Update (November 16, 2023): This month, Congress extended the deadline for the 2023 Farm Bill to September 30, 2024 as part of a continuing resolution to push back deadlines on must-pass spending bills. In the next 10 months, Food & Water Watch will continue building support for a fair Farm Bill for all.
We know what our food system should look like. It should provide a good living for small- and mid-sized independent farmers. It should ensure safe, healthy, and affordable food for everyone. And this system should be good for our shared environment and climate.
But decades of misguided farm policy have driven reality further and further from this vision. Currently, polluting factory farms are flourishing and a few mega-corporations have taken over the market. Families, farmers, communities, and the climate are struggling under the weight of this system.
Food & Water Watch is working to change that — and this year, we have a major opportunity on our hands. Right now, Congress is rewriting the Farm Bill, a twice-a-decade event that shapes our food policy and our food system.
At a recent Livable Future LIVE event, Food & Water Watch experts spoke with our allies and champions in Congress, Senator Cory Booker and Representative Ro Khanna, about a fair Farm Bill for all.
With allies like Senator Booker and Representative Khanna, we’re fighting for programs that would support independent farmers, break up corporate consolidation, and incentivize sustainable farming.
Highlights From “A Fair Farm Bill for All”
As our food policy analyst Rebecca Wolf said during the event,
“To actually see small- and medium-sized farms with different fruits and vegetables and animals on land that are able to stay in business and invest in our environment, we need to see two really big themes in the Farm Bill.
The first is support for competitive and fair markets, or the idea that farmers can generate income when farming. The second is investment in that system to really build again and move away from our industrial model, our corporate-controlled model, and toward more resilient, regional, diversified systems.”
In our efforts this year, Food & Water Watch is focusing on three important parts of the Farm Bill: Conservation, Commodities, and Competition.
- Conservation: We need to ban factory farms, which wreak havoc on the environment and rural economies. Instead of building factory farms, we need to invest in sustainable farming practices that protect our resources, our environment, and our climate.
- Commodities: We need to build a federal farm safety net that protects farmers from volatile commodity markets. We need to prioritize farmers and consumers above the corporations that have benefited most from our current commodity subsidy system.
- Competition: We need to break up mega-corporations, stop consolidation, and create fair and competitive markets where small- and mid-sized farms can thrive.
Senator Booker spoke on the problems in our food system and how the Farm System Reform Act can help us transform it:
We can make real progress, to start to transform our broken food system and to shift subsidies away from these factory farms and toward farmers that are growing healthy foods and using regenerative practices.
Everyone deserves access to healthy, affordable food that’s good for them and good for our environment. We can empower farmers and farm workers and protect our environment. This is why I am so proud to have Food & Water Watch support on these issues.
Representative Khanna spoke on our shared vision for a fair food system, the current Farm Bill negotiations, and how we can help:
We need people to talk to their members of Congress and say, ‘Look, we’ve got to do something about concentration, even if you don’t agree with all the elements of the Farm [System] Reform Act… What are you going to do to deal with Big Ag so that we’re prioritizing the family farmer?’
That has to be a mantra, and you have so many active members in every district. And particularly talking to members of Congress and on the Ag Committee can really move the needle on these issues.
To that end, this summer Food & Water Watch invites you to join our Farm Bill Action Team. Engage your community, gather petition signatures, and advocate for a fair Farm Bill for all.
Advocate for a fair Farm Bill with our Farm Bill Action Team!
Watch “A Fair Farm Bill for All”
Read the Full Transcript
Click on the arrow to expand each section.
Kate Schwanhausser: Hello, and welcome everyone! Thank you all so much for joining us this afternoon for our Livable Future LIVE event about building a fair Farm Bill for all. My name is Kate Schwanhausser, and I’ll be your host this afternoon.
We are really excited for a great conversation ahead of us; really excited to have some special guests with us, including Representative Ro Khanna and a special message from Senator Cory Booker as well.
So I’m going to give people another minute or so to get logged in. And in the meantime, I’m just gonna have a couple of quick housekeeping reminders and some upcoming event announcements that I will share with you.
Well, so first up: if you need to turn on closed captioning to add subtitles to your screen, go ahead and click on the “show captions” button in your Zoom toolbar to turn those on. And please feel free to continue to use the chat throughout the afternoon as a space to share your thoughts and have a conversation with fellow attendees.
And we are also gonna save some time at the end for Q&A with our staff experts who are joining us today. So if you have questions for them as you’re listening, please be sure to add those in the Q&A box as we go along, and we’ll get to as many of those as we can.
And finally, I am recording today’s event, so I will share that later with everyone who RSVP’d, as well as any of the links and resources that we share in the chat today.
So just as a bit of background on who we are: Food & Water Watch is a national organization that is fighting for safe food, clean water, and a livable climate for all of us. And we do this by mobilizing grassroots activists to build political power at all levels of government.
And it’s you, our members, who make that work possible. We don’t take any corporate funding. We are entirely a grassroots movement, so becoming a member truly does make a really big difference.
So if you’d like to become a member by making a gift, today you can text the word “GIFT” to the number 23321 or click on the link that we’ll put in the chat.
And for those of you who are new to our Livable Future Live event series, we meet once a month. It’s just a great opportunity for us to come together as a community to learn more about current events, our organizing campaigns, and to hear from leading experts on these issues.
So we’ve got a really great lineup over the next few months that I hope that you’ll continue to join us for.
In June, we’ll be talking about the health and environmental impacts of microplastics with a journalist and author named Matt Smith — or Matt Simon, sorry — who recently published a book called A Poison Like No Other on this topic.
In July, we’ll be hosting a really interesting panel with a couple of different artists who use their work as a form of activism, whether it’s related to climate change or plastic pollution in our oceans.
In August, we’ll be talking about the Colorado River Basin and water security in the West, and then in September, we’ll be revisiting this conversation about food and farm policy with an interview with Tom Philpott, who is a former farmer, a food policy journalist, and author of the book Perilous Bounty.
So, a full summer! But I hope that you’ll make some time to join us for these upcoming events over the next few months, and we will put the link in the chat where you can sign up for those.
