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Blog Posts: Agricultural policy

July 10th, 2015

Big Voices Rally To Support Beleaguered Chicken Farmers

By Patrick Woodall

John Oliver and Willie Nelson have used their platforms to speak in support of chicken farmers.

John Oliver and Willie Nelson have used their platforms to speak in support of chicken farmers.

On Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved its version of the budget for fiscal year 2016 for USDA and the Food and Drug Administration, and finally, there was some progress in the long plight to seek justice for poultry farmers.

For those of you who remember John Oliver’s recent piece on how unfairly chicken farmers are treated by big chicken processing companies, this is the House committee he highlighted by flashing members’ pictures on the screen (famously hurling the epithet we won’t repeat here). So the good news is that finally, the bill passed by the House committee did not include a provision found in previous years that had blocked the USDA from implementing important measures to protect farmers from unfair and abusive practices by meatpackers and poultry processors. These rules had been stalled since 2011 by a long-standing amendment pushed by the meatpackers and poultry companies.

Although Food & Water Watch and our allied farm organizations successfully pushed to get these measures included in the 2008 Farm Bill, the meatpacker and poultry processing lobby had kept the rules from ever going into effect, often through the limitations they put in previous years’ appropriations bills.

While Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) have been championing this issue for years, the dam began to break starting with John Oliver. And this week, Rep. Kaptur and Farm Aid president Willie Nelson penned a strong op-ed in the Washington Post highlighting the plight of America’s chicken farmers and urging the Appropriations Committee to let USDA get moving to protect chicken farmers.

And contract fairness for farmers wasn’t the only topic the committee dealt with on Wednesday. A few other highlights (and lowlights):

  • The bill contains a provision that would prohibit USDA from purchasing any poultry products from the People’s Republic of China for use in the nutrition programs the department administers, including the National School Lunch Program.
  • The bill contains a provision that prohibits USDA from implementing rules that permit fresh beef imports from Brazil and Argentina until a risk assessment on the presence of foot and mouth disease in those two countries is completed and a report is filed with Congress on the status of their respective meat inspection systems.
  • The bill prohibits the elimination of the USDA catfish inspection program that was established by the 2014 Farm Bill in any trade negotiations with foreign governments.
  • The bill directs FDA to report semi-annually on the status of its investigation of pet illnesses and deaths caused by pet food imported from the People’s Republic of China.
  • The final bill includes cuts in the budget for the Food Safety Inspection Service to reduce inspection workforce to implement a new privatized poultry inspection system that lets chicken companies perform inspection tasks now performed by USDA employees.
  • The bill only provides approximately 40 percent of the requested funds to implement FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act.

But this process isn’t finished. The House Committee dropped the bad pieces of the bill that would block farmer contract protections from being finalized, but they could still show up later on the House floor, in the Senate or somewhere along the long road to the president’s desk. The same holds true for the prohibition against Chinese chicken in school lunches, the reaffirmation of USDA’s catfish inspection, reporting on pet illnesses from Chinese pet treats and the prohibition against beef imports from Argentina and Brazil. And this year could see Congressional gridlock devolve into near government shutdown, as in years past, which means all the good work done this week could get swept away by last minute Congressional deal cutting.

Stay tuned and we’ll tell you when it’s time to weigh in with your members of Congress as the bill moves through the process.

May 15th, 2015

Why The Food Movement Must Build Power

By Wenonah Hauter

WenonahHauter.Profile

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch

Mark Bittman’s recent op-ed on the faults of the food movement provides a great opportunity to discuss how we should be engaging politically to demand a better food system; unfortunately, it misses the mark on why we are making limited progress on food policy issues. While it‘s refreshing to hear a food luminary acknowledge the importance of organizing, as a long time organizer, it’s frustrating to me that he never addresses the fact that winning means building political power. His piece also criticizes the large segment of the movement that has begun to build that political power on labeling GMO foods. This is not a recipe for success.

