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Farm Forward’s vision for American agriculture, which includes an end to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and a transition to more just, sustainable, healthy, and humane forms of agriculture, is one step closer to reality thanks to the introduction of the Farm System Reform Act (FSRA) in 2021. Like the Green New Deal, the FSRA wasn’t written with any illusion that it would be signed into law. Instead, the bill is intended to spark a conversation about the future of animal agriculture in America.
The FSRA (authored in the Senate by Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and co-sponsored four senators), and introduced in the House by Representative Ro Khanna (D-CA) and co-sponsored by 40 Representatives) would place a moratorium (or “pause”) on construction of new or expanding large CAFOs1 immediately, and would phase out existing large factory farms by 2040. Fewer animals would be raised for food overall, more animals would be raised on pasture in high welfare conditions,2 and a significant portion of US food production would be reoriented toward plant-based foods. Such a move would reduce the pandemic risk currently posed by factory farms. Further, the bill lays out a “just transition” to financially support farmers who make the shift from factory farming to higher welfare or plant-based agriculture. More than 300 local, state, and national advocacy organizations have urged Congress to pass the FSRA, and that list continues to grow.
The FSRA represents the first time that we’ve seen such a bold vision for American farming being put forward on a national policy stage. Federal legislation related to animal agriculture more typically reflects the vision put forward by a small number of corporate meat companies’ lobbyists and advocates in government.
In contrast, the vision outlined in the FSRA contains several first steps toward Farm Forward’s own vision for ending factory farming, leveling the playing field for independent farmers, and raising fewer animals for food. Making that vision a reality will take money and training for farmers, and the FSRA would provide it.
At Farm Forward, we believe that it’s best to eat as few animals as possible, ideally none; however, like the authors of the FSRA, we believe that many people will continue to eat animals for the foreseeable future. In a society where people do eat animal products, we believe that animals should be raised in the best possible conditions, which minimize pandemic risk and give animals opportunities to thrive. That won’t happen through incremental improvements to factory farms. Incremental improvements are important, but they leave animals to languish in low welfare conditions, which continue to be terrible not only for animals, but also for workers, rural communities, and the environment and climate. We need to envision and build a higher welfare, post-factory-farming food system. The FSRA begins to do just that.
When factory farms are financially liable for their pollution and bear more of their own operating costs,3 animal products would be more expensive. When meat is more expensive, people eat less. That’s a good thing, for animals, our health, and the climate. The USDA recommends approximately 737 g of meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs per week;4 yet, U.S. consumption per capita is more than double even the USDA’s recommendation—1555 g per week.5 The current low price of animal products is a historical anomaly, made possible by poor worker pay and dangerous working conditions, crowding and genetic abuse of animals, environmental degradation, and the trampling of independent farmers. If consumers have to pay more and eat fewer animal products in order to not sacrifice family farmers, sacrifice our environment, sacrifice workers, and sacrifice animal welfare, that’s well worth the price—in fact, any lower price is an exploitative price.
At Farm Forward, we believe that US agricultural policy should incentivize conservation and regenerative farming practices, but the FSRA is silent on that score. We also believe that agricultural policy should be redirected away from providing subsidies to factory farms, and away from producing animal feed and fuel, toward producing crops that humans eat. Here, the FSRA delivers.
The FSRA would convert a significant portion of American farming from animal agriculture—and from growing feedstuffs for animals (soy, corn)—to growing plant-based products for people to consume directly. Specifically, the FSRA would fund the conversion of lands from use for factory farming to “raising pasture-based livestock, growing specialty crops, or organic commodity production.” Raising farmed animals on pasture is a gold standard for animal welfare. Specialty and organic commodity crops refer to an even higher welfare choice—for farmers to leave animal agriculture entirely in favor of raising plants for human consumption.6
Transforming our industrial system into something that is better for all lives in the food chain won’t be easy. It will require a broad-based movement where representatives of multiple advocacy communities work together to pressure governments and companies to create radically new forms of agriculture—much closer to the vast networks of small farms that fed this country for centuries.
