Monday, June 24, 2013

Music Monday Celebrates the Performers of Farm Aid 2013

MattTime for a special Music Monday! This week, we're bringing you music from artists performing at Farm Aid 2013. We just announced additional artists today, with some returning favorites and people brand new to the Farm Aid stage. The lineup so far is:

  • Willie Nelson
  • Neil Young
  • John Mellencamp
  • Dave Matthews with Tim Reynolds
  • Jack Johnson
  • Amos Lee
  • Kacey Musgraves
  • Toad the Wet Sprocket
  • Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
  • Bahamas
  • JD & The Straight Shot
  • Carlene Carter
  • Pegi Young & The Survivors

Check out this video playlist we made that includes music from all of these performers.

Tickets for Farm Aid 2013 go on sale Friday, June 28 at 10am eastern. We hope you'll be joining us!

For more videos of Farm Aid performances, visit our YouTube channel.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Farm Bill’s in the House!

HildeAn update from our partners the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition:

The House of Representatives is poised to take a giant step backwards this week – away from the kind of future we want for our food and farms and toward unlimited subsidies for mega-farms and corporate agri-business and reduced investments in sustainable farming.

With your help last month we made some big progress in getting farm policy back on track in the Senate and now it's time to ensure the House of Representatives does the same. An amendment with common-sense, long-overdue farm subsidy reforms is on the table right now. Rep. Fortenberry's (R-NE) amendment #93 puts a cap on commodity subsidy payments and closes loopholes that allow mega-farms to collect unlimited payments. The House begins its floor vote today, and your representative needs to hear from you!

Calling is easy – just dial the number for your representative* and leave a message like this one below with the person who answers the phone (if your Representative is already an amendment sponsor, make your call a thank you call!):

Hello, my name is ___ and I'm a constituent and a voter (and tell them if you're a farmer!). I would like to leave a message for Representative ___'s agriculture staffer. The message is: I urge the Representative to support Fortenberry's #93 amendment during farm bill floor debate this week. Congress needs to get our farm policy back on track by reforming subsidies and investing in a more sustainable future. Thank you.

Unfortunately, in addition to the Fortenberry amendment, a host of bad amendments also made their way to the floor. We'll keep you posted as we hear more from our partners in D.C. on how to keep the pressure up for a farm bill that truly benefits all.

*To find your representative, click here. Then call (202)225-3121 for the U.S. House switchboard operator.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Senate Passes the Farm Bill

AliciaThis Monday, the Senate passed its version of the Farm Bill by a vote of 66-27 (click here to see how your Senators voted). The bottom line of it is a mixed bag. Pressure to pass the bill intensified as key Senators hoped to shift attention to immigration reform, and unfortunately many critical and hugely beneficial programs and amendments were left out.

In fact, over 200 amendments were filed for debate for the Farm Bill—amendments supporting local food and rural development, conservation programs, organic farming, antitrust enforcement, support for public plant breeding, programs for minority farmers and important payout limits to insurance subsidies—but the Senate debated only 15 of them, and adopted just nine.

The good? The bill does manage to make sure that farmers receiving crop insurance are implementing important conservation practices on their farms. It also allows organic farmers to be covered under crop insurance at their retail, not conventional wholesale, prices—a critical reform that farmers have been asking for. It expands support for farmers markets and establishes some (but not enough) support initiatives for beginning farmers, specifically supports outreach to Veteran farmers, and, importantly, calls for an official hearing process to consider changes to the flawed current and proposed dairy programs.

The bad? Many farmers remain concerned that the bill is shifting an admittedly flawed safety net system of direct payments over to something that’s not much better—a corporate-controlled crop insurance payment program that will still fail to serve the great diversity of farmers on the land, without truly addressing the need for farmers to receive fair prices or for our agricultural system to become more resilient in the face of climate change and other volatile factors.

The House is expected to take up debate of the House Agriculture Committee’s draft farm bill the week of June 17. Stay tuned for opportunities to engage and support critical programs!

To keep track of the Farm Bill process, check out the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition’s nifty graphic outlining what lies ahead of us (click to enlarge).

