UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

USDA Reorganization Sidelines Dietary Guidelines

Photo: Cristie Guevara/public domain (BY CC0)

Last month, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced a number of proposed changes to the organization of the vast federal department he oversees. With its 29 agencies and offices and nearly 100,000 employees, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with a wide-ranging mission, from helping farmers to be profitable and environmentally sustainable to ensuring the nutritional well-being of all Americans. And while some of the organizational changes Secretary Perdue is pursuing (which all stem from a March executive order from President Trump) may seem arcane, they will have real impacts on all of us. The proposed merger of two key nutrition programs is a case in point.

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Public domain (Flickr)

The plan involves relocating the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) into the department’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). While FNS is well-known in anti-hunger and agricultural communities for its role in administering nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), CNPP is less so—though not for lack of impact or importance.

Established in 1994, CNPP is the agency responsible for reviewing and compiling the best available scientific literature on human nutrition, developing measures of dietary quality such as the Healthy Eating Index, and (jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services) issuing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and dietary guidance. At a time when more than 117 million Americans—half of all adults—are living with one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, the role that CNPP plays in protecting public health has never been more critical.

Reorganization compromises health without achieving efficiency

In the words of Perdue himself, the proposed reorganizations are aimed at making the USDA “the most effective, most efficient, and best managed department in the federal government.”

To be clear, reorganization (or “realignment”) is not an inherently bad thing. Proposals that could successfully increase the effectiveness and accountability of government agencies without compromising mission or purpose would be laudable. But merging CNPP into FNS accomplishes neither—and follows a dangerous pattern of this administration pushing back on science with its policy agenda. Furthermore, the merger poses serious threats to the scientific integrity of the agency charged with developing evidence-based dietary guidelines for the entire country, for several key reasons:

  1. FNS and CNPP serve distinctly different purposes. FNS administers 15 food and nutrition programs targeting distinct populations, serving only a fraction of Americans. CNPP develops science-based recommendations designed to identify nutritional deficiencies and address dietary needs at a population level, which are then applied to dozens of programs across the federal government. To conflate the distinct purposes of each agency would be to detract from the efficiency of each.
  2. The CNPP administrator will lack appropriate credentials to oversee the development of evidence-based national nutrition guidelines. Following the reorganization, CNPP would no longer be headed by a politically-appointed administrator, but instead by a career associate administrator. This individual is highly unlikely to possess the education and level of expertise required by this position.
  3. Merging CNPP into FNS introduces a conflict of interest. Nutrition programs administered by FNS must adhere to dietary recommendations established by CNPP, introducing a potential conflict of interest. Without clear separation between CNPP and FNS, undue influence on the former by the latter—or even the perception thereof—would present a threat to the integrity of evidence-based recommendations.

The USDA received public comments on this issue between September 12 and October 10. The full comment authored by the UCS Food and Environment Program, outlining the risks to scientific integrity and population health posed by the proposed reorganization, follows.

UCS Comments on USDA Notice, “Improving Customer Service”

October 10, 2017

Dear Secretary Perdue and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Bice,

On behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), we are compelled to respond to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notice, “Improving Customer Service,” with concerns regarding the proposed merging of the Center for Nutrition and Policy Promotion (CNPP) into the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). This proposed action would threaten the scientific integrity of CNPP and compromise public health, while providing zero demonstrable financial or public benefit.

UCS, a science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world, combines independent scientific research and citizen action to develop innovative, practical solutions and secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices. The Food and Environment Program at UCS makes evidence-based policy recommendations to shift our nation’s food and agriculture system to produce healthier, more sustainable and just outcomes for all Americans.

CNPP evidence-based recommendations play a critical role in protecting population health.
The current state of US population health poses enormous costs both to quality of life and health care systems. More than 117 million Americans—half of all adults—are now living with one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, overweight/obesity, and certain types of cancer. Recent research shows that dietary factors may now play a role in nearly half of all deaths resulting from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. In 2012, the direct medical expenses and lost productivity due to cardiovascular disease alone averaged $316 billion, while those due to diagnosed diabetes totaled $245 billion. In total, chronic diseases account for approximately 86 percent of all US health care expenditures.

However, just as diet is a key factor driving these trends, it also offers great potential to reverse them. The federal government has a critical role to play in promoting health and reducing the burden of chronic disease by supporting evidence-based policies and programs that improve the dietary patterns of Americans. For more than twenty years, CNPP has filled this role. The Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) at CNPP applies rigorous scientific standards to conduct systematic reviews of current nutrition research, and informs a range of federal nutrition programs, including the National School Breakfast Program, National School Lunch Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Working jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), CNPP is also responsible for overseeing the development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nutrition recommendations that are a cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and dietary guidance. As an autonomous agency, CNPP is well positioned to deliver unbiased and scientifically sound recommendations to other federal agencies and to the general public.

The proposed merger is unlikely to result in increased efficiency.
As stated in USDA-2017-05399, Executive Order 13781, “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch,” was intended to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability through agency reorganization. However, there is no duplication of function between CNPP and FNS. FNS administers 15 food and nutrition programs targeting distinct populations, serving only a fraction of Americans. CNPP develops science-based recommendations designed to identify nutritional deficiencies and address dietary needs at a population level, which are then applied to dozens of programs across the federal government. To conflate the distinct purposes of each agency would be to detract from the efficiency of each. Changes in allocation of resources from restructuring would also threaten the ability of CNPP to conduct its mission.

The proposed merger threatens the scientific integrity of CNPP, compromising its core function.
Merging CNPP into FNS will weaken the ability of the USDA to provide the most current evidence-based nutrition guidance to federal food and nutrition programs. The change would also jeopardize the ability of CNPP to comply with Congressional mandates, chiefly the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990, which requires the establishment of dietary guidelines at least once every five years and the promotion of these guidelines by any federal agency carrying out a federal food, nutrition, or health program.

The proposed reorganization would degrade the scientific integrity and core function of CNPP, particularly if:

  1. The CNPP administrator lacks appropriate credentials to guide the development of science based recommendations, including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
    The CNPP administrator has previously been appointed by the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services program. With the proposed reorganization, this position would be filled by a career official lacking necessary technical expertise. In its recent review of the DGA process, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) stated that it is of critical importance that “the DGA be viewed as valid, evidence-based, and free of bias or conflict of interest.” As the individual responsible for overseeing management of the NEL and development of DGAs and other science-based recommendations, the CNPP administrator must have strong credentials, including a background in dietetics, nutrition, medicine, and/or public health, with demonstrated experience relevant to nutrition science/research, population health, chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, economics, surveillance systems, and nutrition communications and marketing. This individual must also possess experience in advanced management and budget oversight; continuous quality improvement; program planning; implementation and evaluation; data analytics; information technology; and public policy.
  2. There is inadequate separation of agency function, diminishing the autonomy of CNPP.
    The application of dietary recommendations in programs administered by FNS introduces a potential conflict of interest. Without clear separation between CNPP and FNS, undue influence on the former by the latter—or even the perception thereof—would present a threat to the integrity of evidence-based recommendations. The development of the DGAs and the USDA Food Plans (e.g. Thrifty Food Plan) are of particular concern, as they inform programs administered by FNS.

The Union of Concerned Scientists appreciates the USDA’s efforts to increase the effectiveness and accountability of government agencies. However, the merging of CNPP into FNS accomplishes neither. The ability of CNPP to effectively and independently fulfill its mission of developing evidence-based dietary guidelines without undue influence may be compromised by: 1) the replacement of an appointed administrator with a career associated administrator who may not possess the qualifications needed to oversee the development of science-based federal nutrition recommendations; and 2) the inherent conflict of interest that occurs by way of FNS oversight over CNPP, as the latter develops guidelines that the former must adhere to in the implementation of various nutrition programs.

Given the alarming trajectory of diet and disease in the US, it is in the best interests of the public and the US healthcare system that CNPP continues to operate independently from FNS to produce evidence-based recommendations for population health. As the Director of the Office of Management and Budget considers proposed agency reorganizations to meet the directive of Executive Order 13781, “Improving Customer Service,” UCS is hopeful that the Director recognizes the magnitude of the potential risks associated with merging these agencies and rejects the proposed action.

Congress Could Help Farmers, Prevent Pollution, and Reduce Flood and Drought Damage. Will They?

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Conservationist Garrett Duyck and David Brewer examine a soil sample on the Emerson Dell farm near The Dalles, OR. USDA NRCS photo by Ron Nichols.

The news lately has been full of Congressional battles—healthcare, the debt ceiling, and now tax “reform” (ahem)—and it’s starting to seem like Congress is only interested in blowing things up. But a huge legislative effort is gaining steam on Capitol Hill, one that is likely to have general bipartisan support, though you probably haven’t heard nearly as much about it. I’m talking about the next five-year Farm Bill—which really should be called the Food and Farm Bill, as it shapes that sprawling economic sector worth more than 5 percent of US GDP, and which Congress must reauthorize by September 30, 2018.

In this first of a series of posts on the 2018 Farm Bill, I look at how this legislation could do more to help farmers conserve their soil, deliver clean water, and even reduce the devastating impacts of floods and droughts, all of which would save taxpayers’ money.

Farm conservation works

Since 1985, the Farm Bill has promoted stewardship of soil, water, and wildlife by directing funding to a variety of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs. These programs provide financial incentives and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to protect their soil and store carbon by planting cover crops, reduce fertilizer and pesticide use by rotating a mix of crops, capture excess fertilizer and add wildlife habitat by planting perennial prairie strips in and around vast cornfields, and even take environmentally sensitive acres out of farming altogether.

Recent UCS analysis has shown that farm practices like these lead to positive environmental outcomes while maintaining or increasing farmers’ yields and profits and saving taxpayers’ money.

And our latest report, Turning Soils into Sponges, reveals a surprising additional benefit: growing cover crops and perennial crops can make farmers and downstream communities more resilient to the effects of floods and droughts. The report demonstrates that these practices—which keep living roots in the soil year-round—result in healthier, “spongier” soils soak up more water when it rains and hold it longer through dry periods. Using these practices, farmers can reduce rainfall runoff in flood years by nearly one-fifth, cut flood frequency by the same amount, and make as much as 16 percent more water available for crops to use during dry periods. But farmers need help to do it.

A changing climate demands more conservation, not less

So it was a real step backward when the 2014 Farm Bill cut the very programs that help farmers build healthy soil and prevent pollution. That bill cut the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), for example, by more than 20 percent. A USDA official recently told a Senate committee that CSP is “greatly oversubscribed” and must turn away thousands of farmers who want to participate.

(Incidentally, the Senate will hear this week from President Trump’s nominee to lead the USDA’s conservation efforts, whose conservation record as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture has been mixed.)

Meanwhile (surprise!) the problems that on-farm conservation can help solve are not going away by themselves. Midwestern farm runoff has led to deteriorating water quality from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico. And climate change will only worsen water quality and increase the frequency and severity of floods and droughts.

The latter is particularly bad news for farmers, and for all of us. A new report from the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, which operates the taxpayer-subsidized federal crop insurance program, shows that losses from drought and flooding were to blame for nearly three-quarters of all crop insurance claims paid to farmers and ranchers between 2001 and 2015.

Farmers are adopting conservation practices, and policy support is growing

For example, earlier this year researchers at Iowa State University released the results of their 2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, which asked farmers across the state about conservation practices they used between 2013 and 2015. Nearly half (44 percent) reported an increase in the use of practices to improve soil health, with 20 percent reporting they’d increased their use of cover crops.

Meanwhile, the National Farmers Union (NFU), which represents family farmers and ranchers across the country, has become increasingly vocal about the need for USDA programs and research to help farmers build soil health and cope with climate change. And taxpayer advocates have lent their voice to the call stronger requirements for on-farm conservation as a condition of participating in the federal crop insurance program (so-called conservation compliance). A number of states have undertaken healthy soil initiatives, and some observers expect soil health to get more attention in this Farm Bill, as it should.

