Sunday, June 29, 2008

From, Philpott challenges the organic movement

How the organic movement can regain its relevance

By Tom Philpott
27 Jun 2008

On June 25, I spoke at the Organic Summit in Boulder, Colo., to an audience consisting largely of people who work in the organic food industry. This column is an adapted version of my talk.

In his wildly popular satirical blog Stuff White People Like, the Canadian writer Christian Lander recently made some tart observations about the place of organic food in North American culture.

"White people need organic food to survive," he declared. "Where they purchase this food is as important as what they purchase. In modern white person culture, Whole Foods has replaced churches and cathedrals as the most important and relevant buildings in the community."

Later in this remarkable post, Lander returned to the religious theme: "Many white people consider shopping at Whole Foods to be a religious experience, allowing them to feel good about their consumption."

I bring up this clearly over-the-top piece of writing because I think it actually raises an important question about the place of organics in our culture today. To what extent do organics merely "allow people to feel good about their consumption," as Lander says, and to what extent do they inspire people to think about their consumption, to consider their place in the consumption-production process?

I would argue that today, amid all of our ecological crises -- the climate crisis, the water crisis, the energy crisis, the crisis of the oceans, all of which implicate agriculture and food production -- organics aren't inspiring people to think very much at all. And the responsibility for that failure lies most heavily with the people in organics who have the power to communicate with the public: the corporate marketers.

We're So Sorry, Uncle Albert

If we look at the history of organic agriculture from its origins in the work of botanist and agricultural maverick Sir Albert Howard in the 1930s and 1940s, we can make a case that organics have been a stunning success. For years, they've been the only real growth area in the entire food industry, which here in the United States is characterized by stagnant demand. While overall food consumption rises with population -- something like 1 percent per year -- demand for organics rises by a steady 15 to 20 percent per year.

The Soil and Health, by Sir Albert Howard.
The Soil and Health, by Sir Albert Howard.
However, from a different direction, the success of organics looks considerably more modest. Sir Albert published The Soil and Health in 1947 -- just at the point when industrial-scale agriculture was taking off, supercharged by synthetic and mined fertilizers as well as a slew of poisons from the rising petrochemical industry. Sir Albert never saw organics as an "alternative" or "niche" form of farming. He saw the two visions of agriculture in direct competition -- and foresaw all manner of grave consequences if industrial ag won out.

Sir Albert insisted on what he called the Law of Return, which can be summed up like this: Every time we harvest something from the soil -- every time we consume food or drink -- we're taking away nutrients and organic matter that need to be replaced. The whole trick of agriculture, from the first wheat fields of the Fertile Crescent to a modern 10,000-acre Iowa corn farm to my own little patch of land in North Carolina, has always been how to replace those nutrients, how to maintain soil fertility.

Now, according to Sir Albert, when you deal with soil fertility by resorting to synthetic and mined fertilizers, you're undermining soil's long-term ability to produce crops. You're leeching out key micronutrients without replacing them. You're sterilizing the soil of microorganisms needed for truly healthy plants. Producers who farm this way, he said, are "bandits" stealing true soil fertility from future generations.

Something tells me Sir Albert would be pretty alarmed by what's happening today, despite the steady growth of organic food. Globally, demand for synthetic and mined fertilizer is exploding. Amid a bleak economy and a dismal stock market, one of the few seemingly sure ways to make money is to invest in fertilizer companies. The globe's two largest fertilizer companies -- Potash Corp. of Saskatchewan and Mosaic, which is two-thirds owned by Cargill -- are practically printing money. In the last year alone, Mosaic's shares have quadrupled and Potash's have tripled, while the overall stock market has lost 10 percent. Meanwhile, Monsanto, the globe's dominant purveyor of genetically modified seeds, has seen its share price double.

Just this week, the Wall Street Journal declared that the "salad days of organic agriculture are wilting in favor of high-tech tomatoes." Almost triumphantly, the Journal published a chart comparing Monsanto's surging share price to that of Whole Foods, which has plunged by a third over the last year.

Even as organics gain popularity and make people feel good about what they consume, industrial agriculture is consolidating its grip over the U.S. heartland, where it's burning through one of the greatest stores of soil fertility on the globe, and it's expanding rapidly into the savanna and even the rainforest of Brazil, the globe's emerging industrial-agriculture powerhouse.

