UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

Healthy Soil, Coming to a Theater Near You: 5 Lessons from “The Biggest Little Farm”

Photo courtesy of Apricot Lane Farms

An email in my inbox last month caught my attention. It was from author, environmental advocate, and Academy Award-winning film producer Laurie David (“An Inconvenient Truth”), and it offered a preview of “The Biggest Little Farm,” a new documentary film David had coming out soon. “I promise you that any person that goes to see this film will leave inspired and caring a whole lot more for the planet,” her note said. “I promise you it will help your organization achieve your goals!”

I clicked on the link, watched the trailer, was intrigued. The movie looked gorgeous. But would it hold up to scrutiny from skeptical agricultural scientists?

A few days later, in a conference room with several members of the UCS food and agriculture team, I dimmed the lights and let the film roll. “The Biggest Little Farm” (in theaters this month) chronicles the adventures of filmmaker John Chester and his wife Molly as they leave their lives in Los Angeles behind to start a diversified farm on an exhausted piece of land north of the city, where they intend to live and grow food “in perfect harmony with nature.”

At first, the storytelling seems to veer toward the precious. John documents the promise they made to their rescue pup Todd about how much he’d love being a farm dog. The narration, over cute animation, extols the idyllic life John and Molly imagine for themselves. But I soon realized he was setting up viewers for the same jolt he and Molly would soon get—repeatedly—about the harsh realities of farming, especially when you’re trying something new and complex.

Because it turns out this kind of farming isn’t all rainbows and puppies and adorable baby goats. It’s also exhausting and sometimes heartbreaking. Before long, the story got real—very real—and I was hooked. After the credits rolled, my colleagues’ reviews came in:

A really beautiful, honest, and engaging film. It shows the many tough challenges of farming with nature rather than against it, but leads with the opportunities and a hopeful optimism.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a stunning illustration of the ecology of diversified farming – the challenges, the potential, and all the interconnectedness of a complex farm ecosystem.  

More dead chickens! Why did you make me watch this??

Indeed, midway through the film, the casualties start to pile up. John, Molly and their team face a seemingly never-ending string of predator attacks, pest and disease outbreaks, and other deadly natural phenomena as they struggle to make Apricot Lane Farms a sustainable enterprise. Although the relentless mishaps challenge their core belief in working with nature rather than against it, they persist, learning something from each experience and finding creative ways to adapt.

Their story, while unique in many ways, contains some key lessons for US agriculture:

  1. Soil is paramount. When the Chesters first arrived at Apricot Lane Farms, their newly acquired soil was so compacted and devoid of organic matter, they could hardly break it with a shovel. “The soil is dead,” John says flatly. “And we have no idea how to bring it back to life.” But with the help of consultant and soil guru Alan York, they set about enriching it. “Plants build soil,” Alan said as they seeded cover crops. They also installed a state-of-the-art compost tea system and added animals (so many animals!) for their manure. And indeed, by the end of the film—which spans a seven-year period of historic California drought followed by an unusually wet year—the Chesters’ spongier soil seemed to have paid off, as it held water better during dry periods and soaked up more of it when the rains fell. At a time when climate change is driving more weather extremes in every part of the country, building healthy soil will be critical to ensuring that farmers can be successful.
  1. Increasing a farm’s biodiversity is critical (and hard). Someone recently said to me that farmers are the only manufacturers who work outside, completely exposed to the elements. There’s truth in that, for sure, but the choice of the word “manufacturers” is revealing. Factories typically make one thing, over and over, day in and day out. And farming in the United States has become a lot like that—an overwhelmingly industrial process, divorced from nature and, in fact, often fighting it tooth and nail. In the film, we see Alan explaining how the Chesters must emulate how natural ecosystems work (we call this agroecology). His mantra: “Diversify, diversify, diversify.” John and Molly take this to the extreme, eventually farming 200+ crops and animals across pastures, orchards, and a large vegetable garden. A plethora of wildlife also returns, including new pests that require more creativity and further diversification to combat. Alan promises all this diversity will become simplicity, but as John notes, “a simple way of farming is just not easy.”
  1. Few farmers can go to the lengths the Chesters have. But most don’t need to. The 76 varieties of stone fruit trees John and Molly now tend is…probably a bit much for most farmers. And without access to investors like they recruited, few farm startups can afford fancy composting systems, miles of new irrigation line, and the costs associated with repeated trial and error. It is never clear, in the film, how much up-front and continued investment was necessary to do what they did at Apricot Lane Farms (though we can assume it was a lot). Nor do we know at what point in the saga that investment was fully recouped, if it has been. But recent research has shown that even more limited and lower-cost efforts at diversification on farms—for example, expanding from two crops to three or four, or planting prairie strips around the edges of crop fields—can have substantial benefits. And federal farm programs provide help (though not nearly enough) for farmers to do such things.
  1. One way or another, the ecological debts of our industrial farming system must be paid. Apricot Lane Farms required substantial upfront investment not only because the Chesters had ambitious plans, but also because they needed to pay down an enormous ecological debt racked up on that piece of land over the years. Industrial agriculture has been called an “extraction industry” because it takes nutrients from the land without replacing them, allows precious soil to wash or blow away, and sends rainwater running off the surface rather than percolating down to refill underground aquifers for later use. Due to decades of short-sighted management, this is the situation on farmland all across this country. And while John, Molly, and their investors had the means to take on Apricot Lane’s ecological debt, it’s not fair or realistic to expect farmers to make up for the damage caused by industrial practices and the public policies that have incentivized them. Rather, “The Biggest Little Farm” shows once again why shifting agricultural policies to help farmers diversify the landscape and rebuild their soil and is a smart investment in the future.
  1. Nature is breathtakingly beautiful. The film’s message is in line with what the science tells us about farmland diversification and healthy soil, and it comes at a time when legislators in many states and in Congress are looking to expand policy supports and public investments to help more farmers advance soil health. Even though Apricot Lane is just one farm, and a unique one at that, my hope is that this film adds to the conversation. But you don’t have to be an advocate for healthy soil policy to appreciate the movie, which above all is visually stunning and brimming with optimism. You’ll marvel at the ways John Chester’s cinematography captures the beauty and devastation of nature and life on a diversified, ecologically-based farm—from aerial footage of painstakingly designed orchards to images of playful lambs and terrifying wildfires, infrared footage of nocturnal predators, and superslomo shots of the hummingbirds and beneficial insects who return as part of the farm’s renewal. If you like that iPhone commercial, you’ll find this film equally appealing.

“The Biggest Little Farm” opens this Friday, May 10, in Los Angeles and New York, and nationwide May 17.

USDA Provides Blueprint for Dismantling a Government Research Agency

Photo: USDA (Flickr)

For scientists, it’s a significant accomplishment to get your work published in a peer-reviewed journal. The process of submitting a paper, fielding reviewer comments, and revising the work can take months (or years!), and final publication in a respected journal lends credibility to any researcher’s work.

So it was odd when the Washington Post reported last week that USDA was now requiring its researchers to label outside peer-reviewed scientific publications with the word “preliminary”. But this wasn’t actually news to me. And it isn’t the only way the Trump administration is undermining the USDA’s important research role.

Peer-reviewed ≠ preliminary

Last fall I learned about this new and unusual disclaimer as I finalized a research article for publication in Public Health Nutrition which I had co-written with colleagues at Tufts University and USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS). The disclaimer read as follows:

“The findings and conclusions in this preliminary publication have not been formally disseminated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy.”

This new disclaimer was very troubling to me and my colleagues because it seemed to delegitimize our scientific work even though it had undergone a rigorous scientist review. Still, when we learned about the disclaimer, we felt at the time that our only option was to include it if we wanted our work published.

Research disclaimers for government employees aren’t new; I included one in another article published last summer having worked with the same USDA co-author. ERS has used this old disclaimer language for some time.  The old disclaimer essentially made clear that any opinions expressed by ERS employees in their own work were not the opinions of ERS or USDA. This old disclaimer protected USDA and the agency.

Nevertheless, each administration has its own policies and as a researcher I felt I had no sway. We published the paper with the new disclaimer, assuming the publication of it in a well-regarded, peer-reviewed journal would speak to its finality.

Since then, a great deal has been unearthed about how USDA is sidelining science with this new “preliminary” disclaimer and by other means. The same Washington Post article reported that the “preliminary” disclaimer violates the USDA’s own scientific integrity policy. Even before this disclaimer was issued, UCS’s own analyses found that during the current administration some USDA scientists have had concerns about communicating their research. Just as troubling was a 2016 Washington Post report that a USDA entomologist had his research on pesticide use and its impacts suppressed.

Why the new “preliminary” disclaimer is a major red flag

What’s strange to me about this new potential violation is that the USDA scientific integrity policy applies to “all USDA mission areas, agencies, and offices,” but the new “preliminary” disclaimer only applies to the USDA REE mission area (which includes ERS, the Agricultural Research Service, and the National Institutes of Food and Agriculture). What is more, a brief scan of peer-reviewed research articles by USDA researchers suggests that the new disclaimer policy is being inconsistently implemented.

So why have REE and ERS researchers been singled out by this new disclaimer policy? My hypothesis (I’m a scientist, it’s my job to have hypotheses) is that the Trump administration is nervous.

The Trump administration can’t always control what comes out of an objective, independent research agency such as ERS. So it’s doing everything it can to get ERS (and other REE) researchers aligned with what the administration political line.

One way to do that is to make it harder for scientists to publish their research or to delegitimize it with new policies such as the “preliminary” disclaimer to which ERS and other USDA REE employees are currently subject.

But there are many ways to muzzle government scientists

Another way is to simply cut the funding for research that is out of line with the administration’s policy goals. The Trump administration has done just that, proposing steep funding cuts to USDA research, especially ERS, in both fiscal years 2019 and 2020.

These cuts would eliminate huge swathes of research ERS conducts. The most recent budget proposal zeroes out research on food consumption and nutrition; invasive species; markets for environmental services; bioenergy and renewable energy; agricultural research investments; international food security; food and nutrition assistance; drought resilience; rural economics; beginning farmers and ranchers; and local/regional food markets.

What remains is bare bones. The only research the administration wants to continue, according to its official budget document, concerns farm business, household income and wealth, agricultural cost of production, and farm practice adoption.

In August 2018, the Trump administration continued its attempt to gut USDA’s research capacity when Secretary Perdue unveiled a plan to reorganize and relocate ERS and NIFA. Under this plan, ERS would be resituated under the USDA Office of the Chief Economist (OCE), and both ERS and NIFA would be relocated outside of the national capital region.

Moving ERS back under the purview of OCE is a reversal of a 1994 decision to place ERS and its important research farther outside the sphere of political influence from a current presidential administration.

As currently organized, ERS operates independently, freer from interference or the whims of high-level political appointees. ERS researchers have produced mountains of rigorous, high quality, independent research to inform the development of agriculture and food policy over the last few decades. Congress routinely calls on ERS to conduct studies of food and agriculture issues to inform policymaking or program implementation. Folks, this is how the process of government should work.

Moving ERS back under OCE could give Secretary Perdue (or any future USDA Secretary, for that matter) more control over what research does and does not get done by ERS or how it’s messaged to the public.

If they are out of sight, they’re out of mind

The physical relocation of ERS (and NIFA) outside the capital region can be viewed as another way for Perdue to better control the messages coming from ERS research, so that it’s more aligned with the political priorities of the administration, or simply to reduce the amount of research coming from the agency.

Through a game-show style bid “process”, Perdue’s administration has sought relocation for some, but not all ERS and NIFA staff. Politico reported that the secretary anticipated “cost savings” and thought the move would allow the agency to “provide better customer service” and it would “better attract and retain staff”.

Yet it’s unclear how moving some ERS employees out of DC and keeping some here is better for “customer service”. According to a list published by USDA, 76 positions will remain in the capital and the remaining 253 will be moved somewhere else, which likely means the relocation will splinter ERS divisions and teams. It’s anybody’s guess how this could benefit USDA customer service or agriculture research.

Not only will ERS staff be split up, but they may not have the necessary data to do their work. ERS staff are currently just a stone’s throw from the Census Bureau Headquarters where there is a Federal Statistical Research Data Centers (FSRDC) in Suitland, Maryland. These data centers contain several datasets ERS researchers probably need to do their research, including data from the Economic Census, the Current Population Survey, and the American Community Survey.  According to our own analyses, many of the relocation sites on the USDA “middle list” are nowhere near one of these data centers.

While it’s entirely possible the relocation site will be in a city near an FSRDC, why is USDA still considering places that don’t have one? Are they going to build a new data center? If so, is that really going to save USDA money (which was one of the reasons Secretary Perdue suggested the relocation in the first place)?

ERS staff may also lose critical access to data available only on-site at Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) national office in Washington DC, which they likely use for their research, too. The BLS website notes that the Consumer Expenditure Survey, Consumer Price Index, Current Employment Statistics for the US and states, the Producer Price Index, and other data sets related to food purchasing and agricultural markets can only be accessed onsite at BLS in Washington. How will ERS employees be able to access these data sets at the relocation site?

Another possibility is that USDA does away with the research that requires the use of data housed at these facilities. Time will tell how data access issues are addressed as the relocation process moves forward.

Congress, economists strongly oppose ERS restructuring, but Trump administration rushing

It’s telling that the primary professional association for ERS researchers, the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA)—of which I’m a member—strongly opposes the restructuring plan. AAEA members are all over the country, including in places where ERS might be relocated. Our members do topnotch research on a variety of agricultural and food issues and understand just how vital ERS’s work is to ensure that our food and agricultural systems are providing economic benefits for farmers and healthy, affordable food for consumers.  So, it’s no wonder the association is opposed.