Congress: Don’t ask farmers to do the impossible

To recap: farm conservation works, farmers want to do it, and we all need more of it to cope with a changing climate and the floods, droughts, and escalating costs it will bring. So why wouldn’t Congress invest more?

As usual, budget-cutting fever is the problem. The Trump administration’s proposed USDA budget reductions shocked farmers and their allies in Congress last spring, cowing even the powerful Republican chair of the Senate agriculture committee, who warned that the 2018 Farm Bill will need to “do more with less.” That’s a silly thing to say, of course…with most things in life, doing more requires, well, more. For farm conservation, that means financial incentives and technical assistance for more farmers and more acres, along with more monitoring to ensure that it’s getting results.

That’s why UCS joined with NFU and two dozen other organizations in outlining our collective conservation priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill. These include a substantial increase in funding for USDA conservation programs including CSP, along with additional monitoring and evaluation of outcomes, better enforcement of conservation compliance, and improvements in the federal crop insurance program to remove barriers to conservation.

As Congress debates the Farm Bill in the coming months, UCS will be urging them to see farm conservation programs for what they are—critical programs to help farmers stay profitable today while preventing pollution, improving resilience, and avoiding more costly problems down the line.

In short, an excellent investment in our future.

Pointless Delay to the Added Sugar Label Keeps Consumers in the Dark

In another frustrating example of undermining science-based protections, the FDA this morning proposed delaying compliance for revisions to the Nutrition Facts label.

Most food companies were supposed to roll out their revised labels by July 2018. This delay would mean that those initial, larger companies would have until January 2020 and smaller companies until January 2021.

I have been dreading this official announcement all year and hoping—as more and more products I see in stores have updated their labels—that the FDA would acknowledge that its original rule was perfectly reasonable and has already given companies ample time to comply.

In December, food industry leaders proposed two different riders to draft House appropriations legislation that would have delayed the rule. Luckily, those failed to make it into final language.

Then, in April at now-FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s confirmation hearing, he implied that he might delay the revised nutrition facts label. I urged Gottlieb to keep the compliance dates as a part of the final rule that was issued in 2016.

Once confirmed, Gottlieb was faced with what I would consider a pretty clear-cut decision: Implement a rule that was based in clear science on the public health consequences associated with excessive added sugar consumption—one that was also supported by the expert-driven Dietary Guidelines recommendations—or cow to industry wishes to delay the rule, even though the majority of food companies would have had until 2019 to make the new changes to their labels, and larger food companies like Mars, Inc. and Hershey Co. have already met the deadline or are on track to meet it.

In fact, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, at least 8,000 products from a variety of companies already bear the new label.

A few months later, the FDA announced of its intention to push back compliance dates, but there was no formal decision or indication of how long the delay would be. I, again, urged Gottlieb not to take a step backward on food label transparency by delaying the new label.

Despite what some food companies will have you believe, they have had plenty of time to accept the science on added sugar consumption and to give consumers the information for which they’ve been clamoring. The FDA first began its work to revise the nutrition facts label in 2004, and the proposed rule which included the added sugar line was issued in 2014. Industry has had over ten years to give consumers the information they want to make informed decisions, and to acknowledge the mounting evidence that excessive sugar consumption can lead to adverse health consequences, including heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension.

Instead, as we demonstrated in a 2015 analysis of public comments on the FDA’s proposed rule, the majority of unique comments supported the rule (99 percent of whom were public health experts), while 69 percent of those opposed to the rule were from the food industry. The companies’ reasons for opposition included flimsy arguments about consumers’ ability to understand nutrition labels.

Last week, we signed onto a letter along with twenty other science, public health, and consumer organizations urging Gottlieb to let the rule move forward. As we wrote in the letter, this delay means that “an entire cycle of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans will have passed without the federal government’s premier public-health regulatory agency taking final action to implement a major recommendation of the Guidelines.”

It also means that consumers will have to continue to guess how much of the sugar in their food is added, gambling on healthy food purchasing decisions. While asking the agency to delay its labeling rules, the sugar industry seems to understand that it’s actually time to reformulate and meet consumer demand for healthier products to win consumers’ trust. A surefire way to win our trust would have been to move forward with the label, not force us to wait another year and a half for information we have the right to know.

The FDA’s failure to follow the science and listen to public health experts, including HHS staff who helped write the most recent Dietary Guidelines, is incredibly disappointing. We will be weighing in on this decision with comments that will be accepted for 30 days after October 2nd and will update you on how you can tell the FDA to rescind its rule to delay the enforcement dates for added sugar labeling.

Happy 40th, SNAP! Celebrating Four Decades of Effective Nutrition Assistance

Happy birthday to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program as we know it!

SNAP, it’s hard to believe it was only 40 years ago that President Carter made you into a better, stronger safety net by signing the Food Stamp Act of 1977. Of course, you’re grown now, and you know it takes more than one person to make a law. You were really born out of the hard work and bipartisanship of Senators George McGovern and Bob Dole—two legislators who loved effective anti-hunger legislation very, very much, and who improved the Food Stamp Act of 1964 by eliminating required payments for food stamp users and fine-tuning eligibility.

Naturally, some things have changed over 40 years

Like your name. You went through that phase where everybody called you “food stamps,” and we supported you, but “SNAP” really does suit you better.

You’ve also seen a host of changes come and go related to program eligibility, work requirements, and nutrition education funding—many of which continue to be subjects of debate.

And technology keeps barreling forward. You’ve seen the amazing things it can do—watching as schools handily adopt data matching technologies you’d never dreamed of having—and some days you feel like you’re getting the hang of it, like when you finally transitioned from paper stamps to an electronic benefit system. (Other days you’re calling your daughter-in-law because you once saw her set up a Roku in ten minutes and boy could you use her help with this.)

But some things have stayed the same

You’ve been there for the American people, unfailingly, through all the ups and downs of economic recovery and recession, changes in administration and leadership, and even that time Representative Steve King said that mean and totally untrue thing about you right to your face. (Sorry again. No one likes him, if that makes you feel better.)

You were there when the 2008 recession hit and 2.6 million Americans lost their jobs—many unexpectedly—and in the years that followed, as “middle-class” jobs became harder and harder to come by and people really needed you for a while.

And even now, amid the devastation of hurricanes and flooding, you are providing food to those who desperately need it through the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Despite what people say, you’re not just a program for “the poor.” You’re a program for all of us, because we are all vulnerable to the unexpected, economic crises and natural disasters included, and you understand that.

The best thing about getting older?

Take it from an organization that hit 40 a few years ago—the best thing about getting another year older is realizing that the people you’ve supported, through thick and thin, are here to support you too.

And one of the best things about the farm bill is that it gives us a chance to do just that.

On behalf of the 21 million American households you serve, and the millions more who know you’ll be there when they need you: Happy Birthday, SNAP.

Free Lunches in New York City Public Schools Are a Win for Kids—and Technology

Photo: USDA

It’s so good to share good news.

This month, the New York City Public Schools announced that, starting with the current school year, all students can receive free lunch with no questions asked. That means less stigma for kids facing food insecurity, less worrying for families, and less paperwork for school districts. And it might surprise you to learn that at the heart of this victory—carried across the finish line by a group of dedicated advocates—is a fairly common application of technology.

The underlying policy at play here is called the “Community Eligibility Provision,” or CEP. It was authorized with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to help schools and local educational agencies with a high percentage of low-income students. As a colleague wrote on this blog in 2016, CEP helps school systems (like New York City Public Schools) to reduce paperwork and poverty stigma, while making sure that free and reduced price meals are available to all kids who might need them. Instead of asking each family to fill out an application, CEP allows schools to determine student eligibility through household participation in programs like SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps) and TANF (the Temporary Assistance for needy Families program). If over 40 percent of students are deemed eligible, schools receive additional federal reimbursement dollars to cover free meals for more students beyond those who qualify—ensuring that even those whose families are not enrolled in federal assistance programs can still get meals if they need them. 

So how is New York City able to cover free meals for all students?

Here’s the math answer: the CEP multiplier is 1.6, which means that if 50 percent of students at School X are eligible for free meals, School X can actually serve free meals to (50 percent) * (1.6) = 80 percent of students using federal reimbursement dollars. If New York City Public Schools are now receiving federal reimbursement for 100 percent of students, it would mean they have demonstrated that at least (100 percent) / (1.6) = 62.5 percent of students are eligible through CEP.

Which brings us to the real-world answer: New York is able to cover free meals for all students because it got smart about its use of technology to better reflect true student need. The New York Department of Education website describes the new data matching engine it has developed to identify eligible students:

“This new matching system provides a more efficient and accurate process for matching students across a range of forms that families already complete. This new matching process yielded an increase in the number of students directly certified – or matched to another government program – and increased the direct certification rate, allowing the City to qualify for the highest level of reimbursement in the federal CEP program. The number of families living in poverty has not increased; the changes to the matching process allow the City to better identify families.”

Why the technology matters

I know what you’re thinking. It’s awesome that all kids in New York City Public Schools can eat for free! But why make such a big deal about this technology? It doesn’t seem like rocket science.


New York City Public Schools is not using a particle accelerator to improve data matching among students. They haven’t even used a 3-D printer. The data integration and management systems they’re employing, while complex, are actually fairly commonplace. It’s the same sort of technology banks use to combine different databases of credit scores and application information to make credit offers, which is the same technology Netflix uses to deduce that because you watched Good Burger, you might like Cool Runnings. (Hypothetically speaking.)

Yet when it comes to the use of technology in the administration of nutrition assistance programs, we have fallen remarkably behind. The transition from actual paper food stamps to electronic benefit cards officially concluded in 2004, nearly fifty years after the introduction of the first major credit card. Even now, some states (looking at you, Wyoming!) require SNAP applications to be faxed, mailed, or returned in person.

To be clear, I’m not claiming technology is a silver bullet. For one, implementing new technology often comes with a price tag—and a steep learning curve. (Just ask Kentucky.) In particular, the use of data matching raises ethical concerns related to privacy and security, and these are not to be overlooked. But in many cases, these are arguments to improve, rather than disregard, the technology and the policies that guide its use. Because when our public assistance programs fall behind, so do the people who rely on them, and so does our ability to deliver maximum public benefit with increasingly limited resources. It is critical (and just plain sensible) to use the tools at our disposal to help realize the potential of current technological systems to enhance the strength and efficiency of the federal safety net. 

Carrying the momentum in the 2018 farm bill

Keep an eye on this issue. There is reason to suspect that the advancement of technology in public assistance programs will be addressed in the 2018 farm bill, and even reason to hope for a bipartisan effort. In fact, I’ll take the opportunity to quote Glenn Thompson, chairman of the House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee, who opened a June hearing on SNAP technology and modernization with this sentiment: “We need to get the policy right. As we approach the upcoming farm bill, it is critical we understand opportunities to amend and improve the program to properly account for the changes that come with our evolving, technological world.”

Why Congress Should Put the “Nutrition” Back in Nutrition Assistance

Photo: USDA

Despite messages of economic populism, the Trump administration and its Congressional enablers have not been kind to the millions of Americans who struggle to make ends meet. From attacks on affordable health insurance and a living wage to tax cuts for the wealthy and worker protection rollbacks, they’ve made clear where their allegiance lies.

Now, the nation’s leading food assistance program for low-income individuals and families is on the chopping block. As with so many other policy proposals, that would not just be cruel but also short-sighted, new research suggests.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program is an effective response to poverty and food insecurity, lifting an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2014—including 2.1 million children—and even stimulating the economy during our most recent economic downturn. Still, the White House and some House Republicans appear eager to cut benefits and enact new (but largely unnecessary) work requirements.

