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The ultimate agricultural efficiency; other news

(Monday, Sept. 25, 2006 ­ CropChoice news) --

1. The ultimate agricultural efficiency
2. The rural life: Death of a farmer
3. Slow food nation
4. Redesigning crops to harvest fuel
5. Cornucopia: USDA undermines organic law
6. When we finally take the off ramp
7. Canadians spend little on food but complain loudly

1. The ultimate agricultural efficiency

NY Times
Sept. 23, 2006

Any American history of pork — the meat, that is — shows a steady concentration of more and more hogs in the hands of fewer and fewer producers. That is what modern agricultural “efficiency” looks like. It’s good for the bottom line of the big industrial players, but bad for farmers, hogs, the environment and, ultimately, consumers. That history took another step in the wrong direction when Smithfield Foods — the biggest pork packer — agreed to buy the second biggest pork packer, Premium Standard Farms.

This is a deal that deserves to be closely examined by antitrust regulators. It would mean fewer markets for farmers and fewer choices for consumers. Already, packing giants like Smithfield and Premium Standard Farms use their market power, when buying hogs, in ways that violate the spirit of the 1921 Packers and Stockyards Act, which prohibits undue price discrimination. Their power in the marketplace allows them to negotiate price premiums that smaller packers can’t offer.

The public should also understand what the deal would mean for the future of American farming. It would push farmers still farther down the road to becoming nothing but contract laborers.

There is little or no role for the independent farmer in this landscape. The logic is simple: Why bother to buy pigs from farmers when you can own them yourself? If this deal closes, more than half the pigs Smithfield kills would be pigs it already owns, a percentage that is sure to increase. The hog farmers’ job would no longer be farming. They would be janitors in confinement barns across rural America where the packers’ huge herds of pigs are crammed in stalls to live out their short lives.

And that would be the ultimate efficiency of American agriculture — doing away with the farmer by doing away with competitive markets. Opinion

Death of a Farmer

Published: September 14, 2006
NY Times

My dad called the other night to tell me that my cousin Myron had died of a heart attack. I was in upstate New York, my dad was in the San Joaquin Valley, and Myron was at the Clay County Fair in Spencer, Iowa, when he collapsed and died. He had turned 61 in August. I last saw Myron a little more than a year ago. My uncle’s steers had broken down a section of fence, and we all went out into the night to herd them back in and fix the spot where they escaped.

Myron has been seven years ahead of me all my life, which means he always seemed like one of the grown-ups. It felt the same way that night. I was the visiting town kid. Myron was helping. I was conscious of helping. There’s a world of difference between those two things.

I seem, to my own surprise now this late in life, to have grown up in a world full of men I admired without quite knowing how to admire them. They lived near the home farm in northwest Iowa, and we lived in a small town a hundred miles away. What we had in common was that home farm, where I spent parts of several summers, and the Sunday and holiday dinners that my grandparents hosted, where the common language was pinochle.

I thought at the time that Myron was shy and untalkative — a tall young man with a big smile and a red face, clearly a part of the grown-up world. He ran the corn-sheller, after all, the most dangerous piece of machinery I had ever seen. But what does any 18-year-old have to say to an 11-year-old, especially when one has grown up farming and the other has grown up reading books?

I thought of this when I stood at the edge of a bean-field talking to Myron and his younger brothers a couple of years ago. We were talking about genetically modified crops — they were growing all around us. As the conversation came to an end, Myron invited me to come out for bean-picking one autumn and run the combine. He guessed how that would impress someone who is still, essentially, a town kid. And of course I wish I had taken him up on it.

But there’s something I wish even more. It turned out that Myron was not the least bit untalkative. The night we rounded up the steers I had already listened — more than happily — to an evening-long monologue of his that was about nothing but was also about all the kinships of land and family and commerce in the country around us. One name led to another, one place to another, in the present and the past. The real measure of how empty the countryside is depends on who is doing the telling. To hear Myron tell it, we were having cake and coffee in the midst of a richly peopled land. I have been looking forward to hearing the rest of the story ever since.

3. Slow food nation

By Alice Waters
The Nation
Posted on September 9, 2006

It turns out that Jean Anthèlme Brillat-Savarin was right in 1825 when he wrote in his magnum opus, The Physiology of Taste, that "the destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed." If you think this aphorism exaggerates the importance of food, consider that today almost 4 billion people worldwide depend on the agricultural sector for their livelihood. Food is destiny, all right; every decision we make about food has personal and global repercussions. By now it is generally conceded that the food we eat could actually be making us sick, but we still haven't acknowledged the full consequences -- environmental, political, cultural, social and ethical -- of our national diet.

