Breadbasket of Democracy

In North Dakota, populism takes on corporate agriculture

| June 1, 2006

In a state where George W. Bush gathered 63 percent of the vote in 2004, one could reasonably expect to encounter a dearth of politically seditious thought and action. Yet North Dakota has, for almost 100 years, fostered a grassroots form of organizing that flies in the face of conventional political divisions, Ted Nace reports in a piece for Orion (an abbreviated online version of which appears here).

The state's populist tendencies became apparent in the early parts of the 20th century. The Non-Partisan League -- formed in 1915 -- had taken control of both the Legislature and the governorship by 1918. Elected on a platform of anti-corporate, locally controlled farming, the party capitalized on its brief stint at the helm by enacting legislation that impacts the agricultural landscape to this day. Its most important reform made it illegal for corporations to own farmland and for banks to seize land from bankrupted farmers.

Now, as Midwestern family-owned farms wither among a deluge of big-business profits and corporate control, North Dakota's farmers are again leading the way when it comes to populist farming action. This time, the issue is genetically modified (GM) crops.

Agribusiness giant and GM crusader Monsanto, because it owns the patents on its genetically modified crops, can require that farmers buy seed from the company every spring, making 'brown-bagging' -- using last year's seed to plant this year's crop -- a crime. A glaring problem with this arrangement, some farmers realized, is that the company, and the patent law propping it up, made no distinction between brown-baggers who defied Monsanto and farmers whose fields were accidentally pollinated by a passing truck or a strong wind. To catch violators, Monsanto representatives could show up on anyone's farm and test the crops for the presence of their patented plants.

Then, in January 2001, an anti-GM coalition -- led by the Dakota Resource Council and Todd Leake, a self-described 'umpteenth-generation wheat farmer' -- rallied farmers and got the state Legislature to make the arbitrary farm entrances and inspections a crime. That victory wasn't enough for the anti-GM groups, however. They wanted an outright ban on GM wheat in the state, but this time, Bush weighed in on Monsanto's side and turned what looked like a surefire ban on GM wheat into a benign study on the effects of GM crops.

The farmers in a state that boasts the country's 'only grain-handling facility owned jointly by the citizenry' didn't take this defeat lying down. Instead of lobbying pro-GM legislators to change their minds, they simply voted them out of office. In May 2004 Monsanto withdrew its pending regulatory applications for its wheat seed. -- Nick Rose

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