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June 21st, 2011

Demand Fair Farm Rules—Not More Factory Farms

By Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter

[Original post appears at Change.org]

President Obama made a promise back when he campaigned in farm states. He needs to keep it.

The President told farmers that his administration would help fix the rules that allow the meat industry to take advantage of the people who raise the animals Americans eat. But, under pressure from Big Meat, the Obama Administration has failed to implement the fair farm rules (also known as GIPSA rules, named for the branch of the USDA that would oversee the rules, the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration).

Fair farm rules and GIPSA might sound wonky, but implementing them is crucial to leveling the playing field for farmers. As is often the case, the devil is in the details. If we want to move towards a more sustainable and regional food system, we need a fair market. We need to start fixing the nuts and bolts of what keeps farmers from being able to fairly market their products. And consolidation of the food industry is one of the major factors in why our food system is dysfunctional.

One of the worst examples of a few companies controlling our food is the meat industry. The beef-packing industry is more powerful and consolidated now than it was in 1921. Today, four multi-national corporations slaughter more than four out of five beef cattle, giving large packers tremendous leverage over independent cattle producers. Independent hog and cattle producers don’t have equal opportunity to sell their products for a fair price, and the large processing companies pay them less than what they offer large contract farmers.

The poultry industry is one of the most abusive industries in the country. Poultry growers are modern-day sharecroppers. Growing poultry is a last-ditch effort to save the family farm. To do business with a poultry giant like Tyson or Perdue, the farmer takes out a huge loan to build an industrial facility—usually using the family farm as collateral. So the farmer has decades of debt, but the companies only contract with the farmer for each batch of birds—usually around 45 days. If the grower complains about their offensive practices or doesn’t “stay in line,” the company doesn’t renew the contract. So growers don’t speak out because they risk losing their farms. The average poultry grower only makes $6,000 annually from their operation, even though they take on the debt and the risk for the liability from the tremendous waste produced by the birds. The fair farm rules would correct some of these inequities and make the poultry giants less able to profit from factory chicken farms.

The Obama Administration got off to a good start in keeping its promise. Officials held hearings around the country on the abuses of the industry, and they wrote some decent rules that would correct some of the abuses. But now they seem to be running scared of Big Meat, which wouldn’t be as profitable if they had to deal fairly with farmers.

These rules have literally been waiting 90 years to be written. In 1921, Congress passed legislation to counter the market manipulation and price fixing initiated by the meatpacking industry. But this law has never been implemented. The rule is essentially a way to rid our system of practices that are “out of harmony with the law or the public interest.” It would put an end to preferential contracts granted to factory farms, allow competitive bidding on livestock, and prohibit retaliation against poultry growers who speak out about abuses. It would also make it easier for small livestock farmers to get their products to market by giving them a fair price that would allow them stay in business.

Negotiations for the 2008 Farm Bill gave the USDA the authority to finally enforce the GIPSA rule. Yet the powerful lobbying arm of the meatpackers that slaughter almost all of the meat in the U.S. continues to stall GIPSA’s implementation, and the industry continues to demand more “study.” Big Meat is whining for more time to gather additional public comments, which is really just a delay tactic. It’s ridiculous that it’s taken close to a century to write the rules to enforce it—only to stall it for a few additional months.

If you take a look at the Food & Water Watch Factory Farm Map, you can see how agricultural policy — at the behest of the biggest players in the meat industry — has led to consolidation of livestock production. This consolidation has resulted in fewer and fewer farms with more and more animals that cause a host of environmental, public health, economic, food safety and animal welfare problems.

In order to have fair food, we must have fair competition for our independent farmers. This is one time where buying one product over another is not going to be enough action. If you want your food to be produced by farmers rather than factories, now is the time to weigh in. We have a national day of action planned forWednesday, June 22. Join us, and tell President Obama that we need fair farm rules like GIPSA—NOT more factory farms.

2 Comments on Demand Fair Farm Rules—Not More Factory Farms

  1. Dan @ Best Parking says:

    I hope someone in the White House is reading this. This is just one more example of a few big businesses – monopolies, really – that are taking over entire industries to the detriment of smaller companies and consumers. I wonder if this is where we’re headed – a regime where the economy is controlled by a few and a government controlled by their paid representatives. Aah, thinking about all these make me so damn angry, I just hope something changes in 2012.

  2. randy w says:

    Dan – I think that is exactly where we are heading. It is a sad, sad time for America, and it does not seem to matter be it democrat or republican, neither party has our best interest at heart. One party will just get us there a little sooner than the other.

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