I don't mean to discount the work that's been done by the organic movement. Today, we have about 1.7 million acres in organic crop production in the United States. That's a remarkable achievement, representing decades of hard work. No one can deny the value of protecting that much land from a steady stream of chemicals that poison workers, the soil, and water alike. But total U.S. cropland stands at about 435 million acres. That means less than 1 percent* of U.S. cropland is managed organically. With conventional grain prices at all-time highs, that number may be stagnating, not growing. We have lots more work to do.

Appetite for Instruction

One of the things the organic industry has to do is educate, inform, and provoke. In this country, fewer than 1 percent of us farm. That's the lowest rate in the world -- and surely the lowest rate in the history of agricultural society. Food really does seem to arrive on our plates by magic -- it appears, or seems to appear, by the grace of corporate marketers, not through the hard work of people interacting with the soil, animals, and the climate.

And I believe this ignorance -- this beautiful, blissful state of unknowing that would be the envy of nearly any society that came before us -- has mostly been maintained by the organic movement. Surely it's maintained by "organic" milk processors that buy from feedlot dairy operations, and then decorate their cartons with happy cows munching grass. Surely it's maintained by "certified organic" supermarket chains that decorate their produce sections with images of prosperous farmers, and then stock their shelves with produce grown under God knows what conditions in Chile. It's maintained by large organic farms that quietly rely on exploited immigrant labor to eke out profits. And it's even maintained at the farmers market, by the farmer who's too embarrassed to tell his customers that he's barely scraping by, that his back is killing him, and that he can't afford health insurance.

If we're going to move beyond 0.4 percent organic cropland and really challenge industrial agriculture, we also have to move beyond this acceptance of mass ignorance. One concrete thing we can do is start talking honestly and seriously about soil fertility -- Albert Howard's Law of Return. We all know our food system generates tremendous amounts of waste. Very little of it gets cycled back into soil. Instead, it ends up rotting in landfills.

I know from hard experience that for new organic farms, the No. 1 challenge is coming up with a fertility strategy. Creating the kind of closed-loop, mixed-farming system celebrated by Albert Howard and embodied by Joel Salatin in Virginia takes years. One of our dirty secrets is that a lot of organic farmers rely on manure from confined-animal feedlot operations to fertilize their land. By doing so, we're depositing all manner of pharmaceuticals and toxins into our best farmland -- the very stuff people try to avoid when they buy organic. An alternative farming system that relies on CAFO waste for fertility is a kind of parasite on a sick animal.

Why not champion a national composting policy, one that compels municipalities to transform food waste into high-quality, crop-grade compost? And why not then give it away to farmers -- the ones who grow food for their nearby communities? That's an agricultural subsidy that makes all kinds of sense.

While we're at it, let's reinvest in the infrastructure that makes small-scale, pasture-based meat and dairy production viable. The best and most successful organic farms are the ones that mix diversified crop production with livestock production; they build their soil with their own animals' composted manure. But as the Tysons, Smithfields, and Cargills of the world gained control of the meat and dairy industries, they shut down processing plants and concentrated production geographically. Who wants to raise chickens if you have to haul them 70 miles to a USDA-approved slaughterhouse, and 70 miles back?

Rather than continue a trend of corporate control and consolidation of organics, the decision makers in this industry should be cajoling the federal government to enforce antitrust laws and break up the monopolies that control the food system. You should conceive of yourselves as the anti-Tysons and anti-Smithfields by investing in appropriate-scale processing plants all across the land.

As our globe lurches into a period of ecological and economic crises -- not least, the food crisis -- what we need is less ignorance about food and more people with their hands in the dirt producing it. If we can't achieve that, than the Tysons, Cargills, and Monsantos will retain their grip over food production, and organics really will amount to some "stuff white people like" -- a soothing room within a sinking ship.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Locally Known-- local young farmer grows a large organic farm in Maine

At a store near you, low-mileage lettuce

A farm's oil-stingy plan cuts out the cross-country trek for Boston-bound greens

BOWDOINHAM, Maine - Ben Dobson is betting his future on 170 acres of salad greens along the shores of Merrymeeting Bay.

The 24-year-old oversees New England's first large-scale organic farm dedicated to supplying East Coast supermarkets and restaurant chains with local greens.

The start-up farm, called Locally Known, is trying to capitalize on soaring fuel costs and growing consumer demand for local, organic foods by offering fresher lettuce at competitive prices.

