Farmers angry about relentless consolidation and food prices
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Farmers angry about relentless consolidation and food prices

Thanksgiving in both Canada and the U.S. is a hallowed holiday. But this year, American farmers are not feeling festive, nor are they optimistic things are going to change with Christmas around the corner. And their president is starting to pay attention.

At issue is shrinking corporate ownership, and how so little competition exists among farmers’ suppliers. The U.S. National Farmers Union notes that for every dollar spent on Thanksgiving meals, a paltry 14 cents of it goes to farmers and ranchers.

Compare that to the old days – back in the 1950s, when farmers had many more choices about where to buy supplies. Then, half of the food dollar went to them.

Now though, their costs are skyrocketing. The agricultural economy is huge and farmers spend billions on mandatory supplies feed for their animals, seed, fertilizer to grow their crops and crop protection products to abate bugs and weeds.

But major commodity suppliers’ ownership has shrunk drastically. The farmers’ union notes just four companies control 85 per cent of beef packing, 85 per cent of seed corn production and 84 per cent of the pesticide market. And since the 1970s, 40 per cent of flour mills and nearly 90 per cent of meat processing facilities have closed their doors, unable to compete with the giants.

Prices could get even worse, as supply chains that bring essentials to farmers remain sluggish and suppliers’ costs increase as well. With the Omicron variant upon us, and who knows what after that, the forecast for more fair and efficient supply chains is unclear.

And now all this is landing on consumers’ laps, in the form of higher food prices.

In response, producers are stepping up a campaign they started in September, as harvest approached, called Fairness For Farmers. It’s designed to raise awareness of the inequitable position they say they’re in. In the U.S., the campaign is aimed at policy makers who have let consolidation steamroll the countryside.

Corporations will be fingered as the villain. If anyone doubts that activists can’t pull that trigger, just look at what happened to Monsanto. As a result of restrictive technology ownership policies that many felt benefitted the company more than they did farmers, Monsanto became synonymous with corporate greed and heavy handedness, even when the company marketed biotechnology products that farmers really liked.

Most farmers still gravitate towards technology and need it in place of the manual labour they just can’t find. But they’re pretty grumpy about how much it all costs, and wonder why.

U.S. President Joe Biden wonders why, too. On Monday, he convened a meeting of decision makers from major retailers, consumer products firms and grocers, to see what’s up, and how everyone could work together to keep store shelves stocked.

Farmers have some ideas. Start by improving price discovery and ensuring fair and accurate market information, they say. Facilitate competition and more diverse market opportunities. Reinvigorate antitrust enforcement.

And do it now, they add, before prices are out of sight.

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