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Who’s Behind the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance and Why It Matters

On Thursday, September 22, the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), a new trade association made up of some of the biggest players in the food industry—including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Dupont, and Monsanto—hosted what they called “Food Dialogues” in Washington D.C., New York City, U.C. Davis, and Fair Oaks, Indiana.

The USFRA describes the Food Dialogues, and their broader multi-million dollar media campaign, as an effort to amplify the voice of farmers and ranchers and help consumers know more about “how their food is grown and raised.”

Sounds good, on first blush.

Most of us are in the dark when it comes to the story of our food. And, farmers and ranchers—the people working hard every day to bring us our food—are nearly invisible in mainstream media. But dig into the Alliance’s membership, and its impetus for forming, and you start to wonder whether it truly represents the voices of grassroots food producers or whether this well-funded media campaign is agribusinesses latest attempt to push back against well-documented and well-publicized concerns about the environmental and health consequences of industrial agriculture.

When I asked a rep from Ketchum—the public relations firm hired by the Alliance—what motivated these groups to come together, without skipping a beat, he answered: Food, Inc. and movies like it. “People see Food, Inc.,” he said, “And think everything in that movie is accurate.” But, he continued, the film only presents one side of the issue and USFRA members feel they didn’t “have a voice in it.” Now, as the Ketchum rep put it, USFRA wants to “clear the air” and “get a national dialogue, a conversation, going.”

There are two big holes in this argument: Robert Kenner, the director of Food, Inc. did try to get industry voices into the film. And, while USFRA members may not like it, Food, Inc. is an accurate, if unpleasant, account of our industrial, toxic food system.

When I mentioned that Kenner approached many food companies to get their perspective, and they refused to go on camera, the PR rep said: “I’ll be honest with you: this is a change with how they’ve done things in the past. They’re trying to open their doors up.”

While these industry players may be saying they want to “open their doors up,” it seems only on their terms. Certainly the Food Dialogues yesterday gave a semblance of impartiality: Highly-credentialed journalist Claire Shipman of Good Morning America moderated from a satellite location in D.C. and celebrity chef John Besh hosted the panel in New York City.

But the reality was an orchestrated framing of the message about “modern agricultural production” from the perspective of big business. In the staged kitchen set at the New York City, the questions from the “audience” included only one: a pre-arranged question from the head of the National Pork Board. In D.C., Jay Vroom, from the agrochemical trade association CropLife America, was handpicked to join in the “conversation” and lob a softball question to John Besh about chefs and portion control.

Earlier this year, a trade publication explained that this image campaign, and others like it, not only aims to counter Food, Inc.’s “misconceptions” about food, but also to convert all those “Pollan-ated” minds. (Reading Michael Pollan is apparently unnerving to the food industry and it should be to the rest of the public, too.)

This media campaign, the industry publication continued, is also intended as a “preemptive strike” against “a long list of new regulations and restrictions coming out of the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food & Drug Administration, ranging from tighter rules on pesticide applications to a potential ban of routine, preventative use of animal antibiotics.”

Take a look at the policy priorities of USFRA members and you’ll see exactly that: Most of its affiliates are hard at work, lobbying on Capitol Hill to weaken the very regulations that the consumers the USFRA itself surveyed say they care most about: Pesticides and antibiotics, for instance, as well as artificial hormones in animal production, and air and water pollution.

As one of its current policy priorities, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), a USFRA board member and the marketing organization and trade association for the beef industry, is fighting for the Defending America’s Affordable Energy and Jobs Act. If passed, the Act would limit the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, as many in the environmental community have pointed out, the EPA’s regulation of carbon dioxide pollution is key to addressing global warming in the absence of strong climate policy. This USFRA member attack on climate legislation shouldn’t be surprising considering the Alliance is working with Frank Luntz, the political strategist who has helped foster climate change skepticism. In a strategy memo leaked to the media in the early 2000s, for instance, Luntz advised Congressional Republicans that the best tactic to undermine public support for climate legislation is to cast doubt on the “scientific certainty” surrounding the issue.

To give you another sense of where USFRA membership stands, consider that the NCBA, along with other Alliance members, is actively fighting a policy that would reign in antibiotic abuse in livestock production. Called the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act, and sponsored by Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), the Act, according to the Cattlemen’s Association, is unnecessary: The industry already uses antibiotics “judiciously” to prevent disease.

