UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

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

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

USDA—still the people’s department

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

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

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

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

Sonny Perdue knows ag (Big Ag, that is)

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

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

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

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

Five questions the Senate should ask Governor Perdue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detail: For both fires and deforestation, describe:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

The soda-can-shaped elephant in the room

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

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

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

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

Our children’s health on the line

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

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

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

Photo Credit: georgia.gov

Will Perdue choose health over profits?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A promise of “crystal clear water”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, back to waiting…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Good Food Movement—A Force That Can’t Be Stopped

I recently teamed up with my good friend Mark Bittman—all-around food expert extraordinaire—to cook a delicious stew of beans and greens and chat about healthy eating in the United States.

It isn’t like we don’t have abundant scientific information about healthy eating. Every five years, the official Dietary Guidelines for Americans update and detail our government’s nutrition recommendations. Though there is ample critique to be made regarding how politicized that erstwhile scientific process has become, the more meaningful discrepancy is how short the reality of our eating habits falls in relation to these relatively straightforward recommendations. With mounting epidemics of diet-related chronic diseases plaguing our communities, the impact of rectifying this dietary disparity is difficult to overstate. In fact, if we were to eat according to these guidelines, we’d save 100,000 lives annually, and $17 billion in healthcare costs, from reduced heart disease alone—the number one killer of Americans.

What is most troubling about this isn’t that as a nation we don’t come close to following the best nutritional guidelines, but that it would be difficult for all Americans to follow those guidelines even if they wanted to. Our food “choices” are shaped by what the food system has on offer, and what this industry offers—with our government’s support—is not what is best for the public, but what is most profitable. The fact that public interest and private sector profitability don’t align indicates that in the food system there is clear market breakdown. And it doesn’t have to be that way.

What we lack in this country is not the knowledge of how to eat food that nourishes our bodies and safeguards the planet, but a set of policies that make that feasible. Currently, we have a collection of disparate policies governing different facets of our food system, resulting in a fragmented web of regulations and programs that undermines the public’s interests. Fixing this will require a coordinated plan that aligns policies and priorities across the many agencies interacting with our food system, to create a coherent strategy that serves our nation’s well-being.

To do this, we must remember that our nation’s well-being is predicated on more than just our health as eaters. It’s no coincidence that the food that is healthiest for us to consume can be produced in ways that nourish our soils, protect our water and air, and are kinder to workers and animals. The knowledge to implement this alignment across our food system already exists – missing is an overarching policy framework to support it. Admittedly, this is no small task, but it is an increasingly necessary one.

In the next four years, the feasibility of advancing this vision at the federal level is at best, uncertain—perhaps unlikely. Yet despite, and because of this, the next four years hold great promise for furthering an agenda of coordinated food policies at the local level. Our cities and communities have long been incubators of innovation, leveraging their more nimble governance structures to experiment and innovate. In fact, it is often from these local experiences and successes that the federal government draws inspiration, taking good ideas with demonstrated feasibility to scale.

fa-blog-good-food-graphicIn the last few years, the area of food procurement has proven to be particularly ripe for this type of experimentation. In 2012, the City of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District adopted a Good Food Purchasing Policy, agreeing to align their institutional food purchasing power around five core values: strengthening local economies, valuing labor, improving animal welfare, environmental sustainability, and nutrition. Together, these institutions serve 750,000 meals every day; by shifting the force of the procurement dollars behind those meals, Los Angeles has been able to make concrete investments in a healthier, fairer, and more sustainable local food system.

Building on this success, the Center for Good Food Purchasing was established to take this model to scale and harness the billions of food procurement dollars spent by public institutions around the country. Interest in the Good Food Purchasing Program (GFPP) model has spread like wildfire, sparking similar efforts in Oakland, San Francisco, Austin, Chicago, the Twin Cities, Madison, New York, and Cincinnati. The scale of this expansion is nothing short of inspiring: the collective nationwide reach of GFPP initiatives is expected to pass over 2 million meals every day in the near future.

The benefits of such values-based purchasing are widespread—benefitting farmers, buyers, sellers, eaters and administrators—and the lasting effects on our local and regional food systems are only beginning to take shape. While we will continue to watch and learn, we can already draw a number of meaningful lessons from the GFPP model:

  • GFPP operates around the most powerful decision-making lever for a government at any scale: money. It acknowledges the weight of collective buying power as a tool to actively invest in the type of food system we want to see, and establishes an expectation that taxpayer dollars will be spent on food contracts that truly serve the public.
  • It demonstrates the feasibility of enacting coordinated policies based on shared values across the food system – not just for our eaters, but for our economies, our farmers, workers, animals, and environment.
  • It prioritizes transparency across the supply chain, illuminating the relationships between food system actors, and strengthening accountability among stakeholders to operate on the basis of mutual respect and cooperation.
  • As GFPP standards are adopted across the country in varied political, economic and regional contexts, the pattern will prove the viability of such an effort on a national scale. By demonstrating that this can work not just in coastal progressive bastions but in the Midwestern breadbasket itself, in the Rust Belt, and in the South, it is becoming increasingly clear that this model holds value for all Americans.

The principles of the GFPP are so firmly embedded in sound economic, social and scientific analysis, that when we surveyed 2016 for examples of science champions we were compelled to recognize the organization’s executive director as one of 5 recipients of an award demonstrating how standing with science is improving society.

Though the next four years carry a great deal of uncertainty for our collective work toward a better food system for all, the lessons we are learning from the innovation of GFPP efforts bring me a great deal of hope and inspiration. Whether we can convince the next administration to realign our federal food policies coherently—so that they work better for all Americans—remains unknown. What I am certain about, however, is that we can continue to support and amplify efforts across the country demonstrating every day that this is not a fantasy, and in fact it is already happening.

Ending Tropical Deforestation: Have We Got Our Priorities Backwards?

In working to change the world, there’s always a need to keep asking ourselves whether we’re focusing on what’s most important. This certainly applies to the effort to end tropical deforestation, which is why I and my UCS colleagues have put a lot of emphasis on figuring out what causes—and in particular, which businesses—are the main drivers of deforestation. Unfortunately, a recent study indicates that that global corporations that have committed to ending the deforestation they cause, have got their priorities backwards. And it suggests that the NGO community—and that definitely includes me—may have had our priorities wrong too.

The study, by Climate Focus and many collaborators, is part of an assessment of the impact of the New York Declaration on Forests two years ago. That Declaration, launched at the September 2014 Climate Summit that also featured a march of 400,000 people through the streets of New York, highlighted commitments by hundreds of companies, governments, NGOs, Indigenous Peoples’ groups and others to work towards a rapid end to deforestation. The Climate Focus report looked in particular at the Declaration’s “Goal 2”: “Support and help meet the private-sector goal of eliminating deforestation from the production of agricultural commodities such as palm oil, soy, paper, and beef products by no later than 2020, recognizing that many companies have even more ambitious targets.”

 Doug Boucher, UCS.

The September 2014 Climate March through the streets of New York, with yours truly on the left, helping to carry the UCS banner. The New York Declaration on Forests was launched just a few days later. Source: Doug Boucher, UCS.

In evaluating progress toward achieving Goal 2 by 2020, Climate Focus looked at the most recent data showing what are the main drivers of deforestation. Here’s the graphic that gives these results, from two different data analyses (on the left, from Henders et al. 2015; on the right, from European Commission 2013):

//climatefocus.com/publications/progress-new-york-declaration-forests-goal-2-assessment-report-update-goals-1-10

The main commodities driving deforestation, from the analysis of Climate Focus based on two different data sources. Source: Climate Focus 2016. http://climatefocus.com/publications/progress-new-york-declaration-forests-goal-2-assessment-report-update-goals-1-10

The data is pretty clear: by far the biggest driver of deforestation is beef. Soy is second, but far behind in terms of importance. And palm oil and wood products are even smaller drivers, causing only about a tenth as much deforestation as beef.

You’d expect that corporate priorities, as shown by their pledges to eliminate deforestation, should reflect the relative importance of these four drivers, at least approximately. But Climate Focus found that in fact, it’s the opposite. Here are the percentage of active companies that have made pledges concerning each of these four drivers:

  • Palm Oil – 59%
  • Wood Products – 53%
  • Soy – 21%
  • Beef – 12%

So, it’s not just that the percentage of commitments doesn’t reflect the importance of the drivers. It actually reverses them. The more important a commodity is, the less likely that a company will have pledged to eliminate the deforestation that it’s causing. We’re just three years away from the Declaration’s deadline, but only one out of eight corporations have even stated a pledge to reach that 2020 goal for what is the largest driver of deforestation by far.

The Climate Focus report goes into more depth about this, but in all honesty, and in a self-critical spirit, I have to admit that one reason that companies have emphasized palm oil and wood is that we NGOs have pushed them the hardest on those commodities. And the “we” here includes UCS, and me personally during most of the time that I directed UCS’ Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative (2007-2015).

