# Agriculture Policy

Grassley, Harkin vote yes as Senate passes food safety bill (updated)

The U.S. Senate approved the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act today by a 73 to 25 vote. Tom Harkin and all other Senate Democrats voted for the bill, as did 15 Republicans including Iowa’s Chuck Grassley. Grassley also was among 14 Republicans who joined Democrats to support the cloture motion ending debate on the food safety bill yesterday.

Some details on the bill as well as its complicated path through the Senate are after the jump.  

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Weekend open thread: Colbert v King edition

What’s on your mind this weekend, Bleeding Heartland readers?

Yesterday Stephen Colbert testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee about the need to provide more visas and better working conditions for migrant farm workers. He was in character, cracking jokes, during part of the hearing, but answered seriously when asked why he took an interest in this issue:

“I like talking about people who don’t have any power and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights as a result. But yet we still invite them to come here and at the same time ask them to leave. […] Migrant workers suffer and have no rights.”

Representative Steve King was at the hearing and didn’t care for Colbert’s stunt. He suggested that Colbert didn’t really spend a day working on a farm, as he claimed to have done, and accused Colbert of disparaging American workers who “perform the dirtiest, most difficult, most dangerous (jobs) that can be thrown at them.”

Maybe King was jealous that someone advocating for immigration reform grabbed a lot of media attention. Immigration has long been one of King’s pet issues. Fox News invited King on for a segment about whether Colbert’s testimony was appropriate.

Not surprisingly, media commentators seem more interested in the controversy surrounding Colbert’s appearance than in the topic at hand: an agriculture jobs bill that would give undocumented farm workers a path to U.S. citizenship.

This is an open thread.

UPDATE: Both Governor Chet Culver and Republican candidate Terry Branstad are scheduled to announce “major endorsements” on Monday morning. Who do you think those could be? My guess is the Branstad endorser will be a business person who has supported some Democrats in the past.  

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Thicke unveils forward-looking energy policy for agriculture

Francis Thicke, the Democratic candidate for secretary of agriculture, announced a “comprehensive energy policy for agriculture” that would increase the use of renewable energy in the agriculture sector, with a focus on systems that “put profits in farmers’ pockets.” Corporate agriculture interests have often demonized environmentally friendly energy policies as bad for farmers, but Thicke points out that farmers are currently vulnerable to volatile energy costs. I’ve posted his full statement on the energy policy after the jump, but I want to highlight a few parts:

As a state, we currently have no plans for how to power agriculture beyond fossil fuels, leaving us vulnerable to the effects of escalating and widely fluctuating energy prices. In 2008, oil prices rose to $147 per barrel, but within seven months fell to less than $34. This wild fluctuation whipsawed agriculture. Fertilizer and fuel prices tripled; corn prices spiked and fell sharply; ethanol plants went bankrupt.

Oil economists tell us that repeated cycles of price spikes followed by precipitous price falls are the future for energy costs as long as we are dependent on fossil fuels.ii  Even the U.S. military warns that oil prices will rise greatly, and we should expect oil shortages in the near future.iii

Our current biofuel production is not targeted to secure the energy future for agriculture. We use about a third of our corn crop to produce ethanol, but use it for cars driving on highways, not to power agriculture. Iowa farmers are selling corn as an energy crop at cheap commodity prices while paying high retail prices for the fuel needed to power their farms.  Biofuels today make only a dent in total U.S. fuel needs,iv but could go a long way toward making agriculture energy self-sufficient.

Thicke also advocates stronger policies to encourage wind energy production, not only looking at the total megawatts generated, but at wind energy systems that would create wealth for farmers and rural communities:

Today, 20 percent of the electricity generated in Iowa comes from wind power. That is good. However, the next generation of distributed wind systems holds promise to put more of the wealth created into the pockets of farmers and increase the amount of wind energy that can be distributed through the existing electrical grid.

When farmers lease out land to put corporate-owned wind turbines on their farms, they still pay retail rates for the electricity they use to power their farms. In other words – like with biofuels – farmers sell cheap and buy high.

The next generation of wind power should be mid-sized wind turbines on farms all across Iowa, so the wind that blows over the farm will power the farm, and the wealth created will be retained on the farm. This kind of distributed wind power has several advantages:

  1. The wealth created by the wind turbines is retained by the landowner and stays in the local community,

  2. The electricity generated is used locally, avoiding the need to build new transmission lines, and

  3. Distributed wind turbines will more fully utilize wind fronts as they move across the state, compared to when most wind farms are located in a few places in the state.

Policies the Legislature could enact to hasten the development of mid-sized wind turbines on farm across Iowa include mandatory net metering for all Iowa electrical utilities and feed-in tariff (FIT) policies. FIT policies have been used successfully in Europe to encourage the rapid expansion of solar-powered systems.

I urge the Iowa Legislature to adopt a FIT policy targeted to small and mid-sized wind turbines that are owned by Iowa farmers and landowners. The FIT policy would require electrical companies to pay a high rate of return per kWh for the initial years of the lifetime of targeted wind systems. That will allow farmers and landowners to pay for the wind systems during those initial years. After the specified initial time period, the rate of pay will drop to wholesale rates. That will allow the power company to buy cheap, green energy for the remainder of the lifetime of the turbine, and allow the farm wind turbine to continue to generate electricity to power the farm and to serve as a profit center for the farm.

Feed-in tariffs have been successful in many other places, and there’s no reason not to use them in Iowa. Getting the policy through the Iowa legislature would be an uphill climb no matter which party was in control, however.

Thicke rolled out his energy policy this morning in Des Moines. He has public events scheduled later today in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo, September 23 in Dubuque, Davenport and Iowa City, and September 24 in Council Bluffs and Sioux City. I hope the media will cover his ideas, because they have potential to make farming more profitable while reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s too bad that neither the current Secretary of Agriculture, Republican Bill Northey, nor his predecessor, Democrat Patty Judge, took the initiative on reducing our agriculture sector’s reliance on fossil fuels.

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Francis Thicke's "New Vision for Food and Agriculture" in Iowa

Democratic candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Francis Thicke is touring the state to talk about his just-published book, “A New Vision for Food and Agriculture.” He’s scheduled to speak in Oskaloosa on June 29, Marion on June 30, Storm Lake on July 1, Dubuque on July 6 and Mason City on July 13. All events are at 6:30 pm; click here for location details.

Thicke provides a brief outline of his vision on his campaign website:

   * Encourage the installation of farmer-owned, mid-size wind turbines on farms all across Iowa, to power farms, and help to power the rest of Iowa. I will lead in advocating feed-in tariffs, which are agreements with power companies that will allow farmers to sell their excess power, finance their turbines, and make a profit from their power generation.

   * Make Iowa farms more energy self-sufficient and put more biofuel profits in farmers’ pockets by refocusing Iowa’s biofuel investment on new technologies that will allow farmers to produce biofuels on the farm to power farm equipment, and sell the excess for consumer use.

   * Create more jobs and economic development by supporting local food production. We can grow more of what we eat in Iowa. Locally-grown food can be fresher, safer and healthier for consumers, and will provide jobs to produce it. I will reestablish the Iowa Food Policy Council to provide guidance on how to connect farmers to state institutional food purchases and greater access to consumer demand for fresh, locally-grown produce.

   * Expose predatory practices by corporate monopolies. We need Teddy Roosevelt-style trust busting to restore competition to agricultural markets. I will work with Iowa’s Attorney General and the Justice Department to ensure fair treatment for farmers.

   * Reestablish local control over CAFOs, and regulate them to keep dangerous pollutants out of our air and water, and protect the health, quality of life, and property values of our citizens.

   * Promote wider use of perennial and cover crops to keep Iowa’s rich soils and fertilizer nutrients from washing into our rivers.

Not only is Thicke highly qualified to implement this vision, he walks the walk, as you can see from a brief video tour of his dairy farm.

Near the beginning of that clip, Thicke observes, “Energy is a big issue in agriculture. We are highly dependent upon cheap oil if you look at agriculture almost anywhere in this country. And that’s one of the big issues in my campaign: how we can make agriculture more energy self-sufficient, make our landscape more resilient, and make our agriculture more efficient as well.” It’s sad that our current secretary of agriculture has shown no leadership on making this state’s farm economy more self-sufficient. Using renewable energy to power Iowa farm operations isn’t pie in the sky stuff: it’s technologically feasible and is a “common-sense way” to cut input costs.

I highly recommend going to hear Thicke speak in person, but you can listen online in some of the videos available on Thicke’s YouTube channel. The campaign is on Facebook here and on the web at Thickeforagriculture.com. If you want to volunteer for or help his campaign in any way, e-mail Thicketeam AT gmail.com. Here’s his ActBlue page for those who can make a financial contribution.

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Weekend open thread: Catching up on the news edition

Who else is watching the World Cup? I am surprised by how much my kids are enjoying the games, even though they don’t play soccer and it’s such a low-scoring sport. Des Moines business owner Tanya Keith and her husband have gone to every World Cup since 1994, and Tanya is blogging here about her family’s trip in South Africa. What I want to know is, how are her two young kids coping with the vuvuzela noise at the games? It sounds deafening even on tv.

I wasn’t around last weekend to write up the Iowa Democratic Party’s state convention in Des Moines. Radio Iowa’s blog covered most of the highlights here. Sue Dvorsky of Iowa City is the new IDP chair, replacing Michael Kiernan, who needs to have surgery on a tumor near his salivary gland. Iowa Democrats nominated Jon Murphy as our candidate against State Auditor David Vaudt. Read more about Murphy at Radio Iowa or at Iowa Independent. I am so glad we’re not giving Vaudt a pass.  

Convention delegates also voted to change party rules so that the gubernatorial nominee can choose the lieutenant governor candidate. The move was intended to undermine Barb Kalbach’s efforts to replace Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge on the Democratic ticket, and will make it impossible for an activist to do something similar in the future.

John Deeth has been pretty harsh on Kalbach, suggesting it’s a waste of time for her to run against Judge when her own Republican state representative and senator don’t have Democratic opponents. I see things differently. Kalbach said in announcing her candidacy, “I am taking this opportunity to represent the progressive, grassroots base of the Democratic Party who feels the issues that they have put forward have been ignored at the state level.” Kalbach wouldn’t have run if the Culver administration and Democratic legislative leaders had done anything to limit factory farm pollution during the past four years. She wouldn’t have run if the governor had done anything to advance the cause of local control (agricultural zoning), which he claimed to support during the 2006 campaign. Kalbach wouldn’t be able to draw attention to those failures as a candidate for the Iowa House or Senate in a conservative district. By the way, Culver would have an army of grassroots volunteers now if he had listened less to Patty Judge. He would also have a great campaign issue to use against Terry Branstad, on whose watch factory farm pollution became a much bigger problem in our state.

Moving to Iowa’s U.S. Senate race, while I was away a group called Americans United for Change started running this television commercial against Senator Chuck Grassley. The ad mentions campaign contributions Grassley has received from oil interests and draws a line between the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico and Grassley’s vote for a “resolution of disapproval” that would have limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. It’s a poor ad, because as Grassley’s office noted, that particular vote had little to do with big oil or offshore drilling (click here for more background). In voting for the Murkowski amendment, Grassley was carrying water for big coal, utilities that rely on fossil fuels, corporate agriculture interests and major industrial polluters.

Grassley has done plenty throughout his career to represent corporate interests rather than the public interest. There’s no excuse for such a sloppy attack ad.

The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder interviewed Grassley’s opponent Roxanne Conlin yesterday, and the Cedar Rapids Gazette tried to make a big deal out of her misspeaking on when Grassley won his first election. Rasmussen’s latest Iowa poll of 500 likely voters on June 14 found Grassley ahead of Conlin by 54 percent to 37 percent. The previous Rasmussen survey, taken in late April, had Grassley leading Conlin 53-40. I would like to see other polling of this race. The Washington Post published a feature on Scott Rasmussen this week, including some criticism of his methods.

This thread is for anything on your mind this weekend. Also feel free to post any links to good reads. I am working my way through this article by a self-described Tea Party consultant.

What's Working; What's Not in Ag Pollution Regulation

(If only we had leaders willing to take on this challenge. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

A new report issued today addresses the failures and successes of agricultural regulations in Iowa, Wisconsin, California and other agricultural states. The regulations are meant to reduce agricultural pollution that harms waters and aquatic life both locally and downstream, such as in the Gulf of Mexico where farm run-off from states upstream has created an aquatic Dead Zone the size of Massachusetts.

The report, conducted by the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Mississippi River Collaborative a partnership of environmental organizations and legal centers from states bordering the Mississippi, examined the effectiveness of state-based rules and laws meant to regulate non-point agricultural pollution.

More after the jump …

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Weekend open thread: Food and farm policy edition

Share anything that’s on your mind this weekend in the comments below.

Yesterday the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Justice jointly hosted a workshop in Ankeny devoted to concentration in agriculture, antitrust issues and market practices. After some controversy over the speakers scheduled initially, more farmers and producers were able to speak during the workshop. Lynda Waddington covered a panel including U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The Des Moines Register covered a session concerning Monsanto’s dominance in the biotech seed industry:

Monsanto has generated controversy because of its leading role in the biotech revolution in corn, soybean and cotton seeds since the mid-1990s. About 90 percent of the corn and soybean fields in the Midwest now are planted with seeds genetically altered to resist herbicides and pests.

“Biotech seeds have given farmers better yields and improved their lives,” said farmer Pam Johnson of Floyd County.

Monsanto, Pioneer and other seed companies license their traits under the auspices of a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing life forms to be patented.

Iowa State University professor emeritus Neil Harl said that Supreme Court decision radically changed the seed business from a collaborative, collegial enterprise among land grant colleges, farmers and companies.

“Before 1980, seed germplasm was considered something in the public domain,” said Harl. “Seed was developed in the field and everybody shared. Now seeds are developed in the laboratory and are patented and licensed.”

Holder said the high court decision 30 years ago wouldn’t block antitrust action, if it was deemed necessary.

“The antitrust authority is there,” Holder said. “The question is what the patent holders are doing with their patents. If they are using it to preserve monopolies, that is unfair behavior.”

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey noted that farmers are spending twice as much on seed as they did a decade ago, but also are getting better yields.

“There is tension about the cost of inputs,” Northey said. “But we don’t want to lose the innovation.”

The food blog Cooking Up a Story published this short backgrounder on “Hybrids and the Emergence of Seed Monopolies.”

The night before the DOJ/USDA workshop, Iowa CCI, Food and Water Watch, the National Family Farms Coalition and Food Democracy Now organized a town-hall meeting to raise awareness of excessive levels of concentration in agriculture. Lynda Waddington was there for Iowa Independent.

Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture Francis Thicke has long been concerned about the loss of competition in agricultural markets. He attended the workshop in Ankeny and praised the DOJ and USDA for investigating antitrust issues related to agriculture:

“Antitrust enforcement by the federal government has been ignored for so long that it will take Teddy Roosevelt-style trust busting to bring competitive markets back to agriculture,” said Thicke, who plans to participate in the first of a series of five workshops planned by the two federal departments this Friday in Ankeny. […]

“The effects of excessive market power by a few firms has been studied for years,” said Thicke. “It has been shown that if four or fewer firms control 40% or more of a market, then it no longer functions as a competitive market.” He pointed out that, as of 2007, four firms controlled 85% of the beef packing market, four firms controlled 66% of the pork packing market, four firms controlled 59% of the broiler market, and four firms controlled 55% of the turkey market.

“Clearly we are beyond the point of open competition in our agricultural markets,” Thicke asserted. “When there are so few large firms in a market, controlling firms begin to act in concert whether or not they are directly communicating pricing with each other.”

