UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

On Veterans Day, Why Aren’t Congress and the USDA Looking Out for Those Who Served?

Navy-veteran Lenny Evans Miles, Jr. operates Bluestem Farms LLC, in Chestertown, MD. USDA Photo by Preston Keres

This Veterans Day is particularly significant, marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Though US veterans from that long-ago war are gone, some 20 million of their brethren are with us today. Our culture honors them at sporting events and other public venues, but we also have an ugly history of mistreating those who served—from returning Vietnam vets being spat upon to mismanaged healthcare programs and corruption at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

And right now, misguided decisions by the Secretary of Agriculture and members of Congress threaten to reverse progress for service members and veterans who want to work the land and feed their neighbors.

In 2014, Congress recognized the ways that military veterans are particularly suited to growing food, and how farming can help former soldiers cope with the effects of war. That year’s farm bill called out veterans as a distinct group eligible for support under the US Department of Agriculture’s beginning farmers programs, opening access to grants and low-interest-rate loans to get started and to innovate.

(For more on how vets-turned-farmers are continuing to serve their communities and reduce hunger, see this 2016 post by former UCS Kendall Science Fellow Andrea Basche, now an assistant professor at the University of Nebraska.)

Fast forward to 2018, and both the Trump administration and its allies in the House of Representatives are pursuing farm bill changes that would hurt those same veterans, along with active-duty military personnel.

The two principal actors—Representative Mike Conaway (R-TX) and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue—should know better. Conaway, who chairs the House agriculture committee, is an Army veteran and senior member of the House Armed Services Committee; his biography page is emblazoned with an image of him with service members in fatigues. Over at the USDA, Perdue is a former captain in the Air Force, and just last week he professed his gratitude to the nation’s veterans.

But as usual, actions speak louder than words.

The Perdue/Conaway attack on SNAP hurts military personnel and veterans

Take the positions Conaway and Perdue have pushed on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). We’ve written extensively about the punitive SNAP program changes the Trump administration and Rep. Conaway have pursued this year. The farm bill Conaway wrote and passed through the House in June would add unnecessary and burdensome new work requirements to the program. And that would effectively reduce or eliminate benefits for millions of people.

Now, Conaway and his caucus would have you believe that SNAP is plagued with participants who would rather collect benefits than work, but in fact, most SNAP beneficiaries who can work, do. Another fact? The SNAP rolls include many active-duty military personnel and veterans. A 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office found that about 23,000 active-duty troops used SNAP in 2013, then the most recent year for which data were available.

Moreover, analysis of Census Bureau data by the independent Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) found that nearly 1.4 million veterans live in households that participate in SNAP, including 97,000 vets in Conaway’s own state of Texas. CBPP analysts have detailed the ways these veterans would be particularly vulnerable to the ill-conceived new work requirements Conaway and Perdue (and President Trump himself) have aggressively pushed.

A needless farm bill fight has left veteran-farmers without resources

As a result of their intransigence, other programs that benefit veterans (and the rest of us) have been left in the lurch. The congressional standoff on SNAP, which persisted all summer and into the fall, led to the expiration of the existing farm bill, without a replacement, on September 30. My colleagues have written about the effect of the lapsed legislation on agricultural research and local food programs. But the 39 programs stranded without funding when the farm bill expired also included the USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, which provides education, mentoring, and technical assistance grants new farmers—and which mandates that at least 5 percent of funds support programs and services that address the needs of veteran farmers and ranchers.

Now, Rep. Conaway has reportedly scheduled a Veterans Day meeting with his counterpart on the House ag committee, at which they will presumably discuss the fate of the farm bill. Perhaps the timing will keep veteran top-of-mind as he decides whether to move toward a farm bill that will help them—or continue to promote policy changes that will hurt them.

The Dinner Table is the Latest Battleground for Trump’s Attacks on Immigrant Families

Photo: USDA

From an ill-conceived campaign promise to build a border wall to the recent deployment of thousands of US troops to radical immigration policy has been a hallmark of the Trump presidency. The administration has introduced a baseless Muslim travel ban; ordered a separation of families at the southern border that landed more than 2,600 children in government shelters; and suggested that children born in the US to noncitizen parents should not be granted citizenship.

Now, the administration is working to target immigrant families closer to home—at the dinner table.

The Department of Homeland Security recently requested public comments on a proposal to change longstanding immigration policy by dramatically expanding the types of public benefits that—if immigrants use them, or even if they’re deemed likely to use them in the future—would weight against their visa or green card applications. Among them are benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), which acts as the first line of defense against hunger and financial instability for millions of families in the United States. The end result? Many immigrant families—including those who work and pay taxes (which is most) and those with children born in the US—will be forced to choose between maintaining a path to citizenship and putting food on the table during hard times.

Like many of the attacks that preceded it, the proposed policy is fundamentally at odds with the values we stand for as a nation: we do not discriminate based on religion or national origin, nor do we turn our backs on those in need. Furthermore, it threatens to dramatically worsen hunger and health disparities among some of our most vulnerable populations—including children who are themselves citizens.

UCS joins thousands of organizations in strongly opposing the Trump administration’s so-called “public charge” rule. Below is the letter we submitted to the Department of Homeland Security, outlining the potential damage that could be wrought by the policy.

The deadline for public comments is December 10. You can submit your own comment here, or visit the UCS website to add your name to our petition opposing the rule.

 

 

UCS Submits Public Comment to DHS on Proposed Public Charge Rule, “Inadmissibility on Public Charge Grounds; Notice of Proposed Rulemaking”

November 9, 2018

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is a science-based nonprofit seeking solutions to our planet’s most pressing problems—from combating global warming and developing sustainable ways to feed, power, and transport ourselves, to fighting misinformation, advancing racial equity, and reducing the threat of nuclear war. Immigration has always been and remains a critical source of America’s unparalleled scientific leadership; the diversity it brings is central to creating effective and meaningful solutions to our nation’s problems.  It also enriches our lives in innumerable ways. We therefore submit this comment to express strong opposition to proposed sweeping changes by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to US immigration law and the definition of a “public charge.” This proposed rule defies evidence and would prove devastating to many immigrant families—including those whose children are citizens of the United States—who could be forced in hard times to choose between meeting their daily needs and maintaining a path to citizenship.

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

  • Data refute the notion that immigrant families rely disproportionately on all forms of public assistance. In 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine examined the economic implications of immigration. Among other findings, the resulting report revealed that just 4.2 percent of immigrant households with children utilize housing assistance—which would be newly considered in determining public charge under the proposed rule—compared with 5.3 percent of US-born households.[1],[2] Data based on individual, rather than household participation shows that US-born populations use programs like SNAP and Medicare at higher rates than either naturalized citizens or noncitizen immigrants after adjusting for poverty and age.[3],[4] The proposed rule would unjustifiably bring harm to working families who are eligible for these programs—with potential lasting consequences for the long-term health and economic vitality of their communities.
  • The proposed rule would deter participation in programs such as Medicaid, which returns proven benefits for the long-term health, achievement, and economic success of children. The future of our country depends in part on the wellbeing and economic success of its children—about one in four of whom lives with at least one immigrant parent.[5] Research shows that participation in Medicaid not only helps children become healthy adults, but also leads to greater academic achievement and later economic success. Children with access to Medicaid have lower rates of high blood pressure, hospitalizations and emergency room visits as adults; are less likely to drop out of high school; and have higher incomes later in life—contributing a strong return on investment in the Medicaid program.[6] One study reviewing Medicaid expansion during the 1980s and 1990s estimated that, based on children’s future earnings and tax contributions alone, the government would recoup 56 cents of each dollar spent on childhood Medicaid by the time the children turned 60.[7]
  • The proposed rule penalizes working families whose most accessible employment opportunities are often low-wage and lack benefits, such as health insurance. Research shows that the majority of children of immigrants live in households in which both parents are working yet are employed in lower-paying jobs without employer-sponsored health insurance.[8],[9] The food industry is among those that relies heavily on immigrant labor to fill low-wage jobs, from agricultural production to food distribution and service. Food workers make up about 14 percent of the nation’s workforce, and approximately one-fifth are foreign born.[10] The proposed rule would compromise workers’ abilities to feed and care for their own families—even while many work in roles that uphold our food system as we know it.
  • The proposed rule risks worsening hunger and health disparities among vulnerable populations—including children—by deterring participation in effective nutrition programs. Already, social service providers have noted decreases in immigrant participation in major safety net programs stemming from fears of risking green cards or eventual citizenship. Representatives from WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) agencies in states across the country reported reduced program participation following the first release of the draft rule.[11] Though WIC has since been removed from the proposed rule, SNAP remains. Lingering fears are likely to deter immigrant families’ participation in both of these critical programs that prevent hunger and maintain health while families work toward regaining financial stability. Children of immigrant parents, already more likely to experience food insecurity than children of US-born parents, would face greater risk of hunger and poor health without assistance from these programs.[12] Young children’s participation in SNAP is linked to lower rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome in adulthood, as well as higher rates of high school completion.[13]
  • The proposed rule would undermine the core function of the social support programs that comprise the federal safety net, which protects us all from the unexpected. The safety net is designed to protect children and adults from the devastating consequences of food insecurity, lack of healthcare, and financial instability in the face of unpredictable events such as job loss, family illness, or other crisis. These are circumstances that can befall any family unexpectedly. The proposed consequential changes to long-standing immigration policy based on a subjective evaluation of factors such as age, health, financial status, and education would have the negative side effect of preventing immigrants’ use of major safety net programs altogether. Such changes run counter to the purpose of the safety net and would undermine its effectiveness at safeguarding individual families, entire communities and the nation as a whole. When people in our country are poorer and sicker, we all lose.
  • The apparent rationale of the proposed rule flies in the face of core American values. Effectively requiring immigrants to demonstrate they have the resources to meet any current or even future need for assistance as a precondition to legal immigration and citizenship is contrary to America’s founding core as a refuge, as well to our nation’s ideals of equality, justice, and self-determination. Furthermore, in institutionalizing policies with consequences that will be overwhelmingly borne by people of color, the proposed rule threatens to reinforce racist and anti-immigrant sentiments that degrade our country and cause immeasurable harm to citizens and non-citizens alike.

UCS appreciates the opportunity to comment on this proposed rule. In expressing our strong opposition to the proposal, we join the thousands of organizations across the country who have voiced similar objections. The sweeping changes to immigration policy proposed in this rule would exacerbate hunger and health disparities, particularly among children of immigrants; cause harm to all our communities; deny our country the benefits that immigrants bring; and signal to the rest of the world that our society has abandoned our core American values of decency, hard work, and opportunity for all.

Thank you for your consideration.

 

References

[1] National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

[2] Immigrant households are based on the head of household’s immigrant status (where the head of household is considered immigrant if they are not a citizen or are a naturalized citizen).

[3] Nowrasteh, A. and R. Orr. 2018. Immigration and the welfare state: Immigrant and native use rates and benefit levels for means-tested welfare and entitlement programs. Washington, DC: Cato Institute.

[4] Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

[5] The Annie E. Casey Foundation. 2018. Children in immigrant families. Baltimore, MD. Online at https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/115-children-in-immigrant-families?loc=1&loct=1#detailed/1/any/fal, accessed October 19, 2018.

[6] Chester, A. and J. Alker. 2015. Medicaid at 50: A look at the long-term benefits of childhood Medicaid. Washington, DC: Center for Children and Families. Online at https://ccf.georgetown.edu/2015/07/27/medicaid-50-look-long-term-benefits-childhood-medicaid/, accessed October 19, 2018.

[7] Brown, D.W., A.E. Kowalski, I.Z. Lurie. 2015. Medicaid as an investment in children: What is the long-term impact on tax receipts? NBER Working Paper Series. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

[8] The Annie E. Casey Foundation. 2018. Children with all available parents in the labor force by family nativity. Baltimore, MD. Online at https://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/5060-children-with-all-available-parents-in-the-la-bor-force-by-family-nativity?loc=1&loct=1#detailed/1/any/false/870,573,869,36,868,867,133,38,35/78,79/11478,11479, accessed October 19, 2018.

[9] Earle, A., P. Joshi, K. Geronimo, et al. 2014. Job Characteristics Among Working Parents: Differences by Race, Ethnicity, and Nativity. Monthly Labor Review. Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

[10] Food Chain Workers Alliance and Solidarity Research Cooperative (FCWA/SRC). 2016. No piece of the pie: US food workers in 2016. Los Angeles, CA: Food Chain Workers Alliance.

[11] Baumgaertner, E. 2018. Spooked by Trump Proposals, Immigrants Abandon Public Nutrition Services. The New York Times, March 6.

[12] Chilton, M. et al. 2009. Food insecurity and risk of poor health among US-born children of immigrants. American Journal of Public Health 99(3): 556-562.

[13] 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.

Photo: USDA

The Elections, and What They Mean for Climate, Energy, and Science

If you are like me, you arrived a bit blurry-eyed to the office this morning after staying up watching election results last night. You’ve undoubtedly already heard and read commentary on what this election means for the country, but may be wondering what the outcome means for climate, security, energy, and science policy. I sat down with my colleague, Alden Meyer, UCS Director of Strategy and Policy, and put our usual water-cooler deconstruction on paper.

Alden: So the Democrats have taken control of the House, but the Republicans expanded their control of the Senate. What’s your take on the overall meaning of the election results? Did environmental issues have any resonance in this election?

Ken: Rahm Emanuel’s prediction of about a week ago seems to have been true—a blue wave, with an equally-strong red undertow. The blue wave is the new majority in the House and several new governors, many in swing states; the red undertow is the gains Republicans made in the Senate.

That being said, a clear overall message is that voters want to see checks and balances. One-party rule has had a corrosive effect on democracy. Major pieces of legislation (e.g., the $1.7 trillion tax cut and Affordable Care Act repeal proposal) have been crafted in backrooms, with very limited public input and opportunities for the opposing party to offer their ideas, and then enacted with little debate or even knowledge of what our representatives were voting for. That’s a problem. The voters are saying no to this, and as an organization that promotes public decision-making based on science, facts, and the competition of ideas, from my perspective at UCS, this is very positive.

I also must add, though, that the President’s fear-mongering in the final days may have worked to energize his base in some of the states with close Senate and Governors’ races; if so, this is not a healthy sign for our democracy and for government based on reason.

I also think that environmental issues, long considered second tier ones, played a role in this election. In several of the Rust Belt states, for example, water quality in both urban and rural areas was a major issue, and in the state of Nevada, voters championed clean energy ballot initiatives. Perhaps most impressively, voters elected new governors in Nevada, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and New Mexico who acknowledged the need to address climate change and showed interest in making their states clean energy champions.

