Written by: Mike Ritter
Tyrone Hayes, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley, hasn’t spoken personally to his former employer Syngenta, a major herbicide producer in the U.S. Agriculture scene. Years before this interview, Syngenta contracted Hayes to conduct studies which would support the safety and effectiveness in of their product. Hayes was on board with the project until he found irregularities and problems with the product.
“I was already studying the effects of hormones and the effects of chemicals that interfere with hormones on amphibian development. And I was approached by the manufacturer and asked to study the effects of atrazine, the herbicide, on frogs. And after I discovered that it interfered with male development and caused males to turn into females, to develop eggs, the company tried to prevent me from publishing and from discussing that work with other scientists outside of their panel.”
After the EPA forced SYNGENTA to release him of the confidentiality contract;
“Well, eventually, what happened was the EPA insisted that—the Environmental Protection Agency insisted that the manufacturer release me from the confidentiality contract. And we published our findings in pretty high-ranking journals, such as Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. We published some work in Nature. We published work in Environmental Health Perspectives, which is a journal sponsored by the National Institutes of Health.”
This story is all too common. Unfortunately, scientists like Hayes who cry ”foul” on unethical science practices by Big Food & Associates are typically ignored or given the tin foil hat treatment as if they had gone mad, i.e., mad scientist. The competition they are up against have gained a lot of leverage over the last half century. Since before World War II, commoditized agribusiness has become an undercover super power in Washington by slowly gaining the trust and the business of the American public.
They have partially done so the only way you can make friends at a party: ask them what they need and then give it to them. Some of the largest and most profitable processors & distributors of commoditized U.S. corn, soy & wheat include:
- General Mills
- Pepsi Co
- Coca Cola
- Tyson & Meat Producers Named Earlier
Many of these companies have spent more money on marketing and advertising their products to the American public than we spend actually growing the stuff. They put farm friendly pictures on the front to help us see that what they sell is as pure as grandma’s garden.
The trust that has been cultivated in these food suppliers is engrained in the psyche of food consumers prior to entering the super market. The controversial food science company Monsanto, heavily endows many universities’ nutrition degree programs and their presence and research is felt by future dietitians. In 2012, Monsanto specifically endowed the University of Illinois’ College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) with a $250,000 grant to create an endowed chair for the “Agricultural Communications Program” it runs with the College of Communications.
Outside of the formal realm, the general public has developed a bipartisan view on the issue of GMO/Commoditized/Centralized Food industry and small organic independent agriculture. Front groups are a popular way for large food industry to counter opposing grassroots movements with their own. Sourcewatch.org defines a front group as “an organization that purports to represent one agenda while in reality it serves some other party or interest whose sponsorship is hidden or rarely mentioned.” Although independent organizations have full rights to express their own interests, front groups are deceptive by nature.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) in some capacity receives a majority of its support from companies who are part of the centralized ag system. This involvement may include corporate sponsorship, attendance at special events, and/or educational material. These companies, who share the common ground of beneficiaries from commoditized corn, soy, and wheat, express a visible thumb print in the young minds of future dietitians and farmers.
- American Council on Science and Health* (www.acsh.org)
- Animal Agriculture Alliance* (www.animalagalliance.org)
- Back to Balance Coalition (www.bk2balance.org)
- Calorie Control Council* (www.caloriecontrol.org)
- Center for Consumer Freedom* (www.consumerfreedom.com)
- Global Energy Balance Network (www.gebn.org)
- International Food Information Council* (www.foodinsight.org)
Their lobbyist presence in Washington is no secret either. PepsiCo spent over $3.5 million to file 16 reports in 2014 (2nd most of all food lobbying groups) and an additional $1.2 million to hire Duberstein Group, FTI Government Affairs, Russell Group, Covington & Burling and International Business-Government Counselors for additional lobbying assistance. You can find McDonalds Corp, Coca-Cola, Ecolab Inc., and FMC Corp (chemical related manufacturing) taking up most of the top spots as Washington’s top food industry lobbyists’. All of these companies spend at least $1 million per year simply to stay in the ears of lawmakers and maintain their place at the voting table but Monsanto takes the top spot spending $4.1 million over 2015. To put this in perspective, the Hippocrates Health Institute (holistic medicine) and the National Organic Coalition afforded $120,000 and $80,000 respectively. This disparity is only a small example of the huge disparity in favor of large conglomerates we have in Washington. To understand why certain laws are in place, one must understand who makes the laws. You can search through opensecrets.org to see for yourself, who is attempting to make their way into your kitchen.