These consequences include soil depletion, water and air pollution, the loss of family farms and rural communities, and even global warming. (Inconveniently, Al Gore's otherwise invaluable documentary An Inconvenient Truth has disappointingly little to say about how industrial food contributes to climate change.) When we pledge our dietary allegiance to a fast-food nation, there are also grave consequences to the health of our civil society and our national character. When we eat fast-food meals alone in our cars, we swallow the values and assumptions of the corporations that manufacture them. According to these values, eating is no more important than fueling up, and should be done quickly and anonymously. Since food will always be cheap, and resources abundant, it's OK to waste. Feedlot beef, french fries and Coke are actually good for you. It doesn't matter where food comes from, or how fresh it is, because standardized consistency is more important than diversified quality. Finally, hard work -- work that requires concentration, application and honesty, such as cooking for your family -- is seen as drudgery, of no commercial value and to be avoided at all costs. There are more important things to do.

It's no wonder our national attention span is so short: We get hammered with the message that everything in our lives should be fast, cheap and easy -- especially food. So conditioned are we to believe that food should be almost free that even the rich, who pay a tinier fraction of their incomes for food than has ever been paid before in human history, grumble at the price of an organic peach -- a peach grown for flavor and picked, perfectly ripe, by a local farmer who is taking care of the land and paying his workers a fair wage! And yet, as the writer and farmer David Mas Masumoto recently pointed out, pound for pound, peaches that good still cost less than Twinkies. When we claim that eating well is an elitist preoccupation, we create a smokescreen that obscures the fundamental role our food decisions have in shaping the world. The reason that eating well in this country costs more than eating poorly is that we have a set of agricultural policies that subsidize fast food and make fresh, wholesome foods, which receive no government support, seem expensive. Organic foods seem elitist only because industrial food is artificially cheap, with its real costs being charged to the public purse, the public health and the environment.

The contributors to this forum have been asked to name just one thing that could be done to fix the food system. What they propose are solutions that arise out of what I think of as "slow food values," which run counter to the assumptions of fast-food marketing. To me, these are the values of the family meal, which teaches us, among other things, that the pleasures of the table are a social as well as a private good. At the table we learn moderation, conversation, tolerance, generosity and conviviality; these are civic virtues. The pleasures of the table also beget responsibilities -- to one another, to the animals we eat, to the land and to the people who work it. It follows that food that is healthy in every way will cost us more, in time and money, than we pay now. But when we have learned what the real costs of food are, and relearned the real rewards of eating, we will have laid a foundation for not just a healthier food system but a healthier twenty-first-century democracy. -- Alice Waters

Michael Pollan

Every five years or so the President of the United States signs an obscure piece of legislation that determines what happens on a couple of hundred million acres of private land in America, what sort of food Americans eat (and how much it costs) and, as a result, the health of our population. In a nation consecrated to the idea of private property and free enterprise, you would not think any piece of legislation could have such far-reaching effects, especially one about which so few of us -- even the most politically aware -- know anything. But in fact the American food system is a game played according to a precise set of rules that are written by the federal government with virtually no input from anyone beyond a handful of farm-state legislators. Nothing could do more to reform America's food system -- and by doing so improve the condition of America's environment and public health -- than if the rest of us were suddenly to weigh in.

The farm bill determines what our kids eat for lunch in school every day. Right now, the school lunch program is designed not around the goal of children's health but to help dispose of surplus agricultural commodities, especially cheap feedlot beef and dairy products, both high in fat.

The farm bill writes the regulatory rules governing the production of meat in this country, determining whether the meat we eat comes from sprawling, brutal, polluting factory farms and the big four meatpackers (which control 80 percent of the market) or from local farms.

Most important, the farm bill determines what crops the government will support -- and in turn what kinds of foods will be plentiful and cheap. Today that means, by and large, corn and soybeans. These two crops are the building blocks of the fast-food nation: A McDonald's meal (and most of the processed food in your supermarket) consists of clever arrangements of corn and soybeans -- the corn providing the added sugars, the soy providing the added fat, and both providing the feed for the animals. These crop subsidies (which are designed to encourage overproduction rather than to help farmers by supporting prices) are the reason that the cheapest calories in an American supermarket are precisely the unhealthiest. An American shopping for food on a budget soon discovers that a dollar buys hundreds more calories in the snack food or soda aisle than it does in the produce section. Why? Because the farm bill supports the growing of corn but not the growing of fresh carrots. In the midst of a national epidemic of diabetes and obesity our government is, in effect, subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup.

This absurdity would not persist if more voters realized that the farm bill is not a parochial piece of legislation concerning only the interests of farmers. Today, because so few of us realize we have a dog in this fight, our legislators feel free to leave deliberations over the farm bill to the farm states, very often trading away their votes on agricultural policy for votes on issues that matter more to their constituents. But what could matter more than the health of our children and the health of our land?

Perhaps the problem begins with the fact that this legislation is commonly called "the farm bill" -- how many people these days even know a farmer or care about agriculture? Yet we all eat. So perhaps that's where we should start, now that the debate over the 2007 farm bill is about to be joined. This time around let's call it "the food bill" and put our legislators on notice that this is about us and we're paying attention.

