(MintPress) – The proliferation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in U.S. agriculture leaves few options to fight corporate secrecy in an increasingly corporatized food supply.
Monsanto, the face of the GMO battle, has consistently thwarted consumer efforts to label GMO products in California and has gone so far as to silence scientific research linking GMO products to cancer. Worth more than $19 billion, Monsanto has the lobbying strength to overcome challenges by consumers and activists.
The answer may reside with farmers, the growers of food rather than voters, activists and consumer groups.
The National Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry or “The Grange,” could provide a framework for small farmers to work cooperatively to fight corporate crimes. The 150-year-old organization has proven helpful to millions of farmers throughout its history. However, the decline of Grange societies is commensurate with the rise of corporations with legislative clout on Capitol Hill. Reviving the Grange could be one of the last, few options left for small farmers.
A history of cooperative farming in the U.S.
Although a shell of its former self, the Grange stands as a grassroots organization with the potential to fundamentally shift the power dynamic currently skewed toward large corporations like Monsanto.
“The National Grange has a long history of improvements to agriculture. We believe strongly in GMO testing of products,” said Ed Luttrell, president of the National Grange in a recent statement to Mint Press News. He added: “We also believe that intellectual rights must be protected and that farmers should be protected should they choose not to use Monsanto products.”
The Grange was founded in 1871, with just four chapters. However, just five years later there were more than 8,000 Grange societies with members across farming communities in the U.S.
At its height in 1875, the Grange claimed 850,000 men and women as members.
The organizations of Grange societies is controlled by a central authority, now located in Washington, D.C. However as an organization, leadership and policy creation is largely subservient to the interests of individual farmers and agricultural communities.
Luttrell also emphasizes that his organization does not take explicit positions for or against corporations, but rather advocates for or against policies based upon the needs of small farmers.
“The Grange does not take positions for or against corporations or businesses. If we see practices that we dislike, we will advocate against them. If we see practices we like, we will advocate in favor of them,” said Luttrell in a recent Mint Press News interview.
Historically, the general orientation has been one that favors populism over corporatism — giving small, independent farmers strength in the midst of hostile policies dictated by banks and corporations, especially during the Great Depression and in times of economic recession.
The advocacy of the Grange increased the collective clout of small farmers considerably. The organization even played a key role in non-agricultural causes, including the Temperance movement, the direct election of senators and women’s suffrage.
Like the fall of unions, collective aid societies and cooperative organizations are in a state of decline as corporations gain more power and Washington leaders continue to favor radical neoliberal economic policies. Today, the Grange claims just under 200,000 members, with organizations in 3,600 communities across 37 states.
Despite 40 years of declining Grange membership, Luttrell remains optimistic for the future, saying, “The past 40 years had been hard on virtually every civic organization. However, we are stemming the tide.”
Luttrell adds: “We are in the midst of establishing new granges and revitalizing older granges. The consumers of America have decided that increasing locally-produced products is important. These are generally produced by small farmers.”
Despite some optimism for the resurgence of small farming communities, Monsanto’s growth of GMO crops, to the detriment of organic farmers and small growers, is reason for concern.
The “Monsantoization” of Agriculture
Monsanto has long been vilified in environmentalist and activist communities as a corporate bully destroying the environment and selling unhealthy GMO foods to millions of consumers.
Eighty percent of food products sold in the U.S. now contain some GMOs, many of which are linked to Monsanto and partner companies. However, with no labeling guidelines, consumers are unable to determine which foods do and do not contain the potentially harmful organisms.
The only way to guarantee the consumption of GMO free food is to buy certified organic products. Sales of organic food grew 16.5 percent from 2000 to 2010, while only growing 3.25 percent in the general market. As Americans are growing increasingly skeptical of mass-produced GMO food, costly organic products remain unaffordable for many families, especially minorities.
A growing body of scientific research continues to be silenced by Monsanto and similar corporations bent on thwarting the efforts of critics. Dr. Gilles-Eric Seralini, a professor of molecular biology, conducted a two-year $4 million study linking the growth of tumors in rats to Monsanto’s genetically modified maize.
Seralini and his team of French researchers are currently embroiled in a legal battle and multimillion dollar smear campaign. Professor Seralini tested GMO corn on 200 rats. Among all the rats exposed to GMO corn, 50 percent of the male and 70 percent of the females died prematurely, as opposed to 30 percent and 20 percent in the control group.
Indeed, the environmental and health risks associated with Monsanto GMO products are good reason to oppose the company, and others that engage in similar practices. However, these policies also have a damaging impact on the rights of small farmers, incapable of defending themselves against the vast arsenal of high-paid Monsanto lawyers and lobbyists.
Even when defendants work together, the chances of success are limited given Monsanto’s bankroll. In March 2011, the Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association (OSGTA) filed a lawsuit on behalf of 60 plaintiffs upset over Monsanto’s attack against farmers based on accusations of patent infringement.
Between 1997 and 2010, Monsanto filed lawsuits against 144 organic farms and investigated some 500 farms annually, accusing farmers of stealing patented genetically modified seeds. Plaintiffs charge that the GMO seeds spread to their crops through natural pollination and weather patterns.
The case has yet to be litigated, but could have an impact on over 300,000 independent American farmers.
Monsanto has not won every legal battle. In 1986, Monsanto lost a $108 million lawsuit to the family of a former Texas chemical processor who died at the age 53 to leukemia. The survivors of Wilbur Jack Skeen filed a lawsuit after the company refused to provide worker’s compensation to Skeen’s family following his death.
Fighting these injustices may seem like an unwinnable uphill battle when consumers lack knowledge, scientists are silenced and farmers are intimidated and outspent. However, a long running history of collective farming cooperatives and aid societies could provide a framework for small farmers to fight corporate giants threatening their livelihood and the health of their crops.