Category Archives: Policy

“The Biggest Civil Rights Settlement” Goes Unpaid

Discriminatory land use policies have left a legacy of inequality that has yet to be rectified. Though the labor of slaves and later sharecroppers helped support American agriculture, African Americans were often denied access to land as well as to many of the processes of wealth accumulation that allowed the concentration of capital necessary to support a farm. For example, practices of red-lining, managed by the Homeowners Loan Corporation, ranked neighborhoods and prevented the black homeowner from acquiring the same line of credit and advantageous mortgage terms. On top of this economic isolation, racially restrictive covenants maintained a physical separation. Many deeds still include clauses on race, specifically forbidding black, Jewish, or Asian families from owning the home. These are the mechanisms that met black migrants moving from the South to the North in order to escape the oppression of sharecropping. Northern manufacturing cities actively recruited young black males. Once in these cities, they were pushed into poorly maintained parts of the city. For decades, the presumed inability of blacks to assimilate and follow the concentric model of social mobility by which other minorities began life in the inner city but steadily moved out toward the suburb, was blamed on the black population and a “culture of poverty.” It wasn’t until a 1945 publication entitled Black Metropolis by Drake and Cayton that scholars began to acknowledge the institutionalization of racism that created both economic and geographic inequities. Not only did the government have its hand in persistent poverty but it, along with big business, also had its hand in dispossessing African Americans of land.

The National Black Farmers Association is still fighting to gain recognition for the discrimination faced by the black farmer. In what The New York Times calls the “biggest civil rights settlement in American history,” black farmers won a settlement of $2 billion as payment for subsidies and loans that had been denied them due to racism. That class-action suit was in 1999 and the payments have yet to be made. President Obama has requested that payments be included in the new budget and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has stated his commitment to righting this wrong. But, as the February 7th New York Times editorial details, this same budget proposal was included and denied last year. The National Black Farmers Association is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Its president, John W. Boyd Jr. led a rally in Washington D.C. today as the end of a string of rallies held across the South. He is asking that the outstanding $1.15 billion be included in the budget.

Clearly, the struggle for civil rights is far from over. The phrase “forty acres and a mule” stands as a reminder of our unfulfilled promise. It is a promise of a land that is my land, your land. It is a promise where the mountaintop meets the farm.

IATP Looks Beyond the USDA

Carlo Petrini writes in his book Slow Food Nation of a “network of gastronomes and the figure of the co-producer” as the social infrastructure necessary to counteract a food system that requires each commodity chain to span hundreds of miles. But Petrini continues, “the problems posed by this long chain of intermediaries go beyond that of the distance (physical or cultural) between two ends of the chain. Rather, the graver concern lies in matters of economics, ecology, and social justice.” (Petrini, 227)

That is what brought me to Slow Food. It struck me as a movement that was willing and excited to struggle with an incredibly embedded situation. It seems simple; good, clean, fair but it is a life’s work. It is a struggle that shares the dreams of figures as diverse as Temple Grandin, Martin Luther King Jr., César Chávez, Jane Jacobs, you, and me. And as such, we must begin to imagine a strategy of change that compliments this wide range of interests, a strategy of change that uses the strength of these tangled webs as reinforcing cause and effects. To that end, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has published its report “Beyond the USDA, How other government agencies can support a healthier, more sustainable food system” by Maggie Gosselin. The guide is meant to acquaint the reader with the variety of organizations that regulate and impact our food so that we can begin to imagine a multifaceted approach to changing our food and more practically, so that we as activists can utilize all of the grants and resources these different agencies offer. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services, which broadly oversees food labeling and food safety awards Community Service Block Grants to state Community Action Agencies that then re-grant the money or act directly on programs that help address housing, nutrition, employment, and education needs in low-income communities. The next agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, could contribute to a better food system through its ability to “establish better oversight of water and air pollution” or through “following the Supreme Court ruling that requires the EPA to regulate to mitigate damage caused by greenhouse gases.” The author recommends a joint USDA-EPA task force to address greenhouse gas emissions on farms. The EPA offers several grants, including the Environmental Justice Small Grants to organizations implementing solutions to environmental and public health problems. The paper goes on to discuss the Department of the Interior (responsible for 10 percent of the land in the United States and oversees livestock grazing on that land and fisheries), the Department of Commerce (who, as part of their jobs, grants patents to agricultural products), the Department of Transportation (in charge of food transport and thus with the capability of researching and improving food access), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (whose commitment to ‘livable communities’ must be pressured to succeed and who award grants to higher education institutions to develop partnerships with depressed communities), and more. Some of those names are likely familiar but some might surprise you.

