Solutions to Replace the Destructive International Neoliberal Agricultural System

By: George Naylor, FFD board member and IA organic farmer (with his wife Patti)

Originally published by Counterpunch, May 5th, 2023

I dream up new utopias every day. After all, life, harmonious with Mother Nature and our fellow human beings, becomes more precarious day by day because of multinational monopolies’ priorities for cheap labor and raw materials. We farmers see industrial agriculture destroy biodiversity right before our eyes and our rural communities lose so much viability. When we travel, we see metropolitan areas sprawl with traffic gridlock and where more and more of our rural citizens join growing populations of workers with low wages or no jobs at all.

Inevitably, we are all inclined to dream of utopias that would be so much better. I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with that. Each one of us probably has a utopia that changes day by day as we learn more and more about the history of humanity and the deadly trajectory we find ourselves in. Sharing our utopias and the wisdom of Indigenous peoples can open new vistas and will be vital education in itself.

But do we have time to agree on an ultimate solution, and won’t change come one step at a time? Given the potential for imminent chaos and growing authoritarianism, maybe preserving our rights to free speech and association to be defended by all our fellow citizens becomes our first priority. After all, widespread debate must be the immune system of our democratic future. If “might makes right” becomes the norm, how much longer will it take before we can no longer live in fear and resume our quest to make our planet a peaceful and safe home for humanity?

I believe to make a difference and concretely get us on track we need to get everybody to see the big picture and to think BIG! Only a BIG movement, a global movement, one that gets bigger and bigger, can begin the march to a better future. As a long time family farmer and activist, I’m very familiar with one such global movement, La Via Campesina (LVC). LVC represents virtually millions of peasants, family farmers, farmworkers, indigenous people, and fishers around the globe intending to end the neoliberal straightjacket that commits all our lives and natural resources to the accumulation of wealth and power by multinational corporations. Members of La Via Campesina grasp the big picture and know intimately how the current international neoliberal economic and political system discounts the beauty of all human beings and cultures and the most basic ecological relationships we must rely on.

So I’ll now offer my proposal for our first steps for everybody on the planet to see the big picture and to think big. Si’ se puede! We must demand an international treaty to immediately end the destruction of pristine land, ecosystems, and homelands of indigenous peoples for any purpose, but especially for conversion to industrial agricultural production. At the same time that members of La Via Campesina suffer from low commodity prices and witness the usurpation of livestock production by corporations, we see on TV the Amazon rainforest being burned and bulldozed to produce more cheap corn and soybeans to feed corporate-owned livestock in inhumane feedlots and confinements (CAFOs). All the citizens of this planet will recognize this has to stop immediately!

We must also end neoliberal free trade and restore universal food sovereignty so countries can democratically design new agroecological farming systems to protect their natural resources, produce healthy culturally appropriate food supplies, restore economic opportunity, and create food security reserves. Progressive movements like La Via Campesina must regain the lead in abolishing free trade enforced by faceless bureaucrats at the WTO, or reactionary movements will co-opt this issue with inauthentic right-wing opportunistic politicians like is happening here in the United States.

Everybody must become familiar with the law of economic gravity. In a market economy, economic gravity is as real as the physical law of gravity. The law of economic gravity dictates that over time, the buying power of wages and commodity prices will fall, fall, fall–unless we establish economic democracy to create laws guaranteeing fair prices for farmers and living wages and safe conditions for workers. These living wages and fair prices must be paid by employers and buyers of commodities, livestock, and fruits and vegetables, rather than letting the government pick up the bill which would only be a subsidy to employers and food processors. The guaranteed prices and living wages must be indexed to inflation, or once again workers and farmers will experience the hardships of declining standards of living.

