Friday, April 30, 2010

Monsanto’s Grip on American Agriculture is Tightening... With a Little Help From the USDA.

CarolineJust when it seems that the U.S. government is taking two steps forward in regulating the products and practices of the Monsanto Company (the Department of Justice is currently investigating Monsanto for its monopolistic business tactics and antitrust violations, and the Supreme Court is hearing the first-ever case on the safety of the genetically-engineered Roundup Ready alfalfa this week), Washington takes one step backwards with its latest disregard of research suggesting that Monsanto's Roundup herbicide is doing more harm than help to the land we farm.

Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup, has been widely used on lawns, gardens, and farms as a weed-killer since 1976. The herbicide has been touted by industry and government researchers for its quick dissipation rates and low toxicity to humans, making Roundup the top-selling herbicide worldwide since 1980, with estimates of over 200 million pounds spread in the US in 2008 alone.

A recent post on Grist reveals the research of USDA scientist Dr. Robert Kremer. After 15 years of research looking into glyphosate, Kremer's findings come down hard on its use, noting the damage the herbicide causes to beneficial soil microbes and its interference with nutrient uptake by the plant, including a reduction in the efficiency of symbiotic nitrogen fixation and a decrease in overall plant productivity.

Not to mention, a 2008 study by Friends of the Earth International and the Center for Food Safety, which notes the increased use in herbicides, like Roundup, and genetically engineered herbicide-tolerant crops, like Roundup Ready soybeans, corn, and alfalfa, has resulted in 8 species of weeds in the United States that are resistant to glyphosate. This means that soon we will be exposed to food that has been doused in new herbicides in higher doses in order to kill these resulting "superweeds".

Dr. Kremer has published his research, and recommendations to farmers, in the Journal of European Agronomy, but his own employer (USDA) refuses to circulate his work — which certainly raises a red flag with us here at Farm Aid!

While the USDA has affirmed the validity of Dr. Kremer's research, the agency has been unwilling to publicize or publish these findings, choosing to ignore the evidence stacked against the spraying of glyphosate and the use of associated genetically engineered seeds. In doing so, the USDA is promoting Monsanto’s unregulated products and further encouraging farmers to, as Grist puts it, "stay on the ever-accelerating and increasingly damaging chemical treadmill."

Let us know what you think about the use of Roundup and the actions (or inactions!) taken by the USDA.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

How far can innovation get you in a broken dairy system?

HildeThis was the question I was grappling with last week as I sat on a panel on behalf of Farm Aid at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sustainability Summit – a day-long conference promoting sustainability through new ways of thinking and solutions-oriented dialogue. My session was entitled: "Agriculture and Innovation: creating value across the supply chain," and was focused specifically on US dairy. Farm Aid has worked with dairy farmers throughout our 25-year history. Many of you may have been following our activities during the current dairy crisis (dairy farmers continue to see milk prices half the cost of production or worse – a situation they've been facing for over a year now!)

The panel also included an Organic Valley dairy farmer from Vermont, the VP of public relations and government affairs for HP Hood LLC — one of the largest milk conglomerates in the Northeast, and a graduate student who has spent the past year analyzing the dairy supply chain in New England. It was a very interactive, dialogue-heavy format, which meant plenty of time for Q&A. The majority of the questions were trying to tease out creative ways for increasing market opportunities for dairy farmers and for bringing new farmers to the land.

The emphasis was on innovation, which can certainly be a good place to focus collective attention. After all, family farmers are some of the most creative people I know. And, don't get me wrong — I'm all about innovation generating critical change in the market place and momentum for a more sustainable future. But, in a dairy system that is completely broken, with an outdated pricing formula prone to severe manipulation, import loopholes, funky milk substitutes posing as dairy, and the failure of the government to follow through on long-overdue anti-trust investigations (whew!) — I have to say, innovation can only get us so far. And, unfortunately, the focus on innovation can sometimes leave us blaming the farmer for lack of creativity when they don't succeed when, really, the problem is the system itself.