Peter Singer

There is one very simple thing that everyone can do to fix the food system. Don't buy factory-farm products.

Once, the animals we raised went out and gathered things we could not or would not eat. Cows ate grass, chickens pecked at worms or seeds. Now the animals are brought together and we grow food for them. We use synthetic fertilizers and oil-powered tractors to grow corn or soybeans. Then we truck it to the animals so they can eat it.

When we feed grains and soybeans to animals, we lose most of their nutritional value. The animals use it to keep their bodies warm and to develop bones and other body parts that we cannot eat. Pig farms use six pounds of grain for every pound of boneless meat we get from them. For cattle in feedlots, the ratio is 13:1. Even for chickens, the least inefficient factory-farmed meat, the ratio is 3:1.

Most Americans think the best thing they could do to cut their personal contributions to global warming is to swap their family car for a fuel-efficient hybrid like the Toyota Prius. Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin of the University of Chicago have calculated that typical meat-eating Americans would reduce their emissions even more if they switched to a vegan diet. Factory farming is not sustainable. It is also the biggest system of cruelty to animals ever devised. In the United States alone, every year nearly 10 billion animals live out their entire lives confined indoors. Hens are jammed into wire cages, five or six of them in a space that would be too small for even one hen to be able to spread her wings. Twenty thousand chickens are raised in a single shed, completely covering its floor. Pregnant sows are kept in crates too narrow for them to turn around, and too small for them to walk a few steps. Veal calves are similarly confined, and deliberately kept anemic.

This is not an ethically defensible system of food production. But in the United States -- unlike in Europe -- the political process seems powerless to constrain it. The best way to fight back is to stop buying its products. Going vegetarian is a good option, and going vegan, better still. But if you continue to eat animal products, at least boycott factory farms.

Winona LaDuke

It's Manoominike Giizis, or the Wild Rice Making Moon, here on the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota. The sound of a canoe moving through the wild rice beds on the Crow Wing or Rice lakes, the sound of laughter, the smell of wood-parched wild rice and the sound of a traditional drum at the celebration for the wild rice harvest links a traditional Anishinaabeg or Ojibwe people to a thousand years of culture and the ecosystem of a lake in a new millennium. This cultural relationship to food -- manoomin, or wild rice -- represents an essential part of what we need to do to repair the food system: We need to recover relationship.

Wild rice is the only North American grain, and today the Ojibwe are in a pitched battle to keep it from getting genetically engineered and patented. A similar battle is under way in Hawaii between Native Hawaiians and the University of Hawaii, which recently agreed to tear up patents on taro, a food sacred to Native Hawaiians. At one point "agriculture" was about the culture of food. Losing that culture -- in favor of an American cultural monocrop, joined with an agricultural monocrop -- puts us in a perilous state, threatening sustainability and our relationship to the natural world.

In the Ojibwe struggle to "keep it wild," we have found ourselves in an international movement of Slow Food and food sovereignty activists and communities who are seeking the same -- the recovery or sustaining of relationship as a basic element of our humanity and as a critical strategy. In the Wild Rice Making Moon of the North Country, we will continue our traditions, and we will look across our lakes to the rice farmers of the rest of the world, to the taro farmers of the Pacific and to other communities working to protect their seeds for future generations, and we will know that this is how we insure that those generations will have what they need to be human, to be Anishinaabeg.

Vandana Shiva

Humanity has eaten more than 80,000 plant species through its evolution. More than 3,000 have been used consistently. However, we now rely on just eight crops to provide 75 percent of the world's food. With genetic engineering, production has narrowed to three crops: corn, soya, canola. Monocultures are destroying biodiversity, our health and the quality and diversity of food.

In 1998 India's indigenous edible oils made from mustard, coconut, sesame, linseed and groundnut processed in artisanal cold-press mills were banned, using "food safety" as an excuse. The restrictions on import of soya oil were simultaneously removed. Ten million farmers' livelihoods were threatened. One million oil mills in villages were closed. And millions of tons of artificially cheap GMO soya oil continue to be dumped on India. Women from the slums of Delhi came out in a movement to reject soya and bring back mustard oil. "Sarson bachao, soyabean bhagao" (save the mustard, drive away the soyabean) was the women's call from the streets of Delhi. We did succeed in bringing back mustard through our "sarson satyagraha" (non-cooperation with the ban on mustard oil).

I was recently in the Amazon, where the same companies that dumped soya on India -- Cargill and ADM -- are destroying the Amazon to grow soya. Millions of acres of the Amazon rainforest -- the lung, liver and heart of the global climate system -- are being burned to grow soya for export. Cargill has built an illegal port at Santarém in Brazil and is driving the expansion of soya in the Amazon rainforest. Armed gangs take over the forest and use slaves to cultivate soya. When people like Sister Dorothy Stang oppose the destruction of the forests and the violence against people, they are assassinated.

