On Coalition building between DFH’s and ‘mainstream” farmers.

(10 am. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Burning the Midnight Oil for the Next American Revolution

We do not have a progressive populist movement in this country. We do not have an effective change coalition in this country. And the first implies the second, since successful progressive populism has been a component of all of our effective change coalitions for over a century.

To fend off the possible semantic quibble … yes, by an effective change coalition, I do mean to say change going forward. We have, obviously, had effective reactionary coalitions without a progressive populist component!

In sketching out the potential membership for an effective change coalition, I have previously identified farmers. And so I take special interest when Stranded Wind at the Daily Kos adopts a provocative and potentially quite divisive framing for discussion of organic farming “versus” sustainable production of chemical fertilizer such as ammonia (NH3) derived fertilizers produced with the harvest of sustainable, renewable electric power:

On one side of the field we have the hemp clothes and Birkenstocks set flinging organic tomatoes. The other side has Monsanto’s minions, flinging GMO hand grenades with one hand and trying to lasso producers with the other. The official federal referee of the USDA would like to help but their rules are the province of misguided ideologues and sociopathic transnational corporations.

Stuck in the middle is the puzzled farmer, who just wants a fair price for the work he does and some protection for when things go badly. They’d happily plow the earthly remains of all three of the above groups into the soil if it would increase yields and get unsolicited opinions out of their business.

A reaction, after the fold …

The substantive policy position in the piece is quite sound … as we pursue a more sustainable and Energy Independent farming economy, we should also be aiming for decentralized production of key feedstocks, since the centralization of the current system leaves us exposed to substantial risk.

However, there is mixed in the echoes of the “US agriculture feeding the world”:

First, let’s stick a wrench in the complaints of the organic foods crowd. Yes, it would be better if we were more careful with our soil and if we had less chemicals in our food, but we feed six and a half billion with the current system. We’re going back to the solar maximum for this planet and that is going to be ugly enough without some Great Leap Forward approach, which would starve more than are already going to face that fate given our fossil fuel depletion and the tight coupling between this and our existing fertilizer sources.

This “US agriculture feeding the world”, which features heavily in Monsanto and ADM advertising on Sunday morning political talk shows, has long been used as the cover story for the dumping of subsidized cereal grains that has devastated the local farming capacity of large numbers of low-income nations … which means, of course, in driving subsistence farmers into mega-cities, ensure a market for the heavily subsidized cereal grains. Obviously, that income stream does not stick in the hands of the “mainstream” farmer … it just passes through on its way to Monsanto and ADM.

So a bit more care is needed regarding who “we” are when talking about US farm policy. “We” don’t feed 6b people with our system … even if you extent “our” system to mean the EU/US/Oceania agro-industry mono-cropping, then it certainly feeds well over a billion, but nowhere near 6 billion … not unless you include feedlot animals in the count.

And “our” system has two big redundancies built in.

The first redundancy is the insistence on growing perfectly good food and then feeding it to animals, rather than using animals to convert plant production that is not edible for humans into a supplement for the crops we raise directly for humans.

The second redundancy is the productive potential of low income nations that is held off the market by the practice of dumping US/EU staple grains in low income nations in order to ensure a broader market.

We could be on track for a famine … but famines are not about food production, they are about food distribution. Recall that Ireland was a net food exporter in each year of the Irish Potato Famine … beef and butter and grain production was not affected, but beef and butter and grain was headed for the more lucrative markets in England.

Over and above that, it is a mistake in advocacy strategy to accept a framing of sustainable-produced chemical fertilizers versus organic farming techniques … let alone to spread it. In high income nations, we should be making soil husbandry payments for all farming methods that restore and rehabilitate soils, and if that means subsidizing a bunch of dirty fucking hippies, so be it. But that does not require imposing organic farming techniques, its simply a competitive advantage of organic farming techniques if we introduce a difference in income between soil establishment and soil mining.

And at the same time, certification for marketing of organic produce requires compliance with something that the market for organic produce recognizes as organic production … but certification for soil husbandry payments would be in terms of objective measures of the health and retention of the soil, and while it may well include maintaining fertilizer practices that do not lead to excessive fertilizer run-off in the watersheds, the income system would not require production that can be certified as organic production.

And it should be obvious that fertilizer levels that maximize protein content in grains for use as animal feeds, where the majority of the protein will be dumped into the watershed, which results in collapse of riverine and coastal fish stocks, is not a net win in terms of total protein available for human consumption.

Shifting farm income support from subsidy for staple grains to fee for service in soil husbandry opens up organic farming operations to participation, but would include any farmer that adopts sound whole-system soil husbandry.

Since there is no necessary conflict between the needs of “mainstream” farmers, those sharing their watershed, consumers, and dirty fucking hippy organic farmers, the debating point on the extent to which organic farming can carry the load is a side track diversion from a reform of our farm policy.

Controversy and debates are good for getting hits and high comment counts online, but the focus needs to be on finding common ground to build a large enough change coalition large enough so that the controversy and debate is between the change coalition and the entrenched opposition to reform.

Older than Kosciuszko

Driven back to Alice Springs

Endless storm and struggle

Marks the spirit of the age

High up in the homelands

Celebration ‘cross the land

Builds up like a cyclone

Now the fires begin to rage


Skip to comment form

    • BruceMcF on December 29, 2008 at 22:00

    Two whole weeks off, wow!

    … the “finish one quarter on Friday, start next quarter on Saturday” shtick can to get old …

    • dkmich on December 30, 2008 at 16:53

    During this progressive window, mass death-by-committee of progressive legislation will not be an acceptable outcome. Over the past couple of weeks, while huddled in our West Philly apartment and traveling to Upstate New York, Natasha and I have spent a while developing a plan to try and prevent it from happening in the 111th Congress. Here is what we plan to do:

  1. this essay, are you saying that organic farming without chemicals is unfeasible as it will starve the world? Are you advocating or disagreeing with stranded wind? Organic farming seems to me to have gone beyond the dirty hippie stage and is both profitable and feasible. My 90 year old neighbor’s family owned on a large fruit orchard in Hood River, he says that until World War 2  gasoline chemical fertilizer was not that widely used. He says they had a lot of gas so they just started using it like crazy. I somehow just don’t believe that it would require a Mao like scenario to switch to sustainable non chemical food production. How crazy is it for chemical companies to call the shots for our agriculture and our food production. Sounds to me like big time scare tactics, and propaganda from big Ag.  

    From the makers of Napam and tires we get the ‘inevitable’ line of bs about feeding the world. I do agree distribution is the problem. We do not do the world a favor by spreading and controlling our for profit only sorry ass excuse for food. I buy a lot of transitional non certified locally grown food. Getting certified is expensive and takes a long time. Mono cropping only ads to bad soil and I’d rather eat transitional then organic say from Dole. Like the drug companies Big Ag does not offer a world wide solution it tries to gobble up peoples ability to feed themselves sustainably. btw giving people real nutritious food would go along way towards helping with the chronic diseases we like obesity we have manage to export along with our shitty food.

    What is sustainable ammonia?  


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