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by Sara S. Blomquist, Slow food USA Food & Farm Policy Fellow

On February 10, Slow Food USA, as the conclusion of a four-part series on Slow Meat sponsored by Niman Ranch, hosted a 75-minute panel discussion on the myriad challenges of meat and poultry production in the United States. The event, curated by the SFUSA Food and Farm Policy Steering Committee, was hosted by committee member, Carrie Balkom, of the American Grassfed Association, and moderated by sixth-generation Georgia farmer, Matthew Raiford of Gilliard Farms.  It featured five panelists talking about sustainable farms and ranches, fairness to meat processing workers, and animal rights.

The event began with a discussion of the need for a transition from industrial production practices to family-scale, sustainable, humane, and just practices. Daisy Freund, Vice President of Farm Animal Welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), discussed the importance of supporting higher welfare farmers instead of industrial farming. Paul Willis, farmer and co-founder of Niman Ranch, reemphasized Freund’s point, citing his own experience with challenging industrialized farming by building a business based on free-range, pasture-raised hogs. “The industry, the commodity world, paid very little attention to quality… so the goal was to distance myself as far as I could from that world,” he said.

This passion for sustainable and community-based farming was shared by the other panelists, including Megan Brown. Brown transitioned to providing grass-fed beef and pastured pork to her local community when she took over her family’s ranch in northern California. She discussed her passion for transparency in the entire process of bringing meat to the table. “It’s been a deep pleasure to connect my consumers with my way of life…”

Brown has also become a dedicated advocate of combating climate change, noting that she has experienced major fires, flooding, droughts, and insect attacks that have seriously impacted her business. Brown’s comments highlight the link between food production and climate change: animal agriculture can exacerbate climate change while simultaneously being adversely affected by it. Traditional, indigenous practices, like controlled burns, she said, are helpful, and she highlighted the importance of making Indigenous voices heard in the agricultural space. “I want to eventually… open my ranch back up to our local Tribes… that’s my end goal, to give… the access back.” Raiford echoed these sentiments, noting that we must reach into our communities and learn from our elders and each other.

Animal welfare was a point of particular concern, as well. Responding to a question about the avoidance of antibiotics in animal care, Brown and Willis emphasized the importance of preventive measures like vaccinations and animal welfare. “When your animals are living in a situation where they’re not crowded and stressed, you’re much less likely to have disease problems,” Willis noted. On antibiotics, Willis highlighted the difference between “no antibiotics,” implying that antibiotics hadn’t been used on the animal in the last few months, and “no antibiotics ever.” The former, he said, is a loophole for some companies.

Many audience questions were centered around working conditions of meat processing workers, an issue that has gained media attention during the Covid -19 pandemic. Magaly Licolli, originally from Guajanato, Mexico, is a resident of Springdale, Arkansas, the hometown of Tyson Foods. She discussed her work with poultry factory workers of one of the largest food corporations in the world. “I didn’t know what was behind all that until I was able to hear the personal stories of people who weren’t able to work anymore… because of the lifelong injuries that happened at poultry plants. To me, it was shocking because when I was in Mexico, I often heard people say, ‘we want to move to the US to find a better life. ’…This is what they come for,” Licolli continued, “but instead (they) are forced to work under exploitative conditions.” Licolli noted that companies pay financial incentives to these workers to bring their family and friends to work too and that nearly 30,000 people are employed in meat processing plants in Arkansas alone.

Licolli emphasized how difficult it has been to battle against corporations like Tyson Foods given the company’s financial power. She launched Venceremos, meaning “we will overcome,” as a space for workers to organize and advocate for community solutions, improved working conditions, and packing companies providing fair and safe working conditions. Like other panelists, she noted that it would be many years of “trying to figure out how to dismantle this corporate structure and the meat industry itself” before these issues could be truly addressed.

What did Covid-19 teach us about our current food system? According to Fruend, “we learned… that the [food] industry’s claim that their model will ‘feed the world’ is definitely false because that industrial system fell apart the minute it was under pressure.” Freund noted the high rates of coronavirus amongst slaughterhouse workers and the destruction and disposal of surplus livestock. As a solution, she cited the Farm System Reform Act (sponsored by U.S. Senator Booker, D-NJ) as important legislation that would provide a new vision for livestock and poultry farming. If enacted, the bill would prevent the construction of new concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), cease operations of all large CAFOs by 2040, and work towards smaller-scale production. Clearly, the Covid-19 pandemic presents a particularly valuable opportunity for change in our food chain if we effectively engage in policy advocacy around these issues.

The afternoon concluded with messages about how we can engage in food and farm policy. Dr. Pfannenstiel noted that we can all engage with policy by connecting with non-profit, sustainable agricultural advocacy organizations — like Slow Food USA — to stay updated. On the consumer end, “as long as there are people consuming that (industrial) meat, that means that we are responsible, as well,” Licolli said, reminding us to engage both as advocates and as responsible consumers. Freund reminded us to do both: “it’s important to vote with your fork and with your vote. We have a new administration in Washington that has identified their priorities: climate change, racial justice, economic recovery, and the coronavirus. While factory farming isn’t explicitly in there, it intersects with each of those issues.” It is our responsibility, she continued, to push lawmakers to legislate for a food chain that is good, clean, and fair for all.

In the coming year, federal legislators will start working on a new Farm Bill. SFUSA will keep you posted as issues emerge and tell you how you can help effect outcomes that align with our beliefs.

Be sure to follow our panelists on Instagram!*

Megan Brown: @MegRaeB

Daisy Freund: @daisyfreund and @aspca

Magaly Licolli: @venceremos.arkansas

Dr. Michele Pfannenstiel: @foodsafetyuniversity @griffonfarms

Paul Willis: @nimanranch

Carrie Balkcom: @carriebalkcom  @amergrassfed

Matthew Raiford: @gilliardfarms @chefarmermatthew

*Panelists can also be found on sites like Facebook and Twitter.