First off, Bittman questions if there is a food movement. But from the large number of national, state and local organizations and tens of thousands of individuals who are interested in a range of food related issues, it’s clear there is a movement. The real challenge has been translating that movement into building political power. For the most part, food activism has been focused on cultural changes and buying habits, not on building power to hold elected officials accountable for how their votes affect food policy. The emphasis has been on using dollars to vote for better food or corporate campaigns focused on making junk food a little less bad for you.

Granted, people are so disgusted with our political system that embracing a rallying cry about “shopping our way out” of the problem seems easier in the fast-paced environment that most people operate in. But I would argue that if we just focus on making corporations behave a little better, we have missed the chance to push for the systemic change we need. A democracy is based on holding elected officials accountable so that they vote in the public interest. The root cause of the sick food system (and most other economic and social problems) is our weakened democracy.

Changing this means organizing politically at the local and state level, and eventually translating this to electoral work and holding Congress accountable. One of the weaknesses of the food movement and all non-profit issue causes is that there are thousands of groups competing for funds to work on many critical issues. But, unlike right wing forces that have taken over the political system by draping themselves in the legitimacy of religion and the flag while carrying out the political program of the Koch brothers and multinational corporations, progressive forces are fragmented. The food movement suffers from this problem and many of the funding sources for food work are bent on addressing problems in the marketplace, not building political power.

The best way to build this political power is to organize around issues that resonate with people, engage those folks, and begin to develop long term change. Some issues like GMOs and bad labor practices easily resonate with people and lend themselves to political action. These represent exciting and important parts of the food movement, and ones that will win real and meaningful changes that they can see, but also will politicize large numbers of people who will learn more about systemic problems with our food system and democracy, and engage in other issues in the future.

We have seen this happen at the state and local level already. For example, a few years ago we launched a campaign to get arsenic out of chicken feed in Maryland. It took three years and lots of hard on-the-ground work, but, with our allies, we were ultimately successful in passing legislation that was signed by the governor. Now we are building on that to take on larger systemic problems with factory farmed poultry in the state, with legislation we hope to pass and then model across the country. Eventually, after being shamed by grassroots activists for exposing the population to arsenic in food products, the Food & Drug Administration took arsenical drugs off the market nationwide.

This is all hard work that takes education, time and significant resources. Bittman cites the Sierra Club’s work to close coal plants as a model for organizing, yet this is an atypical campaign because of the amount of money they have, which has paid for dozens of organizers and many expensive tactics like advertising and videos. Since 2005, they have received $38.7 million and donors have pledged $60 million more. As insightful and influential as Bittman may be, he cannot dictate the issues that excite people or write a check for the tens of millions of dollars the Sierra Club has had to close coal plants.

Organizing in most cases is about taking an issue that people care deeply about and helping to bring large numbers of people together to give them a collective voice. If it is not an issue that people feel strongly about at the grassroots, it is difficult to move it up the ladder of priorities for people.

Bittman may not think GMO labeling is an important issue, but millions of Americans do. They believe they have a right to know what is in their food and they are skeptical of the process by which GMOs come to market. They know that labeling is a step on the path to more protective measures around GMOs. They know that the GMO companion herbicide has been proven to have a range of health effects and that it should be regulated. Rather than chiding the work being done on GMO labeling, which effectively constitutes running interference for giant corporations like Monsanto, Bittman should be celebrating and supporting their efforts. Corporate and economic consolidation, after all, is at the root of the problems with our food system and the GMO labeling movement takes on one of the strongest and most consolidated industries – seeds. Already a consolidated industry, now Monsanto is pursuing a merger with the giant Swiss agricultural chemical company Syngenta, which will mean even more corporate control of seeds and the chemicals used to grow crops. If any movement to change the food system should be supported it is the movement to take on Monsanto and GMOs.

When activists get involved in organizing around issues, and they win, they get a sense of their own power to make change. They realize that their voice can – even in our broken democracy – make a difference. People who experience wins go on to stay involved. This is how movements are built: one victory at a time. There are many aspects of the food system that must be changed, but a list of issues is not really a program for social change. We need a broader vision for how we are going to build political power.

This blog was updated on May 15 to correct a factual inaccuracy.

April 29th, 2015

California Drought: Will Governor Brown Stop the Biggest Water Abusers?

