Denise O'Brien on prospects for a "secretary of food"

Like many Iowa progressives, I strongly supported Denise O’Brien (creator of the

Women, Food and Agriculture Network) for secretary of agriculture in 2006. Still have my O’Brien for Secretary of Agriculture t-shirt, in fact.

Although she fell short in the election, the sustainable food movement continues to grow, with unprecedented online and real-world activism about whom the president should appoint for secretary of agriculture and what policies that person should implement. Some people think it’s time the U.S. had a “secretary of food” focused on a broader range of interests than the agribusiness sector.

Kerry Trueman asked O’Brien about these efforts and posted her answer at Open Left. Excerpt:

As a farmer of thirty plus years, I am intrigued by all of the emails, blogs and websites devoted to the selection of the United States Secretary of Agriculture. My mind swirls with all sorts of fantasies of what a progressive “Secretary of Food” could do for our country. But alas, today as I check out the latest candidates, I am brought back to the unfortunate reality of our current situation – the United States, just like our little state of Iowa, is owned solely by big agribusiness interests with the American Farm Bureau Federation leading the corporate interest pack. It has often baffled me how an insurance company has been able to “speak for the farmers” when they are certainly not a farm organization. […]

Sure, it would be swell to have a person at the head of the Department of Agriculture who understands what the food movement is about, but seriously, that would be an incredible leap for corporate interests. Food justice is just not a concept that sector can even begin to grasp.

I have had firsthand experience taking on corporate ag and although I was not successful in my bid for the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture, my friends all tell me I scared the sh… out of them! What this indicates is that we all must continue to work for food democracy. In my humble opinion, food democracy is about economic democracy. That is where we need to be heading.

Food Democracy is the “right of all people to an adequate, safe, nutritious, sustainable, food supply.” The Food Democracy blog is here. The Food Democracy Now petition to Barack Obama is here. As of 5 pm on Tuesday, nearly 54,000 people had signed. OrangeClouds115 reported today that the people who drew up the petition have been in communication with Obama staffers, and the petition itself has reached the desk of some senior advisers.

I have no illusions about Obama appointing a USDA head who is committed to sustainable agriculture, but it’s good that his people know that large numbers of Americans are going to watch his agricultural policies closely.

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Organic farming is carbon sequestration we can believe in (updated)

The phrase “carbon sequestration” is often used in connection with so-called “clean coal” technology that doesn’t exist. Scientific debate over the best methods of carbon capture and storage tends to weigh the costs and benefits of various high-tech solutions to the problem.

But Tim LaSalle, CEO of the non-profit Rodale Institute, reminds us in a guest column for the Des Moines Register that an effective means of sequestering carbon in our soil already exists:

By using organic agricultural methods and eliminating petroleum-based fertilizers and toxic chemical pest-and-weed control, we build – rather than destroy – the biology of our soil. While improving the health of the soil we also enhance its ability to diminish the effects of flooding, as just one example. In some laboratory trials, organically farmed soils have provided 850 percent less runoff than conventional, chemically fertilized soils. This is real flood prevention, not sandbag bandages for life-threatening emergencies.

When the soil is nurtured through organic methods, it allows plants to naturally pull so much carbon dioxide from the air and store it in the soil that global warming can actually be reversed. Farms using conventional, chemical fertilizer release soil carbon into the atmosphere. Switching to organic methods turns a major global-warming contributor into the single largest remedy of the climate crisis, while eliminating toxic farm chemical drainage into our streams, rivers and aquifers.

Using such methods, we would be sequestering from 25 percent to well over 100 percent of our carbon-dioxide emissions. Microscopic life forms in the soil hold carbon in the soil for up to 100 years. This is much more efficient than inserting foreign genes. Healthy soil already does that at such remarkable levels it usually can eliminate crop disasters, which means greater food security for all nations. And the beauty is, investing in soils is not patentable, enriching just some, but instead is free to all.

Where has this science, this solution, been hiding? It has been intentionally buried under the weight of special interests – that are selling chemicals into our farming system, lobbying Congress, embedding employees in government agencies and heavily funding agricultural university research.

A few years ago, the Rodale Institute published a detailed report on how Organic farming combats global warming. Click that link for more facts and figures.

For more on how groups promoting industrial agriculture lobby Congress, see this Open Secrets report and this piece from the Green Guide on The New Food Pyramid: How Corporations Squash Regulation.

Expanding organic farming and reducing the amount of chemicals used on conventional farms would have other environmental advantages as well, most obviously an improvement in water quality both in farming states and downstream. Last week the National Academcy of Sciences released findings from the latest study proving that chemicals applied to farms are a major contributor to the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico:

The study, conducted at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency, recommends setting pollution reduction targets for the watersheds, or drainage areas, that are the largest sources of the pollution that flows down the Mississippi River to the gulf.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture was urged to help fund a series of pilot projects to test how changes in farming practices and land use can reduce the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus. The report, written by a panel of scientists, did not say how much money would be needed. Agricultural experts and congressional aides said it wasn’t clear whether there was enough money in federal conservation programs to fund the necessary projects.

[…]

The government has been debating for years about how to address the oxygen-depleted dead zone, or hypoxia, in the gulf. The dead zone reached 8,000 square miles this year, the second-largest area recorded since mapping began in the 1980s.

[…]

Agricultural groups don’t want mandatory controls put on farms.

However, a scientific advisory board of the EPA has recommended reducing the amount of nitrogen and phosphorus flowing to the gulf by 45 percent. More than 75 percent of those two pollutants originates in nine states, including Iowa, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Here’s a link to more detailed findings about how agricultural states contribute to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

Organic farming is also good for rural economic development because it employs more people. I’ll write more soon on the economic benefits of implementing other sustainable agriculture policies.

UPDATE: This post generated a lot of good discussion at Daily Kos. You can view those comments here.

When OrangeClouds115 speaks, I listen:

BTW – can you request in your diary that people who support your ideas here sign the petition at http://www.fooddemocracynow.org/ ? Apparently its 40,000+ signatures have gotten the attention of Obama’s transition team and Michael Pollan himself thinks that they may actually listen to us if we get to 100,000 signatures.

SECOND UPDATE: Thanks to understandinglife for the Digg link.

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