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Politics On The Plate

The Argument

Three authors bite into an often unappetizing global stew of government subsidies, corporate agribusiness and genetically modified crops.

The Argument

January 23, 2005|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Across the country, small livestock operations are being replaced by increasingly mechanized beef, pork and poultry factories that pour antibiotics into feed to plump up weights and profits. The result of medicating healthy animals - and neglecting to clean their bins - is a spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are making a growing number of people sick. More than 70 percent of chickens sold in U.S. supermarkets today carry campylobacter, a bacteria from the intestines of animals that causes fever and diarrhea in people who consume the contaminated food. This organism is responsible for at least 2 million food-borne illnesses a year and 200 to 800 deaths.

The agglomeration of farms into ever-larger industrial-style operations - dependent on vast amounts of fertilizers and pesticides - also feeds environmental mayhem. In 1995, a lagoon of feces and urine beside a massive hog farm in North Carolina burst into the New River, releasing 25 million gallons of manure (twice as much volume as the Exxon Valdez). The reeking wave killed 10 million fish and closed 364,000 acres of coastal wetlands to shellfishing.

Cook argues that the federal government should buck the political influence of wealthy agribusinesses and start cracking down on the big farms' pollution, disease and abuse of migrant laborers.

In recent book now out in paperback, It's All for Sale (Duke University Press, 240 pages, $18.95), Village Voice staff writer James Ridgeway gives appalling examples of how a shrinking number of big corporations suck up our nation's agricultural welfare programs.

Ridgeway, the author of several books about the environment and other subjects, points to the Florida sugar magnates Alfie and Pepe Fanjul, who received $64.4 million in federal subsidies in 1993-94 to produce cane at below-market rates. The Fanjuls, heirs to a Cuban sugar empire that fled Castro's revolution, that year turned $1.2 million of the money back to the politicians who helped them out.

The result: artifically cheap sugar, more obesity and political decadence.

What impact do these kind of agricultural subsidies have on poor countries? The U.S. shipped more than 1 million tons of U.S. wheat to Colombia between 1955 and 1971. The grain was priced so low, because of American taxpayer assistance, that it led to 50 percent lower prices for Colombian farmers.

During those years, Colombia's domestic wheat production plummeted by 69 percent and imports rose by 800 percent, leading to a nation that by 1971 had to import more than 90 percent of its wheat, according to Cook.

One is left to wonder: what did these idled Colombian farmers do with this bushel of American generosity? It appears that in recent years, a few have repaid our gift with equally generous cocaine shipments, which hooked Americans on the fruits of Colombian agribusiness. We also subsidize that trade.

Tom Pelton covers the environment for The Sun.

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