Monday, November 19, 2012

Politics and poultry production

An important report chronicling the consolidation of poultry production and its effect on poultry producers is published in Washington Monthly,

" the share of the market controlled by the four biggest meatpackers has swelled to 82 percent. In pork, the four biggest packers control 63 percent. In poultry, the four largest broiler companies—Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue, and Sanderson—control 53 percent of the market. In all these sectors—but especially poultry—these numbers greatly understate the political effects of concentration. At the local level, which is what matters to the individual farmer, there is increasingly only one buyer in any region.

"The practical result of all this consolidation is that while there are still many independent farmers, there are fewer and fewer processing companies to which farmers can sell. If a farmer doesn’t like the terms or price given by one company, he increasingly has nowhere else to go—and the companies know it. With the balance of power upended, the companies are now free to dictate increasingly outrageous terms to the farmers."

Reporter Lina Khan is a policy analyst with the Markets, Enterprise and Resiliency Initiative at the New America Foundation.She documents the history of the industry and the effects legal changes have had on the farmers who are growing our food. Political leaders have ultimately failed farmers, for the present, despite the Obama administration's work to change the situation. The administration's work with farmers was derailed by Tea Party and other Republican obstruction that eventually pressured the administration into backing away from proposed changes.

Khan is pessimistic about the situation, but I remain encouraged.

"Administration officials who took part in the hearings say two factors thwarted their attempts to protect farmers from exploitation by processing companies. One was a deliberately obstructionist Republican-controlled House set on derailing countless reforms, not only in agriculture, and on protecting big industry from any tightening of regulation....

"It is no stretch to assume that, from the perspective of the White House, the choice to abandon an apparently failed effort to protect independent farmers from such abuses may have seemed politically pragmatic. But over the longer term, it may prove to have been a strategic political failure. By raising the hopes and championing the interests of independent farmers against agribusiness, the administration effectively reached out to the millions of rural voters who don’t normally vote Democratic but whose ardent desire to reestablish open and fair markets for their products and labor often trumps any traditional party allegiance. Instead of translating that newfound trust into political capital, the administration squandered whatever goodwill it had begun to earn. Worse, the administration’s silent retreat amounts to a form of moral failure. Having amply documented the outrageous abuse of fellow citizens, it decided it was not worth expending more political capital to right this wrong.

"The message to the farmers, it seems, is also clear. 'A lot of farmers have gone pretty quiet around here,' Staples said, “from being scared.'"

The hearings held over the past four years shined official light on the situation, at a time when public interest in food production has increased. That work remains to be done, and a Farm Bill remains in the works. With public support for change, the situation can be addressed both there and through USDA's GIPSA regulations. The winds have changed in Washington and the political strength demonstrated in the 2012 election could empower administration officials to stand up to these bought-and-paid-for politicians representing their agribusiness clients.

Stay informed on this issue and contact your senators and representatives frequently. Let them know you support them. Votes always trump dollars.

These changes can also open the door for more changes in poultry production, making it economically more profitable for traditional breed producers to compete. I'm convinced we are in transition to a much better day in poultry production: cleaner, healthier and more humane.

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