UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

Sonny Perdue’s USDA Is in Bed with Big Pork. That’s Really Bad for Everyone Else.

North Carolina hog barns with waste lagoons. Photo courtesy Waterkeeper Alliance Inc./Flickr

In his first year running the US Department of Agriculture, Secretary Sonny Perdue has displayed a curious tendency to say things he really shouldn’t. The most recent example is his striking off-the-cuff comment about a big court judgment won by neighbors of a massive hog farm and its stinking cesspools in North Carolina. Perdue told reporters he was not familiar with the case, in which a US District Court jury leveled a landmark $50 million verdict against Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of pork giant Smithfield Foods. But that didn’t stop him from calling the jury’s decision “despicable.”

Secretary Perdue’s alignment with big corporate interests over the public interest has been clear for a while. But his knee-jerk reaction to this case, along with related pending actions at his USDA, suggests that he is willing to throw workers, farmers, rural residents, consumers, and clean air and water overboard to protect Big Pork’s bottom line.

“Nuisance” is putting it mildly

When the jury in the Murphy-Brown case (a so-called “nuisance” suit filed on behalf of a group of 10 neighbors) handed down its decision on April 26, fear surely rippled through the pork industry. Led by Iowa, North Carolina, and Minnesota, annual US pig production exceeded 110 million animals in 2014, with the total national swine herd that year valued at $9.5 billion. In 2018, the industry is forecast to produce even more pigs—an estimated 134 million. The vast majority of those animals will be raised in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), which generate huge quantities of concentrated manure waste. In North Carolina alone, hog and poultry CAFOs produce 15,000 Olympic-size pools’ worth of waste each year.

In that state, there’s a long line of angry CAFO neighbors awaiting their chance to demand justice for the harm these operations cause. More than 500 plaintiffs have filed 26 lawsuits alleging damage from Murphy-Brown’s operations. The company’s practice of holding liquified manure in open pits and spraying the excess on nearby fields, common in the CAFO industry for decades, leaves a reeking stench over nearby communities. Residents, most of them working class and black, complain of health problems—which researchers have shown can include nausea and respiratory problems such as asthma—along with reductions in property values and quality of life from the CAFOs that built up around them. If juries in the other North Carolina cases (and in CAFO lawsuits elsewhere, like one filed this week by Iowa residents against that state) decide in favor of plaintiffs, it could be a watershed moment for environmental justice—and may force the industry to change.

In the weeks since the North Carolina jury’s bombshell announcement, the judge in the case has bowed to a state law that caps punitive damage awards, reducing the $50 million award to a mere $3.25 million. Still not exactly small potatoes, but the reduction must have prompted sighs of relief from the board rooms of Murphy-Brown, parent company Smithfield Foods, and WH Group, the Chinese company that owns Smithfield and is the world’s largest pork company.

And there’s more for giant pork companies to smile about. In addition to state laws that have long enabled the pork industry to operate profitably at the expense of its neighbors and continue to protect it from major consequences, Big Pork appears to have the Trump administration on its side.

Perdue backs Big Pork over farmers…

Two regulatory actions initiated by the USDA in its first year under Secretary Perdue show how it has favored the big corporations that process and sell US pork at the expense of small farmers and workers in the industry. First, last fall the department announced it would withdraw the Farmer Fair Practices Rules, Obama-era rules that would have made it easier for livestock and poultry farmers to sue meat processing companies with which they have contracts and to protect farmers from unfair and predatory corporate practices. In response, a group of farmer plaintiffs and the Organization for Competitive Markets filed suit in December, calling the rules’ cancellation arbitrary and capricious, a gift to the industry, and a failure to protect small farmers.

Speaking to reporters as part of a farm tour in Ohio last month, Perdue suggested farmers are on their own:

There are farmers there, some of which will not survive because other people do it better. That’s the American capitalistic society. The best producers thrive and provide, and the others find another industry where they can thrive.

That’s a startling statement from a guy who claims to serve the interest of farmers—Perdue calls them the USDA’s “customers,” and they still largely support the Trump administration (though their support is slipping).

…and workers and food safety, too

In a related action, the USDA in January proposed a rule it claims will “modernize” swine slaughter. In fact, by reducing the number of trained government food inspectors in pork processing plants and allowing plants to operate at higher speeds (something the administration has also tried in poultry plants). These changes would likely increase rates of worker injury and incidents of meat contamination, and the proposed rule faces broad opposition from food safety, labor, and animal welfare groups. More than 83,500 people wrote to the USDA about it during a public comment period that closed May 2, and dozens of members of Congress have also entered the fray. In their letter to Secretary Perdue, 63 members of the House of Representatives (including several from leading pork states) cited the danger posed by the hog slaughter rule to workers and urging the secretary to withdraw it.

As various lawsuits wind their way through the courts and the swine slaughter rule proceeds through the regulatory process, we’ll see whether Secretary Perdue’s USDA backs down or continues to back Big Pork. Meanwhile, the perception of the Trump administration’s coziness with the industry is peaking in a weird way: in the online video game Bacon Defender, players navigate an animated high speed pork plant—complete with falling poop emojis and oddly Trump-like voice effects—armed only with a mustard-shooting hot dog. “Even a novice Bacon Defender player quickly learns that at higher speeds feces can contaminate your food more easily,” say the game’s creators.

I wish I had a sad poop emoji for that.

 

SNAP is a boon to urban and rural economies—and small-town stores may not survive cuts

In case you missed it, Congress is in the midst of a pretty major food fight. At the center of it is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is the first line of defense against hunger for more than 21 million American households. Going forward, however, an estimated 2 million people stand to lose SNAP benefits if the farm bill proposal passed by the House Agriculture Committee last month becomes law. The bill’s draconian work requirements and eligibility changes threaten to upend the lives of some of the nation’s most vulnerable individuals and families. But it could also deliver a serious blow to the economic vitality of many rural and small-town communities, in an economic domino effect that often starts at the local grocery store.

Despite improvements in the national economy since the 2008 recession, rural communities across the United States continue to face economic uncertainty, and grocery stores are among the small-town businesses that are finding it hard to stay afloat. The challenges faced by rural food retailers are numerous: competition from increasingly powerful “big-box” stores, the rise of online retailers, and high operating costs are but a few of the challenges threatening the economic viability of today’s grocery stores. But there’s another major driver of food sales that impacts rural retailers and residents alike, and it has to do with how much families can afford to spend.

Many households in low-wage, low-prosperity rural counties turn to SNAP to augment their food budgets—in fact, they do so at higher rates than their urban counterparts. About 16 percent of households in rural or non-metro areas participate in the program, compared to 13 percent in metro areas. And in a recent analysis of publicly available data, UCS found that 136 of the 150 counties with the highest percentages of SNAP participation by household are located in rural areas.

We know the benefits that SNAP dollars bring to the people who use them. SNAP participation bolsters financial stability and food security; increases the likelihood that kids complete high school, while decreasing their risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome into adulthood; and saves about $1,400 in annual medical costs for low-income adults. But where do those dollars go next?

The ripple effect of SNAP spending

Following the path of a SNAP dollar can help us understand the invaluable role SNAP plays in supporting local industries and bolstering the broader economy. The graphic below shows the path of a dollar spent at a local grocery store.

It isn’t difficult to see how SNAP dollars are a boon to grocery stores—particularly for businesses in low-income areas, where SNAP purchases account for a greater share of sales. Dr. David Procter, Director of Kansas State University’s Center for Engagement and Community Development, knows a thing or two about the food economy. He’s been working with rural grocers for over a decade as part of the Rural Grocery Initiative, which helps small-town stores develop sustainable business models in the face of a food landscape that is rapidly changing.

“Small town grocery stores stand as a bulwark against the ever-rising number of rural Americans living in food deserts,” says Procter. “These food retail businesses are a vital element of the local food system, providing residents with access to produce, dairy, breads, grains, and meats. They are important to the local economy, creating jobs and generating tax revenue. Finally, these stores are community hubs, gathering places where social capital is built and maintained.”

Beyond the grocery checkout, SNAP dollars keep working

But the economic impact of SNAP doesn’t end at the store; in fact, this is only the beginning of a series of transactions that results in what is referred to as a “multiplier effect.” The standard USDA model estimates that, during a weak economy, $1 in SNAP spending generates about $1.80 in economic activity. This would mean that the $64.7 billion in SNAP benefits distributed in fiscal year 2017 could have generated an estimated $114 billion in economic activity, creating and supporting more than 567,000 jobs across the country.

So how does it work? Suppose the economy in Anytown, USA takes a turn for the worse. A factory relocates, or maybe a natural disaster shuts down the town’s major industry for an extended period of time. Many households find that they have less money to spend, and business at local establishments slows. Because of hardships resulting from the economic downturn—perhaps job loss, or reduced hours—some families apply for SNAP benefits. As those families use SNAP dollars to help put food on their tables, the grocery stores they shop at begin to recover. With more revenue, these stores can hire back staff; resume full operation and pay for operational costs like lighting and refrigeration; and, of course, purchase more food from farmers and distributors to meet growing demand. And as SNAP spending is propagated through the supply chain, each sector that gets a share of that additional money is able to spend more money in turn.

The effect extends to a wide range of sectors. Here’s why: studies have suggested that each additional dollar received in SNAP benefits results in between 26 and 60 additional cents spent on food—meaning an extra SNAP dollar received doesn’t equal an additional dollar spent on groceries. This is because, as many of us know, low-income households (including those experiencing temporary financial distress) are constantly making difficult decisions about how and when to pay for necessities such as housing, education, and transportation. And when SNAP benefits relieve some of the strain on a family’s food budget, they also help to free up a portion of income once spent on food for other expenses. From an economic standpoint, this means that a range of industries outside of the food supply chain also benefit indirectly—and not insignificantly—from SNAP spending. This multiplier effect shows how SNAP can effectively guide economic recovery.

Strong nutrition policy can help build strong communities and economies

This brings us back to the farm bill. If we want to preserve SNAP’s essential function as a safety net for our families and for our economy during tough times, we need to protect the program from the ill-advised overhaul making its way through Congress.

We can also leverage farm bill legislation to ensure that more of each SNAP dollar goes straight into farmers’ pockets and stays in our local communities. According to USDA models, the jobs that could have been created or supported by SNAP spending during fiscal year 2017 include nearly 50,000 agricultural jobs—a significant number, yet less than 9 percent of the estimated total. Many of the programs contained in the Local FARMS Act, a bipartisan marker bill introduced early in the farm bill process, offer win-win solutions that help farmers expand local and regional food sales while providing low-income populations with greater access to fresh, nutritious foods. Though these “tiny but mighty” programs represent a small fraction of the farm bill budget, they provide the means to effectively amplify the return on federal investment in programs like SNAP—which can make all the difference for families and rural farming communities that have been slower to recover from economic depression.

The full House is expected to take up H.R. 2 this week, with the possibility of introducing amendments before a final vote. UCS is working to ensure that members of Congress in both houses reject a SNAP overhaul, and instead take meaningful action to support low-income households in both rural and urban communities—while also giving a boost to small and midsize farmers. Got five minutes and want to make a difference? We’ve made it easy to call your members of Congress today to tell them to vote NO on H.R. 2.

The New Farm Bill’s Pesticide Provisions are a Sneak Attack on the Environment

A bald eagle resting on a log by a lake in Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge.

Bald eagles, such as this one in the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire and Maine, were driven to near extinction in the contiguous 48 states by pesticides. Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

If fish could wail, they would scream over the lethal powers granted to the Environmental Protection Agency in part of the draft farm bill recently rolled out by the House Agriculture Committee. The bill, passed out of committee by Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) on a party-line vote last month, desperately fails farmers and low-income families. It also contains a number of sneak attacks on the environment. One such provision would allow the EPA to approve new pesticides with no assessment of their potential impact on fish and wildlife covered under the Endangered Species Act.

That means that EPA would no longer need to wait for independent research on the toxicity of pesticides in rivers, wetlands and prairies from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the Interior Department, or in estuaries and coastal waters from the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Commerce Department. The bill chillingly specifies that the EPA administrator “shall not be required to consult or communicate with the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Commerce.”

To date, most of the national publicity about the House farm bill has understandably focused on its potentially devastating effect on America’s poor, with expanded work requirements that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would eliminate 1.2 million people from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rolls. The CBO also estimates that 400,000 households would lose benefits under higher income thresholds, eliminating free school lunch for 265,000 children. The bill also slashes child support and home heating and cooling assistance.

When it comes to wildlife, the bill envisions an EPA that pays no heed to environmental science, potentially wreaking a different kind of devastation.

Chlorpyrifos clearance only the beginning

This continues the attack on federal environmental science that began in earnest a year ago when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt derailed a ban on chlorpyrifos that was long in the works during the Obama administration. In 2000, the EPA ended that neurotoxin’s use in residential lawn and garden and indoor pest control for its toxicity to children. However, it remained America’s most-used conventional insecticide in commercial agriculture, used so heavily that the Obama-era EPA could not conclude that human exposure in residues and water runoffs met federal safety standards. One study last year found that 7-year-old children in Salinas Valley, California who lived near farms using organophosphates such as chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion suffered deficits in intelligence and verbal comprehension.

But Pruitt cleared chlorpyrifos after meeting with the CEO of Dow Chemical, the top maker of the pesticide. The Los Angeles Times exposed the meeting after an EPA spokesman lied that it never happened.

Emboldened by that success, Dow, which donated $1 million to President Trump’s inaugural committee and spent nearly $14 million on lobbying in 2016, pursued a far more outrageous free pass for its toxic products. It feared the results of a massive National Marine Fisheries Management study launched by the Obama administration that was not yet final, but that would likely render a very negative biological opinion on the effect of chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion on fish and wildlife. As reported by the Associated Press, Dow’s Washington law firm wrote Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, urging them to dismiss any results that would come of that research, complaining that the methodology wrongly produced “unrealistically high and sometimes physically impossible estimates.”

A fleeting victory for science

For a hopeful second, it appeared that Dow had lost the argument when the fisheries service officially concluded that chlorpyrifos and malathion were each likely to directly “jeopardize” 38 species of sea life, including several species of salmon, sturgeon and killer whales, and diazinon would jeopardize 25 species. The pesticides would also “adversely” harm about the same number of critical habitats. The opinion emphasized: “Species and their prey residing in shallow aquatic habitats proximal to pesticide use sites are expected to be the most at risk.”

But Conaway (who has received nearly $5 million in campaign contributions from the agribusiness sector since 2005, according to the Center for Responsive Politics) and his fellow republicans want to come to the rescue of Dow and the entire toxic agricultural chemical industry. Complaining that it took too long for EPA, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to complete reviews to register new compounds, all 26 Republicans, over the opposition of all 20 Democrats, voted to allow the EPA to utterly ignore any assessments by the NMFS or Fish and Wildlife.

