Taxpayers take one for the corporate agriculture team, again

Taxpayers take one for the corporate agriculture team, again

by Sherri Dugger

December 31, 2020 12:13 AM

As news spread of the COVID-19 relief package, many complained about the $600 stimulus checks and about wasteful or ill-directed spending in the larger omnibus measure. What too few have discussed, however, is the fact that taxpayers will once again foot the bill for corporate agriculture’s bad behavior.

An overview from the House Agriculture Committee shows payments will be made to “livestock and poultry growers for losses suffered due to depopulation,” and up to $1 billion will go “to livestock and poultry contract growers who had revenue losses due to contract changes.”

Contract livestock producers and growers run concentrated animal feeding operations, which can house hundreds to hundreds of thousands of food animals, including cows, pigs, turkeys, and chickens. These food producers work under contract with large multinational corporations, such as JBS, Tyson Foods, Perdue, and Smithfield Foods. These corporations have all the control and power — they provide the animals, the feed, and the medicine, and they dictate how the growers care for the animals, when growers replace equipment, and how (and how much) payment is distributed.

The growers suffer the debt and the risk. They invest millions in their operations. They are stuck with the manure produced by the animals and run the risk of polluting waterways, soil, and air, thus incurring stiff penalties. They have little say over the conditions of their contracts, thanks to the 2018 loss of Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration protections.

Due to the heavily consolidated food system that dominates agriculture in the United States, growers have little choice when seeking contracts. Even prior to the pandemic, contract growers rarely prospered. The National Contract Poultry Growers Association and the Department of Agriculture published a 2001 study, for example, that showed 71% of growers whose sole source of income was chicken farming were living below the poverty line. COVID-19 just made things worse.

What the House Agriculture Committee’s overview doesn’t spell out is that so many were suffering losses because of contracts written to favor the corporate giants, leaving all the risk to the growers. Corporate interests saw record profits in 2020 despite the chaos that COVID-19 unleashed on every other aspect of the food system. This was most certainly by design. In the industrial agriculture system, everyone loses except the multinational corporations that regularly take lobbying dollars to Capitol Hill to ensure agriculture policy protects their interests.

When COVID-19 hit, processing plant workers and farmworkers were infected and died in record numbers. Consumers paid more at the cash register. Animals were killed en masse. Independent family farmers saw their options dwindle for processing their products. And contract growers lost their contracts, their livelihoods, and sometimes their multigenerational farms. This year, Payment Protection Program payments included millions going to bad actors in the industrial system. Now, it appears taxpayers will foot the bill again by paying for much-needed relief payments to contract growers when corporate contracts failed to protect them in the first place.

At the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project, we work every day with rural communities that are devastated by industrial agriculture operations. Concentrated animal feeding operations, also known as factory farms, have been shown to pollute the environment, impair public health, compromise animal welfare, and destroy surrounding communities’ socioeconomic fabric. Industrial livestock operations are typically presented to poor rural communities as a means of creating jobs and generating economic growth, and the current economic downturn makes these communities particularly vulnerable to these operations.

Even in the early stages of the pandemic, the SRAP team, which is largely made up of independent family farmers, a former contract grower, and residents whose lives have directly been affected by these operations, observed a rapid influx of these feeding factories to rural areas. The same taxpayers who suffer the most from these neighboring operations are forced to pay for an industry that diminishes their quality of life, shutters their communities, and forever alters their health while the corporations prosper.

There are plenty of problems with the COVID-19 relief package. It is by no stretch of the imagination perfect. But it is also no stretch to see that, once again, big agriculture interests come out the winner in a system in which everyone and everything else, including animals, the environment, the climate, public health, rural communities, independent family farmers, contract growers, and the taxpayer, loses. Contract growers need protection and support, but the debt should not be shouldered by taxpayers. Multinational corporations, such as Tyson Foods, JBS, and Smithfield Foods, need to pony up for getting these growers into the mess in the first place.

Sherri Dugger is the executive director of the Socially Responsible Agriculture Project.