UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

The Case Against Clovis: Why Trump’s USDA Chief Scientist Nominee Is the Wrong Choice

President Trump is dangerously close to violating the law (no, not what you’re thinking!). Recently, word began circulating that the President plans to fill the role of Chief Scientist at the Department of Agriculture (USDA) with…you guessed it, someone who has no scientific background. If the nomination of Sam Clovis—a conservative talk show radio host and former Trump campaign co-chair with a doctoral degree in public administration—moves forward, it would not only be in direct violation of the law, but would risk the safety of our food and water, and the well-being of thousands of American farmers and communities.

One scientist, two hats…

Of the thousands of scientists that work with USDA, many do so to advance agricultural research. USDA invests billions in agricultural research annually—$2.9 billion in FY2016—and that investment is overseen by the Under Secretary of Research, Extension, and Economics (REE).

The REE Under Secretary—the position for which Clovis’ name has been floated—is responsible for disbursing all of these funds through dozens of programs and entities, such as the Agriculture & Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE), and the Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative (OREI), all of which invest in research that supports farmers, rural communities, and consumers.

But that’s not all. The REE Under Secretary also fills the role of USDA’s Chief Scientist. The Chief Scientist is in charge of the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS), which is tasked with identifying, prioritizing, and evaluating “Department-wide agricultural research, education, and extension needs.” A core component of this work is the responsibility to advance scientific integrity at USDA by “ensuring that research supported by and scientific advice provided to the Department and its stakeholders is held to the highest standards of intellectual rigor and scientific integrity.”

…and three reasons to say no

So, even though Clovis isn’t a scientist, does that make him unfit for the job? According to the U.S. Code, yes! But that’s not the only thing going against his potential nomination:

  1. It would violate the law. The REE Under Secretary is a tremendously important position, responsible for investing billions of dollars into agricultural research that should help U.S. farmers, communities, and consumers. Congress acknowledged this by cementing the following in statute: “The Under Secretary [of REE] shall be appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, from among distinguished scientists with specialized training or significant experience in agricultural research, education, and economics.” (7 U.S.C. 6971). Yet, what’s known of Clovis’ background demonstrates virtually no “specialized training or significant experience” in any of the relevant fields.
  2. Functions & duties. As written by Congress, one of the primary duties of the REE Under Secretary is to “identify, address, and prioritize current and emerging agricultural research, education, and extension needs.” This task requires a sound understanding of the breadth of agricultural scientific literature, and furthermore, a belief in numbers and facts. Former Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman said recently that it would be “challenging” to have someone without a scientific background as REE Under Secretary, and former REE Under Secretary Catherine Wotecki said that the role should be filled by “a person who evaluates the scientific body of evidence and moves appropriately from there.” Yet, Clovis has called even the most basic scientific research into question. In 2014, while running unsuccessfully for an Iowa Senate seat, Clovis twice said he was “skeptical” of the science of climate change (here and here). If Clovis were to take the Under Secretary position at USDA, his skepticism would transform from an ignorant personal belief to an egregious affront to American farmers and rural communities. Because whether he believes it or not, farmers are experiencing the effects of a changing climate every day.  From hotter summers that hurt crop yields, to more extreme rains that wash soils away, to more erratic winters that threaten cold-requiring crops, the obstacles farmers are facing are real. They deserve the attention of someone who understands, rather than dismisses, their challenges. And if, like me, you’re not a farmer, the scientific research supported by the USDA impacts you too. From food safety, to basic nutrition, to water quality – no matter where you live, USDA supported research is finding answers which will lead to a safer, healthier life for millions of American families.
  3. Scientific integrity. The Chief Scientist is responsible for the advancement of scientific integrity at USDA, which recently improved their scientific integrity policy. In April 2017, the USDA Office of Inspector General released survey data in an attempt to quantify what USDA scientists thought of the Departments’ scientific integrity policies. While the survey has recently been removed from the website (you can still find the full survey here), among the findings were 29 scientists (2 percent of those surveyed) who indicated that entities external to USDA had pressured them to alter their work, and 42 scientists (3 percent of those surveyed) who indicated that a Department official had pressured them to omit or significantly alter their research findings for reasons other than technical merit. For an individual with no scientific background or expertise, it can be next to impossible to oversee let alone improve an issue as complex and important as scientific integrity. This is particularly true when that individual has questioned even the most basic science (see #2).

On November 8, 2016, President Trump rode a wave of support from rural America into the Oval Office. Since then, his Administration has abandoned even the most elemental scientific facts. For the rural Americans who helped catapult him to the Presidency, this has become particularly poignant.

Unfortunately, the nomination of Sam Clovis isn’t a solution. It will only make the wound even deeper.

This Summer’s Gulf “Dead Zone” Could Be Bigger Than Connecticut—and Trump’s Budget Cuts Would Make It Worse

Summer is almost here, and you know what that means. Sun, sand, and…a watery wasteland devoid of all life? Yep, this is the time each year when a team of federal and university scientists predicts the size of the so-called dead zone that will develop in the Gulf of Mexico later in the summer. We’re waiting for that official prediction, but based on federal nitrate flux data and Midwest weather patterns this spring, it seems likely that it will be bigger than usual.

That means a swath of marine habitat considerably larger than the state of Connecticut could be lifeless by summer’s end—a haunting prospect for coastal ecosystems, fisheries, and the men and women who earn their livelihoods from them. And the Trump administration’s budget proposal and general antagonism toward science and environmental protection are likely to make the problem worse in the future.

Dead zones don’t talk

Marine and coastal dead zones are the result of a phenomenon called hypoxia—a state of low dissolved oxygen that occurs when excess pollutants, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, accumulate in bodies of water. These nutrients feed blooms of algae that, when they die and decompose, deplete the oxygen in the surrounding water. Hypoxia is a silent killer, suffocating organisms that can’t escape the low-oxygen zone quickly enough, and causing others to flee.

As we wrote a year ago when the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted an “average” (roughly Connecticut-sized) Gulf dead zone, even average is not the same as normal. Nitrogen and phosphorus can come from many sources, but the largest are due to human activity, including sewage discharges and fertilizers from farm fields running off into rivers and streams. In 2010, researchers at the University of Illinois showed that the problem of runoff from industrialized, corn-and-soybean intensive agriculture, with its system of underground drainage channels, dwarfs the impact of cities and other nutrient sources in the Midwest. Essentially, each year the Mississippi River and its many tributaries meandering through the Corn Belt quietly funnel a vast amount of agricultural pollution into the Gulf.

Image courtesy National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration

April showers bring May flowers, but what do May downpours bring?

The size of the dead zone in any given year is dependent not just on how much fertilizer was applied to fields in the drainage area, but also on the amount of rainfall available to carry it from the land into the rivers and on to the Gulf. This spring has been a wet one in the Midwest, and the drenching rains and widespread flooding that hit parts of the region in late April and continued into May have created ideal conditions for a large flush of nutrients downstream.

The two graphs below from the US Geological Survey (USGS)—which monitors stream flow and nitrate levels in rivers and streams—show how the nitrate “flux” in the Mississippi River basin in May 2017 compares with previous years, and how the actual size of the dead zone tracks those fluxes each year. It’s easy to see the contrast between a wet year like this one and, say, the devastating drought year of 2012.

These are preliminary data that the scientific team led by NOAA will use in making its dead zone prediction this month.




The solution to dead zone pollution…

Nope, it’s not dilution. Even very large bodies of water like the Gulf of Mexico aren’t safe from this annual, preventable destruction. And recurring dead zones and toxic algae blooms also plague other large water bodies including the Chesapeake Bay and Lake Erie. Just today, NOAA predicted a larger-than-average dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay this summer.

And there’s more bad news—climate change is likely making these problems worse. A study published earlier this year examined runoff data from the drought year 2012 and the following, wetter year, to show how “weather whiplash” can increase the flow of nitrate into the Gulf. So we can expect more of the same as the cycle of Midwestern floods and droughts becomes more intense and erratic in the future.

In addition, as the climate heats up, shallow waters like the end of Lake Erie that abuts Toledo, Ohio, will be warmer and thus will likely suffer more toxic algae blooms that taint the city’s drinking water, causing recurring health risks and economic pain.

It’s clear that decreasing the size and severity of algae blooms and dead zones will require significant reductions to current rates of fertilizer runoff in the Midwest. And fortunately, there is bountiful evidence about how to do that on the region’s farms. As we’ve documented in two recent reports, for example, innovative farming practices such as extended crop rotations can cut fertilizer use significantly, and planting perennial prairie strips in and around cropland can dramatically reduce the amount of nitrogen that escapes from those lands into waterways. Even better, we’ve shown that such practices and systems are also good for farmers’ bottom lines.

Budget cuts could grow the dead zone (and shrink opportunities for farmers)

But just when pollution-cutting practices are showing such promise and are needed more than ever, the Trump administration’s proposed Department of Agriculture (USDA) budget could hamstring the department’s efforts to help farmers implement them, cutting programs that deliver financial and technical support for farmers.

Moreover, proposed major cuts at NOAA, the USGS, and the Environmental Protection Agency would hamper the ability of scientists at those agencies to study and remediate the Gulf dead zone and other water bodies that suffer from hypoxia and toxic algal blooms due to fertilizer pollution.

Water pollution from agriculture has real impacts on farmers, coastal and lakeshore communities across the country, and millions of Americans. Even as we wait to see if this year’s problem in the Gulf will be as bad as we think, UCS is advocating for policies and budget investments that could truly tackle the problem in future years.

Join us by calling on Congress to reject the Trump administration’s unacceptable budget cuts at the USDA, and instead vote to fully fund proven programs that keep our water clean, improve farmers’ livelihoods, and help hungry families.

An Insider’s View on the Value of Federal Research

Not long after receiving my doctorate in biochemistry I took a research position with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), the main research arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Prior to retiring in 2014 I had spent my entire career, 33 years, with ARS. I had a chance to see federal research from within the system. Contrary to what you may have heard, it’s been my experience that federal research is solutions-oriented, transparent, and nonpolitical.  

Mike and his technician, Karen Wagner, developing a new method for biodiesel synthesis. Photo: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

Among the key aspects of that system were the following, which I believe pertain to federal research in general (exclusive, in some cases, of defense-related work):

  • It was problem-solving in nature, with research goals based in the country’s needs. These goals, for example, could be safer or more nutritious food, improved soil health, new uses for crops produced in excess of current needs, or any of a myriad of other topics.
  • There was daylight everywhere: Programs, goals, and outcomes were clearly published and publicized.
  • The work was not conducted to advance the sales of any commercial product, as some work in the private sector might be. It was problem, not profit, oriented.
  • The process had integrity and autonomy: Our results and conclusions were not dictated to us by management or the Administration.  During my career I published over 120 articles, including approximately 80 research papers in peer reviewed scientific journals, a dozen book chapters and half a dozen U.S. Patents. I gave over 100 oral presentations describing work.  Not one word that I authored was dictated to me by management. I am not aware of any colleague for whom that was not also true.
  • We were allowed and encouraged to patent any invention that we made. Patents were licensable under terms that were designed to aid the flow of technology to the private sector rather than to generate large sums of money for the inventor or the government.
  • We had full professional autonomy and were encouraged to interact with all parties (other than individuals and organizations from state sponsors of terrorism) as necessary to advance the work and disseminate its results. Among our partners were citizens as well as peers in academic, private sector or federal research, be they domestic or international, large or small firms. Large companies often have their own dedicated research and development teams, serving their interests. I came to see that in many ways we were the Research and Development team for the smaller firms and young industries – startups or small operations lacking the funds and staff to do dedicated research.  We collaborated with all comers, irrespective of size.
  • Research programs were up to 5 years in length, and continued beyond that if such could be justified. This led to the kind of long term, higher risk type of work that is in some cases needed and in many cases rare these days.
  • In cases of ‘crisis’ – some incident that needed a rapid research response (e.g. outbreak of a new plant disease, food poisoning incident….) – researchers were detailed into that area to assist in quickly developing appropriate responses to the threat.