If reauthorized as written, the farm bill would also allow the “lawful use” of pesticides to kill endangered species without fear of federal penalties and would prevent EPA and the states from requiring pesticide permits under the Water Pollution Control Act for discharges into navigable rivers. Plus, even though a vast majority of farmers embrace sustainable practices to avoid erosion and pollution, a fact recently highlighted by UCS Senior Analyst for Food Karen Perry Stillerman, the farm bill would eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program.

For humans, the danger of chlorpyrifos alone was enough for the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Environmental Working Group to write a joint letter to Pruitt last summer saying his EPA was rejecting years of the agency’s own science that said the pesticide’s “risk to infant and children’s health and development is unambiguous.”

A Dining Bald eagle in Conowingo, Maryland eating fish.

Dining Bald eagle, Conowingo, Maryland. In the DDT era, consumption of poisoned fished lead eagles to lay eggs too thin to hatch, leading to near-complete nesting failure by the 1970s. Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

Specter of silent spring

For both humans and wildlife, the Republican reauthorization of the farm bill would usher in the weakest federal protections against pesticide abuse since Rachel Carson charted the destruction of species by overuse of DDT and other pesticides in her seminal 1962 book Silent Spring. She wrote of pesticide poisonings, and mental illness to people, documented by American, British, New Zealand and Australian researchers. One study by the University of Melbourne noted how three chemical scientists, eight greenhouse workers and five farm workers suffered from impaired memory, schizophrenia and depression. “All had normal medical histories before the chemicals they were using boomeranged and struck them down,” she wrote. She said their illness was “a heavy price to pay for the temporary destruction of a few insects, but a price that will continue to be exacted as long as we insist upon using chemicals that strike directly at the nervous system.”

As regards wildlife, Carson chronicled the near complete “annihilation” of young Coho salmon in one river in Canada and massive die-offs of trout, bluegill, sunfish, crappies, bass, catfish and many other prized fish and the insects and prey they eat in Maine, Montana, Alabama, California, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Poisoned fish went up the food chain to lead to the near extinction in the contiguous 48 states of America’s national bird, the bald eagle.

In a haunting reminder of how far pesticides can travel and their ability to destroy far more than their intended pest, Carson wrote about a pesticide induced fish kill that stretched for 200 miles down the Colorado River and about how pesticides led to the decimation of 20 to 30 tons of some 30 different species of fish in a Florida salt marsh. A marine biologist by training, Carson concluded that the threat of pesticides to America’s freshwater and saltwater fisheries alike “can no longer be doubted. If we would divert to constructive research even a small fraction of the money spent each year on the development of ever more toxic sprays, we could find ways to use less dangerous materials and to keep poisons out of our waterways. When will the public become sufficiently aware of the facts to demand such action?”

The proposed farm bill forces Americans to ask that question all over again. The House Agriculture Committee and the EPA under Pruitt already have their answer and the facts do not appear to matter to them. If concern for the developing brains of children was not enough to provoke the Trump administration into any real environmental protection with chlorpyrifos, concern for fish, birds and other wildlife will almost certainly not constrain EPA from approving toxic pesticides at will. The rest of America will have to wail for the fish and sing for the birds to prevent this latest attempt to roll back environmental gains from delivering another silent spring.

Do Local Food Markets Support Profitable Farms and Ranches?

Local produce, sold through direct-to-consumer channels like farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs, is often sold at a price premium. But does that premium impact farmers’ bottom line? Photo: Todd Johnson/ Oklahoma State University.

How many times have you heard that when you shop locally, farmers win? Families shop at farmers markets, school districts procure locally-grown and raised items, and restaurants curate seasonal menus at least in part because they believe they are supporting the economic viability of local producers. But do we have evidence that these local markets actually provide economic benefits to farmers and ranchers?

For the past decade, we have seen growing evidence that household and commercial buyers are willing to pay a premium for local products, and that farmers capture a larger share of the retail dollar through sales at local markets. But until recently, there was little evidence of the impact of these markets on farmers’ and ranchers’ bottom line.

To better understand the potential of local food markets, we evaluated the financial performance of farmers and ranchers selling through local markets compared to those selling through traditional wholesale markets, which may pool undifferentiated grains, animals or produce from hundreds of producers to sell to large food manufacturers or retailers. We use data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), a nationally representative survey providing annual, national-level data on farm and ranch businesses. ARMS targets about 30,000 farms annually, of which about 1,000 report some local food sales.

For this research, we define local markets in two distinct categories: direct to consumer sales (such as farmers’ markets; community supported agriculture, or CSAs; and farm stands) or intermediated sales to local food marketing enterprises that maintain the product’s local identity (such as restaurants, grocery stores, or food hubs).

Local food can spur rural development

The first notable difference between farms and ranches that sell through local food markets and those that do not is that, on average, farms selling through local food markets spend a higher percentage of their total expenditure on labor (8% compared to 5%). Even more interesting is that as local food producers get larger, their share of expenditure on labor increases! (See the green bars in figure 1). This stands in contrast to the ‘efficiency’ story we have long heard in agriculture. Conventional wisdom dictates that as farms scale up, they substitute capital for labor, becoming more efficient and producing more with less. But in the case of local markets, it appears that as the volume of direct and intermediary sales grows, the hours, skills, and expertise needed to manage buyer-responsive supply chains increases, as well. This finding supports the argument that local food can serve as a rural economic development driver; farms selling through local markets require more labor per dollar of sales, thus creating jobs.

Figure 1 Share of Variable Expenses, Local Food Producers, by Scale (Bauman, Thilmany, Jablonski 2018)

 

Do these additional labor expenditures impact the profitability of local producers? To answer this question, we categorized farms and ranches that sell through local markets by size, or sales class—the smallest reporting less than $75,000 in sales, and the biggest reporting $1,000,000 or more. We then broke down each sales class by performance, using return on assets as our indicator for performance, and organized farms and ranches into quartiles (see Figure 2). This categorization allowed us to zero in on the highest performing producers of every sales class.

Though performance varies widely, we found that of all producers with more than $75,000 in sales, at least half were break-even or profitable. Of every sales class – even the smallest!—farms in the top quartile reported returns over 20 percent—very strong profitability for the agricultural sector, where profit margins are generally slim.

What makes a local farm succeed?

To explore patterns in profitability a little bit further, we can compare how various financial measures vary across those with low vs. high profits. Among the top performing quartile, farms and ranches that sell through intermediated channels only or a combination of direct and intermediated channels performed much better than those using direct markets only. This may signal the importance of intermediated markets, and justify support for intermediated market development through grant programs such as the Local Food Promotion Program. Further, using more in-depth statistical analysis of local and regional producers, we found that farms and ranches selling only through direct-to-consumer markets may be struggling to control their costs, and that strategic management changes to these operations could result in significant improvements in profitability.

Figure 2 Local Food Producers Return on Assets by Sales Class and Market Channel (Quartile 4 is the most profitable) (Bauman, Thilmany, Jablonski 2018)

In summary, we see that local food markets provide opportunities for profitable operations at any scale, but that sales through intermediary markets are correlated with higher profitability when compared to producers that use only direct channels.

To learn more about the economics of local food systems (including more about this research), we encourage you to visit localfoodeconomics.com, where we have compiled a number of fact sheets on this topic. We started this community of practice in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service and eXtension. The website and listserv serve as a virtual community in which academic, nonprofit and policy professionals can engage in conversations about the economic implications of the many activities that fall under the umbrella of local food. For the broader food system community and consumers, gaining insights on the underlying economic implications of how food markets work may inform their decisions on how they can use their food dollars in ways that impact their community in a positive way. We hope to see you there!

Becca B.R. Jablonski is Assistant Professor and Food Systems Extension Economist at Colorado State University.

Dawn Thilmany McFadden is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Outreach Coordinator at Colorado State University.

Allie Bauman is Research Assistant in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Colorado State University.

Dave Shideler is Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University.

This research is supported through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (award number 2014-68006-21871).

 

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

Will Congress Give Farmers the Farm Bill They Want?

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Calvin Riggleman holds an oregano seedling and soil on Bigg Riggs farm in Hampshire County, WV Photo courtesy Flickr/Lance Cheung, USDA

Last week, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee made headlines by unveiling a truly terrible farm bill proposal, one that dramatically undercuts the nation’s most successful nutrition assistance program and threatens to throw the entire farm bill process into chaos. His committee is set to vote out the measure this morning, though Democrats have rejected it out of hand.

Beyond this highly partisan bill’s cynical slap at millions of low-income people and their communities, there’s also very little for farmers to like. Deep cuts to incentive programs that help them protect water quality, conserve soil, and build resilience to floods and droughts are among the bill’s many disappointing aspects, along with a failure to invest in connecting farmers with new local customers. In stark contrast, a poll released today shows that farmers across the political spectrum are eager for precisely the kind of tools and incentives House Republicans have firmly turned their backs on. And soon they may be looking for political candidates who will give it to them.

Survey says: Farmers want more support for local, sustainable agriculture

The new poll was conducted in March by Iowa-based RABA Research on behalf of UCS. Using telephone interviews supplemented by an online questionnaire, the researchers queried more than 2,800 farmers in seven states—Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—to better understand how they are thinking about farm policy and sustainable agriculture.

You might expect that farmers would regard the farm bill as an important piece of legislation, and the poll shows that they do. Fully three-quarters of them said the farm bill is “somewhat” or “very important” to their personal livelihoods. In an era of deep cynicism about the ability of Congress to helpfully affect the lives of everyday Americans, it’s a striking number, and it particularly contradicts recent news reports suggesting that rural America “doesn’t have time” for the farm bill.

Digging a little deeper, the researchers uncovered even more surprising results:

  • Three-quarters of farmers surveyed said it’s important to the future of farming for farm policies to offer incentives for farmers to take steps to reduce runoff and soil loss, improve water quality, and increase resilience to floods and droughts. That number was even higher in some states—76 percent in Ohio, 78 percent in Kansas, and a whopping 84 percent in Iowa. The finding indicates that farmers are keenly aware of the negative impacts of agriculture on our water and soil resources—and, with extreme weather becoming more common, they are concerned about their ability to cope. Farmers urgently want tools to minimize these impacts.
  • Furthermore, 74 percent said that strengthening the hand of farmers in dealings with companies that control the production chain is important. This view directly contradicts the recent action by the Trump administration and Secretary Sonny Perdue to end the USDA’s Farmer Fair Practices Rules, which would have leveled the playing field for poultry and livestock farmers in contracts with the giant corporations that control meat production and processing and made it easier for those farmers to sue the companies for unfair treatment.
  • Similarly, 74 percent of farmers said farm policies should support research on ways to increase farm profitability by decreasing the need for costly chemical inputs. They might not call it agroecology, but that’s what it is and what it does, and farmers want farm policy to fund more of it.
  • And 69 percent of farmers said policies should help connect farmers with new buyers through marketing arrangements like food hubs and farm-to-school programs. These are the kinds of arrangements UCS and other groups have advocated for in the bipartisan Local FARMS Act.
  • Most astonishingly, these results hold across the partisan divide. Poll respondents spanned the political spectrum but leaned heavily Republican. Across the seven states, 55 percent of respondents were Republican, 20 percent Democratic, and 25 percent other.

 

Graph showing results from farmer surveyQUESTION: I’m going to read a list of ways that US farm policy can shape agriculture in the years ahead.  Answer yes or no to indicate which you think are important to the future of farming.

It’s election season, and farmer-voters are looking for change

Perhaps the most striking finding in the poll is this: Farmers are looking to back political candidates who will deliver innovation and sustainability for agriculture.

A surprising 72 percent of farmers across the seven states said they would be more likely to support a candidate for public office who seemed to favor farm success through sustainable agriculture priorities instead of business as usual. That number was even higher in some states—74 percent in both Michigan and Pennsylvania. (Swing states, anyone?)

And remarkably, that high level of support wasn’t dependent upon party affiliation, but was held by 76 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of Republicans, and 67 percent of those who identified politically as “something else” across the seven states.

QUESTION: If a candidate for public office seemed to favor farm success through sustainable ag priorities instead of business as usual, would you be more or less likely to support that candidate? 

This finding shows that an overwhelming majority of farmers are seeking change in the federal government’s priorities for supporting US agriculture. And why should we be surprised? The poll was conducted just before tensions over trade with China threatened to erupt into a full-scale trade war—in which farmers would be early casualties. But those trade tensions are merely compounding the trouble farmers have faced in recent years as prices of leading US farm commodities have plunged. Farm income is projected to hit a 12-year low this year, leaving many farmers uneasy about the status quo and looking for new solutions.

House farm bill offers less—not more—of what farmers want (and farm groups call BS)

The bill the House agriculture committee will vote on today neglects or actively undercuts precisely the programs that our poll shows farmers want. Existing working land conservation programs provide incentives and technical support for farmers to adopt science-based practices—like planting cover crops and more diverse crop rotations—that reduce erosion and water-polluting runoff, lessen the need for expensive chemical inputs, and build healthy soil to buffer farmers from the impact of floods and droughts. The bill on the table today cuts nearly $5 billion from these programs over 10 years, and completely eliminates the Conservation Stewardship Program—a program so popular with farmers and already so underfunded that in recent years it has had to turn away as many as 75 percent of qualified applicants.

At the same time, the House farm bill as written also largely fails to take on provisions of the Local FARMS Act, a bipartisan proposal meant to expand the customer base for small and midsize farmers while improving access to healthy food (which is inadequate for 15.6 million US households). By overlooking the Local FARMS Act—which includes provisions to strengthen farm to school programs, promote farmers markets, and otherwise build connections between farmers and local consumers, especially low-income individuals and families—the authors of today’s bill are bypassing an opportunity to create jobs and establish reliable revenue streams for struggling farmers while also increasing access to healthy and affordable food for more of our neighbors.

Congress can do better—and we need to tell them

All this has led farm and conservation groups to join health and anti-hunger groups in panning the House farm bill proposal. The National Farmers Union—while attempting to be positive—similarly expressed frustration with its failure to give farmers what they need:

“[C]ongressional leadership has severely hamstrung the committee’s ability to address the six-year, 50 percent decline in the farm economy. While they’ve shown little regard for spending and deficits this Congress, they’ve failed to provide adequate resources for food and agriculture at a time of grave financial strain on family farmers and ranchers. This is irresponsible and harmful.  

The draft bill that the House Agriculture Committee will vote on today is so fundamentally flawed, we don’t expect many opportunities to strengthen it through the amendment process. But here are two areas—the Local FARMS Act and the SNAP program—where we may be able to make the bill more responsive to the needs of farmers and the public interest.

Tell Congress to fight for farmers and healthy food in the farm bill today.

Photo: Lance Cheung, USDA

SNAP Work Requirements Provoke Broad Opposition to House Farm Bill

House Agriculture Committee chair Mike Conaway speaks at a hearing.House Committee on Agriculture Chair Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) opens the hearing with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue in Washington, D.C., May 17, 2017. (Photo: USDA/public domain)

The nutrition title of the draft farm bill released by the House last Thursday is an affront to millions of individuals and families across the country—many of whom are part of the electorate that put our current political leaders in office. Despite an outcry of opposition from advocacy groups, the public, and Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee, it appears that Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) is prepared to push through a bill that would be devastating to rural and urban communities alike.

