In the last year, scientists have created animals. And admiring what they've created, the Wall Street Journal calls the animals "normal."
The corporations who sponsor the scientists say that they're cloning cows, sheep and pigs to benefit consumers. The argument goes: If science clones exactly the right cow, consumers will get exactly the right-sized steaks. If science clones exactly the right pig, the amount of each cut -- bacon, ham, pork chop, rib, and sausage, will exactly fit consumer demand.
But make no mistake about it, our wishes have little to do with science's selections. Cloned animals will be selected for profitability.
Cloned animals will have predictable cuts and the right amount of fat so that machines can slaughter, cut and box them, eliminating the need for human labor. Cloning will benefit corporations. Corporations are bound by their charter to increase value for shareholders, not to produce a better product or take care of workers.
Every holiday season, we reap the benefits of that lousy policy. Along with the red, green, silver and gold come the pink slips for employees, and multi-colored deficiency notices for family farmers. And we must ask the question: What are the real solutions?
Don't look for solutions in the 2002 farm bill. Knowing that the 2002 farm bill is backed by Cargill, Smithfield, Tyson and the National Pork Producers and Cattleman's Beef Association, you'll probably guess it's not geared toward consumers or family farmers and you'll be right.
The 2002 farm bill undermines existing laws that ban processors from raising livestock. If processors own the animals from the beginning, they'll own all the means of food production.
Where does this leave consumers, shopping for meat at their local Kroger's or Wal-Mart? If processors own all the means of food production, they'll be able to manipulate food supplies and even charge more so that shareholders benefit.
You can argue that the ban on packer ownership of livestock has often been ignored anyway, so it doesn't matter if it disappears. Giants like Premium Standard Farms, now a part of Continental Grain, have been raising hogs for years from "squeal to meal," owning all parts of the system.
Or they keep ownership of the animals and pay farmers a pittance to raise them. That "contract" situation has been the nails in the coffin of many family farmers, beginning with those who raised poultry -- eggs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and so forth. In the last ten years, contracts have also taken over the hog business. With cloned animals, the corporations will argue that they keep ownership to protect trade secrets, or intellectual property.
Contracting begins when a corporation extracts a profitable part of farming -- raising animals on grain -- from a farmer and convinces the farmer and his banker that consumers will benefit. Corporations don't tell contractors that the confined animal feeding operation -- or CAFO -- system produces pollution highly dangerous to the contractor's health. It is also dangerous to the environment.
Cloning begins when a corporate scientist extracts an egg from a female and puts it in a petri dish. All the DNA is sucked from the egg and replaced with DNA from another animal. The egg is tricked into dividing as if it had been fertilized with sperm. It is then re-inserted into a female to grow until birth. Since animals are owned property, they don't need to be convinced that they will benefit.
Consumers are being tricked into thinking cloning will benefit us, but we can be sure tax dollars will enter into the system. In 1997, I tried to track down how much money goes into a Wal-Mart pork chop, in terms of subsidies for grain, environmental clean-up at CAFOs, export incentives, and so forth. I'm still working on it. Cloning, while it may fatten a corporate bottom line, will cost consumers and taxpayers.
The week of the announcement that cloned animals are "normal," I attended a day-long conference hosted by a statewide coalition of churches. The subject was "rural life." I am a Christmas-and-crisis church-goer, not one of the weekly faithful, but it seemed church folks were reaching out.
Churches have large networks. When churches reach out, I figured, the results can be powerful.
I arrived in an above-average optimistic state of mind, elated by three things: (1) The conference was arranged by an able advocate for family farms. (2) The conference was held in a beautiful setting, the only university farm in our state that works on sustainable ag issues. (3) We have a new puppy at our house, and she had wakened me in time to see a beautiful sunrise. I looked forward to a good day.
The room was full of sustainable agriculture people, religious people, union people, and family farmers. The conference kicked off with speeches from an out-of-town expert in sustainable ag who laid out in no uncertain terms exactly what is happening to family farmers. Out-of-town experts are always a good sign. They seem to know more than local experts. In fact, local experts seem much smarter when you hear them somewhere else.
A film followed. "The Global Banquet: The Politics of Food" used experts from Foodfirst to explain what's going on, and connected global dissatisfaction with American policy. The film is available from www.Maryknoll.org.
After a lunch of corporate foods -- a missed opportunity to serve a local menu -- a panel of family farmers told how hard they work, and how they're barely making it, but how much they love their lives. And if the work isn't being done by local farmers who love their lives, who is doing the hard work of feeding us? Are we taking care of them? Are they safe, and healthy? Do they have access to education? Or are helpless people, even slaves, working our fields and processing plants?
Then, an ag economist spoke, calling for revolution. I hope he meant the peaceful kind, a paradigm shift that moves consumers to buy directly from family farmers. But, as the day passed, the family farmers at my table noticed that the church people avoided talking about the things they can do to help -- networking, spreading the word, informing their wide consumer base, speaking with political leaders. Instead, the church people talked about stewardship, which is sustainable ag's stock in trade.
At first, the farmers just nudged each other and whispered about what we were hearing, or rather, not hearing. It seemed the church people were as helpless as the USDA to resist the corporate forces!
And then it dawned on us. The corporations are more powerful than the church. More powerful than God.
The announcement that cows, sheep, and pigs are being cloned, brings us closer to the cloning of people. We are accustomed to exchanging dollars for animals, and it isn't a big stretch to exchange dollars for animal eggs and genetics.
But buying and selling human eggs and genetics? Maybe that's when the churches will get involved. And they'll find out that giving money for human life isn't an imaginary threat. In fact, it's been happening all along.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org