Most salad greens make a cross-country trek of more than 3,000 miles from California's Salinas Valley, nicknamed "Salad Bowl of the World," to get to Boston. Locally Known's produce, however, traveled just 144 miles from Maine to hit the shelves last week at Whole Foods supermarkets. And five ounces cost $1 less than the same amount of greens from California-based Earthbound Farm, a savings largely due to lower transportation costs.

"This is absolutely huge. What Locally Known is attempting has never really been done before on the East Coast to this level," said Bill McGowan, Whole Foods' produce coordinator for the North Atlantic region. "At this time, trucking greens from California, the primary grower, to the East Coast is not great from a fuel standpoint and a green-mission standpoint."

Until now, it has been nearly impossible for small local farmers to supply major supermarket chains because of costly food safety requirements, restrictions that grew more stringent following the 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach. But with an investment from a group of entrepreneurs under the age of 30, along with a $250,000 grant from Maine's agriculture department, Locally Known built a processing plant that washes, dries, and packages the greens to meet industry standards.

Much of the harvest is automated, with band saws on wheels, allowing a crew of three and machines to do the work of 50 people picking lettuce by hand. At full capacity, Locally Known expects to harvest about 60,000 pounds of greens each week, including spinach, arugula, and baby kale. The produce will supply retailers such as Whole Foods, Trader Joes, and Hannafords.

"We can offer fresher greens that sit on the truck less time and can be identified with the local farm connection," said Dobson, president of Locally Known. "And we can offer it at competitive prices."

Locally Known's 170 acres pale in comparison to lettuce farms in California, which can sprawl over more than 2,000 acres. But Dobson, who grew up working on his father's farm in the Berkshires, is looking to lease land in Florida to harvest in the winter. Ultimately, he wants to build a cooperative across the region to create a sustainable year-round supply of produce for the East Coast sold under the Locally Known label.

Soaring costs for fuel and petroleum-based fertilizers used in conventional farming have made local organic produce a more competitive option for supermarket chains and restaurants, said Brook DeLorme, who at 28 is the oldest of Locally Known's five partners.

According to the market research publisher Packaged Facts, sales of locally grown foods in the United States were expected to rise from about $4 billion in 2002 to $7 billion by 2011. Locally Known said it is not trying to steal the market from local farms that supply small health food stores and nearby restaurants. Instead, it is focusing on major supermarket chains.

"More and more of the larger food services and retailers are rethinking their sourcing. They're paying more attention as fuel prices soar, and regional distribution appears to make the most financial sense," said Rich Pirog, associate director at Iowa State University's Leopold Center, which does research to develop sustainable agricultural practices.

A Leopold study conducted several years ago found that conventional produce traveled an average of 1,518 miles to reach Chicago, with grapes, lettuce, spinach, broccoli, and cauliflower traveling over 2,000 miles.

This month, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association hosted a "Green Restaurant Revolution" event, featuring media mogul turned restaurateur Ted Turner and local celebrity chef Todd English talking about ways restaurateurs can focus on environmental stewardship and local sustainability. English, in an interview, said local sourcing is increasingly important because of rising food prices and fuel surcharges.

"You have to be smarter, look harder for the best buys out there," English said. "And buying local just makes sense; it's fresher and you're supporting the local economy."

In Bowdoinham, Dobson is working nearly 20 hours a day, every day, to keep the farm on track. But lettuce is growing faster than expected, a salad spinner broke down last week, and bar-coding software he passed on to save money is now desperately needed. Adding to his stress is a planned visit by Maine's governor this week.

"It's a lot of chance," Dobson said, as he peered out onto his farm, acres of peppery arugula and spinach stretching into the distance. "But we think it's the right opportunity at the right time."