Rep. Slaughter and other backers of this policy stress that research shows most antibiotics in livestock production are not given for disease prevention, but delivered at “sub-therapeutic levels” to speed growth—and therefore increase profit. And, as experts at the Government Accountability Office reported earlier this month, the inaction of the USDA and FDA to regulate antibiotic use, especially in animal production, is a serious threat to public health. It was chillingly ironic that the study came out on the heels of another major recall of Cargill ground turkey linked to antibiotic-resistant Salmonella.

Lest you think the Cattlemen’s Association is out on its own on this fight, other USFRA affiliates that are vocal opponents of regulating antibiotics in livestock production include the Dairy Farmers of America, National Pork Producers Council, American Egg Board, U.S. Poultry & Egg Association.

Another USFRA affiliate and board member, the National Corn Growers Association, is also battling policies that would help us protect public health. In a May 2011 statement delivered to the House Committee on Agriculture and on Natural Resources, Rod Snyder, the Corn Grower’s Policy Director and chair of the Pesticide Policy Coalition, dismissed the use of the Endangered Species Act’s to control toxic pesticides, describing the policy as “dysfunctional.”

He called for the Administration to “immediately suspend implementation” and continue with business-as-usual, regulating pesticides under the Federal Insecticide Fungicide Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). But stress the importance of using the Endangered Species Act, explaining that FIFRA is “notoriously weak” and “industry-friendly.” According to advocates, the pesticide lobby, including USFRA members like the Corn Growers, wants to keep regulation under FIFRA because they know how to “sidestep and subvert it.”

While I believe the majority of our nation’s ranchers and farmers are respectful stewards of the land with the public’s best interest at heart—they’re working hard to reduce their environmental impact and address pesticide, artificial hormone, and antibiotics overuse—the USFRA clearly is not representing them. Instead, a look at the Alliance affiliates reveals that it is made up of, and funded by, the biggest players in the food industry, including those who profit most from toxic agricultural chemicals, polluting farming and food processing practices, and concerning animal welfare policies. No wonder, then, that that limiting protections from toxic pesticides and pushing back against antibiotic regulation are just two of the current policy priorities of USFRA affiliates.

The USFRA is working hard to present itself as a voice of farmers and ranchers interested in a conversation with consumers. I’m all for open, honest conversation, but let’s not be duped by polished PR into thinking that’s what the Alliance and its inaugural Food Dialogues is intended to be.

Photo: Courtesy of Food Dialogues Web site

Correction: The in-person question at the New York City Food Dialogues event was from a representative of the National Pork Council, not the National Pork Board.

25 thoughts on “Who’s Behind the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance and Why It Matters

  1. Pingback: US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance – Exactly WHO Are They? « GoodFood World

  2. I attended the New York panel and would like to add that there was another question from the audience in New York asked by Tamra Davis. Her question was of the earlier panel in Indiana and was one of the first questions asked overall.

  3. I attended the New York panel and would like to add that there was another question from the audience in New York asked by Tamra Davis. Her question was of the earlier panel in Indiana and was one of the first questions asked overall.

    FYI predictive typing got the best of me on the first content and the website is incorrect.

  4. I am a Kansas farmer raising 4 kids, corn, soybeans, and feeding cattle.

    I might be a much smaller farmer than some present for the Food Dialogues, but I will say this. The conversation, questions, and discussion came much closer to the agriculture industry I live in every day than anything I have seen from Food, Inc. or Pollan.

    Please come out to my farm to visit if you want to see for yourself.

  5. I listened to the Food Dialogues and while I agree with Lappe’s point about the PR value this had, this is a revolution with regards to opening up the world of ranching and farming to the American public. Most Americans know very little about how and where their food comes from and any step to promote transparency within food systems is welcomed, even if it does have the taint of Big Ag and Big Food attached to it.
    For me, the big takeaway from this conference was two-fold. One, asking farmers and ranchers to display their practices allows all players, including consumers, become better informed. Second, with the additional knowledge that consumers have about food systems, maybe they will start to really question where their food is coming from and start to critically examine how corporate America (specifically, Big Ag, Food and Energy) advocate and dictate policies that are counter to their own interests.
    If I were a rancher or a farmer, I would be furious that lobbyists have coopted their own interests. Every farmer and rancher knows that if you don’t take care of the land, the land will not take care of you. Maybe it’s time for those lobbyists to get back to the land.