Farm Bill

And if that doesn’t float your boat, take a gander at this helpful, vintage little diddy from Schoolhouse Rock!

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Toni’s Farm and Food Roundup

ToniClimate change is a growing concern on a global scale, and scientists may have found a small way to combat rising temperatures—breeding cows that are free of flatulence (say that three times fast!). Some livestock, including cows, release a tremendous amount of the dangerous methane gas into the atmosphere every year through the (less than glamorous) natural functions of farting and burping. Experts from six different countries came together to find a solution, discovering to no one’s surprise that all animals release this gas. From that finding, the researchers hope that through selective breeding they can breed animals with incessantly lower methane levels.

Connecticut recently became the first state to pass a bill with guidelines requiring labeling of GMO products, but the news comes with a catch. Governor Dannel Malloy will only sign the bill into effect if four other states in the region, including one state that is bordering Connecticut, adopt similar labeling laws. With 20 other states already considering similar legislative moves, including the Northeastern states New York, Vermont and Maine, the clause seems a likely possibility. The four states must have an aggregated population of 20 million people, with the population of New York already exceeding 19 million. Though a GMO labeling law was recently defeated in the state, those behind the bill are determined to put a similar version up for vote soon. Hesitance about the law is two-fold: if Connecticut were the only state to enforce the law it could potentially impact the state’s food economy, and there is fear that agri-business corporations could sue the state.

In light of the recent GMO frenzy, the popular brand of ice cream Ben & Jerry’s has taken a stand on the issue with a new plan to take all genetically engineered ingredients out of its products by the end of this year. The company is already well on its way, as 80 percent of its ice cream in the US and Canada and 100 percent in Europe is already GMO free. Taking its stance one step further, the announcement on the company’s website explained it hopes all Ben & Jerry’s ingredients are also Fair Trade certified in the same timeframe. By the end of this year, all of its products will carry a label regarding any GMO component. The news comes shortly after Whole Foods announced all of its products containing genetically engineered ingredients will be labeled by 2018.

A sign of the new wave of technology influenced farming, a potato farmer from Tryon, North Carolina is trying to save his farm by Internet crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is a popular new fundraising technique that allows people to tell their story and request funding support from the public. David Best, of Best Acre potato farm, chose to use the popular Indiegogo site for his campaign and was quickly able to raise $200,000 to save his farm. Campaigns such as these are popping up around the country, giving new light to a field often thought to be out of the scope of modern technology. Best resorted to crowdsourcing after lenders denied him a loan to plant a crop this year, the first year in his life that the farm could be void of potatoes. To help draw in support, Heather Best, David’s wife, offered secret recipes to anyone that gave a donation of at least $20. Though the outcome is still shaky, the ultimate goal for the Bests is simply to keep the family farm just that.

When people think of agriculture, girl power doesn’t usually come to mind, but the USDA recently reported that female farm operators is a growing trend in US farming. With close to 1 million women operating farms in the country, a figure that doubled from 1982 until 2007, women now represent about 30 percent of total US farmers. Whether it is for health concerns, a love of dirt or dedication to community engagement, female farmers are taking on the practice with a fervent passion. In fact, there are already more women operating small farms in the country than men. Though there have been past movements of female farmers, like there was in the 1960s, some advocates feel the difference is in the respect women now receive from the farming community. To account for this, there has also been a rise in organizations supporting female farmers, like the National Women in Agriculture Association or the Women, Food and Agriculture Network.

Monday, June 03, 2013

Farm Aid Music Monday, Starring the Grateful Dead

CarolineHappy Music Monday, folks! This week, we’re taking you back to Farm Aid 1987 in Lincoln, Nebraska. The ‘87 show featured the likes of Steppenwolf, Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, John Denver, Lou Reed and Kris Kristofferson, in addition to Farm Aid board artists Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, all taking the stage to support family farmers! 

Also jammin’ in spirit, if not in person, that day was the Grateful Dead, who appeared on the Farm Aid stage via live satellite feed from their show at Madison Square Garden. Check out their performances of Bob Dylan’s "Maggie’s Farm" and "Black Peter" below.

