Bernie Sanders on Agriculture

Bernie Sanders recognizes that small family farms play an important role in sustainable agriculture and providing access to healthy food. Agribusiness monopolies and large farm production facilities are getting billions in subsidies they do not need and do not deserve and are using that taxpayer money to drive down prices and squeeze out small farmers. We must end the subsidies, break up agribusinesses and large farms, and encourage sustainable agriculture that protects consumers and immigrant workers.

Family Farming: Family owned farms are having a hard time competing with large farms and agribusiness. Legislation and investments in small farms particularly in struggling communities will help prevent the closure of more family-owned farms and support the rural communities around them.

Agribusiness Monopolies: Large agricultural monopolies are bad for the environment, bad for rural American and bad for the safety of the food supply.  Further consolidation through mergers must be stopped. Existing conglomerations must be broken up.

Agricultural Labor:  The treatment, conditions and pay for farmworkers must be improved. Many farm workers are immigrants. Bernie supports immigration reform to ensure people who work and contribute to our economy don’t have to live in the shadows.

Affordable Nutrition: Bernie has supported Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits and a many other nutrition-impacting pieces of legislation.

GMOs: Bernie supports allowing states to require labels on foods containing “genetically modified organisms” (GMOs) based on the consumer’s right-to-know, but does not believe that GMOs are necessarily bad.

Family Farming

Small family farms operate 48 percent of U.S. farmland but account for only 22 percent of U.S. agricultural production.  Large farms and agribusiness are pushing out small farms which are crucial for the economies of rural communities. Without small farms as an anchor rural America has suffered from depopulation, closing of businesses, consolidation of schools, hopelessness and an expanding opioid crisis. 

How many family farms are there in the United States?

According to the USDA, almost 89 percent of the 2,204,792 farms in the US are family owned and operated. Large and very large family farms account for 63 percent of the value of crop production. Non-family farms account for 21 percent of production.  Based on annual farm sales (not the profit made):

  • Very large: 101,265 gross over $500,000 
  • Large: 86,551 gross between $250,000 and $500,000
  • Small: 1,925,799 gross under $250,000

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What is happening with small family farms?

Small family farms and ranches use 48 percent of U.S. farmland but account for only 24 percent of U.S. agricultural production. They don’t make a lot of money because their profit margins are low. Large farms continue to dominate. 

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The USDA estimates that 70 percent of U.S. farmland will change hands in the next 20 years. Farmers are getting older and without adequate planning for succession many small farms will likely disappear or be bought by larger farm operations. Local knowledge gleaned by small farmers over generations of farming practices is being lost. 

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Are small family farms better for the economy?

Family farming has a major impact on local economies, especially in rural areas. Farmers tend to buy feed and fuel from local sources, use community banks, and sell to local markets. The United Nations recognizes the importance of family farms and declared 2014 the National Year of Farming, crediting small farms with the ability to contribute to food security and reduce poverty.

Producing safe and affordable food for millions of Americans is now predominantly in the hands of large farms and agribusiness. The type of food production varies by farm size. Economies of scale give a competitive advantage to larger farms and so a lot of dairy, fruit, vegetables, and nursery crops are produced on very large farms. Field crops such as corn and soybeans are grown on smaller farms.Small farms need bank financing and usually raise livestock under contract with processors. 

Different crops are more valuable.  Large farms are able to scale up the operations and make smaller profits per acre but greater profit overall.  Small farmers particularly dairy farmers cannot compete.

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What about the environment?

Family farms are more resilient to climate change due to their greater genetic diversity, local knowledge, and likelihood of using livestock and crop breeds suited to the local environment. Their success is directly related to safe, sustainable practices and preserving land and water resources. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, for these farms “land, water, biodiversity, and soils are not only means of production, but a long-term investment that needs to be nurtured.” Moreover, family-farming practices are more efficient and adaptable to climate change.

OK, so what should I know? Is there a problem?

