UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

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.

Disregarding Science, Trump Administration Trades Kids’ Brains for Dow Profit

At the risk of exhausting you with more evidence of the Trump administration’s contempt for science and the public interest, here’s another assault. After years of study and deliberation by scientists at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and elsewhere, new EPA head Scott Pruitt announced Wednesday night that he would not ban a pesticide that poses a clear risk to children, farm workers, and rural drinking water users.

In doing so, the administration made a 180-degree turn, handing a win to the pesticide’s maker, Dow AgroSciences (a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company) and a loss to pretty much everyone else.

An about-face on the science

Let’s be clear, the EPA doesn’t just regulate chemicals willy-nilly. It usually has to be pushed, sometimes hard. And in this case it was. Tom Philpott at Mother Jones has an excellent rundown of the years-long saga surrounding the nerve-damaging organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos at the EPA. Under a court order, EPA proposed in November 2015 to effectively ban this pesticide by revoking the agency’s “tolerances” (legal limits allowed in or on food) for the chemical:

At this time, the agency is unable to conclude that the risk from aggregate exposure from the use of chlorpyrifos meets the safety standard of section 408(b)(2) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). Accordingly, EPA is proposing to revoke all tolerances for chlorpyrifos.

When the EPA gets that close to banning a pesticide, you can bet the science is solid. So it’s shocking that, under another court-imposed deadline to finalize its decision this month, the agency’s new science-denier-in-chief abruptly backtracked, suggesting in his statement that the science of chlorpyrifos’s harmful effects isn’t settled.

That claim is disingenuous.

Chlorpyrifos poses a clear-cut risk to children, farmworkers, and rural residents

Chlorpyrifos has been studied extensively, and for years. Once the most commonly used pesticide in US homes, it has been increasingly regulated over the last two decades as scientific evidence of its harm has mounted. Almost all residential uses were eliminated in 2000 based on evidence of developmental neurotoxicity—that is, the chemical’s ability to damage the developing brains of fetuses and young children. Since then, many on-farm uses have also been restricted or banned.

But it’s not enough. The pesticide is still used on corn, soybeans, fruit and nut trees, certain vegetables including Brussels sprouts and broccoli, and other crops. And it’s still harming kids and workers.

Last year, researchers studying mothers and children living in the agricultural Salinas Valley of California documented that just living within a kilometer of farm fields where chlorpyrifos and other neurotoxic pesticides were used lowered IQs by more than two points in 7-year-old children, with corresponding impairment in verbal comprehension. Other studies have found that exposure in the womb is associated with changes in brain structure and function. Farm worker exposure is also a concern, as is exposure of rural residents through drinking water.

Which brings us back to the regulatory battle. Last fall, a coalition of environmental, labor, and health organizations petitioned the EPA to ban all remaining uses of chlorpyrifos, citing unacceptable risks to workers. In November, the EPA inched closer to a ban, revising its human health risk assessment and drinking water exposure assessment for chlorpyrifos. The agency summarized its conclusions this way:

This assessment shows dietary and drinking water risks for the current uses of chlorpyrifos. Based on current labeled uses, the revised analysis indicates that expected residues of chlorpyrifos on food crops exceed the safety standard under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). In addition, the majority of estimated drinking water exposure from currently registered uses, including water exposure from non-food uses, continues to exceed safe levels, even taking into account more refined drinking water exposure. This assessment also shows risks to workers who mix, load and apply chlorpyrifos pesticide products. (emphasis added)

The proposed ban was supported by independent scientists and a coalition of Latino, labor, and health organizations including the United Farm Workers.

Oh yeah, and it was supported by the science and the federal law meant to protect children from toxic pesticides.

EPA is legally required to ban pesticides that threaten health

In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences released a landmark report titled Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Based on a five-year study, the report recommended major changes in the way EPA regulated pesticides in order to protect children’s health, noting that children are not “little adults.” Three years later, Congress acted on those scientific recommendations, passing the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 unanimously (yes, I said unanimously, can you imagine?).

This breakthrough law mandated that the EPA go above and beyond what it had ever done before in considering the developmental susceptibility of infants and children, and their dietary habits, when making regulatory decisions about pesticides. The law built in a 10-fold “safety factor” to be sure kids would be protected.

Of course, children are only protected if the EPA follows the law and the science. And Dow kept the pressure on to ensure they wouldn’t. For now, Pruitt’s announcement represents “final agency action” on chlorpyrifos, and the EPA won’t be required to revisit the question of the pesticide’s safety until 2022. (Sorry, kids.)

How else might the Trump administration undermine science and children’s health?

This latest decision, along with the proposed slashing of EPA’s budget, leaves me wondering just how far the new administration will go in ignoring science and undoing children’s health protections. While the EPA budget cuts are getting a lot of attention, some health scientists are worried as well about the fate of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) as well. In partnership with EPA, NIEHS operates a national network of research centers studying children’s environmental health and educating the public about risks. If funding for those centers is also cut, who will look out for the health of children?

I spent years back in the late 90s and early aughts pressing Congress and the EPA to tighten the rules on toxic chemicals. We’re still not where we need to be, but we’ve made progress. And now it looks like that progress is very much at risk.

 

Richard Leeming/Flickr

Monsanto’s Four Tactics for Undermining Glyphosate Science Review

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

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

High stakes in glyphosate-cancer link

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

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

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

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

Setting the scene for science manipulation

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

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

Tactic 1: Suppress the science

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

Tactic 2: Attack the messenger

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

Tactic 3: Manufacture counterfeit science

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

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

Tactic 4: Undermine independent scientific assessment

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

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

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

Defending the scientific process

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When is a budget not really a budget?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overcoming barriers is possible with a “whole systems” approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Producing more food, sustainably

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agroecology FTW-W-W!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Helping the FDA Define “Healthy” Food Labels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

­

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Good afternoon,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Marco Verch/BY-SA (Flickr)

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

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

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

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

Running the gauntlet of congress is hard

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

Image result for budget wiki

Photo: Wikimedia

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

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

Budget 101

How does the budget process work, in theory?

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

Photo: Wikiwand

Budget 102

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cutting federal spending impacts red states Image result for wiki gulf coast damage

Photo: Wikimedia

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

Image result for wiki DOE national labs

Photo: Wikimedia

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

What can ordinary citizens do?

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

Image result for write your congressman wiki

Photo: Wikihow

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

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

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

Photo: Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Protecting land for beginner farmers and sustainable agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s “healthy,” anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A strong FDA means a healthier America

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

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

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

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

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

Climate Change, Resilience, and the Future of Food

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

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

Public investment: The true hero of the story

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

  • Financial resources such as direct and indirect payments designed to stabilize production, recover from disasters, and reduce environmental harms
  • Public financing of the education, research and development programs and institutions that serve the agricultural-industrial complex
  • Unintended human resource subsidies as farm families struggle to balance the demands of full-time farming with full-time off-farm work to maintain family well-being in the face of steadily declining farm profitability
  • Unintended natural resource subsidies in the form of degraded soil, water, and air quality, biodiversity, and ecosystem services
  • Unintended social resource subsidies in the form of degraded health and well-being of rural communities both at home and abroad
laura-blog-1-resize

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

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

Sustainable agriculture is the future of agriculture

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

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

 Karl Wolfshohl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Pages