What is it, exactly, that makes this proposal so devastating?

Under the guise of new work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the bill would cut billions of dollars currently protecting people nationwide from the consequences of food insecurity and economic instability. The draft language expands the population subject to work requirements to include caretakers of children over six and people between the ages of 50 to 59, establishes tighter time frames for participants to find work or job training programs, and imposes more severe penalties for those who are unable to do so. The proposed policies would allow participants only a month to secure work or job training for at least twenty hours per week; the first “violation” of these requirements would result in removal from the program for one year, and subsequent violations would result in removal for a period of three years.

Under current legislation, those who are subject to work requirements include only childless adults without disabilities between the ages of 18 to 49 (often called able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs); current penalties for failing to secure work or job training placement for at least 80 hours per month are removal from the program for a period of three years. Though the total number of hours required per month remains unchanged, the move from a monthly to a weekly minimum means that participants must also find work that offers steady and consistent hours. This can create additional barriers to program participation, particularly among those facing primarily low-wage employment options.

A Trojan Horse with dire consequences Family shopping for vegetables at grocery store.

Research shows that SNAP works, alleviating food insecurity and improving the health of families. However, the reauthorization of the farm bill could threaten the program’s effectiveness.

At best, these additional requirements are empty solutions to problems that don’t exist. At worst, they create new ones. Per House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, “The GOP’s ‘workforce requirements’ are nothing but a cynical Trojan Horse to take away SNAP from millions of hungry families.”

As we wrote last week, data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) counters the notion that working-age adults have become dependent upon SNAP. The populations who might depend on the program for longer periods of time include children, the elderly, and those with disabilities; together, these groups make up about two thirds of all SNAP participants. The population of ABAWDs makes up just a small fraction—only two percent—of all those who stay on SNAP for a period of eight years or longer.

Furthermore, more stringent work requirements won’t do anything to address poverty—on the contrary, they may well exacerbate conditions of food insecurity and economic instability among communities already challenged by a persistent lack of access to resources and opportunities. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that even for those in the general population, securing a job within three months is an unattainable goal: last year, nearly 40 percent of those able to work and looking for jobs were unable to find work within 15 weeks, while nearly 25 percent were unable to find work within 27 weeks. To expect that adults who have recently enrolled in SNAP—for reasons ranging from unexpected unemployment to family crisis to natural disaster—should accomplish this task within one month is to set them up for failure.

Of course, House majority leaders have touted employment and training (E&T) programs as the answer to unemployment and underemployment among SNAP beneficiaries. According to Chairman Conaway, SNAP participants will have “guaranteed access” to E&T programs by way of government investment in training and case management. But effective programs come with a price tag, and the $1 billion pledged in the draft bill won’t come close to cutting it. According to the Center for Budget Policies and Priorities (CBPP), that investment amounts to only $28 per person per month for a caseload of 3 million SNAP participants—far less than the typical cost of effective employment programs, and less even than the cost of existing employment services provided by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. It’s also worth noting that the bill counters the USDA’s own findings on best practices in E&T programs. A 2016 review of over 160 studies on SNAP E&T and workforce development programs found that the most effective programs serve those who volunteer to participate, rather than following a mandate as a condition of eligibility.

Entire communities will feel the fallout from SNAP cuts

Mechanic working on tractor in garageThe Committee anticipates that the new work requirements would impact between 5 and 7 million recipients, and that the proposed bill would cause about 1 million people to leave SNAP over the course of a decade. Meanwhile, the CBPP estimates that changes would cause either a reduction or total loss of benefits for more than 1 million low-income households, impacting about 2 million people.

But the economic implications of such severe cuts would extend far beyond program participants, due to the economic multiplier associated with SNAP benefits. A USDA model has estimated that each dollar in SNAP benefits generates about $1.80 in economic activity, particularly in times of economic downturn. This means that the $64.7 billion in benefits administered in FY 2017 could have generated $114 billion in economic activity, with the potential to create and support an estimated 567,000 to 624,000 jobs—including 48,700 to 59,800 in the agricultural sector.

And these benefits aren’t limited to food production, distribution, and retail sectors. With each additional SNAP dollar received, program participants can not only spend more on food, but can also afford to spend more on other necessities, such as utilities, car payments, or medical expenses, as some of the income once allocated to their food budget is displaced by SNAP dollars. This means that a wide range of industries end up getting a boost from SNAP benefits—and that many would be adversely affected by dramatic cuts.

An uncertain future for a hyper-partisan House bill

Of course, none of the policy changes contained in the House bill are set in stone—not by a long shot. This week, the Committee will markup their draft farm bill, the next step in developing a draft that would go to the House floor for further consideration and, eventually, a final vote.

Regardless of the immediate outcome, the draft text that was presented to the public last week must be recognized for what it is: a bold-faced attempt to undermine a program that effectively and efficiently serves some of our most vulnerable populations, and a blatant disregard for how these populations will actually fare. And though it was put forth with seemingly little concern for political fallout or blowback, this is a program that reaches communities—and voters—in every corner of our country, and won’t be easily forgotten.

Photo: USDA Photo: Plush Studios/Blend Photo: Flavio/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

SNAP already has work requirements. Adding more won’t solve poverty.

Photo: US Air Force

On Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order calling for a review of the nation’s federal safety net, with the stated aim of “moving people into the workforce and out of poverty.” This is almost certainly thinly veiled code language for additional work requirements in programs that serve millions of low-income individuals and families, including Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

There are a number of inaccuracies and logic flaws contained in the text, but chief among them are these:

Falsehood 1: The federal safety net is causing poverty.

The order states, “Many of the programs designed to help families have instead delayed economic independence, perpetuated poverty, and weakened family bonds.”

It is a grim truth that poverty has a strong grip on too many communities in this country. But poverty is not created by social support programs, nor is it perpetuated by the people who use them. Persistent poverty is far more likely a product of the complex structural inequities embedded in our everyday lives—income inequality, for example, and institutional racism and discrimination. And until we address and remedy these underlying factors, it is essential that we have a strong federal safety net to fall back on.

Falsehood 2: Working-age adults have become dependent on programs like SNAP.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) counters this notion with its own data. The populations who might depend on the program for longer periods of time include children, the elderly, and those with disabilities; together, these groups make up about two thirds of all SNAP participants. The population of SNAP participants who are classified as able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) and are required to work make up just a small fraction—only two percent—of all those who stay on SNAP for a period of eight years or longer.

Yet there is every indication that ABAWDs will be the target of more stringent work requirements in the months to come. A recent USDA federal register notice asked for public input on “innovative ideas to promote work and self-sufficiency” among the ABAWD population. Here’s what we offered.

 

April 9, 2018

The Union of Concerned Scientists

Re: Document No. FNS-2018-03752: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Requirements and Services for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents; Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

We submit this comment to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to express broad opposition to policy and programmatic changes that would further limit SNAP eligibility for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). While we appreciate USDA efforts to address food insecurity and provide adequate opportunities for employment and training among low-income populations, any proposals which would remove participants from the program—either through more stringent work requirements, further restrictions on eligibility, or other means—would fail to accomplish either, and may in fact contribute to worsening economic hardship among low-income individuals while imposing undue administrative burden and cost on state and federal agencies.

Our opposition to the aforementioned policy and programmatic changes is grounded in the following:

The work requirements in place for ABAWDs are already extensive.

In addition to meeting general work requirements for SNAP participation, ABAWDs are subject to a second set of time-limited work requirements. These dictate that an ABAWD must work or participate in a work program for at least 80 hours per month, or will face benefit termination after a period of three months, renewable after three years. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that for many, securing a job within three months is an unattainable goal: last year, nearly 40 percent of those able to work and looking for jobs in the general population were unable to find work within 15 weeks, while nearly 25 percent were unable to find work within 27 weeks.[1]

The population of unemployed ABAWDs is a small fraction of SNAP participants.

The vast majority of SNAP recipients are children, the elderly, caregivers, or persons with disabilities. The ABAWD population makes up a small fraction of all SNAP recipients, and many are already working or looking for work. Fewer than 8.8 percent of all SNAP participants are classified as ABAWDs, and the number of unemployed ABAWDs at any given time constitutes only 6.5 percent of all program participants.[2] It should be noted that the population of unemployed ABAWDs is not stagnant, but shifts depending on need: research shows that among SNAP households with at least one non-disabled, working-age adult, eight in 10 participants were employed in the year before or after receiving benefits, meaning SNAP is providing effective temporary assistance during periods of economic difficulty.[3] Many of the policy changes addressed in the federal register notice, including new review processes, certification processes, and reporting requirements, would incur administrative burdens and costs with little demonstrable benefit for low-income populations, and may in fact detract from the efficacy of the program.

Bolstering employment and training programs will do little to counter the root causes of poverty and food insecurity—particularly when other public assistance programs are at risk.

Employment and training (E&T) programs can provide a path to self-sufficiency if evidence-based and adequately funded. Currently, there is wide variation among state E&T programs, with varying efficacy, and limited full federal funding available to states.[4] Until there is consistent implementation of effective and scalable models for job training across states—accompanied by a strong government commitment to invest in such models—we cannot rely on E&T programs alone to keep low-income populations employed and out of poverty. This is particularly important at a time when numerous other public assistance programs serving low-income populations are at risk.

We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments on the manner in which the USDA intends to pursue its stated goals of addressing food insecurity and providing adequate opportunities for employment and training among low-income populations. However, the questions posed by the agency suggest that forthcoming policy proposals will do more harm than good. Any policy changes to SNAP resulting in removal of individuals from the program—including more stringent work requirements or restricted eligibility among the ABAWD population—present serious risks to the health, well-being, and economic vitality of the individuals and communities served by this program.

Thank you for your consideration.

 

[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2018. Table A-12: Unemployed persons by duration of employment. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor. Online at www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t12.htm, accessed March 2, 2018.

[2] Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). 2016. Characteristics of able-bodied adults without dependents. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture. Online at https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/snap/nondisabled-adults.pdf, accessed March 2, 2018.

[3] Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). 2015. Long-term benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President of the United States.

[4] Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). 2016. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Employment and Training (E&T) Best Practices Study: Final Report. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture. Online at https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/ops/SNAPEandTBestPractices.pdf, accessed March 8, 2018.

 

Want to learn more about SNAP? Listen to Sarah Reinhardt on our Got Science? Podcast!

USDA Focus on Nutrition Program “Integrity” is a Smokescreen

Photo: US Air Force

The US Department of Agriculture has announced it will hire a new “chief integrity officer” to oversee federal nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). The integrity of SNAP in particular has been a popular topic among those in the Trump administration, including USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who argue that SNAP enables a “lifestyle of dependency” and seek major program reforms in the upcoming Farm Bill. But these arguments have been conjured from very little science and a whole lot of smoke—and have the effect of distracting the public from more pressing issues at hand.

SNAP is among the nation’s most effective and efficient programs

Monitoring any government program is necessary to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent effectively, and the USDA does so through its quality control process and periodic reports on fraud and abuse. In fiscal year 2011, as part of the Obama administration’s Campaign to Cut Waste, the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted an extensive review of more than 15,000 stores for compliance with SNAP program rules. The results of these assessments, combined with USDA participation data, tell us the program is working as intended, and with remarkably few problems.

SNAP fraud1—broadly defined as exchanging benefits for cash or falsifying participant or retailer applications to illegally obtain or accept benefits—happens relatively infrequently, though it’s difficult to measure. The USDA’s most recent report on the topic estimated that it affected about 1.5 percent of all SNAP benefits received between 2012 and 2014. This represents a slight increase since the early 2000s (1.0 to 1.3 percent between 2002 and 2011), but remains substantially lower than in the 1990s, when reported rates were as high as 3.8 percent.

Compare this to some of the other federal programs contained in the Farm Bill—like crop insurance. Back in 2013, former USDA secretary Tom Vilsack voiced concerns about the integrity of crop insurance programs due to error and fraud rates that exceeded those of SNAP. As with SNAP, illegal activity is largely uncovered by way of criminal investigations. According to the Department of Justice, recent convictions and sentences connected with the federal crop insurance program have included the indictment of a Kentucky agricultural producer for insurance fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering; an Iowa farmer who received more than $450,000 in crop insurance proceeds illegally; a Louisiana farmer who created shell farms to receive more than $5.4 million in subsidy payments; and a Kentucky crop insurance agent whose clients received nearly $170,000 in indemnity payments for false claims. And those are just the cases from the last six months. Unlike SNAP, no chief integrity officer has been assigned to monitor fraud and abuse in the program.

So yes, we should be striving for continuous improvement in the operation of all federal programs. But explaining why SNAP in particular has come under such intense scrutiny requires some historical and political context—and a good understanding of who might benefit from maintaining old narratives.

 

Learn more about SNAP, listen to Sarah Reinhardt on the Got Science? podcast

The rise, fall, and flatline of SNAP fraud

Though President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act into law in 1964, the program began to gain popularity in the 1970s, when participation doubled from 5 million to 10 million over the course of the decade. As participation increased, the USDA began to discover incidents of abuse, eventually revealing a widespread pattern of illegal activity that would plague the program for the next twenty years. Reported rates of fraud at this time were between 10 and 20 percent.

The widespread abuse lent itself to growing public disapproval of the food stamps program and,  accompanied by racist and classist rhetoric around so-called “welfare queens,” fueled substantial program reform by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s.

But what likely ushered in drastic improvements in rates of fraud and abuse was the introduction of new electronic benefit transfer (EBT) systems, which fully replaced paper food stamps in 2004. In addition to requiring a 4-digit PIN number, EBT cards create a record of each purchase, increasing the ease with which agencies can identify and document illegal use.

That brings us, more or less, to the efficient and effective program that we’ve seen for the last decade.

Despite how well SNAP works, politicians have continued to frame it as a program that suffers from rampant misuse and illegal activity. For those seeking drastic budget cuts and reforms, that negative narrative grants permission to discredit both the program and those who use it—and one needs to look no further than President Trump’s welfare reform proposals or Speaker Paul Ryan’s comment about the tailspin of “inner-city culture” to know that the legacy of the welfare queen is alive and well.

Speaking of integrity…

Photo: USDA

To get a sense of where this is all headed, keep your eyes on USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue—if you can. He’s been making some quick pivots lately.

At a May 2017 House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture hearing, Perdue stated that “SNAP has been a very important, effective program,” and that the agency was considering no changes. “You don’t try to fix something that isn’t broken.”

Less than a year later, the secretary has voiced his support for a number of proposed program changes, including stricter work requirements for adults without dependents. Not unlike the recent announcement aimed at nutrition program integrity, these proposals are often grounded more in political ideology than fact. USDA’s own data shows that most SNAP participants who can work do work—albeit in unstable jobs—and counters the notion that participants stay on the program for long periods of time.

When the House releases its draft of the Farm Bill, which may happen as early as this week, Perdue’s response (or lack thereof) could provide insight on the policy proposals he’s prepared to support. More than likely, he’ll continue to endorse the positions of his party—but then again, we’ve been surprised before.