When you imagine a food system that is good, clean, and fair, what exactly do you imagine? It will not just mean a change in land use, it will mean a change in the Farm Credit Administration and the Commodities Futures Trading Commission. This might seem intimidating. I admit that I am intimidated by futures speculation, I cannot claim to understand how it works or how it should be changed. But I read this report as inspiring. This is why Slow Food will succeed, because it is a movement that has a role for every individual, every agency. Your skills are valued. And once we’ve recognized this and addressed what exactly our skills are, we can meet the government half way and use some of these grants to work in city planning, trade policy, land use, education and outreach, and environmental research.

Take a look at www.iatp.org

The State of the Union

This isn’t going to be a post going “line by line” through the President’s State of the Union address delivered one week ago. Though every columnist needed to find important things to talk about, and sometimes those things really were there, we all know that the State of the Union speech barely has a chance to walk on its own, constantly being pushed about on the wave of instant feedback by standing crowds and murmuring justices. But, at its best, the speech can force us to remember that these are our representatives and they should be talking to us. I don’t see this demand as being ‘populist,’ though that word is fashionable now, it is simply more efficient to solve problems when we talk to each other.

Which is why I must applaud Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack’s Op-Ed column in the Des Moines Register on January 31. Entitled “Rural America is in need of renewal,” the article argues that the country must appreciate the sacrifices of its farmers, recognizing that decades of a push for productivity have not served the majority of farmers well. Vilsack recommends six steps to this renewal paraphrased below;

Expand exports, promote biofuel, link local farmers to local consumers through the creation of local processing plants, provide broadband to rural areas, encourage natural recreation activity, and lastly, make the ecosystem profitable through the Ecosystem Market Office. This will create a renewal that creates a “rural America that provides safe and abundant food for us and the world, puts America back in control of its energy future, and preserves and conserves our precious natural resources.”

So compare that to the 50-Year Farm Bill of Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry (a soil scientist and a farmer). The idea that we can both preserve our natural resources and benefit from markets “that exist for water, wetlands preservation, carbon and habitat enhancements” would not find its way into that 50-Year Farm Bill. The idea may not be that sinister, tax incentives to conserve water would help encourage responsible behavior, but the discourse being created and sustained is a dangerous one that tries to impose a supply and demand theory onto the ecosystem. Jackson, in fact, argues for the opposite approach, using the ecosystem to provide us with a new way of thinking of economic growth. And furthermore, Vilsack’s resources remain poorly defined and their defense is unspecified. So we can promote biofuel production without understanding how these monocrops damage our soil.

And what of these expanded exports? It worries me when I hear talk of our duty to help rebuild Haiti with shipments of fertilizer and seeds for cash crops (see the Monday editorial “Thinking About a New Haiti” in The New York Times). At home we promote, or at least Vilsack says he does, linking farms to local consumers but in underdeveloped nations we envision an agricultural system growing only coffee to supply global markets but not themselves. The presence of our exports feeds directly into this process of creating dependent developing nations. When Obama mentioned his commitment to the Doha trade agreements in order to bolster rural jobs in America, he talked about our trading partners playing by the rules. But what are those rules? A 2006 document published by the Third World Network Director Martin Khor details the obstacles of international trade negotiation and the damage they do to underdeveloped economies. “The WTO’s Doha Negotiations and Impasse: A Development Perspective” discusses the funny business of subsidies; Blue, Green, Amber, Trade-Distorting, or Non-Trade Distorting. In short: Blue Box subsidies are considered trade-distorting and set limits on production, Green Box subsidies are considered non-trade distorting and provide things like “payments to farmers to protect the environment,” Amber Box subsidies are considered trade distorting in that they regulate prices, and lastly, “de minis support” provide trade-distorting government support. In short, the Western parties at the World Trade Organization push developing nations to cut and minimize subsidies even as the E.U. and United States provide subsidies for their farmers. “Thus the developed countries will be able to continue to dump products that are subsidised at artificially low prices onto the poorer countries that cannot afford to subsidise.” Of course, the W.T.O. does not act alone and has been aided through World Bank programs in the past which provide conditional loans to developing countries mandating that they privatize and limit government capabilities. The issue of increasing exports must be understood in this context. If we want to help rebuild Haiti, perhaps we should consider rewriting trade policies.

