For the past 13 years, members of the Organization for Competitive Markets have gathered to talk about unfair markets and antitrust violations in the agriculture business. The voices were rising again last week in Kansas City.
Agriculture and the people who build lives around it have never really been known to cry wolf. We seek understanding and occasionally we argue for fair treatment, but creating problems where none exist is something few of us do.
If there’s anything life on the land teaches it’s self-reliance. America’s farmers and ranchers don’t beg for assistance because they’re just too busy to take the time.
Occasionally when things get bad enough, leaders emerge who speak up for the rest of us. That’s what the Organization for Competitive Markets does. It speaks up, and that’s why the theme of the 13th annual OCM Food and Agriculture Conference was titled “Voices Rising from the Land.“
The first voice we heard was when Mike Callicrate opened the meeting.
Mike’s voice is well known among many in the beef industry, not only because he has always spoken up against packer power and market concentration but also because he has long been a pioneer in the farm-to-community food movement.
Mike came through loud and clear when he told the audience that a wealth of food is created on America’s farms and ranches while big agribusiness performs the task of marketing and distribution. In Mike’s words, “We create the wealth, they do the laundry. They’re over-paid for what they do.”
Then Brother David Andrews’s invocation filled the room. His was the second voice and his rose all the way to Heaven.
More voices would follow throughout the day as panelists addressed the shortcomings of GIPSA (that’s the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Act) rule enforcement, transgenic seed concentration, global fertilizer cartels, improprieties in the way beef checkoff taxes are allocated and used, and a nationwide coalition headed up by multi-billion dollar agribusiness concerns that want to confuse the public into thinking of them as family farmers and ranchers.
The Promise of 2009
Two years ago in St Louis at the 2009 OCM conference, it looked like there would finally be some strong enforcement of the laws governing the livestock markets because the Obama administration named Dudley Butler head GIPSA administrator. Since then packers have enlisted the help of many in Congress to muffle enforcement.
During last Friday’s conference Fred Stokes, OCMs executive director said, “We’ve been having a tough time getting the politicians to act.”
According to lobbyist Steve Etka of Etka Consulting, the latest ploy to deny livestock producers a voice in how they market their produce has been to deny funding in Congress for Grain Inspection and Stockyards Administration’s enforcement arm. One way to see that a law isn’t enforced is to fire all the police.
Packer power also has implications for food product safety. “Food safety as it relates to the Cargill turkey recall counters claims that concentration lends itself to better (quality) control,” Etka said. What happens instead is that any problem in the overly concentrated supply chain leads to instant problems across the nation for many more consumers.
Speaking of concentration, seed patents in the hands of too few have had negative consequences for cotton, soybean, and corn producers in the U.S., according to Peggy Thaxton-Smith. Genetic modification of cotton seeds has virtually halted improved yields and led to problems as funding for public research has been lost and researchers are forced to rely on private grants.
Of course the only ones who offer grants are large seed companies like Monsanto who control gene patents and place the burden of controlling the spread of these new transgenes squarely on the backs of farmers and researchers.
“They tell me it’s my responsibility to keep transgenes out of my cotton,” Thaxton-Smith said, but Monsanto won’t divulge the critical proprietary information she needs to identify them herself.
So the presence of just one patented trait in her crop makes any variety untouchable for public use — and unusable — even though conventionally bred plants offer yield advances that genetic engineering has never delivered.
The end result is less genetic diversity, static yields, and ultimately, higher costs for farmers and consumers alike.
But it works great for talking corporate profits higher.
Roundup’s Legacy and 100-Bushel Beans
Genetically modified crops rely on pest control as the sole bragging point for improved yields. They also tend to rely on similar herbicides like the glyphosate used on Roundup Ready crops. That means less diversity when it comes to weed control.
But what if the single most popular herbicide on the market today has negative effects on soil and plant health? Dr Bob Kremer of Missouri University discussed his research that indicates a possible change in soil health due to accumulated glyphosate residues in both soils and plants.
