By Kim Robson
Food equals energy. Those who control energy control power. With this simple equation, we’ll discuss the power of food, who controls it, and how to gain more power over your food supply. Humans have very few fundamental needs: water, food, shelter, and reproduction — in that order. Yet, over our two most urgent needs, most of us have little to no control.
The word “agribusiness” refers, in a general sense, to the sum of all agriculture-related business — from farming, to machinery, seeds, chemicals, distribution, packaging, and sales. As more and more people understand the importance of local, sustainable, organic foods, however, the term “big agribusiness” has taken on a darker connotation, often being set at odds against smaller family-owned farms. It feels wrong to speak of our food in the same breath as the words “business” and “corporations,” “capitalism,” “greed,” and “excess.”
As smaller family farms have declined, so has the number of younger people becoming farmers. Approximately 80,000 mid-sized farms have disappeared in just the past five years. Farmers constitute less than one percent of the U.S. population — well below countries with more advanced food systems such as Italy or Poland, where between 10% and 20% work on farms.
Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack wants to know just how much consolidation in big agribusiness contributes to the decline. “When agribusiness purchasing power is reduced to a small number of companies, does that create such an unlevel playing field that it compels those in the middle to either get bigger or get out?” Vilsack asked. Unfortunately, when it comes to testing genetically modified foods for environmental and health impacts, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in effect, has allowed companies to police themselves.
The two biggest multinational corporations responsible for genetically modifying 90% of several key crops are Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM). Those genetically-modified (GM) crops include corn, soybeans, canola, and sugar beets. 80% of food products typically found in major chain grocery stores (as opposed to local farmer’s markets) — especially processed foods, but also fresh produce — are genetically modified.
For thousands of years, farmers have reclaimed and cleaned seeds from the harvest, and kept them over the winter for replanting the following spring. Monsanto had had enough of that. They developed GM seeds that resist Monsanto’s own herbicide, Roundup™, allowing farmers to spray fields with weed killer without destroying the crop. Monsanto acquired a U.S. patent on the seeds. In all of its history, the United States Patent and Trademark Office had never granted patents on seeds, viewing them as “life-forms,” with too many variables to be patented. But in 1980, the Supreme Court ended all that. They opened up patent law to cover “a live human-made microorganism.” Since then, Monsanto has won 674 biotechnology patents, becoming the world’s leader in genetic modification of seeds, according to USDA data.
Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready™ seeds are required to sign a legal agreement promising not to save the seed produced for re-planting, or to sell the seeds to other farmers. This requires farmers to buy all new seeds every year. Increased seed sales, along with sales of its Roundup™ weed killer, have been a financial boon for Monsanto.
Percy Schmeiser is an elderly canola farmer in Saskatchewan, Canada. For 50 years he had carefully saved seeds from his own fields, replanting the best strains. He had never bought Monsanto seeds; in fact, he had never even spoken to anyone with Monsanto. Still, his crops became contaminated with Monsanto’s GM seeds, probably due to drift from nearby fields, carried by wind or birds, or from uncovered trucks loaded with GM canola seed traveling along a road bordering his property. Not only did Schmeiser lose the strains of canola he had carefully cultivated over five decades, but Monsanto also sued him for over $200,000 because its patented material was growing on his land. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled in Monsanto’s favor although it did not grant any monetary damages. Still, Schmeiser had spent his life savings defending himself.
The Justice Department began investigating Monsanto’s licensing practices in October, 2009. Monsanto lawyers — whom farmers call “seed police” — go to frequently invasive lengths to ensure that farmers aren’t stealing their seeds. Now, according to Forbes magazine, “Problems have emerged . . . include growing news of weeds that are resistant to the company’s popular weed killer Roundup™. The company’s most important product is bio-engineered soybean and corn seeds that are resistant to this weed killer. This has led to widespread use of the herbicide — and now resistant super-weeds.” The Public Patent Foundation has filed suit against Monsanto on behalf of organic farmers seeking to preemptively protect themselves.
What does all this mean for you and me? Simply trying to remove these products from our diets is nearly impossible. They are in virtually everything. (Try buying something without high fructose corn syrup in it, for example.) But there ARE ways we can take that power away from faceless agribusiness.
First, grow your own food — as much of it as you can manage. Think of the carbon footprint that supermarket foods come with. The more local our food is, the better for the environment and the small business economy. Growing your own food equals empowerment – empowerment of your diet, your health, and your money’s destiny. If you can’t grow your own food, at least buy organic whenever possible. This ensures that your food is naturally grown, usually by smaller family farmers. Grassroots organizations like Food Democracy Now! are springing up in response to growing demand for local, sustainable food supplies.
Go vegetarian. Raising livestock is an inefficient and wasteful use of natural resources. Meat should be considered a luxury item. Raising animals for food requires large amounts of land, grain, and water. While animals eat large quantities of grain, soybeans, oats, and corn, they produce comparatively small amounts of meat in return. Would you believe that more than 70% of the grain and cereals grown in this country are fed to farm animals? It takes up to 16 pounds of grain to produce just one pound of meat. That’s grain that people could and should be eating. We’d be healthier and have far greater use of the resources that in reality we are, at best, borrowing from our children.