All right! So, we have the full agenda today, so let’s go ahead and get right to it. We are here to talk about the Farm Bill, which is a massive package of legislation that’s rewritten every five years and directs how billions of dollars are spent on food and farm programs.
And given that this is a really critical opportunity to move these policies forward, we are organizing really, really hard to make sure that a lot of the programs are included in this new Farm Bill package.
So we are going to hear first this afternoon from Food & Water Watch’s resident expert Rebecca Wolf, who is our food policy analyst, and she is going to give us an overview of the Farm Bill and what our priorities are.
And then we are really excited that we’ll be able to have a conversation this afternoon with Representative Ro Khanna, who is the lead sponsor of the Farm System Reform Act, one of the key pieces of legislation that we want to see included in the Farm Bill, so my colleague, Mitch Jones, will be interviewing Ro Khanna about the policies that we are working together for.
So for now, I will turn things over to Rebecca to give us the big picture of the Farm Bill and the work that we have ahead. So Rebecca, thanks so much for joining us today, and I will pass things over to you.
Rebecca Wolf, Food & Water Watch’s Food Policy Analyst, Breaks Down the Farm Bill (4:37)
Rebecca Wolf: Wonderful. Thank you, Kate. I’m so excited to be here, so excited to be with everyone and really dig into the policy issues that are in the Farm Bill.
I’m sure you know our food system — if you’re here, you know our food system is dominated by factory farms. You know that a few big companies own everything we buy from the grocery store, every step in the food process, from growing, raising, harvesting, processing, packaging.
A few companies really own each link in what is now a very fragile supply chain. They’re posting record profits, all the while we’re seeing record price tags at the grocery store, and none of this is an accident, right? It’s a series of policy failures.
The good news about that is since there are policy failures, with the power to change policy, we can fix this.
So instead of really diving into all of those problems today, with our food system, I want to talk about and kind of peel back the curtain on the Farm Bill, current bills in Congress that have been introduced as part of this process, go through some of the important programs that make up how our food system is shaped, and I want to kind of spend some time talking about the policy that really halts and then reverts this dominant model of raising animals for food on factory farms.
It’s going to be a little bit wonky at points, but I’ve seen all of your questions ahead of time, so I know you’re here and along for the ride with me.
So what is the Farm Bill? Kate mentioned it, but the Farm Bill establishes the policies and government support for not only U.S. agriculture, but other really important things like nutrition programs, food assistance benefits, rural economic development, agricultural resources, and so much more.
It’s divided into what are called titles or sections, and they cover specific program areas that — and again — generally last for about five years.
This year, the budget for the bill — we’re waiting to see what it’s going to be — but it could be hovering close to a trillion dollars. So a massive, massive amount of money.
It’s one of those must-pass or mandatory pieces of legislation that keeps programs and government programs running.
So most of the spending of the Farm Bill — actually, about two-thirds of it — goes to the Nutrition title, which establishes government programs that provide food assistance like SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as Food Stamps.
One of the big kind of talked-about sections is the Commodity title. This title deals with the crops that are the raw materials often for our industrialized food system: things like corn, wheat, soybeans, but other things like sorghum and oats and rice as well.
So historically, there are about 12 titles with the Farm Bill, beginning in the 1930s after the Dust Bowl (a little history: the Dust Bowl caused by market overproduction), the first-ever Farm Bill was signed. It was called the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and it was part of this New Deal-era package of policies.
It included really wonderful things like fair pricing for farmers, reserves to store our country’s grain, things like payments for practices around healthy soil, and it was really designed to right the wrongs of monopoly power and the big meat packers.
Now, unfortunately, over time, as corporations got bigger and we stopped busting them, the Farm Bill became more filled with corporate-friendly policies. It’s a bit of a long and torrid history of really chipping away at the federal farm safety net, environmental programs, supply management.
And actually, our executive director Wenonah Hauter — I have to do a quick plug for her book, because it really tells the story (this is Foodopoly).
It tells the whole story kind of from where I just started to where we are present-day. So if you’re excited about some of that history, definitely check out Foodopoly.
And I’ll show you two reports at the end of this presentation, as well, to get into it. But it really brings us through all of the fights, kind of up until one of the most notorious fights, which is the 1996 Farm Bill.
This was originally called the Freedom to Farm Bill by Congress. It’s a great name, but in less than a year, farmers started calling it the Freedom to Fail Bill.
It stripped away and really deregulated every last piece of that — those fair marketplace policies from the original 1933 invention of the Bill.
And so the bottom fell out for farmers, for prices, for grains. It really ushered in that kind of yo-yo-ing between crop insurance, emergency payments, and all sorts of the subsidy system that we now have.
So on the next slide, I want to start today, right now, with kind of — we’re in the swing of Farm Bill season, we’re waiting to see draft language for this massive bill.
The debt ceiling debate is kind of stalling the process, and there’s tons of bills that have been written and introduced as part of the Farm Bill process.
Now, to actually see small- and medium-sized farms with different fruits and vegetables and animals on land that are able to stay in business and invest in our environment, we need to see two really big themes in the Farm Bill.
The first is support for competitive and fair markets, or the idea that farmers can generate income when farming.
The second is investment in that system to really build again and move away from our industrial model, our corporate-controlled model, and toward more resilient, regional, diversified systems.
Now, I can’t emphasize this enough: food and farming is not a normal marketplace. It really needs supports to be fair.
If you think about it, if you want to make a living growing food, you can’t just do it with a crystal ball. You have to know what you’re going to get paid.
So even before farmers put — buy seeds and put seeds in the ground, they don’t know how much they’re going to get for those crops, which makes it really, really hard to know how much to plant. And so they kind of become stuck in the system.
Now, the big companies really like that, because they can kind of take advantage of that. But the right kinds of reforms and conservation programs, competition, commodity support, can kind of bring that inherent unfairness to become more fair, resilient — actually good for all of us.
We need more champions in Congress like those we’re going to hear from today, and the right kind of policy to move us in that direction.
So today, I want to hop into a couple of the titles again. There are 12. There’s a lot. But I want to give you a sense of what’s in there and what’s currently happening.
So first up, I want to talk about conservation. This is usually the second title of the Farm Bill, and it’s a really important vehicle for all of the policies that we really care about. Protecting our water resources, rotational grazing patterns, investing in regenerative agriculture systems.