Members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans in both the House and the Senate, have taken actions to stop the ERS/NIFA restructuring, including requesting an analysis from the USDA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to determine if Secretary Perdue’s proposal follows established procedures for relocations. The OIG report could slow or even stop the reorganization proposal but won’t be complete until at least June 2019. In the meantime, Secretary Perdue has clearly signaled that he plans to ignore Congress entirely. Is this how we want a presidential administration to behave?

ERS and NIFA employees have taken matters into their own hands to push back against the relocation. They recently began the process of forming a union, as reported by Politico last week. A representative for the American Federation of Government Employees noted in the article that “morale has been destroyed at the agency.” We at UCS know a thing or two about what can happen when concerned scientists band together to take action (we’ve been here 50 years and are still going strong).

What can be done to stop this runaway train?

If carried through, this proposal would diminish the American food and farm system by harming public investment in science-based solutions at a time when farmers and ranchers need it most. It would also further deteriorate the morale of the talented staff throughout USDA. Moreover, the proposal would set a dangerous precedent for the types of actions presidential administrations can take to silence government scientists whose research happens to conflict with political agendas.

Thankfully, there’s still time to stop it. And there are concrete ways to do so.

In March 2019, 108 organizations wrote to Congress asking them to stop the restructuring through the 2020 appropriations process. If Congress includes language in the 2020 Agriculture Appropriations bill prohibiting the use of any funds for the reorganization, the proposal would be dead in its tracks. While many members of Congress have already expressed support for this approach, they need to hear from their constituents on this issue to compel them to act.

 

Vegetable Production in the US: Lots of Potatoes, More Kale, and Other Trends

Photo: iStock.com//Alija

Vegetables—they’ve got me working overtime lately. That’s because my preschool-age daughter recently seems less than excited about these healthy foods. She’ll likely outgrow her (very common) picky-eater phase and enjoy vegetables. I hope.

And what’s not to love about vegetables? Copious research suggests that eating them helps prevent a variety of diseases, and other research (some of it mine) shows that vegetables and healthy plant foods are less carbon-intensive to produce than other foods.  But other studies confirm that Americans aren’t eating enough vegetables or fruits.

So naturally, when I heard that new findings from USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture were out, the first table I looked at was on vegetable production. (For a high-level overview of other trends evident in the census, check out my colleague Dr. Marcia DeLonge’s recent blog post.) So here are some key findings from my quick scan of data on vegetable production in the Census.

Total 2017 vegetable production was about the same as 2012

The new Agriculture Census reports that there were roughly 74,000 farms growing vegetables in the US, which represents 4 percent of all US farms in 2017. Between 2012 and 2017 the number of farms increased by 3 percent. Across vegetable farms there were 4.4 million acres in production (visualize the land area of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined), representing just 0.4 percent of all agricultural acreage in the US. Total production acreage of vegetables decreased by about 3 percent since 2012 (that’s 126,000 acres lost).

Potatoes dominate vegetable production

So which vegetable dominates vegetable production? Surprise, it’s potatoes! Potatoes account for a little over one-quarter of all US vegetable production acres (1.1 million) and 22% of all vegetable farms (or 16,554 farms). Not surprisingly, they also happen to be the most consumed vegetable by U.S. consumers.  Potato acreage declined by 3% over the five year period, while the number of farms also decreased by 21%.

Sweet corn came in second in terms of total acreage in 2017 and was grown on almost 500,000 acres, followed by lettuce (including head, leaf, and romaine), tomatoes, snap beans, sweet potatoes, and non-green onions. The graph below shows the number of farms and acres in production in 2017 for these top acreage vegetable crops. (Also, now is a good time to tell you that I like charts and graphs, so expect more of these in my blogs.) Compared to 2012, the number of farms and acreage in production declined for sweet corn, snap beans, and tomatoes, but increased for lettuce and onions.

The top five crops in terms of farm numbers in 2017 were: tomatoes (28,673 farms), squash (22,704), sweet corn (20,784), summer squash (18,269), and snap beans (18,055).

Production of certain nutrient-dense vegetables has increased since 2012

There were some changes in vegetable acreage and farm numbers relative to the 2012 Census of Agriculture that I found notable and relevant from a healthy eating and nutrition perspective. First, sweet potato (a relative of the morning glory, packed with vitamin A which supports vision and some evidence suggests it may be protective against some cancers) acres increased by 38% (or by 47,000 acres, roughly the size of Madison, Wisconsin) relative to 2012. Spinach, a dark green vegetable which the federal government suggests we ought to consume more of, acreage also rose from roughly 46,000 acres in 2012 to 70,000 acres in 2017, a 51% increase. Kale acreage, even though small in absolute terms, rose by 145% over the same time period. There were also substantial increases in acreage and production of ginseng, fresh cut herbs, mustard greens, and okra. Both acreage and number of farms producing Brussels sprouts (my family’s favorite, packed with vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant which helps support immune function) went up over the same time period, too. All of this suggests growing demand for these products.

Some vegetable crops lost acreage compared to 2012, most notably (because of how substantial a decline they experienced) green peas, chili peppers, some peas (such as black-eyed and crowder, the latter of which I find delicious), lima beans, and chicory. Interestingly, the number of farms producing these crops increased since 2012, suggesting that there is some restructuring of production happening for them. Why that’s happening is open to further inquiry.

This isn’t a full analysis of the vegetable production industry—I could spend many more hours looking at these data and examining trends over time and across crops (and I would enjoy that greatly). But these are some key findings that I found interesting on my first peek at the 2017 Census of Agriculture data.

So why should we care about US vegetable production?

First, trends in domestic production tell us something about consumer demand. U.S. consumer demand for vegetables is met with both domestic and imported vegetables. Recent data indicate we import about 30% of our fresh vegetables and by my calculations using USDA data, we import about 37% of all vegetables. From a total value perspective, this means that a substantial amount of what we consume is grown here. Consequently, changes in domestic supply tell us a little something about changes in demand (although it’s not the entire picture).

However, we are importing more and more vegetables, according to an October 2018 report from the United States Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. Higher levels of vegetable imports to the U.S. have upsides and downsides. In a recent interview, Bradley Rickard, Associate Professor at Cornell University, notes that more vegetable imports give “consumers access to more” vegetables and “the same things at lower prices”. That could be especially good news for consumers who may not be able to consistently afford vegetables if that is a barrier they face (although some research from USDA Economic Research Service indicates that vegetables can be less expensive compared to other foods on a per portion basis).

On the other hand, due to increased importation, domestic vegetable producers have to compete with producers in other countries that may have lower production costs. Competition such as this could hurt U.S. vegetable farmers.

While the US is a net importer of vegetables (i.e. we import more than we export), we do export some vegetables we produce and so international markets are important revenue sources for U.S. vegetable farmers.

Second, tracking vegetable production geographically is important from a climate standpoint. US vegetable production is concentrated in certain parts of the U.S. (see the map below, from the US Agriculture Census website) which means that extreme weather events, which are expected to become more frequent due to climate change, could potentially hurt the concentrated areas where vegetable production is clustered. In turn, this may have impacts on both vegetable consumers and producers.

Third, vegetable production is relatively labor intensive (measured as labor costs as a share of total gross cash income) compared to the production of other types of crops in the US. Recent reports show that some farmers—especially those in California who grow labor-intensive crops such as fruits, tree nuts, and vegetables—are increasingly experiencing farm labor shortages, which may impact the prices consumers pay for these products. As a result, trends in vegetable production are related to labor and immigration policy discussions.

Clearly, there is a lot at stake with U.S. vegetable production, for consumers and producers alike. While total acreage and number of farms growing vegetables hasn’t changed all that much since 2012, there have been some significant changes in the levels of production of specific vegetable crops. These specific changes warrant an additional inquiry into why they occurred, which may involve more digging into the Census or other data sources. This is what’s great about the Census of Agriculture. It tells us a great deal about American agriculture, while also stimulating additional questions that need to be answered.

Map: USDA/NASS

Key Questions Answered in the USDA’s New Census of Agriculture

USDA photo

Last week, the US Department of Agriculture released the findings of its latest 5-year Census of Agriculture (the 29th in the series, with data collected from the nation’s farms and ranches in 2017), providing an eagerly anticipated update to the nation’s most comprehensive agricultural dataset. Ahead of the release, I posted my top 4 questions for the new Census. Now that it’s out, what have we learned?

1. Yes, farmers are (still) getting older.

According to the new data, US farmers continue to get older. The average age of all farmers (or “producers” in the Census) went up from 56.3 to 57.5 years, and the average age of “primary producers” increased from 58.3 to 59.4 years. Furthermore, most farmers are still overwhelmingly white (95.4 percent) and male (64 percent).

However, the number of female farmers reported increased by 27 percent since 2012, whereas the number of male farmers reported declined by 2 percent. Note that this result reflects the effectiveness of the USDA’s changes to demographic questions, which allowed farms to list more than one producer engaged in farm decision-making.

2. Yes, farm consolidation continues to increase.

New data on farm economics show continued declines for both farm numbers (3 percent) and acres (2 percent), due to losses among mid-sized farms. Meanwhile, average farm size has increased by 2 percent. And the largest farms (with $1 million or more in sales) represented just 4 percent of total farms but accounted for a disproportionately high amount (69 percent) of total sales. Similarly, only five commodities (cattle and calves, corn, poultry and eggs, soybeans, and milk) represented 66 percent of all sales.

The latest findings also suggest that staying profitable is getting tougher on US farms. While expenses decreased slightly (mostly from lower feed costs), increased labor costs and declining value of agricultural production dented profits. Ultimately, farm incomes decreased, averaging $43,053, and only 44 percent of farms had a positive net cash farm income. Farmers also relied more heavily on government payments, which were 11 percent greater than in 2012. Likely related to these challenges, 58 percent of farmers reported that they have a primary occupation other than farming.

3. There is some evidence that healthy soil farming practices are catching on.

The most exciting news in this category is that cover crop use increased. The area planted in cover crops expanded from 10 million acres in 2012 to 15 million acres in 2017. The census also started collecting data on cover crop seed purchases, creating a benchmark for future years (115,954 farms purchased cover crop seed worth $257 million). Other conservation practices that increased included no-till farming (from 96 to 104 million acres) and conservation tillage (from 77 to 98 million acres). Though the gains are relatively small, they track the excitement we’re hearing anecdotally from farmers.

Interestingly, 30,853 farms reported using agroforestry practices, including alley cropping, silvopasture, forest farming, and riparian forest buffers or windbreaks, providing another useful benchmark for future years. This number is notably higher than data from 2012 in a similar, but much narrower, category, which found that only 2,725 farms reported using alley cropping or silvopasture.

4. New questions in the 2017 census offer new insights.

Thanks to new categories of data collection, we now know that 11 percent of farmers have a military background (i.e., currently or previously served on active duty in the US Armed Forces), and 17 percent of all farms include a farmer who has served in the military. We also now know more about farm decision-making than previous results were able to track. For example, female farmers are most involved with day-to-day decisions, record keeping, and financial management. Young farmers are more likely than older farmers to make decisions related to livestock.

Plenty more insights to come

My first glance at the data was enough to offer initial answers to my top questions, but only scratched the surface. After all, even the summary document is 820 pages long, the numbers themselves present the opportunity to explore an endless number of questions, and—as I mentioned last week—there’s a lot more data on the way!

In the meantime, a few takeaways do emerge. First, there are plenty of areas where the answers provided to my questions raise, well… more questions. For example, given that the farming population continues to grow older, and that consolidation continues, what solutions can we develop? Addressing these questions will likely require even more investment in USDA’s budget for research and economic analysis—not less. But to end on a positive note, the new census provides yet another piece of evidence for a different growing trend: farmers are increasingly adopting and recognizing the benefits of farming practices that build soil health. Now that’s good news. With the countdown to the 2022 Census of Agriculture beginning, let’s dream big about what we can do now to see an even more positive story in the 30th edition.

 

SNAP Rule Change Would Disproportionately Affect Trump Country

Photo: Frank Boston/Flickr/CC by SA 2.0

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue has signaled he may be having second thoughts about a proposed rule that could force 755,000 work-ready adults off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The rule, which would restrict states’ ability to waive benefit time limits for adults struggling to find work, has faced substantial backlash since it was announced in late December.

Last week, at a House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee hearing, representatives raised concerns about the diverse population of adults the SNAP rule would affect, which includes veterans, homeless individuals, college students, young adults aging out of foster care, those with undiagnosed mental and physical ailments, and those not designated as caregivers, but who have informal caregiving roles. These individuals can be characterized as “able-bodied adults without dependents,” even though many face significant barriers to employment. The conversation prompted Secretary Perdue to respond that this definition “may need some fine-tuning.”

Indeed.

But is Secretary Perdue’s statement also a response to the dawning reality that many of the people and communities who would be affected by the rule change are the same who helped elect President Trump to office? If it’s not—maybe it should be.

SNAP proposal would disproportionately hurt counties that voted for Trump

I’ve written previously about how the administration’s proposed changes to SNAP would make it harder for unemployed and underemployed adults to put food on the table—and why that’s bad policy for all of us. According to new UCS analysis, the proposed rule would cause 77 percent of all US counties currently using waivers to lose them—that’s a total of 664 counties from coast to coast. And my colleagues and I have crunched the numbers to show who would be hurt most. Layering data from 2016 election results, we found that more than three-quarters of counties that would lose waivers went to then-candidate Trump in the presidential election. In total, that’s more than 500 counties (and over half of them rural) that put their faith in a president who promised to bring prosperity to every corner of the country, and isn’t delivering.

While the administration has boasted of low unemployment rates and high job creation during its tenure, these national figures belie the persistent need that still plagues an overwhelming number of communities. Since the 2008 recession, labor force participation has dropped, wages have remained stagnant, and hunger remains widespread: food insecurity rates in 2017 were still higher than pre-recession levels. Relying on unemployment data alone to determine whether states can receive waivers—particularly at the threshold specific in the rule—ignores critical considerations about what’s actually happening in communities, and why states are best suited to assess their populations’ needs.

