BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Do farmers from 50 developed and developing countries have enough in common to form one farm organization that can influence the United Nations and other international institutions?
Given some of the fights among farming interests in the World Trade Organization over subsidies and tariffs, the answer would appear to be no.
But Robert Carlson, a former North Dakota Farmers Union president, concluded in 2010 that such an organization was needed to get the world's attention on the farmer's view of climate change and other issues. He convinced the National Farmers Union; COPA-COGECA, the largest European farm and co-op organization; Ja Zenchu, the lead Japanese farm group; and the Canadian Federation of Agriculture to provide initial financing to establish the World Farmers' Organization in Rome, where the U.N. food agencies are located.
The first farm groups and co-ops to join were from the developed countries, but Carlson, who was elected the first president, and other organizers reached out to Latin America, Africa, and Asia. WFO now has a membership of 70 farm groups and co-ops from 50 countries, including Cambodia and Zambia, and an annual budget of more than $1 million.
Last week the fruits of Carlson's efforts were on display when more than 300 farm leaders from all over the world came to Buenos Aires for the World Farmers' Organization's fourth general assembly.
"We have to speak for ourselves," Carlson said in his farewell speech as president. There are too many other groups that don't know much about agriculture but want to influence policy, he added.
Big, industrial-scale farmers and small farmers from poor countries have shown at WFO's meeting that they have more in common than expected, Carlson said in an interview.
The assembly was held at La Rural, the headquarters of the Sociedad Rural Argentina, which represents some of the largest farmers and ranchers in the world.
"Farmers from these very large estates in Argentina mix and visit with small holders, asking, 'How are your animals?' " Carlson noted. "They get along very cordially. There is a bond there."
And, he added, they also talk about the problems producers of primary agricultural products such as grain and meat face in getting their governments and international organizations to pay attention to their views.
WFO's first objective — to get a stronger farm voice on climate change in the negotiations over the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change — has proven elusive. The United Nations has declined to establish a working group on agriculture, Carlson said, because "civil-society groups, particularly the big environmental groups, don't want agriculture to be included. They view us as a big polluter."
That is wrong, Carlson said, because agriculture is one of the first industries to feel the impact of climate change and can also be one of the industries that can help reduce carbon emissions.
Carlson has also pushed for farm representation on the U.N. Committee on Global Food Security, which makes recommendations on food security and nutrition policy, but so far has been turned down even though the committee has representatives of U.N. agencies, civil society, international agricultural research institutions, global financial institutions, and the private sector.
Carlson acknowledged he is frustrated in dealing with the United Nations. "Things grind on and on," he said. "And it's frustrating that some activist groups can get the ear of the U.N. more easily."
WFO won't give up its campaign to get farmer seats at the U.N. table, Carlson said. "I don't think it will be speedy but it will be inexorable if we continue to press," he told the assembly.
WFO's biggest accomplishments, he said, have come from working with other international institutions and on its own.
Carlson is particularly proud that WFO managed to come up with a position on international trade that almost all its member organizations could support even though they range from Argentine and Australian free-market-oriented farm groups to protectionist countries that import a lot of food, such as Japan and Norway.
The key, he said, was a section that says it is the right of any country to adopt policies to secure its own food supply, but that those countries should not export into the world market. WTO leaders, who have struggled with agriculture issues for years, were so impressed with the display of unity that they invited the farmers to come to Geneva to present their policy.
Carlson is also proud that the WFO is working with the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law to develop a model law for the contracts that farmers reach with buyers to provide certain products such as poultry.
WFO has taken no position on genetic modification of seeds. "We have very opposing views on GMOs," Carlson said. "The debate is still more emotional than it is scientific. I don't mind disagreement about GMOS but we should learn about GMOs before we engage in the debate."
One disappointment to Carlson has been that the American Farm Bureau Federation, the largest U.S. farm group, has so far declined to join WFO. National Farmers Union members are Democratic-leaning and Farm Bureau members are Republican-leaning, but Carlson said he would welcome Farm Bureau in the WFO.
"I miss the Farm Bureau," Carlson said. A Farm Bureau spokesman said Farm Bureau's international activities are focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations.
Carlson noted that in some countries WFO has multiple members who represent different ideologies. WFO would also welcome U.S. commodity groups but only as associate members, Carlson said, because full memberships belong only to general farm groups and farmer-led co-operatives.
Carlson did not run for reelection, and the assembly elected Peter Kendall, the former president of the National Farmers Union in the United Kingdom, as its new president.
Carlson sees a bright future for WFO because he sees more commonality among farmers in developed and developing countries in the coming years.
"All the members we have are farmers who want to be more successful," he said. "I have never met a farmer who wants to remain a subsistence farmer. They all want to improve their lot, to get health care and education for their kids."
But the most important reason for more unity among farmers in the future, he said, is that the increasing demand for food as developing countries get richer is reducing the fear of competition.
"The trade wars that pitted farmers against farmers were in the era of big agricultural surpluses," Carlson said. "All our studies show we are going to need a lot more food to feed the world."
Contributing Editor Jerry Hagstrom is the founder and executive director of The Hagstrom Report, which may be found at www.HagstromReport.com.