It's that time of year again. Election season usually brings out the worst in politicians, whether it's members of the Republican far Right making baseless charges against their opponents or Democrats instinctively tucking their tails between their legs and hoping the election gets over before all of America learns they're cowards. But even worse is the political pandering that goes along with a ruling party desperate to maintain marginal seats in what is sure to be the shallacking of 2010.
Which brings us to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and the Obama administration's performance in farm country last week. If you care about food and agriculture policy that impacts you, the planet and your children's future, last week was a doozy. After nearly two years of trying to hide it, the Obama administration tipped their hand that industrial agriculture is where their money is. Despite all the small scale efforts they've made to appease organic and sustainable farmers and the 30 million consumers that support them, in the finals days of their first two years in office, and desperate to stem as much political losses as possible, the Obama administration has gone on tour in farm country to prove where their loyalties truly lie, while gleefully promoting all the wrong solutions. Sometimes idiots can't help themselves. Which is why, after a historic victory for Democrats in 2008, they'll be lucky if they can hang onto the Senate.
FYI, Vilsack and Obama: Organic and sustainable agriculture are the fastest growing segments in agriculture today and the most profitable for a reason. People buy food they can trust and industrial agriculture, while providing an abundance of cheap calories, has not provided an abundance of health - for American's physical fitness or farmer's pocketbooks.
Vilsack Doubles Down on GMOs
First off was Secretary Vilsack's stop in Ames, Iowa, where the former Iowa governor returned to his adopted home state to speak at a Global Town Hall Meeting, leading up to the week-long biotech promotional conference known as "The World Food Prize".
Addressing the crowd in Ames, home of land grant university Iowa State, Tom Vilsack offered the Obama administration's bold new stance on solving global hunger in the face of a rapidly growing population estimated to reach 9 billion by 2050, climate change and water and energy shortages. Vilsack's one word answer for the enormous problems facing farmers and the planet in the 21st century should come as no surprise to longtime Vilsack watchers: biotech. For the many Iowans in the audience and those listening live via webcast, it was disappointing to see that Tom has not really evolved much in his thinking in his new job at the USDA.
According to Vilsack:
“Given the enormity of the challenges we face, we simply cannot afford to ignore any of the tools at our disposal to create the crops, the livestock and production practices that will help us feed this rapidly expanding global population.”
“We must work to ensure that all types of agricultural production can co-exist as we confront the dual challenges of feeding the challenges of feeding the world while maintaining biodiversity,” he said. “We must utilize all of the appropriate tools in our toolbox.”
In a perfect world, Vilsack believes that organics and biotech can - and should - coexist. And just as the Obama administration was doubling down on GMOs, more conclusive science continues to roll in regarding the imprecise technology's limitations and its potential harm to the environment and human health. In just the past year we have learned of the very real problems of herbicide resistant superweeds, a new report of severe birth defects caused by spraying Monsanto's Roundup Ready herbicide on GMO soybean fields in Argentina and the news that GMO seed giant Monsanto has fallen upon hard times. At the same time, recent court rulings on the USDA's illegal approval of GMO alfalfa and GMO sugar beets have given the industry serious cause for alarm that all their well hatched plots may not unfold as planned.
The only good news for Monsanto is that they still have Tom Vilsack on their side. Despite the federal court's ruling, Vilsack bristled at the idea that GMO sugar beet farmers can't plant GMO seeds this fall, and his USDA has even ignored the court ruling, going so far as to issue permits to some farmers to plant GMO sugar beets. Currently several groups, including the Center for Food Safety, the Organic Seed Alliance and the Sierra club are suing Vilsack and the USDA to keep them from violating the federal court ruling before the USDA completes the court mandated Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). Too bad Vilsack won't defend organics with this much vigor. It's clear which of his two sons of agriculture that he favors.
Ironically, the GMO promotional townhall meeting was designed to celebrate biodiversity, something that biotech crops, which intrinsically create vast monocultures, are well known to help eradicate. If it's not good for the corn bore, how good are GMOs for honey bees or the Monarch butterfly? What about the earth worm? Unfortunately those are not the types of serious scientific questions that Vilsack or Monsanto ask, maybe after they're done genetically engineering all of our food, grain crops, fruits, vegetables and livestock, they can design billions of robotic insects to take care of pollination: now there's a revenue stream... better head on down to the patent office.
Perhaps President Obama and Secretary Vilsack need to reread the findings from the UN-led International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) which warns of the limitations of biotechnology, recommending sustainable agricultural practices to meet the needs of the 21st century food production. I have an extra copy under my desk if they're interested or maybe they'd prefer if I read it to them. I can talk real slow if it helps them understand better.
Vilsack Channels Orwell on Subsidies
In another sign that the Obama administration is getting both desperate to dig itself out of a political foxhole of its own making in the final days of this election and its growing allegiance to industrial agribusiness, last week Vilsack gave a defense of ag subsidies that would have made George Orwell proud.