As a little bonus, here's a new video we just posted with three songs from Farm Aid's 1986 concert, where the Dead also appeared via satellite from Buffalo, New York. Watch them perform "The Wheel," "I Need A Miracle" and "Uncle John’s Band."

For more videos of Farm Aid performances, visit our YouTube channel.

The Recent GE Supreme Court Case and Why It Matters

HildeWe'd like to welcome Kristina Hubbard as a guest blogger today. Kristina is the director of advocacy and communications for Organic Seed Alliance, and author of Out of Hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry. We're thankful for your expert analysis, Kiki!

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously sided with Monsanto recently in a case that upheld the company's right to prohibit the replanting of patented seed. The court ruled that the doctrine of "patent exhaustion," which an Indiana farmer argued should apply after the first sale of patented seed, "does not permit a farmer to reproduce patented seeds through planting and harvesting without the patent holder's permission."

It's not surprising the court ruled in Monsanto's favor. Still, the case had merit: Bowman wasn't challenging Monsanto's claims that he knowingly planted seed with its protected genetics. Instead, he challenged the way patent law is currently applied to self-replicating products – a worthy effort, considering the injustices patents on seed have sown across America.

It's relatively well understood that simply using seed with patented genetics – especially widely planted genetically engineered varieties, such as Roundup Ready soybeans – enters the user into a restrictive licensing agreement. Farmers sign these agreements at the time of sale, which includes a prohibition on planting more than one crop. The seed packaging also states that simply opening the bag binds the user to the agreement.

Mr. Bowman thought that by purchasing soybean seed from a grain elevator he had found a legal way to plant seed from subsequent generations. He assumed the seed contained patented genetics but argued that the patent exhaustion doctrine allowed him to plant them anyway. The court said he was wrong. The Federal Circuit court ruled, and the Supreme Court agreed, that Mr. Bowman must pay Monsanto more than $80,000.

Needless to say, Mr. Bowman is not alone in his desire to use seed from subsequent generations. More than 150 farmers have been targets of patent infringement lawsuits filed by Monsanto. And legislative initiatives at the federal level also highlight the demand. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, of Ohio, introduced legislation in 2004 and again this year to establish a registration and fee system that would allow farmers to legally save patented seed. "Companies deserve a fair return, not an exorbitant return," Kaptur has said.

She's right. Should developers of new seed varieties earn returns on their research and development investments? Yes, absolutely. But patents on self-replicating seed – and any living organism, for that matter – are unethical and dangerous.

The law needs to change. In the meantime, there is an important role for the judicial system to play in teasing out the injustices of the current patent system. Indeed, the outcome of this Supreme Court case that challenges patents on human genes will be telling.

Whether the recent ruling leaves a door open to further challenge how patents are applied to seed remains to be seen. Justice Elena Kagan's comments suggest it does:

"Our holding today is limited – addressing the situation before us, rather than every one involving a self-replicating product," she wrote. "We recognize that such inventions are becoming ever more prevalent, complex and diverse."

Mr. Bowman's case reflected that complexity. He was not only trying to save money, he was challenging a relatively new paradigm in agriculture. It is only since another Supreme Court decision in 2001 that patent law – that is, the U.S. Patent Act governing utility patents, or "patents for inventions" – has applied to living organisms.

Think about it. In less than fifteen years, many commodity crop farmers went from saving and replanting a portion of their harvest to largely buying new seed each year. This has increased farmers' dependence on a highly consolidated and narrowly focused seed industry. The transition has also eroded farmers' self-sufficiency and financial security. And the trend is spreading across the globe.

Congress long opposed the inclusion of plants under the Patent Act. A 1966 congressional committee report states that while its members "acknowledge the valuable contribution of plant and seed breeders, it does not consider the patent system the proper vehicle for the protection of such subject matter."

