Switching subsidies

The president's budget hints at a coming battle over one kind of ag subsidy

When President Barack Obama said during his recent address to Congress that "in this budget, we will... end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them," he set off a firestorm of speculation. Now that the budget outline has been published, we finally have an understanding of what he meant. Yes, as we suspected, he was indeed referring to a specific subsidy program called "direct payments." Jill Richardson explains: Direct payments are a result of the 1996 farm bill. Prior to that, subsidies were given based on need. If you couldn't sell your crops at a price the government thought was fair, you got a subsidy to make up the difference...If you own land where commodities were grown (by you or someone else) in the past, you get a direct payment whether you grow anything or not. You could do nothing, potentially, and still receive a direct payment. Does that sound stupid? I think so too. Your direct payment is calculated on your "base acres." They keep a running average of how much you grew on your land (or how much somebody grew on your land if it wasn't you), and that yield determines how much you get in government cash. During the past farm bill debate, grain prices were high and farmers were doing well, but the direct payments kept flowing in. Meanwhile, the budget language looks like this [PDF]: As part of an effort to transition large farms from direct payments provided to owners of base acres to increased income from revenue derived from emerging markets for environmental services, the President's Budget phases out direct payments over three years to farmers with sales revenue of more than $500,000 annually... Large farmers are well positioned to replace those payments with alternate sources of income from emerging markets for environmental services, such as carbon sequestration, renewable energy production, and providing clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat.

Lunchroom brawl!

For the first time in decades, a healthy school-lunch debate opens

First it was the 2008 (nee 2007) Farm Bill. Then it was Obama’s choices for the top USDA posts. Now it’s the National School Lunch Program. Food issues once lived at the margins of U.S. …

After the green economy, green security

How to build resilient communities in a chaotic world

This is a guest essay by Chip Ward, a former grassroots organizer/activist who has led several successful campaigns to hold polluters accountable. He described his political adventures in Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land. This post was originally published at TomDispatch, and it is republished here with Tom's kind permission. ----- Now that we've decided to "green" the economy, why not green homeland security, too? I'm not talking about interrogators questioning suspects under the glow of compact fluorescent light bulbs, or cops wearing recycled Kevlar recharging their Tasers via solar panels. What I mean is: Shouldn't we finally start rethinking the very notion of homeland security on a sinking planet? Now that Dennis Blair, the new Director of National Intelligence, claims that global insecurity is more of a danger to us than terrorism, isn't it time to release the idea of "security" from its top-down, business-as-usual, terrorism-oriented shackles? Isn't it, in fact, time for the Obama administration to begin building security we can believe in; that is, a bottom-up movement that will start us down the road to the kind of resilient American communities that could effectively recover from the disasters -- manmade or natural (if there's still a difference) -- that will surely characterize this emerging age of financial and climate chaos? In the long run, if we don't start pursuing security that actually focuses on the foremost challenges of our moment, that emphasizes recovery rather than what passes for "defense," that builds communities rather than just more SWAT teams, we're in trouble. Today, "homeland security" and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), that unwieldy amalgam of 13 agencies created by the Bush administration in 2002, continue to express the potent, all-encompassing fears and assumptions of our last president's Global War on Terror. Foreign enemies may indeed be plotting to attack us, but, believe it or not (and increasing numbers of people, watching their homes, money, and jobs melt away are coming to believe it), that's probably neither the worst, nor the most dangerous thing in store for us.

Pasta goes green!

