Politics of the Plate


By Barry Estabrook

[Barry’s weekly roundup of food news.]

Know Your Senator

Three prominent Republican United States senators sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently condemning the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, introduced last fall to help strengthen local food systems.

John McCain (R-AZ), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), and Pat Roberts (R-KS) wrote that they had “serious misgivings” about Know Your Farmer. They asserted that the program is aimed at “small and organic producers” whose customers generally consist of “affluent patrons of urban farmers markets.”“Federal government cannot afford to spend precious Rural Development funds on feel-good measures which are completely detached from the realities of production agriculture,” they wrote.

Whew! That’s tough talk, but let’s shed a little perspective on the situation. On average during the past decade the Feds have doled out $17 billion (with a “B”) dollars a year to well-to-do growers of wheat, corn, soybeans, and other commodity crops. Some years these welfare payments to agribusiness have soared to $24 billion. Those are the “realities of production agriculture.”

By comparison, Know Your Farmer will cost about $65 million (with an “M”). Relatively speaking, that is less than chump-change, representing something like one-third of one percent of what the big boys reap in a good year. Yet growers of organic crops alone, only one of the groups to benefit from the program, account for 2.6 percent of the United States food market. And even though it is drastically underfunded by the government, organic has grown by 17 to 20 percent annually over the past few years. Big ag is virtually stagnant, growing by only 2 to 3 percent.

In view of the facts, the senators’ letter shows both mean spiritedness—and poor business sense.

Bluefin’s Revenge

They may be on the verge of extinction, but bluefin tuna might take a few sushi lovers down with them.

A study by Jacob Lowenstein of the American Museum of natural History in New York that appeared in the journal “Biology Letters” found that tuna sushi consistently exceeds recommended mercury levels. The researchers tested 100 samples of bluefin, bigeye, and yellowfin tuna from restaurants and supermarkets in New York, New Jersey, and Colorado. They found that a single order of every single sample tested was higher than the Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum consumption limits for a 132-pound woman.

Lessons from the Latest E. coli Outbreak

Once again, fresh greens contaminated with potentially fatal E. coli bacteria have sickened American consumers—this time 19 college students in New York, Michigan, and Ohio, who had eaten lettuce shipped in from Arizona and sold under the labels Freshway and Imperial Sysco


Some food safety advocates have used the outbreak to urge passage of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which cleared the house last summer and remains stalled in the Senate due to other priorities. (Covered here on mb.com.) But groups representing small and organic farmers have expressed fears that the one-size-fits-all nature of the bill will hurt their constituents. They draw a different lesson from the outbreak: Once again, large agri-business food production, growing crops out of season to be shipped thousands of miles, fails.

They have a point. Not one of the recent disease outbreaks that have been caused by fresh produce has been traced to crops grown by small producers serving local markets.

Posted in Farming, Food Politics


  1. elizabethr said...

    Thank you. Simply said and to the very pointed point. The idea that supporting small farmers and local purveyors is the providence of elites, would be laughable if it wasn’t being bandied around in such an important arena. Is there anything that McCain and company do with their time and power, other than create slander that is so clearly underwritten by their big business funding?

  2. Anonymous said...

    The senators’ letter is beyond ridiculous. I hope Secretary Vilsack is able to provide them with the information about the value of Food Stamps currently being redeemed at farmers markets, the value of WIC/SSNP coupons being used there–arrgh. I hope that all their constituents who shop at farmers markets or other small producer outlets will see the letter, and realize just how deeply they are in the pockets of large, corporate agribusiness. The USDA is a crazy place with so many contradictory programs, supporting childhood obesity through school lunch commodities on the one hand while supporting healthier WIC purchases on the other, etc., etc., so I would never expect biting criticism of big ag from Vilsack, but I do hope he will defend the small USDA programs as well–and all the farmers who are working to democratize the food system.

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