Saturday, November 19, 2011


WTO Rules Against Country-of-Origin Meat Labeling Law: Third Ruling Against U.S. Consumer Safeguards in 2011

November 18, 2011
12:11 PM
CONTACT: Public Citizen
Bryan Buchanan (202) 454-5108
WASHINGTON - November 18 - The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) ruling today against another highly popular U.S. consumer policy – country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat cuts and products – will only intensify public opposition to more of the same backwards trade pacts, Public Citizen said. A panel report released today announced that Mexico and Canada have succeeded in their WTO attack on the labeling rule; today’s WTO ruling is the third this year against popular U.S. consumer or environmental measures.
“Today’s ruling makes very clear that these so-called ‘trade’ pacts have little to do with trade between countries and a lot to do with our major agribusiness corporations being free to sell mystery meat in the United States, with neither consumers nor our elected representatives in Congress able to ensure its safety, much less even know where it is from,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.
After 50 years of state efforts to institute COOL for meats, and federal experimentation with voluntary COOL for meat, Congress passed a mandatory COOL program as part of the 2008 farm bill. In their successful WTO challenge, Mexico and Canada argued that the mandatory program violated the limits that the WTO sets on what sorts of product-related “technical regulations” WTO signatory countries are permitted to apply. In their filings to the WTO, Canada and Mexico suggested that the U.S. should drop its mandatory labels in favor of a return to voluntary COOL, or to standards suggested by the Codex Alimentarius, which is an international food standards body at which numerous international food companies play a central role. Neither option would ensure that U.S. consumers are guaranteed the same level of information as the current U.S. labels.
Today’s decision follows WTO rulings this year against U.S. “dolphin-safe” tuna labels and a U.S. ban on clove, candy and cola flavored cigarettes.
“These three rulings – with the WTO slapping down safe hamburgers, Flipper and children’s smoking prevention policy – make it increasingly clear to the public that the WTO is leading a race to the bottom in consumer protection,” said Wallach.
In today’s ruling, the trade panel specifically found that COOL labeling requirements violated the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), one of 17 agreements administered by the WTO. While the WTO has ruled on nearly 200 disputes, the TBT had played a major role in only a few cases thus far.
“There has been widespread concern that this provision could empower a WTO panel to second-guess the U.S. Congress, courts and public by elevating the goal of maximizing trade flows over consumer and environmental protection,” said Todd Tucker, research director for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “Today’s ruling shows that consumers’ concerns were well-founded.”.
“The Obama administration is in the process of negotiating its first-ever trade deal – the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement – and so far it looks like it will replicate many of the anti-consumer rules present in the WTO terms and the North American Free Trade Agreement,” noted Wallach. “These WTO rulings show the need for President Obama to start fulfilling his campaign pledges to create a trade policy Americans can believe in and stop expanding the old trade pact model.”
Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization founded in 1971 to represent consumer interests in Congress, the executive branch and the courts.

Thursday, November 17, 2011


Secret Farm Bill Goes from Bad to Medieval

The Congressional Super Committee was created to make tough budget choices, but the leaders of the Ag Committees appear to be going in the opposite direction with more lavish subsidy giveaways to mega farms.
In their effort to exploit the secrecy surrounding the Congressional Super Committee’s deliberations to get the best farm bill they think they can get for Big Ag, agricultural leaders in Congress are apparently poised to make things much worse for the rest of us taxpayers.
Yesterday’s (Nov 15) The Hill newspaper reads, “’Secret farm bill’ primed for passage in debt deal.”
…legislators are using the supercommittee to avoid what would be a more public, election-year debate in 2012, when the current farm bill expires and new legislation would be scheduled for writing, according to critics of the effort.
Apparently, the only thing that could prime this pig for slaughter is to lard it up with every imaginable giveaway to the lobbyists for industrial agriculture’s trade groups. After weeks of fierce lobbying and disagreements and competition among growers of different crops to secure the biggest giveaways for themselves, the latest reports indicate that Christmas may be coming early for those with access to, and influence over, the secretive farm bill negotiations.
Earlier reports of what the farm bill proposal to the Super Committee might contain – remember, none of this has been debated in public hearings or committee meetings, and nothing has been released on paper – pointed to a new gift to commodity farmers in the form of a novel income guarantee on top of the existing, heavily subsidized crop insurance program.
The notion of taxpayer-paid guarantee of getting no less than 90 percent of their average income -  currently at record income levels – triggered a backlash, but even so, for some big agribusinesses, it’s apparently too paltry a gift. There are now reports that in response to the backlash, the income guarantee will only apply to corn, soybean, and wheat growers – who are currently riding historically high prices.
But rice and cotton growers aren’t exactly losing out. The rice growers, who don’t like having to pony up some of their own money for crop insurance and don’t have to worry as much about yield losses, would instead get higher price guarantees from the government. And cotton growers would get higher target prices and stronger revenue insurance.
Just for good measure, the current annual limits on how much any one farm operation can receive in subsidies would be eliminated. You read it right: unlimited subsidies for the largest mega farms despite year after year of record income.
For those of us looking in from the outside, it simply boggles the mind that agriculture leaders can somehow justify using a deficit reduction package as the vehicle for such a blatant giveaway to one favored industry. Have you heard anyone proposing to increase the amounts of government cash available to BP and Shell, or to guarantee the revenue of Bank of America and CitiCorp, as ways to cut federal spending?
Thankfully the Congressional Budget Office has done its part to slow this absurd giveaway to agribusiness. The Hagstrom Report (subscription required) reported last night (Nov 16) that:
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told reporters today that the leaders had gotten a score from the Congressional Budget Office that was over the amount that can be spent.
The question now is whether the Congressional leadership and the Obama Administration can stomach such folly.
Speaker Boehner has never voted for a farm bill and has repeatedly called them fiscally irresponsible. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has featured agriculture subsidies on his “You Cut” initiative. Will they now allow subsidies to go up rather than down?
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has championed policies that are fairer for working Americans and protective of the environment. What does she think about a new income guarantee for a subset of farmers in a package that cuts food stamps and farm conservation programs?
President Obama has consistently supported payment limits on farm programs. Will he allow them to be gutted now?
What all of this boils down to is that we need to expose these proposals to the cold light of day – to see them on paper, if that’s not too much to ask – before writing them into law. Let’s hope the Super Committee doesn’t fall for this latest gambit. The Agriculture Committees should write a farm bill through an open, orderly process next year.