Unfortunately, a lot of these really great programs have been hijacked by Big Ag, which, unfortunately, is kind of a theme for the day. So we have three big priorities for this title.
One: ban factory farms. We know we need to move away from these practices. They’re bad for animals, the environment, rural economies. Moving away from the factory farm model would be really the utmost conservation practice.
The second is stopping false solutions. So right now there is big greenwashing push around things like methane digesters on factory farms.
These are big pieces of technical equipment. They’ve been promised to solve climate change, but in reality, what they really do is they make it harder to move away from factory farms and fossil fuels because they bring those two industries together using tons of public money.
Currently, there are programs that are conservation programs that are really being used to push this false solution.
And so the third part is, we need to transition away from them. We need to actually invest our resources and conservation dollars in — it’s the perfect place to really expand or fairly distribute money around real conservation, real environmental benefits. So that’s the first title.
And here are some of the programs that are in there.
So the big-name conservation programs that you’ll see on the next slide — this is the — they’re the really big kind of programs that are funded by the Farm Bill.
I just want to give you a couple. There are a lot. Again, the original intent around them is to protect our shared resources; pay for things like a fence to keep cows out of a stream.
The first one here is EQIP, as we call it, or the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. It’s a pot of money at the United States Department of Agriculture that farmers can apply for for various practices to receive matching funds.
So you put up $10,000, the program puts up $10,000, and you can build that fence that makes sure that the cows aren’t trampling that same area. It’s a win-win.
This other program CRP or the Conservation Reserve Program helps farmers kind of not fall into that cycle of having to do all that production to break even — or try to break even — like I mentioned in the beginning.
So, there’s some fragile ecosystems that we should not be planting corn on, for example. This program helps environmental benefit payments to farmers to make sure that we’re protecting that land. And the — so — big thing there is a win-win for native species, honestly.
And the third part is CSP, that — this has been changed a few different times, the old name is Conservation Stewardship Program — but kind of similar to EQIP or the Environmental Program, in that there are funds to be used to help with support for technical assistance, for conservation practices.
So really great programs in theory, and were originally designed to function just like this, creating support for farmers, trying to do the right thing, and maintain really strong environmental practices.
Of course, over the years Big Ag has really snuck in there and rewritten some of the rules of these programs, where the current-day reality is factory farms and digesters dominate a lot of the spending in these programs.
So I mentioned this before, and the next slide, we’ll talk about how to reform these pieces. Biggest culprit around the EQIP problem is factory farms.
So right now, growers can get up to $450,000 — or farmers, rather — for EQIP grants. And remember, if you recall, you have to match those funds for the program. So that’s a lot of money. That’s a lot of money you have to put up.
Big Ag has also successfully lobbied for 50% of those funds in each state to go toward livestock production. So you’ve got huge checks and you’ve got livestock production. That’s factory farms, and false solutions like methane digesters as well.
So there is a bipartisan bill in Congress, listed on this slide here, introduced by Senator Cory Booker and Senator Lee, to stop these practices in EQIP to actually make sure conservation programs really support small- and medium-sized farmers.
And, for example, there’s only a million dollars, or a few million dollars in each state for this program. That gets gobbled up really quickly by factory farms.
Unfortunately, USDA currently turns away two out of every three farmers seeking assistance in this program — 87,000 farmers in 2021. That’s a huge number in EQIP alone.
That bill was introduced in this Farm Bill cycle; it’s what we need to see in this Farm Bill cycle.
We also have the Farm System Reform Act. Again, the North Star of conservation reform supporting fair markets, farmer transition, stopping harmful — environmental harm from this model, right? And it’s a really impressive piece of legislation that I’m going to save for our guests to be able to talk a little bit about today as we go on.
So next up — there we are — competition. So next up, I’m gonna talk a little bit about the Competition title. And this is kind of wishful thinking, because the Competition title isn’t usually its own title. It has been in the past, but lately it has fallen into the “Miscellaneous,” or that last title of the Farm Bill.
But don’t be deceived or discouraged. There’s a lot of really important policy, and a really important fight to have there in the Miscellaneous title.
So, competition is a really important topic for things like fairness, good prices, quality, the ability for small- and medium-sized farmers to actually stay in business. And at the heart of this topic are things like our seminal antitrust laws. It’s pretty exciting.
These laws were used to break up the railroads, bust up the trusts. But the lack of their enforcement of these policies over the last decades has allowed these four multinational corporations to really take over each part of the industry.
So, we have three big priorities in the Farm Bill around competition. The first: stop merger mania. These firms have been allowed to merge and gobble up their competition while driving prices up for consumers and down for farmers, because our great antitrust legislation just hasn’t really been used or enforced. There are bills to help bring back that enforcement.
The second is mandatory country-of-origin labeling. A broad coalition of consumers, farmers, ranchers, commodity groups, even, faith, rural groups have worked for many, many years to require mandatory country-of-origin labeling for things like fruits and vegetables, seafood, meat, poultry, throughout the 2002 and 2008 farm bills.
We know where things like clothes and toys and goods come from, but under pressure from these big multinational meat packers, in 2015, Congress had to repeal mandatory country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork. And this has real economic impacts on American producers.
Now, the third is enforcement of our antitrust laws. I’ve already talked about this a little bit. The Packers and Stockyards Act: It is our 1921 landmark antitrust legislation that protects our nation’s ranchers and livestock producers from the big monopolists.
We’ve never quite enforced it all the way, but this bill cracks down on unfair practices, collusion, price setting, undue preference, retaliatory behavior. Kind of — the list goes on and on. It’s a really wonderful bill — or, law.
In essence, it protects the little guy from the big companies who are buying their animals.
All of these pieces of fairness are really important for a fair Farm Bill that starts to pry corporate control off of every part of our food system. So, we have reform policies. I’ll talk about that on the next slide.
There are a bunch of great bills that have been introduced in this Farm Bill cycle that do this work. We have the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act. We have the Meatpacker Special Investigator Act, and the American Beef Labeling Act. I just chose a few. There are a couple really other great bills as well.
The first bill looks to create a pause on proposed mergers, and it gives the authority for the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice to take a look back at previous mergers, to look for anti-competitiveness.
