The Hill: Government checkoff programs should work for farmers, not industry lobbyists


FILE - Cows graze in a field at a farm, Aug. 17, 2021, in Penobscot, Maine. The USDA trying to strengthen its system for animal-raising claims such as "pasture raised" and "grass fed". (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

FILE – Cows graze in a field at a farm, Aug. 17, 2021, in Penobscot, Maine. The USDA trying to strengthen its system for animal-raising claims such as “pasture raised” and “grass fed”. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)

Fairness is a fundamental American value. When we see policies that benefit the powerful and influential at the expense of everyone else, as elected representatives of the American people, it’s our job to try to fix it.

For example, the government requires farmers, ranchers and producers of certain commodities to pay a tax on the sale of their goods. It’s unfair for the government to then give that money to organizations that often lobby against farmers’ best interests, but that’s exactly what has been happening as a result of agricultural checkoff programs — a once-voluntary way for farmers and ranchers to pool their resources to fund research and promotion initiatives.

However well-intentioned the checkoff program may have been at the beginning, its eventual corruption has transformed it into yet another mechanism of control over our food system by powerful corporations.

Not only are the checkoff fees mandatory, they also frequently subsidize lobbying efforts that facilitate the continued growth and consolidation of multinational agribusiness corporations. What’s more, the government boards that run these programs are notoriously opaque in their accounting practices, so farmers have no idea who’s receiving their money.

We’ve introduced a bipartisan bill to restore transparency to these programs’ murky workings and ensure they are accountable to all the farmers who must pay into them. The Opportunities for Fairness in Farming (OFF) Act contains commonsense oversight measures that should have already existed for a billion-dollar government program funded with the money of hardworking farmers. By requiring mandatory audits and prohibiting conflicts of interest, the OFF Act prevents further waste, fraud and abuse of the checkoff program.

We worked with farmers to develop this bill because we think that farmers and ranchers should know if their money is used to promote their product — or if it’s paying the salary of a Big Ag lobbyist working to put them out of business.

The beef industry illustrates why more than 60 farm groups representing hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers support the OFF Act. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) is a lobbying and trade association whose stated mission is to increase demand for beef; yet according to their tax forms, only about half of every dollar they make goes to beef promotion and research initiatives, with the other half mostly going to salaries.

One of NCBA’s primary activities is lobbying for the multinational meatpackers in its membership. In 2015, NCBA successfully lobbied against implementing stricter labeling policies that would have distinguished American products from lower-quality imported meat sold by giant meatpackers like Brazil’s JBS. This work puts NCBA at odds with the interests of America’s independent cattlemen and women — in fact, less than 3 percent of cattle ranchers in the U.S. are members of NCBA.

The sad reality is that farmers are funding the NCBA, which works against them. While NCBA receives some membership dues and some corporate sponsorships, more than 70 percent of its income comes from the beef checkoff and out of the pockets of ranchers.

Protective of their primary funding source, NCBA has vehemently opposed the OFF Act, which would prevent groups that lobby on agriculture policy from receiving checkoff funds.

NCBA needs to be honest. Instead, they often spread false statements about the OFF Act’s provisions. In an op-ed, they claimed it would strip universities of research funding when, in fact, it contains an exemption for universities. Elsewhere, Hoosier Ag Today reports the NCBA claims because the American Lung Association (ALA) employs a lobbyist, they could no longer do human health research on soy-based products. However, the ALA does not lobby on agricultural issues, and the OFF Act would not impact its research funding.

NCBA even claimed in a House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing that the OFF Act would “defund” the checkoff — after omitting from their disclosure form that they are the biggest contracted recipient of beef checkoff funds.

It’s time to reform this unfair system. While NCBA’s largest members — meatpacking conglomerates like Cargill, Tyson and Marfrig (the Brazil-based parent company of National Beef) — have been enjoying record-breaking profits, half a million ranchers have gone out of business since establishing the beef checkoff programs.

Our farmers and ranchers work hard to put food on our tables, and they’re among the most trusted professionals in the country. We’re committed to reforming the checkoff to ensure their hard-earned dollars aren’t being used against them: it’s only fair.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) serves on the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) serves on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.