Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Dominant traits: Can the seed trusts be busted?

According to a recent study by ETC Group, the world's ten-largest seed vendors control about half of the global seed market.

By the standards of late capitalism, that's a modest concentration level. In the United States, for example, the top four beef packers pack more than 80 percent of the nation's beef. Microsoft famously owns more than 90 percent of the world's computer operating system market. Consolidation of suppliers is as American as the SUV and the Apache helicopter.

Nevertheless, seeds lie at the heart of all organized food production, and thus at the heart of human culture for the past 10,000 years. Perhaps the seed trade deserves a closer look.

At the top of the seed pile, the above-linked ETC report shows, we find Monsanto, the former "life-sciences" giant that mutated into a gene-splicing agribusiness behemoth . It vaulted over rival Dupont as the world's largest seed supplier in March, when it snapped up fruit-and-vegetable seed titan Seminis for $1.4 billion. Below Monsanto and Dupont we find Syngenta, the Swiss agribusiness firm. The three companies, like genetic experiments they might conjure up in one of their labs, share at least two sinister traits.

The first is that they are all among the world's largest pesticide companies. I'll address that topic another time.

The other shared trait is this: In addition to peddling physical seeds, they also peddle what's known in the business as "traits." This is the precise genetic coding that's artificially inserted into a seed's germoplasm to create a desired characteristic--say, the ability to withstand herbicides like Monsanto's Roundup, which otherwise obliterate all plant life on contact. These companies can and do license these "triats" and sell them to other seed purveyors.

To put it in computer terms, we're looking at a kind of software/hardware model: the seeds are the hardware and the traits are the software.

In the computer world, these functions tend to be distinct: Microsoft dominates desktop software; Dell tops the market in PCs. Even Bush's Justice Department and SEC, both of which operate squarely under the heel of Wall Street in anti-trust matters, might squack if those two behemoths merged. In seeds, however, the giants perform both functions without raising a regulatory eyebrow.

At first glance, comparing the the seed market to the PC market looks like a stretch. Microsoft owns nearly 100 percent of the desktop software market, while Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta together control only about a quarter of the seed market.

But a closer look at individual at the fast-emerging genetically modified (GM) seed market shows Monsanto weilds a Microsoft-like heft. The ETC report reveals that 88 percent of the world's GM crop acreage is planted with seeds containing Monsanto-owned traits. More than 90 percent of the world's genetically modified soybean crops contain Monsanto's genetic goodies. For maize (field corn, the stuff that's ground into industrial-food inputs like high-fructose corn syrup or fed to confined livestock, not the food you eat off the cob), that number is 97 percent.

As for cotton, Monsanto traits account for 61 percent of the GM seed market. In April of this year, Monsanto spent $300 million to snap up Emergent Genetics, the third-largest cotton seed company in both India and the US.

Let's think about what that deal means. Before its sellout, Emergent, like many independent seed purveyors, could buy GM traits from the three giants: Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta; it could shop around for the best price. Now, it will presumably only use Monsanto traits.

By selling both physical seeds and traits--hardware and software--Monsanto puts itself in the position of cornering individual markets. That's the sort of thing that used to set an attorney general's teeth on edge. Our last couple of AG's though, have been much more interested in spying on citizens and justifying torture of suspected enemies of the state.

Now, so far, Monsanto's dominance extends only to the largest, most lucrative, and (not coincidentally) heavily subsidized crops: soybeans, cotton, corn. What happens if it turns its R&D attention to fruits and vegetables? Can the debut of GM bitter greens be far off? (Rather than sue me, maybe Monsanto should corner the market on the seeds of arugula, watercress, Tokyo bikuna, etc. That would bring Maverick Farms to its knees!)

Here we run against the sinister implications of Monsanto's Seminis buy. To date, attempts to genetically alter fruits and vegetables have failed miserably. A few years ago, Monsanto magnanimously bestowed upon Kenya the gift of a GM sweet potato, designed in a lab to increase yield. It was easy, then, to paint GM opponents as racist. The trouble was, the Monsanto sweet potato proved a bust in the field, as this article shows.

And Seminis itself grew out of the dashed GM hopes of a Mexican plutocrat named Alfonso Romo, whose late 1990s buying binge eventually made Seminis the world's largest fruit and vegetable seed company. (Romo is part of that generation of Mexican businessmen, the leading figure of which is the telecom baron Carlos Slim, who attained lavish wealth in the 1990s aided by a great burst of state-sponsored cronyism applauded by the IMF, Wall Street, and Washington.) Here's how the Wall Street journal described Romo's GM dreams in 1999:
[Romo] envisions creating utopian vegetables: non-browning lettuce, broccoli with enhanced cancer-fighting properties, and produce of all kinds that won't wrinkle, spoil or blemish. Whether his own scientists or others develop the means to accomplish those goals, he believes he will benefit. "Seeds are software," he says. "And we have the seeds."