I was glad to be on the panel to provide a different perspective — to challenge the myth that the current dairy crisis is simply the result of too much milk; to paint a picture of just how devastating the crisis is for family dairy farmers across the country and what's at stake for our communities, economies and natural resource base if they're forced off their land; and to push for real solutions that restore competitiveness and fairness in the marketplace so that the creativity and innovation we know farmers cultivate so well can truly take root and flourish.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Farm & Food News Bites

MattAll week long, we post updates on what's happening at Farm Aid and in the world of farms and food on our Twitter feed. In case you missed some of those links, below are some notable stories we shared since our last update:

What news did you see out there? Please share in the comments.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day Today and Earth Moments Everyday

JoelThe first Earth Day, April 22,1970: I remember it well. I was 11 years old and in sixth grade in Ames, Iowa. That year all public school sixth graders were bused to one school from all over town. But in honor of the first Earth Day, bus rides were suspended and we were encouraged to walk or ride our bikes to school, and with friends I made what seemed like a very long (two-mile!) journey across town to our school. We were greeted there with an environmental "teach-in," part of a grassroots, nation-wide effort sparked by Gaylord Nelson

I thought about that journey as I rode my bike this morning to the Farm Aid office for a regular work-day. I ride to and from the office almost every day, though I confess mine is a green-ness pushed along by having my car stolen last summer. Initially forced to find alternative means of transportation, I now embrace the alternatives, and am lucky enough to live in a place where public transportation is actually quite good.

We now know that every day is Earth Day, or should be. Must be. A recent online story in USA Today, "On Plains, Concerns About Another Dust Bowl", offers a stark reminder of what’s in store for us without dedicated, constant, and creative attention to the air, soil, and water that support life on earth. Of course, farmers and ranchers who work the land on our behalf are central to this effort, and Farm Aid seeks out ways to assist them in managing and conserving the precious resources that we all depend on in order to breathe, eat, and live.

As part of our larger commitment to a genuinely sustainable, family farm-centered food system, Farm Aid provides grants to non-profit organizations that educate, train, and support producers in the adoption of cutting-edge methods of land stewardship. For example, our recent grant to Holistic Management International of Texas seeks to avert another Dust Bowl by educating farmers and ranchers in methods of reclaiming and replenishing lands rendered virtually un-usable because of climate change and prolonged drought.

Join us in our efforts this Earth Day. Support your local farmer, support Farm Aid, grow a garden, ride a bike. Earth Day is a beautiful idea, but let's start thinking in terms of Earth Moments every day, beginning with this one, right now.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

"Food, Inc." is coming to a TV near you!

CarolineIn honor of Earth Day, PBS will air Food, Inc. on Wednesday, April 21 at 9 PM EST. This groundbreaking, Academy Award-nominated, documentary, was directed by Robert Kenner and co-produced by Eric Schlosser among others. It reveals shocking truths about our nation's food industry that have historically been hidden from the American public.

The film takes a critical look at corporate control of our food supply, and how those making key decisions about how our food is grown, processed and marketed, are often more concerned with cutting corners to increase their profits than with the health and safety of the consumer, the workers, and the environment. What's more, the film exposes how a concentration of power in the hands of just a few corporations is destroying the livelihoods of American family farmers. Those who cannot compete with these large companies are being forced to integrate into industrialized agriculture or off their land.

We encourage everyone to see this important and insightful film, and to continue to support family farmers, our nation's land stewards, this Earth Day and every day!

Have you seen Food, Inc.? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Update: You can watch the entire movie online until April 29 on this page.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Times are a changing... and Time magazine has taken note!

HildeThere's a growing recognition that our food system needs an overhaul if we're going to safeguard the health of our families, our environment and our country. In Washington, there's a vegetable garden on the White House lawn, a national conversation has been sparked about what our kids eat, and there is political will to investigate the stranglehold that corporations have on our food system.

As Time magazine once again solicits votes for its annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world, we are pleased to see the inclusion of two leaders who are changing the way we think about food and farming in this country. While we would have loved to see Willie's name atop the poll, we think it is a telling sign of the momentum of the Good Food Movement that both Deputy Secretary of the USDA, Kathleen Merrigan, and food and farm author, Michael Pollan, are recognized on a list celebrating the leaders, artists, innovators and icons of 2010.

For the next two weeks you can cast your vote for the persons you think should make it on to the final list of 100, to be revealed on April 29th. Family farmers are often the unsung heroes, quietly leading the way to a brighter future through their hard work, perseverance and innovation. Let's rally some support for Merrigan and Pollan as champions of family farmers and their vision for a sustainable future – and, by doing so, get more people on board, demanding a vibrant family-farm system of agriculture in this country, growing good food for all.

Below are the bios Time posted for each nominee. Click the names to cast your vote!

  • Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of Agriculture: "Merrigan brings an unusually green viewpoint to the USDA, better known as a bastion of mainstream industrial farming. The former director of the agriculture, food and environment program at Tufts University, as a congressional staffer in 1990 she helped write the Organic Food Production Act. She remains a champion of sustainable farming."
  • Michael Pollan: "The author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and other crunchy best sellers, the soft-spoken but passionate Pollan is the dean of sustainable-food writers — and an enemy of mainstream American agriculture. His books have guided millions of American readers toward a healthier, greener way of eating — even as he's remained skeptical of the growing corporate organic movement."

