How Should Animal Advocates Think About Anti-Big Ag Political Coalitions?

Pooh-poohing the weakness of mainstream political parties toward Big Ag is rightly a hobby for animal advocates. The laxness (or supportiveness) of U.S. federal and state agencies toward Big Ag is strikingly out of step with the American publicAnimal advocates should be heartened this week by a piece in The Nation that argues that Democrats can seize the current anti-corporate fervor to challenge the Cargills and Smithfields of the world. The wrinkles of the piece, though, lay out some more complex strategic challenges than animal advocates may notice.

The article introduces us to Joe Maxwell, "a fourth-generation hog farmer and former lieutenant governor of Missouri" who led the fight against Oklahoma's "Right to Farm" bill, which ended in a rout of Big Ag. A "Right to Farm" bill is well worth fighting. So too are efforts to up the ante on USDA regulations and enforcement.

Then the piece gets to the biggest goal:
But the biggest demand from Family Farm Action is for the government to reinvigorate the antitrust laws that ensure open competition and prevent collusion. A major case involved the rigging of a key benchmark price grocery stores use to buy poultry, which cost consumers hundreds of millions of dollars. “If the legal definition of collusion doesn’t give the Department of Justice the ability to prosecute, then we need to change the laws,” Maxwell said. The organization also supports using the Sherman and Clayton Acts to break up concentrated agricultural markets.
The catch here should be evident to many: anti-competitive practices, collusion, and price gouging may generally sound like bad things, but one key effect of them is to decrease the amount of a "product" being produced: that is, they should lead to fewer animals being raised. For consumers, small farmers, and potentially environmentalists, anti-competitive practices are indeed bad, but for animal advocates it may be a good thing that agriculture is so monopolized.

That does not necessarily mean that animal advocates should hop off this political bandwagon. It may be worth trading this issue for others. Even on this demand, though, there are more wrinkles than the number of animals raised. Monopoly power gives the industry extra money with which to lobby politicians, push anti-animal policies (even laws penalizing animal advocates), and get away with more egregious abuses. That said, it's not clear how much government policies actually do prop up industry. The Open Philanthropy Project's Lewis Bollard looked into a few of these policies and found that they did not make as much of a difference as many of us think.

There may be a greater reason for a political coalition, though, that outweighs the concern about how such a coalition would affect the numbers of animals raised for food in the short term. An anti-Big Ag rural coalition may reshape the social landscape in ways that down the road may lead to greater change. Connecting animal advocates with greater resources and voters could pave the way for bigger battles ahead. Public mobilization around Big Ag may be far more critical to the future of nonhuman animals than the policies of today. If political coalitions can pave the way for public mobilization, they may be worth doing despite problems like those above.


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