In response, a new study published today in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior shows that rather than cutting the SNAP program, Congress would be wise to increase its investment to better promote healthy eating among recipients. That’s because the study’s authors found that current benefit levels fall short of supporting a healthy diet, including the recommended daily intake of fruits and vegetables. And that’s not just bad for SNAP recipients, but for all of us, as it leads to greater costs from preventable diet-related diseases down the line.

Updating the costs of a MyPlate diet

The authors (full disclosure: they’re UCS senior economist Kranti Mulik and former UCS health analyst Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, now an assistant professor at North Carolina State University) sought to fill an important knowledge gap, informing policy makers of the true cost of healthy eating for individuals and families today. In 2011, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) calculated the cost of various eating plans based on its “food pyramid” (the federal dietary guidelines before 2010). The USDA has used its resulting “Thrifty Food Plan” to determine SNAP benefit levels ever since, but it’s now out of date.

The present study is an important update in two ways. First, it calculates the cost of following today’s federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, represented visually by the USDA’s MyPlate graphic, in which half of a person’s daily “plate” consists of fruits and vegetables. And second, Mulik and Haynes-Maslow considered the cost of labor to prepare food, an important but previously overlooked consideration.

Using the most current retail price data available from the USDA, Mulik and Haynes-Maslow documented the full monthly cost of following MyPlate, creating several scenarios in which individuals and families could meet that guideline with fresh, frozen, and/or canned produce. Then, they compared the cost of the various healthful eating scenarios to current SNAP monthly benefit levels.

The upshot? The benefits don’t even come close to covering the costs.

Of course, the very name of the program—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—indicates that it isn’t meant to fully cover recipients’ monthly food budgets. The study design took that into account, assuming a “benefit reduction rate” of 20 percent—the percentage of food costs that SNAP participants pay for themselves, according to previous research.

So how much additional SNAP support would struggling families need in order to eat a consistently nutritious diet? The authors found that a hypothetical household (two adults, one child 8-11 years old, and another child 12-17 years old) would need to incur an additional cost of $627 per month to eat a healthy diet in accordance with MyPlate.

This is a significant shortfall. And it’s an important finding, because researchers who study SNAP already know that recipients’ monthly benefits frequently run out before the end of each month. In a UCS policy brief published earlier this year, we noted: “Data indicate that household food bills frequently exceed the USDA Thrifty Food Plan standard costs used to determine benefit amounts, which may reflect inaccurate assumptions about geographic price variation, food preparation time, households’ ability to access food outlets, and the percentage of household income spent on food.”

The “N” is for “nutrition”

SNAP is intended to do more than just feed people. While many Americans fail the healthy eating test—fewer than 1 in 10 Americans meets recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake—it can be particularly difficult for low-income households, which not only lack financial resources, but also face more barriers to accessing healthy foods. And although half of all Americans now live with a diet-related chronic disease, the burden of poor health disproportionately affects low-income populations and communities of color.

If SNAP is truly to be a “nutrition” program, it should do more to facilitate good nutrition for participants and their families.

Raising SNAP benefits would be good for us all…and voters support it

Healthier eating would deliver significant benefits for that population—less obesity and diet-related illness, and fewer lost work and school days. But it would also come with a payoff for the nation’s health broadly and for taxpayer-funded healthcare programs, including Medicare and Medicaid.

A 2013 UCS analysis found that increasing Americans’ consumption of fruits and vegetables could save more than 100,000 lives and $17 billion in health care costs from cardiovascular disease (CVD) each year. And a recent study from researchers at Tufts University and colleagues in the UK found that a 30 percent fruit and vegetable subsidy targeting SNAP recipients would avert more than 35,000 CVD deaths by 2030, and would reduce disparities in CVD rates between SNAP recipients and the general population.

Moreover, a recent survey of more than 7,000 American voters conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland found that large bipartisan majorities (78-81 percent) supported substantial increases SNAP benefits, while 9 out of 10 (including 8 in 10 Republicans) favored providing discounts on fruit and vegetables bought with SNAP benefits. (Respondents also agreed with proposals to restrict the use of SNAP benefits to purchase sugary foods and beverages.)

So while the White House and members of Congress seek to balance budgets on the backs of the most vulnerable among us, their constituents support policies that make it easier for low-income Americans to eat a healthy diet. With the next five-year Farm Bill putting the question of SNAP funding back on the table, Congress and the White House should do just that.


Photo: USDA

The Soil Solution: One Reason to be Optimistic About the Environment is Right Beneath Our Feet

As a young geologist, it took me a while to appreciate the importance of soil and the opportunity soil restoration presents for addressing key challenges humanity now faces. Over time, studying how erosion moves rock, sediment and soil to shape landscapes, I became familiar with how soil both influences and reflects the evolution of topography. We’re all familiar with the topographic displays of bare rock in the Grand Canyon, sharp-angled mountain peaks, and the smooth, rounded profiles of soil-mantled slopes in the rolling hills of California. But I also came to notice that prosperous regions tended to have rich, fertile soil. Impoverished ones did not.

The state of the soil was not just of scientific interest. It was of fundamental importance to human societies.

The oldest problem

My 2007 book, Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, grew out of an interest in how our treatment of the land influenced the longevity of civilizations. I found that soil erosion and degradation played a far larger role in human history than I was ever taught. Societies that degrade their land do not stand the test of time.

What lies at the root of the problem? The plow. Consider the state of a freshly plowed field. That bare soil translates into vulnerability to erosion by wind or rain. While it takes nature centuries to build an inch of fertile topsoil, an afternoon thunderstorm can strip as much off a freshly plowed field. Society after society in regions around the world gradually plowed their way into poverty, from Classical Greece to the American Dust Bowl.

Yet the problem of soil degradation is not just ancient history. It is still with us and one of the least recognized, and most serious, facets of the environmental crisis facing humanity today. In 2015, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported that under conventional practices the world loses another third of a percent of its agricultural production capacity to soil degradation each year. And while the soil on about a third of the world’s cropland is already seriously degraded, U.S. soils have lost about half their soil organic matter. These trends seriously undermine efforts to feed the world’s growing population.

Soil cores with differences in soil quality resulting from differing farming practices. Photo credit: D. Montgomery

Nature’s hidden half

Fortunately, soil degradation is also one of the most solvable challenges we face. I didn’t learn this from studying history. I learned it in my yard, as my wife turned our Seattle lot into a verdant garden—and changed the way we saw soil.

When we bought our house, the yard hosted a scraggly lawn with wretched soil, hard khaki-colored dirt with about 1% organic matter and nary a worm to be found. Anne set out on an organic matter crusade, layering compost and mulch on garden beds to reintroduce organic matter to the soil. In just a few years time, we found our soil turning darker brown and our plants thriving.  Now, a decade later, the carbon content of our soil is up to almost 10%. We explored this transformation in The Hidden Half of Nature and came to realize the foundational role that microbial community ecology plays in soil fertility as well as plant and human health.

Growing solutions

Restoring the soil in our yard to build a garden happened far faster than nature could have made soil. And this led me to look at the question of whether we can rapidly reverse the historical trend of soil degradation—and whether solutions can scale from small subsistence farms in the developing world to large commodity crop operations in the developed world. To investigate, I visited farms around the world that had restored fertility to the soil and life to the land. In Growing A Revolution, I describe how adopting conservation agriculture practices—combining minimal ground disturbance, cover cropping, and complex crop rotations—can restore fertility to agricultural soils and help address critical issues humanity faces today: feeding the world, mitigating climate change, conserving biodiversity, and reducing pollution.

The author’s backyard garden. Photo credit: D. Montgomery

Naturally, specific practices to adapt these general principles will vary across regions with different soils, climates, crops, economies and cultures. The lack of a simple recipe presents a tremendous challenge.  But it also provides opportunities for scientists to work in conjunction with farmers to rethink conventional agriculture and evaluate the effects of regenerative practices on soil health. Basically, we need to put soil ecology back on par with soil chemistry and physics in our philosophy of farming—and invest in the science behind the transition to conservation agriculture.

I never thought I’d write an optimistic book about the environment. But the farmers I visited who had adopted regenerative practices were using far fewer chemical inputs and far less diesel, and were much more profitable than their conventional neighbors. Their stories offer hope for wider adoption of farming practices that are not only good for farmers and rural communities but also protect our environment and can help secure a sustainable agricultural foundation for humanity’s future.

WEBINAR: Turning Soils Into Sponges

Learn about the soil-building practices that reduce drought and flood frequency with Dr. Andrea Basche, author of the new UCS report Turning Soils Into Sponges, USDA scientist Dr. Gabrielle Roesch-McNally, and UCS senior Washington representative Mike Lavender.

Register for the webinar >

David R. Montgomery is a MacArthur Fellow and professor of geomorphology at the University of Washington. He is an internationally recognized geologist who studies landscape evolution and the effects of geological processes on ecological systems and human societies. He has authored more than 200 scientific papers and 5 popular-science books, and has been featured in documentary films, network and cable news, and on a wide variety of TV and radio programs. When not writing or doing geology, he plays in the band Big Dirt. Connect with him at www.dig2grow.com or follow him on Twitter (@dig2grow).

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.

Is Sam Clovis a Scientist? A Racist? 9 Questions the Senate Should Ask

Sam Clovis speaks at a Rushmore Political Action Committee luncheon while campaigning for US Senate, Sioux City, Iowa, March 24, 2014. Credit: Jerry Mennenga/ZUMA Wire/ZUMAPRESS.com/Alamy Live News

Things are not going so well for President Trump’s nominee for the position of under secretary for research, education, and economics (REE) at the US Department of Agriculture. This job has responsibility for scientific integrity at the USDA, as well as oversight of the department’s various research arms and multi-billion dollar annual investments in agricultural research and education that are essential to farmers and eaters alike. The job also encompasses the role of USDA chief scientist, leading Congress in 2008 to emphasize that the person who fills it should actually be a scientist. But Sam Clovis is not one. And that’s not the half of it.

Clovis is a climate denier. He has espoused racist and homophobic views and embraced wild conspiracy theories. He may even be caught up in the Trump campaign’s Russia mess, having reportedly recruited a key Russia-connected foreign policy advisor to the campaign. But while opposition to Clovis is growing, the White House, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, and other boosters insist that he is just the guy for this job. I disagree, strongly. And I have a lot of questions.

Not a scientist…or an economist

Let’s start with Clovis’s scientific qualifications, which are non-existent despite the clear requirement embedded in federal law. Supporters have recently attempted to obscure his lack of training by describing him alternately as an economist or an academician. Let’s take those in turn:

Economist? No. Perhaps Clovis taught an economics class to undergraduates at Morningside College (or perhaps not), but even if he did that hardly makes him an economist. He has no economics degree and no published work in the field. If he really were a trained economist, especially an agricultural economist, that would seem to meet the legal requirement. But he’s not.

And what of the “academician” label? Well, sure, he has a PhD in public administration and taught college courses, so he has some academic cred. But as an ally from farm country quipped in an email last week, “so does an Oxford-educated Shakespeare expert but you wouldn’t have that person running USDA’s science office.”

Enough said.

An increasingly troubling nominee

Since news of his nomination initially leaked back in May, Clovis has been silent in public. But his racially explosive, offensive, homophobic, and just-plain-ignorant past statements continue to haunt him.

Transcripts and audio recordings recently uncovered by CNN show that he used his radio talk show in Iowa during 2011-2013 to hurl racially-charged insults at a variety of political leaders and to traffic in baseless fringe theories on topics ranging from then-President Obama’s birthplace and his reaction to the attack on the US embassy in Libya to the intentions of climate scientists and advocates. And just this week, new CNN reporting revealed that between 2012 and 2014, Clovis argued that homosexuality is a choice and that the sanctioning of same-sex marriage could lead to the legalization of pedophilia.

This is all deeply troubling.

What the Senate—and the public—need to hear from Clovis

When Congress returns from its summer recess in September, the Senate Agriculture Committee is expected to convene a public hearing, at which its 21 members will have the opportunity to hear directly from the nominee and evaluate his suitability for the job. Based on this hearing, the committee members will vote to advance Clovis’s nomination to the full Senate for consideration…or not.