The Meatpacker Special Investigator Act, it creates a role at the United States Department of Agriculture to enforce the Packers and Stockyards Act. Sounds a little bit silly, but we haven’t had enough support or resources from the White House, Congress, to really utilize this legislation.
And finally, back to that idea of country-of-origin labeling, since we’ve had this actually before.
We know that in a marketplace without country-of-origin labeling, imports really allow multinational meatpackers to keep prices they pay farmers really low. in. In 2022, the U.S. imported 34 billion pounds of boxed beef and 1.6 million live cattle.
That is a bunch of animals and products. The adoption of mandatory country-of-origin labeling in the past has led to a steady increase in the prices that farmers actually get paid. A strong American label really has economic benefits for American producers.
That last bill, too, is a bipartisan bill that has been introduced in this Farm Bill cycle.
So restoring competition and fairness to agriculture by bolstering small- and medium-sized farmers, returning strong antitrust enforcement to the market, very essential part of Farm Bill policy that we’re looking at this year.
The last piece that I’m going to talk about, I’m going to go a little bit into the Commodities title. And so, on the next slide, you’ll see this wonderful picture from a producer who we featured in one of our reports that we’ll talk about at the end.
But the Commodities title is an important one for crops. It is our breads, our cereals, our flowers, clothes, so much more.
And this section kinda gets a little complicated quickly. But our main problem with commodities and subsidies is really about how that deregulation I talked about in the beginning allowed for things like overproduction to thrive.
So when you hear about things like subsidy payments, it’s really about this unfair corporate influence system of all of these kinds of crops in that system. So crop insurance, emergency payments, subsidies, all of these things, it’s not as simple as swapping one for the other.
Most producers are kind of intentionally caught in this limbo, trying not to lose money, forced into this cycle. I talked about how the grain farmer that we’ve worked with in the past in this report — again, I’ll plug that at the end — but this current system is really hallmarked by overproduction for export and for grain buyers to buy really cheap grain. Now, why is that? Next slide.
So we do need things like corn, and soy, and wheat. But this model has been intentionally forced into a system that these big grain buyers can buy artificially cheap commodities and all but put farmers out of business, where the government has to swoop in and kind of save the farm.
Now, the farm shouldn’t — should be able to make a decent living without this kind of charade, right? So big buyers use these inputs for these kind of three big things, and the last one there is ultra-processed foods. [The slide on the screen lists “feed for factory farms, corn for ethanol, and corn syrup for UPF.”]
But if you recall from our original New Deal policies that we talked about, we’ve had a lot of this model, and it’s worked really well. In the past, in 1933, the model often excluded Black and Indigenous farmers. But the economic mechanisms that we had used in production agriculture in the beginning worked really well.
We had really great commodity production system that we can get back to in an even better way.
So this last piece here, the commodity reform and federal safety net, what are the — what do these policies look like?
Again, we used to have a national grain reserve. The idea is actually really simple. It’s brilliant: purchase excess commodities during the bumper years, or the years where we have too much crop, and then sell them in lean years, or lean years when there’s not enough on the market.
Farmers benefit from that stable grain prices that weren’t driven down by surplusses, and the public and all of us benefit from the resiliency of food stored away for years, when weather is bad, or other events really cut yields, and take food off the market. So maintaining that steady supply to be purchased.
Grain purchasers have challenged these types of programs since the very first Farm Bill. They threaten their ability to control the market, which they really do now.
Nevertheless, we actually had a lot of these policies up until the ‘50s, and then they were slowly shipped away until 1996. We’ve had them before, and they work really well.
These three ideas are price floors, reserves, and supply management. So the first one, simple: if the price falls below the floor, it’s something like a minimum wage. Government buys it and stores it.
Second idea is the storage, so the government can pay farmers to store the grain or store it in a central location when there’s surplus, and then help release it back on the market when it’s needed.
And the third is the idea of kind of just controlling imports, creating incentives not to overproduce, rewarding environmental stewardship of the land. There are a lot of great policies in the idea of supply management.
So while we don’t have these bills quite moving in Congress yet for this Farm Bill, this conversation has gotten started again.
It’s always been part of the process, but it’s a really exciting time to start thinking about these policies again, bring them forth in this cycle, and then really push forward for more policies like this this year, and then beyond.
So with that, I have my final plug kind of for the pieces here. And then I know we’re going to get into our interview.
We went into details today. I wanted to give you a sense of some of the moving pieces, some of the different titles of the Farm Bill. There are so many different avenues to go here.
We can hopefully expect some sort of draft language in the next coming months. And we have some exciting steps to talk with you kind of at the end of this call.
In the meantime, I did mention these two reports at different points throughout the conversation, so I wanted to show you those.
You can get into case studies about farmers doing it the right way, the policy map to get us there, where we need to go in this Farm Bill cycle, and again, we have a couple of ways for you to get involved after this. Sign a petition, join our special volunteer team, and we’ll share more details about that.
But next, I’m really, really excited to pass it back to my team here and start to have our conversation with Congressman Ro Khanna.
Rep. Ro Khanna Speaks With Mitch Jones, Food & Water Watch’s Managing Director of Policy and Litigation (28:12)
Kate Schwanhausser: All right. Thank you so much, Rebecca, for that really comprehensive overview. I think that acronym is really helpful: those 3 C’s, conservation, competition, and commodities.
We will have time for Rebecca to answer a couple of questions at the end, but first, I would love to welcome Representative Ro Khanna to join us on-screen along with my colleague, Mitch Jones, who is Food & Water Watch’s managing director of policy and litigation.
We are so excited for this conversation with Representative Khanna. For those of you who don’t know, he represents California’s 17th District, and he has been a leader on reforming agricultural policies to better support independent farmers and families who deserve access to healthy, affordable food.
So, Congressman, I know that you are with us. If you could just turn your camera on, we will get started with our conversation. Mitch, I know that you have a couple of questions for him, so I will let you take it away. Thanks so much for being here with us.
Mitch Jones and Rep. Ro Khanna: Thank you.
Mitch Jones: Congressman, I want to thank you for joining us. You have always been very generous with your time joining our webinars, our Congressional briefings.