Speaking of food policy, I heard some good news this week. The Iowa Center on Health Disparities at the University of Northern Iowa has received major grants for two important projects:

The focus of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation grant is to launch an Iowa Food Policy Council, a diverse statewide cooperative to develop and make research, program and policy recommendations for a food system to support healthier Iowans, communities, economies and environments. Over the next year, the Iowa Food Policy Council will conduct a comprehensive statewide assessment of food systems, food access and health indicators.

The focus of the Leopold Center grant is to convene key food security and public health stakeholders from across Iowa who will examine the disparities in food access and health among Iowans. The Food Access and Health Working Group will address programs and policies that increase access to fresh, nutritious and affordable local food for all Iowans, including vulnerable children and their families.

More details on the grants are after the jump. I was hoping Governor Culver would revive the Food Policy Council, but I’m glad another way was found to get this project going.

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Events coming up this week

I didn’t manage to compile calendars the past couple of weeks, but I wanted to get back on track today, because there are lots of newsworthy events happening in the coming week around Iowa.

I don’t think I’ll be able to make it to the DAWN’s List reception honoring outstanding Iowa Democratic women tomorrow. I’d appreciate it if someone who attends would post a comment or a diary here about the reception.

Other notable events this week include a symposium in Des Moines about Iowa’s 2008 floods, a sustainable communities conference in Dubuque, and a public workshop in Ankeny about competition and regulatory issues in the agriculture industry. Details on those and other happenings are after the jump.

Keep checking John Deeth’s blog for news about statewide, Congressional and state legislative candidate filings, which continue through March 19.

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Culver opposes dirty water bill

Governor Chet Culver will not sign a bill that would weaken Iowa’s current restrictions on spreading manure over frozen and snow-covered ground. Culver’s senior adviser Jim Larew confirmed the governor’s opposition during a February 22 meeting with members of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. Iowa CCI is among the environmental groups that have sounded the alarm about House File 2324 and a companion bill, Senate File 2229. The bills would exempt many large farms from the new manure application rules adopted last year. Earlier this month, the House Agriculture Committee approved HF 2324 with minimal debate.

Culver had previously promised to block the new proposal in private conversations. The bill’s lead sponsor in the Iowa House, Democratic State Representative Ray Zirkelbach, told IowaPolitics.com yesterday, “Basically I was told that the governor’s going to veto it no matter what … if it came to his desk […].” Zirkelbach contends that the bill is needed to help the struggling dairy industry. He denies that it would lead to more manure contaminating Iowa waters.

I am glad to see the governor take a stand against Zirkelbach’s proposal. Improving the manure application bill was a major victory during the closing days of last year’s legislative session. We should not have to keep fighting efforts to move us backwards on water quality.

The full text of yesterday’s press release from Iowa CCI is after the jump.

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Massive Iowa Legislature linkfest (post-funnel edition)

The Iowa Legislature has been moving at an unusually fast pace during the shortened 2010 session. It’s time to catch up on what’s happened at the statehouse over the past three weeks. From here on out I will try to post a legislative roundup at the end of every week.

February 12 was the first “funnel” deadline. In order to have a chance of moving forward in 2010, all legislation except for tax and appropriations bills must have cleared at least one Iowa House or Senate committee by the end of last Friday.

After the jump I’ve included links on lots of bills that have passed or are still under consideration, as well as bills I took an interest in that failed to clear the funnel. I have grouped bills by subject area. This post is not an exhaustive list; way too many bills are under consideration for me to discuss them all. I recommend this funnel day roundup by Rod Boshart for the Mason City Globe-Gazette.

Note: the Iowa legislature’s second funnel deadline is coming up on March 5. To remain alive after that point, all bills except tax and appropriations bills must have been approved by either the full House or Senate and by a committee in the opposite chamber. Many bills that cleared the first funnel week will die in the second.  

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Open thread with events coming up this week

I didn’t have time to pull this together yesterday, but here’s a late weekend open thread. Share whatever’s on your mind.

(UPDATE: If you think you know American history, see how well you do on Charles Lemos’ Presidents’ Day trivia quiz. Each president is the correct answer to only one question.)

After the jump I’ve posted details on many events coming up this week. I hope to attend the screening of the “Big River” documentary in Des Moines on February 18. It’s a sequel to the must-watch “King Corn,” and the screening is a joint benefit for the Iowa Environmental Council and Practical Farmers of Iowa.

If you are a Democratic candidate in Iowa, please e-mail me your list of upcoming events so I can include them in these threads. (desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com)

Oxfam America “is seeking Des Moines area volunteers to lend 5-8 hours of time per week to help them raise awareness of the impacts of climate change on global communities and encourage action to alleviate it.” If you’re interested, you need to contact them by February 15 (information below).

Have a laugh at this from the Onion: New law would ban marriages between people who don’t love each other.

New Law Would Ban Marriages Between People Who Don’t Love Each Other

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Another study finds link between atrazine and birth defects

Yet another study has found that exposure to the weed-killer atrazine is associated with a higher rate of a birth defect:

Living near farms that use the weed killer atrazine may up the risk of a rare birth defect, according to a study presented this past Friday [February 5] at the annual meeting of the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine in Chicago.

About 1 in 5000 babies born in the U.S. each year suffers from gastroschisis, in which part of the intestines bulges through a separation in the belly, according to the March of Dimes. The rate of gastroschisis has risen 2- to 4-fold over the last three decades, according to Dr. Sarah Waller, of the University of Washington, Seattle, and colleagues. […]

The researchers looked at more than 4,400 birth certificates from 1987-2006 – including more than 800 cases of gastroschisis — and U.S. Geological Survey databases of agricultural spraying between 2001 and 2006.

Using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards to define high chemical exposure levels in surface water, they found that the closer a mother lived to a site of high surface water contamination by atrazine, the more likely she was to deliver an infant with gastroschisis.

The birth defect occurred more often among infants who lived less than 25 km (about 15 miles) from one of these sites, and it occurred more often among babies conceived between March and May, when agricultural spraying is common.

A separate study published last year in the medical journal Acta Paediatrica compared monthly concentrations of “nitrates, atrazine and other pesticides” in the U.S. water supply with birth defect rates over a seven-year period. The researchers found, “Elevated concentrations of agrichemicals in surface water in April-July coincided with higher risk of birth defects in live births with [last menstrual periods in] April-July.” The association was found for “eleven of 22 birth defect subcategories” as well as for birth defects as a whole.

The European Union banned atrazine in 2003 because of groundwater contamination, but tens of millions of pounds of the chemical are still sprayed on American farms. It has been proven to enter the water supply and is correlated with increased rates of breast and prostate cancers.

During the Bush administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maintained that atrazine had no detrimental effects in humans. But in a policy shift last October, the EPA announced that it would ask the independent Scientific Advisory Panel to conduct a thorough scientific review of atrazine’s “potential cancer and non-cancer effects on humans,” including “its potential association with birth defects, low birth weight, and premature births.” The panel will also evaluate research on “atrazine’s potential effects on amphibians and aquatic ecosystems.” Conventional agriculture groups aren’t waiting for the results of the review; they are already lobbying the EPA not to restrict or ban the use of atrazine.

I’d have more respect for the “pro-life” movement if they supported restrictions on chemicals that threaten babies in the womb. I don’t think I have ever heard an anti-abortion activist railing against atrazine or pesticides that can cause spontaneous abortions, though.

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Obama's "five worst nominees"

Over at the Mother Jones blog, Kate Sheppard, David Corn and Daniel Schulman compiled a list of “Obama’s Five Worst Nominees.” Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner doesn’t make the cut, which surprised me until I read the short bios of appointees who are likely to put corporate interests ahead of the public interest. In alphabetical order:

William Lynn, for whom the president made an exception to his policy on lobbyists in government. Lynn was the chief lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon before becoming deputy secretary of defense in the Obama administration.

William Magwood, a “cheerleader for nuclear power” who has “worked for reactor maker Westinghouse and has run two firms that advise companies on nuclear projects.” Obama nominated him for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Scott O’Malia, who was apparently suggested by Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell. O’Malia “was a lobbyist for Mirant, an Enron-like energy-trading firm” and lobbied for weakening the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, to which Obama appointed him.

Joseph Pizarchik, who helped form policies in Pennsylvania to allow disposal of toxic coal ash in unlined pits. Obama named him director of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Islam Siddiqui, whom Obama appointed to be the chief agricultural negotiator for the U.S. trade representative. Jill Richardson has been on this case at La Vida Locavore; see here and here on why Siddiqui is the wrong person for this job.

I wouldn’t suggest that this rogue’s gallery is representative of Obama appointees, but it’s depressing to see any of them in this administration.

In the good news column, Obama has decided to renominate Dawn Johnsen to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, along with five other nominees who didn’t receive a confirmation vote in the Senate last year.

Thicke warns of excessive concentration in agriculture

The Justice Department and U.S. Department of Agriculture have been accepting public comments in advance of a series of workshops on “competition and regulatory issues in the agriculture industry.” The first workshop is scheduled for March 12 in Ankeny.

Francis Thicke, a dairy farmer and Democratic candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture, submitted this comment to the DOJ’s Antitrust Division. Excerpt:

Economists tell us that when four firms control 40% or more of a market, that market loses its competitive nature. Currently, four firms control 83.5% of the beef packer market; four firms control 66% of the pork packer market; four firms control 58.5% of the broiler market. The turkey, flour milling, seed, and other agricultural markets are similarly concentrated.

The anticompetitive effects of market concentration is further compounded by the fact that some of the top four firms in each market category are also among the top four in other markets. For example, Tyson is number one in beef packing, number two in pork packing, and number two in broilers. This kind of horizontal integration encourages firms that dominate in several markets to manipulate prices in order to increase their market share. For example, when beef and broiler prices are profitable, a firm with dominant market share in beef, broilers, and pork can take measures to prolong the unprofitability of the pork market in order to force out firms that deal only in pork-while maintaining its own firm’s overall profitability through the beef and broiler market sectors.

A good current example of the farm-level effects of market concentration is the milk market. Recently, dairy farmers have been experiencing record losses due to low farm-gate milk prices. At the same time, the largest dairy processor, Dean Foods-that is purported to control 40% of U.S. dairy processing-has posted record profits over the past two quarters. Clearly, Dean Foods has found a modus operandi that enables it to isolate itself from the market forces bearing on dairy farmers.

I am glad to see Thicke raise this issue, which affects the well-being of so many family farmers. I do not recall Iowa’s current Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey or his predecessor Patty Judge sounding the alarm about excessive concentration in the agriculture industry. Someone please correct me if I am wrong.

Last month the Farmer to Farmer Campaign on Genetic Engineering released a report on consolidation in the seed industry, which has left farmers with “fewer choices and significantly higher prices in seed.” You can read more about that report at La Vida Locavore and Iowa Independent.

Blog for Iowa recently published a lengthy interview with Thicke that is worth reading. Here are the links to part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4.

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Iowans split on party lines over Wall Street reforms

On Friday the House of Representatives approved The Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act by 232 to 202. All three Iowa Democrats (Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack and Leonard Boswell) voted for the bill. Tom Latham and Steve King joined their Republican colleagues, who unanimously voted no. A press release from Braley’s office summarized key provisions:

–      Creation of a Consumer Financial Protection Agency (CFPA) to protect Americans from unfair financial products and services.

–       Creation of an oversight council to identify and regulate large financial firms whose collapse would place the entire financial system at risk.

–       Establishes a process for dismantling institutions like AIG or Lehman Brothers that protects taxpayers and ends bailouts.

–       Enables regulators to prohibit excessive executive compensations.

The “unfair” financial products to be regulated by the Consumer Financial Protection Agency include mortgages, credit cards and “payday” lenders. I would particularly like to see a crackdown on payday lending. Those high-interest loans have been shown to trap low-income borrowers in a cycle of debt.

The bill also includes some regulation of the derivatives market for the first time, but it sounds as if those provisions didn’t go far enough:

Consumer advocates cheered the survival of the consumer protection agency but said the overall legislation fell short, especially in the regulation of complex investment instruments known as derivatives.

The legislation aims to prevent manipulation and bring transparency to the $600 trillion global derivatives market. But an amendment by New York Democrat Scott Murphy, adopted 304-124 Thursday night, created an exception for nonfinancial companies that use derivatives as a hedge against market fluctuations rather than as a speculative investment. The amendment exempted businesses considered too small to be a risk to the financial system.

A Democratic effort to make more companies subject to derivatives regulations and to end abusive-trading rules failed.

When the Obama administration first proposed a package of regulations, it called for regulations of derivatives without any exceptions. But a potent lobbying coalition that included Boeing Co., Caterpillar Inc., General Electric Co., Coca-Cola and other big companies persuaded lawmakers to dilute the restrictions.

“It’s a weakness in the bill and a win for Wall Street,” said Barbara Roper, director of investor protection for the Consumer Federation of America. “Hedge funds and others that are not bona fide hedgers of commercial risk will slip through this language.”

Although I’m disappointed that Congressional Democrats didn’t pass a stronger bill, I am disgusted by House Republican leaders who “met with more than 100 lobbyists” last week in a desperate attempt to derail any regulation of these practices.

Representative Boswell worked on the derivatives regulations, and a statement from his office on December 11 expressed pride in “the work that the Agriculture Committee did to bring greater oversight and transparency to the over-the-counter derivatives market while balancing the interests of Iowa’s farmers and business owners who utilize these markets to hedge operations costs and lock-in commodity prices for responsible business planning.”

After the jump I’ve posted part of this statement, which includes written remarks Boswell submitted regarding the derivatives regulations.

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USDA names Iowa Farm Service Agency committee members

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the names of five appointees to the Iowa Farm Service Agency State Committee yesterday. John Judge, Maria Vakulskas Rosmann, Matthew Russell, Richard Machacek, and Gary Lamb “will oversee the activities of the agency to include carrying out the state agricultural conservation programs, resolving appeals from the agriculture community and helping to keep producers informed about FSA programs.”

After the jump I’ve posted the USDA’s November 23 press release, which contains brief biographical information about the appointees. John Judge is the husband of Iowa Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge. She mentioned at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Saturday that they just celebrated their 40th anniversary.

I was happy to see two well-known voices from the sustainable agriculture community appointed to this USDA committee. Rosmann’s family runs a diverse organic farm and has been active with Practical Farmers of Iowa since the 1980s. I know Russell from his involvement in the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture, and I’ve also bought produce from his farm at the downtown Des Moines farmer’s market.

Congratulations to all the new Farm Service Agency State Committee members.

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Events coming up during the next two weeks

Last month was so busy that I didn’t manage to post any event calendars here, but I am back on duty now. The highlight of this month for Democrats is the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Saturday, November 21, featuring Vice President Joe Biden. You can buy tickets online.

Please note that November 10 is the deadline for public comments to the Iowa Department of Natural Resources about protecting our Outstanding Iowa Waters. The Farm Bureau is mobilizing public comments against these regulations. The DNR needs to hear from Iowans committed to preserving our highest-quality waterways. Click here for background and an easy to use comment form.

State Senator Staci Appel will officially announce her re-election campaign on November 12, and I’ve posted details about a fundraiser for her campaign below the fold. Appel’s Republican opponent, State Representative Kent Sorenson, is already gearing up for next year’s election. He spent the weekend in Texas attending the WallBuilders ProFamily Legislators Conference. Here’s some background on David Barton’s vision for America, chock full of Biblical interpretations supporting right-wing public policies. Barton spoke to the Iowa Christian Alliance not long ago (click that link to watch videos). Former presidential candidate Ron Paul is headlining a fundraiser for Sorenson on November 14, by the way.

Many more event details are after the jump. As always, please post a comment about anything I’ve left out, or send me an e-mail (desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com).

