The Harder They Spin: What USFRA Wants Us to Believe and Why It’s Still Not the Truth

I recently wrote  about attending the Food Dialogues, a national “conversation about food” hosted by the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), a new trade association funded by some of the biggest players in the food industry—including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Dupont, and Monsanto. There have been a number of comments on my post. I wanted to respond to one in particular from Hugh Whaley, USFRA’s General Manager.

Whaley takes issue with how I characterize the makeup and mission of the USFRA, writing:

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.

To understand Whaley’s spin on who and what USFRA stands for, it might be helpful to share a little background on Whaley himself and how USFRA fits the mold of a common food-industry PR strategy.

For nearly 13 years, until March 2009, Whaley was an executive at the communications firm Osborn & Barr, founded in 1988 by former executives at Monsanto. While the company was its founding client, the firm has brought on other agricultural clients, including John Deere, United Soybean Board, the Cattlemen’s Beef Board/National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the National Pork Board—all of which are current USFRA affiliates.

During Whaley’s tenure, Osborn & Barr helped to launch American Farmers for the Advancement and Conservation of Technology (AFACT). Like USFRA, AFACT describes itself as a group “organized by farmers.” In the case of AFACT it was allegedly created “to defend members’ right to use recombinant bovine somatotropin,” or rbST, Monsanto’s artificial growth hormone sold to dairy farmers under the brand name, Posilac.

Though it was presented as a group speaking for farmers, AFACT was created in part by Osborn & Barr, which had been handling the Posilac account since 2007. AFACT’s formation came at a time when Monsanto was reeling from campaigns by real farmers and consumer advocates against the artificial growth hormone. Responding to concerns that ranged from the health of dairy cows pumped with the hormone to possible human health effects rbGH, Yoplait, Dannon, Cabot Cheese, and other companies had by 2009 stopped sourcing milk produced with Posilac. Grocery chains had started to eliminate it from their store-label milk, according to Food & Water Watch.

Similar to the spin about AFACT, Whaley describes the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance as “farmer- and rancher-led,” with affiliates of “all sizes, shapes and production methods.”

Yes, USFRA technically represents a range of farmers and ranchers, but only because much of its total budget—$11 million a year or $30 million depending on who you ask—comes from federal “check-off” commodity marketing programs. These programs, now covering 19 different commodities, compel all or most producers of these commodities, no matter the size, to pay into promotion programs. Beef ranchers for instance must pay $1 per head on domestic sales. The money adds up: In 2007, beef check-off programs spent more than $90 million.

You might not have heard of these programs, but you’ve probably seen their ads. Check-off dollars fund campaigns like “Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner?” “Pork: The Other White Meat” as well as dubious marketing efforts like the 2010 dairy industry partnership with Domino’s Pizza to amp up cheese use on its pies.

So because USFRA gets a good chunk of its budget from the biggest commodity check-off programs—like beef, cotton, eggs, and pork—Whaley is technically accurate: Farmers of all sizes do pay into this marketing campaign, but whether the Alliance represents diverse interests is a different story.

When I asked Laura Batcha, the Vice President of the Organic Trade Association whether the Alliance reflects their members’ interests she said: “We don’t believe the Alliance is communicating the benefits of organic agriculture.”

The bottom line is the USFRA is being funded, in part, with organic producers’ money without their consent or participation, since many organic producers are required by law to pay into these check-off programs. “While organic producers and handlers have been paying into these check-offs for years, we have yet to see the funds be used to promote organic food and agriculture,” said Batcha. “It’s essentially taxation without representation.” In fact, sustainable and small-scale farmers have been fighting in the courts against the legality of check-off programs, for precisely this reason.

Fred Stokes, founder of the Organization for Competitive Markets and a cattle rancher in Mississippi, concurred. The Alliance doesn’t “‘represent all farmers and ranchers,’” he said, “These are the people who put family farmers and ranchers out of business! This is an alliance only of groups that preach ‘get-big-or-get-out’ and ‘efficiency through vertical integration.’”

It’s also an alliance, Stokes noted, that gets a healthy portion of its budget from big business, too. As members of USFRA’s “Premier Partner Advisors Group” Monsanto, John Deere, and chemical giant Dupont each have pledged $500,000 a year.

