Top Ten AgMag Stories for 2010

1. Black farmers finally see justice.

After enduring decades of discrimination at the hands of the US Department of Agriculture and then what seemed like an endless gauntlet to get a Congressional appropriation to pay the legal settlement they won, black farmers finally got their due in a Dec. 8 signing ceremony at the White House.

2. Nutrition groups and good food advocates make their voices heard.

Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to expand and improve school lunch and breakfast programs, but much, much more needs to be done –the kinds of things Chef Ann Cooper is doing in Boulder, Colo. In the future, the money to pay for healthier school food for America’s kids ought to come from the billions the government lavishes on wealthy landlords and big commodities farmers, instead of raiding food stamps and conservation programs.

3. Obama’s USDA — less transparent than Bush’s.

Campaign rhetoric about open government rang hollow when USDA cut off EWG’s access to the names of individuals who cash in on the taxpayer dollars funneled to wealthy farm operations in the form of subsidy payments.

4. Corn ethanol subsidy gets a one-year stay of execution.

It took a hard fight for the corn ethanol lobby to win a temporary reprieve for the so-called “blenders’ tax credit,” which doesn’t bode well for the industry in the new, spending-averse Congress. Even corn ethanol’s strongest defenders are talking about phasing out the redundant federal giveaways that encourage over-cultivation of an environmentally destructive row crop.

5. Lavish farm subsidies are back in the budget crosshairs.

Even in states like Iowa and North Dakota that rake in lots of farm subsidy dollars, formerly stout subsidy defenders are talking about doing away with the wasteful direct payments that flow mostly to the wealthiest farms — even when the agricultural economy is white-hot. But with Tea Party-style candidates who themselves collect farm subsidies joining the House Agriculture Committee, it’s anybody’s guess how much, if at all, Congress will cut these perverse and environmentally damaging incentives.

6. Tax dollars fund pro-pesticide PR campaign.

The Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), a California trade group, wants consumers to have less information about pesticide residues on their fruits and vegetables, and it got the government to finance its attack on pesticide industry critics. That includes EWG and other health, consumer and organic farming advocates that have called attention to the overuse of pesticides. The real reason AFF is worried is that over the past decade, organic fruit and vegetable sales have soared from 3 percent to 11 percent of the retail produce market, a total of $9.5 billion last year — and a significant slice of conventional growers’ market share.

7. Big Ag opens the checkbook to repair its tarnished image.

2010 saw corn growers put their money behind a Washington, DC-based PR campaign and an effort to rebrand toxic-sounding high fructose corn syrup as “corn sugar.” The ethanol lobby went lights-out on television, pesticide pushers Hoovered up tax dollars (see above) and wheat growers planted an acre of the grain next to the National Mall. And all this will be dwarfed by the $30 million PR push industrial agriculture is planning for 2011.

8. Cuddling up to agribusiness didn’t save their seats.

The conventional wisdom used to be that voting for a subsidy-larded farm bill and/or pulling the levers of government on behalf of agribusiness would inoculate members of Congress in a tough election fight. Not so, it turned out, in a year when government spending was under attack and unemployment was high.

9. Critical conservation funding survives.

Some in Congress tried to pit kids against clean water by dipping into conservation funding to pay for the school lunch bill, and the Obama administration proposed permanently cutting the conservation funding baseline. Neither initiative succeeded, but keep the party hats in the closet. Incoming House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) has signaled a willingness to let farms pull acres out of the Conservation Reserve Program early and put them back into intensive production. That’s a nonsensical way to try to relieve the pressure put on food and land by policies that divert 40 percent of the corn crop to making environmentally damaging ethanol.

10. Good food gets partisan.

The military sees America’s childhood obesity epidemic as a threat to national security, but not Sarah Palin. She views the recently passed Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 as government overreach, a position she highlighted by taking cookies to a Pennsylvania school as an act of rebellion against "the nanny state run amok." Thankfully, adults like conservative former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee defended both the bill and the efforts of First Lady Michelle Obama to help kids lead healthier lives.

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