When to be grateful for an oligarchy—Or, why the Ag Committee chairs writing the Farm Bill now without a normal democratic process is likely better for public health

Rumor has it the next Farm Bill (minus a few titles) will be completed by the Ag Committee Chairs and handed to the “Super Committee” as early as today. The blogosphere has been atwitter with concern over this undemocratic process and there is a bipartisan effort in Congress to demand the Farm Bill be written through the more usual process—i.e. hearings on Capitol Hill and in the field, numerous briefings by interests groups, many meetings with advocates and Hill staff, etc., all taking place over months and months with the resulting bill being a true representation of the full populace’s input. Read More >

Countdown to the Farm Bill: Count Fast or You Might Miss It

Fasten Your Farm Bill Seatbelts

Normally, passing the Farm Bill takes at least a year and involves a great deal of input from interest groups of all stripes. That process allows air-time for the voices fighting for healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable food systems. This time around, however, the process may happen entirely behind closed doors—and at breakneck speed.

You may be asking yourself: How can this process be so undemocratic?

Let’s look at what the House and Senate Agriculture Committees are doing at this very moment. The leadership of the two committees is drafting their own version of the Bill, reportedly with little or no input from other committee members, and will make recommendations to the Super Committee in the next few days. The Super Committee can then do whatever they want with the recommendations: ignore them, change them, or adopt them. Any debate will happen in secret. Read More >

Nutrition Programs: How Many Spending Cuts Can We Afford?

U.S. National Archives | 1941

In the midst of economic instability, it’s become clear that funding for major federal programs will be subject to cuts, and nutrition programs are no exception. Perhaps cuts are unavoidable, but it is essential that we examine their potential impact on public health.

According to a recent USDA Economic Research Service report, more than 50 million Americans, including 17 million children, were food insecure in 2009, meaning they were uncertain of having enough food or unable to acquire enough food for their household members. Food insecurity and hunger can have far-reaching consequences—numerous studies suggest that children in food-insecure households have higher risks of health and development problems than children in otherwise similar food-secure households. Any changes to these nutrition programs must not undermine the safety net they provide for millions of Americans. Read More >

Food and Farm Policy: this is not the image and style that you’re used to

HFHP Summit 2011

HFHP Summit 2011

Recently, my boyfriend offered to give me a dollar for every blog I started with, “Stop what you’re doing, ’cause I’m about to ruin the image and the style that you’re used to.” I responded to his idea with a barrage of reasons why it was ridiculous and certainly not appropriate in my line of work to write blogs citing The Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance.” On second thought, however, those 18 words are an oddly apropos summary of the overarching goals of the Healthy Farms, Healthy People (HFHP) Summit, recently held in Arlington, VA, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and hosted by Public Health Institute. The Center for a Livable Future was a co-organizer of the Summit-along with American Farmland Trust, California Food and Justice Coalition, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and Public Health Law and Policy-which brought together interests from conventional and sustainable agriculture with public health professionals, physicians and health insurers to discuss potential shared issue-areas in food and agriculture policy. The goals of the Summit were to: Read More >

Jackson touts 50-year plan to ‘perennialize’ landscape

pasa-logoThe Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture was celebrating its 20th annual conference Feb. 2-5, but it seems that keynote speaker Wes Jackson wasn’t there to celebrate. Instead, he was on a mission to gather allies for his proposal of a 50-year farm bill, which could supplement the “five-year” farm bills that the U.S. Congress has been passing since the 1930s.

“I’m tired of kicking the 100-foot sponge,” he blared, in explaining his feelings of futility surrounding those short-term farm bills. “What we want is a 50-year farm bill that would use the five-year farm bills as mileposts toward progressively perennializing the landscape.”

Jackson also gave a keynote address at PASA’s first conference in 1992. The event has grown from 500-plus attendees in that first year to 2,000-plus in recent years. In addition to his keynote this year, Jackson also led a workshop entitled “The Necessity for a 50-Year Farm Bill.”

