Afternoon Update from DOJ-USDA hearings on competition in agriculture
Battery died and so was off for a bit. We had a good panel with state Attorney Generals who seem quite geared up on these issues. They also admit their limitations, that they rely on interpretations from judiciary to prosecute potential infractions. They pointed to several victories – including the cessation of the JBS merger in cattle (where 2 of the top 4 cattle processors were trying to merge) and a recent rejection of a Dean Foods acquisition in dairy. But, Montana AG Steve Bullock also pointed out that it would be easy to be skeptical and pessimistic and feel we have been here before. He pointed to competition hearings in 1999 that talked about many of these same issues (particularly concentration in livestock), and yet from 1999 to 2010 we didn’t see much done about antitrust and plenty of consolidation. Steve believes we are in a different situation this time; that there is a new strong partnership between two agencies (DOJ and USDA), that never before have the head of these two agencies met to discuss these issues (as they did today), and that we have a particularly strong antitrust division in DOJ (as Christine exemplified this morning).
I want to believe Steve Bullock – that this is different and we have leaders that care. However, so much of this does feel like a shadow puppet show. The reality on the ground is that this room has farmers who are on the verge of going out of business, and several likely will this year. We have a government that in 1962 was public about reducing the number of farmers to 1/5th of its status – that wanted the sons and daughters of rural America to leave the farm. The reality is that we have a government that out of one side of its mouth talks about protecting us and at the other side compliments Monsanto for all the improvements they have provided to our farmers and our economy. This room has very few organic farmers, but every one of these conventional farmers here can empathize with many of the same issues that organic farmers feel. They are not only underserved, they are served poison. I talked to one who said he’d like to go organic, but feels it would be “unethical” because he grows corn-cattle in a sea of GMO pollen and he knows that he would get contaminated, and that even if the standard allows that, he couldn’t stand it.
One farmer, George Naylor, said that it was hard to trust this process. He said, “It’s like you’re trying to close the door not only after the horses are out of the barn, but after the horse thieves have taken them and so we can’t even get them back.” He was one of several farmers who fear it is too late for them and their children. I spoke with over a dozen organic farmers and organic field crop seed companies and asked them to attend, and over and over I heard “I don’t believe that they really want to, will, or can do anything.” This hopelessness is one of the most dangerous traits that impacts the well-being of our agricultural systems. The antidote that most of us take is passionate anger at the system edged with ocasional humor, and work at times with blinders on to not see just how rough and scary things are. That said, I do believe that there will be some benefit from these hearings. Not everything we want, but there seems to be a possibility that the utility patent issue might really be examined. That would be big. Things are wrapping up, and I will post more stories, interviews, video, and pics in the coming week. Keep the faith, never stop. – Matthew
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