People in Brazil and India are being threatened to promote a monoculture that benefits agribusiness. A billion people are without food because industrial monocultures robbed them of their livelihoods in agriculture and their food entitlements. Another 1.7 billion are suffering from obesity and food-related diseases. Monocultures lead to malnutrition -- for those who are underfed as well as those who are overfed. In depending on monocultures, the food system is being made increasingly dependent on fossil fuels -- for synthetic fertilizers, for running giant machinery and for long-distance transport, which adds "food miles."

Moving beyond monocultures has become an imperative for repairing the food system. Biodiverse small farms have higher productivity and generate higher incomes for farmers. And biodiverse diets provide more nutrition and better taste. Bringing back biodiversity to our farms goes hand in hand with bringing back small farmers on the land. Corporate control thrives on monocultures. Citizens' food freedom depends on biodiversity.

Jim Hightower

In the very short span of about fifty years, we've allowed our politicians to do something remarkably stupid: turn America's food-policy decisions over to corporate lobbyists, lawyers and economists. These are people who could not run a watermelon stand if we gave them the melons and had the Highway Patrol flag down the customers for them -- yet, they have taken charge of the decisions that direct everything from how and where food is grown to what our children eat in school.

As a result, America's food system (and much of the world's) has been industrialized, conglomeratized and globalized. This is food we're talking about, not widgets! Food, by its very nature, is meant to be agrarian, small-scale and local.

But the Powers That Be have turned the production of our edibles away from the high art of cooperating with nature into a high-cost system of always trying to overwhelm nature. They actually torture food -- applying massive doses of pesticides, sex hormones, antibiotics, genetically manipulated organisms, artificial flavorings and color, chemical preservatives, ripening gas, irradiation...and so awfully much more. The attitude of agribusiness is that if brute force isn't working, you're probably just not using enough of it.

More fundamentally, these short-cut con artists have perverted the very concept of food. Rather than being both a process and product that nurtures us (in body and spirit) and nurtures our communities, food is approached by agribusiness as just another commodity that has no higher purpose than to fatten corporate profits.

There's our challenge. It's not a particular policy or agency that must be changed but the most basic attitude of policy-makers. And the only way we're going to get that done is for you and me to become the policy-makers, taking charge of every aspect of our food system -- from farm to fork.

The good news is that this "good food" movement is already well under way and gaining strength every day. It receives little media coverage, but consumers in practically every city, town and neighborhood across America are reconnecting with local farmers and artisans to de-industrialize, de-conglomeratize, de-globalize -- de-Wal-Martize -- their food systems.

Of course, the Powers That Be sneer at these efforts, saying they can't succeed. But, as a friend of mine who is one of the successful pioneers in this burgeoning movement puts it: "Those who say it can't be done should not interrupt those who are doing it."

Look around wherever you are and you'll find local farmers, consumers, chefs, marketers, gardeners, environmentalists, workers, churches, co-ops, community organizers and just plain folks who are doing it. These are the Powers That Ought to Be -- and I think they will be. Join them!

Alice Waters is the founder of Chez Panisse Restaurant and director of the Chez Panisse Foundation in Berkeley, California.

4. Redesigning crops to harvest fuel

NY Times
September 8, 2006

More miles to the bushel.

That is the new mission of crop scientists. In an era of $3-a-gallon gasoline and growing concern about global warming from fossil fuels, seed and biotechnology companies see a big new opportunity in developing corn and other crops tailored for use in ethanol and other biofuels.

Syngenta, for instance, hopes in 2008 to begin selling a genetically engineered corn designed to help convert itself into ethanol. Each kernel of this self-processing corn contains an enzyme that must otherwise be added separately at the ethanol factory.

Just last week, DuPont and Bunge announced that their existing joint venture to improve soybeans for food would also start designing beans for biodiesel fuel and other industrial uses.

And Ceres, a plant genetics company in California, is at work on turning switch grass, a Prairie States native, into an energy crop.

“You could turn Oklahoma into an OPEC member by converting all its farmland to switch grass,” said Richard W. Hamilton, the Ceres chief executive.

Developing energy crops could mean new applications of genetic engineering, which for years has been aimed at making plants resistant to insects and herbicides, but would now include altering their fundamental structure. One goal, for example, is to reduce the amount of lignin, a substance that gives plants the stiffness to stand upright but interferes with turning a plant’s cellulose into ethanol.

Such prospects are starting to alarm some environmentalists, who worry that altered plants will cross-pollinate in the wild, resulting in forests that practically droop for want of lignin. And some oppose the notion of altering corn to feed the nation’s addiction to automobiles.

