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Winter 2017 Policy Update
From Dan Bensonoff, Policy Director
This week will mark the end of a political era for our country, one which, for those of us who care about the health of people, of the soils, and our wild earthly cohabitants, showed some signs of progress. The white house lawn gave way to a productive vegetable garden. School nutrition standards made major headway in their use of whole foods. Just this week, the final rule on organic animal welfare standards will finally be published, and guess what, the big players in the organic livestock industry aren’t happy. And when the big boys aren’t happy, that’s usually a sign we’re moving in the right direction.
Here in Massachusetts, we had a ballot question pass which ensures that livestock, including laying hens, are given enough space to turn around. Wherever you may stand on the merits of this bill, it actually got people people talking about what’s happening beyond the veil of the supermarket.
Of course, not all has been rosy this year in the world of agriculture. After years of fierce debate, congress finally passed a bill that supposedly mandates GMO labels. Unfortunately, what should have just been a simple and honest on-package label, will likely be hidden behind inaccessible QR code technology.
But this decade-long battle over GMO labeling has also had some unexpectedly positive ripple effects in Washington. Just this past year, the FDA has finally decided to reexamine how such meaningless food marketing terms as “healthy” and “natural” are allowed to be used. Although fighting over these marketing terms may seem minor, I’m convinced that honest food labels will impact people’s decisions. If people could look at a food package and read about all the pesticides used, all the poor working conditions, and even worse treatment of animals, then I think many would think twice before reaching for the cheap stuff, how?
This year has also seen yet more agribusiness consolidation. Bayer’s buyout of Monsanto. ChemChina’s joining forces with Syngenta. Dupont’s merger with Dow. This is a deeply distressing trend, one that all farmers and eaters ought to be concerned about. For as these behemoths merge with their competition, they will have yet more influence over our policy-makers and the future of agriculture.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The next four years will be a feeding trough for corporations, bigots, and political cronies. It is unlikely that any good news will be coming out of Washington. Who knows if the next farm bill will continue to fully fund conservation programs or SNAP benefits? `Donald Trump’s own agricultural transition team said they are preparing to “defend American Agriculture against its critics”. By this I take it that any opposition to the steady consolidation and industrial model of agriculture will not be tolerated.
I’m not quite sure who these “critics of american agriculture” but I’m assuming some of them are here today. And I think we, this NOFA community, should continue to be not just critics of american agriculture but also visionaries of american agriculture.
So as we learn how to buckle down and work our power in democracy, let’s not forget we also need to build our own garden, cultivate our community. We must also remember that all the issues we care about interconnected, and none can be addressed in isolation. Climate change won’t be an issue if and when the ecology of soils is properly understood. Racial inequality will continue to thrive until we deal with the problems of nutrition and land reform. Small businesses and artisans will again be essential only when our gardens and farms again become essential.
Contrary to expectations, I actually see this moment in time as one of great potential. As Wendell Berry said, “it is in the presence of the problems that their solutions will be found.” We are deeply mired in problems right now. But it is in the deep of winter that the gardener begins to plant their seeds for the following spring. So, let us grab the seeds of democracy and sprinkle them liberally while we wait for warmer weather.
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Save the date August 11-13, 2017 Hampshire College