Jenn Abelson can be reached at

Friday, June 20, 2008
Chipotle to use more local ingredients
Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is breaking from the fast-food model once again.
The Denver-based chain known for its hefty burritos is pledging to use a set amount of local produce at each of its more than 730 restaurants around the country -- when produce is in season.
This summer, Chipotle is purchasing 25 percent of at least one produce item for each of its stores from small and mid-sized farms located within about 200 miles. Those purchases could include lettuce, onions and peppers.
Organic beans, avocados and herbs grown only on a large scale in certain climates won't be part of the program.
Fine dining chefs have long sought ingredients from nearby farmers, but Chipotle is moving that philosophy to a growing quick-service chain.
"It's going to open up the practice of knowing where food comes from to a wider variety of people," said Kate Evanishyn of Slow Food USA, which believes in food production that treats the environment, animals, human health and workers well.
"Ultimately this is changing the way the world thinks about and eats fast food," Chief Executive Steve Ells, who founded the company, said.
Ells, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, said it's about getting the best tasting food. The program marks an extension of the "Food With Integrity" slogan for the chain, which only serves naturally raised pork and chicken.
Ingredients taste fresher when they don't travel as far to get to the table, and they taste better when raised without chemicals, Ells said. Using local food means using less fuel to transport ingredients, and it supports the local economy, he said.
Ann Daniels, executive director of purchasing, said using more local ingredients will lower expenses in some cases and raise them in others, but food costs won't significantly change either way. She said the policy will stay in place even as Chipotle adds stores.
Finding the right suppliers, though, has been a challenge. During a test last year, Chipotle discovered it would have to use mid-size farms of about 500 to 600 acres to ensure a reliable supply. Tiny growers were less able to survive swings in weather or couldn't always deliver a product, Daniels said.
The company turned to distributors, local employees and the Web to find producers and then checked that each met its standards, such as those for food safety.
Daniels said Chipotle has 30 to 50 farms on its list so far.
Among them is third-generation farmer Kirk Holthouse of Holthouse Farms in Willard, Ohio. His family's 500-acre farm will provide jalapeno peppers, romaine lettuce and green bell peppers to Chipotle in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky and Michigan.
He said he was glad to hear a chain was interested in local produce.
"In the summertime, quite often, we don't get some of that business because a lot of chain restaurants will be buying out of California," from farms 10 to 20 times larger, Holthouse said.
His farm usually ships about 1,000 truckloads a year. Chipotle's orders could add an extra truckload a week, he said.
Chipotle's initiative comes amid a weak economy, with diners eating out less. In a note to investors this week, Deutsche Bank analyst Jason West said the chain's same-store sales, or sales at locations open at least a year, have decelerated in each of the last four quarters.
Chipotle has not commented on West's note, but Ells said last week that the chain is committed to adding more local ingredients and suppliers and to include smaller farms.
"It's not an easy project but very worthwhile," Ells said.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Growing Food at Home


CASSANDRA FEELEY prefers organic ingredients, especially for her baby, but she finds it hard to manage on her husband’s salary as an Army sergeant. So this year she did something she has wanted to do for a long time: she planted vegetables in her yard to save money.

“One organic cucumber is $3 and I can produce it for pennies,” she said.

For her first garden, Ms. Feeley has gone whole hog, hand-tilling a quarter acre in the backyard of her house near the Fort Campbell Army base in Kentucky. She has put in 15 tomato plants, five rows of corn, potatoes, cucumbers, squash, okra, peas, watermelon, green beans. An old barn on the property has been converted to a chicken coop, its residents arriving next month; the goats will be arriving next year.

“I spent $100 on it and I know I will save at least $75 a month on food,” she said.

She is one of the growing number of Americans who, driven by higher grocery costs and a stumbling economy, have taken up vegetable gardening for the first time. Others have increased the size of their existing gardens.

Seed companies and garden shops say that not since the rampant inflation of the 1970s has there been such an uptick in interest in growing food at home. Space in community gardens across the country has been sold out for several months. In Austin, Tex., some of the gardens have a three-year waiting list.

George C. Ball Jr., owner of the W. Atlee Burpee Company, said sales of vegetable and herb seeds and plants are up by 40 percent over last year, double the annual growth for the last five years. “You don’t see this kind of thing but once in a career,” he said. Mr. Ball offers half a dozen reasons for the phenomenon, some of which have been building for the last few years, like taste, health and food safety, plus concern, especially among young people, about global warming.

But, Mr. Ball said, “The big one is the price spike.” The striking rise in the cost of staples like bread and milk has been accompanied by increases in the price of fruits and vegetables.

Food prices have spiked because of fuel prices and they redounded to the benefit of the garden,” Mr. Ball said. “People are driving less, taking fewer vacations, so there is more time to garden.”

Each spring for the last five years, the Garden Writers Association has had TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence, a polling firm, conduct a national consumer telephone survey asking gardeners what makes up the greatest share of their garden budgets. “The historic priorities are lawns, annuals, perennials, then vegetables, followed by trees and shrubs,” said Robert LaGasse, executive director of the association. This year, vegetables went from fourth place to second, which Mr. LaGasse called “an enormous attitude shift.”

People like Rita Gartin of Ames, Iowa, are part of that shift. Last year she kept a small garden. This year it has tripled in size into a five-by-seven-foot plot because, Ms. Gartin said, “The cost of everything is going up and I was looking to lose a few pounds, too; so it’s a win-win situation all around.”

