The main winners from these policies [farm subsidies] are corporate livestock operations who buy absurdly cheap feed, making environmentally destructive factory farming possible.” ~from Food Is Different, page 40.
“In 2002 the U.S. approved a new farm bill, the so-called Farm Security and Rural Investment Act, which extended the basic U.S. subsidy system for another ten years, at an estimated cost to tax-payers of US$190 billion” ~from Food Is Different, page 39.
Listening to an Animal Voices’ interview with post-colonialism theorist Philip Armstrong, my interest was piqued by the concept of ‘seeding.’ Misleading as this term may seem, it has nothing to do with gardening. It is in actuality descriptive of seventeenth- century colonial groundwork for animal agriculture. As explained by Armstrong, “it was part of [the Europeans’] program of colonization, part of their program of discovery, and what we would now call globalization … they would seed oceanic islands with livestock which would then go feral and multiple and survive or not survive … and they could then be used by subsequent voyageurs.” Thus flocks of farm animals were deposited by ‘explorers’ on lands with imperial-profit potential.
I can only imagine the devastation that these non-native species wreaked on local habitats and wildlife population. It is troubling to view farm animals in this sense, as tools of imperialism. Centuries before genetically modified seeds were sold overseas the Western world was already priming the global stage for agricultural dominion.
This is a sharp reminder that utter disregard for both domesticated animals and their surrounding environment has long been the cultural norm. Sometimes we get away with pretending that the animal agriculture practices predating factory farming have awarded farm animals some since discarded dignity. As though the idyllic family farmer, hard at work on his bucolic homestead, before the invention of growth hormones and battery cages, had a genuine relationship with his animal property. To do so is to misconstrue the underlying problems, thereby obstructing possibilities for changes that would save lives.
One such example of this romanticizing of ‘peasant’ farming is This Land is Their Land: How Corporate Farms Threaten the World, an oddly author-centric work by Evaggelos Vallianatos. The book is peppered with unsupported veneration of Hellenic culture and pre-Christian farming practices. While the atrocious treatment of farm animals in current practices is implied, Vallianatos does not express any sympathy for the nonhuman animals victimized by agribusiness beyond the human health risks that result. His posited solutions call for agrarian reform within the existing system. Although his arguments initially sway toward anti-capitalist ideas, he ultimately proposes changes that would maintain many class and wealth disparities, not to mention an ever-pervasive speciesism and conventional animal exploitation.
Vallianatos is quick to blame inequitable farm subsidies as the villainous perpetuator of this current food production nightmare. However, while U.S. government subsidization of national agribusiness products ensure unfair world trade, these subsidies are only the results of a broader problem. As stressed by Peter M. Rosset, in Food Is Different, “eliminating subsidies won’t mean better prices for farmers or for consumers, because market concentration will still enable companies to dictate low prices to farmers and high prices to consumers” (Rosset, 51). Which is not to say that struggling for the abolishment of farm subsidies is futile, rather that it is not the end all solution.
The concentration of power in agriculture becomes particularly startling when examining the animal agriculture industry. Only “four companies (Tyson, ConAgra, Cargill, and Farmland Nation) concentrate 81 percent of the beef-packing industry … Often the same companies are the dominant firms in several sectors. ConAgra, for instance, figures among the four largest firms in the beef, pork, turkey, sheep, and seafood sectors, with operations in 70 countries” (Rosset, 46). The influence that these massive corporations have over governmental policy is evident in the policies themselves. For example, “the US position, backed by WTO rules, is that while countries can discriminate against dangerous products based on ‘sound science,’ such discrimination can only apply to the final product itself and not to the process used to produce it” (Rosset, 32). Under these guidelines, the US disallows other nations from any discrimination “against products whose health and environmental safety are still largely unstudied – like genetically engineered (GE) foods, or beef produced with growth hormones, is not ‘science-based’ because ‘scientific evidence is still lacking” (Rosset, 32).
The impact on other countries, however, is far more severe than simply the inability to boycott unsafe food items. Globe spanning trade laws that open markets make it impossible for small-scale farmers to compete in a corporation dominated system. In post-NAFTA Mexico, for instance, “imports of soybeans, wheat, poultry and beef grew by over 500 per cent, displacing Mexican production” (Rosset, 62). The result is that a country like Mexico is no longer fed by its own farmers, but instead through the importation of surplus U.S. products, the quality of which is determined by those who stand to profit.
In the United States, corn is the crop produced in the highest volume. It “is grown on nearly 80 million acres (32 million hectares) and is used mostly for livestock feed, domestically or overseas” (Rosset, xvii). This corn is profitably produced in gross surpluses courtesy of taxpayer-funded subsidies. Much of it is dumped abroad, sold at prices below the cost of production that make it impossible for other farmers to compete.
The key is to remember the interconnectedness. The U.S. government hands out economically- devastating subsidies to corporate-backed growers, enabling agribusiness to produce genetically modified, pesticide-saturated grain at cutthroat prices via the labor of underpaid, unrepresented farmworkers. This grain, laced with antibiotics and hormones, is fed to factory farmed livestock who will be slaughtered and packaged by exploited human labor. When Americans purchase these disease-inducing animal products at absurdly low prices thanks to the government’s subsidies, the profit is channeled into corporate pockets. It brings to mind a framing of the vegan argument that I once heard from Pattrice Jones: Industrial agriculture is bad for the animals, bad for the workers, and bad for the consumers – the only entity that benefits whatsoever is the corporate power.
In the context of contemporary agriculture, the notion of seeding starts to seem less absurd and more in sync with the mentality of globalization. Today, agricultural policies and practices continue to be forcibly exported. The consequences to humans, nonhumans, and the environment are trivialized. Predictably, the imperial powers that be are poised to plunder.