Sen. Booker Delivers Keynote Address at the National Food Policy Conference

I want to start by thanking The Consumer Federation of America for your leadership and that of your member organizations for convening this conference virtually.

Conversations about our nation's food policy, what we invest in, what we subsidize, what kind of oversight we have over industry have always been important, but now they are urgently necessary.

I also want to thank CFA for continuing to be outspoken advocates for fair markets, for workers, and for consumer protections.

The fact of the matter is that our current food system is interconnected with so many issues of justice in America: racial justice, health justice, environmental justice, economic justice.

And our food system is fundamentally broken. It fails to reflect our collective values.

And it is not a dramatization to say that the way we produce and consume food in this country is quite literally a matter of life and death.

That is true for our workers, who are being forced to risk their lives to get food onto our plates as they are crowded into meatpacking plants that have become hotbeds for COVID-19 outbreaks.

Our food system is broken for independent family farmers and ranchers. Over the last sixty years we have lost more than 1 million independent family farms; farm debt is at an all-time high; the farmers' share of our consumer dollar continues to decline; and we are hearing heartbreaking stories of farmer suicides on the rise.

Our food system is broken for rural communities, who are forced to live near massive manure lagoons, making life miserable for neighbors who have their clean air and clean water stolen from them by large factory farms.

Our food system is broken from a public health perspective -- and in multiple ways:

First, we currently pour massive federal subsidies into a system that is literally making us sick. Diabetes, heart disease, and childhood obesity plague our nation at rates not seen by previous generations as cheap, unhealthy foods have become the new normal.

Second, is food insecurity: today in our country an estimated 14 million children are not getting enough to eat on a daily basis.

Let me repeat that: in 2020 in America, when an estimated 30 to 40 percent of the food supply in our country goes to waste, we have 14 million children who go to bed hungry -- and we know that black and brown children are most at risk.

Third, scientists and public health professionals are telling us in very clear terms that, because of the high concentration of animals and the terrible conditions inside factory farms, there is a serious risk that this could be the source of the next pandemic.

And our food system is most certainly broken for farm animals -- with billions of animals each year treated with such immense cruelty that we are all forced to look away, rather than admit that such horror is a daily reality.

Look, when the current pandemic hit, we immediately saw just how fragile our current system is.

Processing plants closed, workers got sick and died, and farmers were forced to kill healthy animals and plow over crops while millions of Americans were in need of food.

And then the same big corporations who created the current system came asking the federal government for help to fix the mess they had made -- and their undue influence over public policy was on full display as they were quickly given protection by President Trump under the Defense Production Act, even though we couldn't get a similar order from the President to make ventilators or PPE.

These big companies asked for federal help in the name of "national food security" but now, while their workers are getting sick and dying, we have been seeing these companies hitting record export numbers to countries like China.

This is a very broken system; a system that simply does not reflect our values.

So how did we get here?

I believe the main reason is corporate consolidation. The industry is more consolidated today than it was 100 years ago when the Packers and Stockyards Act was first passed to limit the size and power of big meatpacking companies.

Many of you have probably read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, written about the abuses in the meatpacking industry in 1906.

It is worth noting that at that time over a century ago five companies controlled over 50% of the beef market -- but today four companies control over 80% of that same market.

And this is reflective of levels of concentration across our food and farm economy.

Large, multinational corporations, because of their size and money, have undue influence over the marketplace and undue influence over public policy, and they have created this massive system that benefits primarily themselves.

And all of this consolidation has led to independent family farmers being squeezed from all sides -- starting from their seed suppliers all the way through to the retail shelf.

Before I discuss some of the bills that I have introduced that I believe would help start to create a new system that better reflects our values, I first want to address a question that many of you may be thinking to yourselves:

Why is a (bald) vegan Senator from New Jersey spending so much time in Washington focused on agribusiness consolidation and the struggles of family farmers and ranchers?

The answer is that my work has been directly informed by my time as Mayor of Newark, as well as my travels across New Jersey and across the country seeing the broken-ness of our current system first hand.

Nearly 83% of students in Newark receive free or reduced price lunches, and in some cases that is the only meal that child has on a given day.

Studies continue to show that better nutrition is linked to success in the classroom and beyond. Yet many students, and particularly students of color, face inconsistent and inequitable access to healthy foods, hindering academic performance and general wellness.

When I became mayor of Newark, the vast majority of the city was a "food desert" -- meaning that many residents simply did not have access to healthy and nutritious food options such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

We were able to attract new supermarkets to the City, including a Shop Rite and a Whole Foods; we provided grants to bodegas so that they could purchase refrigeration equipment; and we started growing more food in the City -- from small community gardens to multi-acre urban farms.

But the scale of the problem is too big; and I ultimately realized that federal policies were working against our best local efforts.

After I was elected to the Senate, I traveled not just around New Jersey but around the country -- and what I saw was that the same broken food system that was failing my community in Newark was failing all of us nationally.

I visited Duplin County, North Carolina, where I saw firsthand how massive factory farms have moved into low income communities and communities of color, and all the misery those factory farms had brought with them.

