About a year before Sen. Cory Booker officially ran for president, he took a trip through the Midwest, meeting voters in the states he knew he’d need to win. One visit, in particular, sticks in his mind. It was in the home of a Republican farmer, a man who told Booker’s team he wasn’t sure he wanted to host the senator because “this is a Christian household.” Booker is Christian, but he knew what that meant: He’s vegan, liberal, an African American Democrat from Newark, New Jersey. Booker wasn’t the kind of politician this farmer saw as his own.
Booker tried to loosen the guy up with dad jokes. “I told him his cows were udderly amazing,” Booker recalls. Nothing.
The breakthrough came when the farmer began telling Booker about “the hell” he and his neighbors found themselves in. They used to sell their cows to five different companies, which meant if a buyer didn’t give them a good price or demanded practices that compromised their cows or land, they could go to another. But the industry had consolidated. Now there was one buyer, and that buyer controlled everything. The farmers had been reduced from entrepreneurs to serfs. Here, finally, was common ground. The farmer hated what his business had become, and so did Booker.
This was a story Booker heard again and again. And it carried the seed of an idea. Booker is vegan, and so he knows, better than most, how unpopular veganism is — in one survey, only people with drug addiction were viewed more negatively. Asked during a September CNN town hall whether he thought others should become vegan, Booker said “no,” before pivoting to discuss the problems of factory farming. In an MSNBC interview, he laughed off the idea of a “radical vegan agenda,” reassuring voters he doesn’t think “government should be telling Americans what to eat.”
But Booker realized there was a place that vegans and farmers could come together: Both of them hate the ways agribusiness had consolidated and mechanized the meat market, forcing farmers into using massive, cruel, and environmentally devastating confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
The agricultural industry has an unusual structure: Virtually every node in the industry is highly concentrated around a few megaproducers. That’s true for seeds, for pesticides, for machines, for production. And concentration has been increasing, and fast. In 1980, 34 percent of pigs were slaughtered by the four largest meatpacking companies. By 2015, that had nearly doubled, to 66 percent.
But the food is still grown, and the animals still raised, on family farms. These farms are, in theory, independent, but in practice, they bear the risks of independence without the expected freedoms. The megaproducers they buy from and sell to have all the leverage; farmers are left with little choice save to accept the onerous, binding contracts they’re offered. As the Center for American Progress puts it, “growing corporate power has left relatively small farms and ranches vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of the oligopolies with which they do business.”
The results, for farmers, have been disastrous. In 2018, median farm income was negative $1,840 — meaning most farms lost money. Farmers saw a 50 percent drop in income since 2013. Adjusted for inflation, farm incomes have been stagnant for the past 30 years. As a result, farmers are buried in debt: The sector’s debt-to-income ratio is the highest it’s been since the farm crisis of the mid-’80s. (The National Pork Producers Council declined to comment for this story, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association did not reply to a request for comment.)
As farmers have lost control of their livelihoods, they’ve also lost control of their animals, their crops, and their land. They have no choice but to contract with companies that dictate the way they raise their animals, setting farmers in competition with one another for production speeds and efficiency. The way you win that competition is to pack more animals into your sheds, pump them fuller of antibiotics so they don’t die from infections that flourish amid overcrowding, raise breeds that live lives of pain but grow with astonishing speed, create massive manure lagoons that poison streams and turn air acrid. The result is a brutal incentive to mechanize the process of livestock production in ways cruel to the animals, the farmers, and their communities.
“Independent family farmers and ranchers are being driven off their land, driven into bankruptcy, being forced into a system of industrialized agriculture that our values don’t support,” says Joe Maxwell, a Missouri farmer, former lieutenant governor, and co-founder of the Family Farm Action Alliance. “It’s either join up with these transnational monopolies or we’re going to bankrupt you. That’s the reality of family agriculture today.”
Booker realized that, as unlikely as it sounds, there was a space in the Venn diagram between the people who believe raising and killing animals for food is wrong and the people whose chose, as their livelihoods, to raise and kill animals for food. Both could agree that the way we are doing it now is cruel, both to animals and to people.
“This is not how we raised livestock 70 years ago,” Booker says. “We’ve gone from raising animals in a far more humane, pasture-based model to one where we’re producing food in hyper-confined, concentrated, enclosed buildings that produce these massive lagoons of waste that are poisoning our streams and our rivers.”
