Here Are the Biggest Agriculture Issues in the Upcoming Election

Democratic candidates are making us think hard about them

Photo by Adam Kaz for Getty Images

As quickly as the Amazon burns, food and farming is becoming a “kitchen table” issue, thanks to headlines like “Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply” from The New York Times.

We have something like 50 years until our topsoil and water are gone. Every day that we wait to change our food system, we sentence more people to die in chaos, and lower our odds of surviving the century.

The scale of change we need is staggering, and that’s why we can’t fall for solutions that don’t promise transformation.

Democratic primary contenders are just starting to respond with policy plans — and hallelujah for that! You can find their proposals for food and agriculture aggregated in various forms on sites like Civil Eats, Daily Yonder, Grist, and Politico. Now that politicians are finally paying attention, we have to hold them to action.

But unless you’re a farm policy dork, interpreting these plans is more or less impossible. We interact with our food system every day, but the policy that shapes it remains, to many, hopelessly opaque.

That’s what this cheat sheet is for: to learn more about how we (poorly) manage our food system — and to understand some possibilities for improvements. We’ve kept recent presidential candidate dropout Jay Inslee in the mix because his policy proposals have been driving the discussion.

Big Food oversight

The first stance on farm policy any sane Democrat takes is that Donald Trump is an idiot. He’s using tariffs to alienate China, the world’s largest soybean market, while China has shrugged and waited patiently for Cargill and Brazilian farmers to burn down the Amazon and take America’s place in the market.

So the idiot-in-chief is making a characteristic blunder, and he’s getting called out. Nice. What’s next?

Monopoly in agriculture is comically bad. Dubious mergers are commonplace and the damage is obvious: For example, one or two poultry processors or slaughterhouses will dominate an entire region, enabling abusive contracts and price-fixing and ruining the land.

Practically every candidate has promised to address market concentration, provide merger oversight, and enforce antitrust laws. If you’re looking for more than just lip service, listen for candidates that have a record of supporting, or even spearheading, moratoriums on mergers in Congress. Others promise to reverse existing mergers retroactively, and some are also willing to call specific merger deals and companies by name.

Another critical checkbox in the Democratic field: Saying they’ll use the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to enforce the Clean Air and Clean Water Act. Confined animal feed operations (CAFOs) are getting away with unprecedented air and water pollution that the government never punishes, rarely bothers to give out permits for, and often doesn’t even know about.

The Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund brought this into the debate: What you’ll notice if you click this link is the divergence between those who promise to enforce environmental laws versus those who also support halting the current expansion of factory farms in Iowa.

This trio of policies is supported in some capacity by every Democrat, with Cory Booker a notable antitrust champion and Elizabeth Warren calling to #BreakUpBigAg early on.

Addressing the farm crisis

We’re witnessing a devastating wave of farm foreclosure and farmer suicide comparable to the notorious crisis of the 1980s.

Farms are going out of business because corn, wheat, milk, and soy prices are super-low; prices are low because there’s too much of a given commodity — a surplus. To compensate for low prices, farmers have to get bigger and bigger, planting more and more to stay alive, while the cost of everything else in our economy has risen. That’s why, by this point, a huge majority have gone bankrupt.

So what to do? The most moderate platform will advocate for expanding the support structures that already exist. Watch-phrases for this are “expand crop insurance” and “ensure a safety net for family farmers.” These solutions propose to be more generous with government money to cover farmers’ losses from bad weather.

Similar pols also promise to expand exports and protect American markets abroad. The U.S. Department of Agriculture likes to make farmers happy by coercing other countries into buying powdered milk, soy, wheat, and corn, while other countries’ dependence on American imports builds the U.S. global standing. Continuing to dump commodities on the rest of the world is a way to evade farmers’ ire that flares when demand dries up, as the case is with Trump tariffs.

Amy Klobuchar, a traditional Midwestern Democrat on the Senate Ag Committee, is the most loyal in the field to this middling policy, and Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke have flavors of it, too; even one Jay Inslee (miss you already!) advocates for expanding crop insurance. Most don’t touch commodity policy, and that’s its own problem.

There’s one group that loves the surplus: The seed and fertilizer companies, grain traders, millers, brewers, corn syrup and ethanol refineries, meatpackers, feed companies, tractor manufacturers, and fast-food chains.

The bigger the surplus, the cheaper these companies can manufacture their products, and the more monoculture we do, the more of their products they sell. So your willingness to address the surplus depends on your willingness to challenge the political power of those interests — and $68 million spent on lobbying just this year says that power is substantial.

With that, we come to the first big fork in the road: While some candidates promise to stop the bleeding but maintain the status quo, others propose policy aimed at the surplus itself.

Parity

There’s a leading theory for reducing the surplus that has been advocated by generations of progressive farm families and organizations. If you see supply management, grain reserve, parity, price floor, and fair prices for farmers, it’s all under the umbrella of parity.

Parity works this way: First, the government determines a fair price, or parity price, designed to guarantee farmers a livable wage from their crop that rises with inflation. Once a fair price is agreed upon, farmers effectively loan their unsold grain to the government on paper while they are waiting to bring it to market. If the farmer can market grain at or above the fair price, then great. But if not, the government will purchase the harvest at the promised fair price and store it in a public reserve.

