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
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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In memory of legendary organic pioneer and food sovereignty advocate, John Kinsman, Family Farm Defenders is proud to celebrate beginning farmers each year with a prize in his name!
12:00 Noon – 2:00 pm FFD Annual Meeting, with a year in review, action updates, and board elections – open to the general public!
2:30 pm Screening of the acclaimed documentary, the Ants and the Grasshopper, directed by Raj Patel, followed by a discussion with Jim Goodman and Jahi Chappell
5:00 pm Welcome Reception & Award Banquet – featuring native bioregional foods! Suggested donation – $30 per person (children under 12 are free). To RSVP and purchase advance tickets send a check to: FFD, P.O. Box 1772, Madison, WI 53701 or make an online donation at: www.familyfarmers.org
5:30 pm Welcome by FFD President, Joel Greeno, followed by a Memorial Tribute to David Rhodes, longtime FFD member and acclaimed Midwest writer (who recently passed away at 75 on Nov. 10th, 2022) and then Ruth Conniff on her new book Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers
6:00 pm Keynote Talk – “Food Sovereignty as Showing Up” – with Jahi Chappell, director of the Michigan State University(MSU) Center for Regional Food Systems and W.K. Kellogg Foundation Endowed Chair in Food and Society.
7:00 pm John Kinsman Beginning Farmer Food Sovereignty Prize Awards!
Congratulations to this year’s winners:
Naima Dhore of Naima’s Farm in Alexandria, MN
Naima Dhore began her farming journey growing food for her own family from small pots in her apartment window. She now operates Naima’s Farm near Alexandria, MN which focuses on organic food production for the broader Somali/East African community. As an immigrant she also knows the struggles that face many black, indigenous, and other farmers of color, and in 2020 she helped found the Somali American Farmer Association (SAFA). Naima credits her food sovereignty success “to her ability to connect and maintain relationships with various people in her community—always being certain to remain humble in sharing resources to see everyone thrive and not just some.”
Heather Gayton of ZanBria Artisan Farms in Friendship, WI!
Heather Gayton launched ZanBria Artisan Farms near Friendship, WI as a simple roadside stand, bartering and selling produce, but was eventually able to acquire a 20 acre farmstead specializing in native, heirloom, and herbal crops. As a cancer survivor, Heather believes strongly in “food as medicine.” She is also a leader in the Farmers of the Roche-Cri Watershed Group and a grower for the Grand Marsh food pantry. Heather’s farm dream is to “create a space that people can come to for learning about indigenous wisdom, food sovereignty, regenerative agriculture and environmental sustainability.”
Family Farm Defenders also welcomes sponsors for this year’s 2022 John Kinsman Prize! Those making a contribution of $100 or more will receive two (2) complimentary tickets to the award banquet and receive mention in publicity. All donations to FFD are tax deductible. More info? #608-260-0900 or email: familyfarmdefenders@admin
For lodging nearby, consider Hampton Inn #608-255-0360 and mention FFD!
If you wish to join the John Kinsman Prize virtually, there is a Zoom event available:
John Kinsman Beginning Farmer Food Sovereignty Prize Ceremony Dec 10, 2022 5:30 – 8:30 PM Central Time
By: Anthony Pahnke, vice president of Family Farm Defenders, and Associate Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University, CA.
Originally published by The Hill, 10/13/22
To his credit, Biden has been trying.
That is, the current administration has tried to make agriculture more competitive, from issuing an executive order last year calling on the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to clarify and strengthen regulations on the nature of improper market conduct, to investing hundreds of millions in new meat processing ventures.
Following through with the executive order, the USDA — through its authority granted by the Packers and Stockyard Act (P&S Act) — has issued rules, or guidelines, to increase transparency in how poultry growers contract with their buyers. Another proposed rule that is open for public comment until Dec. 2 would increase protections for whistleblowers and reform contract farming in livestock.
Still, consolidation has continued apace.
For instance, Biden’s Department of Justice (DOJ) tried three times to convict poultry executives of price fixing, and three times they have failed. Meanwhile, mergers among poultry processors keep happening. The DOJ allowed one recent case to proceed on the condition that the firms pay $84.8 million for violating worker rights and agree to comply with antitrust laws.
While better than nothing, the agreement between the companies and the DOJ does nothing to stop concentration, where the top four firms went from controlling 35 percent to 54 percent of the industry from 1986 to 2018.
If that were not enough, there’s ongoing vertical integration in beef between retailers and processors, and horizontal mergers taking place among already large players in the sugar industry.
Overall, Biden’s “whole-of government” approach when it comes to strengthening competition in agriculture seems to lack one critical element: enforcement.
