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Q&A About Ag Transparency and Big Ag

Lindsay and Andy recently discussed agriculture transparency and big ag here: http://lindsayandytalk.com/big-ag-use-bully-pulpit/.  Their conversation continues below.

 

Andy: What is one thing that agriculture does really well with regards to transparency and  should keep doing?

Lindsay: This is a tough one for me to answer. As I told you the other night, the biggest passion I have about this entire subject is the response of the Ag industry to the community that lives beneath its shadow. I don’t think that any industry can claim corporate responsibility when it wreaks havoc on the surrounding community–environmentally, physically, and socially. When I see farmers awarded by the EPA but understand that the neighbors can no longer open their windows because the air is so heavy with manure or flies, that is a hard pill for me to swallow. Those concerns are repeatedly diminished, covered in labels of “environmental activism,” or “anti-agriculture,” but most of the time, that is not the case. Most of the time, the people raising concerns are people who have lived in the rural countryside their entire lives, who understand what farming is, who even understand the dilemmas many farmers face. But they also understand that their quality of life has diminished so that an industry can profit–they can’t breathe; they can’t play; they can’t enjoy life on their property.

Knowing this, it’s hard for me to say that the Ag industry is truly transparent, because as long as rural communities continue to drown in the muddy waters of corporate advancement, it seems that profit is the driving force that shrouds ethics or transparency.

 

Andy: What is one thing that agriculture is doing poorly with regards to transparency and should stop doing?

Lindsay: I think that I answered this above, but let me reiterate: Is it possible the the rural neighbors are the canary in the coal mine? Is it possible that those who have been speaking out for decades–asking for enforced regulations (read: enforced, not more), asking for protection against industrial encroachment, asking for clean air and clean water–have valid concerns? Since the 40s, we’ve known that industrialized agriculture can be detrimental to the health and welfare of rural communities. Walter Goldschmidt–commissioned by a U.S. Special Committee–studied the influence of industrialized ag, and the results of his study were so damning, so profound, that the USDA closed his sponsoring agency, rendering his findings mute until the 1970s.

We see the influence of industrialized ag throughout the Gulf of Mexico, Lake Erie, Grand Lake St. Mary’s. With Grand Lake St. Mary’s, a phosphorous-overloaded lake severely compromised the area’s $160 million industry. The main culprit? Undeniably agriculture. The response? Encourage agriculture to do better. It’s time we stop relying on the good faith of farmers to protect the environment and the rural communities; it’s time we abandon the ancient stereotype rooted in the days of hunting and gathering where communities worked together for self-preservation, for in upholding such false perceptions, we elevate farmer above neighbor and preserve ideologies rooted in aristocracy.

 

Andy: What is one thing that agriculture isn’t currently doing but should start doing to become more transparent?

Lindsay: I suppose I’ve made that clear in my last two answers.

 

Andy:  You mentioned ‘Big Ag’ in one of our recent posts; what does the label ‘Big Ag’ mean to you?

Lindsay:  Well, let’s first look at some of the other industries that have gained the adjective “Big” as part of their title.

Big Tobacco: According to quick research, in 2010, the tobacco industry spent $16.6 million to influence legislative policy. In marketing costs, they spent $8.8 billion.

Big Pharma: In the last 15 years, the pharmaceutical industry has spent nearly $2.7 billion in lobbying expenses. Since 1990, Big Pharma has handed out $150 million in campaign contributions.

Big Ag: In 2013, Big Ag spent nearly $152 million in lobbying efforts.  I’m not even going to go into the millions spent by biotech giants on marketing campaigns to defeat initiatives.

Maybe I should stop at the numbers. But let me clarify the definition of “Big Ag” a bit more.

The term “Big Ag” is rooted in agribusiness–corporatized agriculture that exploits the meaning of family farm. Big Ag wants to say that nearly all farms throughout the nation are “family farmed,” but it conveniently leaves out that just 2 percent of our nation’s workforce are farmers–and most of those farmers fall under the umbrella of food giants like Tyson who have painted a clear vision of what it means to raise animals in today’s society: millions of chickens packed into a barn, thousands of hogs and cattle. Most Americans have an idealized image of what a “family farm” is, and it is a far cry from the stark metal barns that raise most of our nation’s meat supply. While Big Ag has proliferated into our farm fields long ago, one of the most visual examples exists in our current way of mass-produced livestock.

 

Andy: Do you think it will possible to get away from using labels to describe people, businesses or industry?

Lindsay: There’s a clear distinction that needs to be made here between labels for societies/ people groups versus labels for business/industry. Labels within our food industry exist to inform.While history has long proven that labels can be damaging, sociologists also know that societies and cultures develop through and around language (Enter: a long theoretical discussion that we don’t have time for).  Knowing this, however, I am always intrigued with how the Big Ag industry finds the “Big Ag” label so vile. The irony for rural communities is that the agribusiness industry wants to tout that it’s farming, wants to demand the archaic “right-to-farm” laws, but at the same time, it wants to proliferate across the rural countryside; it wants to farm right over any rural neighbor that gets in its way. It wants to have the power of a corporation (and everything about Big Ag is a corporation, an industry), but it doesn’t want to be recognized as such.

So the question for Big Ag is this: What’s so EVIL about corporate power? Nothing, it seems, for the farmer–until that corporate power starts attracting rules and regulations that he doesn’t want to abide by. Big Ag is hovering between two worlds: an ancient world that disappeared with the Industrial Revolution, and a present world that sustains profit and  livelihood.

We cannot get away from  labels that serve to inform the consumer, nor should we, for once we stop letting people be informed, once we stop categorizing methods and philosophies, we become an unthinking, uncritical generation. And in that gap, a thinking, critical power will always step in. Perhaps this is why Big Ag is so eager to drop the label, for it gets the consumer to mindlessly buy and eat?

 

Andy’s comments:  I appreciate Lindsay’s candid responses. In fairness, I should take a stab at responding to those same questions as well. How would you respond?