Will the USDA Toss the Sustainable Ag Movement A Perennial Bone?


Whenever something goes wrong in food policy in Washington DC during the Obama administration, members of the sustainable agriculture movement can count on the USDA and the powers that be to attempt to throw a bone in our direction. Just in the past 5 months, Secretary Vilsack has approved 3 genetically engineered (GMO) crops, while the USDA continues its promise to promote organic and sustainable farming practices despite all evidence to the contrary.

While the Secretary Vilsack and others in the administration go to bat for more funding for unsustainable industrial farming practices like ethanol, abusive trade policies and biotech, organic and sustainable ag advocates are often left pretending that the peanuts they're handed are really worthy accomplishments and let the Obama's off the for talking out of both sides of their mouth. Sure, there's a garden at the White House, but it's not even organic as their chef was all too happy to point out after some minor criticism by the pesticide industry.

A brief roundup from a previous Food Democracy Now! alert shows that Secretary Vilsack and the Obama administration clearly support one method of agriculture more than others, despite the certain genetic contamination that comes with agricultural biotechnology and the threat that poses to conventional, non-GMO and organic farmer's livelihoods, not to mention the environment and human health.

The Obama GMO Hat Trick of 2011:

1. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO alfalfa - Jan. 27th, 2011 - Over the objections of hundreds of thousands of American citizens, the White House approved this unnecessary crop - despite the fact that 93% of alfalfa hay grown in the U.S. does not use herbicides and that genetic contamination with conventional, non-GMO and organic alfalfa threatens the livelihoods of tens of thousands of family farmers and the food choices of more than 50 million organic consumers.

2. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready GMO sugar beets - Feb. 4, 2011 - Defying a court order to complete a proper Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) the USDA announced that it is granting a “partial” approval of Monsanto’s GMO sugar beets, giving farmers and seed dealers the clear signal that final approval is right around the corner. By the time the EIS is expected to be complete, sometime in May, farmers will have already started planting their crop for the next year since the USDA says it gave the green light to avert a “sugar shortage” in the U.S. Sugar beets comprise some 54% of U.S. sugar found in everything from soda, other beverages, candy bars

3. Syngenta’s Enogen Alpha-Amylase Corn for Ethanol - Feb 11, 2011 -  This new GMO amylase corn product contains an enzyme that allegedly allows an increase in ethanol production with a reduction of natural gas and water usage, thus saving ethanol plants money. While caving to the biotech and ethanol industries, the Obama administration basically ignored the concerns of leading food manufacturers who fear that if this new industrial corn cross-pollinates with or is accidentally mixed with corn used to make food products, it could lead to crumbly corn chips, soggy cereal and a host of other food processing disasters.

Curiously enough, on February 15th, 2011, just 4 days after the Obama White House tossed it's third strike against the organic movement, the Des Moines Register's Phil Brasher, was suddenly typing about the USDA's new found "interest" in perennial grain crops, an idea long promoted by our good friend Wes Jackson and the Land Institute.

In "Perennial Grain Crops? USDA Takes Notice", Brasher's timely February article stated:

"The Agricultural Department has taken an interest in the idea of turning traditional grains into perennial crops. Wes Jackson and The Land Institute in Kansas have long been pushing this idea but have attracted little attention outside critics of conventional agriculture. Perennial crops don’t produce the large seeds and yields that their annual cousins can.

But Kathleen Merrigan, the USDA’s deputy secretary, notes in a blog post that three scientists from USDA’s Agricultural Research Service have joined colleagues from Jackson’s institute and other scientists in a paper in the journal Science that summarized the potential benefits of perennial grains to food production and the environment."

Now, only months after this small gossip item appeared in the Register, Brasher is back pitching another bone to the movement, the idea that the USDA is serious about promoting perennial grains.

And while we agree that funding research for perennial grains is an excellent idea, small articles that talk about funding are not the same as devoting serious amounts of research dollars to support an idea that could replace our current system of annual monocultures with a mixture of grain crops (and seeds) that don't need to be purchased every year by farmers and are expected to cut down extensively on soil erosion and energy, water and pesticide use - an agricultural innovation that will come in handy to help farmers meet the challenges of 21st century food production, which is certain to bump up against shortfalls of energy and water in the coming decades.