One major disappointment was the defeat of the carbon fee ballot initiative in Washington state. Unfortunately, the big oil companies, many of whom claim they support carbon pricing as a climate solution, spent about $30 million to defeat this initiative, arguing cynically that the initiative did not go far enough. This hypocrisy needs to be strongly called out.

Alden: Indeed. It’s also notable that climate change was raised as an issue in a number of Senate debates. In 2016, we had to work intensively with the Republican mayor of Miami and others to get a single question asked on climate change in the Republican presidential candidate debate in Florida. This year, questions on climate change—many of them citing the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the devastating impacts of further increases in global temperature—were asked by moderators in at least seven Senate candidate debates (in Arizona, Indiana, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, and Texas). The increased prominence of the issue, especially in so many red states, demonstrates that increasing voter awareness and concern about the costly impacts of climate-related extreme weather events is making it more difficult for politicians to say that climate change isn’t a serious issue that needs to be addressed.

Ken: Looking out over the next two years, I think the election gives us three important new opportunities. Congressional oversight, or even the threat of it, is a key way to keep the executive branch operating within the bounds of law and reason; it has been sorely lacking in the last two years. UCS will work with new leadership in key House committees to ensure that there is oversight and accountability, particularly in the many instances in which science has been suppressed, maligned, or ignored.

Second, there are opportunities for bi-partisan progress on issues we care about, and we can and will try to cobble together majorities for centrist legislation that can move the country forward.

Third, we can help craft and push in the House more ambitious legislation that can lay the groundwork for a healthy debate in the 2020 election and potentially get enacted thereafter.

Alden: Congressional oversight is really important. We’ve been working closely with quite a few House members who care deeply about facts and evidence over the last two years to shine a spotlight on the Trump administration’s attacks on science-based safeguards across a wide range of federal agencies. While this has helped to raise the visibility of these abuses in the media and has provided grist for activists to use in their interactions with their members of Congress in town hall meetings and other venues, it has not produced a meaningful change in the administration’s behavior.

But with control of the House, these pro-science legislators will have a lot more tools at their disposal to address Trump administration officials’ blatant conflicts of interest, their lack of enforcement of laws and regulations to protect public health and worker safety, or their efforts to undermine the independent science advisory process, restrict the use of scientific research in policymaking, and to sharply cut back the scientific staff capacity of their agencies to carry out their missions. Through a combination of information requests, staff investigations, and hearings, House committees and subcommittees can shine a spotlight on policies and activities they believe are against the public interest or that fail to execute laws according to the intent of Congress.

They can compel testimony and response to follow-up questions from Cabinet and sub-cabinet officials, can request agency Inspector General investigations where appropriate, and can draw on analysis by the Congressional Research Service, the Congressional Budget Office, and the General Accountability Office. They can also use a combination of expert witnesses and everyday citizens to put a human face on the impacts of executive branch actions, such as the rollback of regulations to protect public health and safety.

Ken: Great point. Our staff has been working with these incoming committee chairs and their staff on their oversight strategies for next year, on issues ranging from scientific integrity in policymaking to ineffective and destabilizing missile defense programs and new nuclear weapons systems, from political interference in climate and energy technology research to harmful changes in federal dietary guidelines for all Americans. Needless to say, it’s a target-rich environment!

Alden: As far as new legislative opportunities, there are a few areas where it may be possible to garner bipartisan support for legislative action in the next Congress: targeted incentives for electric vehicles, energy storage, and other clean energy technologies, or the limited but still useful energy bill introduced by Senators Murkowski (R-AK) and Cantwell (D-WA) that would boost energy efficiency in buildings, increase energy system cybersecurity, spur investments in power grid modernization, among other things. House Democrats have made clear that a federal infrastructure bill addressing not just investments in transportation, but in the water, electricity, natural gas distribution system, and other sectors as well, will be among their top priorities; it seems unlikely that Senate Republicans and the White House would be willing to reach an acceptable deal on such a bill, but it’s not out of the question.

There are a much broader set of issues where we expect House Democrats to move positive legislation forward to floor passage, despite low prospects that it would be approved by the Senate and signed into law by President Trump; the goal would be to raise public awareness and support and to help shape the debate going into the 2020 elections. We will be working to promote the scientific integrity legislation that Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY) introduced in the House and that has 156 cosponsors, as well as opportunities to support science-based safeguards and public health protections. We will also work with Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), incoming chair of the House Armed Services Committee, to move forward his bill establishing a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.

Climate change and energy will also be a priority for several incoming committee chairs, such as Frank Pallone (D-NJ) of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) of the Natural Resources Committee, and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) of the Science Committee. It is also a priority for House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, who just last week indicated her interest in creating a select committee on climate change, modeled on the one chaired by now-Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) from 2007 to 2010. We are discussing legislative options with these and other House Democrats, as well as with our allies in the environmental, clean energy, labor, and climate justice communities, ranging from comprehensive climate policy to more targeted bills focusing on the electricity or transportation sector, or on ramping up assistance to local communities that are struggling to cope with the mounting impacts of climate change.

But yesterday’s elections also resulted in a number of new governors. What do you see as the opportunities for progress at the state and regional level?

Ken: I’m particularly excited about the new governors in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan. UCS and others have been working for years on a project to modernize the electric grid in the heartland of the country to fully unleash the power of clean and cheap wind and solar, and we believe that many of these new governors can help champion this transformation.

UCS is also busy working in the Northeast on a regional plan to reduce transportation emissions. Key governors who are supportive of the idea (Cuomo in New York, Baker in Massachusetts) won their races, and some promising newcomers, such as Governor-elect Mills in Maine and Lamont in Connecticut, can add to the critical mass.

In Illinois, with governor-elect Pritzker in office, we will now have increased opportunities for passage of comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation; while in Michigan, with governor-elect Whitmer in office, we will now have new opportunities to advance modern grid policies that can deliver greater quantities of clean electricity to communities, support electric vehicles, and increase the resilience of the electricity grid to the impacts of climate change. In addition, we have new governors in Kansas, New Mexico, and Nevada, and we will look to help these states become clean energy champions.

I know you warned me last week that the 2020 election kicks off today (ugh!). So I’m curious what you think last night’s results might mean for the 2020 elections.

Alden: I think the new governors who ran on a clean energy platform and won their elections will add a lot to the national conversation over the next two years. Not only will they work to push through strong policies, but they will be strong messengers on how these solutions are good for their states’ economies and job creation, bring strong public health benefits by cutting conventional pollutants, and reduce their energy consumers’ vulnerability to fossil fuel supply disruptions and price shocks. Their advocacy and visibility on clean energy and the need to address the mounting impacts of climate change will help make clear that these are priorities for states in the heartland, not just on the coasts.

Put these new governors together with the active agenda we expect to see in the House on climate and clean energy issues next year, as well as the growing public support for climate action that’s demonstrated in recent opinion polls, and it’s safe to say that these issues will be front and center going into the 2020 elections. Of course, health care, immigration, the economy, national security, and terrorism will continue to be top-tier issues, but it will be more difficult than ever for candidates for federal office to deny the reality of climate change.

And, as long as we’re talking about 2020, can you say a little about the work we’re doing with other groups to lay the groundwork for ambitious climate action in 2021?

Ken: Absolutely. UCS, along with many other partners, such as labor, science groups, environmental advocates and so many others are already focusing our sights on a prize—comprehensive, federal climate change legislation by 2021. We can’t let another opportunity slip, we need to get ready for it, and that means starting now. Among other things, we have to learn a key lesson from the Obama era—relying exclusively on regulations doesn’t work, as a successor administration or a hostile court can undo them. We need to lay the groundwork for a durable solution that is set in law, and that means bringing in Republicans to offer their best ideas and ensuring that they too have skin in this all-important game. This is also true for our work on nuclear weapons and sustainable and healthy farms—we need to set our sights on bi-partisan legislation and get to work on it now.

Alden: As we’ve discussed, there are some opportunities to make progress on our issues at the federal level over the next two years, and even more opportunities at the state and regional level. But let’s be honest, we still face tremendous challenges, central among them a president who has no respect for science, makes up his own facts, and continues to take a wrecking ball to the capability of the EPA and other federal agencies to protect public health and the environment. As you rightly note, solutions to all the issues UCS works on need to be worked out on a bipartisan basis to be durable. The good news is that more and more Republicans privately acknowledge the need for action on climate change and other issues; the bad news is that their willingness to stand up to President Trump remains extremely limited. Creating incentives for them to do so—in coordination with allies in the business, faith, security, and conservation communities—is one of the key challenges we need to meet to be successful.

Ken: It is good to remember that politics in America resemble a pendulum. The pendulum swung far in one direction in 2016. The election of a new majority in the House, new governors in key swing states and many young, diverse and exciting new leaders shows that the pendulum is starting to swing back. Our job, as I see it, is to help push the pendulum back in favor of leaders from both parties that support science-based policies. And to be ready when the pendulum swings back far enough to make progress again.

With The Farm Bill Expired, Will Science Stall?

Photo: IIP Photo Archive/Flickr

We’re well into October, and there’s still no farm bill in sight. My colleagues have written about some of the 39 programs that are left unfunded—including programs that improve nutrition for low-income consumers and help local food systems thrive. All the stranded programs together account for only $2.8 billion of the nearly $1 trillion farm bill. But they provide significant value, and none less than the research and education programs now in budgetary limbo.

In this post, I’ll focus on the three such programs: Organic Agriculture Research and Extension, the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research. Depending on how long Congress leaves these programs hanging before passing a new farm bill, important agricultural research and extension, and the field of agroecology, could suffer.

Three essential programs, three reasons to protect them

The farm bill is the foundation for dozens of critical research, extension and education programs, many of which I’ve written about before.  I’m focusing on just three in this post, however, because these are the only ones in the bill’s Research Title that do not have a “budget baseline”, causing trouble when the farm bill expires. Without action, these programs won’t be able to fund new projects, leaving a substantial gap.  Let’s take a closer look at why it would be a mistake to put any of these three critical programs at risk, one program at a time.

1. Beginning farmers and ranchers need a steady stream of support.

By now you’ve probably heard that the average age of the US farmer is 58, and has been on the rise. Meanwhile, the number of farmers has been in decline, dwindling to fewer than 2.1 million in 2017. And, at a time when we need beginning farmers, challenges such as low prices, trade wars, and climate change are standing in the way.

The USDA’s Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP) is one of the programs left stranded by the sidetracked farm bill process. Among other things, this crucial program supports beginning farmers (including veterans, as shown here) with much-needed technical assistance.

Fortunately, initiatives have cropped up to support beginning farmers and ranchers, among the most important of which is the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP).  This competitive grant program received $100 million in the now-lapsed 2014 farm bill and, over 9 years, has funded 291 collaborative education, extension, outreach, and technical assistance projects across nearly all states.  BFRDP also sets aside grants each year to support socially and financially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, as well as military veterans, who are going into agriculture, ensuring that 5 percent of total program resources reach each of these groups.  Delaying funding for BFRDP, which was specifically developed to ease barriers for new farmers, could unnecessarily create a new set of hurdles instead.

2. Organic research and extension are already dwarfed by swelling demand

Research specific to organic farming systems is sorely needed to enable farmers and the industry to respond to the demand for organic products, which continues to grow.  Furthermore, such research has proven helpful for agroecology and sustainable agriculture more broadly.  These research areas have received relatively limited investment, thus organic research programs can be instrumental in filling key gaps.

In this vein, the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension program, which received $100 million in the 2014 farm bill, has played an important role in US public agricultural research funding over the past decade. For example, over nearly a decade, the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) has supported 111 research, education, and extension grants for highly competitive research distributed among 37 states. But, if the program’s hands are tied while a farm bill battle drags on, this high-demand, urgent research will remain on ice.

3. Why wait to stretch dollars and spur innovation?

Limited agricultural research support is particularly pronounced in some areas, such as for beginning farmers and for organic systems, but it is also generally the case that US public agricultural research funding has been in decline. With funding in short supply, making each dollar go further is of the utmost importance.

It was in this context that the 2014 farm bill established the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), with a budget of $200 million and a mission to match those funds with equal or greater non-federal funds. Through this public-private partnership model, FFAR has been leveraging these research dollars to fund innovation in cutting edge areas, including healthy soils, sustainability, urban food systems, and more. In the case of these partnerships, a delay in additional public funding threatens to leave not just public dollars on the table, but private dollars as well.  Why risk it?

Delaying public research in some of our nation’s most important agricultural research programs would be a very unfortunate side-effect of the sidetracked farm bill process. But this outcome is fully preventable.

The whole issue could be avoided by passing a new farm bill as soon as possible, ideally one that prevents these important programs from being stranded in the future (side note: the Senate bill makes funding for BFRDP and OREI permanent, resolving this problem for the long run, while renewing support and securing an additional $200 million in funding for FFAR).  But in the meantime, an extension of these high value programs could also do the trick.

Regardless of the path that’s taken, keeping these programs funded in the short-term should be a priority. Tell Congress that farmers and ranchers are counting on them.

Photo: IIP Photo Archive/Flickr Photo: USDA/Flickr

On Indigenous People’s Day, a Look at the Movement to Revive Native Foodways and How Western Science Might Support—For a Change

“Tribes are not sovereign unless they can feed themselves,” notes Ross Racine, Executive Director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council. This is such a brutal fact that that the destruction of Native foodways was used by the U.S. government to effectively weaken, destroy and remove Native people from their ancestral lands during the period of Western colonization, genocide, expansion and cultural undermining that ran from the 17th into the present century (in the form of “Food Distribution Programs,” largely the food that has made many Native communities both dependent and among the sickest in the world.)

It may be a legitimate question to some why a scientific organization wants to support dismantlement of the social inequities built into our food systems. Food and food production are fundamentally important to Native communities’ health, well-being, economic resilience, cultural heritage, and self-preservation. This means that restoring food sovereignty to Native communities requires the re-introduction of indigenous food production, distribution practices and infrastructure, in concert with the re-valuation of traditional ecological knowledge that has long been sidelined from Western notions of science.

The legacy of social and racial inequities woven throughout our food systems cannot be addressed without acknowledging the history of violent displacement and marginalization of Native American and Alaska Native communities, and the appropriation of their land and resources. In its most intensive and intentional phase, during the 60-year period now known as “the Indian Wars,” from 1830-1890, the federal government massacred tens of thousands of Native peoples and “removed” surviving communities to isolated “reservations.” Entire ways of life and foodways were intentionally destroyed. Native communities were forced to become dependent on an exogenous food system that funneled the most unhealthful foodstuffs toward reservations and further eroded knowledge about native foods and their production and preparation. These were overt control measures, including strict federally imposed limits on fishing, foraging, and hunting on Native lands. As a consequence of these measures, Native self-provisioning, traditional food knowledge and health were destroyed, and those communities now suffer some of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity in the country and the world.

