Smoke, mirrors and money: how big ag hoodwinks farmers, the public and politicians

24 Jun 2024

Hereby we recommend you a very interesting article by Marianne Landzettel, a journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK and the rest of the EU, the US and South Asia. She analyzes an investigation carried by several international journalists and Lighthouse Reports.

This spring, farmers across Europe took to the streets to protest, blocking roads with tractors and, on occasions, dumping manure. The EU commission took note and hastily diluted the environmental requirements for farm subsidies – without jeopardizing the environmental performance of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). That at least is the take of Copa-Cogeca which describes itself as “the united voice of farmers and agri-cooperatives in the EU”[1]. The news website POLITICO quotes deputy head Patrick Pagani: “The proposed changes … represent a fine-tuning of the current provisions and not new rules … They do not impact the set objectives of the CAP, which remain unchanged, striking the balance between economic, environment and social”[2].

[1] https://copa-cogeca.eu/

[2] https://www.politico.eu/article/rushed-rollback-eu-green-farming-rule-draw-dismay/

Who’s a farmer?

Is Copa-Cogeca truly the voice of European farmers? And whom do national farmer associations such as the French FNSEA or the German DBV represent? The Lighthouse Reports, a collaboration of investigative journalists did some digging and their reporting is summarized on the Thin Ink website[1]in the two-part series: “The Strongmen Speaking in the Name of the Farmers”[2]. First up: Copa-Cogeca. “We found that while Copa-Cogeca has a lot of power and sway in Brussels, they represent mostly the interests of the big, industrial farmers and cooperatives and not the small- and medium-sized farmers that make up the bulk of European agriculture. We found that membership numbers are opaque, unavailable, or unreliable. It is nowhere near 22 million”. According to the official EU statistics there were only 9.1 million agricultural holdings in 2020[3] – even if Copa-Cogeca were to represent every single farm in the EU, who are the other 12.9 million members?

[1] https://news.thin-ink.net/

[2] https://news.thin-ink.net/p/the-strongmen-speaking-in-the-name

https://news.thin-ink.net/p/the-strongmen-speaking-in-the-name-d78

[3] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/SEPDF/cache/73319.pdf

Rich and powerful

A closer look at the national farmers associations shows that several are run by powerful, well connected men. About the president and the deputy general secretary of the French farmers union FNSEA Thin Ink says: “They own much more land than the average members they are supposed to represent. They also received many times more subsidies than the average farmer and control/ own/have stakes in multiple companies”. A diagram illustrates the connections.

The president of the extremely influential German farm lobby group Deutscher Bauernverband (DBV), Joachim Ruckwied “runs his own arable and cereal

farm and vineyard, which spans over 360 hectares in total, and sits on the supervisory board of BayWa AG, said to be the largest agricultural trader in Germany”.

Small and overworked

The article links to a podcast, “The Big Agri-Bully Boys”[1] produced in cooperation with Lighthouse Reports, which dives deeper into farmer protests, big business and changing the issue. For context, the podcast presents some interesting statistics: Two thirds of the farms in the EU are under 5ha in size. More than 50% of agricultural output are produced by just 3.3% of big, industrial farms, while 95% of farms are ‘family farms’, where 50% or more of the staff working on the farm are family members. These farmers don’t have time to travel to Brussels to protest. According to the podcast, the demonstrations were dominated by farm lobby groups such as Copa-Cogeca. A Polish journalist explained that in his country a rich businessman and owner of a mink farm became the face of the protests. According to the journalist, the most powerful people in agriculture “are people who make money from industrial meat or fur production” who can afford to fight activists and policy makers who might try to reign them in. The tactics range from defamation lawsuits to smear campaigns to setting up and funding organisations that help them change the narrative.

[1] https://europeanspodcast.com/episodes/the-big-agri-bully-boys

 

Disinformation, masked as science

In the US, funding organisations to discredit research that threatens business interests is a tried and tested strategy – not only in the meat industry. In May, a German agricultural paper, the Bayrisches Landwirtschaftliches Wochenblatt published an article[1] that discredited a French study that found the pesticide glyphosate to have a negative impact on male fertility, citing the „Genetic Literacy Project“ and the scientist Kevin Folta. The NGO “Right to Know” calls the Genetic Literacy Project a “PR front for Monsanto, Bayer and the chemical industry”[2] and Kevin Folta, a senior contributing columnist to the Genetic Literacy Project, “has provided inaccurate information and engaged in misleading activities in his efforts to promote genetically engineered foods and pesticides”[3].

[1] https://www.wochenblatt-dlv.de/feld-stall/pflanzenbau/unfruchtbar-glyphosat-wissenschaftler-widerlegt-diese-theorie-577034?utm_campaign=blw-mo-fr-nl&utm_source=blw-nl&utm_medium=newsletter-link&utm_term=2024-06-05

[2] https://usrtk.org/industry-pr/jon-entine-genetic-literacy-project/

[3] https://usrtk.org/industry-pr/kevin-folta/

When Big Ag writes the laws

Even more efficient than influencing public opinion is getting laws changed. In Iowa, a law that could make suing companies like Bayer a lot more difficult, passed the first hurdle. “A bill that would partially shield the maker of a widely used agricultural and lawn herbicide from lawsuits over its health effects was adopted by the Iowa Senate on Tuesday”, reported the Iowa Capital Dispatch[1].

Also ‘helpful’ are ‘Right to Farm’ laws which in many US states make it impossible for ordinary citizens and municipalities to prevent or even object to the building of intensive animal production facilities near homes and schools. The stench from ‘lagoons’ holding the excrements of thousands of pigs, and from manure spraying, can be so intense and nauseating that they cause breathing problems and force neighbours to keep windows and doors closed. Such conditions have to be endured because the companies running the facilities have the ‘right to farm’[2].

[1] https://iowacapitaldispatch.com/2024/04/02/iowa-senate-votes-to-limit-lawsuits-over-roundup-other-farm-and-lawn-chemicals/

[2] https://barnraisingmedia.com/right-to-farm-laws-hurt-farmers-disenfranchise-voters-empower-corporations/

Money talks

How do you get such legislation passed? In the US you spend big money where it matters. Investigative Midwest, an independent, not for profit US news website “analyzed two decades of political campaign contributions and lobbying dollars from meat industry groups National Pork Producers Council, National Chicken Council, National Turkey Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and major meat companies JBS, Tyson Foods, Smithfield Foods, and Cargill”[1], and listed the names of US politicians at state and national level along with the sums they received. The article concludes with a quote by Austin Frerick, an expert on agricultural and antitrust policy and the author of “Barons: Money, Power, and the Corruption of America’s Food Industry”[2]: “The meat industry is the closest we have to a criminal organization in modern day American business”.

In Europe, we may not be quite there yet, but the players know the blueprint.

 

Marianne Landzettel, journalist writing and blogging about food, farming and agricultural policies in the UK and the rest of the EU, the US and South Asia.

@M_Landzettel

[1] https://investigatemidwest.org/2024/05/30/packers-stockyards-update-meat-industry-lobbying/

[2] For a review see: https://www.slowfood.org.uk/2024/04/12/rich-powerful-and-hiding-in-plain-sight-the-robber-barons-in-farming-food-and-retail/

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