The Year of Food

Was 2006 the year food went political?

“This is the year everyone discovered that food is about politics and people can do something about it,” [said Marion Nestle]. “In a world in which people feel more and more distant from global forces that control their lives, they can do something by, as the British put it, ‘voting with your trolley,’ their word for shopping cart.”

This year saw food safety issues come to public prominence with more contamination instances than I can even recall.

Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma hit best-seller lists, and Fast Food Nation was made into a film. New York City banned trans-fats. Chicago banned foie gras, and Whole Foods Market stopped selling live lobsters (both citing animal welfare concerns).

Heated debates continued over the standards behind the “organic” label, and most recently over FDA’s decision that meat and milk from cloned animals is safe for human consumption.

In Iowa (the heart of America’s Bread Basket), sustainable agriculture and local food advocate Denise O’Brien raised a record amount of money in her bid to become Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. She lost very narrowly, and only after big agribusiness dropped tens of thousands into the race in the waning days.

Look for the rise of food politics to continue in 2007. There is a new farm bill on the horizon, and Democrats are in control of the House and Senate. Expect much debate, and even more money to fuel that debate.

Rural Roundup

  • Niel Ritchie argues that unregulated VOIP (voice over internet protocol) could be the key to driving commercial providers into the rural broadband internet business.
  • The water wars move east.
  • The FDA is poised to approve meat from cloned animals for human consumption.
  • Montana joins efforts to solidify a Western Primary early in the presidential primary calender.
  • Domestic organic production is exploding. Or is it?

    Map No More

    This is simply astounding!

    Mapmaker puts tiny towns on road to oblivion

    CHATTOOGAVILLE, Georgia (AP) — Poetry Tulip has vanished. So have Due West and Po Biddy Crossroads. Cloudland and Roosterville are gone, too.

    A total of 488 communities have been erased from the latest version of Georgia’s official map, victims of too few people and too many letters of type.

    Georgia’s Department of Transportation, which drew the new map, said that the goal was to make it clearer and less cluttered and that many of the dropped communities were mere “placeholders,” generally with fewer than 2,500 people. Some are unincorporated and so small they are not even recognized by the Census Bureau.

    The state began handing out the new map at rest stops and welcome centers over the summer. […]

    “We’re not under obligation to show every single community,” department spokeswoman Karlene Barron said. “While we want to, there’s a balancing act. And the map was getting illegible.”

    No further comment.

    Hat tip: CFRA Blog.

    Smithfield and Organized Labor

    The news program NOW on PBS traveled to Tar Heel, North Carolina this week to report on the twelve-year long battle to unionize the Smithfield packing plant there. It is the worlds largest packing plant, and is located in a relatively rural part of the state. The United Food and Commercial Workers have been fighting against employer intimidation and other anti-union tactics at the plant since it opened in 1990.

    “[Smithfield] values the hog and the processing of that hog more than they do the safety and the well-being of their employees,” [long time employee Keith] Ludlum tells NOW. The UFCW is calling for a national boycott of Smithfield products.

    You can watch the show online if you missed the local playing on PBS.

    Rolling Stone magazine also has a long feature article this week on Smithfield Foods and environmental concerns associated with the concentration of livestock.

    The Other Owner

    Parke Wilde at the U.S. Food Policy Blog has a good post up about recent developments regarding the pork checkoff and National Pork Producers Council’s (NPPC) “Other White Meat” advertising slogan.

    I was raising pigs in 2000 when a coalition of pork producers forced a vote on the mandatory pork checkoff program, and I’ve since followed the debate over mandatory agricultural checkoff programs closely. In a story too long to tell here, and ably told elsewhere, the mandatory pork checkoff remains in place today despite a majority farmer vote against it. Since 2000 there have been court battles fought against the cattle, mushroom, and other similar agricultural checkoff programs.

    The sale of the NPPC’s “Other White Meat” slogan to the National Pork Board adds another interesting wrinkle to the case.

    If this all sounds a bit foreign to you, start with Wilde’s June post. With that background out of the way, read about Wilde’s Freedom of Information Act request designed to find out more details about the transfer.

