Immigration Reform is Possible— the Farm Bill Shows How

Why not give lawmakers a space to hash out their differences, not as a one-shot game, but something they can come back to every now and again?

By: Anthony Pahnke, FFD Vice President

Originally Published by Common Dreams 5/19/2023

It seems that the anticipated humanitarian crisis of thousands of migrants streaming across the border, which many predicted with the end of the Title 42 program, has been avoided.

Still, something like 12 million undocumented people currently live in the United States, and we are probably just one migrant caravan away from having scores of families forced to live in squalor in border cities and perhaps being subject to violence at the hands of border agents.

Making matters worse, no recently proposed legislation concerning immigration has much chance of becoming law.

It’s the design of the Farm Bill that we should focus on. Its form, not its content.

For instance, the 2021 US Citizenship Act, which Biden championed early in his term and that would have created a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, ran aground quickly last term due to GOP opposition. Now, Republicans have their own version of revamping our immigration system with the Secure the Border Act. This bill, which calls for hiring more border agents, as well as championing some Trump-era initiatives like building a physical border wall, has no path out of the Democrat-controlled Senate.

So, is there any hope of getting beyond our seemingly never-ending policy quagmire that is immigration reform?

The Farm Bill is where our leaders should turn.

The point is not to add some provision about immigration to this omnibus piece of legislation that governs most facets of our agricultural system.

Instead, it’s the design of the Farm Bill that we should focus on. Its form, not its content.

By form, what’s key is that the Farm Bill comes up for debate every five years. The expiration date is even written into the law.

The legislation’s design poses quite the task, as the Farm Bill sets the terms for most of the critical elements of the U.S. food system, from commodity prices and conservation policy to international trade and farm credit.

But that’s the bill’s genius—with such serious issues to debate, it makes sense to revisit them every now and again. And here’s the best part—if one party misses something, then they can try again next time.

That much was behind the bill’s creation. Before becoming law in 1933, for most of the 1920s, politicians fought over how to address the economic crisis ravaging farmers. While farmers did well during World War I, they struggled once the conflict was over. In response, some legislators wanted protectionist policies, others believed promoting exports was the answer. They couldn’t find middle ground and our nation’s food producers suffered for years.

So, what happened? When FDR became president, farmer groups and politicians created an omnibus bill that contained sections dealing with the issues that were the subject of debate years before and that required periodic renewal. The bill itself has come to include new sections from time to time, such as rural development and food assistance in the 1970s.

Agriculture aside, doesn’t such a way of addressing complicated policy matters, such as migration, make sense?

Think about it—who could have foretold when early in Biden’s term, when he sent Vice President Kamala Harris to Central America to search out ways to keep people from fleeing poverty, that Cubans and Venezuelans would eventually join the exodus of people? Or that Russia would invade Ukraine, sending millions seeking safe haven abroad?

Furthermore, historically, we see that migrants come to the U.S. in waves. Such moments are related to all kinds of unexpected events, including wars, famines, and natural disasters.

Comprehensive immigration reform has evaded our lawmakers for decades. So, it would make sense to take some of the pressure off of them and at least create a framework that they can work with.

There is no crystal ball that we can peer into and see where in the works some disaster will take place. The best we can do as a country is to craft a bill that provides parameters within which our legislators can debate every five years or so. Furthermore, all the major issues currently raging now could be found—border security, temporary protected status for people who are temporarily displaced, visas for students and workers, and so on.

A majority of Americans agree that something has to be done about immigration. Our parties also agree—this much is seen in how regularly their policy proposals come up in the news.

So, why not give them a space to hash out their differences, not as a one-shot game, but something they can come back to every now and again?

Let’s also not forget the migrants in this discussion. Now we are talking about Title 42 and Venezuelans, but in a year or two, it will be some other policy and another group of people. What is certain is that for quite some time, people will want to come to the US to work and live.