“I don’t think people want extra enzymes in the food supply put there to better fit the crops for energy production,” said Margaret Mellon, director of the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

But proponents of designer fuel crops argue that the risks are small compared with the threat of dependence on foreign oil. Some studies also suggest that ethanol use could help fight global warming because the crops that help produce ethanol absorb carbon dioxide.

So far, much of the attention on bioenergy has focused on improving the chemical processes for turning crops into ethanol. But experts say that if biofuels are to make a significant dent in the nation’s petroleum consumption, the crops themselves must be improved to provide more energy from an acre.

And new agricultural sources beyond corn must be developed, they say. Even if the nation’s entire corn crop were converted to ethanol production, it would replace only about 15 percent of petroleum use, according to an Energy Department report.

“Half the improvement we make over the next 10 to 15 years will come from improving the feedstocks,” said Gerald A. Tuskan, a biofuel expert in the department, referring to the crops fed into the ethanol factories.

Some of the work will not necessarily involve genetic engineering. Notably, Monsanto, the leader by far in crop biotechnology, says that its biofuel development will focus on conventional breeding, which it says is quicker.

Monsanto has tested its existing corn varieties to determine which ones are better for ethanol production. Pioneer Hi-Bred International, the DuPont subsidiary that is Monsanto’s rival in the corn-seed business, is doing the same.

The companies say that the designated varieties, which have higher fermentable starch content, can increase ethanol production 2 to 5 percent over other corn. And some factories are starting to request certain types of corn or to pay a premium for more desirable corn, said Pradip Das, head of crop analytics at Monsanto.

Still, some ethanol factory operators say they do not really care which corn they get. The factories are so hungry that they take “pretty much all the commercial corn you can get your hands on,” said David Nelson, chairman of Midwest Grain Processors, which runs an ethanol plant in Lakota, Iowa.

William S. Niebur, vice president for crop genetics research and development at DuPont, said the demands of ethanol production would require extremely hardy corn.

“The demand for this corn grain could be so dramatic,” he said, “that it would change farming practices.” Instead of rotating corn with other crops, he said, farmers would be pressed to grow corn year after year, which could strain the soil and allow the buildup of insects and disease.

Many of the traits needed for energy corn — high yield as well as tolerance to disease, insects and drought — would also be desirable in corn used for human and animal food. That is not the case, though, with Syngenta’s enzyme corn, which would be specifically for energy production.

Generally, the enzyme, known as amylase, is made in vats of bacteria. Ethanol manufacturers add the enzyme to corn to break down starch into sugar, which can be fermented into ethanol.

To get corn to produce its own amylase, Syngenta inserted a gene borrowed from a type of microbe called archaea that live near hot-water vents on the floor of the ocean.

The gene — actually a composite of three amylase genes — was developed with the help of Diversa, a San Diego company that specializes in finding chemicals in organisms that inhabit extreme environments.

Diversa says that because its enzyme is derived from a heat-loving microbe, ethanol factories can operate at higher temperatures and under more acidic conditions, improving efficiency.

Some people in the biofuel industry question what the advantage is of having the enzyme in the corn rather than just buying the very similar amylase that Diversa is already selling.

While Syngenta’s corn is meant for industrial use in the United States, it is almost inevitable that some of it will get into human and animal food supplies, including exports, because of cross-pollination or seed intermingling. That is what happened in 2000 with Aventis CropScience’s StarLink corn, which was approved only for animal use, yet ended up in human food, forcing recalls and disrupting exports.

To prevent such liability, Syngenta is seeking approval of the corn for human and animal food use, not only in the United States but in Europe, South Africa and elsewhere. Syngenta says the amylase enzyme is safe, noting that these enzymes are found in saliva.

But Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group in Washington opposed to biotechnology crops, said that this particular amylase is from a little-studied exotic microbe and that some amylase induces allergy.

The Agriculture Department has asked Syngenta for more information on its application.

Regardless of what is done to corn, some experts say that starch alone will not provide enough ethanol. The new frontier is to produce ethanol from cellulose, the fibrous material in all plants. Cellulose is made of complex carbohydrates that can be broken down by enzymes into simpler sugars for fermenting into ethanol.

While some of the cellulose for biofuels could come from agricultural residue like corn stalks, there will probably be a need for other crops grown specifically for energy production — in particular, perennial plants like grasses that require far less energy-consuming irrigation and fertilization than crops like corn that have to be replanted each year.

That is why Ceres, a privately owned supplier of genetics technology to Monsanto, sees a future in switch grass. The company’s greenhouses are filled with versions of tall, gangly grass plants, some developed by conventional breeding and some by genetic engineering.

The grasses are meant to have higher yields, to withstand drought or to break down easily in the ethanol factory — “the energy crop that melts in your mouth, if you will,” Mr. Hamilton said.

