No jaded observer will be surprised: The Senate Agriculture Committee yesterday released its version of the 2007 Farm Bill, leaving the subsidy mechanisms in the 2002 bill pretty well intact. I’m still trying to chase down details of the proposal, but here are a couple of tidbits.
The big news is that the version contains a ban on meatpacker ownership of livestock. This is (potentially) huge. Currently, dominant meatpackers like Smithfield Foods and Tyson also raises hundreds of thousands of animals themselves each year. These "captive herds" give them enormous leverage over independent farmers, allowing these corporate giants to dictate price, growing conditions, etc. A so-called "packer ban" would go some way in leveling the playing field between farmers and corporate giants.
However, seasoned observers don’t seem to hold up much hope that the packer ban will make it into the final Farm Bill. The Center for Rural Affairs’ blog had this to say about the ban:
It is somewhat surprising that [the packer ban] got in so quietly, but it is possible that pro-ban committee members simply told opponents that they had the votes, and the opponents simply decided to wait until the Senate floor to fight it out.
A reader of mine who works on Farm Bill issues in Washington was more direct in an email:
We did get the packer ban in along with some of the livestock title, which is a huge victory. now watch Tyson and the American Meat Institute go all out to defeat it.
If the meat industry will bare its fangs to defeat the packer ban, it will be well pleased with action on EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), a key conservation program. Ostensibly designed to help farmers boost conservation efforts, EQIP has been manipulated by CAFO operators to grab federal cash to build out their waste-treatment facilities.
In other words, rather than take responsibility for their own messes, CAFO operators want your federal tax dollars to deal with the waste they generate. EQIP can be seen as a de facto federal subsidy to the industrial meat industry.
Sustainable ag groups have fought to lower the limit of EQIP payments from $450,000 to $240,000 — making it much less vulnerable to abuse from CAFO operators. Unhappily, the Senate Ag Committee’s Farm Bill version restored the cap to $450,000.
I’ll write more about these issues as details emerge.