Below are snapshots of three counties from around the country that would lose waivers under the proposed SNAP rule. Although each is unique, they are all difficult places to find stable employment—and they all voted for President Trump in 2016.

  • Murray County, Georgia, a mostly rural area located on the state’s northwest border, had a population of 39,358 in 2016. For this mostly white county (83.7 percent in 2016), the 24-month unemployment rate between 2016 and 2017 was 6.8 percent, a rate nearly three percentage points higher than the national rate and a poverty rate of 18.8 percent, which is 34 percent higher than the US poverty rate. Manufacturing employed the largest share of workers in the county (38.5 percent), and recent reports indicate that Murray County’s unemployment has ticked up slightly, even though Georgia’s urban areas are seeing job growth.
  • Trumbull County, Ohio, is on the eastern border of the state, with a population of roughly 200,000 and a 24-month average unemployment rate of 6.8 percent from 2016 to 2017 and a poverty rate of 17.5 percent. Just over one in five workers here are employed in manufacturing. In fall 2018, GM announced that it would close its Lordstown assembly plant in Warren, OH.
  • Butte County, California, is a mostly urban county with roughly 220,000 residents in 2016. The county is home to a diverse set of organizations and businesses, including California State University Chico, United Healthcare, and Pacific Coast Producers (a cooperatively owned cannery, owned by over 160 family-farms in Central and Northern California), to name a few. Butte is also home to Paradise, a town severely impacted by the Camp fire that occurred in 2018. The average unemployment rate in Butte County was 6.5 percent for the most recent 24-month period and 3 percent of the population lived in poverty in 2017.

Although the comment period for the proposed SNAP rule closed on April 10, Secretary Perdue’s comments—and continued debate among lawmakers—suggest that the issue may not yet be settled. For hundreds of thousands of adults and the communities they live in, that’s a good sign.

Photo: Frank Boston/Flickr/CC by SA 2.0

What to Expect When You’re Expecting the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines

Photo: Peter Merholz/Flickr

Pregnancy Advice: Caffeine’s ok. Some caffeine is ok. No caffeine.

Breastfeeding Advice: Start solids at 4 months. Start solids at 6 months. Exclusively breastfeed for one year.

First Foods Advice: Homemade baby food. Store-bought baby food. Spoon feeding. Baby-led weaning.

My experience of being pregnant and having a baby in modern times has meant getting conflicting advice from the different sources I consulted, specifically surrounding nutrition. Depending on the google search or midwife I spoke to, I heard different daily amounts of caffeine suitable while pregnant. Depending on the lactation consultant that popped into my hospital room, I heard different levels of concern about the amount I was feeding my newborn. And now that I’m about to start solid foods with my six-month old, I have heard conflicting information about when, how, and what to start feeding my child. How is it so difficult to find what the body of evidence says about these simple questions that parents have had since the dawn of time? When I discovered that past editions of the Dietary Guidelines didn’t address the critical population of pregnant women and infants from birth to two years, I wondered how it was possible that there was this huge gap in knowledge and guidance for such an important developmental stage. That’s why I’m very excited that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) will be examining scientific questions specific to this population that will inform the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines and have recently begun that process.

In the meantime, I will be starting my daughter on solids this week and have been trying to find science-supported best practices. It has been shockingly hard to navigate and I became reminded of the interesting world of the baby food industry that I became acquainted with as I researched and wrote about added sugar guidelines specifically for the 2016 UCS report, Hooked for Life.

The history of baby food and nutrition guidelines

Amy Bentley’s Inventing Baby Food, explains that the baby and children’s food market as we know it today is a fairly new construction, stemming from the gradual industrialization of the food system throughout the last century. Early on in the history of baby food marketing, a strong emphasis was placed on convincing parents and the medical community of the healthfulness of baby food through far-reaching ad campaigns and industry-funded research. The Gerber family began making canned, pureed fruits and vegetables for babies in 1926 and in 1940 began to focus entirely on baby foods. During this time, it was considered a new practice to introduce solid foods to babies before one year. In order to convince moms of the wholesomeness of its products, Gerber commissioned research touting the health benefits of canned baby foods in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (ADA) and the company launched advertising campaigns in the Journal and women’s magazines. Quickly, Gerber’s popularity and aggressive marketing campaign correlated with the decrease in age of earlier introduction of solid foods as a supplement to breast milk. Earlier introduction of foods meant an expansion of baby food market share, which meant big sales for Gerber.

All the while, there were no federal guidelines issued for infants. Gerber took advantage of this gap in 1990 when they released their own booklet, Dietary Guidelines for Infants, which glossed over the impacts of sugar consumption, for example, by telling readers that, “Sugar is OK, but in moderation…A Food & Drug Administration study found that sugar has not been shown to cause hyperactivity, diabetes, obesity or heart disease. But tooth disease can be a problem.” The FDA study that Gerber refers to was heavily influenced by industry sponsorship, and the chair of the study later went on to work at the Corn Refiner’s Association, a trade group representing the interests of high-fructose corn syrup manufacturers. In fact, evidence has since linked excessive added sugar consumption with incidence of chronic disease including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.

Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), World Health Organization, and the American Academy of Family Physicians all recommend exclusive breastfeeding until six months using infant formulas to supplement if necessary. AAP suggests that complementary foods are introduced around 4 to 6 months with continued breastfeeding until one year. But what foods, how much, and when is a little harder to parse out. Children’s food preferences are predicted by early intake patterns but can change with learning and exposure, and flavors from maternal diet influence a baby’s senses and early life experiences. There’s research that shows that early exposure to a range of foods and textures is associated with their acceptance later on. And of course, not all babies and families are alike and that’s okay! There are differences related to cultural norms in the timing of introduction of food and the types of food eaten. Infants are very adaptable and can handle different ways of feeding.

There’s a lot of science out there to wade through, but it is not available in an easy-to-understand format from an independent and reliable government source. That’s what the 2020 Dietary Guidelines have to offer.

2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines: What to expect

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans is the gold standard for nutrition advice in the United States and is statutorily required to be released every five years by the Department of Human Health Services (HHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). These guidelines provide us with recommendations for achieving a healthy eating pattern based on the “preponderance of the scientific and medical knowledge which is current at the time the report is prepared.” Historically, the recommendations have been meant for adults and children two years and older and have not focused on infants through age one and pregnant women as a subset of the population.

The freshly chartered DGAC will be charged with examining scientific questions relating to the diets of the general child and adult population, but also about nutrition for pregnant women and infants that will be hugely beneficial to all moms, dads, and caregivers out there looking for answers.

Credit: USDA

While I was pregnant, my daughter was in the lower percentile for weight and I was told by one doctor to increase my protein intake and another that that wouldn’t matter. I would have loved to know with some degree of certainty whether there was any relationship between what I was or wasn’t eating and her growth. One of the questions to be considered by DGAC is the relationship between dietary patterns during pregnancy and gestational weight gain. I also wonder about the relationship between my diet while breastfeeding and whether there’s anything I should absolutely be eating to give my daughter all the nutrients she needs to meet her developmental milestones. DGAC will be looking at that question (for both breastmilk and formula) as well as whether and how diet during pregnancy and while nursing impact the child’s risk of food allergies. The committee will also be evaluating the evidence on complementary feeding and whether the timing, types of, or amounts of food have an impact on the child’s growth, development, or allergy risk.

At the first DGAC meeting on March 29-3o, the USDA, HHS, and DGAC acknowledged that there are still limits in evaluating the science on these populations due to a smaller body of research. Unbelievably, there’s still so much we don’t know about breast milk and lactation, and in addition to government and academic scholarship, there are really interesting mom-led research projects emerging to fill that gap.

The Dietary Guidelines are not just useful for personal meal planning and diet decisions but they also feed directly into the types of food made available as a part of the USDA programs that feed pregnant women and infants, like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC); and the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP). Having guidelines for infants on sugar intake in line with the American Heart Association’s recommendation of no added sugar for children under two years old, would mean some changes to the types of foods offered as a part of these programs.

Nutrition guidelines will be a tool in the parent toolbelt

 But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as I’ve researched and written about this issue and now lived it, is that while the scientific evidence is critical, there are a whole lot of other factors that inform decisions about how we care for our children. Guidelines are after all just that. As long as babies are fed and loved, they’ll be okay. What the guidelines are here to help us figure out is how we might be able to make decisions about their nutrition that will set them up to be as healthy as possible. And what parent wouldn’t want the tools to do that?

As I wait anxiously for the report of the DGAC to come out next year, I will do what all parents and caregivers have done before me which is do the best I can. I have amazing resources at my disposal in my pediatrician, all the moms and parents I know, and local breastfeeding organizations. Whether my daughter’s first food ends up being rice cereal, pureed banana, or chunks of avocado, it is guaranteed to be messy, emotional, and the most fun ever, just like everything else that comes with parenthood.

Photo: Peter Merholz/Flickr

4 Questions for the New Census of Agriculture

Photo: Lance Cheung/USDA

Every five years, number-hungry analysts eagerly await the release of the US Census of Agriculture to get a fresh glimpse at the state of the US food and farm system. The newest version, which contains data reflecting conditions in 2017, is expected to be released on April 11, marking the first update to the crucial dataset since 2012. In addition to offering updated data for many characteristics that have been monitored for decades, this Census included some new questions expected to offer critical insights for a rapidly changing world.

What makes the Census of Agriculture so special?

Since 1840, the Census has been used to create a rich dataset that tracks trends on the nation’s farmlands and rangelands, such as shifts in demographics, farming practices, economics, and more. This comprehensive and consistent survey is conducted by the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Survey (NASS) and covers all states and counties in the nation, and US farms and ranches of all shapes and sizes. The survey is mandatory for operations with expected sales of at least $1,000. This time around, the survey was mailed to 3 million operations, and 72 percent of those surveyed responded (nearly 75 percent responded in 2012 and 78 percent in 2007).

Given its breadth, Census data is a key resource used by decision-makers—including farmers, ranchers, community leaders, legislators, and companies—to understand and plan for the future of agriculture. Census data influences decisions about programs and funding for research, safety nets, infrastructure investments, and more. As we count down the days to the release, here are some things to think about.

Four questions we’ll be asking of the new US Census of Agriculture

One of the first things I’ll be looking for on April 11 is to see whether some key trends from 2007 to 2012 have continued into 2017. I’ll also be curious to see what can be learned from new survey questions incorporated in 2017. My top questions include:

  1. Are farmers getting older? According to the 2012 census, the average US farmer was 58 years old, male, and white, suggesting an aging and homogenous workforce. These demographics have drawn concern, especially given the growing global population, continued rates of food insecurity in the US and abroad, and the increasingly urgent need for a more sustainable agriculture. The recent growth of organizations such as the National Young Farmers Coalition has been encouraging, and changes in the 2018 Farm Bill suggest momentum in support of new and more demographically diverse farmers. But how much have things changed since 2012?
  2. Has farm consolidation increased? The characteristics of farms in recent years have been trending toward higher production expenses, increasing concentration of value in the largest farms, and other factors that make the idea of making a living on a farm hard to fathom for most. Are there any signs of change on these fronts as of 2017, or is there even more work ahead of us?
  3. Are conservation and other healthy soil practices catching on? Yet another thing that will be interesting to see is whether there are any shifting trends in farming practices since 2012. In the past few years, there has been a growing dialogue on healthy soils among US farmers and ranchers, alongside an expanding body of reports outlining the threats posed to them by climate change. In response, there’s evidence that farmers and ranchers are adopting more conservation practices, such as cover cropping, that can help them build resilience to extreme weather. But the release of the 2017 Census will be an important opportunity to gauge whether change is actually happening on a larger level.
  4. What insights can we glean from new questions in the 2017 census? In addition to giving us more data on trends tracked in the past, the 2017 Census will provide benchmarks in some new categories, such as military veteran status. It also asks new questions about farm demographics, decision making, and more. These new questions could provide a foundation for new learning and inquiry in future years.
More data worth waiting for

Some of the data from this round of the Census is yet to come, so there will still be plenty to look forward to even after April 11. Upcoming data will include results from Puerto Rico and other US territories, as well as the 2018 Irrigation and Water Management Survey and the 2018 Census of Aquaculture. And we’ll have to wait even more patiently for the Organic Survey, the Census of Horticulture Specialties, and the Local Food Marketing Practices Survey, which will be available beginning in late 2020.

As rich as the Census has become, it’s also true that it can’t be expected to capture everything. Therefore, some of the data I’d personally love to see (like soil carbon content, details of cover crop diversity, and so on) will still only be on my wish list—at least in the short-term.

Protecting the past and future of historical data and research integrity

The most recent edition of the nation’s most comprehensive agricultural dataset is guaranteed to give us a valuable look at the state of farming and ranching in the US. But what seems less guaranteed is the future of the agencies that we rely on to collect and make sense of it all. These include NASS and the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS), both of which are at risk of tighter budgets, and the latter of which is facing potential relocation.

So, as you prepare to dig in, consider taking a moment to think about the names behind the numbers, and what you can do to maximize and protect this national treasure trove of information.

Photo: Lance Cheung/USDA

Farmers Are Excited About Soil Health. That’s Good News for All of Us.

Before switching to no-till, farmer Gary Hula described the soil as having the consistency of flour. Just four years later and the structure and moisture in the soil is undeniable. Photo courtesy USDA/Flickr

“When we think about the challenges in agriculture, carbon—and how to sequester it—is near the top.” So said Roger Johnson, the president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), in opening the grassroots organization’s 2019 annual convention in March. Storing carbon in farm soils is an important climate change solution, but building the health of those soils is also critical for ensuring clean water for communities and helping farmers be productive while coping with the consequences of a climate that is already changing. And throughout the NFU’s three-day gathering, the phrase “soil health” and talk about strategies to achieve it seemed to be on everyone’s tongue.

