Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hold the Presses! The Low-Down on Monsanto Co. v. Geerston Seed Farms

Last week the U.S. Supreme Court announced its 7-1 decision in Monsanto Co. v. Geerston Seed Farms, a case that’s dominated the news (well, at least the news we tune into here at Farm Aid), with a flurry of conflicting, confusing headlines.

So, here’s a bit of straight talk on the case:

At hand is an appeal by Monsanto, the seed giant, against a lower court’s decision to issue a permanent injunction on the planting of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready alfalfa (a genetically-engineered variety of alfalfa designed to resist Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide). For those not addicted to Law & Order, it means the court issued a permanent order to stop the planting of Roundup Ready alfalfa. For more background on the controversy around Roundup, read about it here in blogs by our spring intern Caroline.

To understand what’s at stake, it’s helpful to review the original case Monsanto appealed.

In 2005, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) deregulated Roundup Ready alfalfa (let’s just call it GE alfalfa for brevity’s sake). USDA’s “Finding of No Significant Impact” or FONSI (officially my favorite government acronym) allowed free reign to plant, harvest and sell GE alfalfa. But—whoops!—USDA failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the novel crop, a violation, it turns out, of federal environmental law.

Enter Geertson Seed Farms, along with the Center for Food Safety and a slew of other parties. They filed suit in federal district court, citing violations of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and the Plant Protection Act in the failure to prepare an EIS. They also cited grave concerns about the environmental, health, cultural and economic impacts of GE alfalfa, most of which boil down to the issue of unwanted genetic drift, or in other words, spread of pollen.

GE alfalfa, which is a cross-pollinated plant, can spread uncontrollably since honeybees can carry its pollen many miles away, much farther than the 900-foot isolation distance required between GE and non-GE alfalfa fields. This leaves the potential for contamination of both conventional and organic alfalfa farms from foreign GE alfalfa DNA, patented by Monsanto.

The lower court ruled in favor of Geertson, issuing a permanent injunction (ban) that prohibited the sale of GE alfalfa until a full EIS was completed. This decision was upheld in a federal appeals court.

After two failed appeals in lower courts, Monsanto, backed by groups including the American Farm Bureau, Biotechnology Industry Organization, American Petroleum Institute, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and CropLife America, brought the case to the highest court of the land—the Supreme Court of the United States.

In their appeal, Monsanto challenged the process used to set the permanent injunction. The Supreme Court agreed, there should have been a hearing conducted prior to permanent injunction, and in turn the ban set by the lower court was removed. Big win for Monsanto?

Certainly Monsanto’s press release on the matter says so:

"This is exceptionally good news received in time for the next planting season. Farmers have been waiting to hear this for quite some time," said Steve Welker, Monsanto's Alfalfa business lead. "We have Roundup Ready alfalfa seed ready to deliver and await USDA guidance on its release. Our goal is to have everything in place for growers to plant in fall 2010."

But wait... not so fast.

Monsanto’s strangely optimistic media spin conceals the larger facts in the Supreme Court decision. What the Supreme Court essentially ruled was that the permanent injunction was unnecessary, since USDA had violated federal environmental law by deregulating before an EIS had been conducted. Hence, the sale of Roundup Ready alfalfa remains illegal until USDA completes an Environmental Impact Statement.

Granted, the win Monsanto can claim is that USDA can now allow restricted or partial planting of the seeds while it completes the Environmental Impact Statement. A permanent injunction would have prohibited that. However, USDA has stated it does not plan to allow partial planting before it completes the EIS next year. And what’s more, farmers and consumers have the right to challenge partial plantings.

The Supreme Court opinion, delivered by Chief Justice Alito, also affirmed that genetic contamination is a legitimate environmental and economic concern, worthy of being considered harmful under the law. This affirmation gives farmers a legitimate basis to challenge future biotech crop commercialization in court.

Said Phil Geerston of the decision:

"We brought this case to court because I and other conventional farmers will no doubt suffer irreversible economic harm if the planting of GE alfalfa is allowed. It was simply a question of our survival, and though we did not win on all points of the law, we are grateful that the practical result of today's ruling is that Monsanto cannot take away our rights and Roundup Ready alfalfa cannot threaten our livelihoods."

What does it mean for family farms? This is mostly good news for conventional and organic farmers who have no interest in planting GE alfalfa and face possible environmental contamination and severe economic harm to their operations. It’s mostly a win for dairy farmers who don’t want their cows to eat GE alfalfa, especially organic dairy farmers who would no longer be able to call their milk organic if their cows did so, intentionally or accidentally through pollen drift. Consumers concerned about a lack of transparency surrounding GE products in the food chain can also consider this a victory.

