The Single Biggest Thing We Can Do To Reform Food

by Jill Richardson
January 28, 2010

When it comes to problems with our food system, we’ve got a chicken and egg problem on our hands. Enormous corporations sell most of our food and they use environmentally harmful methods to produce it and put unhealthy ingredients in it – much of which is legal (and sometimes when something is illegal, the law isn’t enforced). The obvious solution would be changing the law, except these same corporations lobby politicians NOT to change the law (and too often, the politicians obey the lobbists).

Currently, Congress has a few bills that would ban BPA – a harmful chemical found in can linings and some types of plastic – but a powerful BPA lobby that includes aluminum can makers, soda companies, and other food companies has thus far succeeded in keeping any of those bills from passing. Then there’s the climate change bill, which specifically excluded agriculture from emissions caps even though agriculture is responsible for quite a bit of greenhouse gas emissions. And there’s the upcoming child nutrition reauthorization, which governs school lunch and other federal nutrition programs. Every single food industry wants to make sure that their products are allowed to be sold in schools, so their lobbyists are working on that. And, of course, there’s the commonsense Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, which simply says that you cannot drug livestock with classes of antibiotics important in human medicine if the animal is not sick. Sick animals would still get the care they need. The goal is to avoid creating antibiotic resistant bacteria, a problem that is already documented in livestock operations in the U.S. The bill was introduced by Louise Slaughter, a microbiologist, yet the livestock industry is lobbying hard against it and so far they are winning.

So – if we have bad food because our laws are too lax, but we can’t get better laws because food companies lobby the government, what can we do? I believe that the single biggest thing we can do right now is to try to break up agriculture corporations that violate our nation’s antitrust laws. We need fair competition, and that’s something we don’t currently have. Farm Aid recently posted a graph of consolidation in a number of agricultural industries and that says it all. In each industry within food and agriculture, only a few companies control most of the market. And, quite often, they also have a considerable amount of influence over the government as well.

Fortunately, Obama’s antitrust czar, Christine Varney, stated in her confirmation hearings that she would look into anticompetitive behavior in agriculture, and she’s keeping her promise. The Department of Justice recently began an investigation of Monsanto and filed a suit against dairy giant Dean Foods.

Monsanto’s in trouble over its soybeans. The issue is a particularly disturbing one because it involves not just the buying and selling of seeds but ownership and patenting of life itself. Seed companies don’t just own seeds – they own traits (and the DNA that governs those traits). Monsanto licenses other companies to sell seeds made with traits they own. Over the years, they’ve written licensing agreements in a way that makes it very hard for their competitors to compete with them. Either they were shrewd businessmen or they were breaking the law – that’s what the DOJ is trying to find out. (Find more information on this here.)

The suit against Dean Foods seeks to undo their acquisition of two companies, but it won’t be enough to fix the dairy industry. This past year, dairy farmers suffered the hardest times since the Great Depression. Farmers received prices as low as $10 or $11 per hundred pounds of milk even though it cost them about $18 to produce it. They lost money with each gallon of milk they sold, and many dairy farmers lost their farms altogether. Prices are beginning to go up, but the dairy farmers I know have felt for a long time that a few powerful players in the industry have been manipulating prices. They went to the Senate about this a few years ago and several Senators asked the Government Accountability Office to begin an investigation, which it did. Then the investigation got a little too close to friends of Bush, and the investigation was called off altogether.

The two actions taken by the Dept of Justice are necessary but they are a drop in the bucket. Fortunately, the Department of Justice has been accepting comments about antitrust issues in agriculture (the deadline was a month ago) and they are holding a series of public workshops on the topic as well. I look forward to these workshops, and I hope that the DOJ continues and expands its action to promote fair competition in food and agriculture.

Jill Richardson got involved in food policy activism after working for several years in health care and observing the high rate of diet-related chronic illness among the American patient population. She blogs at La Vida Locavore and her first book is Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do To Fix It

Comments (4)

“The Single Biggest Thing We Can Do To Reform Food”?

