A concentrated food industry and concentrated factory farms have combined to throw rural America into one of the worst crises it has ever faced.
Federal and state regulators have failed to curtail the merger frenzy among livestock firms, or the surge in factory farms that are polluting water supplies and poisoning ecosystems.
Now comes hope that the judicial system may offer some relief, at least from the worst excesses of the factory farm system. But while a new legal initiative launched by a coalition of environmentalists, family farm groups and trial lawyers may begin to reverse the abuses of the factory farmers, by itself it will not be sufficient to save the American family farm -- the primary source of knowledge and experience in this country on how to farm sustainably.
As a result of the past decade's merger mania, the top four cattle processors -- IBP, Monfort (owned by ConAgra), Excel (owned by Cargill) and Farmland National -- collectively control about 80 percent of the market -- double the rate of two decades ago.
The top five hog processing companies -- Smithfield, IBP, Excel, Monfort and Farmland -- jointly control 63 percent of the market. And Smithfield proposes to increase its market share still further by merging with IBP. Regional concentration levels -- often more important to farmers, especially small farmers for whom it is often impractical to ship livestock long distances -- are even higher.
Accompanying the horizontal integration has been a vertical integration that has choked the open market for cattle and hogs. The big meatpackers now own and operate massive factory farms, or contract in advance with factory farmers for a specified supply. Small farmers find that the open market has shrunk so that there is barely any demand for their products.
And what goes on at the giant factory farms?
``A typical hog factory farm has several metal barns, each containing several hundred to several thousand animals tightly confined cheek by jowl,'' the Natural Resources Defense Council reported in a 1998 study. ``Unlike traditional family farms, where pigs live in spacious barns in which straw bedding absorbs manure, or where they root about outside and leave their manure to decay in a pasture or open lot, these animals live in cramped conditions and may never see sunlight. They spend their lives standing on slatted metal floors, beneath which their feces and urine are flushed. The manure is piped into open-air manure lagoons.''
All too often, these enormous pools of manure leak into the rivers or contaminate underground aquifers, endangering public health and killing fish and wildlife. Outbreaks of pfiesteria have been linked to manure contamination of water supplies.
A 1999 survey of 10 states by the Clean Water Network and the Isaak Walton League found more than 100 spillages in the previous year, with more than 4.5 million gallons of manure spilled or leaked into water sources. A single lagoon burst at a Murphy Family Farms factory farm in North Carolina poured 1.5 million gallons into local rivers.
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The odor from factory farms also is a major nuisance and public health menace, making life unpleasant for the unlucky neighbors of the monstrous farms.
Factory farms have sprung up around the country, with virtually no effective national or state regulation.
Earlier this month, a coalition of environmental and family farm groups, including the Water Keeper Alliance, the Sierra Club and the National Farmers' Union, announced they were taking matters into their own hands. Partnering with leading trial lawyers, they pledged to use civil litigation to try to enforce the nation's environmental laws.
The Water Keeper Alliance says it already has initiated a half-dozen lawsuits against factory farm operations for violations of the Clean Water Act and other federal environmental laws.
Success in this legal campaign should curtail the poisoning of water sources across the country. By forcing farm operations to respect the law and internalize some of their costs, it may deter the spread of factory farms, and should create a more level playing field for family farmers.
But as important as this effort may be, it is not a cure-all. The industry concentration in the meatpacking sector is incompatible with a vibrant family farm sector, as are many federal farm policies. On the livestock side, groups such as the Organization for Competitive Markets are encouraging the federal government to use its existing authority, under the Packers and Stockyards Act, to promote open and competitive markets, a moratorium on new agribusiness mergers, as well as other measures to counteract policy and market power biases toward the big meatpackers.
Time is running out to save the American family farm, and the rich family farm tradition of political populism and stewardship of the land.
But with the Bush administration set to continue the corporate agribusiness bias of the Clinton tenure, the future does not appear bright -- absent a rekindling of the spirit of the agrarian populist movement that forced major changes in America's politics and economy in the late 19th century.
For more information on how you can assist with the effort to save the family farm and stop factory farm abuses, contact the Organization for Competitive Markets, P.O. Box 6486, Lincoln NE 68506 (www.competitivemarkets.com) and the Water Keeper Alliance, 8 N. Broadway, E Building, White Plains NY 10603 (www.keeper.org).