You know we have worked closely with your office on all of the major issues at Food & Water Watch — food, water, and climate — and we deeply appreciate your advocacy in Congress. So, welcome!
Rep. Ro Khanna: Thank you.
Mitch Jones: Obviously, today, we’re talking about the Farm Bill and food policy, something that you’ve been involved in.
I know, unfortunately, as happens when you lose the majority, you lose some seats in Congress, and unfortunately, you’re not on the Agricultural Committee this year. But you’re still deeply involved in advocating for these issues.
So, you know, we’ve spent the first part of this webinar talking about the Farm Bill. My colleague, Rebecca, just gave a great overview about it.
So let me just ask you, how are the negotiations going, as far as, you know — What are we talking about in terms of timing? What are some of the Democratic caucus’s priorities?
Rep. Ro Khanna: We are actively negotiating. As you know, this happens every five years. It’s a critical year. We have a few key priorities.
One, we need to make sure that the SNAP benefits are preserved and increased, and that we don’t have additional work requirements on getting nutrition, getting food assistance for the most vulnerable Americans.
Second, we need to tackle the concentration in the agricultural community. Both the concentration of Big Agribusiness, factory farms, and in the concentration in the meat industry as well.
And those are the two big areas that many Democrats are focused on.
Mitch Jones: You know, we all know that this is a bipartisan bill. It always has to be a bipartisan bill, just because of the way things currently work in the Senate, if nothing else. But this year there is a split Congress.
Let’s set that aside for a second. If you had a magic wand, if there was a Ro Khanna Farm Bill, what would your vision for that be? What specifically are your priorities coming up? So beyond just what the caucus wants, what is it that you’re seeking beyond that — or those as well?
Rep. Ro Khanna: Well, I would have a few things. I would make sure that we had the Farm [System] Reform Act provisions that I have led on in the House. And that would mean that we have an environmental liability, not just on the family farmer, but actually on the corporation that often is escaping liability for polluting the water, polluting the air in a community.
I would have a clear moratorium on building new factory farms. I would make sure that we had much stronger action against the concentration that we see of agribusiness, and in the meat packing industry, and have antitrust action so that we are breaking up some of the large businesses and allowing new competitors to emerge.
I would make sure that we had a clear price floor for farmers so that they were at least being compensated for the amount that the production of crops was costing them.
As you know, many of these family farms are land-rich, but cash-poor. They are often operating in a cash loss, and I’d make sure that that wasn’t happening, and that we were compensating people, at the very least, for the amount it was costing them, with some reasonable profit.
Those would be some of the key principles.
Mitch Jones: It — obviously those are things that we all agree on, which is why we work with you and your office on these issues.
Yeah, I think I saw a study the other day — and when Rebecca comes back later she’ll correct me if I’m wrong — that currently, the average on-farm income for a farmer is about $690. That’s the on-farm income. They live off of what comes off-farm.
So I think a lot of these proposals that you’ve talked about, that we’re talking about to support small- to mid-sized farmers, are desperately needed.
We talked about the magic wand, we talked about what we’d like, but getting back to political reality: What do you think is really possible in this negotiation, with not only, you know, only 51 senators, but a divided Congress between the House and the Senate? Where do you think we can actually see some advances in this year’s Farm Bill?
Rep. Ro Khanna: I believe we can certainly protect SNAP, and make sure that we’re not increasing work requirements, and that we get a reasonable increase of food benefits given the inflation that we’ve seen.
I believe we can get is some funding for alternative proteins, and alternative protein research, and food security in the bill.
I believe we can make progress on having accountability of the corporations, and not just the family farmer, when it comes to environmental liability. That is something that I think we could have passed.
While we wouldn’t get the elements of the Farm [System] Reform Act that I introduced with Senator Cory Booker, we can get some progress towards going after concentration, and I know Greg Casar is on the committee, and he’s a progressive who’s working with us to try to get elements of the Farm [System] Reform Act part of the final bill.
Mitch Jones: Yeah, we’re working with his office as well to try to get, you know, to try to get that Competition title. That’s what he really would like to have, and we know that’s a heavy lift.
But we’re, you know, we have — our volunteer network is going to be out speaking to folks at farmers’ markets and elsewhere, and organizing, doing real on-the-ground — thankfully, we’re in a position where we can do outdoor organizing again to try to build some of the political power we need to win those.
So my colleague, Rebecca — and I know you got on and heard some of her presentation — was talking earlier about the Conservation title. And, you know, one of the big conservation programs, EQIP, that Environmental Quality Improvement Program, has really been hijacked by Big Ag.
And this is an issue that I know in the last Congress we monitored some of the money that was coming out in the appropriations bills. We monitored it with your office to see if we could put some guardrails on that.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible. But can you talk a little bit about how we can fix these conservation programs, things like EQIP where a lot of the money gets hijacked by Big Ag and factory farms instead of going to the, you know, small- and mid-sized producers that we all support?
Rep. Ro Khanna: Well, we need to prioritize. The farmers are closest to the land. I mean, they’re the ones that are going to be the best stewards of the land, best stewards of the air and water.
And I have said, let’s pay actual farmers for environmental conservation. If they’re planting trees, if they’re engaging in the right type of regenerative agriculture practices, the right type of crop rotation, right types of plowing techniques.
But that money shouldn’t be going just the big agricultural industry. And right now, it’s tilted to going to these large corporations, and it’s not going to the actual farmers who are tilling the land, growing the crops, tending to the animals.
And so we need to fix that and have more of the funding for conservation go to actual family farmers.
Mitch Jones: So we’ve talked about briefly, Rebecca mentioned briefly, you’ve mentioned a couple of times, the Farm System Reform Act. And I think actually, we got a welcome video from Senator Booker that we’re going to play in a couple of minutes, and I think he’s going to mention it, too.
But can you just say a little bit more about what that legislation does? And why it’s important to try, you know — look, we’re all practical. We know we’re not going to pass that bill this year, right? But it’s a Farm Bill year. So there’s an opportunity, as you mentioned, to try to get some provisions in.
Can you just say a little bit more about that bill, and about how important it is, not only for the future of farming in America, but also how we, you know, can work this year, and to get some of those provisions into the Farm Bill?