 

  1. Fraud and abuse should be distinguished from error rates, or improper payment rates, which capture how often SNAP participants receive underpayment or overpayment of benefits. (The overwhelming majority of SNAP errors are attributed to unintentional error by recipients or administrative staff.) Program error rates have also experienced substantial declines in recent years: they reached an all-time low of 2 percent in 2013, down from 6.6 percent in 2003. And though a 2015 USDA OIG review of the quality control process found understated error rates in some states, the resulting corrective actions target state agencies—not individual SNAP participants.

 

The World’s Population Hasn’t Grown Exponentially for at Least Half a Century

Recently I was looking at some data about world food production on the excellent Our World in Data site, and I discovered something very simple, but very surprising about the world’s population. We often hear (and I used to teach) about the threat of an exponentially growing population and the pressure it is supposed to be putting on our food supply and the natural resources that sustain it (land, water, nutrients, etc). But I found that the global population isn’t growing exponentially, and hasn’t been for at least half a century.

It has actually been growing in a simpler way than exponentially—in a straight line.

What exponential growth is

Exponential growth (sometimes also called geometric or compound-interest growth) can be described by an equation in which time is raised to a power, i.e. has an exponent—hence the name. But it also can be described in simpler terms: the growth rate of the population, as a fraction of the population’s size, is a constant. Thus, if a population has a growth rate of 2%, and it remains 2% as the population gets bigger, it’s growing exponentially. And there’s nothing magic about the 2; it’s growing exponentially whether that growth rate is 2% or 10% or 0.5% or 0.01%.

Another way to put it is that the doubling time of the population—the number of years it takes to grow to twice its initial size—is also a constant. So, if the population will double in the next 36 years, and double again in the following 36 years, and so on, then it’s growing exponentially. There’s even a simple rule-of-thumb relationship between doubling time and the percentage growth rate: Doubling Time = 72/(Percentage Growth Rate). So that population with a 36 year doubling time, is growing at a rate of 2% per year.

But probably the simplest way to describe exponential growth is with a graph, so here’s how it looks:

Figure 1. Exponential growth versus linear (straight-line) growth.

This graphic not only shows the classic upward-curving shape of the exponential growth curve, but also how it contrasts with growth that is linear, i.e. in a straight line. Additionally, it demonstrates a simple mathematical result: if one quantity is growing exponentially and a second quantity is growing linearly, the first quantity will eventually become larger than the second, no matter what their specific starting points or rates of growth.

This isn’t just abstract math; it also illustrates the most famous use of exponential growth in political debate. It was put forward by the English parson Robert Malthus over two centuries ago. He argued that the human population grows exponentially while food production can only grow linearly. Thus, it follows inevitably that the population will eventually outgrow the food supply, resulting in mass starvation. This is the case even if the food supply is initially abundant and growing rapidly (but linearly). The upward-bending-curve of an exponentially-growing population will always overtake it sooner or later, resulting in catastrophe.

Looking at real data

Critics ever since Malthus’ time have pointed out that his assumption that food production grows in a straight line is just that—an assumption, with little basis in theory. So I wasn’t surprised to see that the OWID data showed faster-than-linear (upward-curving) growth in global food production over the past half-century. What did surprise me was that the growth of the world’s population over that time period has actually been very close to a straight line.

Here’s that graph:

Figure 2. World population growth from 1961 to 2016, from the official U.N. figures available at ourworldindata.org. The data are expressed as an index, with the 1961 population = 100. To convert the index to actual numbers of people, just multiply the index value by 30,830,000, since the world population in 1961 was 3.083 billion.

The graph looks very much like a straight line rather than the upward-curving exponential, but is that really the case? We can test this by calculating the value of what statisticians call the R2 (or “coefficient of determination”) for this curve. The closer it is to a straight line, the higher R2 will be, and if the data fits a straight line perfectly then R2 will be exactly 1.0.

So, what’s the actual value for this data? It’s 0.9992. I.e. the fit to a straight line isn’t quite perfect, but it’s very, very close.

Is this some sort of artifact?

I was actually quite surprised at how well the data fit a straight line—so much so that I wondered if this was just an artifact of the method I used, rather than a real result. So I applied the same method—plot the data, fit a straight line to it, and calculate the value of R2—to the data for some of the world’s largest countries and regions, rather than the world as a whole.

For several of these, the lines looked very straight and the value of R2 was almost as high as in the graph for the world as a whole, or even slightly higher, e.g.:

Country or Region  R2 for the linear equation of Population vs. Time Brazil .9977 India .9954 Indonesia .9995 Latin America and the Caribbean .9994 North America .9966 Pacific island small states .9991

But for others it was considerably lower (e.g. .9777 for China, .9668 for the European Union) and two graphs proved clearly that the excellent fit to a straight line is a real result, not an artifact. These were the ones for Sub-Saharan Africa and Russia:

Figure 3. Population growth of Sub-Saharan Africa from 1961 to 2016, from the official U.N. figures available at ourworldindata.org. The data are expressed as an index, with the 1961 population = 100. Thin dotted line shows the best-fit straight line; thick dots show the actual data.

Figure 4. Population growth of Russia from 1961 to 2016, from the official U.N. figures available at ourworldindata.org. The data are expressed as an index, with the 1961 population = 100. Thin dotted line shows the best-fit straight line; thick dots show the actual data.

The point about the Sub-Saharan African graph is not simply that it has a lower value of R2 (0.964), but that its data deviates from the straight line in the way that an exponential curve should: higher than the straight line at the lowest and the highest time values, and lower than the straight line at the intermediate ones. It does fit an exponential curve quite well, thus showing that the method can pick out an exponential curve if the data do follow one. But this is the only region or large country for which that’s actually true.

The Russia graph doesn’t fit an exponential curve well at all—it actually curves downward overall, rather than upward as it should if it were an exponential—but it does show that the value of R2 can be much lower than 1.0 for real data. For Russia it’s 0.632. So as with the Sub-Saharan Africa case, it proves that the high value of R2 for the world as a whole is not an artifact caused by the method. It reflects the reality of the past 55 years.

Finally, since I and many of my readers are from the United States, here’s that graph:

Figure 5. Population growth of the United States from 1961 to 2016, from the official U.N. figures available at ourworldindata.org. The data are expressed as an index, with the 1961 population = 100. Thin dotted line shows the best-fit straight line; thick dots show the actual data.

For the US as for the whole world, population growth over the past half-century has been quite close to a straight line; the R2 is 0.9956.

A direct test of whether growth is exponential

These graphs and R2 values seem to indicate that linear growth is the best model for the world population over the past 55 years, but there’s another way to show that it’s not exponential. As I said above, exponential growth occurs when the percentage growth rate remains constant as the population gets bigger. So a simple test is to graph the percentage growth rate over time, and see whether it’s a constant—i.e., a horizontal line. So here’s that graph:

Figure 6. Percentage growth rate of the world population from 1961 to 2016, calculated from the official U.N. figures available at ourworldindata.org. The trend lines goes downward over time, rather than being horizontal as it would if the percentage were a constant.

This result, like the others, is quite clear. The percentage growth rate is not a constant, as it should be if the population were growing exponentially. Rather, it has been dropping steadily over the past half-century, from over 2.0% in the early sixties to below 1.2% now.

What exponential growth is Not

So, we should stop saying that the world’s population is growing exponentially. That hasn’t been the case for at least 50 years. Exponential growth clearly doesn’t describe the global reality of the twenty-first century.

But there’s actually a second reason to stop saying that the global population is growing exponentially, and that’s because the term is so commonly misused and misunderstood. Note the next few times that you hear someone use the word, and I think you’ll find that it’s not being used in the sense of “constant percentage-growth-rate” or “constant doubling-time” or even just “an upward-bending curve.” Rather, it’s being used—often with an emphatic stress on the “-nen-” syllable and an implicit exclamation mark at the end of the phrase—to mean “rapidly” or “quickly” or “fast” or “big.”

That way of speaking is common, but it’s also just plain wrong. Remember the example that I started with: the exponential growth rate can be high (e.g. 10%) or low (e.g. 0.01%) or intermediate (e.g. 2%). In every case it’s exponential growth, but it’s very fast exponential growth if the growth rate is 10% and very slow exponential growth if it’s 0.01%.

I’m not that sanguine about getting people to go back to using “exponential” in its correct sense, but I think it’s at least worth a try. After all, we already have several other good words for that other, incorrect meaning—e.g. “fast” or “big.”

Implications

The results don’t just imply that we should talk about population growth differently, but also that we need to re-think how it relates to food production. There is good news in these data, because they show that hunger and environmental catastrophe is not at all inevitable. Malthus’ argument just doesn’t fit reality.

While linear growth has its challenges, it’s far easier to deal with than exponential growth. The distinction between growing exponentially and growing in a straight line does matter. On that point, at least, Malthus got it right.

Crop Diversity: A Nice Thing If You Can Get It (and You Can Get It If You Try)

Extended crop rotations, which often include small grains like oats, pictured here, can provide financial benefits to farmers while also providing broader environmental benefits, like reduced soil erosion and runoff. Nick Ohde/Practical Farmers of Iowa

Diversity is incredibly important for a productive and resilient agrifood system. Diverse cropping systems can lead to greater  productivity, profitability and environmental health. Diversity in the form of extended crop rotations can also reduce weed, insect, and disease pressure, which can help farmers cut the costs of their purchased inputs like herbicides and insecticides. Beyond these financial benefits, diversifying crop rotations also provides broader environmental benefits that can be experienced at both the field scale (e.g., reduced erosion) and landscape scale (e.g., reduced water quality impairment), as noted in the UCS report Rotating Crops, Turning Profits

Greater cropping systems diversity can also help mitigate risks associated with the impacts of global climate change, which will drive more extreme and variable weather events, not to mention sustained temperature and precipitation changes that will impact agricultural production. Sadly, much of the agricultural production in the US, particularly in the Midwest, is lacking in biological diversity (at the genetic, species, and community level).

If diversity is a key ingredient in building a more resilient agroecosystem, good for the land and often for our bottom line, why then are so few farmers, particularly in the Midwest, implementing diverse crop rotations?

Corn is king

In collaboration with colleagues at Iowa State University, I attempted to answer this question in a recent paper published with Global Environmental Change, using information from Midwest Corn Belt farmers collected via surveys and in-depth interviews to examine the facilitators and barriers of more diversified crop rotations. Overall, we found that many farmers are interested in more diverse crop rotations. However, many of them feel constrained by the current corn-corn and corn-soybean rotation that is ubiquitous across much of the Midwest—as a Wisconsin farmer said in our study, “now, you live or die by two crops.” This farmer went on to note that he did not think this adherence to such a limited crop rotation was sustainable for the long-term health of the region’s agricultural system.

Our study also found that many farmers acknowledge the benefits of diversifying their crop rotation. Some also see diverse crop rotations as a way to take advantage of climate-related changes. Unfortunately, many farmers could not figure out what crops would be financially viable in their operation given that there are few regionally competitive markets for diverse crops. We did find that greater diversity at the watershed level (measured at the HUC6 level) facilitates farmers’ use of diverse crop rotations, likely due to the presence of alternative markets (e.g., small grains or feed) and associated technological and market infrastructure. It might also be that closer proximity with other farmers who have diverse rotations provides greater support to farmers considering adopting extended rotations. Our study also found that the loss of crop/livestock integration in the region had greatly reduced the need for more diverse rotations, with many farmers noting that they used to have more diverse rotations in the past, when they managed for an integrated crop and livestock system.

Overall, our study examined how path dependence, which limits the technological and economic options that farmers have within the corn-based cropping system in the US Corn Belt, restricts farmers’ options for changing their production systems to incorporate more diverse crop rotations.

An enabling environment for diversity

To enable greater diversity, it may be necessary to address both technology and informational barriers while also identifying incentives for more economically and environmentally resilient agricultural systems. Unfortunately, many farmers who are doing things differently from their neighbors can feel ostracized in their communities. Luckily organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa and Women Food and Agriculture Network can provide farmers with communities of practice that enable them to experiment with new cropping systems or different production/conservation practices that might not be commonplace. Organizations such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, at Iowa State University, have been critically important in funding agricultural research that investigates diverse alternatives to the corn-based cropping system, such as the Prairie STRIPS project (check out efforts to re-imagine a new Leopold Center given recent funding cuts).

In our study, we suggest two primary strategies for facilitating greater cropping systems diversity in the US Corn Belt:

1) Increasing financial incentives to assist farmers with up-front costs associated with investing in new cropping systems or alternative crops, while also putting in place disincentives for monoculture production (e.g., conservation compliance); and

2) Investing in programs that will enable the development of alternative markets (e.g., perennial biofuel feedstock sources).

Diversity is a key ingredient in building a more resilient agroecosystem, yet there is much work to be done to cultivate more diverse cropping systems in the Corn Belt and other agricultural regions in the U.S. In an era of global climate change, it is more important than ever to invest in agricultural production systems that reduce vulnerability by embracing the merits of agroecological diversity.

 

Gabrielle Roesch McNally received her PhD in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. She worked in the US Corn Belt for over four years conducting and analyzing survey data and in-depth interviews with large-scale corn producers as part of a multi-state effort to examine climate change impacts and resilience-building strategies for corn-based cropping systems. The results reported in this blog were published in a co-authored manuscript entitled, “Barriers to implementing climate resilient agricultural strategies: The case of crop diversification in the U.S. Corn Belt” in the journal Global Environmental Change. Gabrielle is a Fellow with the USDA Northwest Climate Hubs. Follow Gabrielle on Twitter @G_Roesch or on Research Gate.

Nick Ohde /Practical Farmers of Iowa

Betrayal at the USDA

Photo: Preston Keres/USDA

Unqualified government employees. Elected officials using their positions for personal gain. Policymakers favoring industry and disregarding science. Such betrayals of the public trust have become commonplace in the Trump administration. And while there’s been plenty of press coverage of HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s lavish dining set, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s shady condo deal, and President Trump choosing the White House physician to lead the VA, the same pattern is apparent in corners of the administration that have received less scrutiny.

Over the past year, I’ve tracked the actions of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and his USDA. In a new UCS report released today, I document the many ways Secretary Perdue has, in his first full year on the job, betrayed farmers and the public he is sworn to serve. And I highlight ways we can push back (as some farmers are already doing—see below).

Welcome to the Department of Agribusiness

When Perdue took the helm at the USDA on April 25, 2017, he spoke of rolling up his sleeves and vowed to “work tirelessly to solve the issues facing our farm families.” Using his down-home Twitter handle @SecretarySonny, he regularly issues folksy tweets championing hardworking farmers. This week, he’s trundling through three states in an RV, making a show of getting out of Washington and talking to people in the heartland.

But over the past year, Perdue’s actual record of policy decisions has favored ideology over expertise and the interests of the Big Ag lobby over that of the majority of America’s 2 million farmers—and of all of us who eat.