Theft in progress: Big Ag raids the treasury—with help from Congress


If the straight-up taxpayer swindle taking place in the supercommittee isn't making you angry, you're probably not paying attention. I'm talking about the attempt by agribusiness and a group of willing farm-state representatives to put billions of taxpayer dollars into the pockets of industrial farmers during the ongoing super committee Farm Bill negotiations.
According to The Hill, the moment of truth is upon us: The supercommittee is indeed poised to rewrite the Farm Bill behind closed doors and with no input from reform-minded congresspeople, let alone the public. Many of us have known this was going on, but the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found some new developments that are nothing short of shocking.
EWG reports on the new "shallow loss" subsidy which would protect commodity growers from small price drops via a "taxpayer-paid guarantee of getting no less than 90%[!!] of their income." This new subsidy is now considered a political hot potato thanks to coverage from sources like like EWG and Grist. As a consequence, only corn, soy, and wheat farmers -- those whose prices are now sky high -- will be eligible. So cotton and rice farmers want a consolation prize. They will get that and much more. The EWG writes:
... The rice growers, who don't like having to pony up some of their own money for crop insurance and don't have to worry as much about yield losses, would instead get higher price guarantees from the government. And cotton growers would get higher target prices and stronger revenue insurance.
Just for good measure, the current annual limits on how much any one farm operation can receive in subsidies would be eliminated. You read it right: unlimited subsidies for the largest mega farms despite year after year of record income [Emphasis mine].
America, land of the thieves and home to the greedy.
Not that Congress is completely neglecting those in need: It's throwing a French-fry and pizza party for low-income school kids across America by almost totally undoing the USDA's long-overdue reform for school lunch nutrition guidelines. Because pizza and fried potatoes are now the cornerstone of a healthy diet -- didn't you know?
But back to the Farm Bill: Let's put the scale of the misappropriation of taxpayer dollars in context for a moment. According to this story in the Wall Street Journal, income on big industrial farms is up 31 percent in 2011 to $103.6 billion; these are inflation-adjusted levels not seen since the OPEC Oil Embargo of 1973.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Tribune reports that farmland prices are through the roof -- higher than they've ever been, in fact:
U.S. farmland prices in the third quarter surged to the highest levels in more than three decades amid an accelerating agricultural boom that has so far defied fears of a bubble about to burst.
Prices hit record highs in the U.S. Plains, where wheat and cattle dominate production, and jumped 25 percent in the Midwest Corn Belt, where bumper grain crops and recovering livestock markets put more money in farmers' wallets and enticed investors to bid up for the fertile ground, according to two Federal Reserve bank surveys issued on Tuesday.
Things are so good for industrial farmers these days that, as that WSJ piece found, they're buying back outlying suburban and exurban land that had been snapped up by developers for housing and are putting it back into production.
In short, these are the corn soy cotton salad days for Big Ag. And while they're reveling in their profits, they've decided to top it off by raiding the national treasury. And it's a very small group of senators and representatives who are handing over the combination to the government bank vault. In other words, even when we have the chance to "throw the bums out" in November 2012, most of us will be out of luck -- because our lawmakers won't even have been involved.