Many family farms are struggling economically and are being forced to close. For example, the demand for low in-store prices that don’t cover production costs have forced about 50 percent of Vermont’s dairy farms to close in only ten years. 

“The farmers who grow our food get only 15 cents of every dollar that a consumer spends on their product — less than half of what they got in 1980. Now more than ever, we need policies that address the needs of family farmers, not big agribusiness and multinational corporations.” – Bernie

Additional threats to small farms include the criminalization of seed sharing as a result of free trade agreements, limited access to viable land, impacts of climate change, and reduction of government support that often aims to assimilate small farms into bigger organizations. Large farms get large subsidies and this helps them offset the costs of production so they can drive down prices making it impossible for smaller farms to compete. 

How has Bernie helped farmers?

As a senator, Bernie has been active in keeping family farms in business, fighting for fair prices for goods and encouraging access to healthy, local food. He has fought particularly hard for Vermont’s dairy farms, supporting numerous bills for their aid including the Farm Bill of 2014 — an effort to stabilize these farms by helping them manage risk and produce more efficiently. He has encouraged schools to use local products in meal programs and advocated for farmers markets. Bernie also supports the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2011, a bill that would expand and improve opportunities for beginning farmers and ranchers as well as institute several responsible environmental provisions.

Agribusiness Monopolies

“When we are in the White House, we are going to finally make large profitable corporations pay their fair share of taxes, and we are going to break up agribusiness monopolies that are squeezing farmers and communities.”- Bernie Sanders

What’s the problem with agribusiness?

Bernie summed up the problem with big agribusiness by saying:

“Agriculture today is not working for the majority of Americans. It is not working economically for farmers, it is not working for rural communities, and it is not working for the environment. But it is working for big agribusiness corporations that are extracting our rural resources for profit.

For far too long, government farm policies have incentivized a “get big or get out” approach to agriculture. This approach has consolidated the entire food system, reducing farm net income, and driving farmers off the land in droves. As farms disappear, so do the businesses, jobs, and communities they support.”

Essentially, large agribusiness corporations are consolidating and getting so large that they can drive down their prices and squeeze out small farms.

As these farms get larger, they increase their political power, allowing them to influence politicians.

 

For example, the prices for corn seed have doubled and prices for chemicals used in farming have roughly tripled in the last 30 years. 

 

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Earlier mergers and now the Bayer-Monsanto merger will give these two conglomerates 78 percent of the U.S. corn seed market. This is a threat to the world wide food supply. 

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What is Bernie saying about this?

Bernie is calling for a moratorium on agribusiness mergers: “I think we’ve not only got to have that moratorium, but we have to go further… We have to start breaking them up.”

In a March 2019 editorial, Bernie explained how he’d stand in solidarity with farmers and take on big agribusiness corporations. Bernie laid out his plan in more detail in an April 2019 interview. He wants to break up agribusiness monopolies and make them pay their taxes.

That sounds extreme. Why a moratorium?

Monopolistic corporations dominate nearly every aspect of food production and are being propped up and encouraged by huge government subsidies that are funneled to these corporations.

AgriNews provides one example of how Walmart built their own large dairy processing plant in Indiana.

Walmart contracts the trucks and the milk while owning the bottling plant, allowing the company to control the entire process.

In another example of this vertical integration, Costco contracted with 100 to 125 Nebraska and Iowa farmers to build specialized barns that will grow, slaughter and distribute 200,000 chickens every seven or so weeks to reach the goal of 100 million chickens sold yearly in Costco stores. Ironically, Costco’s vast expansion is designed to “break free of the monopoly” on chicken production held by Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride.

By doing this, the companies save themselves money and can reduce prices for consumers.  But that isn’t what happens, the prices for food stay the same for consumers. What does happen is the profits increase for the agribusiness and a lot of farming industry jobs are eliminated. The prices and profits are set at the contract point with the original farmers. The businesses that are normally between the farmer and the final customer, from feed stores to truckers, and the packagers distributors and wholesalers are no longer necessary.  And for the customer this means there are no other options to buy the product it must come from the large agribusiness. Since smaller farmers cannot compete for the large contracts they have no market to sell their products that are in small quantity and are necessarily priced higher because of the high normal production costs. 

