After being sentenced to death on specious grounds in 1915, the pro-union agitator and singer Joe Hill delivered a bracing message to his supporters: “Don’t waste time mourning, organize!”

The bums may be gone, but don’t get too giddy.

Photo: iStockphoto

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Under more celebratory circumstances, Hill’s formulation doesn’t seem quite right; after helping purge so many scoundrels from Congress last week, the environmental movement surely deserves to spend some time reveling in victory. Yet Hill’s point remains relevant: the political struggle lurches on even after momentous events — defeats and victories alike.

Take agricultural policy. In a sense, the midterm elections can be read as a stinging rebuke to the agribusiness lobby, with its environmentally ruinous agenda. Of the lobby’s 11 most lavishly funded congressional players, six got the boot last week: the unlamented industrial-agriculture enthusiasts Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) and Sens. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), George Allen (R-Va.), Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Mark Kennedy (R-Minn.), and James Talent (R-Mo.).

Two other pro-industry stalwarts — Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) — forfeited their hold on the key congressional agricultural committees when the Republican Party lost its Senate and House majorities.

Yet these evictions — satisfying though they are — won’t automatically lead to a more enlightened agricultural policy. In short, for every bought-and-paid-for Republican that the public sent packing, the agribusiness lobby has a reliable Democrat waiting at the gate.

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Now Taking the Field

That’s depressing news, given that one of the new Congress’ first orders of business will be to write the next Farm Bill. Since the Nixon era, Farm Bills have essentially become five- or six-year plans for using government power to extract wealth from farmers and deposit it on the bottom lines of the agribusiness giants — sustainability and environmental concerns be damned. Unhappily, prospects for reforming the 2007 version look bleak.

Support for corn-based ethanol — which makes zero sense economically or environmentally — can be used as a proxy for a politician’s fealty to Big Ag interests.

Archer Daniels Midland, which has been hailed as the “Exxon of corn,”ranks as the world’s biggest corn buyer and the No. 1 U.S. ethanol producer. In a dramatic bit of political engineering (into which I’ll delve more deeply in Grist’s upcoming series on biofuels), ADM has managed over the last 25 years to rig up lucrative markets for two related products that would never have gained traction in a free market: corn-based ethanol and high-fructose corn syrup. Both thrive by grace of a baroque and related set of government subsidies and quotas.

Today, these dubious goods deliver more than half of ADM’s operating profit, combining for about $290 million in operating profit in the third quarter of 2006 alone. And the political edifice that protects ADM’s corn-based empire looks intact.

Incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) spent time during the fall campaign stumping around Minnesota, pledging her allegiance to corn ethanol as the fuel of the future. The purpose of her trip was to reassure the constituents of Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) that voting Democratic wouldn’t mean an end to ethanol subsidies. Peterson, a virulent ethanol booster, is now set to take over the House Agriculture Committee, which will wield tremendous influence over the 2007 Farm Bill.

Nor will ADM encounter much friction in the Senate, where Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) looks set to regain the chairmanship of that body’s agriculture committee. Harkin’s enthusiasm for corn-based ethanol is nearly boundless. This is the man who, facing down critics who dared question ethanol’s environmental value, once took a swig of the corn-based fuel on the Senate floor, evidently to demonstrate its salubrious qualities.

As for the White House, George W. Bush habitually chokes back his free-market zeal long enough to hand goodies to his agribusiness friends. He signed into law the 2002 Farm Bill, with its $20 billion in annual support for the very commodity crops that ADM spins into gold. More recently, Bush has been reaffirming that he’s “absolutely” committed to corn-based ethanol.

Turning Ploughshares Into Swords

All of this is tremendously disheartening, yet it must not be allowed to forestall political action. Indeed, on several fronts, pro-sustainable agriculture forces are rolling out Farm Bill agendas that challenge the agribusiness chokehold on farm policy. These efforts reassert farming not as an industrial process geared to the needs of conglomerates, but rather as a way to build community, feed people, and regenerate soil.

From the heartland, the Iowa-based National Family Farm Coalition has come out with a farmer-oriented agenda [PDF] that demands the end of the direct-payment subsidies so beloved by ADM and other large corn buyers. In Washington, D.C., American Farmland Trust has released a comprehensive Farm Bill plan that makes a powerful case for replacing commodity subsidies with “green payments” that would reward farmers for environmental stewardship.

Meanwhile, the Farm and Food Policy Project, a broad coalition of environmental, sustainable-agriculture, and anti-hunger groups, plans to release its Farm Bill proposal sometime this month.

These efforts are critically important. Any citizen interested in creating a sane food system should study them and pressure their representatives to vote accordingly during the Farm Bill debates.

Yet I can think of an even more powerful response to the 2006 midterm elections, which demonstrate so graphically the promise and limits of the U.S. electoral system. And that is this: Become the solution to the problem you deplore.

Politicians bow unto the agribusiness giants because they’ve done a wonderful job of organizing and bringing power to bear. Consumers who demand healthy, delicious, sustainably grown food can do the same. In fact, they are, all over the country. Farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture programs, urban gardens — such initiatives are bubbling up everywhere, despite scant governmental support and sometimes outright official hostility.

But it will take concerted action at the community level to consolidate these efforts into a robust alternative to industrial food. Next weekend, in my own area of western North Carolina, I’ll be participating in just such an action: The High Country Local Food Summit. The goal is to assess our assets and needs as a foodshed — and then to organize to leverage the assets and fulfill the needs.

Joe Hill didn’t survive his date with the firing squad in 1915, but the labor movement did. Through sustained work against entrenched and moneyed power, the movement gained the 40-hour workweek and other New Deal reforms within 30 years of Hill’s death. Those victories can inspire the sustainable-food movement, even as we savor our victories in the 2006 elections.