Agriculture at the Crossroads

With food safety work on a bit of a hiatus right now – the 120-day extension for public comment on FSMA rules confirmed – I have a chance to think and write about the situation we are facing within agriculture more broadly.  A recent trip to Washington DC also pushed me in this particularly pensive direction.

While in Washington, I attended a special Rural Summit sponsored in the U.S. Senate, and now have a much better understanding of why almost nothing can get done in Congress these days.  With agricultural leaders assembled from across the country, it quickly became clear that no one was really going to engage in meaningful discussion at all.  The event was pretty much staged for certain Senators to give the speeches they had prepared in advance, but I was surprised to note that many of the questions from the audience were predetermined speeches as well.  With everyone talking at each other so urgently, it was difficult to see who might be listening well enough to make a real difference in national agricultural policy.

Much of the energy in Congress right now, at least with respect to agriculture, is all about getting the 2012 Farm Bill completed no more than a year late.  The lines are drawn pretty much as they were last year, and no one is even sure the House leadership will allow the bill to be raised on the floor for debate and a vote. Despite all the energy and theatrics, however, there’s a palpable sense, at least to outsiders like me, that the Farm Bill as we know it is either on its last victory lap or perhaps already defunct.

And maybe that’s how it should be.  The Farm Bill is based on some very tenuous tradeoffs that no longer look so stable or perhaps even advisable in the current economic environment.  In a nutshell, the vast majority of funding goes into food programs for disadvantaged Americans in the form of a “deal” allowing perhaps a quarter of the total to support farms and rural areas more directly.  But such a dubious calculus doesn’t even stop there, as only a small portion of farm country’s share goes into what we might recognize as sustainability initiatives. This situation, among other things, insures that those of us who carry the sustainable flag will not complain as the forces of status quo in agriculture benefit from the largest share of remaining funds.

To be clear, many aspects of the Farm Bill are legitimate and worthy of support, especially those programs designed to assist folks who cannot otherwise adequately feed themselves, as well as many of the initiatives aimed at addressing conservation and rural infrastructure needs, including more rigorous local and regional markets for farmers. But there’s a really big problem with the way this legislative leviathan is structured so as to shut down any straightforward discussion of the future of farming and food systems in America and the world. Because of the way it is built, we are doomed to having many more meaningless public hearings where the outcomes are prearranged and the chances for true, forward-thinking debate and decision making are essentially nonexistent.  At this point, the advocates for sustainability are in fact hoping and praying they don’t get left at the altar as they did at the New Year’s Eve Massacre, otherwise known as the previous Farm Bill Extension.

And yet, there has never been a more important time for legitimate debate about the future of agriculture to occur.  What used to get brushed off as mere idealistic paranoia or overly ambitious activism is now being legitimized by science.  The topics of climate change, obesity, food insecurity, dead zones in our coastal waters, and the superweeds and superbugs (both insect and microscopic) caused by overzealous use of technology, are all considered scientific realities now bearing down upon us.  There is no credible dissenting opinion out there that says we can just ignore all this, go on with business-as-usual, and somehow come out unscathed at the end. Everyone seems to agree about the need for urgent public discussion and bold decisions, but the questions remain:  How will this happen?  Where will this happen?  When will this happen?

One place where such discussion is not likely to happen is in a process originally touted to fill this critical need called AGree.  While the intentions may have been sincere to find a common voice in agriculture, I’m afraid the result of this endeavor is quickly devolving in the direction of two principal goals: 1) to divert as much private funding away from true sustainability projects as possible, and 2) to engage sustainable farming and food system leaders in enough polite conversation as to keep them from creating their usual nuisance in national policy discussions. This is yet another, perhaps more sophisticated way of buying our silence, and I believe it may be succeeding rather effectively in that regard.

If I had any false hopes before about the good intentions of AGree, they were dashed by hearing former USDA Secretary, and AGree Co-Chair Dan Glickman, speaking at the aforementioned Rural Summit. There he highlighted the supposed progress of AGree and stated that “for the first time” major private funders in this country are focused on the question of how to “feed the world for the long-term future.”  For those of you newer to agricultural policy debates, that “feed the world” idea is a code phrase meaning “continued expansion of domestic commodity production through unfettered use of technology and limited discussion about root causes of the problems now before us.” But the point Glickman was really missing is that many of the funders he referred to were concerned about worldwide food security issues long before he arrived at the party.  It also didn’t help that he commented about how Michelle Obama’s White House garden now seems somehow “less silly” in that she is lately growing commodities therein (wheat).

