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WASHINGTON PERSPECTIVES
PACKED OWNERSHIP BAN CREATING HEATED DISCUSSIONS
This year's farm bill debate has been highly charged. Few topics, however, have generated more heat than the amendment that would ban meatpackers from owning livestock for more than 14 days prior to slaughter.

The amendment's complexity has led to reams of study, often accompanied by sharply conflicting conclusions and recommendations. To be sure, the amendment contemplates massive changes to the manner in which the nation's major meat packing companies have organized their firms and conduct their businesses.

Proponents of the ban argue it would bring renewed competitiveness to U.S. livestock markets, with probable beneficial effect for ranchers and small farmers. Opponents, on the other hand, contend it would disrupt the way these markets operate and that the disarray would harm everyone in the chain, from livestock producers who would suffer lower prices to consumers who might face higher retail prices and uncertain supply.

AN UNDENIABLE TREND

Without getting into the details of the amendment and the various opinions, I will say that I think this issue portends a significant trend in agriculture, and increasingly in agriculture policy: the ramifications of the growing concentration of the agriculture and food-related industries. There is no question the packer ownership ban was predicated by the conclusions of many that the growing concentration in the packing industry was having a harmful effect on them.

This is really the first farm bill to witness the appearance of this issue, though it has been around for many years. In the recent past we have seen growing restiveness in response to proposed mergers in the grain businesses, and virtually every time a major meat company contemplates acquiring another company or merging, it prompts protests.

The effects of the growing concentration have been the subject of countless studies, congressional hearings and controversy. Although it was deleted during the Senate committee's work, a competition title was included for the first time in this farm bill, formally giving voice to the concern about the overall effects of concentration.

Many of these concerns and the policy recommendations they produce can in part be traced to weak commodity prices. In times of depressed prices, farmers and ranchers see many causes, including the transformation of the industry itself and the growing power of a handful who control, or seem to control, the markets.

The suspicion and alienation in some quarters are evidence of the changes in agriculture over the last several decades - the dramatic reduction in the number of farms and the growth of larger farms, further pressuring the remaining smaller operators.

In many cases, the change is prompting challenges to the conventional status quo of American agriculture, such as the backlash against mega farms, most notably huge hog operations, challenges to check-off programs and calls for limits on commodity payments, in addition to the packer ownership ban. As long as the disparity between the large and the small grows, I think we will see similar, more numerous proposals in the future.

INFLAMED PASSIONS

Some in traditional agriculture will dismiss these movements and seek to defeat them summarily, and in many instances they may succeed. At the same time, some advocates of challenges to concentration will launch unreasonable, ill-advised movements that will serve mostly to inflame further political passions.

If mainstream agriculture does not engage in constructive political discourse with those who feel left behind by the growing trend of concentration, the politics of big versus small is certain to assume more visibility in farm politics and grow ever more charged. AM


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