With that in mind, here are nine questions the committee members should ask the wannabe chief scientist:

1. Are we missing something? A science degree you’ve been keeping quiet about? In nutrition (like the last scientist to hold this position) or weed science (like the one before that)? Or soil science? Food science? Agronomy? Entomology? Any relevant scientific discipline at all??

2. Academic credentials aside, how do you explain your role in advancing unsubstantiated conspiracy theories and making racially offensive and homophobic statements while a radio host in Iowa just a few years ago? We’ve read the transcripts and heard the audio of your racist comments about former President Obama and other black and Latino government officials and your theories about “LGBT behavior.” They are unscientific and deeply troubling, particularly in the aftermath of the recent racist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Explain yourself. Why should anyone take you seriously as a proponent (much less a practitioner) of fact-based decision-making? And how can we be confident you won’t throw science overboard in favor of special interest politics and pandering to the lowest common denominator of conspiracy theorists, racists, and homophobes?

3. Do you accept the science of climate change, and would you increase support for the evidence-based tools farmers need to build resilience to a warmer, more volatile climate? You’ve made past comments that climate science is “junk science,” a view that is at odds with the overwhelming scientific consensus. And inaction on climate change is contraindicated by what agricultural researchers and farmers on the ground are seeing across this country every day—witness, for example, the “flash drought” that has wreaked havoc on wheat farms and cattle ranches in the Dakotas and Montana. Looking ahead, this recent study predicted that future harvests of wheat, soybeans, and corn could drop by 22 to 49 percent, mostly due to water stress. Are you aware that farmers are becoming more vulnerable to floods, droughts, heat, and pests triggered by climate change? What are your thoughts on the contribution of soil health to climate resilience and productivity? As chief scientist, would you seek to maintain and increase USDA’s investments in research, education, and extension, and particularly the department’s network of regional Climate Hubs, to help farmers and ranchers better cope with our changing climate?

4. Okay, so you’re an “economist” (wink). What is your economic theory for improving conditions for everyday farmers and their communities, and what research would you prioritize to help get there? The Trump campaign, which you advised as a national co-chair in 2016, promised to help farmers and bring economic activity back to rural communities. What economic approach would best enable US agriculture to provide long-term benefits to farmers, American taxpayers, and eaters? What would be the most strategic investment we can make in research to prepare us now for a future that provides a plentiful, environmentally responsible, affordable and healthy food supply, buffered from destructive boom and bust cycles?

5. As chief scientist, would you seek to boost USDA funding for research, particularly in agroecology? 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. Congress boosted funding for the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) by $25 million for fiscal year 2017. Such increased investments in research are key to helping farmers, though the appropriation is still well below the full amount authorized for AFRI. Agroecology, in particular, offers innovative solutions to farming’s environmental and other challenges, but this science is underfunded and understudied, as UCS has shown. Nearly 500 scientists have called for more public funding for agroecological research. Would you support such investments in farmers and our food system?

6. How would you employ the research and education functions of the USDA to help farmers and communities curb water pollution? Agricultural water pollution is a serious and growing problem, as illustrated by this year’s biggest ever dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the repeated drinking water problems experienced by Midwestern cities such as Des Moines and Toledo in recent years. Are you familiar with long-term studies from Corn Belt land grant universities showing that farming practices such as perennial prairie strips and innovative crop rotations can dramatically decrease erosion and nitrogen runoff? How would you seek to use USDA research, education, and extension to help farmers adopt these methods and reduce downstream pollution?

7. What scientific and economic research would help policymakers better understand and improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)? In 2014, this program (formerly food stamps) lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty, including 2.1 million children, and abundant data show that SNAP is a smart investment in the nation’s health and well-being. The program is also a lifeline for many small towns and rural communities. As chief scientist, what research would you prioritize to improve understanding of the program’s benefits and how it could be improved to better serve public health and Americans still struggling economically?

8. How would you help ensure that the next update of federal dietary guidelines is based on the best science? The USDA partners with the Department of Health and Human Services to regularly update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These recommendations must be based on the best available nutrition science, and the process typically involves convening an advisory committee comprised of nationally recognized nutrition and medical researchers, academics, and other experts to review that body of science. The next update will happen under the Trump administration’s watch in 2020. As chief scientist, what USDA research would you prioritize between now and then to ensure that this process is based on sound science in the interest of public health, and not unduly influenced by food industry interests?

9. What would you do to ensure scientific integrity at the USDA? The Trump administration’s record on respecting science in federal decision-making is abysmal. Actions and decisions at the USDA—and all federal agencies—must be strongly grounded in science to improve the lives of Americans. What will you do to swim against this administration’s tide and achieve a high standard of scientific integrity at the USDA? Will you commit to uphold the department’s existing scientific integrity policy? And how will you ensure that there are adequate resources and leadership to enable the USDA’s thousands of staff scientists to do their vitally important jobs?

The bottom line

The breadth of the under secretary and chief scientist position is vast and the challenges faced by our food and agricultural system are growing. We need a serious and highly qualified person in charge of the nation’s agricultural science office. That person must be thoroughly grounded in the scientific process and prepared to rely on evidence to help solve these challenges for all Americans.

I believe Sam Clovis falls far short on multiple counts. And I’ll be watching closely in the coming weeks to see how the Senate evaluates him, and if they come to the same conclusion.

Floods, Droughts, and Soil: The Movie (or, Why I Destroyed a Small City for Page Views)

Photo credit: Rich Hayes

Our new report, Turning Soils into Sponges: How Farmers Can Fight Floods and Droughts, is a serious scientific analysis that documents how soil-covering farm practices can help farmers and communities better withstand rainfall variability. It took me the better part of two years to complete. But—lucky you!—we also made a quirky little movie about it that you can watch in less than three minutes:

Okay, yes, the video has an element of silliness, but as I said, this is a serious topic with a lot of research behind it. So I thought I’d use the blog as an opportunity to write more about the science and science communication behind our masterpiece.

An aerial view of the research site in Iowa where our soil came from. Agronomy field experiments feature side by side plots with different treatments to test effects on similar soils. Long-term research sites like this one allow for important trends to be studied over time.

The star of the show—the soil—comes from a real live research site

The soil used in the side-by-side demonstration comes from a long-term research site maintained by US Department of Agriculture (USDA) scientists in Ames, Iowa, where I collected the primary data for my dissertation research. It’s a site that grows corn one year and soybeans the next, varying practices like tillage (plowing), use of cover crops between crops, and addition of nitrogen fertilizer to measure their impacts on soil and water quality.

In the video, we call them “healthy soil” and “unhealthy soil,” and these descriptors are quite accurate in relative terms: the healthier soil came from some of the first plots established at this site back in 2000, the first year a winter rye cover crop was planted, and there has been no plowing on that plot since 2002. The unhealthy soil in the video comes from a nearby plot that does not include a cover crop (so the soil is bare from roughly October until April or May), and it has been plowed repeatedly within the last six years. Although soil properties can vary from one spot on a field to the next, these two samples were taken from very close to each other (just about 40 feet away); so we can assume that they are not very different, beyond the plowing and cover crop practices.

In the video, you can see how differently the two soil samples respond to a heavy “rain.”

Our film crew: myself, Rich Hayes (UCS Deputy Communications Director), Karen Perry Stillerman (Senior Communication Strategist), Audrey Eyring (the filmmaker extraordinaire and UCS producer) AND Godzilla, who makes a guest appearance in the video. I’m grateful to work alongside communication gurus and those with artistic and film expertise who helped me bring this soil science lesson to a wider audience.

How do soils on real farms measure up?

In the video, I say that “much of the nation’s farmland” is treated like our unhealthy soil sample. That’s because data from the USDA tells us that very little farmland across the country uses practices that protect it with living plants year-round.

Let’s start with the data on cover crops. The 2012 agricultural census estimated that approximately 2% of the major corn-producing states in the country were using a cover crop, although that number could be as high as 3% across the United States (approximately 10 million acres of the 300 million cropped acres).

Cover crops are not the only way to avoid bare soil on farmland. Perennial crops (crops that have deep living roots in the soil all year long), agroforestry (integrating trees into croplands) and even double cropping (growing two crops during one year) are other options. However, these things are also not the norm.

I was sad after flooding our faux farmland and city. This demo was meant to capture imagination and be a bit humorous, but reducing storm water is an idea that many municipalities are taking seriously.

It isn’t easy to get a solid number on the total land planted to perennial crops in the US, but the value for hay grasses is one indicator. These perennial grasses, which include crops such as alfalfa, comprised less than 18% of total harvested cropland in the United States last year.

Estimates from the Economic Research Service from 1999-2012 find that just 2% of farms are double cropping. Limited numbers for agroforestry acres exist, although USDA has estimates for the acres its programs support, and while those numbers are incomplete, they would equal well less than 1% of harvested crop acres. It’s good news that some researchers and non-profits are working to quantify and map agroforestry and other perennial practices.

If we add those numbers up, we’re talking about less than one-quarter of all agricultural land in the United States, so it seems fair to say that much of the nation’s farmland is farmed “naked” for extended periods of time during the year.

Our data show soil can be a solution

If you’re curious about the numbers from the new report that we included in the video, here is the Cliff Notes version.

In 70% of the 150 field experiments we examined, the soil’s “spongy” properties were improved by farming methods such as no-till practices, crop rotations, cover crops, perennial crops, and better grazing management. The properties we analyzed included infiltration rates, pore space and water available to plants. In our examples of how to get healthier soils on farms, we focused on those practices that we found to offer the largest and most consistent improvements: cover crops, perennials and improved grazing management.

This little demo became a regular trick of mine because it works so well – every time! Here I demonstrated infiltration with the same soils for a class of 7th graders that I taught from 2014-2015 in Des Moines public schools. I found that the infiltration rate test serves as a powerful visual and communication piece for how human management affects the soil.

The flood frequency number was calculated from the number of months reaching flood stage with current land use, and how many fewer months amounted when there was a shift to more ground covering crops and healthier soils. The 1/5 value came from our calculation for one specific watershed in Eastern Iowa impacted by flooding during the last several decades.

We also found there to be a 20% reduction in runoff when we evaluated specific areas impacted by historic flood events, and this number comes from a watershed in western Iowa hit by heavy flooding in 2011.

These are not insignificant numbers when you think about how much damage these events can do (on the order of billions of dollars, as we detail in the report), and the human impact they have. In fact, Iowa state senator Rob Hogg, an ardent champion for climate change solutions, whose Cedar Rapids region was devastated by flooding in 2008, reminded us that “Floods not only cause preventable damage—they create long-lasting trauma and heartbreak.”

The science communication behind the scenes

The mini-demo I tried in my office with soils from a USDA research site in Maryland, with a corn-soybean-wheat/soybean crop rotation and you can see that the soil on the left which was conventionally tilled drained less water through it and “ponded” more at the soil surface, relative to the no-till soil.

This infiltration rate demonstration is something I first gathered supplies for and worked up when I was a student just starting my Ph.D. program at Iowa State University. In fact the whole thing started with a test run with soda bottle “beakers” in a friend’s backyard. The idea came from Ray Archuleta of the USDA, who is known for performing this demonstration. At the time, I was curious if the soil from Iowa would produce such a strong contrast. It did then, and it has every time I’ve tried it since.

And in case you think this is only the case with Iowa soil, it’s not. We were also fortunate to have additional soil from a long-term research site maintained by USDA scientists in Maryland that included a comparison of no-till soil to conventional tillage. I did an informal test in my office and found that this soil indeed worked the same way.

In the end, we only needed to use the soil from our Iowa experiment for the demo, but I share this in part because experts who study soil health suggest infiltration tests as an important indicator. So, do try this at home with your own soil, if you are so inclined!