The tensions in Washington regarding agriculture were also increased recently by the largely unexplained departure of Kathleen Merrigan as the Deputy Secretary of Agriculture.  She had been the symbol of hope four years ago that, somehow, the sustainable farming and food system movement was really starting to make a difference, and her Know Your Farmer Know Your Food initiative seemed to make good on that promise.  Add  up all that’s happening now, however, and you could very well surmise that, not only is agriculture in our society at a significant crossroads, but those of us on the sustainable side of the fence are losing the day, big time, in ways that really matter for the future of our society.

My urgent question, then, in response to that realization is this: What are we going to do about it?


Please share this post with anyone who may be interested in, or feeling left out, of the Farm Bill process, and all your friends and colleagues who care about the future of our food systems and life as we know it.  BWS

7 thoughts on “Agriculture at the Crossroads

  1. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that
    I’ve truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I’ll be subscribing to
    your feed and I hope you write again soon!

  2. Dear Brian,
    Your observations confirm what I have been thinking! I wrote this short piece for our local food coop newsletter where I report on the farming scene:
    The alignment of forces in Washington DC is shifting with farms, even the very big farms of the corn belt, losing power to Big Food. That is one of the main messages from the failure of Congress to pass a Farm Bill in 2012. Another indication that support at the highest levels for US farm production is weakening is the way US trade negotiators have used agriculture as a bargaining chip in the free trade agreements, the WTO, NAFTA and the coming Pacific Rim Partners. As a result, more and more of the fruit and vegetables you find in the stores are imported by US agribusinesses taking advantage of cheaper labor in countries like Mexico and China. Farms in the US are cutting back on their acreage. An astonishing 50% of the juices consumed in the US are imported.

    Since entering the political scene with the 1985 Farm Bill, the sustainable agriculture movement through persistent organizing all over the country has been able to get a few crumbs from the table of big ag. Those Farm Bill funds have helped local markets, organic research and training for new farmers. Big ag has taken notice and like a gored tiger, jealous of its share of the meal, is pushing back. The 9-month Farm Bill extension passed in January did not include funding for most of the hard won sustainable ag programs.

    Even worse, the March 2013 Continuing Resolution bill that keeps the government afloat included two nasty “riders.” Sneaked in without public airing, the “Monsanto” rider allows farmers to continue planting gmos even when the courts are reassessing whether USDA followed protocol when it approved the seeds for use. And the GIPSA Rider removed provisions in the 2008 Farm Bill which would have given a little market protection to farmer owned cow-calf operations in their sales to the big meatpackers. This rider also directed Sec of Agriculture Vilsack to rescind an order he was about to implement that would have minimally protected chicken farmers under contract with Big Chicken integrators like Tyson and Perdue.”

    As you suggest, the way the Farm Bill is set up is not helping us find real solutions. Trade policy, money policy, environmental policy – that’s where a lot of the big decisions about our food system are going on. Focusing just on the Farm Bill, we miss the bigger picture and we risk getting side-tracked into long, polite discussions that lead us nowhere!
    Thanks for your good energies and wide-open eyes,

  3. It’s not surprising to me that the status quo (in this case, commodity agriculture / all things technology….) is of course entrenched in perpetuating it’s livelihood. As such, us “tree hugging” sustainability folks will get lip service to dampen our agitation. But let us not be too cynical, at least in the sense of “slow and steady” wins the day! Regardless of what happens at the national policy level, we are each called both individually and in our local communities, to continue “the good fight” no matter what is happening on the larger front.
    Caroline McColloch
    Piqua Ohio

  4. It seems to me that we need a nationwide effort to personally visit with our Congress people and give them the information they need to hear and warn them about the consequences if they continue to accept what big ag has in mind. And follow up with a written communication summarizing our conversation, with a copy to the President and your local newspapers. I’m sure the average Congress person has no idea what the real story is.

    • I surely wish that you are right, but I doubt it. I think it more likely that the “powers that be” are well aware of the story they get from lobbyists, and don’t much care to hear :”the real story”. I hope I’m wrong and know I’m a cynic.

      • Cynicism is our greatest adversary and the response that requires the least effort. Even if I cannot change the big things in my little lifetime, I know there is still so much that I can do, and am obligated to do so, for integrity’s sake, not as much for the outcome I think worth my effort.

        That being said, your suggestion that we need to tell our story directly and personally to our elected representatives, is in my opinion, the most logical strategy (read: long term), even if the least glamorous.

        I am organizing raw milk herd share owners in Ohio, with the help of a few (at present) very dedicated individuals willing to commit to our long term goal. See the Ohio Herd Share Network Blog, at

        Possibly a cockeyed optimist but proud of it,
        Caroline McColloch

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