This article first appeared in Civil Eats.
Three recent actions by big agribusiness companies to manipulate public opinion have me almost giddy with excitement. After years dictating the direction of the food system, agribusiness is taking a reactionary stance.
The first sign of this change comes from the world’s largest snack food company, Frito-Lay, which initiated a “Lay’s Local” campaign that features 80 “local” farmers from 27 states. Frito-Lay’s Web site has a Chip Tracker that allows interested consumers to enter their zip code and product code to find out where the potatoes came from. Although Frito-Lay can’t claim that the potatoes are locally grown, the advertising campaign hides the corporation behind the aura of U.S. farmers.
The second is the Ohio Farm Bureau Federation’s announcement of a newly formed Center for Food and Animal Issues. The Center attempts to paint feedlot operators as just another group of people who support animals, just like pet owners, hunters, supporters of zoos and local animal welfare organizations. “Ultimately, our goal is to assure that people who rely on animals, either physically, emotionally or economically, have the right to do so,” said Ohio Farm Bureau Federation executive vice president Jack Fisher. The impetus for the Center came after pork, poultry and veal housing legislation was introduced in state legislatures around the country, and last year’s passing of California’s Proposition 2, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act.
And finally, the biotech and pesticide company CropLife.com is protesting an organic garden on the White House lawn. CropLife congratulates First Lady Michelle Obama for her effort to raise food and celebrate agriculture, but takes issue with the garden being organic. Their Web site asks, “What message does that send to the non-farming public about an important and integral part of growing safe and abundant crops to feed and clothe the world—crop protection products?”
So why do I get giddy about these calculated attempts to manipulate public opinion? Because I think about the debate just ten years ago regarding our food system, and how dramatically the conversation has shifted to a positive direction. A decade ago, the hot issue in the agriculture world was genetically modified crops. And despite many legitimate concerns that were raised about health and environmental unknowns, as well as the alarming consolidation of the seed industry, genetically modified crops swept across the Midwest largely unimpeded. Opponents were portrayed as petty reactionaries oblivious to the challenge of “feeding the world.”
This was also a time of incredible devastation in rural America. Crop prices were reaching Depression-era levels, and the promises of the 1996 “Freedom to Farm” bill were nowhere to be seen. I sat through countless forums where agribusiness professionals told farmers to relax—soon the incredible buying power of China will make low crop prices a thing of the past. Unfortunately, we spent years with most commodity prices well below the cost of production, and neither China nor other parts of the world corrected the situation.
I never dreamed we could have made as much progress toward community-based food systems as we have in the past decade. “Locally grown” is the hottest food trend for 2009, so hot that a leader in the snack food industry wants to get in on the act. Ten years ago, consumers concerned about the humane treatment of animals had to work hard to find acceptable meat and poultry; now the confined livestock industry is on its heels because of California’s proposition 2, concerns about the overuse of antibiotics and continued problems with manure pollution.
Most remarkable has been the explosion in gardening and backyard livestock. CropLife’s rather lame objection to an organic garden on the White House lawn reveals the difficult position of the industry. Who can be against local organic production that is efficient, nutritious and cost-effective, while at the same time provides exercise and builds community?
By no means do I mean to diminish the challenges ahead of us. As the Frito-Lay campaign demonstrates, we need to remain vigilant to make sure that words like "organic" and "locally grown" mean what the public thinks they mean. Far too many people around the world and in the U.S. continue to suffer from hunger and diet-related diseases.
But people are no longer willing to let a component of their lives as critical as the food system rest in the control of agribusiness corporations. Today, many people are empowered to make decisions about their family’s food, and a lot of hands are getting dirty in the fresh spring soil. Instead of creating space in the corporate food system for alternative food and farming practices, agribusiness is trying to create space for itself in thriving community-based food systems. This is a welcome transition.
Forest land home to rare bird species isn't the usual image that comes to mind when we think of Iowa. But the Yellow River Forest area in northeast Iowa totals 135,000 acres of unfragmented forest. The area is part of the Driftless area, which includes northeast Iowa, southeast Minnesota and southwest Wisconsin.
It is also home to an unusually large number of threatened and endangered plant and animal species. Mississippi River tributaries like the Yellow River provide vital migration corridors for more than half of North America's bird species. Northeast Iowa is home to a number of rapidly declining bird species including the rare cerulean warbler, red-shouldered hawk and red-headed woodpecker.
Much of this important forest area is privately owned, so forest management by private landowners is critical to protecting these species. IATP's Forestry program announced today the first Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified land in Iowa: 77 acres in the Yellow River region owned by Jack Knight. FSC is an independent standards-based certification system that ensures forestry is practiced in an environmentally responsible, socially beneficial and economically viable way. In this case, FSC certification verifies that Knight's forest management protects this important bird habitat, including the ecology, soils and native vegetation.