By Wenonah Hauter and Adam Scow

1504_CA-Drought-BlogThumbBy now, the whole nation is aware that its fruit and vegetable basket, California, is in the fourth year of an unprecedented drought. One NASA scientist recently projected that the state may only have roughly a year’s supply of water left in its reserves. While that number is not entirely cut and dry (pardon the pun), it’s clear that California’s water crisis is real and that solutions are late in coming. For the first time in the Golden State’s history, its Governor, Jerry Brown, has placed mandatory water restrictions on residents and municipalities.

We can all agree that individual water conservation – efficient toilets and washing machines, shorter showers and smarter landscaping – should be expanded and embedded in our culture. But restrictions on households are not enough to dig us out of our water woes. Given that residential and municipal uses account for less than fifteen percent of California’s annual water use, we must ask: who is guzzling California’s water and what should Governor Brown do to rein in these users?

Below we identify some of California’s most egregious water abusers and offer some commonsense steps for Governor Brown’s consideration.

Big Agriculture

The Almond
On the desert-like west side of the San Joaquin Valley, almond orchards stretch as far as the eye can see. But this nut empire is a relative newcomer to the neighborhood: in the past five years, skyrocketing global demand for the cash crop has enabled it to double in size and become the second-biggest water consuming crop in California. The arid climate and selenium-laced soils in this region make it a kind of madness to grow this thirsty crop here, where it takes more than double the water to grow almonds than in Northern California. Agribusiness giants like Beverly Hills-based billionaire Stewart Resnick are raking in profits from these crops, about seventy percent of which are exported overseas. The Westlands Water District, where many of these orchards are based, has pumped more than one-million acre feet of groundwater in the past two years – more water than Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco combined use in a whole year – to produce these nuts, threatening the region’s water supply, and causing the ground to sink as much as a foot per year in some places. What’s more, most of this crop is exported abroad—meaning, effectively, the water is exported along with it.

Factory Farms
Industrialized animal agriculture is notoriously water-intensive. For example, Food & Water Watch estimates that it takes 150 million gallons of water a day to maintain the dairy cows on California’s mega-dairies. That calculation does not include the large quantities of water needed to raise the feed for dairy cows in California or to move manure into storage systems; it is just the water given to cows to drink and used to wash cows and buildings. A lack of available numbers tallying the meat industry’s water use in California presents a problem as the State seeks to tackle the drought crisis.

Alfalfa
Of all crops grown in California, alfalfa uses the single largest share of agricultural water, so it clearly deserves attention. Like almonds, alfalfa is exported overseas, but is also used to feed dairy cows in California. Alfalfa is grown in some of the state’s hottest and driest areas, including the Imperial Valley, and is exported to feed livestock. Interestingly, though, acreage devoted to growing alfalfa in California is expected to shrink 11 percent this year, according to Tom Philpott and Julia Lurie in this recent Mother Jones piece, as the agricultural industry increases production of cash crops like almonds and other “pricey nuts.”

Big Oil

It’s estimated that each year, the oil industry in California uses eighty-two billion gallons of water – enough to supply both San Diego and San Francisco for a year. While agriculture dwarfs the oil industry in terms of overall water use in California – where more than one million people lack access to safe drinking water – it’s well-documented that the industry’s dirty practices like fracking, acidizing and cyclic steam injection are permanently contaminating and destroying water California can’t afford to lose. What’s more, recent reports have brought to light that this industry has been illegally injecting billions of gallons of its wastewater into protected drinking water aquifers.

Bottled Water

California is home to over 100 bottled water facilities that every year bottle millions of gallons of water for private profit. In Sacramento it is estimated that each year, the notorious multinational water hog, Nestlé, pumps around fifty million gallons of local groundwater to be bottled and sold for 1,000 times the cost of tap water. Nestlé pays just shy of $1.00 per 748 gallons of water it taps from Sacramento’s municipal water supply, then resells it for thousands of times more in environmentally damaging plastic bottles. While Food & Water Watch has always opposed bottled water, during a historic drought the moral imperative for ending this practice is crystal clear.

