Farming, as we know, is a tireless and demanding job, requiring waking up at dawn every morning during a six- or seven-day workweek, battling drought or too much rain, dealing with ruthless potato beetles or waking up in the middle of the night to chase down bulls that have managed to escape their pen. Organic farming is even more intensive, as these farmers typically rely on manual labor over machines, combat stubborn weeds without herbicides and pesticides and face the economic challenges of complying with organic standards and regulations. In addition, an often unseen burden that organic farmers face are the special interest groups that promote their man-made food additives, which in turn hurt organic farmers.
Even though organic food sales have increased over the past few years, representing nearly 5 percent of total food sales in 2015, the reality is that America is highly dependent on big industry agriculture. Looking at global trade, we are the world’s largest producer and exporter of food, with mass amounts of corn and soy leading the way. Due to the economic dependency our country has on this type of agriculture, special-interest groups that represent their products have been able to push their agenda to the top.
During Barack Obama’s terms in office, the food and beverage sectors spent twice as much on federal lobbying, as compared with George W. Bush’s or Bill Clinton’s presidencies. You may recall the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015, in which major companies, such as Coca-Cola, General Mills and Kellogg’s, spent millions to defeat GMO labeling laws, which allowed them keep accurate labels off of our food. Organic farmers are a small group, and up until recently, companies that promote good food, such as Whole Foods or Chipotle, have tried their best to avoid lobbying. Without a voice to combat such large companies, it has been difficult for organic farmers to promote their food and therefore make money.
Let’s take a look at some of the loudest voices on Capitol Hill: Monsanto, which promotes its biotechnology industry with its genetically engineered soy and corn, and the Corn Refiners Association, which is a trade group encouraging the production and sale of high-fructose corn syrup. Monsanto has never been on the same side as the small family farmer, and along with other chemical companies like Bayer and Dow Chemical, it is responsible for the rise of industrial agriculture across the globe, contributing to the consolidation of farmland into fewer hands. Due to the patent Monsanto places on its seeds, seed saving—an annual tradition for the average farmer—is patent infringement. Small farms accused of using Monsanto seeds could lose everything if they are taken to court by this giant, which is willing and able to spend millions on court cases.
Meanwhile, the Corn Refiners Association has spent millions promoting high-fructose corn syrup, which as you’ll recall has been linked to increased obesity and diabetes. It has been fighting to declare this unhealthy and chemically altered additive as “natural” in the push to rename it “corn sugar.” Both the sugar and corn industries have spent tens of millions of dollars on this PR campaign to sway public opinion, while never fully disclosing the truth about this additive. And that’s another reality that organic farmers must face: They do not have the vast sums of money to spend on marketing campaigns that tout their natural products. They also don’t have the funds to rebrand themselves, as Monsanto has recently done in an effort to continue using glyphosate—a chemical that has been linked to cancer by the International Agency for Research on Cancer—in its herbicides.
While I’m sure many of us have been tempted to quit our desk jobs, trading in computers for warm soil and freshly harvested veggies, organic farming is neither easy nor romantic. The work itself is grueling, and when pitted against special-interest groups that dominate the agricultural industry, the small organic farmer barely stands a chance. But don’t lose hope! This just means that it is more important than ever to support organic farmers, whether they’re your local farmer selling fresh eggs and homemade jams at the farmers’ market or they’re sustainable farmers helping their local economies from afar.