Ceres, based in Thousand Oaks, Calif., is not working with Monsanto on switch grass but is collaborating with the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., a leading research institute on forage grasses. Mr. Hamilton said the partners were already testing conventionally bred switch grass varieties that yield eight or nine tons of biomass an acre, compared with about five tons for typical switch grass.

Mendel Biotechnology, based in Hayward, Calif., is looking more at miscanthus, a perennial grass native to China, where Mendel has set up an operation.

The company said miscanthus could produce well over 20 tons an acre each year. “No planting, no fertilizing, no irrigation,” said its chief executive, Chris Somerville, who is also the director of plant biology at the Carnegie Institution and a Stanford University professor. “You can just cut it every year for 10 years.”

Another cellulose candidate is poplar, which recently became the first tree to have its entire genome sequenced, an effort led by the Energy Department.

At first, significantly higher-yielding cellulose sources can come from conventional breeding, experts say. But later, genetic engineering may be needed. That could raise concerns because trees and grasses live longer and spread more easily than currently engineered crops like corn and soybeans.

And yet, energy crops may also be an opportunity for the industry to burnish its public image.

“After all,” the journal Nature Biotechnology said in a recent editorial, “it’s difficult to oppose a technology that’s helping to save the planet.”

5. Cornucopia: USDA undermines organic law

August 23, 2006
Contact: Amy Kenyon, 607-643-1724
Mark Kastel, 608-625-2042

CORNUCOPIA: Organic livestock farmers may soon have access to additional medicines to treat their animals for common ailments. The USDA’s National Organic Program has proposed rule changes to add thirteen new materials to the “National List” of approved substances for organic producers and is accepting public comments through September 15th.

The Cornucopia Institute, one of the nation’s most aggressive organic watchdogs, applauded the USDA’s move to allow organic farmers use of additional benign substances for treating illness in animals. “However, we cannot help but point out the unacceptable lag time between when the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommended products be approved and when the USDA decided to take up the issue,” says Amy Kenyon, Farm Policy Analyst at Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute. “Even more disturbing than the USDA sitting on the recommendations from their expert Advisory panel for as many as six years is the fact that they have completely disregarded some of the panel’s requests for restrictive measures on some of the more potent medications. The USDA also rejected the panel’s recommendations to approve the use of simple, everyday, over-the-counter substances such as mineral oil.”

The Cornucopia Institute submitted comments to the USDA’s National Organic Program, and is distributing information and analysis about the proposed rule changes to organic farmers, consumers and public interest groups around the country.

The proposed draft rule would amend the National List (of approved substances in organic food and farming) to reflect some of the recommendations submitted to the Secretary of Agriculture by the National Organic Standards Board from November 15, 2000, through March 3, 2005. The NOSB recommended substances such as bismuth subsalicylate (available to humans as the major ingredient in Pepto-Bismol®), magnesium hydroxide (a naturally occurring mineral that is used as an antacid), and butorphanol, a strong painkiller. According to Jim Riddle, immediate past chairman of the NOSB who worked to get approval for these substances, “These are not materials (ingredients) that would be added to organic meat. These are health care materials, used only when needed to prevent suffering and for documented health care necessity.”

The NOSB made recommendations that some of these materials be added to the National List of approved substances as long ago as the year 2000. “These are inputs that meet the evaluation criteria of the Organic Foods Production Act, the federal law governing organic food, and are important tools for organic farmers who seek to remain economically viable and also treat their animals with the highest standard of care, " Kenyon added. “Benign remedies for common ailments are necessary tools for any farmer, and the USDA’s years of foot-dragging on these recommendations have cost organic farmers and disrespected the NOSB’s hard work to research and recommend appropriate substances for approval.”

Although demand for organic meat and milk continues to outstrip supply, it has been documented that some conscientious small farmers have decided not to become certified organic dairy farms because they feel that they would not have access to enough important health care materials to treat their animals humanely in the event of illness, while still meeting organic criteria.

The Cornucopia Institute and consumer advocates are also criticizing the USDA’s disregard for additional safety protocols recommended by the NOSB, including increasing withdrawal times and limiting the use of several of the more potent drugs, by claiming the USDA cannot create standards more restrictive than the FDA’s. The agency argues the additional protocols would “create additional label claims.”

While the USDA cannot make a policy less restrictive than the FDA (for instance allowing a drug expressly prohibited in livestock by the FDA), they can hold organic farmers to a higher standard than what the FDA requires of conventional farmers. “Isn’t that the whole reason for the Organic Foods Production Act?” says Kenyon. “Organic certification is certainly an additional label claim that the USDA has created. The USDA should follow the recommendations to allow these materials but require the additional recommended safety standards.”

“The National List already includes three substances for livestock use, lidocaine, procaine, and ivermectin, with withdrawal times for organic use that exceed FDA requirements for conventional use,” stated Riddle. “When the NOP removes restrictions recommended by the NOSB, they are attempting to add uses not approved by the Board. This does not comply with the Organic Foods Production Act, which states that the USDA can only add substances and uses recommended by the Board.”