Solutions

As he calls on California’s 38 million residents to conserve, Governor Brown must also take bold action to rein in uses by these corporate water abusers. The Governor oversees the State Water Board, which is empowered under the California constitution to manage water for the public good. To serve that imperative, Governor Brown should quickly take the following first steps:

  1. Align California agricultural production with the realities of the State’s water supply. The State routinely promises water users, including industrial agricultural users, five times more surface water than it can provide. The State must reduce demands to meet the reality of California’s water supply.
  2. Manage groundwater as a public resource to prevent depletion. The State, albeit poorly, manages surface water for the public good, but groundwater – the State’s water savings account for future generations – is largely managed privately. The State should start with immediate, sensible restrictions on groundwater pumping. In the long-term, the State should retire from production the toxic, arid lands on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley that we do not have the water to support and compensate producers fairly for their losses.
  3. Place an immediate moratorium on fracking and the bottling of California’s water for private profit.

It’s Californians’ job to exercise their democratic rights, starting with signing this petition urging the Governor to take these bold actions. While some have suggested that people boycott almonds or make other changes in their diet, the realities of the global food system are such that corporate agribusiness will continue to abuse our water and simply export the crops we wouldn’t be buying. In other words, we can’t shop our way out of the crisis.

It’s time for Jerry Brown to exercise courageous leadership that fixes the long-time mismanagement and corporate abuse of water that threatens the future of California’s economy and agriculture. There are no easy shortcuts: the governor must govern.

Wenonah Hauter is the Executive Director of Food & Water Watch, and Adam Scow is the organization’s California Director. 

April 1st, 2015

Antibiotic Resistance: Why Senator Michael Bennet is on the Wrong Path

Jeremy.pic.ABX.blog.36

Jeremy, of Denver, is one of millions of Americans who have struggled with antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.

by Lisa Trope

Colorado Senator Michael Bennet can help protect the health of all Americans by sponsoring the Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act (PARA), a bill seeking to curb dangerous factory farming practices that undermine the effectiveness of the hammer in our medical toolkit – antibiotics. While Senator Bennet has recently introduced a bill to streamline the approval of new antibiotics – Promise for Antibiotics and Therapeutics for Health Act, or PATH – it doesn’t adequately address the overuse of antibiotics. Unless he changes course and sponsors PARA, stories like Jeremy’s are likely to become more common.

Jeremy, who lives in Denver, was a healthy thirty-two year-old when he found himself in the hospital unable to walk. Earlier that day, while out on his dry cleaning delivery route, he felt a sharp pain in his left knee. An hour later, he was favoring his right leg. After two hours, he was in full limp mode and his knee was red. Four hours passed and “I couldn’t walk on the leg at all,” Jeremy said. “Too much pain when I tried. It’d collapse under my weight.” Which brings us to the hospital.

“I had no cuts, no abrasions, but nonetheless some type of bacteria managed to enter through my knee,” said Jeremy. “The language got medically technical, but what I had was an extremely aggressive bacterial infection in my leg.” Doctors concluded that the bacteria entered Jeremy’s body while he was kneeling in the back of his work truck; they acted quickly, putting Jeremy on antibiotics.

It soon became clear that the antibiotics weren’t working. The infection spread. “Somewhere during the medical melee,” said Jeremy, “a professional conveyed that if they [antibiotics] couldn’t beat the infection, it could mean the loss of my leg. Meaning amputation. It was also conveyed that if it got into my blood stream, then I could die.”

Jeremy couldn’t understand how this all happened so fast. A handful of doctors began the process of mixing antibiotic cocktails that they believed would be the most effective at fighting the infection. In time, the doctors narrowed down the recipe to two antibiotics, with one crowned the eventual winner; to this day the doctors don’t know which one saved Jeremy’s life.

Jeremy is alive and well today, but stories like his have become too common. Why do two million people like Jeremy all across the country fall ill, and 23,000 die each year from infections that for decades have been treated effectively with antibiotics?

What’s the problem?
Antibiotics have long been prescribed improperly to people and livestock animals as a preventive measure. That’s not how they’re supposed to be used. This abuse is creating “superbugs” – bacteria that are not killed off by antibiotics like they once were. That’s why Jeremy’s infection got out of control.

