Letter from Langdon: Have a Nice Day

When it comes to addressing the concerns of farmers and consumers, Big Ag and Big Government are talking out of both sides of their full mouths. 

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As Russell got older, his health went downhill. That’s probably why he was a little grouchy. Since he lived just across the road, I was an easy listening post for all that ailed him.

“I don’t think much of that new co-op manager — Bill Whats-His-Name. I don’t even know why they hired him,” Russ said as I tightened a bolt on my planter.

That didn’t make sense. Everyone liked Bill. Well, everyone but Russ. Bill was jolly and happy and hard working to a fault. Our farmer owned co-op had been financially challenged for years. It looked like Bill might turn it around.

“Do you know what that guy said to me this morning?” Russ asked. I was all ears. “I gave him my check for this month’s bill and he had the nerve to tell me ‘Have a nice day.’ Can you believe that guy?”

Russ had his opinion. It wasn’t exactly the right one by my measure, but it reflected the way he felt. So I gave the manager an “E plus” for effort. He was doing the best he could with what he had to work with.

Before long, Bill moved on, and eventually the co-op closed.

Maybe Russell made a good point. But if he was wrong, he had plenty of company. When it comes to being misinformed, only Italy is worse than America at getting their facts straight, a survey found.

Backing that up, a recent study by the Brookings Institute points out that most Americans get their news from sources reflecting their own political ideology rather than unbiased reporting sources. That’s one reason why Americans are so poorly informed. They choose the news that conforms to their own belief rather than relying on unbiased reporting and an open mind.

Like my grouchy neighbor, some Americans see themselves victims of murky circumstance, concluding there’s no such thing as a good day.

It’s getting so opinions on food are formed the same way.

A lot of farmers tend to side with their big brother’s industry. That’s partly because  something farmers fear even more than weather disasters is government regulation. Just the thought of being found in violation of state or federal laws sends a chill down the spine of any family farmer. Legal costs and fines can destroy savings and equity of average farmers.

But big corporations have time, money and lawyers enough to withstand just about any government ruling. Always in the back of our minds is that while Titans of commerce battle it out with Uncle Sam, those same masters of the universe can stomp down barns and farmhouses without much trouble.

Small wonder why, these days, farmers are leery of both sides.

Right this moment, epic battles are taking place on several political fronts. During recent Congressional appropriations meetings, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association has been successful in weakening prospects for U.S. beef to be labeled as to country of origin (COOL).

Chase Adams, director of communications at NCBA recently told the Daily Yonder that his organization wants no country of origin label for beef at all. That could be because NCBA represents not just U.S. cattle producers, but multi-national meat packers. According to Mr. Daniel, funding NCBA receives through control of beef promotion funds is collected not just from U.S. cattlemen but from imported beef as well. NCBA has also attempted to raise the amount assessed against U.S. beef producers from $1 per head to $2.

The way those funds are spent is supposed to be overseen by a branch of the federal government, USDA.

More producer friendly farm groups like National Farmers Union and U.S. Cattlemen have opposed new taxes for cattle growers and argued for returning beef promotion to non-political control. That’s so American farmers and ranchers can get more bang for their promotion buck instead of more political back-room bargaining.

It’s only fair to say there have been challenges from the World Trade Organization to labeling of U.S. beef, but National Farmers Union and their allies continue to defend U.S. farmers and ranchers while urging the Obama administration to do the same.

It seems odd that a U.S. farm organization would side with foreign regulators. But NCBA and another big ag group or two want to throw in the towel on country-of-origin labeling so both they and the WTO get their way.

Ideological/political control is a common dilemma among agriculture interests today, as more competition from foreign sources of food, combined with health concerns and rising food costs, battle it out for basic consumer information about food ingredients.

Without country-of-origin labeling of beef, food manufacturers are free to mix anything into your hamburger with no explanation of why beef with transportation costs from part way round the world (Argentina, Brazil, New Zealand, Mexico, Uruguay) can be sold in direct competition with Missouri, Oklahoma or Texas beef grown beef right here at home. But that’s always been a common thread in the beef business, where low quality ingredients mixed into high quality markets yield better-than-average corporate profits.

Now the U.S. has approved chicken cooked in China for import into the U.S. Because Chinese firms will use raw chicken imported from the U.S., cook the meat, then return it to America, that product will not be subject to labeling.

Accompanying the tasteless news that chicken nuggets will be making 14,000-mile round trips from Kansas City to China and back again is the revelation that self inspection by chicken processors here has had some very questionable results. There’s that corporate/ government partnership again. They tell you it’s great, even when it’s not.

Genetically engineered food is another area where corporate profit gains government support.

Seed companies have argued that genetically modified corn and soybeans are no different than non-modified crops preceding them. They fight labeling tooth and nail, and they’ve been winning, most recently when voters in Oregon rejected a ballot measure that would have made labeling mandatory. A number of corporate opponents were said to have spent at least $11 million to defeat the measure.

Of course those crops are easily discerned from their predecessors by a simple litmus test. It’s not like it’s impossible. Seed is labeled, and crops the seed produces maintain their identity until leaving the farm lest patent dodgers illegally skirt the system by planting their own seed.

Then the label magically disappears.

Seed/chemical/pharmaceutical companies have always proudly advertised genetically modified seeds for their benefits to farmers. And farmers are required by law to pay royalties for the right to plant those patented seeds. However, seed companies haven’t divulged how much of the bill is for “seed” and how much is for patented implanted “traits.” And government doesn’t require it.

We’re all in the dark.

Government has cut back on corporate supervision by allowing corporations to do more self inspection and certification. Under the plan, business is expected to monitor itself and let us all know if it does something wrong. That might be cost effective for government, but it removes responsibility for keeping corporations honest.

Most parents with teenagers can tell you self inspection works with limited success.

Big corporations and government work together for corporate profit by labeling and promoting questionable practices for food imports, food inspection and genetically modified crops. And corporations and government collaborate to deny the right of consumers on both sides of the farm gate to know when they’ve consumed those things, where they came from, what they really are or even what they cost.

As we’ve used more genetically modified crops over a longer period of time, some have continued to say those crops are responsible for less chemical application to the land. The active ingredient to Monsanto Corporations Roundup, glyphosate, continues to get most of the credit. But over the years, weeds have become resistant to glyphosate, and farmers have sought and used some old pesticides and a handful of newer ones in combination with glyphosate to combat tougher weeds. In some cases seed companies tell farmers they should use not less but more fungicides and insecticides too. 

Personally, I don’t think those pesticide cocktails are dangerously toxic to consumers. Because most of the genetically modified crops we grow are fed to livestock, used to make biofuels or have other industrial uses. But as we apply more of it, glyphosate has begun to be detected in some grain, especially when applied late season after grain is fully developed, and it’s showing up in some urban water supplies.

Early claims that glyphosate just “disappears” after application seem to be wrong.

Yet another questionable corporate claim that just isn’t true.

Farmers in the U.S. have a saying dating back to the days of costly government funded cropland diversion programs, when crops were cheap and farm profits low, and Midwestern crop farmers were accused of being on the public dole:

“Don’t cuss the farmer with your mouth full.” 

These days both government and big business talk out both sides of their mouth to deny consumers the simple right to have the knowledge and food they want by putting a happy face on everything they do.

They seem to be saying: “Have a nice day and quit worrying about it. You’ll get what we want you to have.”

Maybe things could be worse. But I think I see Russell’s point.

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

 

Topics: Ag and Trade
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