Letter from langdon: Big ag’s force feed

Photo by the Los Angeles Times Hens on a poultry farm in California.
Photo by the Los Angeles Times Hens on a poultry farm in California.

American consumers want better labeling, safer food and choice. Big Ag refuses. Could Americans take their business elsewhere? Ask the American auto industry.

By Richard Oswald

Photo by the Los Angeles Times Hens on a poultry farm in California.

From the beginning of time a single unanswered question has plagued the minds of men who wanted to know just one thing;

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Thanks to Missouri politics we now know the answer. It was trying to get to California.

In 2008 California voters passed the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act (Proposition 2) with a resounding 63% majority. Prop 2 dealt with allowing certain farm animals freedom to stand up and move around in confinement. At issue were crates for veal calves and gestating sows, and battery cages for laying hens.

When passed in 2008, the law was set to take effect in five years. That’s now.

That’s why Missouri State Attorney General Chris Koster joined up with AGs in five other egg-producing states to contest the new law by suing California for violating interstate commerce rules.

Everybody knows California has the largest gross domestic product of all the states, larger even than all but 10 countries in the entire world. It’s also about seven times larger than Missouri’s economy.  Consuming about $4 billion in eggs every year makes California an important market. But west coast egg producers worried they would be at a competitive disadvantage if egg farms in other states didn’t obey California law.

They didn’t need to worry.

A federal judge has ruled that Koster and the other state attorneys were acting on behalf of a very narrow segment of special interests in the egg industry, instead of acting in the best interests of their states citizens as rule of law requires.

So the judge threw out their complaint.

This is becoming an increasingly common scenario, where agriculture’s rigid corporate culture in America is being placed at odds with consumer beliefs and preferences. In response to cultural shifts both on the part of consumers and corporate food, many farm groups have become almost militant in rejecting consumer choice for the ways their food is produced.

Photo by Robert Couse-Baker

Mainline agriculture lumps animal welfare groups like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) together with animal rights groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), saying they’re all the same. They claim that animal agriculture must be free to operate as it wishes in order to protect farm profits, and keep food prices low.

To them there is no difference between animal welfare (HSUS) and animal rights (PETA).

Livestock hasn’t always been raised the way much of it is now. Missing from the debate is the fact that as livestock production in America has become more concentrated and fallen under the control of fewer, larger corporations; many new practices have been adopted that do not take animal comfort into consideration. Most of those have developed over the last 30 years, so that much of today’s pork and poultry production doesn’t come close to resembling agriculture as it was throughout most of the 20th century.

That fact opens a door for groups like HSUS, who work to acquaint consumers with changes of more concentrated animal agriculture – like those addressed by California’s anti-animal-cruelty measure.

Claims by Big Ag’s defenders that HSUS is seeking an end to meat consumption didn’t convince West Coast voters who really just didn’t like what they saw.

There is a growing awareness on the part of consumers and the larger medical community of the use of antibiotics in livestock production. Some of that is the result of crowded animals whose freshly emptied pens and crates are quickly sterilized and reused, sometimes many times each year.

With worldwide human populations growing, epidemics are more on the minds of people concerned about antibiotic-resistant bacteria and super diseases.

Maybe confined animals struck an uncomfortable note of closeness to population-wary Californians?

So far the reaction by many, like some farmers in Missouri, has been to deny concerns, insisting that the business of food is theirs to run as they see fit.

But at least one large poultry producer in America, Perdue, has begun withdrawal of antibiotics from its hatching operations by adopting new, better sanitation practices and a progressive attitude toward chicken production.

That attitude is what’s missing in parts of farm country where food choice has become confused with political choice.  And it’s not just about animal welfare. Distrustful consumers who want more food safety through organic production and labeling of genetically modified foods are looked upon with similar dismay by mainline agriculture whose “my-way-or-the-highway” attitude toward production practices is anything but consumer friendly.

U.S. farmers have a mindset that they feed the world. That mistaken notion came about in the 70s and 80s as America sought market-boosting exports for its surplus grains and meat. At only a fraction of overall supplies, those valued markets managed to help boost farm prices by eating up the leftovers.

Sales to foreign countries have almost always been a tiny fraction of what we use here at home. But as our government continues to seek trade pacts around the world, the market we pay least attention to, our own, is being placed at risk as states like Missouri embrace more and bigger industrial agriculture.

America’s consumers are among the most affluent in the world. That fact isn’t lost on other farmers around the world who willingly produce and label the products our own citizens prefer, even as many American farmers question their value.

Don’t take my word for it. Ask an American car manufacturer and he’ll tell you when consumers aren’t given adequate choice, they retaliate by taking their business elsewhere. Consumer satisfaction with American automobile brands keeps going lower.

That’s why only about 38% of cars in America are American brands.

Should food be any different?

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.


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