Indigenous methods of scientific inquiry have their best chance to find a home in our nation’s “1994 Land-Grant Institutions”—colleges and universities established with federal resources to support research, education, and extension related to food and agriculture. Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy, then director of USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), stated that these tribal colleges and universities TCUs “teach in a cultural context that [empowers] students by drawing on the strength of their peoples’ history, indigenous knowledge, and traditions.” Yet research at TCUs is supported by a NIFA funding stream that is entirely separate from, and inferior to, that of other land grant institutions. Therefore, in recent years, a coalition of tribes, tribal organizations, and non-profits have come together to demand increased federal funding for NIFA Tribal Programs. In addition, the pressure from dominant culture is to emulate the pattern and ostensive “success” of agricultural approaches that have been developed on the basis of western science. Instead, the leadership and autonomy of Native people must be acknowledged and supported to recapture and reconstruct their traditional knowledge of agriculture, gathering and food, together with their connection to health and wellbeing, and to integrate that knowledge with Western approaches in a manner of their own choosing.

The White Earth Food Recovery Project

One of the more significant things I ever did while on the faculty of the Agronomy Department at Iowa State University happened when a Native friend, Winona LaDuke (Ojibwe), told me about a project she was involved with to revive the foodways of her father’s people at the White Earth reservation in Minnesota. She told me how they knew that corn was central to the polycultural food system of their ancestors, and that they knew that to recover their physical, cultural and economic health they had to start by reconstructing their food system with their native species. But these had been lost to colonization and cultural destruction. She asked whether I knew how to get hold of seeds that were as close as possible to Ojibwe corn.

I called my buddy, Mark Millard, a geneticist who was the maize curator for the USDA’s Plant Introduction Center just down the road from my office. I still vividly remember the chills I felt when I repeated Winona’s question to Mark and he responded: “How close do you want to get to White Earth Ojibwe corn?” It turned out that in the 1920s, the USDA had collected seed of that very corn and dutifully reproduced it in the intervening 80 years. There was soon a package of precious seed on its way to Winona and the White Earth food recovery project was on its way.

Such efforts to reclaim food sovereignty as a way to recover health, in all its dimensions, among the nation’s survivors of a traumatic campaign of Native American genocide is gaining momentum, and particularly so among the TCU network, known colloquially as “Native American Land Grant Colleges and Universities,” or even more eccentrically, the “1994s.” Ironies are plentiful in explanation. As Europeans colonized North America from the east coast westward, they established infrastructure and institutions to facilitate their settlement project.

Almost everyone has at least a glancing acquaintance with the fact that establishment of the transcontinental railroad was a keystone of this project. This was financed by a “land-grant scheme” whereby the federal government killed and removed Native inhabitants to “clear the way” for settlers, then gave itself permission to apportion the “empty land” (the popularly beloved first-person chronicler of these developments, Laura Ingalls Wilder, famously described her family’s entry into today’s Kansas with the words: “There were no people here, only Indians.”)  The federal “land-grants” were used by railroad companies not only for right-of-way but for sale to raise cash to support their operations. Similarly, the federal government “granted” land to states to establish the colleges that were to generate knowledge for white farmers to subdue the prairies and other conquered lands so that both Native people and vegetation could be replaced with more “productive” alternatives.

The resulting institutions, today’s “Land Grant Universities,” thereby have a complicated history. In the history of education, they were the first established expressly so that a higher education was accessible to the salt of the earth, and was no longer the exclusively for society’s privileged, but it was also clear who these colonizer institutions were for. They were not for Natives, and they were not for African Americans, both of whom were the victims and subordinates of colonization. It is for this reason that a completely separate network was subsequently established to “serve” the African-American population of farmers and rural citizens, now known as the “1890 Land Grants.” It is important to remember that this underscores exclusion than rather social equity, since they were established to reinforce that African Americans were not welcome (in the Southern US) within the exclusive hallways of the original Land Grant universities (now known as “the 1862s,” for the year their authorizing legislation was passed.) It will surprise no one that compared with the 1862 Universities, the Crown Jewels of the Land Grant University system, the 1890 and 1994 counterparts are egregiously underfunded.

What Must “Science” Now Do?

Which brings us to the “1994 Land Grants.” It took that long for the federal government to recognize the exclusion of the continent’s first peoples from its tradition of public support for higher education. But that support historically had been in an effort to destroy Native life, knowledge and culture, acknowledging it only as an item of study. For Native people, of course, the object is instead to revive the thriving worldview and knowledge system that sustained their forebears for millennial generations.

So this is where the federal government is now with this  project: The federal government funds research, education, and extension activities at 1994 institutions through the Tribal College Research Grant Program of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The program is to help 1994 institutions become centers of scientific inquiry and learning for remote and rural reservation communities, with an emphasis on research questions generated by Native community interests. Projects funded through this program may help a tribe “improve bison herd productivity, discover whether traditional plants can play a role in managing diabetes, or control invasive species,” among other areas of emphasis. Alongside the research program, the Tribal College Extension Program supports informal, community-based learning, which may include farmer education, youth development, and rural entrepreneurship.

In the summer of 2017, the Native Farm Bill Coalition—made up of 22 tribes, tribal organizations, and non-profits—published a report assessing risks and opportunities for Native communities in the 2018 farm bill. The authors acknowledge that tribal organizations have “struggled to rally the support of tribes to effectively advocate for greater Native inclusion in previous Farm Bills,” and present the report as a springboard to amplify tribal voices in the federal food and agriculture policy process. The report’s recommendations, include increased funding for extension services for tribes, earmarked funding for tribal groups within existing NIFA research grant programs, and new research programs at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, that focus on the important and increasing role that traditional knowledge plays in the environmental, natural resources, ecological, food science, nutrition, and health research.

Science is a human endeavor. It does not exist without humans, and it serves the purposes of humans. It served the colonizing and genocidal project of the United States in several ways. The Union of Concerned Scientists seeks to put science in service of the project to recover the dignity and viability of lifeways that respect and sustain Native wisdom and healthful, thriving cultures. For this reason, my team and I will be working to establish a relationship with leaders, faculty and fellow scientists at the nation’s Native American Land Grant Colleges and Universities, and to learn how me might become part of a project that aligns our science and intentions with a completely different direction and outcome than the perverted precedent we all must thoughtfully reflect on each October on Indigenous People’s Day.

Trump’s USDA vs. Science

The United States has a complicated history when it comes to science. The very birth of the nation is bound up with the European Scientific Revolution and Age of Enlightenment, culminating in the notion that reason should inform the self-government of free peoples. President Jefferson wrote that science “is more important in a republic than in any other government.” Decades later, President Lincoln established the National Academy of Sciences to “provide independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.”

But science has also been frequently misused by the US government. And in the Trump era, independent scientific advice is increasingly under threat. Such advice has been ignored and devalued across federal agencies under this administration, including at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), where last year, we might well have had a “Chief Scientist” with no scientific credentials at all, but for that nominee’s past racist statements and unseemly ties to Russians during the Trump presidential campaign.

And it is at the USDA that we are observing what follows after merely ignoring scientists. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is relocating, defunding, muzzling and otherwise belittling the standing of his department’s scientists. In a move that stunned the staff and administrators of the Department’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the Secretary summarily announced, without consultation, that these agencies would be banished from their DC locations and that the ERS would be shuffled from its current position in the organizational chart, where it logically reports to the Department’s Chief Scientist, to within the Secretary’s office.

Lest you believe that these are obscure bureaucratic moves of little consequence, opposed only by self-interested researchers and administrators who are threatened by what Perdue is characterizing as a cost-saving, streamlining move, take stock that no informed observers accept or understand the Secretary’s stated rationale, including professional scientific societies, farmer organizations, and even the members of Congress charged with USDA oversight. In fact, over 1,100 scientists have stated their resolute opposition to this move.

But what is clear is that the agencies will become less effective in fulfilling their mission to support independent scientific research and analysis, that the agencies will be less appealing to scientists and economists, and that ERS in particular will be subjected to political pressure to ensure its analysis supports the Secretary’s agenda. In the words of Susan Offut, former ERS administrator under both Republican and Democratic administrations, the Secretary is “throwing away a world class research institution.” The Chairs of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Senators Roberts (R, Kansas) and Stabenow (D, Michigan), wrote Perdue asking for fuller explanation of the Secretary’s irascible move, including its legal premises. Rather than elaborating and illuminating his rationale, the Secretary responded obstinately, only restating his original rationale, the equivalent of a breezy teenage “whatever.”

And why would an administrator seek to diminish and dilute the labor of a first-rate scientific establishment? One doesn’t need to look too intently to realize that the various outlandish claims on which Perdue’s agenda is based are contradicted by the objective analysis of his department’s own scientists, ranging from the effectiveness of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to the degree of economic concentration in agriculture and the asymmetrical distribution of government subsidies to large corporate farms.

Many won’t remember, but the Trump USDA’s efforts to suppress inconvenient facts are not without precedent. The predecessor to ERS was the Bureau of Agricultural Economics (BAE), shut down in the 1950s by the racist namesake of the USDA’s main building on the mall today, Jamie Whitten. Late in his life Whitten recanted some of his earlier odious social views, but when it mattered, the Representative from Mississippi and chair of the powerful House Agriculture Appropriations Committee opposed, among other progressive measures, all efforts to pass the Civil Rights Act. And he did to the USDA’s economists what Perdue is again attempting to do now. The crime of the BAE? They documented the USDA’s discriminatory practices against the African-American farmers of Whitten’s home state of Mississippi. When Whitten was persuaded by President Kennedy to approve reestablishment of today’s Economic Research Service, he did so subject to the condition that its economists refrain from repeating such “hound dog studies.” In other words, this has happened before. It can happen again.

Let us be clear—as citizens of the 21st century, and particularly as people living in the United States—that none of the world’s current challenges, from climate change to clean power to agricultural sustainability, can be addressed effectively without sober and competent scientific perspective. For all their flaws and imperfections, the nation’s founders were creatures of the Age of Enlightenment and students of the Scientific Revolution. They fancied themselves giving pride of place to the power of reason to advance knowledge and to build an effective and responsive government. The United States was the socioeconomic and political experiment they set up to to implement these novel and powerful insights. They envisioned the benefits that could come when science and democracy worked together. In this, they exemplified a kind of bold, novel pragmatism that aspired to put problem solving above partisanship and sought to base government policies on the best available data and the most up-to-date understanding of the world.

That experiment, fraught as it has been, is—shall we say—clearly teetering at the moment. But it is an intent well worth remembering in today’s highly polarized political environment.

Lapsed Farm Bill Hurts Central Texas Farmers and Low-income Families

Photo: Sustainable Food Center

When you think of Texas, a thriving local food scene probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind—but a visit to the SFC Farmers’ Market in downtown Austin might change that. The market draws large crowds every Saturday, and it plays a vitally important role in this city: linking small and midsize farmers across central Texas with customers—including those who shop using benefits from federal nutrition assistance programs—who are hungry for fresh produce and a sense of community.

But far from Austin, the federal law that gives markets like this one a leg up are in limbo. Congress has just allowed the last five-year farm bill to expire, having failed to pass a new one by the September 30 deadline. I spoke with Joy Casnovsky, the deputy director of the Sustainable Food Center (SFC) in Austin, to learn more about how federally-funded programs in the farm bill have helped make a difference in communities throughout Texas, and what’s now at stake.

A Saturday at the SFC farmer’s market

“We get a lot of phone calls from people who want to know about the market, and we know people are coming from all over to get here,” says Casnovsky of the downtown market. “There are families, older people, younger people, people doing their exercise routine, folks with kids, folks without kids.” SFC, with a mission and history of helping the central Texas food system thrive, now supports two weekly farmers’ markets and community farm stands featuring more than 60 local farmers, artisans, and food producers.

“It’s a hub. And if we can get folks to come to the market and chat with us, it’s a great way for them to get more information about how to use their benefits.”

The “benefits” Casnovsky is referring to include nutrition assistance benefits the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Farmers Market Nutrition Program (WIC FMNP), which offers additional produce vouchers for WIC clients. (Think of it as WIC’s trusty farm-fresh sidekick.)

Photo: Sustainable Food Center

The signs all over the market send a clear message that shoppers who use these programs are welcome here. Not only can SNAP, WIC and WIC FMNP be used at the markets, but they can be doubled through SFC’s Double Dollar Program. The program itself, which can be used by shoppers each week, is pretty simple: show up, swap out up to $30 of your SNAP or WIC benefits for up to $60 Double Dollars, and start spending them on fruits and vegetables from local farmers. (Followed by go home, eat up, and feel good.)

But what’s incredibly complicated about programs like Double Dollars? Getting Congress to pass the bill that funds them.

The real losers of the Farm Bill fight: Local farmers and families

The grant that made Double Dollars possible is part of the farm bill, an enormous piece of legislation that touches nearly everything in our food system, from farm to fork. The deadline for Congress to renew this legislation without disruption came and went on Sunday, and every additional day they delay in passing a new one is a day without funding for such grants.

Though the House and the Senate Agriculture Committees passed their respective versions in late June, the dramatic differences in the two have proven irreconcilable for the committee charged with drafting a final farm bill. Much of the tension has to do with ill-considered and onerous new work requirements in SNAP, which were proposed in the House bill despite overwhelming opposition from leading health and nutrition groups.

Some programs, like SNAP itself, will see continued funding in the absence of a new farm bill. Many smaller and related programs will not—including those providing critical support to small farmers and low-income families in communities across Texas.

SFC launched the Double Dollars program in 2012 with the support of a grant program called the Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP). It was the first of its kind in Texas. “When we launched this in 2012, we only did it at one market,” Casnovsky told me. “And then we expanded it to our three other markets. And then we expanded it to markets run by other associations. It went from being a pilot to being at 16 different locations.”

“Had we not gotten that grant, I can’t say how we would have launched at all. The FMPP grant gave us the catalyst we needed to start the program, and improve it and expand it over time. That initial investment helped us get additional funding from elsewhere, too.”