More to the point, officials struggle to effectively use the legislative tools at their disposal to stop corporate consolidation. Such tools not only include the P&S Act for poultry and beef, but also other progressive-era legislation such as the Sherman Antitrust, Clayton and Federal Trade Commission Acts.
To the detriment of farmers, few entities in control of an industry can drive down the prices paid to producers for the sake of improving margins. As much has been seen in various lawsuits that have been settled out of court, whether in dairy or beef.
Not only a problem for farmers, consumers and workers also have a lot at stake in this matter.
Specifically, concentrated markets provide opportunities for firms to collude and depress worker wages, as well as inflate prices at the grocery store.
Still, not all hope is lost.
Specifically, the ongoing debates concerning the 2023 Farm Bill present an opportunity to strengthen antitrust policies.
Now, as politicians campaign for reelection, is the perfect time to raise the matter of corporate concentration. In Minnesota, Iowa, and Illinois, for instance, politicians have been hearing over the past week or so from rural communities about the issues of concern.
Typical farm bill items that draw the attention of legislators and the public include subsidies and conservation, as well as nutrition. In fact, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) occupies around 75% of the legislation’s total allocation.
Still, strengthening antitrust laws can also be included.
In fact, in 2008, it was.
Specifically, the 2008 Farm Bill amended the P&S Act by requiring processors to provide more information on capital requirements, while also increasing the power of growers to cancel contracts. The bill called on the USDA to craft guidelines on how to implement these changes. After years of delay, mainly at the behest of meat industry advocates, the Obama administration issued a set of watered-down rules that the Trump administration later nixed altogether.
This time around could be different, especially for the interest that the Biden administration has shown in following through with dealing with corporate power in agriculture.
For instance, the next farm bill could include sections from Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Reform Act. Among the bill’s many ideas are amending the Clayton Act to update the standards for mergers, while dedicating more resources to the DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for enforcement.
Moreover, the farm bill, as a piece of legislation that must pass through both houses of Congress, provides a real opportunity to build legitimacy around the need to challenge corporate consolidation. The DOJ and FTC, with their nominated officials are critical to enforce antitrust law. Passing laws to empower them would strengthen their position.
For these reasons, the farm bill is an opportunity for farmers, workers and consumers to seriously build power and challenge the corporate stranglehold that exists on our food and farm system. Now is a particularly propitious time to forward this change, not only given the upcoming midterm elections, but because the current government appears interested in improving our agricultural system for the better. By including antitrust reform into the 2023 Farm Bill, perhaps they will succeed.
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Guest Editorial by Dennis Olson, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)
(published online May 16, 2022)
At its peak, Cargill’s beef plant in Plainview, Texas employed 2000 workers with good paying union jobs and generous benefits, collectively bargained with the help of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 540. During the summer of 2011, Texas ranchers became increasingly desperate as drought scorched their pastures and turned their watering ponds to dust. Ranchers reluctantly began to sell off their cattle, including their valuable female breeding heifers essential for future herd rebuilding. By the end of 2011, Texas was in the grip of its worst drought in recorded history. And it was about to get worse—both for the Texas ranchers, and for the Cargill meatpacking workers in Plainview.
By 2012 the drought had deepened and expanded beyond the Southern Great Plains to the rest of North America. By the time rains finally arrived in 2013, the Texas cattle herd had shrunk by about 1.2 million head, or about quarter of its former size of five million in 2010. By 2014, as the drought took effect throughout the continent, the herd had dwindled to its lowest level since 1941.
Since its passage in 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had enabled beefpacking companies to acquire feedlots in Canada and Mexico, and to ship those Canadian and Mexican cattle tariff-free over the borders, to their U.S. plants
Drought had already extended from Texas into northern Mexico in 2011. Mexican ranchers, like their U.S. counterparts, had also sold their cattle and sent them north to slaughter in U.S. plants like Cargill-Plainview, keeping them open longer. But those Mexican cattle eventually ran out too, and the workers at the Plainview plant had no more cattle left to harvest. In early 2013, Cargill notified its workers that it would close the plant. The workers were out of a job; and it would be challenging to find new ones in the now parched rural economy of the Texas panhandle.
Although NAFTA had provided the Plainview plant with a short-lived but ultimately futile lifeline, for nearly two decades the agreement had been undermining the resilience of the beef supply chain. NAFTA had cleared the way for the global meatpackers like Cargill to acquire feedlots anywhere in North America and ship cattle across borders to their U.S. packing plants. When U.S. domestic cattle supplies got low enough so that demand would normally push prices up to kickstart herd rebuilding, the meatpacking companies continued to suppress prices through shipping from feedlots to processing plants across the borders. This intentional price suppression undermined domestic demand, artificially suppressed U.S. cattle prices and removed any economic incentive for ranchers to hold back breeding cows for herd rebuilding. The meat companies used NAFTA to break the historical cattle cycle.
