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Why What's For Dinner May Be About to Change

From a White House garden to rule changes at factory farms, the era of industrial ag calling the shots is changing.
 
 
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Industrial Agriculture is sooo 20th century. As America moves forward with a new agenda of change, our food system is getting a green, healthy makeover that promises to leave thousands of food and farm advocates with nothing to do.

For decades, foodies, animal welfare advocates, labor and environmentalists have joined together in an effort to educate their peers and affect policy change with the broad goal of improving the way our food is grown, processed, distributed and eaten. They've snuck into animal factories with hidden cameras, staged protests in Washington and boycotted fast food establishments. They've shopped at farmers markets and planted seeds in community gardens. They've formed a massive and remarkably powerful food and farm movement, and in general, they've kept quite busy reaching for a goal that until recently seemed completely futile and utterly out of reach.

But soon these dedicated food fighters may find themselves with little to do but sit down and eat.

First, it was just announced that the Obama's are putting in their very own vegetable garden on the White House lawn. This is something that the food movement has been dreaming of since day one, and not one but two separate organizations -- Eat the View and the White House Organic Farm Project -- have been tirelessly promoting for years. Since this week's announcement that the garden is actually in the works, it's hard to imagine what these groups are going to do to keep busy -- maybe they could work on getting Jimmy Carter's solar panels back on the White House roof.

In other exciting news, on March 14th something kind of crazy happened: the USDA banned the slaughter of downer cows. For years, the downer cow has been a compelling symbol of the extreme cruelty and unbridled mechanization that characterizes modern animal farms and slaughterhouses. The web is strewn with videos of nearly-dead, non-ambulatory cattle being dragged, forklifted and shoved through the gates of muddy abattoirs to be slaughtered, butchered and injected into the food supply.

The heart-wrenching and stomach-turning images of downer cows have been an effective tool in converting ignorantly blissful burger addicts into soldiers for PETA, Sierra Club and Slow Food, and eliminating these sad creatures from our food system is a fairly small but truly meaningful step forward.

So the USDA up and banned them. (Wait, they can do that? If the USDA could do that all along, why didn't this pass decades ago?)

Environmentalists, who for years have fought tooth and nail against an EPA and USDA whose powers were seemingly limited to pandering to corporate evil-doers, are now pleasantly surprised and perhaps even a little shocked to see that these institutions can actually fulfill their mandates of promoting public health and environmental sustainability.

Eco-leaders like NRDC President Francis Beinecke are publishing lists of all the advances that the new administration has already made with regards to environmental policy, and noting how good it feels to have people in Washington who are actually on their side.

And although most within the food movement growled in frustration when Obama appointed former Iowa Governor and biotech industry insider Tom Vilsack to head the USDA, many are starting to warm up to him. Vilsack has adopted the rhetoric of the new administration with unhesitating fluency, and in his speeches has talked about things like child nutrition, fruits and vegetables, local and regional food distribution and small farms.

Revolutionary? No. But you would have had to be on psychedelics to hear those kinds of things come forth from the mouths of any of G. W. Bush's three USDA chiefs. Perhaps the best move that Obama's USDA has made to earn the trust of the food movement was appointing Kathleen Merrigan as his deputy.

Merrigan has been a prominent and reputable expert in the food, agriculture and nutrition world and is a champion for the food movement. When her appointment was announced back in February, the online environmental community let out a collective cheer, and it is rumored that agribusiness leaders shared a disappointed sigh as they met in their secret bunker located sixteen stories below a large Atrazine factory somewhere in the Midwest (although we'll never know for sure).

The USDA has recently sent out press releases promoting child nutrition, their "People's Garden," (which is really just a plot of grass outside their office building but promises to be a veggie garden at some point), and an overview of the 2007 agriculture census emphasizing and celebrating the growth of small farms.

The Department has also committed to research that will help farmers reduce their dependency on fossil fuels, and just instituted a "COOL" labeling law that requires that all unprocessed foods be labeled with the name of their country of origin -- a first step towards more comprehensive food labels and a better informed population of eaters.

And it doesn't stop with the USDA -- even the EPA has been caught doing its job recently. In Maryland, the Agency has just begun enforcing a six year-old law requiring Chicken CAFOs ("CAFO" refers to very large livestock operations) to get manure permits as part of its effort to protect the notoriously polluted Chesapeake Bay watershed. Manure from massive animal factories has only just become a priority for the EPA, even though scientists, environmentalists and rural communities have been reporting on the adverse ecological and health effects of this waste for decades.

This month the EPA announced it will sever agreements with dairy and beef CAFOs that have kept the agency from regulating how they deal with their waste, and the Agency also plans to begin requiring large animal farms to monitor and report on the greenhouse gases emitted from their manure ponds.

Even the FDA is getting geared up for the overhaul that advocates have been requesting for far too long, and food advocates expect great things from the Agency's new head, Margaret Hamburg, who has a reputation for putting science and human health before politics. As a whole, the Federal Government is taking on food and agriculture as a central component of our failing health system.

Obama's 2010 federal budget reflect this, and sets aside a $1 billion annual increase for improving child nutrition in order to meet the President's goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. Notably, the budget also includes language that -- according to the Administration -- "reflects the President's commitment to supporting independent producers... and investing in the full diversity of agricultural production, including organic farming and local food systems."

The budget also increases funding for the National Organic Program, and removes direct payment subsidies for farms that pull in over $500,000 in revenue per year. This reduction in subsidies represents an important shift away from a commodities-based agriculture system where certain crops (namely corn and soy) permeate our food supply and serve as the primary ingredient in everything we eat, from processed snack foods to meat and cheese.

As the Administration cuts back on these subsidies and promotes fruits and vegetables (which have thus far been referred to as "specialty crops"), the country is positioned to inherit the kind of healthy food supply that has been out of reach since the Second World War.

Now, as promising as all this news is, our food system still has a long way to go and the era of the factory farm has certainly not come to its much-anticipated end. Our country is still getting 75 percent of its food from a mere five percent of farms, and organic and local foods continue to represent a relatively minute portion of the average American diet.

Obesity is rampant, herbicides and fertilizers continue to poison streams and rivers throughout the nation, and even though downer cows are no longer legal, most of the animals we eat live and die under appallingly inhumane conditions. Right now the food movement is teetering on the cusp between an era of powerlessness and rage and a future of health, justice and balance. When the day comes that our food is properly produced, regulated and distributed, food fighters will have to find something new to do. Perhaps they'll pick a new cause to fight for, or maybe they'll all just become chefs and farmers. In any case they should start brainstorming, because for the first time in a generation, it actually feels like that day might come.
 

Gwen Schantz is a freelance writer and environmental consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. Her background is in sustainable food and agriculture, water conservation and international sustainable development, and she has lived and worked in West Africa and Southeast Asia. Gwen has a Bachelors Degree in International Studies from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY.