UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

Monsanto’s Four Tactics for Undermining Glyphosate Science Review

Emails unsealed in a California lawsuit last week reveal that agribusiness giant Monsanto engaged in activities aimed at undermining efforts to evaluate a potential link between glyphosate—the active ingredient of the company’s popular herbicide Roundup—and cancer. The documents reveal the company’s plans to seed the scientific literature with a ghostwritten study, and its efforts to delay and prevent US government assessments of the product’s safety.

Many corporate actors, including the sugar industry, the oil and gas industries, and the tobacco industry, have used tactics such as denying scientific evidence, attacking individual scientists, interfering in government decision-making processes, and manufacturing counterfeit science through ghostwriting to try to convince policymakers and the public of their products’ safety in the face of independent scientific evidence to the contrary. This case underscores the urgent need for greater transparency and tighter protections to prevent these kinds of corporate disinformation tactics that could put the public at risk.

High stakes in glyphosate-cancer link

The case centers on the scientific question of whether glyphosate causes a type of cancer known as non-Hodgkin lymphoma. In the California lawsuit in which the key company documents were unsealed, plaintiffs with non-Hodgkin lymphoma claim that their disease is linked to glyphosate exposure.

The science is still unclear on this question. The EPA’s issue paper on this topic said that glyphosate is “not likely carcinogenic,” but some of its Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) members point to critical data gaps and even suggest that there is “limited but suggestive evidence of a positive association” between glyphosate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The European Food Safety Authority and the European Chemical Agency have both concluded that scientific evidence does not support classifying glyphosate as a carcinogen. Over 94 scientists from institutions across the world have called for changes to EFSA’s scientific evaluation process.

It’s complex. What is clear, however, is that independent science bodies should be conducting their assessments on glyphosate without interference from outside players with a stake in the final determination.

The stakes for public health—and for Monsanto’s bottom line—are enormous. Glyphosate is one of the most widely used herbicides in the United States. Sold by Monsanto under the trade name Roundup, it is the company’s flagship product. US farmers spray nearly 300 million pounds of it on corn, soybeans, and a variety of other crops every year to kill weeds. It is also commonly used in the United States for residential lawn care. As a result of its widespread use, traces of Roundup have been found in streams and other waterways and in our food, and farmers and farmworkers are at risk for potentially heavy exposure to the chemical. (More on the ramifications of its agricultural use and the related acceleration of herbicide-resistant weeds here.)

Setting the scene for science manipulation

In 2009, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began a compulsory risk assessment of glyphosate as part of its pesticide reregistration process. The agency’s process risked the possibility that the chemical could be listed as a possible carcinogen, as the agency is required to review new evidence since its last review in the mid-1990s and determine whether it will cause unreasonable adverse effects on the environment and human health. From Monsanto’s standpoint, such a classification change posed a clear threat for its lucrative product, possibly resulting in changes to labels and public perception of the product’s safety that could tarnish the brand’s image.

Compounding the companies’ woes, in March 2015, the United Nations-sponsored International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released an assessment concluding that glyphosate was a probable human carcinogen after evaluating the available scientific research on glyphosate’s link to non-Hodgkin lymphoma and myeloma. IARC recommended that glyphosate be classified as a 2A carcinogen, along with pesticides like DDT and malathion. IARC’s was a science-based determination, not regulatory in nature. But the IARC assessment, the pending EPA review, and a slated evaluation by yet another US agency—the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)—appears to have spurred Monsanto to use at least four separate tactics to inappropriately influence public perception and the assessment process.

Tactic 1: Suppress the science

In one disturbing revelation, the emails suggest that Monsanto representatives had frequent communications with a US government official: Jess Rowland, former associate director of the Health Effects Division at the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs and chair of the agency’s Cancer Assessment Review Committee. Internal Monsanto emails indicate that Rowland tipped the company off to the IARC assessment before its release. The emails also quote Rowland as saying he would work to quash the ATSDR study on glyphosate, reportedly telling Monsanto officials: “if I can kill this I should get a medal.” The emails suggest that Monsanto was working with staff inside a US government agency, outside of the established areas of public input to decision-making processes, in a completely inappropriate manner.

Tactic 2: Attack the messenger

Immediately following the IARC assessment, Monsanto not only disputed the findings but attacked the IARC’s credibility, trying to discredit the internationally renowned agency by claiming it had fallen prey to “agenda-driven bias.” The IARC’s working group members were shocked by Monsanto’s allegations questioning their credibility. IARC relies on data that are in the public domain and follows criteria to evaluate the relevance and independence of each study it cites. As one IARC member, epidemiologist Francesco Forastiere, explained: “…none of us had a political agenda. We simply acted as scientists, evaluating the body of evidence, according to the criteria.” Despite Monsanto’s attacks, the IARC continues to stand by the conclusions of its 2015 assessment.

Tactic 3: Manufacture counterfeit science

In perhaps the most troubling revelation, emails show that in February 2015, Monsanto discussed manufacturing counterfeit science—ghostwriting a study for the scientific literature that would downplay the human health impacts of glyphosate, and misrepresenting its independence. William Heydens, a Monsanto executive, suggested that the company could keep costs down by writing an article on the toxicity of glyphosate and having paid academics “edit & sign their names so to speak” and recommended that the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology be contacted since the company “had done such a publication in the past” at that journal.

The 2000 paper Heydens referenced, the lead author of which is a faculty member at New York Medical College (NYMC), cites Monsanto studies, thanks Monsanto for “scientific support,” but fails to disclose Monsanto funding or other direct involvement in its publication. That paper concluded that, “Roundup herbicide does not pose a health risk to humans.” After a quick investigation to assess the integrity of this study, NYMC announced that there was “no evidence” that the faculty member had broken with the school’s policy not to author ghostwritten studies.

Tactic 4: Undermine independent scientific assessment

The emails and other court documents also document the ways in which Monsanto worked to prevent EPA’s use of a Scientific Advisory Panel (SAP) to review the agency’s issue paper on glyphosate’s cancer risk and to delay and help shape the SAP findings through suggested changes to the composition of the panel. Within the unsealed emails, Monsanto mentioned that it opposed the EPA’s plan to create a SAP to review glyphosate because “the scope is more likely than not to be more comprehensive than just IARC…SAPs add significant delay, create legal vulnerabilities and are a flawed process that is probable to result in a panel and determinations that are scientifically questionable and will only result in greater uncertainty.” This is a bogus claim. Scientific Advisory Panels, when they are fully independent, are a critical source of science advice.

EPA’s SAP meetings on glyphosate, scheduled to begin in October 2016, were postponed just a few days before they were slated to start. This occurred after intense lobbying from CropLife America, an agrichemical trade organization representing Monsanto and other pesticide makers, which questioned the motives of the SAP looking into the health impacts of glyphosate. CropLife submitted several comments to the EPA, including one that attacked the integrity of a nominated SAP scientist. The agency subsequently announced the scientist’s removal from the panel in November 2016, one month before the rescheduled meetings took place.

Simultaneously, Monsanto created its own “expert panel” in July 2015 composed of 16 individuals, some scientists and some lobbyists, only four of whom have never been employed by or consulted with Monsanto. Who needs independent assessments when you have ready, willing, and substantially funded agribusiness scientists who call themselves “independent”?

Defending the scientific process

The revelations from the unsealed Monsanto emails underscore the vital need for independent science and transparency to ensure credibility, foster public trust in our system of science-based policymaking, and prevent entities like Monsanto from undermining objective scientific assessments. Clearly, better controls and oversight are needed to safeguard the scientific process from tactics like ghostwriting, and more transparency and accountability are needed to ensure that scientific bodies are able to adequately assess the risks and benefits of any given product. Given what is now known about Monsanto’s actions, the need for independently conducted research and impartial science-based assessments about glyphosate’s safety is more important than ever.

 

Trump’s “Skinny” Budget Would Starve Farmers of Support, Leave Kids and Seniors Hungry

I wasn’t surprised to see that the president’s “skinny” budget proposal, released last week, would gut the EPA and the State Department. Appalled? Of course. But not really surprised, as the two-month-old Trump administration had already made its antipathy toward environmental protection and international cooperation abundantly clear.

But we’ve heard ad nauseam since the election that farmers and rural voters came out in droves to elect the president, believing he understood their problems and would help solve them. Rural voters felt forgotten, and throughout the campaign, candidate Trump told them they mattered. Now, with his initial budget document, President Trump seems to be telling them something quite different.

That’s because his budget proposal calls for a 21 percent decrease in funding for the Department of Agriculture (USDA), proportionally the third largest proposed reduction of any federal agency. The USDA serves all Americans, of course, but none more than farmers and rural communities.

The USDA’s budget overall would decrease by $4.7 billion, though specifically-identified cuts add up to nowhere near that amount, suggesting that we’ll see many more significant and specific cuts when the budget request is fleshed out in May. In the meantime, what are some of the consequences?

Trump’s cuts would gut research, financial and technical assistance that helps farmers

While the budget proposal lacks detailed reductions, it outlines deep cuts to staffing for the USDA’s Service Center Agencies, a little-known collection of agencies that includes the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Established as the Soil Conservation Service during the Dust Bowl in 1935 (the name was changed in 1994), NRCS works in partnership with farmers and ranchers, local and state governments, and other federal agencies to maintain healthy and productive working landscapes. In particular, the service offers financial and technical assistance to help farmers implement voluntary conservation practices to protect and enhance soil, water, and wildlife.

Drastic reductions in the number of field staff providing direct technical assistance to farmers would hamstring their ability to implement effective conservation practices such as cover crops—which can pose a challenge to farmers trying them for the first time. The president’s proposal suggests that staffing reductions would encourage “private sector conservation planning.” What this means is anyone’s guess, but it may signal dramatic changes to federal conservation programs, including reductions in financial incentives to farmers through NRCS. As recent UCS analysis has shown, farming practices supported by these programs can deliver major payoffs to farmers and taxpayers. But they only work if there is funding and people in place to carry them out.

The president’s budget proposal contains mixed but potentially troubling hints about the USDA’s continued commitment to agricultural research to help ensure the long-term sustainability of farming. It appears to maintain funding of the department’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative—under which the USDA announced last fall it was increasing investment in agroecology—at FY16 levels, though this still falls short of what is needed. At the same time, however, last week’s budget document hints at significant restructuring of the USDA’s wide-ranging research and economics branch, which would alter the scope and priorities of federally funded agriculture research and statistics-keeping.

Trump’s cuts would put water resources and rural water supplies at risk

Remember when the Trump campaign promised Americans “absolutely crystal clear and clean water”? (It’s #194 on this list of campaign promises.) Well, even before the inauguration, I noted that many of the incoming administration’s decisions didn’t bode well for clean water. And though last week’s budget proposal trumpets its “robust funding for critical drinking and wastewater infrastructure,” a look at the details doesn’t inspire a lot of optimism. As Vox’s Sarah Frostenson writes, under this budget, EPA would have no new money to fix America’s crumbling water systems, and cuts to the agency’s enforcement office would hobble its ability to punish drinking water violations.

The budget would also eliminate EPA funding for long-running regional clean water efforts, including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Chesapeake Bay Program—both of which contend with significant pollution from farm runoff.

And crystal clear water for rural households? Not so fast. The budget blueprint would completely eliminate the USDA’s Water & Waste Disposal Loan & Grant Program, a rural development program that does what it says—provides funding for clean drinking water systems and improvements to sanitary sewage and solid waste disposal and storm water drainage in eligible rural areas. The budget blueprint calls it “duplicative,” almost laughably suggesting that the EPA could potentially be covering this. (One wonders how.)

Trump’s cuts could slash food programs that serve rural (as well as urban) communities

You’ve probably heard that the budget proposal eliminates federal funding for Meals on Wheels, though the White House is disputing that. The privately-run program will probably lose some funding as a result of federal budget decisions, though it’s unclear how much. But the largest federal nutrition assistance program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), is even more of a question mark. SNAP isn’t included in the skinny budget, but will likely see deep cuts in a more comprehensive budget proposal expected from the White House later this spring.

And if that happens, rural communities will be hit hard. SNAP is often regarded as a program serving urban communities, but research from the Center for Rural Affairs shows that rural areas have a larger percentage of households receiving SNAP benefits than either metropolitan or micropolitan (small city) areas. One in seven rural households—including many children and seniors—relies on this program.

When is a budget not really a budget?

President Trump’s shot across the budgetary bow suggests that his White House has little interest in investing in rural and farming communities or giving them the tools they need to thrive. You might notice a pattern here, as his budget proposal similarly thumbs its nose at coal miners, another constituency Candidate Trump courted.

Almost immediately, members of Congress (on both the left and the right) blasted the president’s budget as a betrayal of rural America, or dismissing it out of hand. The ranking member of the House agriculture committee went so far as to say that the document will be ignored, “as it should be.”

That’s a good reminder that, as in any year, the president’s budget proposal isn’t really “the budget.” As a UCS colleague pointed out, it’s Congress that actually sets the government’s spending levels and priorities. Which means this conversation is just getting started.

Cover Crop Challenges: A Reminder That In Agriculture, Even Small Changes Can Be Hard

Why don’t more farmers plant cover crops? This is a question I am asked all the time when I talk about my research on the topic. Cover crops are not new—their historic use in agriculture includes many ancient civilizations and even our Founding Fathers. Cover crops simply mean growing a plant to “cover” and protect the soil when it would otherwise be bare. Live plant roots can reduce erosion and water pollution, and lead to more productive soil with time.

To a non-farmer it might seem like a no-brainer, but talking to agricultural producers helps highlight how complicated even seemingly simple best management can be. In a peer-reviewed paper published this week, several former colleagues and I describe the “Trouble with Cover Crops” based on focus group discussions we facilitated with Iowa farmers.

