The US farming landscape has changed dramatically over the last century with the rise of corporate industrial farming. Supported by technological advances and government subsidies, the corporate farming sector causes widespread damage to the environment, perpetuates animal abuse, and harms both farmers and consumers. A shift toward more sustainable food production methods is critical to maintaining the stability and integrity of foodscapes nationwide.
WHAT IS CORPORATE FARMING?
At the core of corporate farming in the US food system is the idea that food is merely a commodity that can be controlled and monetized for economic gain rather than a public good that everyone has a basic human right to access. US corporate industrial farming consistently seeks to maximize profit with little or no consideration for agriculture’s impact on animals, the environment, and the people who produce and consume the nation’s food.
Corporate farming can also encompass corporations that do not actively manage farmland but are part of farming supply chains, including agrichemical companies, farming equipment companies, and information technology companies. In this article, corporate farming refers to large-scale industrial crop or animal production by corporate entities.
Farmers in the US can select from several legal structures to sell goods, pay taxes, and receive government subsidies. Depending on their needs, farmers may choose to form single proprietorships, partnerships, or corporations. Incorporating can offer certain benefits to farmers, including employee benefits programs, financial risk management, and the intergenerational transfer of assets. Compared to unincorporated farms, corporate farms tend to be much larger in terms of acreage, production volume, and investments in farm equipment.
In common parlance, corporate farming is linked to industrial agriculture and the increasing power of agribusiness in rural economies. Multinational firms, including meat producers, processed food brands, and seed and chemical companies, have come to dominate the US agricultural landscape through vertical and horizontal integration, contract farming, and acquiring smaller competitors. Corporate consolidation in the agricultural sector has built the wealth and power of agribusiness firms while disempowering farmers and rural communities.
Corporate farming entities in the US also wield significant political influence to secure favorable environmental and economic regulations for their industry. In what food system scholar and author Marion Nestle has termed “revolving door” politics, there is a significant crossover between government and industry that transfers knowledge and priorities. Regulators often leave jobs in government to work for agribusiness firms, and agribusiness executives advance into positions as government officials. This close relationship between firms and the US regulatory process enables agribusiness corporations to minimally comply with regulations while also limiting the likelihood of future regulations that will harm their profits. This regulatory capture allows agribusiness to pursue agricultural practices that degrade the environment, disrupt the social fabric of farming communities, and harm public health.
CORPORATE FARMS VERSUS FAMILY FARMS
Corporate farming is generally colloquially used to indicate the conceptual opposite of family farming, but this dichotomy is technically incorrect. While corporate farming models are characteristic of the largest and most industrialized farms in the US, many corporate farming operations (even large, industrial farms) are family-run. According to the 2017 census of agriculture taken by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, nearly 96% of US farms are family-run, including those considered “large” and “very large.” These larger family farms total nearly 200,000 farms and account for over 63% of the value of all products sold.
HOW DOES CORPORATE FARMING WORK?
In the 1970s, US agriculture secretary Earl Butz touted the now-infamous mantra “get big or get out”, viewing large-scale corporate farming as the future for the American food system. But bigger is not always better, nor is it necessarily a more efficient way to produce food from limited natural resources. In search of food security, Butz’s policies left legacies of environmental damage, impoverishment, and inequality that persist in rural America to this day.
Corporate farms growing field crops tend to use industrial practices that give them the ability to outproduce smaller farms or those practicing sustainable or organic techniques. For example, the large-scale monocrops common in corporate farming would be impossible without the use of synthetic agrichemicals, including fertilizers that supplement depleted soils, herbicides that suppress weeds, and pesticides that allow large areas of land to be planted with the same species without being decimated by insect pests.
For corporate farms raising animals, industrial practices and enormous herd sizes are the basis of the nation’s conventional meat supply chain. Far removed from the archetype of a backyard farm where animals roam freely, feeding 10,000 confined dairy cows or 125,000 indoor broiler chickens requires vast quantities of feed. This feed is usually composed largely of industrially farmed grain and oilseeds, which, in turn, drives industrial corporate farming in field agriculture. Antibiotic drugs allow animals to be confined within small, indoor spaces that would normally cause rampant disease. Biotechnological advances in animal nutrition, breeding, and supplemental hormones have allowed animals to gain vastly more weight in a shorter time. Meanwhile, technological innovations such as automated milking machines and mechanized slaughterhouse lines have enabled large industrial dairies and abattoirs to process tens of thousands of animals per day.
Industrial methods have allowed farms to produce higher yields in both field agriculture and animal farming while expending fewer resources on associated expenses such as crop maintenance, animal living space, and farmworkers’ salaries. Between monocrops and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), corporate industrial farms have benefitted from much higher economies of scale, squeezing out smaller competitors. In the 1990s, smaller independent farms produced nearly half of the total agricultural output in the US, a figure that has dwindled to less than a quarter today.
INCREASING CORPORATE CONCENTRATION
Corporate control of US food production has expanded through vertical integration and corporate consolidation. Together, these forces have reshaped the US farming landscape since the mid-twentieth century.
Vertically integrated food companies own or control every step of their supply chain, allowing them to set commodity prices independent of supply and demand. Prominent corporate players may also horizontally integrate their businesses by owning or controlling many entities at one level of a supply chain, to the same effect. Government commodity crop and meat production subsidies intensify the decoupling of market forces from prices. The result is prices that are sometimes even lower than the costs of production, a perverse price point that drives smaller independent farms out of business. Corporate farms can often recoup losses through government stock buybacks, making this upside production model profitable at large scales.
