Breadbasket of Democracy

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
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

Go there >>
of Democracy

Related Links:

Related Links From the Utne

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.