Wednesday Roundup: Calling Justice and USDA

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More than 160 rural, food and ag groups have sent a letter urging the Departments of Justice and Agriculture to release a report on findings from the 2010 investigation of antitrust issues in agriculture. The full text of the letter is here.

Justice and Agriculture held hearings across the country on the decline of competition in the food business — from who owns seeds to the domination of the retail food business by Walmart. The first hearing was in Iowa in March 2010. The letter reads:

More than a year has passed since the first workshop took place in Iowa on March 12, 2010. The American public now awaits the next steps the Departments will take to address excessive corporate concentration in the U.S. food and agricultural sectors and its devastating impacts on American lives and livelihoods.

We strongly urge the Justice Department and USDA to expedite the completion and release of a final report on the findings and results of the workshops and submitted comments. This report should include an analysis of the scope, causes and nature of the problems and identify changes necessary to begin to address current trends in agricultural consolidation, and develop appropriate antitrust approaches to curtail monopoly or monopsony power of the seed, beef, hog, poultry and dairy industries and end the harmful impacts of unrestrained corporate power on U.S. food and farming. Our rural communities, our food supply and the fate of a major portion of the American economy depend on us fixing this problem.

Finally, as discussed in the fifth and final workshop addressing the farm to retail price spread, it is clear we cannot solve this dilemma unless we are willing to look at the whole picture of the American food chain—from the farm to the grocery store shelf. 

•The headline from the report announces, “Reading Levels of Rural and Urban Third Graders Lag Behind Their Suburban Peers.” The study, produced by researchers at the University of New Hampshire’s Carsey Institute, finds “rural and urban third graders have lower average reading achievement levels than their suburban peers.”

So there must be something about “urban” and “rural” that leads to these disparities, right?

Well, apparently not. Further down in the report (see a full copy here) we see the rest of the story:

“We find no differences in third grade reading achievement between rural, urban, and suburban students when we compare students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. Therefore, the average achievement differences described above say more about average socioeconomic differences in families from rural, urban, and suburban areas than about the impact of location.”

In other words, geography (rural or urban) makes no difference in these reading scores. There are more poor kids in rural schools and poor kids have lower scores than rich kids.

Contrary to the headline, the differences in reading scores isn’t a rural (or urban) story, but one about income. 

• Sixty-nine percent of Massachusetts voters would support a special sales tax on soda and candy if the money raised would go to support local schools or to address children’s obesity.

Voters were split 49-49 if the money on a sugar tax could be used in any manner state legislators decided. 

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture will adopt most of the recommendations contained in a two-year, $8 million assessment of the agency. The Obama administration had promised to bring “cultural transformation” to the USDA, which had been guilty of discriminating against women, African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans.

“Among its more than 200 recommendations, which were released Tuesday, were suggestions that the agency’s chief diversity officer monitor hiring, that farm service officials be required to ‘thoroughly’ explain reasons for denying loans to minorities and women, and that the USDA mount public relations efforts to change the agency’s reputation by emphasizing its focus on diversity,” the Washington Post wrote of the study. 

• Could a lesson learned in the 1980s farm crisis help us today?

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller thinks so. A generation ago, Miller helped negotiate deals between farmers and lenders that often resulted in the banks writing off part of the loan’s principal. Farmers stayed on their land and the banks got more than they would have received if they had taken the property to foreclosure.

Miller is trying to bring some of those same common sense values to the often contentious housing crisis. 

• The Washington Post held a “Future of Food” conference. You can see pieces of what people said here

Here are some excerpts:

Sen. Jon Tester: “The rise of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and who controls the seed is one that’s particularly disturbing to me as a farmer. With GMOs, farmers don’t control the seed, multinational agribusiness does.”

Sam Kass, assistant chef and senior policy adviser for healthy food initiatives at the White House: “Our greatest grain agriculture is 80 percent of our farmland. We eat more wheat, in particular, than we eat corn, oats, all the grains combined. So if we are going to change the food system, it seems to me that we’re going to have to learn to both re-appreciate and learn to regrow this mix of whole grains, often inherited grains – grains that don’t easily grow in a monoculture but grow in great succession and are better for the soil and better for our health.”

Gary Hirshberg, chairman, president and chief executive officer, Stonyfield Farm: “I have yet to meet the consumer who says, ‘I want the milk with more synthetic hormones, please.’ We have got to change the law. We need labeling. It’s not very complicated. Those of us who have some discretionary income, some ability with our purchases, we’re reshaping the world by our daily purchases whether it’s at a restaurant or a store or a farmer’s market.”

Wes Jackson, president, the Land Institute: “I think we’re living with the great illusion that we’re going to save the planet with Priuses and squiggly light bulbs. We’ve got to start thinking about what extent that’s the product of that industrial mind. [We have got] to stop this nonsense about efficiency as the way to get ourselves out of this.”

• Louisiana expects that 3 million acres will be underwater from Mississippi River flooding. 

 

 

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