Brass Tacks for Rural Iowa
EDITOR’S NOTE: Barb Kalbach is a 4th generation family farmer, Registered Nurse, and board member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Barb can be reached at email@example.com.
For the past six months, those of us involved with supporting independent family farmers and accountability for corporate livestock factories and meatpackers have been pleasantly surprised by President Biden’s tone and attention. Biden has repeatedly banged the drum for a better farm and food system that is fairer for farmers and workers, and the President and his Cabinet have announced a number of incremental reforms to the livestock and poultry industry.
The White House rhetoric and talking points on meatpacker concentration and corporate control over markets is certainly welcome, but it’s also starting to ring a bit hollow. The promise of “transforming the farm and food system,” as Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently stated, seems like more of a branding exercise than a fundamental shift. We should be making bold changes positioning fair prices for farmers, better pay and benefits for workers, and environmentally-friendly farming practices as core principles of food system change. Instead, we’re only seeing baby steps so far.
Where, for instance, are the lawsuits against meatpackers who colluded with the Trump Administration to force meatpacking plants to remain open during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, even as thousands of workers became infected and sick? According to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, these actions by Tyson, Smithfield, and other meatpackers had staggering implications for pandemic spread. Academic researchers have found that by July 2020, between 6-8% of all coronavirus cases in the U.S. were tied to packing plant outbreaks. By October 2020, community spread from meatpacking plants had caused 334,000 illnesses and 18,000 COVID-19-related deaths.
The Department of Justice has also not taken significant action thus far on allegations of meatpacker price-fixing and anti-competitive practices. Their investigation into cattle market manipulation is ongoing, but two years in they have yet to issue significant findings or issue fines and penalties.
Meanwhile, corporate agribusiness is continuing to cash in on the inflation crisis, price gouging, and announcing record corporate profits while we all suffer to pay our rising grocery bills. Tyson, Smithfield, JBS, Cargill, and other meatpackers have yet to face significant consequences through it all. These four packers are now dictating who eats and who doesn’t. Is this level of corporate control really what Americans want?
As for the organizations that carry water for the meatpackers, no one is bolder than the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). The NPPC claims to speak for hog farmers, but they recently announced a re-branding effort focused narrowly on the factory farm agenda. Their updated priorities are trade, foreign animal disease, labor, and “preserving producers’ freedom to operate” as priority advocacy issues. “Freedom to operate,” of course, is corporate-speak for a license to pollute. In Iowa, we understand that means polluted air, dirty water, and rural sacrifice zones.
Family farmers who raise pigs right have a very different set of priorities than the NPPC, including protections from corporate control over markets, better farm incomes, and more support for diverse conservation practices. As Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement members, we are calling for broad-based deployment of COVID-19 recovery funding to the Main Street meat lockers and small-town butcher shops these farmers need to deliver their livestock to market.
The urgency for actual action in the livestock industry is increasing every day. Independent livestock producers continue to decline in numbers while meatpackers increase their control over the industry. This is not an inevitable trend. It’s a policy choice.
All of us who care about the future of farming and the livestock industry should ramp up our efforts now to urge significant action from the White House, USDA, and Department of Justice. We need them to issue strong rules that affirm a Packers and Stockyards Act with clear enforceability and consequences. We need them to aggressively fine and sue meatpackers who break the law. We need them to stop taking baby steps and take a giant leap to protect family farmers and the environment from corporate livestock factories.