President Biden, we’re pleading with you—please take steps to ensure American family farms can still make a living, that rural communities thrive, and that we have a food system that works for consumers, our environment, national security, and our democracy. We’ve been going in the wrong direction for far too long.
All three of us have seen our small Midwest towns get smaller, the farms become fewer as Big Ag gets bigger. We need an administration committed to counteracting the stranglehold that a handful of multinational corporations have on each step of our food system.
Recent supply chain disruptions in the industrial meat industry offer a vivid example of how centralized corporate control has made our food system less resilient. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the largest corporate meatpackers have exposed workers to unsafe conditions at processing facilities while exporting record amounts of meat outside the United States. Lobbyists for big meat companies have successfully weakened enforcement of worker safety, antitrust, and competition rules, and environmental and food safety protections. In this unprecedented crisis, multinational meat companies acted like they always do: increasing profits while independent family farm livestock producers are paid less, workers are put at risk, and consumers pay more.
Excess corporate control within the meat industry is not new. It has been plaguing family farmers and rural communities for decades, right through current Biden nominee Tom Vilsack’s first tenure (2009–17) as secretary of agriculture. The Biden administration needs to go beyond the status quo to shift resources to family-farm-based regional food systems instead of corporate-controlled industrialized operations.
This should start with the next wave of the pandemic response. In Minnesota, pandemic aid has helped, but we have had five years of low milk prices, the loss of hundreds of dairy farmers, and we do not want or expect aid money to go on for years.
First, multinational corporations should not receive pandemic relief funds; instead, public dollars should go to independent family farmers and local food infrastructure to ensure their survival. Second, public money should not support new or expanding Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) through direct payments, loan guarantees, or other programs. Third, we should prioritize protecting workers in meatpacking plants (and the rest of the food system) with enforceable workplace safety and health standards, and require public reporting of Covid-19 outbreaks in the workplace.
In Missouri, we’ve seen most of the state’s independent hog producers put out of business in just one generation. We can’t let that happen to our rural economies. The Biden administration can take immediate steps to restore fairness and competition in livestock markets. The Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration should be reinstated as a stand-alone agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The strong 2016 version of the Farmer Fair Practice Rule should be brought back. And reinstating mandatory Country of Origin Labeling for meat and dairy should be a priority.
In Iowa, the shuttering of independent livestock buying stations and sale barns in the late 1990s and early 2000s was a precursor to the loss of small businesses and vibrant, rural communities. The Biden administration should immediately instruct the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice to pause approval of new mergers of large agriculture and food companies, and thoroughly evaluate the effects previous mergers have had on family farmers, workers, rural communities, and consumers.
The administration can also act to redirect public spending toward supporting the public good. We should stop using conservation programs such as the USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program to fund CAFO operations. We should stop providing USDA and Small Business Administration loan guarantees for new and expanding CAFOs. We should improve the accuracy of tracking foreign ownership of farmland. And let’s not waste public money on silver bullet solutions like methane digesters for CAFOs, which perpetuate a highly polluting and economically damaging system of production.
Instead, the administration should support existing family farm operations and expand opportunities for a diverse set of beginning farmers. USDA programs should improve access to farmland and ensure that all farmers, at every scale, have access to fair markets that allow them to make a good living. And let’s focus climate policies on deeper public investments in livestock production that support sustainably managed pasture-based systems run by independent farm families.
This pandemic taught us that who controls our food system matters. Right now, a few multinational conglomerates are writing the rules and extracting every cent of wealth they can from family farmers, workers, and consumers. The status quo from the Biden administration is not sustainable. We need a democratic, decentralized farm and food industry that works for people and our planet.