The above-linked article hails a joint venture between Romo's company and Monsanto to create Roundup Ready lettuce--an effort that seems, thankfully, to have gone bust. Romo's company claims responsibility for those ignominious and flavorless "baby carrots" one finds stuffed into bags on supermarket shelves, and it brought to market seeds for a "cucumber that yields a hamburger-size pickle slice designed to lie perfectly between a pair of buns," the Journal reports.

That's bad stuff; but what I really found offensive was that "Mr. Romo's company lowered the heat factor of the jalapeno pepper, helping salsa pull even with ketchup in the U.S. in dollar sales." The man seems intent on breeding any flavor at all out of American food.

Luckily, to my mind, the market eventually frowned on Romo's efforts. Within two years of the Journal article, the U.S. business press had knocked Romo from his pedestal. His biotech schemes faltered on the supermarket shelf or on the petri dish, and his company became sodden with debt.

Here is Business Week in 2001:
Today, it's a chastened Romo who surveys the wreckage of his worldwide empire. The 50-year-old, hailed as a visionary seven years ago when he first invested in agricultural biotechnology and seed companies, now is struggling to pay creditors and remain afloat. An agreement restructuring Romo's corporate debt is expected with the banks any day. But Romo's problem remains: He grew too big, too fast.

Eventually, Romo restructured his seed holdings and created Seminis, which, as stated above, he recently sold to Monsanto for $1.4 billion. A corporate tightrope walker, he managed to stay on as chief of the division.

The deal immediately posed moral problems for small-scale farmers, including Maverick Farms. Both of our main seed suppliers--Johnny's and Fedco--buy and resell seeds from Seminis. As this thoughtful articleby Matthew Dillon of the Seed Alliance shows, Johnny's and Fedco will likely have to continue buying certain seeds from Seminis; its market heft is so great that it essentially holds a monopoly position in certain varieties, including heirlooms like Early Girl tomatoes.

And it's that market heft, combined with Monsanto's R&D muscle, that conjures a dire picture: What if Monsanto plunges seriously into GM vegetables? Many Wall Street analysts thought Monsanto wildly overpaid for Seminis, a slow-growing business with loads of debt. The only way the deal made sense was if Monsanto really thought it could cash in on GM veggies. Will it be allowed to dominate both the vegetable seed market and germoplasm market?

Today's Senate approval of the pro-industry zealot John Roberts as chief justice of the Supreme Court bodes ill for the future of U.S. antitrust law.

Ladies and gentlemen of the small-scale sustainable-farming world, it's time we got more serious about seed saving.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Roundup, ready

"Roundup, ready" is an occasional feature of Bitter Greens Journal. Named in honor of Monsanto's famed line of seeds genetically engineered to withstand its herbicide Roundup, this feature will give a brief overview of recent news, trends, and topics in the food-politics world. Each of them is a candidate for expansion in the days and weeks to come.

Update: Public outcry forces a respite for organic standards
The Organic Consumers Association announced today that the Senate backed off, for now, from tweaking organic standards to please large industrial processors. The group states:
Over the past 72 hours, Organic Consumers Association network members have deluged the U.S. Senate with 35,000 emails and 10,000 telephone calls. Thank you for your support. This nearly unprecedented grassroots upsurge has temporarily rattled Congress and the industry, delaying the initial Sneak Attack in the Senate on organic standards, resulting in a compromise amendment September 21 calling for “further study of the issue."

The OCA warns, however, that "another, possibly even more serious, Sneak Attack" is brewing in the House/Senate Conference Committee." Check out its latest missive on the issue here.

Organically groan: working conditions on California's organic farms
While it's important to preserve the organic label's integrity in the supermarket shelf, it's even more important to interrogate what it means in the field. Bitter Greens Journal recently became aware of an interesting study published in the Winter-Spring 2005 edition of the University of California-Davis' Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter.

Authored by Aimee Shreck, Christy Getz, and Gail Feenstra, the study examines the attitudes of California organic growers toward farm labor. The results make melancholy reading.

The authors point out that:
A common misperception among farmers and consumers is that organic certification already addresses working conditions for farmworkers, and that because organic agriculture rules forbid many toxic pesticides, it is often assumed that organic is “better” for farmworkers than conventional agriculture.

U.S. organic accreditation standards have no work-place conditions stipulations, the authors write. And given the defensive posture that the organic movement finds itself taking viz. industry, it's hard to imagine that changing any time soon (see above).

But the study doesn't paint a picture of mega-farms shamelessly exploiting workers. The authors sent their survey to 500 organic farmers; 188 returned them. Here's how the authors describe their respondents:
Like most organic farmers in California, the majority of the farmers responding to our survey operate at a small-scale in terms of area farmed and annual sales. Almost three-quarters (73.8 %) of respondents farm 50 acres or less, and 64 % of the farms reported less than $50,000 in annual sales...Two-thirds of the farmers responding hire workers in addition to their families at least part of the year.