Aerial shot of the Eastern Regional Research Center, USDA, near Philadelphia. Photo: Agricultural Research Service, USDA.

I spent my career at the Eastern Regional Research Center near Philadelphia, one of the ARS ‘Utilization labs’ that were built in the late 1930s as part of a major effort to develop new uses for the crops produced by America’s farmers. Out of this work have come thousands of research publications and patents, which developed or assisted in developing a host of new products and processes including dehydrated mashed potatoes (and hence Pringles!); soy ink; permanent press cotton fabric; frozen foods with increased retention of flavor, color and texture; Lact-Aid; and more efficient processes for the production of biofuels.

Filling up a truck on biodiesel. Photo: Spencer Thomas/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

The increased market share for biodiesel alone is a success for federal research. Beginning in the early 1990s, the desire to promote energy independence in this country and to provide new markets for our crops led researchers to begin exploring the production of what became known as ‘biodiesel’. Made from vegetable oils and animal fats, biodiesel can replace petroleum-derived diesel fuel while burning cleaner and thus reducing the emission of pollutants.  It was an obvious new outlet for U.S. lipids, and so my group and others in ARS began investigating various aspects related to its production and use.  Today biodiesel is an accepted fuel used throughout the country (and world), powering vehicles and generators and heating homes.  It is a true success story, one in which my lab, other USDA labs, and many other researchers played a part.

Based on my experiences, I see federal research as extremely valuable. As I have outlined above, it is dedicated to improving the quality of life of all Americans, and is conducted within a framework designed to maximize its integrity, reliability, impact and availability. It is also very efficacious: I am aware of two studies conducted during my career that assessed the economic impact of ARS research. These analyses determined that every dollar invested yielded between 14 and 20 dollars in benefits for the country. That’s a strong statement of the value of the work, a measure of what will be lost to all of us if programs are dropped, and a return on investment that I’ll sign up for any day.


Following receipt of a B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry from the U. of Wisconsin, Mike Haas went on to a career with the Agricultural Research Service of the U. S. Department of Agriculture.  During his over 30 years with ARS-USDA his research ranged from sophisticated studies of applied enzymology to the development of the simplest of methods for the production of biodiesel, a renewable fuel produced from U.S. farm products that both replaces and burns cleaner than petroleum diesel fuel.   During his research career Mike also served as an officer in relevant professional societies and as Associate Editor of a scientific journal.   Now retired, he serves as a student mentor with the National Biodiesel Board and, after 40 years in labs and offices, enjoys a multitude of outdoor activities.    

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.

7 States Give Pruitt an “F” in Science, Challenge EPA Over Pesticide That Harms Children

Back in March, EPA Administrator and science skeptic Scott Pruitt ignored his agency’s own science when he canceled a planned ban on chlorpyrifos, a well-studied pesticide that has been shown to damage children’s developing brains and make farmworkers sick. But the fight to protect kids and workers from this toxic pesticide isn’t over. In a welcome new twist, the Attorney General of New York and his counterparts in six other states announced today that they have filed an objection with the EPA for its inaction.

Joining New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in the legal challenge are the Attorneys General of California, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington, and Vermont. They charge that the EPA “failed to make a key safety finding needed to continue to allow levels of chlorpyrifos, a common agricultural pesticide, on fruits and vegetables consumed by the public.  The federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (Food Act) requires EPA to revoke allowable levels—or ‘tolerances’—for pesticide residues on foods if the Agency is unable to determine that the levels are safe.”

Chlorpyrifos has been studied for decades and increasingly regulated, but it’s still used on a variety of fruits and vegetables—including apples and broccoli—that millions of American moms and dads feed their kids every day. The EPA was all set to ban those last uses due to the pesticide’s ability to damage children’s developing brains, when Pruitt abruptly changed course.

The announcement of the states’ lawsuit comes as the saga of this pesticide continues to grow. Chlorpyrifos reportedly poisoned nearly 50 California farmworkers in an incident near Bakersfield in May.

And in another troubling development last month, Pruitt also put the kibosh on a planned proposal to ensure that pesticides including chlorpyrifos are safely applied. That proposal was supposed to regulate “restricted use pesticides,” defined by the EPA as having the “potential to cause unreasonable adverse effects to the environment and injury to applicators or bystanders without added restrictions.” It would have required workers handling such pesticides—including chlorpyrifos—to be at least 18 years old and to have regular safety training.





We All Benefit from Foreign Nations’ Food Crop Diversity—But Do Our Politics Reflect This Interdependence?

Earlier this spring, the United States became the newest member of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, a global agreement on sharing and caring for seeds. It’s a remarkable moment for an agreement whose central tenet is that all countries need one another, especially since it’s really hard to measure just how much they do.

Here’s the argument: genetic diversity in food plants is an essential resource needed to keep crops productive, nutritious, resistant to pests and diseases, and tolerant to drought, heat, and other climatic challenges. Farmers need these traits to produce good yields, and plant breeders provide them by mixing and matching the genetic diversity found within the seeds of modern cultivars, ancient heirlooms, and even wild relatives to produce vigorous new crop varieties.

So where do plant breeders find these seeds? Here’s where we get to international collaboration. Crop genetic diversity increases with time: the places where food crops have been continuously cultivated for hundreds to thousands of years, and especially where they were initially domesticated many thousands of years ago, tend to be extraordinarily diverse.

Origins and primary regions of diversity of major agricultural crops. From Khoury et al. 2016. Proc. R. Soc. B 283(1832): 20160792.

Wheat, corn, rice, and every other one of the crops that feed us originated and diversified in distinct regions around the world. Now they are grown just about everywhere they can be. From Canada to Argentina, Mexico to Mongolia, varieties of these crops have been introduced and adapted to different climates and soils, pests and diseases. This work never ends—it’s a continuous process of breeding and adaptation to maintain agricultural productivity. To support this most important of endeavors, we all have a stake in the open exchange of seeds.

But just how interdependent are countries with regard to seeds?

In its 15 years of existence, the Seed Treaty has made some progress toward its goals. Its 143 member countries have negotiated a way by which crop seeds in the public domain can more easily be shared across borders. They have also started to keep track of these seeds, better ensuring that they remain public, and have built a benefit-sharing fund that has disbursed $20 million in support of crop diversity conservation and capacity building worldwide. Related initiatives focus on providing long-term financial support to the world’s most diverse and vulnerable public genebanks, where substantial crop genetic diversity is maintained, and offer a global safety backup for seeds in the Arctic.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault- the global safety backup for seeds. Photo: Crop Trust.

But much remains to be done to adequately share and care for the world’s seeds. A number of countries have yet to join the Treaty, and implementation of its procedures by many members has been slow. Essential components such as the affirmation of the rights of farmers to continue their traditional seed exchange practices, and the contributions to the conservation fund, need strengthening.

Surely it’s partly a matter of time; big political processes move at glacial speed. But I suspect that roadblocks persist because of a deeper problem: the central argument that we all benefit from one another’s seeds hasn’t had enough teeth to motivate comprehensive political action.

Unfortunately, complete data on the extent to which countries give and receive seeds aren’t available. Tracking these exchanges was mandated only recently, and we won’t know the results until some years in the future. By then we’ll be even further behind on the urgent work needed to adapt crops to climate change.

How about an estimate of interdependence among countries?

Returning to the roots of the argument for the creation of the Seed Treaty, our research team has estimated the degree to which countries depend on one another’s seeds. The calculation was based on the proportion of each country’s national agricultural production, and its food supply, that is composed of crops whose origins, or “primary regions of diversity” are found elsewhere around the world.

We found that countries indeed produce and consume crops from many different primary regions of diversity. The US, for example, grows crops like corn and cotton that originated in Central America, wheat and alfalfa from West Asia, soybeans and citrus from East Asia, and other crops originating in the Mediterranean, Europe, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Andean South America, East Africa, and other regions. A bit of what we grow originated in North America itself, but not a lot. It’s very much the same story for the food we eat.

Estimated potential contribution of different primary regions of diversity of crops grown in the U.S., measured in value ($USD per year). As crops may have more than one primary region of diversity, total percent contribution is more than 100%. From Khoury et al. 2016. Proc. R. Soc. B 283(1832): 20160792.

To put simpler numbers on the trend, we estimated the degree to which each country cultivates or eats “foreign” crops, defined as plants whose primary regions of diversity do not overlap at all with the region where the country is located. For the US, we found that more than 95% of American agricultural production is of foreign crops, as is at least 90% of its food supply.

Averaging across all countries, about 70% of crops grown, and 69% of plants consumed, are immigrants. No country produces or consumes only native foods. Countries are increasingly cultivating and eating foreign crops as economic development proceeds and as food systems become more globalized.

Interdependence and the state of the Seed Treaty

Even with a lack of comprehensive data on consumption and production and crop diversity regions, it is clear that people in all countries grow and eat food crops whose genetic diversity is largely concentrated outside their borders, and would therefore benefit from the facilitated exchange of agricultural seeds. The very likely trend is for increasing needs for seeds, as markets adapt to changing consumer preferences and as producers adapt to increasingly challenging environmental conditions.

The evidence on countries’ predominant use of foreign crops bolsters the rationale for strengthening international collaboration on conservation of crop diversity and for making the exchange of all agricultural seeds as easy and affordable as possible. Our interdependence also boosts the argument for considering the genetic diversity of globally important food crops as public goods which should be openly available to all, and for respecting the rights of farmers to practice their traditional methods of conservation and exchange, not only in recognition of their historical contributions to the diversity in our food, but also in active support of its further evolution.

The Seed Treaty has already done a lot to formalize the understanding that it is prudent for countries to collaborate on sharing and caring for seeds. As one of the world’s agricultural powerhouses, and still the single largest public provider of crop diversity, the US ratification of the Treaty is exciting. Hopefully this is a key moment in the progress toward a truly global agreement where countries work together to conserve and share the diversity of the crops that nourish us all.


Colin Khoury studies diversity in the crops people grow and eat worldwide, and the implications of change in this diversity on human health and environmental sustainability. He is particularly interested in the wild relatives of food crops. Colin is a research scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Colombia, and at the USDA National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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.

The Trump Budget Is an Affront to Farmers (and All of Us)

I’m starting to feel like a broken record. Last month, I listed five ways President Trump had failed rural America in just his first 100 days. A few weeks prior, I’d documented evidence that his administration’s initial (so-called “skinny”) FY18 budget proposal would cut technical assistance for farmers and nutrition assistance used by rural households at higher rates than urban ones.

So now that the White House has released its full budget proposal—almost laughably titled “A New Foundation For American Greatness”—I’m not sure why I’m surprised by it. I guess it’s just hard to fathom the brazenness of the president’s 180 on policy issues and taxpayer investments that really matter to farmers and rural residents.

Making America less great, one budget cut at a time

Early reporting and commentary have characterized this week’s budget proposal as cruel, draconian, and a con. Its combined social safety net cuts would reportedly affect up to one-fifth of Americans, and many of President Trump’s own voters in red states and rural communities would be hit hardest. The proposal’s architects have made rosy assumptions about future economic growth that economists on both sides of the aisle have called into question, and they apparently employed some faulty math to boot. If enacted, the budget would decimate publicly-funded science across many agencies, though Congress will almost certainly reject it, probably forcefully.

In short, there is nothing great about this budget proposal, and frankly nothing American. But its effects on key programs administered by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) are particularly troubling. Let’s review:

Taking food from people’s plates won’t make America great (just hungrier). The proposed cuts to social programs that help our neighbors in need are mean-spirited and just plain senseless. The White House is proposing to cut the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) by nearly $200 billion over 10 years. This highly cost-effective program has a demonstrated record of success in alleviating hunger and poverty in rural and urban communities alike. In fact, research has shown that rural households use SNAP at higher rates than urban and suburban households.