It's hard to believe that anyone in a position of political leadership can continue to give a straight face, responsible defense of subsidies as saving society money on food costs, but last Thursday, Secretary Vilsack did just that. Sitting down with The Des Moines Register editorial board, Vilsack offered his best shot:
“Who benefits ultimately for all of this? I would argue that it’s not the 250,000 to 270,000 farmers who benefit from this structure. It is actually the rest of us that benefit,”
According to the Register, Vilsack went on to promote the old canard that American consumers are the lucky ones because their tax dollars have made it so Americans have "more disposable income than people in the rest of the world because U.S. consumers spend just 10 to 15 percent of their earnings on food."
Obviously that number fluctuates whether you're a low income family of four or an agribusiness fat cat sipping $500 bottles of wine, but the number I've heard for a long time is 9 to 10 percent. Maybe the Great Recession is lowering the average American's purchasing power as food prices climb.
The funny thing about Vilsack's defense of subsidies is that it flies in the face of reality and conclusive evidence. It's already well-known that the true cost of food has been outsourced onto society in the terms of environmental and human health costs (among others), something Michael Pollan and others have long since proven.
Back in April 2007, in a New York Times article, aptly titled You Are What You Grow, Michael Pollan laid it all out pretty simply when now Secretary Vilsack, then current Iowa governor, was launching his failed presidential campaign. According to University of Washington obesity researcher, Adam Drewnoski, featured in the article, U.S. farm subsidies make it so the least healthy food is the most available. In a brief search through the grocery aisle:
"Drewnowski found that a dollar could buy 1,200 calories of cookies or potato chips but only 250 calories of carrots. Looking for something to wash down those chips, he discovered that his dollar bought 875 calories of soda but only 170 calories of orange juice."
To top it off, the real facts about expensive farm subsidies can be summed up in a simple chart. Fortunately, someone smart over at The Consumerist put it all together with the brilliant title, "Why a Salad Costs More than a Big Mac". According to a 10-year breakdown of U.S. federal subsidies for food production between 1995 and 2005, all the subsidies go to the food products that the Federal Nutrition Recommendations suggests we eat in inverse proportion to how Americans should be consuming them; i.e. we're eating all the wrong things because they're cheap and affordable (heavily subsidized). Which should make Vilsack reconsider his pitch on farm subsidies to be, "Hey, we support them because they make agribusiness rich and Americans fat."
Sure, a Big Mac is cheaper than a salad, but does that mean Tom Vilsack wants us all to eat Big Macs and then thank him? Since I haven't eaten one in over 20 years, I'll have to think about that one for a while.
Of course, if you have a hard time reading snappy charts, you could just watch 11-year old Birke Baehr at a recent TedX conference explain it: "we can either pay the farmer or we can pay the hospital". That's right, it's so easy that an 11-year old can understand it.
In case the USDA or Vilsack's staff doesn't have the stats handy, Pollan explained the switcheroo that USDA subsidy payments have cost the U.S. in his New York Times bestseller, In Defense of Food, where he points out that in 1960 Americans spent 17.5% of their income on food and only 5.2% of the gross domestic product (GDP) versus today, where Americans spend 9.9% of their income on food and health care costs now gobble up more than 16% of America's GDP. And don't forget the $147 billion that the U.S. loses to obesity annually.
Sure, farmers need a safety net, but the current subsidy system isn't working and America needs to stop killing itself with cheap food. The best way to reform current farm payments is to cap direct payments at $250,000 and then let anyone who wants to capitalize beyond that take on the risk on their own in the free market. As it is, current subsidy payments have helped tipped the playing field to the advantage of giant corporate mega-farms, while pushing mid-sized farmers, the backbone of rural America out of business. Hopefully, an Obama administration will stand up more strongly for payment limitations during the 2012 Farm Bill, rather than trade them for a Southern Senator's vote on a deeply flawed health care bill.
Obama Launches the Ethanol Titanic
If that weren't enough, last week the Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took half-measures a little too far when it officially stuck its corn-drenched toe out by approving E 85 for late model cars. While it might seem that ethanol proponents got what they wanted with the increase in the blend wall to 15% ethanol for gasoline, by limiting it to cars and trucks
Unfortunately, by raising the ethanl blend wall to 15% ethanol per gallon of gasoline,equiviation was seen as just enough and not enough, depending on your perspective
and pays $15.9 billion in federal, state and local taxes. When it comes to energy security, the production of a record 10.75 billion gallons of ethanol last year
"if soils are not restored, crops will fail even if rains do not; hunger will perpetuate even with emphasis on biotechnology and genetically modified crops; civil strife and political instability will plague the developing world even with sermons on human rights and democratic ideals; and humanity will suffer even with great scientific strides."
Senator Mike Johanns - R- Nebraska - former Secretary of Ag
I'm also disappointed in the Administration's decision yesterday to further delay decisions to raise the ethanol blend wall to 15 percent. While they did approve the use of E15 for 2007 model year cars and newer, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) failed to take action on 2001-2006 model year cars, which make up roughly 40 percent of vehicles in the U.S. Furthermore, EPA flat-out denied the use of E15 for 2000 model year cars and older, as well as motorcycles, heavy duty vehicles, and non-road engines. Approving part of the market, denying another part and leaving the rest in limbo is only adding uncertainty to the market and hurting our farmers and ethanol producers.