  6. This is a lame, factually inaccurate, ad hominem attack.

    I attended the NYC session and was the only employee of the National Pork Board there so I know your assertion about us planting a question is not true.

    Are you saying that if someone has a different opinion than you on the use of antibiotics, climate change, crop protectants, or the Endangered Species Act, they cannot legitimately engage in a dialogue on food production? That approach is a classic case of demagoguery that prevents genuine discussion and dialogue.

  7. Unfortunately, urban food policy writers rarely talk with commodity farmers who produce a produce not readily sold directly to consumers. Lots of good commodity farmers out there, but we are invisible. And, invisible in this article too.

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  9. Thank you, these people don’t want a “conversation” they want to lobby for factory farming. This is just another attempt to keep consumers in the dark.

  10. The food movement has focused on local foods, farmers that are closer to the cities. What about the rest of us? I would like to see the food dialogs move to include the rest of us smaller farmers. But take a look at foodie/local foods approach to date…..Very rare to see an interview with a commodity farmer leader, Farmers Union, Farm Bureau, cattle growers, the average wheat farmer, 4-H, Grange, etc. We have been totally left out by the food movement and have seen little advocacy by the food movement for the average farmers of rural America. This article didn’t even interview farmers to see what THEY thought. Invisible as usual.

  11. I agree this was an imperfect start but hope that people will not discount everything. Small places cannot afford to finance things on this level but the idea behind this is all farmers. They really dropped the ball on small farmers representation and that has been pointed out from within agriculture. However, I’ve also heard that a couple small operations were invited and chose to not take part.

    As a small operation and active member of AgChat I highly resent that it’s said to be lobbying for factory farming. As a strong supporter (and we’re dependent on!) food choices not everyone can afford to buy from us…just like not all farms can afford to contribute to efforts like this. Some of the biggest insults come not from large farms but from those who say they support small ones.

    The conversation was started but is far from over!

  12. I appreciate USFRA’s Food Dialogues campaign and attempt at opening the doors to more two-way communication.

    Coming from at least five generations of small family farming AND ranching, I agree with Darin Grimm (above) when Darin said this “came much closer to the agriculture industry I live in every day than anything I have seen…”. This campaign is simply the beginning of a concept to connect consumers to producers and vice-versa.

    Alliances like USFRA, regardless of who their sponsors or stakeholders are, allow smaller associations like the Beef Checkoff, National Pork Board, the Angus Association, Corn and Sorghum Checkoff, NCBA, Plains Cotton Cooperation (whose members are actually made up of small farmers) to distinguish myths from facts and have a voice amidst the accusations and attacks constantly being thrown at agriculturists (of all sectors, types and sizes).

    Again, I appreciate USFRA’s innovative approach to further and increase the lines of communication. This is just the beginning to reintroducing the importance of agriculture and allowing consumers to realize how heavily our existence relies on it.

  13. Pingback: Who’s behind the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance and why it matters | Grist

  14. Hi, Omnieater and Ed Wesley. The average size dairy farmer for the northeastern states is 100 cows per farm. We are talking 13,000 family dairy farms from Maryland to Maine. The level of engagement with the commodity dairy farmers by urban food groups has been close to nothing. Since 2009, I and my friends have called several urban food groups in the east. Most simply stated that their interests were in “local food” (i.e. if we could sell cheese or process milk for them) NOT in commodities that go through the big processors. There has been zero testimony on behalf of the family dairy farm at dairy hearings and dairy farmers went it alone at the dairy antitrust hearings. Hopefully, something good will come out of USFRA. Maybe the local foods people will talk with those of us who can’t sell direct to consumers due to distance or inability to process a product for direct market to locavores. By the way, we hosted open farms in Upstate NY, a few NYC people did make the drive up to visit, we invite more of that.

  15. Pingback: Food Dialogues: Was It Good For You? |

  16. I’m glad to see a mix of comments from commodity farmers and the food movement. This mixed discussion is very different from the PR approach described in the article.