He would like to see the federal government get behind the idea of transforming U.S. agriculture – over the next 50 years – from 80 percent annual crops and 20 percent perennials to an 80:20 ratio that favors perennials. Grains are a vital part of any agricultural sustainability plan because they supply 70 percent of the calories we eat.

This ambitious policy proposal dovetails well with the work that Jackson has been doing at the Land Institute since he founded it in 1976. His mission there has been to reinvent agriculture by replacing annual monoculture grains with perennial polycultures, using the prairie as his guide.

Wes Jackson shows off perennial Kernza, a wheatgrass developed at his Land Institute.

Wes Jackson shows off perennial Kernza, a wheatgrass developed at his Land Institute.

He says we must solve the “10,000-year-old problem of agriculture,” first by acknowledging that it is inherently unsustainable to plow up the land each year. Jackson also noted that while no-till and minimum-till agriculture have had success in curbing soil erosion, their downfall is that they are allowing lots of excess nitrogen to enter waterways, contributing to aquatic dead zones all over the world. The culprit there is annual crops that can’t absorb enough of the nitrogen fertilizer being applied to them.

“Annual systems leak! Those wimpy roots can’t do it!” he exclaimed. “So, consequently we have dead zones. The dead zone didn’t get smaller with minimum till/no-till, it got bigger.”

Jackson showed a satellite image of cropland in the heart of corn and soy country in the U.S. Midwest. The image was taken in early April, when much of that land is bare – just when the spring rains are due.

“That’s the land of the tall-grass prairie,” he opined. “That’s the land that’s providing 70 percent of the calories [that Americans eat]. That’s the land that’s providing the grain for the feedlots. That’s the land that’s providing the grain for the ethanol …”

And the kicker: “That’s the land that has very serious soil erosion … Five-year farm bills don’t speak to that.”

Jackson’s good humor and affability helped him walk a tightrope in addressing a sustainable agriculture audience he called “our natural constituency” for the 50-year farm bill concept. He had both praise for the accomplishments of the movement and criticism about its current state.

“I hate to say this to this group. You’ll probably shoot me,” he began. After a pregnant pause, he offered: “We’re overly concerned about food. Michelle [Obama]’s got a garden. It’s a nice garden. It’s organic. It’s beautiful. We got a Slow Food movement. We got everything that oughta be cookin’. What’s wrong? Because it involves gardens, and organic, and local; meanwhile, the calories feeding us are coming from land that is going downhill fast – literally.”

Jackson gave credit to sustainable farmers for what they’re doing on a small scale, but he harped on the fact that the movement must expand its focus.

“In terms of saving the soil resource and reducing chemical contamination, most of the sustainable has to do with you folks as a ragtag of people who got the story straight. But, you’re small in number, and the kinds of crops you’re growing don’t address that [erosion] problem in Iowa and Illinois, and other places,” he said. Read More >

Again Ethanol and Food are in Conflict

Once again the conflict between the use of corn for ethanol production and the amount of corn available for consumption by swine, beef, dairy and poultry has come into conflict.

Corn prices have increased an astounding 85% in 6 months.

There simply is not enough corn to go around, and thus the price of corn increases RusBankNet. When corn prices rise, prices of other grains also rise. Wheat, rice, even barley rise.And surprise, surprise, the price of  processed food rises.  Why is this?

First, one has to look into the dark world of agricultural economics. Corn, in many ways similar to oil, is a world-wide commodity. Many countries produce corn (for example, China grows more corn than the United States, but has a lot more people to feed). But only a few countries have enough left over to sell on the world markets. Argentina along with the United States are the main exporting countries. And when the corn crop declines in other consuming countries such as China or Mexico, they buy more corn on the open market. And as these countries move “up the food chain” to consume more red meat, pork, dairy and  poultry, they need more corn. So they buy corn from those few countries that have some to spare. But with several countries bidding for corn and a limited supply, the price goes up. It is an “inelastic” situation.  If corn is not available, wheat will do nicely, so will sorghum, etc. So these grains become more valuable. And “wala” food prices rise. Most affected are foods that rely on corn, such as pork, beef, chickens and eggs. But bread soon follows. and this brings food riots. Even the recent uprising in Egypt is being blamed in part on rapidly increasing food prices (I feel this is a stretch,but do not claim to be well-informed in such matters). Even the price of tamales goes up in Mexico. Sure they use white corn, but white corn is also good pig feed so it is bidding against our yellow corn.