“It is not just Big Tobacco anymore. Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda, and Big Alcohol. All of these industries fear regulation, and protect themselves by using the same tactics. Research has documented these tactics well. They include front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits, and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt. Not one single country has managed to turn around its obesity epidemic in all age groups. This is not a failure of individual will-power; This is a failure of political will to take on big business.”
Margaret Chan, MD Director General, World Health Organization
Endowments are not unusual but large companies like Monsanto represent only one part (industrialized/centralized agriculture) of a very diverse conversation , and that conversation is how to feed the world. A major underlying problem with this is that other companies with similar bank rolls are capable of making their presence felt in the institutions which develop future leaders of agriculture, where smaller ones aren’t. Aside from having a smaller platform to future farmers and dietitians, small producers and those who represent the private sector tend to be legally bullied once they begin to take market share away from large producers.
Small to medium scale farmers are clearly in for an uphill battle to gain market leverage, profit, and pass it on to their next generation. It’s not impossible to accomplish, as both Polyface Farms and White Oaks Pastures are both highly profitable multi-generational farms. Yet, as the organic movement gains popularity in the public, these highly profitable and influential companies who are losing market share are responding by hiking up their pants, tightening their suspenders, and taking aim on Congress to pigeon hole small farmers into either joining them or becoming chicken scratch.
In an act of good faith, Congress passed the Tester Hagan Amendment in 2009 providing farmers who gross less than half a million a year and sell more than half of their products directly to consumers or local restaurants exemption from federal inspections and the FDA’s new produce safety standards, provided they are compliant with required paperwork and in good standing with their state. The idea is that this exemption would save these low margin farmers from expensive fees, travel, and roadblocks that could potentially subdue them into foreclosure. As some of the small scalers would rejoice at the announcement of the THA, others shook their head in skepticism. As it turns out, the THA would fix very little in the rights of small farmers. Even though many were technically protected from inspection under the guise of the THA, some small farmers found themselves in a pinch when their precious crop or livestock were confiscated under the Bioterrorism Law. Although the farmers were protected, the USDA still found ways to raid farms and confiscate goods, fearing these small growers’ produce contained harmful contents ranging from E. coli to fungus. Under the guise of protection and safety, the government has shut down many private events like this one, and continues to do so with and without warrant against people without a history of wrong-doing. Protection is a good thing but intervening with one’s personal choice of where you get your food is another.
The fact is those who are willing to make the change will face an inconvenient truth: it can be harder than it looks. Some regions of the country have become more farm-to-consumer friendly than others and it’s best to know what barriers you may encounter. County, state, and federal regulations may differ, so it’s best to check out your own region’s rules. For instance, in Cobb County, it’s illegal to own chickens unless you live on at least 2 acres. If you’ve ever been to Cobb County, you’ll know that 2 acres is insanely difficult to come by if you can even chalk up the average $336,800 per acre in Marietta. Some restrictions create an indirect wedge between citizens and their freedom of choice when it comes to food. Your county may be different but it’s best to check up on your own codes before planting your own head of lettuce or raising your own animals.
Counties also write their own rules for buying and selling food; attached here, are Seattle’s. These rules are written similarly to most counties which include the exception: nearly every exemption excludes food to be found “potentially hazardous” which puts the discretion in the hands of the law-maker and enforcers. This sounds like a wonderful idea to have a government willing to shield us from harm; however, they don’t necessarily have a track record of being completely fair, unbiased, or accurate in their investigations.