A few examples:

  • There was the time last year when Perdue reversed newly-minted USDA rules meant to protect small farmers who raise poultry and livestock for big meat companies (think Tyson Farms and Smithfield Foods). As their name suggests, the Farmer Fair Practices Rules would have evened the playing field for those farmers, giving them more leverage in contracts with these corporate giants and making it easier for farmers to sue for abuses. (Lobbyists for the meat industry hailed Perdue’s action and suggested celebrating “with a top-quality steak.
  • Then there’s a pair of decidedly unscientific decisions related to nutrition, an important USDA responsibility that affects the health and well-being of our country. First, Perdue disregarded the best nutrition science in rolling back standards for school meals served to 45 million children every day. Under Perdue’s new rules, schools can serve “flavored” (read: sugar-sweetened) milk again and get a pass on implementing progressive sodium targets until at least 2020. In announcing the decision last May, Perdue assured reporters, “This is not reducing the nutritional standards whatsoever,” adding, “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without flavored milk.” (The International Dairy Foods Association cheered.)
Farmers fight back

Secretary Perdue’s betrayal of farmers, in particular, may soon catch up with him. Already, his apparent failure to avert a Trumpian trade war that will hurt farm exports is causing anxiety and anger in farm country.

And now, a group of farmers is fighting his decision on the Farmer Fair Practice Rules in court.

In December, a handful of farmers and the watchdog Organization for Competitive Markets sued Perdue and the USDA, alleging that his decision to end the Farmer Fair Practices Rules unlawfully harms farmers. Just last week, the plaintiffs filed a new brief in the case, detailing the ways large agricultural companies have retaliated against them for standing up for their rights and how the now-rescinded rules would have helped them seek legal redress. The plaintiffs’ stories include companies lowballing them on price, retaliating against them when they complained, and even driving some out of business—practices they say the USDA’s own analysis shows are rampant in the livestock and poultry industries.

And OCM argues that Secretary Perdue and his USDA have failed to explain why rules that would prevent such actions are suddenly not needed.

Will sunshine be Sonny’s downfall?

Of course Perdue is siding with the agribusiness industry over the little guy. It’s who he has always been, going back to his days as Georgia governor. Back then, he made ethics pledges and promptly accepted gifts from lobbyists. He was fined by the state ethics board for campaign finance violations. And he went easy on big food companies in the state, which led to a pair of food safety crises—in the form of tainted peanut butter—that killed nine people and sickened more than 1,300. For all this, Perdue was named one of country’s the worst governors in 2010.

Anyone who studied Perdue’s record could have predicted how his tenure at the USDA would play out (and actually, some of us did). Still, over the past year, he has kept a relatively low profile as a member of the Trump cabinet “under the radar club,” avoiding serious scrutiny from the press while hewing closely to the boss’s deregulatory agenda.

As he hits the road this week, I’d like to see him field tough questions about why he is taking actions that hurt—rather than help—farmers and everyday people across this country.

 

Photo: Preston Keres/USDA

Room for Ruminants in a Sustainable Future? Taking a Step Back to Find More Steps Forward

Photo: USDA/ARS

Ruminants, especially cattle (particularly beef cattle), have gotten a bad rap for their effects on climate, water, land and health. However, research and practice also point to cases in which ruminants can help improve the sustainability of farms, increasing farm resilience to extreme weather and supporting the livelihoods of some of the land’s best stewards.

In this post, I want to explore some ways that agroecology can reduce environmental damage from farms and ranches that support beef cattle production. First, I want to talk about how cattle production in the US involves a substantial amount of both grass and grain, and how we should be thinking about ways to grow both better. Then I’ll discuss how integrating crops and cattle could be one strategy for optimizing potential farm and environmental benefits. Yes, it’s context-dependent, and it’s complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

Wait, what’s a ruminant?

Before digging in, a bit of Ruminant 101. Ruminants are mammals defined by their unique digestive process, which is quite slick from a scientific perspective. Ruminants, which include cattle, sheep, goats, elk, giraffes, antelopes, buffalo, and camels (but not other common farm animals such as pigs and chickens), can get their nutritional needs from grasses and leaves, which are inedible to most of us mammals. This ability means that they can convert otherwise inedible plants into sellable products, like meat and milk, and help farmers profit from grasslands. Ruminants also can, and do, eat other plant material, like grains. Overall, their digestive flexibility enables them to take advantage of foods that might otherwise go to waste (which in part explains why some producers have used ingredients as unusual as candy, in moderation, as an energy source within a balanced diet).

So, what’s the problem?

In brief, like all forms of animal agriculture, ruminant production requires land and other resources, such as fertilizers and energy, to produce feed. Ruminants also produce manure, which must be carefully managed, and can lead to climate-warming emissions and water pollution. Due to their unique digestive process, these animals also produce large amounts of methane, a potent climate-disrupting gas. Finally, the sheer number of cattle raised, in response to high demand for meat and dairy, ensures that consequences from production add up particularly fast.

Levers for more sustainable beef? On grass, grain, and goldilocks

Beef provides an interesting lens into food system solutions. For one thing, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Furthermore, solving sustainability challenges with beef production means looking not just at the final product, but at management all along the way. In the US, all beef cattle begin their lives grazing on grass, but most are “finished” on grain—largely corn—in industrial feedlots known as CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). Thus, the scope of solutions for beef production can include both grass and grain management. For example:

  • Improving grass: Grasslands and pastures used for beef production could be improved by managing them according to best practices, potentially leading to several benefits. Well-managed grasslands can reduce soil erosion or even build soil health, improving resilience to droughts and floods, and storing or even sequestering soil carbon. Also, protecting species-rich grasslands or planting diverse pastures can benefit biodiversity and pollinators. In addition, cattle production in well-managed grazing systems tends to improve animal health and reduce reliance on antibiotics that are often used heavily in feedlots.
  • Improving grain: Farms growing feed crops for cattle can also be improved by adopting regenerative practices. For example, rotating corn and soy with other crops can reduce erosion and build soil health and soil carbon, while also interrupting pest cycles and reducing pesticide use. Transitioning some areas of farms to perennial plants (including grasses and trees) and adopting cover crops can help to keep soils protected and healthy year-round, while also improving resilience to droughts and floods. Diverse farms can include “nitrogen-fixing” crops, which take advantage of natural processes that add nitrogen to the soil, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.
  • Grass versus grain, or a goldilocks effect? In addition to improving both grass and grain production, it’s worth thinking about the proportion of either that is ultimately used to feed cattle. As I mentioned above, most producers “finish” cattle on grain, but others stick with grass, and whether one is better than the other has been the subject of many inquiries (learn more here and here). On the one hand, finishing more cattle on more grass could help protect grasslands, potentially countering a disturbing trend of grassland loss in the US. On the other hand, finishing cattle with more grain decreases digestive methane emissions each day, and speeds up production, resulting in fewer total emissions. Given the tradeoffs and complexities, a broader context is needed to determine the best steps for more sustainable beef production.
Designing diversified, integrated farms

Among the potential ways to improve beef production, reconfiguring farms to diversify crops and reintegrate cattle stands out as one way to make things work better—for both farmers and the environment (see my post on regenerative farmers for success stories).

Such integrated systems function by mimicking natural ecosystems in which plants are grown together with the animals that they feed and the animal manure can be used to fertilize plants, reducing reliance on (purchased) chemical fertilizers in some instances. As animals can get value out of a variety of crops, farmers managing integrated systems can more readily plant crop rotations and cover crops that are good for soils and farm resilience, even when markets may be unreliable. Another benefit of integrated systems is that they can be strategically designed to provide high-quality, nutritious diets for cattle that improve productivity and health, and reduce methane emissions.

Outcomes from reintegrating land and livestock

Given the advantages of integrated crop-livestock systems, we recently crunched some numbers to gain a better understanding of the impacts of transitioning common monocrop farms to more integrated, regenerative ones. From this exercise, we found that several scenarios of reintegrating cattle into conventional farms could meaningfully improve land, acre by acre, while boosting farmer profits. Benefits were possible even in cases where farmers were assumed to only convert a portion of their land to new practices (for our study, we considered the impacts of making changes to as little one third of a 1000-acre farm).

Of course, it’s complicated, as beef production in any case requires substantial feed, land, and water—on average, much more than other meat and dairy products. Based on current research, scaling up the practices that we explored may support fewer cattle per acre, which would imply that less beef could be produced or that more land would be required. However, future and ongoing research into regenerative practices and soil health could change these outcomes. And we know that many Americans could improve their health by reducing their red meat consumption, a shift that could also reduce demand over time.

In sum, although there’s no simple path forward, solutions that start by working with farmers and eaters alike could be an important part of the portfolio.

P.S. Finding more sustainable beef within the current food system is a challenge, but there is some advice out there if you want to try. While choices are limited these days, demonstrating interest in more sustainable foods is an important way to encourage more options in the future.

Regenerative Farming Trailblazers: How Reintegrating Livestock and Restoring Soils Can Lead to More Resilient Farms

Farmer using diverse cover crops and animal grazing to build soil health.Farmer Jonathan Cobb with cattle. Using diverse cover crops and diverse animal grazing, the Cobbs are building soil health on their farm. Photo: USDA/Ron Nichols

Across the United States, more farmers are finding that practices that have worked in the past are no longer cutting it. Persistent low prices for common crops (especially corn) paired with high production costs (for example, expensive equipment and fertilizers) have made it hard to stay afloat. At the same time agriculture has also moved increasingly toward systems dominated by a few annual crops—typically corn and soybeans—often with fields left bare between growing seasons. This trend has degraded core resources like soil and water, endangering the long-term viability of many farms.

Faced with growing pressures, some farmers are exploring their options, including testing regenerative farming practices that can rebuild soil health, conserve water, improve water quality, and more. For example, farmers are diversifying their crops and animals, implementing more complex crop rotations, and protecting soil year-round by using cover crops. Such changes come with both challenges and opportunities.

Overcoming the obstacles of regenerative farms, and a role for ruminants

Adding regenerative practices to farms can be great on many levels, but they aren’t always easy, at least under current conditions. For example, oats can improve crop rotations, but there’s not much demand for them, and farmers don’t want to plant something they can’t sell. Cover crops are good for soils, but farmers experience barriers to adopting them, such as costs, market forces, and risks of reduced yields. Getting grass back on land is fantastic for soil health, clean water, and more, but today’s trends are toward a loss rather than gain in grasslands.

Interestingly, one way to make regenerative farming more manageable, is to (re)integrate livestock. As I’ve written, livestock—when managed with best practices—can help turn challenges of regenerative agriculture into solutions, enabling a more self-reliant farming system. For instance, livestock can eat the oats, cover crops, and grass that protect the soil. In turn, the livestock’s manure can reduce reliance on costly alternatives while also building soil health.

But can such changes add up to meaningful benefits for farmers and the environment? Our recent analysis suggested that the answer to this question is yes. We found that several regenerative scenarios could translate to reduced soil erosion, fertilizer loss, and pollution, as well as increased soil organic matter, resilience to extreme weather, and potentially even more profits for farmers. But while these number-crunching exercises were hopeful, it’s important to also explore what’s happening on the ground. So, don’t take it from me—take it from the soil health heroes.

Tales from regenerative trailblazers

Fortunately for regenerative agriculture, farmers across the country are already pioneering promising paths forward, applying innovative practices and seeing results (I mentioned a few on World Soil Day). These land stewards are showing that there are ways to transform agriculture acre-by-acre that can support their livelihoods while also building soils, protecting water, and more. We recently connected with a handful of those who are leading the way on diverse and integrated farms, and their stories are insightful and inspiring.

Integrating regenerative agriculture and livestock can be a smart path to more profits

Take Del Ficke, a fifth-generation farmer from Pleasant Dale, Nebraska, for example. In Ficke’s words, “Regenerative farming is a no-brainer. Most of the soil in the country is on life support and it’ll only respond to synthetic chemicals…” However, as he has shown on his own farm, regenerative agriculture can turn things around. By adopting cover crops, reintegrating livestock, and using livestock to fertilize fields, Ficke estimates that the organic matter in his soils has increased substantially, reaching 4 percent or more, in some places. This is great news for the long-term health of his farm, as well as for other farmers looking to follow in his footsteps.

Not only that, but Ficke was able to transition his operation from the large scale to a smaller scale while improving his bottom line. As he puts it, “I used to farm 7,000 acres. Now I’m less than 700 acres, but 70 percent more profitable.” In other words, he has accrued more profits, but requires less land.

Benefits from state-to-state, and farm-to-sea

Over 100 miles away, Seth Watkins of Clarinda, Iowa is also finding that similar practices are good for business, even in the state that leads the nation in corn and soybean production. Over time, Watkins, a fourth-generation farmer, has diversified his farm and integrated livestock. While he primarily raises cattle, he also grows corn, hay and oats.

Watkins observes that “A lot of the way we farm now depletes soil organic matter. Having cattle on my land means I can utilize the diversified cropping system I have that builds health and ensures the long-term productivity of my land.” Watkins sees his crops feeding his cattle and his cattle’s manure feeding his crops. And because he saves money on “inputs” (fertilizer, feed, and antibiotics) he sees more profits.

Watkins has also found that the benefits of his practices go far beyond his farm. By creating a farming system that includes cover crops and crop rotations, he reduces water pollution on his farm and contributes to better water quality downstream—all the way to the Gulf of Mexico (which suffers from pollution-driven dead zones every year). Thus, innovations that happen just acre-by-acre, and drop by drop, can matter in a big way.

Cooperation and clear cost-effectiveness are two keys to getting more farmers on board

While regenerative farming can make a difference acre-by-acre, reaping more benefits is only going to be possible if these practices pick up more traction. For example, even as cover crop adoption rates break records, cover crops are still relatively rare. According to Jon Nelson, who grew up on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin, growing momentum around such practices will require more than just a few good examples. “To me, it’s intuitive but it takes cooperation,” said Nelson, citing the importance of colleagues, including extension agents, who can exchange ideas and help each other out.

Nelson, who now has a farm and cattle feeding operation in Lake Preston, South Dakota, noted the importance of this type of support in facilitating his own transition from a cash crop farm to a more integrated one. As a result of his success, he saw a drastic increase in organic matter (~25%) in just 3 years, and Nelson’s farm now offers another example of what can work well: “Cash crop and grazing—these two systems can be symbiotic. Our goal is the cattle to work for us, rather than us working for cattle.”

But making best practices spread, and continuing to improve them, will require more research and effective communication (as many scientists agree). As Nelson aptly noted, “If we can prove that diversified farming is more profitable than the traditional monocrop model, then this method of farming will take hold.”

Getting farmers’ feet wet

Despite the success stories, many farmers are still hesitant to adopt regenerative health practices, let alone think about scaling them up. As fifth-generation Nebraskan farmer Graham Christensen noted, “By nature, farmers are conservative with making changes on their farms, but they’re also willing to adapt in order to do what is best for their family and farm—farmers are innovators. We need to get our feet wet before we go all in. Getting folks started in utilizing regenerative practices, whether it’s converting their land to cover crops or applying improved rotational grazing or implementing agroforestry—is a good way for people to better understand the tremendous benefits to the soil, and therefore the pocketbook.”

