Our global food system hinges on secrecy. The anonymous nature of where the food in our supermarket was produced brings one layer of secrecy. But even if you can solve that puzzle, how it was produced—and more specifically under what working conditions it was produced—remains completely hidden. This is the curtain that author Tracie McMillan pulls back in her remarkable new book, The American Way of Eating.
In the spirit of investigative journalists like Barbara Ehrenreich before her, McMillan documents her experiences picking grapes, peaches and garlic in California, working in the Wal-Mart produce section in Michigan, and in the kitchen at Applebee’s in New York City. The book is receiving a ton of high praise and deservedly so, with Rush Limbaugh a notable exception.
By Ron Leonard
Last week, Dr. Willard Cochrane passed away at the age of 98. Dr. Cochrane was an agricultural economist whose career spanned the development of agricultural economics as a profession. He was dean of the School of Agricultural Economics at the University of Minnesota where he emerged nationally as the leading proponent of the concept of supply management, which dominated a ferocious debate over farm policy after the second World War. Cochrane became the chief economist at the Department of Agriculture in 1961, joining fellow Minnesotan Orville Freeman when President John F. Kennedy appointed the latter as Secretary of Agriculture.
Freeman created the position of chief economist, which gave Cochrane responsibility for economic policy and planning. Cochrane in turn recommended that Freeman establish the Economic Research Service (ERS), restoring the Bureau of Agricultural Economics that had been dismembered after the Korean War.
With ERS as the planning platform, Cochrane directed the planning and development of the legislative proposal for supply management policy and the development of a food stamp demonstration project and the drafting of legislation for a national food stamp program. Both supply management and food stamps would become central elements of policy initiatives on farm and food programs of the Kennedy administration.
The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) are in the fifth day of a 6-day fast to draw attention to the unfair treatment of farmworkers in Florida tomato fields. The target of the fast, supermarket retailer Publix, has refused to join the Fair Food Program. The program's demands include paying tomato pickers a penny more per pound. Retailers will also ensure safe and healthy work conditions and support ending child labor in the fields. Publix has refused to meet with CIW to discuss the Campaign for Fair Food.
Cheap labor is one ingredient that makes food retailing profitable for corporate America. The refusal to ensure safe work conditions and fair wages for farm workers is a core problem in a food system that claims to feed the world. Perhaps the claim should be adjusted, to reflect that farm laborers and their families are excluded from the world that industry claims to feed.
The plight of farm laborer is virtually missing from most mainstream conversations about food. It is as if food magically appears from farms located in far and distant places. Another twist of fate happens and food appears in the grocery aisles of supermarkets across America. The American public must begin to understand that the industrial food complex is not magical, but a series of complex interlocking relationships between multinational companies that are supported by an even more complex set of public policies that often pit consumers' health and wellbeing against corporate interests. Frequently, the interests of the general public, family farmers and poor people are forsaken in the name of profit. Caught in the web of corporate interests and federal policies, farmworkers are purposefully ignored.
Agriculture, like the rest of the economy, sits in the midst of a marketplace dominated by a handful of big corporations. Farmers and most livestock producers have little to no say in what prices they are paid (regardless of costs), and similarly grocery store prices for consumers are non-negotiable. Our current farm policy accepts this state of affairs—paying out to farmers when the market fails and prices drop too low, and doing nothing for consumers when prices skyrocket. The main reforms being considered by Congress for the 2012 Farm Bill do nothing to change this dynamic.
Does it have to be this way? What if we had a farm policy that didn’t passively accept the wild swings of an unfettered marketplace, and had, as a goal, to ensure farmers received a fair price from agribusiness and consumers weren’t hurt by rapidly rising prices in the supermarket?
This is the intention of a new proposal rolled out by the National Farmers Union (NFU) at their annual convention in Omaha this week. The NFU makes the case that a voluntary, farmer-owned and market-driven commodity crop inventory system (MDIS) “reduces price volatility, reduces government expenses, increase the value of crop exports, and maintains net farm income over time.”
For the budget-obsessed Congress, the greatest appeal of the MDIS might be that it saves money. According to research by the University of Tennessee’s Agricultural Policy Analysis Center, an MDIS program would have saved an estimated $56 billion in government crop payments if it had been in place from 1998 through 2010. Compared to current crop programs, MDIS would save an estimated $40 billion from 2012 to 2021, based on USDA crop-price projections.
When land previously used for producing food is transformed into land for producing ethanol, what impact does its change have on the environment and global food supply? Does the net difference in food production spur development in other parts of the world—often meaning deforestation to make way for increased acreage—that ultimately increases global greenhouse gas emissions? If so, what does this say about the sustainability of ethanol production?