Sure, we had good strategic reasons to focus on palm oil. Some of these were based on data—palm oil was growing rapidly in terms of global consumption, and was linked to the tropical peat clearance that releases large amounts of global warming pollution. Other reasons were more emotional—we could see that orangutans, which are threatened by the expansion of oil palm plantations, are incredibly cute and charismatic. But the end result was that we concentrated on getting corporate zero-deforestation commitments relating to crops that weren’t the main causes of deforestation.

In the last year UCS has changed the emphasis of its zero-deforestation campaigning to beef cattle and soybeans, and I’ve helped by pointing out its overwhelming importance in other reports that I’ve written. But looking backward, even though the companies can’t escape their fundamental responsibility for their own actions, pledges and priorities, we in the NGO community should have done better too.

This issue of misplaced priorities was made all the more poignant by the recent release of the past year’s annual data on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. It’s not good news—almost 8,000 km2 of forest were cleared from August 2015 to July 2016. Here is the data for the last two decades, from the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research, INPE:

//www.obt.inpe.br/prodes/index.php

Annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, in km2 per year (August through July). Source: INPE (Brazilian National Institute for Space Research): http://www.obt.inpe.br/prodes/index.php

You can see that this is the second year in a row, and the third of the past four years, that deforestation has risen. Although the level is still down about 60% from the average for the decade around the year 2000, the recent trend is in the wrong direction.

Why is this relevant to the issue of priorities? Simply because beef is by far the biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, and soy is the second. There are lots of factors related to the increase (e.g.  the political turmoil leading up to the impeachment of Brazil’s President Dilma Roussef and her removal from office in August) but it’s hard to argue that the lack of corporate commitments to ending Amazon deforestation was totally irrelevant.

I don’t want to go overboard with the mea culpa here. Companies have to take responsibility for their actions, and their lack of action. They can’t just say “the NGO community made me do it.” But the Climate Focus report and the new data from the Amazon demonstrate forcefully that when we get the priorities wrong, there are consequences.

On World Soils Day, Five Fun Facts About the Underdog of Natural Resources

 USDA-NRCS

World Soils Day is a reminder of the reasons this critical resource needs protecting. Photo: USDA-NRCS

Happy World Soils Day! We seem to hear a lot about the importance of clean water and clean air, but soils less frequently get the attention they deserve. Soils not only serve as the foundation of our food system, but also provide many additional environmental benefits, from flood management to supporting biodiversity to water purification. Thanks to concerted efforts—such as the United Nations declaration of 2015 as the “International Year of Soils”, which provided a platform to raise awareness—soils are finally starting to get more time in the spotlight.

Another moment in the spotlight comes in an announcement today from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), recognizing the efforts of federal agencies, the private sector, and non-profit partners to work toward “the long-term health and sustainable use of one of America’s most important natural resources: its soil.” Their announcement includes some of the research that we are expanding here at the Union of Concerned Scientists on how diversified farming systems can improve soil resilience, conserve and improve water and energy resources, and contribute to greater farm profitability. Stay tuned for more from us on this front! In the meantime, here are a few fun facts to help you celebrate the soil.

1. Only a fraction of the earth’s surface has soil suitable for growing food

Although we may think there is a lot of soil to go around for growing food, there’s less than you might think. It is estimated that crop production globally makes up 11% of the earth’s surface, although prime farming lands are rarer. I love this animation from the American Farmland Trust, illustrating how much of the planet is actually suitable for sustainably growing food:

The bottom line is that proper soil management (through best practices such as consistently covering the soil, not disturbing it through minimal plowing, and growing diverse plants) is critical to protecting this limited resource.

 USDA-NRCS.

What you see at the soil surface is just the tip of the iceberg, as this soil profile from Texas reveals its unique geographic fingerprint. These soils can shrink and swell with moisture changes, moving up the gray clay-like material deeper in the soil profile. Photo: USDA-NRCS.

2. Soils are unique fingerprints of their locations

Have you ever wondered why soils look and feel different in different places? Sure you have! The factors that help form soil are directly tied to a location’s geography. How soil forms depends on the climate of the area (hot temperatures and high rainfall can weather soils, for example), the plants and trees that grow above it, and the underlying geology or rock material that break down over long periods of time. As a result, I like to describe soil as the living crust of the earth or the interface of biology, climate, geology and time. Look around next time you travel, or even when you step outside if you are curious about observing the rich diversity of soils for yourself.

My current and prior research explores why we should not "farm naked" - rich soil resources should be covered 365 days a year with living plants to protect from degradation.

My current and prior research explores why we should not “farm naked” – rich soil resources should be covered 365 days a year with living plants to protect from degradation.

3. Soils are home to many diverse creatures

Speaking of diversity, soil is known to be one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. It is estimated that one gram of soil is home to several thousand species of bacteria, and that a typical healthy functioning soil has hundreds of species of fungi, as well as dozens of different species of vertebrate animals, earthworms and insects. Next time you want to call soil the four-letter word dirt, remember, it is alive!

4. Soils can help mitigate and adapt to climate change

Soil is a major component of the global carbon cycle. That makes soil a tool (but not the only one we need) to mitigate rising emissions of carbon in the atmosphere. Soil carbon is also known to be a critical element that helps increase the amount of water stored in soil. So with proper management, we can increase the capacity of soil to act like a “sponge” and reduce impacts from severe weather (including both droughts and floods!).

5. The United States is lucky to have many of the most productive soils in the world 

Soils vary from location to location and, on the soil front, Americans have much to be grateful for. The U.S. has a disproportionately high amount of the most productive soils in the world: Mollisols. These are soils derived primarily under the cover of perennial grasses, whose living roots (and frequent root decay) in the soil create the food web for many diverse organisms. Mollisols make up approximately 7% of the earth’s ice free surface, and 22% of these soils globally are found in the U.S., predominantly in the Upper Midwest and Plains states. This last point is so important to me, as someone who lived in Iowa and studies Midwest agriculture. Research from Iowa found an immense human fingerprint in degrading many soils over just the last several decades.

For these reasons and many more, we and many others are working hard to understand the value and benefits of protecting this fascinating and critical living resource.

 

 

The Big Three Threats to Progress on Added Sugar Transparency

The FDA’s revisions to the nutrition facts label, which we celebrated in May, could now be under siege on a few different fronts.

1. Delay

First, the food industry is considering adding a rider to the continuing resolution appropriations bill that Congress is working on right now. This is not a new tactic. You might remember that back in April, lawmakers snuck a rider into the House appropriations bill that would have discouraged the FDA from including an added sugars line in an update to the Nutrition Facts Label.

Now, the food industry is proposing two different riders: one that would delay the FDA’s ability to enforce the rule for years, until final guidance on dietary fiber and added sugars is completed, and another that would tie FDA’s enforcement of the new rule to the implementation of USDA’s genetically engineered food disclosure rules, which haven’t yet been written. The Food & Beverage Issue Alliance (a group made up of the biggest food and beverage trade associations, like the American Beverage Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association) pleaded with the USDA and HHS to link the two rules to reduce the “unduly burdensome” nature of the changes in an October letter.

This pushback from industry to delay the rule is yet another example of its efforts to thwart science-based rules to keep the status quo, in this case making sure that consumers are kept in the dark about added sugar content for as long as possible.

2. Roll back

Another threat to the Nutrition Facts Label revisions is the irksome Gingrich-era bill, the Congressional Review Act. The Congressional Review Act (CRA) allows Congress to render regulations passed within 60 days of the end of the House or Senate sessions null. According to the Congressional Research Service, this could apply to regulations finalized any time after mid-May of this year. That cutoff date depends on when Congress adjourns this year.

Unfortunately, since the FDA published its nutrition facts labeling revision rule on May 27, 2016, it could be on the chopping block. Invoking the CRA brings with it the doubly awful lever of preventing agencies from issuing a “substantially similar” rule without the express authorization of Congress. This means that if this rule is reversed, the FDA would not be able to update or revise the nutrition facts label for the foreseeable future.

There is little precedent on the successful use of this Act, but the one time a CRA bill was passed by G.W. Bush’s Congress in 2001, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s workplace ergonomics standards were rolled back, and the agency has not issued a similar rule since. For context, CRA was invoked several times during the Obama administration, but these were quickly vetoed by the president.

3. Ignore

Tom Price, Trump’s pick for HHS Secretary, has benefited from Big Soda political contributions and has a history of voting against transparency and improved federal nutrition standards. (Photo: house.gov)

The final threat is that Trump’s pick for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is Tom Price, a physician and Georgia congressman whose voting record reveals his lack of interest in improving the quality of school meals and transparency in the food system.

While Price hasn’t been extremely vocal on food issues during his tenure in Congress, he voted against the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) in 2010, which when passed, helped to improve the nutrition of school meals across on the country, including lowering added sugar amounts. A vote against HHFKA is concerning, considering that HHS will be working with the USDA to issue the next version of the Dietary Guidelines in 2020.

