E-mail this article to
yourself or a friend.
Enter address:


Some claim that corporate cash compromises role of farm groups

by Robert Schubert
CropChoice editor

(Feb. 13, 2002 – CropChoice news) – U.S. political campaigns aren’t the only place where corporate money shows up. The non-profit, membership National Corn Growers and American Soybean associations have accepted millions of dollars in agribusiness money. This practice irks some who argue that these organizations are helping agribusiness to enhance its power and profitability at the expense of the very people they’re supposed to represent – farmers.

The farm organizations counter that they have to work with biotech, seed and chemical companies in order to aid farmers in achieving higher yields and selling more or their crops in more markets.

"It’s a big conflict of interest when the NCGA and the Soybean Association take money from agribusiness when they’re supposed to be representing the interests of farmers," says Dennis Mitchell, who grows corn, soybeans, wheat and alfalfa in northeastern South Dakota. "The interest of multinationals is opposite those of farmers. They want to buy grain as cheaply as possible, while farmers want to sell (at a price) as high as possible." In the case of inputs, such as genetically modified, patented seeds and chemicals, companies want to sell to the farmers at a high price. The net result: farmers get an economic squeeze job.

Syngenta, Monsanto and others contributed about 11 percent of the National Corn Growers Association’s $7 million budge in fiscal year 2001, says spokesman Stewart Reeve. The money went toward banquets, conventions and leadership training seminars on such issues as ethanol and biotechnology. The American Soybean Association received $2.1 million of its $26.7 million budget in fiscal 2000 from Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred International, BASF, Stein Seed Co. and others, says controller Brian Vaught. In 2001, the Association spent $280,000 to work with the Council for Biotechnology Information and the National Corn Growers to achieve a unified message about the benefits of transgenic crops.

These organizations also collect money from the crop checkoff funds farmers contribute to at harvest time; the Corn Growers Association received $4.7 million of such money in 2001. In the case of corn, 20 states have funds that collect anywhere from a quarter of a cent to half a penny on each bushel that farmers deliver to the elevator. An elected or appointed board invests the money into such areas as breeding and marketing. The money has gone toward research into transgenic seeds at public universities doing work with the help of private companies.

When it comes to genetically modified seeds, Reeve says the Association believes that the technology must be accessible to farmers. If growers determine a need to plant Bt corn, genetically engineered with the insecticidal bacterium bacillus thuringiensis, because of pressure from the European corn borer or other pests, then they should have access to it. It probably doesn’t make sense, he says, for farmers to sow the corn in places where pest pressure is low.

In some areas, however, farmers are planting Bt varieties as an insurance policy against any pest pressure.

Iowa State University entomologist John Obrycki last April told CropChoice that midwestern growers had planted Bt seed on 20 to 30 percent of their corn acreage despite corn borer pressure on only 2 to 3 percent of that acreage. The concern here is that overplanting will lead to pests developing resistance.

Another type of resistance has caused concern among farmers: countries rejecting genetically modified U.S. crops. In the case of corn, the National Corn Growers Association designed its Know Before You Grow website, http://www.ncga.com/biotechnology/know_where/index.html, to help farmers determine whether the European Union will accept certain varieties. U.S. corn exports to Europe have plummeted because of its rejection of transgenic foods.

Getting information to customers about new biotechnology products and working with regulatory agencies to gain approval of them here and abroad, in order to open markets to U.S. farmers, is an important part of the work of the National Corn Growers Association, says Illinois corn farmer Leon Corzine. He is chairman of the organization’s biotechnology working group.

South Dakota farmer Dennis Mitchell sees positive agronomic aspects of genetically modified seeds. He planted all of his soybean acreage last year with Monsanto’s Roundup Ready variety because they made weed management easier. But he has moved away from Bt corn because of consumer rejection in Europe and elsewhere: "I understand that the consumer is right, so we should be able to provide them with what they want."

Besides, Mitchell has had better luck with DeKalb’s conventional 440 line at controlling corn borers. Apparently, he says, they dislike the taste. And considering that DeKalb, a subsidiary of Monsanto, markets transgenic varieties that cost $20 to $30 more per bag, going the conventional route is easier on his pocketbook.

While Mitchell thinks that biotechnology yields some agronomic benefits, he doesn’t believe that farmers will gain economically from the technology. "Today’s farmer doesn’t receive one nickel of financial advantage from any of this new technology, be it seed or chemical or anything else," he says, noting the work of Richard Levins, an agricultural economist at the University of Minnesota.

Levins wrote in "An Essay on Farm Income," that agribusiness is profitable because its large size gives it economic power. "Until farmers act collectively in their own economic interests, and thereby gain economic power, the benefits of higher prices will go elsewhere," to the likes of Cargill and Monsanto. The essay is available at http://agecon.lib.umn.edu/cgi-bin/pdf_view.pl?paperid=2459&ftype=.pdf.

Judging from the response to a poll by the Capital Press agriculture newspaper in the Pacific Northwest, some farmers seem to sense what Levins is talking about, at least when it comes to biotech. The majority of respondents said that seed companies (28.9 percent) and chemical companies (53.3 percent) would benefit the most from agricultural biotechnology. Only 4.4 percent of respondents said that farmers would benefit. An article about the poll, "Chemical companies will clean up on biotech," appeared in the Feb. 8 edition of the paper (http://www.capitalpress.com).

For more information about the costs and benefits of planting transgenic corn, refer to a report by Dr. Charles Benbrook at http://www.biotech-info.net/Bt_farmlevel_IATP2001.html. Also, please refer to a recent CropChoice story -- "ISU ag economist: no need to ‘farm the county’" – at http://www.cropchoice.com/leadstry.asp?recid=555.