You’ve surely heard about the worst drought in a generation that is devastating farmers throughout the Midwest and Great Plains. Many of us may have brown lawns and suffering gardens, but besides these inconveniences, how does the drought impact the rest of us who are not farming? Here’s a brief rundown.
You are not likely to go thirsty. Despite the numerous long-term challenges the U.S. faces with water use and water quality, this is a time to appreciate the infrastructural investments that we have made in water and wastewater treatment. It’s remarkable how rare it is for drought to impact our ability to draw clean water from the tap and to safely treat wastewater.
You are not suffering in dust storms. Decades of improvements in farming practices and crop genetics have mitigated the impacts on crop production. Photographs of the Great Plains in the 1930s are full of amazing dust storms that are unimaginable for most of us today. The widespread recognition of that time, that farmers had to make major transitions in tillage practices, and that policy had to support that transition, is a tribute to the foresight of previous generations.
In many ways our food system is less resilient to shock than it used to be. Yes, our impressive food handling, trade and transportation systems have made it far easier to get food to places that need it, but in other ways our system is increasingly vulnerable. The lack of crop diversity on tens of millions of acres of Midwest corn and soybean fields leave agriculture susceptible to severe impacts from new pests and disease, and this agricultural system is highly dependent on plentiful chemical inputs and fossil fuels.
One of the most exciting things about the upcoming Food + Justice = Democracy conference will be the incorporation of a Peoples Movement Assembly. These are designed to help gatherings develop collective political agreements and positions, and this particular assembly will have the conferees coalesce around the barriers to the creation of a just and healthy food system and the opportunity to address those barriers.
Over the next several weeks we are going to feature statements from some of the food justice leaders that will be attending the conference. So many of the conferees provide an awe-inspiring level of wisdom and experience to the food justice movement, and the movement will be all the stronger the more it is democratically built on that wisdom and experience.
Justice requires a conscious, vigilant and active populace. Building towards food justice requires that we conduct public education campaigns to make communities aware of the impact of the current food system on our planet, our health and the economies of our communities. It requires that we provide local food–related models of what sustainability and justice might look like. These models must provide real ways that people can participate in growing, processing, distributing and selling healthy foods and realizing economic benefit from their efforts. They must provide communities with the opportunity to shape their food system and the policies driving it.
In the first blog in this series, I discussed how drought has affected me. As I walked through a Central Iowa corn field near Ames this summer, I surveyed another corn crop destroyed by the heat and dry conditions, (see photo) I wondered if this farm could survive.
I thought back to the farm I grew up on and how in the long run it did not survive. That is, it did not have “resilience” to withstand weather onslaughts, unfavorable markets and aggressive bankers.
So what the heck is resilience? An old term, but coming back into its own, at least in academic circles. And it is a good one for the times, perhaps for the rest of our rocky future.
And rocky it will be. Climate change, population pressures, decline of resources, both physical and financial, the list goes on. But first resilience.
Dr. William Reese at the University of British Columbia, in his challenging paper “Thinking Resilience” defines resilience as “the capacity of a system to withstand disturbances while still retaining its fundamental structure, function and internal feedbacks” (see also Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World. Walker, B., and Salt, D. Island Press, N.Y. NY. 2006.)
Fancy words, but what does it mean? Reese uses a good analogy, the brittleness of a system. Can the system spring back like the ability of a car’s shock absorbers to smooth out a pothole (those of you who to drive the streets of Minneapolis can appreciate that ability).
There has been a lot of noise on the Farm Bill lately. Last month, the Senate approved its Farm Bill, and last week the House Agriculture Committee approved its own version. Despite major differences, both Houses of Congress have one thing in common: they are virtually silent on corporate market power and competition in agriculture.
Nearly every sector of agriculture is now dominated by four or fewer companies. In the 2008 Farm Bill, fair markets and competition were at least acknowledged as an issue to be addressed. The Livestock Title included provisions that required the updating of rules to the Packers and Stockyards Act, and helped spur a national series of workshops co-hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Justice (DoJ) on competition and agriculture in 2010.
Not so in the 2012 Farm Bill. It’s almost as if excess corporate power in agriculture has magically disappeared. In fact, the House Agriculture Committee Farm Bill actually prevents the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from implementing new rules on fair contracts for poultry growers.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the controversial Citizens United ruling by striking down a Montana law limiting corporate campaign spending. The ruling is a win for agribusiness and food companies exerting their influence over elections and government, and a loss for those advocating or farmers, the environment and consumers.
As we wrote earlier this month, there’s not an issue at the intersection of food, agriculture and government policy that doesn’t run into the enormous political influence of big corporations. Whether it is the Farm Bill, international trade or food safety, corporate influence in U.S. politics and within government is reaching unprecedented levels.
The Citizen United ruling, and accompanying Super PACs, have changed the game and are undermining our democracy. Corporate spending on elections is now unlimited and virtually unregulated at the federal level. The Supreme Court ruling on Monday clarified that the Citizens United decision also applies to state and local elections. Get ready for even more campaign attack ads.