Similar initiatives have sprung up across Texas and all over the country in recent years. Double Up Food Bucks, a Michigan-born model that helps shoppers double the value of SNAP dollars spent at markets and grocery stores, began operating at 10 new Texas farmers markets just this spring—adding to its growing list of hundreds of markets served nationwide. Unlike Double Dollars, Double Up Food Bucks is supported by grants from the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program, a highly popular grant program introduced in the 2014 farm bill to incentivize fruit and vegetable purchases by low-income consumers. During its first five years, FINI helped more than 300,000 families put healthy food on the table, and supported more than 1,000 local farmers in the process. But this funding, too, is halted without a new farm bill—leaving many markets and the communities they support hanging in the balance.

What now?

With funding sources like the FMPP, FINI, and more now stranded, we need to tell Congress that it’s past time to pass a new farm bill.

This isn’t just about a handful of programs—it’s about maintaining the progress we’ve made in building a stronger food system for all of us. Casnovsky, who is now working with the Sustainable Food Center to seek grant funding for their next local foods project, put it this way: “I see that affecting all of Texas. It may not be our organization going after the grant next time—it may be another city or another town going after it—but that affects our food system and infrastructure. We are one big network, and we’re starting to understand how our efforts can really lift all boats.”

Want your senators and representatives to get the message? We’ve made it easy. You can find phone numbers that will connect you directly to your elected officials (and smart talking points to back you up) right here on our website.

Photo: Sustainable Food Center

In a Warming World, Carolina CAFOs Are a Disaster for Farmers, Animals, and Public Health

North Carolina hog CAFO in Hurricane Florence floodwaters, September 18, 2018. Photo: Larry Baldwin, Crystal Coast Waterkeeper/Waterkeeper Alliance

In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, I’ve joined millions who’ve watched with horror as the Carolinas have been inundated with floodwaters and worried about the various hazards those waters can contain. We’ve seen heavy metal-laden coal ash spills, a nuclear plant go on alert (thankfully without incident), and sewage treatment plants get swamped. But the biggest and most widely reported hazard associated with Florence appears to be the hog waste that is spilling from many of the state’s thousands of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), and which threatens lasting havoc on public health and the local economy.

And while the state’s pork industry was already under fire for its day-to-day impacts on the health and quality of life of nearby residents, Florence has laid bare the lie that millions of animals and their copious waste can be safely concentrated in flood-prone coastal areas like southeastern North Carolina.

CAFO “lagoons” are releasing a toxic soup

The state is home to 9.7 million pigs that produce 10 billion gallons of manure annually. As rivers crested on Wednesday, state officials believed that at least 110 hog manure lagoons—open, earthen pools where pig waste is liquified and broken down by anaerobic bacteria (causing their bubblegum-pink color) before being sprayed on fields—had been breached or inundated by flood waters across the state:

The tally by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is rising rapidly (it was just 34 on Monday). Perhaps not surprisingly, the state’s pork industry lobby group is reporting much smaller numbers: by Wednesday afternoon, the North Carolina Pork Council’s website listed only 43 lagoons affected by the storm and flood.

In any case, the true extent of the spills may not be known for many days, as extensive road closures in the state continue to make travel and assessment difficult or impossible.

The scale of North Carolina’s CAFO industry is shocking

In 2016, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group used federal and state geographical data and analyzed high-resolution aerial photography to create a series of interactive maps showing the locations and scale of CAFOs concentration in the state. The map below shows the location of hog CAFOs (pink dots), poultry CAFOs (yellow dots), and cattle feedlots (purple dots) throughout the state.

Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group used public data to create maps of CAFO locations in North Carolina in 2016. For more information and interactive maps, visit https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/2016_north_carolina_animal_feeding_operations.php#.W6KBLPZReUk.

Note the two counties in the southeastern part of the state, Duplin and Sampson, where the most hog CAFOs are concentrated—nearly as pink as a hog lagoon, these counties are Ground Zero for the state’s pork industry. In Duplin County alone, where hogs outnumber humans 40-to-1, the Waterkeeper/EWG data show there were, as of 2016, more than 2.3 million head of swine producing 2 billion gallons of liquid waste per year, stored in 865 waste lagoons. (Duplin County was also home to 1,049 poultry houses containing some 16 million birds that year.)

The state’s CAFOs harm communities of color most

“Lagoon” is a curious euphemism for a cesspool. Even without hurricanes, these gruesome ponds pose a hazard to nearby communities. In addition to the obvious problem of odor, they emit a variety of gases—ammonia and methane, both of which can irritate eyes and respiratory systems, and hydrogen sulfide, which is an irritant at very low exposure levels but can be extremely toxic at higher exposures.

These everyday health hazards hurt North Carolinians of color most of all. To pick on Duplin County again, US Census figures show that one-quarter of its residents are black and 22 percent are Hispanic or Latino. And a 2014 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that, compared to white people, black people are 54 percent more likely to reside near these hog operations, Hispanics are 39 percent more likely, and Native Americans are more than twice as likely.

What does all that mean for health and environmental justice? Residents near the state’s hog CAFOs have complained for years of sickening odors, headaches, respiratory distress, and other illnesses, and have filed (and begun winning) a series of class-action lawsuits against the companies responsible for them.

Just this month, researchers at Duke University published new findings on health outcomes in communities close to hog CAFOs in the state. They found that, compared with a control group, such residents have higher rates of infant death, death from anemia, and death from all causes, along with higher rates of kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, emergency room visits and hospital admissions for low-birthweight infants. (Read the full study or this review.)

CAFO damage from Florence was predictable…and will get worse

Releases of bacteria-laden manure sludge from CAFO lagoons in flooding like we’re seeing this week compound the day-to-day problem, and they’re inevitable in a hurricane- and flood-prone state like North Carolina. Between 1851 and 2017, 372 hurricanes have affected the state, with 83 making direct landfall in North Carolina. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 wreaked havoc similar to what we’re seeing this week.

As you can see on the map below, Florence dumped between 18 and 30+ inches on every part of Duplin County.

http://www.nc-climate.ncsu.edu/climateblog?id=266

It’s not surprising that flooding from such an event would be severe. And while the North Carolina Pork Council called Florence “a once-in-lifetime storm,” anyone who’s paying attention knows it’s just a matter of time before the next one.

Millions of animals are likely drowned, starved, or asphyxiated

In addition to the effects on communities near North Carolina’s CAFOs, it’s clear that Hurricane Florence has caused tremendous suffering and death to animals housed in those facilities. Earlier this week, poultry company Sanderson Farms reported at least 1.7 million chickens dead, drowned by floodwaters that swamped their warehouse-like “houses.” Some 6 million more of the company’s chickens cannot yet be accounted for. Overall, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on Tuesday put the death toll at 3.4 million chickens and turkeys and 5,500 hogs, but those numbers may very well rise.

A major reason we don’t yet know the full extent of animal deaths in North Carolina’s CAFOs is that road closures due to flooding has cut off many of the facilities, preventing feed deliveries and inspections. Many animals likely also died in areas that experienced power failures due to the storm. According to this poultry industry document, a power outage that interrupts the ventilation system in a totally enclosed poultry CAFO can kill large numbers of birds by asphyxiation “within minutes.”

North Carolina farmers face staggering financial losses and likely bankruptcies

And what about the farmers? Many of the nation’s hog and poultry producers are in already in a predicament. Corporate concentration has squeezed out many independent farmers, meaning more operate as contractors to food industry giants like Smithfield and Tyson. In the US pork industry, contract growers accounted for 44 percent of all hogs and pigs sold in 2012. The farmers have little power in those contracts, and an early action of the Trump administration’s USDA served to remove newly-gained protections against exploitation by those companies. The administration’s trade war isn’t helping either.

As one expert in North Carolina put it as Hurricane Florence approached:

A farmer (who operates a CAFO) has very little flexibility. They take out very large loans, north of a million dollars, on a facility that is specifically designed by the industry, as well as how the facility will be managed. Remember that 97% of chickens and more than 50% of hogs are owned by the industry. These farmers never even own the animals. But if the animal dies, and how to handle the waste, that’s on the farmer. That’s their responsibility.

I know many individual farmers who do the best they can, who work as hard as they can, who treat their animals with respect. But there’s only so much they control. They can’t control the weather. They can’t control the hurricane. These farmers are part of an industry that says, for the sake of efficiency, you have to put as many animals as possible into these facilities.

Post-Florence, these contract farmers are likely to receive inadequate compensation for the losses of animals in their care. A series of tweets this week by journalist Maryn McKenna, who has studied the poultry industry, illuminates the issues:

So, as the waters recede, many hog and poultry farmers are about to find themselves responsible for a ghastly cleanup job. Imagine returning home to find thousands of bloated animal corpses rotting in the September sun. They they were your livelihood, and now they’re not only lost, but an actual liability you must pay to have hauled away.

Public policies should encourage sustainable livestock production, not CAFOs

And so it goes for farmers in today’s vertically-integrated, corporate-dominated, CAFO model. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Public policies can give more power to livestock farmers in the marketplace, protect animals and nearby communities from hazards associated with CAFOs, and facilitate a shift to more environmentally and economically sustainable livestock production practices.

If Hurricane Florence teaches us anything, it’s that flood-prone coastal states like North Carolina are no place for CAFOs. At a minimum, the state must tighten regulations on these facilities to protect public health and safety. A 2016 WaterKeeper Alliance analysis found that just a dozen of North Carolina’s 2,246 hog CAFOs had been required to obtain permits under the Clean Water Act, with the rest operating under lax state regulation. The state and federal government should also more aggressively seek to close down hog lagoons and help farmers transition to more sustainable livestock practices or even switch from hogs to crops. A buyout program already exists but needs much more funding.

In the meantime, the federal farm bill now being negotiated by Congress also has a role to play. At least one farm bill program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, has been used in ways that underwrite CAFOs. In a 2017 analysis of FY16 EQIP spending, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted that 11 percent ($113 million) of EQIP funds were allocated toward CAFO operations, funding improvements to waste storage facilities and subsidizing manure transfer costs. And the House version of the 2018 farm bill could potentially increase support for CAFOs by eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program—which incentivizes more sustainable livestock practices and offers a 4-to-1 return on taxpayer investment overall—and shifting much of its funding to EQIP.

The post-Florence mess in North Carolina illustrates precisely why that’s a bad idea. Particularly in a warmer and wetter world, public policies and taxpayer investments should seek to reduce reliance on CAFOs, not prop them up.

Here’s What Agriculture of the Future Looks Like: The Multiple Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture Quantified

Crops and livestock integrated in a regenerative agricultural system. Photo: Farmland LP

At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we have long advocated agricultural systems that are productive and better for the environment, the economy, farmers, farmworkers and eaters than the dominant industrial system. We refer to such a system as our Healthy Farm vision. Based on comprehensive science, we have specified that healthy farm systems must be multifunctional, biodiverse, interconnected and regenerative.

The scientific case for agricultural systems that renew rather than diminish resources is comprehensive, and research demonstrates the productivity and agronomic feasibility of such systems. Yet, economically viable real-world examples are necessary to spur acceptance and adoption of such schemes. Further, we need to overcome the limitations of economic thinking and measures that were developed in the 19th century—when it seemed that the Earth’s resources and its capacity to absorb waste were inexhaustible—and improve them to create more modern assessments, appropriate for the 21st century and beyond. A new report from our colleagues at Farmland LP, Delta Institute and Earth Economics will make a major contribution toward this end.

Healthy Farmland Vision – Click the graphic for an interactive web feature.

Economists view agriculture as a primary sector of the economy, meaning that without the activity of that sector, the remainder of the economy (such as manufacturing and service) could not be developed. Together with other primary economic enterprises such as mining and forestry, agriculture has generally been practiced and acknowledged as an extractive industry. Whereas mining is visibly extractive, agriculture is less so, because degradative processes such as soil erosion, fertility loss, and water and air pollution are not as obvious as mountaintop removal and strip mining. Yet, as practiced industrially, agriculture is both extractive and more extensive than mining.

 

Source: Our World in Data.

Extractive agricultural practices are abetted by strategies such as importing nutrients to compensate for loss of native soil fertility and by the fact that we value the gains from the extraction but don’t discount the losses. For example, we measure crop and animal yield and translate that to sales and profit, but don’t subtract from the ledger the soil, nutrients, air and water quality lost to produce crops and livestock. One superficial reason for this is that we don’t know the “cost” of those resources, but that is simply a polite way to say that historically we don’t value them. This is a perfect example of the nostrum that we measure what we care about and care about what we measure.

Yet, agriculture need not be inherently extractive. Through practices that build soil, recycle nutrients and store water it can become a regenerative system while still providing abundant food and other agricultural products. A key to shift from extractive to regenerative mode is to build a more complete picture of the total benefits and costs associated with agricultural management. For nearly a decade, the investment firm Farmland LP has been managing thousands of acres with regenerative techniques, thereby providing an opportunity for scientists and economists to assess the value of these practices to soil, water, climate, energy and social sectors. The Delta Institute and Earth Economics, with grant support from the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, worked with Farmland LP on just such a project.

Based on a comprehensive review of scientific literature examining the value of various ecosystem services, the researchers applied the rigorous methodologies of Ecosystem Services Valuation and Greenhouse Gas Accounting to assess the effects of farm management on items such as soil formation and quality, water capture and quality, pollination and seed dispersal, climate stability, disaster risk reduction, air quality and biological control. Using Colorado State University’s COMET-Farm model, and the USDA’s Revised Universal Soil Los Equation, the researchers evaluated the effect of regenerative techniques on farmed and non-farmed land under Farmland LP’s management. They compared these model outputs with those from land managed conventionally to construct a comprehensive impact balance sheet.

The sums cited in this report are astounding, ascending into the millions of dollars of added ecological value from regenerative process—against millions of dollars of ecological losses due to standard industrial practices. The practices Farmland LP implements are well-known, backed by science and practice, and accessible to all farmers and farm managers with an interest in managing whole systems to increase returns to management. Examples include integrated crop and livestock production, crop rotation, biodiverse annual and perennial mixes, stream buffers, grassed waterways, organic fertilizers, biological pest control and uncultivated land to provide ecological services (erosion control, water capture, habitat and refugia for beneficial organisms.) The combination of these regenerative methods generated net value while industrial methods destroyed value—all while performing comparably on the dominant indicator of agricultural yield.

Ecological Service Value of farmed and non-farmed areas by impact metric – Delta Institute (see report for methods, context and further data.)

This assessment affirms the concrete value and effectiveness of multifunctional regenerative approaches. Since many of these ecosystem services are not currently quantified—much less traded—on markets that would remunerate farmers, the benefits are primarily experienced by way of cleaner environment, lower costs of production and added value of agricultural land. This is because land managed with regenerative practices will produce bountifully, at lower cost and for an indeterminate period of time, whereas the value of industrially managed land depends on false and brittle economies, such as access to government subsidies and the availability of cheap industrial fertilizer.