Ms. Gartin, who fits gardening into her 12-hour workday as an interior designer and property manager, is not intimidated by the 20 kinds of vegetables she has planted: she was raised on a farm with a giant garden. A fence has been erected to keep the deer and people out, and it’s where the pole beans and snap peas are already climbing.

She is ready to take a stab at canning, but reserves the right to freeze everything instead, she said.

“I probably spent maybe $50 for everything and that’s less than a week’s cost of groceries or the price of a gym,” she said.

Seed companies and garden centers say they didn’t see the rush coming. There wasn’t any buildup last year, said Barbara Melera, the co-owner of the D. Landreth Seed Company in New Freedom, Pa., who takes the pulse of gardeners at the 13 garden shows she attends around the country each year.

“We pack for all the shows and bring 16 different beans, 10 packets for each kind,” Ms. Melera said. In earlier years, by the time the shows end in March, she said, “we are lucky if we have sold two of the 10 packets.”

“This year,” she said, “we sold out the first show and literally sold hundreds. We never sell any corn; this year we sold out of corn by the end of the season. We saw the same thing in the mail order business.”

She said the greatest demand was for what she calls “survival vegetables”: peas, beans, corn, beets, carrots, broccoli, kale, spinach and the lettuces. “It was so different from what it has been in prior years,” she added.

Randy Martell, one of the owners of the Garden Factory in Rochester, says it isn’t just vegetables. “The potted fruit trees were sold out by the first week of May,” he said. “Blueberries, raspberries and grapes are sold out. I think those sales have doubled. Overall sales are up about 30 percent.”

Dottie Wright, greenhouse manager at one of the Dammann’s Lawn, Garden and Landscaping Centers in Indianapolis, said she talks to people every day who are starting their first vegetable garden. “If they don’t have a yard they try containers for tomatoes and herbs. We can’t keep the herbs in this year.”

Thrilled as gardening experts are about this phenomenon, they know that many first timers don’t have any idea how much sweat equity is involved.

“Many people I sold seeds to have never gardened before,” Ms. Melera said, “and we have to find a way to educate them so the experience is successful. They have got to be taught.”

Mr. Ball of Burpee knows some of the new gardeners won’t stick with gardening beyond the first year. “Some people can’t get with the idea of digging a hole; getting buggy, sticky and hot,” he said. “Gardening is an active hobby; it’s a commitment.”

Doreen G. Howard, a former garden editor for Woman’s Day and now a writer for The American Gardener, is one of the committed. She has had a vegetable garden for most of the last 25 years. This year she has quadrupled the size of her vegetable plot in Roscoe, Ill., because of the economy and because she thinks the quality of store-bought produce has deteriorated. Once vegetables were just 5 percent of her garden; now they are 20 percent.

“Food prices have gotten to the point where we are seeing the difference,” she said. “It’s pushing our budget and we are a two-income family. It was never a concern before.” Ms. Howard said her grocery bill for two went from $100 a week to $140 a week this year.

She has chosen many vegetables that freeze well, investing in a secondhand freezer to store the bounty. She plans to dry the herbs that grow on the back porch next to boxes of mesclun, and to make pickles from the cucumbers and raisins from the grapes — her newest addition. And she is looking forward to a cellar full of Peruvian blue potatoes.

Some of Ms. Howard’s increased harvest will also go to food pantries through an organization called Plant a Row for the Hungry, which encourages gardeners to plant extra vegetables to share with the poor.

“I’m hoping to take $20 a week off my grocery bill,” she said. This is in the low range, according to Mr. Ball, who says a $100 investment will produce $1,000 to $1,700 worth of vegetables.

Ms. Gartin, now in her second year, says gardening is worth the effort.

“I got soft calluses from hoeing and digging,” she said, adding cheerfully, “but my fingernails are still pretty — long and not chipped. I probably spent 30 hours putting the garden in, and when I’d come into the house I’d be covered in sweat. But now it’s pretty easy because of all the rain we’ve had.”

And the vegetables, she said, are “awesome.” “It’s a totally different flavor from what you buy in the store. It’s exciting to go out and pick the fruits of your labor.”

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Big Picture or Why Care about the Farm Bill

"...did you know Congress passed a $307 billion farm bill in late May that has a much bigger impact on what you will eat for dinner tonight than what you chose to place in the grocery cart?

