Tag Archive | Organics

More on Walmart’s new organic push

Following up from Rob Wallbridge’s commentary on Walmart’s new organic gambit, we find Colin Schultz writing for the Smithsonian:

But for organic food producers, it’s more complicated.

Organic farmers have an issue with scale—although there are some examples of organic yields meeting conventional yields, in general, organic production just can’t produce as much food per unit of land as regular farming. As such, organic food costs more to make. If Walmart is going to start selling it without a markup, those shortfalls are going to hit someone.

Over recent decades, rising demand for organic foods has already been squeezing American farmers, says NPR. Unable to keep up with demand, American farmers have turned to importing organic grains from Asia. Working under the scale and stability of a Walmart contract could give the company’s partners confidence to invest locally. But, until that can happen, the environmental and global health costs of increased international shipping ultimately detract from an organic farm’s potential benefits. This adds to the fact that, though organic farms are better for the environment on a “per acre” basis, they’re actually worse on a “per product” basis.

Aside from all that, the mass adoption of organic agriculture isn’t a practical plan from a more fundamental standpoint. As it stands, organic farms rely on nutrients trickling down from conventional farms. Many organic products rely, indirectly, on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. As organic agriculture gains a larger share of food production then, some scientists suggest, crop yields could drop even further.

We overestimate the sustainability of organic and underestimate the sustainability gains of conventional farming in less than helpful ways. The sooner we move away from defining sustainable agriculture by ideology and towards measuring it by metrics, the better.

Race and the Proletarianization of the American Farmer

A recent discussion I had brought to mind this post from SciAm’s Food Matters blog on the low numbers of African American organic farmers and efforts to increase those numbers:

Despite contributions made by African Americans, the most recent Census of Agriculture found that of the 2.2 million farms in the United States, 83 percent have white males as principal operators; African Americans constitute only 1.4 percent of principal farm operators and are particularly underrepresented within organic farming.

This wasn’t always the case; in 1920, the number of African American farmers in the US was at its highest when they constituted 14.3 percent of farm operators. Several factors contributed to this decline, including the general decrease in small farms, the shift to the mechanization of cotton, New Deal farm programs that mainly favored white landowners and, more recently, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture used discriminatory policies against black farmers from 1981 to 1996.

Organizations like the Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON) are working to address the disparity that exists for African Americans within organic farming. SAAFON was founded by Cynthia Hayes and Dr. Owusus Bandele nearly six years ago, following a training on organic production and sustainable agricultural practices.

What I had been discussing has to do with the unique challenges farmers face as yeoman producers in an industrial market.

Here is how R.C. Lewontin put it in the essay The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture: Farmer as Proletarian:

Like any other industrial processes, the production of farm machinery, chemicals, and seeds, and the turning of threshed wheat into a box of breakfast cereal at the supermarket checkout counter are completely controlled by capital and its demands. The problem for capital, however, has been that sitting in the middle of the transformation of petroleum into potato chips is an essential step, farming, in the hands of two million petty producers. They cannot be dispensed with, they own certain essential means of production whose ownership cannot be concentrated (land in particular), and, while they are economically rational, they consume their surplus rather than turning it into capital. Agriculture is unique among all the sectors of capitalist production by possessing at its productive center an essential process organized around large numbers of independent petty producers. It is as if the spinning of yarn, the weaving of cloth, and the sewing of garments were in the hands of a few large capital enterprises (as they are), but the dyeing and finishing of the raw woven material were unavoidably the exclusive province of hundreds of thousands of home producers who bought the unfinished cloth and sold their product to clothing factories.

Farm producers have historically been in possession of two powers that stood in the way of the development of capital in agriculture. First, farmers could make choices about the physical process of farm production, including what was grown and how much, and what inputs were to be used. These choices, of course, were always constrained, partly because of local conditions of climate and soil, and partly because of the local nature of markets for farm products. Second, farmers were themselves traditionally potential competitors with the commercial providers of inputs, because they could choose to produce seed, traction power, and fertilizer themselves. The problem for industrial capital, then, has been to wrest control of the choices from the farmers, forcing them into a farming process that uses a package of inputs of maximum value to the producers of those inputs, and tailoring the nature of farm products to match the demands of a few major purchasers of farm outputs who have the power to determine the price paid. Whatever production risks remain are, of course, retained by the farmer. As the farmer loses any power to choose the actual nature and tempo of the production process in which he or she is engaged, while at the same time losing any ability to sell the product in an open market, the farmer becomes a mere operative in a determined chain whose product is alienated from the producer. That is, the farmer becomes proletarianized. It is of little import that the farmer retains legal title to the land and buildings and so, in some literal sense, is the owner of some of the means of production. There is no alternative economic use for these means. The essence of proletarianization is in the loss of control over one’s labor process and the alienation of the product of that labor.