It is shocking that 80 percent of antibiotics sold in the United States are not prescribed to people, but fed in low daily does to animals on factory farms to compensate for overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. This wrong-headed practice creates the perfect conditions for superbugs to grow, thrive and spread.

PARA is the solution
Senators have introduced a bill to address this growing public health threat. The Preventing Antibiotic Resistance Act (PARA) would allow farmers to give animals antibiotics when they’re sick, but not on a daily basis in their feed and water. It is critical for the Senate to pass PARA.

Senator Bennet is on the wrong PATH
Colorado Senator Michael Bennet seems concerned about antibiotics, but he’s taken the wrong PATH to solve the problem. Bennet has introduced the Promise for Antibiotics and Therapeutics for Health Act, or PATH. PATH helps the pharmaceutical industry create new antibiotics by speeding up their approval process. Unless we address the abuse of antibiotics on factory farms, bacteria will continue to develop antibiotic resistance. It will only be a matter of time until new antibiotics become resistant and no longer work for people; the number of people each year who contract and die from antibiotic resistant bacteria could continue to rise.

Tell Senator Bennet to Sponsor PARA
No one should have to go through the scare that Jeremy and millions of other Americans have experienced. In order to protect Coloradans like Jeremy, in order to protect all Americans, Senator Bennet must be a true public health champion and help fix the root of the problem. Take action today to ask Senator Bennet to sponsor PARA to end antibiotic abuse on factory farms.

October 3rd, 2014

Making Big Ag Bigger Is Not “Climate-Smart”

By Genna Reed GMO_Farming_BlogThumb

Combatting climate change was on everyone’s radar recently when the United Nations (UN) Climate Change Summit spurred the White House, governments and food corporations to pledge to make changes to address the biggest environmental concern of our time, specifically with respect to agriculture. Led in part by corporate behemoths like Walmart and McDonald’s, a new project was born out of this summit: the UN’s Global Alliance for “Climate-Smart Agriculture” (CSA). Read the full article…

September 23rd, 2014

How your Tax Dollars are Helping Distort the GMO-Labeling Debate

By Tim Schwab

GMO_Farming_BlogThumbThese days, one of the biggest debates around food concerns labeling genetically engineered foods. State-level ballot initiatives and legislative efforts to require labeling of GMOs have sprung up in more than twenty states, with Connecticut, Maine and Vermont already declaring victories for consumers by mandating labeling.

Yet our nation’s taxpayer-funded cooperative extension program, created by Congress 100 years ago with a mission to conduct education and outreach around important agricultural topics, has been largely silent in the raging public debate. If so desired, the USDA and our fifty states could marshal their army of extension officers and specialists to weigh in on GMO labeling. Perhaps wisely, extension has not taken a position.

However, individual extension employees are speaking out, and in the places where extension pops up in the GMO-labeling debate, it’s almost always taking the side of the biotechnology industry, using industry studies and talking points to make their case. Extension specialists from the University of California are speaking out about how GMO labeling will increase the cost of food or will discourage consumers from eating healthy food. Extension officers from Cornell University and the University of Connecticut call consumers uninformed or emotional, then proceed to recite industry spin about GMOs.

Such statements not only evidence a bias toward industry, they also are grossly inaccurate and highly misleading. Let’s examine the argument regarding higher costs associated with GMO labeling, the main talking point of industry-funded lobbying campaigns against labeling efforts. Such claims are undergirded not by independent science, but by industry-funded studies. This spring, the biotechnology industry funded a Cornell University professor to conduct a study that found—surprise—that GMO labeling will increase costs for consumers.

While the University of California’s extension highlights the findings of industry studies, it ignores those funded by GMO-labeling advocates or independent sources, which arrive at different conclusions.

Indeed, the GMO labeling debate sure would sound different if extension asserted itself as an impartial disseminator of information, noting that independent studies often show that labeling GMOs will not substantially increase the price of food for consumers, while those studies funded by industry groups, which have a financial interest in prohibiting labeling, show the opposite.

