3/29/2012 4:13:55 PM
Later this year, the
federal Farm Bill that was enacted in 2008 is set to expire. Although Congress
already has plenty on its plate—not to mention the ongoing kerfuffle over
Obamacare at the Supreme Court—there’s a good chance they’ll make room for
this. Because of its size and scope, the direction the Farm Bill takes has a
big impact not just on agriculture and farming communities, but also on environmental
policy, trade, and the overall health and safety of Americans. Subsidies and
payments to farmers and farming communities may be the most contentious
portion, but the bill also doles out money for programs like food stamps,
disaster relief, and conservation. Essentially, this is where the debate on U.S. food policy
And every five years or
so, when the Farm Bill comes up for renewal, that debate ignites again. A look
at the most recent cycle gives some idea of what’s ahead. At the end of 2006, Oxfam published a briefing on the
politics surrounding the then-current Farm Bill, which was set to expire the
following year. For decades, the report argued, the Farm Bill has been skewed to
benefit mostly the largest and most profitable farmers, at the expense of the
little guys. Commodity subsidies—which make up the second largest chunk of the Farm
Bill’s budget—go overwhelmingly to the small number of conventional, large-scale
farmers who grow the “program crops” of corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans, and
rice. The roughly 75 percent of farms that grow and sell other products (or
program crop growers that are too small to collect support) receive just 8
percent of the Farm Bill’s subsidies. As a result, over the course of several
generations, farms have become much bigger, and many smaller farmers have been
pushed out. Oxfam also pointed to the underlying health effects of conventional
and factory farming, and a food system that relies on processing artificially
cheap foods like corn.
Oxfam’s warning fell
mostly on deaf ears. Especially in terms of crop subsidies, the 2008 bill was
remarkably similar to the 2002 bill, with no big rethinking going on in
Congress. A report by the Land
Stewardship Project, while outlining some progress on conservation
programs, criticized the bill’s overall failure
to address the growing corporatization of agriculture. Tellingly, much of
the problem lay with crop subsidies.
But even more revealing
was the contentiousness surrounding the plan. Even though the 2008 bill
differed little from a version passed uneventfully in 2002, the later version was only passed
overrode Bush’s veto. Interestingly, while new conservation programs were
indeed controversial, much of the Republican opposition came from concern over
the total size of the bill, and just where those big crop subsidies were going.
Will this year be any
different? Public awareness of these issues is growing. As Oxfam points out, fresh
fruits and vegetables are increasingly more popular than over-processed corn
and soybean creations. Organic farming is ever more fashionable, though many
small farmers still struggle with how costly it is. CSAs and farmers’ markets
are commonplace in urban areas throughout the country. Despite its low cost,
Americans are much less enamored with processed food than they once were. Could
a new Farm Bill reflect these trends?
It’s possible. As Huffington points out, when
negotiations over the 2012 renewal began two years ago, organizations like the
Environmental Working Group and the Land Stewardship Project seemed poised to make
a larger impact on the new version. Predicting that commodity subsidies may
be on their way out, the National
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition proposed rewarding green farming
practices, rather than subsidizing conventional techniques. As NSAC noted last
week on its blog, recent Senate Ag Committee hearings seem to
be moving in the right direction. While nothing is written yet, Senators
were reportedly sympathetic to conservation concerns and farmers’ proposals to
cut crop subsidies in favor of less constraining crop insurance programs. The committee
may also be interested in reforming crop insurance to reflect environmental
concerns and better serve beginning farmers. Such modest changes would be
welcomed by millions of small-scale farmers.
But this is where things
get complicated. While the Senate Agriculture Committee debates conservation
policy, tea party Republicans in the House are set to challenge much of the
current Farm Bill from an entirely different angle. Opposition to the 2008 renewal
united an unlikely crowd, from small farmers to conservationists to fiscal
conservatives, and that last group has lost none of its zeal. It may be hard
for some to take the new
GOP budget proposal all that seriously, but it does represent a potential
challenge to decades of more or less bipartisan farm policy. For instance, under
the GOP plan, says Think Progress, food
stamps would be converted to a series of block grants to the states. So
rather than a federal program that grows and shrinks by public need (as it did
during the recession), SNAP would have a fixed limit, whether more people
needed it or not.
Even more importantly, says AgWeek, the new Republican plan would
cut commodity subsidies by a third, and cut the Farm Bill itself
by $180 billion. Now, logistically all of that is very unlikely. Unlike the
House, the Senate has a Democratic majority, and their version of the Farm Bill
so far looks very different. What’s significant is that one of two parties in Washington wants to completely reshape U.S. food
policy, and it’s anyone’s guess as to how much they want it. As Grist notes, there is a plan in place
if both houses can’t reach an agreement, a little like that whole sequestration
debacle last year during the deficit talks. In this case, however, the
automatic changes would bring
us back to 1940s-era policies that have very little relevance to the 21st
century. Such a scenario could be downright dangerous.
