Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vote Yes on Prop 37 by Daniel Imhoff and Michael Dimock

In America we hold a consumer’s power of choice at the checkout line nearly as sacred as that of a voter at the ballot box. This November, California voters will be asked to protect the right of food buyers to make informed purchases. Vote Yes on Prop 37.
Passing Proposition 37 could change the future of food in this country. The initiative is rooted in a simple premise: Consumers have the right to know if their food is produced using genetic engineering, which manipulates DNA or transfers it from one organism to another.  Any plant or animal food product with genes that have been engineered would be so labeled. This isn’t a radical new idea. It’s been standard practice in all member countries of the European Union for years. The latest published research shows that 61 countries have some form of mandatory labeling for foods containing genetically modified crop ingredients.
The companies that sell genetically modified seeds and manufactured foods argue that American consumers don’t need such detailed labels. They say, “Just trust us.”
That is a lot to ask. Product labels are the front line of consumer protection. Research and development on genetically engineered products (also known as genetically modified organisms, or GMOs) are largely done by private-sector, not public-sector, scientists because companies very aggressively protect their patents. According to the Center for Food Safety, as of January 2010, Monsanto had filed 136 lawsuits against farmers for alleged violations of its technology agreement and/or its patents on genetically engineered seeds. These cases have involved 400 farmers and 53 small-farm businesses. The level of secrecy and the combative nature of the industry fuels public distrust.
Unfortunately, consumers cannot look to the federal government to increase their trust. The Food and Drug Administration does not require labeling of GMO products.   Many people fear that some government officials in positions that make policy on genetically engineered products may hold biases born of their previous jobs with GMO seed companies.
Distrust is amplified by questions over who really benefits from GMO foods. One beneficiary is the herbicide industry.  Corn and soybeans are implanted with herbicide-resistant genes so that when fields are sprayed, the weeds die and modified crops survive. Yet, credible studies show unintended consequences. Some crop yields have leveled off and now farmers face “super weeds” that require escalating the use of toxic herbicides. Many of the same corporations that own GMO crop patents are also in the herbicide business.
Another concern is the skyrocketing price of seed for farmers. According to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, between 1995 and 2011, the average per acre cost of soy and corn seed rose 325% and 259%, respectively. These are the same years in which GMO soy and corn went from less than 20% of the total annual crop to more than 80% for corn and 90% for soy.
Finally, GMO products on the market offer American consumers no clear benefits. Not one introduced genetic trait makes a food product healthier, tastier or longer lasting. With the exception of one research plot kept far from the center of production, rice farmers in California have refused to support introduction of GMO rice because their buyers in Japan have banned its import.
Some critics will no doubt see GMO labeling as another “nanny state” law and argue that revising labels will add costs.  But Proposition 37 simply requires basic transparency and truthful packaging, and companies have 18 months to implement it. And it protects the consumers’ right to know in a product category central to health. As we saw in the multi-billion tobacco case settlement in 1998, companies cannot always be trusted to put health before profit.   Corporate executives face the need to maximize shareholder wealth. That need often trumps other concerns. In light of such history and with the vitriolic battles among scientists still debating the risks of this relatively new technology, labeling GMO foods allows shoppers to make informed choices about the level of risk they are willing to assume.
Proposition 37 supporters are now waging a David versus Goliath battle. Supporters have raised just over $4 million thus far, much of it from small natural food companies like Organic Valley, Lundberg Family Farms, Nature’s Path Foods and Amy’s Kitchen. Opponents of the initiative have raised $34.5 million, nearly half from Monsanto, DuPont, Dow Agrosciences and Bayer CropScience, corporations that own most of the GMO seed patents.
Voters may not realize the broader significance of this battle. With a $2-trillion economy and 38 million residents — nearly 12% of the U.S. population — the California market is impossible to isolate. In 2008, many out-of-state agribusinesses financed opposition to the state’s Proposition 2, which banned cruel livestock confinement techniques such as tiny pens for laying hens and crates that trap breeding sows for life. Nearly two-thirds of the state’s voters supported more humane standards, and that law has created a ripple effect across the nation.
On Nov. 6, California has the chance to reassert a basic consumer right that has been lost in grocery store aisles: the right to know exactly what you’re buying. After all, if there are no health or environmental disadvantages to genetically modified foods, what do their proponents have to fear in labeling?