In fact, the main business of Farmland LP, a real estate investment trust, is to add long-term value to agricultural land for landowners and investors. A remarkable aspect of this strategy and business model, in addition to more faithfully reflecting actual ecological economics, is how quickly Farmland LP management has been able to produce results. In addition to demonstrating the effectiveness of regenerative methods, these findings indicate the kinds of practices that should be more broadly adopted across all of agriculture to assure our livelihood at present and far into the future.

The skilled agronomists and farm managers at Farmland LP, together with the rigorous scientists and economists who have developed and used the ecosystem evaluation technique, are demonstrating that regenerative agriculture is not an aspirational figment. It is real, it is possible, it is productive, it is profitable and it is environmentally beneficial. These things can all exist with one another. A successful business model is predicated on this. As long as reliable scientific information influences decisions and behavior, this report provides a beacon toward more viable, ethical and realistic agricultural practice for the long term.

Photo: Farmland LP Graphic: Our World In Data.

What’s for Dinner? A Preview of the People, Process, and Politics Updating Federal Dietary Guidelines

Photo: grobery/CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)

Months behind schedule, two federal departments have officially kicked off the process for writing the 2020-2025 iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Updated and reissued every five years, these guidelines are the nation’s most comprehensive and authoritative set of nutrition recommendations. And although the process is meant to be science-based and support population health—and has historically done so, with some notable exceptions—there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Trump administration is preparing to pitch a few curveballs.

First, a little background: The two agencies responsible for issuing the guidelines are the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Earlier this month, the agencies released a call for nominations to the advisory committee that will review current nutrition science and write recommendations for the new guidelines. For the first time, the guidelines will include recommendations for maternal nutrition and for infants and toddlers through 24 months—meaning we may see a larger advisory committee and some extra work put into developing these recommendations from scratch.

And that won’t be the only change since the last cycle. There was a bitter political battle over the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, in which the advisory committee made mention of environmental sustainability, noting that plant-based diets that include plenty of foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good for both our health and the future of our food supply. These recommendations were ultimately omitted, and the episode culminated in Congress writing new legislation to limit the scope of the guidelines and mandate a so-called critical review of their scientific integrity. The full impact of this anti-science legislation, which was tacked onto a 2016 appropriations bill (despite strong opposition from public health and nutrition groups), will be brought to bear during the coming months.

All that said, there’s one thing that’s likely to remain the same: the industries that wielded influence over the 2015-2020 Guidelines haven’t gone anywhere. On the contrary, they may be emboldened by an administration that has repeatedly given preference to corporate interests, sidelining science and sacrificing the public good in the process.

The People: What will become of the Scientific Advisory Committee in the Trump era?

Typically, the first major step in developing new Dietary Guidelines is to identify the group of nutrition and health experts who will form the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (or DGAC). These nominees will be well-known in their fields, and will bring with them more than a decade each of experience as medical or nutrition researchers, academics, and practitioners. Members of the DGAC serve the committee for two years, after which they submit a final scientific report to the USDA and HHS with their recommendations.

This part of the process is happening in real-time. The 30-day call for nominations is now open and will close on October 6. (Read more about the criteria for nominees here.)

Photo: USDA

But the negligence the Trump administration has shown in maintaining existing scientific advisory committees is concerning, to say the least. An analysis by my colleagues here at the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that, during the administration’s first year in office, federal science advisory committees met less frequently than in any other year since 1997, when the government began tracking this data. A majority of the committees are meeting less than their charters require, and committee membership has also decreased—with some agencies disbanding entire advisory committees altogether.

Furthermore, what happens after the public submits nominations to the DGAC happens largely behind closed doors. Nominations will be reviewed by USDA and HHS program staff, and the slate of chosen nominees will be evaluated and vetted internally. Formal recommendations for the committee will then be reviewed and approved by the USDA and HHS secretaries. Per their most recent communication, the agencies hope to announce the 2020-2025 DGAC by early next year.

If you’re thinking that the committee selection lacks a certain element of transparency, you’re not the only one.

In one of two reports released last year examining the Dietary Guidelines process (the result of the aforementioned legislation, passed in 2016 appropriations rider), the National Academy of Medicine recommended that the public have the opportunity to review the provisional committee for bias and conflicts of interest before it’s approved.

It’s worth repeating that the selection of committees in recent DGA cycles has successfully brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the process—resulting, for the most part, in strong evidence-based recommendations. But in an administration where the “D” in USDA has come to stand for DowDuPont, concerns about undue influence on the committee selection may be well warranted. (See “The Politics” below.)

The Process: More to do, and twice as fast

After the advisory committee is appointed, the committee begins to review the current body of nutritional science to generate its recommendations. The recommendations are based on a “preponderance of scientific evidence,” which means they consider a variety of research and study designs. (Though randomized controlled trials are typically the gold standard in science, this type of study is incredibly difficult to do with diet.)

The committee won’t review everything—there are certain topics that are selected each cycle, based on what new evidence has emerged and what issues are of greatest concern to public health. And here’s the first place you’ll see the 2020-2025 DGAs break from tradition: rather than identifying topics of interest after the committee is selected, USDA and HHS have developed a list of topics first, soliciting public comments in the process. You can read their list here.

There are immediate glaring absences in the topic list, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—some of the staples of what we consider a healthy diet. This may just mean that the committee won’t be revisiting these topics, and will instead default to existing recommendations—but the lack of clarity here is disconcerting. A brief note at the end of the topic list, perhaps meant to explain the omissions, has left public health and nutrition groups scratching their heads: “Some topics are not included above because they are addressed in existing evidence-based Federal guidance. In an effort to avoid duplication with other Federal efforts, it is expected that these topics will be reflected in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines by referencing the existing guidance. Thus, these topics do not require a review of the evidence by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.”

Photo: USDA

Meanwhile, the topics that have been explicitly named include added sugars; beverages, such as dairy, sugar-sweetened beverages, and alcohol; the relationship between certain diets (think: Mediterranean Diet, vegetarian, etc.) and chronic disease; and different dietary patterns across life stages, including infancy and toddlers through 24 months. What didn’t make the cut? A mention of red meat or processed meats—which have been linked to certain types of cancer and other health risks. The agencies (predictably) sidestepped this issue, making reference only to types of dietary fats.

If this sounds like a lot to sort through, it will be. And the tentative timeline that the agencies have proposed is ambitious. After the committee is announced in early 2019, it will have just over one year to deliberate before releasing its scientific report. During that time, the committee will hold approximately five public meetings (last cycle, there were seven) and offer an extended period of open public comment. After the DGAC scientific report is released, the public will also have one final opportunity to comment.

But if there’s anything we learned from the last DGA cycle, it’s that what can happen during that gap—between the release of the DGAC scientific report and the issuance of the DGAs—is critical, and it isn’t always clear. Enter “The Politics.”

The Politics: When money talks

What happened during the 2015-2020 DGA cycle?

The DGAC advisory report, submitted in February 2015, included recommendations for plant-based diets that supported both human health and environmental sustainability—an unprecedented move. Per the report: “A diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”

But eight months later, the writing was on the proverbial wall, in the form of a blog written by former USDA Secretary Vilsack and HHS Secretary Burwell. Sustainability is outside the scope of the DGAs and would not be included.

Two months after that, the 2016 appropriations bill was passed, stating that any revisions to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans be limited in scope to nutritional and dietary information.

By all appearances, the key concern seemed to be that science-based sustainability recommendations were outside the scope of the DGAs. But you don’t have to read too far between the lines to see that many were more concerned about sales—as in, sales of foods that aren’t central to a plant-based diet. Like, for example, meat and dairy.

At a Congressional hearing on the matter, Rep. Mike Conaway, current chair of the House Agriculture Committee, put it this way: “[the inclusion of sustainability] could result in misguided recommendations that could have ill effects on consumer habits and agricultural production.”

Rep. Glenn Thompson, current chair of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, put a finer point on his interests: “What can we do to remove policies that hinder milk consumption, and to promote policies that could enhance milk consumption?”

It’s hardly a stretch to imagine that what happened during the 2015-2020 DGA cycle—and to the advisory committee’s recommendations that were seemingly lost in translation—was a direct product of industry influence.

And though efforts to communicate the science behind more sustainable, plant-based diets have been all but stymied, there is still plenty at stake for industry groups in the 2020-2025 DGA cycle. Expect to see some of the usual suspects make an appearance, including the meat industry, dairy industry, and sugar-sweetened beverage associations, as well as formula companies, which will have vested interest in shaping the new recommendations for infants and toddlers. (This may be happening in real-time, too. Just this spring, Gerber announced it would join its parent company, Nestle, at its headquarters in Rosslyn, Virginia—just a stone’s throw from the capitol.)

As this process unfolds, the Union of Concerned Scientists will be there—watchdogging and waiting. Stay tuned to learn more about how you can help us stand up for science and make the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans the strongest, most health-promoting edition yet.

Photo: grobery/CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)

Amazon Deforestation in Brazil: What Does it Mean When There’s no Change?

Photo: Brazilian things/Wikimedia Commons

I was recently invited by the editors of the journal Tropical Conservation Science to write an update of a 2013 article on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon that I had published with Sarah Roquemore and Estrellita Fitzhugh. They asked me to review how deforestation has changed over the past five years. The most notable result, as you can see from the graph in the just-published article (open-access), is that overall it hasn’t changed. And that’s actually quite surprising.

During the late 90s and early 2000s the deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon averaged about 20,000 square kilometers per year, driven by the rapid expansion of cattle pasture and the commercial soybean industry. Then, starting around 2005, it began to drop rapidly, falling by 70% in just half a dozen years. This dramatic drop cut Brazil’s national global warming emissions very substantially, in addition to having important benefits for biodiversity and for the people of the Amazon basin.

Since then – essentially no net change. There have been small fluctuations up and down in the annual measurements of deforestation (up in three years and down in three years, to be specific) but it remains at basically the same level. In 2017 the annual loss of Amazon forest was 6,947 km2; that compares to 6,418 km2 in 2011.

Why is this surprising? Because in the same period, Brazilian politics has been incredibly chaotic. To cite the most striking developments during this turbulent period: one President has been impeached and removed from office; an ex-President (during whose administration the decrease in deforestation was achieved) has been jailed and prevented from running again; and politicians across the political spectrum have been implicated in the corruption scandal known as “Lava Jato” – or Car Wash. Not to mention a major economic depression, the passage of legislation weakening of Brazil’s Forest Code, and the indictment of the world’s largest meatpacking company, JBS S.A., on charges relating both to deforestation and to selling tainted meat.

Why then, did deforestation remain essentially the same?

While there are many factors involved, the lack of change does seem to reflect the institutionalization of the reasons that caused deforestation to drop in the earlier period. These include regulations (and prosecutions) limiting the sale of beef and soy from deforested areas; increased transparency concerning who is deforesting and to whom they’re selling their beef and soy; improvements in efficiency which allowed farmers and ranchers to raise output without clearing more land; and underlying these, the development of a political movement, led by Brazilian NGOs, that made deforestation an important issue in national politics.

If the lack of change in deforestation is interesting, so is the way that the international media have covered it. My co-author Dora Chi and I reviewed news stories on Amazon deforestation (using Lexis-Nexis; our search found 134 print articles from 2013 through 2017) and discovered a common theme: the idea that although deforestation had fallen in earlier years, now it had gone back up. As our review showed, even though this interpretation isn’t borne out by the data, it was nonetheless quite frequently used in the media narratives about deforestation.

Perhaps this mis-interpretation simply reflects a common journalistic tendency to write “on the one hand… but on the other hand…” stories. Or maybe it’s that you can’t get a story into print if it says that there’s nothing new. It may also reflect our tendency to present data such as deforestation rates as percentages, without realizing how they can be misleading because they’re using different denominators. A quick example – if my income dropped by 50% last year, then turned around and increased by 50% this year – am I now back to where I was two years ago? No – I’m actually still 25% below that level.

So, both the lack of change in the data, and the mis-communication of its stability in the media, are notable phenomena. But there’s a third (non-)event worth noting, and that’s the fact that deforestation hasn’t dropped to zero, as it would have if the earlier trend had continued. This is a major failure in terms of its effect on climate change and efforts to reign in global emissions. It shows that Brazil’s political turbulence has had important consequences for the global environment.

Photo: Brazilian things/Wikimedia Commons

Why the Farm Bill Should Invest in Agroecology Research: An Interview with Dr. Selena Ahmed

Recently, the 2018 farm bill—the massive federal legislative package that shapes our country’s food and agriculture system—cleared a major hurdle, as both the House and Senate voted to begin negotiations toward a compromise bill. This process is important for many reasons, including how it will impact the US Department of Agriculture’s $3 billion annual investment in research to help the nation’s farmers and eaters alike.

In case your Schoolhouse Rock memories are fuzzy, a quick civics lesson: A bill becomes a law after it is passed by both the House and the Senate and signed by the president. When the House and Senate versions of a bill are not the same, a conference committee—made up of negotiators from both chambers—must meet to hash out their differences. The resulting bill then returns to both chambers of Congress for a final vote before heading to the president’s desk for signature. In the case of the farm bill, negotiators have some serious work to do to bridge the yawning gap between major components of the two bills, including nutrition and conservation provisions. Yet while these differences have generated bigger headlines, agriculture research is quietly one of the most important parts of the farm bill.

That’s because the USDA’s investment in science-based research—again, nearly $3 billion every year—helps to keep farmers and ranchers viable and profitable amidst a whole host of challenges, from changing patterns of pests to extreme weather to the economic uncertainty created by the president’s volatile trade policy. Publicly-funded agricultural research is crucial to advancing the sort of farming systems that can benefit both growers and the public, for example by improving soil health, diversifying our food supply, and reducing water pollution while maintaining farmers’ profits.  Research suggests that a field of science known as agroecology can be particularly effective at uncovering such solutions. Yet our investment in public agricultural research overall has been declining —both in comparison to funding from private industry, and to other global powers like China—and  investment in agroecology research is particularly insufficient.

Since the farm bill is the major legislative vehicle for supporting public agricultural research—and for transforming our food system more broadly—the agricultural research community has been outspoken in demanding a substantive increase in research funding. Last October, more than 60 organizations, including UCS, called on Congress to double total USDA food and agricultural research, education, and extension funding by the time the next farm bill comes up for reauthorization in 2023. And earlier this summer, a group of researchers from across the country traveled to Washington, D.C. to make a case for agroecology and interdisciplinary food systems science.

