Introducing the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture

Imagine that the federal government provided significant incentives and support for sustainable, family farm agriculture, rather than "agribusiness as usual." Hard to imagine? Perhaps, but through the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, hundreds of groups are working together to imagine how this could work and to advance specific policy proposals to make it a reality.

Federal policy has profound impacts on how food is produced and distributed. It influences who owns land, what technologies are used, the price of food, what information consumers can access -- virtually every aspect of the food system. And all too often, the impacts of federal policy are negative. This is largely because a narrow range of vested interests has dominated the policy process.

But the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture is working to change all that. It was launched in 1994 to shape and promote national policies to support a food system that is environmentally sound, economically viable, and socially just and humane.

Co-ops already make a difference in the food system by featuring organic and locally produced food. Stores and their customers also can take actions to support important policy changes.

It was clear then, as now, that only well-organized, unified action by many groups and individuals can counter the powerful vested interests pushing for "agribusiness as usual." The National Campaign brings together a broad range of interests, including large national groups like the Sierra Club and National Farmers Union, grassroots associations like food co-ops and farmers' markets, as well as farmers, consumers, environmentalists, civil rights activists, faith groups, and others. We know what works at the grassroots. And we know how to translate grassroots leadership into practical, results-oriented policies and programs.

Jim Hightower observed at our 2000 annual meeting, "This Campaign is one of the more inspiring things I've seen in all my years of working on food and agricultural issues. You are doing exactly what's got to be done: take grassroots activity, give it a focus, and turn it loose." Since our inception, we have won passage and funding of programs to support sustainable agriculture and family farms. Equally important, we have begun to dramatically shift the terms of the national policy debate towards an agricultural system that is good for family farmers, for workers and consumers, and for the environment. We are persuading policymakers that organic and sustainable agriculture are practical, viable, and worthy of their support.

Two critical developments are creating political space for more victories this year. One is the abysmal failure of the 1996 Farm Bill and the widespread recognition of the need for change in agriculture policy. The second is the recent change in control of the Senate. Key committees will now be led by senators who have been champions of sustainable agriculture and family farming: Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) is now chair of the Agriculture Committee and Sen. Herb Kohl (D-WI) chair of the Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee.

The National Campaign is moving to fill this political space with proactive policy initiatives and broad grassroots support. We build on innovative, practical solutions created at the grassroots by farmers and local groups and translate them into policy initiatives that will lead to broader change. Our Farm Bill work emphasizes these four issue areas:

  • Stewardship Incentives: Policy principles crafted by the National Campaign have been included in the Conservation Security Act of 2001 (S. 932), which would reward farmers and ranchers for the environmental benefits they provide to society by utilizing good stewardship practices on active farmland. The bill has broad support and numerous co-sponsors.
  • Research and Marketing: We are advocating for a new competitive grants program to fund collaborative development of agricultural enterprise that will foster healthy farms and farming communities. Model legislative language is being drafted.
  • Family Farm Income: The National Campaign is proposing introduction of specific measures in the next Farm Bill to address agricultural concentration issues and support fair and open markets. Over 70 organizations have signed on in support. We also are evaluating other reforms needed to ensure that federal programs serve family-scale farms.
  • Agricultural and Rural Entrepreneurship: We are exploring ways to create institutional change by removing barriers to family-scale agriculture; ensuring equal access to programs for all farmers; and promoting appropriately-scaled, agriculture-based development.

In addition to this Farm Bill work, the National Campaign has been active in advocating for strong organic standards, and for mandatory testing and labelling of genetically engineered foods. Now that the Organic Rule has been finalized, our efforts have shifted from mobilizing large-scale grassroots input to promoting program implementation guidelines that will maintain high standards and be fair to family farmers and independent, non-profit certifiers.

What you can do

If you work in a store that features organic, sustainable, and/or locally produced foods, you are already making an essential contribution to changing the food system. You can take another step by informing your customers about simple actions they can take to support policy change. Calls and letters from constituents really do have an impact -- sometimes even a small number of contacts can change a vote.

Actions you can take:

  • Distribute National Campaign alerts and information in your store via flyers, bag stuffers, or newsletter articles. (You can get alerts from our web site or by signing up for our e-mail alert list.)
  • Distribute postcards that customers can use to sign up for National Campaign alert lists.
  • Join with other organizations to meet with elected officials to promote sustainable agriculture policies.
  • Work with media contacts to get coverage of organic and sustainable agriculture issues and the need for policy changes.
  • Consider making a donation to the National Campaign or encouraging customers to donate.

The National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture can provide more information and suggest actions appropriate for your store. See our web site at www.sustainableagriculture.net or call (845) 744-8448.

You may also want to contact your regional Sustainable Agriculture Working Group (SAWG). The SAWGs coordinate educational and networking activities and work closely with the National Campaign on grassroots advocacy. See above web site for contacts.

See other articles from this issue: #095 July - August - 2001