Price was also a co-sponsor of the Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, which exempted certain retailers from menu-labeling rules. And, while the top industries contributing to Price’s campaigns have been health professional organizations and the pharmaceutical industry, he has received roughly $50,000 from Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association since he took office in 2004. Based on his record and his funding sources (and those of other members of Trump’s corporate cabinet), limiting added sugar consumption will probably not be a priority of Price’s HHS.

Why we can’t let this happen

Since 2014, UCS, and our supporters and allies, fought hard to ensure that the FDA’s revisions to the Nutrition Facts Label would be evidence-based and strong enough to inform consumers and ultimately protect public health. As sugar consumption and obesity rates continue to rise, the implementation of the new label is as important as ever. Without the label changes, it will be extremely difficult for Americans to follow the recommendations of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to reduce intake of added sugar to less than 10 percent of daily calories, since there will be no way to know exactly how much added sugar is in a particular food!

In early November, I attended the annual meeting of American Public Health Association (APHA) where I presented findings from my Hooked for Life report and spoke with many public health professionals over the course of several days. There was not a single person who wasn’t supportive of improved transparency and regulations related to added sugar in food, especially children’s food. As we’ve documented in the past, public health professionals are nearly unanimous in their support for improved nutrition labeling, and the nutrition facts label has been shown to help individuals make informed decisions impacting their health at retailers.

Right now, you can ask your representatives to do two things: Pass a rider-free spending bill and vote “no” if a CRA bill is introduced that would kill the FDA’s rule revising nutrition facts labels. We must protect this hard-earned victory on a solidly science-based rule that will protect public health. And, if you haven’t already, sign this letter to HHS and USDA asking them to prioritize the impacts of added sugar on young children as they begin the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans process. house.gov

Battling Climate Change With Each Bite: 4 Things To Do If You’re Going Bananas About the Story Behind Your Food

I have a challenge for you. Take a moment, and consider what you ate for breakfast. As routine as it may have felt, dig beneath the surface and I’ll bet you’ll find a story that’s anything but mundane. It might even be magical.

  • Eat a banana? There’s a decent chance it was born and raised in Ecuador, a clone of the banana you ate yesterday and the one on your officemate’s desk, and a survivor of a lurking devastating fungus that threatens bananas everywhere.
  • Sip some coffee? The beans in your brew could have traveled from anywhere from Brazil to Vietnam, where they were plucked off a plant (in the shade or sun, near a beach or mountain), roasted and ground (somewhere), only to arrive at your mug. Have a blend? Now we’re talking.
  • Crack any eggs? Finally, something from a little closer to home, possibly from an Iowan hen (there are 50,782,000). Or, given the growing popularity, perhaps they even came from your own backyard.
  • Bite into a granola bar? From almond orchards to honey combs to cocoa plants to coconut palms, we don’t have enough space to discuss the countless possible stories stirred into your favorite bar, but I hope I got you thinking.
What does my breakfast (or lunch or dinner) have to do with climate change? Ask science.

Well, the numbers are in, and — for better and worse — the food system that we select meals from each day has a big role in climate change. While each choice might feel inconsequential, the forkfuls add up:

  • Overall, the food system contributes up to 30% of all global warming emissions. This includes 11% from agriculture, consequences of the climate-unfriendly shifts from forests and grasslands to croplands, and more.
  • Diets make a difference. For example, research has found that the average American man consumes about twice as much protein as he needs, and often from sources that had heavy climate impacts. The result is unnecessary consequences for climate, water resources, and health.
  • Food insecurity already devastates nearly 800 million people, and climate change is likely to stress both crop yields and nutrition, putting millions of meals on the line even despite global efforts to reduce poverty and hunger.
So what can I do?

While many of the food system challenges we face can seem overwhelming, there are a few simple ways each of us can begin to shift the paradigm:

  1. Ask where your food comes from: The foods that we eat and the companies we support can be linked to egregious climate actions, which are all too often out of sight and out of mind. Fortunately, efforts like Years of Living Dangerously are working hard to spread the word about these issues, and help viewers figure out how to make a difference. The most recent episode tackled the devastating rates of tropical deforestation which, as my colleagues have shown, have a significant climate impact and are connected to several major food products, including beef. In the case of beef, since most of what is consumed in the US is from cattle raised in North America, it’s important to recognize that the most effective approach to protecting tropical forests is to directly pressure large multinational companies with a presence in the tropics to demand “deforestation-free” beef throughout their global operations.
  2. When something smells like trouble, investigate your options: With any food product, there are always many stories to choose from. And while we’re talking about beef, it’s important to recognize that well-managed and appropriately located grazing lands can actually offer a lot of benefits for the environment and biodiversity. So, if you choose to eat beef, it’s possible to lend your support the ranchers who are actually working hard to protect valuable grasslands. For example, places like White Oak Pasture have actually been the driver behind an uplifted community and a boost in biodiversity. These systems can only be expanded so much, but they do exist. Also, while finding the best sources for beef and other food products can take a lot of detective work, thankfully there is a lot of effort going into making these details easier to find, and digest.
  3. Save money while halting preposterous cycles of waste: Regardless of what you eat each day, one way to reduce the impacts of your food choices is quite simply to waste less food. It should go without saying, but wasting food costs you money and wastes just about everything, including all the labor, water, chemicals and fuel used to grow, ship, and prepare every bite that made it to your fridge or table (only to land in the landfill).
  4. Last but not least, support the farmers and ranchers that protect your favorite food, and soil: Believe it or not, some of your favorite foods might be at risk due to climate change. But by supporting producers who are farming wisely and cultivating resilience you can help give these coveted crops a chance in a warmer world. Farmers can also protect the soil — a secret ingredient in the climate change food fight.
A conundrum and an opportunity

In today’s world of phenomenal convenience, many of us have the good fortune not to have to think too much about how we get our next meal. On the flip side, it’s also a deep privilege to live in a data-rich and well-connected world that offers so much knowledge and potential choice. So, what to do?

That’s up to you, but remember this: with every bite, you have a chance to vote for the world you want to live in. Use it wisely.

This post was originally published on the Years of Living Dangerously blog.

On Thanksgiving, Trump, and Cheap Food

Just in time for the most delicious holiday of them all, UCS has launched a new video featuring Mark Bittman in the kitchen. He’s cooking up a tasty whole grain dish with fall favorites—savory butternut squash, fresh cranberries, whole grains, and a touch of maple syrup—and talking about the sorry state of the US food system, and why our new president needs to take action to fix it.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking.

Yes, we shot this video (along with the others in our series) months ago. On the face of it, a foodie cooking video, even one featuring a dish that costs just 75 cents per serving to make, sounds a bit out of touch with the economic despair voiced this month by many US voters.

But hear me out, because the topic is “cheap” versus “affordable” food—and that distinction has implications for some of the very constituencies President-elect Trump courted so effectively: American farmers and workers.

Straight talk about cheap food

Because of course, farmers and workers need to eat too. In fact, our food system employs millions of hard-working people—from the farmers and farm workers who grow and harvest food, to the slaughterhouse workers and line cooks who process and prepare it, to the supermarket checkers and diner waitresses who sell and serve it—and they all deserve to make a decent living and support their families.

But our current policy-driven food system is geared toward simply making food cheap. It treats farms like factories, pumps out simple sugars and fats for processed junk food, and exploits low-wage workers. While the CEOs of big multinational food companies (like this one) make a fortune selling cheap processed food (and consumers get sick eating it), the farmers and workers who make cheap food just get squeezed. US farmers receive an estimated 17.4 cents of every dollar that consumers spend on food. And 5 of the 8 worst paying jobs in America are held by workers in the food system.

Thanksgiving dinner for less than a 5-spot?

Last week, the American Farm Bureau Federation (aka Farm Bureau) released its annual price survey of iconic items found on the Thanksgiving Day dinner table. The Farm Bureau touted the results in a press release proclaiming that the average cost of the holiday feast for 10 this Thursday will be $49.87, a 24-cent decrease from last year’s average of $50.11.

“Consumers will pay less than $5 per person for a classic Thanksgiving dinner this year,” the Farm Bureau spokesperson said proudly. And year-round, Americans are spending just 9.8 percent of their income on food—about half what they spent in 1960.

food-prices_fig09

But are farmers benefiting from the system that brings cheap food to our tables?

It doesn’t seem like it. Because while food has gotten cheaper, the last 30 years or so have also seen worrying trends in the demographics of farming and the economics of farm communities. Farmers are getting older as fewer farm kids stay in the business—in 2012, the average age was 58.3 years—and high land prices mean that farmland is concentrated in ever fewer hands. Midsize family farms, historically the backbone of rural economies in the United States, have been disappearing for almost two decades. UCS estimates that nearly 56,000 midsize farms were lost nationally between 2007 and 2012.

