The most unequal place in America

I read this article yesterday on the train returning from Manhattan….a place with its own unique inequalities.

It is remarkable. As concisely as I’ve ever seen it, John Sutter of CNN demonstrates the moral and ethical absurdity of our current economy and the cultural biases that result from an absurd economy.

He also strikes at the heart of conservative commodity farmers’ incredibly bizarre attitude toward SNAP and other social programs. These folks have gotten wealthy on USDA financial protections (and that includes both commodity protections and conservation programs).

Please pass this article around.

The CNN Report

Industrial Agriculture and Feeding the World

When critics of industrial agriculture complain that today’s food production is too big and too dependent on pesticides, that it damages the environment and delivers mediocre food, there’s a line that farmers offer in response: We’re feeding the world.

It’s high-tech agriculture’s claim to the moral high ground. Farmers say they farm the way they do to produce food as efficiently as possible to feed the world.

The NPR Article

Another example of one ‘kind’ of folks trying to think for another ‘kind’ of folks.

Also, an example of how simple minded paradigms are easier for political salesmanship than complex, local economies. My intuition says that robust local food economies in all of the world’s little places would be more resilient to population growth impacts (and other food risk factors) than our current wealth concentrating grain and livestock economies.

The Folks Who Sell You Corn Flakes….

…Take the grain titan Cargill. The largest private company in the U.S., Cargill has gathered and shipped a bulk of the world’s supply of wheat and corn for more than 100 years. Nowadays, however, Cargill also sells billions in derivatives to food companies, and runs two massive hedge funds, managing more than $14 billion for investors. Or take Louis Dreyfus, another major grain trader. In 2008, Dreyfus launched its own fund enabling investors to bet on food prices. By 2011, the fund had grown so fast it stopped accepting new money.

The New Republic Article

“There is no regulation of physical [commodity] markets,” said Mike Masters, founder of Better Markets and a hedge fund manager in Atlanta. “It’s the Wild West, they can do whatever they want and nobody knows.”

Chinese Chicken, Food Safety, and USDA

Here’s a bit of news that might make you drop that chicken nugget midbite.

Just before the start of the long holiday weekend last Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture quietly announced that it was ending a ban on processed chicken imports from China. The kicker: These products can now be sold in the U.S. without a country-of-origin label.

For starters, just four Chinese processing plants will be allowed to export cooked chicken products to the U.S., as first reported by Politico. The plants in question passed USDA inspection in March. Initially, these processors will only be allowed to export chicken products made from birds that were raised in the U.S. and Canada. Because of that, the poultry processors won’t be required to have a USDA inspector on site, as The New York Times notes, adding:

“And because the poultry will be processed, it will not require country-of-origin labeling. Nor will consumers eating chicken noodle soup from a can or chicken nuggets in a fast-food restaurant know if the chicken came from Chinese processing plants.”

Earlier in the week I reported on the concerns that small farmers have about the newly proposed FDA food safety regulations. Now I read the USDA allows CHINESE poultry processing plants to convert American or Canadian chickens (chickens raised 2,000 miles from the processor) and to market them WITHOUT country-of-origin labeling. The Chinese processor will also NOT need a poultry processing inspector on site.

Don’t get me wrong…I want all the people of the world to prosper and be healthy…and the Chinese are part of ‘all the people of the world’.

Call me crazy, but combining what I know about the new FDA proposed food safety regulations with what I know about this recent USDA ruling….I think the American political leaders on food and agriculture look like fools.

Again I’m going to go out on a political limb – but it does not appear that these policies are being driven by government decision-making in the public interest.

And there is more:

And, chicken lovers, brace yourselves: There’s more. A report suggests chicken inspections here in the U.S. might be poised to take a turn for the worse. The Government Accountability Office report said this week it has serious “questions about the validity” of the new procedures for inspecting poultry across the country.

Basically, these changes would replace many USDA inspectors on chicken processing lines with employees from the poultry companies themselves. The USDA has been piloting the new procedures, which will save money and significantly speed up processing lines, in 29 chicken plants. As The Washington Post , the plan is to roll out the new procedures eventually to “most of the country’s 239 chicken and 96 turkey plants.”

The problem? According to the GAO, the USDA did a poor job of evaluating the effectiveness of the pilot programs it has in place.

As a result, the report concludes, it’s hard to justify the USDA’s conclusions that the new procedures will do a better job than current approaches at cutting down on the number of dangerous bacteria like salmonella that pop up on the birds that will later end up on our dinner tables.


