Joe Sestak for President
July 16, 2019

A truly transformative agriculture policy platform

Fighting for American family farmers and ensuring food security for the future
I am proud to announce my agriculture policy proposals in full - which are truly transformative.
You can find all my agriculture and food policy proposals below, and also - for later reference - on my website (here).
Farmers and farmworkers are the backbone of our economy. Yet American farmers have seldom faced as many challenges as they face today — from corporate consolidation to harmful trade wars to the increasingly extreme weather of our changing world, farmers are at the mercy of outside forces.
Unfortunately, our government has all too often prioritized the interests of huge agribusiness corporations over small family farms, farmworkers, and the natural world. As President, I will always support America’s farms and rural communities. The strength of our nation is and always will be rooted in farming.
My key priorities are:
  • Stop the reckless use of scattershot tariffs that hurt American farmers.
  • Strengthen antitrust laws and enforce them in the agricultural industry.
  • End subsidies for industrial farming corporations, and dramatically increase subsidies for farmers practicing or transitioning to sustainable methods.
  • Protect US farmers by instituting a “Buy American” policy for all federal procurement programs.
  • Reinstate mandatory country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork.
  • Prevent foreign countries and corporations from buying up US farmland.
  • Stand up for the “Right to Repair” farm equipment and other high technology.
  • Improve and expand programs that help farmers of color and prospective farmers from historically underrepresented communities to access farmland and credit.
  • Create a National Land Bank as part of a 21st Century Sustainable Homestead Act, to put unutilized farmland into production and expand access to organic food.
  • Strengthen protections for migrant farmworkers, and expand vital guest worker programs in agricultural industries.
  • Increase nutrition assistance for needy families.
  • Institute mandatory on-package labeling of genetically engineered foods (GMOs) in clear, visible language, because consumers have a right to know what they are eating.
  • Launch a thorough scientific survey of the safety and efficacy of GMOs and common chemicals used in agriculture, with particular attention paid to known hazardous compounds like glyphosate, dicamba, atrazine, chlorpyrifos, malathion & neonicotinoids.
  • Restore accountability and oversight to the USDA and FDA by removing corporate lobbyists from positions of power, and begin basing agricultural policy on sound science.
  • Fund research into climate stabilizing agriculture, and incentivize farmers to use regenerative, carbon-sequestering methods.
  • Expand funding for the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and the National Plant Germplasm System, which are critical to our future food security.
Fight for America’s Family Farms

In the 1930s, there were nearly 7 million farms in the United States. Today there are just over 2 million. We lose more farmers every year, and the average age of farmers is at an all-time high (around 58 years old). As the numbers of farms and farmers decline, the farms that remain are getting bigger: in 1987, only 15% of all cropland in the US was on farms 2,000 acres or larger; by 2012, that number had risen to 36%, and it continues to rise. The result of all this is an agricultural system in which small and mid-sized family farms struggle to compete, and our rural communities are left with dwindling tax bases as young people leave to seek opportunities in urban areas.

These trends have many roots, but among the most pernicious is a corporate environment defined by consolidation through mergers and vertical integration, paired with a lack of proper oversight on the part of the federal government. In recent decades, hundreds of seed companies have been swallowed up by giant international conglomerates, to the point that now just four companies now control 60% of global proprietary seed sales. In the United States, one company — Monsanto, now a part of the German firm Bayer — cornered the market on seed sales to such a degree that over 80% of corn acreage and 90% of soybean acreage is planted with Monsanto’s patented genetics. Not only does this lack of competition mean higher prices for farmers, but it also means a dangerous decline in crop biodiversity with potentially grave ramifications for all of us. Diversity is our best hedge against climate change, with its extreme weather and increased spread of diseases and pests. We need to expand crop diversity through public plant breeding, and we need to preserve what is left, both in genebanks and in the wild, through conservation.

