Over the years, the farm bill has enabled a handful of large corporations to gain more and more control over our food and farming system.
Federal policy has encouraged agribusiness corporations to grow bigger and bigger. In the 1970s, with the rise of chemical pesticides, fertilizers, and industrial technology, President Nixon’s agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, encouraged farmers to “get big or get out.” Over time, large corporations have bought up their competitors and gained more control over all parts of their supply chains. Today, just a handful of corporations dominate agriculture. Just three corporations control 90 percent of high-horsepower tractor sales, and they often impose proprietary repair rules that are costly and cumbersome to farmers. In meatpacking, four corporations process 85 percent of the country’s beef. And two massive agrichemical corporations control over 40 percent of all global commercial seed sales, compared to ten corporations in the late 1990s. Facing little competition, big corporations are able to profit by lowballing producers and charging higher prices to consumers. At the same time, the handful of corporations that sell equipment and inputs to farmers have the power to raise prices unchecked, raking in record profits as farmers feel the squeeze. Large agribusiness corporations and factory farms regularly commit serious labor violations and contribute to environmental problems and the climate crisis. In short, corporate consolidation hurts all of us—working people, food producers, and consumers–and the environments we rely on to survive.
For decades, powerful corporations have influenced policymakers to write the rules in their favor. For example, in 2022 alone, the agribusiness industry spent nearly $170 million on lobbying. Corporations and industry associations also withdraw or threaten to withdraw support from politicians who go against their interests.
As a result of agribusiness lobbying, farm bill programs and policies have supported the consolidation of agricultural production into fewer and bigger farms. Under pressure from agribusiness corporations, the 1996 Farm Bill made a series of program changes that encouraged overproduction of commodity crops. Overproduction caused grain prices to decrease, which hurt farmers but benefited corporate buyers — especially the meat industry, which is the largest purchaser of grains in the country. To compensate farmers for low prices, Congress authorized a system of subsidies, crop insurance, and emergency payments that was made permanent through the 2002 Farm Bill. But many subsidies and other payments designed to help family farmers have often gone to billionaires and large industrial farming operations instead.
Large agribusiness corporations have also funded agricultural research in universities and other institutions, prioritizing their bottom lines and propping up industrial agriculture. At the same time, public funding for research has declined over the years. This situation privileges pro-industry research while underfunding independent research into alternative practices.
The federal government has previously passed legislation to break up corporate control of our food system, but many provisions have not been enforced. After a series of hearings conducted by the Department of Justice investigating corporate control in agriculture, the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills gave the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) more power to regulate anticompetitive practices by meatpackers, in accordance with the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921. However, meat and poultry corporations — and their allies in Congress — have continually fought off these reforms and prevented them from being implemented.
USDA, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Department of Labor collectively have the power to address consolidation and promote fair competition. But many decision makers at these agencies maintain close ties to the very corporations they are meant to regulate, participating in a “revolving door” between government employment and positions at corporations or industry associations. As a result, agencies often act in the interest of giant corporations, rather than small and mid-sized farmers, businesses, and rural communities.
Community, not Corporations
To counter corporate control, we must invest more money in local and community-based food systems. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to disruptions in corporate supply chains, local farms and food markets filled the gap. Farm to School programs also increasingly incorporated local producers and distributors into emergency feeding programs during the pandemic. Local and regional food systems offer considerably more resilience and ability to adapt to emergent crises. They also benefit local economies more widely, by keeping money circulating locally, creating new business opportunities, and increasing jobs. In addition, local food systems serve renewed public interest in knowing where food comes from and ensuring food safety and quality.
Local and regional food systems have suffered years of corporate buy-outs, which have decimated distribution infrastructures and remade food landscapes. To become more competitive in this environment, local farmers’ markets, co-ops, and distributors require new investments that can build linkages and networks, reach consumers, and offer competitive prices. The farm bill already authorizes support for some programs to do this, including the Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP), created in 2018. However, these programs require more funding and expanded access, including for worker-owned cooperatives, community-led organizations, and producers employing ecological agriculture.
What can we do?
- Fully fund and implement the Good Food Purchasing Program at all levels of government.
- Support the Protecting America’s Meatpacking Workers Act (PAMWA), which includes provisions that would curtail the power of large meatpacking corporations, include protections for farmers in the Packers and Stockyards Act, and increase funding for LAMP, as well as improving labor conditions for meatpacking workers.
- Support the Industrial Agriculture Accountability Act, which aims to create a level playing field for farmers engaged in higher-welfare practices who are struggling to compete in a highly monopolized market controlled by industrial operators.
- Support the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act, which prohibits certain practices related to commodity promotion (checkoff) programs and requires greater transparency by those programs.
- Support additional legislation to crack down on corporate abuse. The Farm System Reform Act, which aims to transform our food system by cracking down on consolidation and corporate abuse, phasing out concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and investing in small-scale independent farmers and ranchers, is a good start in this regard.
- Improve, expand, and enforce antitrust laws, and call on the Department of Justice to include impact on farmers and communities as part of its assessments of monopoly for the purpose of antitrust enforcement.