14 October 2009

Have you actually met a farmer lately?

Whether you are an outspoken liberal or stubborn conservative, I think we can agree that our nation was founded on an ideal that we would establish and foster free market economic practices. The theory is that with a large number of sellers and a large number of buyers, both would benefit. Competition in the marketplace would create lower cost to consumers, but also give all sellers the opportunity to succeed and profit.

Unfortunately, thanks to new Wal-Mart stores and McDonalds restaurants opening on a daily basis, these free market practices have gone by the wayside in our food industry.

Five large corporations control a little over two thirds of the nation's chicken industry. This is a gross statistic that doesn't imply the existence of a free market for the consumer. Companies like Tyson and ConAgra dictate prices and lobby Congress to stay out of their business. They use technology to design species of chickens with unusually large breasts. They ship day old chicks to their "contractors" and send trucks in 8 weeks to pick up sickly, fat chickens that are ready for slaughter. At no point do these contractors actually own the chickens. However, they do own the expensive equipment, the chicken houses, the land, and a whole lot of debt. The initial investment to become a contractor to a company like this is somewhere around $150,000. They can expect about $12,000 a year. Contractors that complain are often fined or even have their contracts cancelled. Most of these chickens find their way into 99 cent chicken sandwiches at fast food restaurants and supermarkets where they are typically sold for less than $1 per pound.

The beef industry is controlled by just four corporations. Eighty-five percent of our beef is processed by ConAgra, IBP, National Beef, and Excel. They use "captive supplies" of beef to encourage prices to stay low. A captive supply is a meatpackers own herd of live cattle that it purchases for a low price and subsequently raises in house. When the prices of beef begin to rise, these companies with their captive supplies begin to slaughter those animals leaving the ranchers with no little other choice than to sell their beef cheaper or simply fold. It's no wonder no one knows any farmers anymore. I'm sure you don't need reminding, but we also feed the cattle our corn surplus. This practices creates sick cows and drastically changes the fat profile in the meat we eat. Corn-fed beef has a much higher saturated fat content and much less omega-3 comapred to natural, grass-fed beef. There's just no chance for the small farmer raising cattle naturally in the Midwest or in the Appalachians to compete with the large corporations.

I know that vegetarianism isn't the answer, but it is sounding pretty good right now.

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