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Picture a farm, and you’ll probably imagine Old Macdonald and his cows, chickens, and pigs froliking in the sunlight on green, open pastures. The myth of the small, pastoral American farm lives on, despite the fact that large-scale intensive animal operations are currently necessary to feed America’s growing demand for animal products. It has been estimated that 99% of the animals involved in the production of meat, dairy, and eggs in the U.S. are raised in concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs. These are facilities that congregate animals, feed, manure, and production operations on a small land area. In order to achieve this sheer scale of production, large companies acquire smaller farmer’s land through the process of consolidation. In the United States, there are four meatpacker companies—Cargill, Tyson Foods INC, JBS SA, and National Beef Packing Co—that control between 55% and 85% of the market in the hog, cattle, and chicken sectors. Often referred to collectively as “Big Ag,” these companies have immense political influence and power over the United States government, including the actions of the current Biden administration.
The animal agriculture industry has generous support from both political parties, and its lobbyists have close personal relationships with members of Congress and officials of regulatory agencies such as the USDA and FDA. In 2015, a team of nutritionists on the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee found that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting. They also stated that animal consumption results in more greenhouse gas emissions, water, and energy use. However, due to extensive lobbying by the beef and dairy industries, the dietary guidelines published for 2020 to 2025 disregard this recommendation, urging Americans to increase their intake of lean meats, poultry and low-fat dairy milk products each day. Not only do these skewed guidelines have a powerful influence on consumer food choices, but they also dictate what meals are served for governmental programs such as military and school lunches. In May, President Biden announced that the White House will host a Conference on Hunger, Nutrition and Health in the fall of 2022. This is the first of its kind to happen in 50 years, and the Biden administration plans to discuss strategies to end hunger, improve nutrition and physical activity, and reduce diet-related disease in the American population. Though the outcome of this conference is still uncertain, the interests of big ag will be represented with the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association vowing to “share the science-based, data-driven research regarding the immense environmental and nutritional benefits from cattle and beef production” with the Biden Administration. There are numerous published studies on the negative impacts of raising cattle on the environment, including the release of methane emissions that drive climate change. However, the Environmental Working Group has urged the White House to keep the upcoming conference “focused on nutrition rather than sustainable diet choices,” despite scientific consensus on the link between nutrition, climate change, environmental degradation, and human health. In addition, numerous researchers conclude that addressing animal agriculture is a necessary step in improving food security and ending hunger. It takes 3–8 kilograms of grain to produce one kilogram of meat, displacing crops that could have otherwise been fed to humans, and globally, farmed animals consume five times as much food as all human beings.
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Proposition 12 is a ballot initiative passed in 2018 by California voters that sets space requirements for the confinement of egg-laying hens, veal calves, and breeding pigs. It also prohibits the sale of eggs, veal meat and pork meat from farm animals that do not abide by these space requirements into California commerce. Starting in 2022, egg-laying hens must live in cage-free housing systems. For pigs, it requires that gestation crates–confinement stalls made from metal bars that restrict the movement of sows–provide at least 24 square feet of floor space. Lastly, calves raised for veal must each receive at least 43 square feet of floor space in their cages. Prop 12 received about 63% of the vote, with 7.5 million Californians voting in favor of its passage into law. Despite the overwhelming amount of public support, the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and the American Farm Bureau Federation challenged Prop 12’s requirement that each pregnant pig have a minimum of 24 square feet of space — in contrast to the mere 14 square feet in a typical gestation crate used to confine pregnant pigs on factory farms. After Prop 12 survived a challenge in a federal appeals court, the NPPC petitioned the Supreme Court to take up their case. The Supreme Court has scheduled oral arguments for the case in October of 2022. The NPPC recently filed a legal brief with the Supreme Court with endorsement from the Department of Justice (DOJ). Because the DOJ operates under whichever administration is in power, this reveals that the Biden administration supports the NPPC’s opposition to Prop 12. The Biden Administration fears that Prop 12 will burden and hinder the growth of the 26 billion dollar pork industry, given that less than 1% of U.S. pork production currently meets Proposition 12 requirements. Furthermore, the Biden administration concludes that California cannot "regulate out-of-state commercial activity in service of a philosophical objection.” Essentially, his administration argues that California cannot justify prohibiting the sale of animal products that do not meet the minimum space requirements in the state.
Heavy government subsidies of the animal industry have historically driven prices of animal products low. The animal industry, however, costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year in the form of federal subsidies, which mostly benefit the largest operations, leaving small farms unable to compete. The subsidies encourage high yield and the sacrifice of animal and worker welfare. To counteract this, the Biden Administration announced its aims to promote “fair competition” between large and small meat producers by spending one billion dollars in American Rescue Plan Funds for expansion of independent processing capacity. This will increase the ability of small meat producers and farmers to slaughter the animals in their own facility and will speed up the production of animal products to meet consumer demand. The USDA is also making 200 million dollars available under the new Meat and Poultry Intermediary Lending Program to provide financing to independent meat and poultry production that will allow them to scale their industry. Yet many critics feel that the plan does not go far enough to tackle the power of the top meatpackers. Unless the small plants are operating at a cost that’s equivalent to or very near what the major processors are, they won’t be able to compete over the long run. There has also been pushback from cultured meat companies, who stress a recent shift in consumer demand for sustainable alternatives to conventional animal products. Rather than making it cheaper for consumers to purchase slaughtered meat, they argue that it is essential to instead aid the production of cell-based animal proteins through governmental investment and regulation.
In 2021, The Biden Administration announced the American Jobs Plan, which describes the actions necessary to build stronger infrastructure throughout the country. The plan has a large focus on mitigating the impacts of climate change, including how Biden is calling on Congress to invest 35 billion dollars in the full range of solutions needed to achieve technology breakthroughs and position America as the global leader in clean energy technology and clean energy jobs. While Biden mentions the need to “eliminate tax preferences for the fossil fuel industry” and addresses the need to invest in clean energy infrastructure, there are zero mentions of the words “animal agriculture” or “meat” throughout the entire plan. Given that animal agriculture contributes 14.5 percent of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, and cattle alone emit 20 percent of anthropogenic methane emissions in the U.S., addressing animal agriculture should be an essential part of any plan to combat climate change. However, the biggest meat and dairy companies have spent millions campaigning against climate action and sowing doubt about the links between animal agriculture and climate change. Very little agricultural research is done outside of industry-influenced universities or by independent researchers. To reform our food system, researchers have suggested repurposing up to half of agricultural subsidies to support the production of foods with beneficial health and environmental characteristics, including fruits, vegetables, and other horticultural products. In addition, while the Clean Air Act gives the Environmental Protection Agency authority to limit greenhouse gas emissions, loopholes and exemptions exist in the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and other environmental regulations. These must be eliminated if we wish to progress forward with climate action. It is ultimately essential to address the environmental harms of Big Ag and the exceptionalism that allows the largest meat packer companies to continue with business as usual.