So what exactly happens
over the next several months is difficult to say. During the deficit talks last
fall, Republican freshmen in the House proved that they are more than willing
to double down on principle, even when high stakes call for pragmatism. At the same
time, conservation groups and small farmers see 2012 as a moment of opportunity
to reshape some of the Farm Bill’s most pressing anachronisms. It’s hard to
predict how all this will shake out, what deals will be struck before or after
the September deadline, and how much of this will be drowned out by looming
elections. We could end up with a radically different food policy in this
country, one that affects everything from school lunches and poverty programs
to how we respond to the emerging threat of climate change. It’s a conversation
we should begin soon.
Sources: Oxfam, Land
Stewardship Project, Thomas, Huffington,
Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, Christian
Science Monitor, Think
Image by Saffron
Blaze, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/20/2012 2:55:56 PM
Finding good composting options can be tough, especially in suburbia. What’s even tougher is finding a compost hauling service that’s also eco-friendly—that is, outside of Kirksville, Missouri. There, students have formed an innovative team of bicycle couriers to collect their neighbors’ compost. The group is called the Rot Riders. As GOOD reports,
…cofounders Jonathan Lessing, Rodery Riney, and Allison Sissom developed the idea... as a project for a student-led grassroots environmentalism course at the local college… Now a community-centered group, Rot Riders involves a pack of five core riders, plus or minus a few volunteers, who break up into pairs, divide the route, and collect buckets of compost left on porches. The rotting goods are taken to Truman’s University Farm compost pile, where they're mixed with other ingredients like campus food waste, leaves, straw, sawdust and manure. The resulting compost takes roughly three months to break down and is made available to all local gardeners.
Combining elements of bike commuting, grassroots organizing, and community gardening, the project came in a close second in this year’s GOOD Citizenship Challenge. And far from being alone, the program has much in common with services in Burlington, Vermont, Victoria, British Columbia, and St. Paul, Minnesota’s Mac-Groveland neighborhood. And as Treehugger reports, the popular Mac-Groveland initiative may even expand into a full-blown municipal program.
The popularity of recent projects like these attest to the growing importance of urban cycling culture in cities throughout the U.S., a culture that is as innovative as it is tenacious.
Source: GOOD, Treehugger.
Image by Mick, licensed under Creative Commons.
3/9/2012 4:43:42 PM
What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue, Momentum magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Mary Hoff spoke with resilience strategist Johan Rockstrom on what it would take to protect the Earth’s systems from catastrophic failure.
Why do we need to think about protecting Earth’s systems from catastrophic failure?
The basic reason is that major advances in Earth system science now show that humanity is facing the risk of large-scale, potentially catastrophic tipping points that could hamper human development. The evidence shows that we may have entered a whole new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, where humans constitute the main geological force changing planet Earth. The planetary boundaries framework was developed to address this new reality.
But the insight of the Anthropocene gives you only the very first step, because it just indicates we have a high degree of human pressure. The second is the risk of nonlinear change, which comes out of resilience theory and from empirical evidence that particular ecosystems have multiple stable states. We see evidence that lakes and forests and wetlands can have different equilibria—so you have a savanna system that may be stable and thriving, but it can also tip over and become an arid steppe if pushed too far by warming, land degradation, and biodiversity loss. A clear-water lake can become a murky, biodiversity-low anoxic lake. Unfortunately, the science is increasingly showing that even large systems can tip. There’s paleoclimatic evidence that if oceans get an overload of phosphorus, they could collapse with large dead zones. The largest ice sheets also show evidence of shifts between ice-covered and ice-free states.
We asked ourselves: OK, so if we are in the Anthropocene, and if we are at risk or have evidence of large regional to global tipping points, then what is our desired state for planet Earth? What is the state at which Earth needs to be in order to support human well-being in a world of 7—soon to be 9—billion people?
Paleoclimatic records show clearly that the past 10,000 years, the Holocene, is a remarkably stable period in which we went from being a few hunters and gatherers to become more sedentary agriculture-based civilizations, which then moved us to the current populated modern era. So there’s robust evidence that the Holocene is our desired state and the only state we know that can support the modern economy. If we know that, we can also define the biophysical preconditions: What are the Earth system processes that determine the Holocene’s familiarity? Can we for those processes identify tipping points we want to avoid? The insight of the importance of the Holocene stability provides humanity with a science-based analysis of global sustainability goals that should be met to provide us safe operating space for human development.
What would it take to protect Earth’s systems from catastrophic failure?