Soon after, Congress passed the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA). The law, passed in 1970, represented a compromise between their hesitance to patent seed and mounting pressure to provide seed developers stronger intellectual property protections. Before the 2001 ruling, seed developers largely relied on protections afforded through "Certificates of Protection" under the PVPA, providing seed developers exclusive marketing rights of their new varieties for 20 years (like a patent). But the law includes two critical exemptions: farmers can save seed and breeders can use protected varieties to innovate, including the development of new varieties. The Patent Act provides no such exemptions, with devastating consequences.

Owners of utility patents enjoy far-reaching control over access and use of their protected products. A single patent, for example, can cover a plant, tissue cultures, seed, future generations, crosses with other varieties, and the methods used to produce it. Such broad claims are not possible under the PVPA. And, even more troubling, these broad patents cover traits that can also exist in nature, such as "heat tolerant broccoli" and "pleasant taste" in melons.

Patents have grave impacts on innovation, despite Monsanto's assertion to the contrary. Public researchers note the constraints of patents and the restrictive licensing agreements tied to them. These onerous agreements dictate what kind of research on patented seed can be conducted and published. The result is that patents effectively remove valuable seed varieties from the pool breeders rely on for improving our food crops.

That's why it was disconcerting to read the court's belief that if it didn't protect how patents on seed are applied, the result would be "less incentive for innovation than Congress wanted" under the Patent Act. But it's clear that the oligopolies fostered by patent law have hindered innovation and competition in the marketplace.

The profits earned from the exclusive ownership and licensing of patented seed products – bolstered by the right to restrict research and seed saving – has led to numerous buyouts. The Independent Professional Seed Association estimates the U.S. has lost at least 200 independent seed companies in the last 15 years. The seed industry is now one of the most concentrated in agriculture, where two chemical firms command more than 60 percent of the retail markets for both corn and soybeans. This level of concentration has left farmers with fewer choices and paying higher prices, and less control over what they plant.

The growing evidence that patents on seed are detrimental to the public good should raise eyebrows at the U.S. Department of Justice. And at the agency's first of five public hearings "to explore competition issues" affecting agriculture, held in Ankeny, Iowa, it appeared that it had. Assistant attorney general for the DOJ's Antitrust Division, Christine Varney, highlighted the problem of patents in her opening remarks: "Patents have in the past been used to maintain or extend monopolies, and that's illegal, and you can be sure, Secretary, that we are going to be looking very closely at any attempt to maintain or extend a monopoly through an abuse of patent laws."

But hope that meaningful action would follow was short-lived. Neither the DOJ, nor its investigative partner, USDA, have provided a meaningful response to the 18,000 public comments they received.

The agencies' inaction, combined with the court ruling, creates a situation in which our government protects corporate control over seed.

Make no mistake: While the DOJ may have focused its investigation on the GMO marketplace, patent and competition concerns in seed are much broader. Conventional (non-GMO) varieties of seed are also increasingly being patented. And with Monsanto's 2005 acquisition of the largest vegetable seed company, Seminis, the same contract that Mr. Bowman violated now appears on seed packets of vegetable varieties that are popular among backyard gardeners and farmers alike, including ‘Big Beef' tomato, a variety that, as far as we know, doesn't contain patented genetics.

And so we're left with another important question: If our regulatory agencies are unwilling to confront the misuse of patent law in the context of seed, then what recourse do we, the people, have to ensure access to, and innovation in, seed?

For starters, despite a lack of acknowledgement in the Supreme Court ruling, there are appropriate intellectual property protections already available, including the PVPA. Congress could amend the PVPA to clarify its purpose to provide an exclusive means of intellectual property protection for self-replicating plant varieties.

I work for Organic Seed Alliance. We and our partners are also exploring contracts that adhere to principles of an "open-source" seed model. We believe it is possible to receive fair returns on investments while fostering new research that addresses our most pressing agricultural needs. We also believe farmers have the right to save seed from their harvest.

The seed patent issue is not just about GMOs or Monsanto. It is a seed issue that impacts us all, regardless of our decisions on the farm or in the grocery store. Seed is as fundamental to life as the food and fiber it produces. By way of order, then, seed is more fundamental. And it belongs in the hands of the people, not the patent holder.