(UCS Food Systems & Health Analyst Sarah Reinhardt digs deeper on the SNAP program and the implications of these cuts, which would lead to poorer nutrition and needless suffering for millions of Americans.)

And what about USDA programs that specifically serve farmers? That’s not a pretty picture either.

Cutting agricultural research won’t make America great (just less informed). In a blatant attack on science (yes, another one), the president’s budget proposes deep cuts to scientific and medical research across many agencies, including the National Science Foundation (cut 11 percent), the National Institutes of Health (cut 18 percent), and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research and Development (cut a whopping 50 percent). At the USDA, these are mirrored by large cuts to already-small research budgets, including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (cut 20 percent) and the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (cut 30 percent). These programs have funded research on, for example, how cover crops can reduce fertilizer needs and maximize profits, and how different combinations of crops can affect weeds, pests, and drought resilience (see this February post from UCS Senior Scientist Marcia DeLonge for more). UCS has advocated for more agricultural research, not less, and nearly 500 experts have joined us in calling for increased investments in agroecology to help farmers and our environment.

Slashing farm conservation programs won’t make America great (just more polluted). To complete the trifecta of not-greatness, the White House is proposing cuts to USDA programs and technical staff that farmers rely on for help implementing soil, water, and biodiversity conservation practices on their land. For example, the perennially popular (with Republicans, Democrats, and farmers of all stripes) Conservation Stewardship Program, which provides direct financial assistance to farmers, would take an 8 percent hit, and the budget proposes eliminating new enrollments.

And then there’s a proposed 10 percent reduction in “conservation operations,” the pot of USDA money that funds technical assistance to farmers in the field. The stated justification for this last cut (on page 9 of this document) made me sit up and take notice:

Agricultural conservation planning is not an inherently governmental function. The private sector can provide this service, given uniform planning standards that are established by the Government. Currently the private sector offers planning assistance to farmers to implement precision pesticide and nutrient application, which is evidence that the private sector could also provide technical assistance for conservation planning. Farmers and other agricultural interest groups argue that the need for conservation planning is much greater than the funding resources currently available through the Government. When the Government funds technical assistance, it crowds out private sector competition. In the absence of Government funding, the private sector could increase farmers’ access to technical assistance beyond what the Government currently offers.

Hold on…does the Trump administration really imagine that corporate America is just waiting to help farmers implement the most sustainable farming practices? It’s clear that taxpayers, water drinkers, and all of us who enjoy clean lakes and streams have a vested interest in the benefits of conservation practices, but the private sector largely doesn’t. It exists to sell stuff, and the beauty of ecological farm practices is that they require less stuffless pesticides, fertilizers, and the like. So what would be the private sector’s motivation to step into the breach here? I don’t see it.

And finally, a missed opportunity to make farmers more resilient for the long term

There is one thing in this USDA budget I almost agree with, and that is its proposed limits on crop insurance and other subsidies for the wealthiest farm operators. The budget proposal would limit crop insurance eligibility to farmers making less than $500,000 annually and cap insurance premium subsidies at $40,000. That sounds reasonable, and in fact, our 2016 report Subsidizing Waste called for a reduction in taxpayer-funded crop insurance premium subsidies because they drive planting decisions that tend to lead to more pollution. But (and this is important) we think the savings from crop insurance reforms should be invested in programs like the Conservation Stewardship Program, where they can incentivize better outcomes for farmers and the environment.

So even here, the White House misses an opportunity to do something right, maintaining an effective safety net for farmers while facilitating a shift to practices that build real resilience—to pests, weather, and price fluctuations in any one crop—and making them less reliant on crop insurance in the long run. And while is a debate we hope Congress will have in the upcoming farm bill, it’s not likely to get past appropriators in this form.

But I believe that’s true of this whole mess of a budget. And thankfully so.

Trump’s Proposed Budget: A Wrecking Ball to Science

Joe Biden once said, “Don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”

President Trump has just shown us his budget. Here is what he values: large tax cuts—mostly for the wealthy—and a buildup of the military and homeland security.

Here is what he does not value: the Medicaid program that allows our poorest citizens to get basic health care; the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps), a highly cost-effective program with a demonstrated record of success in alleviating hunger and poverty in rural and urban communities alike; and student loans and grants, that allow for some upward mobility.

He also does not value science. His budget not only eviscerates funding for basic research (e.g., an $86 billion cut to the National Institute of Health), but also funding for the science that government scientists conduct, or government agencies fund, to inform and improve public policy. Just look at this pattern:

Eviscerating Science at the EPA

The proposed budget cuts the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by more than 30 percent overall, returning the agency to staffing levels not seen since the Ford administration. The budget takes particular aim at the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), and its many national laboratories. ORD is the science research arm of the EPA, responsible for advising EPA policymakers on safe levels of air and water pollutants, the fate and transport of hazardous waste once it is released into the environment, safe disposal of chemicals, and many other critical matters.

This program also responds to emergencies. ORD was called in recently, for example, to help Toledo, Ohio cope with massive algae blooms in Lake Erie. Trump proposes to cut ORD by over 50 percent. This will simply eviscerate the EPA’s ability to use the best science to protect public health and the environment.

Slashing renewable energy research at DOE

Some of the deepest cuts in Trump’s proposed budget at the Department of Energy (DOE) take aim at clean energy research and development. For example, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would be slashed by 69 percent, including cutting more than half the budget of the renewable energy technology offices that have played a critical role in the precipitous drop in costs of renewable energy such as wind and solar.

The budget also eliminates one of DOE’s crown jewels: the ARPA-E program, which fills a crucial void by providing start-up funding for transformative,= but high-risk technologies. This is particularly important as private venture capital has “all but stopped funding ‘deep technology’ companies,” according to recent Brookings Institution study.

Not surprisingly, ARPA-E has bipartisan support, and corporate luminaries such as Bill Gates and Jeffrey Immelt have called for doubling its funding to $1 billion per year as a key way to develop low cost solutions for greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a clean energy economy.

Zeroing out ARPA-E and cutting other clean energy research and development programs will stall vital progress in developing new technologies to lower global warming emissions and will further erode our economic leadership in clean energy.

Weakening emergency preparedness at NOAA

The budget proposes to eliminate funding for several National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grant and education programs, including Sea Grant, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, Coastal Zone Management Grants, the Office of Education, and the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. These programs are critical in helping us adapt to a changing environment.

Their elimination will cripple scientific research as well as emergency preparedness, disaster risk reduction, and national security. Programs like Sea Grant, for example, enable universities to conduct research that helps states prepare for coastal flooding.

Canceling vital earth monitoring at NASA

The budget proposes to terminate five Earth Science Mission programs that have furthered knowledge of biological, physical, chemical and extraterrestrial processes: Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments, and CLARREO Pathfinder.

These five NASA Missions are vital tools for improving our ability to predict everything from agricultural commodity yields to water management and infrastructure management. They have furthered knowledge of biological, physical, chemical and extraterrestrial processes. They have resulted in safeguards that protect our waters and prevent people from eating toxic shellfish, improved aviation safety, and provided essential information about unhealthy air quality.

They have also tested equipment essential for successful satellite launches and provided information about climate measures that inform decision-making with broad economic impacts, including vegetation changes and have provided precise measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Starving agricultural research and conservation at USDA

The US Department of Agriculture would take a 21 percent hit overall. With deep cuts to key research and conservation programs, the budget would undermine the ability of farmers to sustain their land and their livelihoods for the future. The budget slashes tens of millions of dollars from cutting-edge agricultural research programs, effectively denying farmers the science they need to be productive and profitable and to adapt to the harsh realities of a changing climate.

Significant changes to programs that encourage conservation on farmlands would similarly put farmers at a disadvantage and leave the nation’s waters and other critical natural resources more at risk from farm pollution.

Scientists must step up!

Fortunately, Congress, not the President, will ultimately decide what to fund and at what levels. If recent history is any guide, Congress will not attach much weight to President Trump’s misguided budget proposal.

But we must not take anything for granted. This summer, activists from all across the country will likely attend town hall meetings with their congressional representatives. I expect we will hear powerful, heart-rending testimony against the Trump budget’s cynical and vicious attempt to shred the social safety net. But the proposed cuts to science also demand a rallying cry in response, from scientists and from all who value our ability to make public decisions based on the best available evidence.

Now is the time to make our voices heard.

To learn more about how you can effectively stand up for science and influence congress on the budget, check out our recently posted toolkit.

If It Ain’t Broke, Defund It: Trump’s Budget Writes Off SNAP—and With It His Supporters

Today, the Trump administration released a budget proposal for FY 2018 that would drastically reduce funding for SNAP—the largest nutrition assistance program in the federal safety net—by a full 28 percent over the course of the next ten years. This amounts to a $193 billion dollar cut from a program with a yearly budget of less than $75 billion.

Despite statements just last week from Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who claimed no knowledge of proposed changes to SNAP, the budget proposal states that the drastic reductions in SNAP funding will be achieved through measures that expand work requirements, narrow eligibility, and establish a matching component for states to cover a portion of benefits—a potential first step toward block granting the program.

The preliminary “skinny budget” released by the administration in March, which called for a 21 percent reduction in USDA funding for discretionary programs, hinted at the direction, but not the magnitude of cuts to come for means-tested programs like SNAP. Now, with dollar signs and decimal points to demarcate the damage, the final budget proposal confirms a caustic indifference to the needs of millions of rural and urban families served by the agency’s cornerstone programs—and with it, a callous betrayal of a key segment of President Trump’s own voter base. The consequences of slashing funding for SNAP, compounded by equally significant cuts for programs like Medicaid to the tune of over $800 billion over 10 years, pose a very real and significant threat not only to the core function of our federal safety net, but to the backbone of our nation itself.

We can’t afford cuts to SNAP funding

SNAP provides support to 21 million American households in both urban and rural areas, lifting families out of poverty, reducing food insecurity, and improving long-term health outcomes. Put simply, SNAP works. It is one of the most effective federal assistance programs we have, and it operates with one of the lowest fraud rates. In 2014, the benefits provided by SNAP lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty—including 2.1 million children. In fact, nearly half of all SNAP recipients (about four in ten) are children.

Research is clear about the devastating consequences facing kids who don’t get enough to eat: they experience poorer health, incur higher medical expenses, and achieve less in the classroom and beyond. Reducing the amount of funding available to SNAP recipients by 25 percent is equivalent to removing a critical source of support for the growth and development of over half a million kids. How does the master plan to make America great (there is one… right?) compensate for the lost potential of a half million of its youth?

And kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from SNAP. Data shows that the program reduces food insecurity rates by 30 percent among participating households, which means fewer serious health complications and hospitalizations for adults living with diabetes. SNAP-Ed also plays an important role in promoting health and helping low-income families achieve healthy diets: evidence-based nutrition education programs funded through SNAP have yielded increases in fruit and vegetable consumption and greater physical activity levels among adults, with estimates of $10 saved in overall long-term health care costs for every dollar invested.

Research also suggests that SNAP expenditures act as economic stimuli, with every five dollars in new benefits generating as much as nine dollars in economic activity. This function is particularly important during times of economic downturn, as benefits redeemed contribute to both the economic stability of participating households and their broader communities.

Cultural elitism, institutional racism, and a dash of alternative facts

If you remember only two things from this post, let it be these brief and breathtakingly true facts: SNAP already has work requirements in place. And most SNAP participants who can work, do work. To be eligible for SNAP benefits, program regulations require that able-bodied adults without dependents must either work or participate in a work program for at least twenty hours per week. SNAP users may also be required to attend state-assigned employment and training programs. If they don’t meet work requirements within three months of enrolling, benefits are terminated and can’t be reinstated for a 36-month period.