Comprehensive immigration reform has evaded our lawmakers for decades. So, it would make sense to take some of the pressure off of them and at least create a framework that they can work with. Both parties could also take credit for promoting it. And who knows, maybe they will compromise once in a while. They do so already with Farm Bill. Maybe the same could happen with immigration.

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Corporate profits outweigh health, culture and livelihood

Forcing GMO corn on Mexico is part of destructive, pro-corporate U.S. policy

By: Jim Goodman, retired organic dairy farmer, board member of Family Farm Defenders, and board president of National Family Farm Coalition.

Published by the Wisconsin Examiner, 3/13/2023

As farmers in Wisconsin and across the Corn Belt make planting decisions, the question always on their minds is, will income cover their expenses? The price farmers all over the world are paid is determined by the global marketplace. With Mexico being one of the biggest buyers of U.S. corn, Mexico’s planned ban on imports of Genetically Modified (GM) corn (over 90% of the US corn crop is GM) has farmers worried. Their worry should be whether planting GM corn and planting so many acres of GM corn is a sound decision.

Corporate money has always corrupted the political process in order to create laws and trade agreements that protect corporate profits at the expense of not just American citizens, but citizens of the world.

There’s no better example than GM crops. Developed over the decades by seed and chemical companies Monsanto, Calgene, Dow, DuPont, Bayer and others, GM corn, soy, cotton and canola were touted as the solution to world hunger, the key to increased farm profitability, lower pesticide use and a better environment. Sounded good, but none of it was true; the real truth (and that wasn’t mentioned) was that these commodity crops were designed to produce vast corporate profit as they helped usher in a wave of corporate consolidation, loss of small farms, declining rural economies and a foisting of untested GM food on unknowing consumers.

While these GM crops dominate the fields of North America, the seed and chemical companies see the world as their target for even more profit. Their grants to university researchers, and lobbying pressure on and campaign contributions to state and federal legislators, have made GM the so-called face of “progressive” and profitable farming. 

Crop yields did go up with increased application of fertilizer and pesticides, while farm crop prices went down. Farmers got bigger to survive, planted more acres and saw the GM bandwagon as the only way: Produce more cheap grain for a growing world market. A market that would feed the growing confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that, hand in hand with the GM mono-cultures, were driving small farmers, not just in America but around the world, off their land.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) pushed GM corn into the Mexican market, underselling Mexican farmers. Because they lost their way of life, many moved to low wage factory work in the maquiladoras or across the border into the U.S., looking for work in the fields, CAFOs and processing plants of the North.

Not only were the livelihoods of Mexican farmers ruined by the dumping of GM grain, but the areas of origin of corn were put at risk of pollen contamination from the GM imports. Growing corn is a part of Mexico’s culture. Domesticated 8,700 years ago, corn is sacred and a staple of the everyday diet. Mexicans didn’t want our GM corn, but in an economy pushed towards depression by NAFTA, people were forced to rely on what was available and affordable.

NAFTA of the 1990s wasn’t the end of it. Today under a new (free but not fair) trade agreement, the USMCA, the U.S. aims to force Mexico to not only accept GM corn, but also to overturn the country’s ban on the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), a probable carcinogen. Mexico wants neither. Mexicans want to grow their own non-GM corn and to import only non-GM corn to meet domestic demand. Glyphosate also threatens biodiversity, not just of Mexico’s ancient native corn varieties, but of pollinators — the bees, butterflies and birds that winter in Mexico. So why would they want that?

Yet under the USMCA, the Biden administration, through its U.S. Trade Representative, has said it will take all steps to enforce U.S. rights. The rights of the U.S. and the rights of Mexico will, in all likelihood, come down to the trade tribunals and the bullying of the U.S. government and its unending support of U.S. corporations and agricultural trade groups. The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) notes that allowing the ban to move forward (or in simple language, allowing Mexico to protect its farmers, its environment and its culture) would be catastrophic to America’s corn producers. But their real concern lies not with a potential drop in U.S. farm income, but rather a reduction of corporate profit.

