The Cost of Industrial Ag

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By Gracy Olmstead

When most Americans think about agriculture, they picture a small mom and pop farm with a few hundred acres and a small group of happy cows. Few realize that small agricultural enterprises are far from the norm today: as Leah Douglas wrote for Pacific Standard yesterday, “just four companies control 65 percent of pork slaughter, 84 percent of cattle slaughter, and 53 percent of chicken slaughter. Milk production is largely shaped by one large processor, Dean Foods, and one large cooperative, Dairy Farmers of America.” What are the practical results of this? Douglas writes,

Farmers face less competitive markets in which to sell their goods, leaving them vulnerable to any price offered by a buyer. Distributors and suppliers feel their prices squeezed as large retailers like Walmart leverage their growing power over the supply chain. Eaters are faced with an illusion of choice, wandering through supermarket aisles where dozens of seemingly competitive products might be owned by the same one or two food processors. Workers on farms and in meatpacking plants face pressure to increase production, sometimes at the expense of their safety. Animals living on factory farms are crowded into stifling barns, often receive unnecessary antibiotics, and are susceptible to disease.

Crony capitalism has been a problem in American agriculture for some time; our Farm Bill (which Jim Antle has called “welfare for the rich and politically connected”) doles out subsidies and financial supports to our country’s biggest corporatized farms. This can foster the sort of consolidation described above, while having a deleterious impact on the health of our land and communities, and a detrimental effect on competition and growth in our farming economy.

Throughout this presidential election, “big business” and “big banks” have gotten a lot of attention due to Bernie Sanders’s influence. Yet despite his crusade against large U.S. corporations, very little attention has been paid to agriculture and the role industrialized farms play in helping, or hurting, the U.S. economy. Neither Clinton nor Trump have a positive record when it comes to agriculture. Donald Trump’s only stated positions on farming put him directly in the pocket of Big Ag—he’s also attacked Cruz for his stance against ethanol mandates and subsidies, while declaring his own support for the industry. “His full-throated support for the ethanol mandate puts no room between him and Hillary, who has never met a corporate handout she didn’t like,” writes Tim Carney for the Washington Examiner.

Last month, the Obama administration issued an executive order that aims to support “a fair, efficient, and competitive marketplace.” The order condemns practices such as “unlawful collusion, illegal bid rigging, price fixing, and wage setting,” as well as other practices that “stifle competition and erode the foundation of America’s economic vitality.”

Yet despite the attention this new executive order draws to the problems in the American marketplace, it seems ill suited to address the problems therein.”When you see a headline like ‘Obama to Sign Executive Order to Ignite Corporate Competition’ you have to scratch your head at the premise,” notes Clyde Wayne Crews Jr. over at Forbes. “Igniting” or fostering competition often necessitates at least some deregulation, a freeing of the market and the players in that market—”something that doesn’t involve an executive order asking for action items from agencies in 60 days.”

As our system of agriculture has grown in size, it has also grown less sustainable. And while consolidation isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, the obstruction of competition and sustainability are. We have begun to see this, and are starting to consider necessary adjustments. But in order to see real reform, we need to consider changes that might be made at the congressional level, specifically to the Farm Bill, which could bring greater freedom to small farmers and entrepreneurs.

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