Though it is hard to quantify, surveys suggest that many US farmers are already taking steps to build soil health and store carbon in their soils. Science has shown that practices such as no-till farming (in which soil isn’t disturbed by plowing), cover crops, extended crop rotations, perennial crops, and integrating crops and livestock deliver myriad benefits. These can include preventing erosion, suppressing weeds, reducing the need for pesticides and added fertilizers, increasing wildlife habitat and beneficial insects, and creating “spongier” soils that drain and hold water better, increasing resilience to both floods and droughts.

Recognizing these benefits, legislatures in many states have passed or introduced bills aimed at increasing soil health. For example, Nebraska state legislators recently introduced the Soil Health & Productivity Incentive Act, which seeks to increase adoption of cover crops and other soil-building farming techniques. In Maryland, the state’s Healthy Soils Program—launched in 2017—offers incentives, including research and technical assistance, to farmers to implement farm management practices that promote soil health.

NFU President Roger Johnson: We’re seeing more and more focus on soil health in the context of the farm bill. and that’s a good thing. When we think about the challenges in agriculture, carbon and how to sequester it is near the top. #NFU2019 pic.twitter.com/0p5TIZGieB

— National Farmers Union (@NFUDC) March 4, 2019

Congress also acknowledged the healthy soil movement in last December’s new farm bill, creating a voluntary Soil Health and Income Protection Pilot Program to assist farmers in converting less-productive cropland to carbon-storing, water-holding grassland. The new farm bill also includes a new Soil Health Demonstration Trial to provide incentives for new soil carbon sequestration practices and to establish protocols for measuring soil carbon levels. (Unfortunately, Congress also simultaneously cut funding for the existing USDA program that is best equipped to facilitate healthy soil practices on many of the nation’s farms and ranches.)

Farmers share their soil health stories

At the NFU convention, multiple presentations focused on soil health and the regenerative agriculture practices known to further it. And outside the workshops, farmers were eager to share stories of changes they’ve made and the impressive results they’ve garnered. Just a couple of examples:

Living roots and plant diversity help overcome climate challenges in Oklahoma. Russ and Jani Jackson run a diverse farm operation on 4,100 acres of crop- and grassland in Kiowa County, Oklahoma. Until 2006, they plowed their fields extensively and planted, as Russ says, “wheat, wheat, and wheat.” That monocrop system led to significant erosion problems, and something had to change. “We learned that it’s better to keep a living root in the ground to feed the biology in the soil.” Now they grow as many as 10 crops: canola, cotton, grain sorghum, soybeans, and more. They double-crop and plant off-season cover crops. And while they’ve long raised cattle on their grassland, they now also set the cows loose on cropland to graze down those cover crops.

The Jacksons’ innovation is paying off in a climate in which their farm can go 120 days with less than a quarter-inch of rain…and then get a 4-inch deluge in an afternoon. With technical assistance from the non-profit Noble Research Institute, they’ve measured changes in the soil’s structure and its water-filtering capacity. On one clay soil field, a light rainfall—less than 6/100th of an inch per hour—used to lead to runoff. Now, with all the organic matter the Jacksons have added with cover cropping and other practices, that same field can handle a steady rain of 2.7 inches per hour before it becomes saturated, a 45-fold increase in what is called the infiltration rate. Even on fields with less-dramatic increases, the difference between the Jacksons’ property and their neighbor’s is plain to anyone passing on the highway after a significant rainfall.

In Russ Jackson’s field on the left, green cover crops protect the soil and increase its capacity to filter and hold rainwater. The neighboring field on the right is bare and flooded after rain. Photo courtesy of Jim Johnson, Noble Research Institute

Science-based pasture practices help a Minnesota dairy farm keep water and nutrients in the soil. On his family dairy farm near Franklin, Minnesota, James Kanne had always had the pasture at the top of the hill, and he’d long planted a grass swale downslope to catch the inevitable runoff before it could muddy the stream. So when his daughter came home from college and said, “Dad, you’re doing the pasture wrong,” the sixth-generation dairy farmer didn’t bat an eye. Instead, he took on her suggestions for a new rotation system, informed by her study of biology and environmental science and her visits to farms in New Zealand. Within two or three years, the grass swale was no longer necessary, and the pastures were more productive.

Why? The grazing rotation they adopted—moving the cows from one small area of the pasture to another, keeping them on each for as little as a single day—was keeping the grass trimmed to the optimal height for plant growth. And the cow pies, which he says previously would dry and harden where they were dropped (“until you could throw them like frisbees”) were now being dismantled in a matter of days by dung beetles, and those precious nutrients moved deep into the soil to fertilize the grasses from the roots.

In the process, the beetles and other organisms created pores through which rainwater could percolate, rather than running down the hill. And the deep-rooted perennial grasses that are part of the farm’s new customized pasture mix can draw that stored water back up when needed between rains. Informed by science, it’s a near-perfect ecological system that virtually ended the farm’s contribution to the pollution that today continues to drain from farm fields across the Midwest, fouling local drinking water supplies and devastating fisheries in the Gulf of Mexico.

Finding soil solutions that work for farmers—from deals with food companies to a Green New Deal?

Though farmers like James Kanne and the Jacksons are already taking action, there’s a critical need for solutions to help improve soil health and combat climate change on farms nationwide. Some of these solutions will need to come from Congress, and groups like NFU and UCS will need to help ensure that those will work for farmers.

Of course, it’s not all up to Congress. The private sector also has a role to play in driving the shift to regenerative, healthy-soil practices in agriculture. And some companies are beginning to step up. Cereal-maker General Mills hosted a panel at the NFU convention, showcasing farmers with whom the company has agreements to purchase ingredients produced using regenerative practices. The company—which posted a $2 billion+ net profit in 2018—is touting its commitment to healthy soil, with a pledge to shift 1 million farm acres to such practices by 2030.

And while talk of a “Green New Deal” is gathering steam and could lead to bold, unifying action to avert a climate catastrophe, the resolution recently voted down by Senate Republicans didn’t spell out concrete policy measures. Farmers haven’t been involved in such conversations to date, and despite their enthusiasm for healthy soil and climate action, they are understandably cautious. Still, farmers have signaled that they want and need to be at the table as new policies are developed, and scientists who study agroecology have called for a food and agriculture platform to be part of any future Green New Deal.

.@Kriss4Wisconsin: Farmers don't want to be on the menu (on climate change). We want to be the chefs. #NFU2019 #GreenNewDeal

Food Companies at the Table in Trump Administration’s Dietary Guidelines Committee

Putting a new twist on the term “pork-barrel politics,” the National Pork Board, along with other of food industry and infant formula lobbyists, may be maneuvering into a position of undue influence in the Trump administration’s five-year update of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which is leading the dietary guideline process, recently announced a new 20-member expert committee tasked with reviewing the latest science and recommending how the federal government should advise us to eat for good health from 2020 to 2025. More than half the committee members come with either clear strings to industry-funded research or questionable memberships in industry-funded advocacy groups and foundations.

According to those familiar with the process, such ties are more or less par for the course. But the potential for industry influence looms large this time around, as the committee is overseen by an administration that has proven particularly friendly to industry interests.

To be sure, industry ties among committee members have evolved under both Democratic and Republican administrations as government research funding has decreased to now historic lows. In a February New York Times op-ed, former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman and former FDA Commissioner David Kessler called for the establishment of a new National Institute of Nutrition. They noted that total taxpayer investment in this field across all federal agencies totals just $1.5 billion annually—an amount dwarfed by the $40 billion a year spent on candy and the estimated $1.72 trillion annual total health care and economic costs of a nation where a leading disqualifier for military service was obesity.

While it is of course hoped that researchers can maintain integrity regardless of funding source, these are circumstances that could threaten independent science, and they create a need for additional vigilance in ensuring their work continues to prioritize the public good. This is particularly important on food issues as many companies, such as makers of sugary soda and cereals, have taken a page out of Big Tobacco’s strategy for crafting a benign and benevolent image for themselves by sponsoring everything from professional sports teams to food banks, youth groups and physician organizations.

Will agribusiness dollars influence the committee?

The Trump administration’s ties to industry are no secret. Agribusiness, for instance, gave $4.6 million to the Trump campaign, nearly double the amount it contributed to runner-up Hillary Clinton. In the 2017-2018 election cycle, the National Restaurant Association, McDonalds and Coca-Cola have contributed nearly $1 million each to congressional candidates, giving a respective 74 percent, 64 percent and 54 percent to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The National Confectioners Association, the lobbying arm of the candy industry, gave 60 percent of its contributions to Republican causes and the parent companies of restaurants such as Taco Bell, Wendy’s, Pizza Hut, Outback Steakhouse, Carrabba’s Italian Grill, Flemings Prime Steakhouse, Waffle House and the Association of KFC Franchisees gave almost all of their money to Republican or conservative groups.

In announcing the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) in February, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (who must sign off on the final guidelines, along with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar) reportedly said, “You ought to have professionals on either end of the spectrum—both from the plant-based and meat-based side of the equation—making recommendations.” That grossly mischaracterizes the charge of the committee: to review current evidence and present independent, science-based recommendations to the Secretaries. A balanced committee should imply a diversity of expertise in nutrition and health sciences—not equal representation of the financial interests of the food industry and the science itself. Perdue’s actions over the last two years reinforce that his idea of “balance” involves weaving Big Ag deeper into the folds of public policy.

More meat and fewer carbs, with a side of science

The 2015 DGAC presented strong evidence to consider major adjustments to the American way of eating, diet, writing: “sustainable diets were that a diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.” That resulted in fierce blowback from Big Ag and the ultimate rejection of sustainability as a guiding dietary principle by the USDA and HHS.

Given that fight in a White House where First Lady Michelle Obama made urban gardening a signature mission, it is difficult to see the industry-ridden Trump administration embracing the science on plant-based diets. The 2020 committee contains several scientists whose industry-funded research just happens to focus on short-term benefits of meat, low-carbohydrate diets and commercial diet programs. This is despite an abundance of research documenting the long-term health impacts of high meat intake, such as heart disease and cancer.

For example, the National Pork Board funded 2012 research by new DGAC member and Purdue University researcher Dr. Heather Leidy (then at the University of Missouri) and colleagues. The study found long-term health benefits of pork-based breakfasts, compared to adolescents who normally skip breakfast. The Pork Board publicized the study and took the findings one step further, summarizing the results by saying:

“The study findings provide the pork industry with novel, practical evidence supporting the role of a protein-rich breakfast including high-quality lean pork as a key component of daily healthy eating, leading to improved body weight management in young people.” Pork Board President Conley Nelson went so far as to say, “Parents can feel good about including pork as part of the morning meal.”

But despite the industry’s long-running campaign claiming pork is the healthy “other white meat,” many Americans are still springing for pork in its unhealthiest form—bacon. Between 2011 and 2018, the number of Americans who consume at least 3 pounds of bacon a year rose by nearly 50 percent, from 44 million to 63 million. As the Wall Street Journal astutely noted in 2017: “With the rise of low-carb high-protein diets, fatty bacon made a comeback.”

Of course, low-carb is the diet of choice for Atkins Nutritionals, the company that nominated DGAC member Dr. Lydia Bazzano. Her research on the short-term effects of low-carbohydrate diets on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factors has helped to buoy its popularity. Atkins Nutritionals has worked alongside the Nutrition Coalition and livestock groups to lobby Capitol Hill and the USDA on low-carb diets—though research has called their long-term health benefits into question.

An example of how the industry takes advantage of the lack of public research funding to position itself as a center of academic gravitas are events such as the 2007 and 2013 “Protein Summit.” The latter of the summits, meant “to explore the misperception that Americans over-consume protein,” was sponsored by the National Pork Board, the Beef Checkoff, The Egg Nutrition Center, Hillshire Brands, the Dairy Research Institute and the Global Dairy Platform. Leidy and another new member of the DGAC, Purdue colleague Dr. Richard Mattes, were on the steering committee and yet another new DGAC member, Teresa Davis of Baylor University, was a speaker. She has received speaking honoraria from both the Beef Checkoff and Abbott Nutrition.

Finagling for formula and food replacements

Some notable companies at the DGAC table aren’t involved in producing food at all, but rather pharmaceuticals and supplements—including infant formula and diet replacement programs. This is particularly noteworthy because the 2020 Dietary Guidelines will be the first that will include recommendations for pregnant women and children from birth through 24 months of age. From a public health perspective, this is an important advancement in providing information to families with young children; for makers of infant formula, this is also an opportunity to market their products.

Though infant feeding is a personal choice, complicated by any number of challenges, there is strong scientific consensus that breastmilk—when it’s an option—provides the best nutrition for infants and added health benefits for mothers. Yet the United States stunned the global community last summer by refusing to sign a United Nations resolution encouraging breastfeeding, raising alarm about the Trump administration’s disregard for population health and foreshadowing the tone it might take with the dietary guidelines.

In the infant formula arena, Dr. Sharon Donovan has participated in studies funded by and edited informational materials for infant formula company Mead Johnson. The same company claims a major relationship with Massachusetts General Hospital for Children, where physician-in-chief Ronald Kleinman is also on the DGAC. As part of an Obama administration initiative to understand human microorganisms (microbiome), Massachusetts General Hospital and Mead Johnson partnered on the pediatric wing of the research. “[Mass General] and Mead Johnson enjoy a long history of collaboration on projects that focus on pediatric nutrition,” Kleinman said in a hospital press release.

But elsewhere in the world, the relationship between industry and researchers seems far less harmonious, with baby formula makers accused of unscrupulous business tactics in promoting formula over breastfeeding. A 2013 Reuters report found that Mead Johnson, Nestle, Pfizer’s Wyeth unit and Danone all used high pressure marketing tactics, including bribes, to push formula. In 2015, Mead Johnson agreed to pay a $12 million fine after the Securities and Exchange Commission found that the company made improper payments to health professionals in China to recommend formula to new or expectant mothers.