This, however, is by no means the end of this story. The fate of GE alfalfa falls squarely on the shoulders of USDA, which must perform a thorough review of its potential impacts. Most recently, 56 Congresspeople, led by Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Representative Peter Defazio of Oregon, sent a firm letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack, asking him to seriously rethink previous evaluations of GE alfalfa. They cite several cases of contamination during the two years it was permitted for commercial growing. I highly recommend the read.

For more information:

Food Safety News has a good overview of the case, available here.

The Center for Food Safety will be keeping track of USDA’s progress on the Environment Impact Statement. Check them out here.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Join us for a book reading tonight!

Join us at 6:30 p.m. tonight at the Middlesex Lounge in Cambridge, MA, to hear Michelle Hoover read from her debut novel, The Quickening. Michelle will generously donate $1 from each book sold to Farm Aid. As the granddaughter of four farm families, Michelle thought Farm Aid was the perfect fit to partner with to launch her first book.

The Quickening tells the story of two farm families trying to save their farm during the Depression. As the back cover tells it, "...Michelle Hoover explores the polarization of the human soul in times of hardship and the instinctual drive for self-preservation by whatever means necessary. The Quickening stands as a novel of lyrical precision and historical consequences, reflecting the resilience and sacrifices required even now in our modern troubled times."

To read more about The Quickening, check out this review in today's Boston Globe.

Michele will be traveling across the country this summer on a book tour. Check here to see if she's coming to a town near you.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Right now, top officials at the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) are sitting on recommendations from their antitrust task force to take action against two of the biggest firms in the U.S. dairy industry: Dairy Farmers of America (the nation's largest dairy cooperative) and Dean Foods (the nation's largest fluid milk processor).

With thousands of dairy farmers going out of business this year alone, there is no excuse for any more delays. Take action to tell Attorney General Eric Holder to act now to restore fairness to the marketplace and save our dairy farmers.

The crisis in the dairy industry may seem confusing, but the numbers tell it all. Since the mid 1980s, the gap between farm milk price and retail milk price has steadily widened. It's outrageous that over the last 20 years, farmers have received less and less for their milk even as consumers have paid more at the grocery store. The middlemen are making all the money!

America has lost over half its dairy farmers in the past sixteen years, with fewer than 60,000 dairy farmers remaining. During that time, the DOJ has repeatedly allowed unrestrained takeovers and market abuses in dairy at the expense of both America's dairy farmers and consumers, and it's time we put a stop to it.

Fight back against corporate control of dairy — send your message to Attorney General Holder right now.

So what happens if we don't take action to save our dairy farmers?

We risk losing tens of thousands more farmers from the land and billions of dollars from our rural economies. We risk being forced to rely on more factory farms and imported milk substitutes that compromise public and environmental health and safety. We risk losing our choice for safe, local milk from family farmers we trust.

Thanks so much for standing with family dairy farmers. We'll keep you updated on how your action today makes a difference — and please, after you send your letter, don't forget to tell as many friends as possible to get involved. We need all the help we can get on this one.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Stand up for dairy farmers in Madison, WI

MattOn Friday, June 25, the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Justice will hold a hearing in Madison, Wisconsin on corporate concentration in the dairy industry. This is a landmark occasion and we encourage you to attend to stand for family farmers and defend our food system from corporate control!

To pre-register for the workshop, visit: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/V3FHXPY

You can also join us the night before at a people's anti-trust town hall meeting, hosted by Farm Aid partner Family Farm Defenders, to ensure that the voices of family farmers and consumers are heard loud and clear!

On Thursday, June 24 at 6:30 pm, tell the government to stand up for family dairy farmers and consumers — not corporate agribusiness giants!

Join the town hall meeting to hear from dairy farmers and community leaders and add your voice to demand that the government take immediate action to break up corporate control of our food system.

For more information: www.familyfarmdefenders.org or call (800) 639-3276

Dairy Town Hall Forum
Thursday June 24
6:30 pm - 10:00 pm
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Memorial Union, Great Hall

Anti-Trust Dairy Workshop hosted by the USDA and Dept. of Justice
Friday June 25
9:00 am - 6:00 pm
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Memorial Union, Union Theater

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Get Ready for Farm Aid 25!

