RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

The Politics of Food

Every summer, about the time the farmers' markets open, agribusiness begins a campaign to convince consumers that the giant food production methods in this nation are the wave of the future, making me believe that there's a small room in some city somewhere full of wordsmiths who hammer away at the language until words lose their integrity. These are the same guys who name anti-family proposals and laws with the words "family" and anti-environmental proposals and laws with the words "fair."

In the case of agribusiness issues, the op-ed writers call their ads "education." Their distortions make readers and listeners feel that if you disagree you're an un-American Luddite.

We usually see these op-eds in newspapers and magazines, but they're also popping up in newsletters sent out by non-profits. "World Food Output Must Double by 2050," says a headline in the Population Institute's journal, Popline, over an article that claims biotech crops will help raise food supplies "sustainably." Articles in other journals have claimed that biotech crops were developed to reduce pesticide use. Balderdash!

Supporting your local food supply system -- farmers' markets, community-supported agriculture, community gardens, animals raised on pasture and processed by local locker plants rather than mega-factories -- these are the strategies for building sustainability for the future. Agribusiness uses more water, more oil, and puts families off their land. Here are some more myths the big guys want you to believe:

Myth: Roundup-Ready soybean and corn seeds increase yields. Truth: Yields have stayed the same. In fact, the seeds aren't engineered to increase yield. Instead, most are engineered to create plants that withstand treatments of Roundup, an herbicide that kills every other green thing in the field. Who wins? Monsanto, the company that produces Roundup.

Myth: Consumers can't afford food from small family farms. Truth: Sometimes, but not always, small-farm food is more expensive. Often it costs less than supermarket food. Industry's food is cheap because it is subsidized by taxpayers. Grain is subsidized to make up for low prices set by foreign competitors, confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are financed with low-interest government-insured loans, highway taxes for livestock 18-wheelers are often waived and food corporations get financial incentives to export. Besides, as George Carlin once pointed out, with industry's plentiful, high-calorie diets, "you have to factor in the cost of coronary bypass surgery."

Myth: Fast food is convenient. Truth: Is obesity convenient? Diabetes? Tooth decay? As my dentist told me, "Because of the high sugar in American diets, I'm beginning to see 9-year-olds who need dentures." Not hard to understand, as families swing through the drive-through window with sacks of soda and apple pies. Three words: Just Stay Home. With a little practice, anyone can turn out a meal from fresh, local ingredients.

Myth: We need irradiation -- also called "Cold Pasteurization" -- to ensure the safety of meat. Truth: Irradiation kills E Coli, a deadly bacteria, but the other effects of irradiation are unknown. Instead of introducing another unknown technology, the USDA should reduce the E Coli threat by changing animal feed to suppress E Coli populations in animal guts, because excessive E Coli is a result of unnatural animal diets. And, we should require slaughterhouses to slow the lines of carcasses that pass inspectors too fast to be inspected, and make those big slaughterhouses shut down every shift for cleaning,

Myth: Confined Animal Feeding Operations benefit consumers with economies of scale. Truth: CAFOs raise thousands of animals inside metal buildings, increasing animal numbers per site and pushing tons of excrement into cesspools. At the same time we're pushing excrement into waterways, the number of pounds of meat raised in America has stayed the same during the years that CAFOs have been in existence. And meat prices haven't gone down for consumers; they've gone up. Industrial owners like ConAgra, Tyson, and Cargill have been the only beneficiaries.

Myth: Big agriculture means economic development for rural areas. Truth: Separate rulings in Iowa and Pennsylvania have shown that property values go down when CAFOs move into a neighborhood. This means less opportunity to develop property and less revenue from property taxes.

Myth: Modern young people don't want to work hard enough to make a go of it on a family farm. Truth: If people have a chance to make a profit, be in business for themselves, work at home, the hours don't matter. In my rural neighborhood, young families help each other, share tools and work off-farm jobs to stay on their land. All they need is a fair market, and that's the job of us consumers.

Not sure about how to start buying local foods from small farms? There's a new website -- -- that can help. Just get on this website and click on the map of your state to learn where the closest farmers' markets and buy-direct farmers are located. You might even find a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) entity that delivers to a site near you or even to your home.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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