Farmers Seek Justice in the Heartland
March 17th, 2010
We are thrilled to feature this blog post written by Kristina Hubbard, board member of NSAC member group, the Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO). Kiki attended the first in a series of hearings sponsored by the USDA and Department of Justice about concentration in the agriculture industry. Kiki is the author of a recent report, Out of Hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry.
“We’ve waited a long time for justice in the heartland.”
- Wes Shoemyer, Missouri Farmer and State Senator
Last Friday approximately 800 people gathered in Ankeny, Iowa, for the first in a series of workshops hosted by the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Agriculture (USDA) on competition in agriculture. The meeting followed an outpouring of 15,000 public comments on the topic. (It’s an open docket, so there’s still time to weigh in by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.)
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder delivered opening remarks for the “milestone event,” saying, “I don’t use milestone lightly. Not once have our Departments of Justice and Agriculture come together to discuss regulatory issues in this industry.” He encouraged the audience “to be as frank as you can be, understanding that we’re going to be receptive to that dialogue.” This remark was followed by someone in the audience yelling, “When?”
There’s truth in this outburst, of course. The workshops are long overdue — as Tom Vilsack admitted in his opening remarks — and the forum wasn’t designed for farmer input. Of the hundreds of people in attendance for the public dialogue, many of them farmers who have waited decades for a serious examination of consolidation, only a handful were given an opportunity to speak.
Knowing that would be the case, a coalition of food and farm groups arranged a town hall meeting the night before to provide farmers another opportunity to speak. Dozens of farmers, ranchers, and other advocates took to the podium with thunderous calls to “bust up big ag.” Garry Klicker, a farmer from Bloomfield, Iowa, asked, “If we can’t get justice from the Department of Justice, where are we going to get it?”
North Dakota farmer Todd Leake told the crowd, “The crops that we grow are the basis of our civilization. If anything belongs in the public domain it is the crops we grow for food.”
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The workshop that followed the next day was filled with panel discussions stacked with players who mostly support policies and technologies that don’t jive with the values of family farmers and ranchers committed to sustainable agriculture and vibrant rural communities. But there were some discussion points made by a handful of quality panelists worth noting:
Farmer Panel: Farmer Presentation of Issues
Two farmers, Jim Foster and Eric Nelson, provided good overviews of the problems at hand. Foster is an independent hog producer from Missouri who talked about packer ownership of animals, the need for limits on farm payments, and the unfair advantage given to farmers with huge contracts as opposed to smaller farms.
Eric Nelson, a grain and cattle farmer in Iowa, used to work in the seed industry and spoke to some of the most pressing concerns surrounding it, including biotechnology firms’ misuse of Technology Stewardship agreements; the reduction of conventional corn research (saying this puts future yields at risk for all farmers); and skyrocketing seed costs. He said the benefits of biotechnology traits on the market are overstated, that they’ve been released “with ill effects,” and research funded by the largest seed companies is “rather self-serving.” He said we can’t allow monopolies, and that germplasm needs to be back in the public domain to spur competition. He ended by stating that the long-term impacts of patents on living things need to be re-examined.
Panel I: How Have Technological Developments and Structural Changes Affected the Competitive Dynamics of the Seed Industry?
Neil Harl, Emeritus Professor of Economics at Iowa State University, laid out how patents differ from the Plant Variety Protection Act and limit choice for farmers. He said the U.S. didn’t handle the biotechnology era well through public policy, and called for regulatory action. “I’ve concluded that this is about regulatory action, industry should be involved, but I think it really has to come eventually where we have the enforcement of government,” Harl said. He believes steps should also be taken to increase public spending to encourage conventional crop development and feed germplasm back into the system. He sees little hope for this unless public funds are increased.