In spite of increasing attention on cover crops in the popular press, agricultural industry and in academic research circles, cover crops only make up about 2% of the overall landscape of the U.S. Midwest “Corn Belt.” Helping scale up the practice was the main motivation of our work: what could we learn from the pioneering farmers who are making cover crops work? A few key points emerged as the most salient:

The unforgiving winter season in the Upper Midwest is inhospitable to almost anything other than the most cold-tolerant cover crop, cereal rye, seen growing here in between rows of soybean. The farmers we spoke to are very interested in other cover crop species such as radishes (with deep tap roots that help reduce soil compaction) and legumes such as vetch or clover (which act as a biological plant fertilizer).

Overcoming barriers is possible with a “whole systems” approach

Our conversations with farmers highlighted the conflict they face between doing what might be best in the long term and what is needed to keep business afloat in the short term (a problem we can all relate to). So many decisions come down to economics, but the story is more complicated than just dollars and cents. Agricultural landscapes in many regions have grown increasingly simplified over the last several decades—in Iowa more than 90% of farmed acres are planted to just two crops: corn or soybean.

This means that these farmers are generally very busy when they are getting ready for corn and soybean planting periods (April and May) and during crop harvest (September and October). Those are the same part of the growing season that a producer using a cover crop would need to find the time to get cover crop seeds planted and then terminated in the spring (by using an herbicide or plowing the cover crop into the soil). That simply doesn’t leave a lot of time for a cover crop to grow adequately, especially in a cold winter season; so, not a guarantee with that narrow “window” that it was worth a producer’s monies and effort. This challenge with timing, and the labor needed to complete the tasks needed, are a definite challenge expressed by producers.

This may explain why many of the farmers we spoke to who were actually using cover crops described their approach to farm management as operating a “whole system”, where including a cover crop wasn’t an isolated tweak to their production, rather it was part of a more comprehensive approach to management. It also meant other important changes such as applying fertilizer more efficiently and utilizing equipment differently. Here is the voice of one farmer who articulated this idea so well:

I look at it as a system. You got to do the whole system. You can’t nitpick. You got to manage your nitrogen. You got to get good soil/seed contact cause you’re planting into a mass of roots sometimes and you need to do everything. Just to do one piece? One piece…it doesn’t work, they get discouraged and say that’s no good and they’re not going to do it anymore. You need to do everything.

It was an encouraging point of our conversations that soil conservation drove a desire to make the economics and timing work. Many other farmers saw the practice of cover cropping as critical to longer-term sustainability, particularly as a way to manage risks associated with growing rainfall variability.

More diverse agricultural landscapes are needed if we want to see more cover crops

Since it was founded in 1985 by farmers seeking alternatives during the Farm Crisis, the Practical Farmers of Iowa have cultivated an extensive network of thousands of farmers in the state who support each other with information on practices like cover cropping. They also created the clever campaign “Don’t Farm Naked” to promote soil protection through cover crops.

Even the pioneering farmers that we spoke to, who had years (if not decades) of experience growing cover crops, expressed doubt that their neighbors would be willing to spend the extra time and money to do the same. One suggestion to increase cover crop use that we frequently heard is that there is a need for more diverse cash crop options and better integration of livestock in operations. This has everything to do with the narrow window for cover crop management and for making the dollars and cents work.

For example, if there were better markets for small grain crops such as wheat or oats that are planted in the spring or summer, it would mean more opportunity to grow cover crops outside of the busy fall and spring seasons. Also, cattle or other livestock that graze on cover crops as a feed source make the economics more attractive to producers with crops and livestock. More diverse cash crops or more integrated crop-livestock operations would create opportunities for more cover crops, a point that numerous farmers reiterated.

This is a “chicken or the egg” type of tension that we picked up on in the conversations. What should come first: More cover crops bringing landscape diversity or more diverse cash crops that help cover crops grow?

Luckily, this is a problem that improvements to agricultural policy can solve. We suggested several ideas to facilitate more cover crop use, including:

  • Increasing funds for networks of farmers to allow for learning from other innovators on how best to make new practices work
  • Creating markets for more livestock and diverse cash crops in states such as Iowa, where very few cash crop options exist
  • Better synchrony of cover crops with crop insurance programs (since it is widely known that this can be a challenge for producers and that conservation can reduce climate risks!)

Even though there are troubles with cover crops, they are an important piece of the sustainability puzzle in agricultural systems. With improved policy, more cover crops can create greater landscape diversification, and ultimately, farming systems that benefit farmers, eaters and the environment.

Food Production Does NOT Need to Double by 2050 (And Other Required Reading for the Next USDA Secretary)

Shortly after the inauguration, I wrote a post outlining a set of five questions I thought the Senate should ask President Trump’s choice for Secretary of Agriculture. Former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue had been named to the position just days prior, and though the selection is deeply flawed, I expected a Senate hearing and confirmation vote would follow promptly.

Well, the nomination has now been on the table for eight weeks, and what seemed like a sure thing now looks less so. Amid ethics questions, a multitude of financial conflicts of interest (sound like anyone you know?), and inexplicable foot-dragging by the White House—which finally filed the paperwork to formally nominate Gov. Perdue this week—there’s still no hearing on the books.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Gov. Perdue will eventually get his hearing, be confirmed by the Senate, and take up the top post at the USDA. What will he be faced with?

He’ll have responsibility for an industrial model of farming that the USDA has long promoted, which is not doing so well. To be sure, it’s pumping out a lot of commodity crops, and more-more-more seems to be its motto and overarching goal. US farmers achieved record-high harvests for corn and soybeans last year, but at the same time, farm incomes are at their lowest levels since 2002. Farmers are losing soil to erosion at unsustainable rates, which threatens the long-term viability of their businesses and of domestic food production. And the more-more-more model relies on heavy fertilizer use, resulting in a nitrogen pollution problem that costs the nation an estimated $157 billion per year in human health and environmental damages and contributes 5 percent of the US share of human-caused heat-trapping gases responsible for climate change.

Proponents of this approach to farming justify it because they say it’s needed to feed a growing world. But it’s debatable whether past efforts to maximize US crop production have been successful even in that realm. And the world—including its farmers—also needs clean water and a stable climate, right?

Producing more food, sustainably

Which is why I want to recommend a surprising new study as required reading for the presumptive agriculture secretary. Published last month in the journal Bioscience, the peer-reviewed paper (alas, behind a pay wall) takes apart a popular claim behind the more-more-more approach—that food production must double by 2050 to feed a growing world population—and strongly advocates for more attention to sustainability.

You’ve probably heard the claim, which stems from two recent food demand projections, one by researchers at the University of Minnesota in 2011 and the other by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2012. Neither team said food production needed to double, exactly, but one thing led to another and the myth that we need to produce twice as much food in the foreseeable future took on a life of its own. It was soon repeated by everyone from the Farm Bureau and Monsanto (naturally) to the Washington Post and National Geographic. A UCS colleague took issue with it in this 2015 blog post, but the myth has persisted.

Now, a team led by Penn State University researchers says it’s just not true. Writing at RealClear Science, lead author and plant scientist Mitch Hunter summarizes the team’s finding:

We conclude that food production does not need to double by 2050, which would require unprecedented growth, but instead needs to continue increasing at roughly historical rates. We also highlight quantitative goals that indicate the scope of agriculture’s environmental challenges.

In fact, Hunter and colleagues say, their new analysis shows that a more modest increase—somewhere between 25 and 70 percent—may be sufficient to meet 2050 food demand. The discrepancy, they explain, stems partly from the fact that the previous studies used 2005 as their baseline for demand, and food production has already increased markedly in the intervening 12 years.

An increase of 25 to 70 percent is still a lot, of course. But farm yield trends are going in the right direction. More troubling is that we’re not making the same strides when it comes to improving agriculture’s impact on our environment, as Hunter points out in an interview at Futurity.org:

In the coming decades, agriculture will be called upon to both feed people and ensure a healthy environment. Right now, the narrative in agriculture is really out of balance, with compelling goals for food production but no clear sense of the progress we need to make on the environment. To get the agriculture we want in 2050, we need quantitative targets for both food production and environmental impacts.

Hunter and colleagues elaborate on the most important environmental challenges they see for agriculture in 2050—reducing its emissions of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere and its release of nutrients to waterways—and show how agriculture is falling short of goals that have been set to date. Asserting in the paper that “sustainability cannot play second fiddle to intensification,” the authors recommend the development of a suite of quantitative environmental goals for agriculture, and advocate for shifts in farm policy to meet them.

As I said, required reading for the incoming Secretary of Agriculture.

Agroecology FTW-W-W!

While he’s at it, Gov. Perdue should also read this excellent commentary from my colleagues Andrea Basche and Marcia DeLonge. They posit in the open-access science journal Elementa (and here on our blog) that what we need are farms that support farmers, consumers, and the environment. The governor should know that the science that can achieve such a win-win-win exists. It’s called agroecology, and the USDA needs to fund a lot more of it, according to more than 450 experts on the subject.

A recent event suggests that the interconnectedness of global food security, human nutrition, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity is gaining traction even at the USDA. Just this month, the department’s Office of the Chief Scientist hosted a day-long “listening session” titled Visioning of US Agricultural Systems for Sustainable Production. The session was described by the organizers at the USDA as a landmark conversation for the future possibilities for US agricultural systems and the research needed to develop these systems for the long term.

UCS was there, and we delivered the following four recommendations:

  • Full funding for public agricultural research programs, with a high priority given to promising agroecological research
  • Expansion of publicly-funded classical breeding programs, with a special focus on plant varieties needed in agroecological systems
  • A shift in taxpayer-funded USDA subsidies, incentives, and technical assistance toward implementing economically and environmentally viable farming practices and systems, based on agroecology
  • Greater taxpayer-funded investment in local food systems that advance economic and environmental sustainability in rural and urban communities

I’ll go ahead and put our full written comments on Gov. Perdue’s required reading list. Should he ever become Secretary Perdue, he’s got some homework to do.

Photo: US Agency for International Development/CC BY-NC 2.0, Flickr

Helping the FDA Define “Healthy” Food Labels

As a registered dietitian, my perspective on healthy foods is pretty simple: there aren’t any.

Before you write to my accrediting board, let me explain. What I mean is that the extent to which a food can promote health is largely dependent on the role it plays in a person’s total diet. Are there health benefits to be gained from eating a side of salmon with dinner? Absolutely. But if I ate nothing but sockeye for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I’d be getting only a fraction of the nutrients my body needs.

It’s a different way to talk about healthy eating, I know, and you’ll catch me departing from this dogma from time to time. But I do try to encourage people to focus on healthy diets—those containing a variety of foods (most of which are minimally processed, or would be somewhat recognizable in nature) in portions that satisfy their hunger and in forms that they enjoy.  This is part of the reason I became a public health dietitian: I think it’s important to talk about food as more than the sum of its nutrients. This pertains not only to conversations about how we consume food, but also about how we grow it, distribute it, and provide (or restrict) access to it.

Needless to say, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) brought health professionals, industry representatives, agencies, and advocates together last Thursday to help define the term “healthy” for food labels, I knew we were in for a challenge. Personal philosophy aside, the regulation of foods is an extremely complex task.

A little bit of background: the FDA issued a request for comments in September 2016, following a citizen petition submitted by the makers of KIND bars calling for science-based changes to the nutrient content claim “healthy.” A focal point of the KIND petition is the inconsistency between dietary recommendations, which encourage the consumption of foods like nuts and legumes, and FDA restrictions on total fat content barring these same foods from bearing the “healthy” label. (Current nutritional science tells us that quality is more important than quantity when it comes to dietary fat.)

While high-fat, health-promoting foods like nuts, salmon, and avocados enjoyed a spotlight at the public meeting, there were no shortage of questions in the room. For example, should “healthy” items be determined by food components, nutrient levels, or both? In what amounts? Would nutrients added to fortified foods count? What about phytonutrients, like the beta-carotene found in carrots or the lycopene in tomatoes?

Although the discussion is far from over, there seems to be general consensus around several points. First and foremost, the current definition of “healthy” is based on outdated science and is due for an upgrade. Second, new criteria for use of the term “healthy” on food labels should take both foods and nutrients into account. And third, the new criteria should align as closely as possible with the messages and recommendations contained in the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines.

The public comment period remains open until April 26, at which point the FDA will take time to review and respond to comments before publishing a proposed rule. Two issues we’ll have our eyes on include the thresholds that the FDA might identify for allowable levels of both sodium and added sugar. (The current definition of “healthy” sets moderate limits on the former and is silent on the latter.) These nutrients are of particular interest because, while most health professionals and researchers can agree that we’re consuming too much of them, we haven’t quite reached a consensus on what the limits should look like for a given snack food or prepared dish.

For our take on what should be included in the new regulations, including food-based criteria, allowable total fat distributions, and added sugar limits, read the transcript of our oral comment below. I’ll be following up with additional information and commentary as the public comment period draws to a close – stay tuned.

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UCS Comments at FDA Public Meeting on the Use of the Term “Healthy” in the Labeling of Human Food

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Good afternoon,

My name is Sarah Reinhardt. I am a registered dietitian, and am pleased to present this comment on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans emphasize the importance of choosing a variety of minimally processed, nutrient dense foods as part of a healthy eating pattern. The definition of nutrient dense foods provided by the guidelines reflects current scientific evidence on the health benefits associated with consumption of foods from key food groups, as well as the chronic disease risks associated with consumption of target nutrients. This definition provides the basis for our recommendations on the use of the term “healthy” in the labeling of human food.

UCS proposes the following modifications to the criteria required to bear the “healthy” label:

First, the term “healthy” should be characterized on the basis of foods, not just nutrients.

