Time for some rehab

Agriculture is drunk on corn-based ethanol

Thomas Dobbs is Professor Emeritus of Economics at South Dakota State University, and a W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food & Society Policy Fellow. ----- American agriculture is becoming addicted to corn-based ethanol, and the economic and environmental effects of this addiction call for some intervention! The explosive growth in U.S. ethanol production from corn is having worldwide ramifications. December 6 articles in The Economist ("Cheap no more" and "The end of cheap food") trace the impacts of ethanol production on prices of other crops and on food. Rising crop prices can benefit farmers not only in the U.S., but also farmers who have marketable surpluses in other countries. Many consumers, however, are hurt by the rising food prices. This is especially true of urban and landless rural poor in developing countries. According to The Economist's food-price index, food prices have risen in real (inflation-adjusted) terms by 75 percent since 2005. International Food Policy Research Institute data cited by The Economist indicates "the expansion of ethanol and other biofuels could reduce caloric intake by another 4-8 percent in Africa and 2-5 percent in Asia by 2020." The growth in ethanol production is hardly a market phenomenon. According to The Economist, Federal subsidies for ethanol production already come to over $7 billion a year. Moreover, many previous years of cheap corn that resulted from Federal farm program subsidies helped lay the economic foundation for ethanol plants already built or under construction. Implications for energy and farm policies? What are the policy implications of this "food versus fuel" conflict that past and present energy and farm policies have created? As far as the ethanol industry is concerned, its interests trump all other interests, including those of taxpayers and the poor who can least afford higher food prices.

Hillary Clinton frets publicly about CAFOs

What must the ‘Rural Americans for Hillary’ think of this?

Days after naming a high-profile champion of factory-style animal farms as co-chair of "Rural Americans for Hillary," Hillary Clinton backtracked a little yesterday. She expressed wan and tepid concern about the environmental and social effects …

Farm bill update

Payment limits topple, but the livestock title looks good — for now

Update [2007-12-14 13:5:54 by Tom Philpott]:The Senate just passed the farm bill, 79-14. Presumably the livestock title is intact. Now it’s time to mount an epochal battle to defend that important title as Congress reconciles …

Beyond the farm bill

Progressive urban food bills could help reshape America’s food future

The following is a guest essay by Christopher D. Cook, author of Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis. His work has appeared in The Nation, Harper's, The Economist, The Christian Science Monitor and Mother Jones. ----- After many legislative hiccups along the way, Congress is rapidly deciding the fate of America's food supply: what's grown, how it's produced and by whom, and how that food will affect our health and the planet. The roughly $288 billion Farm Bill, covering everything from urban nutrition and food stamp programs to soil conservation and farm subsidies, will dictate much about what we eat and at what price, both at the checkout line and in long-term societal costs. Photo: iStockphoto And if agribusiness lobbies keep getting their way, as they've largely done in this year's Farm Bill battles, the "food bill" we all pay will be astronomical -- not just the cost of the Farm Bill itself, but the hidden costs of a taxpayer-subsidized industrial food system that causes profound harm to public health and the environment, as well as to farmers and workers. Despite valiant progressive efforts that may bring some change at the margins, the big picture is not pretty: increasingly centralized power over food, abetted by lax antitrust policies and farm subsidies that provide the meat industry and food-processing corporations with cheap raw ingredients; huge subsidies for corn and soy, most of which ends up as auto fuel, livestock feed, and additives for junk food, fattening America's waistlines while soiling the environment; and, despite organic food's rising popularity, a farming system that's still heavily reliant on toxic pesticides (500,000 tons per year), which pollute our waterways and bloodstreams while gobbling up millions of gallons of fossil fuel. As a nation we consume (quite literally) some 100 billion gallons of oil annually in the making and long-distance transport of our food supply. Closer to home, despite annual crop surpluses and the dumping of cheap excess supplies onto foreign markets, residents in poor urban areas are deprived of fresh, nutritious food. These so-called "food deserts" -- whose only gastronomic oases are fast-food joints and liquor marts -- feature entire zip codes devoid of fresh produce. Government studies show this de facto food segregation leads to serious nutritional deficits -- such as soaring obesity and diabetes rates -- among poor people. And in the countryside, taxpayer subsidies directed mostly to large-scale growers and agribusiness are plowing smaller farmers out of business at a rate of one every half an hour, creating individual misery and community-wide economic havoc. What's to be done? Congress (particularly the Senate, where debate currently resides) needs to hear Americans -- urban and rural alike -- demand serious change, to shift our tax dollars ($20 billion to $25 billion a year in farm subsidies alone) toward organic, locally oriented, nutritious food that sustains farming communities and consumer health. Investing our tax dollars in food isn't the problem; instead of commodity subsidies that ultimately benefit the production of meat and fattening processed foods by a handful of corporations, we need a New Deal for food that reinvests funds in sustainably grown, healthful produce grown by a diversity of farmers. Even as the congressional Farm Bill battles grind toward a mostly disconcerting conclusion, it's not too soon to look beyond this omnivore's omnibus, and begin considering a national movement of progressive urban food bills.