As these farms have disappeared, jobs and economic opportunity have evaporated and rural communities have declined. Research has shown that areas having more midsize farms and a stronger middle class have lower poverty and unemployment rates, higher average household incomes, and greater socioeconomic stability.

A new USDA report on the state of rural America in 2016 paints a grim picture: rural employment has been slow to rebound since the Great Recession—much slower than in cities—and farming-based counties have lost 4 percent of their population since 2000.

Reforming the food system could create jobs in the heartland

Over the last year, candidate Donald Trump spoke repeatedly about the need to bring back good-paying jobs in this country. That message apparently resonated with voting demographics that may have put him over the top—working-class and rural voters, especially in the Midwest. As his administration gets under way, he could put his words into action by taking steps to help struggling farmers and revive rural communities by reforming and coordinating our nation’s farm and food policies.

He could work with Congress to put in place new and expanded policies that help more young and beginning farmers to access land and credit; connect farmers growing real food (read: butternut squash, not commodity corn) with local markets; and increase public investment in research, technical assistance, and incentives for farmers to adopt diversified, low-input agricultural systems. Recent research has demonstrated the value of such policies. For example, recent UCS analysis in Iowa showed that connecting new and existing farmers with large food buyers such as supermarkets, restaurants, hospitals, and school districts can help bring back midsize farms and create tens of thousands of jobs.

If such actions were part of a focused effort to align the US food system with values of health, sustainability, and prosperity for all, we could begin to turn around many of the adverse outcomes of today’s system, from low-paying jobs and economic stagnation in our nation’s rural areas to farm pollution and diet-related diabetes. This is something we asked the presidential candidates to consider during the campaign. Now, after all his talk about helping American workers and cash-strapped families, President-elect Trump could actually take up their cause by pursuing a better, fairer food system once in office.

Will he? Let’s keep asking.

The Second Worst Flooding in Iowa History That You Probably Didn’t Read About

“No news is good news” was a take-home message from heavy rains that soaked Northern Iowa in late September, raising river levels to their second highest mark ever. Thanks to proactive work of emergency responders, community leaders, flood scientists and eager volunteers, there were not damages on the scale of other recent deadly floods in Louisiana and North Carolina.

However, the increasing intensity and frequency of heavy rainfall means that the damages escaped this time around should not lead to complacency. Rather, even more proactive planning will be required, particularly in agricultural areas, in order to prevent future floods from making headlines.

What happened in Iowa and what can we learn from it?  weather.gov

Heavy rainfall in late September deluged parts of the Upper Midwest, including Northern Iowa where 10-15 inches rain fell over several weeks. Image: weather.gov

The story started with storms across the Upper Midwest, an area all too familiar with heavy rainfall, between September 21 and 23. These deluges dumped upwards of five inches of rain—per day—in different areas of the region, overwhelming the river systems. Parts of Northern Iowa received 10-15 inches of rain throughout the month of September, which is 300-400% above normal or about a third of the region’s annual rainfall (in a month!). A major cause for concern came with a flood forecast that the Cedar River at Cedar Rapids would crest at its second highest level ever just a few days later.

This was traumatic déjà vu for residents of Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second largest city. The top crest of the river came in 2008, when thousands of people lost their homes and billions of dollars in overall damages impacted the city in a profound way. So when the second largest flood forecast was released, people sprung into action; thousands of volunteers lined the streets of Cedar Rapids to move sand bags and prepare temporary flood reinforcements to protect against rising waters. Roads closed and thousands of people evacuated. After floodwaters reached the city, several hundred homes were impacted, and FEMA estimated damage costs to be in the $22 million range; no small amount, considering how much worse it might have been without a swifter emergency response.

“Something I had never seen before and may never see again”

Eric Christianson, a friend of mine who works in Cedar Rapids for Matthew 25, a neighborhood non-profit organization, shared some of his observations with me in the whirlwind of days leading up to and after the flooding. He is the organization’s Urban Farm Production Manager, and along with volunteers, he and colleagues had to swiftly move everything out of their headquarters, given their location just a few blocks from the river. He reflected on how much worse things might have been if not for the incredible efforts of the community, and that many carry the scars of the 2008 flooding.

“The farm (and the surrounding houses) would have had several feet of water had the levees failed. It would have destroyed what was left of some of these neighborhoods. Many residents told me if they got flooded again that there was no way they were coming back. Incredibly as you’ve heard the temporary flood protection held. There was certainly some damage and a lot of basements including ours were flooded from sub surface flow. Water was shooting out from the walls for at least a week after the crest. Still there was never more than 6 inches or so in our basement.

“For me it was an example of government working exactly how it is supposed to. It was really inspiring how much volunteers and city workers were able to accomplish. Seeing so many people working together for a common cause on that scale is something I had never seen before and may never see again.”

Proactive forecasting is one element of the success story  Don Bekcer,USGS/Flickr.

Downtown Cedar Rapids in June of 2008. Iowa Flood Center Director Dr. Witold Krajewski reminded me that there was an element of good fortune that significantly separates the 2016 flooding from 2008. This year, the rain fell in a relatively short period, compared to 2008 when showers persisted over several weeks. Photo credit: Don Bekcer,USGS/Flickr.

I recently spoke with Dr. Witold Krajewski, Director of the Iowa Flood Center (IFC) based at the University of Iowa, who shared details of their impressive forecasting efforts during the event. IFC maintains an extensive network of sensors that provide real-time data for the Iowa Flood Information System (IFIS), an interactive Google Maps-based platform with river level data and flood alerts for more than 1,000 communities in the state. It was so popular shortly before the Cedar River crested, in fact, that demand for information crashed the server. Contrast this to the 2008 flooding, when the Iowa Flood Center did not even exist (it was founded by state legislation in 2009, after the multi-billion dollar flooding), and it is clear that they are providing critical information when it’s needed most.

More proactive landscape management is a part of the solution

No doubt this is an impressive story of emergency response, flood forecasting and communities working together. It is still, however, more a “crisis mode” story than one of longer-term prevention. Planning proactively requires improved soil and crop upstream management, more than piling the sand bags or constructing temporary floodwalls. The increasing frequency and intensity of events necessitates that we look to more holistic, non-emergency responses.

Some of this is already underway in the region. Dr. Krajewski also shared that the Iowa Flood Center is a partner in a major project to research upstream soil and land management as flood mitigation, funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Another large effort, funded by the Department of Agriculture’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program, represents a multi-stakeholder project including farm and urban groups. That effort is evaluating how best agricultural management, such as increased used of cover crops and strategically placed wetlands upstream, can improve water quality and water quantity (a project that Secretary Vilsack recently visited to meet with local leaders). The idea with these projects is that through improved soil management, upstream landscapes can provide ecological adaptation.

As I’ve previously written, my current research is focused on how a shift to more ecological agriculture can help reduce climate risks. My preliminary findings suggest that practices that keep the soil covered 365 days a year, such as growing perennial crops instead of annual crops, make a big difference. I’ve found that these practices significantly improve the soil’s sponge-like properties, so that water remains in the soil instead of running off into local waterways or flooding fields. I’ve also found that the addition of perennial practices and improved grazing management can increase infiltration rates, the speed with which water enters the soil, by 2-3 times. That could have a big impact when we think about increased frequency of days with multiple inches of rain.

We can be more proactive in flood planning to include the most vulnerable populations

Often lost in these headlines of emergencies are the sobering stats of how climate risks like floods disproportionately impact those without the capacity to cope; low-income communities and communities of color. All the more reason we ought to make our landscapes more resilient to protect all members of our communities.

There is good news in this lesser news-making story from Iowa: emergency response prevented the worst impacts from occurring and there are proactive programs underway to improve land and soil management upstream. However, as a community leader articulately penned in an Op-Ed, flooding need not be an emergency. Climate change necessitates that we continue to proactively plan and dedicate the needed funds to ensure that future floods miss the headlines or, even better, are not major flooding events at all.

Sweets for the Sweet? How to Lower Your Child’s Sugar Intake (and Why It Matters)

Who doesn’t love cookies, candy, cake, and ice cream? Soda, fruit juice, starch? They satisfy our brains’ pleasure and addiction centers. It’s even harder to limit our intake of sugar, as it is added to so many foods we eat. Why? It’s cheap and it sells. Just read all of your food labels for a real shock!

What is the downside? How about serious chronic degenerative disease, which is appearing earlier and earlier in our lives. Life expectancies are starting to shrink. Obesity, diabetes, fatty liver, heart disease, stroke, metabolic syndrome, and cancer incidences are rising and there is evidence that the high amounts of sugar (in whatever form) the average American consumes is a probable contributor. Our youth are vulnerable—incidences of premature illnesses are skyrocketing.

