RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Green Energy Soars but Ranchers’ Ledgers Bleed Red

Happy New Year! And, after 2016 we were sure happy to see that calendar turn!

I usually use this first column of the new year to review the last year’s important-but-not-on-the-front-page stories. As we know, the stories that make the most impact on our everyday lives are at the back of the newspaper, not in the headlines. This year, especially, we all know what was on page one. Not since Monica Lewinsky has any one story dominated the media.

So, here goes. My first pick is GOOD news: the story on divestment from fossil fuels. confirmed the good news in the last days of 2016, saying “the divestment movement doubled in size since 2015. 688 institutions across 76 countries who represent more than $5 trillion worth of assets have committed to divest ... in countries all over the world. Faith groups, cultural institutions, pension funds, universities and more have committed to divest
from fossil fuels.”

$5 trillion out of the fossil fuel industry! That’s HUGE! And, pay attention to that line about “faith groups … pension funds … universities...” It means that even if you don’t own any stock, you might have a dog in this fight. Ask your fund managers to get out of the losers. Besides taking money out of the fossil fuel corporations, divestment means more money going into solar and wind power. Good news for the air, water and maybe even the climate.

So that’s the good news. On the other side, the top story, ordinary-people-wise, is cancellation of the US country-of-origin- labeling (COOL) for meats at the grocery store.

That’s right. If you buy your meat at the grocery store, you knew (from 2002 up until mid-2016) what nation that meat came from. You could choose US beef and support your local cattlemen. Or, if you like New Zealand or Venezuela better, you could choose their products.

That changed last year.

And, coincidentally—NOT—the market crashed for American beef producers. So my neighbors with their Angus herds are getting about half of what they got in 2014 when they take their animals to the auction. But, amazingly, their expenses don’t come in at half. It cost just as much for them to feed, water and treat their animals, and hire labor. Gasoline was just as high, and so were bills like internet, phone, electricity and college for the kids. And interest on all those loans that keep rural America floating.

COOL wouldn’t matter if the processors dedicate themselves to using American beef, cut it up and sent it to the soup factory, but the processors don’t care whether they’re buying from here or from, say, Brazil, where the rain forests have been chopped and burnt down to make pasture. The great thing about buying from South Americans, the processors say, is that South American meat is cheap. Land costs, labor, water—all the benefits of the commons—cheaper AND unregulated. Take as much as you can, big corporation! And the corporations can especially score if they buy from nations where economies are in the tank, like Venezuela, because there are fewer government watchdogs making sure the corporations follow the rules.

If there are any rules.

The thing about the commons—air, water, climate and even land in some cultures—is that if there is no rule of law, the commons’ care is in the hands of the community. In some cultures, there’s a deep understanding
of taking care of things for the future. Throwing back the little fish and
harvesting the big ones. Leaving the little plants in the woods to grow up. Leaving some of the groundwater in the ground instead of pulling so much that your neighbors’ wells go dry.

That, as I said, is sometimes a cultural norm. Maybe we called it “common sense.” Passed from generation to generation. There once were community-owned fields where everyone could graze their cattle. They all had common sense about how many cattle they needed to feed their families. But then, somebody decided he could sell more if he owned more cattle. Then somebody else did the same. Now, suddenly, there was competition for the resource. Pretty soon there were so many animals that the commons were ruined and would take years to recover. All the cattle had to go. The entire community suffered.

Science understands what happened—the ecosystem collapsed. Too many cattle mean too much pressure on the grasses, the dirt, the earthworms, microbes, things that live under the surface.

But the guys with the most cattle made money … for a little while. That’s how the corporations can create more wealth for their friends. Stockbrokers, say, and CEOs.

And we all know that’s the top story, so no need for review.

Here’s to a GREAT 2017, and hopes for lots more GOOD stories than bad ones.

Margot Ford McMillen farms near Fulton, Mo., and co-hosts Farm and Fiddle on sustainable ag issues on KOPN 89.5 FM in Columbia, Mo. Email:

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2017

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