"Forestry is often focused just on trees to produce lumber, but it is much more than that," said IATP Forestry Director Don Arnosti. "Jack's forest management is a model for what Iowa's landowners can do to protect wildlife and native plants while still growing trees for lumber."
Iowa resident and IATP Senior Fellow Dennis Keeney often reminds us that Iowa has the the most altered natural environment in the country. Jack Knight's FSC certification reminds us of what is possible.
During the past year, mainstream media coverage of major global crises—food, water, climate and economic—has focused primarily on the latter. But recently, more and more news organizations are shedding light on an issue intimately linked with all four crises: land grabbing. This largely exploitative practice wherein rich countries and corporations purchase farmland from poor countries (often without the landowners’ consent) has sparked international outrage over what is being called “new colonialism.”
IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch recently discussed land grabs at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars' event Land Grab: The Race for the World's Farmland. Visit our Trade Observatory to watch her presentation and to find out more about this alarming trend.
IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch blogs from the 17th Session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) meeting in New York.
The start of the second week of the CSD is focused on policy recommendations for agriculture, rural development, land, drought and desertification, and Africa. Governments are wrangling over the language of the text, most of which is still bracketed. Much of the contentious language in the final meeting document relates to trade and investment. As governments comb over the text, civil society organizations have come from around the world to weigh in.
First, the climate, financial and food crisis are interrelated, revealing woeful inadequacies in our current multilateral policy framework and the urgent need for reform. Countries desperately need tools to ensure that macroeconomic and trade policy will no longer undermine local and national food systems.
Second, we are no longer operating in a "business as usual" framework for understanding agriculture. Based on current crises, political will and new models for governance must emerge from the CSD and all other relevant international meetings taking place in 2009 (including the High-Level Meeting on the Financial Crisis in June, the UN Summit on the World Food Crisis in November, and the global climate talks from now through December).
At our event, we were honored to receive the Chair of the CSD-17, Gerda Verburg, Minister of Agriculture for the Netherlands. Ms. Verburg spoke about how agriculture is often seen as part of the problem and not enough as part of the solution to feed the world, to support regional and local initiatives, and to ensure that producers are in control of the investment taking place. She made these basic points:
These comments were largely welcome. However, some participants were skeptical because economic liberalization in the agricultural sector is still being put forth by so many governments at the CSD-17, which undermines the potential for a positive conclusion to these negotiations.
In today’s discussion, lead authors from the IAASTD (International Assessment on Agriculture, Science, Technology and Development), signed by 60 governments, outlined key policy options for new rules in agriculture in support of equity, women, small-holder producers, sustainability, biodiversity and food security.
Participants also reviewed the potential for a rights-based approach to policy reform. This approach would prioritize the empowerment and participation of small-holder producers and other vulnerable groups. It would recognize the inter-divisibility of rights, including those related to food, water, land, women and health. It would hold governments accountable for national obligations, but also for regulating the impacts of their trade and investment policies abroad.
To be clear on what is and what isn’t being discussed officially, there is no mention of the IAASTD in the negotiated text of the CSD-17. Some governments are not even aware that it exists. There is also no agreement on the inclusion of human rights in the text. There are few official spaces for civil society to engage with the governments. Few small-scale farmers are present to participate and to represent their views. There is so much to do. We can and must do better.
Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.
May 5, 2009
The plow is perhaps the greatest attempt to imitate the hand. The harrow drags its fingers through the soil, loosening and breaking clods. Although harrows were once nothing but a rack of sharpened sticks drawn behind an ox, they are the same in principle today, despite a change to sharper and more durable metal materials. Plows, little changed over 4,000 years of existence, have increasingly sought to hold the curve of the human hand and to imitate its trick of both pulling up and laying down.
The 18th century New York inventor Jethro Wood made arguably the finest plow. Wood was obsessed with finding the curve that would lift and turn the soil with the least resistance, making the plow easiest to draw.
He was not alone in this quest. His sometime correspondent, President Thomas Jefferson, was also in pursuit of “the mould-board of least resistance” and indeed thought that he had found it. But Jefferson designed on paper, using a grid. Jethro Wood designed on potatoes.
People who saw him walking the lanes of his hometown of Scipio, carving away on a spud, soon came to know him as “the whittling Yankee.” His plow was not a product of the Cartesian grid, but rather, was formed directly on a product of the soil.