Rep. Ro Khanna: Well, the bill does three big things.
One: It makes sure that the liability for pollution is on the business, not just on the individual farm, or a contractor.
Second: it has a moratorium on CAFOs [Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, another word for factory farms], and it makes sure that we’re having anti-trust enforcement against large factory farms so that we can have more mid-size farmers, small farmers.
And then three: it creates a much more competitive environment in the meatpacking industry so that you can have competitive bids from smaller players and not just the large companies that are currently dominating the industry.
Mitch Jones: It is important that we have to have that vision of transition. Because one thing that we get asked a lot is, you know, “Okay, well, you want to ban factory farms. What next? Or you want to ban CAFOs,” if they put it that way, “What next?”
But so, I think, you know, to me, one of the key provisions of this bill is, it does provide that roadmap to transition — kind of like what we did with tobacco firms decades ago.
It provides that kind of roadmap to get people out of this harmful production. In that case, the product itself was harmful. Here, we’re talking about a variety of different products. And it’s important to make that transition.
And so, you know, we’re thankful to you and to Senator Booker, obviously, for introducing this legislation and continuing to push for it every year.
Now I know you have a tight schedule, obviously, I know there are some votes coming up not in the too-distant future on the floor, and you need to get going.
But if you, before you leave us, could just, you know, let our supporters know — and again I want to thank you. You know you join us for these webinars and events so often, and we deeply appreciate your support —
Rep. Ro Khanna: Thank you for your work.
Mitch Jones: — you know, what’s the most important thing that our supporters, our audience here today can do to help you pass these policies?
Rep. Ro Khanna: Well, I appreciate your engaging with me and Senator Booker. I’m a big fan of Senator Booker’s, and he’s really been a lead in the Senate on this, and it’s been an honor to partner with him.
But we’re the converted, and I think we need other members of Congress hearing from you, particularly those on the Agriculture Committee.
We need people to hear the Democrats should draw a red line on cuts to SNAP benefits, that we should draw a red line on additional work requirements that do nothing to increase employment, but basically deprive those who need these benefits of the help they need, especially in a shaky economy.
We need people to talk to their members of Congress and say, “Look, we’ve got to do something about concentration, even if you don’t agree with all the elements of the Farm [System] Reform Act. What are you doing?
“What are you doing to take care of CAFOs, where you have these large factory farms, people who all live — don’t even live in the community. You have pollution run-off into the water. You have huge abuses of animals, you have huge run-offs in the air, the emissions.
“So what are you gonna do to regulate it? And what are you going to do to deal with Big Ag so that we’re prioritizing the family farmer?”
That has to be a mantra, and you have so many active members in every district, and particularly talking to members of Congress and on the Ag Committee can really move the needle on these issues.
Mitch Jones: Well, Congressman, I know again that you have a busy schedule. I don’t want to keep you any longer. I do want to thank you for joining us here today and talking about the Farm Bill, about our, you know, shared priorities for food and agriculture policy in America.
And we look forward to continuing to work with you throughout the year to make sure that we can get some of these into the Farm Bill.
Rep. Ro Khanna: Thank you, Mitch. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you, Kate. Thank you Rebecca, and I look forward to continuing to work with everyone. And thank you to everyone on the call for your advocacy and passion.
Mitch Jones: Thank you, Congressman.
So as I just mentioned. we actually, in addition to having been joined live by Congressman Khanna, who is always generous with his time, we have a recorded greeting from Senator Cory Booker, who often also is able to join us.
But the Senate is out this week, and as you’ll see when you see this video, it looks like Senator Booker is somewhere on the road. So, let’s hear from Senator Booker.
Sen. Cory Booker Shares a Message on Why We Need the Farm System Reform Act (43:09)
Sen. Cory Booker: Hello, everyone. Thank you to Food & Water Watch for hosting this really important discussion, and thank you for tuning in and for your interest in fighting for a better food system.
I’ve seen firsthand the devastation of factory farms on rural communities. Factory farms are poisoning their neighbors by spraying or leaking manure into the surrounding grounds and waterways.
These massive farms are also releasing greenhouse gases and toxic gases like ammonia, and nearby residents are forced to live with that stench and pollution.
It’s no coincidence that the communities next to factory farms are disproportionately low-income, often Black and Brown. This is an environmental justice issue, and it should concern all of us.
And not only that, but the factory farming system creates exploitative conditions for contract growers and drives out small farmers. Meatpacking workers face some of this country’s most unsafe working conditions.
Farm animals lead miserable lives in factory farms, and meanwhile, consumers are being squeezed at the grocery store by these multinational corporations that can price gouge because they have consolidated and driven out competition.
This is why I introduced the Farm Systems Reform Act, because the terrible toll of factory farming must be addressed.
The Farm System Reform Act would stop the construction of new and expanding factory farms, phase out existing factory farms, and provide funding for farmers, contract farmers who want to transition to more sustainable and humane farming practices.
This is a long-term fight we are taking on. We will not achieve everything in the Farm Systems Reform Act in this Farm Bill, but we’re going to work hard to make progress.
We can make real progress, to start to transform our broken food system and to shift subsidies away from these factory farming and toward farmers that are growing healthy foods and using regenerative practices.
Everyone deserves access to healthy, affordable food that’s good for them and good for our environment. We can empower farmers and farm workers and protect our environment. This is why I am so proud to have Food & Water Watch support on these issues.
And I know that together in our growing coalition, we can help begin to create a food system that is more just and more aligned with our nation’s values and virtues. Thank you for your compassion, for your empathy, for your light working and for your partnership.
Rebecca Wolf and Mitch Jones Answer Questions From the Audience (46:16)
Kate Schwanhausser: All right. Thank you so much to Senator Booker for sharing that wonderful message with us about the Farm System Reform Act and the vision for the future that we are working toward together.
You know, as he said, we can’t do it without the support of all of you. So we’re also just so grateful for all of you being here today for this important conversation.
We have a couple of minutes left, so we’ll take some questions in a moment. But first, Rebecca had shared at the beginning that she has a couple of ways that people can get involved in advocating for a fair Farm Bill.
