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Consumer Advocates: The Hidden Cost of Consolidating Food Supply

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By Chris Dunn

“Cheap food isn’t all that cheap,” said Patty Lovera at the fifth annual Farm and Food Leadership Conference held Monday at the Pearl Stables in San Antonio.

Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group, countered statements by corporate food producers that food has never been cheaper or safer than it is today.

Heirloom tomatoes, grown in your own yard or by farmers in your area, are among ways to get the most nutritional quality for your food dollars.

“Air pollution, contamination of water with manure and increased antibiotic resistance,” according to Lovera, are just a few of the hidden costs attributable to the corporate consolidation of our food supply that “are not accounted for in the economic analysis that has been used for years to justify big agribusiness mergers.”

Co-panelist John Ikerd, professor emeritus of agricultural economics, University of Missouri, Columbia, said that while the percentage of our incomes spent on food has dropped over recent decades, so has the nutritional value of our food, causing an increase in medical costs.  He estimated that “half of what is spent on health care (today) is related to industrial food.”

“The four largest companies in each (agribusiness) industry slaughter nearly all the beef, process two-thirds of the pork, sell half the groceries and manufacture about half the milk in the United States,” said Lovera, adding that “two companies sell two-thirds of the corn and soybean seeds.”

“Single operations put out so much food,” she said, “when a problem develops, it becomes a national problem.” She pointed to the 2010 recall in the United States of more than 500 million eggs that had been produced by just two companies.

Ikerd said corporate consolidation of our food supply has also failed to reduce hunger in this country.  “There are a larger percentage of hungry people in America today,” he said, “than 50 years ago.”  He pointed to the fact that half the corn crop goes to fuel production:  “We’re burning our food in our autos.”

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To correct the situation, both Ikerd and Lovera said they believe radical changes need to take place at national, state, and local levels.  “We need a totally new farm policy,” said Ikerd, adding that corporations “gain enormous political control” leading to government agricultural policies that are “totally contrary to the public interest.”

Lovera said antitrust laws should be enforced to encourage free market competition, which would benefit both sellers and buyers. Ikerd called for “a sustainable farming movement,” that encourages the local production of food by many small farmers who have a personal relationship with their communities.

“We need to kick the corporate pigs away from the trough,” he said.

Chris Dunn is a San Antonio reporter and food writer, and a graduate of the San Antonio branch of the Culinary Institute of America.

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