Food hasn't been a major focus for the 25 Democrats running for president. But for those who have released plans on the topic—or made promises to rural Iowa audiences—one issue in particular looms large: breaking up big ag.
The call to bust agribusiness monopolies is growing stronger as these firms grow larger. Over the past several decades, rapid consolidation—facilitated by recent mergers—has created near-monopolies, crowding out small farmers in the process. In 2015, more than half the value of United States farm production came from farms with at least $1 million in sales, compared to 31 percent in 1991. The affects of consolidation are particularly apparent in the sales of various agricultural products: In 2000, the biggest four companies sold 51 percent of soybean seeds in the U.S., for example; by 2015, their share rose to 76 percent.
Now, candidates calling for measures to try to reverse this trend.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has promised "Roosevelt-style" trust-busting that would break up agriculture monopolies and impose a moratorium on both future mergers and "vertically integrated" corporations, which control multiple levels of the food system through contracts with small farmers—from hog-raising to meat processing.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, whose proposal to tackle big tech made headlines this spring, has a similar plan for agriculture: Her platform includes reversing agribusiness mergers like Bayer-Monsanto and passing a national right-to-repair law that lets farmers fix their own machinery, instead of being forced to go to John Deere. She would also make it optional for farmers to contribute to checkoff programs, mandatory marketing firms, like the one behind "Got Milk," that some small farmers say benefit only corporations.
Other candidates have been more vague; Joe Biden, for example, has called for "strengthening antitrust enforcement." Even self-help author Marianne Williamson has written about how "the corporatization of agriculture" is harming our health and small farmers' well-being.
While many candidates have made similar promises, only Senator Cory Booker has introduced a bill that would immediately freeze mergers in the food and agriculture sector; Warren and Booker have both also sponsored legislation limiting the use of checkoff funds.
These proposals haven't gotten much airtime at the Democratic presidential debates—although the New Jersey senator brought up his proposal in the first round—but they have been the focal point of several candidate's campaign stops in Iowa.
"There's a renewed interest in rural America, but also I think questions of consolidation, concentration, and monopoly are emerging issues across the board for a lot of people—in manufacturing, retail, and lots of different industries," says Mary Hendrickson, professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri. "People are feeling like they're losing out, in the way the economy is now organized."
Right now, that economy is largely structured in a way that traps small farmers, according Patrick Mooney, founder and adviser of the ETC Group, an international organization that has tracked corporate concentration in agribusiness since the 1970s. Mooney says that, as technology has come to play a bigger—and more expensive—role on the farm, smaller firms have not been able to keep up. On top of that, the Department of Justice has greenlit several mergers since 2017 that gave three companies control of two-thirds of the global seed market: Dow-Dupont, Monsanto-Bayer, and ChemChina-Syngenta.
"They have enormous political clout," Mooney says. "They have more weight and influence with politicians, and they outweigh the influence of the various farming organizations and consumer organizations."
Of course, agribusiness has its critics: The Organization for Competitive Markets, a non-profit advocacy group made up of farmers and other agriculture experts, has endorsed Warren and Booker's legislation restricting checkoff programs and other policies aimed at leveling what some argue is a "rigged market."
What agribusiness has done so far with its clout, Mooney says, is stifle innovation. The Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service has recorded a 30 percent drop in public-sector agriculture research from 1970 to 2013, due in part to a lack of government investment. Now many plant breeders at public universities have shifted to providing direct support to agribusiness, Mooney says. Corporations like Monsanto led the charge in patented plant varieties—meaning they can take anyone who uses their seeds without permission to court, as it has in 147 lawsuits against U.S. farmers since 1997 (including one instance where a farmer collected the seeds from a previous crop of genetically modified soybeans). "That's chased out a lot of competition," Mooney says. "Other companies don't feel they can compete, not so much against the plant breeder, but against the lawyers."
The consolidation also means that, overall, farmers have fewer options to choose from. As the ERS has found, private companies focused on developing plant varieties that are easy to identify in the field and the courtroom—not those that could help a farmer be more resilient against climate change.
This happens along every step in the process: When a farmer goes to buy seeds, they have to choose from Bayer or Dupont. The same goes for chemicals and fertilizers. Once they've produced their food, there are only a few companies to sell to—in the pork industry, most are locked into contracts with Tyson and JBS. "They have very constrained choices and that means that they are also smaller players," Hendrickson says. "They don't have the market power to negotiate on equal terms with these larger players."
As a result, producers often find themselves farming in ways that benefit big corporations at their own expense: sticking to one crop or forgoing crop rotations that could suppress weeds or disease without pesticides. For example, sustainable agriculture advocates now recommend that the farmers plant cover crops, like grains and grasses, in their fields to nourish the soil and protect their operation amid climate-change disasters. But because commodity crops—corn and soybeans—dominate the market, Hendrickson says producers in the Midwest often can't find cover crops seeds or don't have a way to sell any extra crops they produce.
Other farmers who buy seeds from Monsanto often end up buying Roundup, too, which can later preclude them from farming organic.
These effects are felt well beyond rural America. Companies in charge of food production often employ workers who lack access to that food themselves. Farmworkers earn $11 an hour, while some agribusiness chief executives make upwards of $2.6 million a year. "These are for-profit firms, and they must make it a profit," Hendrickson says. "Food security is not particularly their concern."
This is part of why taking on big ag might resonate with the Democratic field. Another reason is "some people still equate farmers and rural America," Hendrickson says. (Indeed, most of the candidates who've addressed food and farming have done so in plans to revitalize rural America.)
Certainly, trust-busters have eyed the agriculture industry before, but there's been little political willpower to stop these companies from cornering the market on farm supplies, tech and data. Will this change in 2020?
"Some farmers would argue the horse is out of the barn, and you're shutting the door way too late," Hendrickson says. "You can find other farmers who feel like, I'm doing fine, and you just got to get bigger and roll with the punches."