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With "friends" like Cargill, who needs enemies?

(Tuesday, April 1, 2003 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- The following is provided courtesy of the Agribusiness Examiner:

PAUL BEINGESSNER: Ah, but it is wonderful to have friends. And farmers can take some comfort in the news that multinational grain trader Cargill is concerned about their welfare. Or at least about the welfare of farm organizations. "Terribly concerned" in fact, about certain farm organizations.

Several weeks ago, Cargill Canada president Kerry Hawkins told the annual convention of the Western Canadian Wheat Growers that his company was prepared to fund the only farm organizations in western Canada that are of "any significance". He identified these as the Wheat Growers and the provincial canola grower associations.

Hawkins stoutly maintained that Cargill was not contemplating such a move as a way to buy influence with farm groups, describing that notion as a "crock". He compared it to corporations contributing to political parties.

The amazing thing, according to a report by someone who attended the convention, is that Hawkins said all this with a straight face.

If Cargill could convince a room full of farmers that corporations contributing to political parties do it out of their heartfelt desire to advance the cause of democracy, it leaves room to wonder what those farmers are growing (and smoking) on the back forty.

Cargill's generous offer comes on the heels of the disclosure last fall that Monsanto was paying certain farmers to encourage the "positive introduction of Roundup Ready wheat". Coincidentally, the farmers who signed Monsanto's contract were also largely drawn from the ranks of the Wheat Growers and the canola organizations. So too were the farmers Monsanto sent on an all expense paid trip to Madrid. Clearly, when looking to purchase farmers' opinions, multinational agribusiness knows where to look.

Mind you, agribusiness and corporations that pull much of their income out of farmers' pockets have long been putting some of it back into the coffers of the Wheat Growers and like-minded organizations. The sponsorship list for the Wheat Growers' convention reads like a who's who of agribusiness, including the likes of Agricore United, Cargill, CP, CN, Monsanto, and John Deere. If each corporate sponsor threw in the minimum required to reach the platinum, gold, silver or bronze level they are listed at, the Wheat Growers take would have been in excess of $43,000 from corporate donations, just at its annual meeting.

In what should win the award in the Most Masochistic Grain Marketer category, the Canadian Wheat Board even tossed in $500 to become a bronze sponsor to the group that devotes itself single-mindedly to destroying single desk selling. Try and wrap your head around that one. I wonder if the Wheat Growers will protest this waste of farmers' money?

So, should farmers care if Cargill and other multinationals want to fund certain farm groups, or if Monsanto greases a few palms here and there? Hawkins made an interesting point when he said it is as innocent as corporate contributions to political parties. It is interesting because even the Liberal government in Ottawa is examining whether such contributions should be allowed any more. The clear implication is that most people believe the adage that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

There is no point blaming Cargill and Monsanto for trying to support the efforts of farmers who seem to share their view of the world, whether the goal is the destruction of the Canadian Wheat Board or the introduction of genetically modified wheat. Why be surprised when a wolf behaves like a wolf? Nor should we be surprised when these companies couch it all in the rhetoric of democracy and improving debate and the sharing of ideas. After all, they pay big bucks to hire folks who churn out all the correct buzzwords.

We should not be surprised, but neither should we fall for it.