Here is the NPR Report

Here is one of the many comments at the NPR Report (I find it too cynical, but the reference to food as ‘protein’ is totally valid commentary on our industrial food industry’s mechanistic view of what nourishes us.)

I think US-Based poultry producers are playing The Long Game here, looking for a quid pro quo from China hoping it will now open its doors to US produced chicken – it’s all about the money – Agra-producers of protein need to push the cheapest possible product out to the largest number of consumers, regardless of the ethical questions of how the animals are raised or slaughtered, regardless of the conditions of the workers who do the processing, and regardless of the safety of product that finds it’s way onto the tables of our families. It’s about a Machine that processes protein worldwide for mass consumption at the lowest possible unit cost. It’s about how Industry’s money subverts the safety process via purchased politicians. It’s going to happen, and there’s nothing you or I or anyone else can do about it.

Here is the USDA Ruling on the Chinese Processors.

And, by the way, I think there ARE things you and I can do about these food ethics issues!

Small Farmers and New Food Safety Rules

Proposed new food safety rules are troubling to small farmers. Driven by some recent (since 2006) food contamination and disease issues, the FDA has proposed new rules for food safety.

This morning, NPR did this report.

One of the comments on NPR’s website reflects my concern:

Small farmers should continue to push back–harder and harder. As the owner of a small independent pharmacy, I deal with regulations that are designed to stop fraud, but do absolutely nothing but increase my paperwork. Just to sell a few blood glucose test strips to Medicare patients, I would have to be “accredited”. That means paying an accrediting agency thousands of dollars AND producing hundreds of pages of handbooks that do nothing. For my five employees (including myself) administrative documentation and mandatory redundant training wastes untold hours.

I fear that food costs could go the way of medical costs: documentation and “CYA” will make it unaffordable.

Although I have not done any research on the past food safety data, it appears from media attention that the most significant problems are from large scale agriculture, and the time delays and transportation involved in large scale food distribution.

That all farmers should exhibit good food safety practices makes complete sense…that the FDA creates an entirely new bureaucratic regulatory framework for common sense food practices at a small scale makes no sense.

My guess is competent research would show that good food safety risk management would show the greatest risks – by far – are with large scale agriculture and food processing.

My second guess is that additional regulatory processes and paperwork would only marginally reduce risks in large scale agriculture and food processing – even if the FDA were going to adequately staff and enforce regulations (which I think is extremely difficult in our current economy).

Small Farmers and Environmental Benefits

Many of today’s young farmers (and a good number of older, thoughtful small operators) are committed to farming in a manner that creates minimal environmental harm (I think any human land use, by definition, creates environmental and ecological change to the landscape)…and produces substantial environmental benefits.

Unfortunately, most communities do not provide financial support for these new, small farm environmental benefits. Already in a financially stressed situation, small farmers could realize real improvements in their economy if communities began to 1) value the environmental benefits provided by sustainable small farms, and 2) pay small farmers for the community assets they are creating year after year.

USDA, through its NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service), provides incentive payments to farmers. The payments, however, are to address resource concerns…correct an environmental harm or environmental problem (the farmer allows his livestock to pasture in a stream area…NRCS pays for fencing and stream restoration).

With two partner organizations (New Urban Farmers in Pawtucket, RI and the African Alliance Growers Collaborative in Providence, RI) we’ve been working to 1) determine the agro-ecological areas where small farmers are creating environmental benefits, 2) analyze if any of the eco-benefits fit into the structure of USDA NRCS conservation practices and practice payments, 3) if appropriate, expand the payments USDA NRCS is making to small farmers to better align their incentives with the work of small, organic, and urban growers, and 4) examine how other community based agricultural organizations (primarily state conservation districts) might create funds to ‘invest’ in small farm environmental asset building.

From our research, there are six areas where small farmers are creating substantial environmental benefits:

1) Improving the physical, chemical, and biological conditions of soil through compost, mulch, manure, and remineralization practices.

2) Managing nutrients to protect from runoff, improve air quality, and improve production characteristics.

3) Managing weeds and pests with natural methods that improve plant communities/wildlife habitat, enhance the quality of forage, and control pests.

4) Managing water for water control, irrigation, runoff, and water harvesting.

5) Managing farm infrastructure for conservation improvements – tree and shrub establishment, vegetative barriers, etc.

6) Managing farm energy uses to reduce energy use, and improve energy efficiency.

Small farmers are utilizing both novel methods (those developed in the last 30 to 50 years through biodynamic -realizing its’ non-scientific aspects – and permaculture practices utilizing new ecological science) – as well as revisiting old, natural farming processes – to realize their sustainability goals.

