Guest Post: Emily Nelson “Eating as a Political Act”

I had a few emails about one portion of my post last week and I asked Emily if she wouldn’t mind sharing her research concerning politics, lobbyists, fast food and personal choices! I have been meaning to research and write a post of my own on this topic, but Emily did such a great job that I’m happy to give her the floor on this one as it is a fascinating essay and way to present this information.

Emily and I welcome comments and questions!

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As we all compared what we eat [in class last semester], it wasn’t the actual food choices that peaked my interest, but rather it was all the varying reasons WHY we ate what we did. Some people eat because of tradition, convenience, taste; some choose what to or what not to eat because of their religion, ethics or concern about the environment. But what if everyone saw eating as a political act?

This topic could be expounded upon at length and it can easily permeate a wide variety of issue areas from health care to the war in Iraq. I clearly cannot cover all of these topics in less than ten minutes but what I’d like to impart upon you all today is the way in which every single one of our individual consumption choices has an effect that goes beyond the pleasure we derive from it, or the time we save or the tradition we uphold. I realize that this has the potential to be an uneasy topic so I’d like to preface by saying that I’m not trying to preach to anyone or imply that any of your individual choices are bad, wrong, violent or unethical. I’m simply offering a perspective, a way of thinking that has influenced my food choices and me.

As I’d imagine we’d all agree that it’s fascinating to look behind the scenes of our food!

One food in particular that has a very complicated background is beef. When deconstructing this particular food, we discover a jaw-dropping level of control that one company in particular has assumed over the global food supply, starting with beef. That company is Cargill.

With global operations based in Minnesota since 1865, Cargill has quietly placed itself behind the sustenance of most of the world’s population. While the company is well known in rural communities, most urbanites have never heard the name. This low profile has much to do with the company not being publicly traded and thereby not required to publicly communicate the company’s financial and strategic positions. Instead, Cargill is one of the largest privately owned companies in the world.

While beef is only one division of Cargill’s operations, it is an extremely telling one.

-Cargill is involved in beef processing worldwide.

-Cargill Meat Solutions processes more than 7.6 million cattle per year in North America.

-This all comes from just 10 processing plants in all of North America.

Of course there’s more to the production of beef than just the animal itself, and Cargill has ensured a place throughout the chain of inputs. It is involved in all of the following sectors:

-Feed (Nutrena, a feed company specializing in beef production)

-Grain (control a significant % of the global grain trade)

-Biotechnology (partnership w/ Monsanto, Renessen, develops GE technology for grains for cattle)

-Fertilizer (joint owner of MOSAIC, the world’s largest processed phosphate producer and the leading miner, processor and distributor of potash- both key ingredients in fertilizer)

-Natural Gas (another key ingredient is nitrogen, Cargill is one of the leading traders of natural gas)

-Packaging (Joint ownership of NatureWorks, a corn plastic producer)

So what’s the danger of such dominance over our food supply? Well the list is extensive.

-Food Safety: risks of massive illness outbreaks caused by tainted food

-Economic Risks: When one or a few companies exert such control over so many interconnected commodities, the price of those commodities become very much in the control of those companies. To make matters worse, this control can increase the prevalence of dumping, whereby product is pushed into a market at below the cost of production. This undermines the ability of local producers to compete.

-“Distortion of political systems” (author Frances Moore Lappe) When a company assumes such immense control over something as integral as food, they can also maintain a disproportionate influence over democratically elected governments.

In the case of Cargill, it appears that this is indeed their strategy.

Serving as the Vice-President of the United States between 1965-1969, Hubert Humphrey maintained very close ties with Cargill. According to Humphrey, “If you are looking for a way to get people to lean on you and be dependent on you, in terms of their cooperation with you, it seems to me that food dependence would be terrific.”

Mind you: to get just one calorie of food energy from a steak, we burn 54 irreplaceable fossil-fuel calories, so producing one pound of steak – providing less than 1,000 calories – uses up 45,000 fossil fuel calories.

Clearly there must be a connection between fossil fuel and agriculture in the U.S. Consider the political impact of farm subsidies:

-Farm subsidies are highly concentrated geographically. Specifically, only 19 congressional districts (of 435) accounted for half of federal crop subsidies paid between 2003 and 2005.

-The district that received the highest percentage of benefits from the Crop Subsidy Program was the 3rd District of Nebraska, represented by Rep. Adrian Smith. The district received $1.7 billion between 2003-2005.

-The largest Cargill meat processing plant is located within this district. Nebraska also ranks third in grain production in the US.

-Adrian Smith’s campaign funding:

-The top campaign contribution to Smith in 2007-2008 was $10,000 from employees

of AG Processing.

-This was matched by Honeywell International, a manufacturer of civil and military avionics and other aerospace products.

-His third highest contributor was:

-Tacala LLC, which is the largest franchise operator of Taco Bell restaurants in the nation with over 160 in the Southeastern United States

Think about it: Cargill and cattle ranchers and corn farmers and fast food franchises all survive on two things: money and oil. When you choose to eat at Taco Bell, you are sending an economic message that says, “Keep making Taco Bell- I’ll buy it.” Taco Bell in turn says, “We better keep getting cheap corn and cheap beef.”

So, the cattle ranchers and the corn farmers say to Cargill, “We need to increase production, get us some fertilizer, get us some pesticides. Oh and we need to process and package our products. Do that for us too– and CHEAPLY!” So Cargill says, well, we’re going to need a lot of cheap oil to produce, process, manufacture and transport all those goods and services. We better keep the oil coming!” So who does Cargill go to? The easy answer is the politicians. But when a company like Cargill is so well integrated and therefore so necessary for the success of numerous other industries, it gets to call the shots. So, it gets those other industries to gain politician support for them. Thus, Adrian Smith’s campaign funding: Agricultural processors, Taco Bell and then the curious Honeywell Int’l.

Well, here’s where it all comes together. Cargill (read: cattle ranchers, corn farmers, fast food franchises, etc.) needs lots of cheap oil. When decisions are going to be made in congress over possession of that oil, Cargill will need some political allies to vote in favor of whatever needs to happen in order to obtain that oil. This means even voting in favor of wars against countries with a lot of strategic access to oil. Now, if Cargill wants to really guarantee that this politician will be on their side when he marks his ballot, they’re going to get the war industry involved too, just for good measure. Precisely why Honeywell’s donation came after the Ag Processing industry and precisely why its donation matched theirs. Now Adrian Smith’s votes are chosen for him. His decisions are in the hands of big ag and big oil and bad food. See how that all started with your decision to eat Taco Bell?

A quarter of the US’s daily need for oil (five million barrels) comes from the highly volatile Middle East. The US government could drastically reduce the need for all their five million barrels, and staunch the flow of much blood in the process, simply by consuming less meat. National Geo estimates that you could drive a car from LA to NYC on the oil required to farm and bring to market just one cow. With such a hunger for tasty and convenient foods, we don’t realize that what we’re really demanding is more oil and in turn more violence and war. Our politicians are given unhealthy influence over the economics of food commodities and the market forces that drive food consumption. Companies with interests that lie within these bounds get to play puppet masters and we just keep buying tickets to the show.

With food occupying such a significant part of our lives, understanding the implications of our food choices can create a real sense of empowerment and self-determination and most importantly, it is an easy step to take in order to gain control of our politics in a system that so often seems out of touch.

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2 thoughts on “Guest Post: Emily Nelson “Eating as a Political Act”

  1. […] Guest Post: Emily Nelson “Eating as a Political Act” « Welcome to … […]

  2. […] You find the original post here jennylynes.wordpress … | jclynes […]

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