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: familyfarmdefenders@admin

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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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Since agriculture is so important, why are we leaving its future up to a few powerful companies?

We can create a sustainable agriculture system if we set the rules to benefit all of us equitably and to protect the planet. After all, technology will not change the fact that we are part of nature.

By: Patti Naylor, FFD Board Member and U.S. farmer participant in the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security.

Originally published in Des Moines Register, 2/12/2023

Many technologies have proved beneficial to farmers, relieving them of some of the most physically demanding work, improving safety on the farm, and providing new insights for farm management.

As agricultural technology is advancing, with sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, genetic sequencing, machine learning, and communications networks to collect, process, aggregate, and analyze data, the benefits to the farmer — and to the environment — must be questioned. Big Data, the massive accumulation of digital information on land, seeds, plant genetics, livestock, workers, production systems, and consumer behavior, is an emerging source of power and profit for both tech companies and agribusiness.

Patti Naylor

Elliot Grant, the CEO of Mineral, a new ag tech company of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, in a Des Moines Register guest column published Jan. 15, attempts to convince us that the many challenges that face farmers today can be solved if they just had adequate “tools.”

Grant asks, “if agriculture is so important, why isn’t it getting the best tech?” The real question should be, “since agriculture is so important, why are we leaving its future up to a few powerful companies?”

Alphabet/Google is positioning itself to join the data mining game as companies jostle to see who will control the most data — and the related infrastructure — coming from every corner of our food system. Mineral claims it already has data on 10% of the world’s farmland. Seed, chemical, and equipment companies are in the tech game as well, a big influence in Bayer’s $63 billion acquisition of Monsanto. As reported last fall, “Bayer’s ‘Field View’ digital platform, extracts 87.5 billion datapoints from 180 million acres of farmland in 23 countries and funnels it into the cloud and AI servers of Microsoft and Amazon to generate new business strategies.” With little to no oversight to this digitalization of agriculture, government leaders, commodity groups, and agribusiness executives are enabling this power grab.

In 2020, the CEO of an Iowa farmer-member cooperative told farmers that data would soon be more valuable than the crops they produced. With the price of crops determined through a global market without reflecting the costs to produce the crops, this may not be a huge leap.

This commodification of data is profitable through carbon markets, incentive programs, and precision climate-smart agriculture, all based on narrowly defined and corporate-friendly practices that have been called out as greenwashing. Farmers are lured into giving up their data – their knowledge – for little real return. Some of these data-collecting schemes are even taxpayer-funded and heavily promoted by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.

In turn, the financialization of data-rich farmland attracts investors, often through shares in Real Estate Investment Trusts, or REITs. With closely-held technology, thousands of acres of farmland can be managed by artificial intelligence. Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft with its Azure FarmBeats service, reportedly owned the most private farmland of anyone in the United States in 2021. It is becoming more and more difficult for today’s family farmer to compete with this appetite for farmland investment.

While agribusiness and tech companies claim benefits to farmers and to the environment, the technology being developed and employed will lock-in the farm practices, land use, crops, and equipment that support the extractive, chemical-intensive corn-soybean-CAFO-ethanol model, further entrenching this system. Additionally, the collection, processing, and storage of data takes huge amounts of energy.

As many people in Iowa are beginning to understand, this system of agriculture is not sustainable. Evidence shows it causes widespread air and water pollution, harms ecosystem health and human health, moves more and more farmers off the land, and destroys rural communities and small businesses. Any biodiversity that is left is only a novelty, at risk of completely disappearing.

Agribusiness repeats the claim that decisions about agriculture need to be science-based. However, they are really talking about technology that serves their economic interests. Science and technology are not the same. Science, which includes ecology and sociology that we ignore at our own peril, is not an endpoint as new research adds to scientific knowledge. We must guard against the corrupted application of science.

The machine-smashing Luddites of the early 19th century would recognize these concerns. Historians tell us that these skilled workers were not against technology. Their protests were against “the new logic of industrial capitalism, where the productivity gains from new technology enriched only the machines’ owners and weren’t shared with the workers.”

We don’t need to smash machines, but we do need clearly defined rules and limits. We can assess which technologies are beneficial, develop open-access technologies for public use, emphasize the value of human knowledge, and define policies to ensure the digital collection tools and the infrastructure work for the common good. We can create a sustainable agriculture system if we set the rules to benefit all of us equitably and to protect the planet. After all, technology will not change the fact that we are part of nature.

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Carbon Markets Aren’t What They Appear

We need to distinguish good, real solutions to the climate crisis from those that would continue to wreak havoc on the environment.

By: Anthony Pahnke, FFD vice president and associate professor of international relations at San Francisco State University, CA

Originally Published in the Progressive Magazine, 12/15/2022

Carbon Trading and Offsetting are False Solutions That Can Actually Make the Climate Crisis Worse

Flimflam,” “bait and switch,” or “switcheroo”—these were some things my grandfather said to warn of proposals that seemed too good to be true.

On our farm, he saw his fair share of these kinds of offers, whether from salesmen pitching the latest, yet untested variety of seeds, to equipment dealers trying to convince us that buying another, larger tractor would help increase yields and solve our financial problems.

I fear there’s something similar happening with legislative proposals such as the “Growing Climate Solutions Act,” which make carbon markets central to confronting climate change.

With the midterms behind us, and the farm bill discussions with our new Congress coming up early next year, we need to distinguish good, real solutions to the climate crisis from those that would continue to wreak havoc on the environment and serve mainly to line the pockets of wealthy investors and corporations.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act is an example of the latter.

Tailored for agriculture, the bill is slated to appear in 2023 farm bill discussions after stalling in the House.

The bill pushes farmers to turn certain government-certified practices into tradable assets, or credits, to sell on already-existing carbon markets. Generating over $851 billion in 2021, some markets are regional, such as the European Union’s Emissions Trading System, or the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in North America, while others in China and the United Kingdom are national. Eligible practices may include reforesting, using cover crops, creating on-farm energy, or improving fuel efficiency.

The problem with carbon markets is offsetting.

Specifically, carbon markets allow corporations to purchase credits to balance, or offset, environmentally destructive practices that the businesses also do.

For instance, a farmer could plant alfalfa as a cover crop, earning credits to sell to improve their income. Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies with the mandate to be “carbon neutral” could purchase those credits, continuing to pollute as they produce oil, gas and other fuels.

To make matters worse, speculators make carbon markets volatile, generating price drops that could endanger the additional income that farmers bank on receiving.

Pledges to be “carbon neutral” or achieve “net-zero” emissions may sound nice, but they are slogans designed to make us turn a blind eye toward corporate polluters that are destroying our planet. Instead, we need climate solutions for the next farm bill that truly benefit farmers, as well as the Earth.

The Climate Stewardship Act, proposed by Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, is worth considering in this regard. Booker’s legislation increases enrollment of environmentally sensitive land to 40 million acres by 2030. This increase will pay farmers to take land out of production, supporting incomes while not propping up volatile carbon markets.

The proposal also increases financing for small-scale farmers to engage in practices recognized by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service as being effective at reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, while also scaling up the Local Agriculture Market Program. Expanding this program would reduce our food system’s overall carbon footprint—production, processing and transportation contribute about a third of global GHG emissions—by promoting direct sales and local farmers markets.

Climate markets may seem a “win-win” for cash-strapped, environmentally conscious farmers. The reality, however, is that they make farmers’ incomes volatile, and corporations rake it in while continuing to destroy the planet. As my grandfather would say, the plans for these markets are the latest “flimflam” that we should avoid. Let’s take his advice to heart in our upcoming farm bill discussions.

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