In livestock industries, the trend toward vertical integration — with single firms controlling every part of the supply chain — has led to staggering declines in family farms. Take the pork industry: in 1978, according to the USDA’s agricultural census, there were 512,292 farms raising hogs, and the average farm had an inventory of just 115 pigs. In 2012, the number of farms raising hogs was down to 63,436, a decline of 87%. The average inventory per farm was over 1,000 head, and 83% of all animals were in operations with over 5,000 hogs. In the chicken industry, the three biggest companies now have a 90% market share. Perhaps most troublingly, all of this occurred despite the government having the power to put a stop to it. We simply cannot allow this trend to continue, where we have fewer and fewer farms producing more and more meat. More meat being produced in factory farms is bad for farmers, bad for the animals, and it is destroying rural communities by forcing small and mid-sized family farms out of business.

Since the peak of the gilded age, when “robber barons” amassed unimaginable wealth on the backs of poorly treated workers, the United States government has passed and exercised a wide array of antitrust laws to combat monopolies and cartels, and prevent mergers and acquisitions that create barriers to fair trade. These powers have been utilized to break up such massive companies as Standard Oil and AT&T. Yet, in the field of agriculture, government has failed utterly to hold large corporations to account.

As President, I will make sure that the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission, and the Department of Agriculture work to prevent further consolidation in agriculture, and potentially break up monopolistic businesses that are harmful to fair competition. I will also take other actions to directly impact the lives and livelihoods of family farmers across the United States: I will stop the reckless and harmful use of tariffs in trade wars that disproportionately hurt American farmers; I will stop subsidizing the massive farming corporations that already make huge profits (see the “End Corporate Welfare” section of my Corporate Abuse of Power policy page for more details on this point); I will institute a “Buy American” policy for all federal food procurement — except at overseas installations, like military bases and embassies — because the huge buying power of the government should support American farmers, not help drive them out of business; and I will reinstate mandatory country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork, because consumers have a right to know where their meat comes from.

I will also be a champion of Right to Repair — a principle that needs to be advanced through federal legislation — and not only for farm equipment, but for cars and other advanced consumer technology. Most manufacturers of advanced, computer-driven machinery, have created a situation in which only their licensed agents or authorized shops can repair high-tech equipment. Right to Repair would mandate that such companies make manuals and diagnostic codes (and the technology to read them) available to the public. This would allow farmers to repair their equipment, and enable small and independent repair shops to compete for business repairing equipment they currently cannot. This will save farmers money and create new jobs.

Finally, I will tackle the issue of fair farm credit, so family farms are protected when private and government lenders make errors in loan granting and servicing. I will fully enforce the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and take proactive steps to get unutilized and underutilized farmland into production, such as through the creation of a National Land Bank (detailed in the next section). And I will work hard to right the wrongs of decades of discrimination against farmers of color, both by private lenders and the USDA, to ensure that anyone who wants to farm can farm, no matter the color of their skin, their national origin, their religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression. We need to protect the farmers we have, and we need more farmers — especially more farmers growing regeneratively — and as President, I will work hard every day to make that vision a reality.

Food Security for the Long Haul

Protecting the food supply is a vital part of our national security, yet policymakers in Washington, DC have not made food security a priority for a long time. In the face of climate change and under threat of total environmental collapse, we must realize that maintaining the food supply is going to become ever more challenging. As I discuss more fully in the Climate Change & Environmental Protection page, we need to start using agriculture as a weapon against climate change, rather than continuing the status quo in which agriculture is a major driver of climate change.

We know that more sustainable farming practices — no-till, organic, regenerative, agroecological, among others — are much better for the environment than the dominant paradigm in crop farming today, in which corn, soy, canola, cotton, and wheat, are grown in huge monocultures with annual tillage and relatively heavy use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. All of those crops except for wheat are almost exclusively grown from genetically engineered seed, also known as genetically modified or GMO seed. (Wheat farmers have thus far managed to prevent the government from approving the sale of genetically modified wheat — though corporations have developed them, and some have even escaped cultivation; American wheat farmers and industry associations fear that foreign markets would start refusing US wheat exports should we approve GMO wheat, as some now refuse other US commodity crops that are typically GMO; and perhaps the wheat industry also innately understands that genetically engineering the “staff of life” is going too far.)

