John Oliver's Beef With Chicken Giants May Have Impacted U.S. Policy
John Oliver, comedic anchorman of HBO show Last Week Tonight, made feathers fly when he took on the poultry industry in a May 2015 episode. Last week, it became clear that his gripe with Big Chicken had echoed all the way to the Capitol.
Oliver used his HBO show to attack the giant poultry processors—Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride and Sanderson Farms—for punishing chicken farmers who speak out against terms dictated by the processors (according to a 2001 study, 71 percent of the farmers live below the poverty line) and pitting them against one another through contract farming.
Oliver noted that each year, a tiny provision—the GIPSA rider (for Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration)—has been inserted into the House Appropriations bill. The rider defunds the Agriculture Department’s effort to finalize rules meant to protect the farmers, which were developed under the terms of a different statute. (Not the first time Congress has twisted itself into a double-negative pretzel).
Two lawmakers, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), have led the charge to torpedo the GIPSA rider, but have been stymied repeatedly by colleagues like Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR). Oliver used our data to note that Womack, a member of the Appropriations Committee from the district where Tyson is headquartered, has received tens of thousands of dollars from individuals associated with Tyson and the National Chicken Council, the industry’s trade group.
But the money flow does not stop there. Kaptur published a press release with the names of representatives who voted against her provision. Of them, in 2014, Reps. Jack Kingston (R-GA), Robert Aderholt (R-AL), and Henry Cuellar (D-TX) received contributions from Tyson. Rep. Andy Harris (R) received contributions from Perdue (both are based in Maryland); Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) received a donation from Pilgrim’s Pride, and Sanderson gave thousands to the late Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R), who hailed from the Mississippi district where the company is headquartered (he died earlier this year). Each of them received a substantial portion of the National Chicken Council’s $302,900 in 2014 contributions.
Big poultry companies have also spent millions in Washington lobbying on behalf of their interests. The National Chicken Council has spent more than $2.5 million just in the last five years; Tyson goes above and beyond with more than $9 million in recent lobbying expenditures; Perdue has spent hundreds of thousands, as has Pilgrim’s; and Sanderson Farms has spent more than a million dollars in the last three years. They have each lobbied against GIPSA reform in some capacity.
Their efforts, however, may have been in vain this time. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2016 Agriculture bill and, for the first time in years, the bill did not include a GIPSA defunding rider. The Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee is expected to release and debate its version of the 2016 Agriculture Appropriations bill this week; historically, the Senate has not attached the defunding rider to its legislation.
As it turns out, Oliver’s beef with the chicken giants may have made a difference.
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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>
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