America’s corn producers can grow the non-GM corn Mexico would like to buy, and they would be paid a premium to do so. But the power of the seed and pesticide corporations, the multi-national grain companies and industry trade groups like NGCA make growing and marketing of non-GM corn difficult. Growers of non-GM corn must bear the entire burden of preventing any contamination, and U.S. farmers in general are trapped in a system of GM mono-cultures and CAFOs that are immensely profitable for agri-business while the growers produce commodities at prices so low their very survival depends on taxpayer-funded subsidy payments.

What right do we have to force our excess production on the people of Mexico who don’t want it? What right does our government, our research institutions or a group of multinational corporations have to tell anyone what they must eat, what chemicals they must use and that their culture and environment are of little concern? Short answer: Mexico has every right under USMCA to reject GM corn from the U.S.

Yet, as has been the case for over 30 years, the answer from the U.S. government is “Sorry, but corporate profits outweigh anyone’s right to choose.” The U.S. government will do whatever it takes to keep corporate profits flowing.

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Competition policy in the 2023 Farm Bill offers next chance for bipartisan progress

By: Anthony Pahnke, Vice President of Family Farm Defenders and Associate Professor of International Relations, San Francisco State University.

Published by The Hill, 3/7/2023

First it was infrastructure and then semiconductors.

Now, it’s agriculture’s turn to showcase what real bipartisanship can look like despite our country’s overly polarized political climate.

Precisely, it’s in the 2023 Farm Bill — legislation that must be reauthorized every five years and includes policies on everything from commodity prices and conservation to nutrition spending and rural development — where there’s hope for Republicans and Democrats to collaborate for the sake of the public good.

One area within this legislation — namely, competition policy — stands out from the others when it comes to making feasible, as well as lasting positive change.

Concretely, in drawing from various bills that target how concentrated markets hurt consumers at the cash register and farmers in the marketplace, Democrats and Republicans can take important steps to improve our food system’s resilience and security.

They almost did so in 2008, when Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) pushed to include a special section — otherwise known as a title — into the farm bill to deal with competition.

His proposal included policies that would have challenged vertical integration and price manipulation. While the proposed title did not emerge, sections in the “miscellaneous” title of the farm bill saw to place further regulations on food processors and empower farmers to sue them. The Obama administration was slow to implement such changes, which when the Trump administration took power, fell by the wayside.

Since then, both parties have continued to find more in common than before when it comes to rethinking markets and having concerns with corporations.

For instance, rank-and-file Republicans have increasingly adopted negative views of big banks and corporations. Former President Trump’s use of tariffs brought along many fellow party members  o endorse a policy tool once considered anathema to the GOP. Over time, many on the right have come to believe that corporations don’t have Americans’ best interest at heart and that free trade is not gospel.

Meanwhile, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Corey Booker (D-NJ), have made challenging corporations central to their legislative agendas.

Such abuse is clear in our food system, where decades of increasing concentration in everything from beef, poultry and soybean processing, as well as in cereal and soft drink production, allow corporations to inflate prices for consumers while making supply chains vulnerable to disruption. The COVID-19 pandemic put the insecurity of our food system supply chains on display, as farmers had to dump their milk, or destroy their vegetables, while lines to food shelves grew. Due to such disruptions, 40 percent of farmer income in 2020 came from U.S. subsidies.

In terms of the 2023 Farm Bill, there are plenty of bills that legislators can draw from, perhaps to draft another version of the competition title that Harkin once envisioned.

To start, there is Klobuchar’s Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Act. This legislation would make mergers subject to increased scrutiny, while also providing additional resources to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for enforcement.

Klobuchar’s bill is mirrored by another – The Trust Busting for the Twenty First Century Act – that her Republican colleague, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), introduced last term. Similar in focus, his bill also intended to amend our laws to restrain corporate power.