Which brings us back to extraordinarily accurate fact number two: Most SNAP participants who can work, do work. USDA data shows that approximately 64 percent of SNAP participants are children, elderly, or disabled; 22 percent work full time, are caretakers, or participate in a training program; and only 14 percent are working less than 30 hours per week, are unemployed, or are registered for work. Moreover, among households with adults who are able to work, over three quarters of adults held a job in the year before or after receiving SNAP—meaning the program is effectively helping families fill temporary gaps in employment.

So if work requirements already exist, and most able-bodied adults are working…why are we still talking about stronger work requirements? We can attribute this in part to a dangerous and deeply rooted political narrative that has for decades cast a light of suspicion and mistrust on welfare recipients—particularly those of color—by painting them as lazy and deceitful in the public eye. And if you believe that we no longer suffer the aftershocks of the mythical Reagan-era welfare queens, recall that just three short years ago, current House Speaker Paul Ryan delivered a radio interview in which he raised concerns about a perceived “tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.” Ryan’s own constituents were quick to point out that his comments amounted to thinly veiled code language for “black men.”

Is there good news? Tell me there’s good news

There’s good news. Here it is: Trump doesn’t have the final say on the budget. Congress does, and there are strong indications that bipartisan opposition to proposed agency and program funding cuts has only gained momentum since the release of the preliminary budget. House Agriculture committee chair Mike Conaway has called the proposed budget wrongheaded, while ranking member Collin Peterson confidently stated that the preliminary budget would be ignored, “as it should be.

But it is critical not to mistake broad dissatisfaction with the president’s budget priorities for a commitment to protecting public assistance programs—particularly SNAP. As the farm bill program with the largest price tag, SNAP is, and will remain, a glaring target for those seeking areas to cut federal spending. At UCS, we will continue our work to provide sound scientific evidence demonstrating the long-term health impacts and cost savings generated by investments in SNAP, while countering political narratives that propagate harmful stereotypes about program participants and diminish public support for critical federal assistance programs. We can’t let allow politics and ideology to seal the fate of the federal safety net—the stakes are simply too high.

Photo: wisley/CC BY SA (Flickr)

Three Reasons Congress Should Support a Budget Increase for Organic Agriculture Research

Recent headlines about the US Department of Agriculture’s leadership and scientific integrity have been unsettling, as have indications that the Trump administration intends to slash budgets for agriculture and climate research and science more generally. But today there’s a rare piece of good news: a bipartisan trio in Congress has introduced legislation that would benefit just about everyone—farmers and eaters, scientists and food system stakeholders, rural and urban Americans. Not only that, but the new bill promises to achieve these outcomes while maintaining a shoestring budget.

Organic dairy producers need sound science to be able to make informed decisions about forage production for their herds. At this on-farm demonstration at the Chuck Johnson farm in Philadelphia, Tennessee, Dr. Gina Pighetti and her research team from the University of Tennessee and the University of Kentucky grow organic crimson clover (right) and wheat to develop best management practices that will help farmers make production decisions. Source: University of Tennessee.

Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Dan Newhouse (R-WA), and Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) are sponsoring the Organic Agriculture Research Act of 2017, which calls for an increase in mandatory funding for a small but crucial USDA research program, the Organic Research Extension Initiative (OREI). Congress allocated this program a mere $20 million annually in both the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills, but that small investment stretched across the country with grants awarded in more than half of all states. The new bill proposes to increase that investment to $50 million annually in future years.

While a $30 million increase to a $20 million program may seem like a lot, it is worth noting that these numbers are small relative to other programs. For example, the USDA recently announced that its flagship research program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), will receive $425 million this year (another piece of good news, by the way). And many R&D programs at other agencies have much higher price tags (e.g., the NIH will receive $34 billion this year). But the return on investment of agricultural research and investment is very high, so this increase could do a lot of good.

Students at UC Davis, under the leadership of Charles Brummer, Professor of Plant Sciences, examine their “jalapeño popper” crop, a cross between a bell pepper and a jalapeño pepper. This public plant breeding pipeline supports organic farming systems by designing new vegetable and bean cultivars with the particular needs of the organic farming community in mind. Source: UC Davis.

While there are many reasons we are excited about a possible budget boost for the Organic Research Extension Initiative (OREI), I’ll highlight just three:

1)  We need more agroecologically-inspired research. More than 450 scientists from all 50 states have signed our expert statement calling for more public support for agroecological research, which is urgently needed to address current and future farming challenges that affect human health, the environment, and urban and rural communities. This call is built upon agroecology’s successful track record of finding ways to work with nature rather than against it, producing nutritious food while also boosting soil health, protecting our drinking water, and more. Unfortunately, the diminishing overall support for public agricultural research is particularly problematic for agroecology, because this research tends to reduce farmers reliance on purchased inputs, which means that gaps in funding are unlikely to be filled by the private sector. So, programs that direct public funding more toward agroecological research and practice are particularly needed, and OREI is one of these.

2)  When it comes to agroecology, this program is a rock star. The OREI funds some of the most effective federal agricultural research, especially around ecologically-driven practices that can protect our natural resources and maintain farmer profits.  One highlight of the program is that it stresses multi-disciplinary research; according the USDA “priority concerns include biological, physical, and social sciences, including economics”, an approach that can help ensure that research leads to farming practices that are both practical and scalable. Importantly, this program also targets projects that will “assist farmers and ranchers with whole farm planning by delivering practical information”, making sure that research will directly and immediately benefit those who need it most. But it’s not just the program description that leads us to believe this is a strong investment. In fact, our own research on competitive USDA grants found that OREI is among the most important programs for advancing agroecology.  And this in-depth analysis of USDA’s organic research programs by the Organic Farming Research Foundation further highlighted the vital importance of OREI.

3) Research from programs like OREI can benefit all farmers, while focusing on practices required for a critical and growing sector of US agriculture. The OREI program is designed to support organic farms first and foremost, funding research conducted on certified organic land or land in transition to organic certification. However, the research from OREI can benefit a much wider group of farmers as well, as such results are relevant to farmers of many scales and farming styles, organic or not. Of course, directing funds to support organic farmers makes lots of sense, since this sector of agriculture is rapidly growing and maintaining high premiums that benefit farmers. But it’s important to recognize that the benefits of the research extend far beyond the organic farming community.

For all of the reasons listed above, this bill marks an important step in the right direction. It is essential that the next farm bill increases support for science-based programs that will ensure the long-term viability of farms while regenerating natural resources and protecting our environment. Expanding the OREI is a smart way forward.


How Oats Could Save Iowa’s Farmers (and Fight Pollution)

That bowl of oatmeal pictured above was my breakfast this morning. The strawberries were from nearby Virginia (hello, spring!) but the oats may have come from as far away as Sweden, Finland, or Canada. In the future, my morning oats could be grown much closer to home, in a state like Iowa that is now dominated by corn and soybeans. A new UCS report shows why that would be a good thing for US farmers and our environment.

Today’s Midwestern Corn Belt produces two crops—the aforementioned corn and soybeans—in abundance; however, this system has grown steadily less beneficial for farmers over time. US corn and soybean growers achieved record-high har­vests in 2016. But due to oversupply, prices farmers receive for these crops have plummeted, and 2016 US farm incomes were expected to drop to their lowest levels since 2002.

Endless rotations of corn and soy aren’t environmentally sustainable either. This system typically leaves fields bare for much of the year and uses tillage (plowing) practices that erode away farmers’ soil. It loads on synthetic fertilizer, leading to a nitrogen pollution problem that costs the nation an estimated $157 bil­lion per year in human health and environmental damages.

Rural communities suffer many of the consequences, with Iowa high on the list of states with surface water pollution from fertilizers, pesticides, and eroded soil. And the nega­tive effects extend far beyond the Midwest. Corn Belt watersheds are major con­tributors to the annual “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, and nitrous oxide emissions from farm soils make up 5 percent of the US share of heat-trapping gases responsible for climate change.

Diverse crop rotations offer multiple benefits

Fixing these problems is a little more complicated than simply planting oats, but not a lot. For the last 14 years, Iowa State University researchers have compared the typical Iowa corn-soy system with something that looks just a bit different. Innovative three- and four-year systems add combinations of winter-growing small grains (yes, those oats), an off-season cover crop, and alfalfa, a perennial crop that adds nitrogen to the soil.

I wrote years ago about the enhanced crop yields, steady profits, and reduced pesticide use and pollution produced by these year-round ground-covering rotations, and Iowa State’s most recent data continue to reflect these benefits. Average corn yields are 2 to 4 percent higher, soybean yields are 10 to 17 percent higher, and profits are similar to corn-soy alone. While cutting herbicide use by as much as 51 percent, the system positively slashed herbicide runoff into streams by as much as 96 percent, and it reduced total nitrogen fertiliz­er application rates by up to 57 percent as well.

Now, a groundbreaking analysis by UCS senior economist Kranti Mulik shows that such a modified system is scalable. Building on Iowa State’s results with additional analysis of soil erosion outcomes and economic impacts, her report, Rotating Crops, Turning Profits: How Diversified Farming Systems Can Help Farmers While Protecting Soil and Preventing Pollution, found that these innovative rotations, paired with no-till practices to keep soil in place, could be imple­mented on millions of acres in Iowa today and expanded to tens of millions more over time. Specifically, she found that:

  • Diverse crop rotations could be adopted over time on 20 to 40 percent of Iowa’s farmland—5 million to 11 mil­lion acres—without changes in crop prices driving farm­ers back to predominantly corn-soy.
  • Soil erosion would be reduced by 88 percent compared with tilled corn-soy, to a sustainable level given natural soil replacement rates.
  • Taxpayers would achieve total annual savings of $124 million to $272 million from reduced surface water cleanup costs and net reductions in heat-trapping gases valued at $111 million to $233 million annually, for a total of $235 million to $505 million in environmental benefits every year.

Although we focused our analysis on Iowa, the results can be generalized throughout the Corn Belt.

So why aren’t Iowa farmers sowing oats?

A few years ago, production of oats in the United States fell to its lowest level since the Civil War. Partly, of course, that’s because most people don’t get around using oat-eating horses anymore. But even since the 1940s, oat production in Iowa has fallen steadily, as this handy graph shows (hat tip to my colleague Andrea Basche, who created it):

The change in crops planted across the state of Iowa from 1940-2012. Closed symbols represent summer annual crops while open symbols represent perennial crops or crops that grow over winter. Alfalfa, barley, hay and oats represented 45 percent of harvested acreage in 1940 and 7 percent in 2012. Source: USDA-NASS, https://www.agcensus.usda.gov/Publications/2012/Full_Report/Census_by_State/Iowa/.

Struggling farmers need to diversify, and they need help

There’s no agronomic reason Iowa farmers can’t grow crops other than corn and soybeans, they just mostly don’t anymore. Maybe specialization seemed like a good idea at the time, but now farmers in Iowa and other parts of the Midwest are trapped in an endless cycle of corn and soybeans. And it can’t continue. As any financial advisor will tell you, having just a few stocks (or in this case, just a few crops) in your portfolio puts you at increased risk from price swings. And so it is with many farmers, who now rely, to a risky and ultimately unsustainable degree, on corn and soybeans.

This guy likes oats, but pigs would eat them too!

Our friends at the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) are trying to turn that around. For the last few years, PFI’s Sarah Carlson and her colleagues have been working with a small group of pioneering farmers on diversifying crop rotations, including an oat pilot project. They’ve even created a YouTube video series called Rotationally Raised and a dedicated oat-growing tips video to share their experience with other farmers who might want to give diverse rotations a try.

Carlson says that many of the farmers she talks to would like to try adding oats and other crops into their mix, but they need to know they’ll be able to sell them. That’s why PFI is also talking with companies who buy a lot of oats (think cereal makers) about committing to buy Iowa oats in the future. The state’s pork producers could also be encouraged to feed oats to their pigs as a substitute for some of the corn they now buy.

