A Campaign for Sustainability

Farmers, consumers, and environmentalists take on US food and agriculture policies

One of the articles in A Good Harvest (IC#42)
Originally published in Fall 1995 on page 48
Copyright (c)1995, 1997 by Context Institute

Over the past three years, the Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture has built an unprecedented network that is working to promote environmentally sound, economically viable, humane, and just farming practices and strong rural communities. The campaign is made up of nearly 600 organizations representing family farmers, consumers, environmentalists, rural communities, social justice advocates, fish and wildlife interests, animal protection supporters, farmworkers, the religious community, people of color, community food activists, and others.

The campaign is working to change US food and agricultural policies and funding priorities that now frequently act as a barrier to more sustainable practices. For example, federal policy now:

  • Penalizes farmers who adopt such practices as diversifying production, and introducing resource-conserving crop rotations.
  • Subsidizes large-scale chemical-intensive mono-crop farming and farm consolidation. Just under 70 percent of government farm payments went to the wealthiest 19 percent of agricultural producers in 1992. These subsidies help maintain a low-cost supply of raw agricultural inputs to the benefit of food processors, packagers, and marketers. But they do so at the expense of family farmers, sustainable farming techniques, the environment, and rural communities.
  • Subsidizes the unsustainable use of such natural resource as water, soil, and fossil fuels. The large-scale production of fruits and vegetables in California, for example, is made possible through the diversion of water from the Colorado River at a low price to growers, but at a high cost to taxpayers and to the Colorado River ecosystem.
  • Through the land-grant universities, supports a skewed research agenda that promotes industrial agriculture. By supplementing federal funding to these land-grant universities, agri-business companies are able to influence the overall direction of research – and then patent the results.

Taking it to Washington

The campaign goals are to promote family farm and rural community economic opportunities; reward good stewardship of land and natural resources; advance equal opportunity and representation, fair pay and safe working conditions; promote the humane treatment of animals; and ensure a stable, safe and abundant food supply.

The campaign is focussing its efforts on the 1995 Farm Bill. We have succeeded in forging agreements on priority policy changes among hundreds of groups previously at loggerheads. The campaign has also raised awareness that Farm Bill spending can be cut while still maintaining programs with environmental, farmer and consumer benefits, through re-directing program spending and priorities.

Specifically, the campaign has:

  • Mustered bi-partisan support for the Community Food Security Act, which contains – for the first time in federal legislation – the concept of food security. The Act includes $2.5 million for community demonstration projects, such as farmers’ markets and market gardening projects in low-income communities, food processing facilities, and other projects that increase the self-reliance of communities in providing for their own food needs.
  • Helped maintain funding for USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education programs. At approximately 1 percent of USDA’s budget, this is the only research initiative looking at long-term sustainability, farmer-based research, and community involvement.
  • Supported funding for the Organic Foods Production Act to establish national standards for certification and labelling of organic foods and for the WIC farmers’ market nutrition program, which make locally grown produce available to low-income women, infants, and children.
  • Gained bi-partisan support for the Agriculture Resource Conservation Act (Leahy-Lugar), which incorporates many of the conservation and program streamlining ideas developed by the campaign.

From the Grassroots

The campaign has its roots in a two-and-a-half year, consensus-building effort that took place throughout the US to encourage broad participation in defining federal policy options. Key players were the regional Sustainable Agriculture Working Groups (SAWGS), that started in the Midwest in the late 1980s.

While varying from region to region, the SAWGS all bring together diverse constituencies to educate the public; advocate on farm, environmental, food, and hunger issues; and to build from the grassroots sustainable and just food systems.

The Northeast SAWG, for example, focuses on strengthening urban-rural links. It is also:

  • promoting a participatory and inter-disciplinary approach to land grant university sustainable agriculture programs and development
  • analyzing the economic, social, and environmental implications of the region’s current food systems
  • sharing information on working models of sustainable local food systems in the region
  • organizing a leadership congress on the Future of Agriculture and the Food System, which will bring together a wide spectrum of food and agriculture leaders to develop a shared vision and strategies for a more sustainable regional food system.

For more information on NESAWG, contact Kathy Lawrence, 10 Prospect Place, Brooklyn, NY 11217, tel. 718/622-0746. For more about the campaign or to join the phone tree nearest you, contact: Amy Little, national office, 914/294-0633. See Resource section in this issue for regional contacts.

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