May 28, 2022

Michigan Farmers Deserve Fairness

Guest Opinion
By Bob Thompson | Jan. 8, 2022

When you walk into your local grocery store, the rows are filled with thousands of food items to choose from, but this choice is all an illusion. Just four companies own 75 percent of the brands that line grocery store shelves. And because the food industry has been so heavily consolidated, these multinational food corporations are able to unfairly set prices for what we eat so that they can rake in profits at the expense of farmers and eaters.

Consolidation in the food system threatens independent, family farmers’ ability to make a living. That’s why Michigan Farmers Union (MFU) is demanding fairness for farmers, ranchers, and families. That includes properly enforcing antitrust laws that unfairly take advantage of our food system.

MFU’s campaign, called Fairness for Farmers, demands the following: stopping deceptive and unfair practices in the meat market, requiring reliable information about food products through price reporting and labeling, more competition in our food economy in a way that values fairness, and better enforcement of our federal antitrust laws. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve experienced incredible challenges in our food supply chain, and consolidation is part of the problem. One reform that would counter the deceptive and unfair practices we see in the meat industry is called Packers and Stockyards Act (PSA) reform so farmers and ranchers can challenge unfair practices in courts, create fairer wages, and clarify food industry practices that may be unfair, discriminatory, or deceptive. If enforced properly, this policy would help localize the food system, creating a more accessible and affordable food supply.      

We also deserve transparency about where our food is coming from. This means requiring country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat and other products. Right now, mega-corporations can source their meat from Mexico and Peru and call it “Made in the USA” simply because the products were packaged domestically.

Consumers deserve to know where their food is coming from, and farmers and ranchers deserve better than these deceptive practices meant to shut them out of the marketplace. 

The strong grasp that outsized corporate monopolies have on nearly every aspect of our food system, from seeds to equipment to processing, all but ensures that the biggest farms survive, and the smallest ones go out of business. Back in the 1970s, President Nixon’s Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz told independent family farmers to “get big or get out," and the rest is history: Independent family farmers are at the mercy of just a handful of corporations that have hollowed out the communities they’re from, especially in the Midwest. Regardless of size, all farmers and ranchers deserve to be treated equally. The U.S. Department of Agriculture must uphold policies that fight consolidation and promote competition with the U.S. Department of Justice playing an active role in enforcing these laws.

Without paying farmers a fair price for what they produce, we’ve robbed people of their livelihood and shut them out of opportunity. Take, for example, the cattle industry. Today, just four companies control most of the beef slaughter and processing in this country. The domination of just a few corporations in beef packing creates bottlenecks in the supply chain, which makes the industry more susceptible to sudden changes. Consequently, small producers are less likely to break even, and households pay higher prices.

While we can’t fix our food system overnight, President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Bill will help build back rural communities from the bottom up and middle out and take important steps toward what MFU is calling for. Through important reforms like tackling the effect of the climate crisis on our food system to reinvesting in rural infrastructure, now is the time to take up the call for better, fairer, and more transparent food and farm policy.

Bob Thompson is president of the Michigan Farmers Union.

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