What an odd thing to say. What a really odd thing to say.

Basically you are suggesting people do nothing.

You want the whole sustainable ag community and all the foodies, with everything they care about being affected, to wait for Obama’s Justice department to act. You are seriously suggesting people do nothing themselves at all but trust Obama’s DOJ to fix agriculture?

But isn’t he the same Obama who promised to help local farming but put Monsanto’s Michael Taylor over food at the FDA, and Vilsack over the USDA though he is a Monsanto crony, and Monsanto’s buddy Rajiv Shah over USAID?

And did you notice the “Justice” department people whom everyone is supposed to trust to fix all of agriculture, is supporting torture and undoing constitutional rights faster than Bush?

You write as an expert so did you just not notice that Obama, having appointed these anticompetitive, globalizing corporate people and with a Justice department not only with no commitment to justice but okay with agony? Why do you think he is going to suddenly make sure his DOJ helps farmers and cattlemen since he hasn’t made them do anything else good?

But odd as that is, that you’d suggest doing nothing and not see Obama is so close to Monsanto, it’s even more odd you say this right now- “The Single Biggest Thing We Can Do To Reform Food.” You’re saying it just at the very moment that there is a Monsanto designed food safety bill in Congress that will end organic farming and most farming in the US and destroy food.

I’m sure you don’t mean to mislead everyone since you have all these foodie friends counting on you to steer them right, but you almost seem to be pointing away from the bill and to a bunch of pie-in-the-sky Obama promises. Seems strange that you aren’t screaming at the top of your lungs to your food friends at your own blog, at Slow Food, at Grist, at Dailykos, and at so many, many, many, many, many more places you blog, to wake up and save themselves and everything they care most about the world.

Seems peculiar you aren’t encouraging anyone to do anything at all about that BIG dangerous bill. You don’t talk about the bill at all. Why? It already passed the House this summer with farming and health groups desperately trying to stop it. It’s in the Senate. Yet you don’t encourage anyone to make a call to Congress, or to email even. You certainly don’t suggest people organize or get out and protest that Monsanto should not be in charge of our food supply.

Very odd.

And it’s so odd how many places you blog that farmers and their friends have wondered if you have a PR agency behind you. You are putting out so many blogs and in all the right places, that it seems a bit superhuman.

In all those right places, you somehow seem to always tamp down activism, as you offer solutions that require nothing and seem to be degrees off from where things are happening.

You wrote about NAIS, seemingly opposed, but not really much, and now, when it is laced all through the food safety bills, you aren’t telling any of your food friends it is there. Jim Hightower has been very clear how insane and dangerous it is.

Here’s Hightower:

“Few have heard about it, but a new National Animal Identification System is headed our way fast. It will require that every single chicken in America – as well as every horse, cow, pig, mule, turkey, goat, goose, etc. – have an RFID tag implanted in it. Wait, you say, this can’t mean me. I’ve just got one chicken out back, or one horse for my kids. Wrong. Every one of these animals must be tagged, and every single owner must register their premises with the feds, even putting the GPS coordinates for your place in the new NAIS database. Also, you’ll pay fees and file regular reports to the government.

“Holy George Orwell! Forced surveillance of livestock and pets – who came up with this? The National Institute of Animal Agriculture – a lobbying front for the likes of Cargill, Monsanto, Schering-Plough, and other agribusiness giants, as well as for the makers of the billions of electronic tags that Americans will be forced to buy. Since 2002, this tiny group has quietly pushed the Bush ag department to impose this mandatory program on all livestock owners, literally invading our homes and farms, while trampling our privacy and property rights.

“The government did exempt one group from this intrusive burden – not us little guys, but big factory farms! For example, if you have flocks of 30,000 chickens or more”like, say, Tyson Foods does) – you get to register the whole flock with one tag number. But if you have less than 30,000 chickens, you must buy a tag for each one.”