Conglomerates promise job growth and greater innovation if the mergers are approved, but that isn’t true, Bayer is cutting 12,000 jobs, about 10 percent of its global workforce.

Just a few large companies dominate access to seeds.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture found that fewer seed companies means less innovation. Also these companies sue small farmers and aggressively restrict the seeds use and exchange so seeds cannot be saved for the next years crop which means less choice and higher prices for farmers. 

Importantly, the seeds cannot be used to research plant genetics by public researchers, farmers, and independent breeders, which limits the diversity of seeds in the marketplace and weakens our food security.

The same practices being used by seed companies are being used across the agricultural industry as mergers lead to conglomerates that seek to control and dominate all food production.

What does Bernie plan to do about it?

Bernie has laid out a three point plan to Revitalize Rural America. This includes policies that level the playing field for small farms, farmers, and farm workers; policies that address climate change and protect important ecosystems; and policies that prioritize investment in rural communities.

Agricultural Labor

Farm employment accounts for 2.6 million U.S. jobs, around 1.3 percent of  U.S.employment. Farmworkers are an essential part of the economy, U.S. agriculture depends on them yet they are one of the most economically disadvantaged groups in the United States. Bernie believes that farm workers should receive consistent and fair pay for their work, and not be subject to hazardous or dangerous conditions and exploitation.  Hired farmworkers range from being U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, seasonal laborers on special guest worker visas, or undocumented workers.  

How many farmworkers are immigrants?

Of the approximately 22 million farmworkers in the U.S., nearly eight in ten are immigrants and approximately six in ten are undocumented.  Of the 11 million undocumented people in the U.S. 8 million work and they are 5% of the labor force.  The farm industry in the U.S: would not be able to function without immigrants they are over 53% of the hired labor on farms.

Where do most unauthorized workers live?

Unauthorized workers live throughout the country, but many undocumented workers are concentrated in south western states: California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona at around 9 percent in each state.

How poor are U.S. hired farmworkers?

Farmworkers play an essential role in U.S. agriculture. 83 percent of all farmworkers identify as Latino or Hispanic.

Here are some statistics from the Department of Labor survey of agricultural workers NAWS released in January 2019:

  • 33 percent of farm worker families live below the poverty line
  • 44 percent used Medicaid
  • 47 percent have health insurance
  • 12 percent saw a dentist in the last two years
  • 28 percent lived in a home owned by themselves or a family member 
  • 33 percent lived in “crowded” dwellings (more than 1 person/room)
  • average level of formal education completed was eighth grade. 
  • 4 percent reported that they had no formal schooling 
  • 37 percent reported that they completed the sixth grade or lower
  • 71 percent reported speaking very little of no English

Fair enough. Are agricultural workers really subject to terrible conditions?

Yes. Some progress has been made since the Harvest of Shame documentary shocked the public conscience in 1960, but not enough.  In addition to earning low wages, farm workers have no job security, no labor law protections, no overtime pay, no sick leave or maternity leave.

The non-profit, Farmworker Justice, describes some abuses agricultural laborers are subjected to:

In 2007, tomato farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida were found working in inhumane working conditions described as agricultural slavery, including being locked in a van at night and suffering repeated beatings. These laborers were being paid $0.45 for every thirty-two pounds of tomatoes they could harvest.

Following revelations about the slavery conditions in Florida, Bernie visited Immokalee to learn from the farm workers their experience first-hand. Bernie described his visit and expressed his deep concern in an aptly named editorial Harvest of Shame:

“In an era of globalization, the American people are becoming more and more concerned not only about the quality of goods they consume, but about the conditions facing those who produce those goods. In my view, the American consumer does not want the tomatoes they eat to be picked by workers who are grossly mistreated, underpaid, and in some case even kept in chains. This must not happen in the United States of America in 2008.”

