My family has farmed in Missouri for over a century and I currently raise livestock and grain on 800 acres in Howard County, Mo. But folks like me always seem to get drowned out in Washington, D.C, by commodity groups purporting to represent my interests. The American Farm Bureau bills itself as the “voice of agriculture.” A seemingly innocent-sounding group called the National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) calls itself “the only nationwide expression of dairy farmers.” These organizations spend millions in lobbying and donating money to politicians. In the halls of Congress, in the federal agencies, and in presidential administrations, representatives from these groups exert undue control over the agenda for food and agriculture policy.
It is near impossible to convince D.C. politicians that these corporate interests do not represent the interests of family farmers. Until now. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently concluded 13 listening sessions to hear farmers’ input on the despised National Animal Identification System (NAIS) that calls for us to electronically tag and track the movements of every one of our animals. Factory farms, however, are allowed one group lot ID for their thousands of animals. Over $130 million of taxpayer money has been wasted on this radical, corporate-driven bureaucracy that originated from the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, a group comprised of – surprise, surprise – the Farm Bureau, National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), NMPF and agribusinesses such as Cargill. Only a gigantic outcry from farmers has stopped NAIS from becoming mandatory by its proposed 2009 date.
At listening sessions across the country, including one in Missouri attended by more than 300 people, nearly 80 to 90 percent of producers were united in their adamant disapproval of NAIS and how it would do nothing to address animal disease or food safety. The few folks in the crowd willing to go on record for their support of NAIS were uniformly from the likes of NPPC, Farm Bureau and NMPF allies. That should tell the media, Congress, USDA and the Obama administration to quit listening to these interest groups and think of them as representing family farmers!
Why do we have such a broken food system that allows for deadly E. coli in our meat and now peanut butter? Why have factory farms been allowed to proliferate like viruses in rural America? Because these interest groups have been allowed to use their false façade representing America’s “farmers” to con politicians into buying their disastrous policies, while simultaneously conning the media into thinking that they speak on behalf of those farmers. Now they have conned USDA, President Obama and members of Congress into thinking we need a mandatory NAIS program.
These same corporate farm groups have opposed more testing for mad cow disease, opposed increased inspection of meat processing plants where most food borne illnesses start and continue to thwart any efforts to address antibiotic abuses on factory farms. Meanwhile they advocate for free trade agreements that bring in foreign animals from countries with known disease outbreaks like foot-and-mouth. Thus, the folks most responsible for breeding animal disease are now trying to shift responsibility from corporate meatpackers and factory farms onto the backs of America’s independent family farmers through NAIS.
Since 2006, NPPC has donated over $350,000 to federal politicians and spent more than $3 million in lobbying. NMPF has spent $2.2 million in lobbying, including for a mandatory NAIS, even while dairy farmers suffer their worst crisis since the Great Depression.
We are thankful that USDA took the time to listen to the voices of family farmers instead of relying on the same old corporate interest groups. Given the shocking chasm between our corporate farm groups and real family farmers, NAIS is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to bad farm policy that emanates from of Washington. So the next time you hear that “farm groups” oppose cracking down on antibiotics, or that they want to water down environmental regulations over factory farms or that we need another free trade agreement the likes of the one with Colombia, just remember whose interests these folks really represent—and it’s not rural America.
Rhonda Perry is a livestock and grain farmer from Howard County, Mo. She serves as Program Director of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, a member of the National Family Farm Coalition.