Big Agriculture: Tipping the Balance of Regulation

tom_philpott We talk with food editor Tom Philpott of Grist.org about the impact of the farm lobby on the climate and food safety legislation. And Lisa Hamilton discusses food policy from the perspective of the small farmer. Her book is Deeply Rooted: Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness.Big agriculture is coming under increasing scrutiny these days. A popular new film, Food, Inc., takes a hard-hitting look at how our industrial food system harms our environment and our health.

One environmental impact is on the climate. Agribusiness has a big greenhouse gas footprint — whether it comes from methane from livestock, the petrochemicals that go into making pesticides, or the emissions from transporting food across countries and oceans.

And then there’s the issue of food safety. Every day seems to bring news of another outbreak of sickness from contaminated food produced by big industrial processing facilities.

Congress is getting into gear. A new food safety bill sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman made it out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee this month and will soon go to the House. But big agriculture has a some powerful friends in Congress, and they can tip the scales in their favor when it comes to regulation. Some say the bill will be devastating to organic and other small farmers, who aren’t causing the food safety problems, but who can’t afford the measures mandated by the bill.

One of agribusiness’ biggest champions is Colin Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Grist.org’s Tom Philpott says Peterson already has shown that he can wring major pro-agribusiness concessions on policy out of Henry Waxman — he did it on the Waxman-Markey American Clean Energy and Security Act that just passed the house, after threatening to oppose the bill.

Tom Philpott is a food editor for Grist.org, and he farms at Maverick Farms, a sustainable-agriculture nonprofit and small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

In her book DEEPLY ROOTED, Lisa Hamilton explores the lives of three farm families: Harry Lewis, an African-American organic dairy farmer in Texas, Virgil Trujillo, a Latino rancher at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, and the Podoll family in North Dakota who are breeding seeds for diversity.

Dairyman Harry Lewis (on left)
Dairyman Harry Lewis (on left)

Hamilton told Sea Change Radio that the new push to develop a regulatory label for “sustainability” might end up making things more difficult for small farmers, while letting agribusiness continue unsustainable practices.

Lisa Hamilton is a journalist and photographer who writes about farmers, ranchers and agriculture.

Read articles by Lisa Hamilton.