By Leah Douglas, March 27, 2019
Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced her agriculture policy platform Wednesday, three days before she is set to participate in a Democratic presidential candidates’ forum in rural Iowa. The platform calls for curtailing consolidation in agriculture by breaking up big agribusiness companies, reversing agriculture mega-mergers, and more.
“Today a farmer can work hard, do everything right — even get great weather — and still not make it,” she writes in the platform. “It’s not because farmers today are any less resilient, enterprising, or committed than their parents and grandparents were. It’s because bad decisions in Washington have consistently favored the interests of multinational corporations and big business lobbyists over the interests of family farmers.”
To right the wrongs of those bad decisions, she says, “we must address consolidation in the agriculture sector, which is leaving family farmers with fewer choices, thinner margins, and less independence.”
The plan was applauded by farm and rural groups that have long argued that addressing consolidation should be a crucial federal policy priority.
“We at OCM are thankful that [Sen.] Elizabeth Warren has announced she is taking her fight to break up unjust corporate market power to the agriculture sector on behalf of America’s family farmers,” said Joe Maxwell, executive director of the Organization for Competitive Markets, in an email. “She understands that what will make rural America great is the opportunity for farmers, ranchers, and their rural communities to have a just opportunity to share in the prosperity of America that they help build. That can only happen by breaking the stranglehold a handful of transnational corporations have on our rural economy.”
Warren offered several policies that would address consolidation, starting with reviewing and even reversing mega-mergers such as last year’s $66-billion deal between Bayer and Monsanto, which created a company that controls nearly 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market. She also would scrutinize vertical integration in the agriculture sector and even break up agribusiness companies that have become too consolidated. Vertical integration is a particularly urgent issue in the chicken industry, where contract farmers have spoken out about anticompetitive conditions and low pay. Three companies control 90 percent of the chicken industry.
Warren would also make the national checkoff program voluntary; implement a national “right-to-repair” law, which would enable farmers to repair their own equipment without having to rely on company repairmen; and reinstate country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork. She calls for restricting foreign ownership of agriculture companies and farmland, which has become a priority for some farm groups, especially since the Chinese firm WH Group’s acquisition of Smithfield in 2013.
Warren is one of the first presidential candidates to announce a comprehensive policy plan for agriculture. As FERN reported in February, some of the candidates have championed various food and agriculture policies in the past, but most are from urban centers and have little direct experience in the field.
“It is really encouraging to see presidential candidates elevating this vital issue to family farmers and ranchers,” said Rob Larew, senior vice president of public policy and communications at the National Farmers Union, in an email. “For decades, we’ve allowed multinational corporations to gobble up competition in the markets that farmers and ranchers buy from and sell to. It has left us with higher prices for inputs, lower prices for our products, less choice, and less innovation. Farmers Union has a long and storied history of advocacy on this front, and we’ll continue to encourage federal lawmakers to restore competition to agricultural marketplaces.”
“It is very encouraging to see more and more presidential candidates recognizing this reality and laying plans to take action to promote fair competition and a more level playing field,” echoed Ferd Hoefner, senior strategic advisor at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “We applaud the concern and the promises, and will do our utmost to ensure good policy and much stronger enforcement becomes a reality.”
Navina Khanna, director of the HEAL Food Alliance, also noted that addressing consolidation in agriculture could have positive impacts beyond farmers, including on workers and the environment. “Because of increasing consolidation and concentration of power, decisions about our entire food system — what’s grown, how it’s grown and by whom, who gets to eat it and who doesn’t — are now controlled by a handful of corporations,” she wrote in an email. “Their influence is driving policies and practices that result in poverty-level wages for farmers and workers, destroy the environment, and lead to poor health outcomes for rural and urban communities alike. Warren’s commitment to review mega-mergers and break up vertical integration is sorely needed leadership at a time that humanity faces the urgency of climate change, skyrocketing rates of diet-related chronic disease, and unprecedented pollution of water and air.”
On Saturday, Warren will join other Democratic presidential hopefuls at a forum in Storm Lake, Iowa. Rural concerns are anticipated to be a top priority, including addressing consolidation in agriculture.