(NOTE: This is the first of a two-part series on President Obama and the regulation of animal factories)
The Obama Administration on Friday fulfilled two campaign pledges that affect factory farming in America: It agreed to hold a long-delayed National Rural Summit and, on the same day, two Cabinent members began confronting the problem of entrenched Agribusiness monopolies.
A USDA official told me on Friday that the Administration will soon announce a "National Rural Summit," something that candidate Obama had promised but failed to accomplish within the first 100 days of his term. Obama had originally promised to hold the summit while campaigning in Iowa in 2007, boasting that: "When I'm President, I'll have a department of agriculture, not simply a department of agribusiness." The summit would allow citizens to address the growing displacement of family farms by large corporate-backed factory farms.
Meanwhile, also on Friday, in the town of Ankeny, Iowa, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and US Attorney General Eric Holder held the first of five promised hearings on competition in agriculture.
"One of the greatest threats to our economy is the erosion of free competition in our markets," Attorney General Holder told a standing-room-only crowd, most of whom seemed to support tighter restrictions on corporate-dominated agriculture and factory farms. "And we've learned the hard way that recessions and long periods of reckless deregulation can foster practices that are anti-competitive and even illegal."
"Is today's agriculture industry suffering from a lack of free and fair competition in the marketplace?" Holder continued. "We know that a growing number of American farmers find it increasingly difficult to survive by doing what they've done for decades. And we've learned that some of them believe the competitive environment may be, at least in part, to blame."
These statements are consistent with President Obama's "Rural Agenda," which asserts that "Consolidation has made it harder for mid-size family farmers to get fair prices for their products and compete on the open market," and that "rural communities are often left behind."
The Attorney General's words will also be welcomed by family farm actitvists, and dreaded by the large companies that dominate the modern American food chain. As I write in my new book "Animal Factory - The Looming Threat of Industrial Pig, Dairy and Poultry Farms to Humans and the Environment":
Large companies with kitchen-table names like Perdue, Tyson, Smithfield, Cargill, ADM, and Land of Lakes now control much of the poultry and livestock in the United States. They own the animals, they control the all-important processing and packing plants, they often operate their own distribution networks, and they often market their own brands to consumers in the supermarket.
This "vertical integration" model of production - some would call it an old-fashioned, illegal trust in search of a Teddy Roosevelt-style buster - leave small and independent growers at such an obvious disadantage that many of them give up animal agriculture altogether. Two percent of US livestock facilities now raise 40 percent of all animals, and the vast majority of pigs, chickens and dairy cows are produced inside animal factories.
During the all-important Iowa race, in the fall of 2007 when Obama was still in third place, the candidate adopted an aggressive, anti-factory farming posture and took his populist message into the deepest rural precincts of the state.
At the time, Senator John Edwards was sinking: He probably had overstayed his Iowa welcome, camping out in the Hawkeye State for more than a year (and fretting, we now know, over certain extramural activities). Meanwhile, presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton was getting very cozy with the industrial pork people, something that shocked and appalled many rural Democratic caucus goers.
One could reasonably argue that Barack Obama won Iowa - and then went on to gain the nomination, and the presidency - because of his bold stance taken against Big Ag in small town halls and school gyms stretching from Sioux City to Davenport.
Obama's Plan to Support Rural Communities read like a manifesto from grassroots groups trying to defend their vision of what a traditional, sustainable agrarian way of life should be.
Among many other pledges (some unfulfilled, others reneged upon - coming soon in Part 2), Candidate Obama promised to hold a "National Rural Summit" within 100 days of taking office, to address the American family farm crisis that plagues a sizeable swath of the country. He also vowed to take on the more egregious excesses of corporate agribusiness practices - especially the anti-competitive measures that drive small and medium-sized livestock and poultry operations out of business, leaving the playing field wide open to corporate-controlled "Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) - better known as factory farms.
But the Rural Summit never materialized, and many rural activists questioned the President's vow to booster anti-trust laws and ensure fair access to markets. Now, the Administration has taken steps to make good on both pledges - even if one of them comes a year late. (Even so, I imagine that most rural activists will forgive Obama's tardiness, given the pressing nature of other matters on his presidential plate).
Both measures will be applauded in many rural precincts that went for Obama. Those voters will be heartened to see that President Obama in 2010 may be finally fulfilling some - though not all - of the animal factory pledges that propelled candidate Obama to victory on that cold Iowa night back in January, 2008.
Animal Factory is now available from St. Martin's Press