Or what if extension officers instead noted that sixty-four nations require GMO labeling or that many countries have banned or restricted production of GMOs? They could also mention that there is no scientific consensus on the safety of GMOs, and independent researchers have long complained that industry restricts independent research.

The law that created extension charged it with disseminating “useful and practical” information about agriculture to the public, but extension officers are only telling one side of the story on GMOs, that of industry, which is neither useful, nor practical—nor accurate. And the public debate on this controversial issue has suffered for it.

Want to learn more about the 100-year anniversary of extension? Check out the rest of the series here.

September 12th, 2014

Where Corporate Agribusiness Meets Cooperative Extension

By Tim Schwab

Agriculture(2)As this series of blogs in recent weeks has shown, cooperative extension has come a long way since its founding in 1914, when county agents diligently reached out to farmers to address their needs and offer impartial advice on best practices. On its centennial anniversary, extension appears to avoid addressing some of agriculture’s most pressing needs, especially the economic challenges farmers face from intense corporate concentration. Elsewhere, cooperative extension acts as an advocate for the biotechnology industry, offering farmers and consumers biased materials and information about the so-called benefits and necessity of GMOs.

Today’s piece considers the explicit ways that extension, which is facing eroding federal support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is reaching out to industry as an active partner and funder of its activities, resulting in projects that aren’t clearly in the public interest. Some of the most egregious examples come from industry support for extension programs about consumer nutrition. Recent highlights include:

The corporate influence also extends to extension programs designed for farmers:

  • The CEO of Tyson Foods donated $3.2 million to endow a professorship at the University of Tennessee that will work on international programs through extension “to find solutions to encourage less-equipped societies to maximize available resources in an effort to provide better nutrition for all of Earth’s inhabitants.”

These examples illustrate the financial ties between industry and extension that could compromise extension’s ability to carry out its role as an impartial source of information and advice to farmers and consumers. Indeed, as this series of blogs has shown, on the most pressing topics of modern agriculture, extension is too often absent or advocating industry positions—and not standing up for farmers and consumers.

On the 100-year anniversary of extension, which follows the 150-year anniversary of our land-grant university system, it’s time that we take a good, hard look at the priorities and mission of our public agriculture infrastructure. Do these public institutions fulfill the role and mission that Congress intended? Do they still serve the public first and foremost?

August 29th, 2014

Extension’s Role, and Retreat, in Improving Farmers’ Bottom Lines

By Tim Schwab

IMG_3898Alabama’s Farm Analysis Program represents the best of what our nation’s “extension” program can be — utilizing the technical expertise of land-grant universities to improve farmer livelihoods. Extension, which this summer celebrates its centennial and is the subject of a series of blogs from Food & Water Watch, uses programs like this to connect farmers with university experts, in this case trained economists who conduct careful financial analyses of farm income.

Importantly, universities benefit as much from the program as farmers. From PhD students working on a graduate research to economics professors publishing peer-reviewed articles, academics have used the valuable data produced from the Farm Analysis Program to further their research and propose economic policy changes to help farmers.

This is especially the case for data about poultry production, where little meaningful, independent, financial data related to on-farm income is available. As Auburn University Professor Robert Taylor has noted, Alabama’s Farm Analysis Program “maintains the only set of consistent records on the actual economics of contract poultry production.”

Using this data, Taylor in 2002 highlighted the gross inequalities that exist in the poultry industry, concluding: “Farm business records show that contract producers who once had acceptable income from their poultry operations now put a few hundred thousand dollars of equity, and borrow several hundred thousand more to hire themselves at minimum wage with no benefits and no real rate of return on their equity. Yet integrators [large chicken processing companies] continue to earn 10-25% rates of return on equity.”

Ten years on, the problem is much worse. Most money generated from poultry production—including that from the 100 million chickens produced each year in Alabama—ends up in the coffers of one of a handful of corporate chicken companies while farmers exist on razor-thin margins, one or two bad flocks away from losing the farm.

