February 19, 2010
By Ariane Lotti
USDA’s Agricultural Outlook Forum is one of the last places where I would expect to hear Wendell Berry quoted, but that’s exactly how Fedele Bauccio, CEO of Bon Appetit Management Company, ended his presentation on the 2010 forum’s distinguished panel about how the company is addressing topics from the “veil of silence” around unfair farm-worker practices to the need to fix Confined Animal Feeding Operations for the health of communities and the environment.
That distinguished panel — which included Walter Robb of Whole Foods Market and Richard Schnieders formerly of Sysco Corporation — discussed other issues that normally have a home at sustainable farmer conferences like PASA and EcoFarm, including support for scale-appropriate solutions to food safety, life cycle and whole systems analyses, and a food system that strengthens the “ag of the middle.” It was Schneider who noted that, “If a farmer cannot feed his family, buy insurance, and put his kids through college, then agriculture is not sustainable,” making direct reference to how difficult it is for the average U.S. farmer to earn a livelihood from the land.
Before the industry could declare mutiny, USDA made sure that the opening plenary presented the 2010 agriculture economic and trade outlooks — which, for 2010, predict a rebound from the recession and increases in farm sales and exports — and reaffirmed President Obama’s export goals and commitment to addressing trade barriers. But it was Secretary Vilsack who captured what would be USDA’s approach to the day’s discussions around sustainable agriculture (this year’s theme) — you can have your cake and eat it, too, and have your other cake and eat it, too.
Outlining a strategy to create a vibrant rural economy, Vilsack listed a mix of activities that have been reflected in the Department’s policies to date: expand domestic markets through local and regional food systems, and expand foreign markets through biotechnology production and promotion abroad. Vilsack further stressed the role of energy production in economic development, and discussed ways to generate off-farm income that, Vilsack said, enables farmers to keep the farm. This suite of approaches exemplifies the policy of coexistence, one the Department uses to explicitly define how it handles simultaneous promotion of biotechnology and trade as well as organic agriculture and regional food systems.
That coexistence, however, has limits. Speaking to a crowded room at one of the forum’s two “Organics & Sustainability Track” panels, NSAC’s Policy Director, Ferd Hoefner, applauded the Department’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food initiative, but ultimately stated that local and regional food system development will fall far short of its sustainability potential if the context within which these systems are built does not change. Changing that context — what we call the “structure of agriculture” — includes reforming farm subsidies and crop insurance, creating competitive markets, re-orienting agricultural research, and lifting restrictions on planting flexibility.
The day ended with NIFA Director and USDA Chief Scientist Beachy trying to make peace between the disparate views of agriculture presented throughout the day. Saying that no one will disagree with the principles listed in statutory definition of sustainable agriculture, Beachy suggested that disagreements over sustainability exist because the debate is focused on defining practices instead of measuring outcomes on sustainability’s multiple dimensions. (Outcomes, it should be noted, are the result of the application of farming systems that are in turn based on sets of practices, and the Department has a mixed history of helping to develop and support systems and practices that concentrate ownership and market power, degrade environmental resources, and divest from rural communities. It is precisely those policy choices that need to change, rather than be papered over.)
At the end of the “Sustainability & the Food System” panel, a 57-year-old conventional corn farmer from Iowa stood up and expressed amazement at the direction USDA was taking. He wasn’t sure if he was prepared, and he cited real education needs around sustainable agriculture. But, to the “High Fructose Corn Syrup lady” — who had raised a question earlier about USDA taking action on the link between obesity and high fructose corn syrup — he said, “I would love to buy you a drink.”
And USDA Deputy Secretary Merrigan closed by saying that if nothing else, we all wanted to talk about ag.