Welcome to The Field Report, our new weekly round-up of easy-to-digest stories. Each week, we’ll keep you updated on the most important food system news out of Washington, D.C. and around the country, with Civil Eats perspective, analysis, and context. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with tips.
Consolidation in agriculture was a trending topic at the White House this week, as President Biden met (virtually) with farmers and ranchers to release the Biden-Harris Action Plan for a Fairer, More Competitive, and More Resilient Meat and Poultry Supply Chain.
The plan includes investing in small, regional processing plants, fixing cattle markets, and making rule changes related to the Packers & Stockyards Act and “Product of USA” labeling. Farmer and antitrust advocacy groups have long pushed for the changes, which they say will restore healthy competition to markets, put a greater share of profits into producers’ pockets, and protect farmers from unchecked meatpacker power.
The White House echoed those points while also attributing some of the blame for rising meat prices to a consolidated industry. Attorney General Merrick Garland also promised to partner with USDA to promote competition in the industry and announced a plan to launch a “centralized, accessible portal” to collect reports of potential antitrust violations related to meat production.
If the latest announcement is giving you déjà vu, that’s understandable. In July, we covered Biden’s executive order on promoting economic competition, which included many of the same provisions related to agriculture. (The announcement is so similar, some industry groups are just recycling their “comments.” The Washington Post’s coverage of the Action Plan included the exact same quote the National Chicken Council President sent Civil Eats six months ago.)
The biggest change since then is that in July the USDA said it would invest $500 million in American Rescue Plan funds in expanding small, independent meat processing—a sector that proved important feeding local markets during the pandemic. This week’s Action Plan upped that number to $1 billion and provided more details on exactly how it will be used.
However, all of the initiatives are still in the planning phase and it’s too early to know how quickly they will be implemented and what impact they will have, especially since the powerful meat industry it is targeting is already gearing up to fight some of the rulemaking efforts.
One thing is certain: President Biden is not mincing words on this issue: “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Capitalism without competition isn’t capitalism. It’s exploitation,” he told farmers. “That’s what we’re seeing in the meat and poultry . . . industries now.” No matter how much he’s driven by deflecting blame for inflation away from the administration, as many media outlets have homed in on, that kind of public resistance to meatpacker power is rare and the impacts of the policy changes will be the same.
As COVID Disrupts the Industrial Meat System, Independent Processors Shine
The Pandemic Has the Potential to Transform Meatpacking in the U.S.
Farmers and Ranchers Head to D.C. to Level the Playing Field
With Their Livelihoods Under Threat, Livestock Producers Pin Their Hopes on Labeling
New Housing for Hogs in 2022? Rules that would give pigs and chickens raised on industrial farms more space to move around were approved by voters in both Massachusetts and California and were set to go into effect on January 1, but it’s not that simple. After years of fierce industry opposition that included warnings of price increases and pork and egg shortages, Massachusetts state lawmakers changed the law to make it easier for companies to meet the requirements for laying hens and gave pork producers another seven and a half months to comply. In California, the law is now technically in effect, but pork from hogs that entered the supply chain in 2021 is exempt, effectively giving producers another six months. And while previous lawsuits have been thrown out by courts, industry groups filed a new suit in California in November and are trying to get the Supreme Court to hear another (that a lower court already ruled against).
Is the Pork Industry Using Food Justice to Stall California’s New Animal Welfare Law?
Absent Federal Policy, States Take Lead on Animal Welfare
Could Crate-Free Pork Become the New Industry Standard?
The Cage-Free Egg Battle Goes to Massachusetts
The Child Tax Credit Expires, Leaving Many Food Insecure Families in the Lurch. The New York Times reported on the potential implications of the end of the Child Tax Credit, which expires this month. During the pandemic, the credit was linked to reducing food insecurity. While Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits have increased and the USDA is investing in getting more eligible families to sign up for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), COVID-19 is surging and food prices have gone up. And while the exact fallout of the shift is still hard to quantify, we know that at least some low-income families will be likely be finding it hard to put food on the table once again.
Will the U.S. Finally Take a Holistic Approach to Ending Child Hunger?
The End of Pandemic Safety-Net Programs May Cause Rural Food Insecurity to Rise
Hunger Continues to Plague Americans. Here’s Why—and What to Do About It.
Op-ed: It Takes More than Food to Fight Hunger
Hunger in Native Communities. A new report from the Native American Agriculture Fund (NAAF), the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC), and the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative (IFAI) found that almost half of the Native American and Alaska Natives that responded to a survey reported experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic. Enrollment in a federal hunger relief program for reservations was also up 214 percent compared to before COVID-19. As The Daily Yonder reported, the report also included stories of resilience, including the Osage Nation building a 25,000-square-foot meat processing plant for Osage-owned cattle and bison—one of many such examples that Civil Eats has reported on in the past two years.
After Fraught History, Some Tribes Finally Have the Power to Rethink ‘Commodity Foods’
Food as Medicine on the Navajo Nation
The Seneca Nation Is Building Food Sovereignty, One Bison at a Time
Op-ed: COVID Took More Than Native Lives. It Also Took Our Foodways.
Cover Crops See a Positive “Surge?” Reuters reported on a “surge” in cover crop planting on commodity cropland. Rob Myers, the director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at the University of Missouri, estimated that plantings “swelled to as much as 22 million acres in 2021.” If that number is correct, it would represent a 43 percent increase from 2017, and Myers told Reuters he expects the number to reach 50 million acres by 2030. That sounds like a lot of land, but those acres would still make up less than 13 percent of the country’s total cropland, and some of the rise is attributed to large agribusinesses, including Cargill and Bayer, getting into paying farmers directly to sequester more carbon in the soil, a practice that is growing in popularity, if controversial for many reasons.
Ethanol in the Family. Speaking of carbon and the Corn Belt, Tom Philpott reveals in Mother Jones that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s son, Jess Vilsack, is now working on a controversial project called “The Midwest Carbon Express.” The pipeline would capture carbon dioxide from a network of ethanol plants and bury it underground, and its economic viability relies heavily on incentives from the federal government, raising significant conflict-of-interest concerns, since Jess’ father is currently pushing to expand and increase those very incentives. Some communities on the ground also oppose the project because it will require hundreds of landowners, many of them farmers, to give up their properties.
GMO Labeling Without GMO Labeling. GMO labeling was once the most contentious food politics issue around, but five years after President Obama signed the National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Standard into law, labeling finally went into effect this week, and it is barely on the public’s radar. That might be partially because critics say the system only minimally qualifies as labeling: As of January 1, some foods containing genetically modified ingredients will be labeled “bioengineered,” a word most people won’t recognize, and companies can opt to use a QR code. And most foods that contain GMO ingredients won’t require a label because processed foods that no longer contain genetically modified DNA are exempt. The Washington Post has a guide to the exact standards and what they mean, here.
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