In the U.S., minimum wages haven’t been increased since 2009 and are the lowest in real dollars since 1945! Prices for commodities in the US were supported and indexed to inflation from 1941 to 1952 because of workable policies established during President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Farmers in the US have suffered under “market oriented policy” ever since, which explains the evolution of US agriculture from diversified farms into mono-cropping of corn and soybeans to furnish cheap feed to corporate livestock operations and cheap feedstocks to biofuels production. The system of fair prices, supply management to avoid wasteful over production, and food security reserves was called Parity. Thousands of Indian farmers protesting in recent years likewise demanded a minimum support price—MSP—which should be the demand of all farmers around the world. This also coincides with La Via Campesina’s Geneva Declaration, June 28, 2022: “We call upon governments to build public food stocks procured from peasants and small-scale food producers at a support price that is just, legally guaranteed and viable for the producers.”

Once food sovereignty and the guarantees of parity prices and parity wages are achieved, other reforms, including land reform, rural resettlement, local food systems, and reparations will be possible. We can make agroecology the holistic basis of all our agriculture. The public will enthusiastically support efforts to bring young people and landless farmworkers back to the land, recreating rural communities with opportunities and meaningful work to be the foundation of our societies.

So the demands of our giant movement will be simple and easily understood:

1) An international treaty requiring that every country stop, by whatever means necessary, the destruction of land, natural ecosystems, and indigenous homelands used to profit extractive industries including industrial agriculture.

2) The immediate end to free trade agreements and the tyranny of the WTO enforcing free trade rules designed to abolish nations’ sovereignty, particularly food, labor, and environmental sovereignty.

3) International commodity agreements to stop the relatively few major exporting countries from exporting commodities at disastrously low prices—disastrous for their own farmers, their environment, and, in fact, their own economies. US history shows how this can be achieved in every one of the major exporting countries by comprehensive parity policy which would include parity price supports (not government payments), marketing agreements, supply management, food security reserves, and import controls. Since Big Data, robotic farm machinery, and land speculators are bringing about the elimination of “big farmers” in these countries, these farmers will support our proposals of transformation so they can see a future that will end the treadmill of growing more and more for less and less.

We can count on the giant movement of La Via Campesina to demand an end to free trade which allows corporations to freely exploit our fellow citizens and the planet. We need to support La Via Campesina to create an even more giant movement keeping in mind the big picture and working for new standards of democratic governance. Today’s utopia might just be joining hands around the world in this vital struggle. Is there any other choice?

As we say in La Via Campesina, Globalize the Struggle! Globalize Hope!

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Immigration Reform is Possible— the Farm Bill Shows How

Why not give lawmakers a space to hash out their differences, not as a one-shot game, but something they can come back to every now and again?

By: Anthony Pahnke, FFD Vice President

Originally Published by Common Dreams 5/19/2023

It seems that the anticipated humanitarian crisis of thousands of migrants streaming across the border, which many predicted with the end of the Title 42 program, has been avoided.

Still, something like 12 million undocumented people currently live in the United States, and we are probably just one migrant caravan away from having scores of families forced to live in squalor in border cities and perhaps being subject to violence at the hands of border agents.

Making matters worse, no recently proposed legislation concerning immigration has much chance of becoming law.

It’s the design of the Farm Bill that we should focus on. Its form, not its content.

For instance, the 2021 US Citizenship Act, which Biden championed early in his term and that would have created a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, ran aground quickly last term due to GOP opposition. Now, Republicans have their own version of revamping our immigration system with the Secure the Border Act. This bill, which calls for hiring more border agents, as well as championing some Trump-era initiatives like building a physical border wall, has no path out of the Democrat-controlled Senate.

So, is there any hope of getting beyond our seemingly never-ending policy quagmire that is immigration reform?

The Farm Bill is where our leaders should turn.

The point is not to add some provision about immigration to this omnibus piece of legislation that governs most facets of our agricultural system.

Instead, it’s the design of the Farm Bill that we should focus on. Its form, not its content.

By form, what’s key is that the Farm Bill comes up for debate every five years. The expiration date is even written into the law.

