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Fairness for Farmers, it’s About Time

by Anthony Pahnke, WFU Organizer and Rural Voices Correspondent

Denouncing corporations is easy.

Using actual policy tools to hold them to account and check their power, well, that’s more difficult.

Despite such challenges, this is precisely what the National Farmers Union (NFU) is pushing the Biden administration to do.

More to the point – in late September, the NFU began its nationwide “Fairness for Farmers campaign,” which intends to pressure the government to enforce Antitrust laws and breakup agribusiness monopolies.

Some may scoff at the prospect of challenging corporate power.

What’s the use in opposing transnational firms that rake in billions? Why now?

Well, the Biden administration has gestured that it’s ready to face corporate power head on.

First, there was his executive order from earlier this year that mandated a thorough analysis and overview of supply chains – agriculture included – to determine weaknesses and places for improvement.

Let’s remember how the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic put on display a food system that buckled under pressure.

Dairy farmers were told to dump milk, and hog producers, to euthanize their animals, as consolidated supply chains proved incapable of meeting distribution bottlenecks that school, hotel, and restaurant closings produced.

Billions had to be sent to farmers in relief, which by the end of 2020, amounted to 40% of their income.

It’s this system, as documented in a report from the Open Markets Institute, where the four largest poultry processing firms went from controlling 35% of the market in 1986 to 51% in 2015. For beef, the market share of the top four companies shot from 25% in 1977 to 85% in that same year. During that same period, the top four corn seed companies’ control of the market went from 59% to 85%.

According to University of Missouri professor, Mary Hendrickson, when four firms occupy more than 45% of a market, then we see competition-killing, innovation-suffocating practices such as price fixing and rigging contracts.

In short, our food system in the span of a few decades has seen competition turn into collusion, with billionaires controlling agriculture.

Also, now is as good a time as ever to take a fresh look at corporate concentration in the food system given some moves that Biden has made in the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Specifically, Biden has chosen Lina Khan as FTC chair, and Timothy Wu, as a special advisor to the National Economic Council.

Both Khan and Wu are outspoken critics of big business, penning articles and books that place corporate consolidation at the core of democratic decline.

There’s also U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the lead Democrat on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, who introduced sweeping legislation to reinvigorate America’s Antitrust laws and restore competition to American markets.

Concretely, Klobuchar’s law would revisit America’s pillars of Antitrust law, namely, the Progressive Era Sherman, Clayton and Federal Trade Commission Acts. Passed in the early twentieth century, these laws were created to investigate and punish corporations for anti-competitive practices such as mergers, price fixing and rigging contracts.

Klobuchar’s law would amend these laws, providing officials greater leeway to investigate and punish corporate malfeasance.

Still, overall, there’s something in the call for addressing corporate power that should speak to every American.

We need to wake up to the reality that fewer and fewer powerful actors, as they amass their profits, unfairly dictate terms to farmers and consumers.

If we really believe that in a democracy, there ought to be many who participate instead of just a few, then we need to challenge the powers that have put up barriers that stymie innovation and freedom.

Our food system can change for the better.

And that’s what groups like NFU are proposing. It’s time to join the struggle and help the effort to make our agriculture system better for everyone.

Anthony Pahnke is helping to elevate key rural issues through Wisconsin Farmers Union's Rural Voices project. He is an Organizer for Wisconsin Farmers Union, Vice President for Family Farm Defenders, and an Assistant Professor of International Relations at San Francisco State University. Want to join Farmers Union’s efforts to take on corporate power and stand up for family farms? Join today.

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