March 26, 2002   #151
Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness
From a Public Interest Perspective

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JOHN HANSEN, PRESIDENT, NEBRASKA FARMERS UNION: Thanks to the hard work Nebraska Farmer's Union farm policy analyist, John Dittrich, last year's Key Indicators charts have been updated. This is the most complete update made to date, and is very inclusive. All inflation factors are updated to January 2002, and all government payments including LDP's, market loss gains etc from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on a national average basis are included.  The national average data on LDP's  and market loss gains were not available from USDA until last April.
These summary tables are backed up by about 3,000 cells of information contained in individual year spreadsheets. Also included is a new executive summary as background for the tables, which one should read and study.
A review the footnotes in particular, contain some interesting data in and of themselves. For example, cotton and rice, and the incredible drop in price and increase in government payments in 2001. The slide in Inflation Adjusted Gross Income per Acre continues at an unabated pace. Exports have not risen, except in cotton, where export use increases have simply come off domestic use.
It should be fairly obvious to everyone by now that lowering domestic commodity prices does not result in either increased agricultural export volume or export value, and in fact, results in exporting approximately the same amount of agricultural commodities for less value while collapsing domestic commodity prices and corresponding farm income.
The obvious economic reality facing production agriculture is that total farm income must equal or exceed total farm expense, or farmers go broke.  The two primary sources of farm income is the value from the sale of produced farm commodities and farm program income transfers.  Thanks to the success of our U.S. based international grain trade cartel driven U.S. trade policy that our trade negotiators have worked so hard to achieve, domestic ag producers find ourselves in "no man's land."
We no longer have "World Trade Organization (WTO) legal" true price supporting farm program tools such as the nonrecourse loan to force the noncompetitive cash grain marketplace value of basic grains prices up to at least cost of production levels, which would allow farmers to be in the position of needing less income support from taxpayers.

And, we no longer have the option of spending however much taxpayer dollars it takes to make up the difference between cash market prices and at a minimum the cost of production  without exceeding the WTO amber box income transfer guidelines ($19.1 Billion is the current Aggregate Measure of Support spending cap), which when added to current cash grain prices do not equal the USDA full economic cost of production for corn, wheat, soybeans, rice or cotton.
It will become painfully obvious in the months ahead that the Farm Bill, whatever version the Farm Bill Conferees mold it into, will not solve the problems of sinking cash commodity farm market values and sinking net farm incomes.

Our international trade policy determines the legal framework for and economic direction of our domestic farm policy.  As one studies these charts, they need to ask how long can the USA, as a high cost producing nation, continue to pursue a low cost producing nation farm and trade policy without eliminating the very system of independent, family farmer and rancher, owner and operator food production system that has served our nation so well since our nation was founded?
For specific questions on these figures, call John Dittrich at 402-368-7786, who compiled the information for Nebraska Farmers Union and the American Corn Growers Association.  General questions, can be made to the Nebraska Farmers Union office (402)-476-8815 Office   (402)-476-859 Fax.

These tables give you the big picture data necessary to put our national farm and trade policies into perspective. Yes, it is as you suspected, they are perfectly good sounding economic theories riddled by years of real world experience and facts.


JOHN M. DITTRICH, POLICY ANALYST, AMERICAN CORN GROWERS ASSOCIATION, NEBRASKA FARMERS UNION: . . tables were first researched and compiled in 1999. They are updated annually midway through the current crop-marketing year.  They are intended to be helpful in farm and food policy analysis and debate.

[THE] tables are compiled to give a concise, summarized history of important and interconnected statistics affecting U.S. crop farmers extending back to 1975.  This was judged to be the beginning of the modern era of crop farming, agricultural exports, farm programs, etc.  The years 1973 and 1974 were the years of the highest crop prices in the 1970ís, resulting from sudden export surges and commodity shortages.  These years are deliberately not included in these tables, to avoid skewing the data.