Our two mini demos in the video appear simple, but it took a lot of people power to get all the supplies, which left my office looking like much like a warehouse for the weeks leading up to our shoot. My colleague and accomplice in all of this was Karen Perry Stillerman who also found great enjoyment in searching the wide reaches of the internet for assorted supplies (including mini people—but note that no one was harmed in the making of our video!).

Are you more curious about soil? We hope so!

I’m super proud of the finished product. We aimed to be accurate in our descriptions and there is research and evidence to back up everything. I am thinking all the time about how to make some of these agricultural concepts more broadly applicable, and I hope the video does just that.

AND, because making a video never goes 100% perfectly, we thought you might enjoy two of our favorite outtakes.

http://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/umbrella.mp4 http://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/godzilla.mp4

How Healthier Soils Help Farms and Communities Downstream Deal with Floods and Droughts

Soil scientist Natalie Lounsbury and farmer Jack Gurley inspect a tillage radish cover crop as part of a project funded by the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program. This plant’s roots penetrate soil deeply, reducing compaction, and increasing water infiltration, making it an excellent cover crop to improve soil structure. Image: USDA-SARE/Edwin Remsberg.

A scan of recent news reveals the wide-ranging impacts of too much or too little rain: intensifying drought in the Great Plains; the largest dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico ever recorded, driven in large part by a wet spring that flooded parts of the Midwestern Corn Belt; and historic summertime rain in the mid-Atlantic. Climate change promises to bring more of this rainfall variability, with devastating effects on farmers and communities. But a new report we released today contains good news: healthier soil on farms can help combat the impact of floods and droughts.

A major take-home from our report is that the soil – yes, the “dirt” under our feet – can help buffer farmers and downstream communities from these events, particularly when farmers use practices that keep their soil covered with living plants year-round. And this is good for rural and urban residents, taxpayers, and farmer’s bottom lines.

Practices that keep farmland covered year-round retain more water in soil and can increase resilience to
floods and drought. Image: USDA-SARE/Edwin Remsberg.

Farmers have the power to make their soils “spongier”

Farmers want water to stay in the soil for their crops to use, rather than running off downstream. To understand how farming practices can help with this, we asked a series of scientific questions. The first was: how does soil’s ability to absorb and hold water change in any given place if land is managed using different practices? And by that, I mean different from the norm in the Corn Belt today, which is dominated by one or two annual crops grown on millions of acres, often with soil left bare for months in between.

Practices we wanted to know more about included no-till cropping (in which soil is not plowed); planting of cover crops between cash crop seasons (when soil would otherwise be bare); use of ecological livestock grazing systems (which intentionally manage animal numbers and rotation through pastures); integration of crops and livestock; and use of perennial crops (crops such as alfalfa that have living roots in the soil year-round).

To answer the question, we performed a rigorous review of prior field studies (150 experiments in total on six continents) that used any of these practices and focused on properties of the soil that make it more sponge-like, including the infiltration rate (the rate that water enters the soil), its pore space (or porosity), and the water in the soil available to plants.

We found that:

  • 70% of all the experiments we analyzed led to increases in these sponge-like soil properties, compared to more conventional practices.
  • The largest and most consistent improvements came from those practices that keep roots in the soil throughout the year. So-called “continuous living cover” practices included cover crops, perennial crops, and improvements to grasslands through grazing management.
  • Heavy rainfall events – more than one inch of rain per hour – could be significantly offset with some of these practices, particularly perennials. In more than half (53%) of the experiments that compared perennial crops to annual crops, water entering the soil not only increased, but did so at a rate higher than a one-inch per hour rain event. This is so critical as downpours grow more frequent across the U.S.
  • Continuous living cover practices change the structure of soil, by a measurable amount. We found an 8-9% improvement in both pore space and plant available water.

The value of continuous roots in the soil is depicted in this diagram: roots can make the soil more porous to store more water, and crop cover helps reduce water losses from runoff and evaporation. When managed properly this can lead to more water available to crops.

Spongy soil can be a solution on farms…and in cities downstream

This was all very encouraging. But we also wanted understand how these farming practices could reduce runoff in flood events and increase water in the soil during drought events if they were adopted on a large scale, and how these benefits might increase or decrease given likely future climate scenarios.

Here, we also found quite encouraging results when we used a model to represent such a shift in a representative farming region, the state of Iowa. Our model predicted that shifting the most erodible or least profitable croplands in Iowa to include more cover crops and perennial crops resulted in:

  • Up to 20% less runoff in historic flood events
  • Flood frequency (the number of months reaching flood stage) reduced by approximately one-fifth in some regions
  • Up to 16% more crop water use during droughts as severe as those experienced in 1988 and 2012
  • In a hotter, wetter climate that is projected for Iowa, we found a similar magnitude of benefits: 7 or 11% more crop water use and runoff reductions of 11 or 15%
Farmers and cities know they need to adapt to a changing climate

Soil quality can affect city dwellers as well as farmers. Excess runoff from farms with bare soil can contribute to flooding in towns and cities downstream, with resulting damage to homes, businesses, and critical infrastructure. Cedar Rapids, IA, was inundated by flooding in June 2008. Image: USGS/Don Becker.

There are many approaches proposed for climate adaptation, from improved seed varieties to more efficient irrigation technologies to insurance for disasters. What our report looks at specifically is the multiple benefits of healthier soil, because we know that the solutions we describe have multiple benefits: for reducing water pollution, for cities downstream, and importantly for improving farmer’s bottom lines.

The importance of managing water in heavy rain events is also something I’ve heard farmers and researchers repeatedly address. Farmer Tom Frantzen describes for Practical Farmers of Iowa in a podcast interview (listen here at ~10 mins) the tremendous benefit of his hybrid rye crop. Because he planted the crop the prior fall and it was fully protecting his soil the following spring, he had no soil erosion at all during a damaging three-inch rain event, when many surrounding fields were bare.

A Nebraska farmer made news by sharing a video of himself wakeboarding on flooded fields this spring. Interestingly, heavy rains in April and May haven’t been enough to keep the Plains out of a lingering dry spell.

The media outlet No-Till Farmer reported in June that a soil scientist stuck in a heavy downpour watched water infiltrate down to eight feet into the soil profile while waiting out the storm, serving as a light-bulb moment for illustrating to him the true water value of soil health. That scientist now reports that on his own ranch, he and his wife are working to restore perennial cover for livestock grazing.

And we know that cities benefit as well.

“Healthy, spongier soils are a win-win for farmers and water utilities and benefit rural and urban communities alike,” said Tariq Baloch, Cedar Rapids water utility plant manager and participant in the Middle Cedar Partnership Project, which receives funding from a USDA grant program called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which brings together landowners, utilities and farmers to reduce nutrient runoff into drinking water sources. “Investing in soil health means investing in soil productivity and reduced soil loss. Doing so will improve source water quality, reduce runoff that contributes to flooding and, ultimately, enhance the sustainability and prosperity of our communities.”

There is growing interest in the contribution of soils, and we hope that our analysis helps to quantify the benefits of this approach. Our report also addresses the ways that policy can help farmers make changes to protect their soil, and further posts will address this.

7 Fun Facts for National Farmers Market Week

Customers shop at the Crossroads Farmers Market in Takoma Park, Maryland, July 2014. Photo by Union of Concerned Scientists

And now, something we can feel good about. This Sunday marks the start of National Farmers Market Week, an annual celebration of local food systems. To get us in the mood, here are six facts that illustrate the benefits of farmers markets and local food systems.

FACT #1: There are 8,690 farmers markets nationwide. This may actually be a low-ball count, but it’s the number of markets currently listed in the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) National Farmers Market Directory. Washington, DC, where I live, is particularly fertile ground for farmers markets—the interactive database lists more than 60 markets within five miles of my home (try it for your state or ZIP code). But farmers markets have become commonplace across most of the country, as illustrated by this rather crowded national map generated from the USDA’s data:

FACT #2: In 2015, more than 167,000 US farms sold $8.7 billion worth of food directly to consumers, retailers, institutions (such as hospitals and schools), and local distributors. This was the finding of a farmer survey published by the USDA last year. The survey further found that more than one-third of those sales ($3 billion) were made directly to consumers via farmers markets, CSAs, farm stands, and the like.

FACT #3: Participants in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) redeemed more than $20 million in benefits buying food from local farmers in FY 2016. That’s up a staggering 638 percent from 2008. The data from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which tracks purchases made with SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps), shows that nearly 7,000 farmers markets and individual farmers across the country are authorized to accept these benefits. And the USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant program, established by Congress in the 2014 farm bill, is helping to increase purchases of fruits and vegetables among SNAP participants by subsidizing these purchases at farmers markets and other outlets.

FACT #4: Three out of four farmers who sell at farmers markets use practices that meet or exceed organic standards. That was the finding of a 2015 survey by the non-profit Farmers Market Coalition and American Farmland Trust. More details from the survey: Nearly half of farmers used integrated pest management, information on the life cycle of pests, and their interaction with the environment to manage and prevent crop damage. And the overwhelming majority (81 percent) incorporated cover crops, reduced tillage, on-site composting, and other soil health practices into their operations. (Read more about the importance of soil health here.)

FACT #5: Farms selling fruits and vegetables locally employ 13 full-time workers per $1 million in revenue earned, for a total of 61,000 jobs in 2008. A report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service compared these farms with fruit and vegetable growers not engaged in local food sales, and found the latter employed just three full-time workers per $1 million in revenue.

FACT #6: Farmers themselves benefit economically from farmers markets, pocketing upwards of 90 cents for each dollar of sales there. So says the Farmers Market Coalition. And how does that compare to the return for US farmers overall? The National Farmers Union estimates that farmers’ share of every dollar Americans spend on food in 2017 is a paltry 15.6 cents.

FACT #7: Sales increased by more than one-quarter at farmers markets participating in the USDA’s Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP) between 2006 and 2011. Established by Congress in the 2002 farm bill, the FMPP is a competitive grant program designed to increase access to locally and regionally produced foods and develop new market opportunities for farmers. To measure this program’s impacts, researchers in 2012 surveyed organizations awarded grants during the previous six years. In addition to a 27 percent sales increase, the survey also showed that customer counts increased by 47 percent at markets that received FMPP grants, and the number of first-time customers increased at nearly all (94 percent) of these markets.

BONUS “FACT”: Everyone loves a farmers market. Everyone. Even this guy (who is normally not a big fan of facts), proving that farmers markets really do bring people together.

But seriously, the benefits of local food systems—for farmers, consumers, and communities—are worth investing in. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue recognized those benefits with his official proclamation of the week. But now it’s up to all of us to ensure that the secretary and Congress make those investments. That’s why UCS is advocating for USDA programs (including SNAP, FMPP, and FINI, among others) that are helping to ensure that farmers markets and local food systems thrive.

Happy National Farmers Market Week!

Dead Zone 2017: Even Worse than Predicted (and That’s an Understatement)

This map of dissolved oxygen levels in the Gulf of Mexico shows the extent of the dead zone in July 2017. Courtesy of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium. https://gulfhypoxia.net/research/shelfwide-cruise/?y=2017&p=oxy_maps

There’s more bad news for the Gulf of Mexico. A team led by researchers at Louisiana State University this week confirmed the largest Gulf dead zone since standardized measurement began in 1985. The lifeless area of low oxygen in the Gulf is now at least the size of New Jersey, the researchers say, noting in a press release that because they couldn’t map the entire affected area, their measurement is an understatement of the problem this year.

As I wrote when it was predicted in June, the dead zone arises each year due to a phenomenon called hypoxia—a state of low dissolved oxygen that occurs when excess pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, accumulate in bodies of water. These nutrients enter the Gulf largely as runoff from Midwestern farm fields carried by the Mississippi River and its tributaries. They feed blooms of algae that die and decompose, and the process depletes the oxygen in the surrounding water. Fish and other creatures must either flee or suffocate.