As a result of such activities and after an outcry over sponsorship of several infant formula companies at its first international conference in the Middle East and Africa, the Royal College of Pediatrics in the United Kingdom recently suspended its ties with infant formula makers. The Guardian newspaper last year reported that Nestle, Mead Johnson, Abbott and Wyeth (now owned by Nestle), engaged in predatory and illegal practices to push formula on impoverished communities in the Philippines.

There is some degree of overlap between companies that produce infant formula and those that produce food replacements and weight loss supplements, and companies of both stripes have connections to the DGAC. Among the new DGAC members is Dr. Jamy Ard, medical director of Optifast, Nestle’s line of full-meal replacement shakes. Dr. Ard has led Nestle-funded trials showing that Optifast diets lead to more weight loss than food-based diets. (A 2015 study by John Hopkins University researchers found that very few commercial weight-loss programs demonstrate long-term benefits, and Optifast is not one of them).

Dr. Steven Heymsfield of Louisiana State University, nominated by the American Beverage Association, has been on the scientific advisory board of Medifast, another producer of weight loss product—also discredited by Johns Hopkins University. Heymsfield is also the current president of The Obesity Society, which has been criticized for its connections to corporate funders such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, and hosting “engagement councils” with members representing those PepsiCo, Monsanto, Nestle, Dr. Pepper, Atkins, Mars, and Campbell’s Soup. Last year, Heymsfield and his society issued a press release casting doubt on the efficacy of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages, even though taxes have helped cut tobacco consumption. Louisiana State University received more funding from Coca Cola than any other single organization, nearly $7 million between 2010 and 2015.

In a February press release, the Obesity Society boasted that Heymsfield, council member Ard and members Mattes, Elizabeth Mayer-Davis of the University of North Carolina and Elsie Taveras of Massachusetts General Hospital were all named to the DGAC.

A web of industry connections

Some industry connections are far less visible, including those fostered through innocuously-named groups like the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Far from being a staid academic institution, ILSI and similar groups are part of a far-reaching web of agricultural companies and mass-scale food producers who, despite many controversies over the health value of their products and impact on the environment in production, have forged “partnerships” with leading academics and renowned hospitals. This allows them to veil themselves in “science” and present themselves as benevolent forces “feeding the world.”

ILSI claims membership of a full quarter of the DGAC: Dr. Teresa Davis, Dr. Kleinman, Dr. Donovan, Dr. Regan Bailey of Purdue and Dr. Barbara Schneeman, a former US Food and Drug Administration director of nutrition and labeling. Davis, Donovan and Bailey are scientific advisors to ILSI North America and Schneeman is a government liaison. Kleinman is on the board of trustees of ILSI’s Research Foundation. (Of additional note is that Schneeman, who was nominated by the American Beverage Association, will serve as chair of the DGAC, and Kleinman will serve as vice chair).

ILSI North America claims to “provide a neutral forum that collaboratively engages scientists from the public and private sectors to identify and resolve scientific issues around food safety and nutrition for the benefit of public health” In actuality, ILSI was founded in 1978 by a Coca-Cola executive “to unite the food industry” and has repeatedly been exposed as trying to manipulate science on behalf of more than three dozen companies. many of which push pesticides in food production and sugar, salt and unhealthy fats into the manufacture of candy, soda, cereals and processed foods.

In 2017, an ILSI-funded study made its way into the Annals of Internal Medicine, claiming that sugar intake guidelines are based on “low-quality evidence” and are thus “untrustworthy.” The untrustworthiness of ILSI itself was most recently exposed in January in a study in the Journal of Public Health Policy.

A Harvard University professor found that the ILSI helped redirect China’s chronic disease science from a paradigm that focused on diet, to Coke’s narrative that blames lack of exercise instead of sugary drinks for obesity, “a claim few public experts accept,” study author Susan Greenhalgh wrote.

This web gets downright incestuous as many of the same companies flood the zone of influence by being members of other organizations with feel-good, anti-poverty names such as the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF), Feeding Tomorrow (FT), Seeding the Future (STF) and the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC)

For instance, Kleinman, known for his research on infant nutrition, is president of the board of directors for the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (CNF), which claims DowDuPont, the American Beverage Association, Coke, General Mills, Pepsi, Kraft Heinz and the National Restaurant Association among its sponsors or in its network. Most of those groups also are members of the ILSI. Bios for federal publications and speaking appearances also say Kleinman has been a consultant to Burger King and General Mills, the latter of which supports all five mentioned industry-backed foundations and institutes. A dozen companies, including Coca-Cola, Abbott Nutrition, Hershey, PepsiCo, and DuPont have multiple memberships.

The IFIC’s foundation claims Bailey among its trustees. Feeding Tomorrow claims Schneeman as a trustee. A UCS report found that IFIC, as well as IFIC member General Mills, conducted studies that tried to avoid the question of “added sugars” to foods.

Setting the table for the DGAC’s work

Though not unusual, the deep reach of the food industry’s tendrils into the newly formed DGAC may prove particularly problematic in the context of Secretary Perdue’s running of USDA. As a UCS report lays out, he has stacked his department with executives and lobbyists from the world of pesticides, corn syrup and junk food and sided with Big Pork over small farmers and Big Dairy and others over small people (children).

That is the department that the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is ultimately reporting to. For all that Perdue promises the process will be “transparent and data-driven,” his actions will speak louder than words. The pressure on this committee to produce science in the public’s best interest increases almost daily with the current administration’s general attack on laws protecting the nation’s health.

The scientific advisory committee of the Environmental Protection Agency, run by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, is now questioning prior science linking particulate matter in air pollution to poor health. In a rebuttal of the process emerging under Wheeler, published in the journal Science, Gretchen Goldman of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Francesca Dominici of Harvard University’s School of Public Health, wrote that substantial EPA-backed research has found “strong evidence of increased risk of mortality at levels well below the safety standards for particulate matter.” Loosening the standards would be dangerous as 23 million Americans live in areas that exceed particulate matter standards.

In light of these anti-science actions, it makes it all the more important for Americans to demand the Trump administration not twist science to the will of industry. Federal science advisory committees should represent the first line of defense of the nation’s health, not the advance wave of pollution and poor diets.

Nine Reasons to Oppose the Trump Administration’s Proposed SNAP Changes

On Tuesday, April 2nd, the Trump administration closes a public comment period on proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) that could leave hundreds of thousands of unemployed and underemployed adults unable to meet their basic needs.

As we wrote in a previous blog, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue surreptitiously announced the proposed rule via an after-hours, off-camera briefing in peak holiday season late last December. To be sure, the rule is nothing to be proud of. It would restrict states’ ability to waive time limits on SNAP benefits, meaning many adults across the country who are struggling to find work would lose their benefits after just three months.

If the Secretary’s hope was that the announcement would fly under the radar, it failed spectacularly. The public has responded (and how).

At the time this blog was published, nearly 30,000 comments from public health professionals, anti-hunger advocates, and other concerned citizens had been submitted to the federal register website.

There are many reasons the public has expressed opposition to the rule—and for many, it’s personal. Our top nine reasons for opposing the rule (and the evidence behind them) are below. Visit the federal register to view UCS’s comment in full, or use our model comment to submit your own before next week’s deadline.

Nine reasons why we oppose the proposed SNAP changes

1. Congress expressly defeated attempts to include such provisions in the recently authorized Farm Bill. The administration is using the regulatory process to directly subvert the will of Congress and the public.

The proposed rule changes mirror the legislative changes that were included in the House Farm Bill, which faced such fierce opposition from Congress, public health professionals, anti-hunger advocates, national organizations, and members of the general public that they were excluded from the final bipartisan bill. And just this week, a bipartisan group of 47 US Senators released a letter asking Secretary Perdue to reconsider the proposed changes. Circumventing Congress to unilaterally implement unpopular and unsubstantiated changes to SNAP through rule making is an ill-advised and short-sighted strategy that directly contradicts the expressed wishes and stated needs of many individuals, organizations, and elected officials.

2. There is no evidence that the proposed rule will increase participation in work. Research has not shown that stricter time limits for federal assistance programs encourage work, and further suggests that limiting access to basic needs may increase barriers to gainful employment.

The proposed rule asserts that stricter criteria for waivers “would encourage greater engagement in meaningful work activities and movement toward self-sufficiency among Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents, thus reducing the need for nutrition assistance.” Yet a nonpartisan Congressional Research Service report on work requirements in federal programs concluded there is no research base for the effectiveness of work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries, and recent research has found that program participation actually increases the likelihood of employment and full-time work.

3. The proposed rule will likely increase food insecurity and have detrimental effects on public health for those who will lose program benefits.

Research shows that SNAP alleviates household food insecurity, which in turn can help to prevent the onset of chronic diseases and mental health issues. In 2017, SNAP lifted 3.4 million people out of poverty and reduced food insecurity by up to 30 percent. Consequently, the proposed rule may exacerbate health problems among able-bodied childless adults, making it harder, not easier, for them to find stable employment. Children who rely on adults not formally designated as caregivers may also suffer health consequences: young children’s participation in SNAP is linked to a higher likelihood of high school completion and lower rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome into adulthood.

4. The proposed rule would result in increased health care costs due to increased rates of food insecurity. Part of these costs would be paid by state and federal governments.

Research has shown that adults who participate in SNAP tend to incur less medical costs than eligible non-participants, due in part to hospitalizations for diabetes complications. A 2017 study found that participants typically incur $1,400 less in total medical costs—meaning that the loss of benefits by 755,000 adults under the proposed rule would result in nearly $1.1 billion in additional medical costs. This amount, which will be paid in part by government in states with Medicaid expansion, is equal to the cost savings predicted by the administration under the proposed rule.

5. The proposed rule will likely harm local economies in communities across the country, including small and medium farms that receive revenue via the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant program.

When SNAP participants spend benefits at the store, it catalyzes a chain reaction of economic activity known as the “multiplier effect.” The standard USDA model estimates that, during a weak economy, $1 in SNAP spending generates about $1.80 in economic activity. This is what makes SNAP an important program during economic downturns—the influx of spending can help entire communities and industries recover more quickly from the fallout. But it also means that entire communities can feel the effects of cuts to the program, including farmers who rely on SNAP participants to purchase local produce, sometimes with the help of programs like the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI). In its first year, FINI programs generated almost $8 million in SNAP and incentive produce purchases at farmers markets in 27 states.

6. By setting a strict and arbitrary threshold for unemployment, the proposed rule fails to acknowledge the slow economic growth, persistent economic inequality and food insecurity facing some areas of the country.

The proposed rule would limit acceptable types of data states can use to request waivers and sets more stringent standards, imposing a 7 percent unemployment floor—even if local unemployment is considerably higher than the national average. Yet unemployment is only one measure of job availability and economic opportunity, and relying on unemployment data alone—particularly at the specified threshold—ignores critical considerations related to labor force participation, stagnant wages, and persistent food insecurity, despite national economic improvements. The new standards set by the proposed rule, which were provided without any science-based evidence, reject the reality that, in many places in America, it is still exceedingly difficult to find stable employment that pays a living wage.

7. The proposed rule would reduce states’ ability to make important decisions about how their populations can meet their basic needs.

Since 1996, every state except Delaware has needed to use waivers to halt time limits on SNAP, showing how essential it is to allow states the flexibility to help residents put food on the table when they fall on hard times. The proposed rule would remove this flexibility, making it harder for states to respond to economic downturn and to address the needs of unique communities. There are many counties with distinct economic conditions and challenges that will be exacerbated by the proposed rule. One such example is Murray County, Georgia, a rural area whose economy is driven by manufacturing and which overwhelming voted to put the current Administration into office. Though unemployment rate (6.8%) in Murray County is nearly three percentage points higher than the national average and the poverty rate is 34 percent higher than the national average, the county would no longer qualify for a waiver under the proposed rule. This is one of many counties across the country that will lose a critical lifeline for many of its low-income residents.

8. There is no substitute for SNAP. The emergency food system alone cannot provide additional food to meet the needs of those who will lose program benefits under the proposed rule. 

Food banks play a critical role in alleviating food insecurity for individuals and families across the country, including those who don’t qualify for programs like SNAP. Nationally, more than one in four food-insecure individuals lives in a household that is unlikely to qualify for most food assistance programs.  Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, provided 4.3 billion meals to millions of people facing hunger in 2018.  Yet the reach and impact of meals provided by anti-hunger organizations is only a fraction of those provided through SNAP. It is estimated that for every single meal provided by the Feeding American nationwide network of food banks, SNAP provides 12 meals to families in need.  Any cuts to SNAP will result in greater strain on these systems that are already unable to meet community needs.

9. Despite the outsized attention the administration has brought to this issue, the population of able-bodied adults without dependents is only a small fraction of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participants.

The vast majority of SNAP recipients are children, the elderly, caregivers, or persons with disabilities. The population of unemployed and underemployed adults being targeted by the proposed rule makes up only 8.8 percent of all SNAP recipients, and the number of those unemployed at any given time makes up only 6.5 percent of all recipients. Furthermore, many adults classified as “able-bodied adults without dependents” may have unique circumstances that make finding work difficult, including veterans, homeless people, children who have aged out of foster care, and college students. This population may also include people who are not officially designated as caregivers, but are helping to care for children of friends or kin.

In one of the wealthiest countries in the world, the only thing more troubling than persistent hunger, poverty, and inequality is an unwillingness to do something about it. If Secretary Sonny’s motto is to “do right and feed everyone,” now seems like a good time to start.

Perdue’s Paradox: Proposed USDA Reorganization Would Undermine Farmers and Science-Based Research

Presidential budgets are wish lists. Very detailed and public wish lists.

That’s why on Monday, when the Trump Administration released its FY2020 Budget, it was alarming to see a 7 percent reduction to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area.