All five major storable commodities are included.  Inflation adjustments to current dollars are used to illustrate the effects of inflation on farm programs, farm prices, farm income, and raw food/feed/fiber costs to end users.

Multi-year averaging is used to smooth the normal year-to-year fluctuations in price, export volume, production, etc.  This allows a clearer and more summarized view of major trends. Multi-year averages are also how farmers tend to view their farm's production and financial performance.

A reader can quickly see the relationship between various statistics, such as export volume versus domestic use, or ending stocks to use ratios versus farm price. Graphical depiction of various parts of this data is easily accomplished, and is often helpful.  A reader will often see new trends or relationships that others do not.  However, following are a few key observations and trends apparent from the tables and period represented:

1. Price Support Loans and Farm Prices
* Real CCC loan rates and price supports have dropped dramatically through the period.
* Real farm prices have dropped in a similar manner.
* Real farm prices to the end user are now approximately 1/3 of what they were in the 1970's.

2. Export Volume
* Export volume, though erratic from year to year, has on average remained static throughout the period.  During this time, numerous combinations of price support policy, trade policy, currency valuations, and world political situations have existed.

3. Domestic Use and Trade Balances
* Domestic use has risen steadily throughout the period. Virtually all of the growth in total use has been in the domestic market.
* Our Agricultural Trade Balance has remained static in nominal terms, and has sharply declined in inflation adjusted terms. This suggests that increases in domestic demand have not been due to larger net exports of value added products containing raw commodities.

4. Total Use
* Total use has risen steadily throughout the period, and is now at all time highs.

5.  Ending Stocks and Farm Prices
* Current ending stocks to total use ratios are very tight to modest by historical standards (with the exception of cotton), yet farm prices are at the lowest nominal levels of the period.

6. Yields, Government Payments, and Gross Income per Acre
* Steadily increasing yields have not offset lower real farm prices.  Including very high government payments and higher yields, real gross income per acre is now at record lows, and is approximately 1/3 less than the mid-1980's.


ASSOCIATED PRESS: Kansas livestock officials are grappling with how to improve communications following an unfounded rumor of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak that set off a selling panic in the commodities market.

Kansas Animal Health Commissioner George Teagarden told the state's House Agriculture Committee that his agency lacked an adequate plan for dealing with such rumors --- until now. "In hindsight, it's pretty easy to sit back and see things you should do,'" he said. "I had no idea that it started a disaster across the United States at that time."

On March 12, a rumor that nine cows at the Holton Livestock Market were infected with foot-and-mouth disease spread quickly throughout the Midwest and to the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Analysts estimate that the rumor cost the industry as much as $50 million nationwide after prices dropped $1.50 per hundred weight for market cattle.
Teagarden said regulators are investigating whether anyone illegally manipulated the market for profit.

The cattle at the center of the rumor had sores in their mouths. State investigators found the source of the mouth irritation --- coarse hay --- and discovered a horse with similar symptoms. That was important because horses cannot contract foot-and-mouth disease, Teagarden said. Tests analyzed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture later confirmed the Animal Health Department's initial diagnosis.

In retrospect, Teagarden said, he should have issued a statement to allay public fears, possibly to the effect that tests for various suspected diseases are not uncommon and that results from the USDA would be announced later. In any such cases in the future, he added, the Kansas Division of Emergency Management will be notified earlier than it was this time.

REUTERS: Amid complaints by a farm group of possible insider trading, federal regulators said  . . . that they were probing how a suspected foot-and-mouth case in Kansas last week sparked a large sell-off in livestock futures contracts at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.  Commodity markets and food company stock prices were rattled March 13 after a handful of cattle in Holton, Kansas., were tested for the virulent disease.
Government tests confirmed no presence of the disease.

Rumors of the tests first surfaced in trading pits at the Merc, sending live cattle futures down their daily allowable trading limit of $1.50 a pound. Contracts also fell the rest of the week. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission said it has launched a "fact-finding" review of the case.

