The USDA’s solution to chronically low market prices is to increase production, call in the taxpayer subsidies, and dump the excess grain on markets overseas. But in the words of Iowa corn farmer George Naylor – “Farmers don’t export. ADM, Cargill and Bunge do.” In fact those three companies move the majority of the world’s traded grain. Exports from the US and Europe, delivered at below the cost of production thanks to the USDA’s safety net (subsidies), destroy food systems of the world’s most vulnerable people by undercutting local producers. Shockingly, the majority of the world’s 1.2 billion hungry people are farmers–not because they can’t produce enough food, but because they get low prices for their grain. Months later, they buy it back again at two and three times the price. That’s when hunger sets in.
If Secretary Vilsack wants to revitalize rural America, he needs look no further than his second in command, Kathleen Merrigan. The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program to increase local food purchases is a baby step in the right direction – and not because food is the latest liberal fad. Local food systems can be an engine for local economic development.
Ken Meter of the Crossroads Resource Center estimates that if the Chesapeake Bay region were to increase its local food purchases by 15% it would generate three times the amount of money federal subsidies bring in to the community. Ohio, in the heart of farm country, only sources 1% of its food from within the state. If that was increased to 10%, it could mean an additional $7 billion a year in wealth – more half the entire national “farm safety net” in the US farm bill. This may be why Willie Nelson recently quipped “In 1985, we started out to save the family farmer. Now it looks like the family farmer is going to save us.” But this can’t happen if farmers (and consumers) continue under the thumb of agrifoods monopolies.
To his credit, the Secretary also mentioned local and regional economies and green jobs in his platform, but those came after the subsidies and increasing exports that primarily benefit the monopolies the DoJ is investigating. The point is, even “local” won’t save our local economies if the profits from the local sale of local products is spirited off to corporate coffers far away. “Local” can work – if we keep the food dollar in the community. We will grow the economy when the DoJ and the USDA grow enough backbone to roll back the power of the monopolies squeezing our food system.
Last fall, responding to criticisms about corporate control of agriculture, and the paltry amount of resources devoted to local and sustainable food, Secretary Vilsack defended government support for big agriculture by drawing on an analogy of his own family, saying, “I have two sons, and I love them both.” Meaning, the USDA must take care of monopoly corporations as well as family farmers. We have no doubt the Secretary’s real sons are wonderful, but in the case of monopolies and local agriculture, one is Cain, and the other is Abel.