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Comment: Gambling on the future of food, rural communities

As wealth and power concentrate in the ag sector, the outcomes are getting worse

In the opinion that led to the settlements, one of the appellate judges who denied Smithfield a retrial, asked a simple question: “How did it come to this?”

Three events on consecutive mid-November days show farmers, ranchers, and all citizens where agriculture now is.

Event One: On Nov. 18, the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a not-for-profit news website, detailed allegations on how managers at Tyson Food’s hog-killing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, literally gambled on employee lives as the coronavirus took root last April.

“In mid-April,” related the Dispatch from information contained in a recently disclosed lawsuit, Waterloo’s “plant manager Tom Hart organized a cash-buy-in, winner-take-all betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19,” as he continued its 19,500-hog, daily kill.

What empowers a plant manager to, allegedly, run a betting pool on how many of his employees will become infected with a sickening, sometimes fatal, virus during the rise of a global pandemic?

Equally important, what do you call a company that harbours such an employee?

A day after the news broke, the Associated Press called Tyson Foods a coronavirus super spreader. The betting pool, it explained, operated “as the virus spread through the Waterloo plant, ultimately infecting more than 1,000 of its 2,900 workers, killing at least six and sending many others to the hospital. The outbreak eventually tore through the broader Waterloo community.”

Event Two: On Nov. 19, one of Tyson’s key competitors, Smithfield Foods, settled several federal lawsuits filed by plaintiffs “who had sued the company over the stench, flies, buzzards, and truck traffic coming from its industrial swine farms in North Carolina,” noted the Food & Environment Reporting Network, or FERN.

In the opinion that led to the settlements, one of the appellate judges who denied Smithfield a retrial, asked a simple question: “How did it come to this?”

Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III’s answer, based on the facts he had heard in the case, was as succinct as his question:
“… The decades-long transition to concentrated animal feeding operations (‘CAFOs’) lays bare this connection… (between) animal welfare and human welfare… ”

In short, “The dangers endemic to such appalling conditions (are) always manifested first in animal suffering” and, afterwards “… the ripples of dysfunction would reach farm workers and, at last, members of the surrounding community.”

Every farmer and rancher knows what the judge meant; it’s a small step from mistreating your animals or land to mistreating your employees, neighbours or, worse, family.

That’s the slippery slope seen both in the Tyson allegations and the Smithfield settlement: The more power given to corporations by lax government or local communities desperate for jobs, the more power the corporations take.

This power underlies the “dysfunction” that Judge Wilkinson warns will, sooner or later, “reach… members of the surrounding community” — you, me and Smithfield’s long-suffering neighbours and, allegedly, Tyson’s Waterloo employees.

Event Three: New research proves it.

According to research made public Nov. 19, the day of the Smithfield settlement, corporate ag’s increasing power “has resulted in numerous negative impacts on farmers, workers and their communities as well as consumers, who have experienced higher prices and less innovation.”

The study, completed by Mary Hendrickson of the University of Missouri, Philip Howard of Michigan State University, Emily Miller of Family Farm Action Alliance, and Douglas Constance of Sam Houston State University, has a singular, inescapable point:

Today’s “concentration of ownership, wealth and power… (is) directly related to who… make(s) decisions in food and agriculture… ”

And, “We observe that these decisions have increasingly migrated from a more community or public arena into the realm of… those within the biggest firms… (who) have their eye on increasing their power… and although this may increase their profits, it does not usually align with enhancing the public good.”

In short, the more power we give corporate ag, the more it takes, and the more it takes, the more it gambles on the people and communities that grow and deliver everyone’s food.

And, as recent events have shown again, that’s a bad bet for rural communities.

The Farm & Food File is published weekly in newspapers throughout the U.S. and Canada.

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