Certainly, even small changes in the right direction can make a meaningful difference and are worth celebrating. Christensen, for one, has successfully convinced his parents to adopt regenerative practices on small portions of their farm, giving them a better understanding for the many “value-adds” that these can provide. Over time, as farmers and scientists continue to improve methods and measurements, these initial experiments will become a foundation for larger change.

Farmers are transforming agriculture to benefit us all: Let’s support them

With the growing stresses on farms and natural resources today, there’s a lot at stake. As Nelson put it, “I don’t want a piece of land that 100 years from now it’s completely depleted and top soil is gone and it ends up fueling another Dust Bowl. In the US, I don’t think we’re real far away from that in some areas. I want to do everything I can to prevent that.” The good news is, there is growing evidence that diversified farms—of many shapes and sizes—can benefit both farmers and the environment. And this all comes down to some basics: Working with Mother Nature, instead of against it, is the cheapest way to build a viable business,” says Watkins.

While several obstacles stand in the way, the upcoming farm bill provides numerous opportunities to support those who steward the land. For example, education and technical assistance for regenerative practices could be bolstered, crop insurance could be better designed to incentivize healthy soil practices, and research support for agroecology could be strengthened.

But the task of advocating for these advances can’t be left entirely to farmers: “We can’t do it by ourselves,” noted Christensen. Fortunately, even small progress can trigger a big impact down the line. As Ficke mentioned, “It’s a ripple effect. Money will follow the sustainability. Sometimes it takes a long time if the soil is very depleted. But you see family coming back as more people get involved on the farm, and that’s how you build community.”

Photo: USDA/Ron Nichols

Taking Action for Public Science: Re-Imagining Iowa’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

On a snowy February morning at the Iowa state capitol in Des Moines, students, farmers, community members, scientists, food system employees, and advocates gathered for a press conference and advocacy day. Their efforts came almost one year to the day after the state legislature voted to defund and shut down the Leopold Center, for 30 years the state’s pre-eminent institution for research, learning and practice on sustainable agriculture. Constituents from across the state and beyond had responded with grassroots organizing to reframe discussions about public agricultural science in Iowa. And now they were calling for a re-imagined Leopold Center to lead a bold new vision for Iowa’s agricultural future:

“Supporting a socially just, environmentally sound agricultural system goes beyond simply providing food, fiber, and fuels—it means revitalizing rural communities, and turning Iowa into a shining example of how a resilient, locally focused agricultural system can make a large difference in individual communities and throughout the world.”

—Kristine Neu, Iowa State University graduate student

Lawmakers founded the Leopold Center at Iowa State University through Iowa’s 1987 Groundwater Protection Act and in so doing created an institution that benefited farmers, students and community members through research and educational programs. Yet, in the spring of 2017, the state legislature voted to defund and shut down the Leopold Center.

Sustainable agriculture scientists and advocates sprang to action immediately, writing a petition decrying the cuts, garnering national attention and more than 600 signatures over the first weekend it was available. Alumni and allies drafted memos and collected data for reports to share with legislators, wrote press releases and editorials, and organized turn-out to the state budget hearing.

This grassroots advocacy succeeded in securing a veto that saved the Leopold Center in name only—its funding was redirected to a research center created in 2014 dedicated to “nutrient management.” State legislators claimed the Leopold Center’s work was “accomplished.” The public mourned its loss, and stories in the press read as eulogies rather than rallies for its rebuilding. But we saw an opportunity to push forward a new vision for Iowa’s agricultural future—one of regeneration and healing (Carter, Chennault, and Kruzic 2018).

Iowa’s agricultural history is one of extraction. Iowa State University sits on land occupied by white settlers following the Black Hawk “Purchase” of 1833, a forceful removal of the Sauk and Meskwaki people following the Black Hawk War. The extractive economy continues today, with Iowa second only to California in the value of agricultural goods and boasting more hogs (22.4 million) and chickens (60 million) than people (3 million). This production system comes at a cost to the health of Iowa’s soil, water, and human communities as the state is literally washing away at the rate of 20 tons of soil per acre and more each year, and nitrate loading from agricultural landscapes pollutes the drinking water (Naidenko, Cox and Bruzelius 2012; Rundquist and Cox 2018). Clearly, the Leopold Center’s work is far from over.

Science for Public Good grant from the Union of Concerned Scientists helped us create an advocacy video communicating our collective’s new vision for the Leopold Center and agriculture in Iowa. In partnership with farmers, students, emeritus faculty, community leaders, and members of the Iowa Farmers Union, Women, Food and Agriculture Network, Center for Rural Affairs, Practical Farmers of Iowa, Lutheran Services of Iowa, and Iowa State University Sustainable Agriculture Student Association, we brainstormed, debated, revised, and shared new visions. The collective vision shared from these efforts celebrates diversity and prioritizes care, which are necessary components of agrifood systems change in Iowa and beyond. We launched this vision through a series of op-eds at the Des Moines press conference in February 2018, and used it to rally supporters to attend the Leopold Center’s advisory board meeting in March 2018.

These are hard times for public science and scientists studying ecological and social changes. Our refusal to mourn and eulogize the Leopold Center’s loss—and our work to envision and work toward a boldly re-imagined agriculture in Iowa instead—reframed a debate while envisioning new paths forward. The Leopold Center’s future remains uncertain, yet we know the challenges our agrifood system faces will require the kind of collaboration, creativity, innovation, and transparency reflected in our collective vision. A re-imagined Leopold Center must transform what has become a monoculture of ideas with a polyculture of thought, experience, scientific approach, and innovative agricultural practices. A monoculture is weak and vulnerable; it fails to provide for the coming decades. We have adopted the prairie as our guide for the work ahead—deep roots, diverse, hardy through times of drought, and resilient through times of change.

Angie Carter is an environmental sociologist and assistant professor of environmental and energy justice at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI. She earned her PhD in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology at Iowa State University. Twitter: @angielcarter

Ahna Kruzic is a community organizer turned communicator from rural southern Iowa. Ahna is Pesticide Action Network North America’s Communications Director and is based out of Berkeley, CA. Ahna is also a Food First / Institute for Food and Development Policy Fellow, and holds a Master of Science in Sustainable Agriculture and Sociology from Iowa State University. Twitter: @ahnakruzic

Carrie Chennault is a doctoral candidate in Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, and a graduate research assistant with the Local Foods and SNAP-Education programs at ISU Extension & Outreach.

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

Food Stamps Cuts Could Hit Rural America Hardest

On the night of the 2016 presidential election, President-elect Trump walked away with 60 percent of the vote in the nation’s 2,332 rural counties.

In Owsley County, a 200-square-mile patch of eastern Kentucky, Trump’s victory was propelled by a full 80 percent of the vote—an unsurprising outcome, perhaps, for a county seated in a congressional district that has elected and re-elected Republican representative Hal Rogers by similar margins since 1980.

And it might have been equally unsurprising that, when President Trump unveiled his proposed budget for 2019, Rogers was silent on its 10-year $213 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), if not for one thing: nearly half of Owsley County households, and well over a quarter of those in Rogers’ district at large, rely on SNAP to make ends meet.

Much attention has been devoted to rural America since the presidential election. The press, the pundits, and the public have examined it from nearly every angle, deliberating the demographiceconomic, and cultural factors that may have helped the Trump campaign capitalize on the dormant discontent of a great many.

But we still don’t understand some basic facts about the people and the places that make up rural America. This is partially attributable to the destructive cultural and political narratives that tell us programs like SNAP are not a rural issue. The roots of the racist Reagan-era rhetoric on inner city “welfare queens” run deep, and despite being long debunked, one needs to look no further than President Trump’s welfare reform proposals or Speaker Paul Ryan’s comment about the tailspin of “inner-city culture” to know that its legacy lives on. This explains how someone like Hal Rogers can so casually and routinely dismiss the basic needs of such a large segment of his constituency without fear of political blowback or consequence: prevailing perceptions of who relies on America’s social safety net and why have rendered these needs largely invisible.

But the data are unambiguous: SNAP benefits people of every race, zip code, and political persuasion, all across this country. And when we ran the numbers—using publicly-available, county-level data on SNAP participation rates by household—we uncovered the startling reality that rural areas are often struggling the most.

Rural America relies on SNAP

Last year, the Food Research and Action Center highlighted a stark difference in SNAP usage by county, showing that about sixteen percent of households in small towns and rural areas are using SNAP, compared to only thirteen percent of households in urban areas. Though striking, these averages don’t fully convey the critical role that SNAP plays in many rural communities across the country. Our analysis shows that of the 50 counties with the highest household SNAP usage, all but two of them are rural. When we looked at the 150 counties with the highest household SNAP usage, we found that a full 136 are rural.

Like Owsley County, many other communities that voted overwhelmingly for President Trump—and whose representatives in Congress are keen to gut programs like SNAP—are home to a great number of families who bear a largely invisible burden of food insecurity. We have to disrupt the destructive narratives and stereotypes about who uses nutrition assistance programs. The reality is, they are here to protect all of us.

SNAP is not a wedge issue

SNAP is frequently treated as a wedge issue, but it shouldn’t be. On the contrary, it is a common thread that runs through nearly every community in this country. A strong foundation of scientific evidence shows us that SNAP is an economic engine supporting jobs and livelihoods during recession and downturn; it is a sense of safety and security during unexpected gaps in employment; it is a source of income for our farmers, food producers and retailers; it is better nourishment and health for kids, and fewer hospitalizations for adults; and it is not having to choose between putting food on the table and keeping the lights on.

To continue to perpetuate the idea that nutrition assistance is partisan, and thus subject to use as a political pawn, is not only devastating to our own families, neighbors, and food producers, but also to the notion that policymakers should be held accountable for making science-based policy decisions that are in the best interest of the public.

As the farm bill, and with it the fate of some of our most critical federal assistance programs, continues to play out over the course of the next year, we’ll continue to highlight data that sheds light on the reality of food access and SNAP use in rural America and beyond—and how elected officials can use this information to make policy decisions that protect us all. Stay tuned.

Investing in the Future Farmers and Stewards of America

Many of you have probably heard that the average age of the American farmer has been trending up, as the number of farmers in our country has been trending down. As of the last census, US farmers averaged 58.3 years, continuing a steady creep over two decades. Six times as many farmers are over 65 as are under 35. The agricultural industry as a whole has the highest median age of all reported sectors in the US labor force. Who will be the farmers of the future?

A new farm bill offers an opportunity to recruit new farmers to this vital occupation. Since it’s in all our best interests that new farmers succeed, now is the time to address some big questions: what are the hurdles for this community, how have we been helping, and what more can be done?

The lay of the land: No one ever said that farming was easy

Given the steady stream of news about low crop prices and farm profits, it should be no surprise that farming hasn’t exactly been a magnet for jobseekers in recent years. But while the slow drain of farmers from the landscape is invisible to many of us, the shift poses a major threat to food security, to the health of the nation’s soils and the quality of its water, and to the vitality of rural communities. And, with experts expecting that 100 million acres of US farmland (an area the size of California) will change hands in the next 5 years, the declining number of folks ready to fill this generation’s shoes feels like double trouble.

Perhaps against the odds, however, there has been a recent pulse of optimistic, creative individuals apparently willing and able to protect the future of our food system. This pleasant surprise was reflected in the 2012 Census of Agriculture, and there are signs that the movement continues to grow. But the road ahead for these farmers isn’t easy, and not just because of long days and hard labor. Some of the even tougher challenges were highlighted in a recent survey from the National Young Farmers Coalition, which included several straightforward obstacles that policy could actually help address:

  • You can’t farm without land and, even with the anticipated massive land transition ahead, affordable farmland is hard to come by.
  • Tools and training are tricky to find, outdated, or hard to access, even in cases where these resources do exist.
  • Capital is hard enough to access when young farmers are trying to start from scratch, and even harder when you add in the student debt crisis.

With all of this in mind, how can we help?

What’s the baseline?  Progress and programs for beginning farmers in the 2014 farm bill

Before thinking about what more can be done, it’s important to note the investments that have been made in the past. In the 2014 farm bill, beginning farmers did receive a boost (worth $440 million, an increase of about 150% from the previous farm bill). This package of investments provided a variety of supporting, enabling programs to provide training, education, outreach, and technical assistance while also reducing barriers related to accessing land, acquiring loans, and developing a safety net (e.g., through crop insurance and disaster relief).

Overall, this progress was critical, but not sufficient.

Crafting better conditions for the next generation of farmers

Given the urgency of the situation, and with the next farm bill process well underway, it’s time to take more action.  Fortunately, several ideas for improving support for new farmers are already on the table, encapsulated in two bipartisan bills that could be folded into the 2018 farm bill  (both of which have been applauded by the National Young Farmers Coalition).

  • First, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act of 2017 (H.R.4316, introduced by Representatives Tim Walz (D-MN) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE)), which tackles obstacles for the next generation of aspiring and retiring farmers in a variety of ways. These include continuing to improve access to land, skill-building opportunities, capital, crop insurance, and strategies to conserve natural resources and develop farm resilience for years to come. Among other things, this bill would ensure permanent support for the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, expand the flagship USDA public research program to incentivize new studies on barriers and opportunities for new farmers, and increase access to key conservation programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program.
  • Second, the Young and Beginning Farmers Act (H.R.4201, introduced by Representatives Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY) and Ryan Costello (R-PA)), which also works to improve conditions for new farmers focusing on land access, the need for more training and business opportunities, and barriers that keep farmers from available federal resources. For example, this bill would also ensure the future of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program and address land-access issues. In addition, it would modernize programs and service platforms, and would make it possible for new farmers pre-qualify for loans, all of which could give these entrepreneurs a better shot at success.

And there’s more good news.  Because as we wait for the next farm bill, advocates for young farmers are also busy finding other ways to break barriers.  For instance, the bipartisan Young Farmer Success Act (H.R. 1060) aims to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to include farmers in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which would forgive student loans for farmers after 10 years of income-based payments.

And there’s progress at the state level, too. Young farmers in Minnesota recently celebrated a major win: a new tax credit law that will help get more farmland in their hands in years to come, and that attention from both state and national leaders. In Colorado (where the average age of farmers is 59) there was recently good news about a bill that will help farmers get started by investing in agricultural apprenticeships. And with an amazing group of new farmers in this region busy paving the way for the next generation, there’s surely more on the way (for a little dose of inspiration, treat yourself to a few minutes watching this beautiful short film based on the award-winning documentary, “How We Grow”):



Hopefully, these steps and stories are motivating leaders at all scales, and in all states, to support those who are ready to take up this challenge.  After all, the future of our food system depends on it.

Collaboration Between Ranchers and Scientists Leads to Rangeland Management Opportunities

Andrea Johnson, part of the research field crew, monitors water quality in a rangeland stream. Photo: Kris Hulvey

When I arrived in Utah four years ago to start my new research position, government agencies and ranchers were having a standoff about grazing rights and the use of public lands. Cattle grazing is common on many public lands, which also serve as key habitat for species of ecological and political interest like Greater Sage-Grouse. Increasingly, people also want western rangelands to supply a suite of other goods and services including clean water, fish habitat, and carbon sequestration.

