How the admin chickened out on protecting farmers

  • Published on December 4th, 2012

playing chicken

I’m sure you’ve heard horror stories about the abusive way this country raises its chickens, cows, and pigs. But I’ll bet you didn’t realize there’s another species that’s victimized almost as much as the animals: The humans who raise them, who are caged and penned in by huge agribusiness almost as badly as the animals.

Writing at the Washington Monthly, Lina Khan lays out the ironic business model that agribusiness is forcing on farmers, the Obama administration officials who revealed the abuse, and the way industry lobbyists gutted their attempts to push through reforms.

Restraint of trade

Ever wonder what happened to the anti-trust laws that are supposed to prevent a handful of companies from controlling whole sectors of business? They were eviscerated during – of course! – the Reagan years. St. Ronnie fundamentally changed the way anti-trust was interpreted, basically saying that as long as mega-corps did’t use their market power to jack up prices, they could be as monopolistic as they liked.

As we now know (See: Walmart, Monsanto), companies can keep consumers swimming in cheap crap while still having a horrific effect on peoples’ lives. Today’s monopolies – the four biggest meat packers have a strangle-hold on 82% of the market – keep profits high by squeezing their suppliers – and since they’re often the only game in town, they can dictate anything they like.

That’s what the USDA hearings found was happening in the meat business.

  • During the 1950s, processing companies had worked with farmers to avoid wild price swings by setting up a mutually-beneficial contract system. A company would provide a farmer with feed and chicks; the farmer provided the facilities and the labor, and had contracts to sell the grown birds to the same company for fair market prices.
  • But now, consolidation means the average farmer has just a single processing company in their area. Agribusiness can dictate the terms, putting huge pressure on the farmers, and punishing them if they speak out.

The admin started strong, documenting the abuses, and proposing new regulations that would protect farmers.

But as soon as industry fought back – hard – through some of their pet congresscritturs on the Agriculture Committee, the administration caved. The most important protections were gutted like a slaughtered hog, and the farmers who spoke out are now terrified. After all, if agribusiness can shove around Congressmen and Agriculture Secretaries, what hope does a small farmer have of standing up to them?

Khan’s sad conclusion:

By documenting the big processing companies’ exploitation of independent farmers, then failing to stop that exploitation and retreating in almost complete silence before entirely predictable resistance from the industry, the administration, for all intents, ended up implicitly condoning these injustices. The message to the processing companies is, after all, absolutely clear: you are free to continue to act as you will.

It is no stretch to assume that, from the perspective of the White House, the choice to abandon an apparently failed effort to protect independent farmers from such abuses may have seemed politically pragmatic. But over the longer term, it may prove to have been a strategic political failure. By raising the hopes and championing the interests of independent farmers against agribusiness, the administration effectively reached out to the millions of rural voters who don’t normally vote Democratic but whose ardent desire to reestablish open and fair markets for their products and labor often trumps any traditional party allegiance. Instead of translating that newfound trust into political capital, the administration squandered whatever goodwill it had begun to earn. Worse, the administration’s silent retreat amounts to a form of moral failure. Having amply documented the outrageous abuse of fellow citizens, it decided it was not worth expending more political capital to right this wrong.

Read the whole thing….

About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue. He lives in New York, where he combines his passion for the environment with his passion for film, and is working on making the world a better place.