Letter from Langdon: The Gag’s on Us

Big Ag hides behind the picket fence and lets the little guys fight their battles. Why are farmers siding with multinational corporations like Monsanto, which seems to be a law unto itself?

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Maybe I exaggerate. But it seems I’ve been a farmer all my life.

Truth is, I was born on the farm to farmers, who were born on the farm to farmers.

I used to think that placed me near the top of Agriculture.

But now I’m not so sure.

These days it’s pretty popular for anyone who does business with farmers or ranchers to climb into the big tent called “Agriculture.” All the corporations who make money selling me things I need, or buying the things I grow, like to say they’re “Agriculture” just like me.

We’re all in this together?

Not really.

Farmers used to see the corporations they did business with in a slightly different light. There wasn’t much glamour to agriculture when Dad was doing it. Everything came down to whether or not he made a living. Back then farmers wore white shirts and ties to church and family funerals. But guys who went to work dressed like that Monday through Friday stood worlds apart.

Farmers like Dad figured anyone who wore Sunday clothes every day was different. He would never have gone to bat for them.

But in order to be card-carrying members of “Agriculture,” farmers today are also expected to carry water for a lot of corporate suits.

Dad could only shake his head.

Animal lives and human lives reside on two different planes. Agriculture should respect animals not because they’re equals, but in the same way we regard any gift, with gratitude and respect. Suits in agriculture say farmers and corporations alike must be united against accusations of animal abuse.

Then it seems like they figure out new ways to do it.

The way I see it, when Agriculture can’t justify itself or the way it does things, they turn to guys like me for help because most Americans think of farmer me as a good guy and share the same feelings about corporations that Dad did.

But when I can’t cope against multinational companies on an uphill playing field, my allies in Agriculture the corporations they say it’s because I’m not competitive.

According to Agriculture, when that happens, it’s better not to talk about it.

Ag Gag is the short name for laws muzzling people against talking about or showing Agriculture in an unfriendly light or challenging corporate agribusiness practices.

Here in Missouri we adore CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) and GMOs (Genetically Modified Organism). Our General Assembly has worked tirelessly to pass an Ag Gag law any corporation would love. That’s become an annual effort in our capital, Jefferson City. Understandably a few people have gotten wise, so for the last couple of years stealth has been replaced by Agriculture public relations.

Citizens and groups opposed to Ag Gags stood directly across from most commodity producer groups working on behalf of Agriculture.

Exposed to the light of day, the rather toothless result showed only that the General Assembly was committed to doing something even if it’s wrong.

Photo by LM Otero/AP
The legal protections afforded Smithfield Foods now could benefit an international company based in China, which is purchasing the company in the largest U.S.-China deal ever.

In the past Missouri’s legislature has supported corporate Agriculture by placing limits on collectible damages when corporate takers destroy property values and the environment. One chronic corporation in particular, Smithfield Foods, faced multiple lawsuits and repeated million-dollar judgments.

So the General Assembly and Agriculture rallied to their rescue by passing a law allowing Big Pig to eat their neighbors, so to speak … without penalty.

When the Missouri legislature voted to limit lawsuits against Smithfield and others, I thought they’d handed over our private property rights to U.S. corporations. Boy was I wrong. The giveaway was actually on an international scale, because Smithfield has been purchased by a Chinese corporation in the biggest Chinese/U.S. takeover ever.

Well known for humanitarian beliefs and adherence to the law, China should be a great partner for Agriculture.

Ag Gag can have more than one meaning. I definitely choke up over GMOs but it’s nothing to laugh about. Most of the time, Ag law is pretty clear cut. There are reasons for the way we do things. For instance, take cattle.

I must keep my livestock penned on my farm. If they get out, I owe my neighbors for the damage my cattle do to their property– things like eating crops or wrecking someone’s car on the highway. If my bull gets out and breeds the neighbor’s cow, the calf is his. No questions asked.

Photo by Liz O. Baylen/AP
Hundreds of protesters take to the streets as part of a global series of marches against seed giant Monsanto Co. and genetically modified foods on Saturday, May 25 at City Hall in Los Angeles. “March Against Monsanto” protesters say they wanted to call attention to the dangers posed by genetically modified food and the food giants that produce it.

But for Monsanto, if their patented GMO pollen gets out, whatever it impregnates is theirs. It’s spooky. Anything they touch becomes their property. And while Smithfield’s neighbors in Missouri can’t collect punitive damages, Monsanto always does.

If farmers’ crops contain Monsanto’s genes, then the farmers in question are routinely penalized. No one knows for sure how much, because with gag orders imposed in plea agreements with Monsanto, nobody talks about it. This is justified they say because it’s what Agriculture needs.

In this case Agriculture is Monsanto.

Applied to the cattle business, the “Monsanto Protection Act” recently passed by the U.S. Senate  would allow a disreputable cattleman to release thousands of bulls to impregnate as many cows as possible wherever they are, claim the entire calf crop and sue his neighbors for damages.

Now a gene Monsanto placed into wheat that was never approved for sale has found its way into the food system.  No one knows what to do. Buyers don’t want GMO wheat, but Monsanto’s bull ran wild and made a wreck.

There’s not much point in looking to the law for help. Looks to me like big corporations in Agriculture are sue-proof.

It’s definitely an Ag Gag, and the joke is on us.

Richard Oswald, a fifth generation farmer, lives in Langdon, Missouri, and is president of the Missouri Farmers Union.

 

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