We need to reduce farm runoff…a LOT

This year’s dead zone confirmation comes on the heels of a new study last week by scientists at the University of Michigan and Louisiana State University, who looked at what would be needed to decrease the size of the annual Gulf dead zone. Note these researchers aren’t talking about eliminating the dead zone, just shrinking it down…to the size of Delaware. (Delaware! Still an entire state, and not even the smallest one.)

Accomplishing just that, they estimated, would require bold action—a 59-percent reduction in the amount of nitrogen runoff coming from farmland in the Midwestern Corn Belt. That’s a very large reduction, one that farmers almost certainly can’t achieve just through more careful applications of fertilizer. The study’s lead author, University of Michigan aquatic ecologist Don Scavia, was pretty clear about that:

“The bottom line is that we will never reach the Action Plan’s goal of 1,950 square miles until more serious actions are taken to reduce the loss of Midwest fertilizers into the Mississippi River system,” Scavia said.

Instead, the Midwest farming system—which today leaves soil bare and vulnerable to runoff for months out of every year—will need to change.

And speaking of change, our changing climate poses a further challenge to tackling dead zones and related water quality problems in the Gulf and elsewhere. Yet another new study published in Science last week linked toxic algae blooms—a problem also caused by excess nutrient runoff, in which algae by-products can make water unsafe to drink or swim in—to climate change. The authors warned that increased rainfall in future years may wash even more fertilizer into rivers and lakes (e.g., Lake Erie), worsening the problem.

Soil is the solution!

Okay, so we need dramatic reductions in current rates of fertilizer runoff in the Midwest. In recent months, UCS has documented innovative farming practices such as extended crop rotations and perennial prairie plantings that can substantially reduce fertilizer use and runoff. We’ve also shown that such practices and systems are also good for farmers’ bottom lines.

And the evidence that farming practices that keep soil covered year-round can solve multiple problems by reducing rainfall runoff keeps coming. Next week, we’ll release an exciting new report that shows how farmers can create healthier, “spongier” soils, and how Congress and the USDA can help. Stay tuned!

Agroecology to the Rescue: 7 Ways Ecologists are Working Toward Healthier Food Systems

Ivette Perfecto and John Vandermeer in a shaded coffee farm in Chiapas, Mexico. They use diverse shaded coffee as a model system to study ecological complexity and its implications for farm management and biodiversity conservation.

A lot has been written about agroecology, and a new special issue of the journal Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems takes it to the next level.

The new issue, entitled Agroecology: building an ecological knowledge-base for food system sustainability, expands the conversation by outlining recent progress in ecology relevant for tackling food system challenges ranging from disappearing diversity to water woes to climate catastrophes. Together, the eight included articles demonstrate a range of emerging science-based opportunities that can help farmers and ranchers achieve the triple bottom line: social, environmental, and financial sustainability.  Here are just the highlights of what some farm-focused ecologists have been up to:

  1. Making sense out of complexity: Agroecosystems are complex, and as Vandermeer and Perfecto (2017) explain, “the fundamental rules of natural systems should be used as guidelines for planning and management of agricultural systems.” Fortunately, ecologists have developed some great tools (tools in topics like Turing patterns, chaotic dynamics, and more) that are up to the otherwise daunting task, and agroecologists are busy beginning to put them to work.
  2. Linking biodiversity to farming benefits: Decisions about how land is used at a regional scale can affect farming conditions at a surprisingly smaller scale, influencing even the pollinators and insect pests that are too small to spot unless you’re actually strolling through a field. As Liere et al. (2017) describe, understanding the connections between biodiversity at these different scales is essential to sustaining healthy, multi-functional agricultural systems. Agroecologists have just scratched the surface of investigating these “cascading” effects, and the subject is ripe for more discoveries.
  3. Keeping nutrients where we need them: It’s hard work keeping enough nutrients in some places (such as soils and plants) and reducing them in others (like in lakes and the atmosphere), but getting this right is a key to growing enough food while protecting the environment. Agroecologists tackle these problems with a bird’s eye view, measuring and evaluating everything from study plots to farm fields to watersheds. As Tully & Ryals (2017) note, this approach is critical to finding ways to optimize solutions (such as agroforestry, cover cropping, and organic amendments, just to name a few).
  4. Saving water by planting perennials: Much like nutrients, water often either seems to be overabundant (floods) or far too limited (drought), and climate change research suggests that this problem may only get worse. However, as Basche & Edelson (2017) review, farming practices that ensure “continuous living cover” can build healthier soils that keep more water on farms during dry times, while reducing flooding during heavy rain. Designing farms with water in mind, it seems, could prevent a lot of trouble, benefitting farmers and communities.
  5. Getting more from farming, with less: While adding more “inputs” (seed, water, chemicals) is typically understood to be the path to getting more food from farms, research has shown that this doesn’t always need to be the case. In fact, as Uphoff (2017) demonstrates through a review of the “System of Rice Intensification”, it can actually be possible to get more food by using fewer inputs. As Uphoff explains, “As climate and other conditions constrain agriculture, sustainable food systems will need to evolve.” Thanks to agroecologists, the evolution has already begun.
  6. Tracking down triggers for a food system transition: It’s one thing to find on-farm solutions and another to scale them up. Given that agroecologists have already been uncovering solutions to many of today’s challenges, what’s the next step? As my colleagues and I (Miles et al. 2017) explain, in an ever-changing world where one-sized-fits-all solutions simply won’t work, the research (and the university extension and education that goes with it) must continue to expand. But since research won’t be enough, we also propose several policy ideas (like shifting public research funds, improving conservation programs, etc.) that could help push and pull the food system to a better place.
  7. Exploring how healthier farms can support healthier humans: Much agroecology research to date has been focused on achieving productive farms and environmental sustainability, both of which have clear benefits for human heath (for example, by addressing food security and securing cleaner air and water). But as my colleagues and I (O’Rourke et al. 2017) argue, there’s an urgent need for more explicit research on how healthier farms can improve nutrition and public health. With an expanding agroecological toolbox and an ever-increasing concern about health care costs, perhaps there’s never been a better time!

Kate Tully collects porewater from a lysimeter installed in a farm fields on the Eastern Shore of Maryland to determine how effectively the system is recycling nutrients. Photo: Christopher Blackwood

Agroecologists in action

To close, I wanted to share this excerpt from agroecologist and Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems Editor Steve Gliessman:

“Ecology has always been the foundation of agroecology. We hope that this Special Issue will encourage more ecologists to engage in ecological research that can impact food system change. Their expertise in the science of ecology can show how an ecological understanding of the design and management of food systems can help us take major steps toward sustainability.”

Or, in other words, three cheers for agroecology! Onwards.

What’s in the special issue:

Agroecology: building an ecological knowledge-base for food system sustainability Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, Volume 41, Issue 7, 2017

Editorial: Agroecology: Building an ecological knowledge-base for food system sustainability Steve Gliessman Pages: 695-696 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1335152

Ecological complexity and agroecosystems: seven themes from theory John Vandermeer & Ivette Perfecto Pages: 697-722 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1322166

Intersection between biodiversity conservation, agroecology, and ecosystem services Heidi Liere, Shalene Jha & Stacy M. Philpott Pages: 723-760 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1330796

Nutrient cycling in agroecosystems: Balancing food and environmental objectives Kate Tully & Rebecca Ryals Pages: 761-798 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1336149

Improving water resilience with more perennially based agriculture |Andrea D. Basche & Oliver F. Edelson Pages: 799-824 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1330795

SRI: An agroecological strategy to meet multiple objectives with reduced reliance on inputs Norman Uphoff Pages: 825-854 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1334738

Triggering a positive research and policy feedback cycle to support a transition to agroecology and sustainable food systems Albie Miles, Marcia S. DeLonge & Liz Carlisle Pages: 855-879 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1331179

Insights from agroecology and a critical next step: Integrating human health Megan E. O’Rourke, Marcia S. DeLonge & Ricardo Salvador Pages: 880-884 | DOI: 10.1080/21683565.2017.1326073

Economist to Team Trump: More Trade Won’t Avert a Farm Crisis

Whether or not you think “Made In America Week” is a hypocritical joke, it seems like a good time to assess the Trump administration’s plan to sell more home-grown farm products abroad. Earlier this month, senior administration officials tucked into prime rib in Beijing to celebrate the re-opening of China to US beef after 14 years. Despite a rather incoherent overall trade strategy, when it comes to exporting corn and beef, the administration has been bullish (pun intended). Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has said we can “sell our way out” of a crisis with exports, and he recently reorganized the USDA to add an Undersecretary for Trade who will “wake up each and every day” thinking about how to unload more US farm products overseas. (The president just this week nominated Indiana Agriculture Director Ted McKinney to fill that post.)

On the face of it, new and expanded global markets might seem like a way out for US farmers suffering from low commodity prices and declining farm incomes. But will it work? I walked down the hall to ask an expert.

Kranti Mulik is our resident agricultural economist here at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and her bio includes stints researching global agricultural trade issues at Iowa State University, IHS Global Insight, North Dakota State University, and Kansas State University. Following is my recent Q&A session with Kranti to better understand how much we can expect US farmers’ prospects to improve through increasing exports of major farm commodities.

KPS: For starters, just how bad is the economic picture for US farmers right now anyway?

KM: Farmers are in a bind—commodity prices are low and we have an oversupply issue. Grain storage bins are full and farmers are trying to find a way to get rid of their supply. In addition, net farm incomes are expected to decline for the fourth consecutive year and farm debt is also expected to rise by over 5 percent. And the entire northern hemisphere is dealing with overproduction. As a result, global farm commodity prices are low and the latest forecasts indicate that they will remain low compared to previous highs. In addition, demand for agricultural commodities is also expected to slow down as countries like China slow their spending.

In response to all of this, our friends at the National Farmers Union—who represent 200,000 family farmers across the United States—are sounding the alarm about a full-blown farm crisis.

KPS: That’s bad. But we’ve heard that as China’s middle class grows, it will be hungry for more meat and poultry products from the United States. Is that a given?

KM: It’s true that China’s economy and its middle class are growing, and that more affluent consumers demand more meat. However, GDP growth in China has leveled off (as shown in this graph), and we won’t see growth rates there or in other developing countries like we saw 10 years ago. In addition, Chinese pork demand has peaked, and is now declining as diets get healthier. Pork sales hit a three-year low last year at 40.85 million tons (down from 42.49 million tons in 2014), and it is predicted that they will fall slightly this year as well. New Chinese government dietary guidelines also aim to reduce that country’s meat consumption by 50 percent. And as I mentioned before, China is also expected to slow its spending.

So is Chinese meat demand really expected to grow that much going forward? Maybe not.

Also, trade decisions really depend on a combination of factors, not just GDP growth but also exchange rates and consumer preferences for particular products. The US dollar is strong now (too strong, according to President Trump), which makes our exports more expensive abroad. Moreover, South American countries now have advantage over the US in terms of lower cost of production, and those countries are expanding their cattle inventories. So it’s harder for US farmers to compete with cheaper beef coming from Brazil and Uruguay, for example. And to some degree, beef is beef for Chinese consumers, and the government is likely to import the cheaper product.

Overall, I think it’s irresponsible to suggest to farmers that increasing exports is some kind of silver bullet.

KPS: Assuming for the moment that US exports of farm commodities could be increased significantly, would that necessarily benefit the average American farmer?

KM: Exports are already a big part of total US farm income, and increased trade isn’t inherently bad. But right now our exports are dominated by grains and oilseeds (think corn, soybeans, and cottonseed), along with meat produced from animals fed those products in industrial facilities. That’s what Secretary Perdue is suggesting we sell more of abroad. But that means doubling down on a large-scale vertically-integrated production system that is already failing most US farmers. This system primarily benefits big agribusiness companies like Cargill and Tyson. And global trade in these kinds of undifferentiated commodities rarely helps the little guy very much.

