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Elanor Starmer

U.S. farm policy reforms in 1996 produced significant overproduction of supported crops, with prices falling to levels that were often below average farm production costs. Among the beneficiaries of the policy shift were the largest corporate purchasers of supported crops, as they saw a steady supply of low-priced inputs. Industrial livestock firms were among the most significant buyers of U.S. corn and soybeans, the main components of livestock feed. Filling an important gap in the literature, this paper estimates the savings to industrial hog operations between 1997 and 2005 from feed components priced at levels below their production costs. The savings are found to be significant. We also find that industrial hog companies benefited from weak federal regulation of environmental pollution from livestock operations. We estimate the costs to industrial hog firms of compliance with new environmental regulations regarding mitigation of surface-water contamination from excess manure concentrations. This cost is also found to be significant. We assess the implications of these findings for the continued consolidation and industrialization of the industry. We find that mid-sized diversified farms that grow their own feed may well be able to compete on cost with large-scale industrial operations if the latter pay full cost for their feed and have to pay for just one part of their externalized pollution costs.


Download the Global Development and Environment Institute working paper no. 01-04.