PRO FARMER: The Commodity Futures Trading Commission is now getting involved in the situation a week ago which saw cattle futures and other futures contracts smacked by rumors that cattle at a sale barn in Kansas had foot-and-mouth disease. Reports say that CFTC is launching a "fact-finding" review to see whether there was any unusual market activity in cattle futures at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange due to the rumored foot-and-mouth cases.

CFTC has asked for information from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, USDA and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, the spokesman said. CFTC officials said they did not know how soon the fact-finding probe would be completed.

Sen. Pat Roberts (Rep.-Kansas) has also requested that an investigation be done at USDA. In a letter to USDA Sec. Ann Veneman, Roberts said, "This information had a negative effect on the cattle market and has affected many producers in Kansas. I am concerned with reports that this information may have been leaked as a means to influence the cattle and feed grain markets, and I request you look into this matter."

Tests are routinely conducted in the United States to determine whether or not animals have FMD.


JILL CARROLL, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: The Food and Drug Administration warned meatpacker Tyson Foods Inc. that one of its rendering plants violated rules meant to prevent mad-cow disease from spreading in the U.S. should it reach this country.
The letter doesn't mean that the disease was present in the Tyson plant, but violations of the regulations erode the effectiveness of defenses against the brain-wasting disease. Many small renderers and feed mills have        received such warnings for the same and even more-serious violations, but this was the first warning received by a major food processor.
The warning letter, dated February 12 and made available only recently, suggests the FDA is getting more aggressive in enforcement of its        regulations after a recent General Accounting Office report said the FDA's enforcement was too lax, creating a loophole in the nation's defenses against mad-cow disease. The FDA says it hasn't changed its enforcement policy.
An FDA database shows other large companies have violated the regulations, but the agency didn't send them warning letters because their violations weren't considered serious enough. Tyson has agreed to fix the violation but has written a letter to the FDA contending the rules don't apply in this case.
Mad-cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, has ravaged cattle herds in Europe and also spread to Japan. Health officials believe the human variant of the disease, while extremely rare, can be contracted by eating tainted meat. The disease hasn't been found in the U.S.

The FDA letter said one of Tyson's rendering plants in Washington state wasn't placing "Do Not Feed to Cattle or Other Ruminants" labels on its organ slurry, as is required under FDA rules to prevent mad-cow disease. The regulations prohibit cattle from being fed to other cattle, a practice blamed for the spread mad-cow disease elsewhere. The slurry is a mixture of ground bovine offal --- waste parts such as the lungs and liver --- that is used as an ingredient in pet food.

Tyson agreed to start labeling the slurry, but it told the FDA last month that the slurry was only intended for pet food and not farm animals and therefore exempt from the labeling requirements. The company cites in its letter to the FDA a regulation that says pet-food products intended for retail sales are exempt from the labeling requirements. "This product's consistency and color in its present form makes it quite objectionable and unsuitable as a ruminant feed additive," the letter said.

FDA spokeswoman Rae Jones said the agency hadn't yet seen the letter and thus couldn't comment on it. However, a Tyson spokesman said the company had received word from the FDA that the agency had received the company's letter and was considering it. A copy of the letter was dated February 18 and addressed to a compliance officer in Washington state.

Pet food has raised some concerns in the United Kingdom, where a few dozen house cats contracted the feline form of mad-cow disease through eating infected food. But spreading the disease through pet food is very unusual, and the U.S. hasn't banned cow parts from pet food. Best known for its poultry products, Tyson of Springdale, Arkansas, entered the meatpacking business last year when it bought meatpacker IBP Inc.


ASSOCIATED PRESS: A lawsuit filed by two former IBP Inc. workers accuses the meatpacking company of using an underground network of recruiters to bring undocumented immigrants into the United States to work in its beef-packing plant in Joslin, Illinois. The employees' lawsuit says the practice violated federal racketeering laws and kept wages at unnaturally low levels.