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UPDATED: Harkin will chair Senate HELP Committee

Senator Ted Kennedy’s death left a vacancy as chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. I had assumed that Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, who is looking vulnerable going into his re-election campaign, would jump at the chance to become the HELP committee chairman, but surprisingly, he prefers to remain chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Paul Kane reports for the Washington Post,

Dodd’s decision leaves the chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who follows Dodd in seniority. Multiple sources in the Harkin orbit, requesting anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said that he is certain to take over the HELP committee.

Harkin is currently chairman of the Agriculture Committee and would have to give up that position. He would likely be replaced at Agriculture by Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who faces a difficult reelection bid in 2010. Other Democrats are more senior than her on the Agriculture Committee, but they hold more prestigious chairmanships already.

Leaving the chairman’s position at Agriculture means Harkin will have less influence over the drafting of the next farm bill. On the other hand, the HELP Committee deals with a range of extremely important issues.

I have contacted Senator Harkin’s office seeking confirmation of this report, and I’ll update this post when I hear back from his staff.

UPDATE: Harkin will replace Kennedy as HELP chairman. His statement is after the jump, along with a statement from Iowa Democratic Party chair Michael Kiernan.

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Vilsack declines pork industry request (for now)

Following up on the request by nine governors and pork industry giants for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to spend $50 million on excess pork products, Radio Iowa reported on Tuesday that the USDA can’t help right now:

“We are down to our last $7 or 8 million because there’s been such a demand for so many kinds of commodities, including pork. I think in the last fiscal year $62 million worth of pork purchases have been made,” [Secretary of Agriculture Tom] Vilsack says. “…So we are trying to meet the demands of everyone.”

Vilsack says there may be more money in the pipeline this fall. “When October 1 comes, when the new fiscal year starts, we have a little greater flexibility and at that time we are taking a look at all these requests,” Vilsack says, “and we will make determinations at that point in time in terms of what is being requested of us and what we think makes sense.” […]

“We are very sensitive to the concerns of the pork industry. We have tried to respond by asking our institutional purchasers like the Department of Defense and others to purchase more pork products. We’ll continue to do that,” Vilsack says. “But I think we are stuck by virtue of the amount of money left in the account that we use to do this, but in October 1 it gets replenished and we’ll be in a different position.”

Meanwhile, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement makes it easy for you to e-mail Governor Chet Culver to tell him you oppose taxpayer-funded bailouts of factory farms.

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No more bailouts for factory farms

If your widget factory produces too many widgets, you will be stuck with extra inventory, affecting your bottom line.

In contrast, if your factory farm contributes to excess production of pork, high-level elected officials will ask the federal government to bail you out. I learned from Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement today that last week nine governors, including Chet Culver,

requested $50 million of taxpayer money from the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) to buy over-produced pork off the market.  This follows similar requests made by the National Pork Producers Council in early May and Iowa Secretary of Ag Bill Northey in June.

The hog factory industry, though, has received two recent taxpayer-funded bailouts from USDA — one for $25 million in March 2009 and the other for $50 million in April 2008 — to buy over-produced pork off the market. […]

Ag economists have warned for months that the pork industry must stabilize prices by trimming the fat and reducing the herd size.  But the pork industry has ignored basic economic rules and continues to increase supply as demand goes down.  This is the result of continuous government subsidies and bailouts to the factory farm industry.

“Corporate ag receives government subsidies and guaranteed loans that promote the expansion of factory farms on the front end,” said CCI member Lori Nelson of Bayard.  “And then, when they produce too much pork, they ask the government — that’s us — to bail them out with huge amounts of taxpayer dollars. The factory farm industry is a house of cards that would crumble as soon as you take away taxpayers propping them up.”

The governors of Nebraska, Colorado, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Illinois and Oklahoma joined Culver in signing the appeal for federal aid. According to DTN/The Progressive Farmer, “Representatives from the Iowa and the National Pork Producers Councils, Tyson Fresh Foods, Hormel Foods and Paragon Economics support the letter’s three proposals for aid.”

I’ve posted the full text of Iowa CCI’s press release after the jump. There’s no reason to exempt corporate agriculture from basic laws of supply and demand. Taxpayers already pay too much to subsidize factory hog farms.

By the way, Iowa CCI might be willing to cut Culver more slack if the governor had done more during the past three years to address the hidden environmental costs of CAFOs (air and water pollution). It’s also worth noting that Culver has done nothing since his election to push for agricultural zoning at the county level. During the 2006 campaign, Culver said he backed “local control.” Add this to the list of reasons why part of the Democratic base doesn’t approve of Culver’s performance.

LATE UPDATE: The USDA announced plans to buy $30 million of pork in September.

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ACTION: Help preserve public input on CAFOs

The state Environmental Protection Commission (EPC) is considering new rules that would limit public input during the permit approval process for confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in Iowa. Up to now, members of the public have been able to speak before the EPC concerning proposed new CAFOs. Under the new rules, only representatives of the entity applying for the permit, the county board of supervisors, and the Department of Natural Resources would be able to speak at EPC hearings on CAFO permits. People and entities that might be affected by downstream or downwind pollution from the proposed CAFO would not be allowed to speak at such hearings.

The public can submit comments on the new rule through this Thursday, August 6.

After the jump I’ve posted action alerts sent out by 1000 Friends of Iowa and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. They contain some talking points for public comments and contact information for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. Iowa CCI also mentions two points worth preserving in the new rule, which industrial agriculture interests are apparently trying to have removed.

Comments must be received by Thursday, so if you are using the regular mail, please send your letter as soon as possible. There are also three DNR public hearings this week in Spencer, Des Moines and Ainsworth (details below).

I’ve also posted two pieces containing further background information after the jump. These may help you prepare comments to submit to the DNR. Shearon Elderkin discusses a controversial EPC decision last summer, which prompted the rewriting of the rules on the CAFO permit application process. Elderkin served on the EPC from August 2008 through April 2009. She had to step down when Iowa Senate Republicans blocked her confirmation for the position.

The final document you can find below is by Cedar Rapids attorney David Elderkin, Shearon’s husband. He covers the legal issues at hand in more detail.

Please take a few minutes to submit a public comment on this issue by Thursday, August 6. Please forward to any friends or relatives in Iowa who might be willing to comment as well.

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Don't hold your breath, Secretary Vilsack

I was struck by this passage in a Sunday Des Moines Register feature on Iowans in key posts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

[USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service administrator Michael] Michener declined to discuss the department’s strategy for promoting international acceptance of biotechnology, saying it’s still in the works. But he argues that the Obama administration can be more effective than the Bush administration, which went to the World Trade Organization to unsuccessfully break European resistance to the genetically engineered crops.

Vilsack is taking a lighter approach, Michener said, recounting a discussion the secretary had with his German counterpart.

Vilsack “made this very creative argument on how during the eight years of the Bush administration, the Europeans would lecture us on how we had to bring our citizens along and educate them on the science of climate change. He turned that around and said, ‘You know, you’ve got a similar responsibility on biotech'” Michener said.

That certainly is a “creative” analogy. Getting Americans on board with serious policies on climate change may be our only hope for avoiding a catastrophic global warming scenario. Gaining European acceptance for genetically-modified crops has no comparable global benefit (no, these crops won’t magically end world hunger).

But a more important point is after the jump.

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Dave Murphy is working to strengthen rural economies

The Des Moines Register profiled Dave Murphy of Food Democracy Now in Monday’s edition. The article mentioned the incredible success of the petition signed by more than 94,000 Americans. Two of the “sustainable dozen” candidates whom Food Democracy Now recommended for U.S. Department of Agriculture posts now work for the department. Drake Law Professor Neil Hamilton, also on the sustainable dozen list, is an “informal adviser” to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.

You should read the whole Des Moines Register article. The most important passage is about how Murphy makes the case for changing agriculture policies:

[Murphy] pointed to a survey from the Organic Trade Association that showed that the U.S. sales of organic food grew nearly 16 percent between 2007 and 2008 to reach $22.9 billion. Organic foods now account for about 3.5 percent of all U.S. food sales.

For Murphy, sustainable farming is about more than the food.

He sees it as returning to a model of production that is better for the environment and one in which farmers can start without taking on deep debt to finance heavy equipment.

He said the agricultural policies today are stacked against farmers of small- to mid-sized farms in favor of larger operations. […]

Murphy stressed that he isn’t against large farm operations. He said sustainable practices can help farms of all sizes.

But Murphy does believe that the playing field ought to be leveled, for the benefit not just for smaller farms but for rural areas in general.

“That’s the best way to improve rural economies,” he said. “The more farmers there are on the land, the better it is for rural economies.”

Health and environmental concerns sparked my interest in buying local food produced sustainably, but Murphy is wise to connect the dots between agriculture policies and the economic future of rural areas. For more along those lines, read the feature on Murphy and Food Democracy Now from the Washington Post in March.

Speaking of Iowans who are incredibly committed to helping small and medium-sized farms thrive, Woodbury County’s rural economic development director Rob Marqusee has pledged to “eat only food grown within 100 miles of the Woodbury County Courthouse for the entire month of June 09 (and no meat will be allowed in the diet).” Keep an eye on Marqusee’s Woodbury Organics site next month, because he’ll be blogging about his food challenge.

Those interested in Murphy’s work should go read more on the Food Democracy Now site. Click here for past Bleeding Heartland posts that referenced Food Democracy Now’s work. Jill Richardson wrote more here about Murphy’s activist roots and the role he played during the Iowa caucus campaign.

If organic farmer Francis Thicke decides to run for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2010, expanding local food networks will be a major theme of his campaign.

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Important news for organic and transitioning farmers

In March I asked readers to submit public comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture advocating for organic farmers to receive more money under USDA’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

I’m happy to pass along good news on this front:

Speaking today to the USDA National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan announced $50 Million for a new initiative to meet the Obama Administration’s promise to encourage more organic agriculture production. Funding for the initiative is being made available as part of the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

“Assisting organic producers is a priority of the 2008 Farm Bill as well as for Secretary Vilsack and the Obama Administration,” said Merrigan. “The objective of this initiative is to make organic food producers eligible to compete for EQIP financial assistance.”

The 2009 Organic Initiative is a nationwide special initiative to provide financial assistance to National Organic Program (NOP) certified organic producers as well as producers in the process of transitioning to organic production. Organic producers may also apply for assistance under general EQIP.

Under the Organic Initiative required minimum core conservation practices will be determined by specific resource concerns. The practices are: Conservation Crop Rotation; Cover Crop; Nutrient Management; Pest Management; Prescribed Grazing; and Forage Harvest Management. States must consider using any appropriate practice that meets the resource concern on a particular operation.

(hat tip to Jill Richardson at La Vida Locavore)

Here’s some background courtesy of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition:

The organic conversion assistance was provided for by the 2008 Farm Bill but the plan went awry when the Bush Administration issued rules for the EQIP program just before leaving office which baffled state and local offices of USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).  As a result, in a majority of states organic farmers and transitioning farmers were simply not being served, in contradiction of Congress’ intent in the farm bill.

“This was a was a wrong that needed righting, and with today’s announcement USDA is not only setting it right, but doing so in an innovative and farmer-friendly manner,” said Aimee Witteman, NSAC Executive Director.  “We thank NRCS and USDA leadership for listening to the concerns of organic farmers and applaud their new initiative.”

Note: farmers must apply for these special EQIP funds between May 11 and May 29.

Kudos to Tom Vilsack for getting behind a policy that will help producers meet the growing demand for organic food. Today’s announcement is a victory for the environment, farmers and groups involved in the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. It’s also clear that Food Democracy Now knew what they were doing when they included Merrigan on their “sustainable dozen” list for the USDA.  

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Eat pork that's not factory-farmed

Government officials and pork industry representatives are working hard to convince the public that it’s still safe to eat pork despite the rapidly spreading swine flu virus that may have already infected two Iowans.

They are correct that there is no risk of contracting the flu from eating pork.

Some Mexican news reports have linked the swine flu outbreak to conditions in factory farms owned by the Smithfield Foods corporation. Smithfield released a statement saying the company “has no reason to believe that the virus is in any way connected to its operations in Mexico.” However, many commentaries have highlighted the ways that confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) may contribute to the spread of disease. See this post by Ellinorianne or articles linked in this post by Jill Richardson.

Whether or not the swine flu outbreak is ever conclusively linked to CAFOs, there is already overwhelming evidence of problems with the current model for raising hogs industrially. Charles Lemos briefly covered them in this post. For more detail, read last year’s report by the Union of Concerned Scientists: CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations. Also last year, the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production issued its final report on “Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.”  The authors concluded that “The current industrial farm animal production (IFAP) system often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves […].” There are many resources on the Save Antibiotics site as well.

For some people, including April Streeter of the Treehugger blog, problems with the CAFO model warrant giving up pork altogether.

I would encourage those who enjoy pork to choose meat from sustainable producers instead. Depending on where you live, it may be hard to find pork that hasn’t been factory-farmed because of the massive consolidation in the pork industry during the past decade or two (see also here).

Central Iowa residents are fortunate to have the Iowa Food Cooperative close by. Several different farmers raising hogs organically, or on pasture without hormones and antibiotics, sell a wide range of pork products through the coop.

If you don’t live near a store or market that sells sustainable meat, an advocacy organization such as Practical Farmers of Iowa, the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture or the Women, Food and Agriculture Network may be able to put you in touch with a farmer who sells pork directly to consumers.

Sustainable meat can be expensive, but you can reduce the cost by buying directly from the farmer. If you have a chest freezer and buy in large quantities, the price per pound can drop down into the range you would pay for lower-quality conventionally raised meat.

UPDATE: Jill Richardson linked to an interview Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack gave CNN today, in which he talked about eating pork every day. Vilsack echoed industry talking points about how the media should be calling this virus by its scientific name, H1N1, instead of using the term “swine flu.” I agree with Jill:

Whether or not this flu came from a factory farm, I don’t think the fact that factory farms are a problem is really up for debate. Vilsack comes from a state totally overrun by them so he should know best.

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Last day to help end "factory farm bailout"

Last month I posted about efforts to convince the U.S. Department of Agriculture to reduce the share of conservation funds that large confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) receive through the USDA’s Environmental Quality Initiatives Program (EQIP).

Food Democracy Now sent out an action alert on Thursday reminding supporters that comments on making EQIP work for sustainable and organic farmers must be received by the USDA by the close of business on April 17 (today).

You can fax your letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack (202-720-4265) or submit your comments online (Food Democracy Now has instructions on that process).

Click here and scroll down the page for talking points and a sample letter on this issue. However, it’s always better to put these things in your own words if possible. I’ve posted Food Democracy Now’s sample letter after the jump. If you are writing your own letter, make sure it goes to the correct address and says this near the top:

Re: Docket Number NRCS- IFR-08005 Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) Final Rules

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Last day for comments on closing corporate farm subsidy loophole (updated)

UPDATE: According to Food Democracy Now, the relevant USDA official’s e-mail inbox is full and bouncing back messages.

Please send you comments to: Dan McGlynn via Mara Villegas at: mara.villegas@wdc.usda.gov


At this point you can do 1 of 3 things:

1. You can resend your comments to mara.villegas@wdc.usda.gov

2. Fax the letter in at: (202) 690-2130

3. Go to Regulation.gov and send your letter in using that website form.


If you go to Regulations.gov please realize that it is a several step process in order to submit your comments.

We have provided the proper steps to follow on our website.


Thanks again for all you do, we appreciate your continued efforts on this important subject.

I received an e-mail alert from Food Democracy Now today, informing me that the public comment period for a proposed U.S. Department of Agriculture rule on farm payment limits ends at the close of business on Monday, April 6.

President Barack Obama promised during his budget speech to a joint session of Congress in February to “end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don’t need them.” Food Democracy Now’s action alert noted,

As part of his 2010 budget, the President proposed phasing-out direct payments in an attempt to save $9.8 billion over 10 years. Currently direct payments, which total $5.2 billion a year, are paid regardless of crop prices and are not tied to need.