I can tell you from experience that farming at that scale throws off little spare income for worker benefits; I'm surprised that such a high percentage can afford to hire help. That they can illustrates the relative abundance of cheap immigrant labor in California (although, as I reported reported recently, the cheap pool of labor to which California vegetable growers have grown addicted may be drying up.)

Not surprisingly, there's little support among this hard-scrabble lot for adding a workers' rights amendment to organic standards, the authors report. Here's a key sentence:
Most employers in the study do not (and perceive that they cannot afford to) provide things like living wages and health insurance. Indeed, many small-scale farmers like those who participated in this study do not provide insurance for themselves.

Nor, evidently, is their strong support for the right of collective bargaining, a right agricultural workers won in California some 30 years ago. Fully 40 percent of respondents told the authors they "strongly disagree" that ag workers should have the right to unionize. Amazing.

The report really ends up being as much about the sad state of organic farming as it is about labor conditions in the field. As corporations such as Kraft and Dean Foods rush into organic food to exploit its 20 percent compounded annual growth rate in the retail market, farmers--even in the California, land of Berkeley and Alice Waters, the promised land of organic ag--are languishing.

"Our findings question expectations that organic agriculture systems necessarily foster social, or even economic sustainability for most farmers and farmworkers involved," the authors declare. "Indeed, many farmers themselves forgo the kinds of employment benefits available to workers in most other sectors."

Their conclusion seems spot-on:
We suggest that to create production conditions that are favorable to a broader conception of social justice, change is needed in the entire food system, not just at the point of production. Indeed, to move beyond the silence about labor within the sustainable agriculture and organic communities, we must situate these issues in the context of the entire food chain (production, processing, distribution and consumption).

Wal-Mart invades Guatemala, Chili's does the Middle East
In the West, overall food sales have stagnated, growing at about the same anemic rate as the population. That has made multinational food corporations scramble to keep profits growing at a rate that please their investors.

One strategy has been to move into organic foods, sales of which, as stated above, are growing at a 20 percent annual clip. The results of that trend have been well-documented by the Organic Consumers Association.

The other major strategy has been to expand to the global south, where traditional food customs largely hold out. The dominance of small, informal marketing networks in places like Guatemala are seen as an "opportunity" by corporate strategists seeking high returns on invested capital. This post, from way back in March, analyzes that phenomenon.

Thus Wal-Mart, which relies increasingly on grocery sales, has conquered Mexico, establishing itself in less than 10 years as the nation's largest employer and number-one grocer. And now, like Cortez himself, it's gazing south to Guatemala.

Meanwhile, Brinker Inc. owner of several dreadful restaurant chains including Chili's, has announced it's moving into "Latin America, the Middle East and eventually China and India." The company hopes eventually to have 40 percent of its total stores in those places.

I wish both corporations a hostile and disastrous reception in their adopted new homes.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

New blog launched: MaverickEats

We've launched a food-oriented blog at Maverick Farms called MaverickEats. Check it out.

The organic label controversy: an update and an exchange

As I reported here Monday, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) raised an alarm that a Senate Committee might, as early as Tuesday, "acting in haste and near-total secrecy," make serious changes to national organic standards.

Nothing substantial has happened yet, and OCA now reports that the vote in question, involving a rider on the 2006 Agriculture Appropriations Bill, could still take place sometime this week.

Meanwhile, Bitter Greens has been trying to sort out the complicated politics behind what's happening on the Hill. I thank two people who have supplied me with some of the e-mails that have been flying around the sustainable-ag world in response to the doings on the Hill: Steve Gilman, an authority on community-supported agriculture and owner of the Ruckytucks Farm in Stillwater, NY, (see his comment on my post from yesterday); and Tana Butler, who runs the excellent California blog Small Farms.

As you'll see from the exhange below, the debate is more complicated than the Organic Consumers Association lets on. I don't have time to comment on or contexualize the exchange below; I leave it for readers to sort out.

What I will add to the debate is this:
1) While I think the Organic Consumers Association is simplifying things a bit, I agree absolutely that no changes to organic code should be made in a secretive senate committee as a rider on a huge bill. The organic movement should hash these issues out on its own, in public, and present Congress with a unified agenda; failing that, Congress should hold public hearings about the future of organic and decide how to proceed on that basis. Therefore, I agree with OCA that consumers and farmers should call their senators and demand that they vote down this rider.
2) Over time, as consumers increasingly flock to organic products and as organics continue to outperform a stagnate overall food market, the likes of Kraft and Dean Foods will exert more and more pressure to bend organic code to their own ends. While I understand why organic-farming pioneers like Steve Gilman will always fight to keep the organic label meaningful, and I support them, I also think it's time to start thinking beyond organic. For consumers, it's not enough to shop at Whole Foods (which calls itself a "certified organic supermarket," or some such nonsense) or eat Amy's Organics TV dinners. They'll have to do the work at identifying and supporting the growers in their area who are practicing ecologically and socially sound farming--certified organic or not.

What follows is a debate between two women who have been deeply involved in the organic movement about the wisdom of changes now before the Senate. The debate took place on SANET, a list serve operated by Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education, known widely as SARE.

