Further Fraying Food and Farm Coalitions


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Marc BrazeauMarc Brazeau | Editor | Food and Farm Discussion Lab | @eatcookwrite

Earlier this month I published the fifth and final installment of predictions for 2018. One of the things to watch this year is fraying coalitions among agriculture groups, ag companies, manufacturers, and retailers. As examples I talked about the ag community’s reaction to Cargill partnering with the Non-GMO Project, what looks like the imminent collapse of the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association as one major company after another withdrew in 2017, and the backbiting in the wake of the Dicamba Debacle between Monsanto and farmers, Monsanto and weed scientists, farmers and weed scientists. Just a few weeks later, there’s been more developments on all three fronts. In fact they’ve been dropping weekly like clockwork.

Bunge joins Cargill in partnering with the Non GMO Project

Farmer and eminently reasonable human being, John Phipps thinks what Cargill is doing makes sense. That puts him out of step with many peers (a common occurrence for him).

Western Producer had a piece on February 1 on Cargill’s “Yes and Yes” strategy on non-GMO certification of saying Yes to the scientific consensus on GMO safety and Yes to calls from consumers for transparency. Further down in the article similar plans from other companies including Bunge are detailed.

The Cargill controversy is now old news and possibly forgotten, but not by other players in the food industry. For other agri-companies the lesson learned is that it’s possible to pull off this sort of duplicity. It’s possible to embrace science and non-science and get away with it. It’s possible to sell into a higher value market, boost the bottom line and withstand the pushback from farmers.

Bunge now has a Non-GMO Project verified vegetable oil, labelled as Whole Harvest. The veggie oil comes from non-GM canola grown in Canada and non-GM soybeans from the U.S. Cibus, a U.S. plant-breeding firm, is now selling a herbicide tolerant variety of canola in Canada that isn’t genetically modified. It hopes to tap into the market for non-GM canola oil, as its canola will be grown for a Bunge crushing plant in Harrowby, Man. Those companies can now sell into the non-GM space, while also claiming to support science and modern agriculture because Cargill has proven that the “yes and yes” strategy can work.

GMA continues its collapse

On February 7, Politico reported on more major companies, as well as staff, exiting from the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

he Kraft Heinz Company and DowDuPont are the two latest heavyweights to part ways with the trade association, Pro Ag’s Helena Bottemiller Evich first reported Tuesday.

… There has also been a raft of staff exits and retirements amid this tumult. The high-ranking executives who have left or are departing, include Denzel McGuire, executive vice president of government relations, whose last day is Friday. Melissa San Miguel, senior director of global strategies, recently left. Mary Sophos, executive vice president for policy and strategic planning, and Robbie Burns, vice president of health and nutrition policy, have both retired.

Monsanto continues to carry a big stick in the Dicamba Debacle

And then today, Feb 14th, NPR’s Dan Charles reports on a lawsuit by Monsanto against the citizen’s Arkansas State Plant Board that has banned Dicamba use in the state. Farmers have sued the board as well.

This board on which Fuller serves is an unusual institution. Its meetings are public. The members — all men at the moment, mostly from small towns across the state — sit around a big table. They include farmers, seed dealers and a few people who work for big chemical companies. All of them volunteer their time. Two nonvoting university scientists are on the board, but there are no lawyers and no politicians.

And the members are proudly independent. The board is “self-governing, by the people, for the people,” says Ray Vester, who represented rice farmers on the board for 18 years, through 2016. Vester says it’s the best system of regulation he has ever seen. “Every other state, their boards are politically appointed by the party in power,” he says.

… Monsanto sued the board and each individual member, calling their decision arbitrary, capricious and unlawful. Hundreds of farmers who say they need dicamba to control their weeds signed a petition calling for the board to reconsider.

Six farmers also filed a lawsuit, arguing that the makeup of the board violates the Arkansas Constitution because some of the members are selected by industries that the board regulates.

“We got angry; we didn’t feel that we were able to be heard,” says Michael McCarty, one of the farmers.

One detail especially caught my eye, because of a conversation we recently had in the forum about the politics of hog CAFOs in Minnesota.

There is a chance that the plant board itself may not survive in its current form. Proposals have been floated in Arkansas’ legislature to move the board inside the state Department of Agriculture, make it less independent.

The story from Minnesota was ostensibly about the environmental impacts of hog production on Minnesota’s lakes. But the real story was about how ag lobbies in the state wield power. When the Citizens’ Board of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency ordered a corporate farm operation go through an environmental impact study before building a facility for upwards of 9,000 dairy cattle, they put unwittlingly put themselves on the chopping block.

The company, Riverview LLP, the state’s largest milk producer, responded by saying it would not go through the costly environmental process; the plan for the dairy operation in Stevens County was put on hold.

But it was the Citizens’ Board that took the harder hit. By saying “no” to Riverview, the board had said “no” to big ag.

In the Minnesota Legislature, it’s an unpopular thing to say no to big ag. Republican lawmakers, with approving nods from DFLers from the Iron Range, were angered by the board’s independence and quietly went about the business of writing the Citizens’ Board out of existence in the environment-agriculture budget bill. Though Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the bill, he has indicated, in the name of compromise, he will accept the language that eliminates the board in exchange for changes in other parts of the bill.

“There were no hearings on this,” said Steve Morse, who is a former legislator, a former high-ranking official in the Department of Natural Resources and who now is the head of the Minnesota Environmental Partnership. “As far as I can tell, there was no case ever made for why this should happen. If it does happen, it’s a happy day for those who pollute.”

If their coalition breaks up, farmers are going to find themselves isolated politically

The food and ag lobbies are particularly powerful for a few reasons. One is that rural voters are over-represented in American politics, especially in the US senate and Electoral College. But also because of the odd barbell shape of the supply chain. You have thousands of small owner operated businesses that provide highly informed, highly motivated grassroots lobbying power sandwiched between the deep-pocketed oligopolies of the equipment and seed & chemical companies on one side and the meat and commodity distributors on the other. As long as that coalition holds together, they can muscle through unpopular, polarizing legislation to protect their interest. From the ag-gag laws in a number of states to the move by North Carolina CAFO owners to strip their neighbors of property rights they’ve been more than willing to piss off and alienate non-farmers to get their way.

If that coalition starts to unravel and the Cargills and Monsantos are pulling in direction and farmers in a different one, by and large, the ag community doesn’t have much goodwill to draw on outside that coalition. If they find themselves needing new allies to advocate for their interests, there’s going to be a lot of spade work to do, and the perhaps harder work of developing a different mindset towards potential allies outside of ag.

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