Mulik believes that markets for new crops will expand once there are more oats out there looking for buyers, at lower prices than corn. To paraphrase a famous line from a movie set in Iowa, “If you grow it, they will come.”

Tell Secretary Sonny: Diversify US agriculture!

But we don’t have to wait for markets to catch up. Many farmers who might adopt a modi­fied rotation system right now face challenges including financial and technical barriers as well as crop insurance and credit con­straints. New and expanded federal farm policies are needed to help farmers overcome those barriers and reap the benefits of these systems. Our report recommends some specific policy changes Congress should take up as it reauthorizes the federal farm bill over the next year, and others the USDA could implement in the near term.

And this brings me to the Trump administration’s newly-confirmed Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue. Perdue has hit the ground running, meeting with farmers at an Iowa town hall and flying over flooded farmland in Arkansas last week, while using his folksy new Twitter handle, @SecretarySonny, to assure farmers that the USDA has their back.

One way the USDA could support farmers in the Midwest and across the country is by supporting smart farming systems—like diverse crop rotations—that offer proven benefits to farmers and the rest of us. Sign our petition today urging him to prioritize healthy farm and food systems.



From Soup to Nuts: Science-based Recommendations for FDA’s “Healthy” Label

If you wanted to offer your two cents on how the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines “healthy” food, you’ll have to keep those pennies in your pocket for now. The public comment period closed on April 26, and the people—more than a thousand in total—have spoken.

The comments represent a diverse range of perspectives. Some are purist, suggesting that all artificial colors or flavors, preservatives, and genetically engineered ingredients be excluded from foods bearing the “healthy” label. Others raise concerns about consumer (mis)interpretations of “healthy” and related terms, and recommend that its use on product labels be disallowed. Still others—primarily those representing various sectors of the food industry—advocate for flexibility in the regulations to accommodate existing products or provide adequate time for product reformulation.

As for UCS?

We pursued a science-based path to food-based criteria, emphasizing the importance of food groups in healthy dietary patterns, while also supporting limits for sugar, sodium, and fat. Some of these were no-brainers, and some were, quite frankly, tough nuts to crack. Here’s where the science steered us.

Food-based criteria are a must

Any food item labeled “healthy” should contain a substantial proportion of one or more health-promoting foods. We chose to define “health-promoting foods” generally as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, dairy (including nutritionally equivalent dairy substitutes), and protein foods. These categories largely reflect the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Key Recommendations for Healthy Eating Patterns. We also identified some specific foods that should be excluded from the healthy label: fruit juice, processed meat, and red meat. Fruit juice has a higher glycemic index than whole fruit and lacks equivalent fiber content, and is associated with a greater risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The World Health Organization’s classification of processed meat as carcinogenic to humans, and red meat as probably carcinogenic, provides the basis of their exclusion.

Photo: Lea Aharonovitch/CC BY SA (Flickr)

Establishing what constitutes a “substantial amount or proportion” of a health-promoting food is considerably more difficult. While there is some precedent for evaluating the healthfulness of foods (the Environmental Working Group Food Scores and the United Kingdom Department of Health’s Nutrient Profiling Model are good places to start), we lack substantive research to help us identify an amount that strikes the ideal balance between potential health benefits and practicality. Of course, the more health-promoting foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains we eat, the better; but a useful recommendation must also consider the full range of products that line our grocery store shelves and the habits and preferences of the people who buy them. Ultimately, should the FDA decide to adopt this method of classifying foods, it will need research that addresses this question.

A “healthy” food should be low in ingredients and nutrients associated with clear health risks

The inclusion of added-sugar limits in the FDA definition of “healthy” is long overdue. The 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that calories from added sugars contribute no more than 10 percent of total calories, while the American Heart Association limits calories from added sugar to less than seven percent of total calories for moderately active adults, and recommends that children under two avoid added sugar altogether. In keeping with the dietary guidelines, we propose that added sugar contributes no more than 10 percent of calories to a food labeled “healthy,” with greater potential health benefits offered by further reductions.

While the current definition of “healthy” identifies sodium limits for foods, research suggests that many Americans need more help staying below recommended daily levels. The current mean sodium intake in the US is 3,440 milligrams per day—that’s almost 150 percent higher than recommended intake of 2,300 mg per day. Research consistently demonstrates a strong relationship between sodium intake and risk of heart disease, which is the leading cause of death in the United States.

Given that processed and commercially prepared foods provide about 75 percent of our total sodium intake, it’s important that the FDA take this opportunity to set adequate sodium goals for packaged foods. While the available science does not point to one optimal sodium threshold for food items or prepared meals, we can confidently say this: sodium limits on food items should be reduced to help Americans meet daily sodium goals. And the forthcoming —currently being drafted by the FDA to help Americans meet sodium targets within 10 years—should inform these reductions with evidence-based recommendations.

Current science suggests the FDA reconsider limits on total fat

As a nation, we are slowly coming to our senses after a decades-long low-fat frenzy, as science has given us a much greater understanding of the role fat actually plays in chronic disease. We now know that the type of fat we eat may influence our health more than the amount. Research consistently shows that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats in the diet leads to lower total cholesterol (particularly the LDL, or “bad” variety) in the blood. The existing FDA definition of “healthy” limits total fat content but doesn’t distinguish between types—meaning heart-healthy foods like almonds don’t make the cut. To address this, we propose that foods with fat content higher than current allowable levels may still bear a “healthy” label if the majority of the fat is poly- or monounsaturated. (The catch? The fats need to come from one of the health-promoting food groups named above. Adding canola oil to cookies doesn’t count.)

Food labels are important, but they aren’t enough

With this rulemaking, the FDA has an opportunity to bring its “healthy” claim into better alignment with the latest scientific findings about health-promoting foods. But there are limitations to what even the best food label can achieve. Consumers may interpret the claim in different ways, or may find themselves more influenced by price or package design. Even in the best of circumstances, a nutrient content claim generally conveys information about a given food, but it doesn’t provide the context of a balanced and healthy diet.

That’s why public investment in nutrition programs—like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), National School Lunch Program (NSLP), and Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) grant program—is so important when it comes to changing the tide of Americans’ diets and our nation’s health. As the FDA begins to build their definition of “healthy,” we continue our work in defending these programs in the federal budget and upcoming farm bill to ensure that, for all Americans, “healthy” can be a reality.


Photo: USDA

Arbor Day and Agroforestry: Green Infrastructure for Agriculture

Growing up I remember looking forward to Arbor Day as a time when we celebrated planting trees in school, a tradition I came to enjoy in April. As an adult—and as an agricultural scientist interested in how we diversify farms—Arbor Day is an opportune reminder of the benefits that trees and crops have when used together (much more than turning carbon dioxide into oxygen, which was the major selling point I learned as a kid). This has an official name: agroforestry. In the spirit of Arbor Day, I want to celebrate the diverse benefits of agroforestry, and share more about how we might increase trees in agricultural settings.

An illustration of the multiple benefits offered by diverse agroforestry systems. Source: USDA National Agroforestry Center. Illustrator: Gary Bentrup/CC-BY-2.0.

Green infrastructure for agriculture

Green infrastructure is something that we often hear about in the urban context as a way to reduce stormwater and increase green spaces through things like increased permeable surfaces and plant vegetation. Outside of the urban environment, agricultural regions can similarly benefit from using trees as green infrastructure, or more green living cover on farms. Agroforestry itself is not a monolith, but rather the term encompasses a diverse set of crop and tree arrangements offering many environmental benefits, including:

Ginseng grows in the understory of trees, an example of forest farming. Source: USDA National Agroforestry Center

  • Windbreaks are rows of trees used primarily to reduce winds and in turn protect people, plants and animals. Windbreaks can increase crop yields, control erosion, lessen snowdrift, shelter pollinators or reduce odors.
  • Forest farming is the practice of growing specialty crops under a forest canopy (ginseng and ramps are examples). This requires managing forests to assure that the right amount of shade is provided for understory crops to thrive.
  • Riparian forest buffers are intentionally designed regions with trees, shrubs, and/or other perennial plants near rivers, often for water quality and quantity management.
  • Alley cropping is mixing crops with trees that can be harvested (nuts, fruits, timber, etc.).
  • Silvopasture is the combination of trees and grazing lands. Trees in this setting can provide shelter for livestock, and when properly managed, can benefit the plants growing underneath (they might even be used for additional income, depending on the varieties selected).

Experts suggest that maximizing the benefit of agroforestry is really a matter of finding the right tree for the right purpose, and there are lots of things that trees can help achieve. Agroforestry is known to promote aspects of climate mitigation, through additional carbon stored in trees and soil. It can also promote climate adaptation, including reducing the impacts of heavy rainfall events (by decreasing stormwater runoff through increasing water infiltration and intercepting peak flows). Other benefits of agroforestry include creating corridors for wildlife as well as educational environments to reconnect communities with agricultural production.

Another aspect of agroforestry infrastructure that’s green: dollars! There are many diversified business prospects afforded by agroforestry. In the case of shiitake mushroom cultivation, orchards for beginner farmers, or Native tribes reconnecting indigenous knowledge of diverse agriculture to support local food production, agroforestry can offer opportunities for beginning or underserved farmers to break into agriculture.

Trees might not solve all problems (in fact, trees can be invasive and lead to more problems) so it is important to think first about landowner goals, and then select the most appropriate orientation and species to help achieve them.

How we can help make agroforestry grow

The million-dollar question with environmentally friendly agriculture is why don’t we see more of it? With agroforestry, it’s not just as simple as planting a tree.

Livestock graze on a silvopasture field in Florida. Photo source: USDA National Agroforestry Center, Jim Robinson USDA-NRCS.

Trees require a longer time frame for landowners to plan around compared to crops. So, it’s more complicated than buying seed for one season and harvesting it several months later. A survey of landowners and agricultural professionals in the Southeast found that competing demands (such as for time or finances) with other aspects of crop and livestock operations was a major obstacle to agroforestry. Another hurdle identified was a lack of familiarity with the practice as well as limited demonstration fields. More research could help overcome these obstacles.

At the Union of Concerned Scientists we’re working to increase the public research dollars that go to practices such as agroforestry. For example, our recent analysis found that the overall portion of USDA competitive grant dollars going to projects that including any element of agroecology was less than 15%, with only a tiny fraction of this (less than 1%) going to projects that investigated agroforestry. Small investments in research can support those hoping to generate economic opportunities through practices such as agroforestry, and we will continue to work for a greater portion of the pie for this type of research.

We can call the idea of agroforestry as green infrastructure lots of things: productive conservation, ecobelts or even ecological buffers. Regardless, there’s no getting around the benefits of trees and crops combined. Trees don’t have to be just for ornamentation. They can work for us for in many ways, especially with agriculture.

Five Ways President Trump Has Failed Rural America in the First 100 Days

Look out rural America, President Trump has an executive order for you. As the White House looks to create a sense of achievement before its first 100 days is up on Saturday, the President will sign a flurry of new orders this week, including one today “promoting agriculture and rural prosperity in America.” But will it really help struggling farmers and rural economies? That remains to be seen.

Much has been said about farmers and rural voters feeling forgotten in the early months of the Trump administration, which is probably why he’s rushing to sign something at a sit-down with farmers this afternoon, just before his 100-day report card is delivered.

The order will reportedly sunset the White House Rural Council created by President Obama in 2011, and in its place establish an interagency task force “to identify legislative, regulatory, or policy changes to promote American agriculture, economic development, job growth, infrastructure improvements, technological innovation, energy security, and quality of life in rural America.”

