With challenges, such as increased corporate control, financial pressure and federal guidelines, the Illinois Farmers Union met for its 60th Annual Convention on Saturday to discuss the organization’s goals and issues going into 2014.
“It’s a culmination of what we want to be supportive of,” said Illinois Farmers Union President Norbert Brauer of the convention.”It brings all the members together and have them come together as a union. Every member gets a vote.”
A topic the group is deeply concerned about is labeling, namely GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) packaging and labeling of meat products. GMOs are plants or animals that have been genetically engineered with DNA from bacteria, viruses or other plants and animals. The combinations of genes from different species cannot occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. GMOs are engineered to withstand direct application of herbicide.
The corporate push for no labeling on packages is one of the main issues the group focused on and speaker Joe Maxwell, a family farm advocate and former Missouri lieutenant governor, said the continued corporate pressure on legislators represented a major threat to family farms. The uncertainty surrounding GMO products has the union wanting transparency, not just in GMO labeling but also where food is being raised and grown, so consumers can make informed decisions on their purchases.
Not only is labeling an issue when it comes to agricultural corporations, but sovereignty is as well. Maxwell said loosened corporate legislation in the 1980s under former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton put pressure on local farmers and allowed larger corporations to push for more industrial farming and to push out smaller growers and farmers. Although he supports financial growth, Maxwell said increased industrialization of farming can lead to a monopoly that hurts farmers and consumers.
“I’m good on capitalism,” he said, but warned of a monopoly derailing it. “But the problem is in the end, there’s only one game left. We eat ourselves.”
Maxwell said a majority of goods, such as soybeans, corn, beef, pork, chicken and turkey, are all controlled by a group of corporations. That sense of control of the market allows for corruption and lets companies put pressure on the government, he said.
“When you get over 45 percent or 55 percent or 83 percent or 93 percent, it’s not just likely that there will be abuses.It’s guaranteed that there will be abuses,” he said of corporate market share. “These policies are being adopted in your nation’s capitol.”
Maxwell, who has worked as a pig farmer, also said the increased pressure for industrial animal farming (placing large numbers of animals into a confined area) is not what many local farmers want or need.
“This isn’t farming,” he said. “This is an industry. I remember when people wanted to start saying ‘I was a pork producer, not a pig farmer.’ I want to be a pig farmer. I raise pigs, not pork chops.”
Because of increasing corporate pressure and less restrictive legislature, Maxwell said the total number of farmers in the United States has dropped by 1 million since 1978. That drop in number has led to the need for increased cooperation between farmers unions and other special interest groups. Maxwell said farmers should see groups such as the Humane Society, environmental advocacy groups and animal rights groups as an ally rather than an enemy.
“In 1930, we made up 30 percent of the population,” he said of farmers. “Today, we make up less than 1. If all of us get on our horse and charge to the capitol, pistols in hand, we will die. There’s not enough of us left. We need to work together.”