Friday, November 23, 2007

No free market for small farmers

By Libby
Updated below

While the Bush administration continues its ongoing war against competency in government and ignores climate disruption, consumers have been taking matters into their own hands and buying shares in small farms in order to get access to organic, unprocessed food and diary products from local purveyors outside of the corporate delivery system.

Business is booming and suddenly, the same regulators that can't be bothered to inspect commercial facilities more than once a year, have taken a keen interest in protecting us from direct transactions with food providers. In the last few weeks federal regulators arrested 62-year-old custom hog farmer Richard Bean, and his 60-year-old wife, Jean Rinaldi, for slaughtering their own hogs, an apple cider provider was shut down on his busiest weekend and a share farm selling raw dairy products was quarantined under a regulation that shouldn't apply to them.

There's more at the link but in every instance, the consumer chose to cut corporate profit out of the equation. The benefit to the farmer is obvious.

Farmers who sell their cattle to processors may receive $2 a pound, compared to anywhere from $5 to $18 a pound, depending on the quantity purchased and the cut of meat, when they do their own slaughtering. Similarly, when dairy farmers sell milk to processors for pasteurization, they receive in the neighborhood of $1.50 to $2.50 a gallon (depending on bacteria counts and whether the milk is organic). When they sell direct, they receive $5 to $10 a gallon.

The good news is that some case law in favor of the farmer-to-consumer model has upheld its legality. But it's far from a settled issue and I expect the intimidation of the farmers will continue as the consumer demand grows. Yet to my knowledge, there have been no instances of illness arising from the transactions. The same can't be said for the corporate delivery system where it seems there's a new round of recalls of tainted food every week.

Libertarians keep telling me that the solution to this is to weaken government regulations. I don't see how that will do anything but allow the corporations to more easily foist off bad food. If anything, the regulations probably need to be strengthened. More importantly they need to be enforced against the commercial facilities they were designed to oversee, not wrongly used to destroy privately owned competition. [via Avedon]

Update: Jim Henley kindly links in. Loves me, hates my conclusions. I'd have to say the same about him.

I'm not unaware that Bush didn't build the bureaucracy singlehandedly, but he stacked the agencies with industry cronies, putting them in charge of oversight. Under his administration, regulations have been relaxed from previous safety standards for everything from consumer goods to coal mining. Enforcement against corporate entities is practically nonexistent. As a result we've seen unprecendented recalls of everything from toys to food to prescription drugs and a lot of coal miners have died. I just don't see how eliminating regulatory control altogether would provide any incentive for improvement. It makes sense to me to have safety standards.

Which is not to say the system isn't bloated and could use a good overhaul. But I think the problem isn't so much with the bureaucracy as it is with the bureaucrats who run it. And for the record, I'm against farm subsidies. They're just another form of corporate welfare. The money doesn't go to the small farmers who could really use it.

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