Health-promoting foods are those recommended by the dietary guidelines as part of a healthy diet, and include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans and peas, nuts and seeds, dairy products, and meats and poultry. Foods from one or more of the aforementioned groups should constitute a substantial proportion of a food item to meet standards for use of the term “healthy.” Some foods may be subject to exception from general “healthy” labels due to evidence of health risks associated with excess intake, including fruit juices, processed meat, and red meat.

Second, conditions related to total fat, cholesterol, added sugar, and sodium should be evaluated with respect to current scientific evidence.

Conditions on total fat content should be revised to provide exception to health-promoting foods with favorable total fat distributions of predominantly mono- and/or polyunsaturated fats. This reflects current scientific evidence on the health benefits of replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats, including reduced blood levels of total cholesterol, reduced low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and reduced risk of cardiovascular events and related deaths.

In light of advancements in the understanding of the role of dietary cholesterol in chronic disease risk, conditions related to cholesterol should be removed. This is consistent with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines and reflects current nutritional science.

It is critical that updated criteria establish limits on added sugar content. Research shows that over 70 percent of the population consumes this nutrient in excess, increasing the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer in adults. Limits should be established to help Americans limit added sugar intake to less than ten percent of daily calorie intake, as recommended by the dietary guidelines.

Lastly, allowable sodium levels should be further reduced to help protect against chronic disease.

Americans consume approximately 3,440 mg of sodium per day, 75 percent of which comes from processed foods. Foods labeled as “healthy” should contain levels of sodium to help meet daily sodium recommendations of 2,300 mg and reduce risks of high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

In conclusion, it is the recommendation of UCS that the conditions required for food items to bear the “healthy” label should closely align with the definition of “nutrient dense foods” provided by the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. Restructuring these criteria in a way that promotes healthy foods and restricts target nutrients will result in an established definition of “healthy” that provides clear and consistent messaging to consumers and follows evidence-based recommendations to reduce population risk of diet-related chronic disease. Thank you.

Photo: Marco Verch/BY-SA (Flickr)

What’s the Skinny on President Trump’s Skinny Budget? All Bark, No Bite

It’s alarming to read headlines like: “EPA budget may be cut by 25% under Trump;” “DOE targeted for massive cuts in Trump draft budget;” “White House proposes steep cut to leading climate science agency;”and  “Trump wants 37% cut to State, USAID.” But if you find yourself getting swept up in the hysteria, just remember that the president doesn’t rule by fiat; he’s president, not emperor.

There is certainly reason for concern about the vulnerability of specific federal programs and line items to spending cuts. People who care about science and research, public health, innovation and clean energy, international diplomacy, extreme weather and climate change need to be vigilant in articulating the importance of these priorities to their congressional delegations.

But the reality is that our system of checks and balances, as well as good ole’ fashioned local politics, will make enacting the president’s budget nearly impossible.

Running the gauntlet of congress is hard

The president only controls one of the three co-equal branches of government. He doesn’t make law and he doesn’t hold the purse strings; that’s congress. And congress can’t pass a spending bill to fund the government without bipartisan support; 60 votes are needed and that means the Republicans need at least 8 votes from the other side of the aisle.

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Photo: Wikimedia

Reaching agreement on federal spending has always been challenging and congress is more divided now than ever. That’s why federal legislators have relied more and more in recent years on “continuing resolutions,” which keep the government going at the previous year’s spending levels.

More to the point, the kind of budget cuts the administration is proposing have the potential of uniting Democrats and Republicans in opposition, since they negatively impact both red and blue states indiscriminately. Fiscal conservatism, like talk, is cheap when it’s your own constituents threatened by proposed budget cuts.

Budget 101

How does the budget process work, in theory?

  • The president releases his annual budget request, which typically happens in early February, kicking off the budget process. Current budget law says that it should be submitted between the first Monday in January and the first Monday in February, although it’s not uncommon for this process to be delayed when a president is serving in his first year.
  • Congress then holds hearings on the budget, and the house and senate budget committees report out their own “non-binding” budget resolutions, which set the overall spending caps for the spending bills.
  • Congress passes the budget resolution, usually in April, and that kicks off the appropriations process.
  • The 12 Appropriations Subcommittees develop 12 separate annual bills that fund the government. Consideration of these bills begin in May and they are usually voted out of committee before the August recess.
  • Congress then has until September 30th (the end of the fiscal year) to pass the 12 appropriations bills. Differences between the senate and house bills must either be reconciled in conference, or one of those bills must pass both chambers, prior to reaching the president’s desk and being signed into law, or the government effectively shuts down.
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Photo: Wikiwand

Budget 102

This is 2017, though, and things are more likely to work like this:

Breaking from the tradition of a comprehensive budget request, President Trump is taking a piece-meal approach to the budget this year, the first piece of which is expected this week, focuses on defense and “discretionary spending.” We are likely to see a request for big increases in defense spending, paid for with steep cuts to other agency spending, like what we’ve been reading in the headlines. Additional pieces of his budget focused on “mandatory spending,” including big programs like Medicare and Social Security, are expected in April.

Congress doesn’t always pass a budget resolution, especially when one chamber is controlled by Republicans and the other is controlled by Democrats. But even with their own party currently in control of both the house and senate, the administration may have a hard time garnering the support of some Republican budget committee members, who have already publicly expressed opposition to draconian spending cuts at some agencies. If congress does pass a budget, it will likely contain very different spending levels from the president’s budget.

All indications are that the budget committees will move forward without the president, their only guidance being the fiscal year 2018 (fy18) sequestration caps in the 2011 Budget Control Act, which they will probably try to get rid of so they can increase military spending.

Appropriators in both chambers have indicated a desire to pass a spending package that avoids a government shutdown before April 28th, when the continuing resolution passed last year for fy17 expires.  But big differences between the house and senate make it just as likely that congress has to pass another continuing resolution to keep the government operating at level spending for the rest of fy17.

Appropriators will develop their fy18 bills and move them out of committee (in most cases along party lines), but controversial amendments, known as “riders,” and the 60 vote filibuster, all but assure that many of those 12 funding bills won’t pass the senate. Even in the Republican-controlled house where only a simple majority is needed to pass legislation, the “Freedom Caucus,” consisting of conservative Republican members who advocate for smaller government, has sometimes made it hard for Republican spending bills to move forward without receiving Democratic support.

Congress hasn’t made the September 30th deadline in over 20 years, so they’ll probably need to pass another continuing resolution to keep the government operating when the regular appropriations process again falls short.

And at some point, this will likely come down to a showdown where Republicans can’t pass a bill that is acceptable to both their right-wing base in the house and senate Democrats, who will hold tight in opposition to a budget that doesn’t reflect their interests.  Reaching agreement is going to be extremely difficult, and I can already see the blame game over the government shutdown. Will the country blame the Democrats or the Republicans? Personally I think they’re likely to blame the party in control.

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Photo: Wikimedia

If the president wants to gut National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellite programs, he’s going to have to convince Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee of jurisdiction, that his constituents in Mobile and along their coast won’t be harmed by reduced capacity to forecast hurricanes and plan for extreme weather that floods communities, destroys homes and ruins livelihoods.  He’s also going to have to convince subcommittee members and coastal senators Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Susan Collins (R-ME), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) of the same thing.  These senators are also likely to have concerns over impacts these cuts would have on fishing commerce, which is a big industry in all of these states.

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Photo: Wikimedia

If the president wants to gut Department of Energy (DOE) programs, he’s going to have to convince Lamar Alexander (R-TN), the Chair of the Energy & Water Appropriations Subcommittee, that his constituents at Oak Ridge National Laboratory won’t be impacted; which will be a tough argument to make, since a diverse and large amount of DOE’s work is carried out at the national laboratories. The Chair of the House Energy & Water Appropriations Subcommittee, Mike Simpson (R-ID), will also be looking out for his constituents at Idaho National Laboratory. Less funding means less work, which means fewer jobs, which means unhappy constituents in those states. Not to mention, both Chairmen, and many others, have articulated a vision of the absolute necessity of the science and energy innovation work spearheaded by DOE.

What can ordinary citizens do?

The president can’t get 60 votes for anywhere near the kind of budget cuts he’s proposing. But if the American people aren’t speaking up loudly in opposition and raising concerns with their members of congress, the likelihood of cuts to essential areas of science, research, innovation, and programs that protect public health and the environment increases significantly. What can ordinary citizens do?

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Photo: Wikihow

Call, write and meet with your members of congress and/or their staff, and tell them that:

These are the things congress needs to hear, and they need to hear them from constituents, to be empowered to stand firm in opposition to the Trump administration’s budget proposal. As long as the public stays engaged, the president is going to find out very quickly that if you don’t have a plan to work with congress—including Democrats—you’re not going to be able to advance your domestic agenda.

So what’s the administration’s plan?  That remains to be seen.

Photo: Wikimedia

What We Need Are Farms That Support Farmers, Consumers AND the Environment

Note: This post was co-authored with Marcia DeLonge and originally published in Ensia.

The past several years have been rough for many U.S. farmers and ranchers. Net farm incomes this year could fall to 50 percent of 2013 levels in a fourth consecutive year of income declines that is leading some producers to seek alternatives. At the same time, rural and urban Americans share growing concerns related to agriculture: worries that water pollution will be increasingly costly and harmful, that water supplies are at risk from extreme swings in rainfall, and that global warming due to fossil fuel burning threatens our food system and will necessitate changes in how we farm.

What if all of these challenges could find a common solution? It might just be that they can. In a commentary published this week in the scientific journal Elementa, we contend that agroecology offers a promising approach to solving food system problems while mitigating, water and energy concerns — and propose a way to overcome the obstacles to fully embracing it.

U.S. agriculture has trended for several decades — as a result of policy, economics and other drivers — toward systems that are more simplified over both space and time. This has had adverse consequences for food, energy and water.

Agroecology takes a different approach, applying ecological concepts to create and maintain diverse, resilient food systems. Promising research demonstrates that bringing diversity back to farms can begin to reverse the problems simplification has created. For example, scientists have found that strategically incorporating perennial plants (including food, energy or non-crop plants) into small areas of commodity crops can significantly reduce water pollution and soil loss. Studies also show that using multiple crops rather than a monoculture is associated with improvements in the amount of carbon (important to help soils hold onto more water and mitigate climate change) and nitrogen (critical for plant growth and soil function) in the soil.

If better farming systems exist, why don’t more producers use them, and why aren’t they more encouraged? Among the reasons:

  • Government policies and economics influence many producer decisions that contribute to landscape simplification. For example, biofuel incentives greatly expanded markets for ethanol, leading farmers to replace grasslands with endless acres of monoculture corn rather than leaving them native or planting more diverse crops.
  • Research has also found that the need to focus on immediate cash flow rather than long-term benefits just to stay afloat can make it difficult to adopt more resilient systems
  • Agroecology research is woefully underfunded. This means that up-to-date examples of innovative practices suited to specific regions are not sufficiently available for many farmers.
  • Change is hard and it can take support for producers to get started. It is critical to find peers and peer networks to learn from — and these are rare.
  • Benefits are narrowly defined. When farmers, policy-makers, and scientists focus primarily on simple measures of progress like crop yields, we lose track of the many other benefits of agroecology — including those related to water and energy.

In spite of these and other obstacles, innovators have begun to demonstrate that diversified land management can be good business, from a cover crop seed company in rural Nebraska, to a food hub supporting local diversified food production in western Iowa, to a consulting group helping farmers optimize land management and costs with a “precision conservation” approach. The dire need for economic opportunity in rural America was a major discussion point in the 2016 election, and these examples suggest how a more diverse and sustainable agriculture can help meet that need.

A shift in perspective that recognizes relationships among food, water, and energy systems and new metrics that value co-benefits to water and energy could go a long way toward further advancing agroecology. In fact, recently published research refutes the idea that we must solely focus on doubling crop production to meet future demand. These researchers believe the actual future yield increases needed are smaller and that we must explicitly define environmental goals to match the production demands that always seem to dominate the narrative around food.

Fortunately, we know that solutions do exist, and with agroecological approaches we can solve these multiple challenges at the same time. View Ensia homepage

Love Local Food? Here’s a Promising Way to Protect the Local Land that Grows It

Does your heart beet for farmer’s markets? Do you carrot all about protecting the soil? This Valentine’s Day, lettuce dive deeper into a promising solution for simultaneously protecting land for local food production, ensuring more sustainable agriculture, and creating opportunities for beginning farmers: land trusts.

If you heart local food, it is important to remember that farmland for the food needs protecting, and land trusts are one part of the solution.

Agriculture puns aside, land trusts are nonprofit organizations designed to protect land in perpetuity. Essentially, landowners donate or sell the long-term rights on their property to a land trust—an outside organization that ensures that in the future land is only used for specific purposes, such as for wildlife habitat or agriculture.

There are several reasons why agricultural land trusts can be beneficial. The American Farmland Trust estimates that 40 acres of farmland (roughly the size of 36 football fields) are lost every hour to urban sprawl and development in the United States (that’s over 350,000 acres per year). And there is also no shortage of concerns around existing agricultural lands, including water pollution, soil degradation, and a recent dramatic drop-off in farm incomes. Agricultural land loss and degradation necessitate conservation options such as trusts.

Protecting land for beginner farmers and sustainable agriculture

Land trusts, such as the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT), are non-profit organizations that work with landowners to facilitate different arrangements, such as long-term leases or land donations that legally protect or ensure particular uses of land in the future. Land trusts fill an important need in facilitating the major transfer of land that is anticipated in agriculture because the average farmer’s age is 58, combined with growing competition for land use from urbanization and energy development. Suzan Erem, SILT’s Board President, pointedly reminded me that “the history of the U.S. is that we haven’t seen cities shrink”. Photo: SILT.

One example of an organization with a dedicated focus on sustainable agriculture is the Sustainable Iowa Land Trust (SILT). SILT launched in 2015 with a mission to permanently protect land to grow healthy food, and this is the major distinction between SILT and other non-profit land trusts: the requirement for sustainable food production on their farms. While most land trust agreements include prohibitive language to prevent development-related activities, SILT also adds affirmative language requiring sustainable farming (defined by several different sustainability certifications).