And today, beginning farmers operate 20 percent of US farms. These mostly younger farmers want to move away from the industrial model, and they won’t be helped much by Secretary Perdue’s trade strategy.

KPS: But isn’t a free market and more trade good for everyone?

KM: Not necessarily. The US export strategy has long been a matter of using world markets to sell commodities—like corn—that we’re producing too much of already. And a major reason our farmers are producing too much in the first place is that a handful of commodities have long been subsidized by federal farm policies. Farm subsidies between 1995 and 2014 totaled $322 billion, and most of this has supported five commodity crops—corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice—with corn alone receiving more than $94 billion in subsidies over that period.

So when we sell a lot of subsidized commodities, corn for example (or corn-fed beef or pork) globally, it drives down world food prices. And farmers in other countries—where they don’t get big subsidies—can’t compete. That’s really bad for farmers in developing countries. And when farmers in those countries suffer, the whole population suffers. We’re talking about some of the poorest people in the world here.

KPS: What other effects might we see from boosting production of US farm commodities for export?

KM: It would almost certainly worsen the environmental impact of US agriculture, which is already a big problem. My recent research has shown how our policies that subsidize a few farm commodities have contributed to a massive water pollution problem. By encouraging Midwestern farmers, for example, to maximize production of corn and soybeans, these policies have created a vast monoculture with lots of added nitrogen fertilizer and bare soil in between crops, leading to erosion and runoff that has harmful downstream impacts. The national price tag for nitrogen pollution from farms is already $157 billion a year—more than double the value of the entire 2011 US corn harvest. Expanding corn production, especially if it’s done in less-productive, more-erodible areas, will make this problem worse.

More industrial agriculture probably won’t be good for public health, either. A 2014 Harvard study found that ammonia emissions from exporting livestock and commodity crops resulted in public healthcare costs of $36 billion and 5,100 premature deaths.

KPS: Based on your research, what are the most promising strategies—trade or otherwise—for helping American farmers and rural communities out of their current economic slump?

KM: As I said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with trade in farm products. But it’s interesting that while the United States has always been an agricultural exporter, our food and farm trade balance has been declining. We are now importing more than we’re exporting. Of course, farmers in the Midwest can’t meet local consumer demand for bananas and coffee, but there are plenty of crops they could grow.

For example, we now import oats from Canada and Sweden, and my most recent report shows we could grow more of those in the Midwest, and that would benefit the region’s farmers and its environment. Rather than continuing to focus on single-commodity exports, we should use public policies and incentives to encourage farmers to grow a wider variety of higher-value, differentiated products that would find ready markets both abroad and right here at home.

I mentioned beginning farmers earlier. They’re the future of agriculture, but they face various challenges—the primary one being access to land, which has becoming increasingly difficult. In addition, the major focus of the government subsidies and research is still on commodity crops, making it challenging for farmers who want to grow so-called specialty crops (fruits and vegetables). With 30 percent of principal farm operators over the age of 65, we need more beginning and young farmers to enter the work force and we need to support these farmers as they are critical to our rural economies.

I’ve studied the economic benefits that would come from farmers in states like Iowa growing fewer commodities and more fruits, vegetables, and other foods for local consumption. I found that if public policies did more to connect small and midsize farmers there with large-scale food local buyers such as supermarkets and hospitals, it would create jobs, revitalize rural communities and improve access to healthy food all at once.

Build the Wall and Blame the Poor: Checking Rep. King’s Statements on Food Stamps

If you read “Steve King” and think of novelist Stephen King, don’t worry too much about it.

Iowa Representative Steve King dabbled in fear and fiction himself in an interview with CNN last Wednesday, suggesting that a US-Mexico border wall be funded with dollars from Planned Parenthood and the food stamp program.

Photo: CC BY SA/Gage Skidmore

This particular idea was new, but the sentiments King expressed about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the people who use it, less so. With 2018 farm bill talks underway, misconceptions about the program and who it serves have manifested with increasing frequency, and setting the record straight about these misconceptions is more important than ever. Policymakers like King, who is a member of both the House Committee on Agriculture and its Nutrition Subcommittee, hold the fate of 21 million SNAP households in their hands, and it’s critical that they’re relying on complete and correct information to make decisions about this program.

Here’s a quick deconstruction of what was said—and what needs to be said—about Americans who use food stamps.

“And the rest of [the funding beyond Planned Parenthood cuts] could come out of food stamps and the entitlements that are being spread out for people that haven’t worked in three generations.”

The idea that food stamp users are “freeloaders” is perhaps one of the most common and least accurate. The truth is, most SNAP participants who can work, do work. USDA data shows that about two-thirds of SNAP participants are children, elderly, or disabled; 22 percent work full time, are caretakers, or participate in a training program; and only 14 percent are working less than 30 hours per week, are unemployed, or are registered for work. Moreover, among households with adults who are able to work, over three-quarters of adults held a job in the year before or after receiving SNAP—meaning the program is effectively helping families fill temporary gaps in employment. King’s constituents are no exception: in his own congressional district, over half of all households receiving SNAP included a person who worked within the past 12 months, and over a third included two or more people who worked within the past 12 months.

“I would just say let’s limit it to that — anybody who wants to have food stamps, it’s up to the school lunch program, that’s fine.”

The national school lunch program provides one meal per day to eligible children. Kids who receive free or reduced price lunch are also eligible to receive breakfast at school through the program, but only about half do. Even fewer kids receive free meals in the summer: less than ten percent of kids who receive free or reduced price lunch at school get free lunches when they’re out of school. This means that, for millions of families, SNAP benefits are critical to filling in the gaps so kids can eat. In fact, USDA data shows that more than 4 in 10 SNAP users are kids. Again, these patterns hold true in King’s district: over half the households that rely on SNAP benefits include children.

“We have seen this go from 19 million people on, now, the SNAP program, up to 47 million people on the SNAP program.”

True. In 1987, average participation in SNAP was around 19 million. In 2013, it peaked at 47 million, and dropped to around 44 million by 2016. The increase over this time period is attributable, at least in part, to changes in program enrollment and benefit rules between 2007 and 2011 and greater participation among eligible populations. However, participation data also demonstrates SNAP’s effective response to economic recession and growth. For example, there was an increase in 2008 as the recession caused more families to fall below the poverty line, and in 2014, for the first time since 2007, participation and total costs began to steadily decrease in the wake of economic recovery. Congressional Budget Office estimates predict that by 2027, the percentage of the population receiving SNAP will return close to the levels seen in 2007.

“We built the program because to solve the problem of malnutrition in America, and now we have a problem of obesity.”

It is undeniable that rising rates of obesity are a significant public health threat. But obesity is an incredibly complex phenomenon, the pathophysiology of which involves myriad social, cultural and biological factors. It is a different type of malnutrition, and we will not solve it simply by taking food away from those who can’t afford it. If we want to focus on increasing the nutritional quality of foods eaten by SNAP recipients, we can look to programs that have been successful in shifting dietary patterns to promote greater fruit and vegetable intake, using strategies such as behavioral economics or incentive programs. Truth be told, most of us—SNAP users or not—would benefit from consuming more nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables.

“I’m sure that all of them didn’t need it.”

Without a doubt. And this could be said of nearly any federal assistance program. But the goal of the federal safety net is not to tailor programs to the specific needs of each person or family—this would be nearly impossible, and the more precise a system gets, the more regulation is required and the greater the administrative burden and financial strain becomes. The goal of federal assistance programs like SNAP is to do the most good for the greatest amount of people, within a system that most effectively allocates a limited amount of resources. And I’d venture to say that a program designed to lift millions of Americans out of poverty—with one of the lowest fraud rates of any federal program, an economic multiplier effect of $1.80 for every $1 spent in benefits, and an ability to reduce food insecurity rates by a full 30 percent—comes closer to hitting its mark than a wall.

Northern Plains Drought Shows (Again) that Failing to Plan for Disasters = Planning to Fail

As the dog days of summer wear on, the northern plains are really feeling the heat. Hot, dry weather has quickly turned into the nation’s worst current drought in Montana and the Dakotas, and drought conditions are slowly creeping south and east into the heart of the Corn Belt. Another year and another drought presents yet another opportunity to consider how smart public policies could make farmers and rural communities more resilient to these recurring events.

Let’s start with what’s happening on the ground: Throughout the spring and early summer, much of the western United States has been dry, receiving less than half of normal rainfall levels. And the hardest hit is North Dakota. As of last week, 94 percent of the state was experiencing some level of abnormally dry conditions or drought, with over a quarter of the state in severe or extreme drought (a situation that only occurs 3 to 5 percent of the time, or once every 20 to 30 years).

Throughout the spring and early summer, drought conditions have worsened across the Dakotas and Montana, stressing crops and livestock.
Image: http://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/

But this drought is not just about a dry spring. Experts believe the problem started last fall when first freeze dates were several weeks later than usual, creating a “bonus” growing period for crops like winter wheat and pasture grasses, which drew more water from the soil. This is an important pattern for agriculture to stay tuned into, as recent temperature trends point to greater warming conditions in the winter.

Bad news for wheat farmers (and bread eaters)

The timing of the drought is particularly damaging to this region’s farm landscape, which centers around grasslands for grazing livestock, along with a mix of crops including wheat, corn, soy, and alfalfa.

Spring wheat has been especially hard hit—experts believe this is the worst crop in several decades in a region that produces more than 80 percent of the country’s spring wheat. (Here’s a great map of the wheat varieties grown across the country, which makes it easy to see that the bread and pasta products we count on come from Montana and the Dakotas).

As grasses wither, cattle ranchers have only bad options

More than 60 percent of the region’s pasture grasses are also in poor or very poor condition, leaving cattle without enough to eat. Given the forecast of high temperatures upcoming, and the creeping dry conditions into parts of the Corn Belt (at a time of year when corn is particularly sensitive to hot and dry conditions), it is shaping up to be a difficult situation for farmers and  ranchers all around the region.

So it’s appropriate that the Secretary of Agriculture released a disaster proclamation in late June, allowing affected regions to apply for emergency loans. But another of the Secretary’s solutions for ranchers with hungry livestock—authorizing “emergency grazing” (and just this week) “emergency haying” on grasslands and wetlands designated off-limits to agriculture—could exacerbate another problem.

Short-term emergencies can hurt our ability to plan for the long-term

The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), created by the 1985 Farm Bill, pays landowners a rental fee to keep environmentally sensitive lands out of agricultural production, generally for 10-15 years. It also serves to protect well-managed grazing lands as well as to provide additional acres for grazing during emergencies such as drought.

Instead of planting crops on these acres, farmers plant a variety of native grasses and tree species well suited to provide flood protection, wildlife and pollinator habitat, and erosion prevention. In 2016, almost 24 million acres across the United States (an area roughly the size of Indiana) were enrolled in CRP. This included 1.5 million acres in North Dakota, which represents approximately 4 percent of the state’s agricultural land.

While this might sound like a lot, CRP numbers across the country are down, and in fact North Dakota has lost half of its CRP acreage since 2007. This is due in part to Congress  imposing caps on the overall acreage allowed in the program, but in large part due to the historically high commodity prices over the same time period, as well as increased demand for corn-based ethanol.

The loss of CRP acreage over the last decade demonstrates high concentrations of land conversion in the Northern Plains, nearly overlapping with the current drought. Image: USDA Farm Service Agency

Research on crop trends tells a complicated story about how effective this program is at protecting these sensitive lands in the long-term. The data demonstrate how grasslands, notably CRP acreage, are being lost rapidly across the United States. CRP acreage often comes back into crop production when leases expire (see examples of this excellent research here, here and finally here, which notes that often CRP lands turn into corn or soy fields). This may potentially erase the environmental benefits from these lands that were set aside.

