Senator Booker’s Legislation Aims to Reform U.S. Farm Systems

U.S. Senator Cory Booker recently reintroduced The Farm System Reform Act to restrict the growth of new factory farms and protect family farmers.

Approximately 20,000 Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) are currently operating in the U.S. CAFOs are large-scale industrial facilities that raise thousands of animals in conditions that are harmful to public health, the environment, and animal welfare.

The Farm System Reform Act was first introduced to the U.S. Senate in 2019. Since then, Booker has drawn a wide range of support from family farm and ranch advocates, environmental justice and animal welfare groups, public health agencies, and labor unions with ties to the meatpacking industry.

“From rural communities to public health to the environment, factory farming continues to have a harmful impact on nearly every aspect of our lives, and I am encouraged to see a broad coalition of stakeholders support efforts to transition to a more sustainable and humane system,” Booker tells Food Tank.

The Farm System Reform Act focuses on prohibiting new CAFOs from forming and phasing out the largest CAFOs by 2040, holding large corporations responsible for pollution caused by CAFO practices, establishing a US$100 billion fund to buyout farmers who want to transition out of operating a CAFO, and strengthening protections for family farmers by restoring the Packers and Stockyards Act.

Public support for a moratorium on CAFOs is growing in states like Iowa, where CAFOs are prevalent and rapidly expanding. A recent poll conducted by Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future finds that nearly two-thirds of Iowans want a moratorium on CAFOs. Iowa lawmakers have also introduced legislation numerous times to push for a state-wide moratorium on CAFOs, including in 2021.

Iowa faces major environmental and public health consequences as a result of CAFOs, including waterway pollution that closes beaches and kills fish, volatile odors that impact psychological health, and significant increases in childhood and adult asthma. These environmental and health effects are common in the areas surrounding CAFOs, which are disproportionately located in minority communities.

A 2021 study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that air pollution from animal agriculture is responsible for 12,720 U.S. deaths per year. Despite these major concerns, players across the industrial agriculture supply chain are exempt from reporting on environmental impact.

Joe Maxwell, President and CEO of Family Farm Action and a sixth-generation farmer, tells Food Tank, “These big companies externalize the environmental costs on taxpayers, communities, and farmers, and claim they have affordable meat.” While farmers may be interested in adopting more sustainable practices, the meatpacking companies make it impossible by pushing farmers to maximize output at an unsustainable level.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, family farmers had a median net income of negative US$1,840 in 2018. With just four companies controlling 85 percent of the cattle market and 65 percent of the hog market, farmers have few options and are often forced to accept prices under the cost of raising animals.

“You can look at every sector of animal agriculture and you’ll find a handful of multinational companies that control that market space,” Maxwell tells Food Tank.

When asked about the importance of federal support for farmers looking to transition away from the CAFO model, Maxwell says, “It’s everything. Farmers want an option, they’re looking for an out. It’s imperative that we begin to shift some of the current subsidies away from the industrial agriculture model that has put farmers on to a treadmill they can’t get off of.”

The Farm System Reform Act would also reinforce the Packers and Stockyard Act of 1921, which was originally constructed to protect farmers from unfair and anti-competitive market practices. In addition to bolstering market transparency, farmers would be protected from retaliatory practices if they bring litigation against a corporation who causes them harm.

While there is little chance of passing the bill in its entirety this session, Booker sees potential for progress. For example, Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican in Iowa, has introduced bipartisan legislation that is nearly identical to the section on the Packers and Stockyards Act in the Farm System Reform Act. And as a newly appointed member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Booker is well positioned to drive change over the long-term.

“Large, multinational meatpackers, because of their buying power and size, are putting our food system at risk and harming everyone along the supply chain,” Booker tells Food Tank. “We need to fix the broken system – that means giving family farmers and ranchers a fair shot and holding corporate integrators responsible for the harm they are causing.”

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