Business journalist Chris Leonard’s new book “The Meat Racket” brilliantly describes the abuse and economic exploitation that poultry growers suffer under the thumb of companies like Tyson. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice’s antitrust enforcement office offered a cursory acknowledgement of anti-competitive practices in the poultry industry with a public workshop at Alabama A&M in 2010, which has spurred talk of possible action from Congress and the USDA.

With the public spotlight finally shining on the rampant abuses in the poultry industry, it’s an awfully odd time for Alabama to jettison the Farm Analysis Program, as it did last May. An extension officer there told me that the state decided to shift resources to broader educational efforts. Farmers can still take classes on how to use QuickBooks and learn the basics of agricultural accounting, he told me, but extension now has greater time and flexibility to perform a range of functions that serve the public interest. But consider the public value that’s been lost with the demise of the “only set of consistent records on the actual economics of contract poultry production.”

The kind of economic concentration that exists in the chicken industry also exists elsewhere in the food system, with a handful of companies selling most of the seeds and agrochemicals, slaughtering most of the pigs and cattle, processing most food products, and selling food to consumers at grocery stores. This system greatly enriches the handful of companies at the top, but hurts farmers, workers, communities and consumers.

So, where is extension on this issue? Largely absent. This, again, raises questions about how relevant this institution is today, and to what extent extension is fulfilling  the mission Congress laid out for it in 1914. All too often, extension avoids the most pressing economic and social issues facing farmers.

Stay tuned for Food & Water Watch’s continuing analysis of the hundred-year anniversary of cooperative extension.

August 27th, 2014

100 Years of Cooperative Extension: Using Research to Improve Lives (at Least in Theory)

By Tim Schwab

AgricultureThis summer marks the 100-year anniversary of cooperative extension, maybe the oldest federal agricultural program you’ve never heard of. Awkwardly named, “extension” was established by Congress in 1914 to help disseminate the groundbreaking agricultural research produced by our public, land-grant universities.

In its earliest years, extension showed its potential to shape American agriculture, partnering with farmers, consumers and universities to develop and share best products and practices. That same potential exists today, but eroding federal support and growing corporate influence threaten to undermine it. Through a series of blogs in the weeks ahead, we’ll examine whether extension today is fulfilling its original mission set by Congress.

As extension turns 100, state programs around the country are celebrating their early successes. The University of Florida is highlighting the work of extension to inoculate hogs during a cholera epidemic in 1915. The University of Arizona, only two-years of age when extension came into force, is reflecting on extension’s important role in “…bringing science to bear on practical problems…and help[ing] transform this land that we call Arizona from a raw wild western frontier of 100 years ago into the vibrant place we call Arizona today…”

Fast-forward 100 years, and the “science” really is bearing down on our broken food system, as technologies like GMOs and the factory farm model dominate American agriculture and the public health and environmental consequences of this system become ever more apparent.

Yet, you can still find good examples of extension working to improve our food system. Organic food production, one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture, is getting some love from extension through a program called eOrganic, designed to share best practices with organic producers via the internet. In addition, many land-grant schools, including Cornell, Iowa State and the University of Georgia, conduct outreach through their extension offices on organic agriculture.

Many states also now offer much-needed assistance to small and mid-sized animal producers through a program called the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network.Because a handful of companies now slaughter and sell most of the cattle, pigs and poultry in the United States, small producers struggle to find the USDA-inspected slaughter facilities necessary for processing animals for commercial markets. By promoting innovative programs like mobile slaughter units that bring the abattoir to the farm and training programs on food safety rules, this extension program helps smaller producers get a fighting chance to enter a marketplace controlled by a handful of meatpackers.

While these efforts are valuable and indicative of the power and potential of extension to transform agriculture, they are also, unfortunately, too rare, and they don’t get at the most pressing problems in agriculture, like growing corporate power. That’s because the public mission that Congress intended for our land-grant universities and extension offices has been weakened or reinterpreted over the decades, and cooperative extension today appears to do as much, or more, to help corporate agribusiness as it does to help farmers.

Mending our broken food system also requires fixing the outreach efforts of extension and the research agenda of our land-grant universities. Stay tuned for more about that in the weeks ahead, but, in the meantime, take a look at Food & Water Watch’s report, Public Research, Private Gain.

