Friday, June 25, 2010

The Myth of Containment

The blog post was written by Watershed Media board member Diana Donlon.

In the mid-1980s when I was studying history in college, “containment” - as in stopping the spread of communism - was a ubiquitous topic. The threat of communism has long-since waned, but the theme of containment has resurfaced albeit in a different, but tragically visceral guise. The ongoing calamity in the Gulf is quite literally a failure of containment. BP gambled with a risky technology. The government was sloppy in its due diligence. And both otherwise powerful entities have proved to be virtually powerless to stop the hell they’ve unleashed. Late last month Bob Herbert of the New York Times likened “the oil gushing furiously from the bowels of earth” to “a warning from Hades.”

There are instructive parallels between the uncontained oil catastrophe and genetically engineered technology. Like the oil companies, the bio-technology companies pushing genetic engineering (GE) are gambling with the fundamental integrity of our ecosystems. Bio-tech gambling, however, is taking place at the molecular level largely out of public view and mostly without our knowledge or consent.

On April 27, 2010 the Supreme Court heard its first ever case addressing genetic engineering -- Monsanto v. Geertson Seed Farms. Monsanto was appealing a Federal court decision that USDA failed to abide by environmental protection laws when it approved “Roundup Ready Alfalfa” for commercial sale. Roundup Ready Alfalfa (RRA) has been genetically altered to be resistant to glyphosate the active ingredient in Monsanto’s flagship Roundup herbicide. The justices’ decision on the case was announced on Monday (June 21). In a 7- to-1 decision, with Justice John Paul Stevens dissenting, the Supreme Court ruled that the lower court judge had gone too far in imposing a national ban on RRA. Both sides immediately started claiming victory. But, before we consider the implications of the high court’s decision, let’s back up a moment and ask why we should care about a seemingly obscure legal case in the first place?

Hay is the third largest crop grown in the United States. And, in this country the primary hay crop is alfalfa. Most alfalfa is fed to dairy cows. Dairy cows produce dairy products including milk.

In 2007 the Federal court held that the USDA had failed to abide by environmental protection laws when it approved RRA for commercial sale. Citing its potential to contaminate organic and conventional crops, the court halted any further planting and sale of Monsanto’s RRA. The Federal court granted an injunction banning all plantings of the GE alfalfa until USDA fully complied with environmental laws and rigorously assessed the crops’ impacts. Monsanto already controls corn and soy, the two largest crops, and would like to add alfalfa to its impressive roster. Unsatisfied with Federal court ruling the company took the case to the Supreme Court.

During the oral argument on April 27, Justice Scalia stated that, “This isn’t the contamination of the New York City water supply. It really isn’t.” With all due respect to Justice Scalia, it isn’t, but he was close. It could be the potential, irreversible, genetic contamination of the food supply.

Some question how a Roundup Ready Alfalfa plant could contaminate a conventional or an organic plant. The answer is pollination. Alfalfa is an open-pollinated crop. Bees, wind, and other pollinators can carry pollen at a distance of several miles from the genetically engineered Roundup Ready plants and cross-pollinate the non-Roundup Ready Alfalfa plants. Pollination has the potential to wreak havoc by spreading patented, foreign DNA that is proprietary to Monsanto. And, like BP and its infamous Deepwater Horizon well, the Monsanto Corporation and the government will be utterly powerless to contain the damage it unleashes on the commons.

In Greek mythology Zeus was angry with Man because, with the help of Prometheus, Man had stolen fire from the gods. Zeus planned his revenge on the mortals by giving Pandora a box or a jar. He told her that the box contained ‘special gifts’ but that she must never, under any circumstances, open it. One day Pandora’s curiosity got the best of her and she lifted the lid slightly. Out flew disease, despair, hunger, poverty, war, sickness, death, old age, greed and violence. Frightened by what she saw, Pandora tried desperately to close the vessel but, her efforts were in vain and only hope remained. Like a big, bad oil slick, the evils oozed all over the earth and have plagued us ever since.

At first glance it looks like Monsanto has won, but the decision isn’t so black and white. The Supreme Court did not make a decision on the safety of RRA and left the lower court ban in place. In sum, the ban on planting Roundup Ready Alfalfa still stands. The lid is still on the jar. If we have learned to stop gambling with too-big-to-fail technologies that once unleashed cannot be contained, we will keep it firmly in place.

