A sense of déjà vu with Rastetter's Iowa Ag Summit
Is the 2015 "Iowa Agriculture Summit" really a bipartisan forum to promote agriculture, or yet another scheme devised by multi-millionaire Iowan Bruce Rastetter to hijack issues impacting farmers and agriculture for his self-serving political and economic agenda?
Billed as an event to stimulate public discussion on "matters that directly affect Iowa farmers who feed and fuel not just the country, but the world," several potential 2016 presidential candidates have signed up for the event. A close look at the confirmed participants – Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Scott Walker, and other GOP hopefuls – lays bare the play of partisan politics organized and manipulated by Rastetter.
But first, let's reflect on the credentials of the man these presidential hopefuls are signing up to share the podium with.
In 2011, Bruce Rastetter, as CEO of AgriSol, acquired over 800,000 acres of land — supposedly three "abandoned refugee camps" — to set up an agriculture enterprise in Tanzania with plans for industrial-scale crop cultivation, livestock production, and agrofuel production. The deal was sold to top Tanzanian leadership, including the prime minister of Tanzania, who were flown to Iowa all expenses paid.
With promises of wealth and development, the deal required changes in Tanzania's regulations on cultivation of GM crops; "Strategic Investor Status" granting financial incentives; reduction in profit taxes; and for the construction of rail infrastructure.
But most egregious was the fact, as exposed by the Oakland Institute, that the project would have displaced over 162,000 small-holder farmers — Burundian refugees who had made that land their home for over 40 years. The Tanzanian government was promising citizenship to these refugees, contingent on them abandoning their homes and livelihoods so Rastetter could take over their lands, all for the unbelievable price of around 22-23 cents/acre.
Bruce Rastetter, the "philanthropist", has used money effectively to wield power in politics and the public realm. He donated more than $160,000 to Gov. Terry Branstad's election in 2010 and was then appointed to the Iowa Board of Regents. This position allowed him to convince ISU to collaborate in the AgriSol scheme, lending credibility that the project would "effectively and efficiently serve the interests of local communities and the country."
The details of the deal, however, raised significant questions about conflicts of interest: it clearly wasn't in the interest of local farmers, and Rastetter blurred roles as Regent and multi-million dollar donor to the university. With the public scandal that followed and student mobilization demanding his removal from the board, ISU publicly pulled out of the project with its image as a land grant university seriously tarnished.
Rastetter's "philanthropy" also helped found the American Future Fund, a dark money group that advocates for energy policies such as drilling offshore and in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
Finally, as former CEO of the fourth largest factory farm corporation (Heartland Pork) in the 1990s, Rastetter was at odds with those he claims this summit is for. Many Iowa family livestock farmers still hold him accountable for driving them out of business.
Now about the refugees that I mentioned earlier; the good news is that in this fight between David and Goliath, in November 2014, they finally got their citizenship and are still farming their lands.
So, what can we expect on Saturday, March 7?
A one-sided conversation between a man who puts money above the most pressing social, environmental, and agricultural concerns faced by humanity today, and the leaders of the party he is helping fund to take office.
An honest reflection would dissuade any serious presidential candidate from engaging in this political circus planned by Rastetter. Their political career and image are at stake.
ANURADHA MITTAL is the executive director of the Oakland Institute. For more information on AgriSol's dealing in Tanzania, see: http://www.oaklandinstitute.org/land-deals-africa-agrisol-energy-llc