A 17-year veteran of both traditional and online media, Tom is a Contributing Writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. Tom's long and winding road to food politics writing passed through New York, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, Florence, Italy and Philadelphia (which has a vibrant progressive food politics and sustainable agriculture scene, thank you very much). In addition to Grist, his writing has appeared online in the American Prospect, Slate, the New York Times and The New Republic. He is on record as believing that wrecking the planet is a bad idea. Follow him on Twitter.


garlicPeebottle Farms: Talking to plants

A friend sent Nina an urgent text message that saif: "Alert! Today is a good day for planting garlic!" KK Haspel talk to the plants on her farm. She also grows astoundingly delicious vegetables and bonkers-gorgeous flowers. The connection between these facts is not something I can confirm, but I'm happy to believe there is one.
Before she gave me a crash course in her brand of biodynamic farming (on the telephone) from Southold, Long Island the other day, all I knew was that biodynamic made organic look like amateur hour and had something to do with Rudolph Steiner and the moon. It sounded, as my dad would say, pretty hoogy-moogy. And that was before I learned about dowsing rods, let alone the cow horns or the herb-stuffed buried intestines.
Yet, after hearing KK talk about cosmic forces, moon rhythms, the balance of the earth, and the all-knowing plant life that surrounds us, I wanted to convert immediately. Right off the bat, she told me it has nothing to do with astrology or "fortunes." But the logic behind biodynamic farming -- part scientific and part spiritual-makes sense of nature and is intriguing because it feels far beyond my understanding. The science will have to come next, and I have a long winter of reading ahead of me.
KK started her farm in 1999 when she and her husband went looking for a getaway house. "When we turned up that driveway, everything changed," KK said of finding the barn where they have lived ever since. The couple soon made it their full-time home, and KK launched herself into a deep education in farming, which started at The Nature Lyceum before she attended the Pfeiffer Center. (Both are schools in her area that focus on biodynamic farming and the work of Rudolph Steiner.)
KK doesn't trust any soil or fertilizer that comes in a package, even if the package says "natural" or "organic." Aside from manure from a neighbor's horses and a few supplemental minerals, KK's farm is self-sufficient, and dependent on recycled materials to keep the soil balanced.
When she began planting and harvesting based on a biodynamic calendar (mine's in the mail!) and making biodynamic compost, KK saw a marked difference in the colors and flavors of the food she was producing. Biodynamic compost requires a much more specific formula than what many of us do with our kitchen scraps. (I'm planning to attend a workshop in the spring. In the meantime, check out the reading list on her website.)
neighbor kidsSome kids from the neighborhood helped Nina prepare her garden for winter.Photo: Nina LalliKK says that many people have dead soil, or their compost is too dry or hot, and the minerals get damaged. "Nature knows everything," she says. "We just don't." She says her work with dowsing rods (metal rods which move back and forth and "answer" her questions) is her way of cooperating. For example, she asks her plants "do you need water today?" and waters according to the yes-or-no answer the rods provide. "The plants know the weather. If it's going to rain the next day, they'll say no. No one waters like God. Rain brings down all kinds of stuff, like nitrogen and pollen, so for them getting water from a hose is like filling up on McDonald's right before going to the greatest restaurant in the world."
Sigh. I can't tell you how many times I effectively filled up my garden with McDonalds food right before a rainstorm this summer. At this point in the conversation, I was feeling a little sorry for my land, and jealous of KK's intimate relationship to hers. One thing I do have going for me, thankfully, is poop. Chickens (I have six) are alarmingly prolific manure producers, and once it has broken down in the compost pile, their manure makes fantastic fertilizer.
KK talks about the steep learning curve she had to endure when she started practicing biodynamics, and her determination to teach others what she knows now, literally, in an effort to save the world. My personal garden mentor (and a fake uncle of sorts), Steve, has already learned a lot from her. He sent me an urgent text message recently that read: "Alert! KK says today is a good day for planting garlic!" I got her on the phone for garlic instructions and advice on readying the garden for winter. According to KK, winter is the most active time for the earth's soil. "It actually takes a big breath in," she said, and snow is "God's mulch."
chickensThe chickens helped too.Photo: Nina LalliKK suggested I let my chickens help clean up the plants that were wilting in my garden beds, a perfect plan that led to by far the greatest day in the life of the flock. I cut back plants that will come back next year, like sage and sorrel, and let the hens peck around at leaves, bugs, and worms. They cooed with joy and roamed the backyard all day.  
I cleared the garden beds, harvesting the last sage and arugula for myself, and threw the remaining greens into the chicken run. Then it was time for garlic. I made a row in each of the three beds, about 4 inches deep, and loosened up the soil. (Garlic likes sun, so I placed it accordingly.) Then I planted eight cloves in each, sprout ends up, about five or six inches apart, and covered them over. Then, according to KK's instructions, I distributed the mature compost I had among the beds. She also suggests sprinkling kelp onto the soil.
The kids next door asked to help, and their mother approved, so together, we covered the beds with leaves, as mulch. (Then they dug up worms to feed to the chickens, with equal parts disgust and fascination.) And their mother watched from the window, to make sure I wasn't a psychopath.
In the midst of all this, I filled a jar with a mixture of samples taken from different parts of the garden. Tei, and I didn't have the soil tested when we cleaned up the backyard; we just dug a few feet into the ground and put in new, store-bought soil, but we didn't seal the beds from the surrounding dirt. So we're are long overdue to send the sample off and face the diagnosis. My Brooklyn land has seen some serious abuse in its time -- if it'll take some sweet-talking and cow guts to nurse it to health, I'm game. 
Nina Lalli lives with one man, two dogs, and six chickens in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. She has written about food for the Village Voice and Serious Eats, among others. She has a day job and posts smaller farm updates on her blog,