 Artem Gorohov/123rf.com

Obesity, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses are increasing in adults and children, and sugar is a contributing factor. Photo credit: Artem Gorohov/123rf.com

Additional negative health consequences of frequent or excessive sugar consumption among children include: Immunosuppression (through reduction of healthy bacterial flora in the intestinal microbiome), insulin resistance (leading to diabetes and obesity), appetite suppression for nutritious meals, and aggravation of ADHD. It is, at once, amusing and sad to watch a parent who might acquiesce to a child’s demands for sweets to placate her, but then suffer the behavioral torrent shortly thereafter.

Paradoxically, our own tax dollars are spent to subsidize sugar production, so we are actually paying twice—once to make sugar cheaply for maximal profits for the producers, and again for costly healthcare bills. You can thank the powerful sugar lobby for that one.

The recommended daily sugar intake limit for children is 25 grams (6.25 teaspoons)—ONE serving of something sweet often surpasses that limit. Fruit juice, without fiber, has a higher glycemic load than a candy bar. Fruity yogurt may have more sugar than a regular soda.  Starch (potatoes, pasta, bread, corn, etc.) are metabolized into sugar. “Sport drinks” are just sugar water with vanishingly low nutritional value.  It certainly doesn’t help matters when the stuff is so darn tasty!

 Flickr/Shardayyy https://www.flickr.com/photos/shardayyy/

Sugar sweetened beverages aren’t the only foods that have shocking amounts of sugar. Cereals, yogurts, and energy drinks are also often filled with added sugars. Photo credit: Flickr/Shardayyy https://www.flickr.com/photos/shardayyy/

So, what is a conscientious parent to do to minimize their kids’ sugar intake when it is so ubiquitous and plenty? Several options exist to be successful:

  • Buy healthy portable snacks and put them into appropriate containers within your kids’ backpacks, sports bags, and overnight bags. Leave these better food items visible in the kitchen when your kids head there to graze.
  • Cut up nutritious vegetables and fruit (preferably organic) and keep them in reusable containers in the refrigerator for immediate consumption (so they can compete with the less healthful but easily accessible options).
  • Consider giving away the unhealthy food items that are sitting in your pantry or refrigerator/freezer to people you don’t like, avoiding the temptation to eat them.
  • Go shopping with a list AFTER you eat, limiting impulsive purchase of lower-quality food items.
  • Buy several stainless steel thermoses and fill them with water or even cold-brewed green tea with Stevia (a natural harmless sweetener) and keep them in the refrigerator for spontaneous consumption or portability.
  • Use nutmeg or cinnamon for sugar replacement.
  • If you suspect that your child is pre-diabetic, get a copy of the Glycemic Index and buy/cook/serve the foods with index ratings less than 50—this will slow the rise of blood sugar after eating and reduce the risk of diabetes.

In addition to making changes to one’s daily routines in an effort to reduce sugar intake, there are also ways in which concrete policy changes could help to improve the food environment for children and adults alike. For a start you can join me in signing onto this letter calling for strong guidance from the USDA and HHS on added sugar consumption in the next Dietary Guidelines for Americans, or you can take action here to urge the FDA to set a limit for added sugars on food products bearing health claims.

Life has become very hectic. As we all try to keep up with our busy juggled schedules, we can’t forget that our bodies need the best fuel to run well. Sweets are enticing, delicious, and fun—but remember, sugar throws a party in the mouth … and a party foul just past it! Reducing sugar consumption and associated health impacts in the US will take a multi-stakeholder effort, and the food industry will ensure that it’s not easily done. But parents can do their part to protect their children’s health in spite of industry’s best efforts with some planning and mindfulness.

Bio: Dr. Matthew Schwartz is the President of MyHealth360 in Philadelphia, PA. One of a the very few physicians in the Greater Philadelphia area recognized as a “Top Doctor” for the past 12 years by Philadelphia Magazine, he has been in private practice since 2007. He is triple board certified in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Pain Medicine, and Integrative Holistic Medicine. Dr. Schwartz is a UCS National Advisory Board member and Science Network member.

Food and Farm Progress to be Thankful For

It seems like a million years since October 2008. That’s when author Michael Pollan published his open letter to the next “farmer-in-chief,” calling on the incoming president to take bold steps to transform the nation’s food system. The role of farmer-in-chief has been inhabited ever since by Barack Obama, and as his presidency winds down, some observers—including Pollan—have criticized the administration for not doing enough.

Others have tempered that assessment, arguing that the Obamas accomplished a lot in the food arena under tough circumstances, even though we have a long way to go. Personally, I agree with the latter view: we have quite a bit to be thankful for, in terms of concrete progress over the last eight years toward a healthier, fairer, more vibrant food system.

In the spirit of next week’s much-needed holiday, here’s my short list of Obama-era food policy advances to give thanks for:

  • The White House Kitchen Garden – The organic vegetable garden Michelle Obama installed on the South Lawn of the White House in 2009 is symbolic…sort of. But not really. The White House Kitchen Garden supplies some 2,000 pounds of food each year for the White House, with excess food donated to a local charity. It has hosted children from around the country, teaching them about growing and cooking healthy food. And with new permanent upgrades and long-term maintenance funding, it will (hopefully) continue that mission into the future.
  • Let’s Move! – FLOTUS’s broader healthy eating initiative, launched in 2010, is more complicated. This signature initiative has been controversial on the left for its partnerships with Big Food, while critics on the right made “food police” and “nanny state” accusations. The White House has compiled a list of the campaign’s accomplishments, but it is too soon to know whether Let’s Move! has had a measurable impact in stemming the tide of childhood obesity, its ultimate goal. Still, the campaign started a national conversation about food and fitness, led from the top, and that’s not nothing.
  • The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 – This one was a big deal. A really big deal. This landmark bipartisan legislation, energetically championed and applauded by the Obama administration, represented the first major reforms to school meals and other child nutrition programs in decades. HHFKA brought taxpayer-subsidized school meals and snacks into accord with federal dietary guidelines, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued regulations requiring schools to provide more fruits and vegetables, lower-fat milk options, less sodium and fat, fewer calories, and higher quantities of whole grains in school meals and snacks. Studies (like this one) have demonstrated that the rules are working, and national polling has shown that Americans agree. The White House stood firm against Congressional efforts to roll back progress in 2015, though Congress still has not passed legislation to reauthorize the law.
  • Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food – The KYF2 initiative is a coordinating effort launched in 2009 to bring together staff from across USDA to coordinate, share resources, and publicize USDA efforts to promote local and regional food systems. Just in the past year, the USDA under the umbrella of KYF2 has expanded microloans to help new and underserved farmers purchase land, developed a toolkit to help urban farmers, and launched the Food LINC program, a collaboration with philanthropic partners to link rural farmers with urban markets across the country. The Obama administration institutionalized KYF2 earlier this year with the hire of a permanent, full-time coordinator.
  • Funding increase for agricultural research – President Obama’s 2017 budget request included a major increase in funding, up to $700 million, for the USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). One of AFRI’s primary goals is to foster a better understanding of how to manage agricultural lands to improve the health of farmland and surrounding environments, a field of study known as agroecology. Last year, a UCS-led study found that less than 15 percent of USDA competitive research grants went to research that included agroecology. Some 350 scientists from universities in nearly 50 states have called for a greater public investment in this research, which is necessary to help farmers address current and future farming challenges. Committees in both the House and Senate later approved lesser AFRI funding increases (25 percent), but Congressional appropriation work stalled pre-election, so the final outcome is still uncertain.
  • MyPlate – Launched in 2010, the MyPlate dietary guidelines are an improvement on earlier federal dietary recommendations (remember the Food Pyramid?), with the colorful plate graphic clearly showing that half our plate at every mealtime should be covered by fruits and vegetables. The dietary guidelines aren’t perfect, of course, and UCS has pushed for more reliance on science over food industry lobbying in regular updates.
  • FDA added sugar rule – Earlier this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a strong new rule that will require packaged food manufacturers to clearly label how much sugar they’re adding to their products, and to list the percent daily value that amount represents. That’s a big win for public health, and something UCS pushed hard for.

It’s clear to me just from this list that progress has been made since 2008. And it’s progress for all Americans. After all, everybody eats.

But what happens now, with the Obamas heading for the exits and a new administration coming in that has shown little interest in healthy food and lots of interest in rewarding agribusiness lobbyists?

Like many Americans, food system advocates are now waiting with trepidation to see what a Trump administration has in store—whether it will build on the progress we’ve made or tear it down. It’s too early to say, though early signs aren’t exactly encouraging.