Farmers who are priced out of business often sell or lease their land to larger corporate farms, allowing corporate giants to grow larger. In addition, corporate food and agriculture companies, along with the seed and chemical giants who enable their operation, often merge or acquire one another to capture more market share and increase efficiencies of scale.
This consolidation carries devastating effects on farming communities, as well as on animals and food chain workers. Where smaller independent farms had previously purchased seeds, animal feed, and equipment from other local businesses, corporate farms under agribusiness ownership often source from far-flung industrial suppliers who can offer the lowest prices and highest volume. As local businesses such as veterinarians and small-scale seed suppliers lose clients, money ceases to circulate in local economies, driving non-agricultural businesses like restaurants, doctors’ offices, and movie theaters out of business as well. Corporate farming continually captures capital that once circulated within more economically diverse farming communities, redirecting profits into the hands of fewer, more powerful, and more distant interests.
Fiduciary duty and government subsidies have intensified corporate consolidation. Large farming corporations have a fiduciary duty to produce shareholder profits every quarter. These financial incentives drive farming decisions based on short-term gain, potentially at the expense of experimenting with more sustainable models that would strengthen food systems and safeguard long-term farm productivity. Government subsidies also prop up corporate farms, encouraging still greater consolidation. Acreage-based farm subsidies present a windfall for the largest farms, incentivizing farms to consolidate.
NEGATIVE OUTCOMES OF CORPORATE FARMING
Industrial corporate farming over the last half-century has left a combination of complex—and often starkly negative—impacts on farming communities and the US food supply, emphasizing the need for a just and sustainable food system transformation.
Where family farmers in the US once relied on robust, thriving, and close-knit communities, an increasingly simplified and impoverished rural fabric now surrounds agricultural producers. Many family farms that have worked their land for generations are being forced out of farming by perverse economics driven in part by ongoing patterns of corporate consolidation. Analysis by the USDA Economic Research Service has predicted that median US farm income for 2021 will dip into negative numbers, meaning that many farmers will lose money on their year’s work.
Farmers who have found ways to maintain their holdings have had to make drastic changes to their practices. Small farmers who once grew a variety of crops and raised small herds of animals have needed to pivot to grow feed crops for CAFOs. Contract farming for meat integrators has saddled many poultry farmers with unmanageable debt as they invest in the required CAFO equipment stipulated by their contracts, only to find themselves selling eggs and broiler chickens at artificially low prices.
In addition to failing small family farmers, the USDA has perpetuated decades of racist discrimination towards Black and Indigenous farmers by denying loans that white farmers readily received. These lending practices are one aspect of the wider governmental support for agriculture that goes disproportionately to corporate farming and disadvantages BIPOC[i] farmers.
For farmworkers, corporate farming causes additional harm. Jobs in CAFOs and meat-packing facilities are low-paying and highly dangerous, attracting a workforce comprised largely of recent immigrants, undocumented workers, and BIPOC who face systemic discrimination that often leaves them with few alternative employment options.
The monocrops and CAFOs of corporate farming are very damaging to the environment. Applying vast amounts of agrichemicals to monocrops can reduce soil fertility, promote soil erosion, and pollute local waterways, sometimes resulting in dead zones, which can cause widespread death for marine creatures.
Corporate industrial animal farming pollutes land, water, and air. CAFOs also play an outsized role in climate change. The top five meat and dairy corporations emit more carbon dioxide than fossil fuel companies while contributing to deforestation in critical habitats like the Amazon rainforest.
The confined conditions of corporate industrial agriculture cause untold suffering among the farmed chickens, cows, pigs, sheep, and fish of the US food system. Animals are grown, traded, and slaughtered as food production commodities, their rights disregarded by the industrial meat industry. Systemic welfare violations at CAFOs are commonplace, and effective regulations and enforcement for animal protection are nearly nonexistent.
The commodity crops that dominate industrial corporate farming, such as wheat, corn, and soy, make their way into the food system as ingredients in highly processed foods that harm human health. These foods are tied to obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.
Animal products from industrial CAFOs, which include virtually all animal products consumed in the US, carry additional human health risks. The overuse of antibiotic drugs on farmed animals contributes to the evolution of resistant bacteria, a risk so serious that the World Health Organization has declared that humanity’s health future may depend on the agricultural sector’s willingness to stop using routine growth-promoting antibiotics. Animal products can also become contaminated with dangerous bacteria such as Salmonella or drugs conventionally used to promote animal growth.
Transforming the Farming Sector
Corporate farming increasingly dominates the US food system, but calls are mounting for transformative solutions. Organic and sustainable farming practices can foster improved human and environmental health, but a just transition for agriculture is also necessary to support farmers who wish to transition away from commodity crops and industrial meat production. Supportive policy and inter-agency cooperation are crucial to transforming the farming sector in ways that benefit both producers and consumers without primarily serving the interests of agribusiness corporations. With a realignment of public subsidies and strong support for environmentally sound farming practices, the US food system can achieve a just, healthy, compassionate, and sustainable future.
[i] Stray Dog Institute uses the term BIPOC to recognize the lived histories of oppression and resistance experienced by Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. This term is not universally embraced, particularly because it can erase the experiences of individual groups by lumping them together. Additionally, the language of this term reflects the specific historical social context of the United States and may not accurately reflect current or past racial and ethnic descriptions elsewhere. We recognize these drawbacks and use the term BIPOC only when a statement is truly applicable to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Middle Eastern, North African, East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander communities in the US. When an experience or condition is applicable only to a specific group, we use specific rather than general language.
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