Using the Law to Take on the Unjust Power of Big Ag
David Muraskin has dedicated his legal career to taking on exploitative industries that abuse their market power. Now, he’s at Public Justice to shine a light on how the highly-consolidated industrial agriculture industry operates — and to use legal tools to help the good food movement create a more just, humane and sustainable food system.
How did you get involved in this work?
Food is personal and culturally significant. What we choose to eat speaks to who we are, where we come from, and who we want to be. As a result, the public cares about our food system in ways they don’t about their banks, appliances, and furnishings. But when I look at each they tell the same story: Under the guise of “free markets” we have allowed the companies producing these goods to insulate themselves from accountability for safely making reliable products, and with that unjust power they keep new competitors from entering and exploit people.
For example, we got the housing crisis because the banks sold fraudulent mortgage products because they thought (correctly) they could pawn off the risk onto the American taxpayer. Likewise, Public Justice recently honored a woman who came forward to explain how LG had refused to compensate her for losing her hands on the job because the company had outsourced its manufacturing to Mexico to avoid labor laws.
These examples of corporate abuse are no different than what is happening in our food system.
Massive industrial agriculture companies aren’t being held responsible for the pollution they pour onto surrounding communities. They force farmers into bankruptcy after extracting their labor without taking responsibility for the loans they compel farmers to take out. They drive slaughterhouse workers into permanent disability and then use threats to silence them when they seek compensation. Because Big Ag never bears these costs, it keeps its prices artificially low and is able to prevent more sustainable competitors from entering the market.
I’ve been fighting companies like these my entire career. I started at another non-profit working on Supreme Court litigation seeking to sustain class actions and whistleblower protections so there could be some accountability. I then moved to working with several states and the federal government to prosecute the second largest for-profit education company in the country, which had convinced veterans and others to take out student loans for worthless programs they would never complete.
But, I wanted to do more than take on isolated cases. The good food movement, of which the Public Justice Food Project is a part, recognizes no case or action is a silver bullet. Yet, because people care about their food — what’s in it, how it is produced, who produces it, and the production’s effect on the world — we can build pressure for change by working together to repeatedly reveal the story of agribusiness’ unfair power. My hope is that we’re building a model for broader social reform.
While it may sound cheesy, we’ve allowed our commitment to the corporation to replace our commitment to one another. Public Justice and the broader good food movement is attempting to not only create accountability, but propose a different way to do business. To be a voice in that effort is a privilege.
How is the Food Project’s legal work helping to shift policies?
Some of the most thrilling moments in our work are when we see how legal theories we have developed support statewide or national policies. For instance, we’re currently fighting the checkoff program. This is a government compelled tax on all producers that requires them to fund advertisements for their products. While this might seem reasonable in theory, it has been co-opted by industrial agribusiness. Multinational corporations have installed their representatives on the boards spending the money, which often results in self-dealing. The representatives fund the activities of the industrial companies. Thus, the program amounts to a massive transfer of wealth from the producers to the companies. The ads often promote corporate production methods over more sustainable models that would provide a better return to producers.
As we and others have been litigating around this issue, we’ve seen it draw national attention. Cory Booker and Mike Lee first introduced a bill to reform the checkoff program and prevent this corruption. Elizabeth Warren then joined the bill and it is part of her national agriculture platform. A central principle of the Food Project is that lawsuits can remedy individual wrongs and expose key facts to reveal a more accurate story of power and exploitation. Long-term change, however, is brought by communities and their representatives demanding systems change that prevents that exploitation from happening in the first place.
“We’ve allowed our commitment to the corporation to replace our commitment to one another. Public Justice and the broader good food movement is attempting to not only create accountability, but propose a different way to do business.”
What is the most important reason to fight for a better food system?
The food system is a microcosm of the broader corporate exploitation we see all around us. Because it is so extreme, it leads to gross environmental harms that are a leading cause of climate change. Industrial agriculture is destroying public waterways and the rural communities that rely on them, exploiting workers in the form of physical and financial harms, producing unhealthy and unsafe products that are being sold as “pure” (such as meat laden with antibiotic resistant bacteria) and engaging in vast amounts of animal abuse. There are lots of angles from which to tackle our corporate food system and it desperately needs to be addressed. The harms of this industry are also a symptom of greater social ills. Whatever will motivate you to get involved, we have a story or issue that will move you.
How has industrial agriculture affected the people you work with?
Industrial agribusiness’ focus on profits over people harms every part of the food chain and our broader social structures. We’ve seen how factory farms’ “application” of manure is nothing more than open dumping, doing nothing to fertilize crops, but just a way to get rid of the excess manure their high volume of animals produce. It contaminates community wells and produces hordes of flies, driving people from their homes. Yet, those farms are acting in response to corporate demands to produce uniform animals in volume. To keep people under contract, but also unable to compete, the growers we work with describe how the companies regularly shift minor (but expensive) requirements, forcing the growers to take out huge loans that keep them under barely manageable debt and prevent them from being able to pass along a thriving business to the next generation.
We also regularly talk to processing plant workers who handle the animals once they come off the farm. To keep costs low, those plants are so poorly staffed that these workers report having to wear diapers on the line because it can be hours before they’ll be allowed to take a restroom break.
Consumers are then misled into buying these cruelly made products. We have seen company documents explaining that they know the rhetoric they use to sell their goods makes consumers believe they are buying products from pastoral farms when they are anything but. Through purchases, consumers often end up unwittingly propping up a system we are trying to avoid, giving them more money and power.
This is to say nothing about what happens to the animals. Cruelty is not baked into farming. All of the farmers we work with believe they have a responsibility to their animals. But since you can’t place a dollar value on ethics, the companies will choose mistreatment over care if it will do anything to improve their bottom line.
While it may sound extreme, our food system is so consolidated you really can see how every harm we fight against is an expression of unchecked corporate power.
Indeed, agribusiness is a powerful industry. How are they hitting back on your work?
What we see time and again is corporate agribusiness trying to misdirect and distract. In the food system there is only one source of power and control — the companies. They determine how farmers and workers are treated, how food is produced, and how it is sold. Legislatures and regulators do their bidding trying to insulate the companies from accountability both through avoiding liability and helping hide the truth about their power and production methods.
When we get close to revealing that, they attempt to label us as being against ag. The reality is, we’re not against ag — we’re against industrial food production. Public Justice’s Food Project has a stated philosophy (you can read about it on our website and see it in the cases we take and campaigns we work on.) We regularly represent ranchers, growers, and farmers and, as attorneys, we have an ethical responsibility to put their interests above our own. As movement attorneys, we work hand-in-hand with our clients because we recognize our cases aren’t the be-all and end-all; a case is a tool for them to make a broader point about the power of the system they are working against. We regularly talk with our clients not just about what we are doing, but how we are doing it so we can be sure it is exposing the exploitation in the most effective manner.
The Food Project gets attacked by industry representatives often because we are fighting their business model focused on profits for the few, and we’re being successful. So, when someone sees those attacks, I hope they would ask themselves, “Is Public Justice fighting a power structure that protects Big Ag? Are they taking on a lie, a lack of transparency, a company externalizing its costs?” The answer will be yes. And we’re doing it to break down the only power structure that truly matters in ag, the absolute control of the industrial companies.