But UCS and our partners have called all year for the next president to take up the task of reforming federal farm and food policy. And we still see good reasons for president-elect Trump and his people to look seriously at our proposals, which would help struggling farmers and revive rural communities; help workers and invest taxpayer dollars in ways that don’t create additional costs; help farmers adopt sustainable systems with a variety of benefits; and reinforce, not subvert, federal dietary guidelines to ensure a healthier generation of American children. More on our recommendations to the incoming administration in an upcoming post. Photo: Karen Perry Stillerman

Farming Carbon into Soils and Trees: A Climate-Smart Mid-Century Strategy for Agriculture

In 2050, the Paris Agreement will be 34 years old,  Google will be 52,  the National Park Service will be 134, the tractor will be 158, the United States will be 274, and hopefully we’ll all be celebrating being well along the way to a cooler future. While it may seem like a lot of time, there’s a lot of work ahead of us.

That’s why leaders around the world have been working in the aftermath of the Paris Agreement to develop strategies to reduce net global warming emissions to established goals by mid-century (2050). As it turns out, an important part of this work has to do with boosting food, farms, and farmers—and that’s what I’ll talk about. However, if you’d like to learn about other solutions, check out the posts by my colleagues on biofuels, forests, and the energy sector.

First, a note about the land carbon “sink”

There is growing awareness of the value of the so-called “land carbon sink”. What is this all about?  Well, plants and soils store carbon, keeping it out of the atmosphere. The more carbon can be “sequestered” into leaves, roots, stems tree trunks, and soils each year, the bigger the carbon “sink” and the smaller the climate change problem. Currently, about 762 million Mt CO2e worth of carbon are stored in plants and soils in the US. This is significant—enough to offset 11% of emissions— but insufficient given the magnitude of the climate change problem. Not only that, but since storing more carbon in lands also means building and protecting healthier soils, an investment in soil health simply makes sense. Luckily, the USDA already has a plan to help farms and forests sequester or offset an extra 120 million Mt CO2e/y (by 2025). This plan is a step in the right direction, but we can do better.

A role for agriculture in a cooler future

Although the burden of mitigating climate change can’t be all on agriculture’s plate, the sector has a lot to contribute and a lot to gain from efforts to solve climate change. Here are some key points to consider:

  1. There is room for more carbon farming: USDA’s NRCS already supports practices that enhance soil carbon on millions of acres each year, but these programs could be improved and expanded to enable a soil sink of over 270 million Mt CO2e by 2050.
  1. On croplands, there are many ways to increase carbon: Research reveals that several agricultural practices can build soil carbon, including no-till, cover cropping, crop rotations, perennials, and residue management. There is some uncertainty regarding the potential of each practice, but growing evidence suggests a role for all.
  1. Grazing systems matter: A large proportion of agricultural lands are grazed grasslands, which can store a lot of carbon. Management of these lands affects both carbon sinks and greenhouse gas emissions, and more research is needed to learn how to maximize carbon gains while reducing grazer emissions.
  1. More trees on farms can help: Planting trees on farms, “agroforestry”, can also be good for climate (carbon is stored in soils and trees), farmers, water, wildlife, and more. There are many strategies that could help, from planting trees in borders around fields to integrating them into crop and grazing systems (“silvopasture”).
  1. Innovative solutions are on the horizon: Several other tools currently being researched could also contribute to the solution. For example, perennial grains (such as Kernza) and soil amendments (like biochar, compost).
  1. Carbon farming has co-benefits: Farming that increases soil carbon can bring additional benefits. For example, cover crops can produce nitrogen and agroforestry can prevent nitrogen loss, reducing fertilizer needs and lowering nitrous oxide emissions. A big picture perspective is needed to identify best practices.
  1. It’s time to boost soil carbon science: Soil carbon sequestration varies, is hard to measure, changes over time, and can be reversed. Obtaining a better understanding of how much carbon can realistically be sequestered in agricultural soils, and for how long, is more urgent than ever.
  1. Food security is part of the puzzle: Land use changes must be considered alongside food security needs, especially in light of existing food insecurity and projected increases in population. These issues emphasize the importance of plant breeding efforts and yield-boosting practices such as diversified farming.
  1. Supporting farmers is key: Farmers who choose to adopt new practices will need plenty of support, to ensure both long-lasting climate benefits and vibrant, productive farms.
We (only) have 2.3 billion acres

Let’s face it. There’s only so much land, so expanding any “land use” (use of land for forests, food, fuel, or houses) means that something else has to give.  With that in mind, it’s becoming ever more important to develop farms that meet multiple objectives. The possibility of multi-functional landscapes is extremely promising, but there’s a lot left to learn – just another reason why more public funding for agroecological research is so urgently needed.

What will the US look like mid-century? It’s up to all of us

The land around us needs changing and, while there is still a lot to learn, promising directions are beginning to emerge. Fortunately, these include win-win opportunities in food and agriculture. For example, by working to increase soil health and soil health science, increase agricultural resiliency, incentivize and support farms, and reduce waste, food and agriculture can be a big slice of the solution.

We Can Help Veterans, Bolster an Aging Agricultural Workforce, and Reduce Food Insecurity. Here’s How.

This Veterans Day, I wanted to profile an amazing veteran-turned-farmer, Sonia Kendrick, and share her inspiring vision for how increasing opportunities for new farmers might eliminate food insecurity. Sonia’s channeled her post-war trauma into a successful non-profit that grows healthy food across her hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Through her organization she also trains beginner farmers, something needed on a large scale to succeed the current aging agricultural workforce.

I first met Sonia in 2011, when she was my short-term roommate while I was a graduate student and she worked toward her undergraduate degree at Iowa State University. Sonia served in Afghanistan from 2003-2004 as part of the Iowa National Guard and one of the most powerful stories she’d share was her witnessing many Afghanis in painful poverty and desperation.

After Sonia returned home, she couldn’t shake the vivid images of food insecurity in Afghanistan: the agonizing scenes of women pulling food from the bottom of Military dumpsters or children crossing minefields to reach bread trucks. She simply refused to accept that there should be hungry people in her home state of Iowa, which proudly boasts of itself as a major “food” producer. Anyone familiar with Iowa’s commodity crop landscape is aware that almost none of those crops go to feed people, but rather to animal feed, high fructose corn syrup, and ethanol.

Why not “feed Iowa first”?

Sonia never shies away from sharing the numbers in her home of Linn County: according to Feeding America, there are 26,080 food insecure people there. Her passion drove her to find spare urban land and to grow healthy food for her community, founding the non-profit organization Feed Iowa First with that spirit in mind: Let’s start by feeding our community first, before we go about boasting how we might feed the world.

It all started on the land of one church in Cedar Rapids in 2011. Now she oversees 22 different farms around the city, including churches and local businesses, as well as a storage facility, space donated to her by Cargill. The idea is to task one local volunteer to oversee the location, and to grow the same family of vegetables (rotating the crops grown year to year on each plot of land, to protect the soil and avoid pest issues) to try to keep the management simple for others who might not be as familiar with the particular crop.

Last year Feed Iowa First gave away $83,000 worth of produce, or approximately 35,000 pounds. If you count roughly one pound of vegetables to represent one cup or one serving, that is still hardly scratching the surface of providing healthy food for the 26,080 food insecure people in Linn County.

Sonia also recognizes the shortcomings of the volunteer charity approach to combating hunger, and she’s still seeking a more sustainable economic model for the organization. It is clear as day to Sonia that this approach is not isolationist, but rather a safety net for food security and climate change. Sonia is grateful for the support that she’s received from organizations, both large and small, recognizing industry as a critical player in creating a more localized food economy.

Not only growing food, but growing beginner and veteran farmers is critical

Sonia is pleased to see the progress of “Incubator” programs that help train and support beginner farmers. But she also believes that these incubators are not training enough new farmers by an order of magnitude. She estimates that her county alone would need 3,000 additional acres of vegetable production, which would ideally require about 85-90 more lead farmers and dozens more people to help manage the land. For perspective on finding 3,000 acres in Linn County to grow vegetables: USDA estimates there are approximately 450,000 acres of land, and in 2015, 151,000 acres were planted with corn and another 105,000 planted with soybean.

Sonia uses Feed Iowa First to provide the initial training needed for beginner farmers to qualify for Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan assistance in purchasing land. For active service members, she further proposes farming become a military occupational specialty code, such that valuable skills are transferred to service members and farming becomes more of a trade or craft occupation.

This seems so logical to her; Sonia describes that she feels she’s serving the country by growing healthy food, not to mention all of the healing that comes with the privilege of working the land.

Supporting veterans to help grow farmers and reduce food security is a win-win-win

The Veteran Farmer Coalition (VFC), founded in 2007, has successfully helped implement programs in the most recent Farm Bill that support loans and access to conservation programs for veterans as well as encouraging USDA to create a Military Veteran Agricultural Liaison position (which they did in 2014). Programs exist all across the country to support veteran farmers – from Virginia to Colorado to Oregon.