To those who are blasé about expanding the RFS

Once in place, the RFS will be nigh impossible to eliminate

Several posts during the past week, and countless ones elsewhere, have asked people to support the Energy Bill making its way through Congress. Some people have no problem with one of its major provisions, which calls for substantially expanding the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) -- the regulation that requires minimum amounts of ethanol, biodiesel, or other biofuels to be incorporated into the volume of transport fuels used each year. Indeed, some would even welcome the prospect. Many others do not like the idea, but seem to feel that it is a price worth paying in order to preserve solar investment tax credits as well as production tax credits for large-scale renewable projects. (A national Renewable Electricity Standard has already been dropped from the bill.) Some of those people then argue, in effect, we can always go back and repeal the RFS next year. Next joke.

How I shucked my oyster ambivalence and learned to love the noble bivalve

I’ve lived in Boston for years, but for some reason, I had never visited nearby Portland, Maine — until last week, that is. I chose a dramatic occasion for my Portland debut: an Oyster Tasting …

Wild salmon and coral both in trouble, say studies

Infestations of sea lice (ew) in salmon farms off the west coast of Canada are threatening local wild salmon populations — to the extent that the wild fish could be extinct within four years, says …

Meat Wagon: A roundup of outrages from the meat industry

Cruelty to hogs, and wretched meatpacking conditions

As the Senate debates the farm bill, which contains an entire title that would limit the power of the industrial-meat giants, you might think the industry would be on its best behavior, trying to act …

On corn, meat, and the myth of Big Farma

Why we shouldn’t target farmers for our farm bill frustrations

We're very pleased to run this guest essay by Elanor Starmer, an independent activist scholar who lives in California. Elanor recently published an important paper (PDF) on the livestock industry with Tim Wise of the Global Development and Environment Institute at Tufts University. As the farm bill lurches to its conclusion amid shrill rhetoric about the "farm bloc," Elanor redirects our attention to the real beneficiaries of both federal farm policy and conventional attempts to reform it: the agribusiness giants that control the food system. This essay, first in a series, originally appeared on Ethicurean. ----- In a recent Grist column, Tom Philpott ran down the list of problems that this year's Farm Bill debaters have blamed, loudly and repeatedly, on subsidies: "everything from the obesity epidemic to the explosion in CAFOs in the late 1990s to the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico ... [to] steamrolling farmers in Mexico, Africa, and elsewhere." Most mainstream media outlets and, points out Philpott, many progressive causes (Oxfam is one prominent example) are only too willing to point to subsidies as the delinquent dad when our food system spawns yet another bad seed. Philpott is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of complexity and nuance in the debate over subsidies. I'd like to voice my own frustration about a different but related issue here. I've noticed that in the debate over subsidies, both in the media and among progressive reform groups, there is often no distinction made between the subsidy policy itself and the farmers who receive payments. Commodity farmers, once considered the salt of the earth (almost literally), are now characterized quite differently: as a wealthy, powerful, politically savvy lobbying force capable of shaping the global food system to meet its needs, leaving the rest of us to pick up its mess. Call it Big Farma.

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.