Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Localism and Its Enemies

by David Bollier (March 03-2008)

One the great lessons of Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006), is that the industrial agriculture system necessarily entails all sorts of nasty consequences: greater fuel consumption to transport food to market, crop monocultures instead of biological diversity, pesticide-laden food instead of organic produce, enormous lagoons of pig excrement from factory-raised pork, et cetera. Yet the locally grown alternatives, which tend to be more wholesome and ecologically friendly, have several strikes against them from the git-go.

A Minnesota organic vegetable farmer, Jack Hedin, brought this to public attention in a recent oped piece in the New York Times {1}. Hedin described how big agribusiness companies in California, Florida and Texas are using federal regulation and subsidy programs to prevent regional farmers from offering healthier, more ecologically benign local food. The regional farmers want to produce more organic produce to meet growing consumer demand for locally grown crops. But the Big Guys are using their political muscle with the federal government to stifle this budding competition.

As Hedin puts it:

Consumers ... will be dismayed to learn that the federal government works deliberately and forcefully to prevent the local food movement from expanding. And the barriers that the United States Department of Agriculture has put in place will be extended when the farm bill that House and Senate negotiators are working on now goes into effect.

The federal commodity farm program effectively forbids farmers who usually grow corn or the other four federally subsidized commodity crops (soybeans, rice, what and cotton) from trying fruit and vegetables. Because my watermelon and tomates had been planted on "corn base" acres, the Farm Service said, my landlords were out of compliance with the commodity program.

Farmers who violate these rules not only lose their subsidy for the year for the affected acreage, they are penalized the market value of the unapproved crop - and may be permanently blackballed from future subsidies. What this means is that the nation's farmers suffer if they innovate by growing fruits and vegetables for the local market. They are discouraged from growing local food at the very time when consumers are demanding such produce, oil is becoming more expensive and the environment would benefit from greater diversity of crops.

We hear a lot from free-market conservatives about "letting the market decide and "getting government off our backs". Yet when it comes to propping up their own market franchise, big agribusiness has no problems at all with "government paternalism".

This story points up the need for local and regional farmers to get more political, and to make common cause with consumers, environmentalists and other commoners. Farmers' markets, the Slow Food movement and the local food movement are surging these days, but they are not going to become a bigger presence in our lives unless they can express their interests on a bigger playing field, national politics.

Link {1}:

Bill Totten


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