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

Last Friday, the USDA announced the partial deregulation of genetically modified sugar beets, defying a court order to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in advance of a decision. This move follows on the heels of the full deregulation late last month of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa, the fourth most common row crop in the United States, which is most often used as feed for cattle.

If you eat beef, or take milk and sugar in your coffee (and even if you don’t), here is why you should care: The move could put organic foods at risk for contamination and make it more expensive. Read more

Government regulation of corporate practices has apparently been much on President Obama’s mind lately. He recent penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed vowing to review federal regulations to make sure they weren’t too onerous on business. In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, he illustrated his concern about the complexity of federal regulation by pointing out that two different agencies regulate wild salmon. “And when it’s smoked, I understand it gets really complicated,” he added. Ha, ha.

In other words, Obama is trying to establish himself as an eminently reasonable, pro-business sort of president — you know, not the sort of fellow who would let things like the Wall Street banking meltdown, the Upper Big Branch coal-mine disaster, the BP oil spill, or any other notorious lapse in government oversight stand in the way of the business of doing business.

Obama’s instantly famous “salmon joke” has me looking into how the government regulates salmon farms — those vast factory-style pens concentrated mostly off the coast of Washington state. I’m not done with research and won’t be until next week, as I’m preparing for a trip tomorrow to California to speak at the Edible Communities conference in Santa Barbara. The initial results of my research: government oversight of salmon farms consists mainly of encouraging them to produce as much salmon as possible.

This afternoon, my farmed-salmon research and trip prep were rudely interrupted by an unexpected regulation-related announcement: the USDA has decided to approve the use genetically modified alfalfa without any restriction. Read more

Last week, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack gave a speech on the role of research at the USDA at the launch of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the research arm of that agency formerly referred to as the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES).

Vilsack had this to say in his kick-off speech:

The opportunity to truly transform a field of science happens at best once a generation. Right now, I am convinced, is USDA’s opportunity to work with the Congress, the other science agencies, and with our partners in industry, academia, and the nonprofit sector, to bring about transformative change.

It is hard to reject the idea that our country needs more research on agriculture — specifically, more science-based knowledge from which to make political and regulatory decisions around food. But as his speech continued, Vilsack placed the focus on technology as our aegis. And while technology is not a bad thing, there are still many questions left unanswered that USDA could and should be focusing on — questions that the agribusiness lobby quite possibly doesn’t want answered, as the outcomes could force the public and our politicians to take a harder look at just what it means to build a truly sustainable food system.

NIFA will be headed by a controversial choice, Roger Beachy — formerly of the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, MO, which receives funding from Monsanto, and was part of the lobbying effort to create NIFA in the mold of the National Science Foundation. Beachy joins a team that already includes Rajiv Shah, formerly of the Gates Foundation. The re-branding of CSREES worries sustainable food advocates who fear US research priorities could shift with the private sector’s coaxing further towards a more biotechnology-oriented focus in an attempt to end world hunger, even though more viable solutions to hunger — a problem of distribution and not yield — exist on the ground that are both cost-effective and ready to implement now in the developing world.

The government’s job is to to give unbiased science center stage, so that we can assess and make informed decisions about agriculture moving forward — decisions that are in our collective interest as a nation, not just in the interest of one sector of our economy. To begin, the USDA must extend 100% funding to formula grants at land grant universities again, thereby replacing the current practice of “matching funds” [pdf] — requiring these institutions to find a matching donor for between 50%-100% of the grant from outside of the government — which usually ends up being a private industry source. And what might the industry be interested in funding? Shareholders hope they will support things that have the potential to increase the bottom line, instead of research that investigates the way our food system is affecting us, which could detract from it. This is how the industry has controlled the types of research being conducted since matching funds were instituted in 1999 (as an amendment to the National Agricultural Research, Extension, and Teaching Policy Act of 1977).

Vilsack also stated in his speech that in creating NIFA, “we will be rebuilding our competitive grants program from the ground up to generate real results for the American people.” In thinking about how to better focus the government’s efforts on agricultural research in order to truly benefit the American people, I thought I’d reach out to some key thinkers on agriculture, and find out what they would like the USDA’s new research body, NIFA, to be focusing on. Here were their answers: Read more

The industrial agriculture complex has been doing back flips for the last few weeks, first because of the ascendance of Blanche Lincoln (ConservaDem-AR) to the high throne of the Senate Agriculture Committee, where she promises to pinch climate legislation (or at the very least shove it aside until next year) and push a southern Big Ag agenda in the Senate for rice and cotton interests. Now, the White House has announced Islam A. Siddiqui, current Vice President for Science and Regulatory Affairs at CropLife America (you will remember the organization as the one that sent the First Lady a letter admonishing her for not using pesticides on the White House garden) as nominee for Chief Agricultural Negotiator, who works through the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to promote our crops and ag products abroad. Read more

The assault on rural America continues unabated. For the past six months dairy farmers across the country have suffered a historic drop in milk prices while operating costs remain high. Since December 2008, the price that farmers are paid for the milk they produce has plunged over 50 percent, the largest single drop since the Great Depression.

While organic dairy farmers have faced a decrease in overall sales due to the recent world financial meltdown and tight budgets on the home front as a result, the current drop in milk prices is impacting mainly conventional and small to mid-size family dairy farmers — the worst crisis most dairy farmers have faced in their entire careers.

Without immediate action from President Obama, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and members of Congress, this current crisis could be the launching point for the final liquidation of the independent family farmer. Read more

Our very bizzy Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has partnered with the Disney corporation to use the characters from Pinocchio to promote the USDA’s Food Pyramid, as part of his goal to reduce childhood obesity in America. New television, radio, print, outdoor, and online ads have been created by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment to remind families of the value of healthy eating and exercise. But Bizzy V’s trip to Fairytale Village is one of his more misguided policy plans. (Yes, that’s Ag Secretary Vilsack in the pic, in a private moment…) Read more

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told several consumer groups yesterday in a conference call that he will ask the meat industry to voluntarily follow stricter guidelines for new package labels designed to specify a food’s country of origin. If the industry does not comply, the administration will write new rules, reported the AP. Read more