The legislation’s design poses quite the task, as the Farm Bill sets the terms for most of the critical elements of the U.S. food system, from commodity prices and conservation policy to international trade and farm credit.

But that’s the bill’s genius—with such serious issues to debate, it makes sense to revisit them every now and again. And here’s the best part—if one party misses something, then they can try again next time.

That much was behind the bill’s creation. Before becoming law in 1933, for most of the 1920s, politicians fought over how to address the economic crisis ravaging farmers. While farmers did well during World War I, they struggled once the conflict was over. In response, some legislators wanted protectionist policies, others believed promoting exports was the answer. They couldn’t find middle ground and our nation’s food producers suffered for years.

So, what happened? When FDR became president, farmer groups and politicians created an omnibus bill that contained sections dealing with the issues that were the subject of debate years before and that required periodic renewal. The bill itself has come to include new sections from time to time, such as rural development and food assistance in the 1970s.

Agriculture aside, doesn’t such a way of addressing complicated policy matters, such as migration, make sense?

Think about it—who could have foretold when early in Biden’s term, when he sent Vice President Kamala Harris to Central America to search out ways to keep people from fleeing poverty, that Cubans and Venezuelans would eventually join the exodus of people? Or that Russia would invade Ukraine, sending millions seeking safe haven abroad?

Furthermore, historically, we see that migrants come to the U.S. in waves. Such moments are related to all kinds of unexpected events, including wars, famines, and natural disasters.

Comprehensive immigration reform has evaded our lawmakers for decades. So, it would make sense to take some of the pressure off of them and at least create a framework that they can work with.

There is no crystal ball that we can peer into and see where in the works some disaster will take place. The best we can do as a country is to craft a bill that provides parameters within which our legislators can debate every five years or so. Furthermore, all the major issues currently raging now could be found—border security, temporary protected status for people who are temporarily displaced, visas for students and workers, and so on.

A majority of Americans agree that something has to be done about immigration. Our parties also agree—this much is seen in how regularly their policy proposals come up in the news.

So, why not give them a space to hash out their differences, not as a one-shot game, but something they can come back to every now and again?

Let’s also not forget the migrants in this discussion. Now we are talking about Title 42 and Venezuelans, but in a year or two, it will be some other policy and another group of people. What is certain is that for quite some time, people will want to come to the US to work and live.

Comprehensive immigration reform has evaded our lawmakers for decades. So, it would make sense to take some of the pressure off of them and at least create a framework that they can work with. Both parties could also take credit for promoting it. And who knows, maybe they will compromise once in a while. They do so already with Farm Bill. Maybe the same could happen with immigration.

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Corporate profits outweigh health, culture and livelihood

Forcing GMO corn on Mexico is part of destructive, pro-corporate U.S. policy

By: Jim Goodman, retired organic dairy farmer, board member of Family Farm Defenders, and board president of National Family Farm Coalition.

Published by the Wisconsin Examiner, 3/13/2023

As farmers in Wisconsin and across the Corn Belt make planting decisions, the question always on their minds is, will income cover their expenses? The price farmers all over the world are paid is determined by the global marketplace. With Mexico being one of the biggest buyers of U.S. corn, Mexico’s planned ban on imports of Genetically Modified (GM) corn (over 90% of the US corn crop is GM) has farmers worried. Their worry should be whether planting GM corn and planting so many acres of GM corn is a sound decision.

Corporate money has always corrupted the political process in order to create laws and trade agreements that protect corporate profits at the expense of not just American citizens, but citizens of the world.

There’s no better example than GM crops. Developed over the decades by seed and chemical companies Monsanto, Calgene, Dow, DuPont, Bayer and others, GM corn, soy, cotton and canola were touted as the solution to world hunger, the key to increased farm profitability, lower pesticide use and a better environment. Sounded good, but none of it was true; the real truth (and that wasn’t mentioned) was that these commodity crops were designed to produce vast corporate profit as they helped usher in a wave of corporate consolidation, loss of small farms, declining rural economies and a foisting of untested GM food on unknowing consumers.