Just last week, as the USDA was coming under fire for ignoring Dr. Don Huber's credible warning of the discovery of a new organism and an emerging threat to mainstream production agriculture, Phil Brasher once again found time to write about the USDA's new love of perennial grains.

It's clear from Brasher's opening in "Perennial Corn Holds Hope for Cutting Environmental Damage", that he's been thinking about the idea more in depth since his last article.

Writes Brasher:

"The time could come when farmers aren't getting on their tractors every spring to plant their crops, or even plowing their fields, exposing them to erosion.

At least that's the vision of a few scientists - and a senior Obama administration official - who want to develop perennial versions of corn, wheat, rice and other crops that don't need to be planted every year and wouldn't cause the environmental damage linked to growing conventional grains."

Apparently leading the charge for the USDA's embracing of perennial grains is former "Sustainable Dozen" superstar and current USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

According to Brasher:

"Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan...has been talking up perennial grains as a promising way to produce food with less environmental impact.

"We're interested in the development of perennial grains - big seeds, high yields," she said at a recent food-policy conference in Washington. "These plants with deep roots to hold the soil in place and pick up water and nutrients year- round could reduce the demand for water over the more typical annual grain that produce a big harvest but die each year.""

While many lesser men would have given up on the monumental task of fundamentally reforming agriculture from a giant monoculture to a perennial system that recognizes the dynamic balance between the environment, food production and finite natural resources, Wes Jackson has courageously plowed ahead for more than 3 decades. In Jackson's vision, farmers and public policy makers must recognize the important need to create farming systems that can build long-term sustainability and go the distance to meet the needs of future generations. The real question though: is the USDA really listening?

For farmers who care about the land, perennials, while not fully developed, offer many potential benefits.

"Before agriculture, 95 percent of the Earth's ice-free land surface was covered by mixtures of perennial plants," said Stan Cox, senior research scientist at the Land Institute, which has focused on crops such as wheat because of the center's location in Kansas. "On land like that, you see virtually no erosion."

Perennial crops could help save Iowa's topsoil without replacing the corn and soybean varieties that now dominate the state's agriculture, Iowa State University agronomist Matt Liebman said.

While soil erosion has been a major problem historically for farmers, remember the Dust Bowl, modern farming attitudes and the over reliance on technological fixes have lulled many farmers and public policy experts to sleep about this vital problem. Fortunately, a recent report by the Environmental Working Group on soil erosion called "Losing Ground" showed just how bad the problem, due to modern agricultural practices, has become.

Despite these serious problems caused by massive monocultures and the vast benefits offered by perennial grains, the USDA has been painfully slow to invest seriously in the development of the potentially bountiful harvest that perennial grains offer for farmers, their bottom line, rural communities and the environment.

According to Brasher:

The USDA has asked Congress for $1 million in fiscal 2012 for perennial grain or sunflower research at its own labs, a slight increase over this year's funding. In 2009-10, the department provided about $1.5 million in grants for perennial grains research at the Land Institute and a few universities, including Iowa State.

The problem is that's peanuts compared to what's really needed to accomplish the task.

A serious effort to breed perennial corn crops would require spending $1 million to $2 million for five years to identify the genes necessary for perennialism, Buckler said. After that, $10 million to $20 million a year and dozens of scientists would be needed to breed a perennial corn that could eventually be commercialized, he said.

While here at Food Democracy Now! we do our best to remain optimistic about the future of agriculture and food production reforms, we're pretty sure it's time for the Obama administration and Vilsack's USDA to put their money where their mouth is.

One can't simply go around talking about how much they love their two sons, if one is constantly offered the fatted calf (and all the research dollars) while the other is forced to live on thin gruel and left over porrige.

For more about the benefits of perennial grains, go visit the Land Institute's excellent website and check out this photo from the 2009 Land Institute Prairie Festival and see if you can spot Food Democracy Now! founders David Murphy (me) and Lisa Stokke in the hopeful crowd.

It's time for the sustainable food movement to get more than canned press releases, saccharine photo ops and empty promises from the Obama administration. It's time that they get on board with Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry's 50 Year Farm Bill, an idea which Food Democracy Now! travelled to Washington DC in the summer of 2009 to help promote.



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