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Farmers, et al seek food system overhaul

By Staff | Mar 19, 2010

ANKENY – Preparing for what all recognized would be an uphill fight, more than 150 farmers, factory workers and other opponents of agricultural conglomeration gathered in Ankeny March 11 to rally support and to brainstorm ideas for more effective regulation of America’s agribusiness and food system.

“There are no secrets about what we’re here to do tonight and that is bust up big ag and put people first,” said Barb Kalbach, a family farmer and representative of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, who chaired the two-hour program.

As representatives of Iowa Senators Charles Grassley and Tom Harkin looked on, almost two dozen farmers, agribusiness employees and concerned citizens as well as a panel of six farm, labor and consumer advocates sounded off on the perceived flaws and consequences of inadequate agribusiness regulation.

Concerns ranged from diminishing food quality, consumer choices and farm profitability to corporate influence on what farm products are produced, how they are produced and the end price consumers pay for them.

“This casino economy is rigged so farmers really have no choice but to buy the most expensive seed and latest technology,” said panelist George Naylor, an Iowa grain farmer and CCI member. “Even scientists and the universities need permission to test the hybrids we pay so much for and still the companies have the right only to publish the results they want.”

At the heart of most comments was the belief that too much of the production and marketing for farm and food products is handled by too few companies. Just four major corporations slaughter the majority of U.S. livestock as well as selling the majority of grocery items and milk.

Several speakers made calls for the government to use its existing anti-trust authority to curb the influence of these large companies.

“In the last 13 years 30,000 feedlots went out of business, many of those small family farmers,” said Rhonda Perry, a livestock farmer and panelist representing the Missouri Rural Crisis Center. “The way we got there was bad policies and in some cases an intentional lack of policies.”

Another common charge was that the Plant Variety Protection act of 1970 should give farmers the right to keep and replant leftover seed from one year to the next, rather than being contractually bound not to keep seeds with patented genetics.

“If anything belongs to the public domain it is the crops that we grow,” said Todd Lick, an Iowa corn and soybean farmer. “We want to know how they think they can patent life.”

CCI member, Vern Tigges gave one of the simplest illustrations of growing challenges when he invited farmers with livestock operations before 1999 to stand up, then asked those who had subsequently been forced to quit livestock to sit back down, leaving less than half of the original producers.

“For you guys that are still here, I would ask you to remain standing if you’ve had to change your operation to run the way some packer thought you should,” Tigges said. “I see that most of you are still standing now. That’s the influence these companies have.”

Several speakers also argued that the increase in input costs and decrease in commodity prices to farmers has not been offset by greater safety or lower food prices for consumers.

“Last year, while the price of milk was increasing, the part of that profit that goes to dairy farmers was being cut in half,” said Patty Lovera, a panelist representing Food & Water Watch. “When two or three companies decide how is food produced, that’s not a market.”

Other speakers simply wished to impress on legislators the need for some kind of change to the current competitive system.

“I’m a fifth generation dairy farmer and my son wants to be the sixth,” explained one troubled farmer. “And all I wanted to say here is that if something doesn’t change we’re not going to be here in six moths.”

Contact Kevin Stillman by e-mail at stillman.kw@gmail.com.

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