In a Senate hearing that year, Bernie lamented that what he saw in Immokalee was the “bottom in the race to the bottom” of poverty. Here’s a video of a press conference he gave immediately after his visit to Immokalee:

What has Bernie done to support agricultural workers?

Bernie supported wage increases for Immokalee laborers by pressuring the Tomato Growers Exchange and the brands they work with — such as Yum! Brands, McDonald’s and Burger King — to increase their wages. In large part due to Bernie’s intervention, Burger King agreed to double its employees’ wages. In 2010, Bernie celebrated the passage of a “historic agreement” that increased pay for farmworkers in Florida’s tomato industry.

More recently, Bernie is a cosponsor of the Fairness for Farmworkers Act of 2018, which would provide increased labor law protections for farmworkers.

So many farmworkers are immigrants and a lot of them are undocumented. What will Bernie do to reform our immigration system?

Bernie wants to create a path to citizenship and greater access to opportunity for farmworkers and the rest of the 11 million undocumented people in America, while protecting our borders and reforming our visa system. 

Learn all the details at the Immigration issue page.

Affordable Nutrition

According to the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness and Nutrition, the typical American diet is not a healthy one.  Most people eat more sugar, fats, and refined grains than recommended. Even worse, most Americans do not eat enough vegetables, fruits, whole-grains,and dairy products. The lack of affordable, nutritious foods makes low-income Americans more vulnerable to poor health and obesity.

Of 35 developed nations, the World Health Organization currently ranks the U.S. 26th in life expectancy, and 29th in preventing infant mortality meanwhile, Americans spend more on health care than citizens in any other developed country. Rates of obesity rates have steadily increased since 1985.

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What are we doing wrong?

There are several reasons that nutrition falls short in the U.S. Wealthier, whiter communities typically have better access to grocery stores than low income communities, communities of color, or rural areas. The average American household expenditure on food is 12.9 percent and many people are struggling to afford good food.

The outlook for child nutrition is also poor due to America’s rising obesity rates and concerns that school nutrition programs are feeding students processed convenience foods, sodas and candy, and fast food like french fries.

What is SNAP? How does it work?

Nutritional assistance programs such as SNAP formerly known as Food Stamps is short for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are essential to ensure that the most vulnerable Americans get enough to eat. 

Who is getting Food stamps?

More Americans now depend on SNAP benefits than ever before.

In 2017, 45.4 million households received SNAP benefits. Eighty-eight percent of these households included a child, an elderly person, or someone with a disability. According to demographic data, 39.8% of SNAP participants are white, 25.5% are African-American, 10.9% are Hispanic, 2.4% are Asian, and 1% are Native American.

In other words, these are your neighbors.

An annual 2014 USDA report found that about four in ten SNAP recipients live in a household in which at least one person had earned income. A household’s gross monthly income generally must be at or below 130 percent of the poverty line, or $2,213 (about $26,600 a year) for a three-person family in the 2017.

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But don’t people on food stamps just buy junk food and cigarettes?

SNAP beneficiaries can only be used to buy household foods and seeds for gardening. Meaning, food stamps cannot be used to buy: alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco, non-food items, supplements, medicines, hot foods, and restaurant or fast-food meals. 

SNAP benefits can only be used by the beneficiary, they are non-transferable and cannot be traded or sold. Sure, there will always be people who try to game the system such as this example, but that shouldn’t discount the people who truly need help.

The documentary Food Stamped shows that eating a healthy and balanced diet on a Food Stamp budget is not easy. 

But if people can just get food stamps, what’s their incentive to work?

The SNAP benefit formula contains an important work incentive. For every additional dollar a SNAP recipient earns, the benefits decline by only 24–36 cents. Families receiving SNAP benefits have a strong incentive to work longer hours or to search for better-paying employment. Furthermore, states create work incentives through the SNAP Employment and Training program, which funds training and work activities for unemployed adults who receive SNAP.