This means: Even in times of high commodity prices, corporate farmers still get a paycheck from the government.

End Unfair Subsidies Now!

In mentioning unfair agribusiness subsidies, the President let supporters and agribusiness know that he’s serious about defending the rights of family farmers and giving them access to fair market conditions.

Today’s current subsidy system allows large corporate farms to take advantage of subsidy loopholes that place independent family farmers at a serious competitive disadvantage.

Because of loosely written management and labor requirements in the Farm Bill, corporate farmers are allowed to use multiple partnerships, passive investors and sham “paper” farms to funnel huge multimillion dollar annual subsidy payments to corporate entities that don’t do any real work on the farm, but use the ownership as an entitlement to bilk payments from the government.

As a result, giant corporate millionaire “farmers” are driving independent family farmers off the land, using their ill-gotten gains, supplied courtesy of taxpayers, to outbid small, midsized and new farmers who want to buy or rent new crop ground.

Food Democracy Now provided a sample e-mail that you can cope and paste into your own message. I’ve posted it after the jump, and you can also find it here.

If you can put the message in your own words, that’s wonderful, but any comment you can send by the close of business on Monday is better than nothing.

However you write the main text of your message, put this in the subject line:

Comment on Farm Program Payment Limitation Rule, Federal Register, Vol. 74, No. 23, February 5, 2009

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Why don't Iowa leaders do more to protect the environment? (updated)

David Yepsen published his final column in the Des Moines Register before starting his new job as director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. It reprises some themes from many previous columns, such as the need to create a world-class education system and thriving economy in Iowa, with fewer layers of government.

As often happens when I read one of Yepsen’s columns, I wonder why he ignores some obvious paths to achieving his admirable goals. For instance, he wants Iowa to “set the goal of having one of the highest per-capita incomes in the country within 10 years.” Is this the same columnist who never met a labor union he liked? It reminded me of how Yepsen periodically slams the excessive influence of big money in politics, but won’t get behind a voluntary public financing system for clean elections.

In Yepsen’s final column, one passage in particular caught my eye:

Let’s set a goal to have the cleanest environment in the country within 10 years. The cleanest air. The cleanest water. The best soil- and energy-conservation practices.

We’ve had education governors. We’ve had sporadic focus on growing the economy. For some reason, we’ve lacked a similar focus on the environment. Creating a clean environment will create green jobs, but it will also make Iowa more attractive as a place to live and do business.

“For some reason”? I think most of us have a pretty good idea why improving air and water quality has never been a high priority for Iowa leaders. Follow me after the jump for more on this problem.

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Remember the economic case for healthy food

The Washington Post ran a feature in Wednesday’s edition about Iowan Dave Murphy, who founded Food Democracy Now in November. The whole piece is worth reading, but I particularly liked this passage about what Murphy is bringing to the sustainable food movement:

Perception gets you in the door in Washington. But it’s policy that keeps you in the room. The laws that govern food policy, such as the nearly $300 billion Farm Bill and the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act that funds the school lunch program, are notoriously complex and political. “As a movement, we have not had nearly enough sophistication on policy,” [author Michael] Pollan said. “We’ve been outgunned by people who understand the Farm Bill.”

Equally important, Murphy says, is to recast the debate about good food from a moral battle to an economic one. Take the school lunch program, which Congress will review this year. Food activists have long argued that more fruits and vegetables from local producers should be included to help improve childhood nutrition. But Murphy says the better way to sell the idea to legislators is as a new economic engine to sustain small farmers and rural America as a whole. Talk about nutrition and you get a legislator’s attention, he said. “But you get his vote when you talk about economic development.”

Murphy is realistic that change won’t come quickly. He knows he is battling huge, entrenched corporations with better connections and more resources at their disposal. To succeed, he must unite grassroots organizations and persuade an array of other interests — health insurers, senior citizens and teacher lobbies, all of which have a stake in healthful eating — to join the fight. “If you want to change the ballgame, you have to address the policies that are responsible for the system we have in place,” Murphy said. “If you change policy, the market will change.”

Economic development isn’t what sparked my interest in eating locally-produced food raised without hormones, antibiotics or toxic chemicals, but it’s definitely the key to bringing policy-makers on board.

I learned that lesson from Woodbury County rural economic development director Rob Marqusee, who talked his county supervisors into approving amazingly good policies to promote local foods and organic farming. Marqusee runs the Woodbury Organics website, a superb resource on what I call the cold-blooded capitalist case for local foods.

On a related note, look what sustainable food producers have done for the economy of Hardwick, Vermont, an industrial town that fell on hard times during the 20th century. (Hat tip to La Vida Locavore diarist JayinPortland.)

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Organic farmer plans to run for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture (updated)

It’s not yet clear whether Iowa’s Republican Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey, will seek re-election in 2010 or run against Governor Chet Culver instead. But at least one Democrat appears ready to seek Northey’s job next year.

Francis Thicke, an organic dairy farmer near Fairfield with a Pd.D. in agronomy and soil fertility, announced yesterday that he has formed an Exploratory Committee to consider running for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. I’ve posted the press release from Thicke after the jump. One of his top priorities would be expanding local food networks:

“Growing more of our food in Iowa represents a multi-billion dollar economic development opportunity.”  This potential economic activity could “create thousands of new jobs and help revitalize rural communities in Iowa, as well as provide Iowans with fresh, nutritious food,” said Thicke.

Thicke would be an outstanding asset to Iowa as Secretary of Agriculture. A working farmer and expert on many agricultural policy issues, he currently serves on Iowa’s USDA State Technical Committee and has an impressive list of publications. In the past he has served on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission, the Iowa Food Policy Council, and the Iowa Organic Standards Board.

He has also won awards including “the Activist Award from the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club, the Outstanding Pasture Management award from the Jefferson County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Friend of the Earth award from the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in Washington, D.C.”

Here’s an interview Thicke gave in 2003 about his organic dairy operation. He also wrote this piece on the benefits of pasture-based dairies for CounterPunch in 2004. I found a YouTube video of Thicke speaking about livestock farming in Pella last year.

Thicke’s relationship with the Culver administration is strained, to put it mildly. He did not go quietly when Culver declined to reappoint him to the Environmental Protection Commission. In addition, Thicke is a strong advocate for “local control” of confined-animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge opposes and Culver has not pursued as governor.

If Thicke runs for Secretary of Agriculture, his campaign is likely to become a focal point for environmentalists who aren’t satisfied with our current Democratic leadership in Iowa.

UPDATE: Denise O’Brien responded to my request for a comment on Thicke’s candidacy:

I have pledged my support to Francis. He has an excellent background to be a strong leader of our state agriculture department. His depth of knowledge of agriculture and natural resource management gives him credibility when it comes to truly understanding the relationship of agriculture to the rest of the world. It is my intention to work hard to get Francis elected.

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Farmer won't need special permit for harvest celebration

I recently wrote about a Johnson County farmer’s appeal against a Planning and Zoning board ruling requiring her to obtain a special permit to hold a harvest celebration at her farm.

Last night the Johnson County Board of Adjustment granted Susan Jutz’s appeal on a 5-0 vote. The non-profit organization Local Foods Connection passed along the good news in an e-mail alert I’ve posted after the jump. (Thanks also to Bleeding Heartland user corncam for the tip in the comments to my other diary.)

I was pleased to read that Jutz had so much support from the community as well as prominent figures including Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture, Bill Northey.

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Farmers shouldn't need a special permit to hold a field day

If you’ve ever attended a farm tour, farm field day or other harvest event at an Iowa farm, you be concerned by the action alert I received yesterday from the Iowa City-based non-profit Local Foods Connection.

Last fall the Johnson County Planning and Zoning board determined that Susan Jutz would need a “special event” permit if she wanted to hold a harvest celebration at her farm in Solon. She canceled the event because of the expense of obtaining a special event permit and because she did not want to set a precedent that farm tours and celebrations went beyond “accepted agricultural practices.”

I’ve posted the action alert after the jump. Jutz is appealing the board’s ruling next week. If you live in Johnson County, please consider contacting the county officials listed below. Farms all over the country organize tours and harvest parties.  

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Stop letting factory farms hog USDA conservation funds

Jill Richardson has an action alert up at La Vida Locavore regarding new rules for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Initiatives Program (EQIP). She lays out the problem with the status quo:

A report (Industrial Livestock at the Taxpayer Trough by Elanor Starmer and Timothy A. Wise, Dec 2008) found that nationally, factory hog farms comprise 10.7% of all hog operations – but get 37% of all of the EQIP contracts. Factory farm dairies make up 3.9% of all dairy farms – but they get 54% of EQIP contracts. All in all, between 2003 and 2007, 1000 factory hog and dairy farms ate up $35 million in EQIP conservation funding.

This happened at the expense of smaller farms that COULD HAVE gotten the money. Mid-sized hog farms make up 15% of hog operations but got 5.4% of EQIP contracts. Mid-sized dairy farms make up 13% of dairies – and got 7% of contracts.

This report by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimated that confined animal feeding operations “have received $100 million in annual pollution prevention payments in recent years” through EQIP.

Do you think CAFOs should be able to hog taxpayer dollars intended for conservation programs? Neither do I. More important, neither does Congress:

USDA was directed by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill to make EQIP more inclusive of organic agriculture practices – including implementing a new provision that assists farmers converting to organic farming systems and rewarding the conservation benefits of organic farming. However, USDA fell far short of meeting this directive in their [Interim Final Rule for EQIP].

We have until March 16 to submit public comments urging the USDA to make EQIP more organic-friendly, as Congress stipulated last year. There is a clear public interest in helping more farmers meet the growing demand for organic food. As a side benefit, directing more EQIP funds to organic farms would be a step toward making CAFOs pay for the harm they cause.

For details on how to submit your comments on this issue, click here or here.

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Two of the "Sustainable Dozen" getting serious consideration at USDA

Food Democracy Now reported in an e-mail to supporters yesterday that two of the “sustainable dozen” candidates the organization has endorsed for positions at the U.S. Department of Agriculture are “under serious consideration for Deputy Secretary”: Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs and  Karen Ross of the California Winegrape Growers Association and the Winegrape Growers of America.

More than 80,000 people have signed Food Democracy Now’s petition supporting sustainable change at the USDA. Click here to sign the petition or click here to forward it to like-minded friends if you have already signed. You can kick in a few bucks to help keep Food Democracy Now going by donating here.

Highlights and analysis of the Vilsack confirmation hearing

Tom Vilsack appears to be on track for unanimous confirmation by the Senate as Secretary of Agriculture in Barack Obama’s cabinet. At his confirmation hearing yesterday, Republicans didn’t ask hostile questions, and Vilsack didn’t have to explain away any embarrassing behavior like Treasury Secretary-nominee Timothy Geithner’s failure to fully meet his tax obligations over a period of years.

Despite the lack of drama, Vilsack made a number of noteworthy comments during the hearing. Here are some highlights.

Vilsack told senators on Wednesday that

The Obama administration wants to accelerate the development of new versions of biofuels made form crop residue and non-food crops such as switchgrass. The plants’ fibrous material, or cellulose, can be converted into alcohols or even new versions of gasoline or diesel.

“Moving toward next-generation biofuels, cellulosic ethanol, is going to be really important in order to respond” to concerns about the impact on food prices of using grain for fuel, he said.

Vilsack addressed a range of other issues, pledging, for example, to promote fruit and vegetable consumption and promising to ensure that any new international trade agreement is a “net plus for all of agriculture.”

It makes a lot of sense to produce ethanol from perennial plants that are less energy-intensive to grow and need fewer herbicides, pesticides and fertilizer than corn.

Vilsack’s opening statement also

promised swift implementation of the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) which, alone among farm bill conservation programs, has languished under the Bush Administration since passage of the 2008 Farm Bill last May.

A little later during the hearing, Vilsack described the Conservation Stewardship Program as important for the environment and cited its potential to boost farm income and create jobs.

By the way, Vilsack’s disclosure documents show that he collects payments from the US Department of Agriculture on some Iowa farmland he and his wife own:

The former Iowa governor and his wife, Christie, have been receiving payments since 2000 for an acreage in Davis County that is enrolled in the land-idling Conservation Reserve Program, according to USDA data compiled by the Environmental Working Group.

In a Jan. 8 letter to USDA ethics officials, Vilsack said he would seek a waiver to continue receiving CRP payments while he is secretary. Otherwise, experts said, he would have to break his contract and reimburse the USDA for all previous payments he has received, which would total nearly $60,000.

Craig Cox, Midwest vice president of the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, welcomed having an agriculture secretary who receives conservation payments.

At a time “when simultaneously protecting our soil, water, wildlife habitat and climate is an urgent priority, it is encouraging that our new secretary of agriculture is personally participating in a conservation program that does just that,” he said.

I’m with Cox; it’s good for the secretary of agriculture to have first-hand knowledge of the conservation reserve program’s value.

Earlier this week the Register published an article on the opening statement Vilsack prepared for his confirmation hearing:

Tom Vilsack is promising to use the U.S. Department of Agriculture to “aggressively address” global warming and energy independence.

In an opening statement prepared for his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for agriculture secretary also said he would use the department to “create real and meaningful opportunities” for farmers and to guarantee that rural communities grow and prosper. […]

Vilsack, a former mayor of Mount Pleasant, also said rural communities continue to lose population and “find it increasingly difficult to keep pace with the ever-changing national and global economy.”

He pledged to try to resolve the long-standing civil rights claims against the department.

“If I’m confirmed, the message will be clear: discrimination in any form will not be tolerated,” Vilsack said.

After reading that Register article, La Vida Locavore’s Jill Richardson commented,

I want to see our subsidy structure change to reward farmers for sustainability instead of yield. I want the government to ease the financial risk on any farmer transitioning to organic because it appears to me that being an organic farmer isn’t so bad on your bank account, but transitioning alone might break several farmers financially. I want to outlaw CAFOs altogether. But will Vilsack do this? Let me just say this: I am so confident he won’t that I promise now to entirely shave my head if he DOES do each of these 3 things.

I think we can all agree that Jill is not going to look like Sinead O’Connor anytime soon. I totally agree with her first two suggestions. As for CAFOs, it’s not realistic to expect them to be banned, but I believe they would be greatly reduced in number and size (over time) if government policy made them pay for the harm they cause.

On a more encouraging note, I read this at the U.S. Food Policy blog:

Some highlights included Vilsack’s encouragement of locally grown fruits and vegetables and pronouncement that they should be grown not just in rural areas, but everywhere. He announced that he met with Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle last week in order to demonstrate the importance of working together for nutrition. “It’s going to be important for us to promote fresh fruits and vegetables as part of our children’s diets. . .that means supporting those who supply those products” and making it easier for consumers to buy locally grown products, Vilsack said.

Maybe Vilsack and Daschle will take some of Angie Tagtow’s excellent advice on how their agencies can work together to improve human health. I would also encourage them to read this recent piece by Steph Larsen: “For healthy food and soil, we need affordable health care for farmers.”

I am curious about what Vilsack means by “supporting those who supply” locally-grown fresh fruits and vegetables. One problem with our current agricultural policy is that commodity farmers lose all federal subsidies if they put more than two acres into growing fruits or vegetables. Apparently that was the price needed to get California’s Congressional delegation to vote for various farm bills over the years. Even though almost no subsidies go directly to California farmers, this penalty limits the competition California growers might otherwise face from Midwestern farmers.

So, very little of the produce consumed by Iowans is grown in Iowa, and our grocery stores are full of produce trucked in from thousands of miles away. Most of the crops Iowa farmers grow are inedible for humans without processing.

A few years back the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University published a report on “Food, Fuel and Freeways.” It showed how far food travels to Iowans and how much Iowans could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions if we increased the proportion of locally-grown food in our diets to even 10 percent of what we eat.