Diana Donlon is a philanthropic consultant to foundations in the Bay Area. Her area of specialty is the food system.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Republican Senators Take Aim at Small Farmers, Urban Consumers, and Locavores

In late April, a trio of Republican senators––John McCain (AZ), Saxby Chambliss (GA), and Pat Roberts (KS)––wrote an angry letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, debunking a recent USDA program called “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” This initiative distributes grant money and loans with the goal of strengthening local food chains and linking consumers with farmers.

The Senators accuse USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan of diverting urgently needed funds from rural communities in favor of: 1) “specialty crops” (the government’s term for fruits, nuts, and vegetables, of which the USDA recommends each of us eat at least five servings a day); and 2) small growers and organic farmers (who the Senators stereotype as hobby producers “whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets.”)

They conclude that

“American families and rural farmers are hurting in today’s economy, and it’s unclear to us how propping up the urban locavore markets addresses their needs. Given our nation’s crippling budgetary crisis, we also believe the federal government cannot afford to spend precious rural development funds on feel-good measures which are completely detached from the realities of production agriculture.”

The not so subtle subtext of this letter is that to be a “real” farmer, you must be engaged in “production agriculture.” One can only assume this means corn, cotton, wheat, rice, and soybean production—the five primary commodity crops grown across hundreds of millions of acres in factory fields, propped up by the lion’s share of $15-plus billion in yearly USDA farm bill payments. In their view, the small producers benefitting from the Know Your Farmer program are not just do-gooders raising organic heirlooms for elite urbanites. They’re sucking away subsidies that should be going to the nation’s real farmers. Never mind that there are now more than 5,000 farmers markets across the country; or that an average of 10 million Americans shop at one on any given Saturday during the harvest season; or that farming organically is extremely hard and valuable work.

Here’s the bottom line. The Know Your Farmer program has spent a reported $65 million total so far with plans to invest another up to another $1 billion in loans from the stimulus program. This is peanuts compared with the $60-plus billion in USDA commodity subsidies that production growers presently receive over a five-year period.

Since Senator Chambliss is the ranking minority member of the Agriculture Committee, he and his fellow scribes must be aware that the U.S. is now considering paying Brazilian cotton growers $147.3 million this year because of former production agriculture subsidies that were in violation of World Trade Organization rules. You read that right––Brazilian farmers. The Wall Street Journal recently decried this as madness.

Such divisive political framing sets clear distinctions for how we talk about farmers, food, and our agriculture and nutrition policy. It might also backfire by fueling the fires of public opinion that have been rallying around healthy food production and raging against USDA subsidy programs. It is obvious to an increasing number of citizens and legislators that these programs:

1) divert billions of dollars to commodity agribusinesses whether they have actually suffered losses or not, whether they grow crops or not, with few funding caps, and few social or environmental mandates that would provide a public benefit to taxpayers in return;

2) support industrial crops that are more suited for animal feed, processed foods, and biofuels rather than a healthy, diverse diet;

3) flood the market with cheap, processed ingredients that contribute to a growing crisis of obesity and other diet-related epidemics.

Are these the feel-good measures McCain, Chambliss, and Roberts want us to get excited about?

Instead, they single out a long-overdue and modest attempt to repair links in broken local food chains and educate the public about the importance of knowing your farmer and where your food comes from. Revitalizing local food production can impact the every day lives of citizens––Food Stamp recipients, for example, who can use their Electronic Benefits Transfer cards to buy organic produce at farmers markets; or public school kids that enjoy fruits and vegetables grown by productive farmers in their areas; or small livestock producers that can now process their pasture raised meats with the aid of mobile slaughtering units.

Why don’t the Senators want us to know our farmers or care about where our food comes from? Maybe it’s because they are clinging to the decades-old “Get Big or Get Out” story line that defines how the majority of the country’s food is presently produced. This is the tragic story of 50 years of USDA policies that swept millions of family farmers from the American landscape and gave agribusiness the unimaginable powers they wield today over our entire food system.

Knowing your farmer and knowing your food will become the primary story of the next fifty years of food production. It is the story of saving local agriculture and local farmers before they disappear altogether. In saving regional food production, we become healthier, more engaged, more secure citizens. With quite a bit of leadership, and a comparatively miniscule budget, Vilsack and Merrigan are actually trying to restore relationships and rewrite the stories of decentralized modern farming.

If Senators McCain, Chambliss, and Roberts cared about the health and vitality of rural communities they might be better served to embrace the inevitable rediversification of the food supply. It certainly deserves its fair share—and then some.

Other Links:

Environmental Working Group Farm Subsidy Database

USDA Know Your Farmer Know Your Food Program

Farm Report