Farmers of the World United on Many Issues

The World Farmers’ Organization, in only its fourth year, has had some surprising successes on global food issues.

Robert Carlson
National Journal
Jerry Hagstrom
March 30, 2014, 8 a.m.

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.

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