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Fixing Our Broken Food System Could Help Democrats Win In Rural America

May 20, 2020

Local Root Strategies Principal Jake Davis and Bryce Oats a freelance writer and activist that covers rural policy and politics for the Daily Yonder and other outlets have authored the following commentary.

Unlike many people involved with federal policy and politics, we aren’t surprised that the tri-headed monster of meatpacking worker exploitation, corporate control over the food supply, and depressed farm income is being bungled by the elite coastal media and political talking heads. Political media figures would much rather argue and snark about the perceived “Trump Country” rural-versus-urban cultural divide than they would take on the economic disparities at the heart of the matter.

Agribusiness exploitation of workers and farmers isn’t that complicated. It’s the world we grew up in, both of us having been raised on Missouri livestock farms. Bryce’s family operated the local butchery, and his family still raises cattle in west Missouri today. Jake studied agriculture education and is active in local food production, processing, distribution, and retail. We have both worked professionally for decades as family farm advocates, builders of better food systems, and creators of policies that improve worker pay and benefits. We fight for policies that resonate deeply with rural America, but rarely cross the radar of “political consultants” in either party.

Conventional political wisdom about agriculture is centered around a perceived imperative to maximize production over every other consideration. Politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, embrace this philosophy either cynically or blindly. The army of economists and speechwriters employed to feed these politicians talking points and policy papers about “feeding the world” often use misleading data and statistics. The global population is growing, we are told, and the “need for efficiency” and “economies-of-scale” must drive the system.

They say the livestock system must be based on indoor factories producing millions of pounds of meat per year. The meatpacking plants must pay the smallest wages possible and run at high speeds. Regulations must be cut, the industry says, or all efficiencies will be sacrificed at all levels.

Republicans tend to brag and thump their chests about how the private sector has innovated this approach, primarily through the moral superiority and charity of advanced capitalism. Most Democrats tend to go along, offering tiny bits of public funding to soften the edges of an otherwise brutal system, always grasping to understand a rural America they’re scared to face.

This context, the politics of farming and food processing and distribution, was always going to be a character in the 2020 election cycle, whether elite coastal media and political pundits realized it or not. What we didn’t see coming was COVID-19--a global pandemic and public health crisis--and the nearly complete breakdown of the livestock production and processing machine.

In the early days of the pandemic, many grocery store shelves were bare as agribusiness industry talking heads tried to assure us that this was a short term “supply chain” interruption. There was little need for concern once the panic buying phase was complete, the meatpackers said. Reporters then began to expose two simultaneous tragedies: unemployed Americans were lining up at food banks in record numbers, while dairy producers dumped milk and fresh produce was plowed under.

Shockingly, the collapse of the industrial food production and distribution system wouldn’t be the worst moment in this crisis.

In early April, we began to get reports that meatpacking workers were testing positive for the novel coronavirus. For those of us who have been fighting the industrialization of meat for decades, that was a frightening prospect. The global meatpacking giants have been incredibly successful at building a system that puts workers on an assembly line, moving so fast that they often don’t even get bathroom breaks let alone time to wash their hands for 20 seconds. Social distancing? Forget it. These workers stand shoulder to shoulder with little room to move much like the chickens and pigs in the production system the meatpackers created. So, as expected, COVID-19 began ripping through these plants, infecting and even killing workers.

On April 26th, one of those multinational agribusiness monopolies, Tyson Foods, took out a full page ad in national newspapers declaring the “food chain is breaking.” Gone was the glory of “feeding the world” efficiencies, and now was the time to protect corporate stock prices and executive salaries, Tyson said. A few days later, President Trump answered that call with an executive order using the defense production act to shield the meatpackers from the crisis they created.

Yet, ask many Democrats about farm issues and you’ll get silence or compliance with the corporate agribusiness line. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson and former Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who claim the gavel on all things farm and rural in Democratic circles, have been slow to criticize the agribusiness giants at the heart of this crisis. They tend to focus on worker safety and “getting the plants back open.”

Meanwhile, Democrats like Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Ro Khanna and Deb Haaland are sounding the alarm to fix the broken system. These Democrats, both urban and rural, are introducing legislation like the Farm System Reform Act and The Essential Workers Bill of Rights—reforms that would take on corporate power directly and aggressively. These are policies that are likely to be supported by a broad swath of rural voters, but vigorously opposed by the trade groups and corporations that tend to be “farm state” campaign donors.

Democrats have an important decision to make moving forward. Will they continue to protect corporate agribusiness profits and spew industry trade association messages about “feeding the world?” Or, will they side with independent family farmers, meatpacking workers and rural communities to fight for real systemic change?

We’ve been down roads like this before. President Barack Obama, for instance, campaigned as a progressive populist but failed to take bold and decisive action on corporate control of livestock markets when he had the chance. We don’t hold out much hope for politicians of either party ruled by Wall Street and corporate CEOs.

But we do know what the Republicans and the corporate wing of the Democratic Party don’t seem to understand: millions of rural Americans are fed up with corporations calling the shots in U.S. farm and food policy and politics. Poll after poll, as well as personal experience in rural politics all across the country, have documented broad and deep support for reforms like the Farm System Reform Act and Essential Workers Bill of Rights.

Taking on corporate meatpackers like Tyson, Smithfield, and JBS directly is the right thing to do and it’s winning politics. We just hope for the sake of the rural communities we love that COVID-19 will be the moment Democrats realize it.

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