The widespread use of GMOs is concerning for many reasons. Farmers cannot save their seed when they grow GMO seed — because such seeds are patented and farmers agree with every purchase that they will not save and re-grow even a single seed. This situation makes farmers entirely dependent on corporations for both the seeds they grow and the chemicals needed for the seeds to properly develop into crops. It’s why, along with higher profit margins, more and more farmers are choosing to grow non-GMO or organic: because they can maintain control of their seeds, and because they can use practices that they know are healthier for themselves, their workers, and their families. Giant agribusinesses argue that we need them to feed our growing population, but their business model can also prove to be a threat to future food security. A United Nations report found in 2013 that small-scale organic and agroecological systems (those based on mimicking natural systems, with heavy use of perennial plants) are critical to feeding the world, and should be relied upon even more.

As industry speaks about feeding the world, GMO also means selling more profit-making and harmful chemicals. Most genetically engineered crops on the market were designed to withstand being sprayed with herbicides — especially glyphosate, popularized by the Monsanto corporation as Roundup. These are known as “Roundup Ready” crops, and they are popular because they allow farmers to spray their entire crop with weed killer and only kill weeds, not the crop. As “superweeds” develop resistance to Roundup, companies are now “stacking” resistances in their crops, so a soybean or corn plant might be resistant to Roundup and one or two other chemicals. Unfortunately, the use of glyphosate and other chemical herbicides has skyrocketed since GMO food was first allowed on the market, despite its makers knowing glyphosate is dangerous to human health and the environment. Recent lawsuits have awarded plaintiffs hundreds of millions of dollars on the basis of Monsanto covering up their knowledge of glyphosate raising the risk of cancer.

While the science of genetic engineering, including new technologies like CRISPR-Cas9, has great promise in the fields of medicine and alternative energy, its expansive use in agriculture in the United States — more than in any other country — carries with it some unintended consequences, both known and unknown. Already there have been instances of gene transfer into wild plants, and genetic engineering is known to produce novel proteins that may impact human, animal, or environmental health. The fate of bees and other beneficial insects, and the health of our soil, are particularly worrying. With the forceful backing of industry, and regulators deciding to take a hands-off approach, GMO crops began showing up on the market in 1996, and since then they have become so ubiquitous that the backlash against them has recently created a multibillion-dollar “Non-GMO” industry. I believe consumers have a right to know whether or not the food they buy is the result of genetic engineering, which is why I support mandatory labeling of GMO food with clear, visible labels on product packaging. I also support conducting an exhaustive review of current science on GMOs and on all chemicals approved for use in agriculture, along with food additives, because for too long regulators — often recent former employees of major agribusinesses — have looked the other way and failed in their duty to protect the public. We know that many of the chemicals used in conventional farming are dangerous, for the environment, for consumers, and especially for farmworkers. We owe it to the people who grow our food to ensure they have as safe a working environment as possible, and we owe it to ourselves to ensure a safe food supply and healthy communities for us all.

A century ago, farmers could get quality seeds, adapted for their local region, provided for free by the federal government. USDA seed banks (or “germplasm repositories”) and research stations hummed with activity. Up until just a few decades ago, public plant breeding was a major federal expenditure, with government plant breeders often working in collaboration with land grant universities to ensure our farmers had access to top-quality seeds, resistant to emerging pests and diseases, with high yields and strong vigor. The plant varieties produced with public funding were considered the intellectual property of the federal government, so effectively they became public varieties, freely available for farmers to grow and other plant breeders to use in future breeding efforts. This system encouraged innovation in agriculture and undoubtedly helped America to become a global superpower in the mid-20th century. But in 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act was passed. It dealt with intellectual property and included provisions allowing universities and other organizations to seek patents themselves for research conducted with public money. It wasn’t the intention of the authors, but this law has led to a flood of corporate money into public research institutions like universities, with licensing agreements that allow corporations to profit off of what were formerly considered public domain plant varieties. At the same time, the federal government has slashed public funding of plant breeding and agricultural innovation, resulting in fewer and fewer new public domain varieties and increased reliance on private companies whose primary motive is profit, not the public good.

