The Coronavirus Pandemic Unmasks a Brutal, Multinational Food & Farming System that's as Unsustainable as the Economic Model that Created it
As the coronavirus disrupts “normal” life in America and worldwide—and we ride the rapids of shifting strategy and messaging from the White House, its cabinet, and Congressional leaders — the pandemic also shines light on the fundamental weaknesses in our political and economic systems. We are seeing the cracks in the kind of infrastructure that is imperative to maintaining a functioning society.
Narratives championing the glory of rugged individualism, unlimited growth and a “free” market are revealed as myths during a disaster like this. We see, like never before, just how much the entire community and economy suffers when we can’t, or won’t, take care of our society’s most vulnerable citizens. Even plant life understands this; trees within an ecosystem that are struggling to thrive due to disease or drought are sent additional water and nutrients by their fellow trees through the root system. It’s not survival of the fittest, it’s nature modeling: “We all do better when we all do better."
In rural America, the unraveling of the dominant story reveals itself through a farm crisis in its sixth year of unprecedented market concentration and record low commodity prices. The 2018 median farm income for U.S. farm households was negative $1,533. This American story has largely been hidden in plain sight, as mainstream news has been mostly silent on the subject. As LSP's members made clear in a recent statement: "The pain of this crisis is not being felt by agribusiness and corporate interests that continue to make profits at the expense of farmers and rural communities."
Both the farm crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic are taking place in the midst of an extractive, predatory global food system controlled by a few multinational corporations, and the resulting destruction has surpassed the tipping point. Agricultural and food industry corporations control markets by exerting their massive lobbying power at state and federal levels, through multinational trade deals, and through consolidation and vertical integration designed to squeeze independent farmers out of the market. The four largest meatpacking and poultry industry firms in America “have been exercising their consolidated market power over livestock and poultry producers through various means, including unfair and/or abusive production contracts, and increased use of alternative marketing agreements that circumvent price discovery,” according to Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement's Ava Auen-Ryan.
Similar strangleholds exist for crop farmers. Bayer, which acquired Monsanto’s digital agriculture platform that collects data on more than one-third of all U.S. farmland, is piloting an outcome-based pricing program built on algorithms that farmers and customers are not privy to. “Such personalized pricing, also called first-degree price discrimination, allows corporations to extract maximum amounts from consumers,” writes Food & Power's Claire Kelloway. Overall, as professor of grassland ecology Randall Jackson puts it: “…the profits of the system accrue mainly to the suppliers of seed, pesticides, fertilizers and genetics; and second, the costs of the system accrue to all of society in the form of devastating environmental degradation.”
America’s small- and mid-sized independent family farmers are often unable to earn back the costs associated with planting crops, raising livestock, or producing milk. Many also lack affordable health insurance and accessible healthcare as rural clinics close in communities that are hollowed out by corporate consolidation. Rural residents can also experience higher health risks than city dwellers. A recent water analysis in rural Minnesota found the one in eight Minnesotans are drinking nitrate contaminated water. The source of the problem is runoff from chemical applications to commodity crops and from liquid manure leaching from vast storage lagoons and being over applied to fields.
These risks led the American Public Health Association in November 2019 to call for a moratorium on all new and expanding CAFOs. “CAFOs are the dominant production model for food animals in the United States, but government oversight and policies designed to safeguard the health of individuals and the environment from these operations have been inadequate,” says Bob Martin, director of the Food System Policy Program at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future.
Like nothing else, the pandemic reveals the gross degree to which our economic systems do not reflect the most universal human values we hold. Everyone deserves access to quality, affordable healthcare, healthy food, safe drinking water, quality education, and secure housing. Everyone deserves to be able to provide for their families. Small- and mid-sized farmers, who are the majority of American farm operations, deserve fair prices for their production and not to be gouged by excessive retail rates for the inputs they depend on.
Once the coronavirus crisis has passed, nothing will ever be quite the same. Our daily lives and the communities, occupations, and systems we live within will re-emerge with myriad new “normals.”
A brave new world offers agriculture opportunities, as well as challenges. On the positive side, this could usher in a whole new era of resilient farming systems that are good for the land and people. For example, farmers are already proving that putting animals back on the land — on pasture through rotational grazing — rather than warehousing them within industrial confinements or cramped feedlots, makes a better, healthier food production system.
And in 2015, the Land Stewardship Project began its soil health program with six LSP members and staff going to North Dakota to visit soil health pioneers Gabe Brown and Jay Fuhrer in Burleigh County. Now in 2020, there have been 1,500+ participants in LSP's soil health work; 750 of them have signed up for LSP’s Soil Builders' Network and continue to implement innovative practices that produce growing yields and profits and greatly improved soil health and regenerative capacity.
Connor McCormick, who, along with his dad Kevin farms just outside of Caledonia, Minn., explained in a recent newspaper article: “With the lower commodity prices now, you have to find ways to utilize your land while still taking care of it and this [no-till, rotational grazing and continuous cover crops] is a good way to do it.”
A new normal could also include new ways of growing and distributing our food. Americans have already been organizing to demand local, state, and federal policies that counteract these injustices in our food system, as well as the climate change impacts from industrial crop and livestock systems. Fundamental changes demanded by the Land Stewardship Project and our allies include:
- A stop to the pollution of rural water, soil, and air by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs).
- High-speed broadband for all rural residents.
- Land access and support for beginning farmers and those traditionally blocked from ownership of land due to racism, sexism, and classism.
- Autonomous, thriving local commerce based on local food production.
- Affordable health insurance, and quality, accessible healthcare and childcare for everyone, including rural communities.
- Structural and financial support for farmers using regenerative soil health practices.
Congress just passed a stimulus package in response to the pandemic and there are some signs that our lawmakers are listening. For example, it includes support for high-speed broadband in rural areas. That's good news. But now we must be vigilant to not only make sure this money goes where it’s supposed to go, but that massive legislation like this truly does prepare us for a new normal, and doesn’t make things worse — for rural communities and everyone else.
LSP Policy Program organizer Barbara Sogn-Frank focuses on factory farm issues. She wrote this blog in collaboration with the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, a multi-state coalition to which LSP belongs.