Three recent news articles about manipulative agribusiness actions have me almost giddy with excitement. After years of having agribusiness dictate the direction of the food system, it has now taken a reactionary stance.
The first sign of change is from the world’s largest snack-food company, Frito-Lay. They have initiated “Lay’s Local”, which focuses on 80 “local” farmers from 27 states. Frito-Lay’s Web site has a Chip Tracker that allows interested consumers to enter their zip code and product code in order to find out where the potatoes came from. Although Frito-Lay can’t claim the potatoes are locally grown, the advertising campaign hides the corporation behind the aura of U.S. farmers.
The second is the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s announcement of a newly formed Center for Food and Animal Issues. The Center’s strategy appears to be to categorize feedlot operators as just another group of people that supports animals, just like pet owners, hunters, supporters of zoos and local animal welfare organizations. “Ultimately, our goal is to assure that people who rely on animals, either physically, emotionally or economically, have the right to do so,” said Ohio Farm Bureau Federation executive vice president Jack Fisher. The impetus for the Center came after pork, poultry and veal housing legislation was introduced into state legislatures around the country, and in particular the passing of California’s Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act.
And finally, CropLife.com has announced a call to action to protest the planting of an organic garden on the White House lawn. This crop protection industry organization congratulates First Lady Michelle Obama for her effort to raise food and celebrate agriculture, but takes issue with the garden being organic. Their Web site asks “What message does that send to the non-farming public about an important and integral part of growing safe and abundant crops to feed and clothe the world — crop protection products?”
So why do I get giddy about these typical, calculated attempts to manipulate public opinion? Because I think about what we were debating just ten years ago, and how dramatically the conversation has changed in a positive direction.
Ten years ago the hot issue in the agriculture world was genetically modified crops. And despite the many legitimate concerns that were raised about health and environmental unknowns, as well as the alarming consolidation of the seed industry, roundup ready soybeans and other genetically modified crops swept across the Midwest largely unimpeded. Opponents were portrayed as petty reactionaries that were oblivious to the challenge of “feeding the world”.
The last part of the 1990s was also a time of incredible devastation in rural America. Crop prices were reaching depression-era levels, and the promises of the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” bill were nowhere to be seen. I sat through countless forums where agribusiness professionals told the farming community to relax, soon the incredible buying power of China will make low crop prices a thing of the past. Unfortunately, we spent years with most commodity prices well below the cost of production, and neither China nor any other part of the world corrected the situation for us.