SILT also hopes that more and more landowners will donate or participate in long-term leases through their model to institutionalize affordable land access. This will help make land—particularly land for sustainable food production—available so that it is not just about “where you’re born or sheer dumb luck,” according to Suzan Erem, SILT’s Board President. SILT is proud of its relationships with both national organizations such as the National Young Farmer’s Coalition and statewide programs including Lutheran Services, which assists refugee populations in finding land to launch farm businesses.

That’s another crucial benefit of SILT’s approach: landowners who hope to preserve the integrity of their land are paired with beginner farmers looking for an affordable way to get started. Erem explains that the popularity of programs like SILT is related to the excitement of seeing it “giving people a place and a purpose,” and because they provide opportunity to “redefine what you can do with your legacy.”

Local food demand and supporting midsize farms are further reasons to protect agricultural land near cities

Another important piece of this puzzle is strong consumer demand for local food. Late last year, USDA released the results of their first-ever survey of direct marketing (food products sold by farmers directly to consumers, retailers, institutions or other local food intermediaries), and reported that total sales across the country generated this way were an estimated $8.7 billion. The survey estimated that 67% of these sales were from farms located in metropolitan counties and that the 38% of producers responsible for these sales were women (a greater proportion of women than in the general farming population), and 14% were veterans. As I’ve noted previously, women and veterans are groups that have plenty of room to expand in the agricultural sector.

One component of the most profitable farms—regardless of size—is direct marketing, as Dr. Dawn Thilmany McFadden, a member of our Science Network, explained in a blog post last year. This form of sales is particularly important to protect “agriculture of the middle” or midsize farms and ranches, which have been declining for many decades (a trend likely to worsen under the present tightening agricultural economy). Growing Economies, our 2016 report, similarly noted that more direct sales from institutional food purchasers could be a multi-billion dollar boon for the state of Iowa.

Despite the benefits of protecting local farms and food, it’s important to recognize that local food is certainly not a panacea for all environmental concerns. Tradeoffs with impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions require careful consideration, as another Science Network colleague, Dr. David Cleveland, recently noted on our blog. Still, given the stimulus for local economies, and the need to protect farmland in general, how we protect land for local food deserves an important part of the conversation.

And remember for Valentine’s Day, let’s turnip attention to the idea that land trusts and local food make a great pear!

Will the FDA’s Picture of “Health” Match Ours?

As we enter month two of 2017, our New Year’s resolutions of leading healthier lives might be starting to plateau. But that of course depends on how we are defining “healthy.” What’s healthy to me might not be the same kind of healthy to you. My vision of a healthy day done right might be eating a Sweetgreen salad for lunch and walking back and forth to the metro, while yours might entail a ten-mile morning run and a steak dinner.

What does the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) consider “healthy”? Well, the agency currently has an open comment period asking the public to weigh in on how it should redefine the term to stay up to date with evolving nutrition science. You would think that the FDA’s definition of “healthy” would be a bit more straightforward, since it has a wealth of consumption and nutrition data at its fingertips. However, in draft guidance to industry on the term “healthy,” the FDA has so far failed to include added sugar as an ingredient that can only bear a “healthy” claim if it meets an enforceable limit, despite the scientific consensus surrounding added sugar’s role in chronic disease risk. And depending on who ends up being appointed to run the FDA, the definition of “healthy” could be scrapped completely if it’s deemed too burdensome for food manufacturers (more on that later).

What’s “healthy,” anyway?

Under the FDA’s current definition, in order to bear a “healthy” claim on a food package, a food must have at least 10 percent of the daily reference value (DRV) for at least one of either vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, protein or fiber and not have more than a certain limited amount of fat, saturated fat, sodium, and cholesterol. Unacceptably high levels of these ingredients, known as disqualifying levels, bar a food from being labeled as “healthy.” Notably absent from the list is added sugar.

How does this play out at the grocery store? Well, have you ever reached for a box of cereal with a big “healthy” claim on the front, only to find out that it has more sugar in a serving than you might like to eat in an entire day? This is entirely common, and especially concerning given the fact that these claims are allowed on packages for children as young as two years old. And it is these kinds of deceiving claims that contribute to the excess amount of added sugars that Americans consume every year.

The FDA must take further action to protect consumers from misleading food claims

That is why we submitted a citizen petition to the FDA last week to ask that the agency set a disqualifying level for added sugars that would apply to nutrient content and health claims, including the term “healthy.” Over 30,000 men and women across the country signed onto our petition in support of this measure!

It’s high time that the agency take action to protect consumers from misleading statements about the health of a product with regard to added sugar. There should be a clear limit on added sugars deemed by food manufacturers to be “healthy” to help consumers navigate the food environment that has become chock full of sugar. A brand new U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service report looking at trends in food and nutrient availability data revealed that Americans are still eating far too much added sugar: about 366 calories (23 teaspoons) per day, which is 83 percent higher than the Dietary Guidelines recommended limit of no more than 10 percent of calories (less than 200 calories or 12.5 teaspoons per day).

While President Trump’s “2 for 1” executive order will certainly make rulemaking an even tougher lift for agencies, as they’ll have to get rid of two rules for every new rule issued, the FDA should continue to build on its progress around added sugar. Just last May, the agency released its nutrition facts label revisions that created daily reference values (DRVs) for added sugar so that new labels will include a discrete line for added sugars beginning in July 2018.  Now that the FDA has set DRVs for added sugar, and overwhelming evidence—supported by leading medical and public health organizations like the American Heart Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization—has illustrated that excessive added sugar consumption is linked to several chronic diseases, the FDA has the science on its side and the authority to add a disqualifying level for added sugar.

A strong FDA means a healthier America

The science certainly supports the FDA moving forward with this commonsense measure on added sugar, but the political reality is that the Trump administration seems to be fairly uninterested in science-informed policies so far. Last week began with scientists at agencies like the EPA and USDA being told by leadership not to communicate their taxpayer-funded scientific findings with the public and that there would be a freeze of hiring, grants, and contracts at the EPA. And then earlier this week, President Trump signed an executive order requiring that agencies must eliminate two rules for every one new rule issued (which is likely illegal, according to UCS president Ken Kimmell). All of these directives have a chilling effect on federal scientists, with the “2 for 1” order forcing agencies to make impossible choices between protecting the public from one threat to their health versus another.

The Trump administration’s cabinet selections haven’t been heartening, either. Whether it’s the climate denying and EPA-suing Scott Pruitt or the agribusiness-supporting Sonny Perdue, it’s looking pretty clear that the corporate cabinet will favor industry talking points over actual science to inform policies. The FDA commissioner has yet to be nominated, and while this job usually goes to someone with a science background and an interest in protecting public health, the Trump administration appears to be focusing its search on individuals with experience working in the biotechnology industry, advised by venture capitalist, Peter Thiel, who has some pretty radical ideas about how to run the FDA more like a Silicon Valley startup. Some of the names that have been mentioned as being in the running for FDA commissioner include Thiel’s associate Jim O’Neill, American Enterprise Institute fellow Dr. Scott Gottlieb, executive director of Lewis Center for Healthcare Innovation and Technology Dr. Joseph Gulfo, and former biotechology company executive Dr. Balaji Srinivasan.

This shortlist of men is riddled with conflicts of interest in their former and current ties to biotechnology companies, and features a man who thinks drugs should be approved if proven safe, regardless of efficacy (O’Neill), a man who has criticized the FDA for being too restrictive in its regulations (Gulfo), a man who has claimed that FDA regulations have nothing to do with health and are merely “safety theater” (Srinivasan), and a man who has accused the FDA of “evading the law” due to an overregulated drug approval process (Gottlieb). Note that none of these men have expertise in the food and nutrition space, and it seems like any regulation that inhibits the ability of drug or food manufacturers to approve and introduce an endless stream of new drugs and food additives will be unpopular under this administration.

Whether it’s one of these men or not, whoever is selected to lead the FDA must respect the role of public servant and abide by the agency’s mission to first and foremost “protect public health,” guided by science, not by drug and food manufacturers’ interest in increasing their quarterly earnings. In this case, there’s only one way to define a “healthy” public, and that’s one whose safety and well-being is protected over the profits of Big Pharma and Big Food. Taking further action to regulate added sugar amounts on front of package labels would be a strong science-backed policy maneuver that will advance the crucial fight against obesity and help all Americans make clearer decisions to improve their health. That’s my kind of “healthy.”

Join UCS and urge the FDA to include a limit for added sugar in its “healthy” definition by submitting a comment on regulations.gov before April 26.

Climate Change, Resilience, and the Future of Food

The United States food system has proven remarkably adaptable over the last 150 years, producing an abundant supply of food, feed, and fiber crops for national and international markets amidst dynamic social change, and despite dramatic natural resource variability across North America.

The story of American agriculture’s rise to world class status is usually told with technology in the hero’s role. In the typical story, the major “revolutions” in the industrialization of American agriculture came about as the result of one or more technological innovations—such as mechanical harvesters, hybrid corn and more feed-efficient livestock, chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and genetic engineering. As awareness of the current and potential costs of climate change to agriculture and food systems increase, this singular focus on technological solutions continues through widespread enthusiasm for sustainable intensification.

Public investment: The true hero of the story

Rarely acknowledged is the real, underlying reason for the success of industrial agriculture: the continuous intended and unintended investment of public resources to develop, support, promote, and enable the industrial food system. These resources have taken many forms:

  • Financial resources such as direct and indirect payments designed to stabilize production, recover from disasters, and reduce environmental harms
  • Public financing of the education, research and development programs and institutions that serve the agricultural-industrial complex
  • Unintended human resource subsidies as farm families struggle to balance the demands of full-time farming with full-time off-farm work to maintain family well-being in the face of steadily declining farm profitability
  • Unintended natural resource subsidies in the form of degraded soil, water, and air quality, biodiversity, and ecosystem services
  • Unintended social resource subsidies in the form of degraded health and well-being of rural communities both at home and abroad
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Resilient Agriculture grower Jim Koan explains to USDA-FSA administrator Val Dolcini how FSA programs have helped him reduce climate risk on his 500 acre organic farm located near Flushing, MI.

Although the costs of industrial food and the benefits of sustainable food systems are widely recognized, and despite new evidence that the global industrial food system is uniquely vulnerable to climate change and other 21st-century challenges, national and international agricultural policy continues to support public investment in an unsustainable global industrial food system.

Sustainable agriculture is the future of agriculture

Sustainable intensification, the newest chapter in the industrialization of agriculture, is just business as usual for many actors in the global industrial food system. Sustainable intensification rhetoric often promotes the widely discredited myth that low agricultural productivity is the root cause of world hunger and suggests that new resource-efficient technologies that reduce the environmental degradation associated with agriculture are the solution to global food security.

My work to apply resilience theory to questions of agricultural and food system sustainability suggests that sustainable intensification, rather than advancing sustainability and the broader public good, actually keeps us locked into a clearly maladaptive path. Measures to reduce the environmental damages associated with industrial practices are welcome and needed, but agricultural innovations that do not also regenerate the natural, human, and social resources degraded by 150 years of industrialism will do little to enhance the climate resilience of the global food system. In contrast, sustainable agriculture and food systems offer successful models of locally-adapted, climate-resilient alternatives that we can build upon to put humanity on a path to a sustainable and resilient food future.

 Karl Wolfshohl

Texas ranchers Gary and Linda Price produce cattle for the source-verified wholesale market on 2000 acres of restored tallgrass prairie in Blooming Grove. Credit: Karl Wolfshohl

Local and regional actions, supported by enabling policies at local, regional, national, and international levels, can be used to enhance the sustainability and resilience of existing agriculture and food systems. My research indicates that we can use existing USDA programs, integrative initiatives, and international partnerships to address six significant levers of change:

  1. Redirect USDA credit and crop insurance investments through programs such as the Farm Service Agency’s (FSA) Direct Operating Loans Program and the Risk Management Agency’s  Whole Farm Revenue Protection Program to increase support for farmers and ranchers transitioning to or already using ecosystem-based, diversified production and marketing practices, especially small and mid-sized agricultural businesses supplying local and regional markets with minimally-processed, nutrient dense foods.
  1. Expand incentives and rewards for producers who use production practices that enhance sustainability and resilience of the U.S. food system through the protection and regeneration of ecosystem services. Programs such as the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and the FSA’s Conservation Programs could be reoriented to achieve these goals.
  1. Redirect economic development investments, such as those funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA’s) Community Food Projects Program and the Rural Business Development Grants Program, to promote the re-regionalization of the U.S. food system.
  1. Redirect agricultural education, research, and extension investments to promote the study, investigation, and development of sustainable and resilient agroecosystems as a core mission of the land-grant university system. This goal can be addressed through the expansion of existing programs such as NIFA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program, Higher Education Programs, and the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Program.
  1.  Climate Listening Project

    Farmers markets, like this one in Raleigh, NC, increase consumer access to fresh, locally-produced farm products and help build relationships between producers and consumers. Credit: Climate Listening Project

    Expand nutrition assistance and education programs that support sustainable and resilient regional food systems, such as the Farm to School Grants and Seniors Farmers Market Nutrition Program.

  1. Redirect U.S. international development investments such as those made through the Global Partnership on Nutrient Management, USAID Sustainable Agriculture and Natural Resource Management Innovation Lab, and Feed the Future to support collaborative, place-based development of sustainable and resilient regional food systems

The global industrial food system faces unprecedented challenges that are projected to increase in intensity in the years ahead.  Persistent hunger and poverty, growing human population, a degraded and eroding natural resource base, failing agricultural communities, increasing and shifting consumer demands, and the uncertainties of climate change demand a reexamination of the basic underlying assumptions of industrialism. We must accept that we cannot burn or build our way to global food security, that we cannot depend on human ingenuity alone, but must finally acknowledge the fundamental role that healthy ecosystems play in human well-being. We know enough to begin now to cultivate a new kind of food system, a sustainable food system that has the capacity to produce global food security as it protects us from the inevitable challenges ahead.