Getting back to the Vilsack hearing, members of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee made some notable comments yesterday. who questioned Vilsack made some notable comments on Wednesday. Iowa’s own Tom Harkin, who chairs the committee, gave Vilsack a warm welcome:

“I just couldn’t be more proud to see you sitting there. I don’t think President-elect [Barack] Obama could have picked a better person for this position,” Harkin said.

Harkin also discussed federal child nutrition programs:

Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin , D-Iowa, said reauthorization of a law (PL 108-265) governing school lunches and other child nutrition programs “is really the only thing that we have to do this year.” […]

During the hearing, Harkin said he will propose that the Department of Agriculture use Institute of Medicine guidelines to set standards for junk food sold in schools. Current USDA school food standards exempt most snack foods, because they aren’t a part of subsidized lunches.

During the last renewal of the child nutrition act, then-Gov. Vilsack wrote a letter to lawmakers and the Bush administration expressing concern about childhood obesity and the problem of vending machine snacks that compete with school meals.

At the time, Vilsack backed limits on the kinds of snacks and beverages students can buy outside the lunch line. Nutrition advocates want junk food kicked out of schools, but many schools use the cash from sales to cover the rising costs of meal services.

(Side note: the state of Iowa is now considering banning the sale of junk food in public schools.)

Meanwhile, Iowa’s Republican Senator Chuck Grassley urged Vilsack to act quickly on several other fronts, including rule-making that would protect smaller volume livestock producers. Also, Grassley and Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota wrote an open letter to Vilsack asking him to close a loophole affecting commodity program payment limits. Ferd Hoefner, Policy Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, explains that “This particular loophole is the single most important one allowing mega farming operations to collect payments in multiples of what otherwise appears to be the statutory dollar limit.”

According to Hoefner,

Another former chairman, Pat Leahy (D-VT), weighed in with a comment that the Department is not keeping up with the rapid growth of organic and then with a question asking whether it wasn’t time for the Department to get on with the business of actually actively promoting organic.  Vilsack said we need to “celebrate and support” organic and USDA should view it as one very legitimate option in a menu of options for improving farm incomes.  Then, in response to an extended monologue from Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) deriding organic as marginal, Vilsack held his ground, but diffused the implied antagonism, saying the Department needs to support the full diversity of American agriculture.

The Ethicurean blog published an excerpt of Roberts’ insult to “small family farmers”:

That small family farmer is about 5’2″ … and he’s a retired airline pilot and sits on his porch on a glider reading Gentleman’s Quarterly – he used to read the Wall Street Journal but that got pretty drab – and his wife works as stock broker downtown. And he has 40 acres, and he has a pond and he has an orchard and he grows organic apples. Sometimes there is a little more protein in those apples than people bargain for, and he’s very happy to have that.

How disappointing that an imbecile like this could easily get re-elected in Kansas. Roberts’ caricature does not resemble any of the sustainable farmers I know. They work just as hard as Roberts’ idealized “production agriculture farmer” but don’t receive any federal subsidies, despite growing high-quality food and being good stewards of the land.

If you haven’t already done so, please go to the Food Democracy Now site and sign their new petition recommending 12 good candidates for undersecretary positions at the USDA. These will be important appointments, since Vilsack won’t single-handedly be setting the USDA’s policy direction.

The Center for Rural Affairs has also launched a petition worth signing, which urges Vilsack to implement a number of programs that would benefit farmers and rural economies.

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Food Democracy Now pushing "sustainable dozen" for USDA jobs

In November, Food Democracy Now started a petition drive urging President-elect Barack Obama to appoint a secretary of agriculture with a vision for a more sustainable food system.

Now that Obama has decided on Tom Vilsack for this position, Food Democracy Now has launched a new petition:

We want to Thank You for signing the original letter at Food Democracy Now! In just three weeks, more than 60,000 Americans have joined Michael Pollan, Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Alice Waters, Marion Nestle, Frances Moore Lappé, and Eric Schlosser calling for a sustainable USDA.

Now that the Secretary of Agriculture has been selected, it’s more important than ever that we send our message to Washington. Today’s farmers need a serious voice for sustainable change at the USDA.

Therefore, Food Democracy Now! has created a list of 12 candidates for the crucial Under Secretary positions that will stand up for family farms, safe food, clear air and water, animal welfare and soil preservation.

We need your help to continue to spread the word to your friends and colleagues to reach our goal of 100,000 signatures in the next two weeks before the Inauguration!

These 12 candidates have spent their lives fighting for family farmers and we’re calling them the Sustainable Dozen. Help us send them to Washington.

If you’ve already signed the petition, please forward this to one other person who cares about these issues to help us reach our goal of 100,000 Americans for a sustainable food system for the 21st century.

Once the Secretary of Agriculture is confirmed, we will deliver this letter with your comments to him and President Obama in Washington DC.

We at Food Democracy Now! are continuing to give voice to these concerns with policy makers at the federal, state and local levels, to gain a seat at the table and keep these issues at the forefront of future policy decisions.

Currently we are MORE THAN 60,000 voices strong. Please help keep this conversation going…Donate today. By donating as little as $5 or $10 you can make a difference in shaping the conversation at the USDA. Through our collective efforts, this letter has successfully reached “the right people” in Washington and we need to continue this vital work to create a future that we can ALL BELIEVE IN.

From all of us at Food Democracy Now! – Have a Happy, Sustainable New Year!


David Murphy

Food Democracy Now!


The links did not come through when I copied and pasted that message, so please click over to the site to read more.

Here is Food Democracy Now’s “sustainable dozen.” You may recognize several Iowans’ names on the list:

  1. Gus Schumacher: Former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture. Boston, Massachusetts

  2. Chuck Hassebrook: Executive Director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, Nebraska.

  3. Sarah Vogel: attorney; former two-term Commissioner of Agriculture for the State of North Dakota, Bismarck, North Dakota.

  4. Fred Kirschenmann: organic farmer; Distinguished Fellow, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Ames, IA; President, Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, New York.

  5. Mark Ritchie: current Minnesota Secretary of State; former policy analyst in Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture under Governor Rudy Perpich; co-founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

  6. Neil Hamilton: attorney; Dwight D. Opperman Chair of Law and Professor of Law and Director, Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.

  7. Doug O’Brien: current Assistant Director at Ohio Department of Agriculture; worked for the U.S. House and the Senate Ag Committee; former staff attorney and co-director for the National Agriculture Law Center in Arkansas, Reynoldsburg, Ohio.

  8. James Riddle: organic farmer; founding chair of the International Organic Inspectors Association (IOIA); has served on the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Organic Advisory Task Force since 1991; appointed to the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board, serving on the Executive Committee for 5 years and was chair in 2005, Board of Directors. Winona, Minnesota.

  9. Kathleen Merrigan: Director, Agriculture, Food and Environment M.S./Ph.D. Program, Assistant Professor and Director of the Center on Agriculture; Food and the Environment, Tufts University; former Federal Agency Administrator U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service; creator of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990, mandating national organic standards and a program of federal accreditation. Boston Massachusetts.

 10. Denise O’Brien: organic farmer, founder of Women, Food, and Agriculture Network (WFAN); represented the interests of women in agriculture at the World Conference on Women in Beijing, China in 1995; organized a rural women’s workshop for the 1996 World Food Summit in Rome, Italy; received nearly a half million votes in her 2006 bid to become Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture. Atlantic, Iowa.

 11. Ralph Paige: Executive Director, Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund; served as presidential appointment to the 21st Century Production Agriculture Commission; participates on the Agriculture Policy Advisory Committee for Trade; the Cooperative Development Foundation; and the National Agricultural Research, Extension, Education & Economics Advisory Board. East Point, Georgia.

 12. Karen Ross: President of the California Winegrape Growers Association and Executive Director of the Winegrape Growers of America; awarded the Wine Integrity Award by the Lodi Winegrape Commission for her contributions to the wine industry. Sacramento, California.

If you click over to Food Democracy Now, you’ll find a link for each of these people with more information about his or her background and expertise.

Thanks to all who sign the petition and help spread the word.

P.S.: There have been rumors this week that Obama may nominate Vilsack for secretary of commerce instead of secretary of agriculture, but aides close to Vilsack told KCCI news in Des Moines that the rumors are not true. He is apparently in Washington now interviewing potential future US Department of Agriculture staffers.  

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More reaction to Vilsack's nomination and good ideas on food policy

I don’t recall nearly as intense a reaction to Bill Clinton’s or George Bush’s nominees for secretary of agriculture. Either food and farm issues are much more salient now than they used to be, or I am noticing it more because Barack Obama is tapping an Iowan to head the USDA.

Tom Vilsack’s friend Jennifer Donahue says Vilsack is the “best possible” choice for secretary of agriculture.

Denise O’Brien urges sustainable agriculture advocates not to give up hope, because as governor Vilsack was accessible and did some good things on food and environmental issues.

Another Iowan, Food & Society Policy Fellow Angie Tagtow of Elkhart, wants Vilsack and incoming Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Daschle to work together:

A dichotomy exists between agriculture policies and Dietary Guidelines for Americans – yet, ironically, both are overseen by the USDA. Current food and farm policies stand in the way of making healthy food the easiest choice.

Food and agriculture policies must support disease prevention efforts and can save millions in health care costs. The USDA and USDHHS must use sound science, instead of pressures from special interests like biotechnology companies and the food industry, to reform policies and programs that support a healthy and sustainable food and agriculture system.

Specifically, Tagtow advocates cooperation between Vilsack and Daschle toward the following goals:

1. Creating an intradepartmental Food Policy Council, led by a Food Czar, “to assure farm, food and nutrition policies and programs support public health goals.”  

2. Enacting policies to build fertile soil. “Farmers should receive support or credits for decreasing use of synthetic farm chemicals, protecting natural resources, building soil, reducing fossil fuel use and capturing carbon.”

3. Creating incentives to grow more fruits and vegetables in the U.S.: “Our agriculture system does not grow enough of the right foods that promote our health. We are forced to rely on other countries to put fruits and vegetables on our plates.”

4. Making fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains more available to people on federal food and nutrition assistance program: “Improving the nutritional quality of the WIC food package and the foods served in schools will nourish healthy children, prepare them to learn, reduce childhood diseases, reduce food insecurity and produce healthy, productive adults.”

5. Leveraging food production as economic development. “Growing more food closer to where we eat it increases our access to fresh seasonal food, cultivates a closer relationship with farmers, and builds community resiliency, economic stability, food security and health.”

Tagtow’s suggestions are all excellent, and I hope Vilsack and Daschle will act on them.

Rob Hubler, former Congressional candidate in Iowa’s fifth district, is asking everyone on his e-mail list to support petitions calling for a more sustainable agriculture policy:


[…] Will you join me in continuing to work for the same values we campaigned on? There are two quick, but important, actions I want you to take. Both will make a difference for the future of rural communities, family farming and our entire food system.

First, I was proud to add my name to a remarkable effort to pressure President-elect Obama to appoint a “Sustainable Secretary of Agriculture” originated in our own district. Food Democracy Now (http://www.fooddemocracynow.org), launched last week by Iowan Dave Murphy, rocketed to national attention when Nicolas Kristof endorsed the effort in his New York Times column.

Nearly 50,000 people have already signed. Will you help push the petition to 100,000?

Second, the Center for Rural Affairs launched a Grassroots Letter to the next Secretary of Agriculture. No matter who Obama selects, the next head of the USDA needs to hear from you. You can sign the Center for Rural Affairs Grassroots Letter and leave your own comment about the change you would like to see to food, farm and rural policy. The Center for Rural Affairs will send your signature and comment onto the next Agriculture Secretary.

Join me in signing their letter here: http://www.cfra.org/08/grassro…

Peace & Justice,

Rob L. Hubler

I agree that it’s helpful to add more names to those petitions. Food Democracy Now has more than 58,000 signers already. The Center for Rural Affairs’ proposals are wide-ranging and sensible.

The Organic Consumers Association, which came out swinging against Vilsack last month, hasn’t given up on blocking this appointment. On Wednesday they launched a “Stop Vilsack” petition.

This strikes me as ineffective and unwise. There is no chance of Obama backing off from this nomination. He was aware of Vilsack’s position on agriculture when he made the decision. There is no chance of the Senate not confirming Vilsack. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa chairs the relevant committee and has already said he will make sure Vilsack’s confirmation hearings go smoothly.

The Organic Consumers Association would do better to organize pressure on Vilsack to take specific actions, either reversing bad Bush administration policies or moving in a more sustainable direction, as the Center for Rural Affairs and Tagtow are proposing.

Daily Kos user CornSyrupAwareness had a different take on Vilsack’s nomination:

I’m glad to see Iowa get their due with this pick of Tom Vilsack. They were instrumental in getting our man elected, and we should all tip our caps to Iowa. Iowa is now paid in full for their efforts and I’m glad. This way they don’t get their due by ‘vetoing’ a Surgeon General’s warning on High Fructose Corn Syrup.

CornSyrupAwareness also quoted some comments Obama made months ago about corn syrup, and posted this great clip of Bill Maher asking Joe Biden, “Which is more likely to contribute to the death of your average American: a terrorist strike, or high-fructose corn syrup, and air that has too much coal in it?”

Once Vilsack is confirmed as secretary of agriculture, a lot of other positions within the USDA will need to be filled. At La Vida Locavore, Obama Foodorama drew attention to last week’s little-noticed resignation of Elizabeth Johnson, the Under Secretary for Food Safety of USDA and made the case for Bill Marler to replace her:

[T]here are opportunities for swift and dramatic change, particularly in food safety. If the USDA fulfilled even half of its already existing mandate, we’d have a far cleaner and safer food chain. Elizabeth Johnson’s now-vacant post as Under Secretary for Food Safety needs to be filled by an inspired, activist leader, someone with both a long institutional memory, and a firm grasp on how to rapidly change what’s so terribly wrong with our system. There’s one individual in the food safety world who is the most uniquely qualified candidate to take on such a huge challenge: Attorney Bill Marler, the foremost food poisoning authority in the country (pictured).

A founding partner of Seattle’s Marler Clark law firm, Marler is an extremely activist consumer advocate and champion of change in food safety policy and practice, both in the US and abroad. His focus on food safety began in 1993, when he won a landmark settlement against Jack in The Box for E. coli contamination. Since then, Marler’s firm has become a powerhouse of food borne illness litigation, garnering close to half a billion dollars in settlements for injured clients.

Marler himself is now the leading US expert in institutional and agricultural structures for food safety, and he regularly works with farmers and major corporations to change/create safety practices (most recently, he persuaded global conglomerate Conagra to dramatically alter their policies). He’s repeatedly testified before Congress on food safety, and has been a vociferous and much-published critic of government policies and practices (including the ongoing labeling fights over “organic”). His Marler Blog is the best internet source for food safety information, and as the years have gone by, Marler has devoted more and more of his professional life to non-profit consultations on food safety and security around the world. Under the umbrella of Marler Clark’s non-profit organization, Outbreak, Marler consulates with foreign food agencies, producers, and governments on how to better protect the public from poisoned food, and how to create safe food systems. This is crucial for any Under Secretary for Food Safety, because America imports a huge part of our food supply each year. Marler has not only been an activist on getting foreign producers to focus on safety, but he’s also intimately acquainted with exactly what goes on in international markets.

The undersecretary appointments don’t get much attention but are quite important. Thanks to Obama Foodorama for shining a light on food safety. (UPDATE: Daily Kos user Halcyon informed me that Marler is an occasional diarist at Daily Kos. His most recent post is about the top ten food safety stories of 2008.)

Share any relevant thoughts on Vilsack’s nomination or federal policies on food and agriculture.

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Update: Obama tapping Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture

UPDATE: Open Left user Hopeful in NJ was right. Other media are now also reporting that Tom Vilsack will be Barack Obama’s secretary of agriculture.