This piece originally appeared in the October 11, 2012 LA Times
Daniel Imhoff is the author of "Food Fight: The Citizen's Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill." Michael R. Dimock is president of Roots of Change and chairman emeritus of Slow Food USA.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The House Farm Bill is a Not So Funny Joke

If you thought the Senate’s 2012 Farm Bill had its shortcomings, wait till you see the House Agriculture Committee’s version passed this week. Most people predicted it would take aim at the SNAP program (food stamps), continue subsidizing commodity mega-farms, and make a deep reduction in conservation supports. It does all of this and a whole lot more.

  •  $16.5 billion cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program;
  •   no limits on how much a subsidy recipient can get in a single year;
  •   no basic conservation requirements in return for crop insurance subsidies;
  • $6 billion cuts to conservation programs.

The House draft is known as the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act of 2012. But there is little reform to be found within its commodity programs that will largely shape farming practices, land stewardship, and public health and well-being over the next five to ten years.

The draft bill’s failure to reform income eligibility rules means the biggest operations will continue to receive the lion’s share of all subsidies, which they can use to expand and squeeze out smaller and medium sized farms. Without basic conservation requirements in place, operators have the economic incentive to plow up even the most marginal grounds because the government “safety net” will ensure they turn a profit. The likely and unwelcome result will be the loss of critical habitat and soil protection, and a reversal of conservation gains made over the past three decades.

Instead, this bill’s reforms are designed to roll back regulations and policies that protect the public, small farmers, and rural residents from potential harms of industrial agribusiness. If passed as written, a series of riders and provisions in the House Farm Bill would:

• gut rules that protect water quality and wildlife from agricultural pesticides;
• exempt GMO crops from proper environmental reviews and federal oversight;
• block states from establishing their own standards around food production and food safety;
• eliminate fair competition and contract reforms for livestock producers passed in the 2008 Farm Bill.

The only silver lining is that the House leadership has yet to set a time frame for this disastrous draft bill to be debated by its full membership. Amendments can and are being written to bring the bill back in line with the needs of the country. Now is the time to reach out to your representatives and urge them to defy this agribusiness biased contract on America.

It is anyone’s guess as to how this Farm Bill cycle will move ahead. Will a one-year extension of the 2008 Farm Bill be passed until a bill can be agreed upon later? Will the Senate and House Agriculture committees go straight to the conference process to avoid a messy debate and vote on the floor of the House? Will automatic cuts to the USDA budget be assessed in 2012 through the sequestration process agreed to earlier this year (which prohibits decreases in SNAP and Conservation Reserve Program funding)? These are just a few potential scenarios.

As concerned citizens the best thing we can do is to stay in touch with groups that are working for change on this issue, be prepared to make calls and in person meetings with your representatives, and bring your vote to the table.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

PINK SLIME by Becky Weed

I am a farmer/I am a citizen, and this is what ‘we’ are being told:

We must raise or at least finish our animals in cages and feedlots because it is ‘more efficient’.

Even our animals that start on pasture must end in feedlots, because they ‘finish more quickly’.

We must feed heavy grain diets to ruminants evolved to live on grass, inducing low-grade illness and the practice of feeding subtherapeutic antibiotics --- because that ‘enhances growth rates’.

We cannot quit subtherapeutic feeding of antibiotics because it would be too expensive.

We must implant growth hormones to make our animals grow faster because that is most ‘profitable’.

We can extend the output of such feedlots by scavenging the meaty bits admixed with pathogen-prone fatty exteriors, and disinfecting the resultant ‘pink slime’ with ammonia gas. We must serve this augmented ‘hamburger’ to our populace, unlabeled, because it ‘adds value’.

We must spray chemicals on our fruits, vegetable, grains, and into our soils, because it is ‘cleaner’.

We must work, or hire others to work, in conditions that affluent Americans shun for themselves or their children.

We must burn up the carbon in our once-organic-rich soils in order to maximize production with ‘modern’ farming. We must displace food production with ethanol production because it ‘conserves’ carbon-based fuels.

We must purchase crop insurance via government programs rather than building our own crop insurance by building our soils and our crop diversity.

We must grow crops with diminished nutrients because modern, high-yielding Wonder Bread varieties are ‘best’.

We must feed the food derived from such management to our children.

We must plant only a few crops for fuel and livestock feed on such a vast portion of our continent that we disrupt the natural migrations of birds, mammals, pollinators, and water, because it is more ‘efficient’.

We must kill even our most iconic and remnant species, such as buffalo, because their vestigial grasslands interfere with our ‘system’.

We must degrade our waterways, air and soil with the effluent of modern agriculture, because it is most ‘efficient’.