Thankfully, Congress has routinely rejected President’s Trumps budget proposals. Still, there’s a lot we can learn from the hundreds of millions in proposed cuts to food and agriculture research.

Late last year, the USDA unveiled major changes to two of the Department’s world-class research agencies—the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA), and the Economic Research Service (ERS). At the time, USDA claimed the changes were to benefit taxpayers.

Since the changes were announced, key Senators and Representatives, bipartisan former agency heads, and thousands of researchers have raised legitimate concerns—from scientific integrity to whether or not the proposed changes would increase and improve publicly funded USDA research. Of all these concerns, one fundamental question still looms large:

Will American agriculture research—and the farmers, ranchers, and consumers who rely on it—benefit from the proposal?  

With a quick scan of recent headlines, it’s clear that from international trade anxiety to the devastating havoc of natural disasters, uncertainty is ruling the day for many producers around the country. At times of uncertainty, USDA’s role is to provide leadership and stability.

Strategic investments in food and agriculture research are some of the best our government can make. Scientific advances generated by ERS and NIFA—the two agencies impacted by the proposed reorganization—have benefitted countless communities in all 50 states and have contributed to rural economic development, food safety and security, and environmental stewardship, among others. But the good doesn’t stop there—the USDA itself has said that public investment in agriculture research results in “large economic benefits with annual rates of return between 20 and 60 percent.”

Given the clear benefit of research and the need for stability in American agriculture, we need to increase and improve our public investment in food and agriculture research—not produce half-baked proposals which further sow doubt about USDA’s diminishing leadership in agriculture research.

Yet, paradoxically, the proposed reorganization of ERS and NIFA has only raised doubt as to whether USDA still values agriculture research. In fact, the press release announcing the reorganization cited three justifications for the proposal—and none of them include increasing or improving public investment in food and agriculture research. Even USDA’s own employees have expressed their deep concerns about the intent behind the move.

Congressional requests for clarity from USDA have gone unanswered for months even though lawmakers have now requested “an indefinite delay” to the proposed reorganization. On March 12, USDA further ignored Congress and announced the 67 finalists for the new ERS and NIFA location. Now more than ever, it’s becoming obvious that USDA has no desire to listen to Congress.

Given the mounting opposition and continued lack of clarity on the proposed reorganization, it’s completely reasonable to ask—what’s the true motivation behind the reorganization? Will it benefit food and agriculture research, and the millions who rely on it? If so, why is there no evidence after more than seven months?

Unfortunately, the evidence is already in plain sight: the President’s budget proposes more than $225 million in cuts to food and agriculture research, which maintains the theme from previous Trump budget proposals. An administration that values rigorous science-based food and agriculture research wouldn’t do that.

American farmers, ranchers, and consumers should never have to question whether USDA has their back, nor should the talented and dedicated staff of USDA’s research agencies.

Yet, with this proposal, that’s exactly what’s happened.

After Two Years, Trump’s USDA Is Making Good on Promises (to Agribusiness)

USDA Photo by Lance Cheung/Flickr

This week, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is set to appear before Congress for the first time in a year. When he testifies on the state of the rural economy at a hearing of the House agriculture committee, he’ll have a lot to answer for. Over the last year—Perdue’s second at the helm of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)—he has been busy sidelining science and undermining the nation’s health on behalf of the Big Food and Big Ag industries.

Oh, and the state of the rural economy? That’s not looking so great under Perdue’s and the president’s watch either.

Let’s start with the economic news. Agriculture reporter Chris Clayton summarized it this way:

In a forecast released last week, USDA sees net cash income for agriculture remaining relatively flat over the next decade as expenses steadily rise and income for crops and livestock fails to keep pace. The Minneapolis Federal Reserve highlighted farmers’ economic stress in an update last week, suggesting more farm operations are at risk of “throwing in the towel.”

Yikes. Indeed, farm bankruptcies are on the rise (subscription). And while farm income has been mostly declining since 2013, the Trump administration’s shenanigans—a tax cut that was vastly oversold, a trade war that grinds on, and a lengthy and pointless government shutdown at the very time farmers needed the USDA’s services—certainly aren’t helping. Repeated insistence of the administration’s devotion to farmers and their livelihoods rings hollow.

Our Nation was founded by farmers. Our independence was won by farmers. And our continent was tamed by farmers. Our farmers always lead the way — we are PROUD of them, and we are DELIVERING for them! #NationalAgricultureDay

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 20, 2018

It is great to be at the @FarmBureau’s Centennial Annual Convention and introduce @POTUS who is a true friend to the American farmer. #AFBF19 #AFBF100 pic.twitter.com/BUFOXFq6FM

— Sec. Sonny Perdue (@SecretarySonny) January 14, 2019

So yes, Secretary Perdue should have to answer tough questions about the farm economy. But there are other pressing issues—for farmers and eaters—that the House agriculture committee should ask him about as well. For example:

SCHOOL LUNCHES: Why is Perdue making them less healthy? Who does that serve? Earlier this week, Secretary Perdue gave a speech at the School Nutrition Association’s annual legislative conference. His comments on school lunch “flexibility” were applauded there, but don’t be fooled—it’s not about helping kindly lunch ladies better serve our kids. This industry-backed association (as we documented back in 2015) happily supported Perdue’s recent rollback of science-based rules on salt, whole grains, and sugar-sweetened milk in school meals. The milk rollback, in particular, is a clear gift to Big Dairy (a deep-pocketed industry that undercuts small dairy farmers and very much wants to sell more milk). Meanwhile, two of Perdue’s predecessors recently penned an op-ed highlighting how watered-down nutrition standards contribute to a diet-related health crisis that threatens our national security and our future. (But no big deal, right?)

DIETARY GUIDELINES: Why is Perdue stacking the expert committee and short-changing the science-based process of developing nutrition advice? Last week, the USDA announced the composition of a 20-member expert advisory committee that will consider the state of nutrition science and make recommendations to Perdue and the secretary of health and human services. It’s the science-based heart of the process of updating the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which influences how millions of Americans eat and offers an opportunity to improve public health. But the new panel appears to be more heavily industry-influenced than usual, with members connected to the meat, infant formula, and soda industries. Comments this week by Perdue indicate he is taking a “both sides” approach to nutrition science. Moreover, other recent comments suggest that the process—which is already months behind schedule and not previously expected to be completed until well into 2020—might be rushed to generate final 2020 guidelines by the end of this year. Why?

.@SecretarySonny on need for “balance” on Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee – "You know our history with food. Eggs are good, eggs are not good; they're good now…Fat: Not good, good. So we're trying to have a balanced perspective of that.”

— Helena Bottemiller Evich (@hbottemiller) February 25, 2019

https://twitter.com/hbottemiller/status/1100194749921792000

FOOD STAMPS: Why is Perdue circumventing Congress to take food off people’s plates? At this week’s hearing, Perdue will be face-to-face with the House agriculture committee, which just in December voted resoundingly against a major shakeup of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But on the very same day as that vote, Perdue announced that his USDA would propose a new rule that would undermine the program in a slightly different way, but with a similar result: some 750,000 unemployed or underemployed adults would lose SNAP benefits when the rule is fully implemented in fiscal year 2020. Why was this rule proposed immediately after Congress approved a bill that intentionally removed similar provisions?

USDA RESEARCH: Why is Perdue sidelining and politicizing science in his own department? We’ve written about Perdue’s ill-conceived proposal, announced last August, to reorganize and relocate two of the USDA’s four research agencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The move would unduly politicize important USDA research, and is not backed by any publicly-available cost-benefit analysis. It has been opposed by more than 1,100 scientists, former USDA officials, the agencies’ scientific staff, and members of Congress who hold the department’s pursestrings. Meanwhile, in another recent and related end-around, Perdue circumvented Congress by appointing Scott Hutchins—previously nominated to be USDA chief scientist but not yet been confirmed by the Senate as required by law—to the next-highest-ranking position, deputy under secretary of REE, a role that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Why is any of this necessary, and who does it serve?

I’ll be watching tomorrow to see what Perdue is asked—and what he says—about these and other issues. Hopefully, tomorrow’s hearing is just the beginning of Congress taking up its constitutional duty to provide a check on the USDA and hold Secretary Perdue accountable to the public interest.

¿Por qué es político el sistema agroalimentario?

Grato sería disfrutar un bocado sin molestarnos con consideraciones mayores al sabor y el agrado de nuestros platillos favoritos. Sin embargo, el sistema alimentario funciona de manera tal que la gran mayoría de nosotros lo repudiaríamos si comprendiéramos lo que hace con nuestro aval, el cual concedemos cada vez que pedimos algo de la carta de un restaurante, o nos paseamos llenando nuestro carrito en el supermercado. Por ejemplo, al alimentarnos sancionamos el desgaste de recursos naturales, la contaminación ambiental y la explotación laboral, muchas veces de niños. Tales cosas no ocurren en casos raros, o sin el conocimiento de los gerentes de los grandes corporativos agroalimentarios. Al contrario, a estas grandes industrias les conviene que no conozcamos, o que no nos preguntemos, lo que implica el acto de comer. Es tan contundente el poder del sistema agroalimentario, capaz de entregarnos cualquier cantidad de cualquier artículo comestible cuando se nos antoje—no obstante la temporada, el orígen del comestible, ni la preparación o conservación necesaria para que el artículo pueda consumirse casi al instante de que se nos apetezca—que es comprensible que pensemos que esta maravilla resulte de las mas avanzadas tecnologías y eficiencias industriales. Sin embargo, las eficiencias agroalimentarias engañan.

Consideremos que a cambio de la avalancha de comestibles procesados modernos, han explotado la obesidad y la diabetes. Entonces, la “eficiencia” evidente es la de causar grandes males, reducir la calidad de vida y nuestra longevidad, a cambio de grandes ganancias para los fabricantes de alimentos procesados. Que a cambio de la productividad aparente de las grandes extensiones industriales de maíz, trigo, arroz y papa se han desgastado los suelos, envenenado las fuentes de agua potable y extinguido los mantos acuíferos. Entonces, la “eficiencia” resultante es la de minar los bienes naturales acumulados durante milenios para bien económico de un número concentrado de industriales en el presente, sin consideración mayor para el futuro. Y por último, consideremos que este sistema, por mas “moderno” que se presente con sus altas tecnologías en maquinaria, agroquímicos y semillas mejoradas, sería imposible sustentar sin la explotación de los jornaleros agrícolas. Entonces la “eficiencia” que contemplamos es la pobreza, desplazamiento y migración de millones de personas, para bien de quienes nos rehusamos a pagar el precio justo de nuestro alimento.

Para que todo esto sea posible—las prácticas nocivas y sus mitologías correspondientes—los sistemas políticos refuerzan, en pleno siglo XXI, los modelos de negocio y las tendencias humanas de eras pasadas, cuando la explotación del planeta y del prójimo se justificaban porque nuestra mella sobre el planeta era mínima. Ahora en día, cuando la actividad acumulada del ser humano dirime la capacidad del planeta para sustentarnos, y gravemente limita la viabilidad de nuestra descendencia, urge un giro iluminado tanto de nuestras prácticas como de nuestras leyes. Por eso es político el sistema alimentario. De manera acérrima, la contienda política está entre una visión fundamentada sobre comprendimiento moderno, informado por la ciencia y por una moralidad que coloca los derechos humanos por sobre los derechos corporativos, contra todo lo contrario, legado de un pasado extractivo, desgastante y sin futuro.

Todo esto está de por medio en nuestro sistema agroalimentario, desde los campos de producción hasta los restaurantes y supermercados, casi siempre pasando inadvertidos los reglamentos y las leyes que arbitran lo que se permite hacer a nuestro nombre. A partir de este entendimiento, debemos exigir un sistema alimentario digno del bien público, evidente en nuestra salud, nuestro bienestar, nuestro medio ambiente, y en las leyes que promuevan un futuro vigente y justo.

Todo esto lo discutimos recientemente con mi colega Abbie Figueroa en una reciente entrevista, donde contemplamos a grandes rasgos las propiedades del sistema agroalimentario, y nos imaginamos un paseo por un supermercado. Escúchenos aquí, y de paso aprenda de manera amena el trasfondo de nuestro sistema agroalimentario mediante esta gira virtual de un supermercado, en donde irá ilustrándose con cada artículo que añada a su carrito de compras.

Disfrute de su alimento, pero a la vez únase a nuestros esfuerzos por mejorar los reglamentos y las leyes que definen al sistema alimentario que formamos todos.

Shopping for Change: A Virtual Trip to the Supermarket, and 4 Key Takeaways

Photo courtesy flickr/Marco Verch

The average US supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. With all that choice, you’d think it would be easy to make day-to-day food-buying decisions that are good for people, animals, and the planet. But a trip to a virtual supermarket in a new online feature shows why that isn’t necessarily true, and what it will take to make real change in our food and farming system.

But first, a confession of sorts: I shop for groceries as many as four times a week, frequenting multiple grocery stores, a local orchard and farm stand, and one of the country’s top farmers markets. I’m a little obsessive, and I like what I like. But I’m also hyper-aware of issues in the food system, so I look at labels, seek to “know my farmer(s),” and fork over more money for food that is in line with my values.

Overall, I feel pretty good about how I wield my personal buying power when it comes to food. And yet, I’m very aware that my choices at the checkout stand—even in combination with millions of other American consumers—aren’t enough. Because even for those of us with the income, education, and interest to make these choices, there is a lot about our food production system that remains hidden from view, and a lot of choices that aren’t ours to make. Moreover, we know everyone doesn’t have the same wherewithal to make the choices I do.

And that’s why my colleagues and I at the Union of Concerned Scientists created Shopping for Change. This new online feature lets users wheel virtual shopping carts around a virtual supermarket to uncover some of the actual stories of our food system—from farm to fork—that lurk behind the packages on the shelves. In the process, we hope to help more of our fellow shoppers understand that system, with all its problems and opportunities, and see how they can help push it in the right direction.