I met with residents there who told me that they felt like prisoners in their own homes, unable to go outside or even open their windows because of the terrible stench from a nearby factory farm, which was causing them to suffer serious respiratory problems.

I sat on hay bales with farmers and ranchers in Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Illinois and Iowa, with Republicans and Democrats, and I heard story after story from cattlemen who told me that they used to have dozens of different buyers for their animals; but that now they had only a few or just one buyer. What this means is that no marketplace currently exists to set a fair price for our farmers and ranchers to be paid.

I have also met with contract growers who have told me how they feel trapped in the current system because of all the debt they have incurred, and how they fear retaliation if they speak out about the predatory practices of big corporate integrators.

So my team and I got to work, listening to farmers and ranchers, environmental groups, animal welfare advocates, leaders focused on climate change, healthcare professionals, and consumers to imagine a better food system that helps us address the climate crisis, produces nutritious food, pays farmers a fair price for being stewards of the land, and treats workers fairly.

In 2019, along with Senator Tester, I introduced the Agribusiness Merger Moratorium Act to halt the hyper consolidation in our food system and focus Congress on reigning in the power that large multinational companies have in our food system.

Also last year, I introduced the Climate Stewardship Act to invest billions of dollars directly into existing voluntary USDA conservation programs that farmers and ranchers are familiar with, helping them improve their farms and combat climate change.

Not only would this lead to healthier soils and substantial carbon sequestration, but it would also make farms more resilient to future flooding and extreme weather events, and would protect our drinking water.

This bill would also invest billions of dollars in on-farm renewable energy and hundreds of millions of dollars annually in building stronger local and regional food systems. I am proud to have Congresswoman Deb Haaland leading this bill in the House.

I also introduced the Farm System Reform Act, and I'm excited to now have Senator Warren and Senator Sanders as Co-Sponsors, along with Representative Khana leading in the house.

This bill would strengthen the Packers and Stockyards Act, providing more bargaining power for family farmers and ranchers and will phase out the largest factory farms that are so detrimental to rural communities and that these giant meatpackers use to make their flawed system run -- which would make room for even more independent family farmers.

This bill will also hold big meatpacking companies responsible for the harm that factory farms cause, and would not allow them to continue to externalize the costs to public health and the environment caused by factory farms.

And finally, the bill would help make sure those farmers and ranchers caught in our current unfair system have new opportunities by creating a $100 billion dollar fund over 10 years to help them transition to more sustainable practices.

Earlier this month I introduced the Local FARM Act to provide relief to the organizations and businesses that make up our local food systems as well as many of the farmers left behind in the first big COVID relief package.

During this global health crisis these local food systems have proven to be the most resilient in a crisis and we need to be sure we don't lose more of them.

The bill also creates grants to help more small and mid-sized retailers accept online SNAP. Our nutrition assistance recipients deserve more choices than Amazon or Walmart, and those companies shouldn't be allowed to use this crisis to further consolidate market share at the expense of small businesses.

Along with Senator Lee from Utah I have also introduced legislation to reform federal checkoff programs.

As many of you know, farmers and ranchers are required to pay into checkoff programs, but too often see their dollars used in ways that hurt rather than help them. Our legislation would bring more transparency to these programs, and would prohibit conflicts of interest and anticompetitive practices.

And just today I introduced a bill to suspend increases in line speeds at meat and poultry plants during the pandemic.

Since mid-March, outbreaks of Covid-19 have continued to surge in meatpacking plants across the country, infecting tens of thousands of workers and tragically killing more than 100--the majority of whom are from immigrant communities and communities of color.

These large meatpacking plants should be working with USDA to slow down line speeds in order to create a safer working environment and accommodate social distancing -- we must prioritize worker, consumer, and animal safety over corporate profits.

And I'm not done yet. My team and I are currently working to find ways to level the playing field for Black farmers, who have been all but pushed out of farming by systemic racism, much of it within USDA itself.

Reforming our food system will not be easy. Those with the most to lose have deep influence on both sides of the aisle in the halls of Congress, and they will not accept change easily.

We have a lot to overcome: decades of farmers being told to "get big or get out"; decades of the false promise that if we just gave big corporations free rein they would somehow industrialize enough to end hunger; and decades of destruction to our planet in the name of efficiency.

But our country is at a turning point, and I believe we have a moral obligation to do better and build a food system that reflects our values.

And if you know me, you know that I'm an optimist. I believe that together we can fix our broken food system.

Americans deserve to have a food system where farmers and ranchers can earn a fair price for what they produce.

A system where farmworkers and food chain workers have safe places to work, and where they are treated as the essential workers they are.

While the industrialized food system has broken down during this pandemic, many independent family farmers, farmers markets, and food hubs that make up local food systems across the country have shown resilience and creativity, and they are thriving.

Moving forward, I believe that it is these local food systems that we must invest in.

After this crisis, we simply cannot go back to business as usual.

Instead we must create a better future where we phase out big factory farms and instead put our faith and support behind independent family farmers and robust local food systems.

Together we can develop policy that does just that, and I'm proud to work with all of you and be a champion of that effort.