Adding to the controversy, the USDA has declined to approve six everyday, common remedies that the NOSB petitioned to have added to the list of approved substances. The USDA rationalized rejecting these substances, even though the FDA does not currently regulate their usage, considering them to be so harmless and common that they are of “low regulatory priority.”

The Cornucopia Institute called on the USDA to reconsider this rejection. “While these are not materials specifically approved by the FDA for use in animals, they are widely available over the counter and are widely used by both humans and on conventional livestock farms,” explained Kenyon.

“The USDA is caught in a regulatory paradox with these common substances that are considered unapproved drugs by FDA,” said Emily Brown Rosen, an organic consultant based in New Jersey. “On the one hand, organic farmers can only use substances specifically included in the National List. On the other, FDA allows these products to be used without official sanction as animal drugs but does not want them publicly listed as such. There needs to be further discussion between the USDA, NOSB, and FDA to come up with a practical solution.”

Comments are being accepted by the USDA on the proposed rule changes until September 15, 2006. Interested parties can visit the Cornucopia Institute web site, www.cornucopia.org, for full instructions on how to reply, including a sample letter and other background materials.

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The Cornucopia Institute is dedicated to the fight for economic justice for the family-scale farming community. Through research, advocacy and economic development our goal is to empower farmers both politically and through marketplace initiatives. The Organic Integrity Project acts as a corporate watchdog assuring that no compromises to the credibility of organic farming methods and the food it produces are made in the pursuit of profit.


An example of the recommendations that the USDA disregarded is for the drug poloxalene, a treatment for bloat in cattle. The National Organic Standards Board recommended that this drug be approved for use by organic farmers, but only for bloat, in emergency situations. The Secretary of Agriculture agreed to approve it, but not to restrict its usage, allowing it to be used routinely. When the drug was recommended for approval, it was not intended that it would be used as a “routine preventative drug.”

The NOSB recommendations would have required other drugs to double the FDA required withholding period as an additional safety buffer, after administering drugs, before a farmer can sell milk or meat from an animal. All such additional safeguards were rejected when the USDA promulgated the draft rule presently being considered.

Common materials, viewed as a benign, that the National Organic Standards Board recommended for approval and the USDA rejected include activated charcoal, calcium borogluconate, calcium propionate, kaolin pectin, mineral oil, and propylene glycol.

6. When we finally take the off ramp

By Jim Scharplaz
Prairie Writers Circle

When I was small, my family lived in a little community not far from where I live now. Often I drive the two-lane blacktop through the remains of that town. Past the cemetery where my parents lie, past the school where I began first grade (now a private home), past the site of the township hall where we schoolchildren recited poems and performed skits for the Community Club, then over the abandoned railroad and across the creek.

My journey is peopled with memories. But only memories, for now I don’t meet anyone on the road, nor do I see anyone in the fields or farmyards I pass.

When I reach the small farm where my aunt and uncle lived, all that changes. An interstate highway cuts across what was once their land. And on it the traffic is ceaseless. One side is a torrent of cars and trucks rushing west, the other an equal torrent rushing east. The contrast with the deserted road on which I travel is jarring.

When the freeway was built, residents of our village and others believed that it would bring commerce. Gas stations and restaurants sprang up at every interchange.

They soon failed. People got on the freeway, but none left it. Those interchanges could have been built with no off ramps.

But perhaps they will be used someday. As world population and demand outstrip fossil fuel supply, our present industrial farming practices will no longer be possible. No alternative fuel has the qualities -- portability and energy returned for energy invested in production -- that make fossil fuel the lynchpin of industrial agriculture.

Thanks to cheap fossil fuels, farmers today can treat every acre pretty much the same. Diesel powered machinery can till any soil type. Fertilizer produced using natural gas compensates for variations in natural fertility. Pesticides manufactured from petroleum kill weeds and insects for the whole growing season.

Very few farmers are needed to manage this industrial process. And consumers can live far from the field, as trucks transport the average bite of food 1,600 miles from farm gate to dinner plate.

Good crop yields can be achieved without fossil fuel, but much more care is required. Every farm, every field, every acre requires individual attention, with careful consideration given to just the right crop for the land, and the best cultural practices for the crop. Operations must be carefully timed to control weeds and pests, and years-long crop rotations must be planned to assure fertility. It will take many more farmers on the land to supply the necessary knowledge, care and craftsmanship.

If you are in one of the cars rushing by on the freeway, your efforts are just as important as mine as a farmer to develop post-fossil fuel agriculture. Part of the solution is political. To a large extent, the present rural landscape in much of America is the result of federal policy that subsidizes massive production of just a few, easily industrialized crops -- corn, soybeans, wheat. This policy has caused the loss of soil, biodiversity, localized food markets and farmers, resulting in a fragile system dependent on increasingly tight and insecure supplies of petroleum.

