I don't recall nearly as intense a reaction to Bill Clinton's or George Bush's nominees for secretary of agriculture. Either food and farm issues are more salient now than they used to be, or I am noticing it more because Barack Obama is tapping an Iowan to head the USDA.
You may have watched the video to your right. If you haven't, it's Barack Obama's recent address on his commitment to fighting global climate change. Other than the 'clean' coal business, it sounds very reassuring if you spend a lot of time worrying about the environment.
Still, when I say, "the environment," I do remember the areas and issue sets I used to think about when someone else said that: waste from heavy industry, urban air quality, water pollution (via manufacturing, chemical dumping and road runoff in urban areas), bad logging practices, and wilderness reserves. But the environment includes the whole planet, including that half of the land mass (give or take) devoted to food and fiber production for human uses. Agriculture is the largest source of what's called non-point water pollution, basically runoff from large areas, and the primary cause of the enormous ocean dead zones at the mouths of our rivers. It's a major factor in soil erosion, and depending on who you ask, may be responsible for nearly 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.
It's simply impossible to fix our environmental problems as a whole without taking agriculture into account. Further, agriculture, as one of the few professions that remains heavily weather dependent, is already taking hits from global climate disruption. Global grain productivity is already dropping in the face of droughts and warmer weather, which is leading farmers to further overuse rapidly depleting sources of fresh water, while common land management practices further diminish the availability of that water.
The major agribusiness consortiums are peddling all sorts of snake oil to supposedly address these crises, as well as the global hunger problem. But their solutions are retreads of the Green Revolution strategy that substituted petrochemical fertilizer and broadly damaging pesticides for soil-building, and patented hybrid crops for locally adapted varieties.
The Green Revolution did temporarily solve the world's calorie shortage. But it did so by adding to the 20th Century's orgy of mass extinction, leading to the destruction of both small farms and food varietal breeds:
... Even before we've been able to take stock of the enormous diversity that today exists -- from undescribed microbes to undocumented tongues -- this epidemic carries away an entire human language every two weeks, destroys a domesticated food-crop variety every six hours, and kills off an entire species every few minutes.
... A world increasingly calibrated on consumption, efficiency, and convenience is perhaps most apparent in modern industrial agriculture, which churns out mass quantities of food but also demands ever greater uniformity and standardization. And deep flaws within the system are beginning to show. This year a potent mix of drought, flooding, high fuel prices, and an increased developing-world demand for meat caused supplies of many staple crops to plummet and their prices to surge. But as scientists and farmers consider how to breed and engineer the next generation of higher-yielding, climate-resilient plants, they confront an alarmingly shallow gene pool. Addressing the audience at the World Food Summit in May, Alexander Müller, assistant director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, warned that most of the global food supply had narrowed to just a dozen crops and 14 animal species. According to the FAO, three-quarters of the world's critically important food-crop varieties have disappeared during the 20th century, and hundreds of locally adapted livestock breeds are on the verge of doing so. "The erosion of biodiversity for food and agriculture severely compromises global food security," said Müller. ...
Add the very new wrinkle that the genetically modified corn that's a crown jewel of modern agribusiness has been linked in a study to longterm decreases in fertility. Dr. Sandra Steingraber, author of "Living Downstream", (can't find my copy this morning for her exact figures, grumble) has also noted that during spraying season, miscarriage rates go up significantly in farm country. As Steingraber suggested once, whatever your position on reproductive choice, and she supports it, reducing people's fertility against their will or knowledge wrongly denies people their own decisions.
Corn found new popularity as a crop after legislators fell in love with ethanol. Now the distilleries are going down and changing hands at an alarming rate. The ethanol boom has already been blamed by UN leaders for raising global food prices, though farmers were looking forward to getting their production costs met on the open market at long last. (I will mention briefly here that subsidies pushing grain prices below production costs have driven a lot of developing world farmers out of business, and now that prices are high, their communities are deprived of that production and the farmers themselves can't always afford to buy what they used to grow.)
Also, under Bush, further choices about managing agricultural productivity and human health have been foreclosed. Farmers have been saying that, for them, the Great Depression II began a few years ago and rates of farm closure have gone up precipitously. (The acreage doesn't always go out of farming, but if it isn't eaten by suburb development, it's often consolidated into a larger operation.) The current administration has all but stopped enforcing fair market competition rules, allowing large purchasers to enact pricing and contract models that bankrupt small operations:
... [John Crabtree of the Center for Rural Affairs] said that an audit requested by Iowa's Senators, Harkin and Grassley, of the performance of the Packers & Stockyards Administration at the USDA found that out of around 1800 investigations they claimed to have carried out between 2002 and 2005, 1739 cases included no documentation indicating that there had been any action taken. There were cases where a single phone call made to the department and noted in the records had been reported as an investigation, he said. ...
Common agribusiness-intended market distortions have led to a downfall in small farm profitability, leading directly to larger average farm sizes and lower average crop diversity. Also, less farmer diversity. The average age of farmers in the US as of 1997 was 53.4, and 61 percent of them were 55 or older. It's not seen as a growth industry and fewer farms are being handed down the generational tree.
You also end up with hazardous confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) representing the bulk of meat production, with the farmers who were able to get big among the few who didn't have to get out. CAFOs are significant greenhouse gas producers, poison groundwater and streams, spread antibiotic resistance among bacteria, and turn manure from helpful soil additive to concentrated pollutant. And as if the meat industry were not already consolidated enough, the country's 2nd largest chicken producer (Tyson) is trying to put the largest (Pilgrim's Pride) out of business. That will leave growers with even less choice about which chicken contractor to deal with, in a situation that's already structured around de facto geographic monopolies.
Into this unfortunate mess, which is so much worse than I have room to describe, will step the next Secretary of Agriculture. Gods help us all.
I don't have to tell any of the pet owners who lost a member of their family about the evils of our deepening dependence on imported food supplies. I also don't have to tell anyone who has become sick from eating food imported from places that have lax food standards. Well, all this has not been lost on John Edwards either. He is taking the lead once again on an issue that should be important to all Americans, the quality of food we feed ourselves and our pets. Today, John Edwards released a new policy proposal to Protect our food supply, and require country of origin labeling. This is an idea that is well past due. Lets look at this plan in-depth.