To those farmers, consumers and elected representatives who have traditionally entertained the notion that the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) is "the voice of American agriculture" the recent 60 Minutes exposé of the Farm Bureau's financial affairs may have come as a shock.
Likewise to many farmers weaned on AFBF propaganda, Mike Wallace's report may have appeared as yet one more attack on agriculture by a corporate dominated media, a renewed attempt to portray farmers and farm organizations as more concerned with the bottom line than with feeding people.
Unfortunately, the 60 Minutes piece contributed in some measure to such an impression by making it appear that the Farm Bureau's financial interests and the rewarding of their officers with lucrative financial investments was all of recent origin. Such is not the case, however, for from the days of its very founding the Farm Bureau's bureaucracy has solidly aligned itself with the interests of corporate agribusiness, treating its members not as members, but rather as docile paying customers.
Anyone familiar with Dale Kramer's timely The TRUTH About the Farm Bureau, published in the mid-'30's and reprinted in 1950, Wesley McCune's well-documented The Farm Bloc, published in 1943, Samuel R. Berger's telling Dollar Harvest: An Expose of the Farm Bureau, published in 1971 and Grant McConnell's thoughtful The Decline of Agrarian Democracy published in 1977 knows that the Farm Bureau has indeed been the "enemy within" agriculture, that its leadership has paid scant attention to the needs of family farmers while enriching themselves at the expense of those same members.
Had 60 Minutes simply made a passing references to the pioneering work of these authors, in addition to the efforts of the late Rep. Joseph Resnick (D-N.Y.) in the late 1960s to expose the Farm Bureau, the viewing public would have soon realized that the Farm Bureau is an 80-year-old scandal in agriculture that not only our elected representatives, but the nation's major farm organizations have refused to confront.
In a speech on the House of Representatives floor in 1967 that still resonates today Rep. Resnick charged that the Farm Bureau had done more to prevent the economic and social advancement of rural citizens than any other organization in America.
"The Farm Bureau is entitled to its full share of the blame for the fact that our rural areas are burdened with the most poverty, highest unemployment, least social and economic development, and poorest health facilities in the Nation. Their crime has not been mere indifference. Quite the contrary. They have intensively fought every attempt to correct these ills."
In brief, touching on the fact that the Farm Bureau still opposes the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and calls for the abolishment of the Department of Education, eliminating the Department of Energy, opposes the Equal Rights Amendment, opposes gun control, 60 Minutes failed to note that much of the AFBF's political activity, as Resnick, his one-time legislative assistant Sandy Berger (yes! the same Sandy Berger that now heads the nation's National Security Agency), Wes McCune and others have found particularly unsettling is the Bureau's close ties with the political far right in the United States.
"What might once have been a conservative, business-oriented organization is now considerably more," Resnick declared in his House speech. "By my calculation, the Farm Bureau is the most efficient conduit now in existence for the dissemination of right-wing propaganda. The Bureau is perfect sewer line for transporting right-wing ideology, particularly to our young."
It would be unfair to blame the AFBF entirely for the recent spate of fascist, racist, anti-Semitic vigilante farm groups which have sprung up throughout the US in the past 20 years, born in frustration and nurtured by a depressed farm economy. However, the Farm Bureau, through its long-standing role as a visible propaganda agent for right-wing extremism, certainly made itself the spawning ground for much of the misdirected, unsocial and violent behavior that one finds in many of our depressed farm communities.
Thus, the time is long overdue for a thorough congressional investigation of the Farm Bureau and its business practices, its tax-exempt status, its very structure, its hidden motives behind its vigorous efforts to expand the nation's crop insurance program, and in general its political muscle, often exercised not in the name of family farm agriculture, but in the promotion of the interests of its corporate agribusiness brethren. Certainly, Mike Wallace's 60 Minutes essay was a good start.
Defenders of the Wildlife is currently spearheading such a national effort to get such an investigation underway. While the campaign has the support of many environmental organizations it still needs the solid backing of many more local and national farm organizations to succeed for such an investigative effort must not be seen as renewed conflict between farmers and environmentalists, but rather as a concerted attempt to bring long overdue economic and social justice to rural America.
A Defenders report, "Amber Waves of Gain," highlights many areas of Farm Bureau operations and demonstrates that the Farm Bureau is an intricate web of interconnecting business interests, including insurance companies,agribusiness giants and banks, linked with the national federation, the 50 state bureaus, more than 2,800 county bureaus and 4.9 million members, although 1997 Census of Agriculture figures show that there are only 1.9 million farms in the US.
To obtain a copy of "Amber Waves of Gain" or a list of the 180-plus groups joining in the call for action, contact Ken Goldman at (202) 682-9400 x237. The report is also available in PDF format at http://www.defenders.org. [Also see "The Farm Bureau: Storm Troopers of Agribusiness," by Vicki Monks, 10/99 PP.]
Sen. Tom Daschle (D-South Dakota) and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont). have introduced legislation aimed at strengthening and expanding agricultural antitrust laws to offset the massive market concentration that has been pushing many family farmers off their land.
