he Office of Patents traditionally refused to grant patents on seeds. The idea was that seeds were a patrimony of humanity, essential to its existence and perfected by millennia of natural and human selection. But in 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that genetically modified organisms (GMO) could be patented, and that changed everything. Coincidentally in the same year, the large petrochemical conglomerate Monsanto started its master plan to control a great part of agricultural production in the US and abroad. Their well-known Roundup brand of herbicide was a dominant player in intensive farming. Monsanto developed genetically altered seeds able to resist Roundup, allowing for more widespread use of the herbicide in fields using their newly created GMO corn seeds. Many farmers enthusiastically adopted the new product, unaware of a big catch brought on by a Supreme Court ruling which followed, forbidding farmers from keeping seeds for the following season and forcing them to buy their seeds year after year from Monsanto. Meanwhile the corporate giant was buying out every competitor and producer of seeds in the country, establishing an effective monopoly.
Through an army of investigators and lawyers, Monsanto imposed a “reign of terror.” Lawsuits by the dozens were brought to the farmers, many of them without merit, solely for the purpose of instilling fear. Monsanto’s immense financial resources could never be matched by any farmer and most of them were forced to pay fines through the nose and accept ruinous settlements. Monsanto’s claims that farmers were saving the seeds and using them illegally were often illegitimate, as wind naturally disseminates seeds and often small amounts of genetically altered corn accidentally grows among non-related seeds. As a rule, Monsanto, sues everybody. They use extensive lists of farmers and nobody escapes their grip. Today, a farmer must buy seeds year after year from Monsanto or abandon the business. There is practically nowhere else to buy seeds. Such a monopoly is difficult to find in any period of US history, but it is the current reality, condoned and accepted by our government. Its consequence is the concentration of a large part of our food production, directly or indirectly, to a few large corporations. As a result of these kinds of behavior, many now refer to the company as MonSatan.
Corn production, from its historical 20 bushels per acre, has jumped up to 200 bushels through the use of fertilizers, herbicides and genetically modified seeds. The consequence has not been as good as expected and Food Inc. effectively unveils this. Evidently, the untouchable and sacrosanct federal subsidies are an instrument of economic distortion. A growing part of our available land is used for grain production. Corn, soybean, and others are sold at a fraction of their cost of production, with corn alone accounting for thirty percent. This explains why our food base has been gradually altered to make America consume more of this grain and its derivatives.
We see the large, well organized supermarket shelves crowded with a cornucopia of beautifully packed colorful products, bearing witness to our prosperous world and its infinite variety and choices. While they may look , smell and taste different, most of them actually contain substantial amounts of corn-derived elements: corn starch, gluten, dextrin, maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, diglycerides, and so forth. Unbeknownst to most American consumers,corn is a large part of their diet.
But this alone cannot take care of the massive corn crops, and here comes the most interesting part: converting corn into meat. Using corn to feed cows, chickens and farmed fish is how this is accomplished. Corn feeding allows many cows to be raised in a very small space. The use of chemicals and corn-feeding turns cows into meat factories, their legs unable to sustain their overweight bodies. But again, there is a catch: a cow’s digestive system is meant to process grass, not grains, and it becomes a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria. Practically swimming in excrements and manure, these suffering creatures become an ideal receptacle for E. coli. For the consumer, it has resulted in increased deaths, terrible diseases and an epidemic threat. And contamination will only increase geometrically. Factories do not accept responsibility, and under the complacent and lenient eye of USDA, act reluctantly to investigate E. coli outbreaks. Ground beef is often a blend from ten or more meat sources and any attempt to control and identify contaminated meat is stubbornly opposed by the industry. The pain of a mother who lost her baby to some contaminated burgers and became an advocate of corporate responsibility is a theme woven through the movie. The industry persistently refuses a serious consideration of any permanent remedy.
A short review of meat processing presents us with another monopoly. From thousands of slaughter houses in 1970, the number are now only 13 in the entire US. Most manpower used is either African–American or undocumented Latinos. Again, technology has converted the industry into a model of inhumane efficiency, disregarding everything but productivity and profit. Surrounded by the modern apparatus of death, thousands of hanging carcasses slide in a gruesomely monotonous ballet, numbing the employees from any feeling, thought or consideration of the cruelty inflicted upon these creatures.
Government controls and regulatory bodies are now under the control of “Food Inc.” Through attrition budgets by successive administrations, the USDA and FDA were forced into dramatic cutbacks: while over 50,000 inspections were performed in 1970, only less than 9,200 took place in 2006.
Let’s talk chicken. Tyson, main player in this industry, completely dominates chicken farmers, forcing them to adopt their uniform rules and equipment and prohibiting them from showing the inside of their tunnel-dark chicken houses where hormone and antibiotic-stuffed birds grow to consumption-size in half the normal time. Treated as a commodity, most of the poor birds grow too fat to stand on their feet and live their disgraced life immersed in their own feces, squeezed like sardines in a can, an ideal target for infections and diseases that have grown resistant to antibiotics. Farmers walk by every day, gathering and discarding carcasses in a ditch while the rest of the chickens are converted into neatly package treats on supermarket shelves.
Farmers have become the losing link of the chain. Required to continuously update their equipment and forced into high-cost loans and unending debt, they are the working victims of the industry. It costs from $280,000 to $300,000 to build one of these poultry concentration camps.
A $500,000 investment yields about $18,000 each year to the farmers. Caught in the tangle of the meat machine, they are transformed into a human-chicken, enslaved and unable to escape this nightmarish environment.
A Latino family of immigrant-workers is shown at the fast-food drive-in. They need their daily amount of calories to survive. Grossly underpaid, their only source of calories is the inexpensive burger and French fries. Fruits and vegetables are inaccessible. Their per-calorie cost is way too high.
So, they can only dream of pears, lettuce and tomatoes. Do you believe that fried food, fat and beef are the free choice of the working class? A quick look at vegetable price tags in the supermarket will convince you.
Cheap calorie production has been identified by the food industry as an extremely profitable business. Corn and grains, partly due to government subsidies — basically tax-payer handouts — have undeniably become the cheapest source of calories available. However, the real cost to society is not commonly accounted for. Cheap energy is a fundamental component of beef production. Unsustainable, cheap oil-based energy has disastrous global-warming consequences, political dependency and trade deficits. Cheap grains are dependent on cheap energy and taxpayer subsidies. If you think cheap corn is a bargain, think again.
Furthermore, the excessive consumption of all kinds of meat is undeniably a leading cause of in our health problems. Heart disease, arthritis and diabetes are just a few of the ailments linked to obesity and a predominant trait of our population. The constant use of corn derivatives and other chemicals in our diet are also associated with many types
The food factor is not correctly addressed when our legislators talk about health reform. Can a food industry oriented to self-enrichment be held responsible? If you think tobacco is bad for you, take a quick look at the food industry and you’ll notice there’s not much difference. Perhaps we can correct the food problem in a similar way as we successfully addressed our tobacco problem.
The recurring display of unearthly fields and barns with thousands of suffering cows and chickens is unforgettable. Comparing their distress to our life under the rule of the corporations is unavoidable. Like these animals, we are gradually becoming an instrument of a dehumanized society based upon profit and gain for the few, at the expense of freedom and the welfare of humanity. Refusing to participate in the massive misery and killing of living creatures with our silent vote on food is a good point to start making a difference.
Vol 29 Issue 4 Page 51