April 29, 2020
SUBMITTED VIA EMAIL [email protected]
Secretary Sonny Perdue
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20250
Dear Secretary Perdue,
I’m writing on behalf of Farm Sanctuary and our 1.2 million members and constituents to encourage you to direct funding allocated by Congress in the coronavirus stimulus package to support diverse agricultural enterprises that provide nutritious food and good jobs, instead of following the advice of agribusiness trade groups with a long history of exploiting government programs to enable irresponsible practices.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed systemic weaknesses and supply chain risks that undermine food security and our nation’s health.¹ Instead of using stimulus dollars to maintain the status quo, we should learn from mistakes and make necessary structural adjustments. Federal programs can play an important role in reforming our dysfunctional food system to make it more just, sustainable, and resilient. This would lessen the risk of future pandemics like COVID-19, which has led the industry to depopulate and dispose of millions of animals as the public looks on in horror. And, it would prevent orders like the one issued by the president yesterday to force slaughterhouse to open, and expose workers to unacceptable health risks.
Industrial animal agriculture receives billions of dollars of government largesse every year, even as it destroys agricultural communities.² It has consistently consolidated farmland and assets to the detriment of family farms and rural areas, while squandering and polluting water and other precious resources. It exploits workers and subjects them to dangerous conditions as evidenced by the high incidence of COVID-19 infections in slaughterhouses.³ It is vulnerable and unsustainable, facing chronic labor shortages, despite regulatory allowances to exploit immigrant and prison labor.
Agribusiness touts its ability to produce large quantities of cheap food, but this food is making our nation sick, costing more than $100 billion in diet related health care costs and millions of illnesses annually.⁴ Instead of supporting and promoting the consumption of disease inducing foods, the USDA and the stimulus dollars appropriated by Congress should support farms and businesses that produce fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and other healthy foods. The USDA should also support more local and independent enterprises, including farmers markets, urban farmers, and historically disadvantaged groups, who can deliver fresh food directly in their communities.
It is irrational and inappropriate for USDA to bail out factory farms and slaughterhouses that cause so much harm to people, animals and the earth, and who demand a disproportionate amount of both government and natural resources. We can feed more people with less land and fewer resources through plant based agriculture. In the U.S., ten times more land is used for animal production than to grow plant foods, so shifting away from our meat, dairy and egg heavy diets would free up millions of acres.⁵ Some of this land could return as natural ecosystems and habitats that support biodiversity, while farmland currently producing crops for animal feed could grow grains, pulses, legumes or other foods for human use. There is a growing market and burgeoning opportunities for such crops in plant based meats and nondairy milks. It makes no sense for the USDA to continue incentivizing crop production for animal feed, which is inherently inefficient and creates perverse market incentives.
Factory farming has operated outside the bounds of acceptable conduct for decades, and it is telling that the industry has had to obtain exemptions from laws that protect the environment, animals and workers. The federal Animal Welfare Act was written to exclude farm animals, while “ag-gag” laws have been enacted to prevent citizens from learning about the myriad cruelties farm animals endure. The industry has also lobbied for “right to farm” laws, more accurately called “right to harm,” which prevent neighbors suffering from factory farm pollution from defending their right to enjoy their own property. And, it routinely exploits disempowered and disenfranchised workers, subjecting them to inhumane conditions that would not be tolerated in other settings. Factory farm and slaughterhouses workers are at risk for injury and disease, and thousands of workers at our nation’s largest slaughterhouses have fallen ill and more than a dozen have died in the pandemic, causing major disruptions in the meat industry.⁶
The USDA was founded by Abraham Lincoln in the 1860s as “the people’s department” to serve the citizens of our nation. Unfortunately, the department has been hijacked to serve the interests of agribusiness conglomerates at the expense of farmers, consumers and the environment.
During this unprecedented crisis, the USDA can play a critically important role in helping to make desperately needed reforms in our food system. Instead of buying animal products and bailing out factory farms, the USDA should focus on purchasing and distributing fruits, vegetables, legumes and other healthy foods, while incentivizing a shift toward plant-based agriculture. And, the USDA should stop supporting the factory farming system, which destabilizes agricultural communities and food security, harms the environment, and is an affront to our humanity.
Thank you for your time and thoughtful consideration.
President & Co-Founder
¹ Bergenstone, Kay, Coronavirus at meatpacking plants worse than first thought, USA Today, April 22, 2020 https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/investigations/2020/04/22/meat-packing-plants-covid-may-force-choice-worker-health-food/2995232001/
²United States Department of Agriculture, Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018: Highlights and Implications https://www.ers.usda.gov/agriculture-improvement-act-of-2018-highlights-and-implications/ Accessed April 28, 2020.
³Bergenstone, Kay, Coronavirus at meatpacking plants worse than first thought, USA Today, April 22, 2020 https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/investigations/2020/04/22/meat-packing-plants-covid-may-force-choice-worker-health-food/2995232001/
⁴Fox, Maggie, Do U.S. subsidies make people fat?, NBC News, July 5, 2016
https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/do-u-s-food-subsidies-make-people-fat-n604091 Lewis, Abbey, Subsidized diets would save U.S. more than $100B in healthcare costs, study shows, Food Service Director, March 25, 2019, https://www.foodservicedirector.com/operations/subsidized-diets-would-save-us-more-100b-healthcare-costs-study-shows
⁵Merrill, Dave, Here’s How America Uses Its Land, July 31, 2018, Bloomberg News https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-us-land-use/ Pittman, Arianna, How Planting Crops Used to Feed Livestock is Contributing to Habitat Destruction, One Green Planet, https://www.onegreenplanet.org/environment/livestock-feed-and-habitat-destruction/ Accessed April 28, 2020.
⁶Gibson, Kate, 13 U.S. meat industry workers have died of COVID-19, union says, April 24, 2020, CBS News https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-meat-industry-workers-died-covid-19/