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Forget the Farm Bill

Tom Philpott, Trist
For now, local politics is the way to effect ag-policy change

Over the past few years, grassroots support has swelled for new federal farm policies — ones that promote healthy, sustainably grown food, not the interests of a few agribusiness firms.

The target of much of this organizing has been the 2007 farm bill. If past farm bill debates have been the concern of a small cadre of lobbyists and activists, this one has hit the mainstream. Informed farm bill discussions have turned up in newspapers’ food sections, general-interest magazines, and even the best-seller list, in the form of books like Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Local chapters of groups like Slow Food have rallied around the cause, and thousands of emails urging reform have stuffed legislators’ inboxes.

In a sense, all of that ink spilled (including gallons of virtual ink right here on Grist), all that effort, all of that hope for new policies has come to naught. Last week, the House passed a farm bill that essentially preserves the worst features of federal agriculture policies since the 1970s, while for good measure gutting the Conservation Security Program*, widely considered a model of prudent farm policy.

…But if the effort to create a more benign farm bill has proved a crashing failure, that surely doesn’t mean we have to lie down and let the Archer Daniels Midlands and Smithfield Foods of the world run our food system.

In short, while federal policy is of course critically important, the fast-and-dirty way to effect food-system change is at the local level. And all over the country, people are doing just that. While these efforts are by nature fragmentary and piecemeal, together they form a kind of policy laboratory from which a blueprint for real reform can emerge.

I spent last week traveling in Iowa, the epicenter of industrial agriculture. Iowa leads the nation in production of corn, soy, pork, and eggs. Nearly 90 percent of the state’s land is under cultivation — almost all of it using environmentally ruinous techniques.

Yet all over the state, citizen-based initiatives are challenging that order. The most inspiring one I saw was…
(2 August 2007)

Until Nothing is Left

William J. Kelly, Los Angeles CityBeat
As imports of foreign produce increase, California farmers are losing their place at the table

It’s 9 a.m. and workers are rolling up the giant doors at Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles. Grocers are ready for business, their stalls colorfully stocked with vegetables and fruit – green beans, squash, tomatoes, lettuces, asparagus, oranges, apples, avocados, nectarines.

This open air market, and scores of groceries and supermarkets throughout Los Angeles, once offered nothing but the bounty of California, the largest agricultural state in the nation. Long the salad bowl for the nation, we became the envy of easterners who face limited selections of vegetables and fruits during winter months. It’s still true that every year California farmers produce more than $20 billion worth of crops, most of them high-value vegetables, fruits, nuts, wines, dairy, and meat products.

Increasingly, however, the produce that adorns Grand Central Market and other grocery stores no longer is grown here. Instead, it arrives from Mexico, Chile, Peru, China, and other far-flung nations. California agriculture is under economic assault from cheap imports, produced in many cases under cut-rate conditions that do not meet U.S. sanitary standards. Pesticides often are overused in some nations, according to Beyond Pesticides. Contamination problems have come to light, as illustrated by the recent case of Chinese wheat gluten. The product was widely used in pet food and other unknown foods sold in the U.S. even though it had been contaminated with chemicals used in plastic, including melamine and cyanuric acid.

As the tide of imported crops rises, U.S. food safety officials have not kept up with inspections and monitoring of the food sold in Los Angeles and U.S. markets.

… I entered the rush of the freeway and drove south through the vast Central Valley pondering all that I had heard and seen on these journeys. As I drove, the words of the famous writer Wendell Barry echoed in my mind: “A sustainable agriculture is one which depletes neither the people nor the land.”

On all my journeys, I had seen little but depletion.

I realized that it will be up to the people to counter this depletion occurring under the international free market consensus in Washington, which has torn agriculture from its community roots. Only the people can support farmers by buying domestic products, shopping at farmers markets, and frequenting local stores. It will be up to them to pressure their elected representatives to support local agriculture by preserving farmland and supporting farm programs. Unless they do it, agriculture will become little more than another multinational enterprise that after depleting one area and community of people, moves on to deplete the next until nothing is left.
(2 August 2007)

Professor urges ‘sustainable’ solution

Mike Lyons, Daily-Journal (Illinois)
Contrary to the hope of rural America, ethanol and biodiesel aren’t the “silver bullet” solution to the nation’s looming energy shortage.

In fact, the use of food crops to fuel Pontiacs, not people, is something akin to a crime against humanity — at least in a world where Third World, peasant farmers allegedly are being pushed off their land by wealthy investors who want to capitalize on the biofuel boom.

That’s the view of ag policy dissident John Ikerd, a retired University of Missouri ag professor, who was the guest speaker Thursday before the annual Kankakee County Fair edition of Extension’s Ag Professionals Breakfast.

Ikerd, a dissident voice in the “ethanol friendly” agri-energy debate, presented his “back to basics” pitch for ag sustainability and rural regeneration before producers and agri-businessmen who, for the most part, are enthusiastic ethanol proponents.

Ikerd says America will never again see cheap fuel no matter the technology used to develop it. And he insists that efforts to recover the world’s remaining oil reserves will cost nearly as much energy as they yield.

It’s much the same story for ethanol, he said.

“We eventually must face the fact that we simply cannot possibly replace more than a small fraction of our current use of petroleum or total fossil energy with biological energy,” Ikerd said. “In addition, we cannot devote the whole of agriculture to off-setting shortfalls in fossil energy production.”

… Ikerd said the energy boom is leading to a cataclysmic economic disaster in rural America. He’s said he’s seen the signs before.

“The current energy boom in rural America has all the characteristics of another rural catastrophe in the making,” he said, a reference to the boom and bust cycle that radically thinned the ranks of U.S. farmers during the 1970s and early ’80s.

“Land prices are exploding, farmers and rural residents are borrowing money against their land to finance investments in biofuel plants, and rural communities are betting their future on a return to boom times in agriculture.”

…”We have perhaps a 50-year window of opportunity to transform agriculture from a fossil-energy dependent system of food production to a food system that functions on renewable solar and human energy.”
(3 August 2007)