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Sanders Unveils Plan to Break Up Big Agriculture

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaking at a town meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona.
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont speaking at a town meeting at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)

“Food is no longer valued for its ability to sustain life, but only for its ability to generate profits.”

Senator Bernie Sanders unveiled a sweeping and comprehensive plan to transform American agriculture on Sunday, centered on breaking up monopolies like Monsanto-Bayer and restoring power to small farmers.

“I think a farmer that produces the food we eat may be almost as important as some crook on Wall Street who destroys the economy,” Sanders said during a campaign event in Osage, Iowa, a town of fewer than 4,000 people.

“Agriculture today is not working for the majority of Americans. It is not working economically for farmers, it is not working for rural communities, and it is not working for the environment. But it is working for big agribusiness corporations that are extracting our rural resources for profit.

For far too long, government farm policies have incentivized a ‘get big or get out’ approach to agriculture. This approach has consolidated the entire food system, reducing farm net income, and driving farmers off the land in droves. As farms disappear, so do the businesses, jobs, and communities they support,” Sanders added.

Focus on Big Agra in 2020

Sanders is the latest presidential candidate to draw attention to farming monopolies, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a similar plan in March. Both senators support reversing mergers like the Monsanto-Bayer deal, which integrates the seed and pesticide industry, among other antitrust measures in the meatpacking and fertilizing industries. Both plans include right-to-repair laws, which would end the practice of forcing farmers to repair their agricultural equipment through the companies that produce them, like John Deere. The plans also reform patent laws to protect farmers from “predatory patent lawsuits from seed corporations.”

“We cannot continue to allow Monsanto to control 80 percent of U.S. corn and more than 90 percent of U.S. soybean seed patents—a situation that has only gotten worse after the Trump administration approved Monsanto’s disastrous merger with Bayer,” Sanders wrote.

The Intercept’s David Dayen reports supporters of agriculture monopolies, such as President Obama’s former agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack, argue antitrust measures would kill jobs:

“Well, there are a substantial number of people hired and employed by those businesses here in Iowa. So you’re essentially saying to all of those folks, you might be out of a job. That’s not to me a winning message.”

But as Dayen points out, farm consolidation actually “causes job loss, from family farmers cashing out to Bayer cutting 12,000 jobs when it merged with Monsanto.”

America’s farmers are suffering through their worst economic crisis in nearly 30 years, as record flooding, trade war pressure, and low commodity prices have led to the rapid closing of farms throughout the Midwest. While much of America is benefitting from low unemployment and economic growth, the Trump administration has had to disburse $7.7 billion in aid to farmers suffering the negative effects of tariffs from the president’s trade war with China.

As Politico reports, economists in the Trump administration’s Agriculture department have been pressured to leave after publishing unflattering reports on White House policies. The economists had shown the GOP tax bill would largely benefit the wealthiest farmers, while smaller farmers would continue to suffer. Farm income has dropped 50 percent since 2013 and continues to decline, jeopardizing President Trump’s share of the rural vote in the upcoming presidential elections.

“The administration didn’t appreciate some of our findings, so this is retaliation to harm the agency and send a message,” said one current ERS employee.

As agriculture expert Kevin Walker details in his new book “The Grand Food Bargain,” America’s historic investment in food abundance has been at the heart of its success. Agriculture made up 90% of the U.S. labor force in 1790, and Thomas Jefferson once said, “Agriculture is our wisest pursuit, because it will in the end contribute the most to real wealth, good morals, and happiness.”

Agricultural Shift After WWII

The U.S. emphasis on agriculture fueled economic growth in the 19th and 20th centuries. Adolf Hitler was dismayed when America increased its wheat production to feed Allied soldiers in World War II, writing, “to live a life comparable with the American people,” Germans needed to conquer fertile lands to produce more food without disrupting the German manufacturing sector.

But after World War II, “the technology that had been used to build bombs and chemicals was channeled into producing food. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, more-powerful farm equipment, animals packed together (some on top of each other) and raised with antibiotics- all contributed to the modern industrialized food system.” As this trend continued, small and medium sized farms were pushed out by industrialized agriculture monopolies. Just four corporations “now control 50 to 95% of seed sales, agricultural chemicals, animal breeding, and farm machinery.”

As these giant firms have taken control of the market, the quality and nutrition of food has diminished, while Big Agra’s powerful Washington lobby continues to fight regulations on emissions and chemical contamination in water supplies.

“Food is no longer valued for its ability to sustain life, but only for its ability to generate profits,” Walker concludes. As America’s farmers continue to suffer through their worst economic crisis in nearly 30 years, the fight over Big Ag will likely be at the forefront of the 2020 elections.

“Here in Iowa, a third of the entire state’s economy is tied directly to agriculture. More and more of the state’s agriculture is being dominated by just a handful of large corporations, who, it seems to me from a distance, own the Iowa state legislature and legislatures throughout this country,” Sanders told the crowd. “What you want, and what I want, are more family farms in America, not more factory farms.”

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Peter Castagno

Peter Castagno is a freelance writer with a Master’s degree in International Conflict Resolution. He has traveled throughout the Middle East and Latin America to gain firsthand insight in some of the world’s most troubled areas, and he plans on publishing his first book in 2019.

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