Booker Bill Would Phase Out Factory Farms and Revive the Packers and Stockyards Act

by Claire Kelloway, Open Markets’ Food & Power Reporter

Presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill on Monday to radically reform an animal agriculture system that currently puts independent producers, rural communities, and consumers at risk.

The Farm System Reform Act would halt construction of new concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and phase out all large CAFOs by 2040, while also holding corporate meatpackers more accountable for environmental degradation and farmer exploitation.

“Our independent family farmers and ranchers are continuing to be squeezed by large, multinational corporations that, because of their buying power and size, run roughshod over the marketplace,” said Booker in a press release. “We need to fix the broken system – that means protecting family farmers and ranchers and holding corporate integrators responsible for the harm they are causing.”

While the vast majority of meat in the U.S. today comes from large-scale animal farms, this wasn’t always the case. Antitrust enforcement during the past four decades enabled meatpackers to corner livestock markets, while broader agricultural policies both directly and indirectly subsidized critical operation costs for industrial livestock operations, namely feed and manure management. Shifts to highly consolidated and contract agriculture drove 70 percent of hog farms out of business between 1992 and 2007 and doubled the number of dairy cows on factory farms between 1997 and 2012, among other changes.

These large farms introduce high concentrations of manure that pollute ground and surface water, diminish air quality, and release greenhouse gasesMany rural communities have organized to oppose new CAFO construction, and nearly two-thirds of Iowa voters support greater oversight of industrial animal agriculture, according to a new national poll by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. About 43 percent of respondents support a ban on new CAFOs.

Booker’s Farm System Reform Act of 2019 would end large-scale animal agriculture as we know it, placing a moratorium on new or expanded CAFOs and phasing out all large CAFOs by 2040 (defined in the bill as farms with more than 700 dairy cattle, 2,500 hogs, or 82,000 laying hens). Any such farm that exists after January 2040 would pay up to $10,000 per day in fines. The bill dedicates $10 billion over 10 years to cancel CAFO operators’ debts and help them transition to “alternative agriculture activities,” such as pasture-based livestock production. It would also hold both CAFOs and corporate meatpackers more liable for violating environmental regulations.

In addition to banning CAFOs, the bill revises the Packers and Stockyards Act to check anticompetitive and predatory tactics meatpackers use to intimidate producers and to hold down prices for livestock. This includes eliminating the tournament payment system in poultry farming, which gives opaque bonuses to some producers at the expense of others. The bill requires packers to justify and explain how they calculate farmers’ pay, and it bans packers from retaliating, terminating contracts without basis, or presenting misleading information about growing contracts. It also allows plaintiffs to pursue a Packers and Stockyards violation without the burden of proving that an action by a meatpacker caused harm to industry-wide competition.

Finally, it aims to revive key price-discovery or spot markets by ensuring there’s a “reasonable competitive bidding opportunity” in cash market auctions and forward contracts. This reform could address concerns raised by cattle ranchers, who claim large meatpackers rig these spot markets to depress the price of cattle at auction and in contracts.

Beyond the Packers and Stockyards Act, the bill would also reinstate mandatory country-of-origin labeling on beef and pork, and the bill adds similar labeling requirements for dairy products. A bipartisan, rancher-led campaign has recently lobbied the president on this issue, arguing that ranchers face threats from imported beef and that consumers who want to buy domestically do not have the transparency to do so.

“I have seen firsthand how hard it is to challenge the multinational corporations who control the meat industry,” said Kansas rancher Mike Callicrate in Booker’s press release. “Things like country of origin labeling on meat, updates to the Packers and Stockyards Act, and resources to get folks out of a system that is bankrupting them will make a big difference.”

The bill has little chance of passing a Republican-controlled Senate, but its proposals could influence policy debates leading up to the Iowa caucuses in February. Candidates Julian Castro, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren all support a factory farm moratorium, and Sanders has set aside $41 billion to transition large CAFOs to “ecologically regenerative practices” in his Green New Deal. Many other candidates have lined up behind reforming the Packers and Stockyards Act and increasing antitrust enforcement in the agricultural sector.