My plan was to develop a research program focused on balancing some of these seemingly conflicting uses of Western landscapes. I was worried that the political climate would make any form of collaboration among ranchers, government managers, and scientists difficult. I was wrong.

How should we manage rangeland?

Flags set near a rangeland stream for assessment of stubble height and bare ground – two indicators of grazing use.

The U.S. has a history of managing the environment through a combination of top-down regulation (for example, the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act), mixed more recently with creative programs that provide incentives to private citizens for management and conservation actions on their properties. Here in Utah, over the past decade, a constellation of factors aligned, leading to a unique opportunity for landscape management.

A key element was the possibility of the greater sage grouse being added to the list of US Endangered Species. This motivated local people—including ranchers, public lands managers, and scientists — to combine forces to prevent further sage-grouse population declines. They formed local working groups where they shared information, concerns, and got to know each other. This groundwork of relationship-building opened the door to solve other management conflicts on rangelands, including those I address in my work.

My research focuses on how grazing near rangeland streams affects water quality. Because violations of clean water regulations in rangeland streams can lead to demands for cattle to be removed from public lands, I collaborate closely with public lands managers, including those working in federal and state agencies. We have found that in our local rangelands, rotating cattle across the landscape so that they do not graze in the same spot for an entire season can lead to water quality that meets state standards. This research impacts ranchers, because in some cases improving water quality will mean changing current grazing practices.

Building relationships with stakeholders

This next part of my story is where I get really excited about the collaborative relationships between ranchers, managers at government agencies, and scientists in Utah. My agency partners invited me to share my findings with the ranchers affected by the results. Because some of these results highlighted current conflicts between grazing and water quality, I expected a stony reception.

Instead, the ranchers informed me of key details of their operations that could have led to my results. They peppered me with questions about my measurement techniques and about how the year’s wet conditions could have influenced my results. They proposed ideas of how to improve stream and water conditions in future years—including those that would require more time and effort on their part—and asked me if I would come collect data again so that we would know if the proposed solutions worked.

What had just happened? This exchange of ideas and community knowledge—from me to the ranchers and the ranchers to me—was vital. It allowed me to fully understand the results of my research, and for the ranchers and agency scientists to find solutions that would balance grazing use with clean water production in the area. I chalk this experience up to the trust that my agency partners and these ranchers had built after years of working together.

Hope for the future of natural resource management

So, how do we move forward, balancing natural resources in a political environment that can be confrontational? I draw some inspiration from my students. One of the classes I teach is a project-based capstone class for range majors. Our first assignment is to diagram on the white board what ‘range management’ is. Students grab dry erase markers and jot down all of the words they associate with their future profession. Terms like ‘livestock management,’ ‘water distribution,’ and ‘soil conservation’ are there. But so are ‘stakeholders,’ ‘communication,’ and ‘collaboration.’ The students then spend the bulk of the semester putting all of these ideas into practice. Ranchers and other professionals from the diversity of organizations managing rangeland come speak with my students about collaboration. A main message is always that differences will exist, but that if we focus on what we agree upon, we can move forward. I’m on board.

 

Kristin Hulvey is an Assistant Professor of Wildland Resources at Utah State University. She is focused on improving working lands management by collaborating with stakeholders and conducting research that leads to management solutions that work for nature and people. Her work broadly focuses on rangeland management, ecosystem restoration, and the links between biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and human well-being.   

 

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

Kris Hulvey

There Are Better Things in France for Trump to Emulate Than a Military Parade

President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron review French troops during the Bastille Day parade in Paris last July.

 

President Trump was so impressed by the military parade he saw in Paris on Bastille Day last July that he ordered the Pentagon to plan a bigger one for Washington, D.C.

“It was one of the greatest parades I’ve ever seen,” Trump told reporters when he met with French President Emmanuel Macron in New York in September for the opening of the UN General Assembly. “It was two hours on the button, and it was military might, and I think a tremendous thing for France and for the spirit of France. We’re going to have to try to top it.”

Of course Trump wants to top it. All things Trump are always “huge,” from his inauguration day crowd to his nuclear button to his tax cut. But if the president really wants to outdo France, below are some tremendous French things that the United States would do well to emulate.

The French are safer

After the mass shooting last week at a Florida high school, Trump tweeted his “prayers and condolences” to the victims’ families. His initial comments also focused on mental health, not guns, despite the fact that early last year he signed a bill revoking an Obama-era rule that made it harder for mentally ill people to buy firearms.

The French, by contrast, do a lot more than offer empty platitudes: They have stringent gun laws. French citizens who want to buy a gun have to apply for a hunting or sporting license, which requires a psychological evaluation and, if acquired, must be renewed every five years. Gun sales, meanwhile, are tightly regulated and require official background checks.

Stricter controls definitely make a difference: France has significantly fewer guns in civilian hands and fewer gun-related deaths per capita than the United States.

In 2013, for example, there were an estimated 10 million guns, both legal and illegal, in France, which at the time had a population of 66 million. That year, 1,750 people were killed by firearms, amounting to 2.65 deaths per 100,000 people.

By contrast, the United States, with a population of 316.2 million in 2013, had an estimated 357 million guns in circulation—more than one gun per person. That year, there were 33,636 US gun deaths, or 10.64 deaths per 100,000—four times the rate in France.

They’re healthier, too

White House doctor Ronny Jackson assured Americans in January that President Trump is in “excellent health.” Given the results of Trump’s physical exam, that’s debatable, but the health of the US health care system is not. It’s in bad shape, especially when compared with France’s.

France’s public-private hybrid health care system is consistently rated among the best in the world. Last year, for example, France placed 18th in the health category in the Legatum Institute’s annual Prosperity Index, which ranks 149 countries on health outcomes, economic performance, education quality, and six other categories. The United States health care system, meanwhile, came in 30th.

Like every other industrialized nation besides the United States, France has universal health coverage. All French citizens are covered by the government’s Assurance Maladie, and most also have private insurance through their job or the private market. The government sets prices for appointments and procedures and reimburses them at 70 percent. It’s similar to Medicare and Medicaid, but because the system covers the entire population, the French government has more leverage to keep prices low.

The United States spends more than twice per capita on health care than France, but French babies have a better chance of staying alive and living longer than American newborns. France’s infant mortality rate, according to 2015 World Health Organization (WHO) data, is 3.2 deaths per 1,000 live births. At 5.7 deaths per 1,000 live births, US infant mortality is higher than in any comparable industrialized democracy. And at the end of life, France boasted a combined male and female life expectancy of 82.4 years, putting it in 9th place in a 2015 WHO survey. The United States, by contrast, ranked 31st, with a combined life expectancy of 79.3 years.

They eat better

France’s obesity rate is 15.3 percent, slightly better than the 15.9 percent for the entire European Union. By contrast, nearly 38 percent of American adults are obese, including President Trump, who apparently fudged his height to avoid being classified that way.

French and US stats on food and farming tell a similar disparate story. In 2017, France ranked No. 1 for the second year in a row in the Food Sustainability Index, which grades 34 countries worldwide in three categories: food loss and waste, nutrition policies, and sustainable agriculture. It bested every other country in reducing food waste and came in fourth in nutrition on the strength of its programs that promote healthy diets. In the sustainable agriculture category, it placed third, largely due to a national agro-ecology program that, among other things, is encouraging farmers to cut their pesticide use in half by 2025 and rotate their crops to increase soil fertility.

The United States, conversely, ranked 21st overall, mainly because of policies that cultivate bad eating habits and destructive industrial farming practices. The fact that Americans consume high levels of meat, saturated fat and sugar placed the United States 24th in the nutrition category. Only Australians eat more meat than Americans, but not by much, and US sugar consumption is the highest among all of countries in the study. The result? More than 40 percent of American children are overweight, the most in any of the countries surveyed.

At 31st out of 34, the US ranking for sustainable agriculture is even more worrisome. Only India, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates ranked lower. The low US score is attributable to a number of factors, including livestock production, which strains water resources and emits methane, and the fact that a tiny fraction of agricultural land is devoted to organic farming while nearly a quarter is used for biofuel production and animal feed.

They make education more affordable

France starts children off with free, universal preschool at écoles maternelles. With 100 percent preschool enrollment for 3- to 5-year-olds, the country ranked first among developed countries in 2014, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international association.

The United States, where some states offer preschool programs from age 4 but most offer nothing at all, ranked 36 out of the 40 nations OECD surveyed. In 2015, only about a third of American 3-year-olds and 60 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool programs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Most schools of higher education in France, meanwhile, are state-subsidized, which keeps tuition relatively low, even by European standards.

In 2007, the average public university in France charged $234 per year (189 euros) for a bachelor’s degree, $321 for a master’s degree, $487 for a doctorate, and $757 for an engineering degree. The average bachelor’s degree takes three to four years, so students spend $702 to $936 for their entire undergraduate education. There are pricier options, but compared to the cost of higher education in the United States, they are still a bargain.

The United States is home to the most prestigious colleges and universities in the world, but they are also among the most expensive. The average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, according to the College Board.

The high cost of a college diploma saddles American grads with debt that can dog them for much of their adult life. Currently there are more than 44 million borrowers with more than $1.4 trillion in student loan debt, which after home mortgages is the highest consumer debt category in the United States. For the class of 2016, the average student loan debt was $37,172.

They treat workers better

The national minimum wage in France is 9.88 euros an hour, the equivalent of $12.25 an hour in the United States. The US national minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, although some states and municipalities now require as much as $15.

The official work week in France is 35 hours, so a French employee making minimum wage would gross the equivalent of $22,297 a year and is entitled to health care coverage, a minimum of five weeks paid vacation and 11 national holidays, as many as 90 days paid time off, and a maximum of three years of medical leave pay, which is covered by the state social security system. Maternity leave, which is at least six weeks before childbirth and 10 weeks afterward, is paid.

Most minimum wage employees in the United States working 40 hours a week gross $15,080 a year. Employers with more than 50 employees are required to offer health care benefits or pay a penalty, and most provide only two weeks paid vacation along with 10 federal holidays. Employers with 50 or more employees also are required to grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity (or adoption) leave or family sick leave.

At the other end of the pay scale, US CEOs make considerably more than their counterparts in other industrialized countries when compared to what average workers earn. In 2014, the ratio between CEO and average worker pay in the United States was 354 to 1, meaning that for every dollar an employee got paid, the head of the company made $354, far outpacing the 148 to 1 ratio in Switzerland, the country with the second highest pay gap. In France, the ratio was 104 to 1.

They’re downplaying the role of nuclear weapons

France, which has always maintained a much smaller nuclear force than the United States, currently has a total of 300 warheads deployed on submarines and bombers. In the 1990s, it eliminated its land-based missiles and signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The United States, conversely, has some 1,590 deployed strategic nuclear warheads on submarines, bombers and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), as well as 2,390 redeployable warheads currently stored in a “hedge” stockpile, some 500 smaller deployed and stockpiled tactical (battlefield) warheads, and an estimated 2,300 retired warheads slated for dismantlement. The United States signed the CTBT the same time France did, but 22 years later, the US Senate has still not ratified it.

ICBMs pose a big problem. The United States keeps them on hair-trigger alert, which dramatically increases the chance of an accidental, erroneous or unauthorized launch in response to a false alarm, a much more likely scenario than an actual attack. A number of retired generals and former high-level government officials have called for taking ICBMs off high-alert status, while others have called for scrapping them altogether. Under the Trump administration, taking ICBMs off hair-trigger alert or retiring them are highly unlikely possibilities, and the Pentagon’s recently released Nuclear Posture Review lowers the threshold for nuclear use.

They do a better job protecting the environment

Two recent studies ranked France way ahead of the United States when it comes to environmental protection. In the aforementioned Legatum Prosperity Index, France placed 4th out of the 149 nations surveyed. The United States was 34th. The second study, published annually by the Bertelsmann Foundation’s Sustainable Governance Indicators program, rated US environmental policies 39th out of 41 countries, mainly because of the US government’s inability to seriously address climate change. France, on the other hand, ranked 12th, largely because of its leadership in international climate diplomacy.

France’s climate leadership is evidenced by its binding commitment as a signatory to the Paris climate agreement to reduce its domestic emissions by at least 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. By contrast, the Trump administration announced it was pulling out of the accord (which it cannot officially do until November 5, 2020—the day after the next presidential election) and made it clear it has no intention of honoring the US national pledge.

As part of its plan to meet its Paris accord targets, the French government announced last July that it will ban the sale of gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040, and French automakers are already doing their part. Peugeot, Citroën and Renault ranked first, second and fourth on a 2017 list of large car manufacturers with the lowest carbon emissions, and Renault started selling battery-powered cars in 2011.

The Trump administration, conversely, wants to weaken fuel economy standards. The National Highway Traffic Safety Commission is now considering permitting an average fleetwide standard of 36.7 miles per gallon (mpg) by 2026, considerably less than the 46.6 mpg requirement imposed by the Obama administration with the auto industry’s consent. According to an Environmental Protection Agency analysis, such a rollback would mean cars and light trucks would emit at least a half a billion more tons of carbon pollution and consume an extra 50 billion gallons of fuel over their lifetimes.

They hold cleaner elections

Unlike the US system of legalized bribery, French campaign finance laws keep special interest money out of politics. French citizens can contribute as much as $5,750 (4,600 euros) to one or more candidates for a specific election, but corporations, unions and advocacy groups are not allowed to donate to political campaigns or parties. In addition, the government has placed limits on campaign expenditures pegged to the office level. Electoral campaigns are relatively brief, and national television and radio stations air political ads free of charge for all candidates during the three months preceding an election. All paid political ads during that time are prohibited. Citizens are automatically registered to vote when they reach the age of 18, and elections are held on a Sunday to make it easier for people to vote.

Restraining corporate influence in elections is one of the key reasons France outpaces the United States in many of the categories cited above. While special interests—from the gun lobby to industrial polluters to Wall Street—keep US politicians on a tight leash, French elected officials are freer to represent the interests of their constituents, not the narrow interests of deep-pocketed campaign contributors and unregulated super PACs.

So, Mr. President, instead of spending as much as $50 million on parade displaying overpriced military hardware, how about trying to top some of these much more significant French accomplishments? America has proven time and time again that it can outperform the rest of the world, but history has also shown that it takes leadership to do it.

Dave Cooke, Marcia DeLonge, Joshua Goldman, Chanelle Kacy-Dunlap, Rachel Licker and David Wright provided research assistance for this essay.

 

 

 

White House

8 Presidents Who Shaped the US Food System (for Better and for Worse)

Nathaniel Currier lithograph, 1852

As we prepare to observe Presidents Day, I’m thinking about a president’s role in shaping the way we grow food in the United States, and how we eat. Quite a few of our past presidents were farmers or ranchers at some point in their lives, and some had infamous relationships with certain foods, whether cheeseburgers or jelly beans or broccoli.