 

Laura Lengnick is an award-winning soil scientist who has explored agricultural sustainability for more than 30 years as a researcher, policy-maker, educator, and farmer.  Her work in sustainable farming systems was nationally recognized with a USDA Secretary’s Honor Award and she contributed to the 3rd National Climate Assessment as a lead author of the USDA report Climate Change and U.S. Agriculture: Effects and Adaptation. In 2016, Laura launched Cultivating Resilience, LLC, a private consulting firm offering ecosystem-based climate risk management services to government, business, and communities. Her book, Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate (New Society Publishers, 2015), examines climate change, resilience and the future of food through the adaptation stories of 25 award-winning sustainable producers located across the U.S. You can learn more about Laura and her work at http://www.cultivatingresilience.com

 

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

These Investments in Food and Farm Research Will Pay Us Back—Urban and Rural Alike

This fall, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent out an important announcement that went largely unnoticed (those of us interested in food and agriculture were, and continue to be, preoccupied with other things). Namely, the USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) reported recent investments in research designed to improve food, fiber, and fuel production while protecting natural resources that farms and communities depend on and recognizing the pivotal importance of the farmer’s bottom line.

To refresh your memory, NIFA is the part of the USDA’s integral Research, Education, and Economics Mission Area (which also includes the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), Economic Research Service (ERS), and National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Before this news falls too far back in the rearview mirror, let’s take a moment to recognize its importance in strengthening America—as a whole.

In public agroecological research, spare change can lead to big change

The $6.7 million investment by NIFA that I am so excited about came via the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) Foundational Bioenergy, Natural Resources, and Environment (BNRE) program area. While this is pennies compared to the $156 billion USDA budget, it’s still big.

For one thing, investment in agricultural research and development just tends to pay off. Further, this particular funding program is relatively young and is already helping to fill a gap that is important and urgent, as noted in a statement signed by over 400 PhD experts. While much agricultural research has focused largely on yields, this program encourages research on how anything from “soil, water and sun to plants, animals and people, interact with and affect food production.” It requires attention to economic, societal and environmental benefits to uncover solutions that don’t unintentionally create costly consequences.

Critically, although the current agricultural system—even in a high production year—doesn’t ensure economic success,  BNRE focuses on solutions that not only work for the environment, but can provide better economic incentives and options for farmers and for rural America.

The recent announcement explained how BNRE is enabling progress on working lands that range from grasslands to croplands to forests. Details on new projects (including a powerful workshop on the critical role of soils) are provided here. A few highlights:

In grazing lands ranging from the Chihuahuan Desert to the Corn Belt to Florida, researchers are

  • Considering how adding legumes to pasture can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient loss, increase soil carbon, improve access to local healthy food, and benefit farmers
  • Developing ways to convert lands dominated by invasive species to diverse grasslands that improve pollinator health, biodiversity, and cattle and landowner well-being
  • Evaluating how shrub control methods affect wildlife, plants, livestock productivity, and communities, and searching for ways to use keystone species to speed up restoration
  • Using native grasses and cover crops to reduce fertilizer needs, maximize profits and foster environmental benefits
  • Finding the best grazing and fire management strategies to improve water use, reduce climate impacts, and increase forage production and farm economics

In rural and urban farms from the Midwest to California, teams are

  • Working with farmers to optimize configurations of diversified farms to improve insect management and meet growing demands for local produce
  • Investigating how using multiple species of crops in fields (polycultures versus monocultures) affects yields, economics, weeds, pests, and drought resilience
  • Studying how urban garden management affects biodiversity, pests, pollinators, and food access
  • Evaluating how management practices in farms and gardens have revitalized industrial urban areas, and investigating the role of soils health in sustained improvements
The unique significance of public funding

One of the most important aspects of this new research is quite simply that it is funded publicly.

While the private sector has undoubtedly supported some needed areas of research, private sector funding cannot be expected to fill all the research gaps. When research investments can be recovered through products and profits, for example, private funding is logical. However, as reported in a recent ERS report, there is often little or no incentive for private investment into research geared toward valuable outcomes that are harder to put a price on (such as reduced reliance on fertilizers, or cleaner air and water). To enable this type of research, public funding is imperative.

Even beyond the need for public funds to fill certain research gaps, there are broader reasons why a strong contribution of public funds to food and farm research can be considered critical. As a recent post of Policy Pennings shared, public funding supports academic freedom, independent analysis, and research targeted towards the good of farmers, farm families, and the public. As public institutions become squeezed for resources and private sector funding starts playing a bigger role, additional risks—such as potential bias in academic research—can become a concern.

Taking strides to protect the US lead in public investments for agriculture

The role of the US as a world leader in public investment in agriculture, with all the benefits that can accrue as a result, is at risk.

Historically, the public sector made up the majority of total US agricultural funding (50% between 1970 and 2008), and public funding from the US made up the largest portion of the global investment (20-23% between 1990 and 2006). But recent research has documented that the US is falling behind. The US has cut back on public funding for agricultural R&D while private sector contributions have grown, bringing public sector contributions down to less than 30% of the total, behind private investments. Also, as the US has reduced public investments, other countries have ramped up. As a result, the US share of global public agricultural funds has dropped significantly, to just 13%.

It is time to up our game. And, by the way, the full burden doesn’t have to be on USDA. Other agencies have made relevant investments, which could be built upon. For example, the Department of Energy recently announced $35 million for new projects that could help develop new crops to replenish soil health, conserve water, and reduce climate emissions.

Whether we live in corn country or among skyscrapers, research in an agriculture that jointly considers the economy, society and environment is a smart investment. Thanks to programs like BNRE, the committed administrators and staff that have made programs like this possible – in NIFA and across the USDA, and the researchers who are taking on some of the work outlined above, we are on the right path.

P.S. If you are interested in taking action to support public funding for agriculture, and agroecology, click here!

What Can “Local” Food Do?

What does “local food” mean? Most of us think of local food as something that was grown nearby geographically, although the distances can vary a lot.

We also tend to make a lot of assumptions about what local food can do. For example, we think of “local” food, as a more sustainable alternative to the global, industrial food system that produces lots of food, but is also environmentally destructive, makes people sick, and leaves many hungry.

Thinking critical about the role of local food in creating more sustainable food systems.

Thinking critical about the role of local food in creating more sustainable food systems.

Supporters of local food often assume that it’s fresher, more nutritious, and that it’s better for farm and other food system workers, the environment, and local communities. One of the themes of my research on food systems has been that we need to question assumptions like these, and to separate as much as possible our assumptions of how the world is, from our goals for how we think it should be. One of the biggest challenges of local food is disentangling these two kinds of assumptions.

Local food can do a lot to improve our food system, but our assumptions about what it’s doing may or may not be true in any specific case, and if they aren’t tested, they can fool us (what I call drinking green Kool-Aid®), and enable corporate greenwash. This means our food choices won’t be helping change the food system the way we hope they will, and can even work in the opposite direction.

So, we need to keep asking questions: What are our specific goals for a more sustainable alternative to the global industrial food system? Is promoting local food helping us to make progress toward those goals? Is “local” a good indicator of progress toward those goals? How can we adjust our actions and policies, and the indicators we use to measure them, to make more progress? I’ll give a few examples of how this works, from our research in Santa Barbara County, California.

Local food, transportation, and climate change The effect of localizing fruit and vegetable consumption in Santa Barbara County, California.

The effect of localizing fruit and vegetable consumption in Santa Barbara County, California.

We often assume that because local food doesn’t travel very far to get to us, that it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE) overall, because of less transportation. So, a question we asked in our Santa Barbara research was, “Is reducing food miles a good way to reduce GHGE?”

Santa Barbara County (SBC) is a prime example of the missed potential for local food; despite having an active local food movement, 95% of fruits and vegetables consumed in 2008 was imported from outside the county, while 99% of the more than $1 billion dollars’ worth (2.36 billion pounds) of vegetables and fruits grown in Santa Barbara county in 2008 was exported.

To see what contribution localization could make to reduce GHGE, we modeled the effect on GHGE of a change to all fruits and vegetables consumed in the county being grown in the county. We found that this would be a savings per household of only 0.058 MT of GHGE per year, or about 9% of the average U.S. household’s annual GHGE for produce. However, that only amounts to about 0.7% of a U.S.  household’s total GHGE for food, and less than 0.1% of total U.S. GHGE per person.

In fact, most GHGE from food are from production, especially of animal foods. So if fighting climate change is a goal, maybe we need to look beyond localization. For example, the only life cycle assessment of the complete US food system found that eliminating meat and dairy from our diets just one day a week could reduce GHGE more than totally localizing the entire food system.

What about food gardens, food waste, and composting?

You can’t get more local than growing food in your home, community, or school garden. So, we modeled the effect of converting an area of lawn to a household vegetable garden in Santa Barbara County, and composting household organic waste at home for use in the vegetable garden. We found that gardens reduced GHGE by about 2 kg per kg of vegetable, compared to households with no gardens, purchasing all their vegetables, an 82% reduction in GHGE. And if 50% of single-family housing units in Santa Barbara County had a 200 square foot garden, they could contribute 3.3% of the official county GHGE reduction target, and if scaled to the state level, 7.8% of California’s target.

We also looked into the effect of the way household organic waste was managed, since this accounted for the largest portion of garden emissions savings, even greater than the emissions savings from reducing purchased vegetables. We found that if landfills that efficiently captured and burned methane for energy and efficient aerobic composting operations were an option, gardeners could have the greatest emission reductions by exporting their organic waste to those operations. They could then import the compost, rather than composting at home, so gardeners need to ask questions about their options for processing their organic waste—it may be more climate-friendly to advocate for municipal composting facilities, rather than the more local option of composting on site.

What about the bottom line? Wesley Sleight and Anna Breaux, founders of Farmer Direct Produce local food hub

Wesley Sleight and Anna Breaux, founders of Farmer Direct Produce local food hub

Can local food be economically profitable? Local food hubs that consolidate local farm harvests and redistribute them are an important tool for localizing food. But when they try to scale up volume to have a larger impact and more revenue, they need to adapt to the dominant industrial food system, from infrastructure to economics. This can compromise their goals, because there are often tradeoffs among environmental, social, and economic aspects of sustainability. Can local food be economically viable while prioritizing people and the environment?

In our case study of a local a food hub in Santa Barbara, we found that the key to success in meeting the goals of environmental sustainability and improved community nutrition was prioritizing those over the goal of economic profit, while still being economically viable.

Helping local food do more

On September 28, 2016, Senator Debbie Stabenow [D-MI] introduced S.3420, the Urban Agriculture Act of 2016. It includes support for a wide range of urban agriculture, from community gardens to technology intensive methods like aeroponics, based on the assumption that these will support local food infrastructure and economies, better nutrition, and environmental sustainability.

This bill is timely, as urban agriculture has become a popular form of local food production. For example, in our survey of Santa Barbara County residents, we found that the majority favored not building on land used for urban agriculture.

I think one of the strongest parts of this bill is the provision calling for research on the funded projects. This means asking if the goals of urban agriculture are actually being promoted, and providing information for improving them.

As our research has demonstrated, while local food systems can do a lot to promote more sustainable alternatives to the industrial system, we need to keep asking questions to ensure that our good intentions aren’t unintentionally compromised. In many cases other actions, such as changing production practices, and especially changing diets, may be more effective, or are needed to complement localization.

 

Bio: David Arthur Cleveland is Research Professor in the Environmental Studies Program and the Department of Geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is a human ecologist whose research and teaching focuses on sustainable, small-scale agrifood systems, including work with small-scale farmers and gardeners around the world. He is currently researching the potential for agrifood system localization and diet change, to improve nutrition, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and promote food and climate justice, in California, the US, and globally. His latest book is Balancing on a Planet: The Future of Food and Agriculture.

For copies of studies by David Cleveland not available on his website, please email him.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Science Must Trump Politics at the USDA, Especially During Turbulent Times

It has been a rough week for scientists at federal agencies. As the administration has changed over and new leadership is beginning to find its footing, there has been a flurry of emails and directives coming down to agency staff. There are critical democracy concerns with some of the calls seen at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Department of Transportation, Department of Health and Human Services to halt communication with the media, suspension of social media accounts at the Department of Interior, and hiring and grant and contract freezes at EPA. But what is especially concerning for us here at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is the impact that these actions would have on scientists’ freedom to conduct their research and discuss their findings with the public.

On Tuesday morning, BuzzFeed reported that the chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA’s) research arm, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), had sent out an email to department staff ordering ARS scientists not to communicate to the public: “Starting immediately and until further notice, ARS will not release any public-facing documents. This includes but is not limited to, news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content.”

Here at UCS, we were immediately taken aback because of the directive’s contrast with the spirit of the department’s own strong scientific integrity policy, mandated under the Obama administration and revised this past December. The policy includes provisions to protect staff scientists from political interference, empower them to share their research with the public, and ensure their freedom to review documents based on their research before public release, as well as their ability to participate fully in the scientific community, even outside of agency capacity. There are now 24 executive-branch departments and agencies that have developed scientific integrity policies, including the USDA, which is one of the few departments that have a dedicated full-time staffer to ensure the policy’s implementation.

While UCS has in the past had certain concerns about the strength of the USDA’s policy, as well as its enforcement, the latest policy is significantly improved in the protections it provides for USDA scientists. A directive effectively suppressing the research of agency scientists would be completely opposed to the intent of the policy to “encourage, but not require, USDA scientists to participate in communications with the media regarding their scientific findings (data and results)” and to “facilitate the free flow of scientific and technological information.”

