Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Environmental Destruction in the Corn Belt During the Obama-Vilsack Tenure

Readers, this writing was inspired by reading Michael Pollan's latest NYT's Magazine critique about corporate agriculture during Obama's tenure, after I noticed what he left out.--k.m.

Michael Pollan is the father of waking up America to the inconvenient truths about our modern food system. He's a genius writer. I've heard him speak here in Boulder and he's a good, relaxed and gracious speaker, too. His latest writing, a New York Times Magazine feature story, is out today, "Why Did the Obamas Fail to Take On Corporate Agriculture?

In this lengthy article Pollan first covers the politics surrounding attempted reform of GIPSA (Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration) and the meat giants, and then he especially focuses upon Big Food and the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association. A more apt title might have been "Why Did the Obamas Fail to Take on Corporate Food?"

The overall premise is that Obama’s good intentions were overridden by corporate power during his eight years in office. Michelle became the real hero and was the real food reform powerhouse, not her husband. The gigantic subject of food and agriculture is rife with complexities, and as usual, Pollan navigates the complexities well with research and in depth reporting.

He placed blame on the EPA for lack of regulatory action over CAFOs and antibiotics for livestock. But he failed to mention that the EPA also sold out to the ethanol industry when corn prices began to fall, first by stalling the process, then by tweaking the mandates rather than scaling them back, disregarding evidence that corn ethanol policy is environmentally disastrous. But, as I said, Pollan's article was more about food than agriculture and these subjects are too large to cover everything.

Secretary Vilsack shaking hands with leading corn ethanol lobbyist/spokesmen, Bob Dinneen.
Photo credit: USDA

Regarding climate change, Pollan decries Obama's lack of including the category of agriculture with his other reform targets of energy and transportation. I'd add that agriculture wasn't the only thing left out in this administration's climate goals as it would have been more serious and right if he'd have advocated for counting and reducing our outsourced emissions, our concrete emissions, and our construction emissions, too, but then all of those things would hurt the economy and stimulus efforts.

Not surprisingly, Pollan's article includes the topic of fair wages for farm laborers.

If I correctly interpreted the nuances of his chronological account of agricultural happenings over these past eight years, and Pollan's a master at nuances, his conclusion was that Obama was ineffective and timid in reforming the sins of food and agriculture in America. He painted a picture of Obama fading away when challenged and he implied a lack of strength and follow-through. Unfortunately, this theme could be echoed by a myriad of voices, across a myriad of subjects. Disappointed once-hopeful voters for change now face today's realities.

I had a big quibble with Pollan's article, however, and that was this... He never criticized Obama for his choice of Secretary of Agriculture.

That should have offered a clue very early on for how serious Obama was (or wasn't) about reforming the U.S. food system. In July of this year, Citizens for GMO Labeling referred to Sec. Vilsack, a former lawyer and eight year governor of Iowa, as "Mr. Monsanto". Under Vilsack, many decisions have been made which favored the big and most powerful Ag players. The only time Pollan mentioned Vilsack was in his section on why meat reform failed and his voice was sympathetic towards Vilsack about that particular outcome.

The president's cabinet appointee must be approved by Congress and these days decades that can be a challenge, however, Obama's choice of Vilsack as commander in chief of our food and agricultural system was a gift to corporate agriculture. Had Vilsack made any attempts to reform agriculture in Iowa during the eight years he was governor there? Vilsack helped enable some of the poor outcomes which Pollan blames chiefly upon the Big Food and Big Ag corporations during these past eight years. He is also the only original cabinet member who retains his post, long outlasting the others.

Pollan did a great job in what he did cover in his article, but, if instead of focusing on food we shift our focus to the environmental consequences of agriculture over the past eight years, Vilsack and Obama have overseen a modern day disaster. We have overproduction going on like never before, subsidized by the taxpayer and mandated by the EPA, at the expense of the soil, the ground water quality, and the loss of ten million acres of CRP (Conservation Reserve Program) land. In 2009, when Obama's term began, this nation had 34 million acres of CRP and today, as his eight years are coming to an end, we have less than 17 million acres of general CRP land, but nearly 24 million acres if we add in CREP, non-CREP, and farmable wetland acres.

