Coalition Report

Eating For The Health Of Missouri’s Economy

by Kathleen Logan Smith
Executive Director; Missouri Coalition For The Environment

Congress has made it to December and has yet (as of this writing) to pass a federal 2012 Farm Bill which is the legislation that impacts what food is grown, how its grown, and what we eat. The Senate has a version and so does the House. Both cut deeply into programs. Both contain generous benefits for crop insurance, revenue insurance, and insurance companies. Neither makes soil and water conservation a priority. In fact, conservation programs are on the chopping block again. And most troublesome, Congress has yet to require recipients of farm insurance subsidies to meet basic conservation standards in exchange for their subsidies.

Conservation measures protect soil and water quality and act as a counterweight to economic incentives for farming practices that scar the land and pollute water. Farmers should not get a free pass on common sense conservation. If you watched filmmaker Ken Burns’ documentary November 18th on the Dust Bowl, you’ll know why aligning incentives to plow, plant and farm any way, anywhere, anyhow while simultaneously cutting conservation programs makes no sense.

Risking the health of our farmland undermines our security like no invading army could. Will it take clouds of western dust raining down in D.C. to convince Congress? I have a faint hope that Congress will correct its oversight before millions of taxpayer dollars fuel the next Dust Bowl. Since both the House and Senate bills cut conservation while providing ever more lavish incentives for farmers to farm any way, anywhere, anyhow, Congress should start over fresh in the new Congress with a new Farm Bill focused on fiscal and environmental responsibility.

While the Dust Bowl gutted the Great Plains in the past century, another man-made disaster has shattered the economy of rural Missouri in recent times. Two decades ago Missouri pork farmers sold their hogs at open, competitive markets. Nearly every county had a market. And Missouri had more hog farmers. Today, many markets are shuttered entirely and those markets that remain are controlled by four global meatpackers – Smithfield Foods, Cargill, Tyson and the Brazilian giant JBS – that set the prices for the producers and the consumers.

The Missouri Rural Crisis Center reports that since 1985, Missouri has lost nearly 90% of its hog producers. Nationally we’ve lost 82%. In the same period, the retail price of pork has increased 100% from $1.71/pound to $3.43. In the same period, a hog producers’ share of the retail dollar has decreased 32% to 33 cents. With fewer farmers and fewer dollars and the same amount of pork, Wall Street is collecting the profits while businesses lie empty on Main Street in rural counties across our state. Homesteads sit vacant. Big Pig has no use for the local hardware store, the diner, the barber, the movie theater, the grocery, or the church.

Food and Water Watch has released a report documenting these economic impacts. “The Economic Cost of Food Monopolies” (http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/reports/the-economic-cost-of-food-monopolies/) tracks corporate consolidation in our food system. The report notes the economic benefits of independent farmers: “communities with more medium and smaller-sized farms have more shared prosperity including higher incomes, lower unemployment and lower income inequality than communities with larger farms tied to often-distant agribusinesses.”

When you buy from our local producers, whether you buy Heritage Farms pork, Missouri Grass Fed Beef in DeSoto, or bison from Crown Valley in Ste. Genevieve, you are keeping your dollars on Missouri Main Streets- and that’s good for our economy and our environment. St. Louis is fortunate to have a number of outlets where you can buy from farmers including the local-centric groceries like Local Harvest and the Schlafly winter farmers market in Maplewood (open next on 12/22).

You can do your part for our economy. Call your Senators and Congressmen and tell them how you feel about your food system and then vote with your fork every day.