This series of blog posts runs from October 14-18 and celebrates Food Week of Action. Learn more and get involved here.
Farming is a fight against the odds. It’s a vocation that requires long hours, hard labor, expansive knowledge, and a deep well of resilience. Farming requires a lot of investment, while simultaneously being exposed to high risk from a number of factors that are not under the control of the farmer. A season could be ruined by drought, flood, hailstorm, pests, disease, equipment failure, or illness – to name a few. RAFI-USA works with many types of farmers at varying points in the development and operation of their businesses. In the course of that work we learn more about what factors in their environment are either contributing to the success of their business, or making it harder for them to make a living. One clear trend we have seen over the years is that the increasing corporate consolidation of agriculture is resulting in fewer and worse options for farmers as they make decisions about their businesses.
For example, when farmers buy their seeds for the year, the seeds are increasingly expensive, and they may not be varieties that are adapted to local conditions or the farmer’s production practices. Organic producers are often pressured to use varieties inappropriate for the Southeastern climate or pest populations because of limited seed options permitted under organic certification guidelines. As public breeding efforts continue to shrink while private breeding and use of patented genes expand, available germplasm for organic producers or even non-GMO producers is limited and often outdated. Ownership of the intellectual property of our collective agricultural genetic resources is becoming increasingly privatized. Large seed companies buy up the rights to varieties, insert one gene into it, and the old variety is no longer available. Farmers are then charged a “technology fee” for the GMO gene, and are not allowed to save seeds for the following year. By contrast, public seed varieties are available for anyone to use without paying royalties, and anyone can save the seeds or breed them into new varieties.
RAFI-USA’s Just Foods Program is working to address this challenge with organic growers in North Carolina. Program Director Kelli Dale works with a group of organic farmers who help set priorities for characteristics they need from crop varieties. The farmers help grow out the seed and then sell it through a farmer coop to other farmers and buyers, simultaneously contributing to publicly available seed varieties, and generating income for their farms.
Corporate consolidation also impacts farmers in poultry and livestock production. As independent meat processing facilities close around the country, independent poultry and livestock growers are faced with fewer options: to drive farther and farther in order to take their animals to the processing plant; to close down their operations; or to sign a contract to work with an integrator. Integrators – companies like Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Perdue – get the name from the fact that their businesses are vertically integrated. Vertical integration describes when a company owns all assets in the production process. In the poultry industry, vertical integration means that companies own the hatcheries, the feed mills, the birds, the feed, the processing plants, and the marketing. The farmers only own the poultry houses and the liability: debt liability for the houses often in excess of $1 million dollars, liability for livestock that die on the farm, and liability for waste the animals generate. Integrators use contracts, which are complex and misleading, primarily to benefit their bottom line and shift risk to the farmers; and if a farmer loses their contract, the other integrators in the area may choose not to pick them up. Check out the op-ed that RAFI-USA staff wrote on the issue, and learn more by watching the documentary Under Contract.
When an industry consolidates into fewer and larger companies, those companies can also have an outsized impact on federal policy. Such has been the case with regulations that would make the contract poultry industry more fair to farmers. For decades, RAFI-USA and the farmers we work with have been fighting an uphill battle for fair regulations and enforcement for contract poultry and livestock. Read more in tomorrow’s blog post about our recent petition and farmer fly-in, as well as how you can make your voice heard with your elected officials!
As mentioned in RAFI-USA’s op-ed, one good first step for slowing the trend of corporate consolidation in agriculture is the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act of 2019 sponsored by Senators Booker (D-NJ) & Tester (D-MT) and Congressman Pocan (D-WI). Click here to contact your elected officials and ask them to support the bill.
This blog series is put together by RAFI-USA’s Come to the Table program team. Learn more about the program here.
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