"...does the massive legislation support family farmers? Increase food access in urban food deserts? Or feed the 40 million poor and hungry in the United States?
"Yes and no. Reauthorized and revamped every five years, farm law has its roots in the 1930’s New Deal efforts to handle the overproduction of agricultural commodities while maintaining stable prices. Although most of the money in the current bill, around 75%, goes to nutrition programs such as food stamps, the politics of writing the bill is still driven by commodities such as corn, rice, wheat, cotton, and soybeans."

To read more, see earlier posting on this blog or paste and enter:

The Big Picture -- Why Berkshire Grown Cares about the Farm Bill

Debra Eschmeyer, a farmer and activist has given her permission to reprint and circulate this important article.

Old MacDonald Has a Farm Bill
By Debra Eschmeyer
We’ve all noticed higher grocery bills, but did you know Congress passed a $307 billion farm bill in late May that has a much bigger impact on what you will eat for dinner tonight than what you chose to place in the grocery cart?
The farm bill has a hand in all that happens before the swallow. The bag of Tyson chicken wings (grain subsidies), gallon of Horizon Organic milk (forward contracting), and pound of Fuji apples (country of origin labeling) are all regulated in some fashion by this policy determining how our food is raised and who profits.
But does the massive legislation support family farmers? Increase food access in urban food deserts? Or feed the 40 million poor and hungry in the United States?
Yes and no. Reauthorized and revamped every five years, farm law has its roots in the 1930’s New Deal efforts to handle the overproduction of agricultural commodities while maintaining stable prices. Although most of the money in the current bill, around 75%, goes to nutrition programs such as food stamps, the politics of writing the bill is still driven by commodities such as corn, rice, wheat, cotton, and soybeans.
One way to interpret farm policy is to follow the money. According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Cargill’s profits increased nearly 1000 percent from $280 million in FY1997-98 to $2.34 billion by FY2006-07. Add to that pile of profits the $35 billion in indirect subsidies that the industrial animal factories (owned and controlled by corporations like Cargill) reaped by being able to buy feed crops at 20-25 percent below the cost of production.
Farm-bloc legislators were challenged this time around to make the connection between the current farm policy’s cheap corn complex and the growing problem of diabetes and obesity. Unfortunately, prior policy plunders were not weeded out of the current farm bill. As the House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) explicitly stated that except for some "minor changes," the new farm bill is "very much like the current law that we have been operating under."
For those farm bill pugilists—sustainable agriculture groups, anti-hunger advocates, faith-based organizations, conservationists, community gardeners, and grassroots family farmer coalitions—that tried to have their voices heard above the industrial agriculture cacophony, the final 2008 Farm Bill is bittersweet. Bitter due to the numerous multifunctional reforms that never came to fruition while corporate agribusiness deepened their roots and sweet for the minor victories for sustainable agriculture, nutrition, and conservation.
The policies that survived through countless revisions, late night conferences, numerous listening sessions, lobbyist wrangling, and earmarks are far from the wish lists various groups envisioned. However, more than one thousand food and farm organizations came together and requested that Congress override the President’s promised veto. As stated in their joint letter to Congress:
"Communities across the nation, from urban to rural, have waited too long for this legislation. The Conference Report makes significant farm policy reforms, protects the safety net for all of America's food producers, addresses important infrastructure needs for specialty crops, increases funding to feed our nation's poor, and enhances support for important conservation initiatives. This is by no means a perfect piece of legislation, and none of our organizations achieved everything we had individually requested. However, it is a carefully balanced compromise of policy priorities that has broad support among organizations representing the nation's agriculture, conservation, and nutrition interests."
Passing through the House with a margin of 306 to 110 and the Senate 82 to 13, the votes in both chambers were far past the majority needed to defeat President Bush’s veto. Formally called the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, the 673 pages of legislative prowess represent a precarious balancing act of principles and politics.
Below are samples of positive seeds of change planted in the new Farm Bill:
§ Community Food Projects and Geographic Preferences: The new Farm Bill provides $5 million in mandatory annual funding for innovative Community Food Projects for matching grants to community groups building sustainable local food systems addressing hunger, nutrition, and meeting food security goals. There is also new statutory language clearly stating that preference can be given to local purchasing of agriculture products for schools serving meals that receive federal assistance, resolving a conflict in USDA’s interpretation of the 2002 farm bill.
