June 20, 2024

Farm & Food File: Happy bacon, unhappy blueberries and Washington’s revolving door

So, what do bacon, blueberries and Capitol Hill’s fast-spinning revolving door have in common?

Newsies know: All have been covered in this space over the past year, all have ties to Washington, D.C., and all are in the news again. Let’s go first to the tasty bacon news from the suddenly-very-dishy U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 5-4 decision on May 11, the court ruled against the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Pork Producers Council and the Biden administration and for California’s “humanely” raised pork law.

The Big Ag plaintiffs wanted the state law declared unconstitutional because, they alleged, its practical effect (was) to control commercial conduct beyond California’s boundaries.”

In the frying pan was a three-times approved — twice by voters, once by the state legislature — ban on “California businesses from selling ‘eggs and uncooked pork and veal’” as noted here last September, “from ‘animals housed in ways’ that did not meet the new state standards.”

Some of those “ways” — like sow farrowing crates and battery cages for hens — are mainstays of modern livestock production. The NPPC, AFBF and the White House fought for the crates and cages, claiming the California law violated interstate commerce.

Writing for the court’s majority, however, Justice Neil M. Gorsuch rejected their argument to create any “new and more aggressive constitutional restrictions on the ability of states to regulate goods sold within their borders,” noted the Washington Post.

Gorsuch punctuated his majority opinion with some uncourtly snarkiness: “While the constitution addresses many weighty issues,” he wrote, “the type of pork chops California merchants sell is not on that list.”

Boom.

American organic fruit and vegetable buyers would love to have that level of final-word clarity on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s ever-shifting organic food rules.

Recent rule changes — designed to benefit corporate organic growers — have brought massive changes to the American organic landscape.

For example, USDA’s rule to permit soil-free, hydroponic production of vegetables and fruit has, in just a few short years, clobbered small U.S. organic blueberry farmers.

Peru, reports the Real Organic Project, has largely displaced most U.S. blueberry growers because farmers there can grow blueberries faster and cheaper under USDA’s recently changed rules meant to boost American corporate hydroponic producers.

In fact, reported the BBC recently, Peru — a nation that grew virtually no blueberries a decade ago — is now the world’s top blueberry exporter, selling $1.4 billion of the fruit overseas in 2022.

This is just “Another example of how degrading the definition of ‘organic’ has real consequences,” explained ROP.

Had the USDA standard remained soil-based and not opened the market to hydroponically-grown blueberries, it argues, U.S. growers would continue “to sell high-value, late-season fruit.”

Under the hydroponic rules — rules ROP fought against because “organic,” by definition, means soil — “U.S. (blueberry) producers have been hit hard” and “most of that imported production is hydroponic.”

How did that happen? Enter Washington’s legislator-to-lobbyist revolving door — or, more accurately, open barn door — where it’s nearly impossible to distinguish lawmakers from law shakers.

In fact, according to opensecrets.org, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that tracks money and influence in American politics, a staggering 467 former House and Senate members lobbied Capitol Hill during the 115th Congress to “attempt to influence the very federal government in which they used to serve.”

Think about that: Four years ago, the latest published numbers, the 467 former lawmakers asking one-time colleagues for a favor nearly equaled the number of one-time colleagues, 535, they asked.

Why? Because all that grinning, gripping and greasing works, explained U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Maine Democrat on the House Ag Committee and a certified organic farmer.

“There are 1,200 lobbyists on the Hill that work for the agriculture and food processing industry,” she told the ROP podcast. “They spend about $350 million a year on forming opinions in Washington. And that’s more than the defense industry, so don’t underestimate their power.”

For proof, just look at USDA’s organic hydroponics rule; lobbyists pushed that choice, not voters, and American farmers are paying the price.

Alan Guebert

Alan Guebert

Farm & Food File is published weekly through the U.S. and Canada. Source material and contact information are posted at www.farmandfoodfile.com.