There is also Booker’s Farm System Reform Act, which would pressure processors to be more transparent in their contracts with farmers, place a moratorium on new, large-scale confined animal feeding operations to curtail further concentration, and mandate “country of origin” labeling (COOL) for beef, pork and dairy products.

This last provision should appeal to politicians of both parties, seeking to improve market transparency for consumers by not allowing corporations to hide where they source their products.

Last, there is the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act, which is currently co-sponsored by Booker and Warren, as well as Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). This legislation would halt mergers in the food and agricultural industries, while also creating a committee to make legislative recommendations on how to make markets fairer and more competitive.

The proposed commission would be composed of people selected from the Senate and House Committees on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. As the House committee is chaired by Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-PA), those who would be selected to serve would definitely include people favored by both parties.

Overall, the reauthorization of farm bill this year presents an opportunity for politicians of both parties to continue to recognize that they have more in common than not when it comes to working for the long term good of our country’s food system. With various bills to draw from, Democrats and Republicans have the resources. Now is the time for our politicians to put their minds together and forge consensus, after all, that’s why we sent them to Washington in the first place.

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Farm Bill 101 ‘Zine

Looking for a primer on the 2023 Farm Bill debate? What is the Farm Bill? Why should you care? Which ideas should we support? Here is some help with that! Feel free to share far and wide – this is copyleft! If you would like to some paper copies to share, let us know and we can mail them your way: [email protected]

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It’s Time to Realize the Farm Bill’s Transformative Potential

Despite the legislation’s relatively low profile, the Farm Bill deserves serious consideration from nearly everyone, including our politicians.

By Anthony Pahnke, FFD vice president and

Originally published by Common Dreams, 3/1/2023

When the Farm Bill appears for debate in Congress every five years, most of the public pays little attention.

If people do notice, then it’s most likely because of partisan bickering over programs that deal with nutrition spending—what some refer to as “Food Stamps.” In fact, the last time the legislation was debated in 2018, Republicans caused controversy when they unsuccessfully tried to attach draconian work requirements to food assistance policy eligibility.

Still, despite the legislation’s relatively low profile, the Farm Bill deserves serious consideration from nearly everyone, including our politicians.

The reason is the transformative potential of the wide range of policies that fall within the law’s purview, from commodity pricing and environmental conservation to trade and development. With worsening financial stress leading farmers to commit suicide at a rate 3.5 times that of the general population, as well as climate change disrupting our harvests, we have an agricultural system in dire need of transformation.

That the Farm Bill became a legislative afterthought benefits primarily the agribusiness conglomerates that bank on cheap raw materials.

Cheap corn and soy destined for feedlot cattle help meat processor giants such as Cargill sell to retail chains for a profit. Meanwhile, Kroger and Wal-Mart have vertically integrated into dairy, which allows them to source milk for their own product lines, stifling competition as they drive down prices for others.

It’s worth recalling that the Farm Bill’s original intent was not to serve corporations.

In fact, the legislation was born during a time similar to ours in terms of economic and environmental crisis, specifically, when the Dust Bowl was ravaging the Great Plains states in the 1930s.

Over 2.5 million people were displaced at this time as large-scale absentee landlords unsustainably planted grain to take advantage of high prices. Prices fell when too much product filled the market, driving into bankruptcy producers who couldn’t keep up. When drought hit and dust clouds appeared, impoverished farmers fled.

In the face of such crises, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Congress responded to the calls for farm system reform by creating the first Farm Bill in the 1933 Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). The Agricultural Marketing Act was passed in 1937, which along with the AAA, set voluntary production quotas for farmers to cut production and improve earnings. FDR also created the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC), which in the event that farmers chose not to participate in the quota system, was authorized to purchase product to create public reserves and stabilize incomes.

These policies were oriented around one objective – parity.

