Washington Examiner: Take Wendell Berry’s advice: Protect food integrity

Author Wendell Berry is most famous for his writings about the need to live in harmony with the Earth. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)

by Marty Irby | Mar 2, 2018

“I am sorry for the need to remind you that your meeting is taking place after many years of public indifference to the most pressing issues of agriculture and rural life.” So began a letter, written by Wendell Berry and delivered on behalf of the celebrated Kentucky farmer and novelist, to a crowd assembled at the Museum of the Bible.

Inspired by the words and life of Berry, approximately 80 faith leaders, agriculture industry leaders, and farmers from across the nation had gathered in Washington, D.C., for the first annual Wendell Berry Faith and Farming Summit. The event, organized and hosted by the Humane Society of the United States, gave guests the opportunity to meet and discuss the urgent need for more humane animal agriculture and environmental stewardship in today’s world.

The event unfolded at the Museum of the Bible and on Capitol Hill, where participants met with more than 75 legislative staff and elected officials to discuss recently introduced agriculture legislation and needed commodity checkoff program reform.

As Berry often noted in his work, we desperately need to protect the integrity of the food we produce and to encourage the stewardship of the land so that it may be available for use by future generations. But Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, recently introduced a bill that could lead to the undoing of many such laws already in place. King plans to offer his proposal as an amendment to the Farm Bill.

King’s bills take the lowest-common-denominator approach: If any one state tolerates the way a particular agricultural product is manufactured or produced, no matter how hazardous or unacceptable, every other state could have to do so as well. King’s legislation could undermine hundreds of duly enacted state laws reflecting the public will on a wide range of concerns. For example, California’s law that prohibits the sale of eggs from hens confined in a cruel manner, for food safety and animal cruelty reasons, could be wiped out. King’s bill has the potential to bulldoze hundreds of state laws, a radical assault on state powers and federalism.

The group also focused on commodity checkoff programs, which were established to allow producers to pool money for common promotional purposes. The fees that farmers must pay to support these programs are mandatory. Checkoff dollars go to federal, industry-specific boards, which are required by law to use these funds for mutually beneficial marketing campaigns and research. The boards are prohibited from using the funds for lobbying.

Unfortunately, these boards have repeatedly acted beyond the scope of their statutory mandate. Lax oversight by the U.S. Department of Agriculture has resulted in collusive and illegal relationships between checkoff boards and lobbying organizations, both of which have routinely used checkoff funds to influence legislation and government action against family farmers who value traditional husbandry practices. Bipartisan, bicameral legislation introduced by Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Reps. Dave Brat, R-Va., and Dina Titus, D-Nev., would prevent publicly funded lobbying and restore accountability in these government-funded advertising programs.

Members of the House Agriculture Committee should allow each state and its citizens to decide which laws to enact by rejecting King’s amendment. They should encourage commodity checkoff reform by advancing the Lee-Booker proposal. As Berry recently and so eloquently proffered to our American farmers and faith leaders, we must mindfully address these, the most pressing issues of agriculture and rural life. The welfare of our food systems, our rural communities and, indeed, our world depends on it.

Marty Irby is a Senior Advisor at The Humane Society of the United States where he focuses on rural and equine issues.