Published Mar 23, 2010

Leaders and Robust Debate

By Teresa Opheim

I’ve just finished a profile for our upcoming newsletter on the current Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. Bill has been a long-time PFI member, as is the farmer who ran against him in the last election, Denise O’Brien, and the farmer who is challenging him this time around, Francis Thicke. That fact led me to wonder: How many PFI members have served in public office?

If a simple query to our listserv is any indication: A lot! I have received 25 responses so far–members who serve on the soil and water districts, on their school boards, on the city council; even members who have led the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service (Paul Johnson).

Hats off to all of them for their tremendous commitment.

Even more work on their own as citizens and sometimes through PFI to improve public policy. PFI farmers Wade Dooley and Jerry Peckumn recently met with elected officials in Washington, D.C., on beginning farmer issues. Tom German has volunteered many hours in his attempts to change Iowa’s raw milk laws. Ron Rosmann recently attended a hearing on concentration in the seed industry, and offered his thoughtful opinions, including the following:

“Larger factors than violations of anti-trust laws play into the seed industry’s assertion that bio-tech seeds are in the best interests of feeding the world now and into the future. Its accusations that organic and conventional crop breeding cannot do so are scientifically flawed. It ignores the scientific data from many long-term agronomic studies from both private institutions such as the Rodale Research Institute and from public land-grant institutions such as Iowa State University.

“These studies show that natural cropping systems can produce similar yields while reducing fertilizer and pesticide usage, decreasing energy use, decreasing CO2 emissions, with cheaper production costs and greater economic efficiencies. At the same time, this bias insists that its ability to feed the world’s hungry in the future can only be accomplished by the commodity, large-scale export model that removes farmers from their lands and communities all over the world.

“I recently spent eleven days in Honduras with my son who is an agricultural worker in the Peace Corps. I saw first hand that what those farmers need is access to markets and help with green farming practices not bio-tech seeds. It was alarming to hear from my son that Wal-Mart controls four out of every five supermarkets in the metropolitan areas of this country of 7 million people.

“I have been an on-farm researcher for 23 years in cooperation with the Practical Farmers of Iowa and Iowa State University. I have been an organic farmer for 27 years and have been certified organic for 16 years. I can now grow 200 bushel corn and 65 bushel beans because of being a diversified crop and livestock farmer utilizing less expensive conventional bio-tech seeds. We have done this in the best historic tradition of the diversified crop and livestock farm system so prevalent here in Iowa and the mid-west. We could not do this after 10 years of being organic but now after this length of time we can. We are now reaping the benefits of soil building crop rotations, animal manures, and compost for soil and plant health to produce more nutrient-dense food for better human nutrition.

“The takeover of small plant breeding companies by just three or four companies has diminished our seed genetic diversity and has greatly eroded our public institutions’ ability and responsibility for creating new seeds that serve the public good.”

Agree or disagree? Please offer your opinions on seed concentration, on raw milk, on funding for beginning farmers, and other issues to your elected officials as well. No yelling, no whining, but a robust debate is what we all should aspire to.