Sounds great, but of course the devil is in the details. While we’re waiting for those, let’s re-cap what the administration has done for to farmers and rural America so far:

  1. Left them waiting a record 95 days for a Secretary of Agriculture. At long last, the Senate last night confirmed former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue as Secretary of Agriculture. After being sworn in this morning, he’ll join the President and assembled farmers this afternoon. But this moment has been a long time coming. A record long time…no agriculture secretary in modern times has assumed the office later in a new administration. The protracted delay by the White House in nominating Perdue and filing the required paperwork created anxiety and consternation among farmers and rural residents. And it has had real impacts, as Congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle pointed out in an April 3 letter to the full Senate. Not the least of these impacts is that there was no champion for farmers in the cabinet when the White House produced its initial budget blueprint last month (see #2 below). Asked by members of the Senate Agriculture Committee during his March 23 confirmation hearing if he had been consulted during the budget development process, Perdue stated flatly: “I had no input in the budget.”
  1. Proposed slashing the USDA’s farmer-serving budget by a whopping 21 percent. The Trump administration’s initial budget blueprint for the Department of Agriculture was panned by farmers, members of Congress, and UCS. And no wonder. It would cut direct technical assistance to farmers, funding for loans and grants to improve rural water systems, and, potentially, food assistance programs that serve low-income rural residents. (See my summary here.)
  1. Threatened to deport farm workers, creating an agricultural labor shortage. Going back to the campaign, candidate Trump took a hard line on immigration, what with the wall, the deportation force, and extreme vetting. Nearly 100 days into the administration, not much has changed, and farmers who rely on immigrant labor are worried. The Associated Press has estimated that undocumented immigrants account for 46 percent of the 800,000 farm workers on the nation’s crop farms. The dairy industry has also indicated dismay at the administration’s stance on immigration, fearing it will lose workers.
  1. Appears to have endorsed the “more-more-more” strategy that has clearly failed farmers. Last month, I wrote about the fallacy of the “more-more-more” approach to US agriculture, in which the debunked imperative to double global food production is wielded as a rationale for US farmers to pump out more corn and other commodity crops at all costs. I noted that this is not working well for those US farmers, who achieved record-high harvests for corn and soybeans last year, but at the same time found their incomes at the lowest levels since 2002. President Trump’s commitment to more-more-more seems evident in, for example, his nomination of the governor of the nation’s #1 corn state (Iowa) to be the next ambassador to China—a move that suggests doubling down on production of those same old crops, in hopes of selling more of them into overseas markets.
  1. Denied a major existential threat to agriculture—climate change—and with that, denied farmers the chance to benefit from solving it. President Trump has made his climate denial clear, with earlier executive orders, personnel decisions, and the threat to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Companies from a range of industries have appealed to the administration to reject climate denial and instead take actions to help the nation be a leader in the low-carbon economy. Now a leading farm group has also adopted that message, with the recognition that farmers also stand to benefit from climate action and suffer from inaction.
UCS to Trump administration: Farmers need real help now!

So, for US farmers, the first 100 days of the Trump presidency have been disappointing. What about the next 100 days, and the 100 days after that? With the arrival of a new agriculture secretary, UCS is gearing up to press the administration for real leadership for the nation’s farm and food system.

The work begins now.

That’s why this week, we’ll deliver a petition (with more than 29,000 signatures) asking the new Secretary to prioritize smarter public investments that make healthy foods more affordable, promote all types of farming (not just more-more-more), improve children’s health and well-being, and help farmers adopt science-based, sustainable farming practices that can help them succeed while protecting the critical natural resources we all depend upon.

Farmers to Trump: Don’t Walk Away from Climate Action

There’s a little good news from farm country. Last week, the National Farmers Union (NFU)—a grassroots organization representing 200,000 farmers, fishers, and ranchers with affiliates in 33 states—publicly urged President Trump to keep the United States’ commitment to global climate action.

I was thrilled, and a little surprised, though I shouldn’t have been.NFU has supported the Paris Agreement since its adoption in 2015, and the nation’s second-largest farm organization is progressive when it comes to environmental issues. Still, the NFU’s strongly-worded statement was a good reminder that farmers aren’t a monolith, and that while some farm groups have their heads stuck firmly in the sand, there’s hope for a future in which farmers help avert the worst impacts of climate change on the land and our food supply.

NFU farmers are climate leaders

In his statement last week, NFU president Roger Johnson put it simply: “The Paris Agreement is vital to enhancing the climate resiliency of family farm operations and rural communities, and it allows family farmers and ranchers to join carbon sequestration efforts that stimulate economic growth in rural America.”

At its annual convention in March 2016, NFU members voted to “lead the way” on climate change. The policy resolution they adopted notes that farmers and rural residents are “a large part” of the climate solution because of their role in generating renewable energy and sequestering carbon in soils. It commits NFU to educating its own members about ways they can “adapt to the effects of climate change on their respective operations, as well as the enormous economic benefits that homegrown renewable energy brings to our rural areas.”

And it endorses policy solutions, including a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and voluntary conservation practices that focus on water quality and quantity concerns. Not least, the NFU resolution urges Congressional funding of land-grant universities and the USDA “to do the necessary research to help farmers and ranchers better increase the water holding capacity and resiliency of our nation’s soils through changing cropping patterns, production and conservation practices, and carbon sequestration.” (Otherwise known as agroecology. Nearly 500 scientists agree.)

A year later, NFU is making good on its commitment. In addition to the statement about Paris, the organization has launched a change.org petition calling on Congress to include “opportunities to enhance climate resiliency and mitigate climate change” in the 2018 farm bill. That petition has more than 30,000 signatures. And through its Climate Leaders program and Facebook group, NFU has created a forum to spread awareness and spur action by farmers.

Climate action is good for farmers

NFU says it’s taking this stand because its members are on the front lines of climate change, and are already feeling the volatility of our changing climate. Indeed, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the nation’s farmers not only can be part of the climate solution, but they must in order to survive.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the media, as evidenced by a spate of recent coverage. A fifth-generation Iowa farmer describes (here, also cross-posted here) the climate challenges and opportunities he sees for himself and his fellow farmers. The New York Times earlier this year identified a subset of farmers in conservative states who are practicing climate-friendly agriculture without ever talking about the climate. And the Huffington Post has the stories of six farmers who are taking a whole range of actions on their land—employing water-conserving practices, or diversifying crops—in order to increase their climate resilience. (One of them even has a 35-page climate adaptation plan!)

Denial and delay put farmers at risk

At the same time, too many farmers will not publicly acknowledge climate change. An annual survey of Iowa farmers asked respondents about their views on climate change in 2011, and again two years later. The 2013 results moved slightly in the direction of agreement that climate change is happening and that humans are mostly to blame. Still, only 16 of farmers surveyed took that view, while a much larger fraction of respondents—nearly a quarter!—agreed with the statement that there is “not enough evidence to know with certainty whether climate change is occurring or not.”

This misperception is aided and abetted by the nation’s largest and most powerful farm organization, the American Farm Bureau Federation (Farm Bureau, for short). A lumbering dinosaur, the Farm Bureau continues to pretend climate change isn’t really happening, or if it is, no one can really know why. A cynical policy statement on its website sows doubt: “Some scientists,” the statement says slyly, have connected human activities to increased average global temperatures, and “some scientists” have predicted more extreme weather. Then it cuts to the chase: “Imposing regulations based on unproven technologies or science causes increased costs to produce food, feed, fuel and fiber without measurably addressing the issue of climate.” (emphasis added)

Such rhetoric inflames the worry of many farmers that accepting the reality of climate change will make them vulnerable to new costs, a very serious concern right now with rock-bottom prices for farm products, farm incomes plummeting, and debt escalating. That’s why it’s important to point out how climate-smart farm practices can help farmers save money on input costs, improve soil health, and perform better in drought and flood conditions. And how, instead of imposing new costs, this kind of farming could create new revenue streams for environmental services.

Farmers need information and technical support

While some farmers are plowing ahead with climate action and others are following the Farm Bureau’s non-lead, a third subset is uneasy about what climate change will bring but unsure of what to do. And this group hasn’t received enough help to date. Yes, the Obama USDA boosted climate-related research—spending more than $650 million since 2009, according to then-Secretary Vilsack last year—and in 2014 established a network of regional “climate hubs” to translate science into practical advice and assistance to farmers. But the nation’s farmers need even more information, education, and support, and they need to be hearing about the need for climate action from people they trust.

Unfortunately, President Trump and his agriculture secretary nominee Sonny Perdue (who may finally be confirmed by a Senate vote scheduled for next week) aren’t exactly inspiring confidence on that front. Like his would-be boss, Perdue has a history of public climate skepticism, and it’s an open question whether he’ll move to reverse progress made by his predecessor to help farmers cope.

All this is why NFU’s vocal support for real action to combat climate change and adapt to the reality of our climate future is so important.

So today I’d like to say thank you to the 200,000 farmers of NFU. We need you, and we’re glad to stand with you.

Sustainable Agriculture on the Chopping Block in Iowa

There has been unsettling news out of my former home over the last week, as the Iowa legislature plays politics with critical scientific research in the state. In the closing days of the legislative session, two budget bills moved swiftly that could force the closing of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, a nationally recognized center for sustainable agriculture research. There were also threats to a research center dedicated to mitigating flood impacts (which I wrote about last year for its excellent forecasting that literally helped saved lives), but that appears now to be safe.

A little bit of background: the Leopold Center was established in 1987 by Iowa’s Groundwater Protection Act. This law passed as the farm crisis of the 1980’s was raging (it is estimated that nearly one-third of the state’s farms went out of business) and there was growing recognition of the problems associated with soil degradation and water pollution. Forward-thinking Iowa legislators came up with a funding stream – a small fertilizer and pesticide tax that generates several million dollars a year – to be dedicated to research on alternatives that offset the economic and environmental impacts of agriculture.

The resulting funding stream launched several important research enterprises—for example, a center studying health effects of environmental contaminants at the University of Iowa, long-term agricultural research sites across the state, as well as the Leopold Center, which is based at Iowa State University. Since that time, the Leopold Center’s competitive grants program has funded research that benefits both rural and urban constituents, with projects that range from local food infrastructure to crop diversification to beginner farmer programs. Many of the innovative topics the Center has investigated are now widely accepted largely thanks to its efforts, so it’s important to recognize how critical this type of rare funding support is for encouraging and spreading transformative ideas.

Research far and wide has benefited from the Leopold Center

The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture supported two research projects of mine related to cover crops while I was a graduate student at Iowa State University. It was invaluable professional development as an early career scientist, and I know that many other students had similar experiences that wouldn’t have been possible without these critical funds.

The Leopold Center’s research not only supports progress at the state level, but also has direct application to progress on a national level.

Our own research here at the Union of Concerned Scientists has benefited from the Leopold Center’s novel work. In our 2016 report, Growing Economies, we evaluated the economic impact of more local food purchasing in the state of Iowa. We were able to do that using survey data generated by the Leopold Center, in which institutional and intermediate food purchasers were asked about their ability to support local food. And in Subsidizing Waste, we calculated the economic impact of scaling up the integration of perennial vegetation into corn and soybean fields, to save money on water clean-up costs. The STRIPs project has long been supported by funding from the Leopold Center. Finally, a report we’re preparing to release next month will detail how a crop rotation system developed at Iowa State and supported by the Center could be expanded, spreading economic and environmental benefits across the state and the Corn Belt.

Also, earlier in my career while I was a Ph.D. student at Iowa State University, I received two Leopold Center research grants to study the long-term impacts and farmer adoption of cover crops. That was an invaluable professional development opportunity for me as an early career scientist: from developing the proposal to helping administer the project and to making decisions on dollars spent.

If a research center like this disappears, it would be yet another significant blow in the broader conversation over how much funding goes toward sustainable agriculture. In a recent analysis, we looked at competitive grants program within the USDA, concluding that agroecological research (similar to projects supported by the Leopold Center) is woefully underfunded, with less than 15 percent of funding going to projects that included any element of this type of work. We need more of this type of research, not less, and nearly 500 Ph.D. level scientists agree.

Lawmaker claims “mission accomplished” in sustainable agriculture (LOL!)