So, Rebecca, would you come back out for a couple of minutes and tell everybody a couple of different ways that they can get more engaged in this work with us?
Rebecca Wolf: Yeah, thank you, Kate. I’m really excited and kind of riled up about all of the exciting kind of conversation and just support for the kind of food system that we want to see from both Representative Ro Khanna and Senator Cory Booker.
So if you want to keep this going, if you want to be involved in some of the you know, the technical pieces, the really exciting big vision we have, there is a powerful way to get involved by joining Food & Water Watch’s volunteer network.
So for this Farm Bill year, we’re actually forming a very special Farm Bill Action Team to advocate for a better food system for all of us. So this summer I’m going to be joining the volunteer team. We’re going to be working across the country, and you can take part in a couple of ways.
The first is gathering signatures in your community for a fair Farm Bill. You can start advocating at places like farmers’ markets, or other kind of events throughout the summer. There are tons of fun events throughout the summer, so we’ll help you get started, get trained up, feel confident, go out with friends to do that work.
You can join educational events to learn more about food policy. So those are the events that I’m going to be joining, going to host a series of kind of deeper dives on those three important issues that I kind of went through. There are a ton.
But I’m gonna get a little bit more specific on each of those: conservation, competition, and commodities.
And then the third piece is, we’re gonna help you visit your members of Congress. So at the end of the summer, we’ll work with you to deliver those petition signatures to your community — that you collected from your community — to your local Congressional office or your U.S. office in D.C., if you’d like, as well, to advocate for those policies that we need to see in a fair Farm Bill.
So after you sign up, we’re gonna follow up with everything you need to get started for helping us work toward a better food system in this Farm Bill, and we’ll put that link in the chat. So you can join our Farm Bill Action Team.
Thank you in advance for all of your support. And I think we’re gonna get into some of the questions. Is that right, Kate?
Kate Schwanhausser: Yes, we do still have a couple of minutes here for questions. And my colleague Madeline is going to pop the link in the chat for where you can join the Farm Bill Action Team to join Rebecca over the summer and get involved in your local community.
And we do also have a petition that you can sign. Takes two minutes, sign it today, ask three of your friends to sign it as well, just to really urge your members of Congress to support a fair Farm Bill. As you heard from Ro Khanna, that’s really what needs to happen.
We need to make sure that our members of Congress are hearing from us about these issues. So please take a moment to do that today as well.
All right. So let’s get to some of the audience questions. We’ve got a lot submitted today, and I’m gonna kind of group them by theme. Since we got a lot of questions on very similar topics.
So first, a lot of questions on the subsidies discussion that you were talking about, Rebecca. So this is a question from Carol and a few others.
I’ll paraphrase it a little bit. Essentially: “How can we decrease subsidies for foods like dairy and meat and increase subsidies for healthy organic foods, like vegetables, fruits, and grains?”
Mitch Jones: I guess I’ll take that one. So — everybody froze. Is everybody still there? Okay, we’re good. There was a brief moment where everybody froze, sorry.
So, you know, the current subsidy system was really created by Big Ag as Rebecca kind of laid out in her presentation. Right? Crop insurance, emergency payments. These are being skewed towards large operations.
But really, what it’s all about is a concerted effort to dismantle — there has been a concerted effort over the past 70-plus years to dismantle that New Deal farm program that Rebecca alluded to earlier, which had real programs to support prices both for farmers and consumers.
Starting, you know, just after the Second World War, there was a concerted effort to undo the New Deal, and over time, you know, there was a continued attack on this — Richard Nixon’s agricultural secretary, Earl Butz saying “Get big or get out.”
It was actually a position of the USDA to reduce the number of farmers in America. This was not an accident. We didn’t come here because of some free market, “Oh, we’re going to become consolidated.”
Consolidation doesn’t happen because of the free market necessarily. It happens because of government policies that are created by the most powerful organizations. And they’re influencing Congress.
So that’s what we’ve seen. And then, you know, following the Freedom to Fail Farm Bill from 1996, this really took off.
So you know, what we need to do is the things that we’ve been talking about. We need to stop factory farms through both environmental enforcement, but also antitrust enforcement.
We need to build a fairer system of payment for grain farmers, and we need to do things like create a grain reserve that manages supply. We need to get back to the supply management that we had under the New Deal. And then, finally, we really need to invest in a transition to a more diversified, regional, and resilient food system.
And these are the things that we’re working on with Senator Booker and Congressman Khanna, as well as, actually, Senator Tester, who’s a leader on the attempts to get rid of — to break up agribusiness.
You know, what we really need to get is, we need to get away from the idea of subsidizing below-cost inputs for factory farms, food manufacturers, and also frankly, ethanol production, and focus again on a system that supports living wages, income parity for farmers, as well as making sure that, you know, everybody can afford to buy those products.
Kate Schwanhausser: Awesome. Thank you so much, Mitch. Rebecca, is there anything that you want to add to that?
Rebecca Wolf: And I think the one thing I would add to this is I — it’s also really hard to talk about in our short time today — but it’s not exactly a one-for-one. “Get rid of subsidies because they’re causing the problem, right?”
So we talked about, we need — it’s really hard to have a fair market to grow grains without those types of support. So what we need to see is the real management of fair prices for farmers, not overproducing, being able to store that — and Mitch talked about this, but it’s not exactly — If we got rid of subsidies tomorrow, those farmers would lose the farm.
And who would buy that? You know, the the big guys would then buy that land. We’re already seeing that kind of as a problem, as well. So that’s kind of the one other thing I want to add to that is not quite as simple as one-for-one, and that’s kind of the conversation that we get stuck in.
It’s really about the manipulation of Big Ag over the years to make those prices really low for them.
Kate Schwanhausser: Thank you. Okay, so the next big bucket of questions that we got in is related to factory farms.
So a lot of people are asking, you know, “Realistically, how soon do we believe that we can achieve this ban on factory farms?”
Rebecca Wolf: Yeah, I can get us started there. You know, I — our folks, our guests today also talked about this. It is a long-term fight. But I think the North Star piece of this is we didn’t always have factory farms. They’re not inevitable.
They are — We don’t have to keep supporting and doubling down on the infrastructure that is factory farms and adding gas infrastructure to it as well.