This policy from the days of the New Deal is discussed as the gold standard in progressive circles, so if you hear a candidate discuss it, you know that they’re playing to the lefties and they’ve done their homework: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have come out for parity.

Climate change innovation

Thanks in part to some brilliant Iowans, there’s been a national revelation that, when properly cared for, soil actually stores carbon.

So politicians have found a new way to pander to farmers, mentioning words like carbon farming, soil capture, regenerative farming, and other science-y phraseology.

Many candidates — Beto, Warren, Inslee, Biden, Bernie, Mayor Pete — promise to invest in R&D or promote innovation so farmers can develop agricultural solutions that sequester carbon. It’s vague talk.

The truth is that we have all the knowledge we need to take care of our soils and store carbon, without sacrificing calorie production: We must farm a diversity of crops that actually feed people, without chemicals, on small plots, under the care of more people and fewer machines.

So even though it sounds badass, reinventing the wheel in the fields, without upsetting the aforementioned political dynamic, can only do so much.

If you hear lip service in support of ethanol — the codeword for which is biofuels — then we’re in a decidedly moderate range (Mayor Pete, Biden, Klobuchar). Progressives don’t mention ethanol unless they’re asked point-blank, at which point they stare at their shoes and mumble something.

Almost half of our corn winds up in our cars, rather than feedlots or high-fructose corn syrup refineries, a practice that doesn’t really lower our collective emissions.

And since we grow more corn than anything else, it’s an obvious and massive impediment to systemic change. But if you want a shot in Iowa, ethanol is untouchable — and if you don’t have a shot in Iowa, then honey, you don’t have a shot.

Conservation

Another way to involve farmers in the climate solution is to give farmers grants and cash to adopt techniques that reduce erosion and sequester carbon, like cover cropping.

Many candidates have promised to boost popular USDA programs that incentivize farmers to adopt conservation practices — CSP, CRP, and EQIP are the big ones. Points for candidates who give numbers specifying exactly how much money these programs will get (Bernie, Inslee, Biden, Warren, Mayor Pete), which gives you a sense of the scope of their ambition (or audacity). Some have also supported or introduced bills intended to boost these programs. (For example, Cory Booker has a strong legislative record in this area, but hasn’t published plans that spell out his platform.)

Scope matters here, because right now, farmers are dependent on a government check, so if there’s no change to that system, farmers will still be under the gun to produce as much corn as possible by any means necessary. If a candidate is advocating for conservation programs and wants it to make a radical difference, it should be a more attractive option than the status quo, or reform the status quo simultaneously, as Warren and Sanders suggest.

Land access

The average American farmer is white, male, and almost 60; the average American person is not.

Many candidates have taken care to point out that black farmers have been systematically robbed of land, with completely inadequate recompense, often at the hands of a corrupt and racist government.

Righting this wrong is a social and ecological imperative. Luckily, there are programs that help catalyze farm ownership for farmers of color, women, native people, and other excluded demographics deserving of a chance to live and work the land. An interesting policy of Inslee’s has been to include new farmers and ranchers in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program: pretty cool.

Local and regional food systems

A sustainable food supply will travel less and involve more people, and those new businesses need a leg up to get going — which many believe the government must provide, by offering loans and giving local, sustainable product preference in public schools, hospitals, and prisons.

See if candidates are name-checking specific programs like LAMP, and if they’re giving concrete promises to show they’re serious — Warren and Bernie get points there, while almost everyone offers lip service.

It’s great to voice support for local, regenerative farming and food systems, but it’s important to remember that in and of themselves, these solutions are marginal. Unless we reform the globalized industrial system that governs 99 percent of all the land we use and the food we eat, it’s largely moot.

Animal rights

Cory Booker and Julián Castro haven’t touched farm policy on the campaign trail but have released comprehensive animal rights policies (respectively here and here) that point to a more compassionate world and incidentally definitely make CAFOs illegal, which is certainly critical to rescuing our food system.

Labor

Few of these policies mention the workers who pick strawberries, gut poultry, and plate burgers, nor the ones who drive trucks, serve as cashiers at Walmart (which sells half of our groceries), or work the drive-throughs. Food system jobs are the lowest-paying in our economy

You won’t hear many of them discuss that global free trade has forced small farmers across the world into merciless commodity markets, that many migrants from Central America are former coffee growers, that we’re used to cheap food because slavery made it so, and that many food chain workers rely on food stamps to feed their own families.

Until food, farms, the environment, and race are prioritized as part of the national policy platforms, we have a ways to go. Compared to prior elections, the level of discussion on these issues is unprecedented — for good reason. As we approach the Iowa caucuses in February, hopefully, candidates will sharpen their stance on these issues.

Charlie Mitchell is a writer and researcher currently based in Des Moines, Iowa.

Chicago-based reporter and writer focused on agriculture and food. Reach out: charlie [at] tom [dot] org more at charliemitchell.org

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