In early 1999, I wrote a column about lions and gazelles. More precisely, I wrote a column on how, in the 1990s, American livestock farmers had become “gazelles … in the brutal world of global agriculture.”
What that meant was that “every morning the gazelle awakens knowing it must run faster than the fastest lion to live to see tomorrow,” while “the lion awakens knowing it must run only as fast as the slowest gazelle.”
As such, that era’s low-profit hog, cattle and dairy sectors were slow, easy targets for packers and processors who, unchecked by government, were integrating “producers” — previously known as farmers — into their supply chains through contracts that ensured supplies at capped prices.
That meant “fatter lions in 1999.”
Lawyers and legislatures
The spark for the column came in January 1999, when Senate Ag Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, urged his colleagues to keep their noses out of Cargill’s recent offer to buy competitor Continental’s grain business.
The buyout, declared Lugar, “is a question more for ‘lawyers,’ not ‘legislatures.’”
Turns out, Lugar, who died in 2019, is right. Finally.
Some of the biggest agribusiness lions — Tyson Foods, Dairy Farmers of America, Bayer, Pilgrim’s Pride, Kroger, Cargill, JBS USA and even the U.S. Department of Agriculture — now face a blizzard of price-fixing probes and other market-related litigation.
In fact, as a friend pointed out on Twitter shortly after Thanksgiving, “Turkey is now the only meat in (US flag emoji) right now not under investigation for price-fixing.”
That should infuriate all Americans for two reasons. Firstly, for what it says about today’s largely dysfunctional livestock and poultry markets. Secondly, because it has taken 20 years for end-users to confront big meat over how it uses its sledgehammer market power to suck unearned profits out of both livestock growers and meat buyers.
Equally infuriating is how Lugar’s edict for “legislatures” to stay out of big agribusiness’s business has remained in effect despite mountains of evidence that the corporatization of key ag sectors has cost farmers, ranchers, rural America and consumers billions of dollars and an untold number of jobs.
And that’s on top of what boneheaded farm policies advocated by agribusiness — like 1996’s Freedom to Farm — cost taxpayers. From 1997 to 2002, Freedom to Farm cost taxpayers $122 billion, or three times its projected cost. Many of these policies also took down antitrust fences and, shortly thereafter, consolidation in ag inputs, production and processing went into overdrive.
The move was so swift that in one generation, according to research published Nov. 19, from 1987 to 2017, the midpoint of sale — where half U.S. herds were each side of the divide — increased from 1,200 to 51,300 head in hogs, and from 80 to 1,300 cows in dairy. A link to the research is posted at farmandfoodfile.com.
This industrialization hasn’t helped rural America. “Agrifood consolidation reduces farmer autonomy and redistributes costs and benefits across the food chain, squeezing farmer incomes,” the research says.
Recently, a friend called to discuss how rural America had become so deeply, almost savagely, split on existential issues like climate change and resource conservation. My reply was a lengthy letter that, I’m pretty sure, didn’t answer his questions or allay his fears.
Two weeks later, however, I pulled a slim volume of Wendell Berry essays off a shelf and found a much better answer in far fewer words. “Political democracy,” wrote Berry in the foreword to his 1995 book, “Another Turn of the Crank,” “can endure only as the guardian of economic democracy … A democratic government fails in failing to protect the integrity of ordinary lives and local communities.”
That wisdom bears repeating: We will continue to fail if we continue to fail “to protect the integrity of ordinary lives and local communities.”
Just ask a gazelle — if you can find one.
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