The Center for Science and Democracy’s director, Andrew Rosenberg, said, “Both the EPA and the USDA have developed scientific integrity policies that, among other things, protect scientists’ right to speak out about their work. The American people deserve to know the results of taxpayer-funded research.” And as UCS President Ken Kimmell stated, “It’s simple: public servants should be free to state scientific facts. Americans have the right to see and benefit from taxpayer-funded research, and scientists have the right to share their findings openly and honestly, without political pressure, manipulation or suppression. Political staff should never be in charge of deciding what scientific conclusions are acceptable for public consumption.”

After similar backlash from multiple news sources and the scientific community, ARS administrator Chavonda Jacobs-Young sent an email hours after the aforementioned email that “hereby rescinded” the previous order and told researchers that it should never have been issued. Our own communications with USDA officials on Tuesday indicated that scientist communications will not be prohibited as the email suggested, but will instead go through an extra layer of review from top officials according to a USDA interim procedure.

To be clear, it is perhaps unsurprising that a new administration would be interested in managing communications on policy-related matters at federal agencies, but strictly scientific communications shouldn’t be subject to political vetting. The extent of this review and the fact that it will likely slow down communication of science is of concern, especially since political appointees should not have a say in whether the findings of taxpayer funded research are seen by the public. The USDA’s own scientific policy reads that “scientific findings and products must not be suppressed or altered for political purposes and must not be subject to inappropriate influence.”

Why the USDA’s research matters for us all

With all of the reporting on the process issues, it’s easy to forget about the real-life consequences of suppressing government science. The USDA and its thousands of scientists and other experts are central to the advancement of knowledge about the nation’s farming and food system. In particular, the long-term research conducted by USDA-ARS scientists and staff feeds into a network of public universities and agricultural extension agents working in every state to translate science for practical application and provide technical assistance to farmers and ranchers. On behalf of farmers, ARS scientists conduct research on issues such as animal diseases, soil erosion, and crop productivity.

ARS also plays a role in protecting the public’s health, with research projects to assess Americans’ food consumption, provide the scientific basis for federal dietary guidance, and keep the food supply safe. It is critical to the health of the nation that this work remains unrestricted and accessible.

While it appears that one individual at ARS made a sweeping statement that wasn’t consistent with the agency’s operating guidelines, Tuesday’s events revealed the USDA’s general lack of organization amidst a changing administration. But perhaps this is not a huge surprise, considering that President Trump’s nomination of his agriculture secretary, Governor Sonny Perdue, was the final cabinet position left unfilled, and that he will not likely have a confirmation hearing before until mid-to-late February. All signs point to the fact that the USDA is not the highest priority agency for the Trump administration, which is disheartening considering the importance and wide scope of the USDA’s authority, ranging from the lunch menu at a school in New York City to the crop insurance coverage received by farmers in Montana. And surprising, given that farmers and rural voters overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in November.

USDA must fully implement and uphold its shiny new SI policy

While the USDA adjusts under new leadership, it is incredibly important that it continue to abide by its own scientific integrity policy, which was just updated at the end of 2016. It has been substantially strengthened since my colleague Gretchen Goldman last wrote about the concerns we had with USDA’s 2013 scientific integrity policy. One of the major issues was that the USDA had not explicitly given its scientists the ability to express their personal views, whether or not they clarified they were not speaking on behalf of the USDA. We were pleased to see in their most recent policy, released late last year, the inclusion of a personal views exception, which states:

When communicating with the media or the public in their personal capacities, USDA scientists may express their personal views and opinions; however, they should not claim to officially represent the Department or its policies, or use the Department or other U.S. Government seals or logos.  Personal or private activities may not violate Federal ethics rules.

Overall, the new policy clarifies procedures in greater detail and offers more flexibility for scientists for whom the policy applies, and you can see the policy got a top grade in our new report, Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking. We hope the USDA continues to fully enforce its new policy and to look for ways to improve upon it, especially considering any findings from an ongoing audit by the USDA Office of the Inspector General on scientific integrity within the agency. In the meantime, we will continue to be vigilant and to hold the USDA accountable for its intent to foster a culture of scientific integrity within the agency, under all circumstances, no matter how chaotic. Because silencing science is never okay.

 

California Floods Remind Us To Make Agricultural Water Conservation a Top Priority

Yes, you’ve been reading the headlines correctly the last few weeks. There’s been so much rain in drought-stricken California that excess water has led to flooded homes, damaged roads, dangerous mudslides and tragically, several fatalities. To make matters worse, the abundant rainfall hasn’t even cured the state’s current woes: snowpack levels remain below normal, and rain might even exceed the capacity in many reservoirs—meaning that all this newly available water can’t even be stored for the future.

This is an important reminder that conditions can change rapidly, as is happening now in California. It can be hard to understand how the challenges can move so quickly from one extreme to the other, but droughts and floods are actually both symptoms of the same water problem: too much water when it is not needed and not enough when it is.

Creative, low-tech approaches to water management

Recent stories profiling managed flooding across California are encouraging, and offer strategies for better managing excess rainfall, whenever it comes. For example, researchers and farmers are working to understand how crops handle flooded conditions, experimenting whether it is possible to intentionally flood fields so that water can slowly “refill” storage underground. The challenge of managing water that is in excess at some times and absent at others is not new, but now more than ever we must continue to innovate rainwater conservation as much possible, given future projections of increased rainfall variability.

As I’ve written previously, my research is exploring precisely these questions around optimizing water management, and we’ve found very encouraging results. With intentional emphasis on conservation and ecological practices—such as cover crops, agroforestry and perennial crops—the sponge-like properties of soils to hold more water (while also letting more water drain through) can be significantly improved. This is good for farmers, it is good for crops, it is good for communities and it is good for all of us as taxpayers: floods are known to result in some of the costliest natural disasters, including four multi-billion dollar events in 2016 alone. And droughts, of course, have big price tags as well.

Water for agriculture 101: on rainfall and irrigation

We often hear much about the “water footprint” of agriculture. Agriculture is either “rainfed” or “irrigated” which is pretty self-explanatory. Rainfed regions, which make up approximately 80% of agricultural lands globally, are predominantly found the more humid areas of the planet (i.e. much of the eastern United States). Irrigated agriculture relies on additional water resources and is mainly located in the arid regions, which make up 20% of agricultural lands (and are said to result disproportionately in 40% of production). Some irrigation waters come from rivers or streams – the surface water that you can see above ground – while others come from underground aquifers that store water.

Agricultural management approaches that improve water storage in the soil can be valuable in all regions – arid or humid – as I previously noted about flooding last fall in Iowa (a region where drought is a concern, but excess water a more persistent problem). So whether the water for agriculture comes from above or below ground, getting more help from the soil to maintain and manage it is a holistic approach that can prevent extremes and reduce costly, damage impacts.

Another reminder of the climate challenges ahead for agriculture

A study out last week in the prestigious journal Nature serves as yet another reminder of how critical water management is for our future agricultural system. A group of scientists evaluated several crop models (a common method for assessing climate change impacts) and found that crop yields decline significantly for every day with temperatures over 86 degrees F during the growing season. This effect is somewhat offset in irrigated areas; however, the authors recognize that relying on irrigation as a sole solution is problematic as well, because water resources are declining around the world (including the Western United States). Given this decline, researchers suggest that by the end of the 21st century, there will be a need to shift agricultural lands predominantly reliant on irrigation to focus on rainwater. This is exactly the conversation that we can start having right now given how much proactive planning it requires to negate the impacts of floods and droughts.

Water expert Peter Gleick recently wrote a fantastic piece summarizing the complex problems associated with water management. He notes that asking if the California drought is over is the wrong question. What we ought to be asking are broader questions about the overall sustainability of water use. He refers to the situation in California aptly as “a bank account in perpetual overdraft” given how often groundwater removals exceed recharge levels.

Right now our agricultural system is dangerously susceptible to periods of either too much or too little water.  The drought-to-flood conditions in California are another reminder that we must continue envisioning a system of crop and soil management that supports the water we can sustainably use for agriculture, rather than running our water bank accounts dry. Farmers, ranchers and the broader food system will not transform to be more climate-resilient overnight, but with a common-sense look toward water woes of the future, we can start planning for that future now.

The Fox Who Will Guard the Nation’s Henhouses (And Five Questions the Senate Should Ask Him)

On the final day before his inauguration last week, then-President-elect Trump finally chose a nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, the last cabinet post to be filled. The months-long selection process was circus-like, with as many as a dozen candidates floated. Early on there was the Democrat. Then there was the foul-mouthed rodeo cowboy. Along the way, there was the former university president and the strawberry-farmer-turned-politician (either of whom would have been the only Latino in the cabinet, but oh well). Late in the game, there was even a banker who threw his own hat into the ring. But in the end, the winner was the first guy interviewed, former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue.

USDA—still the people’s department

Before we look at Perdue’s background and approach to agriculture, let’s review the mission of the department he has been nominated to run. The US Department of Agriculture was established in 1862 by an act of Congress that was signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln later referred to the USDA as “the people’s department,” an apt moniker because at the time, about half of his countrymen and women lived on farms.

But even today, the USDA and the broad range of policies it administers touch every American. From crop subsidies that drive decisions about which foods farmers grow, to incentives and technical assistance to curb farm pollution, to the MyPlate dietary guidelines, to billions of dollars for food assistance programs and subsidized school lunches, the USDA affects us all.

And as the Trump administration gets under way, the state of our farm and food system is one of the most critical issues affecting all Americans. Our system is out of balance, with numerous USDA policies working at cross-purposes. Some policies attempt to increase Americans’ consumption of fruits and vegetables, while others subsidize crops largely fed to livestock or destined for processed foods.

Overall, a recent UCS policy brief shows that US food policy is failing many farmers, rural communities, and working people. Workers in the agriculture and food industries have less purchasing power; farmers’ and ranchers’ productivity and long-term resilience to pests, weather, and other challenges are diminished; the nation’s drinking water is threatened by farm runoff; and the health care sector is reeling from the costs of diet-related diseases.

Sonny Perdue knows ag (Big Ag, that is)

But back to Governor Perdue…whose real full name is George Ervin Perdue III, and who is no relation to the chicken company family. The tractor-patterned-tie-wearing former Peach State governor (2003-2011) grew up on a farm and was a practicing veterinarian before getting into politics. A registered Democrat before switching parties in 1998, the governor once led a public prayer for rain on the steps of the state capitol during a 2007 drought. He claims to have captured his new boss’s imagination at their first meeting last November, telling reporters President-elect Trump “lit up” to hear Perdue talk about his farming and business credentials.

I wrote recently that other Trump administration nominees seem likely to double down on corporate dominance of our food system, and Perdue appears to be no exception. Since leaving the governor’s mansion in 2011, Perdue has run a string of agriculture-related businesses in Georgia, including grain trading and fertilizer interests. In addition to this background in agricultural commodities and trade, he has indicated support for deregulating farming. And as my colleague Genna Reed pointed out last week, he has ties to The Coca-Cola Company, the world’s largest beverage company and an end-user of subsidized corn in the form of high fructose corn syrup.

In recent years, the USDA has launched a range of initiatives to elevate diversified farming, improved nutrition, and equitable access to healthy food. President Trump and Governor Perdue seem unlikely to champion such programs, and they may even roll back some important advances. A post-election news report summarized a list of talking points the Trump campaign had sent to its agricultural advisory committee (of which Perdue was a member), which indicated that the campaign had prioritized “a shift back to conventional agriculture…fighting the so-called good food movement and undoing Obama-era agricultural and environmental policies.” If he is confirmed by the Senate, Perdue will presumably be expected to carry out these campaign promises.

In a statement last week, my colleague Ricardo Salvador called Perdue “quintessential Big Ag,” and Big Ag seems to agree, based on effusive statements from industry lobby groups including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the National Grain and Feed Association. Reactions from groups that truly represent farmers, including the National Farmers Union and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, were more tepid.