One of those researchers was Selena Ahmed, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems at Montana State University. While in D.C., Dr. Ahmed met with seven senators and representatives who serve on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, which are responsible for drafting the next farm bill and funding USDA research programs. I recently caught up with Dr. Ahmed to hear more about why the U.S. should invest in interdisciplinary, systems-based food and farm research, and how her message was received by Congress.

 

What are some of the objectives of your research program?

The overall goal of the research program that I lead through the Food and Health Lab at Montana State University is to strengthen sustainability and design innovations in the food system towards supporting local, national, and global food security for all. In my research program, I approach food security as equitable access to healthy, affordable, and desirable food that strengthens the capacity of individuals and communities to serve the challenges and needs of our nation and our world. My research has three key objectives. First, on the agriculture side of food systems, is to identify and design innovations that strengthen the resilience of farms and farmers to support environmental and human wellbeing. Second, on the consumption side of food systems, is to identify and design innovations that enhance access to high-quality and affordable food for healthy communities. Lastly, as a faculty member of Sustainable Food Systems at one of our nation’s land-grant institutions, I seek to build the capacity of future food system leaders to effectively address complex food system challenges towards supporting long-term local, national, and global food security.

How does your research and outreach work impact communities—in Montana, and across the country (and world)?

It is my hope that my work impacts communities in Montana, nationally, and globally through generating evidence to identify food system innovations, developing plans, and informing policies that support food security as well as environmental and human wellbeing. I lead and collaborate on multiple federally-funded projects as part of achieving this goal. This work is providing research evidence towards developing plans and policies to support farms, farmers, and communities.

For example, I have two funded projects through the National Science Foundation that are examining the effects of environmental and management factors on crop quality and farmer livelihoods as well as identifying agricultural innovations to build the resilience of farms and farmers to climate and market risk. This work is being conducted locally to support farmers and communities in Montana and regionally in the Upper Missouri River Basin, as well as in countries globally where many of our food supply chains start and those countries that have agricultural innovations that we can learn from in the United States. This research has generated evidence on multiple agroecological innovations that can be applied to reduce vulnerability to droughts and extreme weather events in order to more effectively feed our communities. These innovations include multiple agricultural solutions including diversified agriculture such as agroforestry, precision agriculture, tree planting, and management of soil organic matter and soil carbon sequestration through organic agriculture, manure management, mulching, and cover crops. I have generated data that agricultural diversification at the landscape, species, and genetic levels not only supports the environment, it can also result in crops with higher quality based on phytochemical and sensory profiles that are associated with higher price premiums and livelihoods for farmers as well as higher health attributes for human consumers.

On the consumption side of the food system, I have been engaging in a series of community-based projects in rural and tribal communities of Montana to generate research evidence to identity and design food system innovations that can enhance access to high-quality food. The goal of this work is to mitigate food insecurity, diet-related chronic disease, and health disparities through projects with community partners on the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Through a funding mechanism of the National Institutes of Health, our team has been taking a food systems approach to strengthen access of participants of nutrition assistance programs such as the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (also known as the Commodities Program) to fresh, healthy, local food. We see this food systems approach being ‘win-win’ for local communities by enhancing food security and human health while supporting local farms and strengthening the local economy.

Why were you motivated to come to DC to talk about agroecology research?

I thought it was a critical time to visit DC to discuss agroecology and food systems research with Congress in session working on the Farm Bill. I wanted to provide whatever input I could while also wanting to learn more about food policy in the United States and the varied perspectives of the Congressional offices regarding the Farm Bill. As a scientist, I believe it is our duty to share findings of our research to a broad audience including to policy makers in order for our research findings to be operationalizable and have far-reaching impacts. I do what I do to positively transition food systems to sustainability and a critical part of this work is engagement with community partners, industry stakeholders, policy makers, and advocacy groups.  I am extremely grateful for the federal funding that has supported my research program and I was honored for the opportunity to share the relevance of this work with Congressional offices.

What was your experience talking with Congressional offices? 

I very much benefited from the opportunity to share the relevance of my research program with Congressional offices while learning more about the varied priorities of these offices in respect to the Farm Bill. Overall, I found the members of the Congressional offices receptive in hearing about agroecology and food systems research as well as its relevance for communities and the nation. Multiple representatives from these offices noted that they appreciated learning about the work that is supported by federal funds. I also found the experience valuable in better understanding policy in the United States. Some of the Congressional representatives noted some of the policy opportunities and challenges in response to the recommendations offered based on our experiences. These perspectives were extremely insightful and I found this experience to be something I would like to continue to be involved in.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Ensuring food security is critical for a strong nation and a healthy planet. An agroecology and local food systems approach is crucial for ensuring food security while strengthening local economies and their capacity to serve the challenges and needs of our nation and our world. There are key attributes of specific federal research funding mechanisms that I believe result in the most successful outcomes for communities and the nation. One key attribute of funding mechanisms is their long-term nature. Agricultural and environmental processes are long-term and I have found that grant mechanisms that are also relatively long-term (4-5 years in length) allow for greater monitoring of long-term processes as well as greater impact. In addition, successful community-based work is dependent on developing relationships that can also be a long-term process; thus, grant mechanisms that are relatively long-term also allow for greater development of relationships with communities towards greater positive impact. Lastly, I wanted to highlight the importance of interdisciplinary and international research. Solutions for food system challenges we face in the United States may be found in the agricultural fields and communities of other nations. It is my hope such Congressional visits can serve to increase federal funding for agroecology and food systems research.

 

As luck would have it, Dr. Ahmed’s meetings with Congress were perfectly timed to make an impact. Just as she was heading back to Montana, the Senate Agriculture Committee released its draft farm bill, which was eventually approved by the full Senate on June 28. The Senate version of the bill makes important strides to protect and ramp up investment in agricultural research that supports agroecology. The Organic Agriculture Research Extension Initiative got a boost from $20 million to $50 million annually. A matching requirement for federal funding was eliminated, leveling the playing field for research institutions with fewer financial resources—including historically black and tribal colleges and universities. And the USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist (which plays an influential role, as evidenced by last year’s fight to defeat the nomination of Sam Clovis) was empowered with increased funding to improve staffing, increase coordination between federal research agencies, and expand oversight and scientific integrity.

The Senate bill was a welcome contrast to the House bill, passed earlier, which does not substantively improve the landscape for public agriculture research.

As negotiators in the House and Senate reconcile their two opposing bills, researchers like Dr. Ahmed will have to keep up the pressure, urging their members of Congress to adopt the Senate’s research title to prioritize strong investment in food and agriculture research. In the meantime, you can add your name to the petition calling on Congress to prioritize proven, science-based policies and programs in the farm bill. It’s what the agricultural research community wants, and it’s what we all need to build a world-class food system that makes affordable, healthy, and sustainably grown food available to everyone.

What Happens in the Next 26 Days Could Change Our Food and Farm Future

Photo: Andy Ciordia/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

It feels like I’ve been thinking about the 2018 farm bill forever, but we may have finally reached the beginning of the end. Tomorrow, an unusually large group of 56 (!) negotiators from the House and Senate are expected to shoehorn themselves into a room on Capitol Hill to begin the formal process of reconciling two very different visions of our food and farm system.

What happens next will either help small and midsize farmers thrive, put more healthy food on the dinner tables of our most vulnerable neighbors, and invest in farming practices that prevent water pollution and build healthy soil for the future…or not. There’s also an unfortunate third option, in which the farm bill process fails completely, leaving farmers and eaters in limbo.

But first, let’s review where we are, because this day has been a long time coming. As always, there have been ups and downs in the process of crafting a new farm bill, but this time the resulting bills passed in the House and Senate are particularly far apart on several crucial issues.

Two houses of Congress, two very different visions

The divisive House bill’s attack on the SNAP program (formerly food stamps) would be a disaster for millions of people in this country who struggle  to put food on the table—despite a strong economy, and even if they have a job. The House bill also cuts conservation incentives for farmers, completely eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the USDA’s biggest and most comprehensive initiative that helps farmers take steps to protect their soil and prevent water pollution. The House bill even throws endangered species under the bus as a gift to the pesticide industry.

Contrast all that with the Senate bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. That bill protects and improves SNAP and includes funding for innovative programs that connect farmers with local consumers, expanding farming opportunities, enabling more people to afford nutritious food, and keeping food dollars in communities. Moreover, the Senate bill maintains CSP and improves the program in a way that would really pay off—returning $1.2 billion in net benefits to farmers and taxpayers (compared to the House bill’s CSP net loss of $4.7 billion in benefits).

More wonky details about the differences between the House and Senate farm bills can be found here and here.

Can negotiations bridge stark farm bill differences?

Leaders of the congressional agriculture committees (including the Senate committee’s chairman and the House committee’s ranking member) keep issuing statements reassuring farmers that the process is on track. But there are signs that negotiations will be very difficult, and as reported last week, hardliners bent on gutting SNAP are vowing not to budge, leaving little room for compromise.

It remains to be seen whether negotiators will come to some agreement before the current farm bill expires on September 30. But with every day that passes, that outcome seems less likely.

So what happens if they don’t beat the clock? Well, there are a couple of scenarios.

Scenario #1, A Farm Bill Fumble: If the House and Senate fail to pass an identical bill before the end of this month, or if the president decides he doesn’t like the bill they pass and refuses to sign it (a thing that could happen), Congress could vote to extend the current legislation for some period of time. That could be a week, a month, or even a year, depending on whether they just need a little more time to negotiate a sticky detail, or rather they want to kick the can to the next Congress.

Regardless of the extension’s duration, legislators would need to vote specifically to continue funding certain programs, due to a quirk in the legislative process (more on that below). And then the whole new-farm-bill-writing process would start over with a new Congress in 2019.

Scenario #2, A Total Farm Bill Fail: But if Congress fails to pass a new bill this month and they fail to pass an extension keeping money flowing to key programs, that’s when bad things happen. In this situation—let’s call it a TFBF for short—money would immediately dry up for a variety of programs that lack so-called baseline funding. These are programs that farmers, rural communities, and low-income consumers depend upon, and they include:

The Congressional Research Service has a good explanation of farm bill “baseline” funding, with a full listing of programs that don’t have it and would thus be stranded without a new farm bill or an extension of the current one.

While Congress negotiates, we need to keep the pressure on

Let’s assume for the moment that Congress manages to avoid a TFBF at the end of this month. In that case, the entire Congress will need to vote on something—either a new farm bill or an extension of current law. So even for the majority of representatives and senators that won’t be actively negotiating over the next couple of weeks, the farm bill is a thing they need to be thinking about.

You can help keep the pressure up by contacting your representatives and senators. Urge them to reject any farm bill that undercuts SNAP, fails to include local food programs, or eliminates CSP—send an email today.

What Congress Does Next Could Cost Farmers and Taxpayers Billions

Management intensive rotational grazing of beef cattle is one example of a conservation practice incentivized by CSP. Here, the author moves cows at the Michigan State University AgBioResearch Center in Lake City, Michigan Photo: Paige Stanley

This year has been hard for all farmers—they have faced an ongoing trade war from the Trump administration and an uphill battle with climate change. But farmers who want to use sustainable practices are being particularly hard hit, as their interests are sidelined for the benefit of agribusinesses. And for the rest of us, 2018 has—almost like clockwork—shown the failure of half-hearted efforts to control farm-sourced water pollution that contaminates drinking water and destroys fisheries.  

The House Committee on Agriculture’s farm bill proposal to eliminate a program that offers tangible hope in difficult times is the biggest blow yet. Not only is the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) popular among farmers, it addresses agricultural challenges and delivers environmental benefits that impact us all. As the deadline to complete the 2018 farm bill approaches, Congress should think long and hard before giving CSP the axe. According to new UCS analysis, they’d sacrifice as much as $4.7 billion dollars in annual taxpayer value to do it.

Maybe you’re not familiar with the farm bill (no one completely understands it), or maybe you’re more concerned with other happenings, like the current attack on science at the EPA. I can’t say I blame you. But if you like to eat food and drink clean water—and you want strong returns on your tax dollars—then listen up.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of today’s farming system

Industrialized US agriculture is highly productive, but it comes at an enormous cost. UCS has documented how the two most widely-grown commodity crops, corn and soy, are failing to feed people and are grown in ways that degrade our soil, increase damage from droughts and floodspollute drinking water, and create vast dead zones along our coasts. Industrialized animal agriculture often leads to even worse outcomes for the environment.

Luckily, there are better methods of agricultural production, and scaling them up is within reach. Conservation and ecologically based farming (agroecology) can not only prevent pollution and soil loss, they can help regenerate ecosystemsincrease productivity, and improve farmer livelihoods. And while federal policies have played a big role in incentivizing many of today’s damaging practices, there are also federal programs that deliver solutions.

Introducing the Conservation Stewardship Program

Conservation practices can improve soil health and soil ecosystem function, which leads to reduced erosion and runoff, improved water quality, and taxpayer savings.

The five-year farm bill funds several such programs run by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Some, like the Conservation Reserve Program, pay for farmers to retire sensitive land from production. Others, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), termed “working lands programs,” incentivize farmers to adopt more sustainable practices on farm lands that stay in production. Although these programs make up only 6 percent of total farm bill spending, they pack in co-benefits like soil, air and water quality, climate change mitigation, and wildlife habitat. Tiny, but mighty.

Of these, CSP is the crown jewel. It is the only program that promotes comprehensive, whole farm sustainability. As the largest conservation program covering over 72 million acres, CSP targets high priority sustainability concerns and ensures we’re getting the most bang for our buck. Not only does this program pay for practices that are scientifically proven to produce results, such as resource conserving crop rotations, management intensive rotational grazing, cover cropping, and establishment of wildlife habitats, it pays for farmers to implement such practices in combination. And that is where the money is, literally, as our analysis shows.

CSP offers taxpayers an eye-popping deal

We sought to quantify the return on investment of public dollars in CSP and compare the effects that Senate and House farm bill changes to CSP could have on farmers and taxpayers. You can dig into our detailed methodology but, in short, we did this by considering the cost of CSP to taxpayers (according to the USDA budget) and estimating the benefits that CSP is known to deliver, including things like reduced erosion, increased grazing land productivity, improved air quality, carbon sequestration, and more.

Benefits included costs savings to farmers (like reduced need for fertilizer) and consumers (like reduced expenses for contaminated water), as well as the projected benefits of other ecosystem services (like increased productivity and reduced greenhouse gases).

