OPINION The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition applauds the U.S. Department of Agriculture announcement of $500 million in additional funding to bolster small- and medium-scale meat-processing plants, and additional actions to level the playing field for farmers and ranchers.
For far too long we have witnessed how inadequate competition stifles economic growth and innovation throughout the agricultural supply chain. The announcement from USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack arrives on the heels of President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy, signaling a whole-of-government effort to address concentration and consolidation in U.S. markets. The Executive Order includes 72 initiatives to address a variety of competition issues that permeate the U.S. economy, several of which we are pleased to see could have a far-reaching impact on agriculture.
The announcement is a significant step in the right direction, given that in recent decades agricultural markets have become increasingly concentrated. Just four corporations are responsible for 65 percent of sales in the global agrochemicals market, 50 percent of the seed market and 45 percent of farm-equipment sales. In the United States just four companies represent 73 percent of beef processing, 67 percent of pork processing, 54 percent of chicken processing and 45 percent of the retail-grocery market. This concentration hurts farmers and consumers and while returning maximum profits to corporations,” commented Deeble.
The USDA’s commitment of $500 million to expand meat-processing capacity comes in the form of grants to small- and medium-sized operations developed as part of a process – soliciting comments and stakeholder input on USDA’s strategy. The coalition looks forward to continuing a dialogue with the USDA. The coalition is also appreciative that the USDA implemented the small-processor fee relief authorized in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.
The coalition is also pleased to see that the USDA will issue new rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act. As directed in the Executive Order, the new rule will make it easier for farmers to bring and win claims, stop chicken processors from exploiting and underpaying chicken farmers, and adopt anti-retaliation protections for farmers who speak out about bad practices. The coalition also applauds similar directives to issue new rules that will define when meat can bear the “Product of USA” label. That will ensure greater transparency in consumer labeling and help farmers earn a fairer price for their products. The directives also include plans to augment access to markets for farmers – including supporting alternative food-distribution systems like farmers markets, and developing standards and labels.
The coalition is committed to leveling the playing field for sustainable farmers and small- and medium-scale food processors by bringing grassroots perspectives to the table and pushing back against the dominance of big business. Now is the time for serious reform to restore fairness, transparency and competition in agriculture. It’s time to address concentration and consolidation, the structural root of many challenges that farmers, ranchers and food processors face. The coalition believes that increased funding for grants toward technical assistance, infrastructure and professional development are also critical pathways for a more-sustainable and equitable agricultural sector.
The USDA has also released a report directed by the 2018 farm bill; it was conducted by Oregon State University’s Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network in partnership with the collation. It concerned the effectiveness of existing outreach, guidance, tools and responsiveness to small and very-small processing plants. The coalition is excited to continue dialogues concerning the report with both the USDA and small processors across the country to ensure the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service continues to support and provide education, guidance and assistance to small processors.
Eric Deeble is the policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Visit sustainableagriculture.net for more information.