[Note: The OTA they bandy about is the Organic Trade Association, the group that's behind the rider in the Senate. In my post yesterday, I characterized OTA as "essentially a front group for industry players that want to squeeze the organic label for profit; its member list includes Kraft and Horizon, the organic arm of dairy giant Dean Foods." While Kraft and Horizon are members, my characterization now looks too broad. As Steve Gilman commented on my blog yesterday, " I understand that even some of [OTA's] own Board members were not consulted concerning this hasty and dangerous action of opening the Organic Foods Production Act to further meddling by the powers that be."

In fact, Emily Brown Rosen, whose letter below establishes her as a sharp critic of OTA's agenda on the Hill, works for a group that's a member of OTA.]

Here is the debate:
Emily Brown Rosen
Organic Research Associates, LLC
P.O. Box 5
Titusville NJ 08560
fax: 609-737-6652

Yes, there are a lot of broad, simplistic statements being made on both sides about the proposed change to OFPA put forth by OTA and industry . Unfortunately we are dealing with a sudden action that has not been open to public debate, and the resulting tendency to overstate the issues, perhaps on both sides, in an effort to engage action one way or the other. OTA's proposed amendment was not provided to OTA members or the public until Sept. 19th, at least 10 days after it was circulated to the Senate.

Regarding the impact of a prohibition of synthetics in processing, it is true that many multi-ingredient processed food contains synthetics. These will be impacted by the Harvey ruling, and require a large number of products to be labeled "made with organic" ingredients, or to reformulate. It won't necessarily be harder to make organic TV dinners, but it will be required to labeled them as "made with organic ingredients" TV dinners- which might not be such a bad thing. Some consumer groups think this is a very good thing.

The organic industry claims this will reduce sales and devastate the market for organic, but according to OTA's own figures, in 2003 the combined sales of packaged food plus sauces/condiments and snack foods categories totals $2.039B, or 19.6% of total organic food sales. (2004 Manufacturers Survey) Although this is a substantial portion of the organic food market, it is not a majority of the marketplace, and it is likely that quite a good percentage of these products will be able to figure out ways to reformulate with natural additives, and that adjustments to the National List can be made on a number of substances now listed as synthetic that are in fact available in natural or organic forms.

OTA has also been repeating some misinformation - that baking soda is synthetic (it is not, it is on the list at 205.605(a) as natural), that all pectin will be ruled out (high methoxy pectin is natural) and that processors must relabel without the USDA seal by the end of 2005 ( not true - they have until June 2007.)

While it is possible there does need to be a change to OFPA to define and limit the types of synthetics allowed in organic processing, there has been no public discussion of the strategy to do this, nor an attempt to consider mitigation of the problem through regulation change. As OTA has noted in the summary they sent to Congress (still not public) , the original intention of Congress was to limit and control the number of synthetics allowed in organic production. This is reflected in the limited categories allowed in crop and livestock production, (copper, sulfur, vitamins, minerals etc) . OTA's proposal does not "control" the use of synthetics in processing, it is a wide open allowance with no restriction on categories, and no criteria for evaluation (those that are currently in use have been struck down by the Harvey suit.)

The OTA language also needs close vetting as there are a number of other consequences, such as lack of inclusion of processing aids, and a completely vague and unrestricted process proposed for determination of commercial availability.

The proposed OTA "fix" on dairy feed allows for 3rd year transitional feed to be feed to animals in conversion, which is a long time NOSB recommendation and in the current NOP rule. It is arguable whether a law change is needed to restore this provision. It does not address the critical issues of dairy herd replacement animals. It is likely that USDA will remove the requirement that "once entire distinct dairy herd has been converted to organic.. . all animals must be under organic management from the last third of gestation" since it is connected in the regulation to the allowance of the 80/20 feed exemption that was overturned by Harvey. This means young animals could be managed conventionally for the first year of life, including the use of antibiotics before conversion on an ongoing basis. If the OFPA is to be changed, this should be on the table.

Organic farmers have put up with a steady raising of the bar on organic standards - such as the requirement for organic seed, organic transplants, 100% organic feed, no list 3 inerts, strict composting standards, no transitioning slaughter stock, no pressure treated wood in contact with crops….the list goes on and on. It is understandable that processors need to have stability in the regulations, but at this point, to open OFPA and add synthetics in processing with no restrictions, with a lack of criteria, and vague allowances for "emergency" non organic ingredients is a step backward, and could undermine consumer confidence in the label.

A working group organized by the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture made a good faith attempts made to date to avoid this so called "cut off your nose" situation. This included some members the NCSA Organic Steering Committee, RAFI, CFS, National Organic Coalition, Beyond Pesticides, Consumers Union, National Cooperative Grocers Association, and several others who invited OTA and the industry to come to the table to work out possible middle ground solutions. The hope was to find solutions could actually strengthen OFPA while addressing some of the critical impacts of the Harvey decision. However, repeated efforts at communication and compromise were rebuffed, finally after a 5 hour meeting on Sept 15 in Washington. Although productive discussion and many points of common ground were established, OTA chose not to come back to the table and went forward with its proposal to the Senate unchanged.

