March 16th, 2010
ANKENY, IA — There are moments in a nation’s history that define it. For America’s remaining 2 million farmers (less than 1% of the population) and the more than 300 million eaters, the recent joint Department of Justice and Department of Agriculture workshop on lack of competition in the food and agricultural sectors held in Ankeny, Iowa is potentially one of those moments.
With concentration at record levels in agriculture today, well past levels that encourage or even allow fair prices or competition, the Obama administration’s call for public workshops is an historic event. While agribusiness continues to deny any problem, a simple look at the facts shows that the playing field for family farmers and American consumers is distorted beyond anything resembling a free or competitive market.
Even though these statistics have been widely published lately, I will include them here again just to illustrate the point: 1 company (Monsanto) controls the genetics of 93% of soybeans and 80% of the corn grown in the U.S; 4 companies (Tyson, Cargill, Swift & National Beef Packing Co.) control 85% of the beef packing industry; 4 companies (Smithfield, Tyson, Swift & Cargill) control 66% of the pork packing industry.
For farmers trying to get a fair price for seeds or livestock, such concentration places a crushing burden on their bottom line.
This past Friday nearly 800 individuals from across the country gathered in a small community college auditorium to hear top officials in the Obama administration, including cabinet members Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (former governor of Iowa) and Attorney General Eric Holder, address the issue of how such excessive market concentration and food monopolies have negatively impacted the lives and livelihoods of family farmers, consumers and rural America. Over the course of eight hours, the audience, made up mostly of farmers, labor workers and farm advocates, some of whom traveled from as far as Montana, Texas, Arkansas and North Carolina, listened as academics, economists, agribusiness representatives, commodity groups and a few farmers detailed specific areas of concern regarding the lack of competition in agricultural markets or, in the case of a several industry reps, denied outright the existence of any problem.The gravity of this meeting and its outcome could be felt by all attendees as Vilsack, Holder, DOJ antitrust chief Christine Varney, Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and others took the stage for the first panel. A sense of anticipation and restlessness filled the crowd as the panel was announced, which included Iowa’s attorney general, Tom Miller, Congressman Leonard Boswell, Lt. Governor Patty Judge and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. The inclusion of the last three panelists, while expected, caused some dismay by longtime Iowa farm activists. Having two Democrats (Boswell and Judge) and a Republican (Northey) at the podium with a long history of supporting industrial agriculture was not what many had hoped for when the workshops were first announced.
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