It is time for the federal government to step up and once again make plant breeding and improvement a national priority. As the climate warms, it will become harder and harder to farm. Plant varieties that once thrived in a certain place will have to be grown hundreds of miles further north, and will need to be resilient enough to withstand increased droughts, rain events, and extreme temperatures. As discussed above, this will require more crop biodiversity, not less. We cannot allow corporate policy to dictate federal policy any longer. It is beyond dangerous to allow just a few companies to have so much power over our food system. When I am President, the days of Monsanto lobbyists serving as Secretary of Agriculture will be over. Innovation in agriculture must be aimed at public benefit, not private profit.

Ensuring food security for all Americans requires forward-thinking policies for the future, but it also requires smart policies for today. That is why I support increasing nutrition assistance for needy families. Not only is it the compassionate thing to do for poor people, but it also helps our farmers and food processors: when more people can afford to buy food, farmers do better, and our whole economy improves. I also support increasing the number of guest workers allowed into the United States — because we currently have a major shortage of workers across the food system, from the crab industry of Maryland to the orchards of California. We waste enough food as it is, we cannot allow it to wither on the vine for lack of workers. And, with demand for organic food at an all-time high, and supply not yet large enough to meet it, I support dramatically increasing support for farmers who wish to transition from conventional to organic. We know organic farming is better for consumers, for farmers and farmworkers, and the planet. It is focused on building up soil, not extracting whatever we can from soil. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.” We need to do everything we can to incentivize farmers big and small to make the switch to organic and regenerative practices.

Finally, we simply need more farmers. We cannot allow massive corporations to have complete control of the food supply. We need more farmers in every region, so more people can access locally produced food. And we need to expand the ranks of America’s farmers to include more people of color, more women, more LGBTQ people, and more young people. To achieve this goal, I support the creation of a National Land Bank as part of a 21st-century Sustainable Homestead Act, to facilitate the development of more farms and farmers across this great land. A federally-run land bank would be mandated to acquire abandoned, foreclosed, repossessed, or tax-delinquent land suitable for farming and ranching — current landowners could also donate all or some of their farmland in exchange for significant tax credits — and the land bank would provide allotments to applicants who commit to bringing the land into production using sustainable methods. Priority will be given to applicants from historically marginalized populations, and all participants in the program will need to demonstrate over 7 years that they are utilizing and improving the land to gain full ownership.

A National Land Bank and a Sustainable Homestead Act would revitalize rural communities, begin increasing the number of farmers, and help society deal with the twin crises of climate change and environmental collapse by dramatically increasing the use of carbon-sequestering farming practices. It would also help us begin to deal with another major national security issue: foreign countries and corporations buying up more and more US farmland. Foreign concerns, including those associated with the Chinese, Russian and Saudi governments, already own over 25 million acres of US farmland, an area larger than the entire state of Indiana. A well-funded land bank would have the ability to buy cheap farmland that might otherwise be snapped up by foreign investors, but it is not the only solution to this problem. I also believe we must pursue legislation to tackle this issue directly, similar to the laws against foreign ownership of farmland already on the books in six states, including major farming states like Iowa and Minnesota. We cannot accept a situation in which more and more farmers find themselves forced into working for foreign countries — on American soil, no less — simply because they cannot afford land themselves.
No issue is more important than food security — it is fundamental to the safety and security of all Americans. And as we move into an uncertain future impacted by climate change, maintaining food security for our nation will become ever more challenging. As President, I promise to make smart farming policy a hallmark of my administration. Through innovative leadership, we can protect family farmers, heal the environment, and make sure Americans have access to healthy food for countless generations to come.

More to come

I'm also continuing to travel across Iowa. Some of my upcoming events include:
  • I am meeting the local Democratic Party group in Grimes, Iowa, for drinks and debate at 6.30pm on Tuesday, July 16th (Hacienda Vieja, 200 SE Gateway Dr., Suite 106, Grimes, Iowa 50111).
  • Come meet me at Pints and Politics – an informal social event in Chickasaw County, Iowa. You can meet me at The Pub at the Pinicon, 2205 S Linn Ave, New Hampton, Iowa, from 6.30pm to 7.30pm on Thursday, July 18th.
  • Come meet me at 7pm on July 25th in Benton County – at La Reyna (202 West 4th Street, Vinton, IA, 52349) for a meet and greet organized by Rosemary Schwartz! 
You can find all our events here.

For more information, contact:
Evan O'Connell
Communications Director