Articles by Tom Philpott
Tom Philpott was previously Grist's food writer. He now writes for Mother Jones. Follow
Consumers looking for milk from grass-fed cows can't rely on the USDA's organic label.
As this Chicago Tribune article shows, the department has been allowing feedlot-style mega-dairies to claim organic status -- despite a recommendation from the National Organic Standards Board that it close existing loopholes.
Access to pasture lies at the heart of any meaningful definition of organic farm-animal stewardship. Grass-fed cows produce a healthier product, they're easier on the environment, and they're not forced to live miserable lives completely enslaved by the mechanized milker.
As Grist's own Amanda Griscom Little recently reported, a trade group representing Kraft and Dean Foods has been quietly pushing Congress to tweak organic labelling standards to make them more friendly to food-processing giants.
Thankfully, the Organic Consumers Association has led a fight, so far successful, to stymie those changes.
While it's important to preserve the organic label's integrity on the supermarket shelf, it's just as important to interrogate what it means in the field. An interesting study published in UC Davis' Sustainable Agriculture Newsletter sheds much-needed light on that issue.
Big Ag is nervous about energy costs. The hand-wringing reveals much about the energy-intensive nature of industrial agriculture -- and its lack of imagination regarding alternatives.
Even before the latest big runup in oil prices -- incidentally, oil had reached $60 per barrel before Hurricane Katrina trashed the Gulf of Mexico -- farmers were feeling the pinch. Here's an Associated Press article from May laying out the energy story in terms dictated by the American Farm Bureau Federation, which not inaccurately calls itself "the voice of agriculture." It has only forgotten to add a few compound modifiers: vast-scale, heavily subsidized, export-minded energy-intensive.
Celia Dugger, my favorite New York Times reporter, had another knock-out article in yesterday's paper. Titled "African Food for Africa's Starving Is Roadblocked in Congress," the piece lays out the absurd tangle of laws that govern the United States' food-aid program.
Rather than send money to Africa to buy food from African farmers to relieve hunger there, generating a little economic development in the process, U.S. policy stipulates that "American generosity must be good not just for the world's hungry but also for American agriculture," Dugger reports.
Thus all U.S. food aid must utilize food grown on domestic soil. But like another scheme designed to help farmers -- the commodity-subsidy program -- this one really benefits the middlemen, processors like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill.
Just four companies and their subsidiaries, led by Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill, sold more than half the $700 million in food commodities provided through the United States Agency for International Development's food aid program in 2004, government records show.
These companies, along with U.S. shippers and anti-hunger NGOs, form what critics have called the "Iron Triangle" of food aid. Under the system they are fighting to maintain, only 40 cents of every dollar the U.S. spends on food aid actually buys food. Much of the rest literally goes up in smoke -- it's spent hauling U.S. grain to distant places.
The Bush administration is actually trying to reform the program; but Congress, impressed by the Triangle's political might if not its arguments, is holding out.