A new low-carbon (if not low-carb) way to cook the Italian staple

When it comes to Italian cooking, I'm very Church of Marcella Hazan, orthodox sect. What the exacting doyenne of Italian food tells me to do in her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, I do. No questions asked. In her celebrated chapter on pasta -- which I revere like Christians revere the Gospels -- Hazan had this to say about the role of water: Pasta needs lots of water to move around in, or it becomes gummy. Four quarts of water are required for a pound of pasta. Never use less than three quarts, even for a small amount of pasta. She also laid down the law on salt in pasta cookery. For every pound of pasta, put in no less than 1 1/2 tablespoons of salt... Add the salt when the water comes to a boil. For about 15 years, through literally hundreds of pounds of pasta (I conservatively estimate 650 pounds), I followed these instructions. The great results I got were like worldly riches to a Calvinist -- proof that I had chosen the right path. Now everything has changed. Reality has been overturned. In a recent New York Times article, the eminent food-science writer Harold McGee issued a decree tantamount to a papal renunciation of the Immaculate Conception. Turns out, you don't need "lots of water" for pasta -- two quarts will do. As for salt, two teaspoons is enough. (Although, in terms of salt-per-water, McGee's suggestion is only a little less than Hazan's.) Moreover -- this is the part that really sent a cold chill of apostasy down my spine -- you can put the pasta in the water before it boils; while it's cold, in fact. For the non-food-obsessed, there is a green angle here.

Organic chemistry

Why isn’t ‘organic pesticide’ an oxymoron?

In Checkout Line, Lou Bendrick cooks up answers to reader questions about how to green their food choices and other diet-related quandaries. Lettuce know what food worries keep you up at night. Ms. Bendrick, I …

Where the Wild Greens Are

When the season’s first edible weeds poke through, it’s time for gumbo z’herbes

You can’t beat them, you might as well eat them. Here in central North Carolina, the harbingers of spring have arrived. No, not daffodils. I’m talking about my favorite wild greens: pepper cress and dandelions. …

Sustainable second in command

Kathleen Merrigan is a progressive's dream pick for the USDA

I guess this whole "activism" thing sometimes works. To have Kathleen Merrigan, one of Food Democracy Now's Sustainable Dozen, named deputy secretary of agriculture is, as Tom Philpott suggests, a huge win for progressives. Say what you will about the USDA Organic program, but Merrigan, as its author and later its enforcer, has been without question battle-tested. In his post, Tom linked to Samuel Fromartz's perspective on Merrigan from back in November. But it's worth digging in to the comments as well. There you'll find none other than Frank Kirschenmann (another Sustainable Dozener about whom I've written) giving Merrigan his hearty endorsement. Further down is evidence in the form of a WaPo profile from 2000 (now behind a firewall) that Merrigan didn't shy away from battles. I was particularly struck by her conflicts with the various agricultural advisory committees -- a bunch of guys who clearly lacked both social graces as well as a sense of humor: After Merrigan was appointed in June, she immediately launched a controversial crusade to diversify those white-male-dominated advisory committees, forcing them to establish outreach plans to recruit women, minorities and disabled people. In many cases, she refused to forward their nomination slates to Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman until she was satisfied with their commitment to diversity. After she blocked nominations to the Florida Tomato Committee, complaining that it hadn't made a "significant effort" to attract women and minorities, the Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, lampooned her in an article titled "Attack of the Tomato Killers." The Packer, an agricultural publication, described her crusade as "Beltway Blindness." In a nasty letter to Glickman, committee manager Wayne Hawkins said he was resigning and going into business: "I plan to find a female Afro-American who is confined to a wheelchair to be my partner. This way I will meet all of the government diversification requirements."

Notable Quotable

Let's mend, not end, ag subsidies

"It's a dead end to try and eliminate subsidies, because then you get all of America's farmers, who have political power out of all proportion of their number, unified against change. Right now the incentives are to produce as much as possible, whatever the costs to the environment and our health. But you can imagine another set of assumptions, so that they're getting incentives to sequester carbon. Or clean the water that leaves their farm, or for the quality, not the quantity, of the food they're growing." -- Michael Pollan, reflecting a growing consensus

Brewer's Dozen

In our latest tasting, organic beer comes of age

Imagine Norman Bates, twisted hero of Hitchcock’s Psycho, stumbling into a funhouse of mirrors and finding Mother at the center, her image reflected on a thousand surfaces surrounding him. He might freak out, right? That’s …

Got 2.7 seconds?

We've devised the world's shortest survey to find out what kind of actions our readers are taking. You know you want to.