In December of 2019, while campaigning in Iowa, Booker unveiled the Farm System Reform Act. It’s sweeping legislation, but at its core it does four things:
- Imposes an immediate moratorium on the construction of new CAFOs and phases out the largest existing CAFOs by 2040
- Imposes the liabilities and costs of pollutions, accidents, and disasters on the agricultural conglomerates that control the market rather than on the independent farmers who contract with them
- Creates a $100 billion fund to help farmers who are currently running CAFOs transition to other agricultural operations
- Strengthens the existing Packers and Stockyards Act to prohibit a range of contract terms and structures that let huge meat buyers put farmers in a race for the bottom while denying them political and legal recourse
Booker dropped out of the presidential race in January. But his legislation kept picking up cosponsors. In May of 2020, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) signed on to the bill. That same month, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who co-chaired Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign, sponsored a companion bill in the House with six co-sponsors, including Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus.
“For years and years, giant multinational corporations have been crushing competition in the agricultural sector and seizing key markets while regulators have looked the other way,” Warren says. “The Covid-19 crisis is making it even easier for Big Ag to get even bigger and gobble up small farms — leaving farmers out in the cold and consumers facing higher costs and fewer choices.”
“My interest in it came because I was spending time with Bernie Sanders in Iowa,” Khanna says. “I saw these factory farms, and I saw miles and miles of land where you couldn’t see farmers. All you could see was machinery and runoff. And when I spoke to actual farmers, they talked about how the people who owned these farms weren’t in Iowa. They had no control over the environmental impact. They felt they didn’t have control over their own economic destiny.”
There is a coalition emerging here, one that could lead to overdue reforms in our food system, but one that also has profound things to say about our politics.
The politics of animal — and human — suffering
David Coman-Hidy is the president of the Humane League, an animal welfare organization. In May, I had a conversation with him I’ve had trouble getting out of my head. My question was innocuous. I wanted to know what he was working on. “Switching from live shackling to the atmospheric killing of chickens,” he replied.
I wasn’t familiar with these terms, and maybe you aren’t, either. And I’m sorry for what I’m going to force you to imagine as I explain them. “The process of how we slaughter broiler chickens is the cruelest thing imaginable,” says Coman-Hidy. These are, functionally, malnourished, young birds. Workers flip them upside down to shackle them by their legs. In many cases, the process dislocates their hips.
Chickens aren’t meant to be upside-down. They have no diaphragm. Shackled and inverted, their organs crush into their lungs, making it hard for the birds to breathe. The point of the shackling is to put them on a conveyor that drags them through electrified water, stunning them before the kill. But the birds panic, thrashing in wild terror. Some of them miss the water, or the stun setting is too low. Those birds have their throats cut while they’re still conscious, and then they’re pulled through boiling water to defeather them. If the blade misses the bird, the bird boils alive.
Coman-Hidy and his organization are working to convince agricultural producers to slaughter chickens by simply gassing them, en masse. It’s easier on the chickens, and less traumatizing for the workers. And the campaign is seeing some success. McDonald’s has pledged to move to atmospheric killing, for one.
Coman-Hidy is vegan; he’s devoted his life to reducing animal suffering. Didn’t it feel strange, I asked him, to become part of this machine whose very existence he loathes? Even if atmospheric killing was more humane, wouldn’t it unnerve him to become one of the people shaping the architecture of animal slaughter?
“The thought experiment that helped me is if I could die, or have a member of my family die, by being euthanized by gas, or have what I just described happen to them, what would I give to get the gas?” He replied. “And the answer is everything.”
There are few movements as alienated from the consensus position as the animal suffering movement. They look at the world and see tens of billions of animals being tortured and slaughtered in ways that poison the earth, warm the planet, and — as we are seeing with particular clarity now, as scores die daily from a pandemic virus that likely began in a meat market — harm human health. The practices of industrial animal agriculture are so cruel that you can’t describe them in polite company, so traumatizing that suicide and abuse are too-common worker hazards, so disturbing that agriculture companies pass laws criminalizing efforts to show the world where their meals are made. It is a structure of suffering with no bottom, no end, and what is most astonishing about it is that almost everyone simply treats it as normal.
And so the animal suffering movement has to practice, in the truest and most challenging sense of the word, politics. They have to find common purpose with those they disagree with profoundly. To have any chance of changing a system they loathe, they must become part of it, even complicit in it. They don’t get to realistically hope for success anytime soon, for a world they could be comfortable in, for an end to the horror they see all around them. They get to hope chickens will die from gas rather than shackled upside down with their throats cut. And they are finding that the best way to get to that world is to focus on human suffering, too.
The coronavirus has created coalitions that didn’t exist before it by laying bare the close connection between animal and human suffering. Meatpacking plants have been epicenters of outbreaks, with the suffering concentrated among immigrant laborers who then transmit the virus to their communities. The League of United Latin American Citizens called for “meatless May Mondays” to protest conditions in the slaughterhouses.