Practically speaking, for any of this to work, we must help farmers shift from factory farming to higher welfare and plant-based farming. That won’t be cheap. Large meat and poultry companies (“integrators”) rely on farmers taking on significant debt to finance the construction, maintenance, and upgrades of their farms, and integrators reduce their financial risk by keeping farmers as independent contractors. Most farmed animals are raised on “family farms” and “family ranches” that are actually controlled by integrators—the Tysons and JBSs of the world. As the Center for American Progress puts it, “growing corporate power has left relatively small farms and ranches vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of the oligopolies with which they do business.” Family-owned farms bear most of the financial risks, which more often than not leads to crushing debt. If, for example, a chicken farmer receives an unhealthy flock of chickens from an integrator and 50 percent of the birds die from disease, 100 percent of the financial liability is borne by the farmer (not the integrator). In large part due to their taking on most of the financial risks, chicken farmers in the US hold an estimated $5.2 billion in debt.7
Debt held by animal farmers is perhaps the biggest hurdle to transforming existing animal farms on a large scale. People who own factory farm infrastructure are often caught in a cycle of crippling debt in which many feel that they have no realistic option except to continue taking contracts with megaproducers to pay down the loans on their existing infrastructure, and the cycle continues.
As Ezra Klein writes for Vox,
As farmers have lost control of their livelihoods, they’ve also lost control of their animals, their crops, and their land. They have no choice but to contract with companies that dictate the way they raise their animals, setting farmers in competition with one another for production speeds and efficiency. The way you win that competition is to pack more animals into your sheds, pump them fuller of antibiotics so they don’t die from infections that flourish amid overcrowding, raise breeds that live lives of pain but grow with astonishing speed, create massive manure lagoons that poison streams and turn air acrid. The result is a brutal incentive to mechanize the process of livestock production in ways cruel to the animals, the farmers, and their communities.
The FSRA gives farmers a different choice: to retrain themselves and overcome the debt burden that keeps them stuck in the factory farming model by providing a $100 billion voluntary buyout program for contract farmers who want to transition away from operating factory farms. This support would be part of a “just transition,” an idea gaining broad momentum in environmental, labor, and energy advocacy. Societal transitions always distribute benefits to some and burdens to others; a “just transition” seeks to distribute benefits and burdens more fairly than would market forces. Key provisions of the FSRA would allow farmers to apply for government grants to eliminate debt, freeing them to leave factory farming and to transition to higher welfare or plant-based agriculture. As a requirement of the grant, the former site of the factory farm would be placed under an easement prohibiting the land’s use as a factory farm or animal agriculture waste management system.
In sum, this historic legislation has the potential to change the conversation about the future of animal agriculture in America. What can you do to support it? Share this article on social media. Be sure to tag the accounts of the legislators who introduced it: Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) and Ro Khanna (@RepRoKanna). Write a letter to the editor to raise public awareness. Contact your own Senators and Representative and ask them to co-sponsor the Farm System Reform Act. Talk about the Act with people that you know.
Together, we are building a future without factory farms.
“Large CAFO” as defined by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Some animal advocates might object to the FSRA on the grounds that it supports higher welfare forms of animal agriculture, rather than eliminating animal agriculture entirely. Most farmed animal advocates believe that the best of all possible futures is one in which animals are not raised and killed for food at all, but thus far, decades of experience building alliances with farmers, environmentalists, human rights and labor advocates has demonstrated that the vision of an exclusively vegan world is too polarizing to unite the movements that together are capable of ending factory farming in the near term. The FSRA takes the pragmatic approach for today’s political climate.
There is broad consensus that factory farming is unsustainable; this is partly due to “externalities,” costs not transmitted through prices, but paid by taxpayers and those who live downstream, often literally. Companies have shifted these costs to others when the expenses are rightfully theirs. Making companies pay their true operating costs is not only fair, it would result in decreased pollution.
Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, ”Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020,” Government Printing Office, 2016. Accessible here.
For red meat, poultry, and seafood, seafood, see Jeanine Bentley, “U.S. Per Capita Availability of Red Meat, Poultry, and Seafood on the Rise,” United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service, December 2, 2019. Accessible here. For eggs, we assumed USDA-defined “large” eggs, which are the most common egg type in America and weigh 2 ounces; for per capita consumption, see Hamza Shaban, “Why Americans are on track to eat the most eggs in nearly a half-century,” Washington Post, February 28, 2019. Accessible here.
That repurposing would multiply agriculture’s bounty: we’ve known since the 1970s that animal agriculture is a “protein factory in reverse;” generally speaking, it’s far more efficient (and better for the environment) to grow plants for people to eat than to grow plants for animals to eat so that people can then eat those animals. That’s part of why Farm Forward supports DefaultVeg—we need to make plant-based eating the easy, widespread, delicious option, even while people can opt into meat if they want.
Annie Lowery, “The Human Cost of Chicken Farming,” The Atlantic, November 11, 2019. Accessible here.