Our VoiceHealth & Environment

Take Back Our Food System

Charlotte Williams • Sep 05, 2010

“Somebody’s making a whole bunch of money, and somebody’s getting screwed.”

These are the bold and profound words of Mr. Bob Miller, a rancher and lifelong farmer, out of Okmulgee, Oklahoma who’s felt the intense squeeze of the pricing pyramid within the livestock industry milieu. The words he spoke are a chilling, yet pervasively accurate, analysis of indications that something is seriously wrong with the U.S. Food System.

On August 27, in the ballroom (with three overflow rooms) of the Lory Student Center at Colorado State University, over 2,000 people, directly and indirectly impacted by the complex, insidious and often incestuous livestock industry matrix, on both side of the debate gathered.  Both major players (and big money) and scores of well organized, passionate and informed farmers in the livestock industry came together for the fourth Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Agriculture (USDA) Public Workshop on Competition Issues – and to address one of the most complex economic structures in the U.S. Food System.

However, in the midst of this historical gathering, I couldn’t help but recall an image of a few immigrant workers squeezed into a modest trailer home to talk about a litany of injustices including poor working conditions, lost wages, grueling repetitive motion work.   These workers could have worked in any one of the agriculture sectors:  meat packing, poultry, dairy or farming, so it is vital that their issues not be lost as the DOJ and USDA workshop and public comment process continues.

Folks attending the Colorado workshop came from as far away as California and Massachusetts, the Carolinas to the state of Washington.  And, as was obvious from the panelists and open comment sessions, the physical distance between the aforementioned states is descriptive of the distance between the primary two vehemently opposing sides of the livestock industry.  The discussion centers on proposed changes to GIPSA (Grain Inspections and Packers and Stockyards Administration) rules.  However, at the root of this is a decades old lack of enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Anti-trust Act, which is nearly 90-years-old, and the need to ensure competition in the cattle industry, and to ultimately assist with the restoration of America’s rural landscape.

With the GIPSA ruling being debated, and whether or not the changes will be enacted, it’s getting pretty ugly.  A letter from the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), on one side, dilutes the intense efforts of Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF), on the other side, and wrongly calls “foul” against an R-CALF supporter, Food and Water Watch which is an organization concerned with comprehensive food and environmental issues.  R-CALF, an organization known for its message to bring fairness back to the industry, has graciously responded to NCBA with a concise and informative open letter to the United States Cattle Industry.

But more importantly, R-CALF’s letter is a call to action for farmers, supporters, rural advocates, workers, and other community-based organizing efforts to step it up as they seek justice, equality and change, not only in the livestock industry, but in the entire U.S. Food System.   We know that one side of the argument is being financed by big money and utilizes the fancy footwork of well-paid lobbyists.  On the other side of the argument, non-profit, civic organizing and collaborative efforts engage all stakeholders along the food chain, from pickers to consumers, in order to present a comprehensive response to the permeation of corporate consolidations that undermine a just and fair food system in the U.S.

We have to take back our food system from the corporate figure heads looking for “premium pricing” on cattle by any means necessary. Those major agro-processing and meat processing facilities are taking a mere 5-6 seconds to inhumanely kill and process a cow; and processing over 5,000 cows per day to the detriment of workers and our food safety.  Let’s take back the food system from an industry gone haywire, although worth billions of dollars, continues to pay workers low wages, has inadequate worker safety practices and negatively impacts the quality of life for thousands of immigrant workers.  Take back our food system in order to support farmers, family farms, and reinvestment in rural America, while exploring the organizing efforts of the comprehensive food justice movement.

The last of the DOJ and USDA Workshops will be held in Washington, D.C. in December.  It is imperative to keep worker justice as a priority as we move towards the end of the discussion and comment period towards the recommendations for action, change, and long-term solutions to the problems in the U.S. Food System.

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