Ethanol plays a central role in this fray. Processing a bushel of corn gives about 2.8 gallons of ethanol (less if one converts the energy in ethanol to a gallon of gasoline). The government in its wisdom has mandated that we must use about 12 billion gallons of ethanol by next year. That translates to a lot of corn, about 25% of all the corn grown in the United States. In Iowa, by far the largest ethanol producing state in the nation, about half the corn goes to ethanol. So when supply goes down while demand goes up, the market “bids” for corn. They buy corn from other uses by paying a higher price, and the higher price encourages farmers to plant more corn next year. More grassland and highly erodible land go into cultivation. This increases erosion and water pollution, and turns the countryside even more into a row crop desert.

It seems pretty clear that changing climate is impacting the discussion. This past year, corn production dropped in the United States by about 9%, a huge decline. Bad weather in other parts of the world have cut down on grain production as well. In the meantime, demand for meats and  for foods made from corn continues to increase.

The struggle between the farm state politicians who push for ethanol from corn (and they must or they are summarily dismissed by the farm block supporters such as Farm Bureau and National Corn Growers) and the rest of the country who are being pressured by food wholesale and retail interests, as well as by swine and poultry growers). It is all part of the farm bill, no matter how altruistic the discussion may be.

I have said for years that ethanol policy was really corn policy. Its objective was to assure a demand for corn and a stable high price. Well it worked. Now we have the unintended consequences. At least for the next few months higher prices for many food staples will increase. And to hear some say it, corn based ethanol is to blame. I tend to agree, but as you can see, it is not simple. But then nothing in the convoluted world of farm policy is.

A 50-Year Farm Bill?

The Washington Post’s Jane Black wrote a great Q & A piece in today’s paper with Farmer-Writer-Academic Wendell Berry; Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute,; and Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center fellow and president of the Stone Barns Center. The three had traveled to DC to promote an ambitious proposal to legislators for a new form of food policy in the shape of a 50-year farm bill.

“The plan asks for $50 million annually for plant breeding and genetics research,” and “puts forward a new vision of agriculture, one that values not only yields but also local ecosystems, healthy food and rural communities,” writes Black in the piece, “3 Wise Men, Planting Ideas Where It Counts.”

Says Jackson of the 50-year farm bill: “The idea begins with acknowledging that nature covers much of the land with perennials, and agriculture reversed that thousands of years ago. In our modern times, we’ve offset the consequences with management techniques and fossil fuels that are nonrenewable and contribute to greenhouse gases.”

Black asks Kirschenmann about the approach of using Genetically Modified Plants (GMOs) to feed a growing population. “If you think about it, that approach really isn’t working here,” he notes. “If it weren’t for subsidies, farmers wouldn’t be able to buy the technologies that are supposed to save us. How are African farmers going to afford the technologies?”

Could inside-the-beltway thinking grasp something in a 50-year interval? Both Jackson and Kirschenmann believe so, citing Washington’s apparent ability to tackle long-range issues like climate change and population growth. “They have to extend the horizon. So we think the time is right to add agriculture to that.”

Demand for Organic Food Continues to Outgrow Supply

Now is the time to grow organic.  According to a new report released by the USDA, the demand for organically produced food continues to outpace supply.   Organic food sales have increased more than five-fold since the late 1990s, while organic production has slightly more than doubled in that time.

Organic food accounted for three percent of total U.S. food sales in 2008.  Organic produce and dairy products were popular items, accounting for over half of total organic sales.  Organic grain also remains in particularly high demand, representing a major bottleneck for use as feed in the organic livestock sector.

Read More >