In a letter to the Patent Office of 1819, Wood repeatedly tries to describe his mouldboard, without success. “The figure of the mouldboard… is a sort of irregular pentagon, or five-sided plane, though curved and inclined in a peculiar manner,” he said. “The peculiar curve has been compared to that of the screw auger; and it has been likened to the prow of a ship,” he added, but neither description was accurate. Finally, he gave up trying to describe it in detail: “The mouldboard, which is the result of profound reflection and of numberless experiments, is a sort of plano-curvilinear surface.”
He then went on to provide a web of measurements so obscure that the document functioned only weakly as a patent, meaning that although his design was almost universally adopted, he saw little revenue as a result.
During the course of ten days, we have put all of our potatoes in the ground. Six hundred pounds of potatoes and 11 varieties in all. I used Wood’s (not Jefferson's) mouldboard shape to test its usefulness in turning over a beautiful cover crop of hairy vetch. Aside, we have been busy with planting and the season of continuous cultivation has begun. Now until September... .
Last week, President Obama completed his first 100 days. The folks at the Institute for Policy Studies have published a new report, Thirsting for Change: Obama's First 100 Days, that provides a quick analysis of the first 100 days, assessing progress on climate change, health care and education, as well as many other domestic and international areas.
IATP President Jim Harkness and I assess the Obama administration's first steps in agriculture. With some positive signs mixed with red flags (particularly on biotechnology), we gave him a 7 (on a scale of 1-10). Read the full report to find out more.
With increasing public concern and awareness about climate change, food safety, health, immigration, and even swine flu, industrial agriculture’s grip on the American food and agriculture system is starting to loosen. Nowhere was this more evident than at the St. Anthony Main movie theater in Minneapolis on Sunday, where people filled an already packed theater—sitting on the floor and in the aisles—and where many others were turned away from the sold-out showing. For a 9:20 p.m. Sunday night time slot, I figured turnout would be minimal, and especially for Food, Inc., a documentary about the horrors of our industrial agriculture system. But instead, a rapt audience sat for 94 minutes as filmmaker Robert Kenner took us through the origins of U.S. industrial agriculture, the devastating consequences for workers, consumers, animals, and the environment, and how people are fighting back. As part of the 27th Annual Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Fest, Food, Inc. was billed as “one of the most radical” films of the festival.
With renowned writers and activists like Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin and Eric Schlosser, the film examines the illusion of choice and “diversity” in the typical American supermarket, and exposes the numerous hidden costs of our cheap food: appalling conditions in slaughterhouses—both for the animals and the exploited laborers, who are a disposable workforce composed primarily of undocumented workers (many of whom were farmers in Mexico before NAFTA drove 1.5 million Mexican farmers off their land) and people of color; destructive environmental consequences from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) run-off and pesticides; and farmers who are in such debt to corporations that they have little to no choice about how to run their farms. And while agribusiness makes a huge profit, we are the ones who pay.
At the end of the film, audience members cheered at Food, Inc.’s call for activism and list of ways to break out of industrial ag’s stranglehold. And while most of the suggestions were positive (e.g., shopping at farmers markets), many were too focused on individual behavioral changes. After a powerful systemic critique, the film could have offered more systemic solutions; much of the ending emphasized market-based solutions, when more weight could have been placed on policy-level ones. When the rules at the policy level are stacked against organic/sustainable agriculture, market-based solutions are limited.
Watch for the film to be in local movie theaters soon.
I live in Minneapolis where I have a 24-hour water supply. I take it for granted that I will have running water whenever I need it—for brushing my teeth, drinking, cooking or cleaning. I often forget what a luxury it is!
Before coming to the United States, I lived in a small town in western India called Rajkot for a few years. There, I lived in an apartment complex surrounded by a still developing concrete jungle. The apartment complex promised a regular water supply, which meant that running water was available for an hour each in the morning and in the evening. I was living by myself, and I would collect enough water in the morning hours to meet my personal needs for the day.
But for my neighboring families—with at least four to five members—it was a struggle to meet their water needs from this municipal water supply. They would often resort to water supplied through tankers from neighboring villages—never mind if those villagers were selling water to the city because it was more profitable than raising crops, or even if it was lowering the water table so much that people without mechanical pumps could no longer get enough water for their basic needs. The impact of urban water use in Rajkot on surrounding villages was clearly visible to all.
These water-poor villagers are now among the numbers often cited in United Nations global water statistics: 2.6 billion without water for basic sanitation needs and 1.1 billion without access to safe drinking water.
Now I live by the Mississippi River and our public water system provides me with excellent water at a very reasonable rate. In the U.S., the same clean water is used for washing our cars, watering our lawns and filling our backyard pools, making the average water use of a U.S. resident 151 gallons a day. Compare this with the average water use in most African countries: less than 15 gallons a day. Living in Minneapolis, the connection between my water consumption and the global water crisis is not so clear.
