Sunday, December 11, 2005

Asserting Democratic Control of Food and Agriculture

by Dave Henson

At the turn of the millennium, we are witnessing a relatively small, but growing movement for sustainable agriculture.The U.S. sustainable farming and environmental movements have for decades used a strategy of regulatory and administrative law to address the environmental and human harms caused by industrial agriculture. Organizations have focused on getting relief for small and organic farmers in the latest farm bill, limiting the levels of pesticides that can be put in our water tables and rivers, and facing the latest assault from the giant chemical and seed companies.The environmental movement has won some major legislative victories, but the national and global environment remains in a state of severe crisis due to industrial agriculture: worldwide poisoning and endocrine system; disruption by chemical pesticides; catastrophic losses of biodiversity; widespread soil salinization and desertification of farmlands; and much more.Today less than 1% of Americans are farmers, down from nearly 50% a century ago. With global corporatization, we are witnessing the worldwide collapse of many traditional farming communities, and with them their seeds, cultures and biodiversity.The strategy of regulating corporate harms has ultimately licensed an unsustainable and unacceptable level of ecological and cultural destruction, and has marginalized our most fundamental concerns. As activists resist corporate assaults against nature and communities one-by-one, corporations become ever more powerful under the regulatory regime, framing the arena of struggle and the terms of the debate, and limiting us to incremental compromises.Corporate vs. Democratic Decision-MakingConsider the national struggle around federal organic standards at the end of the 1990s. Congress appointed a blue ribbon panel of organic farmers, nutritionists, scientists, organic product manufacturers, and retailers to propose a new law. After several years of research and hearings, the panel presented comprehensive recommendations to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.In 1999, however, the USDA, rejected these and substituted draft "organic standards" proposed by corporate agribusiness and the "life science" corporations and written largely by Monsanto Corporation lawyers. It proposed that the U.S. certify as "organic" products with genetically engineered ingredients, food grown with toxic sewage sludge used as fertilizer, and products that have been irradiated.It took almost two years of mass mobilization, including a record 275,000 letters to the USDA, to expose this hypocrisy and force the USDA to retreat from the worst aspects of their industrial agriculture agenda for organics. Did we "win"? What could we have done in two years with 275,000 people mobilized to further the sustainable agriculture agenda, if we had not had to confront the corporate takeover of organics?The fundamental issue here is about public, democratic decision-making versus private, corporate decision-making on issues of food and agriculture. This is just one among hundreds of examples of legislatures, courts and regulatory agencies elevating corporate decision-making and corporate private property rights supreme over individual or communal property, human and environmental rights.Challenging Corporate Control of Food and AgricultureThe strategy of the industrial agriculture corporations is to establish their authority to control the food system through massive "corporate welfare" which enables them to under-price smaller scale agriculture, and by using a revolving door of corruption between corporate management and the very government agencies charged with enforcing regulations. Through vertical integration from controlling farm credit, seed patents, chemical inputs and farm production to monopolizing product distribution, marketing and retail sales this corporate strategy has enforced farmer-dependency worldwide.Furthermore, these corporations have appropriated our public educational and research resources, crafting so-called "private-public partnerships" with universities, governments and even the United Nations. Through immense influence on the TRIPS treaty (the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) and the WTO negotiations, multinational corporations have gained intellectual property rights for owning life forms, and denationalized trade regulation and dispute resolution.Developing Effective StrategiesTo effectively challenge corporate agriculture's control of the global food system, ownership of life, and control of economic decision-making, our movements must rapidly evolve new and more complex strategies. We need to do three kinds of activism at once:FIGHT FIRES:For the past 30 years our sustainable farming and environmental movements have focused on "fighting fires." We have built thousands of local and national groups to challenge thousands of corporate assaults on nature and people. After a long campaign, we may stop a clear cut or dam, but the corporation will be back to retake the trees or river as soon as it can maneuver a change of judge or politician, or a lull in our vigilance. We have to resist harms forever; they have to win just once.Of course we have to fight fires people's lives and critical ecosystems are at stake. However, since this form of struggle alone rarely addresses root causes of ongoing corporate destruction, we will likely just chase the corporation to another community.CREATE ALTERNATIVES:The ecological farming movement has grown steadily for the past 30 years. We have many models that provide vision and practices reflecting the values of ecological, economic and cultural sustainability. But in building alternatives which model "how it can be," we must remember that corporations can and will buy-out, make illegal, marginalize or destroy people's most successful efforts to get off the corporate treadmill.DISMANTLE THE MECHANISMS OF CORPORATE RULE:While we fight the fires forced upon us, let's not confuse reaction