August 22nd, 2014

Hyporkrisy

Meet Scott Edwards of Food & Water WatchBy Scott Edwards

The meat industry knows no shame, and you can put the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) at the top of the list.

Back in 1985 Congress enacted a law that placed a fee on every hog farmer and exporter in the country. The money taken from farmers went into the National Pork Board (NPB), which in turn funneled a considerable amount of the funds to the NPPC. In 2000, NPPC received $36.5 million of the $48.1 million NPB spending budget raised from these required payments. This NPPC pigs-at-the-trough funding scheme became known as the “check-off” program.

In 1999 a group called the Campaign for Family Farms (CFF) submitted a petition to USDA signed by over 19,000 hog farmers in the country who wanted to get rid of the mandatory NPB payments and replace it with a voluntary check-off program. NPPC promptly filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with USDA asking for the names and addresses of producers who signed the petition so they could compile a list of people who threatened their check-off cash cow.

When CFF went to federal court in Minnesota to stop USDA from releasing the petition list, NPPC intervened in the case and tried to force disclosure of the information. The court, though, denied NPPC access to the list of anti-check-off farmers. Undeterred, NPPC took their case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the higher court also sent NPPC packing, stating “[t]o make public such an unequivocal statement of their position on the referendum effectively would vitiate petitioners’ privacy interest in a secret ballot.”

Fast forward to today, and NPPC has a very different view about disclosure of names and addresses of the country’s pork producers.

In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) succumbed to political pressure and withdrew a proposed rule to collect baseline information from highly polluting industrial meat operations. EPA’s knowledge of this industry, which contributes significantly to nutrient impairment of waterways across the country, is so abysmal that the agency can’t even tell us how many facilities exist or where they’re located. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Chesapeake Bay, to Toledo, Ohio where the city’s citizens just recently had their drinking water taken from them because of algae blooms in Lake Erie, communities across the nation suffer from the irresponsible dumping of excess animal manure from these facilities, while EPA wrings its hands.

After EPA’s improper abandonment, a group of environmental organizations filed a FOIA asking for all the documents that EPA relied on to withdraw the rule. Included in the documents were a number of spreadsheets culled from publicly available state databases and websites that listed the names and addresses of many of these factory farms.

Predictably, NPPC threw a fit when this public information was released. NPPC president R.C. Hunt said he felt “betrayed” by the disclosure. Press statements by NPPC and other industry groups verged on hysteria, invoking empty claims of “eco terrorism” and “dangerous militants.” Their uncontrolled fear mongering stopped just short of asking for the Administration to place the nation on red alert.

Last summer, NPPC walked back into the same Minnesota court that sent them back to D.C. with their tails between their legs in 2000 and asked the judge to issue an order to prevent EPA from disclosing the names and addresses of these industrial facilities, the very same type of information they went into court in 2000 seeking to obtain for themselves.

In their recent filing with the Minnesota court, NPPC suggests that the 8th Circuit’s 2000 ruling supports their newly invented position that the disclosure of names and address of industrial farms are disallowed because of “privacy” concerns. But that’s not what the court said. It’s not names and addresses of farms that the court held to be subject to a “privacy interest,” but the check-off program opinion of hog farmers reflected in the “secret ballot.”

Hypocrisy is nothing new to the meat industry. Industrial agriculture, which relies heavily on federal and state taxpayer subsidies while denouncing any governmental interference in their non-control of their vast pollution problem, literally lives off hypocrisy. Their latest hypocritical position on farm data disclosure is not based on any noble notion of sanctity of farmers; they proved they don’t give a damn about that in 2000. Back in 2000, disclosure was good because they were fighting hog farmers who were threatening their funding. Today, it’s bad because they’re fighting environmentalists who are concerned about the adverse impact from modern industrial agriculture on our waterways, communities and public health.

That contradiction tells you where NPPC’s real interests lie. It’s not about farming, or farmers, or about being responsible and accountable; it’s all about using whatever tactic is necessary, including attacking its own base, ignoring the facts and instilling fear to maintain NPPC’s funding and political power.

 

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