American Corn Growers Association
With its all-American name, the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) brings to mind visions of Heartland cornfields and a simple farm life straight out of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” But in reality, ACGA represents a farming style more Cuban than American.
Founded in 1987, ACGA masquerades as a representative of the United States’s many traditional corn growers. But the ACGA is really an organization that promotes a radically anti-business view of agriculture. ACGA’s president Keith Dittrich summarized the group’s views well in September 1999, when he said, “The fact is that an unregulated free market does not work for — nor does it exist — in agriculture … The only beneficiaries are the greedy multinational corporations.”
ACGA hopes farmers and consumers will confuse it with the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA), the much larger mainstream organization that really represents corn growers. Unlike the ACGA, which has a Politburo-style structure in which the group’s leaders issue position statements by fiat, the NCGA actually promotes policies set by its rank and file.
ACGA’s real purpose is to promote organic corn and its producers, and to trash-talk genetically improved foods. Rather than concentrate on issues important to family farmers, ACGA’s leaders and spokespeople travel around the world to work with Greenpeace, the fringe Natural Law Party (NLP), and other anti-food-technology organizations on activist campaigns targeting “corporate agriculture.”
A group with a name similar to ACGA, the American Corn Growers Foundation, is also attached to the Association. While ACGA denies an official connection to the Foundation, the two groups share board members and a mailing address, and work together on a variety of projects. Money flows back and forth between the two groups as well.
ACGA and the Foundation are tied to most of the usual anti-capitalist suspects in the anti-genetic improvement movement (including the Campaign to Label GE Foods, the Center for Food Safety, Consumers Union, Environmental Media Services, Food First, Jeremy Rifkin’s Foundation on Economic Trends, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Maharishi University of Management, the Natural Law Party, the Organic Farming Research Organization, the Pesticide Action Network, the Sierra Club, and Union of Concerned Scientists) through the Bolinas Group, an informal consortium of environmental and anti-biotech organizations that helps fund ACGA.
But unlike Greenpeace and some of the other large Bolinas Group players in the anti-biotech movement, ACGA and the Foundation have carved out a unique niche: They take on genetic improvement from an economic perspective.
Their game plan is simple. First they convince as many farmers as possible that growing biotech corn will cut off a huge sector of the international market and that organic corn can be sold at a premium price. Then ACGA’s leaders catch a flight to Europe to join Greenpeace, the NLP, and other activists in trying to convince farmers and governments there that biotech has failed in the U.S. and should be rejected on the Continent.
The groups do this through farmer “education.” Through the “Farmer Choice-Customer First” project, paid for by environmental and anti-biotech groups, ACGA and the Foundation teach farmers how non-biotech corn can be marketed.
In December 2001, they conducted a survey as part of the project that claimed one-half of U.S. grain elevators required GMO and non-GMO grains be separated. This “representative” survey consisted entirely of ACGA members, and was obviously biased — kind of like asking members of a politician’s family who they plan to vote for.
Both ACGA and the Foundation stay in the news by issuing press releases and booking interviews whenever any story even remotely related to biotech breaks. Many of these releases appear on CropChoice.com, a “news” site created by “organizations [that] have expressed disdain for genetically modified crops, and many have worked actively to implement legislation to ban or regulate the technologies,” as The Bangor Daily News reported in May 2000.
Along with ACGA, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the Organic Farmers Marketing Association, the Sierra Club, Greenpeace USA, Food First, Environmental Media Services, Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, and the organic marketer-funded Center for Food Safety were among CropChoice.com’s charter sponsors.
ACGA and the Foundation have blamed genetic improvement technology for everything from public health problems to trade imbalances. In December 2001, ACGA praised a report on Bt corn by Charles Benbrook published by the activist Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and Genetically Engineered Food Alert. ACGA said Benbrook had shown biotech to be a “triple negative for farmers — lost corn exports, lower corn prices and less profit from Bt corn.”
But the NCGA, which represents mainstream farmers, blasted the Benbrook report — and ACGA. Said NCGA executive vice president and CEO Rick Tolman: “The IATP report immediately lacks credibility because they use as their farmer organization spokesperson a representative of the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA). ACGA has much stronger ties to and support from the environmental extremists than they do from actual corn producers in the U.S. They are not credible representatives for U.S. corn growers.”
And what if the media and the public mistake ACGA’s position for that of the far more reputable and representative NCGA? Well, these things happen.
The ACGA has a history of profiting off confusion of its own making, especially exploiting the confusion between itself and the National Corn Growers Association (NCGA). The NCGA, which has about 10 times the membership of ACGA, represents mainstream farmers and is often diametrically opposed to ACGA on agriculture issues.
But ACGA thrives on confusion in other ways as well. In a December 1999 press release, ACGA claimed that the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA) supported ACGA in calling for legislation that would allow a grain elevator to reject purchasing genetically improved crops. But NGFA had said no such thing, saying only that such an option could be adopted in areas where separation of GMO and non-GMO grain was under consideration.
This is a business and legal decision that country elevator managers need to make on their own based on their market area and the customers and buyers they serve, the NGFA responded, noting that NGFA supports biotechnology and other scientific and technological innovations that contribute to the availability of a safe, plentiful and high-quality food supply.
ACGA tried another bit of sleight-of-hand when dealing with the touchy case of Gary Goldberg, a former ACGA chief executive who was sentenced to five years probation in 2001 for attempting to purchase child pornography. Though ACGA very publicly accepted Goldberg’s resignation, The Tulsa World reported that Goldberg continues to work as a grants administrator for the American Corn Growers Foundation.
For a group representing an archaic form of agriculture, the motivation of the American Corn Growers Association (ACGA) is classically capitalist: to promote the business of its members. In that regard, ACGA functions almost as agents or a public relations firm for its handful of members.
ACGA’s membership consists of farmers who have opted to never use genetic improvement technology. There are a few reasons why they make this seemingly irrational choice. For some it is a matter of personal political viewpoint, but for others it is a matter of economics.
With large farms offering safer, more abundant genetically improved grain products to a mass consumer market at the lowest prices, these ACGA farmers have decided to play to the small but wealthy group of organic consumers on the fringes of the marketplace, who will pay more for their non-GMO product.
But that market isn’t growing fast enough for ACGA’s taste. Like other “organic consumers” groups, ACGA smears the reputation of genetically improved products in an effort to create a larger market share for organic.
It’s therefore no surprise that organic marketers praise ACGA as an organization representative of American agriculture. In June 2000, the organic publication Health Products Business called ACGA “very mainstream” for demanding “mandatory labeling of all GMO-containing foods.”
ACGA manages big influence for such a small organization. The group has actively lobbied for changes in the 2002 federal Farm Bill, seeking benefits for the small farms that make up ACGA. As part of the “National Farm Action Campaign” created in December 2001 (along with the Northern Plains Resource Council and other groups) ACGA has challenged the “competition title” for beef in the farm bill, something that has nothing to do with corn.
This confused many farmers, who were led to believe the legitimate and mainstream NCGA opposed it, which was not true. ACGA president Keith Dittrich was forced to clarify: “I want to set the record straight that the AMERICAN Corn Growers supports the initiative — it was another corn grower organization [the NCGA] that didn’t.”