Turn Back, It's a Trap!

Most wild horse and Western movie fans know of the box canyon trick for capturing a band of horses.  The unsuspecting herd is gradually hazed down a valley into a high-walled canyon with no egress.  Meanwhile, a fence is thrown up or gate closed across a narrow part of the valley to block escape back through the valley.

It all starts innocently enough.  The wild horses range rather freely, grazing on a variety of grasses and moving around constantly, which prevents overgrazing.  They know where the good watering holes are and where predators hang out.  The band cooperates for survival.  They live in natural rhythm with the land and seasons and other wild animals.

Once upon a time, people grew most of their own food.  They had small farms with gardens, grains, and a collection of livestock.  Some of the folks lived in town, but they purchased their food from their farmer neighbors.  In turn, the farmers bought goods and services from the town folks.  Because there were lots of small farms, a person usually had a choice about where to buy their food and they knew who was growing it.  Farmers knew their reputation was at stake, so they worked to earn the trust of their patrons.

One day, some riders appear.  They fan out around the select group of horses, and start gradually moving them in the desired direction.  If the horses are particularly skittish, the riders may spend several days camping near the band to have the horses become accustomed to their presence.  As long as there is food and water, the wild horses seem fairly content.

Gradually, cities grew. Machines were invented. People worked in factories, producing various items of necessity. Tractor power replaced horse power on the small farms, and one farmer could tend to more land.  Some farmers bought up more land from their neighbor farmers, who were willing to sell for various reasons. Some farmers began to specialize in raising one type of crop, such as corn or wheat, or one type of meat animal, such as chickens or hogs. At the same time, the processing of these crops and meat animals started to become a specialty; it was no longer done on the farms, but at facilities owned by companies.  Food was distributed to city dwellers by various companies.

The wild horses steadily move away from the riders, who, in turn, steadily follow.  The band groups together; some are becoming alarmed.  They pick up the pace, attempting to put distance between themselves and the intruders.   When the band attempts to change direction, the riders carefully manage the detour and pretty soon the band is again on its way toward the canyon.  The valley gradually narrows.

Companies and corporations are formed to pool money for the purpose of accomplishing tasks that are too large for an individual or a small group of individuals. This has always been a two-edged sword. The danger is made manifest when the corporation becomes too large or corrupt, and wields more power than individual citizens or communities. Corporations began to buy crop land or pay farmers to raise crops for them.  Corporations began to hire livestock producers to raise animals that the corporations owned. Mono-cropping (raising fields of one crop type) left crops highly susceptible to disease or pests.  Crowding of livestock resulted in high levels of disease and parasites.  Chemical pesticides, herbicides and medications came into wide-spread use.  At first the problems seemed solved.  But the weeds, parasites and bacteria evolved.  They became resistant, thus necessitating deadlier chemicals.  The cycle repeated itself over and over.  Still, the farms grew in size, while the number of actual farmers plummeted.  Citizen consumers, meanwhile, became enamored with grocery stores and supermarkets.  No longer did they have to milk the cow; milk appeared in bottles and cartons.  For awhile, food was basically recognizable.  Gradually, all manner of boxed and canned items materialized, with claims of nutrition and incredible flavor. So many choices!  So easy to fix! Never mind that the list of ingredients became ever longer and the names of the ingredients more unpronounceable. This was food heaven.

The wild horses break into a run, disturbed that the riders are still following so close.  Some of the lead horses surge ahead , looking for escape routes.  A few try again to veer off the path; the riders deftly and decisively force them back to the herd, knowing that it wouldn’t take long for the rest of the band to catch on and bolt away from the intended trap route.

Corporations, being rather organized, wealthy and very un-democratic, began to work together to shape economics and laws that benefitted themselves.  Farming became ever more expensive, which heightened the barrier preventing new farmers from even getting started.  Weather and markets contributed to volatility in farming, as they always had.  The central government at some point stepped in and offered subsidies, designed to stabilize agriculture and provide food for citizens.  Consumers were fairly oblivious, thanks to the lower costs of their increasingly complex food items.  Little by little, the large corporate farms began to merge, thus gaining larger market shares and subsidies.