But a small number of presidents spanning the history of the republic have had particular influence on our food supply and culture, and its impact on the health and well-being of all Americans, including farmers. And notably, as we’re also observing Black History Month, the interventions of those past presidents in our food system have often particularly affected African Americans.

1. George Washington: First farmer, innovator, and slaveholder

Whether or not young George chopped down that famous fruit free, the post-presidency Washington grew cherries, along with apples, pears, other tree fruits, and a whole lot of other food at his Mount Vernon estate, which comprised five neighboring farms on 8,000 acres. An innovative farmer who kept meticulous records, Washington was an early proponent of composting for soil health, and eventually phased out tobacco (the plantation crop of his day in Virginia) in favor of a diversified seven-crop rotation system including wheat for sale, corn for domestic consumption, and fertility-enhancing legume crops. (Sounds like a good idea.)

The grim reality behind Washington’s farming success, though, is that his farms were worked by slaves. A slaveowner since age 11, when he inherited ten slaves from his father, Washington bought and sold black people throughout his life (reportedly treating them severely and separating family members through sale), and 317 slaves worked on his estate at the time of his death.

The devastating legacy of racial injustice and inequality at Mount Vernon is still with us, but it is being gradually undone. The 126-acre historic Woodlawn estate—originally part of Washington’s farm network—was purchased by northern Quakers prior to the Civil War, expressly to prove that you could farm profitably without slavery. Today, the site is occupied by the Arcadia Center for Sustainable Agriculture, whose work includes a mobile market delivering fresh, healthy, affordable food to food-insecure neighborhoods like this one in the Washington DC area.

2. Thomas Jefferson: Experimentation, failure, and a legacy of slave-centered agriculture

The third president has been called America’s “first foodie” for his love of the table, and of French cuisine in particular. He ate a lot of vegetables, and introduced many new ones to the United States. On his Monticello estate, Jefferson introduced and experimented with a vast variety of food crops, including 330 varieties of eighty-nine species of vegetables and herbs and 170 varieties of the fruits. An avid experimenter, Jefferson’s trials often resulted in failure, leading neighbors to call him “the worst farmer in Virginia.” But in truth he promoted techniques to build soil health through adding organic matter, and by sharing seeds and techniques widely, he promoted commercial market gardening and spread new crops that expanded the young nation’s food traditions and palate.

Perhaps even more than Washington, Jefferson’s legacy is marred by the stain of his complicity in slavery, and his racial views. He embodied the inherent social contradictions at the birth of this nation that we have yet to resolve, by denouncing the institution of slavery while simultaneously profiting from it—he owned some 600 slaves who worked on his Monticello farm and other holdings, employed brutal overseers, and fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings through a relationship that, by definition, could not have been consensual. His goal of “improving” slavery as a step towards ending was misguided, as it was used during his time as an argument for its perpetuation.

3. Abraham Lincoln: The USDA and the land-grant college system

Born in that legendary log cabin on his father’s farm in Kentucky, Lincoln was, as he put it, “raised to farm work.” His father farmed frontier land in southern Indiana before moving the family to Illinois, where Abe later got his political start in the state legislature. A believer in technological progress in agriculture, Lincoln advocated for horse-drawn machines and steam plows to take the place of hand labor. As president, he advocated for and signed legislation creating the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which he later called “The People’s Department,” since about half of all Americans at the time lived on farms. And Lincoln’s early belief in the value of educating farmers came to fruition in 1862 when he signed the Morrill Land Grant College Act, which facilitated the transfer of public land to each of the states to establish colleges of agriculture and the mechanical arts.

Lincoln fought a war over slavery (perhaps we’re finally coming to agreement on that point?), issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and submitted the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery to the states for ratification just a few month before his violent death in 1865. But it would be another quarter century before freed slaves in the former Confederate states would get the benefit of a land-grant education Lincoln envisioned. A second Morrill Act in 1890 required each state to show that race was not an admissions criterion for its land-grant colleges, or else to designate a separate institution for students of color. (See some of the achievements of some of the institutions known as 1890 schools here.)

4. Theodore Roosevelt: Cattle ranching and conservation

Teddy Roosevelt’s is known as one of the nation’s great conservationists, but that legacy was born out of a series of calamities. On a hunting trip in the Dakota Territory in 1883, the passionate outdoorsman discovered that native bison herds had been decimated by commercial hunters. Cattle ranching on the region’s vast grasslands was booming in bison’s wake, and he became interested in the cattle business, investing $14,000 (a huge sum at the time) in a ranch. Returning to politics in New York, Roosevelt was struck by tragedy with the death of both his mother and his wife on the same day in 1884, and he turned to the West and the ranching life to forget. But cattle in the Badlands at the time was itself a looming disaster: a boom with no regulation quickly led to massive overgrazing, and a scorching summer followed by a harsh winter in 1886-87 proved deadly. Tens of thousands of cattle, about 80 percent of the region’s herds, froze and starved to death in a blizzard. Roosevelt himself lost over half his herd, and soon got out of the business.

But his experience with agricultural disaster helped shape the future president’s views on the importance of conservation and led to an inspiring conservation legacy. Using his presidential authority, Roosevelt gave federal protection to more than 230 million acres of public land, creating the National Forest Service (now part of the USDA) and five national parks, and setting aside 51 federal bird reservations, 18 national monuments, and four national game preserves. In his words in 1908: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth. But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.” (Nah, that couldn’t happen, could it?)

5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Dust Bowl and soil conservation

In the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, FDR inherited economic and ecological catastrophes that hit farmers particularly hard. The Dust Bowl was caused by massive-scale plowing up of grasslands (the Great Plow-Up of the 1910s and 20s) followed by four distinct drought events in the 1930s. It scorched the Plains and literally blew away its soil, leaving millions of acres of farmland useless, driving farmers into bankruptcy and off the land, and worsening the banking and unemployment crises.

An amateur forester, Roosevelt understood the importance of soil conservation, and soon after taking office he established the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Soil Erosion Service. The latter (now the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) was the first major federal conservation effort to focus on privately owned natural resources. FDR also launched the Plains Shelterbelt Project effort that planted millions of trees, creating windbreaks (now at risk) on farms from the Canadian border to Texas. And he initiated farm policies to help farmers manage future boom-and-bust cycles by preventing overproduction. The Agricultural Adjustment Act enacted on his watch would grow into today’s wide-ranging Farm Bill, which still struggles with how to deal with overproduction while providing livelihood for the nation’s farmers and conserving soil and water.

6. Richard Nixon: Turning farming into big business

Nixon was a contradiction. Scholars continue to dissect his deep character flaws and divisiveness, but also his achievements. Among the latter, he created the EPA and signed the National Environmental Policy Act (both of which, one hopes, will survive the current administration’s many assaults), and he made dozens of other environmental proposals.

But his lasting legacy in agriculture continues to haunt us. That’s because Nixon gave his blessing to his agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, to essentially undo decades of FDR’s supply management policy. The Nixon years would be all about maximizing and consolidating farm production. “Get big or get out,” Butz told farmers in 1973, and boy, did they. His policies encouraged farmers to plant as much corn and other commodities as they could, on every possible bit of land. Today, one might argue, we have Nixon and Butz to thank for persistent fertilizer pollution in our nation’s waterways, for high-fructose corn syrup and the power and deception of the food industry, and for our enduring crisis of obesity and diet-related disease. See the full story of Secretary Butz, entertainingly told by Tom Philpott back in 2008, here. And read Butz’s obit, which recounts how a nasty racist comment ended his political career.

7. George W. Bush: Justice for black farmers denied

While George W. Bush spent a lot of his presidency clearing brush on his Texas ranch, he wasn’t particularly known for his agriculture policy. But during his administration, a long-simmering dispute between the USDA and black farmers came to a head. The background: in 1997 a group of black farmers sued the USDA, citing years of racial discrimination by the department, which denied black producers loans and other assistance and failed to act on their claims for years. The farmers prevailed in 1999, winning a $2.3 billion settlement from the government, the biggest in civil rights history. But there were limitations on who could collect under the Pigford settlement (named for lead plaintiff Timothy Pigford, a black corn and soybean farmer from North Carolina), and what kinds of documentation they would need to provide.

Under W’s watch, many of the 22,000 farmers who had joined the Pigford suit were denied payment; by one estimate, nine out of 10 farmers who sought damages were denied. And the Bush Department of Justice, representing the USDA, reportedly spent 56,000 office hours and $12 million contesting farmers’ claims. Many farmers believed their claims were rejected on technicalities.

8. Barack Obama: Justice and healthy food, served

Much of the Obama food and farming legacy (which is hers as much as his) is well known: the now permanent White House kitchen garden (which, incidentally, includes a section honoring Thomas Jefferson with favorite varieties from his own garden at Monticello) along with the (possibly less permanent) improvements to school meals that resulted from the bipartisan Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act they championed, and the Let’s Move! campaign. The USDA under the Obama administration also made other efforts to improve our nation’s food system by promoting local and regional farm economies, increasing agricultural research, and strengthening federal dietary guidelines.

He also fixed a lingering problem with the Pigford discrimination settlement described above. Failure to effectively notify and communicate with black farmers eligible for payout under the 1999 settlement meant that many farmers were left out. Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Attorney General Eric Holder advocated for a fix, and in 2010, the administration announced a $1.25 billion settlement of the so-called “Pigford II” claims.

And now what?

These eight former presidents have made their mark on US agriculture and food, delivering both progress and setbacks. Bottom line this Presidents Day? We still have a lot of work to do to achieve a healthy, sustainable, and just food system in this country.

Next time I’ll look at what happens when the occupant of the White House is not only not a farmer, but seems puzzlingly (if not cynically) indifferent to farmers’ concern. And when, instead of a healthy food advocate, he’s an unabashed proponent of the same processed and fast foods that are damaging the health—and even shortening the lives—of our nation’s children.

Popular Nutrition Program for Farmers and Families at Risk in 2018 Farm Bill (Correction)

Photo: Erik Scheel/CC0 BY SA, Pexels

CORRECTION: In our original post, we inaccurately stated that the Trump administration’s budget zeroed out the FINI budget, as well as the HFFI budget. The president’s budget, not uncommonly, simply did not address those programs as they’re among those that would expire in 2018 without reauthorization.

Late this morning, the Trump administration released its proposed budget for the 2019 fiscal year. By and large, the proposed cuts to nutrition programs outlined in An American Budget are devastating, if unsurprising. Much like the administration’s 2018 budget proposal, this one includes a 21.5 percent cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the 2019 fiscal year, and a total of $213 billion less over the course of 10 years—cuts that would leave millions of children and families hungry. Though the budget did not address funding for the “tiny but mighty” programs that would expire in 2018 without reauthorization in the next farm bill, it gave us a taste of what may be a bitter pill to swallow.

Among these programs is the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentives program, which funds community efforts to help low-income families purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables straight from farmers. And although FINI was just created in the 2014 Farm Bill, it has made fast friends. As Wendy Peters Moschetti of LiveWell Colorado, a group that coordinated statewide partnerships to implement a FINI project in 2016, put it: “This program helps to stretch people’s food dollars and keep fruits and vegetables on their plates—which are often the foods that get dropped when living on a tight budget—all while directing these dollars to our farmers and keeping money in our communities.” What’s not to like?

But despite the strong public and bipartisan support the program has typically received, the president’s budget serves as a powerful reminder of this administration’s priorities—which include public health rarely, if at all. And as we anticipate the release of a new marker bill that will propose FINI’s reauthorization in the next farm bill, it is also an important reminder that our voices and our support for these programs are as critical as ever.

Why do we need FINI?

If you’re familiar with the nutrition programs in the Farm Bill, you might be thinking: Doesn’t SNAP already help low-income families buy healthy food?

And you’re right—sort of. SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program, helps low-income households bridge the gap between what they have and what they need in their monthly food budget. In 2014, the program lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty—including 2.1 million children, who make up about 4 in 10 SNAP users—and protected many from the effects of hunger and food insecurity.

But even if the president weren’t proposing to take a hatchet to SNAP, that program’s benefits rarely go far enough to help families afford a complete diet, much less a complete healthy diet—which often comes with a higher price tag. Research shows that families using SNAP frequently run out of benefits by the end of the month, resulting in as much as a 25 percent decrease in caloric intake. And a recent study by researchers at UCS and North Carolina State University found that SNAP benefits—even when used only to supplement household food budgets, as the program was intended to function—may only help families cover between 43 and 60 percent of what it costs to achieve a diet consistent with federal dietary guidelines.

As diet-related diseases continue to impact the lives of more than half of all American adults, with low-income populations disproportionately bearing the consequences, a number of solutions have been proposed to enable SNAP users to make healthier choices. These include raising benefit levels and restricting the purchase of certain unhealthy foods—the former of which is a political Hail Mary at present; the latter of which has become a subject of heated debate, and was rejected anew by the USDA just this month.

One thing that has worked, both in politics and in practice? Incentives to help families afford fresh, healthy foods—often, right from the farmers who grew them.

A nutrition program that’s good for families and farmers

FINI awards competitive grants to nonprofit and state/local government agencies for programs that provide point-of-sale incentives, such as rebates or bonuses, to SNAP users purchasing fruits and vegetables.

For example, Double Up Food Bucks, a FINI-funded program operating in over 200 farmers markets and retail outlets throughout Michigan, gives shoppers an extra $10 to spend on local fruits and veggies for every $10 in SNAP benefits they spend at participating stores and markets. And while FINI grant recipients aren’t required, only encouraged, to apply the incentives to local produce, most do—and their farmers and food producers are better for it. In its first five years, Double Up Food Bucks helped SNAP customers purchase more than 3 million pounds of healthy food and directed more than $5 million in purchases to Michigan farmers and vendors. During that time, SNAP sales at farmers markets statewide grew to $1.7 million—putting Michigan among the top five states in the nation on that measure.

A 2015 evaluation of FINI-funded programs showed that between 74 and 94 percent of SNAP farmers market shoppers participating in an incentive program reported buying or consuming more fruits and vegetables as a result, and one California study found that over three quarters of program participants reported improved health among their families. Meanwhile, between 55 and 74 percent of participating farmers reported making more money as a direct result of the program, and many noted that increased sales had allowed them to expand their operation.

Let your elected officials know where you stand

Here’s the good news: The White House gets to propose a budget, but it’s ultimately Congress that holds the purse strings. Want to make sure we secure a win for this win-win program? First, be loud and clear about your opposition to the funding cuts to SNAP that are outlined in the proposed budget: without nutrition assistance programs, programs like FINI can’t work. Second, tell your senators and representatives you support SNAP and the reauthorization of the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program in the 2018 Farm Bill. They’ll have an opportunity to act soon, as a marker bill supporting the program’s reauthorization is expected to be introduced within the month, and it will help to hear from you. And third, check out the nearest FINI-funded market near you to reward yourself with some farm-fresh treats.

Photo: Erik Scheel/CC0 BY SA, Pexels Photo: USDA

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