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The Leading Voices in Food

E156: Myths About Industrial Agriculture That Affect Us All

Hosted by: Kelly Brownell (Duke)
February 10, 2022

So there’s a big question out there that’s being asked over and again: do massive multinational corporations have an outsized control of our food system, and what does this mean for all of us? Disruptions in food supply chains recently have highlighted the vulnerabilities of an industrialized agriculture system that according to some does not benefit farmers, farm workers or even consumers. Today, we’re going to explore a new report from the organization Farm Action entitled “The Truth About Industrial Agriculture: A Fragile System Propped Up By Myths and Hidden Costs.” Our guest today is Dee Laninga, senior communications manager for Farm Action.

Dee Laninga joined the Farm Action team in April of 2021 to raise awareness about the organization’s core issues and drive engagement toward equitable, sustainable, and family farm-centered solutions. Dee draws from her background in strategic communications, creative writing, and design to craft resonant narratives and compelling graphics to advance an array of advocacy initiatives. Her past work in such diverse sectors as clean energy, antihunger, and agriculture inform her broad perspective. A full-time digital nomad since 2019, Dee spends her spare time hiking in the phenomenal state and national parks this country has to offer. She holds a BA from Grand Valley State University and an MFA from Washington University in St Louis.

Interview Summary

So first, can you tell our listeners about Farm Action and what it does?

Absolutely. We are a small but I think pretty mighty nonprofit working to transform the food and farm system into something that works for everyday people rather than a handful of powerful corporations. And to do that, we do our own independent research, we do policy development, advocacy campaigns, we leverage political expertise on the Hill and that’s all to educate people and advance policies that will democratize our food system. The thing about working on food system reform is that what we eat and how it’s grown or raised intersects with just about every aspect of human life, health and nutrition, racial and social equity, indigenous rights, workers’ rights, environmental justice, even economic competition. So by pushing Ag policies that create a more fair and inclusive food system, we’re really able to move the needle on a lot of today’s urgent issues. And that mission seems to be resonating with people a lot right now. Earlier this month we were reached out to by “The Hill,” the top us political newspaper, they wanted to run a profile on the organization tracing our origins and showing how we’ve been able to influence the Biden administration. So what we’re finding is that the way that new stories are spreading and catching on about the effects of corporate consolidation and industrialized practices that proves to us that people are really ready for change, they’re ready to see a breakdown of corporate control.

I agree with you by the way and it seems to me that more people, not just the advocacy groups who’ve cared about this issue for quite a while, but general public thinks about these issues a lot more than it used to and more and more people care about where their food comes from, the story of their food if you will. Would you agree that?

I would 100% agree. And what’s so striking is that it seems like one of the last areas where you can reach people from across the political spectrum. Everybody cares about their food, everybody cares about the health of their families, even everybody cares about farmers and wants to see them succeed and do well. So it feels like one the places in our somewhat deeply divided society that we can still come together and talk about solutions.

So let’s dive into the report entitled “Truth About Industrial Agriculture.”

So I should probably first define industrial agriculture. So Farm Action defines it as a corporate controlled system, one that relies on extractive mechanized food production practices that prioritize excessive profit over people, animals, and the environment. For decades, the corporations that benefit from these practices who really put them in place have been controlling the public conversation and the policy debate by using their economic and political power to spread myths that defend the system. So after defeat after defeat to reform the system we felt like it was past time to change the narrative, tell the truth and raise awareness of the harms that industrial Ag does to the farmer, rural communities and eaters everywhere. So defining the problem we felt would be the first step towards the solution and people need to know about the widespread impacts of our brittle, vulnerable, consolidated, industrialized system. Following major breakdowns and the ones you alluded to earlier Kelly in our food supply system in the early months of the COVID pandemic, we produced this report to show how industrial agriculture causes problems for everyone. It’s not just an issue for farmers or even for people who live near factory farms. Our industrialized food system is negatively affecting anyone who eats food and we really need to do something about it quickly. So the report was meant to address that.

