Making our voices heard about the future of our farm, food system

The Missouri Rural Crisis Center recently sent in comments to the Joe Biden administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in response to their request for comments to "improve and reimagine the supply chains for the production, processing and distribution of agricultural commodities and food products." Now is the time to move forward with policies that create a fairer, and more resilient and sustainable food system. 

With recent disruptions in our food system, from a global pandemic that closed mega-processing plants and endangered workers and our national security, to a cyberattack on the world’s biggest meatpacker, it’s time to create policies toward a more localized, decentralized, democratic food system based on independent family farms and consumers, not global corporate agri-business. It’s not hyperbole to say our national and food security and the vitality of our independent family farms and rural economies are at risk; and, we must also ask ourselves the broader questions about who and what does our democratic process support and represent. 

Corporate monopolistic control of our farm and food system is a "house of cards" that has shown its instability, undermining our national security, and exploiting family farmers, workers and rural communities across our country. Over the last three decades, factory farm corporations (the biggest now owned by foreign corporations with ties to foreign governments) have put hundreds of thousands of independent family farmers out of business—which resulted in putting thousands of local, independently owned businesses on our Main Streets out of business. This has severely impacted our ability to feed our families regionally and locally, and is also extracting huge amounts of wealth from our communities.

Instead, we need policies and programs that incentivize more family farmers and local infrastructure and businesses. Policies should also address historic racial inequities for farmers of color and create specific opportunities for marginalized groups to fully participate in a dramatically fairer, more equitable system of American agriculture.

To do this, farm and food policies need to focus on paying farmers their cost-of-production and a living wage, and offer consumers family farm produced food at a fair price. Congress must pass policies that: prioritize farm income from the sale of commodities at a fair price in open and competitive markets, rather than reliance on government subsidies; strengthen and enforce antitrust laws and stop corporate concentration and vertical integration in the food industry; stop corporate factory farms from exploiting taxpayer-funded programs like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and Guaranteed Loan Program, and, instead, prioritize public money going to independent family farms; and, reinstate Country of Origin Labeling for meat and poultry and expand it to include dairy products, and close loopholes in the regulations that allow for imported livestock and meat to be labeled as “product of the U.S.A.”

Solving climate change is the existential challenge of our generation and a family-farm centered system, with more farmers on the land raising animals on pasture is best suited to revitalize rural communities, produce a healthy and sustainable food supply and respond to the climate crisis. To truly mitigate climate change, we need to focus on the long-term economic viability of independent family farmers who live on the land and raise animals the right way. USDA should not prop up the same corporate interests that got us here in the first place, and should not subsidize corporate factory farms with taxpayer money to produce methane gas from their manure lagoons, incentivizing the biggest contributors to agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. USDA should not support highly speculative market-based schemes (such as carbon trading and carbon banks) that have failed repeatedly and allow polluters to keep emitting greenhouse gases, while farmers who are focused on soil health get pennies to offset that pollution by trapping carbon in the soil.

Free trade agreements need to be renegotiated to focus on the interests of family farmers, ranchers, farm and food workers, consumers and our environment. Our current free trade agreements have created windfall profits for multinational meatpackers and grain traders while hundreds of thousands of U.S. independent family farmers have been put out of business, our rural communities suffer and taxpayers pay the bill. Not to mention, free trade has been used to block the ability of consumers to know where their food comes from (e.g. Congress rescinding COOL because, under NAFTA, it was determined to be an "illegal trade barrier").

We can and must do better—for farmers, rural communities, consumers and our country. Our elected representatives in Washington need to address what is happening “out here,” and not follow lockstep the policies written by corporations and lobbyists at the expense of our farms, families and communities.

—Tim Gibbons is communications director for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, Columbia, Missouri.