    Rural Roundup

    • Gristmill is running a series on all aspects of biofuels.
      • In a somewhat ironic move the USDA is poised to approve the “organic” label for farmed fish, but not for wild fish.
        • Fruit and vegetable producers in the U.S. don’t get much in the way of agricultural subsidies, but that could change with the next farm bill.
          • In Idaho, State House Democrats walked out of the chambers this week when Republicans refused to give up a key committee assignment to Democrats. Democrats won six additional seats in the State House in the November election.
            • In Florida there may be no such thing as “rural” within 50 years.
              • Renew Rural Iowa Initiative

                The Iowa Farm Bureau (IFB) recently launched a new initiative to Renew Rural Iowa. The effort will focus on medium and large businesses located in rural Iowa, encouraging them to expand their businesses, and create more jobs in rural communities. We need to build our rural business infrastructure, and someone needs to do sustainable work in this area. But one wonders why the Iowa Farm Bureau is focusing their efforts on expanding non-farm businesses in rural communities. Their own answer is somewhat astounding:

                Why is Iowa Farm Bureau focused on this initiative?

                Nearly 90 percent of farmers today derive part of their income from off-farm employment. The Iowa Entrepreneurial Report Card, released every year from Washington, D.C., shows Iowa ranks last (50th) in new business creation and long-term employment growth. That, coupled with declining population trends, puts Iowa at risk for losing even more family farmers.

                The IFB is apparently worried that the farmers in Iowa might not have access to adequate off-farm income to supplement their farm-related income. Rather than focusing on agricultural policy reform that would make it possible for farmers to make a decent living by farming, the Farm Bureau seemingly wants struggling family farmers to be able to spend more time working off the farm.

                Nevertheless, creating and sustaining businesses located in rural communities is important, but here careful attention to the types of businesses the IFB wants to foster is warranted. Defining their target audience the Farm Bureau writes:

                1. Anyone with an existing business, or planning to start a business that will generate in excess of $500,000 in 12 to 18 months.

                2. Anyone who has a business plan that demonstrates the ability of generating in excess of $5 million in 3 to 5 years through interstate commerce.

                3. Anyone with a place of business located in an Iowa community that is less than 30,000 […]

                This initiative hardly sounds like a program for new, small-scale, rural-entrepreneurs destine to repopulate Main Street storefronts, and bring critical services to rural Iowa.

                Additionally, the IFB’s sole partner organization in the initiative is the Entrepreneurial Development Center (EDC). This Cedar Rapids-based group touts its own vision as providing “economic growth in the Cedar Rapids / Iowa City Technology Corridor through the development and expansion of entrepreneurial enterprise.” This corridor is only marginally “rural,” and EDC is backed by decidedly non-rural funders such as the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

                The initiative website also hosts a press release (pdf) with praise from the CEO of the controversial company Trans Ova. Trans Ova has come under attack in recent years for genetic engineering and cloning of cows to produce pharmaceuticals in their milk.

                Thus, on two more counts the motive of this initiative is called into question.

                Unfortunately, this sort of behavior is hardly unexpected from the Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau has long claimed to be the “largest farmer-member organization” in the country. In reality they are an insurance provider and a lobby for large agribusiness. They helped drive the consolidation of agriculture, and establish current farm policy that now makes family farmers dependent on off-farm income.

                The Farm Bureau hasn’t made any move to convince me that want any more farmers, and they are not particularly concerned with new and innovative ways for current farmers to make a decent living on the land.

                To people who follow the Farm Bureau and agriculture policy this is no surprise. But their Renew Rural Iowa initiative once again reveals that their real concern is not the revitalization of rural communities through an invigorated farm-economy. Perhaps they are hoping to mask the true devastating effects of the agriculture policy that they helped write.

                Rural communities need a diverse economic base, and this must include more than just agriculture jobs. But in Iowa, it must also include a vibrant agricultural sector.

                Note: Thanks to reader SW for additional analysis on this topic.