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Family Farmers Demand Real Change

by Ben Burkett

As President-elect Barack Obama confronts the current economic crisis, in the shadows lurks an issue that demands equal attention, despite it's low profile during the campaign: agriculture. As an African-American farmer from Mississippi, I am hopeful that our next president will also recognize we cannot afford business as usual when it comes to the subject of our broken food system.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, while originally known as the "People's Department" under President Lincoln, has in recent decades been controlled by the voices of the corporate commodity groups and agribusiness interests. Those monied interests have continually stomped on the concerns of family farmers and consumers. As a result, our current disastrous model of industrial agriculture pushes for bigger factory farms, more genetically-modified monoculture crops, and more "globalization" and free trade that emphasizes export-driven growth and allows for cheap imports to displace American farmers.

Americans now must deal with poisonous Chinese imports in our pet food and dairy products, a flood of e.coli outbreaks in our meat and spinach, salmonella-tainted tomatoes from Mexico and contaminated water supplies due to factory farm pollution.

A new food and farm movement uniting family farmers, consumers, environmentalists, public health advocates and others has blossomed in recent years, backed by scientific research.

A landmark study released in April 2008 by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) concluded that industrial agriculture practices were posing a dire threat to water, energy and climate security. It also noted that continued pushes for trade liberalization and export-model growth had deepened poverty and inequality in the developing world. The report says governments must go beyond simply advocating for more biotechnology and free trade as solutions to feeding our planet.

Meanwhile, the Pew Forum and Union of Concerned Scientists have also released reports documenting the severe ecological, economic and public health threats from the growth in factory farm practices in rural communities.

We are hopeful that new Secretary of Agriculture Governor Tom Vilsack will be a forceful advocate on President-elect Obama's promises for change. We sorely need reform in our agriculture policies, including anti-competitive behavior against family farmers by agribusiness, the regulation of industrial livestock operations, rebuilding local and regional food systems and a new direction in our trade policy.

The Commodity Futures Trading Commission's recent $12 million fine of Dairy Farmers of America for price manipulation shows we also urgently need a USDA and Department of Justice committed to fair and competitive markets that enable family farmers to make a living. While many corporate livestock groups are hoping for decreased environmental regulations, family farmers believe we need more sustainable practices to preserve our rural communities and protect water and air quality.

We also hope, given the current volatility in commodity prices that has impacted both farmers and consumers, that the Obama-Biden Administration looks into establishing Strategic Grain Reserves. Ever since they were eliminated under the 1996 Farm Bill, we now find ourselves dependent on speculative global markets for our food security. Just as deregulation of our financial markets has been a disaster for our economy, so has deregulation of our food supply imperiled seriously our ability to address food shortages in case of weather or other catastrophes.

We look forward to working with the new Administration to implement important victories in the 2008 farm bill, including the diversity initiative to broaden access to all USDA programs to minority farmers and beginning farmers. We urge swift implementation by USDA to promote efforts to ensure that schools and institutions are purchasing from and supporting local farmers and providing healthier food whenever possible.

The time is now to rethink our food systems and begin rebuilding them towards sustainable, localized models predicated on the principles of food sovereignty. We must abandon the WTO model of "free trade" for agriculture that only pushes for globalized markets and exports that destroy rural communities and the environment. We believe Obama's promises for real change offers us much hope and possibility for the next USDA Secretary.

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