Animal Welfare Advocates Want a Say in the Next Farm Bill | Civil Eats

Animal Welfare Advocates Want a Say in the Next Farm Bill

Farm Sanctuary’s Aaron Rimmler-Cohen explains why the animal protection organization is taking a stronger stance in this year’s farm bill negotiations—and how political gridlock is threatening the process.

Photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary

Farm Sanctuary’s Watkins Glen Sanctuary in upstate New York. (Photo courtesy of Farm Sanctuary)

This is the latest installment of our series Faces of the Farm Bill, wherein we set out to humanize the real-world impacts of ag policy.

The 2018 Farm Bill expired on September 30th, and it doesn’t seem likely that the House and Senate will have drafts of the new bill before the end of the year. But that doesn’t make the once-every-five-year piece of legislation any less important.

This time around, animal welfare groups have even stepped up their efforts to shape the bill. The nonprofit Farm Sanctuary, the first shelter for farm animals, is among the groups that has spent the past couple years calling for substantial reforms to the farm bill as part of a growing recognition that animal and human rights are connected.

“Animal-centered organizations have both an ethical responsibility to include and elevate impacts for people and the planet. And we have a tactical responsibility too,” said Aaron Rimmler-Cohen, Farm Sanctuary’s advocacy director.

Aaron Rimmler-Cohen, Farm Sanctuary

Aaron Rimmler-Cohen, Farm Sanctuary

Civil Eats spoke with Rimmler-Cohen about the divisions in Congress that threaten this legislation and the changes that he hopes to make it into the upcoming bill.

Farm Sanctuary has recently expanded to advocate for broader changes across the food system, beyond ending animal agriculture. Could you describe how this shift came about?

There has always been a recognition that while the beings that we center are farm animals, the interrelated issues caused by factory farming hurt all of us—animals, people, and the planet. And what we’ve tried to do over the past two and a half years is reach out to 2,500 national and local organizations working in various aspects of food, all across the supply chain: farmers, workers, environmental justice advocates, health advocates, doctors, and other animal-centered organizations. We’ve tried to understand where we have common ground. We believe it’s the next step in what the vegan and animal-centered movement has to do.

“We need a robust and vigorous debate over what a farm bill should do and how it can best support families, farmers, communities, animals, people, and the planet. And we’re not getting that.”

In the 1980s, when [founder] Gene [Baur] first got going with Farm Sanctuary, a lot of what he was doing was mainstreaming critiques of factory farming that had already existed within the environmental justice and social justice communities for decades. And he was mainstreaming those concerns and critiques around factory farming through compassion and empathy for animal beings. We can do the same thing in the 21st century, except instead of mainstreaming some of these critiques, we can also mainstream some of the solutions and actions being taken by environmental justice and social justice organizations.

While the central impact that concerns us as a movement is animals, we recognize that the way in which we collectively affect change is through food. And so we have to do a better job as an animal-centered movement of prioritizing food, elevating food, and integrating [those conversations] with a concern for animals and factory farming.

How does the current gridlock in Congress impact the farm bill? 

We need a robust and vigorous debate over what a farm bill should do and how it can best support families, farmers, communities, animals, people, and the planet. And we’re not getting that. We’re getting the can kicked down the road.

This is very reminiscent of the Merrick Garland 2016 Supreme Court nomination—when the Republicans kicked the can down the road and eventually waited until the next presidential election to pick a Supreme Court nominee. If we have the same thing happen with the farm bill, then Donald Trump [if re-elected] could sign two consecutive farm bills [in 2018 and 2025]. We need a robust public debate, but we also need to make sure we get a farm bill across the finish line.

How do you see the farm bill shaping the U.S. food system? Why is this bill so important?

On the one hand, you have critical nutrition support for over 40 million American families and American consumers. The proposed Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) Expansion Act, which would build on the programming that we have to grow [the purchasing power for] fruits and vegetables under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is amazing. But we have to better use those programs to nourish more people to advance health equity, and to support farmers who are growing crops that nourish our communities in the process. So, that’s 75 percent of the farm bill right there—that nutrition spending.

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Then you have the other 25 percent, which is predominantly commodities, crop insurance, and farm conservation programs, and what that funding does is it skews the entire food system, through cheap, publicly subsidized credit, to grow predominantly feed crops for animals or ethanol fuel. Then you’ve got 70 percent of the crop insurance subsidies going to the largest farms in the top 7 percent, and most of them are growing corn and soy.