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

West Winged: Farm Aid Meets with The White House

AliciaExciting times here at Farm Aid! Last week, Farm Aid was among a handful of organizations invited to speak with White House staff on pressing issues affecting U.S. family farmers. I was the lucky Farm Aid representative attending, and wanted to share a few thoughts.

Beyond the thrill of walking through the front gates on Pennsylvania Avenue, shuffling through security and snapping some pictures in front of the West Wing (yep—that West Wing), was the fulfillment of having a fantastic discussion with representatives from President Obama's core team of economic advisors. It was a unique opportunity to bring forward the concerns of family farmers—all the way up to the country's highest office! I was joined by Farm Aid partners, the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI-USA), Food & Water Watch, National Farmers Union, and Rural Coalition.

Our message was simple: fairness for farmers. Washington has already bailed out big banks, automakers, and troubled homeowners. What about focusing on a real source of hope for our nation's troubled economy? Our family farmers, who are unfairly crippled by the country's credit crisis, serve as the pillars of Main Streets across the nation. Unable to secure credit, farmers can't buy seed, equipment, or otherwise pump money into their regional economy. At Farm Aid, we hear from these farmers everyday on our 1-800-FARM-AID hotline, and were eager to share our experiences, the stories of the farmers we speak with day-in, day-out, and our vision for a better, family farm-centered system of agriculture in America.

At the meeting's end, I was relieved that I didn't knock over an historic vase or stumble in my high heeled-shoes. But mostly, I was truly honored to be a part of a critical exchange that focused on the needs of our country's family farmers. Look out for an upcoming blog post about a central focus of our discussion—farm credit—and how Farm Aid has been engaging with the Administration over the past few months.

White House photo courtesy of CC-BY-SA-3.0/UpstateNYer at Wikipedia.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Saying goodbye to Wilma Mankiller

Wilma Mankiller
GlendaIt is with great sadness that we say goodbye to Wilma Mankiller, the first female Chief of Cherokee Nation. Wilma passed away on Tuesday, April 6, 2010. She was 64.

We honor Wilma Mankiller as a friend of family farmers and Farm Aid. We had the pleasure of having Wilma speak at our 1992, Farm Aid V concert at Texas Stadium. She understood the issues that American family farmers face, being forced off of her own farm in Oklahoma in the 1950s. Her legacy of leadership, determination, and humility will last in our hearts, minds, and our work.

Wilma took part in the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969 in protest of a United States policy which terminated the federal government's recognition of tribal sovereignty, sparking her career as an activist for Indian affairs. She was elected Chief of Cherokee Nation in 1985. During her term she took Indian issues directly to the White House, tripled tribe enrollment, doubled the tribe employment rate, implemented a number of social programs for health care and children, and honored Cherokee values and tradition. For her work she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Professor Pigg under a Creative Commons license.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Weekly Wrap-up of Farm & Food News

MattAll week long, we post updates on what's happening at Farm Aid and in the world of farms and food on Twitter. In case you missed some of those links, below are some notable stories we shared since our last update:

What news did you see out there? Please share in the comments.

Take action to save family dairy farmers

Take Action to save family dairy farmers

HildeFamily farmers are some of the hardest-working people I know. Too many of them know what it's like to risk their land, their homes, and their livelihood, and nobody is more dedicated to doing whatever it takes to succeed. But sometimes hard work isn't enough to survive, and that's when family farmers turn to Farm Aid.

Because the price for milk has been driven so low, family dairy farmers have lost upwards of $200 a month for every cow on their farms. It seems like the harder they work, the more they fall behind. And once these farmers are gone, they're most likely gone forever. I won't stand for that, and I hope you won't, either.

The crisis facing dairy farmers isn't new. In fact, Farm Aid has been working with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to save these farmers for over a year now, and thousands of Farm Aid supporters like you have already spoken out.

The good news is our efforts are starting to work, and the USDA has set up an advisory committee to review the crisis facing dairy farmers. Even better, they're collecting comments from the public until April 15.

Please, click here to urge the Dairy Industry Advisory Committee to take immediate action to save family dairy farmers and ensure they receive a fair price for their milk. We've made it easy and started the letter for you — you can add your own thoughts if you like as well.

Thanks for taking action — your response today will make a big difference for the future of family dairy farmers. We'll keep you updated on what's happening in the coming days and weeks to come.