Elizabeth Warren’s Farm Plan

ScottyElizabeth Warren has a solid plan to help the US farming industry. But before I get to that, let’s talk about Star Trek.

In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Scotty meets with a material scientist to barter some knowledge in exchange for a whale container. Scotty, being from the future, talks to the Mac, which doesn’t respond. The scientist says, “Just use the keyboard.” Scotty then begins typing at an amazing speed and before long, the formula for transparent aluminum is displayed on the screen. It’s a fun scene in a fun movie. But it isn’t the way the world is.

If a modern American were sent back to a neolithic city, they wouldn’t know anything. In my experience, most people don’t even know what causes the phases of the Moon — or why the seasons change.

We Need a Diverse Farming Industry

It’s because of this that I think any group of people needs to hang on to their most fundamental skills. A society of only genius computer programmers would be one economic shock away from disaster.

We need a strong farming industry. And that means a diverse farming industry. The history of farming over the last century has been one of consolidation and increased homogeneity. And this is not the result of mysterious global economic forces that no one can do anything about. Instead, it’s the result of government policy — specifically the encouragement of mergers.

The Problem With Modern Farming

Warren lays out the problem, which is mostly consolidation (as it is in so many other industries). For example, a handful of companies control the most important aspects of food production:

Sector Companies Market Share
Meat Processing 4 53%
Chicken Distribution 3 90%
Corn Seeds 2 71%

As a country, we’ve gotten way too focused on the strict definition of “monopoly.” The main reason anyone cares about a monopoly is that it leads to uncompetitive markets. It doesn’t matter if there are a thousand companies in a market; if the market doesn’t work, we need to do something about it.

That’s what Warren proposes to do.

Plan to Save Farm Diversity

There are a number of parts to Warren’s plan, but attacking consolidation is the most important.

As discussed before, this is the key problem. Companies do not merge so that they can provide cheaper products to consumers. They merge because they can increase profits. Even if this does result in cheaper products (and that is hardly assured), it has negative effects on the country. We see it in the overuse of corn. But more to the point, we see it in the elimination of small farms.

Warren notes:

Mergers mean that farmers have fewer and fewer choices for buying and selling, while vertical integration has meant that big agribusinesses face less competition throughout the chain and thus capture more and more of the profits.”

Other Ways to Help Farmers

The rest of Warren’s plan discusses some examples of things she’d like to change. One is an issue that is coming for all of us but which has greatly affected farmers: technology that users can’t repair. This is all part of our out-of-control intellectual property laws. It’s like with DVDs. You may think you own them but you are actually just licensing them.

So farmers can’t fix or upgrade their own machinery. That would be violating the manufacturer’s intellectual property. It’s an outrage and it is great to see Elizabeth Warren acknowledging it.

There’s one part of her plan that I’m less sanguine about. Warren wants to limit foreign ownership of active farmland. I’m an internationalist and I don’t like this idea on that level. On the other hand, the world is the way it is. And just as we shouldn’t allow multinational corporations to control our access to food, we should be concerned about foreign interests doing it.

Ultimately, I don’t think we need to worry about this if we can reverse the consolidation in the farming industry. Foreigners are interested in farming for the same reasons that these corporations are. If we limit the size of farming concerns, we will automatically limit foreign interests.

Good Politics

This is yet another important policy proposal from Elizabeth Warren. It is also great politics. This issue is important in Iowa. It could well be the difference between Warren winning and losing the state.

Coming from many politicians, this wouldn’t matter so much to me. But Warren has shown herself to be far more interested in policy than politics. And her spat with Trump over her Native American blood didn’t speak well of her political sense either. But this is smart. And it’s good to see.