Dr Kremer stopped short of calling the evidence conclusive, but given the limited funding he receives for his research, it takes time to eliminate variables and replicate tests to remove that shadow of a doubt. Just the same, all the indications are that increased levels of glyphosate result in plant nutrients being tied up in the soil and unavailable while fungal diseases thrive for the same reason.
Dr Kremer said, “We need to develop an agro-ecological approach” to better manage the impacts of relying so heavily on one or two types of crop pest control. Dr Kremer added that potential soybean yields could be much higher than the current mid forty-bushel national average, perhaps up to 100 bushels regardless of genetic modification, if good soil management is applied.
We may not see a mass exodus away from Roundup Ready soybeans because the first genetic patents are due to expire soon. That could make soybean seed cheaper for farmers who plant older technology without the tech fees.
But Diana Moss felt that seed companies might need to be compelled to share information with generic seed companies, universities, and farmers in much the same way pharmaceutical companies were forced to share information on their own formerly patented products. “Monsanto is a steward of the expiring roundup technology,” Moss said, and they made a lot of money from it. “They should be required to shepherd this technology through by allowing rival generic seed companies access to all data regarding development of the technology,” she said.
Dr. Robert Taylor’s voice is usually subdued, but it rose as he talked about fertilizer cartels and the way prices are set.
With more people to feed in the world than ever before, nutrients for crops worldwide are in greater demand. But mined nutrient supplies are finite and in decline. Only a handful of companies control access to these vital minerals.
Evidence is mounting that they may be talking to each other in a way that controls supplies and prices in their favor. Taylor said the Federal Trade Commission had been unwilling to act against concentration in the fertilizer trade until OCM issued a press release bringing attention to the situation. FTC then agreed to do a substantive analysis of the trade.
“If I came out with a price gouging index, potash would be the highest followed by phosphate,” Taylor said.
Attorney Dan Owen said using the Sherman Antitrust Act through private litigation is the way to go, especially when government refuses to listen and act against powerful corporations. That’s what Owen’s law firm has done with potash companies. “Do I believe it’s going on in phosphate?” Owen asked. “You betcha. (But) we felt the potash case was stronger and that’s why we went ahead with that.”
Owen also addressed difficulties experienced by beef producers when they take the big packers to court as happened with in Pickett vs. IBP; a jury found in favor of the cattlemen only to have a judge overturn the verdict.
Packers haven’t lost a major case in 30 years partly because requirements the government places on such cases are difficult to meet. Again, the Sherman Antitrust law is an important tool. Owen believes cash cattle prices are being forced down unfairly by as much as 9%. “This is a death struggle for beef producers who may retain use of the land but lose control of their industry,” he said.
Fake Farmers and Ranchers
More voices rose throughout the day like those who spoke of improprieties in the way the beef checkoff taxes are spent, handed from insider to insider for sight-seeing trips over seas, or even to finance public relations campaigns designed to drown out the voices of independent cattlemen.
And we heard about the corporations who’ve dubbed themselves farmers and ranchers and copyrighted the very names we use to describe ourselves, when really they’re just corporate raiders intent on silencing opposition.
Independent columnist Alan Guebert was awarded this years Helmuth Award for speaking the truth over and over until someone finally hears. “I don’t generally accept these awards,” he said. “I have this motto: You can’t eat walnut. But OCM is different.”
The last voice heard was that of hedge fund manager Mike Masters, who called himself a professional speculator. Mike described the flow of money into farm commodities, first in futures markets, but now through actual physical ownership.
“Wall Street banks invested over $2 billion in storage capacity” of those commodities, said Masters. And investors “have poured $300 billion into commodity indexes.” Here is Mike Master’s testimony before the U.S. Senate.
In the meantime, here on the land, those of us who depend on futures markets to gauge demand and make decisions about what farm products America needs most are baffled by markets based more on buy and hold hoarding than marketplace give and take.
Silence from government regulators has been deafening. But the message from OCM’s thirteenth annual Food and Agricultural Conference was loud and clear.
Richard Oswald is a Missouri farmer, the president of the Missouri Farmers Union and a regular Yonder columnist.