A vigorous debate on the merits of the choice is going on in this thread at Daily Kos.

Natasha Chart wrote a thoughtful piece at MyDD.

Last month Vilsack told the Des Moines Register that he wasn’t being considered for any position in Obama’s cabinet.

Some sustainable agriculture advocates had lobbied against his appointment to head the US Department of Agriculture.

I thought Vilsack would have been a great Secretary of Education, but Obama just gave that job to Arne Duncan.

What do you think, Bleeding Heartland readers? Was Vilsack telling the truth when he said he wasn’t being vetted for the position? Or was that a head fake to divert the activists who were opposing his appointment?

Obama seems to have changed course several times on the Interior appointment. It’s possible that he wasn’t seriously considering Vilsack for the USDA post last month, but changed his mind in the past couple of weeks.

It would be interesting to know when Obama’s transition team first approached him about this job.  

Latest speculation about Obama's secretary of agriculture

Prominent advocates of sustainable agriculture, local foods, and more environmentally-friendly farming have sent an open letter to Barack Obama urging him to appoint a “sustainable choice for the next U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.” Omnivore’s Dilemma author Michael Pollan and poet Wendell Berry were among the 88 people who signed the letter. They suggested six good choices to head the USDA, including two Iowans:

1. Gus Schumacher, former Under Secretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services and former Massachusetts Commissioner of Agriculture.

2. Chuck Hassebrook, executive director, Center for Rural Affairs, Lyons, Neb.

3. Sarah Vogel, former Commissioner of Agriculture for North Dakota, lawyer, Bismarck, N.D.

4. Fred Kirschenmann, organic farmer, distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa, and president of the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Pocantico Hills, NY.

5. Mark Ritchie, Minnesota Secretary of State, former policy analyst in Minnesota’s Department of Agriculture under Governor Rudy Perpich, co-founder of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

6. Neil Hamilton, Dwight D. Opperman Chair of Law and director of the Agricultural Law Center, Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa.

Incidentally, Hamilton published an op-ed column in the Des Moines Register on Monday urging Obama to establish a “New Farmer Corps.”

Anyway, the people who signed the open letter are likely to be disappointed by Obama’s decision, because the reported short list for the post doesn’t include any advocate of sustainable agriculture. OrangeClouds115/Jill Richardson argues here that Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius would be the least-bad option among the people Obama is considering to run the USDA. Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Dennis Wolff would be a particularly bad choice.

On a related note, Ed Fallon wrote Obama a letter applying for the job of “White House Farmer.” Michael Pollan advocated the creation of this position in an article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine on October 12. Obama read Pollan’s piece (he even paraphrased points from it in an interview with Time magazine), but it is not known whether the president-elect supports setting aside a few acres of the White House lawn to be cultivated organically by a White House Farmer.

Fallon campaigned for John Edwards before the Iowa caucuses but endorsed Obama immediately after Edwards dropped out of the presidential race. His letter to Obama is after the jump.

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Vilsack says he's not being considered for Obama's cabinet

Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack told Thomas Beaumont of the Des Moines Register on Sunday that

he had never been contacted by aides to President-elect Barack Obama about [the Secretary of Agriculture] position or any other.

“I would have to speculate that I was in fact in the running and further speculate as to why I was no longer. I do not think it prudent or appropriate to speculate about either,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack had been linked repeatedly to the Agriculture Department position in news reports. The Washington Post at one point called him a “near shoo-in” for the job. Obama’s staff had never confirmed that he was being considered.

Obama “has many interests he has to consider, and we have an abundance of talent in both parties from which to satisfy those interests,” Vilsack said today.

I am surprised to hear Vilsack say no one from Obama’s team had contacted him. In that case I wonder why there was so much speculation about Vilsack being considered to head the US Department of Agriculture. I still think Vilsack would be an outstanding secretary of education.

At MyDD Natasha Chart has a good piece up on why agriculture policy is so important for the environment and the economy.

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More speculation about Obama's secretary of agriculture

Iowa politicians from both parties, as well as representatives of influential ag lobbies, like the idea of former Governor Tom Vilsack as secretary of agriculture, according to this piece from the Des Moines Register:

The ag secretary, whose department oversees such organizations as United States Forest Service, the U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service and the food stamp program, must have a strong relationship with the industry, be a strong manager, and be politically in tune with the president.

Former Gov. Tom Vilsack has those qualities, said Cary Covington, a University of Iowa political science professor.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey (a Republican) likes the idea of Barack Obama picking someone from Iowa who understands the biofuels industry. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley tells the Register that it always benefits Iowa to have someone from our state is a position of power.

The heads of the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Corn Growers Association also have good things to say about Vilsack’s knowledge and background in the article.

Although this was ostensibly a news piece and not an opinion column, the Register made its preference clear by not quoting any critic of Vilsack’s record on agriculture and not mentioning any reason why anyone might oppose him for this job.

Vilsack’s strong ties to the biotech and biofuels industries prompted the Organic Consumers Association to come out against his appointment as head of the USDA. When I wrote about that on Thursday, a few people questioned whether anyone else on Obama’s short list for this job would be better than Vilsack in terms of supporting organic foods and sustainable agriculture.

It’s a fair question. Here Jill Richardson/OrangeClouds115 makes the case against House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson. She shows that Obama’s campaign platform includes a lot of good points on agriculture, most of which Peterson has used his position in Congress to block.

Yesterday, shirah argued here that Pennsylvania Secretary of Agricultre Dennis Wolff, another name on Obama’s short list, would be “about the worst person” for this job. The diarist has written extensively about “Wolff’s role in trying to take away the right of Pennsylvanians to know whether their milk was produced using rBST / rBGH (recombinant bovine somatrophin / recombinant bovine growth hormone).”

Looks like Obama’s agriculture policy is going to be “more of the same” rather than “change we can believe in.”

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Organic Consumers Association against Vilsack for Ag Secretary

The Organic Consumers Association doesn’t hold back in this piece: Six Reasons Why Obama Appointing Monsanto’s Buddy, Former Iowa Governor Vilsack, for USDA Head is a Terrible Idea.

Click through to read the whole case against Vilsack. Among other things, they don’t like his advocacy of genetically-engineered crops for food or pharmaceuticals, his tendency to travel in Monsanto’s jet, and his support of biofuels.

I can’t recall anything Vilsack did as governor to address pollution from conventional farming or to promote sustainable agriculture. Then again, I was out of the state for most of his first term. If anyone wants to make the case for Vilsack as ag secretary in the comments, have at it.

I would much rather see Vilsack in a different post, such as secretary of education. He is very smart, understands policy and works hard, so he would be an asset to the cabinet–just not as agriculture secretary, in my opinion.

On a related note, if you care about food policy and sustainable agriculture, you should bookmark the community blog La Vida Locavore, featuring Jill Richardson (known to Daily Kos readers as OrangeClouds115) and Asinus Asinum Fricat, among others.

Jill’s recent posts indicate that Obama will likely improve food safety and may move us in the right direction in several other agricultural policy areas.

Rural development "got the very short end of the stick" in Farm Bill

cross-posted at La Vida Locavore

I learned today from the Public News Service that Jon Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs

has done an analysis of the 2008 Farm Bill, and found 233 times more spending on commodity subsidies than on rural development.

“Initiatives that would help start businesses, create jobs, make communities attractive places for people to relocate to, were left out of the farm bill.”

In contrast, Bailey notes, the Farm Bill allocates $35 billion for commodity subsidies, which makes the amount for revitalizing rural areas seem paltry.

“There are only three programs totaling $150 million for rural development in the final Farm Bill. Rural development got the very short end of the stick.”

Bailey noted that the 2002 Farm Bill included “more than $1 billion in mandatory spending for rural development programs.”

If you go to this page at the Center for Rural Affairs, you can find a link to a pdf version of the full report.

As much as I admire Senator Tom Harkin, I was very disappointed by how the Farm Bill (officially known as the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008) turned out. I have no idea what can be done to get Congress to redirect government funding toward sustainable farming practices and programs that improve the quality of life in rural areas.

Meanwhile, Susan Heathcote, the water program director of the Iowa Environmental Council and a member of the state Environmental Protection Commission, wrote a good guest editorial for the Des Moines Register about the need for better monitoring of drinking-water sources.

She mentioned two recent incidents of conventional farming polluting drinking water in the Des Moines area. Farms 80 miles upstream contributed to high ammonia levels found in the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers last spring, and a cyanobacteria “algae bloom” prompted the Des Moines Water Works to stop drawing from the Raccoon River in August.

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End Iowa's "don't ask, don't tell" approach to water quality

High levels of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in the Raccoon River forced the Des Moines Water Works to switch to a secondary source in August.

You would think that a problem affecting the state’s largest water treatment facility would grab the attention of the state Department of Natural Resources. The U.S. Department of Interior’s official definition of “natural resources” mentions “Land, fish, wildlife, biota, air, water, ground water, drinking water supplies and other such resources belonging to, managed by, held in trust by, appertaining to, or otherwise controlled by the U.S., any state or local government […].”

But you would be wrong, because the Iowa DNR didn’t bother to look into what caused the Raccoon River’s elevated levels of cyanobacteria. Instead, Des Moines Water Works staff, aided by the Iowa Soybean Association and Agriculture’s Clean Water Alliance, traced the algae bloom to Black Hawk Lake in Sac County:

Experts say the algae can cause rashes, intestinal illnesses, even death.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources is charged with monitoring water quality throughout the state.

Agency officials said they believed that the waterworks operation had monitoring under control, and noted that no one asked them to investigate.

Why should the DNR wait for someone to ask them to investigate high bacteria levels affecting the drinking water of Iowa’s largest population center? The article goes on to say:

Susan Heathcote serves on a state commission overseeing the DNR and follows water quality issues for the nonprofit Iowa Environmental Council. She said the agency should have shown more interest in a problem that has become more common across Iowa.

“It’s kind of don’t ask, don’t tell,” Heathcote said. “We know there are issues, but we aren’t being proactive to warn the public. You need to investigate why it was occurring. It should have been an urgent issue.”

By the way, Des Moines area residents weren’t the only ones affected by the DNR’s failure to identify algae blooms at Black Hawk Lake:

Levels in the west-central Iowa lake near Lake View, recorded just after the Labor Day weekend, were seven times more than an internationally recognized benchmark for safe swimming.

State law charges the Iowa Department of Natural Resources with monitoring water quality and protecting Iowans from such outbreaks. Yet no one from the agency warned swimmers to stay out of the 925-acre Sac County lake, which has several beaches and campgrounds.

The Iowa News Service had more details in a story picked up by a lot of radio stations last Thursday:

Susan Heathcote, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council, says, although the water in Des Moines is safe to drink when treated, that type of [blue-green] algae can make for smelly and bad-tasting water, even at low levels. Her biggest concern is that, at high levels, the toxins can cause serious health problems. The Department of Natural Resources (DNR), she says, currently has no state programs dealing with the sources of pollution in these large watersheds.

“That needs to become more of a priority, because these issues are not going away. They’re getting worse and new problems are surfacing every day. The department needs to partner with drinking water utilities in developing programs that will help address these sources of pollution within their watersheds, that are really outside of the control of the drinking water utilities way downstream.”

Randy Beavers, Des Moines Water Works interim CEO and general manager, says the cyanobacterial organism needs nutrients to survive, and right now the river’s source waters have plenty to feed it.

“In August, we were seeing cell counts of over 30,000 in the river and our experience has been that once cell counts get above 10,000, it becomes problematic for treatment. We always have the potential for taste and odor issues as well. It has just been within the last week that we’ve seen the cell counts fall below 10,000.”

Here’s the deal: those nutrients that Beavers cited as a food source for the bacteria get into the water because of runoff from conventional farms.

When Heathcote mentioned “these sources of pollution within their watersheds, that are really outside of the control of the drinking water utilities way downstream,” she was talking about conventional farms.

We will never significantly improve water quality in Iowa until we start regulating the agricultural methods that send too much pollution into our rivers and lakes.

I wish I could say that I’m optimistic about the DNR ending the “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to water quality. The Iowa Environmental Council wants the legislature to do more on this issue, but our elected officials don’t want to point the finger at the largest source of pollution in our water: the agricultural sector.

I am involved with the Iowa Environmental Council. If you are concerned about our natural resources, support this non-profit by becoming a member or attending the council’s upcoming annual meeting on October 17, which will focus on clean water.

Alternatively, Iowans could just stop whining and learn to love smelly drinking water and unswimmable lakes. After all, Iowa is an agricultural state and anyone who doesn’t like it can leave in any of four directions.

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Good riddance

cross-posted at La Vida Locavore

Sometimes one small step against confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) leads to another.

Over at Iowa Independent, Jason Hancock reports that

A member of the state’s Environmental Protection Commission who has been labeled by critics as “pro-factory farms” has stepped down.

Ralph Klemme, a former Republican state representative from LeMars, resigned from the nine-person oversight panel, which is part of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, late last week. He told the Coalition to Support Iowa’s Farmers that the commission’s “increasing tilt against agriculture” was his main reason to step down.

The commission’s recent vote to reject permits for two hog confinements in Dallas County appears to have been a major factor in Klemme’s decision.

I was against Klemme’s appointment to this commission in 2007 because of his involvement with corporate agriculture groups.

My suspicions were warranted. In a statement welcoming Klemme’s resignation, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement recounted his record of looking out for agribusiness instead of the environment:

Klemme voted in May to approve a large hog factory in Greene County that was overwhelmingly opposed by local residents, county officials and local business leaders. He also voted against a common-sense rule that would have limited the amount of manure that factory farm owners could be spread on soybean crops.

Governor Chet Culver should replace Klemme with someone committed to protecting the environment. Otherwise why call it an Environmental Protection Commission?

I am hopeful because several of Culver’s appointments to this body have been quite good.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t underestimate the clout of corporate agriculture groups that will lobby the governor to replace Klemme with a person who is equally sympathetic to their interests. We saw this summer that agriculture trumped the environment on the task forces associated with the Rebuild Iowa Commission.

Whoever takes Klemme’s place on the Environmental Protection Commission, I view his resignation as a healthy sign. The majority of commission members are not willing to look the other way regarding the environmental impacts of CAFOs.

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Culver: Agriprocessors owners have "deliberately chosen to take the low road"

Governor Chet Culver took the unusual step of publishing a guest editorial in the Sunday Des Moines Register about alleged wrongdoing at the Agriprocessors meat-packing plant in Postville:

The sad events surrounding the [May 12] federal Postville raid, resulting in multiple federal criminal-law convictions of line workers and low-level supervisors – and, notably, not yet of the company’s owners – are strong evidence of a company that has chosen to take advantage of a failed federal immigration system.


Before the federal raid, Agriprocessors already had a history of sanctions by Iowa’s state regulatory agencies for water pollution, as well as health and safety law violations. Alarming information about working conditions at the Postville plant – including allegations ranging from the use of child labor in prohibited jobs to sexual and physical abuse by supervisors; from the nonpayment of regular and overtime wages to the denial of immediate medical attention for workplace injuries – brought to national attention by the raid forces me to believe that, in contrast to our state’s overall economic-development strategy, this company’s owners have deliberately chosen to take the low road in its business practices.

He said he had directed members of his cabinet to make sure Iowa law is being enforced with Agriprocessors. Furthermore, open positions at Agriprocessors may not be included on state job-listing services “due to the unsafe working conditions at the Postville facility.” In addition, he called on Attorney General Tom Miller “promptly to prosecute all alleged criminal and civil-law violations that are backed by sufficient evidence.”

On Friday the Iowa Division of Labor Services released a statement citing 31 new and repeated safety violations at Agriprocessors’ plant in Postville.