Get ready for Farm Aid 25: Growing Hope for America (our 25th anniversary!) by catching Farm Aid's 2009 concert. DIRECTV is continuing to air Farm Aid specials over the next month. See below for the schedule.

Farm Aid Presents Jamey Johnson & Friends
Wed, 6/30 @ 3 pm ET
Sat, 7/3 @ 4 pm ET

Farm Aid Presents Jason Mraz & Friends
Thurs, 6/24 @ 8 am ET, 4 pm ET
Sun, 7/4 @ 11 am ET/PT

Farm Aid Presents Gretchen Wilson & Friends
Tues, 6/22 @ 3 pm ET
Sat, 6/26 @ 12 pm ET
Mon, 6/28 @ 4 pm ET
Sat, 7/3 @ 9 am ET

Farm Aid Presents Wilco & Friends
Sun, 6/27 @ 7 am ET
Tues, 6/29 @ 5 pm ET
Thurs, 7/1 @ 7 am ET
Sat, 7/3 @ 5 am ET

Friday, June 11, 2010

“Field of Greens” Disaster Relief Fund Established in Middle Tennessee

JoelThough it quickly passed from the national spotlight, the historic flooding in Tennessee in early May left major damage in its wake, especially to farms in the middle and western parts of the state.

Recent damage assessments point to moderate to severe damage to 39% of the corn crop and 21% of the winter wheat crop. Repairs to infrastructure, including roads, levees, fences, buildings, equipment, and conservation and set-aside projects, are ongoing and costly. Fruit and vegetable farms have also been hit hard, and because crop insurance coverage and federal assistance to specialty crop farms is severely inadequate, such farms often face the prospect of going out of business altogether if their season cannot be salvaged.

For this reason, I’m very happy to report that a Farm Aid-funded group, the Nashville-based Community Food Advocates (formerly Manna-Food Security Partners) has initiated “Field of Greens,” a disaster relief program for organic, sustainable, and socially disadvantaged farmers in Middle Tennessee. Farm Aid applauds Community Food Advocates for stepping up so quickly, even before the flood waters had fully receded.

The new Field of Greens program is shaping up as a model of how a regional disaster relief effort can be put together quickly. Initially, Community Food Advocates set to work gathering immediate post-flood reports from over a hundred farms showing that damage ranged from several hundred dollars to complete loss of farm and income. They then began building a coalition of willing local partners and communicating with others around the country with disaster relief experience, including Farm Aid, to put the pieces in place for the new Field of Greens program. Formalizing their effort this week, they sent out a flood damage survey to 200 more farms to gather additional evidence of damage to farms in the region.

In late June, drawing on farmer outreach models based on previous Farm Aid-funded disaster relief efforts in Iowa (2008 flood) and Texas (2009 drought), the Field of Greens executive committee will begin to solicit applications for emergency flood relief from these small and mid-sized food-producing farms, targeting those who lack access to conventional crop insurance and federal disaster relief.

Cassi Johnson, Community Food Advocates executive director, reports the Field of Greens fund has received a commitment from one local Whole Foods Market to host a 5% day later this month, and stores across the region are selling an original t-shirt that will also benefit the Fund. Other local businesses are contributing to the fund as well. In addition, the forward-looking CFA is making Field of Greens one of its permanent programs, to be activated in the event of future disasters affecting farms in Middle Tennessee. This is a major step forward for region’s sustainable farming community that until recently has largely lacked grassroots mobilizing and networking.

Farm Aid’s farmer hotline (1-800-FARM-AID and farmhelp@farmaid.org) is ready and willing to assist in the Field of Greens recovery effort. If you are a farmer or know farmers in the Middle Tennessee region affected by the flood, don’t hesitate to call us!

Friday, June 04, 2010

Farm Aid Attends "The National Summit of Rural America: A Dialogue for Renewing Promise"

AliciaYesterday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack hosted the National Summit for Rural America in Hillsboro, Missouri. Why hold a rural summit, you ask? While just 17 percent of Americans reside in rural areas, rural economies, and in particular the farmers and ranchers that support them, are critical to the health of the nation's economy. Rural areas also house the bulk of U.S. land, the precious resource from which we draw the water we drink and food we eat.

It was a timely event for Farm Aid to attend on the heels of the release of our new report, Rebuilding America's Economy with Family Farm-Centered Food Systems.

