air, water and land significantly exceed national, state and local governmental requirements," said Teresa Hinrichs, assistant vice president for marketing, communications and public affairs for Seaboard Farms. "Furthermore, we voluntarily and aggressively seek and implement advances in technology for the betterment of the environment. Above all else, we care."
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Last Updated on 10/27/99
By Karen Lutz