Here’s what we found:

  • For every dollar of taxpayer money invested into CSP, we get about $3.95 in returned value. This value is notably higher than ROIs estimated for other conservation programs, thanks to CSP’s holistic approach and synergistic benefits that maximize returns.
  • Using this ROI, we estimated that the House bill eliminating CSP would result in lost benefits of $4.7 billion dollars per year. Pause for shock effect (I know we did). These are costs that would impact us ALL- from increased input costs for farmers, increased environmental degradation, and risking food security with a changing climate.
  • Conversely, we estimate that the Senate bill would lead to a net increase of benefits likely valued at around $1.2 billion dollars per year. Though the Senate bill does include some CSP funding cuts, it also improves the program in ways that emphasize high-value practices, so it’s more efficient.

The chart below summarizes the economic impacts of each of our farm bill scenarios.

Change in benefits calculated across four possible farm bill outcomes: 1) House bill is adopted and CSP is eliminated, 2) Senate bill is adopted, but without program improvements, and 3) Senate bill is adopted but with improvements resulting in a) a small increase (10 percent) to the expected ROI in both the Minimal and Likely ROI scenarios and b) a larger (33 percent) increase in both the Minimal and Likely ROI scenarios (see appendix for more details)

Farmers want—and need—incentives to pursue conservation goals

This program is in high demand. An average of between 50 and 75 percent of farmers and ranchers who apply each year are turned away. Recently, more than 165 farmers and ranchers wrote a letter to the House of Representatives Ranking Member Collin Peterson urging him to not only maintain the program, but to keep the promise of enrolling 10 million new acres per year. The results of a survey of more than 2,800 farmers earlier this year provided even more evidence that farmers are interested in this type of support from the farm bill.

The future fate of the CSP rests in the hands of those negotiating the 2018 farm bill. With the current farm bill set to expire on September 30, 2018, the House and Senate agriculture committees are scrambling to reauthorize a bill in time. Considering the intense backlash from farmers on Trump’s current tariff war and hot debates on proposed cuts to SNAP, this egregious crime of side-stepping the environment by cutting CSP is happening largely under the radar.

It’s illogical to eliminate, or even cut, a program that so efficiently provides broad-ranging environmental benefits to so many people across the country. Farmers are begging to keep it. Taxpayers benefit from it. The environment depends on it. So, while the House is busy trying to eliminate it – which would effectively cost us billions of dollars – all evidence suggests that strengthening it should be the real priority.

House and Senate negotiators are now deciding on the final outlines of the 2018 farm bill, including what happens to CSP. Tell them to prioritize this and other proven, science-based policies and programs that are good for all of us.

Paige L. Stanley has a Master’s of Animal Science for Michigan State University and is currently a Doctoral Researcher at the University of California Berkeley in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. She is interested in transitions toward sustainable and humane livestock production systems with a focus in beef cattle. Her research is currently focused on farmer and rancher barriers to entry to adopting sustainable management practices.

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.

Photo: Paige Stanley NRCS/Ron Nichols, Flickr Creative Commons

Is Scientific Integrity Safe at the USDA?

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plant physiologist Franck Dayan observes wild-type and herbicide-resistant biotypes of Palmer Amaranth (pigweed) as Mississippi State University graduate student, Daniela Ribeiro collects samples for DNA analysis at the ARS Natural Products Utilization Research Unit in Oxford, MS on July 20, 2011. USDA photo by Stephen Ausmus. Photo: Stephen Ausmus, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Science is critical to everything the US Department of Agriculture does—helping farmers produce a safe, abundant food supply, protecting our soil and water for the future, and advising all of us about good nutrition to stay healthy. I recently wrote about the Trump administration’s new USDA chief scientist nominee, Scott Hutchins, and the conflicts he would bring from a career narrowly focused on developing pesticides for Dow.

But meanwhile, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue last week abruptly announced a proposed reorganization of the USDA’s research agencies. This move has implications for whoever takes up the post of chief scientist—as do new survey findings released yesterday, which suggest that the Trump administration is already having detrimental effects on science and scientists at the USDA.

An attack on science, and a shrinking portfolio for the next chief scientist

The job for which Scott Hutchins (and this guy before him) has been nominated is actually a multi-pronged position. The under secretary is responsible for overseeing the four agencies that currently make up the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area: the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service (ERS), the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Collectively, these agencies carry out or facilitate nearly $3 billion worth of research on food and agriculture topics every year. In addition, the REE under secretary is the USDA’s designated chief scientist, overseeing the Office of the Chief Scientist, established by Congress in 2008 to “provide strategic coordination of the science that informs the Department’s and the Federal government’s decisions, policies and regulations that impact all aspects of U.S. food and agriculture and related landscapes and communities.” OCS and the chief scientist are also responsible for ensuring scientific integrity across the department.

Altogether, it’s no small job, but it may soon get smaller. Secretary Perdue’s unexpected reorganization proposal last week would pluck ERS figuratively from within REE and place it in the Secretary’s office. Perdue’s announcement also included a plan to literally move ERS, along with NIFA, to as-yet-undetermined locations outside the DC area.

Perdue’s proposal cited lower rents and better opportunities to recruit agricultural specialists. But that rationale sounds fishy to UCS and other observers, as well as former USDA staff (the most recent NIFA administrator had this unvarnished reaction) and current staff who were caught by surprise. The move looks suspiciously like subordinating science to politics, likely giving big agribusiness and its boosters in farm-state universities ever more influence over the direction of USDA research that really should be driven by the public interest. Moreover, on the heels of a White House proposal earlier this year to cut the ERS budget in half—which Congress has thus far ignored—Perdue’s “relocate or leave” plan for ERS staff sure seems like a back-door way to gut the agency’s capacity.

New USDA scientist survey findings give more cause for concern

Even before announcements of a conflicted chief scientist nominee and ill-conceived reorganization, things weren’t exactly rosy for those working within REE agencies. In a survey conducted in February and March and released by UCS yesterday, scientists and economists in ARS, ERS, NASS, and NIFA raised concerns about the effects of political interference, budget cuts, and staff reductions. In partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, we asked more than 63,000 federal scientists across 16 government agencies about scientific integrity, agency effectiveness, and the working environment for scientists in the first year of the Trump administration. At the USDA, we sent the survey to more than 3,600 scientists, economists, and statisticians we identified in the four REE agencies; about 7 percent (n=258) responded.

Among the findings summarized in our USDA-specific fact sheet are that scientists:

  • Face restrictions on communicating their work—78 percent said they must obtain agency preapproval to communicate with journalists; and
  • Report workforce reductions are a problem—90 percent say they’ve noticed such reductions in their agencies. And of those, 92 percent say short-staffing is making it harder for the USDA to fulfill its science-based mission.

To sum up: the next USDA chief scientist will lead a shrinking, under-resourced, and somewhat demoralized cadre of scientists facing political interference and possibly increased influence from industry (a trend we are already seeing in the Trump/Perdue USDA). All this at a time when the department really needs to advance research that can help farmers meet the myriad challenges they face and safeguard the future of our food system.

Soon, I’ll follow up with questions the Senate might want to ask Scott Hutchins—in light of all this and his own chemical industry baggage—when they hold his confirmation hearing.

In the Final Stretch of the Farm Bill, Keep an Eye on Crop Insurance. (Crop Insurance?)

A drought-stricken soybean field in Texas Photo: Bob Nichols, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

You’re not a farmer, but you’re invested in crop insurance.

The chances that you are a farmer are nil. After all, there are only 2.1 million farms in a nation of 323.1 million people. Yet, you are deeply invested in the nation’s farming enterprise. As a taxpayer, you back U.S. agriculture by financing a range of government programs that hover around $20 billion annually. Those tax dollars fund such things as price supports, research, marketing and crop insurance.

The case for crop insurance

It is in the interest of the 99% of us who don’t farm to help protect family farmers against two major hazards that are outside their control: market downturns and weather disasters. We do this through a “farm safety net” that consists of coupling price supports for agricultural commodities with crop and livestock insurance. Over 300 million acres are covered for $100 billion of insured liability annually. The legislative vehicle that authorizes these federal programs is a “farm bill” that is renewed every five years. The current iteration is due to be renewed by September 30 of this year.

It is a game of “Who is going to get your money?”

If—amid the current swirl of political news—you’ve not been following the scintillating path of the Farm Bill through Congress, the current status is that each chamber has passed dramatically different drafts of the bill. If Congress is to meet its deadline for reauthorization, it needs to reconcile the differing versions of the farm bill within the next few weeks. The two versions differ on whether to make the bill more equitable for family farmers and those seeking to get into farming, as the Senate version proposes, or to make it easier to abuse and defraud taxpayers to further enrich a very few already wealthy farmers, which the House version would enable. Specifically, the Senate version would set limits on the total subsidy payments that farms would be eligible to receive—at $250,000 per year per farm. Coupled with this is a measure to prevent the wealthiest of farmers from drawing on public support that they do not actually need. The cut-off for eligibility would be reduced from the present $900,000 annual Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) per farmer to $700,000. Additionally, the Senate version proposes tying eligibility for insurance benefits to the effectiveness of conservation practices.

These are welcome adjustments, even though they still fall short of the comprehensive reform needed to prevent open abuse of the farm safety net. For example, an earlier effort to reduce the insurance premium subsidy drawn by farmers with an AGI greater than $700,000 was defeated. Yes, the federal government doles out insurance payouts to farmers, plus the majority of the cost of their insurance premiums! More on the rationale for this in a bit, but the point here is that payment limit measures would level the playing field for small and medium family farms. This is just one of the issues that pits the interests of these farmers—and of taxpayers and fiscal conservatives—against the political power of large farmers and their agribusiness backers. As for the House version of the Farm Bill? Not only does it not include these sensible—if mild—reforms, it brazenly creates loopholes that would have non-farming relatives become eligible for “per farmer” benefits.

We’ve done that. It doesn’t work. Shall we try something different?

If we keep doing more of the same, the cost of insurance will balloon and make some wealthy people even richer—but it doesn’t have to. While the rationale for public support of family farmers is self-evident, in practice our crop insurance policies could be better. Over the past five years, federal crop insurance cost American tax payers an average of $9 billion annually, according to analysis from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO.) Drought and flood damage accounted for 72% of insurance payouts between 2001 and 2015, per accounting from the RMA. Climate change will only make this worse, as more frequent and extreme weather episodes drive up costs for the program. The CBO estimates—using scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—that crop insurance costs will increase by $1 billion annually through 2080.

This upward spiral is compounded by the fact that our current policy incentivizes waste—because it focuses on production regardless of environmental and other costs—instead of adoption of well-known, scientifically sound production practices that can minimize crop losses even under climate extremes. Adoption of the latter practices would result in a more resilient agricultural system that would reduce farm losses and the need for, and expense of, insurance to the public. We therefore should incentivize these kinds of scientifically informed and fiscally responsible systems. While the 2014 farm bill intended to do just this by requiring “conservation compliance,” the Office of the Inspector General has found that such compliance is weakly enforced.

What would make more sense?

It is reasonable for the public to expect the best farming practices in return for the farm safety net that their tax dollars provide. In fact, this could be done by connecting the different parts (“titles”) of the farm bill so they work together. For example, the Research Title generates information about the most sustainable farming practices, which are supported in large measure by the Conservation Title. Better coordination of the Crop Insurance Title with these two would make the entire farm bill more coherent and should reduce total costs to farmers, taxpayers and the environment.

To understand how we might do this, consider the nation’s “corn belt,” an expanse of 180 million acres dominated by a lawn of corn and soybeans, each grown in extensive “monocrops” (swaths of homogenous stands of a single crop.) As currently managed, these systems promote soil degradation and soil loss, water pollution and runaway pest crises. In turn, this exposes farmers (and all of us, as their underwriters) to the risk inherent in betting on a single system to be successful under all circumstances all the time. Every one of the environmental crises listed above can be mitigated, if not eliminated, by adoption of well-researched “agroecological” methods. We can drive this shift in farm management by tying eligibility for government programs, including crop insurance, to verified implementation of practices that conserve soil, build soil health, sequester carbon and increase biodiversity. These practices make farming systems more resilient to weather extremes and are more profitable to farmers because they reduce farmer reliance on purchased inputs. Further, more resilient farms would rely less on government supports like the federal crop and livestock insurance programs.

Perverse loopholes instead further enrich the largest farmers

At present, however, loopholes in our policies permit the largest and most profitable farms to receive both windfall payments and a disproportionate amount of farm bill subsidies. Because the current system rewards production, and not resilience, the result is that it is “large, very large and corporate farms,” just 4% of farms, that are the greatest beneficiaries of the public’s support. These farms account for 55% of US agricultural output and earn $1 M or more in gross farm cash income each year. Such farms face large risks, of course, but they don’t need public support to afford their insurance costs. It isn’t just that the public provides farmers insurance, but that we make it cheap insurance. The reason is that taxpayers subsidize 60% of crop insurance premiums. This is intended to incentivize farmers to buy insurance rather than force the government to come up with unbudgeted emergency payments every time major disasters strike. In practice, however, this has served to concentrate wealth. Those 4% of farms receiving the lion’s share of farm bill benefits have an operating profit margin greater than 10%. In contrast, the majority of small and midsize family farms—those which could readily adopt more diverse crop and livestock production methods, and which account for 45% of the nation’s farm assets—operate with a profit margin less than 10%. Those are the farmers who actually need the public’s support. It is a situation that clearly calls for payment limits to cap the amount of farm bill benefits that any one farm can receive.

Farmers can adopt and manage more resilient systems, and we should reward them for that

The 2014 Farm Bill—the most recent—introduced “Whole Farm Revenue” insurance for farmers wishing to diversify their farms (produce a variety of crops and livestock in integrated fashion.) Diversified farming systems protect farmers from catastrophic losses the same way diversified stock portfolios protect investors. Such systems tend to protect soil, filter and better store water, recycle and make better use of fertilizer nutrients, have fewer pest problems (and thereby require fewer pesticides), and result in lower costs and higher profits. Further, because fewer external inputs (such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides) are purchased, farmers earn more, and more of those earnings are recirculated in the local rural economy. However, under our existing risk management approach, these systems have proven more difficult to insure than large monocrops. The latter have long actuarial records, permitting insurers to set premiums with greater certainty, and are familiar to and therefore preferred by bankers and Farm Service Agency personnel. But this is counterproductive, as it discourages the best farming practices and encourages the worst. Barriers such as these, and those encountered by new and beginning farmers (who must establish a credit and cropping history to gain access to loans and insurance premium discounts), must instead be streamlined with more informed farm bill criteria. The Whole Farm Revenue insurance program is one step towards incentivizing resilient diversified systems.  Programs to support beginning and younger farmers, who are also more likely to use diversified systems, are another way to build more resilient farms. The Senate version of the current Farm Bill attempts to address these issues.

