Monday’s Mtg: Big Agriculture in the United States

We have a bit of an unwieldy but important topic this week. American agriculture is the most productive in the world. The industry supplies about 10% of global food production. Huge economies of scale and high-tech farming methods make food prices in the United States lower than they’ve ever been relative to average income and widely available for most of us. (1/3 1/6 of households have “food insecurity” problems, but they are a function of low incomes, not high food prices.)

But, American agriculture is a highly concentrated industry, which, critics say, is a problem in and of itself. A small number of very large companies dominate each ag sector, giving them enormous power over ideally competitive markets. They also possess enormous political power and, the critics say, use it freely to avoid having to be environmentally and socially responsible. How concentrated? According to the USDA, just 4% of U.S. farms account for 66% of all sales, while the smallest 75% account for less than 5% of sales. Raising and processing food animals is, if anything, even more hyper-concentrated, including geographically, on a small number of gigantic factory farms.

We’re talking about blue chip, household name companies like Perdue and Tyson’s (poultry), Dole and Del Monte (fruit/veg) Cargo and Archer Daniels Midland (grains), Armour and Smithfield (livestock). But, also others you would not think of as agricultural giants, like Monsanto and DuPont (seeds/herbicides). And don’t forget the big foreign-owned giants, like BASF (herbicides) or Seagrams (liquor/grains). You also could throw in the big ag equipment manufacturers (International Harvester), supermarket chains, or other parts of the industry. Big, big Ag.

Lace suggested we talk about Big Agriculture in general, since it gets a LOT of big criticism these days from political activists and popular media. (Movie: Food, Inc.; Books: Omnivore’s Dilemma.) This is totally not my area of expertise, but I know enough to be aware that the criticisms involve a few big (there’s that word again) issues.

Pollution: This includes damage to soil, ground and surface water, and, and even ocean contamination from fertilizer and pesticide runoff and offal from the big CAFO factory farms. Heavy use of monoculture (single-crop) farming also has been criticized.

Health: Industrial farming practices are said to cause poor human health. Low-quality and unhealthy ingredients may contribute to obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes. Toss in food-borne illnesses from poor sanitary methods, overuse of antibiotics, and animal cruelty issues.

Communities: Industrial farming may contribute unnecessarily to depopulation of America’s rural areas. Big Ag’s monopsony power (the power to dictate prices and terms to its suppliers) robs smaller, often family-owned farms of income and independence.

Political Power: It’s hard to overstate the power of Big Ag, at any level of our politics. The industry uses its clout to get large government subsidies and other special favors, many of which allegedly are unnecessary, market-distorting, and encourage consequence-free farming methods.

Now, Big Ag has its defenders, too. IMO, some of their arguments deserve more than to be dismissed as corporate shilling. I’ve linked to a few pieces written by non-hack supporters of the industry, below.

I’m not sure yet which parts of this big huge mammoth topic to try to cover in my introductory framing remarks. Update:  I will briefly describe the structure of U.S. ag industry and the federal subsidies and supports for agriculture.  Do you all want to focus the discussion on any areas in particular? Say so in comments, please, and maybe I will add my usual Discussion Questions later this weekend..

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Bigness

Badness –

In Defense of Big Ag –

Next Week: Has the Executive Branch Grown Too Powerful?  (new schedule, Bruce idea)

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