By Robert Turner
His name is Albert Einswine. And he’s really fast.
He’s also very smart. Some research suggests that pigs are just as intelligent as dogs. I don’t know about that. Albert often runs around like a maniac, much like my dog does in the yard and for no apparent reason. I think Albert likes the speed and wants to test his short legs to see how fast he can go.
Sometimes Albert will screech to a stop and look right at you, as in this picture, daring you to race him, and then he takes off running again in circles around his large pen. The other pigs usually start chasing him like little racecars around a dirt track. I put my money on Albert. He’s really fast.
He won’t ever experience the consolidation and globalization of the industrialized meat business.
The largest pork producer in the US is Smithfield Foods, which is owned by a Chinese company. This multi-national corporation owns more than 500 farms in the US and processes far more pork than anyone else. Its 973,000-square-foot meat-processing plant in Tar Heel, NC is the world’s largest plant, processing 32,000 pigs a day. The acquisition of Smithfield Foods included 146,000 acres of land and made WH Group, headquartered in Henan province, China, one of the largest overseas owners of American farmland. One in four pigs living in the US is owned by this Chinese company.
When it comes to beef, just four companies control 85 percent of the US meat market, and two of them are foreign-owned companies. JBS, a Brazilian-owned company, is the largest meat packer in the world, and they operate nine cattle processing facilities across the US. JBS has admitted that it bribed more than 1,800 Brazilian politicians and officials to secure Brazilian government loans to help it acquire other companies, which JBS also admitted helped it take over the US beef market. Half of its business (51 percent) now comes from the US. Many have tied the burning of the Amazon to JBS and cattle production in Brazil, as cattle ranchers look for more land to produce more cattle to feed a growing worldwide demand for meat.
Globalization and consolidation continue across the food chain. Three multi-national corporations dominate the market for seeds and fertilizer. Four flour milling companies control 67 percent of the market. Just ten multi-national corporations control most of the brands and products that you buy in the center aisles of the grocery store—the processed foods. (To see them, visit eatyourview.com/why-local.)
According to a study by the USDA, within this decade, more than 75 percent of our fruits and half of our vegetables will come from a foreign nation. The main driver is cheaper labor costs. If a multi-national corporation can grow a pepper cheaper in Peru, that’s what they’re going to do. The US is outsourcing more and more of its food production to foreign nations. Right now, 20 percent of the total food we eat comes from a foreign nation. That’s one out of every five bites that you take.
People might say, “How can this be?” To anyone who has driven through the vast farm country of the Midwest, through the hundreds of miles of endless fields of green—a sea of corn and soybeans—it makes no sense.
Well, that’s part of the problem. The US will continue to grow way too much corn and soybeans. They’re not as labor intensive as other fruits and vegetables—staking tomatoes or picking fruit, for instance. A farmer with a small crew and a combine can harvest thousands of acres of corn.
And what happens with all of that corn? Forty percent of the US corn crop is used for ethanol to go into our gas tanks, and 36 percent for animal feed. Most of the rest—about 17 percent—is exported. That equates to 93 percent of total corn production. Most of the remaining seven percent is used for high-fructose corn syrup and other corn derivatives. Only a small fraction is actually eaten by humans as corn on the cob or as canned corn.
Meanwhile, half of our soybeans are exported, and most of the rest goes to feed animals.
With the consolidation of the food supply into fewer and larger food companies, and with more of our food coming from faraway places, comes a lot of risk. It’s risky business to become dependent on food from foreign nations.
While researching my next book, I interviewed Mike McConnell, the former director of National Intelligence under the George W. Bush administration. The Director of National Intelligence is the highest ranking intelligence officer in the nation, who oversees the NSA, CIA and FBI. In that interview, McConnell told me that his agency conducted research that suggested the United Kingdom is just nine meals away from chaos and food riots in the street. Not nine days. Nine meals. The UK imports most of its food from countries with better climates, like Spain and Italy. If something were to disrupt the food shipments across the English Channel, such as a cyber attack, the UK would be in serious trouble quickly.
That’s why keeping our farming heritage alive in WNC is so important. You can support local food and the farming tradition by shopping at the farmers market, joining a Community Supported Agriculture program and asking for local food at grocery stores and restaurants.
Saving farmland and our food producing capacity is critical to a strong and resilient community. Limiting our dependence on food from faraway places adds to our own food security and food sovereignty.
So I say, “Run, little pig, run!”
Robert Turner is director of the Creekside Farm Education Center and the author of Carrots Don’t Grow on Trees: Building Sustainable and Resilient Communities. To learn more, visit EatYourView.com.