The Department of Justice has released its findings on competition and agriculture stemming from the joint workshops held by it and the USDA in 2010. The report states that “antitrust enforcement has a crucial role to play in fostering a healthy and competitive agriculture sector.”
The Department of Justice and USDA workshops were held in five locations across the country and focused on specific agricultural sectors: row crops and hog farming (Iowa), poultry (Alabama), dairy (Wisconsin), livestock (Colorado) and supply chain (Washington, D.C.). The Department of Justice estimates that 1,700 people attended the livestock meeting in Fort Collins in August 2010, a meeting Rocky Mountain Farmers Union President Kent Peppler said “may be the most important meeting for livestock producers in a hundred years.”
RMFU sponsored meetings across Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming in the summer of 2010 to prep farmers and ranchers for the Fort Collins meeting,
Independent cattle ranchers testified in Fort Collins about the tactics used by the meat industry to control beef markets and prices.
“Lack of competitive markets has ruined chicken farmers and pork producers financially,” Peppler said. “We need to protect the cattle rancher from the same fate. It’s not in the consumer’s best interests to let four companies control all the protein marketing in America, and that’s where we are headed. It’s time for a ranchers’ bill of rights.”
Two years after that historic meeting, the 24-page report from the Department of Justice summarizes the discussion at all five workshops, quoting participants with a diversity of views. The report also reviews antitrust enforcement actions that have taken place in recent years to address the continued consolidation of agriculture, notably the successful challenge to market-killing mergers of dairy interests in Wisconsin and of poultry operations in Virginia and its challenge to a proposed takeover of National Beef by JBS. All three cases are cited as examples of textbook antitrust litigation.
The report also points out that many of the challenges family farmers and ranchers face in competition with “Big Ag” are not antitrust issues and must be addressed by other agencies and divisions or by new legislation designed to sustain small-farm operations against the sheer size of industrial agriculture.
“The antitrust laws focus on competition and the competitive process, and do not serve directly other policy goals like fairness, safety, promotion of foreign trade, and environmental welfare,” the report states.
The report concluded with a statement of renewed commitment to enforcing antitrust laws as a result of the workshops. The Department of Justice has, according to the report, “redoubled its efforts to prevent anticompetitive agricultural mergers and conduct.” Whether those efforts will stem the consolidation of agricultural markets remains to be seen. At least they are beginning to understand the gravity of the problem, as then-Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney observed at the final workshop: “A healthy, competitive agricultural sector is vitally important to our nation’s economy as well as a matter of national security and public health.”
Mick McAllister is the director of communications for the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union.