It is well documented that the average age of farmers in the United States is 58 years old. It is also noted that rural communities disproportionately lost service men and women in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Many veterans already possess the entrepreneurial spirit that Sonia carries and along with the leadership and problem-solving skills gained through military service, it makes agriculture a natural fit for those home from war. It’s a win-win-win in my opinion: strengthening farming opportunities for veterans, bolstering an aging farming workforce, and helping reduce urban and rural food insecurity. When I think of all that Sonia has achieved as one dedicated individual, I only imagine what might be possible if more veterans had better access to achieve their agricultural aspirations.

 

Standing Strong for Science and Democracy

After one of the most contentious US elections in memory, the results are in. By their votes, Americans expressed deep disgust with politics as usual and issued an urgent call for our leaders to focus on those who have been battered by an economy that does not include them. While this is understandable, there is no sugar coating the fact that Mr. Trump’s statements and conduct brought out the worst in us.  Denigrating vital members of our community is wrong, and we cannot hope to tackle the enormous challenges of our time without a cohesive, respectful, and tolerant society.

Today, science, data, and evidence-based decision making appear to be major casualties of the election. The election results raise the specter of backsliding on the critical progress we’ve made in recent years on climate change and many other vital issues, even though these issues were barely discussed during the campaign. In no sense did the voters grant the new president a mandate to turn back the clock.

On this momentous day after, here are my top-level thoughts on the path forward:

Engage the new administration

As a candidate, Mr. Trump made statements on climate change, government regulation, and other issues that were disturbing. But the candidate’s position on a number of issues evolved over the course of the campaign, and Mr. Trump defended his evolution by pointing out that it is important for leaders to remain open-minded. In that spirit, we will do everything we can to communicate directly with the Trump team about the benefits of science-based decision making and the importance of addressing climate change, our food supply, and nuclear weapons, among many other things.

We believe it is particularly important to appeal to President-elect Trump’s business experience to point out that addressing climate change can bring jobs to those left out of the economic recovery. Mr. Trump’s proposed infrastructure legislation, for example, could fund thousands of good-paying jobs building transmission lines to connect renewable sources to population centers; repairing leaking gas pipelines; and removing the threat of lead pollution from drinking water pipes.

Mr. Trump was also a forceful opponent of wasteful government spending during the campaign. We can show his team that spending $1.1 trillion to update our nuclear weapon system does not make sense and that we cannot afford it. Similarly, we can show the waste and harm of large federal subsidies for commodity crops that subsidize foods that make us unhealthy.

Be the nation’s watchdog for science

With all three branches of government under control of one party, the absence of checks and balances greatly raises the risk of government by special interests. For example, numerous anti-science bills that were previously proposed in congress and vetoed are likely to return. And we can anticipate many attacks on the Obama administration’s regulations that protect our health, safety, and the environment.

UCS must be the leading champion of science-based public policy. We will bring special interest legislation and regulation to light, expose the actors behind it, and mobilize the scientific community against it.

Make progress in states, regions and cities

While we engage with the Trump administration to promote sound policies or fight bad ones, we will find other ways to make progress, too. We’ve done it before. For example, during the presidency of George W. Bush, we helped encourage states to pass laws like California’s Global Warming Solutions Act and to join together in programs like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.

And, during the last eight years of gridlock between congress and the president, UCS helped make significant progress working regionally and within states. This past summer, for example, we helped California and Massachusetts pass clean-energy laws that go far beyond federal policies and position us on the right trend line. The California victory is particularly notable because of the diverse coalition of leaders that brought the bill over the finish line:

Leaders from the African-American, Latino and Asian communities joined Governor Brown in signing one of the most ambitious climate laws in the world.

Leaders from the African-American, Latino and Asian communities joined Governor Brown in signing one of the most ambitious climate laws in the world.

On this issue, we have a major tailwind working in our favor: the economics of clean energy are rapidly improving, making advances possible in all states. The presidential election does not change that. For example, Texas has invested billions of dollars in transmission lines that take advantage of plentiful and inexpensive renewable energy: wind energy is now so inexpensive in some areas that it’s given away at night. Georgia, which until recently had some of the nation’s best incentives in place for electric vehicles, had the second most electric vehicles sold in any state.

No matter what happens in Congress, we will continue to secure state policies that move us forward, such as renewable and energy efficiency standards, long-term contracting requirements, green banks, and others. We will also hold California and eight other states’ feet to the fire on meeting the commitments they made to expand electric vehicle market share, and will call upon them to back up these commitments with stronger incentives and infrastructure investments. With enough effort in the right places, we can secure a critical mass of geographically and politically diverse leadership states.

We will also push for progress at the regional level, where success reaps larger gains. For example, UCS will work to expand the highly successful regional cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions in the Northeast by including other sources of emissions, such as transportation fuels. And UCS will offer its technical expertise in the West Coast, the Midwest, and mid-Atlantic to meet a critical challenge: modernizing our regional electric grids so that as renewable energy expands, it is reliably and seamlessly integrated into the grid.

Cities are also an extremely important arena for progress. While we will focus on securing coordinated national food policies in Washington, we are also working to demonstrate successful approaches by local governments on good food purchasing policies. This idea, which has been highly successful in Los Angeles, creates demand for food that is healthy and locally grown. UCS will help spread this idea to other cities to build the food movement from the bottom up.

Using science to bolster our democracy

The bottom line is this: UCS will continue to work toward practical solutions and, regardless of whether or not our elected leaders choose to come together, we will stand up on behalf of science and democracy as we always have, and as forcefully as we need to. We will call out elected officials and other special interests when they ignore science and undermine safeguards that protect people’s health and safety. We will continue to expose fossil fuel companies when they deceive the public and their shareholders about climate change. We will continue to connect members of our Science Network with local groups working to reduce the pollution that make their children sick. We will provide research to communities on the front lines of climate change—threatened with rising seas, wildfire, floods, and drought.

In short, we will find ways to make progress on the issues that matter and, as always, we will rely heavily on the vital support of our more than 500,000 members and supporters to work for a healthier planet and a safer world. Photo: Matthew Platt/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

Plate of the Union—a 2016 Campaign for a Better Food and Farming System

I don’t need to tell you that 2016 hasn’t exactly been the presidential campaign year my colleagues and I imagined when we launched our “Plate of the Union” initiative last fall. The national conversation has taken a few detours (ahem) that have made it challenging to maintain a focus on issues that really matter to American families, like what’s for dinner and how it gets there.

Still, we’ve made some progress highlighting the problems of our food and agriculture system and the ways that ill-conceived and uncoordinated public policies exacerbate them. And I’m confident that—whoever moves into the White House next January 20—they will have heard from a wide range of constituents about the urgent need for food system reform, and the benefits to be gained by taking it on.

Where we’ve been and where we’re going

Last week, Plate of the Union wrapped up its fall Battleground State Food Truck Tour at its final stop in North Carolina. More on that in a moment, but first, a look back over the past year:

  • UCS, Food Policy Action, and the HEAL Food Alliance launched Plate of the Union in October 2015, releasing the results of a national poll showing that American voters on both sides of the aisle care deeply about the state of our food system.
  • In December, UCS launched this campaign video explaining the dysfunctional American food system in both English and Spanish and calling on political leaders to provide healthy, sustainable, and affordable food for all. It won second place in the DoGooder National Awards for nonprofit videos, and has accrued more than 300,000 views on social media.
  • As the primary season got underway with the Iowa caucuses last winter, UCS’s Ricardo Salvador published a letter to the editor in the Des Moines Register calling on presidential candidates to take up food policy reform. Ricardo and UCS Fellow Mark Bittman visited the state, meeting with allies and appearing on local TV and radio. The Register later published an editorial titled “Why don’t candidates talk about food?
  • In July, Plate of the Union unveiled a food (policy) truck at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where we talked to delegates, elected leaders, and reporters about the campaign. The New York Times even tagged along in Cleveland.
  • This fall we took the truck on the road, zig-zagging through key battleground states, hearing from farmers, chefs, scientists, students, and community food leaders about how the current food system threatens public health, the economy, and the environment in their communities. Concerns about water pollution, inequitable access to healthy and affordable foods, and wages for food industry workers – these and many more resonated with voters.
    • At the tour’s official launch in Stonyfield Farm in Londonderry, New Hampshire, my colleague, UCS board chair and Dartmouth professor of environmental studies Anne Kapuscinski discussed (and published in an op-ed) how a systems approach to our food system – examining its ecological, social and economic domains – helps us identify the challenges we face, but also the opportunities for change, starting with presidential leadership on holistic food policy reform.
    • In Des Moines, we heard from Matt Liebman of Iowa State University, who talked about the need for greater investments in research and incentives for farmers who adopt more sustainable farming practices, which can curb water pollution and save hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer money in the process.
    • At the truck’s final stop in Durham, North Carolina, more than 170 community residents gathered for a food and farm policy-themed local candidate forum. Joined by local chefs, more than 20 food and farming organizations, and other community leaders, local political candidates talked about the need to reform food and farm policies.
  • By the end of our food truck tour, Plate of the Union had collected more than 110,000 signatures on a petition calling on the next president to lead on food system reform. We delivered that petition to the Trump and Clinton campaign offices in Iowa a few weeks ago.