An Iowa state representative this week in an interview claimed: “A lot of people felt that the mission for sustainable agriculture that [the Leopold Center] undertook, that they have completed that mission.” The same lawmaker also claimed that sustainable agriculture research at Iowa State can continue, but through other channels. These comments either suggest an utter lack of understanding around the reality of sustainable agriculture, or otherwise reveal the politics fueling these budget bills.

The agriculture and natural resources committee budget bill directs the Leopold Center to shut its doors this summer, and directs their funds to another center at Iowa State University. The other center does not currently have a track record of transparently administering research dollars, and has a far narrower scope than the current vision of the Leopold Center.

Comments to the tune of “someone else will do the research” always give me pause. The common thread I’ve noticed is that research deemed duplicative or unnecessary often simply doesn’t jibe with financial interests. It is easy to see that research describing less use of pesticides, for example, might be viewed as controversial to powerful business interests. (Many examples of this already exist!)

Further, to claim “mission accomplished” on sustainable agriculture is laughable, and hints at willful ignorance about the current economic and environment realities in Iowa. They bear similarities to the 1980s: soil erosion and water pollution remain persistent and costly challenges, and farm incomes have been steeply declining for several years.

Research should be free of interference even when the politics are thorny

Even though it might not be popular for those with a financial stake in the status quo, the  research made possible by the Leopold Center plays a critical role in the future of the state, if not the nation, and has broad public support. So it’s hard not to see this incident as part of the larger political attacks on science, with parallels to the Trump Administration’s numerous attacks on climate action.

In addition to research funds, the Leopold Center supports a diverse dialogue by bringing in valuable speakers and lectures to Iowa State’s campus; I shudder to think how that important dialogue will change if the state legislature votes to close its doors. The Center has a successful and important track record benefitting local and national public interests, and I hope it stays that way.

Beef, Palm Oil and Taking Responsibility: A Comment That TheOilPalm Wouldn’t Publish

Back in December, I wrote a blog post about the importance of beef as the largest driver of deforestation. The following month, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council wrote a blog on their site, TheOilPalm.org, arguing that my blog proved that palm oil had been unfairly blamed for deforestation, and demanding an apology. Here’s a comment explaining why they’re wrong:

“When I read the post by the Malaysian Palm Oil Board concerning my blog about the importance of beef as the leading driver of deforestation, I recalled a lesson that I learned many, many years ago. I’m now 67 years old, which means that it has been more than six decades since my parents taught it to me. It was simple: when I did something wrong, I couldn’t excuse it by saying that someone else had done something worse. I had to take responsibility for my own actions, no matter what anyone else did.

As I explained in my original blog, new data shows the large role of beef production, particularly in Latin America, as a cause of tropical deforestation. Does this mean that we no longer need to be concerned about deforestation for oil palm production in Malaysia? Does the climate impact of deforestation in the Amazon mean that the destruction of peat swamps in southeast Asia no longer causes any global warming pollution? Does the threat to jaguars and tapirs in South America somehow protect orangutans and rhinos on the other side of the planet?

Of course not. The threats to the environment, the climate and biodiversity from oil palm production in Malaysia are not diminished in the least by the parallel threats from beef production in the Americas. One does not excuse the other. On the contrary, they combine to make the global danger even worse.

This kind of argument is similar to something we’ve been seeing in recent weeks in Washington, which goes by the name “what-about-ism.” When the new government does something egregious on one issue, instead of defending its actions it responds by attacking its critics on some other issue. For example: the courts have found the current administration’s ban on immigrants from Muslim countries to be unconstitutional—well, what about the previous administration’s deportations of immigrants from Mexico?

Few of us have found this kind of blame-shifting persuasive, and I doubt the Malaysian Palm Oil Board’s arguments about beef will be any more convincing. Environmental destruction in one part of the world doesn’t justify it in any other part of the world, whether it’s larger, smaller, or simply different. The destruction of tropical forests by all the drivers of deforestation—beef, palm oil, soy and timber—is a threat to the climate that we all depend on, and thus to people everywhere.”

You may wonder why this comment is posted here rather than on the MPOC web site to which it’s replying. The answer is, because they wouldn’t post it. I submitted this comment on their blog site on Monday, March 13, in full anticipation that it would be published immediately, and when it wasn’t, I sent a followup message two days later asking what was causing the delay. But it’s now a month later and nothing has happened. The comment hasn’t been posted, nor has there even been the courtesy of a reply. That’s why it’s here.

Will Scott Gottlieb Comply with Industry Plea to Stall Added Sugar Label?

President Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), Scott Gottlieb, faced the Senate in his nomination hearing on Wednesday, during which he implied that delayed implementation of the science-based nutrition facts label revision would be possible if he is confirmed.

Yes, you read that right. The future chief of an agency dedicated to protecting public health is already hinting at his willingness to do industry’s bidding to push back enforcement of a rule based in solid science that would help us make informed food purchasing decisions to improve our health. But his alignment on industry talking points is not completely shocking. Mr. Gottlieb has a long list of ties to industry, including an extensive financial and professional relationship with several pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and sell opioids.

During the hearing, Senator Pat Roberts told Gottlieb that the deadline of summer 2018 was not enough time for industry to make the required label changes, including the new added sugar line, especially considering that companies will have to include biotechnology disclosures on labels soon as well. To the question of whether he would “work to ensure proper guidance is available and consider postponing the deadline for the Nutrition Facts Panel to help reduce regulatory burdens?” Gottlieb didn’t explicitly say he would postpone the deadline but might as well have:

“This is something that I do care about and I look forward to working on if I am confirmed,” Gottlieb said. He continued to explain that he is, “philosophically in favor of trying to make sure we do these things efficiently, not only because it imposes undue costs on manufacturers to constantly be updating their labels, but we also have to keep in mind it creates confusion for consumers if the labels are constantly changing…you want to try to consolidate the label changes when you are making [them] as a matter of public health so that the information is conveyed accurately and efficiently to the consumers.”

Why delay?

The delay tactic is often used by industry as a fallback plan, once they’ve failed altogether to stop a science-based policy that might impact their bottom line. This is old hat for the food industry. Back in December, I wrote about how 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) had written a letter to the acting HHS secretary and USDA secretaries asking to delay the implementation of the nutrition facts rule to coordinate with U.S. Department of Agriculture’s biotechnology disclosure rule. Some of the same players doubled-down on a similar letter in March, asking HHS Secretary Tom Price to delay the rule until May 2021 for the same reason. Scott Gottlieb’s remarks at his hearing closely resemble the sentiments contained in both of those letters.

Sound familiar? Time and time again we’ve seen science-based proposed rules never make it to the final stages, or those that are finalized but implementation is soon delayed. Just last week, EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, issued a proposed rule that would delay implementation of the Risk Management Plan (RMP) amendments 20 months, until February 19, 2019. This move came after several petitions from the American Chemistry Council and a handful of other chemical manufacturing corporations, oil and gas companies, and trade organizations asked the agency to reconsider the rule.

And remember the silica rule? Although the science had been clear for over forty years, it took the Department of Labor longer than necessary to issue a final rule late last year which tightened the standard, thanks to opposition from the American Chemistry Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Just yesterday, the department announced that the rule’s enforcement would be delayed because the construction industry needs more time to educate its employees about the standard.

Industry’s reaction to rules that protect our public health makes it seem like government is blindsiding them. But it’s not like any of these rules were dropped without warning or without cause. These safeguards take years to gather information for and write, during which industry is given ample opportunity to be involved in the process. FDA first began its work to revise the nutrition facts label in 2004, and the proposed rule which included the added sugar line was issued in 2014. Not exactly rapid response. The fact is that science-based policies threaten business as usual, and therefore industry will use all resources at its disposal to stop or slow progress.

Industry’s excuses are wearing thin

Once again, with clear science on the public health consequences associated with excessive added sugar consumption, we have been waiting long enough for full added sugar disclosure on labels. While we wait, we’re missing out. The estimated benefit to consumers of the revisions to the nutrition facts label consumers would be $78 billion over 20 years, not to mention the less quantifiable benefits that come with the right to know how much added sugar is in the foods we buy and eat.

The majority of companies already have until 2019 to make the new changes to their labels and larger food companies like Mars, Inc. have said they could meet the July 2018 deadline just fine.

It’s clear that industry is turning this science-based decision into a political one, at the expense of Americans who will remain in the dark about how much added sugar is in their food for even longer. As National Public Health Week draws to a close, I can’t help but think about the urgent need for progress now, not in four years, if we’re to improve the health of this country, let alone become the healthiest nation by 2030. If Mr. Gottlieb secures the FDA secretary position, he must remember that he is beholden to our public health, not the pharmaceutical or food industry’s bottom line.

Americans Are Worried about Water Pollution (And They Should Be)

Apparently the Trump administration hasn’t heard about the latest Gallup poll, which puts Americans’ concerns about water pollution and drinking water at their highest levels since 2001. Why do I say this? Because in addition to rolling back a key Obama-era clean water rule, a leaked EPA memo reveals that the administration intends to slash or eliminate funding for a slew of water programs and initiatives. And while recent and ongoing crises like the one in Flint have highlighted urban drinking water problems, it is also true that rural communities—whose voters helped put President Trump in office—have plenty to worry about.

Gallup’s annual Environment Poll found that 63 percent of Americans worried “a great deal” about pollution of drinking water, and 57 percent have a similar level of concern about pollution of rivers, lakes and reservoirs. Such levels of concern about drinking water were highest among non-white and low-income groups, but were reported by majorities of respondents across racial and income lines.

The Trump administration is trashing clean water protections

Against this backdrop of Americans’ rising water worries, President Trump is taking actions that will actually make the nation’s waters dirtier. First he staffed his administration with Big Ag and Big Oil boosters, including his EPA chief Scott Pruitt. Then he signed an executive order to begin undoing the EPA’s Clean Water rule, over which (not coincidentally) Pruitt sued the EPA while serving as Oklahoma attorney general. To emphasize his disdain, the President called the rule, “horrible, horrible.”

But what’s really horrible is what the Trump administration did next. As the Washington Post reported last Friday, a leaked EPA memo sheds new light on the budget cuts previewed a few weeks earlier. My colleagues have documented how cuts will impact clean vehicle programs and climate research, so here I’ll focus on implications for EPA’s clean water work. Bottom line: it’s worse than you thought. The memo names at least 17 water-focused programs and sub-programs slated for total elimination, and others that would face sharply reduced funding. By my tally, the cuts to EPA Office of Water programs total more than $1 billion.

That’s deeply troubling, because when the administration yanks precious dollars from clean water programs, people and communities suffer. Whether it’s cleaning up pollution in Lake Michigan, restoring wetlands around Puget Sound, preventing farm runoff into the Chesapeake Bay, or testing drinking water in rural Maine that doesn’t happen because there’s no money and no staff, people will be hurt. People’s health, people’s recreational opportunities, people’s livelihoods. And costs that could have been averted balloon instead.

Water worries are rising in farm country

It’s not just urban or industrial communities that will suffer from the Trump administration’s budget cutting. The Washington Post reported last weekend on the irony that many cuts would disproportionately hurt rural communities that supported him, because they rely heavily on federally-funded social programs. The article didn’t mention water pollution, but it’s a fact that water supplies in (and downstream from) agricultural areas bear a heavy burden of contamination from farm runoff. High levels of fertilizer-derived nitrates in drinking water, which can cause severe health problems in infants, are a particular concern. The USDA has estimated the cost of removing agricultural nitrates from public water supplies at about $1.7 billion per year, and the total cost of environmental damage from agricultural nitrogen use has been estimated at $157 billion annually. Rural communities and cities like Des Moines, Iowa, are struggling to deal with the problem. And cuts to EPA monitoring and cleanup programs in rural areas could just make it worse.