If any Bleeding Heartland readers keep kosher, you may be interested in this piece by Lynda Waddington for Iowa Independent. She describes a “kosher social seal” program, which signifies that food not only meets Jewish ritual requirements but has also been produced in a humane and socially responsible manner.

Meanwhile, John Carlson reports in his latest Des Moines Register column that a local radio personally has written lyrics called “Palau to Postville – a Topical/Tropical Tale.” They are meant to be sung to the tune of the Gilligan’s Island theme. He was inspired by “reports last week that an employment recruiter has been trying to entice people in the Pacific island of Palau to come to work for the [Agriprocessors] plant.”

UPDATE: A spokesman for Agriprocessors says the company is drafting “a forceful response to the governor’s guilty verdict even before trial.”

The same article goes on to say:

Several business and political experts said Culver’s criticism was unusual, but they applauded it.

“I think it’s out of the ordinary. But then again, I think Agriprocessors is a little out of the ordinary, too,” said Mike Ralston, president of the Iowa Association of Business and Industry.

Ralston’s group includes most large Iowa employers, but not Agriprocessors. He said he wouldn’t want Culver to make a habit of publicly criticizing specific businesses. However, he said Agriprocessors’ notoriety has damaged the state’s reputation, making it fair game for the governor’s ire.

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Coalition providing aid to sustainable and family farmers

If you regularly buy food directly from farmers, you have probably noticed that this year’s severe weather disrupted the growing season in Iowa. To make matters worse, many sustainable farmers (such as fruit and vegetable growers) do not qualify for federal crop insurance. Yet a huge amount of time and money is involved in replanting or replacing lost crops.

I enclose an e-mail describing an assistance effort geared toward family, sustainable and market farmers in Iowa. These grants may seem very small to you, but even $500 can make a difference to a cash-strapped small farmer.

The links did not come through when I copied and pasted, but you click here to donate to the project. If you are a farmer in need of assistance, click the same link to find application guidelines and forms.

The Iowa Farm Disaster Relief Coalition — fourteen Iowa farm, faith and rural organizations including the Center for Rural Affairs is collecting donations and making emergency funds available for Iowa’s family, sustainable and market farmers who suffered losses due to storms, rain and flooding in Iowa earlier this year.

Applications and guidelines are available on the coalition’s website. Donations may be made to the fund on the website as well.

Farmers may apply for up to $500 in relief to help offset household expenses, which in turn will free up finances for replanting, clean up, repair, etc., on the farm. It is our hope that assisting as many qualifying farmers as possible with grants up to $500 to cover expenses will help ease some of the pain of the tough times created by these disasters.

Again, please find applications instructions and grant guidelines on the coalition’s website.

Applications will be reviewed as quickly as possible by a committee of representatives of the state’s membership based sustainable agriculture groups. The deadline for the first round of applications is Sept. 30, 2008. Additional rounds of grants will be made available as funding allows.

For more information, contact John Crabtree at 402-687-2103 extension 1010, or by email at johnc@cfra.org.

Whether or not you can apply or contribute, please help us get the word out by letting others who may be interested know about the project.

Farm Aid is supporting the disaster-relief efforts of the coalition, which includes Buy Fresh Buy Local Iowa, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, Iowa Farmers Union, Iowa Network for Community Agriculture, Iowa Organic Association, National Catholic Rural Life Conference, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Women Food and Agriculture Network, Edible Iowa River Valley, Iowa Valley Resource Conservation and Development, National Farmers Organization, Churches’ Center for the Land and People, Atlantic farmer and advocate Denise O’Brien and the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Nebraska which is serving as the project’s fiscal sponsor.

Thanks to all the participating organizations and to Denise O’Brien, one of the best advocates for sustainable agriculture that Iowa has ever known.

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EPC moves to block two new CAFOs in Dallas County

cross-posted at La Vida Locavore

The Iowa legislature and state agencies have notoriously failed to do anything to address the pollution problems stemming from confined-animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

But the Environmental Protection Commission took one small step in the right direction:

The state Environmental Protection Commission today rejected previously approved permits for two large hog confinements in Dallas County.

The surprise move came after a two-hour meeting in Urbandale at which commissioners said rules drawn up to dictate approval of large-scale confinement permits leave out important environmental considerations and neighbors’ quality-of-life concerns.

“There are battle lines being drawn on this, and it creates a political situation that the Legislature cannot ignore,” commission chairman Henry Marquard said.

Only a handful of permits have been denied in Iowa, but rarely has one been turned down after it met approval from the Department of Natural Resources and passed a complicated scoring system adopted by counties, including Dallas.

The nine-member commission voted to block these permits on a strong 6-2 vote. I wouldn’t be surprised if the matter ends up in court, however.

Noneed4thneed wrote about the controversy over the new Dallas County CAFOs in late July:

The proposed hog confinements would have a total of 7,440 hogs in rural Dallas County, which is the fastest growing county in the state. These confinements will produce as much waste as a town of 30,000 people and it will go untreated.

Earlier this month, Dallas County Supervisors voted against allowing these proposed hog confinements, but in reality there isn’t much the local people can do about the hog confinements that will be owned by the out of state company, Cargill.

We need federal legislation to make CAFOs pay for the harm they cause, because our state legislature has shown itself to be unwilling to act to protect air and water quality in Iowa.

But in the absence of federal action, a state law giving counties “local control” (agricultural zoning rights) would at least offer some protection. Some county supervisors would rubber-stamp every proposed CAFO, but others would follow the lead of the Dallas County supervisors.

For all I know, Cargill will sue to reinstate their permits to open these hog confinements. But however this story ends, it’s good to see the majority of the Environmental Protection Commission’s members doing something to protect the environment.

UPDATE: I learned from the online newsletter of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement that the Iowa Department of Natural Resources recently denied a permit for a different proposed CAFO.

Because of the efforts of CCI members and other local residents, the DNR recently denied a 4,900-head hog factory proposed for southern Appanoose County. The permit application did not meet legal requirements, nor did their master matrix pass muster. Although the applicant for this proposed confinement is a local resident, the 4,900 hogs would have been owned by Cargill. Cargill, one of the largest privately-held corporations in the world, has been behind a number of proposed factory farms around the state, including two proposed 7,440-head hog factories in northwest Dallas County.

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Agriculture trumps environment on flood recovery panel

cross-posted at La Vida Locavore and Daily Kos

I was concerned when Governor Chet Culver put Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge in charge of the Rebuild Iowa Commission and nine task forces to deal with flood recovery. In her previous job as secretary of agriculture, Judge was very close to industrial agricultural interests and did little to promote sustainable agriculture. She is not receptive to environmental and public-health concerns associated with large-scale livestock operations.

Even though Judge has few friends in the environmental community, I kept an open mind about the process, because one of Rebuild Iowa’s nine task forces was dedicated to Environmental Quality and Review.

Neila Seaman, director of the Iowa chapter of the Sierra Club, picks up the story in this editorial for the Des Moines Register:

However, on July 10, the governor’s office issued a news release listing all of the task forces as written in the executive order, except the task force for Environmental Quality and Review had morphed into the Agriculture and Environment task force. […]

I received e-mails from six people who reported that as of July 24, there were no available slots on the 24-person task force.

People who have been active in agriculture and environment issues for years were told they could be a “resource person” but could not sit on the task force and could not speak unless they were asked a question. Task-force staff was instructed that some organizations could not delegate their staff to the task forces or delegate board members. The governor’s office, they were told, was seeking “regular members” of organizations that had been invited to participate. One e-mail quoted a governor’s office representative as saying appointments were still being considered and the names of appointments would be released the next day even after others were told that same day that there were no more seats on the task force.

[…] After the first Ag/Environment meeting ended on July 30, I finally obtained a list from a colleague.

You can count on one hand how many of the 24 task-force members are appointed to represent environmental organizations. However, agriculture is heavily represented. The list includes a former deputy director of the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Iowa State University’s dean of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Iowa secretary of agriculture and nine agriculture-related individuals, including some who staff ag organizations. Also included are a school superintendent, a county engineer association representative, a city planning commission member and four legislators.

Iowa Farm Bureau hosted the first meeting. A government facility would have been more appropriate. “Resource persons” and others told me that environmental issues were not discussed.

I am personally acquainted with two people (highly qualified to serve on this task force) who were told soon after applying that they would be welcome at meetings only as “resource persons.” I do not know whether the people I know are the same people Seaman refers to in her editorial.

Many experts agree that replacing more than 90 percent of Iowa prairies with plowed fields and other common agricultural practices greatly contributed to this summer’s unprecedented flooding.

For that reason, it is particularly inappropriate to let representatives of big agribusiness dominate the only government panel assigned to consider environmental issues in relation to flood recovery.

I wish I could say I was surprised. What’s good for industrial agriculture has trumped what’s good for the environment for a long time in Iowa.

I appreciate Seaman’s efforts to shine a light on this problem. If you want to get more involved with your Sierra Club chapter, you can find a long list of Sierra Club listservs here. It’s easy to sign up for these free e-mail loops, and I see a lot on the Iowa Topics list that doesn’t get covered adequately in the mainstream media.

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A few new websites for your enjoyment

Via Iowa Politics, I learned that the Iowa Democratic Party has created a new website called McCain vs. Iowa:

This website will be strictly issues-focused and will be updated regularly with Iowa-specific information to be used by Iowans as they make their decision come November. Today’s rollout focuses on Senator McCain’s attacks on Iowa biofuels and the Farm Bill. Future rollouts will include issues such as renewable energy, health care, and taxes, to name a few.

Click the link to read the rest of the press release announcing the IDP’s new site.

Meanwhile, Neil Sinhababu, who has also blogged under the name Neil the Ethical Werewolf at Ezra Klein’s place and Kevin Drum’s Political Animal blog, launched a fabulous new blog this week called War or Car? Neil explains the concept:

Welcome to War or Car !

According to Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard public finance professor Linda Bilmes, the total cost of the Iraq War will be over $3 trillion.  That’s enough to buy a new Toyota Prius for every household in America. Here are some other things we could’ve done for the price of the Iraq War.  

You’ll want to bookmark this one, because Neil will be updating it every day between now and the November election. So far, the posts explain how for the cost of the Iraq War, we could have

covered the land area of Vermont and New Hampshire in gold leaf;

powered a jukebox since the time of the dinosaurs; or

supplied the people of Ireland with beer for 1,000 years.

Neil is a great blogger, and this will be a fun site to watch.

I’ve been enjoying La Vida Locavore, the community blog for people interested in food and agriculture issues launched by orangeclouds115 last month. You can find good recipes and advice on kitchen gear as well as the latest news related to salmonella outbreaks, genetically-modified foods, growth hormones in meat and dairy products, etc. I highly recommend you check in from time to time.

The EENR progressive blog, founded by a bunch of Edwards supporters several months ago, is going strong. It’s a good blog to check to keep up with news on some good progressive candidates for Congress, as well as substantive issues that got crowded out on other blogs during the presidential primaries.  

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Please tell me this is someone's idea of a joke

I’ve written before that I think it would be a huge mistake for Barack Obama to select any Republican for a running mate. The next president will appoint at least two and perhaps four Supreme Court justices. Obama is a longtime smoker with a family history of cancer. I don’t want any Republican in line to inherit the presidency.

And I’ve written that I think it would backfire for him to choose a woman other than Hillary Clinton for vice president. Not that I have anything against Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius (I would give her serious consideration if she ran for president someday). But I agree with a MyDD commenter who wrote that for Obama to pick Sebelius or Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill would be like Hillary picking Harold Ford as a running mate if she had won the nomination.

I’ve also said I would hate to see Obama choose a corporate-friendly vice president. I already worry that as president he would do too little to rein in the excesses of corporate power in Washington.

Now Politico reports that Obama’s vetting team is floating the name of Ann Veneman, who was Agriculture Secretary during George W. Bush’s first term, with members of Congress. That would be the worst kind of trifecta in my mind.

I can’t understand what Veneman could possibly have going for her. She’s executive director of UNICEF, but who cares? When she was in the cabinet, she didn’t promote sustainable agriculture or sensible health protections.

As the Organic Consumers Association reported when Bush appointed her, Veneman had a long history of standing with corporate interests. When she left Bush’s cabinet, her “vision and commitment” won praise from the American Meat Institute. Politico notes:

The low-profile Republican was close to food and agriculture industries but clashed with farm-state Democrats and environmentalists during her tenure, which lasted from 2001 to 2004.

Maybe Veneman is being mentioned to throw journalists off the scent, or to trick progressives into feeling relieved if Obama chooses a corporate Democrat who’s not “that bad.”

It bothers me that Obama would even allow his team to consider someone like Veneman, even as a diversion. I want the next administration to make CAFOs pay for the harm they cause.

UPDATE: The Nation explains why Veneman would be “a uniquely awful choice” for Obama.

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New community blog on food and farm policies

OrangeClouds115, a well-known blogger on food safety and sustainable agriculture issues, has started a community blog on these topics called La Vida Locavore (a “locavore” being a person who consumes local foods).

The blog is only a few days old, but there are already a lot of interesting posts up. I hadn’t heard that the American Nurses Association passed a resolution at their annual conference calling for “national and state laws, regulations and policies that specifically reduce the use of rBGH or rBST in milk and dairy production in the United States [….]”

Bookmark this blog and join the community if you are passionate about organic or chemical-free food, regulating corporate agriculture, food safety or related issues.

Speaking of food, Asinus Asinum Fricat wrote a good diary yesterday about the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. I learned from him that there are apparently a lot of problems with the production and storage of extra virgin olive oil imported from Europe. This affects the nutritional quality of the oil as well as the environment where it’s produced.

Click the link for details, but here is a reassuring excerpt:

However there’s no need to panic as there are numerous olive oil companies in the USA who are family owned and operate their business the old-fashioned way, that is, by pressing the olives traditionally. I’m personally fond of the Bariani brand, made in Sacramento by the Bariani family.

Here is a handy guide of US olive oil companies here.

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Iowa farmers to be on NPR news Monday afternoon

Craig and LaVon Griffieon live on a century farm near Ankeny and are being profiled in a series of reports on NPR this year. The next segment will air today (Monday):

Another installment in the series of features from the FIVE FARMS project will air on NPR’s “All Things Considered” tonight. It is scheduled for the first hour of the program, which airs at 4:00p Eastern Time. (As always, check local listings!)

If you miss the feature as it’s broadcast, you can find it on the Five Farms web site, http://FiveFarms.com. or on http://www.1000friendsofiowa.org

LaVon Griffieon co-founded 1000 Friends of Iowa ten years ago. She won the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation’s Hagie Heritage Award in 2000. Drake University and the alternative weekly Cityview gave her the Central Iowa Activist Award for Environmental Activism in 2004.

Tune in today if you can.

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USDA to bees: Drop dead

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is taking no steps to halt or even thoroughly study the use of pesticides that have been implicated in massive die-offs of honeybees, according to a press release from the Sierra Club. The release circulated on the Iowa Sierra Club e-mail loop yesterday.

Germany has suspended the use of neonicotinoid pesticides after agricultural research found that “poisoning of the bees is due to the rub-off of the pesticide ingredient clothianidin from corn seeds.”

Not only do many American farmers spray neonicotinoids on their crops, “Bayer and Monsanto have acquired patents to coat their proprietary corn seeds with these neonicotinoids,” the Sierra Club notes. The group has called on the USDA to impose “a precautionary moratorium on these powerful crop treatments to protect our bees and our food,” pending thorough studies of their effects.

This New York Times article from February 2007 discusses the threat that “colony collapse disorder” poses to approximately $14 billion worth of seeds and crops that honeybees pollinate in the U.S. every year.

Other articles discussing the possible link between pesticides and bee die-offs are here, here and here. The neonicotinoids may be affecting the bees’ memory, making them unable to find their way back to their hives.

The full text of the press release from Sierra Club is after the jump.

