Suppose you were given a choice between walking the plank on a pirate ship in shark-infested waters or jumping out of an airplane at 10,000 feet without a parachute. You’d choose the sharks, right?

Not me. I can’t swim.  But neither choice is appealing.

That’s the way it is with a lot of farms these days, as corporate control of what they lovingly call our “industry” has grown to the point we don’t have much choice in decisions we’re forced to make. We can walk the plank or bail out, but rules are rules.

Especially when the “industry” makes them.

Ag-gag laws are a good example of that. These laws make it illegal to take pictures on farms without the owners’ consent. “Friends” of our “friends” in the “industry” are doing what they can in state legislatures around America to prevent people from seeing the inside workings of agriculture.

I’ll be among the first to admit that to unfamiliar outsiders, some of what we do on the farm looks iffy.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin got upstaged by a turkey (one she didn’t pardon) in a 2008 television interview.

I don’t remember how old I was when I saw where the home-raised chicken we had for Sunday dinner came from. And I was 16 years old when I first saw cattle slaughtered in a commercial packing plant. A lot of outsiders and I were educated about turkey slaughter when vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was interviewed on network TV while Thanksgiving turkeys bled out behind her.

It’s never pretty, but it comes as no shock to the well informed.

Something else that comes as no shock is public suspicion about food. Especially when the “industry” has secrets. That’s the conclusion of an article in Modern Farm Magazine about public perception of ag gag laws. To some, at least, the solution might be to ban authors from writing about commercial agricultural practices. But it’s a growing problem for farmers and food processors who would just as soon not say whether your “100% natural corn flakes” are made from conventional corn or the genetically engineered variety.

The downside, the article says, is that people are growing more suspicious of farmers. They want more information about agricultural practices, not less.

With a population of less than 1 million, the great state of Vermont set the “industry” on its ear by passing a law requiring the listing of GMO ingredients on food labels. Other Eastern states threatened to follow suit. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley prominently predicted that Vermonters might go hungry as anti GMO-label corporations decided not to comply.

As it turns out, Vermont’s business was more important to food companies than any inconvenient truth on labels. Now more companies have decided labeling isn’t that hard, and they’re doing it just to keep consumers in Vermont and other places satisfied.

The maple syrup state won’t go hungry after all.

It always strikes me as odd how corporations that control seed genes and pesticides have it both ways.  On the one hand, they fight to protect the labels on their genetically modified, patented products because they invented those goods. On the other, they declare that grains and oil seeds grown using their GMO crops are absolutely the same as conventionally bred crops.

How can companies that make their profits from labeled products dictate to the rest of us how we label ours?

Many farmers jump to the defense of seed and pesticide companies, or livestock and poultry integrators, with warnings of their own. I’m thinking of Senator Grassley’s dire remarks about Vermont. But if there is no difference, between GMO and non-GMO products, then why not label all of it so consumers will know?

Shakespeare answered the question of “industry” information road blocks long ago: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Here’s another example – this one about pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

After years of “industry” protest and denial, it seems that honey bees really are affected by this group of pesticides.  That fact was driven home recently when the state of Minnesota reimbursed two bee keepers because their hives were damaged by the controversial insecticide.

Farmers who plant treated seed are generally protected from liability. And approval by the Environmental Protection Agency protects companies that manufacture or sell the pesticide. In the meantime Minnesota taxpayers, not farmers or pesticide companies, will pay bee keeper losses.

Nebraska attorney David Domina speaks in Lincoln, Nebraska, last year. (Richard Oswald photo)
Nebraska attorney David Domina speaks in Lincoln, Nebraska, last year. (Richard Oswald photo)

It doesn’t have to be this way. There is an additive for seed that farmers can pour into planters, or that seed companies can add to neonicotinoid-treated seed. It limits the amount of pesticide that makes it out into the world. But because of “industry” denial about problems caused by neonicotinoids, using the treatment is not common except in Canada, where they have recognized the problem.

Another pesticide, this one tied to genetically engineered seeds, received increasing and new negative publicity when a prominent Nebraska attorney announced a class action lawsuit on behalf of farmers with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. David Domina, a well known guardian of underdog farmers and cattle feeders, has never shied away from pointing out inequities in seed and cattle markets. Now he’s taking on the “industry” again, this time over farmers’ exposure to glyphosate, part of Roundup, which has been linked to the cancer.

Unless they’re sick and don’t know why, farmers are offended by statements that link some agricultural products to things like cancer and bee kill-offs. That’s because “industry” or “common sense” tells them those claims are out of line. But today’s food consumers aren’t necessarily convinced, not even when farmers in straw hats and seed-company caps tell them not to worry, we’re the best we’ve ever been.

The 10 o’clock news says otherwise.

Somewhere in the middle of those two statements lies truth.

On matters of food, that’s where farmers should be too.

Richard Oswald, president the Missouri Farmers Union, is a fifth-generation farmer from Langdon, Missouri. “Letter from Langdon” is a regular feature of The Daily Yonder.

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