§ Local Food Initiatives: Another provision provides funding for new local and regional food supply networks including $33 million in mandatory funds for the Farmers Market Promotion Program, $56 million for the Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and $1.2 billion to expand the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program that will enable 3 million low income children across the country to have access to healthier food options.
§ GMO Oversight: New mandates to strengthen USDA oversight of GMO crops will help prevent the disaster that occurred when an unauthorized genetically modified rice strain entered the U.S. rice crop and caused massive losses to export markets. The new regulatory framework will reduce the potential for future GMO contamination events at field trial test sites.
§ First Ever Livestock Title: Provides much needed protections for independent ranchers and farmers raising livestock under contract, which includes preventing mandatory arbitration clauses for livestock/poultry contracts; allowing a three-day period to cancel contracts; and requiring contracts to disclose the requirement of large capital investments.
§ Diversity Initiative: The Farm Bill gives significant recognition to the importance of minority and socially disadvantaged farmers. There are specific targets for minority and socially disadvantaged farmer participation in conservation, farm credit, Value Added Producer Grants, and the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Programs. Minority Outreach and Education (Section 2501) authorized in the 1990 farm bill receives for the first time mandatory funding at $75 million over 4 years. This competitive grant program to community based organizations and educational institutions helps minority and socially disadvantaged farmers access USDA programs through effective outreach programs.
§ Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program: Provides $75 million over four years in mandatory money for competitive grants to groups providing technical assistance and other services to beginning farmers and ranchers. This program was created in the 2002 Farm Bill but was never funded.
§ Country-of-Origin Labeling and Interstate Meat Shipment: The Farm Bill includes language to implement long-awaited COOL requirements for produce, beef, pork, chicken, lamb and goat that will go into effect in September 2008. COOL was included in the 2002 Farm Bill, but food industry, USDA and meatpackers’ opposition have delayed its implementation. There are also provisions allowing for the interstate shipment of state-inspected beef that meets federal inspection standards. Both of these policies represent victories for consumers and farmers aiming to rebuild local food systems.
§ Organic Agriculture: The bill provides $78 million in mandatory funds for the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, which enhances the ability of organic producers and processors to grow and market organic food, feed, and fiber. For those transitioning to organic production, $22 million in mandatory funding is provided for the next five years.
The above positive provisions represent alternatives to the current food system without replacing the industrial model, which will take even more advocacy for good food policy in the next farm bill and beyond.
On one of my farm bill lobby visits to Washington, DC, I spoke to several Congressional Offices advocating for fair prices on behalf of family farmers. After one of my meetings, a young amiable congressional staffer with a mixed countenance of pity and arrogance, proceeded to tell me, “We aren’t looking to revolutionize the food system, Deb, let alone the farm bill.”
Well, I am looking to revolutionize the food system, and I am not alone. Yes, we have an uphill battle. Biotech giant Monsanto Co. spent nearly $1.3 million in just the first quarter of 2008 to lobby on farm bill provisions to protect their investments, but there are thousands of grassroots organizations working for public policy that will protect and strengthen the future of our food supply, environment, public health, and communities.
I’ll let you know in five years, but in the meantime, I’ll keep planting those seeds of change and hope you’ll join me in cultivating more palatable food policy.
For more information on farm bills:
Debra Eschmeyer is the Marketing & Media Manager of the National Farm to School Network and the Center for Food & Justice. She works from a fifth-generation family farm in Ohio, where she continues her passion for organic farming raising heirloom fruits, vegetables, and chickens.
Prior to joining CFJ, Debra was the Project Director at the National Family Farm Coalition in Washington, DC where she focused on U.S. agricultural policy and food sovereignty initiatives among grassroots domestic and international rural advocacy and other social justice networks. She was also the Asia Program Coordinator for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund at Conservation International and the Humanitarian Grants Asia Coordinator for Rotary International.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Michael Pollan on the Farm Bill 2008

