By: Eli Yokley
For much of the summer, while the campaign surrounding “right to farm” has been focused on its impact on “small, family farmers,” the bulk of the money pouring into the fight has come from big agriculture interests.
More than half of the $535,889 that has been contributed this year to Missouri Farmers Care — the organization leading the charge in support of Amendment 1, known as the “right to farm” issue — has come from a handful of big donors who represent mostly commodity groups and large businesses.
Lucas Cattle, which shares an owner with Lucas Oil, contributed $50,000 to Missouri Farmers Care. The Missouri Pork Association has contributed $75,000 to the campaign. And corn interests, including the Missouri Corn Association and the Missouri Corn Merchandising Council, have contributed more than $58,000, according to July reports to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
By all accounts, agricultural interests had their opponents beaten in the ever-important cash race, which allows campaigns to purchase television and radio time, fund direct mail, and pay for expensive phone and computer campaign systems. That was until Thursday, when, 11 days before voters head to the polls to vote on the measure, the Humane Society of the United States’ legislative fund dropped a last-minute $375,000 into the Missouri Food for America campaign opposing the measure.
“It’s been an evolving political environment. We decided it was the appropriate time,” said Mike Walters, political director for the HSUS.
Walters said the late cash boost, coupled with what they believe is a shifting public perception, could help Amendment 1’s opponents win key voters in the final week.
“The way voters make up their minds,” he said, “is there are people who, early on, know exactly how they’re going to vote. Then there’s the persuadable universe, and they typically make up their mind in the last seven to 10 days.”
Race to the finish
The group’s money sparked something of a political arms race on Friday, when commodity groups added another $140,000 collectively to Missouri Farmers Care, including $40,000 from the Missouri Corn Growers Association in response to what they criticized as “out-of-state” interests from Washington, D.C., trying to sway Missouri voters.
The corn interests have drawn particular ire from the measure’s opponents. Their latest contribution brings their total spending on the cause to nearly $100,000. More specifically, though, the focus has been on Monsanto, a St. Louis-based biotechnology company which is one of the largest corporations in the country, according to Fortune magazine. Opponents fear the measure could prevent the Legislature from enacting laws that would require producers to label foods produced from genetically modified seeds like those engineered and produced by Monsanto.
“We should have the right to know what is in the food we eat and make our own choices. If you want GMOs, eat them, but you should let us know they’re in there,” said former Democratic Lt. Gov. Joe Maxwell, a lawyer and farmer who is opposing the measure. “This prevents states from having labeling laws. That’s a huge issue. That’s a huge issue for companies like Monsanto.”
Despite its public support for Missouri Farmers Care — Monsanto’s logo is featured on its website with other corporate supporters — Monsanto has only directly contributed $500 to the organization, which a spokeswoman described as its “annual due.”
“We have never lobbied for or against the measure. In addition, we have not participated in any campaigns surrounding Amendment 1,” said Charla Lord, a communications official for the company.
Lord said she thinks people may “incorrectly” assume “Monsanto had taken a position on the measure because we are a member of Missouri Farmers Care.”
“Missouri Farmers Care has dozens of members,” she said in an email. While Monsanto “has been members or supporters of a number of Missouri organizations that represent our customers for many years,” the “levels of support have not changed because of the proposed Amendment,” she added.
Lord said Monsanto has actually denied requests to contribute to the campaign “directly or indirectly,” because, “we are neutral on the Amendment.”
Becky Frankenbach, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Corn Growers Association, said the organization is funded by membership dues from over 2,700 members, along with fundraising events across the state.
“There is no corporate membership. MCGA has received no funding from Monsanto or other large agribusiness groups for Amendment 1 efforts,” she said.
While the company has not contributed directly to the effort, it has contributed to legislators supporting the measure. House Agriculture Policy Committee Chairman Bill Reiboldt, R-Neosho, denied it in a recent debate, but he has in fact taken $500 from the company, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission report. State Sen. Mike Parson, vice-chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has received $2,000 from the company. Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster has received $20,000.
“He comes out when he thinks there’s some opportunity from big cash donors like agribusiness and the Missouri Farm Bureau,” said former State Sen. Wes Shoemyer, who is helping to lead the campaign against Amendment 1.
Shoemyer noted another $20,000 contribution to Koster from Smithfield Foods, which, after being acquired by a Chinese holding firm, became one of the largest foreign owners of Missouri agricultural land when the Legislature removed a restriction banning it. (The company has spent $312,900 in Missouri over the past decade, trailing Monsanto’s $621,000 in support of state campaigns).
Koster, who is considering a bid for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2016, said in an interview when he was a Republican state senator: “I was the only senator in the Missouri General Assembly who had a 100 percent Farm Bureau record.”
“From the day I walked into town, I have been on the side of keeping Missouri agriculture strong and competitive,” he said. “Any charge of ‘Johnny-come-lately’ is, I think, unfounded.”
Koster did not deny that the amendment could, if enacted, restrict regulations on things like GMOs. Under “right to farm,” “no regulation may prohibit Missouri farmers from planting some certain types of genetically enhanced corn seed without a showing of an important state interest,” he said.
Still, not all candidates who have taken money from big agriculture companies have backed the measure. Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who has accepted $44,000 from Monsanto and $32,500 from Smithfield, opposes the measure.
More Monsanto money
Monsanto has contributed an additional $92,500 to the Missouri Democratic Party and its campaign arms, which have not weighed in on the measure.
The measure is backed by the Missouri Republican Party. Between the party itself and its House and Senate committees, it has received $217,157 from the company since 2003.
Originally Published: The Joplin Globe