When the central government would attempt to protect citizens and communities from the growing hazards of industrial farms, livestock production and feedlots, the corporations would lobby for their rights, which had been steadily granted by various legislative bodies.  Meanwhile, the meat-packing plants and food manufacturing plants grew and consolidated until only a handful now remain. This fact has been disguised from the citizen consumers by peppering the multitude of products with scores of different brand names, thus creating the illusion of choice. Low food prices, due in part to low wages paid to production workers, lulls the consumer into complacency.

By now the herd is strung out, but lined up and galloping toward the trap.  In their panic, they are no longer aware of much else.  Moving forward seems equivalent to survival, so onward they run.  The stragglers, young and old, fall back – exhausted, injured, dying; the riders don’t care.  Suddenly, the herd leaders find themselves in the box canyon, with its high, steep walls.  There is no way out!  They turn and begin to gallop back the way they had come.  They encounter the other members of the herd, and chaos ensues as the horses mill about , deciding whom to follow.  Which way do we go?  What has happened? How did we not sense the trap?

These corporations have also contributed vast sums of money to politicians, who would then grant them favors after gaining seats in local, state or federal governments.  Corporate officers were appointed to various government committees.  Now the foxes were guarding the hen houses.  At some point, the corporations were given permission to patent the “life” – seeds and animals – that they developed through genetic engineering.  These new entities were considered similar enough to natural entities to allow for their use without extensive testing.  The corporations sell the seeds to farmers, who plant them and raise the crop.  But the farmers  cannot keep any of the seeds produced by the plants grown on their land, because the corporation owns the rights to them.  The farmer must buy new seed every year, at the price conveniently set by the corporation.  The farmers attempt to buy from other corporations instead, only to find that there are really only a few to choose from, and those few collude to keep prices in their favor.  Pollen from the altered plants spreads to neighbors’ fields; corporations accuse these unsuspecting farmers of stealing, and file lawsuits against them.

Some of the citizen consumers are becoming increasingly alarmed by the chronic diseases associated with rapant chemical use, the outbreaks of new and deadly strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria found in some food items, the unquestionable degradation and loss of our once incredibly rich, productive soils, the ballooning volume of chemicals and toxic waste polluting our various sources of water, and the untested personal and environmental consequences of genetically modified organisms. These people also realize the danger of having a handful of megacorporations controlling all of their food supply chain, from planting, to production, to distribution. This fact is very ominous; it is contrary to any idea of personal and national security.

The herd of wild horses has turned, racing back toward their former lands.  The riders are using all their tricks to stop them.  The barrier fence has been closed across the valley opening and the riders form a menacing wall.   But this may not be enough to stop a group of determined horses who have realized their mistake, and refuse to give up their freedom so easily.  If the herd is large enough…

The last decade has seen the explosion of farmer’s markets and various types of community supported agriculture systems. People want to meet the farmers that are growing their food.   Increasing numbers of consumers are seeking out produce, meats and other products that are grown in manners that support the environment; these consumers are willing to pay more for these products.  Methods of farming that heal the soil and ecosystems are being shared and adopted.  One by one, the farmers themselves are being restored to a higher place of honor.  Young people are seeking to apprentice with farmers and to buy their own farms.

Even city dwellers are planting their own gardens, in place of their former lawns, or in pots on their patios and rooftops.  Abandoned lots are being converted to gardens.  Chickens abound in some city backyards.  People are choosing to eat locally produced and seasonal foods.  Communities are becoming stronger as their members support each other’s businesses. Groups of citizens are demanding to know what chemicals or genetically modified organisms are in the food products, so they can make their own choices. These citizens are demanding that the governing bodies remember they exist to serve the true human citizens, not the artificially-created, private corporate entities.  If enough citizens join these efforts…

How do these stories end?  That, dear reader, it up to you…

Author’s note:  My story is not intended to be a comment on the wild horses of today; I’m aware that their situation and management is a complex issue.  I just felt this allegory was useful in my attempt to portray the larger picture of what is happening to our food system.  I purposely did not include dates or names; the reader can easily find plenty of information with a little research.  The topic, players and details are less important than the perspective needed to see this pattern as it occurs over and over: the attempts by a greedy and powerful few to entrap, and thus control, the many.  This pattern is repeated in so many areas of life.  Constant vigilance, taking personal responsibility to educate oneself, and participating in civic affairs are the actions necessary for maintaining true democracy and choice.

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