    The food movement is not sufficiently grounded in farm justice issues. On the other hand, neither are the farmers who align with the PR approach and with the groups behind it. Farmers, here for example, aren’t aware that in the most important ways, the food movement, and films like Food Inc. are, (sort of,) much much better aligned with the concerns of real commodity farmers than the corporate spin crowd. The food movement strongly opposes cheap corn, cheap wheat, cheap milk. That’s all on the farmers side. The PR crowd gives false promises like how free markets and free trade will be good for farmers. But farm commodities don’t self correct in free markets. Markets are usually low, below costs, unless there are price floors. Younger farmers won’t know about this and may only have heard the PR spin. Put the PR crowd supports cheap, below cost commodities that subsidize corporate commodity buyers and that remove livestock from farms and give it to CAFOs with below cost feeds. On the other hand, the food movement and the films don’t know what policies to stand for to oppose cheap commodity prices, so they end up siding with corporate agribusiness. I show that in “Michael Pollan Rebuttal, linked through my name. Both sides, then, are a bit duped by corporate agribusiness.

    The National Family Farm Coalition and some other groups (IATP and Food and Water Watch) are taking the farmer messages to the food movement. Some other groups like Food First, (started by Anna’s mom?) are trying to do the same, but often get it wrong. My blog comments, food movement reviews, and Farm Bill Primer work on these farmer issues at food blog sites.

  17. Pingback: Who’s behind the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance and why it matters | Greediocracy

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  19. Brad Wilson, great comment. As a dairy farmer, I have tried many times to get NYC food movement people to talk with me. They might pause long enough while chomping on artisan cheese to look up and tell me that they are more into Farmers markets or they prefer to buy only organic milk from Stonyfield or Horizon. The stage was set for a decade of super cheap milk in NY actually by NYPIRG who hired a team of lawyers to break the backs of the dairy farmers collective bargaining effort called the Northeast Dairy Compact. Just google “have a cow” “northeast Dairy Compact” In the meantime, its the price of milk that sculpts the working countryside of millions of acres of NY grasslands. Only AubudonNY has sounded any sort of alarm at the rapid disappearance of the NY grazing farms that cause the disappearance of NY grassland bird species.

  20. Pingback: Civil Eats » Blog Archive » Americans’ Views of Industrial Agriculture By the Numbers

  21. I’ve certainly read this blog and the responses with interest, as I am intimately familiar with what the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) is trying to accomplish.

    We certainly appreciate Ms. Lappe’s time commitment to watch a part of our Food Dialogues last Thursday (September 22). I would encourage her to watch the remaining parts accessed through http://www.fooddialogues.com. Besides Ms. Lappe, we would encourage all readers and followers of this blog to watch the panel discussions from all four sites (NYC, DC, Fair Oaks Farms, UC-Davis), paying particular attention to the Q&A portion towards the end of each panel. Then judge for yourselves.

    Questions were taken for all four of our panels from in-person audience members, from people on Twitter and from questions posted on our two websites. It is really unfair to say questions for the event only came from industry. The questions represented many voices, and can be viewed on our http://www.fooddialogues.com website in the video clips.

    In addition, we are posting tough questions of all types as well as comments on that website.

    Contrary to those who suggest, imply or state otherwise, USFRA is NOT a policy organization. USFRA is America’s farmers and ranchers who are committed to continuous improvement in how food is grown and raised to provide healthy choices for people everywhere. Our mission is to build consumer trust in today’s agriculture…all forms. The farmer- and rancher-led organizations that are affiliates of USFRA have all sizes, shapes and production methods represented by their members. Small, medium, large; organic, natural, conventional. All forms of production agriculture have a need and right to exist.

    None of the issues discussed during the Food Dialogues can be answered strictly in black and white terms. That’s why continued dialogue is so important. Making grandiose (positive or negative) statements about any form of agriculture won’t achieve solutions or help Americans make sound and informed food decisions.

    I would invite Ms. Lappe to learn more about USFRA and its mission, and to have a dialogue with us if she chooses.

    Hugh Whaley
    USFRA General Manager

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  23. Pingback: Civil Eats » Blog Archive » The Harder They Spin: What USFRA Wants Us to Believe and Why It’s Still Not the Truth

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