At the same time, with negotiations toward a new Farm Bill underway, some ranchers and lawmakers are looking for even more “flexibility” in the CRP program. Some have expressed concerns about the amount of land capped for CRP. Some feel that CRP rental rates are too high, tying up the limited suitable land that young farmers need to get started, while others believe there are not enough new contracts accepted (for things like wildlife habitat) because of caps.

The bottom line is that it is critical to have emergency plans in place to protect producers in cases of drought. Emergency livestock grazing on CRP acreage is one solution to help prevent ranchers from selling off their herds (such sell-offs are already being reported). But, if CRP acreage continues to decline, what will happen when the next drought occurs, or if this drought turns into a multi-year disaster? And what will happen if floods hit the region next year, and the grasslands that could help protect against that emergency aren’t there?

Unfortunately, short-term emergencies can hurt our ability to plan for long term, and the trend toward losing CRP and grasslands is one example of this. It is no simple balance for policy to find solutions that simultaneously support short-term needs while encouraging risk reduction in the long term.

Agroecology helps farmers protect land while still farming it

But there’s another way to achieve conservation goals that doesn’t depend upon setting land aside. A number of existing farm bill programs encourage farmers to use practices on working lands that build healthier soils to retain more water, buffering fields from both drought and flood events. Increasing investment and strengthening elements of these programs is an effective way to help farmers and ranchers build long-term resilience.

Recent research from USDA scientists in the Northern Plains highlights climate change impacts and adaptation options for the region, and their proposed solution sound much like the agroecological practices UCS advocates for: increased cropping intensity and cover crops to protect the soil, more perennial forages, integrated crop and livestock systems, as well as economic approaches that support such diversification and the extension and education services needed to bring research to farmers.

As I wrote last year, drought experts recognize that proactive planning is critical, thinking ahead about how disasters can be best managed through activities such as rainfall monitoring, grazing plans, and water management is critical. Here we are again with another drought, and climate projections tell us that things are likely to get worse. In this year as a new Farm Bill is being negotiated, we have an opportunity to think long-term and make investments for the future to better manage future drought.


How Trump’s Trade Talks (and Tweets) Got Sickeningly Sweet

There are things that raise eyebrows in the public health community.

One of those things is when the sugar industry is happy.

While they’ve had a lot to smile about lately—including the delay of an FDA rule requiring added sugar to be listed on packaged food nutrition labels—most recently, it’s President Trump’s trade talks with Mexico.

The preliminary agreement struck between the US and Mexico last month, seen as a prelude to NAFTA renegotiations, effectively reduces the amount of refined sugar Mexico can export to the United States, allowing US refineries to remain competitive. In return, Mexico has the option to supply any excess demand for refined sugar in US markets. (Refined sugar is the white, granulated stuff most of us know as sugar; it’s made from raw sugar harvested from sugarcane or beets.)

The US has long had import quotas and other mechanisms securing price guarantees for refined sugar, but producers argued that these were undermined when Mexico was allowed unrestricted access to the American market in 2008 through what was called a loophole in NAFTA—leading to the dumping of subsidized refined sugar into the US market. Following claims of unfair trading practices filed by American producers in 2014, Mexico agreed to limit the price and volume of its sugar exports, but US sugar producers still felt trade laws had been violated. Had the US and Mexico not reached an accord last month, Mexican companies may have been subject to financial penalty as a result.

I’m not here to comb through the finer points of these negotiations, because I’m not qualified to do so. Nor will I propose that we ban sugar and hope the industry folds, because I plan on having ice cream this weekend. As long as Americans produce, process, and consume sugar, we will need to negotiate trade in sugar.

That said, I’m concerned by this banner emblazoned this week on the home page of the American Sugar Alliance, which represents sugar producers and refiners.

Photo: sugaralliance.org

Let’s talk about money and corporate influence.

Of course, it’s misleading to suggest there was no sugar deal for many years. As Daniel Pearson, chairman of the U.S. International Trade Commission under former president George W. Bush, noted, “Prior to 2008 and after 2014, it was a very tightly controlled market.

But that aside, I’d like to focus on the power and political influence of the sugar industry. The mission of the American Sugar Alliance, per their website, is to “ensure that sugar farmers and workers in the US sugar industry survive in a world of heavily subsidized sugar.” To aid in their quest for survival, they’ve managed to pull enough quarters out of the couch to spend no less than $2.17 million annually on lobbying between 2013 and 2016. These expenditures are second only to those of American Crystal Sugar, whose total spending topped $3.24 million in 2016. These two groups claim the number one and two spots for highest lobbying expenditures in the category of “crop production and basic processing,” which includes sugar, fruit, vegetables, cotton, grains, soybean, honey, rice, and peanuts.

In the case of this particular deal, a spotlight also shines on the cozy relationship between billionaire Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, and Jose Fanjul, longtime Republican donor and part owner of a sugar and real estate conglomerate that includes the Domino Sugar and Florida Crystals brands. Though the two have never conducted official business together, they’ve run in the same social circles for years and have frequently been guests in each other’s homes. (Hilary Geary Ross describes their “gloriously perfect” vacation in the Dominican Republic here.) At a July fundraiser for then-candidate Trump in Mr. Ross’s Long Island home, Mr. Fanjul took a seat on the exclusive “host committee.” It was later reported that he made donations to the Republican party and the Trump campaign in amounts of $94,600 and $5,400, respectively.

To be clear: I’m not claiming that the sugar industry and its kingpins are the only ones with deep pockets, that they are solely responsible for the outcomes of the trade deal between US and Mexico, or even that this is an inherently disastrous agreement. Nor do I believe that our government agencies are solely a vehicle for the interests of big business; on the contrary, I’m inclined to believe that most federal employees and political appointees lead and serve with integrity.

But we now have a president who has demonstrated an unyielding interest in dismantling and renegotiating fundamental food and agriculture policy—trade and otherwise—with enormous financial implications for some of the biggest and most powerful players in our food system, and we need to pay attention. We’re talking about an industry that has manipulated and influenced nutrition research for over fifty years to shift the onus of disease from sugar to fat. Not to mention agribusiness, which boasts lobbying expenditures on par with defense—totaling over $2 trillion over the last 20 years. These industries are deeply invested in making sure these policies work in their favor, and where there’s a will, a whole lot of capital, and a few friends in high places, it isn’t far-fetched to imagine that there is a way.

Undue industry influence on President Trump’s policy agenda will almost certainly allow the corporate consolidation of our food system to continue to snowball, and in doing so, will move us further than ever from achieving an equitable, sustainable, and health-promoting food system. History has provided us with too many examples of the self-interest of sugar, Big Ag and the food industry to believe otherwise.

We all lose when industry drives policy.

It’s simple.

Industry influence and industry money will benefit industry.

It will not improve the health or wellbeing of our children.

It will not contribute to our communities, our farms, or our local economy.

And it can go unchecked without the awareness and intentional engagement of those of us who stand to lose the most. This sugar deal is done, but there are other battles to fight. At UCS, we’ll continue in our efforts to stand up for science and the public good, from defending climate science and clean air protections at the EPA to fighting the nomination of a USDA Chief Scientist with no scientific background. Because if corporate interests and anti-science ideology drive public policies, we all lose.

Timing, Pollinators, and the Impact of Climate Change

Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus). These flowers have a scent similar to overripe rotting fruit, and are visited by sap beetles

Periodically in the spring, I have the pleasure of teaching Plant Taxonomy to students at a small college in Asheville, North Carolina. Among other things, I love the way that teaching this class forces me to pay close attention to what is coming out of the ground, leafing out, or flowering at any particular point of the season in the Blue Ridge Mountains where our campus is nestled. Each week, I fill the classroom with clippings from plants for my students to examine, up close and personal, as they learn to recognize different families of plants and how they compare with one another: how trilliums differ from jack-in-the-pulpits, or spring beauty differ from rue anemone.

But a couple weeks into the semester this spring, it became abundantly clear that I was going to need to scrap my syllabus and completely rearrange my labs. A very warm and short winter followed by an early spring meant that many of the plants I depend on appeared to be blooming weeks earlier than usual. While I initially doubted my intuition, based solely on passing observations, I then pulled out my collection notes for lab on March 6 and found it was dated April 6, 2013. My intuition was right on target. The flowering period was three to four weeks earlier than when I last taught the class, just four years ago.

In my research, too, the early spring was evident and influential. I study pollination and floral biology in sweetshrub, Calycanthus floridus, which has wine-red-colored flowers with the scent of overripe, rotting fruit that attracts their pollinators, little sap beetles that crawl into the flowers and feed there. I’ve been following the timing of flowering and fruiting in this plant since 2007, and the data so far show that in years with an early, warm spring, the plant flowers earlier…and the beetles are nowhere to be found. The flowers are there in their glory, flooding the area with their intoxicating sweet aroma, but they are holding a party with no guests—and this does not bode well for their future. The plants depend on the beetles for pollination and subsequent seed production, and in years when the beetles don’t visit, their reproductive success drops to almost nothing.

Author (Amy Boyd) teaching pollination biology to students in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.

Phenology and climate change

Timing of biological events—such as flowering and leaf-out in plants or egg-laying in insects—is called phenology, and increasing attention has been given to the study of phenology as we face a changing climate. Many organisms depend on climatic signals such as temperature as cues for their timing during the season, and so as the planet warms, their response to these cues will cause them to leaf out, bloom, mate or lay eggs earlier.

But here’s the rub: many organisms, like the sweetshrub, depend on relationships with other species…and not all species use the same cues. One may use mean daily temperature as its phenological cue while another uses day length. If two species that depend on their interaction with one another use different cues in a changing environment, or respond differently to similar cues, they may end up missing each other entirely—what is likely happening with the beetles and the sweetshrub.

Plant-pollinator mismatch

Scientists keeping watch over phenology are accumulating more and more evidence that our changing climate is affecting many diverse species and potentially disrupting the interactions among them. For example, a study of bumblebees and the plants they visit in the Rocky Mountains has found that the timing of both has shifted earlier, but not by the same amount. The shift in flowering has been greater than the shift in bumblebee timing, resulting in decreased synchrony—and both plants and pollinators may suffer as a result. In Japan, biologists have followed a spring wildflower (Corydalis ambigua) and its bumblebee pollinators and similarly found that the plants were more sensitive than the bumblebees to early onset of spring. Reduced synchrony of bees and flowers resulted in lower availability of pollinators for the plants, and potentially also lower availability of food for the pollinators.

As the planet warms, plants and pollinators alike may adjust to the changes in different ways, leading to mismatches between these symbiotic partners. This impact of climate change on phenology compounds all the other challenges facing pollinators today, like the loss and fragmentation of habitat, disease, pesticide use, and the spread of invasive species.

Maypop (Passiflora incarnata) flower being visited by carpenter bee pollinator (Xylocopa virginica)

Consequences for agriculture

So why should we care about such disruptions in phenology? Being forced to scrap my syllabus is a very minor consequence compared to the potential impacts on agricultural production. By some estimates, 35% of all crop species worldwide depend on or benefit from pollination by animals (including bees and other insects). Some 16% of all vertebrate pollinator species (such as hummingbirds and bats) are threatened with extinction, while at least 9% of all insect pollinators are threatened as well. Pollinators are essential partners with farmers who grow fruit, vegetables and nuts; without them, our own species faces loss of an important component of its food source. Similar mismatches may also change and disrupt relationships between crop plants and pest species, creating new challenges to agriculture or enhancing existing threats.

Farmers see the changes in phenology in their own fields, and they are already concerned about the future of agriculture in a changing climate. But we all need to be aware of the impact of climate change on the web of interactions that make up the world around us, so that we can support lawmakers and others who are ready to stop the human activities impacting our planet’s climate. Many biologists are out there watching, accumulating evidence with the systematic eye of science.  We must support their efforts—and listen to their messages about our impacts on the planet and our future.


Amy E. Boyd is Professor of Biology and Chair of the Division of Natural Sciences at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. She is an ecologist and evolutionary biologist whose research currently focuses on plant-pollinator interactions and phenological patterns.

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