UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting land for beginner farmers and sustainable agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s “healthy,” anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A strong FDA means a healthier America

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

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

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

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

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

Climate Change, Resilience, and the Future of Food

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

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

Public investment: The true hero of the story

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

  • Financial resources such as direct and indirect payments designed to stabilize production, recover from disasters, and reduce environmental harms
  • Public financing of the education, research and development programs and institutions that serve the agricultural-industrial complex
  • Unintended human resource subsidies as farm families struggle to balance the demands of full-time farming with full-time off-farm work to maintain family well-being in the face of steadily declining farm profitability
  • Unintended natural resource subsidies in the form of degraded soil, water, and air quality, biodiversity, and ecosystem services
  • Unintended social resource subsidies in the form of degraded health and well-being of rural communities both at home and abroad

Resilient Agriculture grower Jim Koan explains to USDA-FSA administrator Val Dolcini how FSA programs have helped him reduce climate risk on his 500 acre organic farm located near Flushing, MI.

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

Sustainable agriculture is the future of agriculture

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

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

 Karl Wolfshohl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Can “Local” Food Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about food gardens, food waste, and composting?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping local food do more

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the USDA’s research matters for us all

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

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

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

USDA must fully implement and uphold its shiny new SI policy

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

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

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


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

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

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

Creative, low-tech approaches to water management

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

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

Water for agriculture 101: on rainfall and irrigation

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

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

Another reminder of the climate challenges ahead for agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

USDA—still the people’s department

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

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

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

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

Sonny Perdue knows ag (Big Ag, that is)

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

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

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

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

Five questions the Senate should ask Governor Perdue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detail: For both fires and deforestation, describe:

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

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

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

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


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

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

The soda-can-shaped elephant in the room

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

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

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

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

Our children’s health on the line

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

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

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

Photo Credit: georgia.gov

Will Perdue choose health over profits?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A promise of “crystal clear water”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, back to waiting…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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):


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:


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


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.


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.


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.