Eight Myths Block Dairy Farm Justice
By Brad Wilson at Aug 08, 2012
For years we’ve faced a horrifying crisis for US dairy farmers, and the food movement has shown little awareness of either the crisis or the needed solutions, even though properly understood, they’re both connected to major food movement values and goals. This is a shameful failure for food movement leaders.
1. Anti-subsidy myths. Because the food movement generally misunderstands the facts and larger data context of farm commodity crop subsidies, and the politics of them, they’re also inclined to avoid advocating for what our hugely exploited dairy farmers need in the farm bill.
In fact, farm subsidies do NOT cause the cheap prices that are so problematic, and that have been exposed so dramatically in the food books, films, blogs, short videos, and all across the mainstream media. The cause is the absence of price floors and supply management in the farm bill, not the presence of subsidies, as the hard evidence clearly shows.
Politically, farmers, (the family farm justice movement,) has fought against these problems for decades. The new food movement has finally arrived, which is great, except that they advocate for mere subsidy reforms, which are zero price floor policies, exactly what agribusiness exploiters, including those in dairy, want. On top of that, they’ve been led to believe that the top 10% of farm subsidy recipents are “big agribusiness,” when they’re really family farmers. They’re further led to believe that subsidy recipeints are massively rewarded, by the farm bill. Both beliefs are wrong. Most subsidy recipients in the top 10% are family farmers or those similar in size and structure to family farms, while the bottom 80% are equivalent to farms that are only 7% of full time, 7% of the size of a small full-time family corn/soybean farm of 200 acres. What’s more, the farm bill has taken about 5 times as much from commodity crop farmers as it has given back.
2. Anti-farmer myths. Anna Lappe gives an interesting glimpse at movement culture in her book, Diet for a Hot Planet. She quotes Sara Scherr’s description of how “many advocates within the environmental community ... would talk about farmers as ‘threats,’” not allies.(p. 64) They even had an aversity to words like “productivity,” thus essentially conceding the “feed the world” argument over to agribusiness. While Lappe suggests that that problem has been overcome, I suspect that the bias continues strongly today, since it is strongly supported by the farm subsidy myth, including the myth that farmers were the ones who came up with the idea of subsidies, and that farmers who grow crops like corn, benefit hugely from the farm bill.. Lappe’s book, like so many others, is weak on teaching movement sectors about the long history (prior to the food movement,) of farmers in advocating against agribusiness on these issues.
3. Anti-fat myths. There’s a lot of bashing of fat, including saturated fat, in our society, and the food movement has picked up on a bunch of that. Decades ago the agribusiness transfat complex, probably with support from vegetarians, got the government to bash saturated fats, like we find in meat and dairy, and it stuck. I remember when that happeden, becuse a chubby boy in my class started to get the nickname “Satch,” which some girls had created, based upon the new soft margarine ads. I clearly remember the look on his face! He very clearly did NOT want to be nicknamed “Satch!” Unfortunately, that’s pretty much what won the day in the food arena (from the McGovern Committee,) and for all their concern about nutrition, the food movement has not excaped this corporate campaign.
A nutritionist here told me that it took 20 years to get hospitals in Cedar Rapids to stop recommending margarine, (instead of butter,) to their heart patients! The evidence, which has been available all along, didn’t count. Saturated fats are important for nutrition for a variety of reasons. These reasons, which can be learned from the Weston A. Price Foundation, face the barrier of a huge false paradigm, both in paid commercials, in mainstream media, and among progressives. Hey, why do you think they came up with pink slime? To reduce fat, to add perceived value.
4. Anti-livestock, anti-meat myths. Attacks on animal factories have often spilled over, like a breached sewage lake, into bias against diversified livestock operations. The scandals, like pink slime, have tainted all livestock farmers, all meat. In contrast, Weston A. Price found that meat was present in every healthy traditional diet he found, all around the world. Price found that modern industrial diets deformed peoples faces leaving poor dental results. The Weston A. Price Foundation has collected a large quantity of scientific evidence in favor of including sufficient meat in our diets.
5. Livestock and sustainability myths. Livestock are the key to the Resource Conserving Crop Rotations that are so important in organic and other sustainability systems. Probably the most powerful single ingredient in those rotations are legume crops like alfalfa and clover. Economically, they are livestock feeds, while also providing free (from the air,) and more ecologically safe nitrogen for subsequent crops. Livestock also both harvest crops and spread fertilizer using draft power. In an alternate system system (ie. CAFOs,) a farmer tills, plants, cultivates or sprays, harvests, stores, and feeds crops, and then stores, loads and hauls the resulting fertilizer back out to farm fields be spread, all using fossil fuels and manufactured machines and inpouts. Livestock are crucial in making sustainability economically viable for farmers. I’ve seen no study criticizing meat for greenhouse gasses that takes account of these common alternative farming processes.
6. Livestock and hunger myths. Vegetarians are fond of suggesting that getting rid of livestock would help feed the world, since much more land would become available for producing food under such a system. They neglect to point out that hunger comes primarily from poverty, from oversupply, not undersupply. 70% of the population of Least Developed Countries is rural, as are 80% of the “undernourished.” These are people who are hungry because they are poor, and who are poor (to a significant degree,) because of low farm prices, which are low because overproduction. Higher farm prices have been a problem recently only because of the prior decades of low farm prices, creating massive and deep poverty. Low prices caused the dilemma where either high or low prices hurt, (in the short run).