Michael Pollan writes to people on his listserve:
"I haven't been in touch for a while, and some of you have written asking for an an update on the 2008 Farm Bill. After many, many months of wrangling, the bill was just passed by Congress, overriding a veto by the President. In my view, it is not a very good bill-- it preserves more or less intact the whole structure of subsidies responsible for so much that is wrong in the American food system. On the other hand, it does contain some significant new provisions that, with luck, will advance the growing movement toward a more just, sustainable, and healthy food system.

"You might rightly ask why there was so little movement on commodity subsidies, in a year when crop prices are at record highs and public scrutiny of the subsidy system has been intense. Indeed, the people on the Hill I talk to tell me they have not seen so much political activism around the farm bill in a generation. All the calls, cards, and emails sent by ordinary eaters clearly made a difference. So why so little change on the key issue? Why didn't we get a food bill, rather than another farm bill?

"Here's what I think happened. Critics of farm-policy-as usual-- and I count myself among them-- did a much better job of demonizing subsidies than they did proposing alternative forms of farm support that would have won over some percentage of the farmers now receiving subsidies. The whole discourse depicting subsidies as a form of welfare -- payments to celebrities, rich people in cities, mega-farms etc-- convinced many farmers that the ultimate goal of the farm bill's critics was to abolish subsidies, rather than to develop a new set of incentives that would encourage farmers to grow real food and take good care of their land. Had the reformers crafted proposals that were easy to explain and attractive to even just a segment of commodity-crop farmers, we could have made much more progress. Instead, faced with what appeared like a threat to their livelihood, the old guard hunkered down and defended the status quo, refusing even to negotiate on the central issues. Better alternatives could have split this block, and it was our failing not to devise and promote them. What the Old Guard did instead of negotiating a new system of farm support was what it has always done: pick off the opposition, faction by faction, by offering money for pet programs. The history of the farm bill has long been about such trade offs: Urban legislators support subsidies in exchange for rural support for food stamps. That Grand Bargain has now been extended to supporters of organic agriculture, local food systems, school lunch advocates, etc. The reason that, in the end, most of the activist groups wound up urging Congress to override the veto is that, by the end, they all had been given something they liked in the bill. You could put it more baldly, and suggest they'd all been bought off-- that the $300-plus billion bill represents the exact price of buying off all the critics of the farm bill, plus the cost of maintaining the status quo. But this is how the game is played, and the fact is, some good will come of these programs, modest as they are-- they will sow seeds of change and legitimize alternative food chains, or so we can hope.

"The challenge for the next farm bill is clear: it's not enough to engage the public, important as that is; we also have to get much smarter about both policy and politics, and craft some attractive proposals that will divide the farm block as well as move us to a healthier and more sustainable food system-- economically sustainable for farmers and farm workers and environmentally sustainable. This is the project for the next few years. We've got our work cut out for us."

Sunday, June 1, 2008

New investigative report on confined animal feeding operations

Industrial Agriculture
CAFOs Uncovered
The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations

The U.S. livestock industry—a large and vital part of agriculture in this country—has been undergoing a drastic change over the past several decades. Huge CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) have become the predominant method of raising livestock, and the crowded conditions in these facilities have increased water and air pollution and other types of harm to public health and rural communities.

CAFOs are not the inevitable result of market forces. Instead, these unhealthy operations are largely the result of misguided public policy that can and should be changed.

In this report, the Union of Concerned Scientists analyzes both the policies that have facilitated the growth of CAFOs and the enormous costs imposed on society by CAFOs. We also discuss sophisticated and efficient alternatives for producing affordable animal products, and offer policy recommendations that can begin to lead us toward a healthy and sustainable food system.

Read the Report by the Union of Concerned Scientists
May 31, 2008
New York Times Editorial
The Worst Way of Farming

In the past month, two new reports have examined how farm animals are raised in this country. The report funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts calls the prevailing system “industrial farm animal production.” The report from the Union of Concerned Scientists prefers the term “confined animal feeding operations.”

No matter what you call it, it adds up to the same thing. Millions of animals are crowded together in inhumane conditions, causing significant environmental threats and unacceptable health risks for workers, their neighbors and all the rest of us.

The astonishing increase in the number and size of confined animal operations has been spawned largely by the very structure of American farm supports, which always has been skewed in a way that concentrates farming in fewer and fewer hands. As both of these reports make clear, the so-called efficiency of industrial animal production is an illusion, made possible by cheap grain, cheap water and prisonlike confinement systems.

In short, animal husbandry has been turned into animal abuse. Manure — traditionally a source of fertilizer — has been turned into toxic waste that fouls the air and adjacent water bodies. Crowding creates health problems, resulting in the chronic overuse of antibiotics.

And, because the modest profits in confinement operations require the lowest possible labor costs, including automated feeding, watering and manure-handling systems, these operations have helped empty and impoverish rural America.

The Pew report recommends new laws regulating pollution from industrial farms as rigorously as pollution from other industries, a phasing-out of confinement systems that restricts “natural movement and normal behavior,” a ban on antibiotics used only to promote animal growth and the application of antitrust laws to encourage more competition and less concentration.

These are all useful guideposts for the next Congress and a new administration.