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An unholy alliance? Questions remain about who's pulling the strings at the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance.

With farm subsidies due to expire in 2012, the race for a say in the next Farm Bill is on. The newest player in the food debate is the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, which comes with a hefty $11 million annual budget. The New York Times takes a look at who the Alliance is, what they stand for, and what conclusions we might draw from the groups that have chosen not to join.

The USFRA’s surface argument seems to be that city folks shouldn’t be the ones teaching Americans about farming — farmers should.

From the Times:

“Chris Galen, a founding member of the group and head of communications for the National Milk Producers Federation, said, ‘There is a feeling across the board in agriculture that Americans have concerns about the food supply, and those are best addressed by farmers.’”

No problem with that, right? We can all agree that farmers are the obvious experts and a critical part of our food system. The question is, which farmers are they talking about, and does the USFRA truly represent their interests and opinions? Turns out the Alliance includes the largest agricultural marketing groups in the country, along with a couple other familiar names…

“Its $11 million annual budget will come partly from mandatory marketing fees that the Department of Agriculture helps collect from farmers, and from corporations like Monsanto, the producer of genetically engineered seed, and DuPont, a major producer of chemical pesticides. Each company has committed to an annual contribution of $500,000.”

So wait. Does the Alliance represent farmers’ interests, or Monsanto’s? Are we to believe that those interests are always aligned? Hmmm…

The article includes an interesting twist on the idea of knowing more about where our food comes from by Bonnie West, a spokeswoman for the American National Cattlewomen, a booster group for beef consumption.

“‘Farmers and ranchers used to have more of a voice, but now people are so distant from where their food comes from,’ Ms. West said of the cattlewomen group. ‘People assume pesticides and antibiotics are bad, and that farmers and ranchers use them only to make a quick buck, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth.’”

OK, sure. One thing food activists have never intended to do is demonize farmers, and it would be super annoying and irresponsible of us Urban Folk to make uninformed blanket statements about pesticides and antibiotics, or to demonize their use.

On the other hand, there really is evidence (from the EPA and others) to suggest that pesticides and agricultural antibiotic use have harmful effects, and support for the development of alternative approaches to food production is growing. So far, the Alliance does not seem overly concerned with those issues. In the words of Iago from the movie “Aladdin,” we’re about to have a heart attack from not surprise.

The article points out that no farm or group with “organic” in the name has joined the Alliance.

“’As a rule, we like to be for things, not against them, but this represents everything we are working against,’ said Bill Deusing, head of the Northeast Organic Farming Association.”

It remains to be seen who USFRA really speaks for, with John Deere, DuPont, and Monsanto as their “Premier Partner Advisory Group.” It would be great to have a large organization that promoted the opinions of American farmers. So far, there isn’t any clear evidence that USFRA will be that megaphone.

According to the Times, organic farmers have been drawing similar conclusions.

“Myra Goodman, a founder of the organic collective Earthbound Farms, is among the large-scale growers who have so far declined to join the Alliance. ‘If in practice it turns out to be a forum for honest, inclusive, productive discussions about the state of our food system, it could be good,’ she said. ‘If it turns out to be all about protecting the status quo, then it won’t be so productive.’”

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