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GREEN GIANT KILLER

About the Author

John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

Also by the Author

A Dickensian year when food stamps were cut and bankers got everything they wanted

The USPS will deliver 15.5 billion pieces of mail this season. Yet it is threatened by devastating closures and cuts.

Back in the early days of the Clinton Administration, then-North Dakota Agriculture Secretary

Sarah Vogel

was touted as a potential US Secretary of Agriculture. But her challenges to corporate agribusiness and her outspoken opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement scuttled that idea. Too bad; as her subsequent career as a lawyer in her home state shows, she would have been a hell of a fighter for family farmers. With associate

Courtney Koebele

, Vogel recently won a $41 million settlement for 8,000 wheat farmers who faced financial ruin when the USDA and finance corporations shifted crop insurance formulas to pay farmers far less than had been promised. Her clients were activist farmers like

Paul

and

Tom Wiley

, who drove through North Dakota blizzards to deliver court documents before key deadlines. Vogel and her legal team are also taking on factory farms that spoil the environment, agribusiness corporations accused of selling farmers bad seeds and insurance companies that fail to cover crop damage. She's even going after the Bureau of Indian Affairs on behalf of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who say BIA policies threaten Native American farmers. In farm country, Vogel has earned a reputation as "a giant killer in ag law." The fiery lawyer--who is using some of her fees to reopen Bismarck's natural-food restaurant, the Green Earth Cafe--says, "Corporate agriculture would have farmers be serfs." A third-generation rural activist, she says she'll keep using the courts until Washington enacts "farm policy from a farmer perspective"--including restrictions on agribusiness monopolies, fair-trade provisions and limits on genetic modification of food.

IN THE FDA WE DISTRUST

Academics and agribusiness leaders who gathered on the University of Minnesota campus in early February dutifully sang the praises of Food and Drug Administration policies on genetically engineered foods. There was even a chorus of endorsements of FDA plans to implement voluntary guidelines for labeling altered foods. "The public trusts the FDA on this issue," intoned panelist Thomas Hoban. Outside in the Minneapolis cold, however, the public wasn't following the script. Police were called to disperse a crowd of several dozen activists from

Genetically Engineered Food Alert

, who raised a ruckus about what protester

Matt Rand

labeled the FDA's "very weak industry-backed policy." Food safety activists across the country are stepping up the campaign to get the United States to regulate the marketing of foods that are genetically engineered or that include GE ingredients--which now make up two-thirds of products on supermarket shelves. The

Center for Food Safety

and the

Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods

are among those urging consumers to write to the FDA during a comment period that ends April 3, opposing the voluntary labeling plan and calling for tighter regulation. On Capitol Hill,

Dennis Kucinich

, the Ohio Democrat who heads the

Congressional Progressive Caucus

, is stepping up a drive for Congressional action on his

Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act

. He's working with the

Organic Consumers Association

and other groups to get constituents to push House members to endorse the bill--which had fifty-six co-sponsors in the last Congress. "If you ask the average American whether they want a label telling them the food they're buying has been genetically modified, they will answer, 'Absolutely,'" says Kucinich, who has developed a

GE Food Action Center

on his website, www.house.gov/kucinich. "By putting some organization behind that sentiment, we can make this into so big an issue that the industry lobbyists will have to get out of the way."

POLITICAL HEAT FROM THE KITCHEN

"Eating is a political act," says

Alice Waters

, whose pioneering Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse has inspired dozens of organic eateries to reject the processed foods of agribusiness and buy produce from small farmers in neighboring communities. Top cooks from many of these restaurants have formed the

Chefs Collaborative

(chefnet.com), a network that promotes "sustainable cuisine" by supporting local farmers and educating children about healthy eating. Recently, they've stepped up efforts to educate chefs and consumers about threats to endangered species and ecosystems posed by corporate agribusiness. Chez Panisse, Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe and Chicago's Frontera Grill have launched high-profile initiatives to eliminate GE foods from their menus. "It is critical for us, as chefs, to lead in this public debate and to field questions in our dining rooms and in our kitchens," says Frontera's

Rick Bayless

. "We're still cooking, but we're also entering the public debate as people who work with food and who want Americans to start asking the questions we do about how food is produced," adds

Ann Cooper

, author of Bitter Harvest: A Chef's Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It (Routledge)... Now that even TV networks are reporting on mad cow disease, activist-authors

Sheldon Rampton

and

John Stauber

are feeling a certain amount of satisfaction. "For years, when consumers should have been told about the risks they were taking when they bought beef, there was a blackout on the issue," says Stauber, who with Rampton wrote Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (now available free at www.prwatch.com). Stauber and Rampton are back with a new book, Trust Us, We're Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future (Putnam).

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