There was a 12.97 million acre decline in CRP land between 2007 and 2016, largely in the Dakotas.

We've lost 29 percent of our CRP/idled farmland under Vilsack's watch. I never heard him advocate for more CRP acres until very recently, in response to today's low corn, soybean, and wheat prices. I'd expect that citizens would rather subsidize idled farmland for the sake of soil health and wildlife habitat than subsidize GMO seed corn and chemicals if they were given a choice. Wendell Berry, in his Kansas talk last month said, "The only solution to a limitless free market economy is to have a fair share to all by limiting production." Certainly, all-out production is not rewarding farmers financially during this era. We currently have a subsidy system that ensures buying inputs. This month 7 billion dollars will be doled out to our commodity farmers as a safety net even as vast amounts of the corn they produced sit uselessly in storage. Instead, we need farm policy that offers subsidies which protect both the farmers and the land at the same time — especially in this day of rural depopulation, ever larger farms, REIT owned farms, land transfers, and off-site landowners.

To help remedy the overproduction of corn, Vilsack has participated in trade missions to far reaching corners of the globe to encourage the export of our surplus of corn ethanol and distiller's grains. The production of corn and corn ethanol richly rewards the corporate agricultural giants and should be included in any discussion critiquing corporate agriculture in our nation.

Renewable Fuels Association speaker, Secretary Vilsack
Photo credit: USDA

Corn is the largest crop produced in the U.S. Its production causes soil loss and runoff, nitrogen contamination of ground water, and a large Dead Zone in the Gulf. The native prairies and their flora and fauna have dwindled to a percentage or two of what they once were. Growing ever more corn has led to the loss of bees, native prairie grasslands, songbirds, wildflowers, Monarchs and other butterflies and insects, wooded acres, wetland acres, and amphibian populations, threatening many native prairie species to near extinction.

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Fuel Ethanol Plant Production Capacity

The corn production numbers are mind-boggling. Vilsack's state of Iowa produced 2.5 billion bushels of corn in 2015, and of that, 1.5 billion bushels, or 60 percent, went towards ethanol production. Of the 966 million bushels of corn produced in Illinois this year, about 544 million will go towards ethanol production. And so on.

At the peak, Iowa had 2.2 million acres of land enrolled in conservation reserve programs in the 1990s. This year, Iowa farmers have about 1.6 million acres of land enrolled in federal conservation reserve programs. The decline in Iowa's CRP enrollment began in 2007, timed with the rapid increase in the ethanol mandate, corn demand, and resulting higher corn prices.

Unfortunately, the Dakotas fell prey to profit seekers who turned marginal CRP lands into cornfields during the peak corn price years following the ramp up of ethanol production.

Newly plowed highly erodible North Dakota prairie land experiencing erosion.
Photo credit: Rick Bohn

But enough about the eight years of Obama-Vilsack. It is time to focus on the coming era.

Let's assume that the next president's name will be Hillary Clinton. Not long ago there were rumblings that she might choose her long time friend, Tom Vilsack as her running mate. Apparently she came close to doing that, and now there are still rumblings that he could become her Chief of Staff. That tells us quite a lot about her views on agriculture policy.

The biggest question I would ask of our next president is "Who will be the Secretary of Agriculture?"

Will it be another lawyer-politician from a corn belt state? Or, might it be time for an ecologist who views Iowa's rich soil, water, and favorable weather as a national security asset and natural treasure? Might it be someone who has an agricultural degree and experience in ecological farming methods, as we saw when the EU selected Dacion Ciolos as their agriculture commissioner a few years ago, a leader who proposed setting aside 7 percent of arable land as off-limits to the use of chemicals and high-tech farming methods, plus other greening practices?

When peak oil was looming, a physicist was chosen to be Sec. of Energy. Until we have another farm-related crisis, like the dust bowl of the 30's, it's unlikely that we'll get a Sec. of Agriculture who is a knowledgable advocate for sustainable farming.

Or, we could elect a president who is willing to fight the many political battles required to promote sustainable farming. Someday, perhaps. Is anyone listening?

ALSO SEE FORMER POST: Is Anyone Paying Attention? We’ve Lost 9.7 Million Acres of CRP Land in Five Years.