“Being in a supermarket, picking up a piece of produce and wondering, where does this come from? …My Facebook feed is flooded with what I should eat and what I should avoid…I don’t know what to believe.”
That, says Oscar-winning director James Moll in a recent interview, is what inspired him to create his new documentary, Farmland. The film was made with the financial support of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, or USFRA. (See Jim Goodman’s review at Civil Eats).
The USFRA was created in 2011 as a trade association uniting Big Ag corporations (such as Monsanto, Cargill and DuPont Pioneer) and marketing groups for commodities (including corn, soybeans, beef and pork). Take note: some of these groups are farmer-funded, but in reality, farmers have no choice but to fund them, and it is often at their own expense.
Major commodity marketing groups, such as National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and National Pork Producers Association, are funded through check-off taxes. Check-offs are mandatory taxes paid by farmers per unit sold at market (or to processors) and collected by the USDA. For instance, a cattle rancher pays $1 for every head of cattle he/she sells, and every time that animal is sold, $1 gets paid as a check-off tax.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the realities of check-off funds. Take the ongoing battle around Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), which would require meatpackers to state where their products were raised, slaughtered and processed. A 2013 poll by the Consumer Federation of America showed ninety percent of adult Americans favored labeling fresh meat’s country of origin.
And, ranchers support labeling, too. R-CALF USA, representing thousands of cattle ranchers across 47 states, has demanded mandatory labeling for years.
But NCBA, which tends to side with the mega-meatpackers and multi-national agri-businesses at every turn, recently joined other industry groups in suing the USDA over its effort to implement COOL. In short, every farmer and rancher who sells their cattle at market financially supports NCBA’s efforts to prevent country of origin labeling, which many ranchers and consumers want. And NCBA’s allegiances to corporate agri-business don’t stop there—they oppose fair market competition, support vertical integration of the livestock industry, and even tried to kill the 2014 Farm Bill because their anti-COOL and anti-competition policy positions were defeated.
The story isn’t much different on the commodity crop side. Crop check-offs funnel funds collected from farmers into statewide marketing groups – many of which are USFRA members. The USFRA states that it supports all farmers—those who plant organic as well as genetically modified varieties. GMO corporations have largely taken that choice away from farmers as they devour non-GMO seed companies, sue farmers and prevent farmers from saving their own seed.
In truth, with the seed market dominated by fewer and fewer companies – including USFRA members DuPont, Pioneer and Monsanto – and the price of GMO seed rising, many farmers feel conscripted into planting GMOs. Here again, USFRA uses farmer money to advocate positions that many farmers – regardless of size, product or location – do not support.
OpenSecrets.org revealed that, in 2012, USFRA’s board spent more than $20 million lobbying and donated $3.5 million to Congressional campaigns. While federal regulations forbid check-off money to be used for lobbying, commodity marketing groups will use their other dollars to do so. Food and Water Watch documented how USFRA board member National Pork Producers Council, funded almost entirely by check-off money, bolstered lobbying efforts against country of origin labeling and implementing rules that would “…prevent the meatpacking and poultry processors from treating livestock farmers unfairly.” USFRA’s board also aims to shift the public discourse by bankrolling pro-corporate ag projects like Farmland.
This is not to say that all ranchers support country of origin labeling, and farmers and ranchers who choose to support USFRA’s efforts should be able to do so, BUT those who do not should not have their hard-earned money used against them. With Farmland’s release, the USFRA is clearly trying to reclaim some of the ground Big Ag lost in recent public debates. If Big Ag really wants to address public concerns, they should let family farmers of all ages, farm size, ethnicities and crops reply without the spin.