Not surprisingly, the event boasted attendees from rural communities across the country, but was noticeably packed with farmers and ranchers of all types. It was also chock-full of USDA bureaucrats (I use the term fondly, of course), including Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, oh-so-many Undersecretaries and Deputy Undersecretaries, Farm Service Agency staff, local Missouri-based USDA staff, and many others. There were also several Farm Aid partners attending, including the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, the Center for Rural Affairs, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Rural Coalition, and several familiar faces from last year's Farm Aid concert in St. Louis.

Morning speeches highlighted central strategies the Obama Administration is employing to revitalize rural economies nationwide, including building new infrastructure for local and regional food systems, renewable energy investments, rural broadband access, and many others. A diverse set of voices were present, and the public question and answer session showed the concerns of everyone from conventional soybean farms, to organic vegetable producers, to yours truly. I was excited and honored to stand at the microphone and announce the release of our report to Secretary Vilsack and the event's attendees. I also pressed the Secretary for more in depth action on addressing the credit and risk management needs of family farmers and ranchers nationwide.

The afternoon was filled with breakout sessions where groups could speak more fully about the most pressing issues facing rural communities today. Conversations were at times heated, but always informative, productive and respectful.

The summit proved to be a fantastic opportunity for dialogue and information exchange. I was pleased to hear some of the same language from our report being used in conversation--from direct markets to “agriculture of the middle” and “mid-scale food value chains.” There is still so much work to be done to ensure that our family farmers and ranchers can thrive and access markets that guarantee them fair prices and tap into growing consumer demand for Good Food. Onward!

Thursday, June 03, 2010

A Report is Born! Just in time for the Rural Summit.

Ok, so that may sound a little dramatic – but here at the Farm Aid office we are as proud (and as exhausted!) as can be to announce the launch of a report we’ve been working on for well over nine months now: Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family Farm-Centered Food Systems.

The report begins…

“In the past few years, our country has endured an economic train wreck--failed banks, a tanked housing sector, pinched credit markets, escalating unemployment rates, crippling health care costs, and mounting environmental crises. In the context of such troubling headlines, we must examine every facet of our economy and consider how it can foster a more prosperous and sustainable future. This paper seeks to underscore what we at Farm Aid know as a simple truth: Supporting family farmers and family farm-centered food systems is a powerful strategy for jumpstarting our fragile economy and revitalizing communities across America.”

It goes on to recount the true costs of an industrial food system to our rural economies and communities, and the ripple effects of a troubled farm economy beyond the farm gate. The heart of the report highlights the untapped potential of America’s family farmers to rebuild our nation’s economy through local and regional markets, and further enumerates what we have to gain by investing in both direct markets and emerging “mid-scale food value chains.” In addition to capturing some of the best research out there modeling the impacts of family farm-centered food systems, the report showcases the stories of innovative farm entrepreneurs finding success in local and regional markets and building better food economies in their communities.

The report’s release was celebrated today with a national telephone press conference featuring Alicia Harvie, Farm Aid’s program manager and report author, as well as Karl Kupers, Washington State wheat farmer and one of the founder’s of Shepherd’s Grain, an alliance of 33 farmers growing wheat sustainably in the Pacific Northwest; Fred Kirschenmann, organic farmer, Distinguished Fellow for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University; and Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Reporters from the mainstream and ag press were on the call to get the full scoop. We look forward to sharing some resulting news stories with you in the coming days.

Tomorrow, Alicia will head to Hillsboro, Missouri, to attend the Obama Administration’s National Summit on Rural America. As the USDA describes it, the Summit “will be an opportunity for rural Americans to share their vision for creating a more prosperous and promising future for rural America." In preparation, we made sure that both President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack received a copy of Farm Aid’s report, accompanied by a letter from Farm Aid President Willie Nelson sharing our vision: that “leaders in Washington and in rural America will come together to support thriving local and regional food systems, keep small and mid-sized family farmers on the land, and attract new farmers to the land.” Stay tuned - we’ll be sure to report back from the event as it unfolds.

We’re delighted to share our shiny new report, and hope you’ll show it off a bit too. Please forward along to your local farm groups, food policy council, government representatives, school board officials, and beyond. Tell family and friends. As Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family Farm-Centered Food Systems shows, family farmers are already hard at work growing local and regional markets and spreading the benefits of good food to more Americans. Let’s stand behind family farmers and ensure they have the tools and support they need to put their best foot forward and rebuild our economy from the ground up.

As the report ends:

“Now is the time to invest in a new future--a future in which family farmers are recognized as key resources in solving the surmounting economic, environmental and public health challenges facing our nation. Ultimately, an investment in family farm-centered food systems is a critical investment in our economy, our communities, and our future: an investment that returns in spades.”