Let’s talk about one word in particular that you mentioned and it’s extractive. Tell me what you mean by that?

Absolutely. So extraction – that is a process by which corporations have been able to externalize their costs. They are passing the burden of their production and distribution on to other entities who have less power. So that would include farmers, rural communities and taxpayers. They’ve had wealth extracted from them through this process.

And would also applied to extraction from the land like over use of land by monoculture in ways that aren’t restoring the land and regenerating it?

Yes, absolutely. The soil health has been vastly depleted in Iowa and other states. Phil Potts’ excellent book, “Perilous Bounty” documents this process of how the wealth of the soil, the health of the soil has been extracted by corporations for maximum profit.

What are some of the key findings of your report?

So the big ticket item that I hope listeners would take away from this conversation is that far from being the sort of inevitable savior of all of us, industrial Agriculture is just an economically flawed system that only survives due to two factors. The first would be the wildly successful marketing campaigns that are based in myth that convince decision makers and the general public that these big corporate, industrialized food production practices are our only option. And then the second fact keeping the system afloat is that these corporations have been able to externalize their true costs, meaning they pass their production and distribution costs on to other entities who have to then shoulder that burden. So the farmers that grow or raise animals for them and have to foot the bill for equipment and farm infrastructure, so that would include the people who work for their companies in dangerous conditions with low pay and few to no benefits, consumers who have to pay higher retail prices at the grocery store, taxpayers for infrastructure repair and environmental cleanup. And then of course, rural residents who live near industrialized operations and have to pay vastly higher healthcare costs as a result of the air and waterborne pollutants put out by factory farms. A recent report found that while US consumers spend 1.1 trillion on food each year, the true cost, which takes into account the impact industrialized food production has on the environment, on human health, on workers and more it’s actually three times that amount. So it actually costs us more than $3 trillion annually to produce and distribute food in an industrialized way.

Okay, so what are some of the myths that you’re hoping to counter?

I think the myths are a really accessible and memorable entry point into this research because they’re going to feel really familiar to a lot of people. So for instance, the myth that rural economies would collapse without the presence of industrial Agriculture. Or that the chemicals associated with its methods are totally safe or that the so-called efficiency of these huge vertically integrated operations, that that’s the only thing standing between American families and sky high food prices. These corporate talking points about the benefits of their own system, they’ve been around for so long and are so pervasive that they’ve really entered the public discourse as fact or like common sense that you don’t even question. But when you look really hard at the facts, the myths just fall apart and that process is really eye-opening for a lot of readers. We have a blog series on our website that unpacks each of these myths in detail with real life examples and links to sources that just makes it super accessible for just the everyday reader. And then we’ve also posted these blogs in a weekly #MythBusterMonday series on our Facebook and Twitter and that’s been able to help us get sort of bite sized pieces of the research and really break down the myths and get them into the hands of the public.

So let me ask the final question, which maybe is the most important of all. So is it really possible to feed the world without industrial Ag?

That is such a powerful myth and that has had just incredible staying power, but there’s a couple of things here to address that myth. One, industrial agriculture is not in fact what’s feeding the world. Our research shows that smaller farms are currently meeting 70 to 80% of the world’s food needs and these farms could double or triple their production without adopting industrial farming methods. And then the second thing I want to mention is that the output of industrial Ag in the US doesn’t even go to the world’s hungry. Farm output around the world is rising so other countries don’t necessarily need our goods. And then US meat exports are not going to those nations with the highest level of hunger or food insecurity and those countries are predominantly in Africa, South America, and the Middle East. And instead we see that US meat exports go primarily to developed and rapidly developing nations that have growing economic middle classes that can afford to pay global market prices for meat.

And I would just say that to anyone who’s curious about what goes into the food you find on any given grocery shelf, I really encourage you to check this report out and share it with people you know. There’s just so much at stake if we keep going down this industrialized consolidated road for our food system and so much to be gained from change. So we really appreciate this chance to talk with you about it and thank you so much.


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