How Big Agriculture Keeps Getting Bigger
If you ever thought that the farm bill was just about agricultural subsidies and food stamps, think again. Not only does the farm bill dictate what we eat—it also establishes whom our nation’s leaders are listening to on issues far beyond food.
Right now the farm bill benefits a few large corporations, like Perdue, thanks to policies that help big agriculture companies keep getting bigger. The four largest companies in each industry slaughter nearly all the chicken and beef we eat, process two-thirds of the pork, sell half the groceries and process about half the milk in the U.S. This is no accident. It’s the result of policies, largely outlined in the farm bill, which Congress has passed on behalf of these large companies for decades.
Nothing showcases this often-murky relationship between Big Ag and our political leaders more than emails revealed between Martin O’Malley, the Democratic governor of Maryland (and likely presidential contender in 2016) and poultry giant Perdue, Inc.
The emails we obtained through a Public Information Act request show that Perdue profits from chicken sold in California and Michigan are going to exert inappropriate power over O’Malley through intense lobbying efforts on everything from poultry litter incineration to the cases that a university law clinic engages in.
Most of the emails were between O’Malley and Herb Frerichs, general counsel for Perdue. In one email exchange on Nov. 5 and 6 of last year, in response to criticism from Frerichs about Maryland Secretary of Agriculture Earl “Buddy” Hance on the issue of manure to energy, O’Malley responded, “I’m guessing you don’t have the personal email of governors of DE or VA [Delaware and Virginia], so let me know when Buddy can/should be doing more to help you push stuff.”
On Nov. 17, 2011, Gov. O’Malley released a letter to the University of Maryland Law Clinic criticizing them on their involvement in a case brought against Perdue and contract growers Kristin and Alan Hudson for illegal discharges of poultry waste into surrounding waterways. On the same day, Frerichs sent an email to the governor that said simply: “Very nice.”
The emails go on to discuss everything from co-permitting, which would ensure that Perdue would share responsibility for its chicken growers’ waste (Perdue obviously doesn’t like this) to water quality trading in the Bay and Perdue’s opposition to a wind power proposal that would cost the industry 18 cents to $2 more a month. The proposal was ultimately defeated.
Since we released the emails, more has come to light about Perdue’s relationship with Gov. O’Malley. Tim Wheeler at the Baltimore Sun has reported that around the time these emails were sent, Perdue abruptly changed its political contributions from the Republican Governor’s Association to the Democratic Governor’s Association—which O’Malley heads, and that both Jim Perdue and Herb Frerichs (and his wife) contributed that maximum legal amount allowed to O’Malley’s campaign. Additionally, O’Malley’s brother Peter O’Malley was given a high-priced job at Venable, the law firm where Frerichs is a partner.
This disgraceful relationship is not just a problem for Marylanders. These emails offer an unsettling glimpse at Perdue’s political power—a direct result of its unchecked market power. It seems like the company isn’t just selling you chicken; it’s selling an agenda on a range of issues from the environment to farm reform to renewable energy to state university funding in Maryland.
Tom Laskawy in Grist rightly pointed out that O’Malley seems more the “governor of the state of Perdue” than Maryland. Just imagine if O’Malley becomes a presidential contender in 2016. Who’s agenda will he serve as president: yours or Perdue’s?
O’Malley and Perdue’s cozy relationship illustrates one of the most important results of the consolidation of the food supply—the consolidation of influence about what our food system looks like that comes with it.
Perdue is not the only food company throwing its weight around. Meatpackers such as Tyson, Cargill, and Smithfield Foods buy livestock long before they need them to exert unfair market power over farmers selling on the open market. The companies can buy cattle and hogs when prices are low and slaughter their own livestock when prices on the open market rise. This puts long-term, downward pressure on cattle and hog prices and effectively allows the meatpackers to manipulate prices.
These persistently low livestock prices push independent and small-scale farmers out of business, leaving us with fewer farms raising the animals.
Farmers and ranchers have been working for years to get antitrust laws enforced and rein in the power of meatpackers and poultry processors. The Farm Bill is a place to make these changes. A good first step is stopping meatpackers from owning livestock and manipulating cattle and hog prices. Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Kent Conrad (D-ND) have introduced legislation to ban meatpacker ownership of livestock and it will likely be offered as an amendment when the Senate considers the Farm Bill. This amendment may not directly address the situation in Maryland, but it will begin the process of busting up the market power (and subsequently political power) of Big Ag.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
- Trump Denies CDC Director's 2021 Timeline for Coronavirus Vaccine ›
- Trump Orders Hospitals to Stop Sending COVID-19 Data to CDC ... ›
- Two White House Staffers Test Positive for Coronavirus - EcoWatch ›
- Trump Admin to Disband Coronavirus Task Force - EcoWatch ›
- Pence Offers 'Prayers' as Hurricane Laura Hits Gulf Coast While ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Every September for the past 11 years, non-profit the Climate Group has hosted Climate Week NYC, a chance for business, government, activist and community leaders to come together and discuss solutions to the climate crisis.
- Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story - EcoWatch ›
- Coronavirus Delays 2020 Earth Overshoot Day by Three Weeks ... ›
By Elliot Douglas
The coronavirus pandemic has altered economic priorities for governments around the world. But as wildfires tear up the west coast of the United States and Europe reels after one of its hottest summers on record, tackling climate change remains at the forefront of economic policy.
- German Business Leaders Call for Climate Action With COVID-19 ... ›
- Climate Activists Protest Germany's New Datteln 4 Coal Power Plant ... ›
By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.