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Mailer from 527 group hits Fallon over ethanol

The day after I received a misleading hit piece on Ed Fallon, a second mailer from the 527 group Independent Voices arrived in the mail.

This one shows a cornfield on one side, with these words in large print:

Why Doesn’t Ed Fallon

Support Iowa’s

Ethanol Industry?

At the bottom of that side, it says, “Paid for By Independent Voices, Red Brannan Chair”

The other side has corn kernels in the background, as well as a photo of Fallon and a graphic of a container for gasoline with corn flowing out of the spout. The text on this page says,


Helping Us Become Independent of Foreign Oil

Iowa’s ability to produce corn efficiently has helped us become the national leader for ethanol production.

Alternative fuels are one way to end our dependence on Middle East oil. Ending that oil dependence could also revitalize Iowa’s economy if we are able to continue our national leadership in alternative fuel production.

So why did Ed Fallon say he wouldn’t support subsidies for ethanol production right here in Iowa?

Call Ed at 515.277.0420

Tell Ed Fallon he should quit supporting policies that cost us money at the pump.

Of course, this direct-mail piece doesn’t tell the whole story. Many people think subsidies to support corn-based ethanol production are no longer needed. Fallon advocates moving toward producing ethanol from cellulosic sources other than corn, and there are strong arguments in favor of doing so.

I mentioned in my earlier post that Fallon’s position on other issues (besides the ones mentioned in these mailers) run counter to the interests of Brannan, a developer.

If anyone has information about other donors who are funding the Independent Voices group, please either put up a comment in this thread or e-mail me confidentially at desmoinesdem AT yahoo.com.

UPDATE: The fliers sent by Independent Voices are discussed in this article from Thursday’s Des Moines Register:

Fallon supports ethanol subsidies, although he has said corn-based ethanol is not a permanent solution to weaning the United States off imported petroleum. “Corn-based ethanol is a step in the right direction, but it’s not the end of that journey,” Fallon said.

The mailers list the group’s chairman as Red Brannan, an Ankeny Democrat and former member of the Polk County Board of Supervisors. Aides to Boswell said Brannan has not made financial contributions to the campaign. Attempts to reach Brannan Wednesday evening were unsuccessful.

I believe that Brannan has not donated directly to Boswell’s campaign, because I couldn’t find his name when I searched for it at Open Secrets.

Remember, a person can make unlimited donations to a group like Independent Voices, whereas contributions to a Congressional campaign are capped at $2,300 for the primary and $2,300 for the general election.

The Des Moines Register’s editorial board slammed the first mailing from Independent Voices as “the cheapest of cheap shots” and has called on Boswell to reject the tactics used by Brannan’s group.

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Boswell and Fallon clash over ethanol

The campaigns of Congressman Leonard Boswell and challenger Ed Fallon put out very different statements about ethanol on Thursday.

This isn’t the first time the candidates have clashed over agriculture policy. In general, Boswell is happy with our federal farm policies and touts how hard he is working to keep them the way they are.

Fallon would like to see a shift toward more support of local food networks and sustainable agriculture, as well as more regulations to address the economic, public health and environmental problems caused by confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

Join me after the jump for more discussion of the ethanol issue.

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Looking for a reason to boycott Burger King?

As far as I can remember, it’s been 10 to 15 years since I ate at a Burger King, so there’s little point to my declaring a boycott of the company’s restaurants.

But let’s say you want to eat less fast food and are looking for a little extra motivation not to stop at Burger King. I recommend this diary by orangeclouds115.

Apparently Burger King hired someone to infiltrate and spy on a student group that is trying to raise wages and improve working conditions for migrant workers who pick tomatoes in Florida. Click the link for details, and cross Burger King off your list.

10 ways to combat asthma (in honor of Asthma Awareness Month and World Asthma Day)

Asthma has been on my mind lately, because a child in my extended family was recently diagnosed with it after going to the hospital for respiratory problems. The chronic disease is one of the leading causes of hospitalization in children.

In addition, at least 20 million American adults are estimated to have asthma.

Today is World Asthma Day, in connection with Asthma Awareness Month.

Join me after the jump to read about five policies our society should implement, as well as five steps individuals can take, to reduce the incidence and severity of asthma in our households and across the country.

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Make CAFOs pay for the harm they cause

Blog for Iowa published this important post from the Iowa Farmers Union about a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists called CAFOs Uncovered: The Untold Costs of Confined Animal Feeding Operations. Here are some key findings:

Misguided federal farm policies have encouraged the growth of massive confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, by shifting billions of dollars in environmental, health and economic costs to taxpayers and communities […].

“CAFOs aren’t the natural result of agricultural progress, nor are they the result of rational planning or market forces,” said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist in UCS’s Food and Environment Program and author of the report. “Ill-advised policies created them, and it will take new policies to replace them with more sustainable, environmentally friendly production methods.”


The report also details how other federal policies give CAFOs hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to address their pollution problems, which stem from the manure generated by thousands, if not tens of thousands, of animals confined in a small area. The report estimates that CAFOs have received $100 million in annual pollution prevention payments in recent years through the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which was established by the 2002 Farm Bill.

“If CAFOs were forced to pay for the ripple effects of harm they have caused, they wouldn’t be dominating the U.S. meat industry like they are today,” said Margaret Mellon, director of UCS’s Food and Environment Program. “The good news is that we can institute new policies that support animal production methods that benefit society rather than harm it.”

Instead of favoring CAFOs, the report recommends that government policies provide incentives for modern production methods that benefit the environment, public health and rural communities. The report also shows that several smart alternative production methods can offer meat and dairy at costs comparable to CAFO products.


In addition to steering taxpayer dollars away from CAFOs, the report also urges Congress to enforce laws that encourage competition so alternative producers can get their meat and dairy to consumers as easily as CAFOs. Making CAFOs, rather than taxpayers, pay to prevent or clean up the pollution they create is also critical, Gurian-Sherman said.

Meanwhile, earlier this week the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production issued its final report on “Putting Meat on The Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.” Click the link to find links to pdf files of the executive summary and the full report. The authors concluded that “The current industrial farm animal production (IFAP) system often poses unacceptable risks to public health, the environment and the welfare of the animals themselves […].”

After outlining the harm that industrial farm animal production does to public health, the environment, animal welfare and rural communities, the Pew commission issued six important recommendations:

   1. Ban the non-therapeutic use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics and other microbials.

   2. Implement a disease monitoring program for food animals to allow 48-hour trace-back of those animals through aspects of their production, in a fully integrated and robust national database.

   3. Treat IFAP as an industrial operation and implement a new system to deal with farm waste to replace the inflexible and broken system that exists today, to protect Americans from the adverse environmental and human health hazards of improperly handled IFAP waste.

   4. Phase out the most intensive and inhumane production practices within a decade to reduce the risk of IFAP to public health and improve animal wellbeing (i.e., gestation crates and battery cages).

   5. Federal and state laws need to be amended and enforced to provide a level playing field for producers when entering contracts with integrators.

   6. Increase funding for, expand and reform, animal agriculture research.

The Des Moines Register reported on Wednesday that some representatives of industrial agriculture allegedly tried to use financial leverage to influence the findings:

A Pew Commission report accuses some livestock interests of trying to disrupt a wide-ranging study of the industry by threatening to yank financing for scientists and universities.

The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production study released Tuesday called for a vast overhaul of the industry.


“While some agriculture representatives were recommending potential authors for the technical reports to commission staff, other industrial agriculture representatives were discourage those same authors from assisting us by threatening to withhold research funding for their college or university,” commission executive director Robert Martin wrote in the foreword of the report released after 2 1/2 years of study.

Martin didn’t detail those incidents in the report, and a spokesman declined to comment on the allegations.


The commission, which included key Iowans including the head of the University of Iowa College of Public Health, found that livestock industry powers have too much influence on how government regulates the industry. That presents too much of a public threat in the commission’s view.

The 15-member panel called for a range of actions industry groups have vehemently opposed, including local zoning of confinements, a ban on use of antibiotics as a growth enhancer and stiffer regulations on emissions on everything from manure application to how hogs are housed.

“We found significant influence by the industry at every turn: in academic research, agriculture policy development, governmental regulation, and enforcement,” the study said.

Industry pressure on scientists who study farm-related pollution has been a hot topic nationally in recent years and was detailed in a 2002 Des Moines Register report, “Ag Scientists Feel the Heat.”

Representatives of industrial agriculture have been whining that the Pew commission was biased against them from the beginning. They simply refuse to acknowledge reality when it comes to the drawbacks of CAFOs, routine use of antibiotics, and our aspects of our current food system.

It’s time to end the worst practices of CAFOs and the public policies that promote them. As the Union of Concerned Scientists points out, CAFOs would not be profitable if they had to pay for the hidden health and environmental costs of their operations.

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Corn Growers PAC backs Boswell

I wasn’t surprised to get this e-mail from the Boswell campaign today:

Iowa Corn Growers Association Votes to Endorse Congressman Leonard Boswell

Des Moines, IA – The Iowa Corn Growers Association Political Action Committee (PAC) voted to endorse Congressman Leonard Boswell today.  “I am very pleased to accept the endorsement of the Iowa Corn Growers Association,” said Congressman Boswell.  “As a hands-on farmer, I have had a relationship with the Iowa Corn Growers for many years. The work they do is crucial to the success and prosperity of Iowa’s corn producers.”

“The Iowa Corn Growers Association appreciates Congressman Boswell’s current work on the Farm Bill.  He provides consistent leadership on behalf of Iowa farmers, and we look forward to working with him in the future out in Washington,” said Max Smith, committee member of the Iowa Corn Growers Association PAC.

The Iowa Corn Growers Association consists of nearly 6,000 members across the state of Iowa.

Boswell certainly is a steadfast supporter of the current federal agriculture policy, and large corn growers do profit from that policy.

Many people, including myself, think that policy benefits a relatively small number of relatively large farms. Corn subsidies in particular have been cited as a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic, as high-fructose corn syrup has been added to so many processed foods and drinks.

I would like to see a shift in our national agriculture policy, which would provide more support for conservation, crop diversity, local food networks and small farmers. I don’t expect much help from Boswell on those issues. But that works out great for large-scale corn growers.

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"King Corn" documentary showings in Iowa

I haven't seen the documentary “King Corn,” but I have read some of Michael Pollan's writing on this issue, and it sounds like a movie worth seeing. Information about the film can be found at:


I saw this schedule of screenings in Iowa on the e-mail list of the Iowa Network for Community Agriculture:

December 8–Algona, Berte's Back Nine (old Algona Theatre), 7 pm

December 9–Sioux City, Orpheum Theatre, 4 pm

December 10–Greene, Community Center, 7 pm

December 11–Waterloo, Crossroads 12 Theatre, 7 pm

December 12–Cedar Rapids, CSPS, 7 pm

December 13–Eldora, Grand Theatre, 7 pm

December 14–Cedar Falls, Marcus College Square, week-long run, first show approx 7 pm

December 15–Clear Lake, The Lake Theatre, 4 pm

December 16–Fairfield, Film for Thought at the Co-Ed Theatre, 11 am

Discussions will follow each showing. If you catch this film, please put up a diary and tell us what you thought.

Sigh. Can't we do better than Boswell?

So Leonard Boswell voted for the Iraq War supplemental funding bill today, just like we all knew he would. Sad as that is, it's not why I felt compelled to write this post. Pretty much every vote Boswell has ever cast related to Iraq has been the wrong vote, in my opinion.

What prompted this post was a press release from the Center for Food Safety, which came to my attention this evening. Leonard Boswell apparently inserted language into the 2007 Farm Bill that would preempt any state prohibitions against any foods or agricultural goods that have been approved by USDA. That would include genetically modified foods. The press release does not name Boswell as the author of the language in question, but advocates have learned that he was behind the move.

How disappointing that as the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry (a subcommittee of the House Ag Committee), Boswell is using his influence to weaken consumer protection. Does he think the Farm Bureau will reward him for this? They're always going to endorse his opponent, no matter how much he delivers for big agribusiness in the Farm Bill.

As a resident of Iowa's 3rd district, I have long felt that we could do a lot better than Leonard Boswell. He is often not with us on environmental policy, energy policy, tax policy, or foreign policy. Even so, this move disappoints me.

If you live in the 3rd district, please contact Congressman Boswell and tell him that federal law should not prevent states from prohibiting certain types of food or agricultural goods.

You can send an e-mail directly to his office by clicking here.

Here is mail, phone and fax contact information:


DC Address:
The Honorable Leonard L. Boswell
United States House of Representatives
1427 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20515-1503
DC Phone: 202-225-3806
DC Fax: 202-225-5608
Email Address: http://boswell.house…
WWW Homepage: http://boswell.house…

District Office:
300 East Locust, Suite 320
Des Moines, IA 50309
Voice: 888-432-1984
FAX: 515-282-1785


The full text of the press release follows:


    /House Subcommittee Today Approves Language Slipped into/
    /Farm Bill that Prevents States from Protecting their Citizens/

*Center for Food Safety Recognizes that Proposal Ties States’ Hands,

*Food Safety Protections at a Time When they Need to be Strengthened*

*Washington** May 24, 2007* – Earlier today, the House Subcommittee
on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry approved new language slipped into the 2007 Farm Bill that pre-empts any state prohibitions against any foods or agricultural goods that have been deregulated by the USDA. The passage appears to be aimed at several recently enacted state laws that restrict the planting of genetically engineered (GE) crops, but could also prohibit states from taking action when food contamination cases occur.

“Given the recent spate of food scares, it’s shocking to see this attempt to derail safeguards for our food and farms,” said Joseph Mendelson, Legal Director of the Center for Food Safety. “We need a Farm Bill that will promote stronger food safety standards, not one that attacks these vital state-level protections.”

The passage approved by the House Subcommittee today states that “no State or locality shall make any law prohibiting the use in commerce of an article that the Secretary of Agriculture has inspected and passed; or determined to be of non-regulated status.”

State legislatures, local governments, and citizens of many states and localities have adopted prohibitions on the planting of certain genetically altered products. Some of the state-level laws that may be pre-empted or compromised if the proposed Farm Bill language were adopted include:

· *Legislation in California and Arkansas that gives these states the power to prohibit the introduction of GE rice.* The major rice growing states are particularly concerned after last fall’s revelations that several unapproved varieties of GE rice had contaminated natural rice, resulting in massive losses for US farmers when export customers in Asian and Europe closed their markets to US rice.

· *Legislation adopted this year in the state of Washington, which prohibits planting of GE canola in areas near the State’s large non-GE seed production*. Brassica (cabbage, broccoli, and other such crops) seed producers pushed for this legislation, since GE canola can cross-pollinate with and contaminate natural cabbage seed. The Skagit Valley area in Washington produces $20 million in vegetable seed annually and is home to half of the world’s cabbage seed production;

· *County bans on planting of GE crops in four California counties.* To protect their organic and natural food producers, four California counties have adopted bans or moratoriums on planting of GE crops;

An overview of these and other state- level regulations of GE crops and foods is available at:
http://www.centerfor… .

In addition, the vague language of the proposal raises concerns that states would be barred from taking action when food safety threats arise. For example, states could be barred from prohibiting the sale of e. coli-tainted ground beef if the meat has passed USDA inspection, as was the case in last week’s massive 15-state beef recall.

The biotechnology industry has sponsored language akin to the text approved this morning in the House subcommittee in dozens of state-level attempts to pre-empt state regulations on GE crops. They also joined the food and agribusiness industries last year in pushing for a federal “Food Uniformity” law, which would have gutted numerous state-level food safety laws.

* *

*/The Center for Food Safety/*/ is national, non-profit, membership
organization founded in 1997 that works to protect human health and the
environment by curbing the use of harmful food production technologies
and by promoting organic and other forms of sustainable agriculture. On
the web at: http://www.centerfor…



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