In the U.S. there are a number of policy interventions through the Farm Bill in place to help give farmers agency and stability in the marketplace. They mostly have to do with access to credit and managing risk. Co-ops exist to pool economic power in the marketplace.

It’s not hard to see how African American farmers, already at a historical disadvantage, would have been especially vulnerable, if not mortally crippled by in being cut off from institutional support. Discrimination in extending credit by the USDA was at the heart of Pigford vs. Glickman, the discrimination case referenced in the SciAm post. Already shut out from private sources of credit, under capitalized by historic circumstance, denied membership to co-ops, being denied the credit and other USDA programs was decimating to beleaguered African American farmers.

Ben Jealous of the NAACP summarizes the history that the Pigford settlement attempted to address:

Like so many great ideas in our nation’s history, the USDA farm loan program was the product of compromise. Mired in the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt developed a plan to help struggling farmers pay off their debts and stave off bankruptcy. But the initiative first had to earn the blessing of White southern senators who dominated Congress.

These senators insisted the federal funds should funnel through southern plantation owners and wealthy white farmers. The white farmers would then distribute the loans to their black tenants and sharecroppers.

In practice, they were often not inclined to pass the funds along.

This dynamic only grew more toxic in the 1960s. As civil rights protests rocked the nation, USDA staff intentionally withheld loans from black farmers who voted, helped register other voters, or joined the NAACP.This discrimination continued in the years that followed, and it had a devastating effect on farmers of color. According to the Census of Agriculture, between 1920 and 1992 the number of African American farmers declined from 925,000 to only 18,000.

Despite this history of flagrant discrimination, President Ronald Reagan abolished the USDA Office of Civil Rights in 1981, leaving farmers with no options for legal recourse. The office remained shuttered until 1996.

That 16-year period of lax oversight was the basis of the Pigford v Glickman lawsuit. During that time, thousands of farmers of color were denied access to loans, information on farm programs, technical assistance, and adequate loan servicing from the USDA. Some were denied loan applications outright, while others were asked to fill out an application only to watch the local USDA supervisor throw it in the trash.

I also had to wonder though, if there wasn’t another less sinister factor where systemic racism played a more indirect, subtler role. As modern farming has become more sophisticated, a bachelor’s degree in Agricultural Sciences has become increasingly crucial to success for many farmers. I can’t help but think that if you were an African American kid coming off a farm in the last 40 years and you did beat the odds and overcome the obstacles you faced, when you got to college there would have been a lot of social pressure to take up an area of study that would get you off the farm instead of positioning you for greater success there.

There have been a major contributions to American agriculture by African Americans, most notably by George Washington Carver as the SciAm post noted. Carver spent 47 years heading up the Agriculture Department at the Tuskegee Institute. But by the time African Americans started to achieve something resembling real opportunities in higher education, the vocational philosophy of Carver’s boss Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute had fallen out of favor. The vocational training of Tuskegee was eclipsed by the philosophy of W.E.B. Dubois and a push, first towards liberal arts degrees and then towards business degrees. For the 1996-97 school year 19% of African American undergrads choose Business as a major as opposed to 0.3% for Agricultural Sciences. In 2004 Business majors had increased to 25% of African American students, while Ag students continued to make up just 0.3% of the black student population.

That wouldn’t match the impact of systemically being shut out from the institutional support necessary for success in modern farming, but it’s likely one more vector to consider in understanding and addressing the absence of African Americans in the U.S. farming system.

