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Americans’ Views of Industrial Agriculture By the Numbers

The popularity of Oscar-nominated Food, Inc. and writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman make it clear that consumer interest in food and farming issues is now deeply embedded in the cultural mainstream.

And that’s not just my personal impression. Two brand new polls show a surprising degree of agreement on consumers’ concerns about the quality of food and how it’s produced, considering that one was commissioned by an environmentally-oriented foundation and the other by an organization that’s out to advance the interests of large scale agribusiness. I’ll come back to those results in a minute.

Shoppers’ buying habits reflect their growing interest in food quality and where it comes from. Healthy food-oriented chains such as Whole Foods are thriving, farmers’ markets are more prevalent than ever, and organically grown food is the fastest growing segment of the agriculture sector. Before long, it’s inevitable that consumers’ growing interest in food issues will start to affect their behavior in the voting booth as well. Read more

Turning the Farm Bill into the Food Bill

I work in food and agriculture, so when I sit down to a locally sourced, home cooked dinner with my family, I often think of the 2012 Farm Bill’s connection to the food on my table. Re-christened the “Food and Farm Bill” by a fierce tribe of good food advocates, the 2012 version is the most important piece of environmental legislation that Congress will enact in the next 18 months.

I have no illusion that my dinners are completely different from those of millions of Americans. Most people eat mainly processed food as a result of the billions of subsidy dollars diverted to industrial agriculture and the cheap food that is produced by it. The next Farm Bill is our best shot at fixing these flaws in our food system.

Good news: the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is fighting for better policies that would make local and organic dinners like mine the norm rather than the exception, including turning its attention to the 2012 Farm Bill. Read more

No Quick Subsidies Fix for Food System

Over the last decade, the sustainable food movement has brought much needed attention to U.S. agricultural policy and how it influences which foods Americans grow, buy, and consume. From chefs and policy wonks to teachers and bloggers, everyone interested in food has an opinion on subsidies and how to craft the 2012 Farm Bill. One of the most common focuses is moving subsidies away from commodities like corn and soy, which are used to make junk food and factory farmed meat, to fruit and vegetable production. This simple fix misses the bigger picture—the consolidation and the inability of diversified farms to compete in our industrialized food system. Read more

United We Eat

A couple of weeks ago, Washington Post political blogger Ezra Klein and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack had a debate in the Washington Post about rural subsidies; the substance of which was then analyzed and thoroughly skewered in a couple of excellent posts by Brian Depew of the Center for Rural Affairs and Tom Philpott at Grist. The whole affair got me thinking about another urban/rural discussion I read at the end of last year, this one focused on food—and about how counterproductive all of our country/city dividing lines are. Read more

Is there a Raft of Rural Subsidies?

The ill-defined term “rural subsidies” is at the center of a debate between Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. See parts one, two, and three.

Klein refers several times to “rural subsidies,” once referring to the “raft of subsidies we devote to sustaining rural life.” But Klein does not explain what he means by “rural subsidies.” And when he quizzes Vilsack on what justifies subsidizing rural people, Vilsack doesn’t challenge him to unpack it.

That results in a critical gap in the conversation. Read more

Healthy School Food: Pay Now, Save Later

New school food standards proposed last week by the Obama administration could nearly double the amount of fruits and vegetables that more than 32 million kids eat every day. If these standards come into force, they could set American children on a healthier eating track that could last a lifetime. The proposed rule, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the newly-passed Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, could also save billions of dollars in future health care costs.

Putting this plan into action seems like a no-brainer, but its expense, which USDA estimates at  almost $7 billion over five years, is a major stumbling block. Nearly half of that cost would go to put more fresh produce on school breakfast and lunch menus.

As we see it, $7 billion is a bargain when you consider the price of doing nothing.    Read more

US, Mexican and European Ag Policy Experts Talk Subsidy Reform

Mexico and the United States have a lot more in common than a border.  Their agricultural and rural policies have strikingly similar flaws–and present parallel opportunities for reform and revitalization.

In a September 1st seminar in Mexico City, a range of international participants concluded that both countries have bloated government subsidy programs whose benefits are captured disproportionately by a few states, individuals and large farms.  As a result, little governmental money is left over for research, market development, infrastructure and credit–key elements for stimulating lagging rural economies and bolstering production of healthy, sustainable and affordable food for local and domestic markets.  Worse, subsidy programs that dole out cash based on acreage encourage industrial-scale farming, exacerbating social injustice and environmental damage. Read more

Late Blight on the Roof, and the Small Farmer’s Plight

Two weeks ago, I noticed that two of my tomato plants had late blight. I was up on the roof, weeding, pulling off yellowing leaves from all the excess rain, and harvesting some early tomatoes when I noticed leaves with yellow and brown spots on them. I’d read the article in the New York Times about the blight, and so I sent out the photo on the left to Twitter, asking my followers, “is this the blight?” The answer, sadly, was yes. So I pulled one plant up, before it could spread to the others, and took all the leaves off the other plant which was confined to a corner, hoping to let it’s three giant tomatoes ripen.

Unfortunately, rooftops are not immune from the soil disease that ravages spuds and tomatoes — I bought my seedlings from two small nurseries upstate, which had grown them locally. But it is possible that contamination had already spread to my tomatoes from the nurseries’ neighbors who bought their plants at big box stores like Lowe’s and Wal-Mart, which sold plants in soil from an Alabama facility that carried the blight. Ironically, it is new growers’ enthusiasm that might have exacerbated the disease through increased consumer demand. And while a record number of people are growing some of their own produce this year, excess rain in the northeast has created the perfect conditions for the blight to flourish — but it is small organic farmers that are taking a punch. Read more

Healthcare and Food Policy: Part of the Same Conversation

As President Obama ratchets up the pressure this week on Congress to vote on healthcare reform before the summer recess, it must be noted that the discussion does not connect the dots to our broken food system. And while I commend President Obama for taking on such a contentious subject with the aim of improving the lives of those suffering in our current economy, two thirds of the American people want a single-payer system and the option is not even on the table. Addressing these two issues will be critical for deep and lasting healthcare reform. Read more