In 2009 the Obama administration began investigating the impact of large agricultural corporations, food processors, and retailers, and their concentrated control of farm wholesale and retail markets.
Rural America was hopeful.
A lot of us thought that injustices first addressed by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson would finally be settled. We thought the hundred-year-old Packers and Stockyards Act would at last be enforced. And we hoped the heavy handed way seed companies had enforced their patents would end.
Hearings were held across the country, five of them, and people came out of the woodwork to let authorities know just how extensive market control had become and how it had affected their communities, their businesses and their lives.
Government attorneys interviewed potential witnesses for the four scheduled hearings. I was one of those people they talked to prior to selecting a handful to testify.
Though I was not chosen for the first hearing in Ankeny, Iowa, another member of Missouri Farmers Union, Jim Foster, was selected. Jim told about how difficult it had become to raise hogs independently at a time when a few big packers controlled marketing opportunity. There were others there with similar experiences. (You can read Jim Foster’s testimony here.)
Throughout 2010 the Departments of Justice and Agriculture continued the hearings. In rural communities across the country, expectations grew that finally something would be done. While only a few actually got the chance to tell their stories, thousands showed up to support the cause and the speakers and to listen.
The hearings continued, from Ankeny to Normal, Alabama, to Madison, Wisconsin, to Fort Collins, Colorado, to Washington, D.C. And then…nothing. No suits were filed and no mention has been made about what, if anything, will happen next.
Looking back it is difficult to understand how so much hullabaloo could have resulted in so little real action. It appears that old laws never enforced are unenforceable. Court judgments galore affirm that. But to many of us who supported candidate Barack Obama in parts of the country where he was not the most popular choice, it is difficult to understand.
We took him at his word. The competition hearings, beginning two years ago last week in Iowa, led us down a path to almost nothing.
Administration appointees who gave us hope and forged ahead have moved on. Some, like Dudley Butler the GIPSA administrator (Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration) have been smeared, their reputations of honesty and selfless public service questioned.
Sure, suggestions have been made that we haven’t heard the last, that following another election cycle more action will be forthcoming. Well, I’m from the Show Me State. After what has already happened, who among us will step up to place their lives and careers on the line yet again?
If there’s one thing we have all been shown it is that in our nation today rich men not only have more money, they have more power. Laws we were convinced would protect us from their greed are nullified across multiple administrations, Democrat and Republican. The FBI puts bank robbers in jail, but the government won’t touch you if you wear a business suit and work in an office suite on the fortieth floor.
The message gets clearer. Such are the choices we have today. It is no wonder Americans vote in small numbers.
But the big corporations who control our food supply have become heartened by the Obama Administrations failure to act. Now they want to remove all reference to livestock — known as the livestock title — from the next farm bill. The purpose is to kill the last and final hope of family farms and ranches.
That hope rests with being able to identify our food by clear labeling of where it was produced.
Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) has been selectively applied to a few things. Seafood is identified as to its origin just as shirts or pants or socks generally are. Many of those things come from just a single source these days, so much so that labeling almost seems like unpaid advertising for our trading partner/competitor, China. But for much of our domestic food supply we can only guess…or assume…that what we place on the dinner table at home came from home.
Lack of action or even understanding from government enforcers leaves some who feel the injustice most severely to turn to non-governmental organizations for help. In some cases those groups may seem beyond mainstream and dubious.
But if government won’t help, then maybe citizen groups, with money and a purpose, will. There are Americans who do not understand marketing rights, but most know about animal rights and the indignity of industrial livestock.
These days humanity applies less to people than to creatures. Those beliefs can be enforced by consumers following the recommendations of animal rights groups even when laws aren’t enforced by government.
The failure of government to act will manifest itself in many ways.
Animal rights groups will change agriculture because illustrations they show the public are simple and to the point. The public can see those images and digest them in a few moments without thought or question. The whole thing is reduced to one simple moral concept of good or bad. Congress and state legislators will be involved, but many will be unwilling participants in a home-grown quest not just for justice, but any justice at all.
In this age of global terrorism, saber rattling, and trade distorting policies, it would be nice to know our government is looking out for us.
If only it were.
Richard Oswald is a fifth generation Missouri farmer, the president of the Missouri Farmers Union and a regular Yonder contributor.