The organic community has a lot of clout with Congress when unified, it is too bad that these issues could not have been addressed in a more inclusive and public manner to avoid this type of division. Quite a few people tried hard.

Emily Brown Rosen
Organic Research Asociates
OTA Member, and co-author of the 1999 OTA American Organic Standards
NOFA NJ Board of Directors
Midwest Organic Services Association Advisory Council
Pennsylvania Certified Organic staff


Grace Gershuny wrote:

I'm pasting in below the Organic Trade
Association's action alert on the same subject
but opposite position as that circulated by the
Organic Consumers Association (OCA). Most of
OCA's statements are flat out lies, and if the
results of the Harvey lawsuit are allowed to
stand there will be a dramatic loss of markets
for organic farmers, as well as products
available to organic consumers. Talk about
reversing 35 years of effort by the organic
community--OCA's position is a classic case of
trying to cut off your nose to spite your
face. Check out the factual information
presented by OTA and decide for yourself.

Thanks for listening,

Grace Gershuny

P.S. I have been working as a consultant to OTA
for the past year or so, most recently in helping
its members with various strategies to mitigate
the damage done by Harvey. But I am writing this
on my own nickel, as a longtime organic advocate,
author, grower, teacher, and, yes, former NOP staff member.

Action Alert from the Organic Trade Association

Sept. 19, 2005

This News Flash includes a summary of OTA's
proposal to Congress. The OTA Board of Directors
has given its unanimous support. If you receive
inquiries about this issue from your customers,
please use the information OTA is providing in
this News Flash to clarify any misperceptions or misunderstandings.

OTA's stance: The Organic Trade Association
Supports a Return to the Status Quo and Requests
that Congress Act after June 2005 Court Ruling.

Key Points

* The federal rules authorizing the use of
the USDA Organic seal on food products are five
years old, and are the touchstone of mainstream consumer acceptance of organic products.
* The current organic rules are the result of
adoption by USDA of recommendations from a
citizen advisory board created by Congress and 10
years of notice and comment rulemaking based on those recommendations.
* As might be expected with a new federal
program as comprehensive as the nearly 500-page
organic rule, certain parts of the rules were
found to be inconsistent with the statute.

The June 2005 Court Ruling Threatens the Booming Organic Market
* The June 2005 court ruling impacted three parts of the federal rules.
* First, it effectively blocked the common
use of harmless substances like baking soda,
pectin, ascorbic acid, vitamins and minerals,
etc., the so-called "allowed synthetics" in
processed food products bearing the USDA Organic seal.
* Second, it required the rules relied upon
by small dairy farms transitioning to organic
management practices be revised, with the
unintended result that making the change will be
significantly more costly after the ruling.
* Third, it disallowed the procedure
implemented by the Secretary's organic certifying
agents for recognizing the commercial
unavailability of organic agricultural products.

The Court Preserved the Status Quo for One Year=20
to Allow Congress to Remedy the Problem

* To avoid consumer confusion and market
disruption, the Court declined to immediately
vacate the rules to allow Congress to consider its ruling.
* Due to crop cycles and the lead time
necessary for product formulation, labeling, and marketing of organic products to consumers,
legislative clarification must be immediate.
* The businesses that produce and market the
majority of America's certified organic farm
products will have to drop product lines or
re-label them without the USDA seal by the end of 2005.
* Some have estimated that up to 90% of the
multi-ingredient products that today bear the
USDA Organic seal will have to be removed or
relabeled without using the USDA seal.
* To compensate for the lower value consumers
place on products not "organic enough" to carry
the USDA seal, some companies may reformulate
with less organic content or discontinue certain product lines.

The Solution is to Clarify the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990
* It is critical that Congress seize the
opportunity created by the Court and act before the end of the year.
* The necessary clarifications will stabilize
the marketplace for farmers, and businesses that
contract with farmers for organic agricultural
commodities, and do nothing more than restore the
status quo -- an interpretation of the statute by
the citizen advisory board that was created by
Congress to advise the Secretary on organic matters.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

The organic label and beyond

What, precisely, is going on with the organic label in Congress?

I found the e-mail I received last night from the Organic Consumers Association (posted here) troubling, important---and somewhat confusing.

Why, suddenly, was the Senate "acting in haste and near-total secrecy" to water down organic?

From what I can tell, the story goes like this. In 2002, a Maine organic blueberry farmer and National Organic Program inspector named Arthur Harvey took exception to the USDA's newly rolled out Organic Food rule, which sought to codify organic standards. Harvey charged that certain aspects of the Rule amounted to a de facto loosening of Organic Foods Production act of 1990.

