Denouncing corporations is easy. Using actual policy tools to hold them accountable and check their power is more difficult. Yet this is precisely what the National Farmers Union (NFU) is pushing the Biden administration to do.
In late September, the NFU began its nationwide “Fairness for Farmers” campaign, which seeks to pressure the government to enforce antitrust laws and break up agribusiness monopolies.
Let’s remember how the early days of the coronavirus pandemic put a surprisingly fragile food system on display.
Dairy farmers were told to dump milk, and hog producers were urged to euthanize their animals, as consolidated supply chains proved incapable of meeting distribution bottlenecks caused by school, hotel and restaurant closings.
Billions had to be sent to farmers in relief — which, by the end of 2020, amounted to 40% of their income.
It’s this system, as documented in a report from the Open Markets Institute, that allowed the four largest poultry processing firms to go from controlling 35% of the market in 1986 to 51% in 2015. For beef, the market share of the top four companies shot up from 25% in 1977 to 85% in that same year. During that same period, the top four corn seed companies’ control of the market went from 59% to 85%.
According to University of Missouri professor Mary Hendrickson, when four firms occupy more than 45% of a market, we begin to see competition-killing, innovation-suffocating practices such as price fixing and rigging contracts.
In short, our food system has, in the span of a few decades, seen competition turn into collusion, with billionaires controlling agriculture.
In this regard, President Joe Biden has made some promising moves. Specifically, the president has chosen Lina Khan as chair of the Federal Trade Commission and Timothy Wu as a special adviser to the National Economic Council. Both are outspoken critics of big business, penning articles and books that place corporate consolidation at the core of democratic decline.
And U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the lead Democrat on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, has introduced sweeping legislation to reinvigorate the United States’ antitrust laws and restore competition to domestic markets.
Klobuchar’s bill calls for reinvigorating the nation’s pillars of antitrust law — namely, the Progressive Era Sherman, Clayton and Federal Trade Commission Acts. Passed in the early 20th century, these laws were created to investigate and punish anti-competitive practices including mergers, price fixing and rigging contracts.
Klobuchar’s bill would amend these laws, providing officials greater leeway to investigate and punish corporate malfeasance.
The call being sounded in these quarters for addressing corporate power should speak to every American. We need to wake up to the fact that fewer and fewer powerful actors are being allowed to dictate terms to farmers and consumers, to maximize profits. We need to challenge the powers enforcing barriers that stymie innovation and freedom.
Anthony Pahnke is vice president for Family Farm Defenders and is an assistant professor of international relations at San Francisco State University. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
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