"We're here today to announce a plan to fight the growing market concentration in agriculture that is devastating farmers and ranchers in this country --- and threatening the social infrastructure of communities across rural America," Sen. Daschle emphasized.
Joining Daschle and Leahy were Sens. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin), Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), Paul Wellstone (D-Minnesota), Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), and Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), who all expressed strong support of the legislation.
Titled "The Farmers and Ranchers Fair Competition Act" it would:
* Direct the Secretary of the Agriculture Department to crack down on anti-competitive practices, such as unreasonable preference, "right of first refusal" requirements by packers, unjustified price discrimination, retaliation against whistle-blowers, and packer ownership of more than 100 percent of each packer's total slaughter capacity.
* Require the USDA to conduct pre-merger community impact analyses, and assess whether proposed mergers would negatively impact family farms, ranches or rural communities.
* Establish a Family Farmer and Rancher Claims Commission, which would reimburse producers who suffer extraordinary damages as a result of unfair practices as described in this bill.
* Require agriculture-related businesses that do at least $100 million in business a year to file with the agriculture secretary all strategic alliances, lobbyists, interlocking boards of directors, and ownership in other agribusiness or agriculture-related firms.
* Require General Accounting Office studies on concentration in milk processing, farm-to-retail price spreads, the potential benefit of breaking up "mega-firms," the competition limiting effects of biotech patents and multinational mergers, and market power as it relates to marketing agreements, forward contracting, and formula contracts.
The legislation would allow the USDA to fine offending companies $300,000 for violations, Daschle said. The USDA could continue to fine companies $100,000 a day after that for each day that the company continues to violate the law.
"It is time for Congress to act to address the issue of concentration and consolidation head on," Sen. Harkin said. "There is no doubt farm families are being hit by a tidal wave of economic concentration and consolidation that is threatening their survival in a way that is unlike anything in the past."
Daschle said that it was unlikely that the legislation would pass this year, but that he hopes to continue to build support for the bill.
The legislation was immediately supported by the National Farmers Union (NFU) as the organization reaffirmed its support of legislation that responds to the need to address the anti-competitive trends in agriculture. "We see this legislation as a good step in our attempt to put competition back into markets so farmers and ranchers can earn a fair price for the commodities they produce," said NFU President Leland Swenson.
"In this environment of rapid expansion and integration by the largest agribusinesses, we need to revisit the fundamental antitrust laws to ensure a fair, open, and competitive market place," he added. "Today, we are seeing the effects on our rural communities of markets that are controlled by a few conglomerates. The low prices that result have devastated the rural economy."
Fearful that the growing opposition to genetically engineered food abroad may be gaining a significant foothold in the US, Monsanto, a unit of Pharmacia Corp; the Aventis CropScience unit of Aventis S.A.; Dow Chemical Co.; DuPont Co.; and others are launching a $50 million campaign to be run through a newly formed group called the Council for Biotechnology Information, for a massive advertising campaign aimed at promoting genetically modified food.
Organizers of the initiative have already run their first television spots with the promised of more to come soon, have also launched a Web site, have opened a call center to take public queries, and have enlisted famous people to serve as advocates of their cause and pledged to argue their case in every available forum.
Among the campaign's "distinguished advisors" are a dozen top researchers and other prominent people, including Andrew Young, former ambassador to the United Nations and currently a member of the Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) board of directors, and James Watson, a biologist famed for helping to discover the "double helix" structure of DNA in 1953.
The current campaign is a follow up to a previous advertising campaign run by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group, that focused on pharmaceutical biotechnology and was aimed mostly at opinion makers in Washington. That campaign cost less than $1 million a year.
This latest $50 million effort, bankrolled largely by seven companies active in selling genetically modified seeds or related products, is intended in part to counter interest in Congress in requiring labeling or tougher approval standards for foods containing gene-altered ingredients.
"The more people are exposed to information from a variety of sources, the more likely they are to embrace the technology," Jeffrey Bergau, a spokesman for the Monsanto Co. who is helping direct the new effort, told the Washington Post's Justin Gillis. "Our goal is to try to link people to information and data that's based on sound science."
As Gillis notes ingredients from gene-altered crops, notably lecithin made from soybeans, are already showing up in the large majority of products on American grocery shelves. "The industry contends these ingredients are safe, while anti-biotechnology activists charge that they pose unknown environmental risks and have not been studied long enough to declare them safe for human consumption. The main battle in the United States right now is over food labeling, which activists support and the industry opposes."
Some anti-genetic activists are predicting that their side of the debate might benefit even from an industry-sponsored ad campaign as one of the chief problems they face is simply been making people aware that gene-altered crops are already showing up in the food supply.
As Charles Margulis, a coordinator for Greenpeace USA, points out: "The nice thing is that consumers are pretty much concerned about biotech foods as soon as they hear about them."
A.V. Krebs is director of the Corporate Agribusiness Research Project, P.O. Box 2201, Everett, Washington 98203-0201; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ea1.com/CARP/