The class-action lawsuit, filed earlier this month in Rock Island, Illinois, on behalf of IBP's legal workers, seeks three times the difference in IBP wages compared with industry standards. No hearing date has been set. IBP officials deny any such network exists. "We are extremely offended by the accusations made in this lawsuit," a company statement said. "The plaintiffs are trying to paint a picture of our company that is unfair and grossly inaccurate."

The lawsuit alleges that IBP uses recruiters who smuggle the immigrants into the country, set them up with phony documents and provide them with places to live. "The references in the lawsuit are flat-out inaccurate. We don't want to employ anybody in this country without proper authorization," said company spokesman Gary Mickelson.

IBP has packing plants in Nebraska and other states. It was purchased last year by poultry giant Tyson Foods. According to the lawsuit, the recruiters, who are paid $200 to $500 for each worker, are told to look for people who are "vulnerable, submissive, have little knowledge of the U.S. legal system and a pressing need for immediate employment."

In return, the lawsuit alleges, the company gets an employee who will work long hours in poor conditions for as little as $7 an hour, while other meatpacking plants start their unskilled workers at $13 an hour. "Owing to their constant fear of apprehension by law enforcement authorities, IBP's illegal immigrant workers tolerate deplorable workplace conditions and do not file workers' compensation claims when they are injured on the job," the lawsuit alleges.

Mickelson said workers at IBP's Joslin plant are represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, which signed a new five-year contract last year. "Our starting rate at Joslin is $9 an hour," Mickelson said. "With pay acceleration benefits available to our members, our pay rates are very competitive." As for hiring, Mickelson said, "We prefer to hire as many people locally as possible."

He said there have been occasions when the company recruits outside the state and, "on occasion, we do recruit in Mexico, where there are people who have authorization to work in the United States," he said Documentation of new workers is painstakingly checked, Mickelson said.


DOW JONES NEWSWIRES: A Mississippi-based poultry producer has agreed to pay more than $450,000 in back wages and interest to more than 500 workers to settle a Labor Department lawsuit. The Labor Department announced the agreement on Thursday with Sanderson Farms Inc. (SAFM), based in Laurel, Mississippi. The company has processing plants in Mississippi and Texas.

The agency's Wage and Hour Division, which enforces federal minimum wage and overtime laws, sued the company over violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act regarding use of chicken catchers. Those workers go into a chicken house, chase after the birds and grab them so that they can be slaughtered.

The company will pay back wages to workers at five company plants that use chicken catchers. The Mississippi plants are in Laurel, Hazelhurst, McComb and Collins. A Bryan, Texas, plant is also involved.

The settlement is similar to agreements in two other chicken catcher cases involving Perdue Farms Inc. and Continental Grain Co. in which the agency secured compliance agreements. A suit involving Tyson Foods has not been resolved.


KIM BACA, ASSOCIATED PRESS: A state agency's study found that Hispanic farmworkers have higher rates of brain, leukemia, skin and stomach cancers than other Hispanics in California, a phenomenon their union blames on pesticide exposure. Female Hispanic farmworkers also had more cases of uterine cancer than the rest of the state's Hispanic women, according to the Cancer Registry of California study, "Cancer Incidence in the United Farm Workers of America, 1987-1997."

The study, published in the November issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, doesn't directly link pesticide use to the higher rates of cancer. Another study will examine what pesticides were used and how long farmworkers were exposed to them, said Paul Mills, the study's author and cancer epidemiologist at the Cancer Registry.

But the UFW believes there is a direct relationship between the chemicals and cancer, said Doug Blaylock, the union's medical plan administrator. Bob Krauter,

California Farm Bureau Federation spokesman, said that without discounting for family histories and lifestyles, there's no way to prove a direct link. "Just because workers work in an agricultural setting where pesticides were used, they say, `We're attributing this to pesticides.' I just don't see the connection there,'" he said.

Joseph Wiemels, a cancer epidemiologist at the University of California at San Francisco, cautioned that with general population studies like the registry study,  "there are so many opportunities for bias because you're roughly putting data together." The registry used data from 146,581 farmworkers who had been members of the union from 1973 to 1997 and compared it with the state's general Hispanic population.

