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Stateside: Funny capers at the USDA

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

Funny capers at the USDA

As President-elect Obama prepares to take his oath of office with his hand on the bible used at Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inauguration as the 16th President, he might do well to reflect on these lines from a poem Lincoln wrote in 1846:

The very spot where grew the bread/That formed my bones, I see/How strange, old field, on thee to tread/And feel I'm part of thee!
Abraham Lincoln, “My Childhood’s Home”, 1846

This closing stanza of the poem Lincoln wrote after visiting his childhood home in Indiana could well be the motto of the modern movement for food sanity in the United States. Few people in the modern world get to tread the fields where grows the bread that forms their bones, and few people would want to go back to the arduous life of pioneer farmers like the Lincolns who by force of circumstance had to grow their own food, but the Eat Local movement has been steadily growing in strength in the first years of the 21st century. So much so that the term “locavore” was declared the 2007 Word of the Year by the Oxford American Dictionary.

Obama might also take the time to watch this video of Paul Roberts, author of “The End of Food”, speaking at the Commonwealth Club of California on June 18, 2008, in which Roberts says: “Let’s face it: The food companies will sell you anything you’re willing to buy that won’t kill you outright. They absolutely will.”

And maybe he’ll give serious consideration to the letter written to him by the President of the Weston A. Price Foundation just after his election. In it, Sally Fallon Morell asks Obama to put an end to prisoner torture by the Illinois Department of Corrections with one phone call. The torture Morell refers to is the forced consumption of soy products at levels far above those approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, which she says began in 2003.

“The soy products are produced by Archer Daniel Midlands, which contributed heavily to the campaign of Rod Blagojevich. The change from a diet based largely on beef to one based on soy happened in 2003, when Mr. Blagojevich began his first term as governor.”

Which brings me to the odd goings on at the U.S. Department of Agriculture last week. Although it merited little news coverage in the mainstream media, Obama’s December 17 nomination of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as the new head of the USDA set the blogosphere alight with opposition to the appointment. More neutral, posted this backgrounder of Vilsack in his own words.

But another appointment, announced on December 18, has gone totally unnoticed except by a local paper in Bend, Oregon, and a couple of trade papers, Farm Futures in Illinois and Ecosystem Marketplace. On that date, the current Secretary of Agriculture announced his intention to create a new USDA Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets:

“Secretary Shafer intends to name Sally Collins Director of the Office of Ecosystem Services and Markets (OESM). Organizationally, OESM will be located within the Office of the Secretary providing direct access to the Secretary. Collins will assume this position after serving as Associate Chief of the USDA Forest Service for the past 8 years, where she pioneered concepts for ecosystem services and markets as part of that agency's sustainable land management mission.”

The scariest paragraph in the USDA press release is this one:

“Agriculture producers provide many ecosystem services which have historically been viewed as free benefits to society - clean water and air, wildlife habitat, carbon storage, and scenic landscapes. Lacking a formal structure to market these services, farmers, ranchers and forest landowners are not generally compensated for providing these critical public benefits. Market-based approaches to conservation are proven to be a cost-effective method to achieve environmental goals and sustain working and natural landscapes. Without financial incentives, these ecosystem services may be lost as privately-owned lands are sold or converted to development.”

In one fell swoop, the USDA is turning on its head the notion that clean water and air are the right of everyone, instead turning them into marketable commodities, dependent entirely on the whims of the marketplace. At the very time when a sentence like “Market-based approaches to finance are proven to be a cost-effective method to achieve wealth-accumulation goals and sustain a working free-market economy” would be laughed out of town, the Department of Agriculture is dressing up this transfer of natural capital into the hands of the few as some kind of benefit to society.

Combined with the USDA’s November call for applications for Advanced Biorefinery Guaranteed Loans, which aim to assist commercial enterprises set up research into and development of energy crops that “represent a key long-term component to a sustainable biofuels industry”, the OESM seems to have given itself a dual mandate to reconceptualize air and water as something you pay for, and the conversion of agricultural and forested land to purposefully maintain the outdated technology of the internal combustion engine.

For Sally Collins’ take on forestry in her own words, listen to this September podcast on here.



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