Speaking of trusting Obama’s agencies to solve things and waiting for that to happen, 95% of the farmers who went to Vilsack’s listening sessions were vehemently opposed because it would drive them out of business, but the USDA announced there was “no consensus.”

So, you are a mystery.

You say “The Single Biggest Thing We Can Do To Reform Food” is wait on Obama’s DOJ. But this is an administration that is trying it’s level best to tell us that they love Monsanto and if only the President had more food and farming slots to fill, he’d fill them all with Monsanto buddies.

Maybe you are just blogging in too many places. Mayve you actually are a good friend of foodies, and when it comes to protecting local farming and food, the only reason you consistently point away from the real danger and say “do nothing” is because you are worn out and can’t admit you don’t really know what is going on or what to do.


“Meanwhile, on the sustainable agriculture side where millions are already deeply invested in local farming, in CSAs, in farmers markets, in urban gardens, in their own home gardens, in raw food, in cooking, in everything foodie, they are all strangely, no, amazingly, no, astoundingly, no, stunningly silent about a “food safety” bill that will … how does one put this delicately? … Empty their egg cartons? Poison their potatoes? Contaminate their custard? Wreck their rutabagas? Fix their fennel?

“Do them in.


” … what is surprising is the silence from the sustainable ag community. They appear to be drugged, or have narcolepsy or dementia or some bad case of something interfering with basic brain function. Or they are something beyond gullible. Dupe-able?”

“1. Everything to do with food and farming is at risk with this bill.

2. It’s not about food safety.

3. Nothing is ever a done deal.

4. Some things one fights for no matter what because they are that important.

5. This is one of those times.

6. This is about the right to farm, the right to food, the right to health, the right to survival.

7. This is one of the most important moments in American history.

8. This is part of an international human rights battle to save food from corporation control.

9. Be inspired by Schmidt.

10. This involves everyone and will be won.”

“The Single Biggest Thing We Can Do To Reform Food”?

Look at the list above. Waiting on the DOJ is not on it.

Looking it up, it’s clear you are FOR the food safety bills.

And that’s true even when small farmers are not exempt and organic farming is at risk along with biodiversity in animals.

You write that “Many other NSAC proposals were not included in the bill, including:

“A narrowing of the definition of farm “facility” to exempt farms doing value-added processing of low-risk foods and targeting small and mid-sized farms with value-adding enterprises for a training-based food safety apparatus rather than industrial-style regulation.

“A national training program for farms and small processors, previously introduced as a separate bill known as the Growing Safe Food Act…

“Instructions to FDA to make new “good agricultural practice” guidance scale appropriate, pro diversification, and consistent with conservation and organic standards.

“An instruction to FDA to do public notice and comment rulemaking on “animals of significant risk” with respect to pathogens of concern for food safety, rather than the bill’s current instruction that FDA rules should prevent “animal encroachment” with no reference to risk factors.

“An exemption from traceability requirements for direct farmer to consumer, store, or restaurant sales or farm identity-preserved labeling sales.”

Nothing the sustainable agriculture movement needs is there. But you support the bill.

Some friend of foodies.

The whole issue with Monsanto needs to be kept on the front burner. It encapulates the whole huge problem with the food industry.
Great article. Every point made is key.

I just got a look at this article today, and I have seen the PBS program on foods a number of times. Is it possible to get a listing of all of the food manufacturers, wholesellers , etc that use products grown by the farmers that sell or are under contract to ConAgra? These are the people who need to be investigated by the govermennt, I mean ConAgrs, not the farmers, to my way of thinking. It’s a shame that the FDA, I guess, want to put a stop to personal supplemental use. Looking at the PBS program remainds me in part of the foreign film, “The Cook, The Theif, His Wife and Her Lover”. This will make you stop eating in resturants, as well as looking at the PBS film.
My hats off to th Organic foods farmers!

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