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The New York Times recently created a series of videos focusing on three aspects of the dire state of conventional agriculture in the US that are worthy of your attention. The first is on the little understood (and it is complicated) knot of legislation, lobbying and gaslighting of both the American farmer and consumer that has made conventional “farming” the take-all winner of what we purchase for food. The second is a graphic look at the gross state of poultry farming found in the US. The third is an investigation of insects as a future part of the solution of the human need for protein. You can watch them here.
The Three Percenters
In writing some posts in KD, I was curious about the different terms that pop up around alternative agriculture: the splintering of organic farming, the somewhat inscrutable beginnings of biodynamic farming, what sustainable agriculture entails, and where hydroponic farming fits in. Making it all more complicated, of course, I would trip over some of the tricks used by the multi-billion-dollar companies under the term Big Ag to use these buzzwords to their financial advantage. It still is shocking to me that all forms of organic and sustainable farming, which many of us support with our grocery purchases, comprise barely 3% (and some research indicates a lower percentage) of food production in the US today. And you have to consider that the standards for “organic” here are being eroded. By comparison, Sweden’s percentage is 0ver 20% and Italy’s over 15%.
The Ninety-Seven Percenters
First of all, I had no idea that the name of the premier lobbying firm for Big Ag sounds like it is a government agency, and it probably really is a de facto one: the American Farm Bureau Federation. Googling both the group and the improbable name of its current president, Zippy Duvall, was indeed a plunge down the rabbit hole. It was a bumpy tumble following how this hardscrabble association of farmers formed in 1919 became the bare knuckles powerhouse touching every branch of the US government today. AFBF was actually formed as a kind of trade organization. Their mission statement was to state that
The purpose of Farm Bureau is to make the business of farming more profitable, and the community a better place to live. Farm Bureau should provide an organization in which members may secure the benefits of unified efforts in a way that could never be accomplished through individual effort
What started as an equipment, information and seed-sharing group also developed its own regional insurance associations for member farmers, somewhat like our understanding of mutual insurance companies. Today the AFBF is the third largest for-profit (forget the shareholder-owned insurance idea) insurance group in the US. Over the years AFBF has hauled in billions in federal subsidies for crop insurance. And through its lobbying efforts and successful grooming of political candidates AFBF has permeated both state and federal goverment agencies. Of course it also grooms its membership to adhere to its dictates. Articles such as this one in Flatland, a digital PBS magazine about the silencing of opposing points of view, are not easy to find.
The Voice Of American Agriculture
But back to Zippy. A reading of the AFBF’s response to the NYTimes Opinion video gives you an idea of how it has mastered the art of obfuscation. As any current weather overview will inform you, our farmland is now facing several crises. Aquifers are drying up faster than the underground system of water can replenish them. In certain areas, drought has blighted huge tracts of what had been arable land. Under Zippy’s leadership (in fairness, he is following his predcessors), the AFBF has long been a climate change denier. As the aw-shucks face of this formidable lobbying juggernaut, he has piloted successsful efforts to defeat treaties and regulations that would mitigate global warming, and aligned the AFBF with fossil fuel corporations to deny the science behind climage change.
This editorial by members of STIR (Save The Illinois River) neatly summarises how the AFBF works to subvert the interests of actual farmers. But there may be some winds of change. Organic and progressive small farmers and ranchers realize that the AFBF is not going away with its multi-million dollar lobbying war chest. Some of them feel that it is worth joining to see if they can effect incremental change at the local bureau level, which has had some success. And in 2020 the Food and Agriculture Alliance was formed with the ATBF, The Nature Conservancy, the National Farmers Union ( a small progressive antagonist to the ATBF ) the Environmental Defense Fund and other smaller food and agriculture groups with diverse goals. Granted, the solutions offered by ATBF are yet again “incentives,” which the Opinion video rightly claimed, as the US taxpayer needs to pay us for cleaning up the mess we created. The hope is that in face of the climate and soil disasters created and maintained by industrial farming and the multi-national companies that support it, the villains in the play have to support the heroes.
After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years, Nancy Pollard writes a blog about food in all its aspects – recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food related issues.