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John Kinsman: Nation's food system nearly broke
February 26, 2009
As our government enacts a stimulus package and President Barack Obama announces
bold initiatives to stem home mortgage foreclosures, disaster threatens family
farmers and their communities.
The government's response to plummeting commodity prices and tightening credit markets leads to the basic question: Who will produce our food? This is a worldwide crisis. U.S. policy and the demand for deregulation at all levels from food production to financial markets -- contribute greatly to the global collapse. The solution must be grounded in food sovereignty so that all farmers and their communities can regain control over their food supply. This response makes sense here in Wisconsin and was the global message from the 500+ farmer leaders at the Via Campesina conference in Mozambique in October.
Many U.S. farmers are going out of business because they receive prices equal to about one half their cost to produce our food. How long could any enterprise receiving half the amount of its input costs stay in business? As an example, dairy farmers in the Northeast and Midwest must be paid between 30 and 35 cents per pound for their milk to pay production costs and provide basic living expenses. Until 1980, farmers received a price equal to 80 percent of parity, meaning that farmers' purchasing power kept up with the rest of the economy. Unfortunately, a 1981 political decision discontinued parity, and today the dairy farmers' share is below 40 percent.
"Free trade" and other regressive agricultural policies have decimated farms. We are now a food deficit nation dependent on food imports, often of questionable quality.
Our food system is nearly broke, which is almost as serious as our country's financial meltdown. With fair farm policies, farmers would get fair prices that would not require higher consumers prices. The Canadian dairy pricing system is the best example that proves fair farmer prices can and often do bring lower consumer prices and a healthier rural economy. In addition, excessive middleman profits are taking advantage of both consumers and producers.
As more farmers face bankruptcy, we all face a food emergency. European farmers speak from thousands of years of experience on the importance of family farms when they warn us, "Any time a country neglects its family farm base and allows it to become financially bankrupt, the entire economy of that country will soon collapse. It may take generations to rebuild the farm economy and that of the country."
Despite the magnitude of this food emergency, the "farm crisis" does not appear in headlines, so politicians are not compelled to provide political or financial assistance to something that would likely fail to bring votes. As farmers, we are now only about 1 percent of the U.S. population, and have little power to expose and prevent our demise. However, our urban and rural friends could be vital voices and advocates.
Bailing out the financial giants will not solve the financial crisis in the country, but the right policies and stimulus dollars could prevent a severe food crisis by saving farmers and workers. Furthermore, farm income dollars remain in and multiply at least two to four times in the local economy.
Family farmers have proposed fair food and farm policies that can be implemented at a fraction of the present multibillion-dollar policies destroying us. As the Treasury Department develops plans to distribute the bailout funds, the National Family Farm Coalition and others urge it to require banks receiving funds to treat their borrowers fairly by providing debt restructuring as an alternate to home or farm foreclosure or bankruptcy.
Concerned citizens can call the White House, 202-456-1111, or your members of Congress, 202-224-3121, to urge them to support policies that enable farmers to earn a fair market price; request an emergency milk price at $17.50 per hundred weight; provide price stability through government grain reserves and effective supply management; support the TRADE Act to be reintroduced in Congress; increase direct and guaranteed loans to family farmers; and ensure that the food we raise can be marketed to local schools and institutions, providing a better food supply at a fair price. We need these immediate changes in our food and farm policy.
John Kinsman, a dairy farmer from La Valle, is president of Family Farm Defenders, based in Madison.
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