In the case of the Cargill-Plainview plant, UFCW successfully petitioned the Department of Labor under the Trade Adjustment Act (TAA) to grant extended unemployment and vocational training funds to those workers who were laid off to help them transition to new jobs. In its petition, UFCW proved that beef imports “contributed importantly” to the plant shutdown, which was the test that had to be met to release the worker assistance funds. One pillar of a Just Transition should be to expand the TAA to assist workers who lose their jobs due to climate shocks, not just trade disruptions.
After NAFTA broke the cattle cycle, the herd never again recovered to its pre-NAFTA levels. Today, the question remains whether the herd will ever recover, or simply continue its decades long decline to oblivion under NAFTA. The rebuilding of the cattle herd is crucial not only to the ranchers who raise the cattle, but also to the workers who process them. And to the planet.
The questions regarding how much and what kind of beef we should produce is pivotal to the success or failure of any strategies around a Fair and Just Transition toward effective climate mitigation. Yes, cows have the biggest carbon footprint because of the methane they emit, but we still need them and other ruminants back out on sustainable pasture rotations, improving soil health and fixing carbon. Such a migration of cows from industrial “concentrated animal feeding operations” (CAFOs) to sustainable pastures would break up fossil-fuel monocultures, making the countryside more resilient in the face of increasingly climate volatility including severe droughts and floods, wildfires and more deadly pandemics.
We must develop and implement policies that reverse current, unsustainable neoliberal market deregulation that has unleashed the overproduction of fossil-fuel feedgrains, driving crop prices far below the cost of production. A Tufts University study found that the indirect below-cost feed subsidy caused by the market deregulation of feedgrains in the 1996 Farm Bill siphoned $35 billion out of our rural economies and into the coffers of global meat packers and dairy processors. This cheap feed policy is the hidden driver of the otherwise inexplicable and relentless expansion of industrial CAFOs that everyone seems to dislike but that no one can seem to curtail.
We need supply management with strategic grain reserves to create price floors in grain markets—not only to give farmers a fair minimum price that covers their real cost of production but also to take away that $35 billion cheap feed subsidy from the industrial livestock complex by making them pay the real cost of production in the market. Such a strategic grain reserve should also have a price ceiling that triggers the release of those reserves back out onto the market whenever prices rise too high, causing hunger, and suppressing demand for meat and shuttering meatpacking plants. Supply management is one of our most effective tools for avoiding the worst impacts of global warming.
Supply management can curtail the overproduction of below-cost feed grains grown with the assistance of fossil-fuel based fertilizers that subsidizes the unsustainable overproduction of industrial meat.
Stronger antitrust laws and trade reform must curtail the ability of the global meat cartels to manipulate cattle prices and cheat ranchers and prevent the race to the bottom for the lowest labor standards. The fight back has begun. Workers have recently won a multimillion-dollar legal settlement against meatpacking companies for colluding to suppress wages. Consumers have won similar settlements, and rancher antitrust complaints are pending.
Public procurement reform would allocate preferences to suppliers who respect workers’ rights to organize a union; who pay farmers and ranchers a fair price and redress historical racial discrimination; and who invest in local economies rather than extract wealth from them. Such preferences should also include favoring worker- and farmer-owned cooperatives with union contracts. These farmers and workers will spend money on Main Street, not Wall Street. And such preferences should exclude the bad actors who egregiously violate labor, antitrust and environmental laws, from bidding on public contracts.
Working together, we can succeed in forging policies to incentivize herd rebuilding.
Removing the massive indirect feed subsidies to industrial meat production through supply management of grains would reduce the carbon footprint of beef by leveling the playing field for pasture-based ruminants versus CAFO meat production, allowing cows to revert to their natural ecological role of rebuilding soil health and fixing carbon. And requiring the industrial meatpackers to pay the real cost of production for feedgrains would reduce the amount of fossil-fuel feedgrains fed to cattle, further reducing beef’s carbon footprint.
Finally, eliminating the cheap feed subsidy would break up the fossil-fuel monoculture cropping that is hemorrhaging toxins to point of creating a massive dead zone of the Gulf of Mexico. Moving cattle out of massive industrial CAFOs and back onto sustainable pasture rotations would improve soil health and fix carbon, making the countryside more resilient in the face of ever more severe droughts, intense floods and devastating wildfires. By implementing these policies, and facilitating herd rebuilding, we can prevent US and global beef demand from being reliant on deforestation, particularly the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
More cows on more grass can become a guiding principle by which to measure our success towards a fairer and more just climate transition.
 U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration; TAA Decision 85160; TA-W-85,160 CARGILL MEAT SOLUTIONS CORPORATION A SUBSIDIARY OF CARGILL, INCORPORATED PLAINVIEW, TEXAS; April 3, 2014.