* with Tori Oto, wine collaborator
Over the decades, poor antitrust enforcement has exacerbated consolidation, which has left control of the vast majority of our food system in the hands of a handful of increasingly powerful enterprises. The environment, local economies and public health all suffer as a result.
Two very recent actions signal that the tide may turn. Finally, the leaders of our nation seem ready to provide meaningful protection to small and medium-sized farmers, farmers of color, and food system workers, especially those in the meat and poultry sectors.
First, President Biden issued a sweeping sweep Executive Order (EO) to promote competitiveness throughout the US economy. Among the issues addressed, EO directs the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to consider the new rules under the Packaging and Stockyards Act (SAP) to promote fair competition in the meat sector and make it “easier for farmers to bring in and earn claims“A significant PSA update could help U.S. poultry and livestock producers move away from harmful concentrated animal feed (CAFO) operations and toward smaller, more diversified, and grounded farming practices. He also directs the USDA to explore unfair competition in other parts of the food system that squeezes farmers and farm workers alike, consolidating in SEED and input industries (pesticides, fertilizers), as well as in RETAIL sector.
Senator Cory Booker and Representative Rho Khanna also have reintroducing Farm System Reform Act, which would strengthen pro-competition measures in the SAP. It also includes some other measures that support a transition away from harmful, industrial animal husbandry, such as the moratorium on new CAFOs, as well as resources for CAFO operators who want to move to new professions.
These measures–and more–are urgently needed, as mfood packaging companies are decreasing in number and increasing in size: the four largest meat packers control more than 80% of the U.S. beef market, the top four 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 highlighted how consolidation has added to the vulnerability of our food system, particularly in the meat sector, and exacerbated its racial and economic inequalities. As meat factory closures temporarily emptied grocery store shelves, retail meat prices soared. Meanwhile, large meat packaging corporations benefited from rising prices, benefited from an increase in meat exports, and avoided responsibility for the safe keeping of vulnerable slaughterhouse workers.
At this point, the dominance of major meat packaging corporations is largely self-perpetuating. the prices that integrators pay to farmers for their cattle it is in stagnation, although retail beef prices paid by consumers have risen and remained high. Manufacturers often feel trapped in the existing industrial model or CAFO, controlled by the same companies. Ai model forces producers, workers and neighboring communities to take on the health and environmental consequences of cost-cutting measures, such as low wages, precarious working conditions, clean air and waterways, and the disease in which this pollution contributes. The promised low payouts for these manufacturers left them with little choice. Meanwhile, dominant corporations continue to enjoy the lion’s share of profits, using their control and vast market power to protect their unfair profit margins and close small and medium-sized producers, making survival more difficult for the latter.
The action to break this declining spiral of exploitation in the meat sector and to level the playing field, is belated. Over a decade ago, the Obama administration held hearings across the country. Taking considerable personal risks, meat producers were then shown about the ongoing injustice they experience. However, administration failure to pursue leaving these manufacturers vulnerable and their complaints unaddressed. The Trump administration then made things even worse.
Biden administration now looks ready to pursue necessary reforms, as does bipartisan leadership in Congress–in fact, many members of Congress are now small-scale diversified agriculture. With strong new leadership USDA and Lina Khan chairing the Federal Trade Commission, there are good reasons to be optimistic.
The NRDC will continue to stand with organizations calling for a fair, equitable and climate-friendly food system, and hold the Biden administration accountable for its commitments.