What does Bernie have to say about it?

Bernie has spoken out against reducing the availability of food stamps: “At a time when the richest people in this country are becoming richer and the middle class is disappearing, it is beyond shameful to cut food programs and nutrition programs.”

And in an online interview Bernie addressed the fact that in America today there are “about 46 and a half million people in this country living in poverty. Many people have experienced lower wages. People are working 40/50 hours a week. They’re living in poverty… 22 percent of our children are living in poverty”

So what has Bernie done about it?

Bernie believes that individuals who truly need assistance should not be denied access to SNAP. In 2012, he voted against limiting eligibility and bonuses for SNAP in the Senate Amendments 2172 and 2165.

Bernie has also spoken out against the reduction of food stamps, saying, “at a time when the richest people in this country are becoming richer and the middle class is disappearing, it is beyond shameful to cut food programs and nutrition programs.”

Watch Bernie talk about how important he believes these programs are in the context of Republicans calling for billions of dollars’ worth of cuts to such programs in this March 2014 interview:

If we are already funding SNAP, why do we need WIC?

WIC is short for a food assistance program called Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). The WIC program is specifically designed to help pregnant women, infants and children under 5 who need nutritional aid. Participation in the program leads to healthier infants, more nutritious diets, and better health care for children

What has Bernie said about WIC?

Bernie has a long history of supporting the needs of women, infants and children. In 1993, he cosponsored the bill 1993-H1722 to fully fund the WIC program. He wants to expand the WIC program to ensure pregnant mothers, infants, and children have access to the nutritional food they need. 

The Wise Investment in our Children Act of 2015 (WIC Act) was passed in order to expand the benefits of the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 to a greater number of women, infants, and children.

What other food assistance programs are there and where does Bernie stand?

There are food programs available for children who need food assistance: the school lunch program, the school breakfast program, the special milk program, and the summer food service program.

Bernie stated that:

“In recent years, we have seen a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires in the country, yet over 50 percent of the children in our public schools are so low-income that they are eligible for the free or reduced price school lunch program.”

He also cosponsored the 2009-SR67 bill which encouraged funding for low-income kids to receive breakfast at school. Bernie believes that, “When we talk about the future of America, we cannot be talking about turning our backs on the children of this country.”

Bernie supported the Military Family Nutrition Protection Act to amend the National School Lunch Act and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966 so that combat pay wouldn’t count as income when determining eligibility for child nutrition programs and WIC.

He supported the Local Farms, Food, and Jobs Act of 2013, which improves the nutrition of future generations by providing grants to schools to support local produce, increasing education about nutrition and agriculture, improving low-income health programs, and encouraging research-based agricultural practice.

Bernie invested in future nutrition and family farms through his support of the Growing Safe Food Act of 2009, which focuses on educating farmers about safe, sustainable, and efficient farming practices.

He also supports the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, which would improve access to healthy foods in underserved areas and revitalize low-income communities by providing loans and grants to food retailers to open businesses in underserved, urban, suburban, and rural areas.

You can learn more about Bernie’s support for these and related programs at the Public Assistance issue page.

GMOs

GMOs are a source of controversy. While Bernie does not believe that GMOs are inherently harmful, he supports the rights of consumers to have access to information about the food they purchase.

There are ongoing concerns about whether GMOs are good for the environment and the risk that pests will develop resistance to the genetic manipulation of the plants.

Recently, many states considered the issue of labeling food. Anti-labeling groups spent $100 million in 2015 to lobby against food labeling. Vermont was the first state to pass a mandatory labeling law. Below is a map of states that tried to pass legislation to label food.

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After these efforts the agriculture industry introduced an anti-GMO labeling bill dubbed the “Deny Americans the Right-to-Know” Act (DARK Act). It was defeated.  A compromise bill was passed and beginning in 2020 there will be some labeling. The USDA has outlined the first-ever rule for GMO labeling.

