Contract farming carries a high social cost, warns Dick Levens, a University of Minnesota ag economist.

"Control of our food system could be taken over by a few multinational corporations," he says. "And that means we'd lose the Jeffersonian ideal of a democracy built on millions of independent farms."

He says government farm programs, including income supports, were designed to help independent farmers.

"But contract farmers get their orders from large multinational corporations and lenders. We're losing millions of the rough and rugged independent thinkers, and some who are left talk about being reduced to `serfdom' status by contract farming."

Unless contract farming is curtailed, we may soon have farm policies without the independent farmers they're intended for, says the economist. To prevent that, he says the government could:

- Identify family-sized, independent farms and help them survive through direct payments.

- Either use antitrust laws to limit the power of global corporations, or regulate them as public utilities.