The rest of the panel was very supportive of current patent law and argued it was necessary for innovation, especially Monsanto’s Jim Tobin. Diana Moss with the American Antitrust Institute argued for generic biotechnology traits, which led to a conversation about the expiration of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybean patent in 2014. It became clear that the discussion (and the DOJ investigation) needs to be broader than squabbles among the largest firms fighting for access to competitors’ traits.
Panel II: Trends Panel Exploring Contracting Issues, Marketplace Transparency and Buyer Power
Mary Hendrickson, extension associate professor of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri, talked about social values, like autonomy, and farmers’ ability to plant what they choose. Later she spoke to our disappearing infrastructure for local markets and the challenges farmers face at the local level.
Chuck Wirtz, an independent hog producer in Iowa, lamented, “It used to be about a love affair with farming. But two of my kids aren’t coming back to the farm.” He spoke about the need for price discovery in a live hog arena. Patrick Woodall with Food & Water Watch followed by saying a concentrated marketplace is making it difficult for farmers to encourage their kids to come back to the family farm. “It’s harder now for farmers to make it in a marketplace with very few buyers and to make ends meet,” said Woodall.
Panel III: Agriculture Enforcement and Cooperation at the Federal and State Levels
Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock kicked off the panel by calling for greater market transparency as consolidation in our markets has noticeably worsened. He sees bright spots on the horizon, however, such as the DOJ’s opposition to the JBS merger last year. Another bright spot, he said, was that this workshop is being held at all. “It’s not just about rural life and hanging onto a nostalgic view of rural life,” Bullock said. “It’s just practical. We depend on a competitive marketplace. In Montana, we don’t have corn, soybeans, or a lot of hogs, but the economic health of our one million Montanans is inextricably tied to agriculture.”
Bullock took the lead on a multi-state comment letter on competition in agriculture leading up to this workshop that garnered support from 16 state attorneys general. He said competition concerns in agriculture are complex because it’s not just about antitrust laws but intellectual property laws as well. “I’ve heard from farmers and ranchers in my home state that this is a long time coming. Hopefully this workshop presents an opportunity and promise of commitment.”
* * *
The agenda provided farmers a microphone at the end of the day after the crowd dwindled and most elected officials and agency representatives had left. Nonetheless, their words were powerful. Topics ranged from ethical behavior as provided by the Ten Commandments to the importance of policies that support healthy soil and healthy people. A number of farmers conveyed their disapproval of patents on plants. Harvey Howington, a rice grower from Arkansas, said it best: “Utility patents are a failed experiment.”
I left Iowa feeling disappointed yet hopeful. I’m disappointed that the seed industry was such a small part of the discussion, since there isn’t a workshop devoted to this topic as there is livestock, dairy and poultry, and seed industry concentration is only getting worse. But this meeting is truly historic and important players said some encouraging things that we need to hold them accountable to. U.S. Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Christine Varney, for example, spoke to problems with patents: “Patents have been used in the past to create or extend monopolies,” she said. “We will be looking closely at any attempts to do so via abuse of the patent laws.” This statement drew loud applause, and made me hopeful.
My conflicting feelings following the event reflect the situation we as a sustainable agriculture community are in: We understand there’s an opportunity to take advantage of renewed scrutiny over antitrust law enforcement and related competition issues, yet our skepticism of the agencies’ ability to deliver leave some people feeling defeated. Matthew Dillon with the Organic Seed Alliance says this hopelessness is one of the most dangerous traits that impacts the well-being of our agricultural systems.
I’m humble to the fact that challenges loom large, but hopelessness won’t change anything. We have to believe that this workshop (and the ones to follow) support our efforts to push for an intellectual property regime that works for farmers; to hold our government accountable as a referee in regulating big agriculture and enforcing antitrust law; and to instill fairness and choice in our agricultural industries. Future generations of farmers and ranchers are depending on it.
The national trends and statistics might not always offer proof, but change is happening whether we see it or not. Our work is paying off. On Friday, I only had to look at the people in the crowd to realize that we are surrounded by champions for justice who are concentrating a different kind of power.