We must purchase and plant the output of centralized biotechnology companies, because that is more ‘efficient’ than following a farmer’s curiosity, drive and wherewithal to breed seed suited to our local landscapes and cultures.

We should be grateful for the plentiful food thus produced, even if we observe increasing obesity diabetes, and malnutrition even among the ‘well-fed’.

We must be grateful for this ‘cheap’ food.

We must endorse these mandates of modern agriculture, while asserting that we are salt of the earth, and that we deserve to maintain our ‘way of life’ even as our food system degrades everyone else’s

If we choose to reject these mandates of ‘modern’ agriculture and farm differently, eat differently, vote differently, then we are quaint, callous, elitist and irrelevant.

We must feed the world, now seven billion, soon nine, then twelve, then what?

I am a farmer/ I am a citizen, and ‘we’ are telling us:

We are indeed grateful for the abundance, ingenuity and hard work that has brought us all much good food and good fortune, and it is time we take stock. How many compromises equal ‘modern’?

It is not our job to fill the Petri dish to bursting point.

The earth is our matrix and regulator. Neither trade associations, nor insurance companies, nor governments, nor universities, nor corporations, nor stock markets, nor our neighbors will superceed its natural systems’ ultimate grasp.

Perhaps some of us are too different to fit the rhythm of modern agriculture---too small, too poor, too new, too foreign, too female, too contrary, too dry, too wet, too close to the land?

Perhaps it is our job to lead the colony to pause, to feed our hearts and our brains, not just our bellies and our banks.

Efficient? Cheap? Robust? Equitable? Durable?

Farmers, of all people, could be the most qualified to recognize and explain that the current practices and trajectories take us to a place we cannot afford, and that we can scarcely want. That is, if we would speak our minds.

Pink slime is only the most recent manifestation, at the output end, of a more deep-seated, long-brewing slurry at the heart of American agriculture. This critique of the half-century-old corn-soybean-feedlot-dominated regime of American agriculture is not an attack on farmers, but is rather a plea to farmers, to awaken to our own complicity in, and our own power to change, the very system that we have allowed to compromise our values, our status, our land, and our futures. Pervasive propaganda notwithstanding, it does not have to be this way, because it cannot continue to be this way.

Have we entered Alice’s rabbit hole, where governors defend pink-slime manufacture for its job creation, even as the numbers of farmers, ranchers and cows continue to dwindle; where Farm Bureau policies perpetuate the dominance of a continental corn desert, even as their roadside posters invoke bucolic red barns and ranchers with calves-in-their-arms; where Monsanto patents life forms and prosecutes farmers, even as it bankrolls a $30 million dollar PR campaign to resurrect agriculture’s sullied reputation?

We have watched and sometimes profited in recent decades as the complex maze of subsidies, lobbies, markets, revolving doors and ignorance have rendered our legislative, executive and judicial branches impotent to find a path out. Consumers are trying to peer down the rabbit hole; scientists are tweaking the dials and reporting some news, but farmers, especially farmers, can and must blast open the portals and reclaim.

Becky Weed is co-owner of Thirteen Mile Farm in southwest Montana. Thirteen Mile runs a small wool mill and is currently revising its long-term sheep operation, collaborating with a young farmer to add vegetables to its lamb and wool marketing. Weed has worked on her own place and with others to raise livestock while coexisting with native carnivores.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Four Ways the Farm Bill Makes Me Crazy

The Farm Bill is a 700-page hodgepodge of laws, regulations, guidelines and payouts covering all manner of U.S. agriculture, conservation and nutrition programs. And by the end of September, Congress is supposed to re-authorize this mess, or some variant of it, for another five-plus years.

A rational, coherent blueprint for a healthy national food supply might be too much to ask. But after years of studying the Farm Bill, I'd be thrilled to see a dent made in four of its most glaring conflicts of purpose.

1. Don't subsidize what you don't want people to eat.

In broad strokes, the Farm Bill generally has three primary thrusts: 1. Nutrition spending like SNAP (formerly called food stamps), emergency food assistance, and school feeding programs; 2. Subsidies for commodity crops and income support for farmers; 3. Land, soil and ecosystem conservation. These first two are like trains on separate tracks running in completely different directions. (Come to think of it, so are the second and third. They will be addressed below.)

In early 2011, the USDA replaced its Food Pyramid with My Plate, a simple graphic representation of the food groups recommended. My Plate's message is clear: A healthy plate should be at least half full of fruits and vegetables and another 30 percent should comprise whole grains. The last 20 percent of the plate is reserved for proteins. A serving of low-fat milk or yogurt rounds off the serving recommendations.