So will it be a single piece of legislation? Probably not. But we need those updates for environmental laws, enforcement of our environmental laws.
We need those updates to our antitrust provisions, the authority to actually use those antitrust provisions, enforcement, again, this commodity policy piece. So there are a lot of different puzzle pieces to actually get us away from factory farms.
It’s not going to be that silver bullet solution, but we have all this policy. It’s all right there. We know it works. We know it’s good for farmers. We know it’s good for consumers.
And so that’s the really, really good news. It’s in front of us, and we need to kind of build the power, the momentum, bring, you know, everyday people together around these issues, and to get involved and more champions in Congress as well.
But, you know, it’s gonna be a long-term process. I don’t have a year for you, but we have the policies, and we know how to get there.
Mitch Jones: If I can just add to that — you know, it’s important that we have the visionary legislation, right? We know where we need to go. We need to lay that roadmap for how to get there.
And I think that’s what the Farm System Reform Act does is it sets out, “Okay, here’s where we need to go. This is the policy we need.” And we’re going to work towards that. We are organizing towards that. We’re on the ground across the country, you know, organizing people to build the political power to make that happen.
But there are moments in politics where you have an opportunity to get a little advancement while you’re working towards that vision. And that’s what the Farm Bill really provides us this year, and it’s the work on that visionary legislation, I think, that puts us into the position to take advantage of these moments.
And so that’s why it’s important to go out. Put that vision out there, get on the ground, organize for it, and then, when the opportunity comes to make those advances, we’re ready to make those advances.
And you know, one day, hopefully, very soon, we’ll be able to achieve the vision.
Rebecca Wolf: Absolutely.
Kate Schwanhausser: Awesome, that’s great. I love that. And yeah, that’s just another great reason why everyone should get involved in this Farm Bill Action Team, because if we’re all working together on this, we will make that vision a reality that much sooner.
All right, let’s take one more question, and then I’m gonna wrap us up because we’re coming up on the top of our hour here.
But yeah, a lot of people are also asking questions — and we’ve talked a little bit about this — but just, you know, ways that they can, that we can support small farms and regenerative farming alternatives.
So getting back to those smaller farms, you know, grass-fed farm animals, more organic sustainable farming practices without the use of harmful pesticides.
Rebecca Wolf: Yeah, I can get it started here. I think this question really comes back to the two kind of working hands that we have here.
That one piece — and I talked about this right in the beginning, but that one piece is the market. It’s creating a fair place where you can actually make a living, selling crops, selling animals, that has to be there.
And because we’ve had this policy for so long, where we’ve had this literal “get big, get out” policy from the U.S. government, we need the work to rebuild those systems that allow diversified regional production, resilient production, sustainable practices, real conservation practices to happen.
So it’s those two pieces. We need both. These are great. And if we only focus on these, the market will gobble them up.
So we need both to be able to really pry apart and create the space for the food system that we want. And I think — when I think about kind of this question, and a lot of these questions, I kind of come back to those two big ideas.
We really need both. We need them talking to each other. And we need to put forward that vision and all sorts of different types of policy, so that we can have those smaller, medium-sized, grass-fed, pasture-raised, no pesticides and kind of all the things that we really want to see in our food system
Kate Schwanhausser: Awesome. Thank you. All right, well, we are coming up on time here, so I am unfortunately going to wrap us up on Q&A. But thank you so much to everyone who sent in all those great questions.
And everyone in the chat, please join me in thinking Rebecca, Mitch, and of course Congressman Ro Khanna and Senator Cory Booker for spending some time with us this afternoon.
We’re really grateful and appreciative for their leadership on these issues, and thank you to all of you as well.
I do want to just share a couple of final reminders, including the events that we’re going to be hosting over the next couple of months so you can continue to join us.
But first I’ll just, you know, remind you all again, and encourage you to become a Food & Water Watch member. You know, as I said at the beginning, Food & Water Watch doesn’t take any corporate funding. Our support comes entirely from people like you, so I encourage you to make a donation today, whether it’s a one-time gift or a monthly recurring donation.
As you’ve heard from Rebecca and Mitch today, you know this is gonna be a long-term fight, and so those monthly donations really allow us to have the consistent, sustained funding for these longer-term fights like this, like continuing to advocate over the next few months and provide the resources to build this strong network of Farm Bill volunteer activists and communities across the country who are going to make a huge difference in this campaign.
So we’ll put the link in the chat one more time where you can make a gift today. And then also, don’t forget the ways that you can take action. I’ll just do a quick recap of the things that Rebecca shared.
So first, you can read the Farm Bill reports to get a deeper understanding of these issues and the solutions that we’re working toward.
You can also send a message to your member of Congress through our online system and invite your friends, family, and colleagues to do the same.
And then, finally, join our Farm Bill Action Team and help support — build support in your community.
You can sign up through the link in the chat, and our volunteer leaders will follow up with all the details and next steps.
And I know that we’ve shared a lot of links to resources and ways to get involved today, so don’t worry if you don’t have them all saved. I will be sending out an email tomorrow morning with all of those links, along with the recording of today’s conversation.
Please feel free to share all of that with your — with your networks. It will take all of us to make this future a reality.
And then, finally, just a quick reminder of the events that we’ll be hosting as part of our livable future live series.
And I’m sure we’ll have some great updates to share about the work of our volunteers over the summer. So we’ll put the link to sign up for these in the chat as well.
So yeah, just thank you all again so much for coming today. You’ll get an automated email or text message in about an hour asking you to submit some feedback about today’s event.
Please leave a comment. We love hearing your thoughts on our monthly discussions. And that’s all! So thank you all so much again for joining us, and for being — for standing with us in this fight. I hope that you all have a wonderful rest of your afternoon.
Resources and Links From the Event
- Watch the event and share it on Youtube.
- Join our next Livable Future LIVE event, “How Microplastics Affect Our Health & Environment.”
- Learn about our upcoming Livable Future LIVE Events.
- Read our report: “Well-Fed: A Roadmap To A Sustainable Food System That Works For All.”
- Read our report: “A Fair Farm Bill For All.”
- Join our Fair Farm Bill Action Team.
- Send a message to your representatives in Congress to support a fair Farm Bill.