By Rekha Basu
Iowans are regularly reminded of our role in helping to feed the world’s hungry, and from a technological perspective, we have certainly played an important role. An Iowan launched the so-called Green Revolution, and the World Food Prize that he created annually honors others who have made important innovations in agriculture. Iowa today is in the vanguard of the biotech revolution.
So it may be hard to contemplate the paradox that even as we have helped block world hunger, we might also inadvertently be contributing to it. There is growing evidence around the world that high-yield technologies that require costly and potentially harmful chemical fertilizers and other inputs squeeze small farmers out in favor of large conglomerates, resulting in impoverishment or suicides.
Recent weeks have brought a few occasions to think about this. Members of the Des Moines Occupy movement announced plans to protest the World Food Prize events this fall. Instead of “pro-corporate agribusiness recipients who support GMO crops and the use of harmful pesticides and chemicals,” the prize should honor people “who advocate sustainable, safe, local agriculture in the U.S. and abroad,” the group said in a statement.
Occupy also noted that corporate agribusiness has gone beyond controlling food supplies to also controlling “governments, laws, and patents.”
That might sound like a conspiracy theory until you consider the Tanzania land deal negotiated by an Iowa Board of Regents member, which was the subject of a recent complaint to the state ethics board. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement filed the complaint, alleging that Bruce Rastetter, the founder and managing director of AgriSol Energy Corp., had a conflict of interests with a deal involving Iowa State University.
AgriSol would have paid the Tanzanian government a mere 25 cents an acre for the right to cultivate 800,000 acres, by evicting some 160,000 Burundian refugee farmers. For decades, they had been growing a variety of crops, producing more than 40 percent of the district’s food on just 4 percent of the land. Under the AgriSol deal, they would be given $200 apiece and the land would be turned over to corn and soybeans.
AgriSol stood to make $300 million. And the corn and soybeans wouldn’t necessarily feed Tanzanians.
AgriSol’s consultant was advising the company to seek a guarantee from the government that it could export all the food it produces — even if there were a food shortage in Tanzania.
Critics, including former CBS news anchor Dan Rather, called it a “land grab.” Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement alleges Rastetter used his status as a regent and big donor to get Iowa State University involved, falsified a financial disclosure statement with the state ethics board, and didn’t disclose the land deal to the regents until six weeks after joining the board — after it was reported in the press.
If the theory is accurate, Rastetter’s $1.75 million gift to ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences may have opened some doors for him there. In 2007, officials traveled to Tanzania with him. Even the person who had been in charge of the refugee camps was evidently co-opted into being a legal adviser to AgriSol.
Rastetter was appointed to the Board of Regents by Gov. Terry Branstad after being his largest 2010 campaign contributor. Rastetter recused himself from the project last September, and ISU later said it would stop advising AgriSol on the project. But Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement asked for Rastetter’s resignation from the regents.
All this points to the broader potential for U.S. companies, with compliant or even corrupt governments, to exploit small farmers in the developing world under the guise of helping them. We may not be able to control what their governments do, but we should take a closer look at what our own companies pass off as “help.”
Rastetter and others had claimed the deal would help Tanzanians improve their food production techniques. But the large-scale, high-yield, monoculture model would not have suited the farmers it displaced in order for American investors to get rich.
Many Iowa small hog farmers lost their livelihoods when corporate agribusinesses like Heartland Pork displaced them. Now, in the face of skyrocketing prices, some of the same principals have turned to Africa, where land can still be had cheaply. Rastetter previously owned Heartland Pork.
It is hard to challenge corporate agriculture in this state. It’s promoted by targeted state university research, and its principals fund the political campaigns of elected officials — who might return the favor with plumb appointments.
So it falls to grassroots groups like Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement to call for an investigation. Some of its members lost their own hog farms to Heartland Pork.
Branstad won’t even wait until the outcome of the state ethics board complaint to voice his confidence in Rastetter’s judgment — a clear signal to the board. But the board should show its independence by conducting a thorough investigation.