Op-ed: Don’t Blame Farmers Who Have to Euthanize Their Animals. Blame the Companies They Work For.

Contract farmers don't own the animals they're raising, so they can't sell them to another market. And the animals themselves haven't been bred to stay alive.



For decades, farmers and their advocates have warned us of the inherent weaknesses in our food system. Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, those weaknesses are laid bare: Big Ag has built a food system house of cards that is collapsing on the farmers who feed us.

Rather than acknowledge the need for reform, and in an effort to shift blame, Tyson Foods recently took out full-page ads in several major newspapers claiming that “the food supply chain is breaking” because of plant closures. But as the architects of this devastation, Tyson Foods has profited in the billions for the last three years in a row, while spending millions on federal lobbying to maintain the status quo of a fragile food system that values corporate profits over people, land, and animals.

In the last two weeks, slaughter and meat processing plants have been shuttered across the country as hundreds of workers have fallen ill. Thirteen plants employing tens of thousands of workers have now closed, creating a predictable bottleneck. Restaurants and institutional cafeterias have closed, leaving contracts hanging, and driving up demand for products in supermarkets instead. As the supply chain reels from this massive disruption, farmers who raise chickens, hogs, and cows are left facing a costly crisis that could mean bankruptcy for many: They have nowhere to send the animals they’ve raised for companies like Tyson.

Last Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced plans to have its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) work with farmers to either find new markets, or euthanize and dispose of animals stranded in the supply chain. This plan offers too little, too late to farming families that depend on the companies to fill their barn. The USDA fails to address the fact that farmers under contract don’t own the animals they are raising, and therefore cannot simply find a new market for them. Having failed repeatedly for over a decade to establish basic protections for farmers in contracts with the big meat packers, the USDA is clearly sidestepping responsibility and avoiding the problem.

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Depopulation of pigs, cows, and chickens could mean the death of millions of otherwise healthy animals. To date, nearly 2 million animals have been culled. One estimate out of Iowa warns that farmers may be asked to euthanize 700,000 pigs a week due to the processing plant bottleneck.

This is not an unpredictable consequence; the supply chain was designed this way. The advent of the Confined Animal Feeding Operation (or CAFO) in the 70s and 80s led to a technological revolution in agriculture. Taking animals off of pasture and keeping tens of thousands in dark, closed barns seems counter-intuitive because of the added costs of feed and increased health problems. But public policies were established to subsidize cheap grain for animal feed, enable the heavy use of antibiotics, and funnel taxpayer dollars in an attempt to clean up the mess.

Bobby Morgan checks on broiler hens in one of his chicken houses in Luling, TX on Aug. 23, 2013. USDA photo by Bob Nichols.

USDA photo by Bob Nichols.

This has allowed big meat companies to reap profits without paying the full cost of doing business. As a result, farms raising animals on pasture and operating more sustainably was only possible for those farmers who had access to higher-end (mostly urban and suburban) markets.

The CAFO boom directly contributed to exponential corporate concentration in the meat sector. For the last 40 years, a handful of very large companies including Tyson, Smithfield, and Perdue have built the system we have today, buying up smaller family businesses and destroyed regional food systems in their wake.

As their vertical supply chains grew, independent auctions and processors went out of business. Farmers raising chickens and pigs independently had fewer places to sell or process their animals. Soon, the only way for most farmers to stay viable raising poultry or livestock was to get a contract with a big company. Today, contract farming is the norm for meat production. Ninety percent of the 9 billion chickens raised each year in this country are grown under contract. Fifty-seven percent of hogs are owned and slaughtered by just four companies.

Big multinational companies dominate the market for almost all the meat we eat in the United States. Companies like Tyson own every step in the supply chain, from the hatchery to the feed mill to the processing plant. The only thing the big companies don’t own are the farms themselves.

Instead, companies contract with independent farmers to raise hogs, chickens, and cows for them—paying a bare minimum to keep the farms in business. To keep their contract and therefore their job, farmers must follow the company’s instructions to the letter.

So what happens if the company’s processing plant is shut down? The reality is that farmers don’t have to option sell the animals anywhere else. If the company tells them to euthanize an entire flock of the bird it owns on the spot, farmers have no choice but to comply—even as consumers clamber over empty shelves in the supermarkets, farmers are forced to depopulate.

Consumers naturally wonder whether killing the animals is the only option. Why not simply care for the animals until workers return to the plants? To some extent this may be possible with cattle, but today’s CAFO chickens are bred to grow rapidly and to be slaughtered at 5-8 weeks old. So keeping the birds for extended periods of time tends to leads to heart problems, broken bones, to skin diseases.

Hogs face similar circumstances: To maximize efficiency, barns are not designed for long-term care. Instead, the animals are often raised in a series of different facilities over the course of their growth. Without anywhere to send their animals, farmers face tough decisions as the hogs outgrow their stalls.

It’s time we start countering the narrative that Big Ag alone feeds the world and that without the Tysons of the world there will be no food.

Even dairy farmers have been asked to cull some of their herd, to reduce production. And farmers who were counting on receiving their next flock or herd from the company have barns that are sitting empty for the indefinite future—as are their bank accounts.

It’s time we start countering the narrative that Big Ag alone feeds the world and that without the Tysons of the world there will be no food.

Independent farms and businesses across the country are stepping up to fill in the gap left by Big Ag. The few remaining small and mid-sized meat processors left have been able to take better care of their growers and workers during this crisis. Many on-farm processing facilities remain consistently operating, and able to protect their workers by reconfiguring their much smaller scale processing floors for social distancing and using PPE.  And farmers who raise chickens, hogs, and cows independently have been able to sell their products to consumers through directly through farmers markets and online ordering systems, serving consumers left behind by a slow and inflexible supermarket supply chains.

This situation is devastating for thousands of farmers. But that devastation wasn’t inevitable, as some may be suggesting. It is the consequence of unmitigated vertical growth and profiting at the farmer’s expense. No advertisement can deflect attention away from the glaring problems inherent in a flawed system. Yes, the system is broken. Big Ag broke it. And no meat company is “too big to fail.” There should be no bailing out bad decision-making. We should take this time to correct course, fix the problems these companies created, and design a food system that values people, land, and animals above corporate profits.

This op-ed reflects the opinions of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, Rural Advancement Foundation International, Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, Farm Aid, and Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union.

 

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  1. Andy Swarbrick
    Wednesday, May 6th, 2020
    I blame the consumer. If the consumer wasn't convinced they need animal protien to just survive there would not be a problem in the first place.
  2. Kathy Oehrlein
    Monday, May 25th, 2020
    Wow, just read this article. So how does the average person help get this turned back around ?