Biden promises a fairer food system
* with Tori Oto, Summer Legal Fellow
Over the decades, lax enforcement of antitrust laws has exacerbated consolidation, which has left control of the vast majority of our food system in the hands of very few, increasingly powerful corporations. The environment, local economies and public health all suffer.
Two very recent actions indicate that the tide may be turning. Finally, our country’s leaders appear poised to offer meaningful protections to small and medium farmers, farmers of color, and workers in the food system, especially those in the meat and poultry sectors.
First, President Biden issued a Executive Decree (EO) to promote competition throughout the US economy. Among the issues addressed, the OE directs the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to consider new rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA) to promote fair competition in the industry meat and make it “easier for farmers to present and earn claims. “A significant update to the PSA could help U.S. poultry and livestock producers move away from harmful Concentrate Feeding (CAFO) operations and embrace smaller-scale, more diverse, and grazing land. He also directs the USDA to explore unfair competition in other parts of the food system that is forcing farmers and farm workers to consolidate in the plant and input industries (pesticides, fertilizers), as well as in the retail sector.
Senator Cory Booker and Representative Rho Khanna also reintroduced the Agricultural System Reform Act, which would strengthen pro-competitive measures in the PSA. It also includes several other measures that support a transition away from harmful industrial animal farming, such as a moratorium on new CAFOs as well as resources for CAFO operators who wish to transition to new professions.
These measures–and more–are urgently needed, because meat pack companies are decreasing in number and increasing in size: the four largest slaughterhouses control more than 80% of the US beef market, the four major pork processors control two-thirds of pork production and the four largest poultry companies control more than half of poultry processing.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how consolidation has exacerbated the vulnerability of our food system, especially in the meat sector, and exacerbated its racial and economic inequalities. As meat plant closures temporarily emptied grocery store shelves, retail meat prices have skyrocketed. Meanwhile, large meat packers have profited from rising prices, profited from an increase in meat exports, and dodged responsibility for ensuring the safety of vulnerable slaughterhouse workers.
At this point, the dominance of the large meat packers largely continues. the price that integrators pay to breeders because their cattle are stagnating, even as retail beef prices paid by consumers have risen and remained high. Producers often feel trapped in the existing industrial or CAFO model, controlled by these same companies. This model forces producers, workers and neighboring communities to bear the health and environmental consequences of cost reduction measures, such as low wages, unsafe working conditions, cleaning of polluted air and waterways, and the diseases caused by this pollution. contributes. The low payments promised to these producers leave them little choice. Meanwhile, dominant companies continue to carve out the lion’s share of the profits, using their inordinate control and power in the market both to protect their unfair profit margins and to exclude small and medium-sized producers, which makes their survival more difficult.
Measures to break this downward spiral of exploitation in the meat sector and to level the playing field are long overdue. Over a decade ago, the Obama administration held listening sessions across the country. Taking significant personal risks, the meat producers then opened up to the continuing injustice they suffered. However, the administration failure following through has left these producers vulnerable and their complaints unanswered. The Trump administration thereafter made matters worse.
The Biden administration now appears poised to push through the necessary reforms, as does the bipartisan leadership in Congress.–in fact, many members of Congress are now defending small-scale and diversified agriculture. With strong new leadership from the USDA and Lina Khan at the head of the Federal Trade Commission, there are good reasons to be optimistic.
The NRDC will continue to support organizations calling for a just, equitable and climate-friendly food system, and hold the Biden administration accountable for its commitments.