Five questions the Senate should ask Governor Perdue

Perdue will have a confirmation hearing in the Senate Agriculture Committee (on which his first cousin, Republican Senator David Perdue, sits). That hasn’t been scheduled and probably won’t take place for weeks. But while we’re waiting, here are five questions I’d like to see Senators ask him, to probe his intentions for a farming and food system that serves all of us—including the struggling farmers, rural communities, and working people his new boss purports to champion:

  1. How would Perdue use federal agriculture policy to stimulate innovation, boost farmers’ livelihoods, and revitalize rural communities? The last 30 years have seen worrying trends in the demographics of farming and the economics of farm communities. Farmers are getting older—in 2012, the average age was 58.3 years—and high land prices mean that farmland is concentrated in ever fewer hands. Midsize family farms, historically the backbone of rural economies in the United States, have been disappearing for almost two decades. Nearly 56,000 midsize farms were lost nationally between 2007 and 2012, but UCS has proposed policies to bring them back, along with new jobs, by building local food systems and connecting farmers to them. Would Perdue support such policies?
  1. With America’s farmers increasingly facing the impacts of global warming, how would Perdue’s USDA help them cope? Just last week, a new study predicted that global warming will have a profoundly negative effect on US farmers, potentially slashing harvests of corn and other commodities by half due to heat and water stress. In already hot regions like the governor’s home state of Georgia, the distress of last year’s severe drought is still fresh, and we can expect more to come. According to my scientist colleagues Marcia DeLonge and Andrea Basche, farming systems that build soil organic matter and renew the nation’s grasslands are critical to helping farmers cope with future droughts…oh, and also floods. Will Governor Perdue seek to maintain and increase USDA’s investments in research, education, and technical assistance to help farmers become more resilient?
  1. Does Perdue support maintaining funding and standards for the nutrition programs administered by the USDA? The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) provides a critical safety net for low-income families. And 2010 legislation to upgrade federal school meal programs is already paying off in the form of improved nutrition for the nation’s children. Still, children born in the 2000s have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, thanks to spiking rates of obesity and diet-related diseases that occur at ever-younger ages. And children of color are disproportionately affected, as obesity rates have leveled off for white children but continue to climb for African American and Hispanic children. A recent UCS analysis revealed that living near fast food outlets and convenience stores is associated with higher diabetes rates—especially in counties with relatively large populations of color. Diet-related diseases also add many billions of dollars each year to our national health care bill: treating heart disease and stroke, for example, cost an estimated $94 billion in 2010, and this figure is projected to nearly triple by 2030. Will Perdue support important programs to combat this public health crisis, or roll them back?
  1. Would Perdue support recent efforts at USDA to increase funding for agricultural research? Robust agricultural research programs provide critical tools for farmers as they seek ways to profitably manage their operations and protect their soil and water resources. In the last Congress, House and Senate appropriations committees voted to boost funding for the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative by $25 million for fiscal year 2017. Such increased investments in research are key to helping farmers be productive, sustainable, and resilient to future challenges (see #2 above). Agroecological research, in particular, offers innovative solutions to farming’s environmental and other challenges, but this science is underfunded and understudied, as UCS has shown. More than 400 scientists have called for more public funding for agroecology. Will Perdue support such investments in farmers and our food system?
  1. Would Perdue respect science as a critical component of decision making at the USDA? It is imperative that the USDA and other federal agencies maintain high standards of scientific integrity in the new administration. More than 5,500 scientists have called on Congress and the Trump administration to ensure that federal agency actions remain strongly grounded in science to safeguard the public, that agencies and departments adhere to high standards of scientific integrity and independence, and that they provide adequate resources to enable federal scientists to do their vitally important jobs. Will Perdue commit to maintain such standards and uphold the department’s existing scientific integrity policy?

I hope the Senate will thoroughly vet Governor Perdue, and encourage him to re-think our current industrialized commodity agriculture and processed food system. Doubling down on this failed system will harm farmers, put consumers at risk, and create unnecessary costs for taxpayers. UCS will be watching his confirmation process, hoping to see signs that he seeks to promote a more innovative, healthy, and sustainable system—one that would benefit farmers as well as eaters and our shared environment.

Are Business’ Zero-Deforestation Palm Oil Pledges Being Kept? Here’s How We’ll Know

One important development of the past decade is the large number of corporate commitments to eliminate deforestation and exploitation from their supply chains. In response to the demands of civil society, and recognizing the critical value of their brands’ images to their bottom lines, dozen of companies have pledged to become deforestation- and exploitation-free by specific dates—often 2020 or sooner. But how can we—the consumers who buy their products and insisted that they act—know whether they’re actually doing what they promised?

The key is a two-step process: Traceability and Transparency. First, corporations need to find out how their supply chains extend all the way back to the forest land from which they get the palm oil, wood, beef and soy that they use to make the products they sell us. But second, they need to make this information public, clearly and in detail. To borrow a phrase from a quite different issue, they need to Ask, but they also need to Tell.

This is what makes a new agreement among 18 NGOs (including UCS) on Reporting Guidance for Responsible Palm an important development. Palm oil—the most widely used vegetable oil worldwide, used in literally thousands of products from baked goods to shampoo to cooking oil to industrial lubricants—comes mostly from southeast Asia. Its production is associated with deforestation, the exploitation of workers and violations of the land rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the draining and burning of peat swamps that produces large-scale emissions of global warming pollution. Many companies have made commitments to end these practices, but till now there was no agreement on how they needed to report their progress in doing it.

The new guidelines, in whose development my UCS colleague Sharon Smith was deeply involved, are notable for their clarity and their comprehensiveness. As a veteran of negotiating processes for many documents, ranging from international treaties to political coalitions to the texts of multi-author scientific papers, I’ve seen lots of ways in which these processes can lead to weak outcomes, despite the best intentions of those involved. Two pitfalls are particularly common:

  • Complicated jargon. Particularly when working on scientific and technical issues, we can easily lapse into using words that have precise meanings to experts, but are incomprehensible to the outside world.
  • “Kitchen-sink” compromises. When one side thinks that point A is crucial, and another feels the same about point B—and others about C, D, E and F—the simplest way to reach agreement can seem to be: let’s just include them all.

The 18 organizations that created the Reporting Guidance have done an admirable job in avoiding these two traps. The text is written in plain English, e.g.

Describe the spatial monitoring methodology the company uses to evaluate both fires and deforestation.

Detail: For both fires and deforestation, describe:

  • the area monitored (e.g. 50 km mill sourcing radii, expansion areas, plantations);
  • the definitions of what is being monitored (e.g. rate of fire activity, rate of tree cover loss);
  • the data sources being used;
  • the time frame(s) used to measure change, including the baseline; and
  • the percent of total mills in the supply chain falling under this monitoring methodology.

Furthermore, the guidelines include important points for transparency—both environmental and social—but nothing superfluous. The document covers what’s needed in just 16 pages, which includes a set of definitions and a two-page quantitative assessment of how many companies are already following each of the guidelines in their reporting.

Although I wasn’t involved in the negotiations leading to the guidelines, I know well how hard and exhausting it can be to reach agreement on such a document. But of course documents change nothing unless they’re implemented. In this case, that means that companies that have moved in the direction of zero-deforestation supply chains need to report publicly on their progress using this Guidance. (A few immediately announced that they will do so; e.g. Marks and Spencer, which said that “This document guides companies towards reporting that is most meaningful and material to a wide range of stakeholders and contributes towards our collective goal of making palm oil production sustainable and deforestation free.”

We now need to see similar statements from those corporations that haven’t yet done adequate reporting on how they are complying with their announced policies—e.g. McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble, General Mills, ConAgra, Krispy Kreme, Tim Hortons and Yum! Brands. It’s time to be transparent about how you’re ending deforestation from what you sell us.

 

USDA Nominee Perdue’s Connection to Coca-Cola is Deeper Than Georgia Roots

Agriculture secretary is the last Cabinet post to be filled by the Trump transition team. The delayed nomination of this position says a lot about the administration’s interest in the agency, which is incredibly important considering that the USDA is responsible for the production, distribution, and safety of the food we eat. Ultimately, after meeting with a few handfuls of potential candidates, President-elect Trump chose former two-term Georgia governor, Sonny Perdue, as the man who will lead the agriculture sector over the next several years. What’s his experience with agriculture, you might ask? Well, besides serving as governor to the highest chicken-producing state, he grew up on a family farm, studied to become a veterinarian, owned several small agricultural businesses including grain elevators and fertilizer companies, served on the agriculture committee as a Georgia state senator, and is now the co-founder of Perdue Partners, LLC which specializes in trading goods and services, including food and beverage products. It comes as no surprise that a man with extensive ties to agribusiness would be tapped to lead USDA, as other members of President-elect Trump’s corporate cabinet include a slew of proverbial foxes to guard (and maybe even destroy) the henhouse.

The soda-can-shaped elephant in the room

Coca-Cola and Sonny Perdue share a home state. Photo: flickr user psyberuser

Coming from Georgia, the question is not whether Sonny Perdue has a relationship with Atlanta-based beverage behemoth, Coca-Cola, but the extent to which they’re connected. Coca-Cola contributed the maximum amount ($50,000) to Perdue’s first gubernatorial campaign in 2003. Then, they remained close. First Lady Mary Perdue launched the Our Children Campaign in 2003, in defense of community resources to support children in state custody. At the plenary meeting, lunch was sponsored by Coca-Cola and Chick-fil-A, which are not exactly known for their healthy children’s options.

Perdue touted his interest in ensuring healthier lives for Georgians while in office. In 2005, Perdue hosted a breakfast launching the Healthy Georgia Diabetes and Obesity Project, coordinated by the Newt Gingrich-founded Center for Health Transformation. In 2005, Perdue also announced the “Live Healthy Georgia” Initiative focused on preventing chronic disease through being active, eating healthy, and quitting smoking. He said, “We want to set an example for the rest of the nation on how healthier living can dramatically improve the quality of life for Georgia citizens.” And while Coca-Cola sold millions of sugary beverages to children across the country, Perdue praised the company (paywall) at the grand opening of the New World of Coca-Cola Museum in 2007: “We’re here to celebrate the history of a great company, but also the future of a great company. It has never lost its way.” He continued, “You have helped us sell our state through your reputation.” Granted, that was 2007. Since then, Coca-Cola’s reputation has suffered, as revelations of its intentional influence of science and marketing sugary drinks to vulnerable children has come to light.

Perdue’s close relationship with Coca-Cola explains his interest in fighting childhood obesity with physical fitness rather than change in diet. Sonny Perdue issued an executive order in 2010 that established the Governor’s Council on Physical Fitness, receiving staff support from the Department of Community Health, in order to incentivize physical education programs in schools aimed at reducing childhood obesity rates. But the focus on physical activity versus diet is concerning because that deflection is a known industry tactic used to distract lawmakers and the public from the negative health impacts of their products. It’s right out of Coca-Cola’s talking points.

Our children’s health on the line

It is essential that our next USDA secretary advocates for a safe, affordable, healthy and transparent food system and it is especially important for the next secretary to take a strong stand in support of food and nutrition programs that could be threatened by Congress in the first hundred days. Congress’ Freedom Caucus has already issued a wish list of over 200 rules that it would like to cut. Among that list of rules, are the revisions to the school lunch program standards, standards for all foods sold in schools, nutrition facts label revisions, the Child and Adult Food Care Program revisions, and calorie labeling of vending machines.

On the school lunch program, the Freedom Caucus writes, “The regulations have proven to be burdensome and unworkable for schools to implement. Schools are throwing food away that students are not eating.” This is a debunked argument. As for the nutrition facts label revisions to include an added sugar label, the Caucus cited extensive costs without acknowledging the potential health benefits that would come with helping consumers make informed decisions through accurate labeling.

One way that Perdue can lead on children’s health is by guiding USDA to write rules to revise the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) food packages. Earlier this month, the National Academy of Medicine (formerly the Institute of Medicine) released its final report on revisions to the WIC food packages based on aligning them to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines. Many of their science-based and cost-neutral recommendations would allow parents more flexibility with feeding their children and would support their efforts to reduce or completely avoid added sugar in their children’s foods. In fact, they align very closely with the policy recommendations contained in my Hooked for Life report, including lowering upper limit for sugar in yogurt to 30 grams from 40 grams per 8 ounces, increasing flexibility in packages by raising the dollar value of the cash voucher and allowing substitution of the voucher instead of opting for the often sugary juice and jarred infant foods, and disallowing flavored milk from food packages.

Photo Credit: georgia.gov

Will Perdue choose health over profits?

The head of USDA must make science-based decisions in the face of overwhelming influence from a number of stakeholders. The new appointees must work to ensure that the hard-earned public health victories from the Obama administration are continually strengthened, not rolled back.

Former USDA secretary Tom Vilsack agrees. He recently told Politico (paywall), “I don’t think that any administration, coming in, following this administration, would be able to roll back everything that’s been done in the nutrition space. Because I think there is a consensus—and I believe it’s a bipartisan consensus—that we have had, and continue to have, a challenge with obesity. We have, and continue to have, concerns about the impact that’s going to have on our military, on our children’s futures, on medical expenses. So if anything happens in that space, it may be that industries are given more time to make adjustments. But I don’t think you’re going to see, ‘You know what? We’re going to go back to the day were we had more fat, more sugar, and sodium in our meals that we’re feeding our kids.'”

Vilsack may be right about the consensus on the challenge of obesity, but public health experts and industry representatives disagree on the best way to meet that challenge. The next administration needs to understand that making strides in improving children’s health involves more than just following industry talking points by increasing physical activity in schools. The integrity of The Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the nutrition facts label and their place informing supplemental meal programs must not be sacrificed in a quest to cut regulations as they are critical tools used to educate consumers on how to achieve healthier diets.

It is critical that, if confirmed, Perdue fights hard at the helm of the USDA to make evidence-based policy decisions that support a strong food system instead of simply holding a service to pray for increased quality of and equitable access to food.

 

This is Our Moment: Time to Amplify the Energy of the Food Movement

The nomination of our nation’s new Secretary of Agriculture is imminent—likely to occur over the three days prior to Friday’s inauguration, according to Vice-President-elect Mike Pence. As my colleague Nora Gilbert and I recently wrote, we’ll soon know whether the new administration will use this key position to support the rural and farming population that was so instrumental in placing them in power.

As my colleague Karen Stillerman has meticulously documented, however, we can tell a great deal about the new administration’s intentions from Mr. Trump’s choices for other cabinet and diplomatic positions. In brief, we can expect strong support for export-oriented commodity production, rollback of environmental regulations and the undermining of workers’ rights and wages. If these expectations come true they will work directly against the interests of most farmers and rural citizens—and against key pillars of the “good food” movement, which is working for a more healthful, equitable, and sustainable food system.

Before concluding that under such a scenario—the lack of official federal support—the movement for a better food system for all will stall for at least four years, it is well to take a sober look at the current moment in good food matters.

The 2016 general election was good for the good food movement. This isn’t happy talk. While it is true that food and agriculture issues weren’t part of the official electoral discourse, there were victories for key local building blocks of a better food system. It wasn’t just that voters in four cities approved a tax on soda (joined soon thereafter by Cook County, Illinois.) An Oklahoma initiative that sought to protect animal factory farms from regulation was defeated. And four states voted to raise their minimum wage above the anemic $7.25 per hour federal standard.