Notes:
1. Organic Synthesis: Towards An Inclusion Of African Americans In Organic Farming
Layla Eplett | Food Matters – Scientific American | November 5, 2013
2. The Maturing of Capitalist Agriculture: Farmer as Proletarian
RC Lewontin | Monthly Review | July 7, 2006
3. Pigford vs. Glickman
Wikipedia
4. Black farm ownership overcoming decades of discrimination
Ben Jealous | The Sun Sentinel | March 20, 2013
5. The Solid Progress of African Americans in Degree Attainments
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education | 2006
6. Business Remains the Preferred Degree of African-American College Students, but Black Students Are Looking to Other Fields
The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education | Spring, 2000
7. George Washington Carver
Wikipedia

Daily Essentials | Tuesday | 1 October 2013

1.WHAT THE FEDERAL SHUTDOWN MEANS FOR PEOPLE WHO EAT AND GROW FOOD
Sam Brasch | Modern Farmer

The USDA Can’t…

Help pregnant women or women with new children buy healthy food. Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) doesn’t have funding to continue during the shutdown. The $6 billion dollar program buys healthy food for pregnant women or new mothers if they are poor or at risk of buying unhealthy food. The Huffington Post reports that states can step in for a few days, but if the shutdown goes on too long, mothers and kids could be turned away.

Keep in touch with consumers. In the event of a shutdown, the USDA will basically shutter its office of communications. The website will go dark, reporters won’t have anyone to contact, and all USDA publications and press releases will stop. So even if the agency can find a listeria outbreak, it’s won’t have all channels available to let you know about it.

Keep their databases open. This might not seem like a big deal, but for farmers, it’s huge. Markets rely on reports from the USDA to set the price of soy, wheat, corn, beef, etc. Without an October report traders would be adjusting prices in the dark and farmers would be selling without knowing the real value of their crops.

2.THE RISE OF FOOD ALLERGIES AND FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS
Noah Davis | Pacific Standard

Dr. Scott H. Sicherer, a professor of pediatrics and chief of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at The Mount Sinai Medical Center’s Jaffe Food Allergy Institute, told me that his team conducted a random calling in 1997. It showed one in 250 children were allergic to peanuts. When they did the same study in 2008, the number jumped to one in 70. “That sounds crazy, because it’s a tripling, but the numbers from other countries are similar,” the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (AAAAI) fellow said, pointing to similar studies with similar results from Canada, the U.K., and Australia.

3.

4. DO HIPSTERS ON FOOD STAMPS SHOP AT WHOLE FOODS?
Dana Woldow | BeyondChron

How many of Saunders’ imagined able-bodied childless moochers can possibly be getting SNAP benefits? According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, as recently as 2011, children and elderly or disabled adults comprised 64% of SNAP recipients. Of the remaining 36%, 22% are adults in families with children; just 14% of SNAP recipients are able bodied, childless adults of working age. With about 48 million individuals getting SNAP, that would be about 6.7 million potential “deadbeats”.

But according to the USDA, “Generally, able-bodied adults aged 18 to 50 who do not have children and are not pregnant can only get SNAP benefits for 3 months in a 3-year period unless they are working or participating in a work or workfare program.”

5. THE PLIGHT OF THE POLLINATORS
Jason Mark | Civil Eats

“Earlier this year people were getting very worried, because they weren’t seeing monarchs very far north,” says Lincoln Brower, a research professor of biology at Sweet Briar College and a butterfly expert. “Our predictions have proven to be true. There have been very few sightings in August and now into September. Right now things are looking very grim. I have seen a total of five monarchs in my garden since October 2012. I would normally see a couple of hundred, at least.”

Several species of native bumblebees are also suffering.

“As dramatic as the honeybee declines have been, they pale in comparison to what we have seen with our native bumblebees,” says Eric Mader, a program director at the Xerces Society, an Oregon-based group working to raise awareness about the role of native pollinators. “Honeybees are not going extinct, and that’s the crucial difference with our native pollinators.”

HOUSE MEMBERS ADVOCATE FOR ORGANIC AGRICULTURE IN FARM BILL
National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

A bipartisan group of Representatives delivered a “Dear Colleague” letter to House leadership on Friday September 27th, calling for House farm bill conferees to support key programs for organic agriculture in any upcoming negotiations.

Thanks to the leadership of Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR), Richard Hanna (R-NY), Sam Farr (D-CA), and Ron Kind (D-WI) , as well as strong grassroots pressure from NSAC members and partners in the organic sector, dozens of Representatives from both parties and all parts of the country have joined together in calling for key investments in the future of organic agriculture as an essential part of the 2013 Farm Bill.

7. RECIPE: WHOLE WHEAT PENNE OR FUSILLI WITH FRESH TOMATOES, SHELL BEANS AND FETA
Martha Rose Shulman | The New York Times

Shell beans and tomatoes are still available at the end of September in farmers’ markets, and I’ll continue to make pasta with uncooked tomatoes until there are no sweet tomatoes to be found. Shell beans are a rare treat, soft and velvety, to be savored during their short season.