Of course no one would like to eat hazardous food, and the intention here is to protect us. But the fact is, the USDA, FDA, and CDC typically decide, unopposed, whether or not a food is hazardous. There has been a history of inconsistency with their control techniques, famously documented in the film “Farmageddon.” The Farm-to-Consumer-Legal-Defense-Fund has fought relentlessly for nearly a decade to erase unfair regulation preventing humans the basic right of personal selection of his/her food source. Protection is one thing, but when the implementation said regulation subsequently restricts an individual from purchasing organic matter which sustains their own life, at their own free will, that regulating body is then only protecting a monopoly and no longer promoting a free market which is governed by the consumer.
Let’s look at this potentially hazardous argument for a moment. In general, you the consumer have two options of where you source your food and allocate your money.
A: The heavily inspected and regulated industrial farm
B: A person who raises two sheep and two cows who is not technically a licensed farm who doesn’t have regular health inspections or the USDA holding them to health code standards
Both have cows and both have the potential to raise hazardous food product. Despite heavy inspections, the U.S. recalled over 18 million pounds of food over 94 issued recalls for undeclared allergens, E. coli, Salmonella, extraneous material, processing defects, Listeria monocytogenes, and ‘other’ reasons. Furthermore, because of the sheer size and livestock turnover of these farms, it is nearly impossible to identify the single source of an E. coli outbreak in the facility. They are not held accountable financially and business goes on as usual. Now, nobody wants dirty product, but should it happen, the smaller operation is easily identified and the free market takes care of that operation immediately i.e., no one buys from him/her. They can also, due to minimal volume of livestock and resources, identify which cow was sick and possibly even how it became sick. The problem will either be fixed immediately or they will go out of business; all because they are forced to deal directly with you, the unhappy customer. Large factory farms aren’t immune to producing product that is potentially hazardous either. The giant machine still hasn’t been able to solve the problem in a way that is any more reliable than a small operation despite the CDC’s best efforts.
Whether you believe the industrial food system is harmful or not, there is a strikingly scary theme we are facing as a whole. The more reliant and physically removed we become on a centralized food system, the more we depend on it for sheer survival. On May 15, 1862, President Lincoln created the U.S. Department of Agriculture which, in effect, became the country’s first official ‘Food Industry.’ At that time, half of all Americans lived on farms compared to about 2% today. After 150 years, this industrialization of food has evolved to operate on far less man-on-field manpower, far more bureaucratic manpower, less visibility by the public, and a newly released 10,000 page safety and regulation code.
In 1862, the farm industry was nearing a financial crisis and a subsidy program was becoming necessary if not inevitable. And this became the big machine. Financially and logistically, it makes sense for supermarkets to get their supply from large factory operations. They’re reliable, efficient, and cheap. Small time private growers cannot produce vegetables, eggs, poultry or beef for the same price as the big dogs. It just can’t happen and there’s a major reason for it. They don’t have access to the same resources as they do.
The Wholesome Meat Act of 1967 effectively shut down close to 70% of federally inspected slaughterhouses in the U.S. as of 2010. Also in that same time period non-federally inspected slaughterhouses have decreased from 14,000 in 1968, to less than 2,000 in 2015. This bottleneck has forced smaller processing facilities to either become categorized as “custom non-inspected facilities” or extinct. Custom facilities are locations which are not federally inspected and therefore, are not permitted to process meat intended for commercial resale. In other words, you may have your own wild game processed at said facility for your own personal use. However, it would be considered illegal to actually sell that meat. This is an example of how buyer choice has been severely compromised.
Consequently, small farmers and personal growers who do not live close to a federally inspected processing plant have fewer options and are forced to travel long distances to process their livestock, driving up prices and stressing the animals. This creates a financial and logistical nightmare for farmers who are forced to transport livestock up to 300 miles for processing at an inspected facility. The other ‘option’ makes their sales illegal and business inoperable.
But there is good news. The PRIME Act is now on the table in the House which would allow states to write laws for custom processing locations to process meat for commercial sale. Currently these small custom processing facilities cannot process meat which will be for sale, only meat raised by the owner for the owner’s personal consumption. This act has the potential to open up the processing options for smaller growers and help them gain more customers. Whether the states are more or less qualified to handle this responsibility is yet to be seen.
THERE ARE A FEW OPTIONS
- Buy from a farm-to-table farmers market. Nearly all carry vegetables but meat isn’t always feasible due to legal constraints.
