Night of the living farm bill

After blunder, the legislation slouches back to limbo

For the first time in its long process, the 2008 — née 2007 — farm bill was going according to script. Congress finally came up with a final version. Bush vetoed it, just as he had promised. The House overrode the veto, just as everyone knew it would. Next stop: the Senate, where Bush’s veto was due meet another overwhelming override. And after that, law. Remember at the end of Chinatown, when everything gets hopelessly screwed up? Leading away a stunned and speechless Jack Nicholson, his old friend says, "It’s Chinatown, Jake." Because, you know, Chinatown is where all sorts …

Certified organic, fair-trade free riders

If you support the standards but not the certifiers, then what?

At my local Saturday farmers market, I stopped to buy some coffee at the local roaster's booth. I was eying the wares when I noticed that the spendy bags of coffee ($9 for 12 oz.) labeled "Fair Trade" didn't have the any independent certification of that fact. I asked the guy behind the booth, and he said, "Well, it is fair trade coffee, and the owners pay the fair trade price, but they don't want to pay for the label mark because it just pays people here in the U.S. -- it just raises the price of a bag of beans, but none of that money goes to the farmers." So I asked, "But how can the system work to certify fair trade buyers if consumers don't pay for that assurance? I'm sure you're actually paying a fair price, but what keeps the next guy and the supermarket from saying the same thing? Besides, what does it add to the price of a bag, anyway?" He repeated his bit about the owners not wanting to spend the money on certifiers, and he said that going the certified route would have added a dime to every bag sold. I said that I would have been willing to pay a dime more for a certified bag, and that I hoped he would tell the owners that, unless they could come up with a way to have truly independent but in-country certification (so the money spent on certifying compliance with fair trade practices went to the country of origin), I wasn't buying their beans or their argument about where the money goes. I've been thinking about it more this week, while I drink some Bolivian certified organic, shade grown, certified Fair Trade coffee.

Profit Actually

Monsanto execs make millions off farmers’ backs

Hugh Grant -- Monsanto chair, CEO, and president -- probably won't notice the increased price of a loaf of bread. And if he does, it will be with a smile. Grant is $13-million-and-change wealthier today than he was on Monday, as he choose to exercise stock options -- 116,000 shares worth -- that netted him a profit of over $114 per share. Like many of us, I wouldn't mind paying the extra dollar per loaf of bread if I knew the majority of that dollar was going back into the hands of farmers. Instead, the higher prices at the checkout line are funneled to the agri-giants like Monsanto and Cargill, companies making record profits. Remind you of gas prices and oil companies? Reminds me that these agri-giants spent $100 million on getting their way in the Farm Bill, an investment with huge dividends -- for Monsanto's Hugh Grant, anyway.

Lessons from a sustainable-food conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Information you can eat. Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder A couple of months ago, I wrote about how the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California comes up with its wallet-sized cards — the ones that tell us what seafood choices are sustainable. I got so interested in the topic that when I got an invitation to attend the aquarium’s annual Cooking for Solutions conference, I couldn’t pass it up. The event brings together high-profile chefs from across the country who are devoted to sustainability, and puts them in the same room with luminaries from the sustainable-food world. For me, it was …

Farm and function

Agriculture produces more than just crops — and it’s time for policy to reflect that

In spite of the best efforts of sustainable agriculture, environmental, and healthy food advocates over the past two years to reform U.S. farm policy, the bill recently passed by Congress lacks fundamental reform. Although the bill includes some environmental and healthy food system improvements over existing legislation, the system of commodity subsidies remains intact, and it is these subsidies, together with biofuels subsidies and mandates embodied in the farm bill and energy legislation, that drive the basic structure of the U.S. farm and food system. To break the farm-block stranglehold on farm and food policy the next time around, we need a need a new vision of agriculture: one that recognizes that farmers produce more than just food, feed, fuel, and fiber. We also count on farmers to take care of vast swaths of critically important land. What we need, in short, is a "multifunctionality" vision of agriculture.

The truth about no-till farming

It does not save carbon and is not a carbon offset

The list of very knowledgeable folk who still are pushing no-till farming as a greenhouse-gas mitigation strategy -- even though science passed them by a while ago -- includes: Sen. John McCain Princeton University* [PDF] The Chicago Climate Exchange [PDF] The Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions [PDF] I buried the science in the McCain post, but it deserves higher visibility. As a major review article [PDF] from Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, "Tillage and soil carbon sequestration -- What do we really know?" concluded:


Wall Street Journal editorial mischaracterizes both my position and biofuels

To my surprise, on Tuesday I found myself cited by the Wall Street Journal as a strong advocate of subsidies for food-based ethanol, and as a recipient of "federal dole" who ought to "take a vow of embarrassed silence." While I appreciate the Journal's foray into fiction writing (and I'd love to discuss my status on the dole with my accountant, who recently filed my taxes), I would like to clarify a few facts and offer a more rounded view of biofuels and ethanol in general. A few facts:

The Onion on GM tomatoes

From The Onion: PASADENA, CA–Geneticists at the California Institute of Technology announced Monday that they have developed a tomato with a 31 percent larger price tag than a typical specimen of the vine-ripened fruit. “By utilizing an exciting new breakthrough in gene-splicing technology, we’ve been able to manipulate this new tomato with recombinant DNA in such a manner as to make it nearly as pricey as a similarly sized tangelo,” said Dr. Lee Nolan, who headed up the project. “Genetically modified crops such as this will be instrumental in helping average grocers keep pace with unaffordable organic stores such as …

Da yoots take over Maverick Farms

A new generation pilots the farm’s operations as it transitions to training others

Some Grist readers may have noticed that I’ve been writing on the blog nearly every day, while keeping up the Victual Reality column. How can I do all of that and farm, too? The truth is, I went full-time at Grist last November, when I took on the position of food editor. And to maintain my sanity, I’ve moved into a much less active role on Maverick Farms. We’re in the process of turning Maverick into a farm incubator — a program designed to train our area’s next generation of farmers and link them to land — while maintaining our …

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