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On Farmers, Activists and Scary Food Issues

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Originally published on The Green Fork.

I must confess that before I traveled to Iowa earlier this month, I had rubbed elbows with quite a few farmers, but by and large, they were not typical. Many of them were organic producers. Many were young. Probably a statistically disproportionate number of them were women.

When I got there, I took a "field trip" out of Des Moines to a number of farms and I was struck by the conflicting feelings that the visual of miles upon miles of corn evoked in me. On the one hand, a pastoral wholesomeness that rang with my heart, though not with my head. On the other, the cliche: Children of the Corn. To be sure, while the Midwestern landscape is bereft of the overstimulation of the city and full of some of the nicest people you'll ever meet, there is also some creepy stuff going on there, namely an unhealthy amount of genetically modified corn and soy, a staggering number of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and a lot of industry influence.

Before flying out, I'd been thinking a lot, as usual, about food production and the controversies that surround it. Michael Pollan had just been lambasted in Wisconsin by what felt, to me, not unlike the anti-healthcare reform "tea parties" we saw earlier this fall. Yes, there were real people, real farmers in fact, and yes, they were likely genuinely threatened by Pollan's message, but the fact that they were reportedly organized by a Madison-based feed company to protest Pollan's appearance cost them in credibility.

These were not the farmers I'd been hanging out with.

Last spring, Smithfield CEO Larry Pope, seeking to deflect blame after H1N1 appeared to have originated in a Smithfield operation in Mexico, said in an interview that family farmers stood to suffer from the massive hit the pork market took when the outbreak first occurred. While that may have been true, Smithfield's strategy of vertical integration has done more to put small producers out of business than have...well, the factory farming practices that almost surely created the breeding grounds for the swine flu.

And yet, industry would have those who follow such things believe that it's activists who create problems for farmers, and they are eager to pit them against one another. Talk about "sustainable" agriculture or "swine flu" and you hate farmers. Ask too many questions about GMOs and you're a science-hating elitist who doesn't care about the hungry. It seems to me that agribusiness has used farmers as human shields to deflect the claims of activists of all stripes -- animal welfare, labor, environmental, social justice, etc.

Let me go on record here and now. I don't hate farmers.

I do hate the fact that many of the farmers I met in Iowa raise GMO corn, but visiting with them confirmed what I had long known: that they have reasons for what they do. One farmer I met cited subsidies and futures as his reason for growing commodity crops. Indeed, if you were to watch your fellow farmers lose farms and land over the years as you struggled yourself to stay in business, would you dare gamble on growing anything that the government didn't guarantee you a price for? Would you plant non-GMOs, knowing that if whatever you plant isn't Roundup Ready and a neighbor accidentally sprays your field -- or their spray just drifts on over -- your crop is lost? For that matter, would you go through the trouble of that risk knowing that your more sustainably-produced product was going straight into a silo with the mountains of GMO corn produced all around you, anyway?

I also hate that so many farmers have found, over the years, that the only way to raise livestock and stay in business is to raise ever-greater numbers of animals in ever-smaller spaces, and deal with manure in unhealthy ways. I hate that companies like Cargill and Smithfield have managed to trap farmers and their animals between a rock and a hard place, where the farmer incurs all the risk, the animals suffer more and the company makes all the profit. I hate that traditional methods of raising livestock, along with concerns for animal welfare, workers rights, public health and other social and environmental justice issues have fallen victim to vertical integration and unchecked free market capitalism, in essence, forcing farmers to be complicit in a dangerous system that puts eaters, workers and the environment all at risk.

I know that there are farmers who will find something here to disagree with. I'm not saying that we all can or should get along, but I did meet several conventional farmers in Iowa with whom I'd love to grab a beer. I hope they felt the same way. My guess is, without the twisting of words provided by industry shills, most activists and most farmers would find they have much more in common than either of them do with any multinational corporation, or even with seemingly farmer friendly front groups, like the Farm Bureau.

Speaking of the Farm Bureau, a few states over, in Ohio, an "issue" is on the November ballot which illustrates industry's attempt to lock environmental and animal rights advocates out of any future conversation about farm policy, in this case, regualations that apply to livestock production. Issue 2 would allow the governor of Ohio to appoint members to a "Livestock Care Standards Board," which, if I'm getting this right, would give the group unchecked power over all future decisions on the care of farm animals.

Proponents of the measure are framing it as a food safety issue, but opponents are calling it a corporate, special interest takeover of the Ohio constitution. In fact, Ohio ACT (Ohio Against Constitutional Takeover) have put together an analysis of the funding (PDF) behind Ohioans for Livestock Care, less than 8% of which came below the $1,000 mark and over 66% was in chunks of $20,000 or larger. Far and away, the Ohio Farm Bureau was the largest contributor, but the twelve largest donations all came from either corporations or industry groups. Not exactly a grassroots effort.

So, who's scarier? The people, like Michael Pollan, who would speak out about the problems with our food production, or the people behind a measure to cut them out of the conversation completely?