January 13, 2011

Agribiz: Food or the Environment But Not Both
In a piece on the EPA's attempts to save the Chesapeake Bay as well as USDA's new policy of acknowledging risks of genetic contamination or organics by GMO crops, Tom Philpott has a key insight about industrial agriculture:
In both the case of the Chesapeake Bay watershed's vast chicken factories and that of GM alfalfa, industrial agriculture is admitting that it needs to trash its neighbors and the surrounding landscape to thrive. It wants us to believe that there are no alternatives if we want to feed ourselves plentifully.
The idea that protecting the environment is a luxury we can't afford is a standard defense for corporations in many sectors -- though typically only trotted out by the dirtiest industrial polluters (e.g. coal and oil companies).

This argument tends to be more effective when the environment that's being trashed has already been depopulated by economic forces (as in the sad decline of rural America). And as the natural gas drilling industry has discovered, it's a lot easier to steamroll the widely disbursed residents of West Texas than it is when you're drilling near population centers in New York or Pennsylvania. Still, the thing agribusiness has going for it is that, by and large, it has moved its biggest operations away from media and public attention.

But I do wonder in the two cases Philpott addresses, if agribusiness is using this threat as more an act of desperation than clever strategy. In the case of the Chesapeake, for which it is the primary cause of pollution at this point, industrial agriculture is mostly benefiting now from the unwillingness of local governments to take responsibility for the mess created by overuse of fertilizer and under-treatment of factory farm waste.

In fact, the "sky is falling" rhetoric is a direct response to the EPA's move to penalize state and local governments for polluting the bay. As this WaPo article documented, the actual desire is to force farmers to pay, not consumers. When faced with the continued death of an eco-system from which millions of residents of several states benefit, claims of falling skies may not quite be enough.

As for the new USDA policy that supports protecting organic agriculture from contamination by genetically modified crops -- on this point, agribusiness is all bluster. The USDA is partly doing this out of good intentions, but mostly because the science, and far more importantly, the courts, are demanding this policy shift. Even the Supreme Court, packed as it is with an industry-friendly majority, had to acknowledge the real risks of genetic contamination to other, legitimate forms of agriculture. And the series of losses in court over GM sugar beets has forced the USDA to bend, if not break, the law to maintain any plantings.

This fight is one to be welcomed. It represents the coming of age of organic ag. It doesn't mean the reign of agribusiness is anywhere near over -- but it does mean that organic agriculture is big enough and financially successful enough to represent a sector worthy of legal and policy protections. After all, there's now real money at stake!

Look at me getting all sunny. Must be something in the water... Too bad agribusiness doesn't want to clean it up.

Photo credit: Disney

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Anonymous FL Neuro said...

In 1970, Congress mandated a 90% cut in auto emissions in 3 years. After complaining that Congress was going to destroy the auto industry, US ingenuity delivered the catalytic converter. It's chronicled nicely here: It is because of this bold move that America's air no longer supplies our children with vast amounts of toxic lead.

Today, lobbying, marketing, and political bullshit appear to have completely crushed any ability of even untainted regulators (do they exist?) to achieve this kind of bold action. Forty years ago, Congress boldly fought to cut our children's exposure to toxic lead. Today, they are emasculated in their ability to cut our children's exposure to neuron-destroying pesticides.

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