For one, the Organic Rule allowed processors to use conventional ingredients “not commercially available in organic form” in foods that would be labeled organic--which certainly cedes a lot of power to processors that are using the organic label only as a marketing tool. Next, it sanctioned the use of synthetic substances in food processing. Finally, it allowed dairy farmers to use 20 percent conventional feed in the first nine months of a dairy herd’s one-year conversion to organic.

So Harvey sued the USDA, using the agency's then-chief Anne Veneman. The case is now inscribed in the annals of agriculture history as Harvey v. Veneman.

The suit initially failed--a U.S, judge and a Maine judge essentially sided with Veneman. But in January of 2005, an appeals court sided with Harvey--but it didn't spell out how the ruling should be enforced.

To make a complicated story simple, while stakeholders with a genuine interest in preserving "organic" as a meaningful label tried to sort out how to respond to Harvey v. Veneman, the big processors, under the flag of the Organic Trade Association (OTA), cobbled together a pro-industry agenda and presented it to the Senate a solution to the problem of how to enforce Harvey v. Venemen.

The OTA is essentially a front group for industry players that want to squeeze the organic label for profit; its member list includes Kraft and Horizon, the organic arm of dairy giant Dean Foods. (Horizon, the number-one seller of organic milk, is notorious for keeping many of its cows on feedlots.)

The strategy seems to be to use the dispute over issues raised by Harvey to get Congress to take power from the National Organic Standards Board’s (NOSB), which has a strict view of what organic means, and hand it over to the USDA, generally the handmaiden of industry. Such a legislative move would be difficult to challenge in court,

Thus Harvey's perfectly reasonable lawsuit appears to have had the unintended consequence of giving industry the chisel with which to puncture federal law around what "organic" means.

While I fully agree with the Organic Consumers Association that everything must be done to fight this shady effort, and I applaud Harvey for doing his best to preserve "organic," I also think it's time to go back to basics: Grow your own food when you can, buy from growers in your area whenever possible, and reject as much as you can processed food.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Urgent: Organic standards under attack

I'm on the e-mail list of the the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), which sent me the following urgent missive this evening. Key sentence: 'In the past, grassroots mobilization and mass pressure by organic consumers have been able to stop the USDA and Congress from degrading organic standards. This time Washington insiders tell us that the “fix is already in.' So we must take decisive action now."

Here's the e-mail, along with information on how to respond:

The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) needs your immediate help to stop Congress and the Bush administration from seriously degrading organic standards. After 35 years of hard work, the U.S. organic community has built up a multi-billion dollar alternative to industrial agriculture, based upon strict organic standards and organic community control over modification to these standards.

Now, large corporations such as Kraft, Wal-Mart, & Dean Foods--aided and abetted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are moving to lower organic standards by allowing a Bush appointee to create a list of synthetic ingredients that would be allowed organic production. Even worse these proposed regulatory changes will reduce future public discussion and input and take away the National Organic Standards Board’s (NOSB) traditional lead jurisdiction in setting standards. What this means, in blunt terms. is that USDA bureaucrats and industry lobbyists, not consumers, will now have more control over what can go into organic foods and products. (Send a quick letter to your Congressperson online here:

Tomorrow, Tuesday, Sept. 20, acting in haste and near-total secrecy, the U.S. Senate will vote on a “rider” to the 2006 Agriculture Appropriations Bill that will reduce control over organic standards from the National Standards Board and put this control in the hands of federal bureaucrats in the USDA (remember the USDA proposal in 1997-98 that said that genetic engineering, toxic sludge, and food irradiation would be OK on organic farms, or USDA suggestions in 2004 that heretofore banned pesticides, hormones, tainted feeds, and animal drugs would be OK?).

For the past week in Washington, OCA has been urging members of the Senate not to reopen and subvert the federal statute that governs U.S. Organic standards (the Organic Food Production Act—OFPA), but rather to let the organic community and the National Organic Standards resolve our differences over issues like synthetics and animal feed internally, and then proceed to a open public comment period. Unfortunately most Senators seem to be listening to industry lobbyists more closely than to us. We need to raise our voices. (Send a quick letter to your Congressperson online here:

In the past, grassroots mobilization and mass pressure by organic consumers have been able to stop the USDA and Congress from degrading organic standards. This time Washington insiders tell us that the “fix is already in.” So we must take decisive action now. We need you to call your U.S. Senators today. We need you to sign the following petition and send it to everyone you know. We also desperately need funds to head off this attack in the weeks and months to come. Thank you for your support. Together we will take back citizen control over organic standards and preserve organic integrity.

* Call the Capital Switchboard here: 877-762-8762
* Send a quick letter to your Congressperson online here:


6771 South Silver Hill Drive
Finland, MN 55603
Phone: (218)-353-7454 Fax: (218) 353-7652

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

The fault lines of industrial agriculture, Part I: an overview

"The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the 'state of emergency' in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain a conception of history that is in keeping with that insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism."
--Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," 1940 (see Benjamin, Illuminations, editor Hannah Arendt)

The news from industrial agriculture's trenches has been bleak lately, providing a stark glimpse at the fault lines that run through our food system--and possible openings for a new system that values the local, the delicious, the environmentally sane, and the socially just.