People have the right to know what’s in their food.

While Bernie does not oppose GMOs, he proposed a farm bill amendment supporting the labeling of GMO products. He feels that people have the right to know what is in their food so that they can make an informed decision on whether or not they want to consume it. Because the FDA already requires the labeling of over 3,000 ingredients, additives, and processes in our food, it makes sense that people should know if it contains GMOs.

So what exactly are “genetically modified organisms”?

GMOs are basically just plants that have been altered by scientists. Technically, they are “organisms (i.e. plants, animals or microorganisms) in which the genetic material (DNA) has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally by mating and/or natural recombination.” Scientists can engineer a plant to, say, resist herbicides or even specific weather conditions.

What’s wrong with that?

It depends who you ask. Proponents of GMOs (which includes the large majority of scientists) argue that scientific achievement should not be banned.

Opponents argue that there are potential negative health and environmental impacts. It is important to note that criticisms of GMO’s rarely have scientific backing. This paragraph in a Scientific American article paints a clear picture of the situation:

“Critics often disparage U.S. research on the safety of genetically modified foods, which is often funded or even conducted by GM companies, such as Monsanto. But much research on the subject comes from the European Commission, the administrative body of the E.U., which cannot be so easily dismissed as an industry tool. The European Commission has funded 130 research projects, carried out by more than 500 independent teams, on the safety of GM crops. None of those studies found any special risks from GM crops.”

Other criticisms revolve around economics rather than health and safety. These critics worry that there’s a risk this technology will be used to sue farmers for seed-patent infringements. Furthermore, many argue that Monsanto’s practices undermine the freedom of small family farmers to manage their crops:

“They are using intellectual property rights, especially patents, to separate farmers from a fundamental means of production,” said University of Wisconsin Professor Jack Kloppenberg. “Control of the seed is, in many ways, control over the entire food supply.”

Wait. Should I be concerned about Monsanto?

Bernie has gone on record to point out that Monsanto has threatened to sue Vermont for passing a bill that would require their food to be labeled. This led to the bill being overturned. Bernie has also complained that Monsanto, like other large multinational corporations, wields too much influence over Congress. Indeed, records show that Monsanto spends several million dollars on lobbying every year, peaking at almost $9 million in 2008 alone.

What about GMOs?

Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. As noted above, the scientific consensus is that GMOs are safe to eat. That said, many countries have either banned GMOs or require labeling. And polls consistently show that a large majority of Americans support labeling.

On the other hand, National Geographic published a magazine cover in 2014 which depicted the anti-GMO movement as part of a larger “war on science” in America, alongside climate change denial and vaccination-autism links.

Learn about Bernie’s stances on related topics at the Science & Tech issue page.

So, most people support labeling. Science says that GMOs are safe. Why not just label?

It’s the choice of each individual to decide what they put in their bodies. Bernie feels that since GMOs are claimed to be healthy and safe by the largest producers of GMOs, then there should be no problems advertising it. Many proponents of GMOs oppose labeling because they feel that doing so would spread the misconception that GMOs are not safe. Monsanto argues that labeling its food would scare consumers. On the other hand, many pro-science GMO supporters argue that labeling makes sense as it shuts down the argument from anti-GMO advocates that there is something to hide.

What is Bernie saying about these issues?

Bernie has supported GMO labeling in his home state of Vermont. And in 2014, he stated that he would work towards national legislation.

What legislation has Bernie supported in reference to GMOs?

In June of 2012, Bernie proposed the Sanders/Boxer Amendment to the Agriculture Reform, Food, and Jobs Act of 2012, which would give states the right to require labels on food products that are genetically engineered. This bill was overturned by the Senate.

Bernie proposed an amendment to a farm bill in May 2013 that would allow states to mandate labeling on any food or drink with ingredients that have been genetically modified. The bill was once again defeated in Congress despite the fact that the citizens of states like Vermont, Washington, and California want the right to know what is in their food.