So what is the platform USFRA is pushing? Whaley says I missed the mark here, too, writing:

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 agree with Whaley in one sense: Food systems are complex and more dialogue is certainly needed to figure out the best approaches to creating a safer, more affordable and sustainable food supply. But, I would argue that some food issues are black-and-white and taking a clear stand on these issues is the only way we will achieve such solutions.

To give several examples directly relevant to USFRA membership:

I believe everyone should have a right to know if the food they’re eating contains genetically engineered organisms (GMOs). So do most Americans who overwhelmingly want the right to know what’s in their food. Yet, USFRA’s industry partner Monsanto has been leading the fight against GMO labeling in this country, despite the fact that most other countries with commercialized GMOs require it, even China.

I believe we should be doing everything possible to protect the effectiveness of antibiotics—one of the most important tools in our public health toolbox. So do most Americans. Yet, as much as 80 percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are used not for human health but in factory farms, often for growth-promotion. A broad coalition is calling for restrictions on these non-therapeutic uses of antibiotics, citing mounting concerns about antibiotic resistance, while many USFRA affiliates have been spearheading the fight against such restrictions.

I believe we should be actively working to phase out the most toxic pesticides in agriculture, those known to cause cancer, disrupt hormones, or impair brain functioning. So do most Americans. Yet, members of the Alliance, including the National Cotton Council and the National Corn Growers Association, have been actively fighting against regulations that would help us move in that direction.

I believe our tax dollars should be incentivizing healthy food production and healthy food access. So do most Americans. Yet, members of the USFRA are among the key forces lobbying for payments to commodity producers, including those, like corn growers, that are not even producing food for people. Forty-four percent of corn last year went to ethanol production; nearly half was diverted to animal feed; much of the rest went to high-fructose corn syrup. (Thanks in part to the success of this lobbying, from 1995 to 2010 the 15 members of the board of the National Corn Growers Association—a USFRA board member—received subsidies totaling $12,048,167, while 62 percent of American farmers, and nearly all organic producers and fruit and vegetable growers, received no federal subsidies at all).

Finally, I believe that protecting our nation’s water is one of the most important issues of our time. So do most Americans. Yet, many in USFRA leadership roles are among the key players fighting federal policy that would promote tighter regulation of water pollution, especially from “conventional” agriculture’s  nitrogen fertilizer runoff and industrial livestock waste.

Many of USFRA’s board, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Pork Producers Council, Cattlemen’s Beef Board/Beef Checkoff, and the National Corn Growers Association, as well as USFRA partner, The Fertilizer Institute, work together under the auspices of the Waters Advisory Council. The Council may sound like an environmentally minded organization, but as The New York Times reports, it’s a “lobbying outfit” for some of the country’s “largest industrial and agricultural concerns.”

These are just some of food’s “black-and-white” issues. Without indication otherwise, we’re left to assume the USFRA’s position on these critical food issues reflects that of its membership—and is out of step with the real concerns of many, and in many cases most, Americans.

Whaley also suggests I misrepresented who was able to ask questions at the Food Dialogues at the four sites, noting:

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…

Questions may have come in from Twitter and Facebook, but, as I wrote in my original post, at the New York City event I attended, and where we in the media were asked to write down and hand in questions for the panel, only one person got to ask a question: He was a rep from the National Pork Council, a USFRA affiliate. Only one attendee got to ask a question from the D.C. event that was shown at our venue: It was Jay Vroom, head of the agrochemical trade group, CropLife America. Whaley may contend questions represented many voices; it didn’t seem that way to me. But see for yourself. The Food Dialogues are available online at http://www.fooddialogues.com.

4 thoughts on “The Harder They Spin: What USFRA Wants Us to Believe and Why It’s Still Not the Truth

  1. Pingback: Anna Lappé on the US Farmers and Ranchers Alliance

  2. Excellent work, Anna. It’s high it’s time we start putting the consumer interests, our resources and our planet before corporate interests.

  3. Anna, you also were only there for the NY panel’s session. At least one other person in the NY audience was able to ask a question during the first session. Did you or Tom Philpott submit a question?

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