JOHN IKERD: Family farms, yes; corporate agriculture, no
FAIRFIELD, Iowa—Measure 1, the North Dakota referendum on corporate farming, is part of a national political strategy to remove all legal obstacles to the corporate takeover of American agriculture.
The campaign features a number of corporate myths:
Myth 1: Corporate farmers have the same values as traditional family farmers.
Reality: Traditionally, family farming has been a way of life as well as a means of making a living. True family farmers do not compromise their ethical or social values for the sake of profits. But large, publicly traded corporations have no ability to express the ethical or social values of their shareholders.
Corporations are legally obligated to serve the "common interests" of their investors. But the only "common interest" of the diverse investors in a large corporation is their interest in maximizing returns.
A corporation is not a person. It is a purely economic entity.
Myth 2: Large confinement dairy and hog operations will increase rural employment and economic development.
Reality: Large confinement animal feeding operations (CAFOs) employ far fewer and lower-paid workers than the family farmers the operations displace.
More than 50 years of research, including at UND, confirms that CAFOs depress rural economies, increase poverty and degrade rural communities' quality of life.
I recently compared a typical 1,000-cow dairy CAFO with a sufficient number of 50-cow organic dairy farms to produce the same amount of milk, using statistics provided by the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Profitability. The dairy CAFO would employ one manager and 15 milkers, while the 30 organic dairy farms would employ 30 dairy farmers and 30 milkers/workers.
As federal statistics confirm, whenever CAFOs have taken over industries—poultry, beef, pork, dairy—more than 90 percent of independent producers are lost.
CAFOs let corporations extract, not develop, rural wealth.
Myth 3: Corporate agriculture is essential to meet Americans' food needs.
Reality: New approaches to farming and food production are emerging in response to growing concerns about our industrial food system.
Genetic engineering, air and water pollution, antibiotic resistance, animal welfare and carcinogenic pesticides are just a few of these concerns.
The natural, organic and local food movements are the most visible responses to these concerns. Free-range, pasture-based, grass-fed, humanely raised and hormone and antibiotic free are common labels for animal products.
Farmers markets and co-op grocery stores such as those in Grand Forks, Bismarck and Fargo provide markets for these products. Multi-farm food networks and home-delivery programs let sustainable farmers connect with hundreds of thousands of customers in distant cities.
This is the future of food and farming—not CAFOs.
Myth 4: Corporate farming is necessary to meet the demands of a growing global population.
Reality: Contrary to popular belief, today's industrial agriculture doesn't feed the people of the world. It mainly produces feed for animals and fuel for automobiles.
Most of the world's people feed themselves. United Nations statistics indicate that at least 70 percent of the world's population get their food from small scale family farms.
U.N. studies also show that production on these farms could be doubled or tripled without using industrial technologies or relying on outside corporate funding.
Myth 5: Corporate investments are needed to finance agricultural expansion.
Reality: North Dakota farmers have other means of financing legitimate agricultural expansions under existing laws.
Besides, corporations probably want the right to buy farmland more than the right to operate CAFOs. They know CAFOs are not a sustainable system of production and will face growing public demand for effective regulation. They also know there always will be a need for land to produce food, not matter how it is farmed.
About 70 percent of U.S. farmland is projected to change hands within the next 20 years. Farmland already nearly tops of the list of opportunities for speculative capital investments.
North Dakota's current anti-corporate farming law is an obstacle to such investments.
Ikerd is a professor emeritus of agricultural economics at the University of Missouri. At the invitation of the Dakota Resource Council, he recently spoke against Measure 1 in four cities across North Dakota.