“Until the meat industry, federal and state governments protect the lives of essential workers at all meat processing facilities in a federally mandated and verifiable manner, LULAC will call for boycotts of meat products,” the organization’s president, Domingo Garcia, said in a statement.
It’s in the intersection of human and animal suffering that the animal rights community sees opportunity. Farmers and vegan activists may not agree on the world they want to see, but they can agree that the way both farmer and animals were treated in the past is preferable to the way they are treated today. LULAC and the Humane League aren’t pursuing the same long-term goals, but better conditions for workers would also mean better conditions for animals.
How much change would the Farm System Reform Act bring?
In reporting for this piece, I’ve asked everyone the same question: If the Farm System Reform Act passed, how much would really change?
“It doesn’t ban animal agriculture,” says Leah Garcés, the president of Mercy for Animals. “If you look for the part of the bill banning cages and crates, it’s not in there. But it would end animal agriculture as we know it. It wouldn’t let the system go forward as it does.”
To Garcés, the key element of the bill is the reversal of liability. She’s spent years working with chicken farmers who’ve been driven by contract terms and debt loads to accept practices that repulse them, and who find themselves paying the bill when disease cuts through their flock, or pollution gushes into the waterways that feed the community.
“Currently, integrators” — that’s your Tysons and Smithfields — “have created a system where all the bad parts of animal farming are on the back of the farmer or taxpayer,” Garcés says. “The bill flips that: ‘Integrator, you need to pay for all the pollution.’ I think that would bankrupt the current system if they had to pay for it.”
In her work with farmers, Garcés has found many of them want to escape the industrial animal agriculture business, because they appalled by how they have to treat their animals, their land, or both. But the integrators load them up with so much debt that they have no way out but through. So the debt forgiveness and transition assistance thrills her. “The biggest hurdle to getting farmers to transition is the debt,” she says. “I think hundreds of farmers would sign up for this. They just need a bridge.”
Maxwell, of the Family Farm Action Alliance, agrees. “Most of these farmers are just cogs in a big machine,” he says. “Once they borrow money from one of these big companies, they get stuck on a treadmill of poverty and debt that they can’t get off of. That’s why 70 percent of us live at or below the federal poverty level. So many farmers are looking for ways off that treadmill, and that’s what this bill offers.”
There are two wild cards here. One is the rapid rise of plant- and lab-based meats. By 2040, when the Farm System Reform Act is fully implemented, how rapidly have those technologies advanced? How cheap is an Impossible Burger? How tasty is lab-grown pork, or 3D-printed steak? Animal meat is so cheap in part because the true costs are hidden — they are absorbed by the suffering of the animals, the unpriced pollution flowing into communities, the quiet traumas and injuries carried by workers. If a bill like this made animal-based meat more expensive, it might accelerate the transition to other forms of meat. That’s certainly a quiet hope in the animal rights crowd.
The danger, though, is that the bill could drive production overseas or to Latin America, where standards are lower and even crueler, more dangerous practices prevail. The bill establishes country-of-origin labeling, but there’s little reason to believe that would be much of a hurdle — Americans already buy strawberries from Mexico and steak from Brazil.
The question is what Americans really want, and how easy it will be for them to get it. There is a deep ambivalence in our relationship to the food that ends up on our plates: We want food from small farms, where workers and animals are treated well, where the land is respected, and we want it all to be incredibly cheap and absurdly plentiful.
The average American consumed 222 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018, according to the USDA. Right now, big agribusiness producers try to ease consumer consciences through misdirection: Their packaging and advertising emphasize small farms, their ag-gag laws and contract provisions choke off the flow of actual information, the massive scale and mechanization of their processes hold down prices, and their political contributions repel real oversight.
“The tilt in America in the last 30 years of policy has been toward consumerism,” Khanna says. “We will do everything possible to lower prices. We won’t care about jobs, real wages, or the environment. My argument is that we ought to care enough about farmers [having] a decent livelihood, about environmental consequences, about consequences to communities, so even if this means there’s a slight increase in the price of meat, that’s worth it.”
The Farm System Reform Act won’t end all the abuses of factory farming, all the environmental degradation it causes, all the economic exploitation faced by farmers. But it’s a start. And if the odd-bedfellows coalition Booker is trying to build materializes, and finds real political footing, profound change is possible.
“We can’t vilify each other,” Booker says. “If we can’t have compassion for people in these broken systems, then we’re not going to have the compassion or coalitions to end these systems themselves.”
Roge Karma contributed reporting.