(Source:Yale University)

Yale University is convening a conference this weekend featuring rural voices taking on corporate power and lack of competition in the agriculture and food system. 

The event will feature academics, researchers, and investigative journalists who have a much more difficult time discussing these issues openly in agribusiness-friendly states in the Midwest and West, according to the organizers.

The conference, Big Ag and Antitrust: Competition Policy for a Sustainable and Humane Food System, will be held online Saturday, January 16th, 2021, and will feature speakers discussing agricultural markets, climate change, animal welfare, sustainability, public health, and inequalities facing workers, farmers, and rural communities. 

“One of the questions we are asking is how do we essentially inject a framework of power–of market power, of corporate power–into the agriculture and food discussion,” said Austin Frerick, deputy director of the Thurman Arnold Project at Yale School of Management. 

“When it comes to the layered issues of agriculture and farming, from animal welfare to immigration to climate change, overwhelming corporate control is one of the most defining issues we face.”

Frerick, an Iowan who ran for the state’s 3rd U.S. Congressional District House seat in the 2018 election, is the lead organizer of the conference. “This event wouldn’t happen at the home institutions or states of the many of the presenters,” Frerick said. The land grant institutions are so captured by corporate agribusiness that critical analysis around abuses of power is not allowed.”

Frerick’s sessions will focus on the role of the Farm Bureau and the agricultural checkoff-funded commodity groups, in paving the way for the corporate takeover of agriculture. 

“From 2007 to 2017, the Iowa Farm Bureau’s budget increased three-fold, all while the number of Iowa farmers in livestock dairy decreased sharply,” he said. “One of the most revealing findings from my research is that this is an organization that owns and operates two private jets at the Des Moines Airport. Why does the Iowa Farm Bureau need private jets?”

The Big Ag and Antitrust Conference keynote presentation will be delivered by the investigative reporter and author Christopher Leonard

Leonard said he hopes to bring a reporter’s viewpoint to the scholars and future lawyers in attendance. “My work is rooted in the core fact that agribusiness monopolies underpay the farmers and their employees who raise the meat for them, as well as the laborers who process and package and distribute meat products,” Leonard said.

“I wrote a book called ‘The Meat Racket,’ in 2014, and I’m afraid to say that I was underestimating the problem at the time,” he said. 

Leonard reported on agribusiness for the Associated Press for many years. “While agribusiness executives from Tyson Foods were busy criticizing me for saying I didn’t understand what they falsely described as ‘competitive markets,’ we now know they were literally texting each other and colluding to increase their profits during that same period.” 

Other presenters will feature research findings from “The Food System: Concentration and Its Impacts,” a report commissioned by Family Farm Action Alliance and written by leading food system experts Mary K. Hendrickson, Philip H. Howard, Emily M. Miller, and Douglas H. Constance. 

The report presents the latest data on the effects of monopolies in agribusiness and food production chains that affect “billions of consumers,” from farmers to workers and everyone else.

“We are striking while the iron is hot,” said Emily Miller, an author of both the “The Food System” report and a new Congressional toolkit on these issues, in a statement.“In 2017, polling showed that 65% of people saw corporate monopolies as a big problem, and in 2020 that number had grown to 87%. The time for Congress to address the corporate consolidation crisis is now.” 

Frerick also believes that now is the time to turn things around for agriculture. 

“Hopefully, by now we’ve hit rock bottom when it comes to corporations controlling our farm and food system,” he said. “This conference demonstrates that we don’t need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to research and thinking on these issues, we just need to highlight and elevate the new connections that can come from students, reporters, researchers.”

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To attend the conference on Saturday, January 16th, 2021, register here.