For years, the agricultural industry has followed a trajectory that has led to the mass production of beef, pork, poultry, and other foods. It is not uncommon to see an operation that contains hundreds to thousands of animals. We find it to be the norm that the average farm size increases while the number of farms decreased. Moreover, smaller farms struggle to compete with more expansive operations as the meatpacking industry monopolizes the agricultural sector. To address this issue, lawmakers and agricultural activists have drafted the Farm Systems Reform Act (FSRA).
The Farm System Reform Act gained new strides this summer and fall as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren co-sponsored it in June, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders co-sponsored the bill in July. Introduced by Democratic U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (a well-known vegan) on Jan. 21, the bulk of the bill targets large, concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. The goal is to eliminate large operations in the next 20 years, with no large operations able to go on after Jan. 1, 2040. As described in the resolution, CAFOs are animal feeding operations that include a minimum of: 700 dairy cows, 1,000 beef cattle, 2,500 pigs weighing more than 55 pounds, 10,000 pigs weighing less than 55 pounds, 500 horses, 10,000 sheep or lambs, and 55,000 turkeys.
Joe Maxwell is a former lieutenant governor of Missouri. He also raises pigs with his brother. Furthermore, he is the co-founder of the Family Farm Action Alliance. This nonprofit organization works to preserve the rights and benefits of farmers and ranchers across the country. His organization worked with Booker to help author the FSRA.
“The premise of the bill works to do two things,” Maxwell said, “[It tries] to bust up the monopolies [and] begins to give alternatives to farmers to get off the treadmill.”
Maxwell was referring to the subsidies that farmers depend on to be guaranteed a paycheck for the year. American taxpayers currently pay about $22 billion per year to fund agricultural subsidies, with most of the funds going toward corn and soybeans. The bill’s goal is to provide farmers with the tools to become more profitable without the help from the American taxpayer. Though the bill’s original drafting appears alarming to many producers, Maxwell believes that the resolution is a step forward in helping small farmers.
According to The Hill, many groups have shown support this month for the progressive reform bill. The COVID-19 response has also affected views for reform in meatpacking plants, targeting the issue of a high number of outbreaks of the novel coronavirus in meatpacking plants across the U.S. More than 250 groups showed their support for the bill as the summer season came to an end. These groups collectively showed support for the “visionary, comprehensive federal legislation” that developed the Farm Systems Reform Act.
Among the groups that support the bill is the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization that has spoken out in the past against agricultural technologies such as genetic engineering. Ricardo Salvador, the director and senior scientist of the group’s Food Safety and Environment Program, said he sees the bill as a feasible way to benefit smaller farming operations if implemented.
“It is worth pursuing to see less concentrated benefits,” he said. “It is about finding points of agreement. We want to see farmers doing better than what they are already doing. Parents are telling children not to go into the business. If you want to reverse that effect and want more families to afford that, the system needs to change.”
Salvador said the well-being of farms can be improved, as well as the distribution of wealth in the agricultural industry. Having larger operations creates a competitive environment that smaller producers have less capacity to compete in.
“Most investments that businesses make are in a five- or 10-year plan, so I do think [the bill] is feasible,” said Lee Burras, an agronomy professor at Iowa State University. He said he understood how the upfront costs would be substantial, but he said he thinks it can be done in the 20 years the bill provides if it were to become law.
“This bill would have benefits. It would not change methane emissions, but it would continue to have more carbon sequestration to remove CO2 from the atmosphere,” Burras said. According to the EPA, agriculture contributes to 10 percent of the United States’ total greenhouse gas emissions, and animal production contributes approximately 9 percent of that total (by comparison, transportation contributes 28 percent to total GHG, and electricity 27 percent). While he does not believe methane emissions would decrease with the implementation of the FSRA, Burras thinks the impact on soil conservation and land use would be positive, depending on the management of the land.
“The land that is prone to damage would more likely be converted to pasture and forage production,” he said, “Iowa is still going to produce 50 to 80 million pigs [in the next few decades], and we can expect to see cattle production double. We will still see growth if we move away from confinement agriculture.”
This bill provides a paradigm shift in agricultural philosophy that has become the norm for American farmers. Still, Burras said this bill aims to help smaller family farms and offer a more environmentally friendly option for producers. He said it will have little to no impact on older farmers, and it will be easy to adapt to for young and beginning producers, but he is most concerned for middle-career farmers.
Ken Herz, Nebraska Cattlemen Association president, said his group opposes the bill, saying it would lead to “higher costs to consumers and jeopardize food safety,” according to WNAX Radio.
Additionally, Steve Dittmer, a beef industry commentator who wrote for Beef Magazine last December, criticized Booker over the plan. Dittmer said CAFOs are not dumping manure and water waste indiscriminately all over the country, contrary to Booker’s claim that they are “not required to maintain a treatment facility for livestock waste.” Both state and national EPA agencies register, monitor, require extensive plans and structures to contain runoff, manage manure, and fine violators.
Salvador argues that Dittmer’s statement does not account for transporting manure from one site to the next. He said the manure is optimally viable for only a half-mile radius of transporting, causing the waste to be overapplied in one area.
Joe Maxwell said the goal of this bill is not to put farmers and the agricultural industry at a disadvantage. He wants to see large and small producers pave their own paths with their operations.
“The farmer is not the enemy. The farmer is stuck. All the profit is going to the big packers, and the taxpayers and bankers are bankrolling it,” he said.
Dawson Schmitt is a student at Iowa State University studying Agricultural Communications. He operates a blog called The Heartland Report.
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