Iowans take seriously their important role in vetting presidential candidates every four years in the Iowa Caucuses, a celebration of grassroots democracy in action and retail politics at their best. Iowans are respected for their wisdom, and have a reputation for asking probing questions that shine insight on what candidates really believe. Candidates can’t phone it in here in Iowa.
That historical perspective is important as the nation once again looks to Iowa and its Secretary of Agriculture race as a bellwether election. Endorsements and support for Francis Thicke’s campaign have come from across the country – from scientists who know that agriculture can be both sustainable and profitable, from agricultural policy leaders like Iowa’s Sen. Tom Harkin, and, yes, from a couple of local foods system advocates whose viewpoints resonate with the consumers who eat the food we produce.
Broad-based support is the reason Francis Thicke always refers to the campaign in the collective. “I say ‘our’ campaign because we are all in this together,” he explained recently. “My role has simply been to take our common vision for more sustainable food and agriculture production out on the campaign trail. You have supported me with ideas, enthusiasm, financial support and hard work as volunteers. Without your support, our campaign would not have gotten off the ground.”
Francis Thicke’s stand on regulatory reform to prevent another recall of Iowa-produced eggs – a half-billion of them were recalled in August after a nationwide Salmonella outbreak – may have been what captivated the interests of some of the leading nation’s leading advocates for sustainable food and agriculture production.
But what continues to hold their interest is Thicke’s thoughtful plan to lead Iowa agriculture and food production on a path of sustainability and environmental and ecological responsibility, while at the same time taking a pragmatic approach that protects conventional farming interests through the transition.
The groundswell of support for Francis Thicke’s campaign illustrates that he is giving voice to interests in local foods systems and other sustainability issues that have been silenced and marginalized by Big Ag for far too long. Playing that card, a radio host in conservative northwest Iowa recently took exception to the national interest in the Thicke campaign and called it influence from “outside interests.”
That’s hardly fair. Support from so-called “outside interests” is not unique to the Thicke campaign.
During his political career, incumbent Iowa Ag Secretary Bill Northey has accepted thousands of dollars in contributions from Switzerland-based Syngenta, whose U.S. headquarters is in Wilmington, Del., and which has headquarters in 90 other countries; from Monsanto, which is headquartered in St. Louis has divisions in 80 countries; and from DuPont, another Wilmington, Del.-based corporate giant which acquired Iowa-founded Pioneer Hi-Bred International in 1997 and which does business in approximately 80 countries worldwide.
Together, these three companies control almost 70 percent of the global seed supply. That’s a change from the first half of the 20th century, when seeds were overwhelmingly in the hands of farmers and public-sector plant breeders. Critics argue that so-called “gene giants” use intellectual property laws to commodify the world seed supply, a strategy that aims to control plant germplasm and maximize profits by eliminating farmers’ rights. Another potential long-term consequence of control over gene patents is control of the entire food chain by a few companies.
Market concentration is already making it difficult for farmers in Iowa and across the country to find alternatives to the gene giants’ seeds. And the “seed police” at Monsanto, the No. 1 seed company with 35 percent market share, have launched hundreds of patent infringement lawsuits against independent family farmers whose crops were inadvertently contaminated with gene drift from nearby Monsanto crops.
That’s why Francis Thicke is standing up for independent family farmers’ interests with his proposal for a “Farmers Protection Act,” which would turn the table and put the onus on Monsanto to explain why its genes were allowed to contaminate a neighboring farmer’s crop.
Francis Thicke isn’t catering to special interests. He’s calling them out.
Thicke’s endorsements merely balance the scales. As an agricultural leader, Iowa has an obligation to listen to consumers. When consumers are concerned about the safety of the food we produce in Iowa, we should listen.
And as Francis Thicke listens, there is growing recognition that Iowans – and all Americans, because Iowa occupies such a prominent role in food production – are fortunate to have an agriculture secretary candidate of his caliber, vision and wisdom step up to the leadership plate.
A 27-year dairy farmer who has studied and participated in agriculture from key vantage points – as a national program leader and administrator for the USDA, as a scientist, and as a practical farmer also involved in commodity agriculture – Francis Thicke knows which agricultural policies work and which ones don’t.
He knows commodity agriculture is not sustainable over time. He also knows it’s important to represent all sectors of Iowa agriculture, to make room at the table for everybody, and to keep our current systems economically intact as we begin the transition to more sustainable practices.
That’s vision and leadership we can count on.
Beth Dalbey is the Communications Director for Thicke for Agriculture.