to a problem with proactive strategy. And while we build sustainable alternatives, we will create space for sustainable practices to become the norm only if we dismantle the mechanisms of corporate rule.To change in law and culture the definition of who's in charge and to claim our rightful sovereignty over economic activity, we must choose appropriate arenas of struggle. Our most effective campaigns will be about what we put in our state constitutions, corporate codes and corporate charters, and about the laws we pass at the state, county, city and town council levels to define and enforce limits to corporate authority. In other words, about practicing democracy.Taking Local ActionAt the local level, we need to reassess the "us" and "them"; to create new alliances. With regards to food and agriculture, we need to broaden "us" to include many local, appropriate scale, family-owned or privately held farms and businesses, with local people at the helm. Conversely, "them" will most often be the large, non-local, corporate monocropping resource extractors (mislabeled as "farmers") who structurally can have little concern for local human, ecological, economic, or cultural health, or for democratic process.Building new strategic alliances means addressing on appropriate scale, not just appropriate practices. Let's focus on local community, economy and culture.We may strongly disagree on pesticide use or farm animal practices, for example, but we can solve those issues over time, based on a united stand against the greater common threat of democracy-destroying corporate control. Such a strategy also helps dismantle the corporate-cultivated illusion that all "farmers" should be allied as a single class, and that "environmentalists" are the enemies of farmers.To build organizing capacity for long-term work, we must address issues important to local people. Here are examples of city, township or county resolutions and initiatives that assert local democracy:• Ban genetically engineered (GE) crops from being planted in your community. While many cities including Cleveland, Boston, San Francisco, Austin, and Minneapolis have passed resolutions against GE crops, they are largely non-binding. Boulder, CO has a policy that bans GE crops from city-owned land (• Pass a new or re-write an existing "Right to Farm" ordinance, which many rural and semi-rural areas have. It should define agriculture in sustainable terms, mandating that subsidies and tax credits only go to ecological agriculture, and that unsustainable agriculture be taxed or disallowed.• Pass a local Anti-Corporate Farm ordinance. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund ( has helped eight townships in Pennsylvania pass these ordinances in recent years. They are now working on a statewide Family Farm Protection Act.• Get elected to your local Resource Conservation District, water board, city council or school board. Sebastopol's city council in Northern California, with a Green Party majority, has banned all pesticide use on city-owned land.• Organize local Food Policy Councils forums for farmers and environmentalists to craft new policies that use local government resources to support sustainable agriculture. Pass directives at city councils and school boards mandating the purchase of ecologically farmed food in municipal institutions, like schools, hospitals and jails. The Berkeley Food Policy Council has pioneered much of this work (, we need to take our campaigns to the state level, including changes to our state constitutions-- the most defining statements a people can make. For starters, we can ban non-family owned corporations from owning farmland. It's been done in Nebraska (Initiative 300 in 1982), South Dakota (Amendment E in 1998), and to some degree in seven other U.S. states ( future state initiatives or legislation might include: declaring that a corporation is not a person; prohibiting patents on life forms; instituting the "polluter pays" principle (100% corporate liability for long-term costs of corporate harm) and the "precautionary principle" (no public release of new technology until it has been independently proven safe); and reviving defining language in corporate charters and corporation codes.When significantly challenging corporate rule on the local level, we will face legal attacks and economic threats. Corporate attorneys will say our measures violate their corporate "free speech" and their "property rights to do business". They will take their case to the WTO, asserting that our new local laws are "protectionist" and "unfair trade barriers" WTO no-nos. They will say our local government is violating the U.S. Constitution's interstate commerce clause and constitutional guarantees to equal protection and due process for all persons.These corporate attacks can create a crisis or jurisdiction, pitting one level of government against another. When this is our strategy, we must rethink our notion of "victory". If a federal court or WTO tribunal overrules our well-thought, democratically produced local ordinance, it gives us an opportunity to educate and mobilize a disregarded public. At that point the essence of our struggle is made clear to all: "Who is in charge of making the decisions in a democracy, and in whose interest? transnational corporations and the economic elite? or people and the common good?"Dave Henson is the director of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, an organic farm and education center in Northern California, and an activist with the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy. You can reach Dave at OAEC, 15290 Coleman Valley Road, Occidental, CA, 95465; (707) 874-1557 x204; printed in the Fall 2001 issue (Vol. 3, No. 4) of By What Authority, the quarterly publication of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD). A much longer piece will be included in the anthology Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. Available at bookstores everywhere in June or by calling Island Press at 1-800-828-1302,

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