And I don’t think I need to tell the Slow Food crowd that biofuel production, while potentially important, cannot come above our commitment to local, sustainable farm communities. Perhaps it is Vilsack who needs to better understand and appreciate the incredible impact a farmer can have on the environment, on his or her community, and on the geopolitical global stage.

Read it for yourself: http://www.desmoinesregister.com/article/20100131/OPINION01/1310318/-1/politics/Vilsack-Rural-America-is-in-need-of-renewal

Monsanto Destroying Farming Communities

This post could go in a number of directions and as such, what results will not cover nearly what it should. If you’ve seen the film Food Inc., you know about the team of private investigators, the hotline, and the middle of the night visits to farmer’s houses all in the name of patent infringement. And it isn’t just the film saying this. Here is what Monsanto released on their own website:

“When one farmer sees another farmer saving patented seed, they will often report them. Many of the tips Monsanto gets about farmers saving patented seeds come from other farmers in the same community.”

One hundred and forty cases have been brought against such reported farmers whose crimes have to do with saving patented seed material. Only, it’s not just those who save seeds, it’s those who want to save their own public seed but in the process inadvertently save patented Monsanto seeds that have blown onto their crops from neighboring farms. In normal tort law, farmers would be able to bring a suit against Monsanto for being a nuisance with their pollutant patented seeds. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. Instead, farmers turn each other in. Monsanto is proud that only one hundred and forty farmers have been tried, only one hundred and forty farmers have had to spend incredible amounts on legal representation and eventual settlements (likely because they were simply unable to continue to fight Monsanto). They like to say that out of the three hundred thousand farmers they sell seed to, only one hundred and forty of them have been dishonest. The moral burden of a label like dishonest is Monsanto’s own way of describing these farmers. On that same website entry entitled “Follow-up to Monsanto Farmer Lawsuits” they say,

“Enforcing patent law is not much different from the enforcement of other laws. Most people respect the law. Often, honest citizens will report those who break the law. The same is true for patent infringement involving saved seed. The vast majority of farmers respect patent laws and honor their agreements to abide by that law. ”

It is hard for me to understand how one is supposed to find Monsanto’s motives as honorable or honest. A few stray seeds makes you a criminal. One of the farmers who faced a lawsuit from Monsanto and was featured in Food Inc., is Moe Parr. Moe Parr was sued because, in his business cleaning seed to be saved, he had helped clean Monsanto patented Roundup Ready seed. Monsanto replied to the publicity his case received by stating that Mr. Parr was not being transparent. On their website, posted under the title “Maurice (Moe) Parr,” Monsanto attempts to shed light on Mr. Parr’s supposed sleight of hands with the facts. Monsanto, attempting to negate Mr. Parr’s assertion that he settled with Monsanto in light of rising legal costs, points out that Mr. Parr knew it was illegal to save patented seed and yet he encouraged his clients to save the seed. All of this of course does nothing to negate rising costs. Finally, Monsanto helpfully points out,

“Mr. Parr is able to continue to clean conventional soybeans, wheat and other non-patented seed crops.”

Monsanto corners the market. Not only will it be difficult for him to find clients still using public seed, becoming increasingly rare, but he will also have to separate out any patented seeds that may have contaminated that public seed. And in the process, Monsanto has turned farmers against each other. When Monsanto has a greater ability to regulate farmers than the FDA, something needs to change at the policy level.