Why the supermarket?

Like me, you may get your groceries from many sources. Farmers markets saw explosive growth in recent years, and online food shopping, though still a tiny share of the market, is increasing. But even after a decade of decline, the supermarket still reigns supreme—according to a 2018 survey by the Food Marketing Institute, 58 percent of shoppers say it’s their go-to place to shop for food.

(If you want to really geek out on the history and evolution of supermarkets, see this fascinating 2015 paper from University of Rochester economics and marketing professor Paul Ellickson.)

With most of us shopping there—and spending some $682 billion a year—we set our food system story in the supermarket. And then we filled it with some of the most commonly-purchased fresh food items and pantry staples, which also reflect a range of issues.

Take breakfast cereal, for example—nearly nine out of 10 Americans eat it sometimes, and it’s the go-to breakfast for almost a third of us, which makes the cereal bowl a common place we encounter grains like corn and wheat…and the environmental problems they can cause. By contrast, beans and lentils are eaten less frequently, but offer farmers a range of benefits, from diversifying the landscape and building healthy soil to improving their bottom lines.

Our supermarket experience tackles questions about other foods: eggs (what does “cage-free” really mean?), meat (what is its impact on the climate?), fruits (can we protect workers from pesticides?) and vegetables (how can we help people eat more of them?).

There are also some non-food stops on our supermarket tour. We visit the dumpster to look at the problem of food waste, for example, and the back office to explore issues of power, ownership, and equity in the food system.

The food-buying bottom line

We hope the result is helpful to people when they’re thinking about the foods they buy, as well as the public policies we all support with our tax dollars (and our votes). So as you take our shopping cart for a spin and share it with your friends, relatives, neighbors, and co-workers, here are four key things we hope you’ll get from it:

TAKEAWAY #1: Consumers need to do their homework. Labels—fair trade, organic, cage-free, and the like—can be hard to sort out, and some are more meaningful than others. Dig in and do your research. We offer resources with the “receipt” you’ll get when you check out of our virtual supermarket.

TAKEAWAY #2: In the food system, everything is connected. While our virtual supermarket necessarily deals with food items and issues one at a time, the food system doesn’t work that way. Fairness and justice for workers, profitability for farmers, and affordability for consumers are inextricably linked. My colleague Rafter Ferguson recently dealt masterfully with those linkages in this blog post. You should read it.

TAKEAWAY #3: Large buyers have more power to drive change. Food purchasing decisions aren’t just made individually, consumer by consumer. They’re also made by large institutions like universities, hospitals, and corporate campuses. And, for that matter, by supermarket chains and other retailers. If you don’t see what you’re looking for where you shop, ask for it, or look elsewhere. And for more on opportunities to drive change through institutional food purchasing, read our 2017 report, Purchasing Power, and check out the Good Food Purchasing Program.

TAKEAWAY #4: Systemic change also requires policy solutions. Myriad public policies shape our food system—and the choices we have available to us as consumers. This includes, for example: laws and regulations governing everything from pesticide use to food labels; government carrots and sticks for various foods (like vegetable subsidies and soda taxes); and even decisions about which food and agriculture questions get studied using public research dollars.

And this was one of the stickiest issues we encountered in designing this feature—how to deliver useful consumer information without suggesting that our food system’s problems can be solved if we all just make the right choices at the supermarket checkout. As our team wrestled with that, a colleague unearthed an old Economist magazine article in which the writer Michael Pollan discussed this exact topic:

The $30 billion organic-food industry “was created by consumers voting with their dollars,” says Michael Pollan, the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (2006), another of this year’s crop of books on food politics. Normally, he says, a sharp distinction is made between people’s actions as citizens, in which they are expected to consider the well-being of society, and their actions as consumers, which are assumed to be selfish. Food choices appear to reconcile the two.

He’s right, of course. But even with food choices, the reality is that we’re usually wearing one hat or the other—consumer or citizen—at any given time. The more we can learn to merge those roles when thinking about food, the sooner we’ll create a fairer, healthier, and more sustainable food system for the future.

Big Dairy Is Looking to Sell More Milk—and a Perception of Better Health

The dairy industry has been busy lately. Or should I say, “Big Dairy,” a powerful collective of deep-pocketed lobby groups including the International Dairy Foods Associations and multinational corporations like Land O’Lakes and Dean Foods. In total, these and other big industry players spent $7.4 million on lobbying during 2018—and the payoff is showing up in various new government policies.

Just in the last month, for example:

  • The 2018 Farm Bill included a new section, “Healthy fluid milk incentives projects,” which authorizes projects that would boost milk sales among Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) users.
  • The Food and Drug Administration concluded a public comment period on whether it was acceptable to use terms like “milk,” “yogurt,” or “cheese” on the labels of plant-based dairy alternatives, such as soy milk or almond milk—whose markets are rapidly expanding.
  • And now, House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) has teamed up with Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA) to introduce a bill that would roll back school nutrition regulations by allowing schools to serve full-fat flavored (read: sweetened) varieties. This builds on a rule published by the USDA late last year that allowed low-fat flavored milk, rather than just fat-free flavored milk, in schools.

Is whole milk bad for our health? Maybe not, suggests emerging research. But this legislation, much like the others, isn’t about health. It’s about scoring simultaneous wins for Big Dairy and the sugar industry, who see the 30 million students across the country as a receptive audience for more of their products, and full-fat chocolate milk as a good way to deliver them.

These policy changes are responses to a multi-year crisis facing dairy farms of all stripes, which has had real and lasting consequences for farmers across the country.

But is pushing more milk really what’s best for struggling small farms—and is it really what’s best for our health?

More milk could keep Big Dairy in a cycle of subsidies—and won’t do small farms any favors

There is no mistaking the severity of the US dairy crisis that has been building for more than a decade. A steady flow of federal farm subsidies have driven overproduction and resulted in tremendous price drops, creating an environment in which only industrial dairy farms are likely to survive. Between 1970 and 2017, the United States lost nearly 94 percent of its dairy farms, with surviving farms trending toward more cows and higher milk production. In 2017, the state of Wisconsin alone lost 500 dairy farms. To make matters worse, dairy farmers were caught in the middle of last year’s trade wars, as Mexico and Canada responded to US tariffs with tariffs on a number of dairy products. While the government offered farmers a bailout program to cushion the blow, for most, it was too little and too late. As many farmers continue to face the reality of losing their livelihoods, the outcomes are nothing short of tragic.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett talks with a local dairy farmer. In 2017, the state of Wisconsin lost 500 dairy farms. Photo: barrett4wi/CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)

But this isn’t the first time our agricultural system has been confronted by a crisis of overproduction, and it certainly isn’t the first time we’ve tried to remedy it by strengthening subsidies and expanding markets, rather than by limiting production. And history has shown us that this doubling-down strategy can leave farmers unwittingly trapped in a perpetual cycle of high production and low prices that really only works for Big Dairy. As retired Wisconsin dairyman Jim Goodman wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Farmers don’t want subsidies. All we ever asked for were fair prices.”

But what has given this political strategy some degree of cover is the notion that increasing dairy sales is a win-win, with the underlying message that more dairy is good—even essential—for our health.

Is that really true?

Milk may not be essential to health

Given the ways that milk has been integrated into the fabric of our federal food programs, it would be natural to assume that the science is settled on its health benefits. Milk is a required component of every federally subsidized school breakfast and lunch, as well as after-school and summer meals; is included in food packages for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and even has a designated place on USDA’s MyPlate. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that each of us consume about 3 cups (or cup equivalents) of dairy per day.

But in reality, the science isn’t quite so straightforward.

In fact, existing evidence has led groups like the American Medical Association to adopt the position that both meat and dairy products should be optional components of the diet, while both Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate and Canada’s dietary guidelines recommend water—not milk—as their beverage of choice.

Milk does contain key vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium, and (when fortified) vitamin D—all nutrients we’re not getting enough of in a typical diet. And some studies have shown that dairy intake is associated with reduced risk of certain chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease. But dairy isn’t the only place we can find these beneficial nutrients. Certain types of fish, beans, leafy greens, and tofu offer calcium; a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables provide ample potassium; and fatty fish and other fortified foods are good sources of vitamin D. (Of course, there’s also the sun.) According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, most of these are foods that we generally under-consume, and eating a diet with more of them would come with its own health benefits.

We also know that many people have an impaired ability to digest milk, a condition known as lactose intolerance. It’s estimated that about 36 percent, or just over a third, of all people in the US have lactose intolerance, with higher rates among African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, and Hispanics and Latinos. If dairy is truly a necessary component of the diet, a lot of us are in trouble.

What does it all mean?

Enjoying a tub of ice cream, circa 1995.

Do you like dairy? Nice. Me too.

Do we need to stop eating it? No. (Although there are cases to be made for eating less.)

Does that mean that the dairy industry, rather than public health, should set our policy agenda? Absolutely not.

The bottom line is this: the science may yet be unsettled on dairy, but we can say with certainty that it’s not good for any of us when our public policies are shaped by industry—least of all by Big Dairy.

Let’s look for a different kind of win-win—one that will benefit real family farmers more than multinational corporations and provide the public with reliable information about our dietary choices. It’s about time.

 

Two Years in, and the State of Our Union Is Weakened—but It’ll Be Strong Again

We are now midway through the Trump administration, and the state of our union—while far too fractured and polarized to be judged strong—has, at least, proven resilient. The key institutions we count on—a free media, an independent judiciary, vigorous NGOs, strong governors and state attorneys general, and opposition representatives in Congress—have, for the most part, held the line and stemmed the damage that might have been inflicted by the wrecking ball that is the Trump presidency.

At the same time as our “old guard” institutions have held the line, a “new guard” is moving the line and changing the terms of the debate. People-powered activism is surging nationwide, and groups such as Indivisible, the Parkland students, and the Sunrise Movement captivate our imagination and demand attention with stirring ideas such as the “Green New Deal.”

Even the recent shutdown over the border wall, while a stunning example of government dysfunction that caused needless suffering, may have set a helpful precedent. How so? The border wall started out as a mnemonic device for a fledgling presidential candidate and became a symbol of toughness on immigration to Mr. Trump’s base. What it never was shown to be was an effective solution for border security. And when a policy, particularly one that involves billions of taxpayer dollars, cannot be supported by the evidence, and when there is an opposition party that will not suspend its disbelief out of blind loyalty to the president, such a policy will usually fail. That is the primary lesson of the shutdown, and one that President Trump’s administration would do well to learn if he wishes to salvage a failing presidency.

So, the question for UCS is this: How do we intend to operate in this landscape for the next two years?

Remain vigilant, but focus less on legislative defense

Two years ago, many of us reasonably feared that the president and his allies in Congress would enact what I have often referred to as “scorched earth” laws that would weaken key environmental safeguards, and restrict the ability of government scientists to do their vital work. Many of these bills had been passed by Congress but vetoed by President Obama, and we reasonably feared that they would be passed again by Congress and signed into law by President Trump.

Fortunately, for the most part this did not happen due to Senate Democrats working together to block noxious legislation. This was an all-hands-on-deck effort, supported by the work of many, including UCS, and it produced good results. Now, with a new majority in the House of Representatives that seems guided by science and motivated by constituencies who value clean air and water, it seems highly unlikely that such legislation will pass. For UCS, this means that some of the resources devoted to legislative defense can be deployed for other purposes.

Counter executive action

However, because Mr. Trump’s agenda will be stymied in Congress, it is also likely that he will double down on executive action.

Perhaps the most dangerous of these gambits lie in foreign policy, an area presidents often turn to when their domestic agendas are blocked. President Trump has already inflicted damage on our standing in the world and relationships with allies by seeking to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. Now he has announced the U.S. will begin withdrawing from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, with the potential risk of unraveling other arms accords, such as the New Start Treaty which expires in 2021 unless extended. There is no obvious way to counter these actions, at least in the short term, but we and others can and will challenge these actions.

On the domestic front, we will continue to see the president attempt to impose his will even when he cannot get Congress behind it. An example is the recently-announced effort to impose punitive work requirements on recipients of the SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps) after Congress chose not to include these requirements when it passed the farm bill in late 2018. As UCS experts have noted, the Department of Agriculture is now charging forward with a proposal that makes it harder for states (that have high unemployment rates and other barriers) to waive work requirements, thereby disqualifying many hungry Americans from accessing food through the program.

On top of new efforts such as cutting SNAP eligibility, the Trump administration will scurry to complete final rules eviscerating climate change policies. His administration will keep forcing rollbacks of proactive climate policies such as fuel economy standards and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, threatening public health by changing the formula for conducting cost-benefit analyses, stacking federal advisory boards with industry representatives, and limiting how scientific evidence can be used by federal agencies. These may be the only remaining “wins” Mr. Trump will be able to secure, and they are highlighted well in this recent UCS report.

UCS, and others, have fought hard against these rollbacks, soliciting thousands of comments of concern on these regulations before they’re finalized. What will most effectively derail the deregulation train? The nation’s courts. Courts are fact-based forums: when an administration makes spurious claims, they can expect skepticism from federal courts, particularly because the administrative record, as added to by UCS and others, contains the grounds to tear such arguments apart.

Take advantage of new oversight opportunities

In addition to litigation, we now have a new tool in countering excesses—Congressional oversight. Our elected officials can—and should—expose malfeasance and cronyism, rouse public opinion, and block misguided executive branch initiatives.

The challenge is that there is much material to work with—the US House committees that conduct any review of the Trump administration’s actions since taking office will need to be judicious. While there will be many competing demands, part of the new Congress’s agenda must be devoted to investigating regulatory rollbacks. We will be prepared to assist Congress in the legwork that goes into making oversight effective.

