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Our irksome food policies

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Posted on July 23, 2009 |
By Angelo Lynn



What is particularly irksome about today’s record low milk prices is that they are a direct result of a national food policy that emphasizes mass-produced food that is heavily subsidized over locally produced foods. It’s irksome because the policy is driving Vermont dairy farmers (and others) to the brink of extinction and because the food system is inherently nonsensical, not to mention unhealthy.

Yet, it will be very difficult to change. As local author and former organic dairy farmer James Maroney says in a Page 1 story today, the politicians in Washington may be able to wrangle another short-term fix, but it is unlikely (at this point) that they are going to do anything that raises the price of food because consumers outnumber farmers 99 to 1.

The political math, Maroney argues, is just too overwhelming for farmers to win this battle. And he’s right as long as the argument is solely about price.

The challenge for Vermont’s congressional delegation, then, is to shift the argument to a winnable battleground. That won’t be easy either, but times are changing and what the nation may be seeing is the beginning of a national movement (prompted by documentaries like Food Inc, King Corn, Supersize Me and many others) to challenge the basic notion that cheap, mass-produced foods are healthy, economical and good for the country. A strong case can be made that mass-produced foods from live animals (hogs, cattle, chickens are three good examples) fail on each of those accounts.

Yes, they are cheap at the grocery store compared to locally raised, slaughtered, butchered and packaged, but here are a few things that are not factored into the cost non-local foods: big federal subsidies for grain crops that fatten up the animals; rail and freight charges that are subsidized by hefty federal taxes; special tax breaks for the nation’s largest food businesses — which is now down to a handful of companies that control our nation’s food supply and who hire among the nation’s most generous lobbyists.

Then consider the effect on local farmers that cheap prices bring. In dairy, as with other farm commodities, mass production puts big strains on smaller local farmers. Dairy farmers, in particular, face an increasing steep roller coaster ride of highs and lows over the past few years, making it nearly impossible to sustain a workable financial plan; or to compete with milk prices that drop several dollars below Vermont’s typical cost of production per hundredweight. When local farms go out of business, jobs are lost and scenic land is often lost — thus detracting from the state’s tourism economy.

Peel back the onion another layer and consider this mass production system from a health perspective. In the world of dairy, know that cows are grass eaters. Their stomachs are not meant to digest corn, yet that’s what millions and millions of our nation’s cattle are being fed to fatten them up for slaughter (meat) or dairy production in mega-sized facilities out West. In those factory farms, the e-coli bacteria has been known to breed in the messed up stomachs of cows, which then fertilize the feed lots with the bacteria, eventually tainting the meat supply. If an alert goes nationwide, millions of dollars worth of food is scrapped (likely paid for by government subsidized insurance programs), which is never counted for in the cost of the product. And that’s not mentioning the cost to society for treating those who become ill.

But the mass-production system is American capitalism at its finest, you say? Hardly. Take away the federal subsidies and support systems and the prices would skyrocket. Ironically, those higher prices would help erode the whole system of mass produced food, which in turn would drive more production back to local farms and bring this nation’s food system back into a reasonable balance where the origin of production was much closer to its end destination. That, of course, would create more jobs on smaller family farms, we’d consume less energy in the production and distribution; and we’d all be a lot healthier.

The problem, then, with today’s political efforts to beef-up the base price of milk is that it is a short-term fix, and it encourages more production — which sets the stage for the next roller-coaster cycle of high peaks and low valleys.

Better that our congressional delegation bite the bullet and start educating the consumer on the true price of mass-produced foods — along with the numerous downsides. Until that message is clearly understood, there is little hope of creating a national food policy that doesn’t favor mega-farms and mega-industries cashing in on a federally subsidized food system that plays right into their hands and leaves the nation’s family farms at risk.

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