A false choice

When the Trump administration talks about gutting environmental protections, their argument seems to boil down to, “because jobs.” But that’s a false choice. And the damage industrial agriculture wreaks on the nation’s water resources is a prime example. It affects millions of Americans—rural and urban water consumers, of course, but also taxpayers responsible for pollution cleanup, and boaters, fishers, and business operators that depend on clean water. And it affects farmers, because they too need clean water and healthy soil to be able to keep farming over the long term.

Last summer, UCS documented the potential benefits to farmers, taxpayers, and businesses from an innovative farming system integrating strips of perennial native prairie plants with annual row crops. Researchers who developed the system in Iowa found that by planting prairie strips on just 10 percent of farmland, farmers could reduce nitrogen loss in rivers and streams by 85 percent, phosphorus loss by 90 percent, and sedimentation by 95 percent. And this is all while maintaining farm productivity.

UCS further estimated that the prairie strips system, if adopted across the nation’s 12-state Corn Belt, would generate more than $850 million per year in net savings to farmers and society from reductions in fertilizer use and surface water runoff. In the coming weeks, we’ll follow up with analysis of another farming system based on extended crop rotations, which also promises to keep farmers profitable while reducing pollution.

Smart farm policy can deliver clean water and rural prosperity

This is timely, because Congress is already at work on the 2018 farm bill, that massive piece of legislation that comes around every five years and shapes the nation’s food and farming system. And while the Trump administration has shown utter disregard for the environment that all Americans depend on, for scientific evidence of what works, and even for the particular needs of the farmers and rural voters who put him in office, we’re betting that more reasonable voices will prevail. We’re mounting a campaign to protect the nation’s precious water resources while simultaneously improving farmers’ yields and creating economic opportunities in rural communities. We will mobilize UCS supporters, form common cause with farmer organizations, and join with other allies to call for policies that invest in such systems. Stay tuned.

Five Black Public Health Champions You Should Know

In honor of National Public Health Week, we’re paying tribute to some outstanding individuals in the public health field. But first—bear with me—a little historical context.

It’s no secret that here at UCS, we love science. It can help us define complex problems, identify the best methods to solve them, and (if we’ve done a good job) provide us with metrics for measuring the progress we’ve made.

Doctor injects subject with placebo as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration.

But it would be both irresponsible and incredibly destructive to pretend that science operates in isolation from systems of deeply rooted racism and oppression that plague scientific, political, and cultural institutions in the United States—particularly when it comes to health. Such systems have been used to justify unfathomably cruel and inhumane medical experimentation performed on black bodies in slavery, which were only replaced in the Jim Crow era by pervasive medical mistreatment that resulted in untold fatalities. Racist medical practices were tolerated, if not explicitly condoned, by professional organizations such as the American Medical Association through the late 1960s. The government-funded Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which effectively denied syphilis treatment to nearly 400 black men over the course of 40 years, ended in 1972, but a formal apology was not issued for this deliberate violation of human rights until 1997. And still, in doctors’ offices and hospital rooms across the United States today, race remains a significant predictor of the quality of healthcare a person will receive.

This is, of course, deeply troubling. (And worthy of far deeper discussions than a blog post can provide—see a short list of book recommendations below.)

But perhaps just as troubling as the underpinnings of racism in science and medicine is its relative obscurity in the historical narratives propagated by dominant (read: white) culture. That modern medicine was built on the backs of marginalized populations is well understood and indeed has been lived by many, but it is far from being accepted as universal truth. Meanwhile, the contributions of black scientists, doctors, and health advocates have routinely been eclipsed by those of their white colleagues or are absent entirely from historical records. (At least until Hollywood spots a blockbuster.)

Public health advocates and practitioners have a responsibility both to understand this complex history of medical racism, if they have not already experienced it firsthand, and to thoroughly integrate its implications into their daily work. This includes acknowledging the tensions that may stem from deep distrust of the medical community by communities of color; considering the multiple ways in which implicit bias and institutional racism may impact social determinants of health, risk of chronic disease, access to care, and quality of treatment; applying a racial equity lens to policy and program decision-making; and, last but not least, giving credit where it’s due.

Today, my focus is on that last point. Though public health is not necessarily a discipline that generates fame or notoriety (it has been said, in fact, that public health is only discussed when it is in jeopardy), you should know the names of these five black public health champions. Some past, some present, some well-known and some less so, they are all powerful forces who have made significant contributions to this field.

Have other names we should know? Leave them in the comments.

1.  Dr. Regina Benjamin, former U.S. Surgeon General

Photo: United States Mission Geneva/CC BY SA (Flickr)

During the four-year term she served as the 18th U.S. Surgeon General (2009-2013), Regina Benjamin shifted the national focus on health from a treatment-based to a prevention-based perspective, highlighting the importance of lifestyle factors such as nutrition, physical activity, and stress management in the prevention of chronic disease. Other campaigns during Dr. Benjamin’s term targeted breastfeeding and baby-friendly hospitals, tobacco use prevention among youth and young adults, healthy housing conditions, and suicide prevention. Prior to serving as the Surgeon General, Dr. Benjamin established the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, providing care for patients on a sliding payment scale and even covering some medical expenses out of her own pocket. Dr. Benjamin has been widely recognized for her determination and humanitarian spirit.

2.  Byllye Avery, founder of the Black Women’s Health Imperative and Avery Institute for Social Change

Despite the passage of Roe v Wade in 1973, access to abortions remained limited in the years thereafter, particularly for many black women. Byllye Avery began helping women travel to New York to obtain abortions in the early 1970s, and in 1974 co-founded the Gainesville Women’s Health Center to expand critical access to abortions and other health care services. In 1983, Avery founded the National Black Women’s Health Project (now called the Black Women’s Health Imperative), a national organization committed to “defining, promoting, and maintaining the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of black women and their families.” Avery has received numerous awards for her work, including the Dorothy I. Height Lifetime Achievement Award (1995), the Ruth Bader Ginsberg Impact Award from the Chicago Foundation for Women (2008), and the Audre Lorde Spirit of Fire Award from the Fenway Health Center in Boston (2010).

3.  Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party

Photo: Peizes/CC BY SA (Flickr)

Here’s a name you might know—and a story that might surprise you. While the Black Panther Party, co-founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966, is often remembered for its radical political activism, the black nationalist organization was also deeply engaged in public health work. True to their rallying call to “serve the people body and soul,” the Black Panthers established over a dozen free community health clinics nationwide and implemented a free breakfast program for children. This program, which served its first meal out of a church in Oakland, California in 1968, was one of the first organized school breakfast programs in the country and quickly became a cornerstone of the party. By 1969, the Black Panthers were serving breakfast to 20,000 children in 19 cities around the country. Though the government eventually dismantled the program along with the party itself, many believe it was a driving factor in the establishment of the School Breakfast Program in 1975.

4.  Dr. Camara Jones, former president of the American Public Health Association

As the immediate past president of the American Public Health Association, Dr. Camara Jones brought the impact of racism on health and well-being to the forefront of the public health agenda. She initiated a National Campaign Against Racism, with three strategic goals: naming racism as a driver of social determinants of health; identifying the ways in which racism drives current and past policies and practices; and facilitating conversation, research, and interventions to address racism and improve population health. Dr. Jones has also published various frameworks and allegories, perhaps the most famous of which is Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale, to help facilitate an understanding of the nuance and layers of racism across the general population.

5.  Malik Yakini, founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network

Photo: W.K. Kellogg Foundation/CC BY SA (Flickr)

Malik Yakini may not see himself as a public health advocate, but that hasn’t stopped him from receiving speaking requests from prominent public health institutions across the country. A native Detroiter, Yakini views the food system as a place where inequities play out at the hand of racism, capitalism, and class divisions. “There can be no food justice without social justice,” he said to an audience at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. “In cities like Detroit where the population is predominantly African American, we are seen as markets for inferior goods.” Yakini founded the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network in 2006 to ensure that Detroit communities could exercise sovereignty and self-determination in producing and consuming affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food. The organization operates the seven-acre D-Town Farm on Detroit’s east side and is now in the process of establishing the Detroit Food People’s Co-op.

Recommended Reads

Black Man in a White Coat by Dr. Damon Tweedy

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination


Trump Administration Claims ‘No Evidence’ Afterschool Programs and Meals Work. Actually, There’s Plenty.

When I sat down with Dr. Jacqueline Blakely to talk about her afterschool program at Sampson Webber Academy in Detroit, our conversation was interrupted. A lot. Parents dropped by to talk about their kids, kids dropped in to talk about their days, and the phone rang like clockwork. It didn’t take long for me to understand that there was something really good going on in this classroom.

“The kids get a hot supper, followed by homework help and an academic hour focused on math and science, and then enrichment—that’s when they do projects,” Dr. Blakely explained. “They’re on ‘fun with engineering’ now, but we’ve done a cooking class, learned how to put a car together, and soon we’ll get to do the NASA challenge. That’s when the kids build an underwater robot and send it through an obstacle course.”

With that in mind, maybe you’ll understand why I winced when I heard White House Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney’s comments to the press about afterschool programs and the meals they provide. “They’re supposed to be educational programs, right? That’s what they’re supposed to do. They’re supposed to help kids who don’t get fed at home get fed so they do better in school,” he said. “Guess what? There’s no demonstrable evidence they’re actually doing that.”

Omia and Orari participate in the afterschool program at Sampson Academy in Detroit. Photo: Jacqueline Blakely

Sampson is a 21st Century Community Learning Center (CCLC), a grant-funded program providing 1.8 million children in high-poverty areas with academic, STEM, and cultural enrichment activities during out-of-school hours, as well as snacks and hot meals. According to the budget blueprint released by the Trump administration last month, funding for these programs is set to be eliminated.

But make no mistake—it’s not because they don’t work for kids.

On the contrary, the most recent national performance data for the 21st CCLC program revealed substantial improvements in both student achievement and behavior. Combined state data indicated that over a third of regular attendees (36.5 percent) achieved higher grades in mathematics through program participation, and a similar number (36.8 percent) achieved higher grades in English. Teachers reported that 21st CCLC students increased homework completion and class participation by nearly 50 percent, and over a third (37.2 percent) demonstrated improvements in behavior. Research from the Global Family Research Project supports the conclusion that sustained participation in afterschool programs can lead to greater academic achievement, improved social skills and self-esteem, decreased behavioral problems, and the development of positive health behaviors.

“Kids are getting experiences that schools like ours don’t have the money to provide,” says Dr. Blakely. “I have kids that walk two and three miles home afterwards because the bus doesn’t stay that late. They do that all winter long—that says a lot about this program.”

And about the meals—I don’t mean to insult anyone’s intelligence, but how much data do you need to prove that proper nutrition is important for learning and development?

From a 2014 report from the Center for Disease Control, titled Health and Academic Achievement: “Hunger due to insufficient food intake is associated with lower grades, higher rates of absenteeism, repeating a grade, and an inability to focus among students.” In addition to academic outcomes, food insecurity negatively correlates with measures of health status, emotional wellbeing, productivity, and behavior among school-aged children. There are scores of studies linking nutritional status with academic performance among youth.

Contrary to common assumptions about who is served by federal assistance programs, these issues don’t just affect students in urban areas like Detroit. Food insecurity affects 16 million children across the United States, and of U.S. counties with high child food insecurity rates, a majority (62 percent) are rural. Stripping funding from 21st CCLC programs will be felt deeply in many underserved communities, among them considerable segments of Trump’s own voter base.

I asked Dr. Blakely about her response to the proposed funding cuts. “It upsets me. It further marginalizes kids that are already marginalized, and it makes a bigger gap between the poor and the wealthy.” She paused. “It makes me angry, too. You already acknowledged that they don’t get food at home—so you know they need it. Why would you stop a program that feeds children?”

What this comes down to, regrettably, is yet another display of the administration complacently setting aside the needs of low- and middle-income families, urban and rural alike, to pursue its own agenda.  Afterschool programs may not work for the president’s budget, but there’s no question that they work for kids.