Friday, November 19, 2004

Feeding us the mandate

The way a lot of liberals respond to suggestions that devoting some energy to revitalizing the Democratic party's rural roots, you'd think that doing so required repudiating some of their most deeply cherished values -- rather than, in fact, simply living up to them.

The most significant of these involves confronting the problem presented by modern corporate agribusiness and its vertical and horizontal integration of the nation's farm production. Democrats -- who at one time championed the "little guy" and, before that, represented the Jeffersonian ideal of the "citizen farmer" -- have been too content for too many years to cozy up to the money and power that agribusiness represents, while the economic regime that resulted has gradually driven the family farm to near-extinction.

But if Democrats are cozy with these interests, they're models of probity compared to Republicans. There hasn't been a corporate agriculture initiative come down the pike that hasn't found a Republican sponsor. What's been especially noteworthy is the way the GOP has greased the skids for big business to belly up to the table traditionally set for family farmers, especially when it comes to such programs as land conservation setasides and crop subsidies. The 1995 "Freedom to Farm Act" was the classic example of this.

Similarly, Republicans have at every turn provided the legislation that has opened the floodgates for market monopolies by agribusiness in seed supplies as well as distribution. They also enable the increasing monopolization of nearly all areas of agriculture, notably pork production.

These are policies that harm entire communities. Overturning and reforming them are natural issues for progressive Democrats. But so far, they have failed to pay anything approaching serious attention.

John McKay points us to this story about just such an opportunity:
Telling consumers where their meat, fruit and vegetables came from seemed such a good idea to U.S. ranchers and farmers in competition with imports that Congress two years ago ordered the food industry to do it. But meatpackers and food processors fought the law from the start, and newly emboldened Republicans now plan to repeal it before Thanksgiving.

As part of the 2002 farm bill, country-of-origin labeling was supposed to have gone into effect this fall. Congress last year postponed it until 2006. Now, House Republicans are trying to wipe it off the books as part of a spending bill they plan to finish this month.

House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said he expected the Senate to agree to repealing the measure, whose main champion two years ago was Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

"I can't find any real opposition to doing exactly what we want to do here," Blunt said.

President Bush never supported mandatory labeling. Chances for repealing the law improved when Daschle, still his party's leader in the Senate, was defeated for re-election Nov. 2.

"For Republicans to deny Americans the opportunity to 'buy American' at the grocery store is anti-consumer, anti-farmer and anti-rancher," Daschle said Wednesday.

Obviously, Republicans are still gorged on their cotton-candy "mandate". This issue is one that pits them against both consumers and independent ranchers -- and aligns them, as always, with agribusiness:
The issue divides cattlemen and other livestock producers. Many of the bigger livestock and feedlot operations, as well as food processors, do not want mandatory labeling.

Producers in favor of mandatory labels believe consumers will prefer U.S.-grown food over foreign imports. The law requires companies to put country-of-origin labels on meat, vegetables and fruit.

"We really feel that country-of-origin labeling is one of the key things we need to keep ourselves competitive in that market. I understand the trade-offs," said Doran Junek, a rancher in Brewster, Kan. Junek also is executive director of the Kansas Cattlemen's Association, an affiliate of R-CALF United Stockgrowers of America.

Consumer groups say the issue is whether buyers have a right to know where their food came from.

At some point, of course, Republicans' hubris will lead them to overreach, and this could be one of those cases, if Democrats were astute enough to pick it up.

But then, the story includes this note:
Democrats acknowledged there was not much of an appetite to wage a battle over it.


It's not as though Republicans don't hand Democrats a number of ways to peel off rural votes. The question, in the end, comes down to competence in the face of those kinds of opportunities.

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