Midwestern farmers need to have a good talk with the executives at Walgreens. Otherwise, they may end up like the big drugstore chain, with a big political black eye coupled with a hit to their bottom line.
As most readers know, Walgreens considered using its purchase of a European pharmacy chain to move its corporate tax headquarters to Switzerland. The so-called “inversion” would have saved Walgreens billions in corporate taxes over the years. But it also would have stiffed its American customers and communities, not to mention the country that nurtured its rise over the past 113 years.
The plan, coupled with similar moves by other companies, raised a political furor. Everyone from President Obama on down accused Walgreens of greed at best and treason at worst. After a few days of this battering, Walgreen caved and agreed to keep its corporate HQ in Illinois and, like its customers and employees, to keep paying taxes here. Walgreen’s stock immediately plunged about 20 percent – a pretty clear reading of the link between the interests of Wall Street and those of the rest of the country.
What does this have to do with farmers? Farmers, like Walgreens, are increasingly telling their neighbors, communities and much of the rest of the nation to go jump in the manure lagoon. These farmers already have lost the public relations battle. Pretty soon, they’re going to start losing the political war.
Three events this week are typical:
- Voters in Missouri approved, by a razor-thin 50.1 percent margin, a state constitutional amendment “to ensure the right of Missouri citizens to engage in agricultural production and ranching practices.”The amendment, opposed by virtually every newspaper in the state but backed by the Farm Bureau and other farm lobbies, was seen as a barrier to any environmental regulation, including federal laws.
- Toledo, Ohio, was the latest lakeside town to suspend the drinking of water from Lake Erie, because of the growing mats of poisonous algae fed by phosphorus washing from cattle feedlots and fertilized farm fields. Most pollution control in Ohio is voluntary, and ignored.
- Officials in Des Moines, Iowa, say the same kind of algae is growing in Iowa rivers, and the city could easily face the same kind of drinking water ban. The state has a plan for farmers to reduce nutrients, such as phosphorous, but it’s strictly voluntary.
In all these cases, farmers are the villains. As with the Walgreen furor, this is true even if it shouldn’t make much sense.
Big farmers, like Walgreen, are some of our most valuable citizens. They feed this nation and much of the world. Their exports add billions to the nation’s trade balance. Most are pillars of their communities. We couldn’t do without these farmers any more than we could do without our neighborhood Walgreens.
But these same farmers, like Walgreens over the past couple of weeks, have become the people we love to hate. And, like Walgreens, they’ve brought it on themselves.
Anyone who pays attention to the debate over food – in newspapers, TV, online posts, even the movies – know that it is dominated by the foodie fringe, mostly activists in New York or California who love to bash “factory farming” and “frankenfoods” and to claim that urban farming and “locavores” are the answer to all our problems. The tribunes of this movement are people like Michael Pollan, Alice Waters and Mark Bittman, all of whom know more about cooking than they do about food.
This lot are so far removed from the way most of us eat that it should be easy to ignore them, while the real farmers get on with the job of feeding people. But the farmers are losing. As with Walgreens, it’s their own fault.
Walgreens forgot that it is a corporate citizen. Mesmerized by its bottom line, it ignored the fact that there are not just shareholders but stakeholders- - customers, suppliers, communities – that take offense when treated badly. These are the people who would lose if Walgreens defected to Switzerland. They got mad, and they won.
Anyone who’s talked with farmers knows they’re an independent bunch who deeply hate any government regulation. They’re few in number but they have powerful lobbies, led by the Farm Bureau and big agribusiness firms, who have enabled farmers to get their way so far, from environmental damage to the outrageous subsidies of the federal farm bill.
Like Walgreens, they’ve forgotten they are citizens whose deeds affect their neighbors and communities, from the folks next door all the way down-river to the Gulf of Mexico. They’ve forgotten that they owe a decent consideration to the society around them and to the people who supply their livelihood.
In Walgreen's case, this means paying taxes. In the farmers’ case, it means obeying rules and regulations that would limit and eliminate runoff of nutrients, such as phosphorous, that taints and even poisons the drinking water of other citizens downstream.
The big agribusiness companies, such as Cargill and Monsanto, generally join the farm lobby in fighting regulations. This is a mistake. These companies, especially Monsanto, are leaders into research into genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, which promise to boosts yields for an ever hungrier world. There’s no evidence that GMOs cause any harm, but the farmers’ foodie foes, wielding slogans like “frankenfoods,” have waged a scare campaign that has put these companies on the defensive. The companies would seem to have a political interest in showing that they really care about the environment.
This country needs big farmers, just as it needs drugstore chains like Walgreens. It would be nice to go back to the good old days of small farms and corner drugstores, but that’s not going to happen. The health of these farmers and these chains are entwined with the health of society. That society has just reminded Walgreens of this truth. Farmers could be next.