While these GM crops dominate the fields of North America, the seed and chemical companies see the world as their target for even more profit. Their grants to university researchers, and lobbying pressure on and campaign contributions to state and federal legislators, have made GM the so-called face of “progressive” and profitable farming. 

Crop yields did go up with increased application of fertilizer and pesticides, while farm crop prices went down. Farmers got bigger to survive, planted more acres and saw the GM bandwagon as the only way: Produce more cheap grain for a growing world market. A market that would feed the growing confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) that, hand in hand with the GM mono-cultures, were driving small farmers, not just in America but around the world, off their land.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) pushed GM corn into the Mexican market, underselling Mexican farmers. Because they lost their way of life, many moved to low wage factory work in the maquiladoras or across the border into the U.S., looking for work in the fields, CAFOs and processing plants of the North.

Not only were the livelihoods of Mexican farmers ruined by the dumping of GM grain, but the areas of origin of corn were put at risk of pollen contamination from the GM imports. Growing corn is a part of Mexico’s culture. Domesticated 8,700 years ago, corn is sacred and a staple of the everyday diet. Mexicans didn’t want our GM corn, but in an economy pushed towards depression by NAFTA, people were forced to rely on what was available and affordable.

NAFTA of the 1990s wasn’t the end of it. Today under a new (free but not fair) trade agreement, the USMCA, the U.S. aims to force Mexico to not only accept GM corn, but also to overturn the country’s ban on the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate), a probable carcinogen. Mexico wants neither. Mexicans want to grow their own non-GM corn and to import only non-GM corn to meet domestic demand. Glyphosate also threatens biodiversity, not just of Mexico’s ancient native corn varieties, but of pollinators — the bees, butterflies and birds that winter in Mexico. So why would they want that?

Yet under the USMCA, the Biden administration, through its U.S. Trade Representative, has said it will take all steps to enforce U.S. rights. The rights of the U.S. and the rights of Mexico will, in all likelihood, come down to the trade tribunals and the bullying of the U.S. government and its unending support of U.S. corporations and agricultural trade groups. The National Corn Growers Association (NCGA) notes that allowing the ban to move forward (or in simple language, allowing Mexico to protect its farmers, its environment and its culture) would be catastrophic to America’s corn producers. But their real concern lies not with a potential drop in U.S. farm income, but rather a reduction of corporate profit.

America’s corn producers can grow the non-GM corn Mexico would like to buy, and they would be paid a premium to do so. But the power of the seed and pesticide corporations, the multi-national grain companies and industry trade groups like NGCA make growing and marketing of non-GM corn difficult. Growers of non-GM corn must bear the entire burden of preventing any contamination, and U.S. farmers in general are trapped in a system of GM mono-cultures and CAFOs that are immensely profitable for agri-business while the growers produce commodities at prices so low their very survival depends on taxpayer-funded subsidy payments.

What right do we have to force our excess production on the people of Mexico who don’t want it? What right does our government, our research institutions or a group of multinational corporations have to tell anyone what they must eat, what chemicals they must use and that their culture and environment are of little concern? Short answer: Mexico has every right under USMCA to reject GM corn from the U.S.

Yet, as has been the case for over 30 years, the answer from the U.S. government is “Sorry, but corporate profits outweigh anyone’s right to choose.” The U.S. government will do whatever it takes to keep corporate profits flowing.

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Competition policy in the 2023 Farm Bill offers next chance for bipartisan progress

By: Anthony Pahnke, Vice President of Family Farm Defenders and Associate Professor of International Relations, San Francisco State University.

Published by The Hill, 3/7/2023

First it was infrastructure and then semiconductors.

Now, it’s agriculture’s turn to showcase what real bipartisanship can look like despite our country’s overly polarized political climate.

