A Winning Issue for Obama in 2010: Factory Farm Reform

If President Obama really wants to champion a bipartisan issue, one that might appeal to tea-partying conservatives and -- in the wake of the Gulf spill -- jittery eco-liberals alike, he should consider tackling the worst excesses of industrial animal agriculture, better known as factory farming.

It's true that imposing stricter rules on concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) will not win much support across the aisle in Congress, and it could cost some hefty campaign cash from Big Agriculture. But beyond the Beltway, reining in factory farms would reassure environmentalists, while also helping Democrats win some rural conservative votes in 2010, and beyond.

Why? Because many anti-CAFO activists combating the odors, dust, polluted air and poisoned water caused by nearby factory farms come from conservative backgrounds. They fight for fundamental, all-American ideals such as defense of home and family; private property ownership free from outside nuisance or interference; and the expectation of open competition in a free market.

While researching my book Animal Factory, I got to know many conservative Americans who voted for Barack Obama because of his early, aggressive stance on CAFO issues, stretching back to before the Iowa Caucuses.

Candidate Obama had put forth an animal-factory agenda rivaled only by "populist" John Edwards, and he ended up capsizing frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who was seen by many rural Iowa voters as getting too cozy with corporate pork.

Obama would not be president today if he had not won Iowa, and he may not have won Iowa without his CAFO platform. Today, his "Agenda for Rural America" could appeal to people on the left and right who fret about federal coddling of corporate interests.

After all, many of the CAFO-reform promises that Obama made actually derive from conservative ideals like boosting free-market capitalism, backing small business and stemming the tide of taxpayer dollars going to prop up large corporations.

Here then are just four items from Obama's Rural Agenda that, if enacted, could win support among voters of every stripe:

Limit Subsidies: If right-wing opposition to corporate bailouts runs so deep, then Obama should get some mileage from his promise to end the multibillion-dollar corporate farm subsidy boondoggle. More than $5 billion is spent annually in direct payment to growers, including those making up to $750,000 in farm income or $500,000 in non-farm income. Republicans have long championed subsidy cuts. In 2008, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) cosponsored an amendment with Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) to cap eligibility at $250,000, and Charles Grassley (R-IA) had a similar Senate measure. Both were defeated. Many Democrats leaders in Congress opposed the caps.

Bust Trusts: Obama, perhaps channeling the popularity of GOP President Teddy Roosevelt, vowed to tackle food monopolies that dominate the "vertically integrated" CAFO industry and drive small and medium-sized producers from business. His campaign said he would "prevent anticompetitive behavior against family farms," and ensure they "have fair access to markets, control over their production decisions, and transparency in prices." Obama also vowed to take such pro-capitalist steps as: "strengthen anti-monopoly laws; change federal agriculture policy to strengthen producer protection from fraud, abuse, and market manipulation; and make sure that farm programs are helping family farmers, as opposed to large, vertically integrated corporate agribusiness."

Pass a "Packer Ban": Obama supported legislation "that protects independent producers by banning the ownership of livestock by meat packers," and vowed to fight for its passage. Just a few meatpackers produce more than one-fifth of US hogs and "when meatpackers own livestock, they bid less aggressively for the hogs and cattle produced by independent farmers." And though the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act prohibits price discrimination against small and mid-size farmers, Obama said, "the law has not been enforced." That landmark legislation was passed by a GOP-dominated Congress and signed by Republican President Warren G. Harding.

Restrict Antibiotics: The USDA just reported that agency inspectors fail to detect chemical residues in US beef, including antibiotics, whose overuse to promote growth and prevent disease in animals contributes to widespread and dangerous outbreaks of drug-resistant pathogens. Nearly 70-percent of US antibiotics are given to farm animals. A bill from Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY) would "phase out the non-therapeutic use in livestock of medically important antibiotics," and Obama campaigned in support of it.

Few Republicans cosponsored the antibiotic ban, but that shouldn't deter Obama from pushing for its passage. He might not be cheered across the congressional aisle, but many rank-and-file Republicans will support it. Indeed, I have met state and local GOP lawmakers who support virtually all of Obama's CAFO proposals.

Animal industry and Republican leaders say much of Obama's rural agenda will raise food prices, but that is not necessarily true. A Danish antibiotic ban did not significantly increase pork prices in that country, and measures to level the playing field for smaller producers could significantly help reduce the price of organic meat, milk and eggs.

The slogan "sustainably raised food at affordable prices" may not have the ring of Herbert Hoover's "chicken in every pot," but it might help Obama win reelection, something that eluded Republican Hoover.