The crises of industrial agriculture
Hurricane Katrina has exposed just how much grain farmers rely on foreign markets to sop up their huge surplus. The hurricane knotted up the Mississippi close to the port, pushing down the price of grain and leaving farmers in the southern grain belt holding mountains of product they can't sell. (Farmers in the northern grain belt haven't harvested yet; the Mississippi is expected to be open by the time they do.)

Then there’s the energy crunch. Well before Katrina caused a spike in gas prices, analysts were already fearing that soaring fuel and fertilizer prices would force farmers to pay about $3 billion more in energy costs this year than they did last year.

In Montana, before Katrina reared up, a bushel of wheat was fetching $2.85--40 cents less than the cost of production. "I've lost more money in the past five years than I made in the previous 35," one farmer complained to the Billings Gazette).

While that farmer can still count on the USDA to step in and make up for at least some of those losses, the subsidy system is under attack. The World Trade Organization looks increasingly serious about forcing the industrialized nations to slash agricultural subsidies. The United States subsidies its farmers at the rate of about $17 billion per year, the bulk of which goes to large-scale grain farmers in the Midwest. The next Farm Bill, due in 2007, could well be considerably less generous.

Things aren't much better in central California, home to a huge concentration of the nation's fruit and vegetable production. Fuel and fertilizer prices, of course, are taking their toll. But unlike their counterparts in the Midwest, who rely on huge gas-guzzling combines to harvest their crops, fruit and vegetable farmers still need human hands for picking. For years, California landowners have quietly relied on a steady influx of cheap, undocumented workers from Mexico for that task.

Now, reports Associated Press, that stream is drying up. Nativist political pressure has inspired the federal government to more tightly enforce the southern border, making it more difficult and dangerous to cross. Meanwhile, a nationwide housing boom has been drawing more and more migrant workers out of the fields and orchards and onto construction sites, where the work is steadier and higher paid.

Raisin growers are complaining that a brewing labor shortage has put their harvest in jeopardy. "We just don't have enough people, and it's a perishable crop," one grower told the Associated Press.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than half of the nation's farm workers are here illegally. A dearth of undocumented workers could thus force up wages among pickers. As I've said before, that would seriously squeeze farm profits, since farm owners have little leverage to increase prices for their goods in a buyers' market dominated by a few huge processors and retailers.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the labor-rights movement among undocumented workers in California is showing signs of life. Last week, the United Farm Workers (UFW) declared victory in a two-year contract battle with Gallo, the behemoth that's responsible for one in four bottles of wine produced in California.

Now, all of these crises can and will be managed in ways that preserve the status quo. It's not for nothing that Bush chose Chuck Conner, former de facto lobbyist for industrial-food warhorse Archer Daniels Midland, as his deputy secretary of agriculture.

But it's not too late for sustainable-agriculture advocates to grab the initiative. Over the next weeks, Bitter Greens Journal will focus on the crises of industrial agriculture, and the opportunities they present for real change.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Saxby Chambliss and family values

Saxby Chambliss, R.-Ga, who serves as chair of the powerful Senate Agriculture Committee, has been a vigorous advocate of agricultural subsidies. When President Bush hinted earlier this year he might have to cut ag subsidies to help offset surging military spending, Chambliss rushed to the rescue. He got Bush to agree to preserve subsidies for high-volume commodities like corn, soybeans, and (particularly dear to Chambliss' Georgia heart) cotton. Any cuts that need to be wrung out of the USDA will come from conservation and poverty programs such as food stamps, not commodity programs.

Bitter Greens Journal does not oppose government support for farming per se, but considers the current subsidy system a farce--a giveaway to huge commodity buyers like Archer Daniels Midland disguised as a gift to family farmers. I've laid out a partial critique of the subsidy system here; I'll return to the topic soon, addressing some thoughtful points in defense of the system raised in a recent issue of Albert Krebs' Agribusiness Examiner.

For now, let's just say that it's no surprise that Sen. Chambliss, whom I have already taken to task here and here, is such a popular beneficiary of big-ag cash.

But his rock-solid support for commodity subsidies may also have a familial angle. I learned from this interview that Sen. Chambliss' son-in-law is one Joe Baker, owner of Baker Farms in Norman Park, Ga., and boardmember of the Georgia Fruit & Vegetable Growers Association.

According to the Environmental Working Group's invaluable Farm Subsidy Database, Baker Farmsgot about $171,000 in federal subsidies between 1995 and 2003, the great bulk of them from the controversial cotton program.

Now, in the grand scheme, $170k isn't so very much. By comparison, Georgia's top-20 most-subsidized farms all received in excess of $2 million over the same period.

Still, comparing Baker Farms' annual take with that of the state of Georgia as a whole yields an interesting trend: Baker Farms' percentage share of its state's total subsidy allotment increases consistently over the period.