Examples of Congressional oversight that could be particularly illuminating include investigating:

  • The nefarious role that oil companies may have played in convincing the Trump administration to weaken fuel economy standards further than even the car companies wished;
  • The EPA’s decision to jerry-rig its cost-benefit analysis to minimize the benefits of regulations that Trump campaign contributors such as Murray Energy oppose;
  • The true facts about whether proposed missile defense systems actually work in real-world testing.
Perfect our science-based policies and build a coalition to support them

The next two years also give us time to lay the groundwork for 2020 and beyond. In part, we can start this by pushing for relatively modest measures that have bipartisan support now. Examples include funding increases for clean energy R&D, extensions of popular tax incentives for wind and solar energy, and broadening current incentives for deploying more energy storage and electric vehicles. And, if there’s a national infrastructure bill, UCS will push for “green” components, such as transmission lines that connect renewable energy to population centers and building EV charging stations.

But more importantly, we can use these next two years to draw up “rough drafts” of more ambitious legislation to solve our greatest challenges. Lawmakers can get feedback from stakeholders, for example, and continue to build public support for science-based policies so that when change happens again in Washington, we as a nation are ready to act decisively on climate change.

In addition to climate legislation, we should also lay the groundwork for ambitious action on nuclear weapons, including a bill to prohibit the US from launching a first use of nuclear weapons and/or restrict the president’s sole authority to launch a nuclear strike. We’ll be ready to inject these ideas into the next presidential debates, and educate a new cadre of legislators, as well as mobilize the public around them. We should also anticipate opportunities around—and lay the groundwork for—bills to protect scientific integrity and restore hollowed-out federal agencies.

Drive change at the state level

The polarized and dysfunctional state of the federal government likely won’t get better without a new election. But at the state level, there are abundant opportunities to make progress now. On the West Coast, all three governors and their legislatures can continue to show leadership on climate change—and California must begin the hard work of implementing the goals it set under Governor Brown. States like New Mexico, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have new governors who recognized the value of clean energy in their campaigns, and these states are poised to adopt ambitious climate goals, aided by ample and inexpensive supplies of renewable energy. And on the East Coast, nine states and Washington, DC, just pledged to create a “cap and invest” program to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector—the largest source of emissions. These local governments can make good on their pledge in 2019 and transition their states to clean transportation.

So, at this two-year mark, we have a weakened president, a resurgent House of Representatives, new governors committed to state-level progress, and an engaged and mobilized public. So, while I cannot call our state of the union strong at this moment, I see clear signs that in less time than I might have anticipated two years ago, our state of the union will be strong again.

Photo: Wikimedia

Will the Real State of the Union Please Stand Up? 7 Things President Trump Won’t Say

A great public servant and one of my mentors, William Ruckelshaus, always emphasized to me that the State of the Union was a time to put big ideas on the table, to talk about the truly great challenges facing the country, and to provide leadership for what we as a nation needed to do to live up to the ideals of our democracy. New education initiatives, cleaning up pollution, providing health care—these are some of the big ideas that previous presidents have talked about on this national stage.

Call me crazy but I don’t think that is what we will hear from President Trump.

Instead we’re likely to hear misdirection and falsehoods. According to the Washington Post, President Trump has made 8,158 false or misleading claims during his first two years in office. Even if by some miracle he sticks to actual facts during his State of the Union address, it’s a safe bet that he won’t address many of the most crucial challenges facing America. Instead he’s likely to tout the strong economy, while ignoring rising inequality and continuing losses for everyone but the wealthy. He’ll rail about border security, while dismissing the real security threats highlighted by his intelligence agencies. And he will talk about jobs, while ignoring worker safety and threats to public health.

What should be in the speech are some of the truly great challenges we need to tackle as a nation. We need a real change in direction and focus from this administration, and so I will be watching the speech live, tweeting the #RealSOTU, and calling for this nation to face up to the truth.

Here are seven BIG things that President Trump won’t say in his 2019 State of the Union speech.

Rolling back regulations hurts people

President Trump and his appointed agency heads have cut down landmark public protections that we all depend on for our health and safety, and sidelining science has consistently been one of their go-to strategies to accomplish it.

Rolling back regulations that reduce air pollution, water pollution, toxic contamination, worker protections, and more might give windfall profits to some companies. But those profits come at public expense. And who’s bearing the brunt of those impacts and costs? Poorer communities and communities of color.

That all needs to stop, right now.

And right now, with a new Congress in place there is a renewed opportunity to call on our elected officials to represent their constituents and to hold the Trump administration accountable. The administration should be doing its job of serving the public, not special interests.

We need policies that treat our people equitably, that require those who pollute to clean up their mess regardless of what neighborhood they are located in. And we need our government to hold polluters to account. Mr. President, do you want to make real change?  Then work for the people who need the government’s help. That isn’t the oil and gas or chemical industry.

We have one decade left to avoid catastrophic climate change

We have about a decade left to dramatically reduce carbon pollution and avoid truly catastrophic climate change impacts, including unprecedented and life-threatening heat waves, the loss of millions of coastal homes to rising seas, and a growing number of extreme and damaging weather events.

The IPCC’s recent special report and the Trump administration’s own National Climate Assessment (NCA4) both tell us that climate change is already affecting all of us, and that right now we are speeding down one of the most costly and damaging paths possible.

Whether it’s national security, natural disasters, the military, the economy, immigration, or any other number of issues, there’s one thing Trump will surely fail to recognize in his speech: Climate change affects all of them.

Consider, for example, the 2018 report on the vulnerability of military installations to climate-related impacts, which showed that about 10 percent of sites are being affected by extreme temperatures, and some six percent are affected by flooding due to storm surge and by wildfire. Or the 2019 worldwide threat assessment of the US intelligence community, which identifies climate change as a national security risk.  Or how the NCA4 finds that existing water, transportation, and energy infrastructure are already being impacted by heavy rainfall, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, drought, wildfire, heat waves, and other weather and climate events.

The last two years of natural disasters and extreme weather brought huge costs to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are also part and parcel of a warming climate, and our economy—indeed our very future—depends on the country getting deadly serious about the climate crisis right now.

Coal is dying and renewables are booming. Not fast enough.

Our electricity system is moving away from dirty fossil fuels and toward clean energy. Today coal produces only a quarter of our nation’s electricity, down from 50 percent a short dozen years ago. That’s an encouraging trend, but we still need faster progress and more ambitious policies to achieve the emissions cuts needed to meet the climate crisis head on.

The Trump administration is instead doing everything it can think of to try and prop up the failing coal industry. It’s not working, and coal is still on it way out, but President Trump is still wasting precious time that would be much better spent on ramping up clean energy across the country.

In his speech, Trump will also likely ignore the remarkable economic benefits of renewable energy, especially that the US clean energy industry means jobs, with already more than 100,000 working in the wind sector, 250,000 working in solar, and more than 2 million making our homes and businesses more energy efficient. And the nascent US offshore wind sector offers the potential for tens of thousands of new jobs up and down our coasts.

The administration is moving full speed backwards on transportation emissions

Transportation is the largest source of carbon pollution in the US, making it more important than ever to increase the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks and reduce the amount of planet-warming emissions we’re putting into the atmosphere. (Plus I like saving money—and driving a cleaner, more fuel-efficient car helps consumers do that as well.)

The president and his administration, however, are still moving ahead with their plans to roll back fuel economy and emissions standards for cars and trucks and halt progress on reducing emissions from the transportation sector.

My colleagues cranked the numbers on what this rollback would mean and it is truly staggering, especially when it’s taken together with the administration’s threat to void state regulations on vehicle emissions. As senior UCS vehicles analyst Dave Cooke points out, rolling back these standards will result in an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions by 2040—that’s 170 million metric tons in 2040 alone, equivalent to keeping 43 coal-fired power plants online. These inefficient cars and trucks will use an additional 200 billion gallons of gasoline by 2040—that’s as much oil as we’ve imported from the Persian Gulf since the standards were first finalized in 2010. And it will cost consumers hundreds of billions of dollars—in 2040 alone, consumers will spend an additional $55 billion at the pump if these standards are rolled back.

It’s a safe bet that the president won’t mention any of this. And, for good measure, he will also likely fail to mention his desire to get rid of the electric vehicle tax credit, which makes it easier and more affordable to buy a cleaner car.

Fossil fuel companies are responsible, but still getting special treatment

Trump definitely won’t bring up the fact that fossil fuel companies have known for at least 50 years that their products—oil, gas, and coal—cause global warming. Or that companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron have spent decades and millions of dollars intentionally manufacturing doubt about climate science and lobbying to block sensible climate policy—and are still playing dirty even today as the costs of climate change grow.

Just this past fall, BP poured $13 million into a campaign opposing a carbon pricing measure in Washington state—while simultaneously publicly claiming to support a carbon tax. Other major fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, still fund industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute to do their dirty work lobbying for anti-climate policies.

Meanwhile regular people living through the disruptive impacts of climate change are currently paying for it with their tax dollars. All while fossil fuel companies continue to cash in, plan for and envision minimal disruption to their business models, and avoid paying their fair share of the costs of climate change.

The administration is betraying farmers, workers, and children

Regulatory rollbacks and putting profits over the interests of the public don’t just affect pollution and the environment. They also impact the food we eat and the people who bring it to us, from farm to fork.

In his speech, Trump won’t mention that he and his Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue have repeatedly favored ideology and the agribusiness industry while disregarding science—but that’s exactly what UCS has found. This not only restricts the products and practices that would make us healthier but also ignores the very people who feed us. Small farmers, workers, and children all lose when the administration betrays their interests for the profits of big agribusiness companies, from chemical giant Dow to multinational poultry and pork conglomerates.

Rolling back school lunch rules for the nation’s children or threatening to deny food assistance to immigrant families and low-wage workers is not worthy of this nation. Undermining the USDA’s research agencies, catering to the chemical industry, and waging a disastrous trade war threatens the future for farmers, consumers, and communities.

What the country needs is a food policy that supports public health, ensures that everyone gets the nutrition they need, and reduces the impact of agriculture on the environment and the planet.

Investing massive amounts of money in nuclear weapons is just wrong

Spending over a trillion dollars to re-build the entire nuclear arsenal while walking away from highly successful nuclear arms agreements with Russia is, well, a really bad idea. So is saying that one’s nuclear button is bigger. But the president probably won’t admit that, or indicate that doing so would take the country backwards and greatly increase the chance of nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons still pose an existential threat to our nation and the world. We should be doing all we can to reduce that threat, not just “win” another arms race. Instead the administration just announced that it plans to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty—an agreement negotiated by President Ronald Reagan which eliminated a whole class of lethal weaponry and made the world a much safer place.

Bellicose rhetoric and building newer, more enhanced nuclear weapons won’t lessen the danger either. We need to be leading the world to reduce the nuclear arsenals, not increasing the odds of nuclear war.

Share the #RealSOTU

It can be hard to listen to the president when we’ve learned to expect an avoidance of essential truths like these.

But I’ll be watching his speech nonetheless, live-tweeting using the #RealSOTU hashtag, and highlighting some of the crucial facts that the president will not.

I hope you can join me.

My Food and Farm Reading List for Black History Month

February is Black History Month, and I’m taking the opportunity to deepen my understanding of our food system. I originally pulled together this short reading list for myself, before realizing that others might make use of it too! Since February is just one month (and the shortest month at that) I’ve kept it to just four books. That’s an ambitious reading goal in any event, but let’s not be intimidated – if you (or I) start now and take six months to read these books, it will be time very well spent. I’m excited to use this opportunity to understand the breadth and depth of these issues a little better. Luckily, there are some amazing resources to draw on.

In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World, by Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff

In the Shadow of Slavery by Judith Carney

As I mentioned in my first post, I’m working to better understand the grim legacy of slavery in this country. This book re-tells that story through the lens of the traditional crops and agricultural knowledge brought to the New World by African slaves. The authors focus on the subsistence gardens of slaves rather than the better-known brutalities of plantation agriculture, in order to show how these gardens were a place where slaves not only figured out how to survive, but also resisted their oppression by using and maintaining their own agricultural knowledge and skill. Find it online.

Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights, by Peter Daniel

Over the decades that many smaller farmers were being driven out of business by Federal policy and competition with agri-business, the attrition rate was much, much worse for Black farmers (also discussed briefly in my earlier post). Daniel’s work fills in the gaps to show how systematic campaigns of discrimination by bureaucrats in the USDA drove a 93% drop in the number of Black farmers between 1940 and 1974. In the very same period that the civil rights movement was making its rightly celebrated gains, the Black community was being stripped of a fundamental basis of wealth and wellbeing. Find it online.

Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, by Monica White

Freedom Farmers

The story of Black Americans in agriculture is not only a story of oppression, but also of visionary resistance. History makes it clear that farming can also be part of the practice of liberation. Professor White tells the story of Black agricultural cooperatives like Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farms Cooperative, and shows how the struggle for Black freedom in the 20th century included an agrarian vision of community self-sufficiency. The relevance of this history to contemporary discussions of food justice and food sovereignty is profound, and White helps make those connections explicit with a later chapter on the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Find it online.

Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, by Leah Penniman

The Farming While Black cover

Through her writing and her work, Leah Penniman embodies the spirit of a renaissance movement of Black farming. Farming While Black is both a celebration of the deep agricultural traditions of the African diaspora and a practical how-to guide for new and aspiring farmers to apply these traditions in present-day farming operations. The book grows out of Penniman’s work at Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York, where she and her family and collaborators have been growing food and running a variety of trainings and programs that center the experiences of Black, indigenous, and other people of color in the food system. It’s an inspiring project with it’s finger on the pulse of an emerging movement, and the book promises to reflect that. Find it online.

This list isn’t intended to be definitive – far from. For one thing, the ideal B.H.M. reading list would be all Black authors, but I strayed from that in order to address topics particularly central to my work (and my curiosity). These aren’t the only topics or the only authors we should be reading. Tell me what you think. What would you like to see on a list like this in the future?