I grew up next to a factory farm near Longmont. It was an industrialized turkey farm, covering several acres and comprised of metallic silos full of crowded birds. The family of my best friend in elementary school operated it and lived next to it. We used to play baseball in his front yard, dodging manure and mud that would fly off the wheels of the trucks that picked up the birds, and we rounded the bases as the smell of manure wafted about. My friend's dad worked hard to make a modest living on that turkey farm for his family. Until one day the company shut down this factory farm--moving its operations and taking its jobs with it. The county eventually bought the derelict facility in order to decommission it.
This childhood story is a case study of our current food system: We are consuming food produced, packaged, distributed, advertised, and controlled by a handful of large corporations as never before. As the story above illustrates, it is a food system that doesn't work except for the few who are reaping massive profits off of it, while it is bad for our health, our environment, and our wallets.
As I meet people throughout Colorado--from Denver to Greeley and from Carbondale to Gunnison - they tell me they're concerned about the industrialization of our food system and are taking matters into their own hands to localize their food. Groups like Transitions, Greenleaf and The Growhaus know that urban farming is not just a fad, but a tangible solution that brings each of us closer to our food supply and our communities.
While many of us are able to plant backyard gardens and maybe even have our own chicken, finding local beef and pork is a lot more challenging. The reason? If you look behind the shrink-wrap on the ground, roasts, chops, and filets at the grocery store, you will discover that 83 percent of beef, 4 out of every 5 beef cattle, is processed by four companies, and 66 percent of pork is processed by four companies.
Ironically, as folks throughout Colorado seek out meat from more local, sustainable sources, the town of Greeley is the U.S. headquarters to one of the largest and fastest growing meat corporations in the world - Brazilian-owned JBS. You might remember the local meat packing plant in Greeley used to be owned by Monfort, then ConAgra bought it, then Swift purchased it, and now we have reached the hey-day of JBS.
After JBS acquired Swift in 2008, this corporation with headquarters in Sao Paulo, Brazil promptly bought feedlot operations from competing corporations that were clustered around its new packing plant. JBS didn't buy just any feedlot; they bought "the world's largest cattle feeder," Five Rivers Cattle Feeding. The Five Rivers feedlots have the capacity to raise more than 300,000 head of cattle each year in Colorado. In one quick move, JBS is now able to control huge portions of both the feeding and meatpacking sectors of the beef industry.
Why does this matter to consumers? Because this type of control means that if these companies choose to raise meat using hormones and antibiotics (and they do), or feed their animals corn from genetically-modified seed (and they do), we don't have a say in the matter. And if one thing goes wrong at one of those companies, we all risk being affected, as the current egg recall - one of the largest in American history - is now demonstrating.
Our neighborhood Rancher Jane and Rancher John are becoming a thing of the past. As these corporations increasingly own the animals on giant feedlots they control, they are able to suppress the price independent ranchers across the state can get for their livestock while simultaneously ratcheting up the price consumers are charged at the local supermarket. The price cattle producers receive for their beef cattle have fallen steadily over the past 20 years by nearly one fifth. At the same time, the prices consumers pay for ground beef has increased by nearly a quarter. Where's the money in the middle going? The concentrated meatpacker market - they capture more than half of the beef cattle sector's earnings.
Since 1980, more than half a million ranching operations have been eliminated from America's landscape. In Colorado, the number of cattle operations fell from 19,000 in 1980, to 14,700 in 2007. As they disappear, we consumers have much fewer choices about where to pick up our next steak. Instead we are left with a dizzying choice of labels and brands that come from a just a small handful of producers instead of getting to have a conversation with the ranchers and farmers in our communities.
This is why all Coloradoans should care that tomorrow, Friday, Aug. 27, for the first time in history, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice will convene a workshop in Fort Collins to hear from independent ranchers and farmers, meatpacking workers, and corporate interests about the imbalances in the livestock industry.
Tomorrow's hearing is just a first step to bringing back more small and midsized independent ranchers and meat packers dispersed across the country. This means more small businesses, good local jobs, safer food and a cleaner environment. We can't shop our way out of these problems. But we can get involved in creating a more sustainable, just food system together.
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