It found that out of more than 140,000 farmworkers, 1,001 had been diagnosed with cancer from 1973 into 1997, and that there were 59% more reports of leukemia and 69% more reports of stomach cancers than there were in California's general Hispanic population. The study found fewer incidents of breast and colon cancer among the farmworkers than there were in the state's general Hispanic population, but did not offer an explanation for the finding.

Mills said the study's results show the lack of health care and education available to the farmworkers. The farmworkers were diagnosed at a later stage than most of the state's Latinos, according to the study. Many cancers, such as uterine cancer, are more treatable with early detection, Mills said.

Armando Sanchez, 66, who spent 40 years spraying chemicals on vineyards and citrus orchards in the Imperial Valley, blames the pesticides for his leukemia. Employers provided workers with gloves and masks, but Sanchez said it was often too hot to wear them. Temperatures often rise above 100 degrees where he worked near Palm Springs.

Krauter noted that rates of pesticide injuries and illness have declined in the past 20 years. In 2000, the state Department of Pesticide Regulation recorded 893 incidents, down 1,201 from 1999, according to a recent report.


STEVE BAILEY, BOSTON GLOBE COLUMNIST: Nearly five years ago when the Northeast Interstate Dairy Compact went into effect, retailers immediately jacked up the price of milk 20 cents a gallon to cover the new "tax" increase on consumers. Now that the compact is dead, I have a question: Where's my tax cut?

My free-market bones have never been comfortable with price-setting schemes like the dairy compact, which established a minimum price for milk sold by New England and some New York farmers. But watching what has happened since the compact died on October 1 makes a very bad joke of all that whining that came from dairy processors and retailers about the raw deal the poor consumer was getting from farmers.

The punchline: We're still paying compact prices, but the money is going to fatter profits for retailers and processors, not to New England farmers.

If your family drinks a lot of milk, like mine does, you might want to know what has been happening to your dairy dollars. According to the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture, the average price of a gallon of whole milk in the Boston area was $2.99 in January and February last year, when the compact was still in effect, and in the same two months of this year, when the compact had expired. But the milk processors were paying farmers about 15 cents less a gallon for milk in the first two months of this year than they were a year earlier.

Where did that 15 cents go? Not back to you and me once the milk "tax'" disappeared, that's for sure.

John Bunting takes more interest than most in such things. At age 60, Bunting and his two sons have about 500 acres in the western foothills of the Catskills (nearest town: Delhi, New York, pop. 5,000) where they struggle to stay afloat with their 40 Jersey cows. Bunting's night job: writing for a muckraking little dairy tabloid, The Milkweed, published monthly by editor Pete Hardin out of tiny Brooklyn, Wisconsin.  "Consumers are not benefiting from the end of the compact," says Bunting, who developed the data on the Boston milk market using monthly state and federal pricing reports.

Massachusetts agriculture officials say Bunting is right on the numbers and right on his analysis of who has been profiting on the end of the compact. "The issue is profits," says James Hines, director of the state's division of animal health and dairy services. "There is no logical explanation other than the fact that the money that was going to the farmers is now going to the supermarkets or the processors. They used the compact to raise prices; they didn't use the end of the compact for dropping prices."

Who is to blame: the supermarkets or the processors? "They both take a chunk of it, though the retailers make a higher percentage," says Jay Healy, who just stepped down as the state's agriculture commissioner.

A spokeswoman for the International Association of Dairy Foods, which represents the processors (in New England that means Dean Foods, which controls more than 70% of the market), said she had not seen the Boston milk numbers and could not comment. "Our cost are relatively the same from last year and our retail prices are relatively the same from last year," said a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop, New England's largest
supermarket chain.

One year ago dairy processors were paying $1.46 a gallon for their milk; last month they were paying $1.31. Why am I still paying the same $2.99 for my milk?