Livestock account for 40% of farm income from agriculture, and this is especially true in poor regions. Removing the value added of livestock is like reducing income for $10 per day to $6, (or $1 to 60¢). To simultaneously foster a massive oversupply of farm commodities is to lower that income even much more.
7. Historical myths about agriculture. A dominant myth about the history of agriculture is that early agriculture (family farms in villages,) created the problems of civilized agriculture, which involved power complexes emphasizing grains. In fact, however, these were radically different kinds of cultures, with radically different gods, and radically differing values. While all civilizations grew out of some form of early agriculture, most of early agriculture, which spread around most of the globe, did not transform into that form of civilized idolatry. Related to this are myths that early agriculture was bad for the environment, and that it was nutritionally inadequate. While there are dramatic exceptions, such as slash and burn technics, environmental degradation has come primarily from megatechnic agriculture, not family/village farming. As to nutrition, see my discussion of that myth above.
8. Economic and political myths. Q. Why do farmers grow so much corn? A. For economic reasons and then for related political reasons. They were unable to change the political reasons in their activism over 40 years (prior to the food movement,) because they did not have a sufficient consumer side support. The new food movement today mostly has not yet joined in on the key issues of economic and political injustice.
Q. Why can’t they just switch to fruits and vegetables? A. Economically, if very many did, it would devastate fruit and vegetable farmers
. Politically, the farm bill effectively prevents this disaster. Farmers are deeply embedded in economic realities, and they must respect those realities in order to survive.
Only a tiny few farmers sell at the farmers markets in Cedar Rapids Iowa, a city of 100,000 plus people. If a tiny few more, (or even 3 times that amount,) came into the market, there would probably not be nearly enough customers to go around. There are plenty of great local food ideas floating around, but most of them are not economically viable for most farmers, (such as those who live far from cities, in the West, the South, the Midwest, etc.). Not any time soon.
Consider the health benefits of fresh (“raw” or uncooked or “dead”) milk, and the example of Mark McAfee at Organic Pastures dairy in California. The knowledge and the demand may be there to some extent in some places, but the state regulations are very clearly not there. Farmers cannot fulfill this standard, and it therefore ends up hurting dairy farmers in general, especially in combination with the other myths. I think it's a great system, a great idea, but it doesn't help to address the acute dairy farm injustices of today, the most acute farm bill issue.
Conclusion. There’s a lot of talk in the food movement about justice. On the other hand, as I keep saying, the most acute US farm-justice/farm-bill crisis today is the dairy crisis, where dairy farmers are being directly exploited by agribusiness. the general solution is very simple: make agribusiness pay fair trade, living wage prices, thus eliminating the need for any dairy subsidies.
The best specific policy for doing this is SB 1640, the dairy bill of the National Family Farm Coalition, the “Federal Milk Marketing Improvement Act of 2011.” Unfortunately, instead of making agribusiness pay" by supporting this key justice bill, the list of food movement myths described above seems to have effectively prevented the food movement from doing significant farm bill advocacy on the dairy portion of this issue.
The myths seem also to have prevented the food movement from doing much of any effective advocacy on the larger, ($4 trillion,) issue of the Commodity Title of the farm bill, the absence of nonsubsidy price floors and supply management. Talk is cheap. It’s time for the new Food Movement to step up and advocate, with dairy farmers, directly against agribusiness, for a better farm bill. It's time for the food movement to specifically "make agribusiness pay, not farm subsidies."
Beyond the dairy bill NFFC's Food from Family Farms Act, in contrast to known food movement positions, makes agribusiness pay across the board. It's the best farm and food justice legislation out there. It frees more money for food stamps and other concerns than any other proposal. It also includes price ceilings and reserve supplies to protect consumers in the US and globally.
It is essential that food movement leaders take the time to get up to speed on this legislation, and teach the facts about it to their grassroots followers. Dairy farmers are in severe crisis. There’s not much time left for a workable solution. This matter absolutely cannot wait for the next farm bill.
Overall, this is a question of a false paradigm, of “knowing” so much that “just ain’t so.” It’s not enough to simply present information about addressing the underlying needs that subsidies help cover up. It must be made clear that the food movement almost always has misunderstood the deeper issues of the "Hidden Farm Bill PIe," and almost always has advocated on the wrong side of them (ie. unknowingly supporting agribusiness as it avoids paying fair trade, living wage prices to dairy farmers and other farmers).
Not also that general statements that address low dairy and other farm prices, such as we find in the better of the lists of “farm bill principles,” are clearly inadequate for food movement audiences. Most of those locked in the false paradigm will immediately believe that the low farm prices are caused by subsidies, and that the’re only talking about subsidy reforms (reducing, capping, eliminating, greening). Such principles will not at all lead this key audience to correctly advocate for bringing back price floors and supply management. We must make agribusiness pay fair market value. with a good farm bill along the lines of NFFC's dairy bill and Food from Family Farms Act, there has never been a need for any taxpayer subsidies, as abundant historical experience (and data) and numerous econometric studies have shown.