Agricultural/Research Policy – Racial Equity and Sustainable Agriculture

By September 7, 2017Policy

by Mark Schonbeck

The tragic events in Charlottesville on August 12 struck close to home for many of us.  We hold everyone affected by the violence and hatred in our prayers.

Racial equity and social justice are essential aspects of a truly sustainable agriculture and food system, and have become integral tenets of the sustainable agriculture movement. National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) and many of its member organizations are seeking more proactive and effective ways to address structural racism, including historically unequal access to vital resources from technical assistance, credit, and other services a producer needs to farm successfully, to healthful food itself.  NSAC’s Statement on Racial Equity can be viewed at

Since the early 1990s, VABF has collaborated with Virginia State University, the state’s 1890 (historically African American) Land Grant University, with whom we co-sponsor the annual Virginia Biological Farming Conference.  This has been, and can continue to be, an opportunity for our organization to reach out to people and communities of color and engage them as equal partners in our work.

Yet, more is needed.  The increase in hateful rhetoric and violence forces us to confront racism directly, and ask ourselves how we can help, through our work in agriculture and food systems, to heal the deep divisions in our society.  The following statements by two NSAC members provide resources that can help us find the way forward.

VABF Signs Letters to EPA and USDA Opposing Dicamba-Resistant Crop Technology

This August, VABF joined the Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA), the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC), the Rural Coalition, and many other farmer and environmental organization, in urging EPA and USDA to revoke registration for a dangerous new technology: crops genetically engineered (GE) to resist dicamba herbicide.

Over the past 20 years, widespread heavy use of glyphosate (Roundup) in production of “Roundup-ready” GE corn, soybean, cotton, and canola has resulted in many weeds developing resistance to this herbicide.  In response, Monsanto developed a new line of “Xtend” cotton and soybean seeds, engineered to tolerate an older herbicide, dicamba, to facilitate control of the glyphosate-resistant weeds.

Two problems with this strategy are that weeds will simply evolve resistance to dicamba (this has already been documented in Palmer amaranth according to Wikipedia), and that dicamba is a volatile compound that readily drifts onto non-target crops.  Hot summer temperatures intensify the drift, causing severe damage in broadleaf crops, including vegetables, tree fruit, and grape vines, as well as non-Xtend soybeans and cotton.

Despite concerns raised by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) representing farmers, farmworkers, and consumers, the USDA deregulated Monsanto’s Xtend soybean and cotton seeds in January, 2015.  This year with the use of Xtend cultivars becoming more widespread, drift from dicamba-sprayed Xtend crops has damaged crops in neighboring fields. According to estimates by University of Missouri, some 3.1 million acres of soybeans in 18 states have been seriously damaged or destroyed by dicamba drift.  Affected farmers find themselves faced with crop losses that insurance policies may not cover, possibly causing them to default on farm operating loans.

In response to this rapidly unfolding crisis, PANNA and NFFC invited other groups to sign a letter to the US Department of Agriculture asking that registration of Monsanto’s Xtend seeds be withdrawn, and another letter asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to revoke registration of Monsanto’s new formulation of dicamba, marketed with the seeds.  VABF joined the Rural Coalition and many other groups in signing onto these letters, which were delivered to the USDA and EPA at the end of August.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Meets in Madison, WI.

Early in August, I represented VABF at the semi-annual meeting of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), held at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  It was a most absorbing and stimulating meeting as we strategized the next Farm Bill cycle on Capitol Hill.  The current Farm Bill, which funds most of the USDA programs including research, conservation, rural development, and organic as well as the commodity, crop insurance, and nutrition assistance programs, expires at the end of September, 2018, which gives Congress a year to write a new Farm Bill to fund USDA programs another five years.

In addition to working hard on the 2018 Farm Bill and other policy issues, we took some time to tour local farms, and gathered at the U. Wisconsin research farm for a delicious locavore dinner.  The sweet corn was outstanding – and I had the honor of meeting one of the nation’s most innovative corn breeders, Dr. Walter Goldstein of Mandaamin Institute in Wisconsin.  His new lines of grain corn fix 10 to 50 percent of their own N, and efficiently obtain the rest of their N from slow-release organic sources, giving high yields of nutritionally superior grain without soluble fertilizers. Organic poultry growers are especially excited, as the high methionine content of these new varieties, developed through classical, non-GMO breeding methods, will help them wean their operations off a synthetic methionine supplement that the USDA National Organic Standards Board seeks to phase-out of organic production.

NSAC and its 100+ member organizations bring the voices of sustainable and organic family farmers, and local and regional food system activists to Capitol Hill during the development of a Farm Bill, and to USDA throughout the five years of its implementation.  Watch for updates and grassroots action items in coming issues of the VABF e-newsletter as the Farm Bill process unfolds.