Booker introduces bill that would reshape livestock farming

Sen. Cory Booker, who’s seeking the Democratic nomination for president, today introduced new legislation that would reshape how livestock farming operates in the U.S. The Farm System Reform Act includes some changes that Booker and other legislators have proposed in the past, like a moratorium on new concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Other elements of the bill are new, like a plan to phase out large CAFOs in the next 20 years.

The bill was written in response to concerns heard by Booker and his staff from farmers and ranchers across the country, according to a senior Booker aide. As consolidation has reshaped the food system, and especially livestock production, producers say they are at a disadvantage in their dealings with massive meatpackers and they want a more level playing field.

Booker’s bill would attempt to address those concerns by making meatpackers legally and financially responsible for the environmental and quality-of-life problems of large-scale livestock production. And it would alter some mechanics of how livestock are raised and sold to strengthen producers’ hand in the marketplace.

“Our independent family farmers and ranchers are continuing to be squeezed by large, multinational corporations that, because of their buying power and size, run roughshod over the marketplace,” Booker said in a press release. “We need to fix the broken system — that means protecting family farmers and ranchers and holding corporate integrators responsible for the harm they are causing. Large factory farms are harmful to rural communities, public health, and the environment and we must immediately begin to transition to a more sustainable and humane system.”

Those large factory farms would cease to exist under Booker’s bill. In addition to a moratorium on new or expanded large CAFOs, the bill would require the phase out of all large CAFOs by 2040 and subject any noncompliant entity to a $10,000 penalty “per violation, per day.” Large CAFOs are defined in the bill as those with at least 1,000 cattle, 2,500 hogs, or 82,000 laying hens.

To assist farmers in making the transition away from large animal confinement, the bill would allocate $100 billion over 10 years to buy out farmers who wish to cease operating a large CAFO. The money could be used to pay off debt or fund a transition to other production systems, like pasture-based livestock farming or organic commodity production.

The bill would also change the Packers and Stockyards Act to address ranchers’ concerns about how much power meatpackers have over livestock markets. It would eliminate the tournament system, in which meatpackers or poultry processing companies rank producers in a payment structure wherein a raise in one farmer’s pay comes at the expense of another’s. It would also require that forward contracts, a common way that meatpackers buy animals from ranchers, are competitively bid.

The legislation deals with a major concern of communities living near large CAFOs: the pollution and waste that the animal operations produce. In some states, neighbors of such farm operations are restricted in whether and how they can hold CAFOs legally accountable for reduced quality of life, decline in property value, and other negative outcomes stemming from mismanagement of manure and other waste. Booker’s bill makes meatpackers legally accountable to these outcomes and allows anyone to bring a civil suit against a packer to address issues of waste, pollution, and adverse health effects.

“Small policy changes are not enough to reverse years of factory farm policy,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Action, in a statement. “As agribusinesses grow even more powerful, our communities, our climate, and our planet is facing disaster. It is time for a bold and sweeping solution like Senator Booker’s bill.” Food & Water Action is one of the bill’s endorsing organizations.

The bill would also reinstate country of origin labeling for beef and pork and additionally require it for dairy products.

Booker has introduced legislation in the past that would tackle food system issues. His 2018 and 2019 bill, the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act, which was also introduced in the House by Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, would have implemented an 18-month moratorium on food system mergers and acquisitions. In 2019, he co-sponsored the Opportunities for Fairness in Farming Act, which would reform checkoff programs. Neither piece of legislation has advanced in either the House or Senate.

And agricultural issues remain a priority during Booker’s presidential campaign. His recently-released plan, “Building Wealth and Opportunity in Rural America,” includes the M&A moratorium, a CAFO moratorium, and several other farm and food policies.

The story has been updated to correct the number of laying hens in a large CAFO as defined by the bill.