This post marks the launch of “Plate Tectonics,” a new feature that highlights ways that citizen action can move the food system in more sustainable directions.


revolving doorHow do we stop this thing?Like many people, I applauded when Michelle Obama broke ground on her organic garden–and jeered when Croplife America, the pesticide industry’s main lobby group, chided her to spray “crop protection” (i.e., poison) on her family’s veggies. I was proud of the First Lady for shrugging off that absurd appeal.

That’s one reason I came down with whiplash when Michelle’s husband nominated a top Croplife America functionary to the post of chief agricultural negotiator at the U.S. Trade Office. Instead of handing the guy a powerful post, shouldn’t the President have punched him in the jaw for the insult to the family spinach?

Normally, the appointee–Isi Siddiqui–wouldn’t run into much trouble in the Senate, most of whose members rather like the agrichemical industry. But as I reported a while back, sustainable ag and green groups are rallying against the appointment. At this point, some 80 groups have gone on record opposing the appointment. 

According to an account in the New York Times, Siddiqui has already made clear what that agenda will be:

Both [WTO ambassador Michael] Punke and Islam “Isi” Siddiqui, nominee for chief U.S. agricultural negotiator, have said they will not send a deal to Congress for approval unless it clearly gives U.S. companies and farmers greater market access to developing nations.

“I can assure you that the administration will not conclude a Doha deal that does not work for U.S. farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses,” Siddiqui said in his written comments.

That’s the same agenda we’ve seen for 30 years; decades of flooding markets in the global south with cheap U.S. ag products has undermined farmers there, making entire nations utterly dependent on U.S. grain. Last year, when commodity prices spiked and millions of additional people found themselves priced out of food markets, the full viciousness of the Siddiqui agenda became clear. As for free trade in U.S. agrichemicals, ask the folks in India’s breadbasket, the Punjab region, how that has gone.

So educate yourself. And then let Obama know that we don’t want an agrichemical-industry rep forming our agricultural trade agenda.

• I lived in New York City in the early 2000s, during which time Mayor Giuliani essentially issued a fatwa against community gardens, declaring them “communiism.” He tried to sell them off for development; citizen activism, with a major assist from then attorney general Elliot Spitzer, for the most part stymied the small-minded mayor’s designs, though he did manage to pave dozens of gardens in some of the city’s lowest-income areas.

During the battle over the gardens, pro-development forces tried to frame the issue in terms of affordable housing. Garden activists, they claimed, were hurting the poor by holding back new development. The logic was flawed for several reasons, but here is the main one: gardens occupied a fraction of he city’s vacant lots.

If the developers wanted to build more affordable housing, why didn’t they choose lots that were actually vacant? The reason, I think, was that the gardens tended to revitalize the city streets around them. They brought people out, beautified the area, and lowered crime. Naturally, developers wanted to plunk their projects down into those spots, and not in some grim, desolate lot a few blocks away.

I bring all of this up because, like a zombie, Mayor Giuliani’s discredited garden agenda has popped back up again in Brooklyn’s glorious, storied Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, where developers are scheming to bulldoze a a highly productive community garden called Bed-Stuy farm. Check out this post by Kerry Trueman on Green Fork blog; watch the above video; and sign this petition.

• For a look at citizen activism in full flower–Wendell Berry’s “agrarian responsibility” illustrated–check out Bonnie Powell’s account on Ethicurean about how the Bay Area food community rallied to save Soul Food Farm after it experienced a devastating fire.