Julia Brown, Contributing Photographer
Nearly 800 students, professors, policy experts and farmers gathered over Zoom on Jan. 16 to attend Yale’s first conference to explore the growing influence and power of large companies in the agricultural industry.
The conference, titled “Big Ag & Antitrust: Competition Policy for a Sustainable and Humane Food System,” explored the role of antitrust and competition law and policy in shaping American agriculture. Throughout the day, researchers presented 18 papers focused on big agriculture and various antitrust solutions that aim to make the industry more sustainable and competitive. The conference was co-hosted by the Yale School of Management’s Thurman Arnold Project at Yale, or TAP@Yale, and the Yale Law School’s Law, Ethics & Animals Program, or LEAP.
“I think there’s been much attention recently on consolidation and its harms, with regard to Big Tech, but these issues are also very severe and very urgent in agriculture, and that is an area that has received much less attention,” executive director of LEAP Viveca Morris ’15 SOM ’18 said. “The goal of the conference is to bring together academics, farmers, policy makers, ranching groups [and others] to take a deeper look at how we got here, and to discuss new solutions and ideas for how we can make the food system more fair.”
Deputy director of TAP@Yale Austin Frerick told the News that Big Agriculture is “just as bad, if not worse” than Big Tech.
Frerick said the country’s four largest beef producers, pork producers, soybean processors and wet corn processors control over 70 percent of their respective markets. Likewise, he added, four companies control 90 percent of the global grain trade.
“When you have such extreme consolidated economic power, it translates into consolidated political power,” Morris said. “The meat industry and other agro-chemical and other industries have wielded [their political power] to really tilt the playing field in their favor, in terms of both public subsidies and pushing the true costs of their production onto the public.”
According to Frerick, major agricultural companies use their political power to prevent the publication of industry statistics, making it extremely difficult to determine each company’s market share. Morris said the companies also use their political power to prevent meaningful reform efforts that affect animals and agricultural workers.
A common argument supporting monopolization in agriculture is that consolidating the industry into a few large companies will reduce product prices. But Frerick said this is not necessarily true.
“Bacon was cheaper under President Truman than it was under President Obama,” he said.
Business investigative journalist Christopher Leonard delivered the conference’s keynote address. Leonard published a book in 2014 called “The Meat Racket” that explored concentration in the corporate meat industry.
Leonard said that the consolidation of Big Agriculture has intensified since 2014 and has made his book “out of date” because that consolidation within the agricultural industry is now much more severe than what he depicted in the book.
“The issue of concentration in agriculture is really only important to people who eat,” Leonard said in his keynote address. “The reality is that there is a moment of energy, attention and momentum around antitrust reform that we have not seen in America since the late 1930s.”
According to Frerick, the agriculture industry had resembled a monopoly at the turn of the twentieth century. He explained that the government confronted the power of Big Agriculture –– pointing to President Theodore Roosevelt’s actions against the meat trust –– which made the industry more competitive and fair.
Even so, Frerick added the agricultural industry has become “more powerful than ever,” given the minimal enforcement of existing laws and recent deregulation efforts.
“If we really want to improve animal welfare, workers rights and all that, we have to look at the power, who has it and how we allocate it,” Frerick said. “You don’t change the food system with your fork, you change it by challenging power.”
Agriculture, food and related industries made up 5.2 percent of the United States GDP in 2019.
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