Parity is not about subsidies, or rather, cash payments issued to farmers according to some arbitrarily set base price. The point is to place farmer incomes on par with what non-farm system workers receive, essentially around the idea of a living wage, or income. Besides strictly farm-related expenses, such as on seed or fertilizer, parity price calculations include what farmers spend on non-agricultural goods such as healthcare and clothing.

Not to pad the pockets of corporate executives, parity intended to create the conditions for the farm and non-farm economies to support each other and grow.

Besides this basic notion of economic justice, the design of the early Farm Bill saw to marry economic welfare with environmental stewardship—cutting production raised prices by reducing supply, which in turn, limited the use (and abuse) of land and animals.

Nutrition spending programs were added in 1939. While they were not renewed in 1943, food assistance reappeared with Lyndon Baines Johnson’s “Great Society” plans in the 1960s before officially entering the Farm Bill in 1973. The programs were not meant to provide fodder for partisan ideologues to dog whistle racist sentiments to one’s base, as we see now, but instead to connect people who didn’t have the financial means to buy food to farmers who grew too much. The 1973 Farm Bill also saw the introduction of rural development policy, which concerns spending on energy, housing, and infrastructure. In 2023, expanding broadband internet access will be central.

Even though the parity-focused system stabilized the farm economy and led incomes to rise, challenges began to appear.

Corn growers first chose to leave parity behind in 1958, hoping to gain more private sector control over prices.

Meanwhile, the 1954 Farm Bill saw the introduction of trade with the Food Not Peace Act. This addition saw to send surplus commodities abroad, which includes credit guarantees to private lenders who help establish new markets outside of the United States. While some consider this component of the Farm Bill as key to helping other countries ensure food security, others believe it leads to “dumping,” as farmers in other countries struggle to compete with U.S. imports.

What began in the 1950s continued throughout the twentieth century, as legislators progressively weakened parity pricing policies with each successive Farm Bill. Finally, the 1996 Farm Bill, also coined the “Freedom to Farm Act,” replaced parity policy mechanisms with direct cash payments to farmers when commodity prices fell below a threshold that barely kept producers financially afloat.

The crux of this discussion is this—a pathway to restoring parity’s economic justice and environmental sustainability imperatives remains in US agricultural policy.

Sure, more spending could be dedicated to grants to people who grow fruits and vegetables. In fact, there’s certain conservation programs such as EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) within the Farm Bill that are dedicated to support small-scale producers who adopt environmentally friendly practices such as using cover crops and/or decide to transition to organic farming.

The problem is that such programs have proven particularly difficult for small-scale farmers to access, with resources increasingly going to industrial operations that are part of the problem of corporate concentration.

Amid such matters, policymakers ought to recognize that the CCC remains. Through this public corporation, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture can order the purchase of product to improve farm incomes, which would discourage overproduction and the pressure that farmers feel to unsustainably increase yields at any cost.

Still, agribusiness corporations stand in the way.

Their power too can be challenged, which in the 2008 Farm Bill, almost happened.

Then, Congress told processors that they had to give farmers more power to cancel contracts and seek alternatives, as well as calling for ways to help producers sue buyers over potentially unfair practices. The bill called on the USDA to craft guidelines on how to implement these changes. While the Obama administration initiated some changes, the Trump administration nixed the plan.

Still, what such moves show is how corporate power in the food system can be challenged with the Farm Bill.

Moreover, nationwide alliances such as the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC) have been at the forefront both of demands for parity pricing, as well as calls to have politicians hold corporations accountable through enforcing anti-trust laws.

Overall, it’s worth remembering how the first Farm Bill emerged at a time of environmental and economic crisis, akin to what we are experiencing now. Its goals were as bold as its policies were innovative.

This architecture remains within the legislation that is being debated now. We do not need radically new laws to transform our food system; our politicians have to use the policy tools at their disposal to discipline corporations, ensure dignified incomes to farmers, and address environmental concerns. It’s our job as citizens to hold legislators’ hands to the fire and make sure the Farm Bill’s true potential is realized.

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