Get wonky this Wednesday in Berkeley

Tickets are still available for the Farm Bill teach-in, a panel discussion that Michael Pollan will moderate this Wednesday (March 21) at UC Berkeley’s Wheeler Hall. Unlike last month’s “conversation” between Pollan and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, which sold out immediately, this event is a hard sell. Even my own husband, who’s usually game for anything, is resisting; he has only been partially persuaded by the prospect by having dinner with some friends first.

Here’s why you should go. It’s not about eating your spinach, metaphorically speaking, it’s about showing Congress that we ordinary Americans care about this Farm Bill.
Buying sustainable, organic, local, and/or ethical (SOLE) food is easy for us in the Bay Area, what with multiple farmers markets, specialty grocery stores, and restaurants serving local, seasonal ingredients. The most famous of the latter, Chez Panisse, started a foundation to help schoolkids nationwide learn to grow and cook their own food. We’ve got the Marin Agricultural Land Trust helping to rescue farmland from being turned into subdivisions. On the state level, California leads the nation in certified organic acres of produce.

As readers keep reminding us, the picture is not so rosy in the rest of the country. The 2007 Farm Bill could change that, by upping conservation spending, encouraging specialty crop growers (that’s “fruits and vegetables” to regular people), funding research into organic agriculture, changing the dietary guidelines for school lunches, and many other worthy things. I say could, because the biggest interests in agriculture — the Archer Daniels Midlands of farming — have sent in their armies of powerful lobbyists to make sure that Congress doesn’t mess too much with the status quo. By contrast, check out who’s playing for organic agriculture’s lobbying team.

The teach-in has a really good lineup: joining Pollan are journalist Dan Imhoff, author of “Food Fight: A Citizen’s Guide to the Farm Bill” (cover image at right); Iowa corn farmer George Naylor; Ann Cooper, school lunch reformer; Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group; and Carlos Marentes, director of Sin Fronteras Organizing Project. Tickets are just $5, and free for UC Berkeley students. It will also be webcast live.

Those who can go in person should do so: not only will there will be informational tables, but given Pollan’s best-seller status, there may be media covering the event. The better the turnout, the bigger the story will play.

And who knows, it just might turn out to be fun.

If you haven’t been paying attention at all — I know, some of you skip right over the “boring policy stuff” in the Digest — here’s an update. U.S. spending for agriculture is currently being debated in Congress along with the rest of the budget. Competition is fierce — “the debate has the potential to turn into a real, old-fashioned donneybrook,” writes veteran Farm Bill watcher Steve Kopperud — and is likely only to heat up once the various interest groups know how big the pie is.

Agricultural economist and journalist Keith Good has a roundup of all the latest political jockeying on his excellent site, There are a bunch of groups that are new to the negotiation table, including environmentalists, food program supporters, specialty crop producers, opponents of meatpacker ownership of livestock, and country of origin labeling proponents. Collin Peterson (D.-Minn), the chair of the House agriculture committee that will draft the bill, is turning out to be a lot less pro-change than hoped. He doesn’t see a “lot of potential” for shifting money from one section of the Farm Bill to another, and that getting increased funding for programs such as conservation and food stamps will be hard unless they prove to be “politically popular” enough.
As with everything, the squeaky wheel gets the most grease. Let’s make some noise.

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