If we want a responsive government that reflects the interests of all farmers, workers and the environment we have to fight back. There is a growing movement pushing for local resolutions in support of a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the Citizens United ruling. IATP supports that initiative and the United for the People campaign that is challenging corporate influence in our political system.
Working with New Horizon, IATP is launching a new Farm to Child Care program that will take place at thirteen New Horizon child care sites in the Twin Cities metro, St. Cloud and Rochester areas beginning in June. The pilot is intended to help catalyze and inform the emerging Farm to Child Care movement around the country.
Leading up to the June launch, IATP and NHA have been building relationships with area farmers, revamping menus to include locally grown fruits, vegetables and wild rice, developing curriculum for the children, and generating helpful tips for parents. IATP has also released national research on nascent Farm to Child Care programs around the country, and the opportunities and challenges of connecting farmers with children in child care settings.
Given growing diet and nutrition challenges among youth, engaging children early in life is essential. Reaching young children, particularly between the ages of three and five, is a golden opportunity to connect them with healthy food choices while creating new opportunities for the local farm economy.
In 2013, the program will be extended to all 60 of NHA’s Minnesota child care locations, reaching a total of 7,500 children. After evaluation of the program, IATP will report its findings nationally and provide tools to encourage others around the nation to develop Farm to Childcare initiatives in their own communities.
As the G-20 Summit in Los Cabos came to a close yesterday, various civil society observers expressed their disappointment at the lack of ambition in the leaders’ statement, particularly on food security and food price volatility. ActionAid’s Neil Watkins commented that, “With food prices swinging wildly and the planet burning, this was the moment for bold proposals from the G-20. Instead, on food security and climate change, the G-20 turned in last year’s homework, content to reaffirm old plans and commission more studies.” Others echoed these concerns, damning with faint praise the mild proposals to exchange information and support agricultural innovation, as well as criticizing the narrow focus on increasing productivity.
The problem is not only that the proposals are so lacking in ambition, but that the G-20 is evolving from an informal crisis-management confab to a rigid and undemocratic structure that serves to lock in policy changes in other multilateral forums. The minor mention of emergency reserves means that efforts by the World Food Programme or the FAO to expand beyond limited national reserves will be stymied, and the G-20’s heavy reliance on the "Business 20" (B-20) for policy guidance will likely mean that critical approaches to regulate public-private partnerships will remain off the table. G-20 recommendations effectively limit input by the other 173 U.N. member countries in these big decisions, to say nothing of the lack of channels for civil society engagement.
When the Heads of State of the G-20 countries meet in Los Cabos, Mexico on June 18–19, they will have plenty to discuss—not least, the fragile global economy and the instability of international finance. Food security is on their agenda as well. Yet after the intense focus on agriculture and food security under the leadership of France, both ahead of and during its time as host of the G-20 in 2011, this year’s efforts are low-key.
The host government, Mexico, is preoccupied with national elections in July. The President chose to advance the Heads of State summit to mid-June, ahead of the election, rather than wait for later in the year, when G-20 summits are more normally held. The change of program has left the different working groups without much time to do their work. Mexico also chose a much narrower set of issues for the Agricultural Ministers’ contribution this year: agricultural productivity growth, with a linked focus on small family farms.
From north to south, Mexican farmers are facing some of the most severe climate instability they’ve ever confronted. The northern states are suffering from what the Mexican government has called the worst drought the country has ever experienced; rain just won’t fall, and the crops that have been planted have dried up. In the south, they’ve had year after year of devastating floods, the result of which has been devastating topsoil loss on the uniformly hilly terrain.
Elias Ventura, a small-holder corn farmer in the state of Oaxaca, told me about the hopelessness of this situation when we sat next to each other yesterday at the seminar IATP is co-hosting this week in Mexico City, “New Paradigms and Public Policies for Agriculture and Global Food Systems,” in advance of next week’s G-20 meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico. He said that he’s had either too much rain, or not enough, and that getting a good harvest under the unpredictable new weather extremes (that he said are the result of climate change) seemed like an impossibility. I asked him if the Mexican government provided any support when his crops failed and he gave me a resolute “No.” Not only would he be without the income that the crop would provide, but his community would have to adjust to a sharp decrease in food availability. This challenge Mexican farmers and rural communities face in the wake of climate change stands in stark contrast to the risk-management program the U.S. Senate has proposed for the 2012 Farm Bill, which would guarantee up to 90 percent of farmers’ revenue if crops fail or prices fall, but there are some similarities.
An article in Politico yesterday suggested that the introduction of more than 200 amendments to the Farm Bill on the Senate floor was part of a conservative strategy to “bait Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) into a confrontation that will ultimately kill the bill.” Aside from potentially upsetting Reid, the avalanche of amendments also makes it extremely difficult for citizens to track and weigh in on the type of Farm Bill they want. And maybe that’s another part of the amendment bomb strategy.
Senate leaders are working to winnow down the amendments to something manageable, and still hope to complete the bill by their July break. Last week, IATP sent a letter to Minnesota Senators outlining our priority amendments, including those focused on: a packer ban to restore competition in livestock markets, linking conservation to crop insurance, public research focused on crop diversity, rural development programs, and support for Beginning and Disadvantaged farmers.