There are so many challenges and steps that need to be taken. But if one thinks of it as entering a funnel, I think a broad entry point is the need for a shift in mind-set. It might sound a bit awkward—the first thing one thinks of is probably new economic paradigms, really hard new governance structures, new policies. All of that is of course required, but the precondition is that modern society reconnect to the biosphere, which in turn requires a mind shift. Today we operate the world with our growth paradigm and our economic imperative and our social imperative as being the supreme goals for our societies. We then add, at best, sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and all the good work we’re doing with clean tech and efforts to be more efficient, all with the explicit goal of minimizing environmental impacts within the overarching growth paradigm. The insights of the Anthropocene and tipping points show this paradigm doesn’t work anymore. We have to reverse the whole order and agree that the biosphere is the basis for everything else. This is quite dramatic, because it means human development has to be subordinate to Earth system boundaries. It changes the whole idea of macroeconomic theory, because macroeconomic theory basically states that as long as you put the right price on the environment, you automatically get the most cost-efficient way of solving environmental problems.
The second dimension is the idea of planetary stewardship, which means taking ourselves from 196 nation-states operating in their own interest as individual entities to joint governance at the planetary scale. We need to strengthen global governance. We need a global agency that governs, monitors, verifies, and reports on whether we’re on aggregate meeting planetary boundaries. That is something a world environment organization could do. This is not to say bottom-up initiatives are not important. On the contrary, they are a precondition for success. But in the Anthropocene, where we need to urgently bend the global curves of negative environmental change, we need to provide leadership also at the global scale. This is lacking today.
How urgent is this?
There is more and more scientific evidence that suggests it is very urgent. For climate, biodiversity and nitrogen, we are already in the slippery danger zone where we cannot exclude tipping over thresholds. On climate, we’re seeing evidence of a destabilization of the Arctic ice sheet. On nitrogen, we’re seeing clear evidence of major tipping points where lakes are losing their capacity to support human well-being due to overuse of nitrogen and phosphorus particularly in modern agriculture. On biodiversity, we’ve reached the point where humanity is causing an extinction of species equivalent to losing the dinosaurs 65 million years ago—at the same time we’re also learning how much we depend on biodiversity. We have increasing evidence we need to back off also on phosphorus and that we’re approaching dangerous boundaries for freshwater and for land. So we have a decade right now that is very decisive.
And the reason it’s urgent is not that we risk catastrophic outcomes in one year or five years or 10 years. It is because what we do today injects changes in Earth systems that may cause thresholds in 50 years’ time, 100 years’ time. The future of coming generations is thus truly in this generation’s hands. And we have already committed ourselves to major risks of tipping points in the coming century. That’s why we need to go much, much faster on turning back into the safe operating space.
For the boundaries that we have already transgressed, we can’t exclude that this decade is a determining decade, that we need to bend the curves of negative environmental change before 2020. There’s a lot of strong evidence that’s the case.
What if we do take this to heart? What could we hope for?
That’s a very interesting question, because there’s very little or no science to suggest that a global transition to sustainability, a global transition to a future within planetary boundaries, would be a worse world than the world we know today. On the contrary, there is increasing evidence to suggest that a transition can be done while providing us with good chances of prosperity even on a crowded planet.
But there is a big “but”: And the big but is, have we already gone too far? And that we simply don’t know yet.
Published in association with
, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Image by J. Lokrantz/Azote, courtesy of Stockholm Resilience Center.
3/1/2012 1:51:56 PM
What would it take to shape a planet on which people, other living things, and the systems that support us can sustainably coexist? For a special issue, Momentum magazine invited experts from around the world to share their thoughts on how we might craft solutions to some of earth’s toughest challenges. Wayne Ellwood spoke with Solomon Prakash, the India country director of Ashoka, an international social entrepreneurship agency, on what it would take for social entrepreneurship to help pull people out of poverty.
How did you become involved in social entrepreneurship?
I started as an engineer. I worked for a small company in Bangalore for a number of years, mostly in special purpose machine design. Then in 1987 I went to Europe, where I became interested in alternative communities. I visited these communities all across Europe, and I brought that experience back to India with me. In November 1989 I started a nonprofit organization in Bangalore working with young people, connecting homeless kids to jobs and helping them get in touch with their parents.
What would it take for social entrepreneurship to make serious inroads into poverty?
If you tackle a problem like poverty head on, you need a set of people on your core team who share your vision. This can be a challenge.
The difference between a social entrepreneur and a business entrepreneur is one of commitment and vision. In a business, you might bail out once you’d made enough money. In social entrepreneurship, you believe you can solve a problem and that others will work with you to solve that problem. That core team needs to grow; otherwise, you don’t have the skills to manage the project as it grows. You need talented people who are both committed and dedicated, who are willing to live and work in isolated areas in poor conditions for very little money. Sometimes people want to work in a social enterprise because the work is different. “I may not have much money,” they say, “but my soul is satisfied and I feel happy because I’ve made a contribution.”
