"It is a lie that we have a free market. It's a lie that we have an open market. It's a market controlled by corporations." This remark from an Iowa farmer last night captured the fiery sentiment at a townhall meeting of over 250 people, packed into a room at the Best Western in Ankeny, Iowa.
The townhall was held on the eve of the first ever U.S. government workshop on competition in agriculture, that will start in a few minutes. The joint USDA/Department of Justice workshop is the start of a series of similar events to be held around the country this year. The room last night was full of farmers from the region, local Iowans and the bright yellow shirts of United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) members from surrounding meatpacking areas.
Barb Kalbach, a fourth-generation farmer from Dexter, Iowa and part of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement (ICCI), kicked off the meeting: "We’re here today to make sure the voices of everyday people are heard loud and clear. And that message is: 'bust up big ag.' A handful of multinationals have run roughshod for too long. Antitrust laws have not been enforced. We want action now and we expect the government to represent the people and the common good.”
The concentration of the seed industry and excessive use of patents took center stage with many of the comments - with Monsanto a common target. "The only thing they haven’t done is put a patent on air and charge us for breathing it," said one farmer from Iowa.
"This monopolistic system is rigged against family farmers," George Naylor, a corn and soybean farmer from Churdan, Iowa and also part of ICCI, told the crowd. "This casino economy is rigged so farmers don’t have much of a choice of the seeds that they buy. Monsanto has intentionally bought up seed companies to eliminate competition."
Todd Leake, a wheat and soybean farmer from North Dakota told the crowd, "If anything belongs in the public domain, it’s the crops we grow for food."
Many also focused on the livestock and poultry industry. Rhonda Perry, a livestock farmer from Armstrong, Missouri and part of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, said, "A handful of meatpackers and poultry companies completely dominate the entire livestock industry.The big corporations say that they are more efficient. The reality is that they don’t have to be more efficient – they just have to control the market. It’s not good for farmers or consumers."
UFCW's Mark Lauritsen talked about growing up in a meatpacking family in Iowa during the farm crisis in the 1980s. " I saw the pain in the face of farmers – and I saw the meatpacking plants closed, and wages lowered for those that stayed open. Fewer and fewer corporations are controlling the food industry. The Justice Department needs to be pushed to include the impact of concentration on workers, family farmers and the communities we live in."
IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch talked about how farmers in the U.S., Mexico and Canada all were facing a simlar squeeze from a few big companies that now dominate the North American market. You can read our fact sheet we prepared for the meeting, as well as watch a short video of Alexandra summarizing IATP's comment to the USDA and DOJ.
Patty Lovera of Food and Water Watch, summarized the sense of people in the room as they await Friday's workshop: "Games have rules, they have referees. The government is our referee – it’s time for the referee to get back in the game."
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