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Five actions Biden should take to build a more humane food system

President-elect Joe Biden has the power to make American agriculture more humane. Biden can help bring an end to the most extreme and widespread animal suffering in human history, while at the same time improving the welfare of agricultural workers, farmers, rural communities and the health of our environment and planet.

Today a handful of giant meat conglomerates, many of which are foreign-owned, completely dominate our food system. These corporations wield their massive economic and political power to tilt the playing field to their extreme advantage at terrible cost to animals, farm workers, independent farmers, our environment and to the successful development of more humane and sustainable alternatives. 

For the past four years the Trump administration has empowered these giant agribusinesses to write the rules, gutted the environmental protections upon which human and animal lives depend, failed to enforce animal welfare and worker protections and greenlighted barbaric practices that past administrations disallowed for good reason. 

With the following five actions, Biden can start to reverse this course and set us firmly on the path to developing a more humane, sustainable and healthy food system:

One, shut the revolving door between the USDA and “Big Ag.” Former North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) is reportedly a frontrunner to lead the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). She would be a terrible choice. Heitkamp has a track record of prioritizing the interests of multinational corporations over independent farmers, rural communities and the living world. Instead of appointing yet another pro-big-agribusiness USDA secretary interested in maintaining the status quo, Biden should appoint regulators who have a history of working to transform the food system to be more humane, fair, resilient and sustainable and who have the courage to take on the big corporations that are colonizing rural America. Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), another of the USDA contenders mentioned in recent press, would be a better choice for both people and animals. 

Two, break up the modern meat trust. Reining in Big Agriculture’s monopoly and monopsony power will have cross-cutting benefits for people, animals, the environment, rural communities and the responsiveness of our democracy. Even without Congress, the Biden administration can do a lot to enforce and strengthen competition policy through executive orders and through actions of the USDA, Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission. To start, Biden should only appoint leaders of these agencies who are committed to investigating and reforming anti-competitive conduct in the meat industry. Biden should also create an interagency council by executive order to tackle meat industry competition and propose specific regulatory and enforcement actions for each agency. Earlier this year, a diverse coalition of advocacy groups published a list of actions that should be taken to restructure the animal protein industry to improve competitiveness, transparency and fairness. Biden should take these actions.

Three, treat factory farms like factories. Make them pay their externalized costs. This includes their role in polluting our air, water, and soil, exacerbating climate change, abusing animals, exploiting workers and contract farmers and sickening rural communities. Biden should issue an executive order directing the USDA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of the Interior and other agencies to catalog all the regulatory and enforcement exemptions currently bestowed on factory farms, and to develop a regulatory action plan to bring environmental, labor, animal welfare and climate accountability to this industry. Biden should also direct his climate action team to incorporate animal agriculture, which is responsible for around 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, into climate policy and regulation. To date, the EPA has failed to measure (let alone regulate) the air pollution of factory farms. Biden’s EPA should list greenhouse gas emissions from industrial animal agriculture as pollutants under the Clean Air Act, and develop a reliable emissions reporting system for industrial animal farms that yields comprehensive and transparent data. 

Four, shift federal financial and technical support toward more just and sustainable food production. The current system of agricultural research, technical advice, federal loans and loan guarantees is almost exclusively focused on expanding and maintaining the factory farm model of production, despite overwhelming national concern with its negative impacts. The Biden administration should redirect these resources toward incentivizing the development of alternative production systems, such as small-scale regenerative agriculture and plant-based meats. This could begin with issuing an executive order halting all further technical and financial support for the creation or expansion of large factory farms, pending regulatory reform. Biden should also appoint a food justice czar at the USDA to coordinate policy at the intersection of food, health, labor, climate, animal welfare and environmental justice, and make specific recommendations on how to use federal agency authority to promote sustainable and humane protein production systems. 

Five, act swiftly to stop slaughterhouses from sacrificing workers, public health and animal welfare. As the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare, the nation’s slaughterhouses are desperately in need of immediate regulatory reform to protect workers from illness and injury. The Biden administration should issue an emergency rule mandating enforceable standards for proper social distancing, PPE and other protections for slaughterhouse workers, and requiring slaughterhouses to publicly report data on their cases — something meatpackers and the Trump administration flatly refuse to do. Biden should immediately halt further authorizations to increase slaughterhouse line-speeds, which endanger workers, consumer safety and animal welfare. Biden should also direct the USDA secretary to issue an order designating poultry as a species regulated by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, putting an end to the six-decades-long exemption of poultry from even the most basic humane slaughter requirements.

Building a food system that treats people, animals and the planet with decency will benefit and strengthen our nation now and for generations to come. Taking these actions would be a powerful start.

Viveca Morris is the executive director of the Law, Ethics & Animals Program at Yale Law School. Jonathan Lovvorn is the program’s faculty co-director and co-director of Yale’s Climate, Animals, Food and Environmental Law and Policy Lab

Tags Agriculture and the environment Animal slaughter Animal welfare environmental protections EPA farm workers Heidi Heitkamp Joe Biden Marcia Fudge Rural communities Slaughterhouse sustainable agriculture

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