We also need to think creatively about funding because there are serious challenges in the kind of finances available. Increasingly, granting organizations are looking at things like returnable grants or interest-free loans to make their money last longer. Some people are talking about “social venture” funding, which is a similar model to private venture capital funding. They’re expecting returns similar to microfinancing, which was hugely profitable. But that’s not going to happen.
We don’t usually think of entrepreneurship in the context of poverty or solving social problems.
I didn’t start off as a social entrepreneur. I started off as a person who wanted to respond to a particular set of problems. But I thought and behaved like an entrepreneur: You have an idea, you put together a team and you try to raise money. You solve issues as you go along, as any entrepreneur typically would build an enterprise.
Many years later I realized that this is what social entrepreneurs do. But I didn’t start with that notion. I started as an average person saying, “OK, how do I solve this problem?” I understood the business issues, but I also understood that you are not only looking at profit, you’re also looking at other outcomes.
When I started I never thought of myself as selfless. My satisfaction from work was not money but what I love doing most. Of course it had a certain political framework, a framework of justice, a sense of what was fair, and I responded to that.
Are you optimistic about social entrepreneurs making serious inroads into poverty?
I think the next 10 years will be the decade of social entrepreneurs. I see lots of talented people who want to solve social problems making serious career changes. Some mainstream design firms have actually set up a whole branch around social innovation. Consulting companies are looking at hybrid models of social change. Increasingly, companies are saying it’s no longer possible to look at customers just as consumers. More and more people understand that social change is no longer a marginal activity. The opportunity is huge to solve problems and to come up with interesting commercial models that can be sustainable.
Published in association with
, a print, online and multimedia magazine for environmental thought leaders produced by the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.
Image courtesy of Solomon Prakash.
3/1/2012 10:54:46 AM
This article originally appeared on Care2.
Monsanto’s bullying tactics received a legal nod of approval on February 24th, when Judge Naomi Buchwald dismissed a suit brought against the company by the Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA). The association was joined by 82 other plaintiffs. Nearly 300,000 organic farmers were represented in the action.
According to Judge Buchwald, the plaintiffs failed to prove their case. Only one farmer and one seed distributor claimed to have already purchased contaminated seed. Neither of them claimed Monsanto’s seeds were among the “offending seeds.” Monsanto had demanded royalty payments from only one of the plaintiffs. The judge did not consider the company’s history of threats and suits against conventional farmers sufficient evidence Monsanto would sue the plaintiffs.
OSGATA’s president, Jim Gerritsen, himself an organic farmer [and Utne Reader visionary], published this response on the organization’s website:
Family farmers need the protection of the court. We reject as naïve and undefendable the judge’s assertion that Monsanto’s vague public relations ‘commitment’ should be ‘a source of comfort’ to plaintiffs. The truth is we are under threat and we do not believe Monsanto. The truth is that American farmers and the American people do not believe Monsanto. Family farmers deserve our day in court and this flawed ruling will not deter us from continuing to seek justice.
The dismissive tone of Judge Buchwald’s decision is curious in light of Monsanto’s history with conventional farmers. The company has made a practice of raiding fields in search of any infringements of their patents. Most farmers cave when threatened with massive fines, even if wind and pollinating bees brought the unwanted seed into their fields. So the judge’s statement that the “average of roughly thirteen lawsuits per year is hardly significant when compared to the number of farms in the United States” is more than a little disingenuous.
Monsanto’s Bullying Tactics
In 2008, Vanity Fair published an investigative report on Monsanto’s tactics. “Monsanto’s Harvest of Fear” charges:
As interviews and reams of court documents reveal, Monsanto relies on a shadowy army of private investigators and agents in the American heartland to strike fear into farm country. They fan out into fields and farm towns, where they secretly videotape and photograph farmers, store owners, and co-ops; infiltrate community meetings; and gather information from informants about farming activities. Farmers say that some Monsanto agents pretend to be surveyors. Others confront farmers on their land and try to pressure them to sign papers giving Monsanto access to their private records. Farmers call them the “seed police” and use words such as “Gestapo” and “Mafia” to describe their tactics.
Judge Buchwald ignored some of the farmers’ concerns. She was silent on the issue of Monsanto seed’s contaminating organic fields. She also did not address their contention that Monsanto’s patents were fraudulent.
OSGATO’s lead attorney, Daniel Ravicher, is quoted on the Food Integrity Now website as saying: “While I have great respect for Judge Buchwald, her decision to deny farmers the right to seek legal protection from one of the world’s foremost patent bullies is gravely disappointing.”
Plaintiffs have the right to take their case to the Court of Appeals so Judge Buchwald’s decision will likely not be the last salvo heard in the struggle between small farmers and Monsanto. Still, the outcome is disappointing. David went up against Goliath. In this round, Goliath won.
Image by Thierry Ehrmann, licensed under Creative Commons.
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