These benefits not only increase their farm productivity, they also improve environmental qualities in their communities. They are becoming an increasingly responsible ‘underground’ community of economic asset builders related to those environmental improvements.

Young Farmers Break The Bank…Continued…3% Of Your Wealth

In the last post, I recommended rethinking how your savings, investments, pensions, etc. are being utilized. Most conventional investment mechanisms used by Wall Street do little to diversify wealth and expand social equity (many would say today’s financial markets do quite the opposite – they are, in essence, wealth concentrators). Invest 3% of your wealth in local farmers and food enterprises….and advocate that your community’s institutions, foundations, etc. do the same!

Rhode Island has two major foundations, The Rhode Island Foundation and The Champlin Foundations. Both foundations had above $500 million in assets. I am not familiar with the investment management of The Champlin Foundations.

The Rhode Island Foundation contracts their investment management to a private consulting firm who in turn contracts with other investment advisory firms to manage particular industry/area portfolios. There is no overriding social responsibility criteria to their consultant (I’m certain, I requested it and their only social responsibility actions are to contract with a consultant who advises them how to vote on proxy issues). There is no overriding agro-ecological responsibility criteria.

I have requested a list of their investments and did not receive a reply (although I did receive a long email from their CEO defending their investment behavior).

May I suggest you write to the major private and public foundations and retirement funds in your community/state and ask them 1) if they have social responsibility criteria for their investments, 2) if they have agro-ecological responsibility criteria for their investments, and 3) if they have a list of their investments on a given recent date that they might provide to you.

Please ask them to consider investing 3% of their wealth in sustainable, socially responsible, local farm and food ventures.

Young Farmers Break The Bank…Continued

At the same time that – across the country – restaurants and thoughtful households are demanding local, nutritious, sustainably-grown food, the economy and financial infrastructure for small farmers is feeble and immature. That is especially true for new and socially disadvantaged farmers.

Changing the small farm financial infrastructure is critical to expanding local food production, improving household nutrition, and reducing healthcare costs. USDA through the Farm Service Administration has rethought the FSA loan program to provide more opportunities for small and new farmers. USDA Rural Development has become much more sensitive and helpful to the needs of socially disadvantaged small farmers.

What else can we do?…a few thoughts and suggestions:

1) Small farmers need routes to ownership for their land (we’re doing a tiny bit here with a RI farmland fund). Communities across the nation need to rediscover their small bank infrastructure and use it to build local farm assets.

2) We should pay small farmers for the environmental goods they produce. I’m not talking about correcting resource problems…I’m advocating for local systems for incentive payments to small farmers that build ecosystem assets for themselves and their neighbors.

3) Communities need to begin rebuilding the small farm services infrastructure that existed until perhaps fifty years ago. It’s not a romantic notion to rebuild small farm economies in every community in America…it’s good economic sense!

4) Eat thoughtfully (I’m borrowing from Wendell Berry on this one). We can be the best advocate for the local farm community by buying food and farm products in a thoughtful manner.

5) Establish the educational infrastructure necessary to use the talents of refugee socially disadvantaged populations – who many times have significant farming skills. Language and business/financial education is critical to the success of these new citizens.

6) Rethink how your savings, investments, pensions, etc. are being utilized. Most conventional investment mechanisms used by Wall Street do little to diversify wealth and expand social equity (many would say today’s financial markets do quite the opposite – they are, in essence, wealth concentrators). Invest 3% of your wealth in local farmers and food enterprises….and advocate that your community’s institutions, foundations, etc. do the same!

7) Resist working in thoughtless environments. If your work is not meaningful and honest, find a local farmer or food provider and hook up!

8) Demand honest, sincere, timely decisions from your government representatives. If they are not honest, sincere, and timely, elect someone else. Our current American governmental institutions resist meaningful, important changes that will make us all healthier and happier…we need to work with our neighbors to demand new social policies and institutions that better ensure opportunity for all!

Young Farmers Break The Bank Before They Get To The Field

As the average age of the American farmer has crept up to 60, fewer young people are filling in the ranks behind them. That’s prompted some to ask if young people even want to farm anymore.

The quick answer is yes, just not in the same numbers as they used to. And surveys indicate many of them don’t want to farm in conventional ways.

A 2011 from the National Young Farmers Coalition showed access to land and capital to be the single biggest factors keeping young people from getting into farming or ranching. The survey also indicated young people are concerned about the environment — they’re “generation organic” — and interested in small-scale operations.

But it can be difficult to turn dreams of a farm life into reality.

The NPR Article