Now, as the election season comes to a close, we’re shifting our attention to communicating with each of the campaigns’ transition teams, and preparing to deliver recommendations to the president-elect later this month. Stay tuned for more about that.

In the meantime, here are some images from the Plate of the Union campaign in 2016:

Plate of the Union field director Sean Carroll speaks with participants at Philly Feast at the Democratic National Convention.

Plate of the Union field director Sean Carroll speaks with participants at Philly Feast at the Democratic National Convention.

The Plate of the Union food policy truck at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

The Plate of the Union food policy truck at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

Plate of the Union's Larry Robinson points to specific food policy recommendations for the next president.

Plate of the Union’s Larry Robinson points to the campaign’s recommendations for the next president.

The Plate of the Union team at the RNC in Cleveland.

The Plate of the Union team at the RNC in Cleveland.

Ohio State University students hear from Plate of the Union at a student-organized "Presidential Picnic" in September.

Ohio State University students hear from Plate of the Union at a student-organized “Presidential Picnic” in September.

The truck makes a stop in Washington, DC.

The truck makes a stop in Washington, DC.

potu-truck-hultgren

Left to right: Ricardo Salvador (UCS), Sean Carroll (HEAL Food Alliance), Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL), and Claire Benjamin DiMattina (Food Policy Action).

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) stops by the truck.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) stops by the truck.

The Plate of the Union team delivers signed petitions to Clinton and Trump campaign offices in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Plate of the Union team delivers signed petitions to Clinton and Trump campaign offices in Des Moines, Iowa.

 

Breaking Down Barriers: Publishing Open Access Science for Sustainability

Anne Kapuscinski and Michael Pollan talk on Food Day.

Anne Kapuscinski and Michael Pollan talk on Food Day.

In my new role of Chair of the Board of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), I had the great honor of joining UCS’ delegation at the Paris COP21 climate meeting last December. A clear message from Paris was that we must rapidly transition to a net-zero and climate-resilient society. Scientists at the recent 1.5 Degrees Conference at Oxford University, co-sponsored by UCS, underscored the magnitude of the challenge. And, on Food Day, my public conversation with Michael Pollan at Dartmouth mentioned that agroecology research shows a clear opportunity to help transition our nation’s food system to sustainability, a goal of Plate of the Union.

If you’re reading this blog, you probably agree that our society needs more active engagement of scientists in solving grand sustainability challenges. And you’re aware that when scientists from different disciplines and ways of seeing the world interact, new perspectives and solutions emerge. Thankfully, the current generation of young scientists is embracing trans-disciplinary approaches to their research, with the skills to match the task. But when trying to publish their work, they face the obstacle that most academic journals are organized along traditional disciplinary silos, with editorial boards ill-equipped or unwilling to review papers reflecting this critically needed cross-fertilization. And they hunger for fully open access publishing instead of paywalls restricting access to their papers.

Bridging disciplines for sustainability transitions Elementa is a new transdisciplinary, open-access scientific journal.

Elementa is a new transdisciplinary, open access scientific journal.

When the founders of Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene invited me to be one of six Editors in Chief of a new open access, peer-reviewed journal, I saw an opportunity to broaden the dialog among scientists, and between scientists and practitioners. I liked how Elementa took a trans-disciplinary approach from the outset by inviting a team of editors with expertise spanning ocean and atmospheric sciences, earth science, ecology, environmental engineering, and sustainability science. Authors tag their articles to one or more of these knowledge domains, but there are no boundaries between domains. For example, a recent commentary article on “Increasing the usability of climate science in political decision-making” touches on all of these fields except engineering, so it appears with articles in all five domains. This unique approach also allows editors to draw upon each other’s expertise and academic networks to find reviewers capable of handling the peer review of research that bridges disciplines.

Open access = open science for public good

Another big selling point is that Elementa was born out of conversations between the non-profit publisher BioOne and five universities: Dartmouth, the Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington, to establish an alternative to expensive subscription-based journals. Elementa is fully open access and exclusively online, making every article free to read and available to a global audience at the click of a mouse. Before joining Elementa, I had a vague awareness of university budget pressures from for-profit academic publishing; and I was uncomfortable with articles from research, especially from tax-payer-funded work, being unavailable to everyone. But I hadn’t heard the numbers, or understood the extent to which high costs of journal subscriptions hobbles library budgets of higher education institutions, many of which are also funded by tax dollars. The for-profit model has made scientific publishing houses wealthy at the expense of us all, and most tragically, created a huge barrier to the knowledge sharing needed to advance sustainability. For science to solve problems, it needs to be open, transparent and accessible. Now I’m on a mission to encourage everyone I know to only publish in open access journals. I’m also very excited to report that University of California Press will become the Publisher of Elementa as of January 2017. UC Press, a strong advocate of open access publishing, is a wonderful home for the next chapter in the Elementa’s evolution as a genuinely interdisciplinary, non-profit, fully open access journal in environmental and sustainability sciences.

Sustainability Transitions requires bridging science, policy and practice

The Sustainability Transitions domain, that my Associate Editor Kim Locke and I oversee, publishes articles on challenges, opportunities and strategies to shift society towards sustainability—to a world in which humans and other life on earth can truly flourish. This goal resonates with the mission of the Union of Concerned Scientists, so it’s not surprising that the inaugural team of Associate Editors, each of whom already collaborates across disciplines, includes UCS’ Peter Frumhoff, Director of Science and Policy and Chief Climate Scientist. We also work with authors to present their research in a unique and engaging way by incorporating colorful images, slide shows, audio and video, allowing authors to tell their science stories in engaging ways that are more accessible to a broader audience.

Elementa is committed to bridge the gulf between scholars and practitioners –not simply relaying science to people striving to solve sustainability challenges, but engaging them in the conversation and inviting contributions from the change-makers themselves. To do so, Elementa expanded beyond the classic research and review types of articles to invite “policy bridge” and “practice bridge” articles that explicitly address how a body of research is applied to policy or implemented in practice. An exciting collaboration with the e-zine Ensia allows us to co-publish articles spotlighting our authors’ work and bring it to a much larger readership.

Elementa’s first Forum on “New pathways to sustainability in agroecological systems.”

We also publish articles around a specific sustainability transition issue – in forums and special features—to cross-fertilize ideas among contributions from different scholars and practitioners. With the creative input of Ricardo Salvador, UCS Director of the Food & Environment Program, we launched Elementa’s first Forum on “New pathways to sustainability in agroecological systems.” Ricardo and I also traveled the cornfields of Iowa to create a video to introduce the Forum. So far, we have published ten articles, with many more in the peer review pipeline. The article by Christian Peters and his colleagues on the impacts of different diets on landuse published in July, 2016, was picked up by news outlets and social media across the globe, and already has over 55,000 views! Another series of articles on “The extinction of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon: Is it possible?” is a Special Feature led by associate editor Paulo Moutinho. Paulo is a leading voice at the intersection of science and policy on this topic.  We also have a special feature, Avoiding Collapse: Grand challenges for science and society to solve by 2050 led by Tony Barnosky, Paul Ehrlich and Liz Hadly, addressing the grand challenges for science and society to solve.

Elementa is uniquely demonstrating capacity to bridge fields of study and the science-practice gap. Read why Selena Ahmed, lead author of an Elementa article on climate change effects on specialty crop quality, chose to publish with Elementa in this Spotlight article: “Publishing as part of the New Pathways to Sustainability in Agroecological Systems forum has given me the sense of being part of a community that is seeking to advance agroecology as a transdiciplinary science, evidence-based practice, and movement. The Sustainability Transitions domain has been effective in developing a community, which is a key characteristic of sustainability.”

Elementa is currently accepting submissions in four other forums: Multi-stakeholder initiatives for sustainable supply networks, Food-energy-water systems: Opportunities at the nexus, Oil and Natural Gas Development: Air Quality, Climate Science, and Policy, and Cuba’s agrifood system in transition.

action-sn-blog-elementa-logoTake a look at the website to discover more about what makes Elementa distinctive, and I encourage you to submit your research manuscripts or proposals for a forum or special feature. Become part of a transformational and peer-reviewed platform connecting knowledge generated by scientific research and that of practitioners, innovators, and leaders forging ahead with strategies to shift toward sustainability.

About the author: Anne Kapuscinski is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of Sustainability Science in the Environmental Studies Program at Dartmouth and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Union of Concerned Scientists. Her current research is on integrated food-energy systems and on algae-based feed for a sustainability transition in aquaculture—the world’s fastest growing food sector. Her awards include an Honor Award from the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture for environmental protection, a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, the Distinguished Service Award from the Society for Conservation Biology, and the Rachel Carson Environmental Award from the Natural Products Association.

 

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