- Join a CSA and buy directly from a farmer – Community Supported Agriculture
- Grow it yourself
So you want to do something about it? Well, depending on what state you live in, you may be up for a fight. Should you decide to opt-out and start your own private food buying coop, you may get a knock at the door from the Department of Health like farmers Vernon Hershberger, Mike and Dianna Hartmann and pig farmer Alvin Schlangen who have experienced multiple raids of their private farms.
- Herschbergerfaced jail time, but was acquitted of three charges that included operating an unlicensed retail store and operating a dairy farm and dairy processing facility without licenses, yet was required to pay a $1000 fine plus court cost.
- Schlangen, who delivers his farm fresh food to other local farms and his private “Food Freedom Coop” as a volunteer, was acquitted of 3 counts in Hennepin County, MI of misdemeanors related to raw milk distribution in 2012. Later in 2013 he was convicted on 6 charges in Stearns County for operating without a food handler’s license, storing eggs at temperatures above the mandated 45 degrees, distributing adulterated or misbranded food, violating a food embargo, and selling custom processed meat.
- The MDA raided Mike and Dianna Hartmann’s farm again in 2010 citing a positive association between an E.coli strand in sick patients and the raw milk sold from their dairy. After the raid, a press release later confirmed there was no positive association between Hartmann’s product and the ill patients. Hartmann has been targeted by the Minnesota Department of Health at the state level for years resulting in a Supreme Court Hearing in 2005. Hartmann won.
The Minnesota State Constitution has a provision which states, “any person may sell or peddle the products of the farm or garden occupied and cultivated by him without obtaining a license therefor.” Until the Hartmann case, the MDA had interpreted this provision to cover only the sale of produce. The Supreme Court disagreed and held that the Hartmanns could sell meat from animals raised on their farm. Moreover, the Court ruled that “the language of the provision extends its protection to all products; the only limitation is that the farm or garden must be occupied and cultivated by the seller.
The legal actions taken against these farmers may sound like an act of protection for consumers but they have been interpreted by the public as a protection of large agri-business. In these cases, including the Hartmann’s, the farms did not lack quality of product or trust of the buyer. In fact, some of the agencies blatantly falsified evidence to present probable cause to get a warrant and ultimately seize private property. Not one of those people listed above, who volunteered to be a food producer, had a single prior offense before those specific cases. They made no one person ill and were responsible for no deaths before these accusations, trials, and heavy punishments were levied. Compare this to Tysons Salmonella outbreak of 2014 where they recalled 33,840lbs of chicken connected to Salmonella illnesses believed to be responsible for two hospitalizations and seven infected patients at a correctional facility in Tennessee. There were no fines or government punishment issued to Tyson for the outbreak.
What to do
Again, the catalyst here is you. The buyer has the most influence on the market regardless of that tactical savvy of the industry giant. If you want to be involved, you can help. If not, that’s ok too. But unless there is a mass shift in buyer and public support, then the industry will continue to maintain the monopolistic imbalance it does today. The further we remove ourselves from our food sources, the less we understand it and thus require a level of trust that cannot be reciprocated when mass production is consolidated in the manner it is today. Diana Rodgers, paleo nutritionist and a vocal advocate of the sustainable farming movement, has made a career of educating the public on the intricacies of their life supporting food source. She live’s at Clark Farm west of Boston, and is fighting relentlessly via her blog sustainabledish.com, books, podcast, and public speaking, to open communication about the realities of ethical food production between producer and food consumer. Become a fan of her material and by all means, ask what you can do to help.
Also reach out to the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund. John Moody, chairman of the organization and founder of Life Buying Co-Op, provides free legal defense through their donation based mission. By paying a membership fee or making an outright donation, you can help defend wrongfully charged, harassed, and bullied farmers who don’t have the deep pockets to provide their own defense against companies who have the power to push them into submission. Your involvement would help level that legal playing field for the people who are dedicating their lives to providing safe, affordable, and healthy local food.
Whichever route you choose, your best bet is to put your dollar where you believe it will help sustain fair and just agriculture.
Organizations to join:
- Weston A. Price
- USDA CSA
- Farm To Consumer Legal Defense Fund (FTCLDF)
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