Agricultural subsidies must be unhooked from production and tied to good farming practices. This will preserve the soil we all depend on to eat, and make our food supply less dependent on oil. Even if you live in a city, your legislator votes on farm legislation just as mine does, and your taxes pay the subsidies. Let your legislator know what you want.

On a personal level, you can seek out craftsman farmers and support them by buying and eating what they grow. These farmers have the know-how we will need more of. Live too far from the farm? Try farmers’ markets and food co-ops. Yes, it’s more work. Post-fossil fuel consuming will require more care and effort, just as post-fossil fuel farming will.

Better still, use that off ramp. Wherever you are going, remember that someone in the oncoming lanes is rushing away from there. It's probably not that great a place. Exit now.


Jim Scharplaz raises cattle in Ottawa County, Kan., and is on the board of the Kansas Rural Center. He wrote this essay for the Land Institute's Prairie Writers Circle, Salina, Kan.

7. Canadians spend little on food but complain loudly

by Paul Beingessner
Canadian farmer, writer

There has been a spate of opinion columns in some of Canada's major newspapers criticizing the subsidies given to Canadian farmers. One theme these writers keep coming back to is the notion that if supply management for poultry and dairy producers was eliminated, Canadian consumers would have cheaper food. The Consumers Association of Canada is also a great proponent of this notion. The Canadian public would no doubt react favorably.

Jeffrey Simpson of the Globe and Mail defended the idea of dumping supply management by proclaiming that the end of tariffs protecting these sectors didn't kill producers in Australia and New Zealand. The implication is that Canadian farmers too could survive. In an unprotected environment they would have to become more efficient to compete with imports of these foods. These fat, pampered farmers could just tighten their belts.

For all the outcry urban reporters have been making, you'd think Canadians were being driven to the brink by food costs. The truth is dramatically otherwise. Canadians have enjoyed rising incomes in recent year, with personal, disposable income (PDI) now increasing after stagnating during the late 1990s. However, Canadians have had to spend less and less of that income on food. In 1974 the share of PDI spend on food was 13.6 percent and in 1983 it was 10.9 percent. By 2000, the figure had dropped to about 9 percent. This represents over 30 billion dollars less spent on food by Canadians than they would have at 1974 levels.

But the facts are even more startling. The percentage of the food budget spent on meals in restaurants and for take-out food has also risen in this time period. Meals and snacks eaten away from home now account for one-third of food expenditures. In the 1970s, they were about one-quarter. Despite the increase in spending on restaurant meals, which are far more expensive than home prepared food, total food expenditures have fallen. If people ate as many meals at home as they did 30 years ago, the percent of PDI spent on food would be even smaller. And for the wealthiest 20 percent of Canadians, a bracket that might include national columnists for leading newspapers, they spend only 8 percent of their PDI on food, though no doubt it's a better class of food.

The Montreal Gazette disputed the notion that Canadians spend little on food. Editorial writers there argued that if you include subsidies to farmers, Canadians spend a great deal on food. The Gazette was especially angry at the federal government's new short-term program to assist low-income farmers. It mocked these "small" operations as remnants of a past era.

The writer, likely more from ignorance than malevolence, ignored the fact that subsidies to farmers are really subsidies to a broad spectrum of the economy from local input suppliers and retailers to consumers themselves. Without support, farmers would simply produce less food. The proof is in the difficulty in finding renters for farmland in many parts of the prairies and the increasing amount of abandoned land. Decreasing food production would drive input suppliers to downsize or to go out of business. Food costs would, at some point, increase. To think otherwise is to defy both economics and common sense.

But for now, the fact remains that Canadians enjoy cheap food. This is true of most developed countries, but Canadians enjoy about the cheapest in the world, except for Americans. Even developed nations that spend more on food do so only marginally. Citizens of Germany, Italy, Australia spend more, but still only 15 percent of PDI.

By contrast, consumers in Mexico spend nearly a quarter of their income on food, while those in India and the Philippines spend half. In China, the figure is nearly 53 percent, and in many African countries, 80 percent of income goes to food.

On a recent trip to cottage country (no, I don't own one) I marveled at the increase in the standard of living of Canadians since my boyhood. We have gone from one car per household to one car per person, from a TV set in every home to one in every room, from a rake to a leaf blower, from a small house for a large family to a large house for a small family. Life may not be more fulfilling but it sure is more filled.

An important part of the increase in disposable income Canadians enjoy is due to the fact that food costs have not kept pace either with inflation or with increases in income. Canadian luxury is built in part on the exploitation of farmers. It is sad that the ill-informed and perhaps ill-willed editorial writers should wish farmers to be even worse off.

(c) Paul Beingessner (306) 868-4734 phone 868-2009 fax beingessner@sasktel.net