Misguided Power Politics Make Us Sick -- Grassroots Democracy Is the Cure

We are what we eat" is certainly not a new idea, but it's still true. The food-focused holiday season is a vivid reminder to all of us that if we want wholesome, sustainable food produced on family farms--rather than over-processed, factory farm products--we need to speak out for farm policy that promotes truly healthy food. I am asking you to do that by joining and helping to support a tireless advocate for a better food system--the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.

Reviewing the effects of bad policy

As many of you know, our food system and the federal policy that shapes it have many negative impacts on America's health. Industrial agriculture is helping to spread dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and industrial methods pollute rivers, streams, and groundwater. Also increasingly exposed are the links between our agriculture policy and the current epidemic of obesity as well as diminished nutrition through over-processing of foods.

Factory farming is a major contributor to health impacts. Agribusinesses set out to maximize profits by developing cheaper ways to produce meat. They created contained animal feedlots (CAFOs) that need little land, and substitute "cheap"

Our work is to keep family farms in business, protect access to healthy food, and help fix our food system.

subsidized grain for grazing. They came up with using antibiotics to promote growth, since these allow animals to grow slightly faster on the same amount of feed. These factory farms produce plenty of meat--but another "product" is super-resistant e. coli bacteria! By forcing animals into close quarters, they generate unsanitary conditions that must be compensated with the use of even more antibiotics to discourage the spread of disease. They also depend on manure ponds that have a horrible record of toxic spills.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, one of the National Campaign's key partners, estimates that 70% of all antibiotics in the U.S. are used in healthy pigs, poultry, and beef cattle. They also estimate that where one antibiotic worked in the past, three or more must often be tried today before we can cure people who are ill with pneumonia, tuberculosis, or ear infections.

In terms of water pollution, CAFOs are linked to contamination of 35,000 miles of rivers in 22 states, and groundwater in 17 states--but it goes way beyond CAFOs. American farmers for years have been told to "get big or get out" and urged to plant their farms "fencerow to fencerow." The result is the high-impact industrial farming responsible for today's estimates of 1.9 billion tons of soil eroded into our rivers and streams each year.

With an average of over 60% of Americans now considered obese, debate rages over causes and solutions, and what role the government can play in fixing the problem. New York Times journalist Michael Pollan clearly made the case in a recent article that the "supersizing" of the American diet began with the restructuring of our agriculture policy in the 1970s "from an agricultural-support system designed to discourage overproduction to one that encourages it." Unintended results have included the underwriting of agribusiness profits and market consolidation with cheap raw materials, strengthening huge farms at the expense of small ones, and inspiring "Big Food," as Pollan put it in his recent article, to "compete for the consumer's dollar by increasing portion sizes (and by) devising more and more highly processed food."

Changing the recipe

The recipe for our current ailing food system and mounting health problems is a witches' brew of poorly designed policy, combined with anti-competitive market forces, and heavily seasoned with power politics. Happily, we can change the ingredients and solve some of these problems with well-designed policy and healthy portions of grassroots democracy to weigh in against the special interests.

The National Campaign came into being to provide a forum where farmers, consumers, workers, organizers, advocates--the people who produce food and who eat it--can shape policy solutions for a sustainable food system and then get the word out to legislators about what we believe. The National Campaign itself is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for a food system that works.

On one level our work is abstract, since it focuses on national agriculture policy. At its heart, it is concrete, hands-on, and relevant to every single American, since it can keep our family farms in business, protect our access to healthy food, and help fix our food system. And we have concrete successes to show for it, like the Conservation Security Program that moves beyond "fencerow-to-fencerow" to make environmentally sound farming methods part of our public policy.

Please join your resources and convictions with ours. The single most essential ingredient in democratic action is you--people with the determination to be heard. Together we can make food and farm policy that works. Please visit www.sustainableagriculture.net or call 845/744-8448 to join our action alert network, or to help us launch 2004 from a position of strength.

See other articles from this issue: #110 January - February - 2004