Addendum: On the day that Acting Governor Jane Swift said that she would not be running for election, Jay Healy is a reminder of the hidden cost of bad leadership. Healy, appointed by Governor William Weld, retired last week as agriculture commissioner after a nine-year run during which he helped make his tiny little agency a model of how to protect family farms and the environment. Yesterday he said he quit, in part, because he could no longer tolerate Swift: "She was a pretty nice lady who was a pretty poor governor," he says.


Industrial agriculture's resource-intensive methods are bringing us closer to the limits of our ability to produce food and fiber for everyone in the future, according to a review of food production methods conducted by the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The review, appearing in the May 2002 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, outlines the environmental and human health problems associated with current food production practices, and discusses the emerging sustainable agriculture movement that offers a viable alternative to the dominant system.

"The bad news is that the way we grow food now cannot be sustained into the future. Industrial agriculture's damaging impacts on the environment and public health are becoming more apparent all the time, and will only intensify if we continue down this path," says lead author Leo Horrigan, senior research program coordinator at the Center for a Livable Future at the School. "The good news, though, is that there are already a lot of success stories out there of people who are farming in a way that is both ecologically and economically viable."

Horrigan explains that today's conventional or industrial agriculture is considered unsustainable because it erodes natural resources faster than the environment can regenerate them, and because it depends heavily on resources that are nonrenewable, meaning fossil fuels.

Horrigan and his colleagues use examples from around the world to illustrate their points, but they place emphasis on the United States food system. Because of its focus on resource-intensive meat production, the U.S. system represents one of the worst-case examples of the pitfalls of industrial agriculture. The use of growth-promoting antibiotics in animal agriculture is thought to be one of the factors driving the increase in          antibiotic resistance disease in humans. Animal crowding in factory farms and high-speed processing of food animals have been blamed for an increased incidence of foodborne diseases.

The authors say the environmental impacts of industrial agriculture are many and far-reaching. For example, heavy farm machinery degrades soil health and poor farming practices deplete soil fertility, excessive fertilizer and pesticide use pollutes waterways, and monocropping (growing the same crop over hundreds of acres) diminishes biodiversity.

Not only is the environment damaged by industrial agriculture, but the health of humans is damaged as well, because of the foods that are emphasized and the way they are produced. The authors report that the animal-based diet that prevails in the industrialized world --- and is on the rise in many developing countries --- is linked to chronic degenerative conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes. These          diseases are diminishing the quality of life for many, and also putting a large burden on our health care system. Human health is further jeopardized by the heavy use of pesticides, which are associated with elevated cancer risk and possibly endocrine disruption and reproductive dysfunction.

"The earth's population currently stands at 6 billion --- a number estimated by the United Nations to increase to 9.3 billion by the year 2050. As our population grows, so too will the demands we place on the environment. We simply cannot continue to abuse the environment and ourselves in such a fashion." says Robert S. Lawrence, MD, Edyth H. Schoenrich Professor of Preventive Medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Center for a Livable Future.

One of the goals of the sustainable agriculture movement is to create farming systems that mitigate or eliminate the environmental harms that are associated with industrial agriculture. The authors describe several farming methods that enhance sustainability, but they also stress that sustainable agriculture is not merely a package of prescribed methods. It must include a change in mindset whereby agriculture acknowledges its dependence on a finite natural resource base.

The problems inherent in industrial agriculture are complex and there is no single solution, so many people might feel powerless to affect them. But, according to senior author Polly Walker, MD, associate director of the Center for a Livable Future, one personal act that can have a profound impact on these issues is reducing meat consumption.

"To produce one pound of feedlot beef requires about 2,400 gallons of water and seven pounds of grain," she explains. "The average American consumes 97 pounds of beef a year. At that rate, even a modest reduction in meat consumption would substantially reduce the burden on our natural resources, not to mention the personal health benefits reaped from less animal fat in the diet."

Contact: Ming Tai or Tim Parsons
Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health


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