I realize that my daily water consumption— for drinking, cleaning, cooking and washing—is only a small part of the water I use. Most of the water I use is invisible to me—it is in the food I eat, in the soda I drink and in the clothes I wear. It is in the making of the gas I put in my car and in the generation of electricity that I use to light my home. It is also in the making of computers, cell phones and cars that I use. With the exception of my summer vegetables, most of these things are not made or grown in Minnesota and thus most of the invisible water I use is not Minnesota water. The water I use could be from California or Florida, or it may be from Australia, China or Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, public policies promote invisible water consumption at individual and societal levels. National policies on agriculture, industry and energy production often assume that water is plentiful or cheap. Water is rarely a limiting factor in setting public policy.
For example, our Farm Bill supports a dominant agriculture model of just a few primary commodity crops that are extremely water-intensive. Agricultural practices that include water stewardship, such as sustainable agriculture, are not similarly rewarded. In moving forward, it is essential that we shift public policy to acknowledge the importance of water, and break this vicious cycle in which we are trapped.
This Earth Day, I found some ideas to reduce my personal water footprint: canning and/ or freezing summer vegetables (instead of buying fresh imported vegetables next winter); reducing meat and other animal-based food items in my diet; shifting to local and/or fair-traded products that are sustainably produced; reducing the amount of processed food I buy and the food I waste; carrying a stainless steel water container; using bio-degradable and less polluting cleaning products; using public transport; and buying less. That is a start for me!
Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.
April 16, 2009
About three weeks ago I sat patiently in the greenhouse with a pair of scissors, trimming onion tops. We trim our onion tops down to four inches about two weeks prior to transplanting in the field (photo). Researchers tell me that doing so invigorates the plants for transplanting and once transplanted, they really kick into gear. On that note, here’s a bit of what I know about onions:
Onions are day-length sensitive. While the days are lengthening, the earlier they are set out, the more chance they have to make top growth. The more top growth, the greater the bulb size. After summer solstice and day length begins to shorten, their energy switches to bulb growth.
Onions contain allicin, which benefits the heart and immune functions and aids the onion plant with antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. Gardeners and small-scale farmers often use a garlic spray to help in protecting against diseases. Researchers have seen effective results in the use of liquid allicin compounds against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in hospitals—and maybe now for hog farmers. Research at Cornell University has shown that the more pungent the variety, the more cancer-fighting antioxidants it contains. Breeders are trying to develop sweeter, less pungent onions that retain the nutritional benefits.
Onions provided an important part of the diet in ancient Egypt. Seeds were found in a tomb dating from 3,200 BCE, according to Allison and Paul Wiediger in Growing for Market, Greek athletes ate pounds of onions, drank onion juice and rubbed the juice on their bodies to prepare themselves for competition.
Onions are second only to tomatoes as the world’s most economically important vegetable. In the United States they have a $4 billion annual retail value. While the average American eats 18.7 lb per year, Libyans consume almost four times as many per capita.
All in all we planted more than 10,000 onion plants. It took us approximately three full days. About 7,000 of the total are storage onions that will be used for distribution beyond the expected harvest sometime around the middle of July. We expect 10,000 onions will cover our 120-member CSA for approximately 16 weeks of our 23-week distribution season.
This weekend, the G-8 agriculture ministers are meeting in Treviso, Italy, to discuss the global food crisis. In a pre-meeting commentary, IATP's Anne Laure Constantin outlines the good, the bad and the ugly on the G-8's agenda.
Anne Laure writes, "The key players at the G-8 meeting are countries largely responsible for creating the crisis in the first place—and they are entirely unapologetic about it. G-8 countries, particularly the United States and the European Union, have pushed agriculture policies that reward short-term private profits over essential public priorities like food security, jobs and proper management of scarce natural resources. Aggressive trade liberalization polices and agreements, focused on the commercial interests of G-8-based firms, have shaped an unfair and concentrated global agriculture market."
Aside from trade, another controversial aspect of the G-8 agenda is its promotion of industrial agriculture, particularly biotechnology, as a solution to the global food crisis. Earlier this week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Vilsack discussed the need to overcome resistance to biotech in developing countries. IATP is part of the U.S. Working Group on the Food Crisis, which issued a press release yesterday calling on the G-8 to reject the high-input, biotech approach and to follow recommendations by the International Agriculture Assessment on Technology, Knowledge and Development for more low-input, sustainable agriculture that uses local knowledge.
On Monday, Anne Laure will be in Rome co-organizing a meeting at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) on strategic food reserves and other supply management strategies to address the food crisis. The G-8 Agriculture Ministers should skip out of Treviso early and attend.