Precisely, it’s in the 2023 Farm Bill — legislation that must be reauthorized every five years and includes policies on everything from commodity prices and conservation to nutrition spending and rural development — where there’s hope for Republicans and Democrats to collaborate for the sake of the public good.

One area within this legislation — namely, competition policy — stands out from the others when it comes to making feasible, as well as lasting positive change.

Concretely, in drawing from various bills that target how concentrated markets hurt consumers at the cash register and farmers in the marketplace, Democrats and Republicans can take important steps to improve our food system’s resilience and security.

They almost did so in 2008, when Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) pushed to include a special section — otherwise known as a title — into the farm bill to deal with competition.

His proposal included policies that would have challenged vertical integration and price manipulation. While the proposed title did not emerge, sections in the “miscellaneous” title of the farm bill saw to place further regulations on food processors and empower farmers to sue them. The Obama administration was slow to implement such changes, which when the Trump administration took power, fell by the wayside.

Since then, both parties have continued to find more in common than before when it comes to rethinking markets and having concerns with corporations.

For instance, rank-and-file Republicans have increasingly adopted negative views of big banks and corporations. Former President Trump’s use of tariffs brought along many fellow party members  o endorse a policy tool once considered anathema to the GOP. Over time, many on the right have come to believe that corporations don’t have Americans’ best interest at heart and that free trade is not gospel.

Meanwhile, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), and Corey Booker (D-NJ), have made challenging corporations central to their legislative agendas.

Such abuse is clear in our food system, where decades of increasing concentration in everything from beef, poultry and soybean processing, as well as in cereal and soft drink production, allow corporations to inflate prices for consumers while making supply chains vulnerable to disruption. The COVID-19 pandemic put the insecurity of our food system supply chains on display, as farmers had to dump their milk, or destroy their vegetables, while lines to food shelves grew. Due to such disruptions, 40 percent of farmer income in 2020 came from U.S. subsidies.

In terms of the 2023 Farm Bill, there are plenty of bills that legislators can draw from, perhaps to draft another version of the competition title that Harkin once envisioned.

To start, there is Klobuchar’s Competition and Antitrust Law Enforcement Act. This legislation would make mergers subject to increased scrutiny, while also providing additional resources to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for enforcement.

Klobuchar’s bill is mirrored by another – The Trust Busting for the Twenty First Century Act – that her Republican colleague, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), introduced last term. Similar in focus, his bill also intended to amend our laws to restrain corporate power.

There is also Booker’s Farm System Reform Act, which would pressure processors to be more transparent in their contracts with farmers, place a moratorium on new, large-scale confined animal feeding operations to curtail further concentration, and mandate “country of origin” labeling (COOL) for beef, pork and dairy products.

This last provision should appeal to politicians of both parties, seeking to improve market transparency for consumers by not allowing corporations to hide where they source their products.

Last, there is the Food and Agribusiness Merger Moratorium and Antitrust Review Act, which is currently co-sponsored by Booker and Warren, as well as Senators Jon Tester (D-MT) and Jeff Merkley (D-OR). This legislation would halt mergers in the food and agricultural industries, while also creating a committee to make legislative recommendations on how to make markets fairer and more competitive.

The proposed commission would be composed of people selected from the Senate and House Committees on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry. As the House committee is chaired by Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-PA), those who would be selected to serve would definitely include people favored by both parties.

Overall, the reauthorization of farm bill this year presents an opportunity for politicians of both parties to continue to recognize that they have more in common than not when it comes to working for the long term good of our country’s food system. With various bills to draw from, Democrats and Republicans have the resources. Now is the time for our politicians to put their minds together and forge consensus, after all, that’s why we sent them to Washington in the first place.

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Farm Bill 101 ‘Zine

Looking for a primer on the 2023 Farm Bill debate? What is the Farm Bill? Why should you care? Which ideas should we support? Here is some help with that! Feel free to share far and wide – this is copyleft! If you would like to some paper copies to share, let us know and we can mail them your way: familyfarmdefenders@admin

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