These are not trivial achievements. More than 2 million low-wage workers stand to benefit from the successful poverty-fighting ballot initiatives of Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington. The Oklahoma Farm Bureau and livestock interest groups spent $1 million in their cynical effort to permanently exempt themselves from environmental responsibility in that state. The powerful American Beverage Association spent $38 million to fight the soda initiatives. These formidable forces are not shadow boxing.

Which brings us to the major reason good food advocates should be encouraged. Many things can be said about this election, but these developments make clear that a bright line has been drawn between the interests of a narrow fringe of agribusiness and the broader interests of the nation, including most its farmers. Most importantly, given the dynamics of this election—ostensibly to overturn entrenched business interests in Washington and reverse growing economic inequality—it is a contest that is too far gone for those narrow agribusiness interests to win. Even if they are ushered directly into leadership of the Department of Agriculture.

How do we know this? The only sector of the food business that is growing is good food, as processors, retailers and restaurateurs know full well because they are scrambling to keep pace with this customer-led trend. That, in turn, is but one indicator of a larger shift in the nation’s food culture.

Americans have become keenly interested in food as a way to improve health, local economies, farmer wellbeing and justice for food workers. Witness: Breakfast cereal sales have been declining for a decade. Soda sales are at a 30-year low. Red-meat consumption has plummeted for four decades. For the first time in a decade, annual obesity rates declined in four states. Local food sales grew to at least $12 billion in 2014 (from $5 billion in 2008), and some estimates indicate these could reach $20 billion by 2019. In 2013-2014, schools purchased almost $800 in local food, benefiting both regional economies and more than 23 million children in over 42,000 schools. Such innovations can only be successful with the full support of school administrators and parent associations.

Additionally, Americans are actively seeking ways to support farmers directly. Over 8,600 farmers markets are now set up regularly in the United States, and almost 1,400 farms are listed as offering direct on-farm sales. More than 700 community-supported agriculture schemes have registered with the Department of Agriculture’s directory. Crucially, citizens have understood and are supporting cross-cutting measures to link food purchasing with the wellbeing of farmers, workers, and the environment. This is what the groundbreaking Good Food Purchasing Program enables (the program has been adopted thus far in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, and is soon to come to other major American cities.) 215 food policy councils around the country pursue similar goals, as do state food charters adopted by Michigan and Minnesota.

So, when the new administration’s agricultural advisors purport to speak for “American agriculture” and say that they know better than their clients what the direction of the food system is, they are clearly out of step with both market dynamics and the nation’s food culture. The truth is that, at best, they are speaking about the interests of just 4 percent of the farming population: those who operate at a scale (annual sales of $1 million or more) that can engage with global, export-oriented agribusiness markets. These large industrial operations have little in common with the vast majority of US farms, which numbered about 2.1 million in 2012.

This should be important for the new administration, because the rural and farming population that has supported them will rightfully expect federal policies that are equitable and favor most farmers, not just a sliver of already wealthy and politically entrenched agribusiness interests.

Which brings us to the major reason for hope, and a concrete agenda for the next four years of the food movement. Clearly, the nation’s food system innovations are springing from communities and state and local governance, bottom-up, and in largely non-partisan manner. While leadership from the federal level would be welcome, the trend to redirect the food system toward good food has taken hold and is driving the commercial food sector to restructure. We can tell change is real when the largest companies in the sector are investing serious resources to transform their value chains to meet customer demand. The good food movement must continue applying its pressure and leading this fast-paced local and regional work in pursuit of the socially equalizing agenda for more healthful, sustainable, fair, affordable and humane food production.

Meanwhile, if the incoming federal administration is to make good on the expectations it has created among its supporters, it must reconcile crucial inconsistencies between its outright divisive and violent campaign rhetoric and the actual interests of its major supporters. Foremost among these are:

  • Policies that benefit most the nation’s farmers, of all scales, ethnicities and genders, by supporting fair prices and reinvestment in rural economies and infrastructure;
  • Comprehensive immigration reform, including ending wage inequality and worker safety exemptions. Otherwise, these amount to sanctioned labor exploitation, leading directly to poverty and hunger in the midst of one of the wealthiest nations on earth. Without this labor, farms will not work—and no one understands this better than the nation’s farmers;
  • Investment in research, extension and education for regenerative agricultural practices, the kind that reward farm management skills and result in higher profit margins for farmers. Public investment in this area of agricultural science is essential because the private sector is not motivated to develop knowledge that doesn’t result in products (like pesticides and synthetic fertilizers) that can be sold year on year. And studies have shown that each dollar invested in agricultural research returns $10 benefit to the economy.
  • Increasing the minimum wage to enable food workers and other marginalized members of the working class—disproportionately people of color—to afford fair prices for food and to thrive as full-fledged contributors in a healthy economy.

A constant throughout the swirls and eddies of American history and progress has been the persistence and dedication of citizens to lead at the grassroots level—at the frontline of school boards, city councils, county boards, state legislatures and through their entrepreneurial innovation—to develop, test and apply the better ideas that work for everyone. It remains to be seen if the new federal administration will follow through on its promises of creating new jobs and a vibrant economy for those left behind by globalization and economic elitism, for farmers, rural citizens and the working class, but if they do, they will merely be following the shifting food culture. The food movement has risen, it is made up of everyone who eats and wants a better tomorrow, it is already reshaping the food business, and it is a force that cannot be stopped—unless we become dispirited. As my colleagues Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Olivier De Schutter and I argue, a moment of truth for the food movement has arrived. We must continue working for what we want, yet amplify the momentum of the food movement by forming common cause with others who will fight for a better world for us all. What could make the nation greater than that? Photo: Michael Fleshman/CC-BY-NC-2.0, Flickr

Even Without an Agriculture Secretary, Trump’s Cabinet Says Plenty about Food and Water Plans

It’s official. This week’s Veterans Affairs nomination leaves the Trump administration’s Secretary of Agriculture position as the last cabinet slot to be filled. With his inauguration just 7 days away, the president-elect still hasn’t announced his pick for this vital position that touches every American’s life at least three times a day.

But while we wait (and wait, and wait) to see who will run the department that shapes our nation’s food and farm system, it may be instructive to take a look at what some of his other personnel choices say about his intentions in this realm. And particularly, what the Trump team could mean for two of our most basic human needs—food and water.

First, food. On the whole, today’s US agriculture system is skewed to production of commodity crops—chiefly corn and soybeans—the bulk of which become biofuel components, livestock feed, and processed food ingredients. That said, over the last 8 years we’ve seen increased emphasis, from the White House and the USDA, on healthy eating, local food systems, and the like.

But things seem about to change, and how. The president-elect himself reportedly lives on fast food and well-done steaks. And even without an agriculture secretary nomination, Trump’s other appointees to date seem to indicate that unhealthy food and industrial farming are back in force.

Corn is king and beef is back in Trump’s America

It’s hard to believe at a time when US corn production is at an all-time high, but with Trump’s team we might actually get more of this commodity we already have too much of.

The Iowa Corn Growers Association hailed Governor Terry Branstad’s selection last month as ambassador to China, a hire seen as a boon to that state’s corn-heavy farm sector. What does diplomacy in the Far East have to do with corn farmers in Iowa, you ask? China is already a major buyer of US farm commodities such as Iowa corn and pork, and Branstad is expected to press his “old friend” President Xi to ensure that continues. (Not to be left out, the American Soybean Association sounded happy about the Branstad pick as well.)

The ambassador-in-waiting is already plugging corn domestically, telling Iowa Public Radio and the state’s corn farmers that Trump’s chosen EPA head will support the ethanol industry they feed. Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, you may have heard, is Trump’s highly controversial pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency (see why this is laughably unacceptable here, here, and here). Pruitt is an oil guy, and on Oklahoma’s behalf he has fought the EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard, which boosts the ethanol industry by mandating a level of blending with gasoline. But Branstad and both of Iowa’s Senators say King Corn needn’t worry.

Meanwhile, Pruitt has endeared himself to the American Farm Bureau Federation, the chief lobby group for Big Ag, with his rabidly anti-regulatory stance. The Farm Bureau cheered Pruitt’s appointment, describing it as “welcome news to America’s farmers and ranchers – in fact, to all who are threatened by EPA’s regulatory overreach.”

Read: agribusiness won’t have to deal with pesky environmental regulations under Pruitt.

Branstad’s and Pruitt’s nominations are also gifts to the meat industry, given their allegiances to the Iowa pork industry and Oklahoma beef industry respectively, as Tom Philpott over at Mother Jones explained last month.

Throw in hamburger exec Andrew Puzder as Labor Secretary and the interests of industrialized meat and its fast-food purveyors will be well represented in cabinet meetings. (See more reasons to be worried about Puzder here and here.)

A promise of “crystal clear water”

With the food landscape being reshaped more to Trump’s liking, let’s look briefly at water. During the campaign, candidate Trump said that as president he would ensure the country has “absolutely crystal clear and clean water.” (It’s campaign promise #194 on this list.)

I’m glad he recognizes that clean water is a critical resource and something Americans want. But will we get it?

Probably not if it’s up to Scott Pruitt. Pruitt has sued the EPA over a slew of clean air efforts, including its climate, mercury, haze, and ozone rules, but he has also been vehement in his opposition to the agency’s efforts to protect the nation’s waters from pollution. In particular, he wants to kill the Obama EPA’s Clean Water Rule (also known as the “Waters of the US,” or WOTUS, regulation), which expanded the definition of waterways the federal government has the authority to protect under the Clean Water Act. The manufacturing and fossil fuel industries are major backers of the effort to kill the WOTUS rule, and Big Ag (in the form of the Farm Bureau) has joined them.

Is Trump’s USDA pick our last best hope for healthy food and clean water?

This brings us back to the long-delayed USDA nomination. Since the election, we’ve seen a parade of agriculture secretary hopefuls march in and out of Trump Tower. The process has frustrated farmers and confounded other observers (including the current USDA chief). It’s clear that the new USDA head, whoever he or she turns out to be, won’t be confirmed by the Senate until after the inauguration.

Until the president-elect makes an official announcement, it’s impossible to know where he’s going with this important position. And it is important. The US Department of Agriculture is a sprawling bureaucracy made up of 29 agencies and offices, nearly 100,000 employees, and a budget of $155 billion in FY17. Its vision statement:

[T]o provide economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural America to thrive; to promote agriculture production that better nourishes Americans while also helping feed others throughout the world; and to preserve our Nation’s natural resources through conservation, restored forests, improved watersheds, and healthy private working lands.

The emphasis is mine, to highlight that the department is supposed to be looking out for the economic well-being of farmers and their communities, the health and nutrition of all Americans, and the critical natural resources—including water—that we all depend upon.

Let’s hope that whoever takes the helm at the USDA intends to do just that—even if Trump’s other cabinet picks have given us little reason for optimism.

Now, back to waiting…

In the Rush to Repeal Obamacare, A Reminder: Food Policy Is Health Policy

2017 is nearly upon us. And while the year ahead seems full of uncertainty, some things never change, including the tendency of many Americans to make New Year’s resolutions to improve their diets and lose weight.

But the day-to-day “what to eat” decisions of individual Americans are fickle and heavily shaped by the food environment around us. Which is why, as the incoming president and Congress set out their policy priorities—including a long-planned repeal of Obamacare—it’s worth looking at potential policy changes that could make it harder for Americans to keep their resolutions in 2017 and beyond.

In a new UCS video, my colleagues Ricardo Salvador and Mark Bittman team up to cook a healthy, traditional New Year’s stew of black-eyed peas and collard greens and discuss why it’s so hard for many Americans to eat that way. They talk about the need to align federal dietary guidelines (which say we should all be eating a lot more fruits and vegetables) with policies and incentives that shape what farmers grow, and note that the next president should pursue such a policy alignment. In a different political context, that might happen. In the one we currently find ourselves in, it’s unlikely.

What’s worse, a number of federal policies and programs aimed at helping Americans eat well and stay healthy may now be at risk. Here are three:

  • Obamacare: Over the last six years, Republicans in Congress have held something in the neighborhood of 60 votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). With Trump’s election, they’re gearing up to do it for real in the new year. Of course, it will be harder than they think, and they have no clear plan for how to replace it—the Center for American Progress has detailed the chaos that may ensue, and we are starting to hear the phrase “repeal and delay,” which would push off implementing repeal until 2019 or 2020. There are legitimate reasons to revisit the Affordable Care Act and seek to fix its imperfections. Healthcare policy experts have ideas about how to do it, and I’ll leave that to them. But among the important elements that should be retained in whatever comes next is the law’s emphasis on disease prevention. For example, the ACA guarantees full coverage of obesity screening and nutrition counseling for at-risk children and adults. Such services are critical for identifying risks of costly and devastating illnesses before they are full-blown, and helping at-risk patients address them.
  • School lunch program: The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was an early signature achievement of the Obama administration. It reformed nutrition standards for taxpayer-subsidized school meal programs for the first time in 30 years, and the rules subsequently implemented by the USDA have shown success in helping the nation’s children—especially its most vulnerable kids—eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk food at school. The law was due for reauthorization in 2015, but debate stalled over House attempts to weaken key provisions, and its prospects in the next Congress are uncertain. Just last week the conservative House Freedom Caucus has put out its regulatory hit list for the incoming Congress, which includes the USDA’s school lunch standards (along with the FDA’s added sugar labeling requirement).
We can’t afford to turn back the clock on food and health policy

Earlier this month we heard the jarring news that US life expectancy has declined for the first time since 1993. The exact causes of the slight dip last year—and even whether it is a data anomaly—are not yet known. But it’s a good bet that the nation’s worsening epidemic of obesity and related diseases has something do with it.

So while the incoming Congress and Trump team ponder what to do about health insurance, child nutrition programs, and other pressing issues, here’s a suggestion: let’s focus on preventing the major causes of death and disease, reducing the need for expensive healthcare in the first place, and keeping people healthier longer. Building on food policies that work, rather than tearing them down, would be a good place to start.

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