Today is the day. The Occupy movement is going to occupy the food supply. According to the occupiers and Farm Aid president Willie Nelson large corporations have too much control over our food. I won’t deny that there has been a lot of consolidation in the food and seed markets over the years, but that seems pretty common and big does not equal bad as some occupiers would have you think.
Willie Nelson recently wrote “Occupy the Food System” for The Huffington Post. He ends his editorial piece by saying, “Our food system belongs in the hands of many family farmers, not under the control of a handful of corporations.”
As you may know I happen to be part of a family farm. I’m the 4th generation to work this land. I’ve seen a lot of posts online about how corporations control farms or farmers are slaves to “Big Ag.” People claim that we are beholden to them and have to sign unfair contracts to be privileged enough to use their seed. They’ll also claim that the contracts rope us into buying other inputs like pesticides and herbicides from the same company. We get a lot of our seed from big corporations like the “evil” Monsanto, and since Farm Aid seems to be jumping in with Occupy I wanted to know what they think about some of the genetically modified crops we grow on our farm.
The Farm Aid website poses the question “What does GE mean for family farmers?” and goes on to say:
Corporate Control. Farmers who buy GE seeds must sign contracts that dictate how their crop is grown – including what chemicals to buy – and forbid them from saving seeds. This has given corporations incredible control over the production of major staple crops in America.
Let’s examine this corporate control a little further and look at it from the family farm level. My farm in particular. When we buy Monsanto’s GMO seeds we get to sign a Technology/Stewardship Agreement. Section 4 of the 2011 agreement I have on file covers everything the grower must agree to when purchasing these products. Here’s a quick rundown of the requirements.
- If we buy or lease land that is already seeded with Monsanto technology that year we need to abide by the contract. Makes sense to me. If I end up leasing ground in crop for some reason, I should honor the agreements it was planted with. This would be a very odd thing too happen by the way.
- Read and follow the Technology Use Guide and Insect Resistance Management/Grower Guide. So Monsanto has ideas on how best to use their product. Some of it is required by the EPA to make sure farmers like me understand how to steward the technology. No big surprise there. Not to mention if you read the guides you’ll find a ton of good agronomic information.
- Implement an Insect Resistance Management program. Shocking! Monsanto thinks controlling pests responsibly is a good idea, and if you farm insects are something you deal with regardless of what production method you use or crop you plant.
- We should only buy seed from a dealer or seed company licensed by Monsanto. I’d want to do that anyway. It’s for my own good. Would you buy a brand new home entertainment system out of the back of some guy’s van parked in an alley? Me neither.
- We agree to use seed with Monsanto technology solely for planting a single commercial crop. And don’t sell any to your neighbor either it says. That’s right, we can’t save seed to grow the next year, and frankly I’m not interested in doing that. For the critics who are not sold on GMO crops anyway do they really want farmers holding onto this seed and planting it without any kind of paper trail? Soybeans are a different story, but hybrid corn won’t produce the same seeds you planted anyway.
- If you want to plant seed to be used as seed you need to sign an agreement to do so with a seed company licensed by Monsanto. We do this for two different companies. In fact we’ve actually worked with one company through several name changes long before GMO showed up. Why? Because we can get a premium price for the soybeans we grow that will be used as seed by other farmers next year. The premium accounts for the extra effort we put in to make sure our planting, harvesting, and storage equipment is extra clean to provide a pure product tot he customer.
- We can’t grow seed to be used for breeding, research, or generation of herbicide registration data. That gets back to saving seed. If we wanted to breed our own varieties I’m sure we could get into doing that, but I look at it right now as division of labor. Seed companies are great at coming up with great products, and American farmers are great (in many cases the best) at turning those products into a bounty of food, feed, fuel, and fiber.
- Our farm has agreed to only export and plant these crops in countries that allow them. OK that’s kind of a no brainer. Not to mention we aren’t the ones exporting anything.
- Here’s the part where some people think family farmers become slaves to the corporations. The part where GMO seeds force us to buy our chemicals from the same company. But if you’ve got a Technology/Stewardship Agreement handy you’ll find that’s not true. If I plant Roundup® Ready (RR) crops Monsanto would sure like me to use Roundup® herbicide on them, but I don’t have to. The agreement says that for RR crops that I should only use Roundup® herbicide…………………OR another authorized herbicide which could not be used in the absence of the RR gene. When I worked off the farm I sold a lot of generic brand glyphosate. It’s just like buying your grocer’s private label brand of cough medicine instead of the name brand. The only catch is if you have a problem you need to talk with the company who provided the herbicide. If we spray Brand X and it doesn’t work it won’t do any good to go crying to Monsanto. That sounds like pretty standard business practice to me. Furthermore, I don’t even have to use glyphosate on my glyphosate tolerant crops. This year we will have waxy corn from Pioneer and waxy from a local dealer who sells Monsanto products. The latter will be RR, but the Pioneer variety won’t. We will likely plant them in the same field side by side to see which one performs better. If we spray glyphosate on those acres all the Pioneer corn will die! Instead we will control weeds with a herbicide that all corn resists naturally.
- We have to pay for the seed. Ridiculous isn’t it? Paying for something that gives value in return?
- We may have to provide documents supporting that we are following the agreement within 7 days after getting a request from Monsanto. I’m not worried about that if I’m following the agreement anyway. To my knowledge we’ve never received a request.
- If Monsanto asks to do so they can inspect our land, storage bins, wagons, etc. Again I’m not worried.
- And finally we agree to allow Monsanto to obtain our internet service provider records to validate an electronic signature. If anything on this list is questionable it’s this one. I’m just not sure electronic signatures are the way to go personally, but it’s becoming more common. Even for the President.
If you want to see the exact wording of the contract, click to view a PDF of my 2011 Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement.
So there you have it. That’s what we have to agree to in order to make use of Monsanto’s biotechnology on our farm. I don’t see anything in there that hurts my farm. I don’t have to buy their herbicides, and I don’t have to buy anything from them next year if I don’t want to. The biggest problem I have with seed companies is that it seems like they phase out a variety from time to time that is a really strong performer on our farm. I understand the concern organic farms have with GMO crops in close proximity to their own. Those farmers have worked hard and shown patience in getting an organic certification, and they don’t want to start over again. Even though we don’t have any neighbors farming organically, it’s important that we are careful when making field applications. We hope our neighbors do the same because our waxy corn generally isn’t RR and our popcorn definitely is not. You could also have drift from any corn field do damage to soybeans next door, so even guys like me are sympathetic to the practices of other farms.
Another thing Farm Aid hits on is how much seed prices have risen. A fully traited bag of GMO seed corn sells for over $300. That bag will plant 2-3 acres where we farm. No, that’s not cheap by any means. However, what doesn’t get mentioned is the technology that is increasing the price of the seed is cutting your costs somewhere else or protecting yield in the event of certain bad conditions.
So as some people decide to Occupy the Food Supply, they may hold up signs and shout. I will occupy the food supply today like I do almost everyday. I’ve been occupying it since I was born and I’ll be occupying it almost every day until I retire or die. I’m here for the long haul. I see the impact of my occupation every day and it has been adding up for my family for four generations, and I hope my son becomes the fifth generation to occupy our food supply on a daily basis. How about you?