Has the farm bill always supported what you see as a “skewed” food system? How did it get to this point?

Many of us think about factory farming or industrial agriculture as something that has been around forever, or at least for a really long time. But when you go to Iowa or North Carolina, the food and farm systems that folks are living with now are very different from what’s in their living memory or certainly their grandparents’ living memory.

“Over the last 50 years, what we’ve seen is more and more lobbyists and special interests have taken a hold of the food and farm process.”

The original intent of the farm bill was to support farmers during [the Great Depression], one of the worst economic crises the world has ever seen. Then, under the Nixon administration, in the first White House Conference on Food, the U.S. had this amazing vision for food and farm systems that said, “Everybody should be nourished and we should support every farmer who’s contributing to the system and every worker who is contributing to the system.” You had this fairly broad, holistic vision.

But over the last 50 years, what we’ve seen is more and more lobbyists and special interests have taken a hold of the food and farm process. It’s easy to do with the farm bill because it only gets passed twice per decade. So, if you’re Tyson, Cargill, or one of the other big corporate conglomerates, you can spend money influencing the farm bill and then reap those returns for the next five years. That’s slowly what they’ve been doing—chipping away at a vision of the farm bill that says universal nutritional security and sustainable farm[ing] opportunities should be the goal of the legislation.

We have to pass SNAP and WIC, the nutritional support that’s critical for millions of American families. Big Ag interests use that as a lever to say, “We’re not going to cut SNAP too much, just as long as you let these big millionaire landowners and billionaire consolidators get what they want.” As part of the negotiations process—in order to protect U.S. families’ nutritional security—we end up giving things up on the food supply end. That political bargain used to be referred to as a union between farmers and families, but because of the insidious nature of corporate interests in this country, the Big Ag interests succeed and they use families as a cudgel to get what they need.

Can you describe how the EATS Act became a potential part of this farm bill?

California passed by voter referendum a bill, Proposition 12, that would ban [in-state sale of meat and poultry resulting from] gestation crates. Then the National Pork Producers Council [and American Farm Bureau Federation] sued the state of California over Prop 12, and the Supreme Court decision came down earlier this year.

In a surprising and inspiring turn of events, the Supreme Court sided with the animal-centered organizations led by the Humane Society of the United States, including Farm Sanctuary, as interveners in the case. And as a result of that victory in the Supreme Court, the Republicans brought back this amendment called the “King amendment” [and called it the “Ending Agricultural Trade Suppression Act” or the EATS Act]. It would both overturn the progress on Prop 12, preventing future states from being able to regulate factory farms in that way, as well as [potentially] overturn pesticide protection laws that are on the books.

You don’t have to care about animals to fight back against factory farming and to say, “I don’t want cancer-causing chemicals in my food.” And that’s the level of regulatory reform we’re talking about with the EATS Act. It’s something that small farmers across the country are rallying to oppose. We recognize that their standing up against the EATS Act in Washington, D.C., is a far more powerful perspective than our own—it means a lot to hear directly from the small producers in the local communities that have been impacted by factory farming and agricultural consolidation.

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If the U.S. were to continue down the current trajectory and pass farm bills like those of the recent past, what will that food system of the future look like?

If we continue down the current path, there will be fewer farmers, greater consolidation, an accelerating climate crisis, and a worsening public health crisis—not to mention more animals living in even more consolidated, industrialized conditions. Globally, food systems make up one-third of greenhouse gas emissions, but get 3 percent of public climate funding within the United States. According to the USDA, 85 percent of U.S. healthcare spending, which is about one-sixth of the U.S. economy, is related to diet-related diseases. So, food matters.

Do you have anything else to add?

I think animal-centered organizations have both an ethical responsibility to include and elevate impacts for people and the planet. And we have a tactical responsibility, too. You referenced our shift from “ending animal agriculture” to working for food systems that work for all of us, but in some ways it’s a theory of change. Ultimately, over the long term, we’re going to end animal agriculture by building food systems that work for everybody—animals, people, and the planet. I really think that kind of inclusive, unifying message is one that the animal-centered movement could better use to build bridges to meet folks where they are and to ultimately advance the progress that we care about for animals and the rest of us.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grey Moran is a Staff Reporter for Civil Eats. Their work has appeared in The Atlantic, Grist, Pacific Standard, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Intercept, and elsewhere. Grey writes narrative-based stories about public health, climate change, and environmental justice, especially with a lens on the people working toward solutions. They live in New Orleans. Read more >

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