And that period--1995 to 2003--roughly coincides with Chambliss' ascent from member of the U.S. House (where he was first elected in 1994) to his entry into the Senate (2002).

Looks like Baker grew savvier about how to "farm the government" (as the practice is known in the trade) as his daddy-in-law scaled the heights on the shoulders of big-ag cash.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Roundup, ready

"Roundup, ready" is an occasional feature of Bitter Greens Journal. Named in honor of Monsanto's famed line of seeds genetically engineered to withstand its herbicide Roundup, this feature will give a brief overview of recent news, trends, and topics in the food-politics world. Each of them is a candidate for expansion in the days and weeks to come.

Dust-up with Monsanto
Bitter Greens Journal bows humbly before the outpouring of support it has gotten since receiving that absurd and distressing e-mail from Monsanto's trademark bounty hunter.

There's a slave morality ingrained in this culture that makes people shuffle along meekly when a corporate flack armed with a law degree starts barking orders. Refusing requires little real courage, in the grand scope of things, and is actually quite fun. Let's all pledge to do more of it.

On a practical note, it would certainly be awful to be sued by Monsanto. Although a certified letter has not arrived at my doorstep, and my friend the lawyer has yet to reply to my blunt letter of a few days ago, legal action remains a possibility. As this supurb report by the Center for Food safety shows, Monsanto rather takes pride in suing and bankrupting farmers.

So I very much appreciate all of the efforts to get the word out. The best defense against a dark beast like Monsanto is a bright blast of sun. And that's precisely what all of your comments and blog links have been.

Politics and disaster
"Don't you dare politicize a human tragedy."

Words to that effect arrived in my e-mail box this morning amid a heated list-serve debate about the unfolding calamity in New Orleans. It's conventional claptrap. Every disaster, no matter how "natural," has a political and social history. Politely disregarding it dishonors the victims and allows the perpetrators and profiteers to skulk off scott-free.

Mike Davis' fiercely argued and devastating "Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World" (2001) makes this point with unsparing force. The book documents how the European empires, along with the United States and Japan, used three major droughts in the late 19th century to consolidate their economic grip on what would become the Third World.

What turned drought into famine? According to Davis, in British-controlled India during the drought of 1876:
The newly constructed railroads, lauded as institutional safeguards against famine, were instead used by merchants to ship grain inventories from outlying drought-stricken districts to central depots for hoarding (as well as protection from rioters). Likewise the telegraph ensured that price hikes were coordinated in a thousand towns at once, regardless of local supply trends. Moreover, British antipathy to price control invited anyone who had the money to join in the frenzy of grain speculation...As a result, food prices soared out of the reach of outcaste laborers, displaced weavers, sharecroppers, and poor peasants. 'The dearth,' [a contemporary British publication] pointed out, 'was one of money and labor and not food.'

Before British rule, famine had been rare on the subcontinent. During droughts, food moved from unaffected areas to stricken areas through informal networks. Davis claims that these networks crumbled under pressure from the "theological application of the sacred principles of Smith, Bentham, and Mill."

Thus began the great game of "development" in the southern hemisphere, a project lately taken over by the IMF, the World Bank, and the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

Davis claims that at the time of the French Revolution, "the difference in living standards between a French [peasant] and a Deccan farmer were relatively insignificant compared to the gulf that separated both from their ruling classes." By the end of the 19th century, though, after as many as 50 million perished from famine in India, Africa, and South America, "the inequality of nations was as profound as the inequality of classes."

The New Orleans calamity needs a Mike Davis to parse its vicous race/class angle, the feeble response of a war-addled administration, and the ruinous reign of developers in Louisiana politics.

Roundup(R) the usual suspects
What do you get when Monsanto and the Farm Bureau (whose sorry politics are discussed
here) teams up with the National Corn Growers Association, the United Soybean Board, the U.S. Grains Council, and the National Cotton Council (discussed here)?

If your answer is vast-scale, heavily subsidized, and environmentally ruinous agriculture, you have a point. But I was thinking of a different response: television that promises to be so bad that it might qualify as camp.

The above-mentioned crew have pooled funds to create a public-television series called "America's Heartland." According to its Web site, the show is:

[A] new weekly public television series...which will celebrate our nation’s agriculture. Profiling the people, places, and processes of agriculture, the series will tap into—and strengthen—the ties that bind us all together: the love of our land and the respect for the people who live on and from it, a national fascination with food, curiosity about unfamiliar places and ways of life, and the bedrock American values of family, hard work and the spirit of independence.

In other words, rather than focus on the wretchedly depressed conditions reigning in most rural areas and a dismal food system that has made the U.S. the fattest nation on earth--or on alternatives such as the budding local-food movement--the series will paint a portrait of noble, stoic family farmers cranking out "miraculous" amounts of commodities so that "American consumers [can] spend less to feed themselves than any other country in the world."

Is it crude of me to point out that this is just the sort of nonsense that issued forth from both Soviet and Nazi propaganda mills?