The myth of the Ghost Dance

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

Two years after a typhoid epidemic ravaged the Paute people of Nevada, prophet and healer Wodziwob revealed a vision in 1869: Dancing in a circle to summon ancestral spirits could drive out the white man, his plagues and foul-smelling swine. Life could be restored.

The buffalo gave way to the hog, yet the Ghost Dance holds its allure.

Our food supply teeters on a knife’s edge as a pandemic lays bare its tenuous chain. When a half-dozen packinghouses owned by four titan corporations shut down for just a couple weeks it starves the supermarket. Shoppers panic. Food prices shoot up, farm prices plummet. The President orders fearful immigrants to the kill floor without testing. The last of the independent cattle producers pray for relief. It is all so broken.

Would that we could wish back the diversified family farm. And break up the four big packers that control 75% of our nation’s beef supply. And dissolve the vertical integration of food production, where the packer owns the chicken or pig from birth to barbecue wings or chops. And remediate the environmental damage. And bring back the unions.

Today, corporate-owned hogs are raised on sites of 1,000 head, tended by farmers who own the building. Hens are housed by the millions in huge facilities that gather eggs on belts and break them for shiny long tankers awaiting that liquid gold.

Old McDonald has gone to his reward. Big money feeds big ag.

Iowans used to call hogs the “mortgage lifters.” You could pay off that 160 acres by laying in 30 sows alongside your cow-calf herd. The corporate integrators figured out that the independent hog producer was buying a new pickup every other year and conspired to capture his profit. They flooded the market with sows in 1998 and drove out the last of the free-standing men and women.

They were replaced by what many call “factory farms” — steel buildings planted in the corn and soybean fields of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa, the center of the hog belt. They stink. My friends and family who used to pick the pork queens were done in by The Man, but now feed The Man’s hogs or supervise multiple sites or drive trucks that haul manure far afield.

They all miss the days of open markets. But they don’t miss the risk that livestock ownership imposes amid shrinking margins. They value the steady pay, around $30,000 per year, for tending The Man’s hogs.

They aren’t interested in getting back into ownership. They tell their children to become engineers.

Agriculture is a mature industry. Capital demands consolidation. Despite our best efforts, like the 1920s-vintage Packers and Stockyards Act, government has stepped aside or encouraged the consolidation. Left to its own devices, the meat market is a brutal place. An open market for turkeys ceased to exist years ago.

Who likes it but the consolidator? Even Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, complains about concentration, yet he doesn’t do anything about it. But Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., have introduced a bill that would break up the big food companies, call a halt to new livestock buildings, and establish a goal of phasing out confined corporate feeding operations.

It’s a big bite with slim chance of getting past Grassley, who may complain about The Man but will defend his privilege. The bill is a good starting point to get us to look at pulling back from the brink.

We are not going to get rid of confined livestock. That horse is out of the barn and decades down the road. World population was 3 billion in 1960. Today it’s nearly 8 billion and by 2050 it could be 13 billion. The Chinese are building hog confinements nine stories high. People will eat meat. It is beyond imagination how we meet world food demand — production needs to increase by 70% over the next 30 years to stay ahead of hunger — if chickens are not housed humanely indoors. Consumers have driven the industry to cage-free laying hens and roomier swine gestation. My friends who manage the buildings are sensitive about the animals and stewardship. They look for ways to improve. They are especially concerned about disease, and they make a strong argument that keeping the porker indoors and away from the duck carrying a dozen viruses protects us all.

We can ease meatpacker concentration by limiting the four biggest firms to controlling, say, 50% of the market. That would build resilience into the supply chain by inviting smaller regional players into the game. It would make the industry more flexible to security concerns as inevitable disease outbreaks occur. We could require safer conditions for workers, and make it easier for them to organize.

We can ban packer ownership of livestock and demand price transparency to give independent cattle producers a chance, and maybe crack open the door to the little guy in swine or poultry.

We need to regulate confinements for animal and human safety. We need to site them properly, where the soil can accept the manure. That requires enforceable federal standards. Our rivers are fouled and our aquifers are receding. We cannot go on like we are.

Neither can we wish back the way things were.

Corn fuels this train. “Cheap corn, cheap hogs,” the old boys used to say. Any hope of breaking up corporate control of livestock revolves around driving corn prices higher. When corn is too expensive hogs become unattractive to Wall Street. We are growing 30% too much corn and producing too many cheap hogs — such that we are bound to export them to China. The answer is to pay farmers to supplant 30% of our crop acreage with grass that captures carbon. It will stop surface water pollution that is killing the Gulf of Mexico. It will move cattle out of unsustainable feedlots. And it will lift corn prices that could put independent farmers back into a competitive position.

Banning indoor livestock feeding amounts to a ghost dance. Regulating open markets, strengthening anti-trust laws and enforcement, and insisting on responsible animal husbandry are attainable targets. We urgently need to attack our climate crisis by changing how we treat the landscape. Planting more grass and less corn is the fastest way to reorient food markets, restore farmers and save our Earth.

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