This concept, known as indirect land use change (ILUC), has ignited debate among ethanol producers and environmental advocates. In a new essay, released today by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), author Julia Olmstead looks at the current state of the indirect land use change (ILUC) debate and what parties on both sides of the debate can stand to learn.
On January 23, over 20,000 people poured into the streets of Berlin to say that they have had enough of industrial agriculture. The demands made in Germany can be heard all over the world starting with fair treatment of farmers and consumers, safe food, an end to food speculation and a respect for nature and the welfare of animals.
Tomorrow, in New York City, the Occupy Wall Street movement is calling for protests to support 60 family farmers, small and family-owned seed businesses, and agricultural organizations that are challenging Monsanto's patents on genetically modified seed in federal court.
Like the Germans, it time for us to say, “We’ve had enough!” of Monsanto’s agriculture. From super weeds to pest resistance in corn, genetically modified seeds have failed. Now Monsanto is turning to even more dangerous products with new varieties that will only increase the amount of herbicides in the environment.
At the heart of industrial agriculture is a long running conflict between corporations and farmers on who will control food production. Occupy Wall Street has come out on the side of farmers and all who eat to say, “We’ve had enough!”
Farming is a tough way to make a living and no segment of the American farm community has been harder hit in recent decades than the farmers known as Ag in the Middle (AITM). These are the producers of fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and meat products that are too big to sell directly to consumers and too small to effectively compete with agribusiness—a difficult place to be in a globalized food system and yet these midsize farmers are essential for supplying the significant quantities of food needed by retailers, institutions and other larger market channels.
While the number of very small farmers in the U.S. has started to rebound, the number of Ag in the Middle farmers (those with gross annual farm sales of $50,000 to $500,000) fell nearly 18 percent from 1997 to 2007.
One strategy helping to keep these farmers on the land are efforts by institutions such as colleges, hospitals and schools to purchase locally and regionally grown foods. Since 2009, IATP has partnered with Compass Group USA on just such an initiative. Compass Group is one of the largest food service management companies in the world, serving over one million meals per day in North America. Compass also owns Bon Appétit, which manages foodservice operations for colleges and clients across the country. Bon Appétit has led the way for local, sustainable food sourcing and is a catalyst for improving fairness and equity in the food system, while reducing their carbon footprint.
On Saturday, January 21, the giant grain and financial company, Cargill, is going to be the recipient of a Global Citizens' arrest for, as the organizers say, “profiteering off people and the planet.” It would take too long to list the indictment of Cargill’s many crimes, but one of its latest is a campaign to destroy the Canadian Wheat Board in partnership with a gang of powerful agribusiness corporations, called Grain Visions. Its members include, in addition to Cargill, Louis Dreyfus Canada Limited, Rahr Malting Canada Limited, Agricore United (a company whose largest single shareholder is ADM), Saskatchewan Wheat Pool (no longer a farmer cooperative) and James Richardson International Limited.
The Canadian Wheat Board (CWB) has been a thorn in the side of the big grain companies since 1935. The CWB came from a long line of Canadian wheat marketing boards, coops and grain pools led by western farmers who used their collective marketing power to force the Cargills of the world to pay a fair price.
CWB operates under the authority of parliament, but the majority of its board members are farmer-elected. Over the years the CWB has been weakened by the steady assaults of agribusiness, NAFTA provisions and WTO rulings that if implemented would put the Wheat Board out of business permanently.
There is little doubt that agriculture is both affected by and directly affects climate change. Exactly how to address agriculture within the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (UFCCC), however, is not easy to answer. Before Durban, negotiating text had been circulating since before the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit, virtually unchanged for two years.
How could agriculture be so controversial, one might wonder? One of the main sticking points for agreement over the agriculture text was the legal context in which negotiations were set. Agriculture was being considered under a mitigation workstream in the Bali Action Plan called “Cooperative sectoral approaches and sector-specific actions.” The framing constraints imposed on the negotiations by a mitigation context made many countries unhappy. Most developing countries, for example, are much more concerned about impacts of climate change on agricultural production and adaptation challenges, and felt no need to agree on how to cooperate on mitigation within the sector. The two weeks of negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009 were taken up convincing developed countries to insert language on adaptation, food security and small farmers, but in the end no agreement on the complete text was reached.
Paragraphs on trade were also inserted at that time, insisting that nothing agreed to in those talks could be used to create barriers to international trade. This proved the most important issue blocking progress on the agriculture text in these intervening two years, including at negotiations in Cancún in December 2010. Countries such as Argentina and Brazil were adamant that no text would go ahead without those paragraphs; New Zealand, the United States and other developed countries insisted against them. Cancún ended as it began, in deadlock over an essentially unchanged text.