If there were a matching USDA Subsidy Plate, however, its message would be: Fill your plate with meat and processed foods. Nearly two-thirds of the corn, over half of the soybeans, a great deal of the cottonseed and cottonseed meal, and even some of the wheat produced in the U.S. are fed to livestock. The remainder of the corn and soybeans are either processed into biofuel or industrial food ingredients. And these are the crops the Farm Bill primarily subsidizes. Fruits, vegetables and nuts--the very items the USDA wants us to eat most of--are known as "specialty crops" and currently receive only a small fraction of farm subsidies despite their high nutritional values. Well over 60 percent of commodity subsidies flow to crops fed to animals.

It's the industrial beef, hog, chicken and dairy operations that win out; subsidies mean they get cheap feed. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the meat, egg and dairy sectors were the beneficiaries of the majority of the $246 billion in subsidies given to U.S. food producers between 1996 and 2009.

2. Don't pay polluters.

Massive dairies, hog and poultry factories and other livestock feedlots house thousands (often tens or even hundreds of thousands) of animals. Some produce as much waste as the sewage system of a small city. The difference is that animal feeding operations don't install municipal waste treatment plants to clean up their messes.

And yet this type of food production has been supported for a decade by a Farm Bill program called the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. EQIP, as it's called, must spend 60 percent of its budget on livestock producers, many of whom are the worst, environmentally speaking. And what are they spending that money on? Manure lagoons and waste trafficking.

EQIP started as a conservation program, meant to help small livestock producers keep animal waste out of creeks and waterways. But now, thanks to lobbying, the massive animal farms can be reimbursed for up to 75 percent (capped at $300,000 per owner) of their costs for animal waste storage and hauling and compliance with laws like the Clean Water Act. Should we have to pay livestock operators to comply with basic laws? Should our tax dollars build the infrastructure for massive meat, egg, and dairy factories?

Meanwhile, EQIP funds to organic farming projects are capped at $20,000 a year per operator.

3. Don't subsidize overplanting.

Nothing in the Farm Bill--nothing--continues to be more counterproductive than the complete disconnect between commodity crop subsidies and conservation programs. On the one hand, subsidies encourage farmers to plant in every inch of soil, crop insurance programs eliminate farmers' economic risks, and disaster bailouts encourage plowing even on marginal lands in areas prone to flooding and drought. On the other hand, the U.S. Department of Agriculture directs less than 7 percent of its overall spending toward conservation, much of that to right past wrongs and to clean up problems stemming from over-farming.

Consider, for example, that even as 1.7 million acres were enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program in South Dakota between 1985 and 1995, more than 700,000 acres of grassland were converted to crops--primarily corn and soybeans (already in excess supply). This absurd process only accelerated during the last Farm Bill, as even grasslands used for hay and pasture were transformed into corn fields. Such a dichotomy makes Farm Bill conservation programs seem more like a distraction than a coordinated national stewardship strategy.

In the case of the Wetlands Reserve Program--arguably the Farm Bill's most successful conservation effort to date--only wetlands previously impacted by agricultural development are eligible for funding; you can't use the money to save pristine ecosystems (unless they're attached to land damaged by farming or ranching).

4. Don't farm corn for fuel.

The drums are finally beating against ethanol subsidies and tax breaks that suck up $7 billion per year in tax dollars. It's about time. For years Congress has mandated that gas be blended with ethanol to push our fuel supply further. And yet, we're practically spinning our wheels backwards. It takes about two-thirds of a gallon of petroleum products to sow, fertilize, irrigate, harvest and process a gallon of corn ethanol. That's minimally cutting our dependence on foreign oil.

In fact, in 2010 a full 36 percent of the U.S. corn crop was turned into ethanol. That only displaced about 8 percent of what we put in our gas tanks. Americans could save that much gas with a 1.1 mpg increase in the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks. Here's a kicker: Ethanol-laced gas actually lowers fuel efficiency by 3 to 4 percent.

America faces numerous and complex food- and farming-related challenges in the years to come: curbing the obesity epidemic, halting the loss of habitat, stopping disease outbreaks like e. coli, bringing up the next generation of farmers and ranchers, and many more. The Farm Bill is our chance to right things that are wrong with the food system. Even small amounts of well-directed funding can do a great deal for a beginning farmer education program, habitat restoration effort, or local food project. It would help if the Farm Bill could stop fighting itself. And maybe then it can start to align along one sensible strategy: Create economically and environmentally healthy farms to grow healthy and affordable food.