What you can do:

Demand That Members of Congress Who Will Reconcile the House and Senate Farm Bills Make Your Financial Backing of Farm Programs More Effective, Responsible and Equitable

Sign On: Even though the Farm Bill programs described above are directed to farmers, we all have a stake. As taxpayers, we back these programs and—as we’ve seen—it is important that the programs be equitable and balance production with environmental responsibility and resilience. You can help make it clear to Congress that you strongly support these goals by signing our statement urging farm bill conferees to adopt the Senate version of the bill. The “conferees” are the 47 members of Congress who will work with the currently disparate versions of the Farm Bill and decide the form of the final legislation. We will deliver this letter and your signatures to the chairs of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees as they begin deliberations.

Tell Conferees About the Farm Safety Net You Want: Members of Congress are visiting their districts right now! During the congressional recess that will last the remainder of this month, you can visit their offices, attend their town hall meetings, or call and write the offices of the Senate conferees, as well as of the Republican and Democrat House Farm Bill conferees. Remember that as a citizen and taxpayer your representatives are bound to take your calls and letters and consider your input. This is all the more important for direct constituents of Farm Bill conferees. When you call and write, be sure to make these particular points:

  • Adopt the Senate version of the Crop Insurance title (Title XI) because it improves and streamlines the Whole Farm Revenue Insurance program. Importantly, the Senate version recognizes the need to eliminate obstacles for new farmers and the “underserved” (in the Farm Bill this—tellingly—means farmers of color.) To this end, support the House measure that defines “Beginning Farmers” as those who have farmed less than 10 years.
  • Adopt the Senate recommendation to link crop insurance eligibility with the performance of adopted conservation practices.
  • Make the farm safety net more equitable by closing loopholes in the Commodity Title (Title I) that permit abuse. Specifically, restrict payment eligibility to individuals actually farming; establish an AGI limit of $700,000 for eligibility for commodity payments; and set maximum commodity payments per farmer to $250,000 per year.
Photo: Bob Nichols, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Farmers Markets and SNAP: Thanks, New York…Your Move, Congress

This National Farmers Market Week, we have some things to celebrate. There’s peak summer produce, of course…I mean, who doesn’t like a perfectly ripe tomato? And now, we may be a little bit closer to a day when that lovely red orb is accessible to anyone who wants one on a hot day in August. But first, let’s talk about a crisis averted.

Late last month, the state of New York and the New York Farmers Market Federation came to the rescue of thousands of farmers markets—and the shoppers that rely on them. The emergency? A host of technical and financial problems threatened the sudden collapse of the systems that allow farmers markets to accept food stamp benefits electronically. And although that didn’t happen (thanks, New York!) the events that unfolded over the past month illustrate the need for more extensive and permanent infrastructure to connect low-income consumers with farmers and help local food systems thrive.

SNAP EBT problem solved, for now

Since 1997, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) has provided benefits via Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, offering convenience and minimizing stigma in transactions at grocery stores. But EBT posed a challenge for farmers markets held outdoors without secure data lines, leading companies like the Austin-based Novo Dia Group to develop mobile software solutions. The firm now uses wireless technology to process some 40 percent of SNAP transactions at farmers markets nationwide.

But in early July, Novo Dia announced it was unable to fulfill the remainder of its contract with the USDA and would end its service within the month. This would have affected a significant number of the nation’s 8,720 farmers markets, at which low-income shoppers redeemed more than $22.4 million in SNAP benefits last year.

The factors contributing to the shutdown remain somewhat unclear; Novo Dia cites high operational costs associated with its wireless platform, compounded by the company’s exclusion from a new contract between the USDA and Financial Transaction Management (FTM)—a new and relatively unknown company that won the bid to provide equipment to farmers markets in March 2018. (For clarity: USDA previously contracted with the Farmers Market Coalition for this service, who then subcontracted with Novo Dia.)

But regardless of the reasons, the consequences would have been devastating. A shutdown would have left some 1,700 farmers markets across the country without a way to redeem SNAP EBT—meaning SNAP participants would lose access to fresh, nutritious, affordable food and farmers would lose customers and revenue—right smack in the middle of the season.

Enter the state of New York, which jumped in last week to provide financing that will keep Novo Dia’s system operating nationwide through early 2019. Novo Dia’s financial viability aside, questions remain about why the USDA selected FTM—a little-known company that will replace Novo Dia with other unknown subcontractors—to serve the nation’s farmers markets. Yes, it could be an unremarkable outcome of a routine government bidding process. But the USDA’s mid-July press statement describing the situation isn’t wholly reassuring.

Congress can build lasting solutions

While New York bails out Novo Dia, there’s much more that Congress can do to enable long-term solutions; namely, by connecting farmers with consumers to support the growth of economically vibrant local food systems in communities throughout the country. Using data from our 50-State Food System Scorecard, UCS health analyst Sarah Reinhardt wrote recently that in states whose farmers grow more fruits and vegetables—and who can rely on better infrastructure to get that healthy food onto people’s plates—diet and health outcomes are better.

And this is where Congress comes in. This month, the 2018 farm bill is entering a critical stage of negotiations, as leaders in the US Senate and House of Representatives come together to finalize this massive 5-year legislative package, which shapes everything about how we eat in this country and who can afford nutritious food. Earlier this summer, the Senate passed a version of the bill that would make much-needed investments in local food systems, creating an innovative Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP). The bipartisan provisions of this program would help communities expand access to fresh, nutritious food for many consumers, grow the customer base for small and midsize farmers, and offer a much-needed boost to struggling rural economies. That’s a win all-around.

However, the House version of the farm bill passed up the opportunity to make such investments. And now, members of the House and Senate are coming together in a conference committee to hash out their differences and negotiate a final bill. It’s time to insist that negotiators prioritize smart local food policies and include LAMP provisions in the bill that goes to the president’s desk.

What you can do: Local food programs that connect producers to consumers can support profitable farms, enable more people to afford healthy food, and keep food dollars in rural communities. So while you’re celebrating farmers markets this week with a slice of tomato mayo toast (my latest obsession), take a moment to sign our petition to support healthy local food solutions in the farm bill TODAY!

At the Trump USDA, the “D” Stands for “Dow”

USDA/Flickr

Everywhere you look in the Trump administration, there’s the Dow Chemical Company. Or rather, DowDuPont, as the company has been known since a 2017 corporate merger. The influence of this multinational chemical and agribusiness conglomerate is being felt in regulatory decisions involving Dow’s products, and the administration has pulled multiple Dow executives and lobbyists through the revolving door into high-level government positions.

The latest example of the latter? Meet Scott Hutchins, the career Dow exec and pesticide booster nominated last month to oversee science at the USDA.

Hutchins is a scientist…but is that enough?

To be fair, Hutchins is a vast improvement over the White House’s first choice (remember this guy?) for the job of USDA under secretary for research, education, and economics (REE), a position that encompasses the role of the department’s chief scientist. A trained scientist with a PhD in entomology, Hutchins clearly meets the criteria Congress set for this position in 2008. And to be sure, scientific training and experience with agriculture is critical for the person who will manage the USDA’s four science agencies and its $3 billion annual investment in science to support farmers and protect and enhance our food supply. It was the main reason UCS deemed the previous nominee unacceptable and more than 3,100 independent scientists urged the Senate to reject him.

But do Dr. Hutchins’ scientific credentials alone make him the right person for the job? I don’t think so.

Most of the USDA’s scientific work is carried out in four agencies that Hutchins would directly administer, and their work affects all of us every day. For example:

  • Some 2,000 scientists at the department’s Agricultural Research Service conduct research, often in collaboration with universities, that helps keep our food safe and shapes farmers’ decisions about what to grow and how to grow it.
  • Researchers at the Economic Research Service analyze the state of the agricultural economy, track food prices, and evaluate the economic impacts of farm pollution and efforts to curb it.
  • Number-crunchers at the National Agricultural Statistics Service conduct a 5-year census of agriculture that provides consistent, comparable, and detailed agricultural data for every US county, and analyze other data to identify trends in food and farming.
  • And the National Institute for Food and Agriculture awards grants to scientists working across the country to meet many of our greatest challenges, from fighting hunger and food insecurity to reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions and preparing the next generation of scientists and farmers.

As the REE under secretary oversees all this work, he or she needs to have an expansive view of our food and agriculture system. And this is what concerns me most about this nomination: There are many ways we can address the system’s challenges, but Scott Hutchins has spent his whole career on just one of them.

A career steeped in Big Ag

Hutchins is a pesticide guy. Since 1987, he has worked to develop and refine marketable chemical solutions to farm pests at Dow AgroSciences’ pesticide and seed division, a unit renamed Corteva Agriscience last year when it was spun off from the newly-merged DowDuPont. If he joins the USDA, he will leave the position of Corteva’s global leader of integrated field sciences; previously, he was Dow AgroSciences’ global director for crop protection R&D.

More than 30 years’ worth of ties to Dow and other agribusiness corporations will be difficult for Hutchins to fully disentangle, as his public financial disclosure form and ethics agreement illustrate. He will receive a severance payment and a prorated 2018 bonus from Corteva/DowDuPont upon his resignation, and the company will continue to pay for his and his wife’s health insurance, for life, under its retiree plan. For two years after the severance and for as long as he participates in the health insurance plan, he’s committing to recuse himself from participating “personally and substantially in any particular matter” involving DowDuPont…though there’s a loophole that allows for a written waiver, which other conflicted USDA officials have received. And anyway, who’s to say that any given decision he’d make at the USDA would have no effect on a company as embedded in the agriculture system as Dow?

Hutchins has also pledged to divest a lot of personal stock holdings—copious Dow stock but also that of Big Food companies including Coca Cola and Nestlé. And he will resign from the Board of Directors of AgriNovus of lndiana (described as “an industry sector initiative formed by the Central Indiana Corporate Partnership,” which in turn involves 55 corporations). That’s a whole lot more industry ties he will officially sever but inevitably bring with him, in some way, to the USDA.

Another day, another betrayal at the USDA

This is part of a troubling pattern. We’ve already documented the ways USDA Secretary Perdue—who literally applauded the Hutchins nomination—has catered to large agribusiness corporations at the expense of farmers and the public, just in his first year. And the list of industry-friendly actions just keeps coming.

Take the president’s trade war. A July op-ed by Alicia Harvie of the nonprofit Farm Aid is a good reminder that Perdue’s rationale for the trade war—China’s theft of patented GMO seeds from US farm fields—isn’t really about farmers at all:

We should remember that farmers are not the ones who reap benefits from patented seed technologies. Those profits go to the patent-holding company itself, which these days is one of ever-fewer multinational seed conglomerates, while farmers watch their seed prices skyrocket.

The supposed reason for this trade war with China, then, is not to protect farmers — it’s to shelter multinational seed and chemical giants, like Bayer-Monsanto, Dow-Dupont and Syngenta-ChemChina, and other agribusiness giants who benefit from free trade regimes that put corporate profits before people. 

Now, the administration is trumpeting a $12 billion bailout (but don’t you dare call it that) for farmers caught in the crisis the president himself manufactured. But some farmers are rightly pessimistic that the money will end up in their pockets rather than in agribusiness coffers. The Trump USDA’s betrayal of farmers continues unabated, it seems.

Dow and the Trump administration are cozy, and getting cozier

Even among huge agribusiness corporations, Dow is particularly tight with the Trump administration. That relationship began with a million-dollar gift from Dow CEO Andrew Liveris to the president-elect’s inauguration fund. The new president then tapped Liveris to lead his short-lived manufacturing council. (President Trump abruptly disbanded the council last summer after some of its members—though not Liveris—resigned in protest of the president’s response to racist violence in Charlottesville. But that’s another story.)

As Bloomberg reported in April 2017, a pre-merger Dow Chemical nearly tripled its lobbying expenditures between 2008 and 2016.

Source: Center for Responsive Politics, https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D000000188&year=2016

In 2017, as the Trump administration got underway, the newly-merged DowDuPont ramped up its lobbying even further.

Source: Center for Responsive Politics, https://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/clientsum.php?id=D000069022&year=2018

Clearly, Dow saw the Trump era as a promising one for its policy priorities, and it appears they were right. The company’s investment in the Trump administration started paying off in March 2017, when the EPA suddenly reversed its planned ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos in an apparent gift to its manufacturer…Dow. Not satisfied with that win, the company has continued to press the administration and its allies in Congress to weaken pesticide regulations in ways that would harm endangered fish and wildlife.

And now former Dow officials and lobbyists are literally holding the reins of government. The Hutchins nomination brings the number of Dow employees appointed to high-level USDA jobs to three. If that doesn’t sound like a lot, note that there are only 13 Senate-confirmable positions at USDA. Hutchins would join former Dow AgroSciences lobbyist Ted McKinney, who was confirmed last year as USDA under secretary for trade, and Ken Isley, who was appointed (without need for Senate confirmation) to head the Foreign Agricultural Service. Like Hutchins, the two spent many years (19 and nearly 29, respectively) at Dow and its subsidiaries. There’s also Rebekah Adcock, an advisor to Secretary Perdue who was a lobbyist at CropLife America, a pesticide lobby group that counts Corteva among its members, and who got caught last fall opening the department’s door a little wider for her former pesticide industry colleagues.

Add to all this the pending nomination of former Dow lawyer Peter Wright as assistant administrator of the EPA office that manages the Superfund program and other chemical hazards programs—my colleague Genna Reed recently blogged about why that’s so troubling.

Doubling down on Dow

It’s clear that DowDuPont already wields significant influence in the Trump administration. Moreover, Dow and a small number of other multinational agribusiness conglomerates have enormous control over US agriculture and our food system, a situation that pre-dates Trump, of course. The trend toward corporate consolidation has increasingly detrimental effects on farmers (as our allies at the Organization for Competitive Markets explain), and DowDuPont is emblematic of that trend.

For example, with the DowDuPont merger completed and the recently-approved merger of Bayer and Monsanto underway, it’s been estimated that the resulting two mega-companies sell three-quarters of all corn seeds planted by US farmers, and nearly two-thirds of all soybean seeds. Globally, Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont, and Switzerland-based Syngenta now sell 59 percent of the world’s seeds and 64 percent of its pesticides.

This is the world Scott Hutchins inhabits, a world in which giant corporations develop and patent a few tools and products that make up the bulk of our agriculture system. It’s a world, and a mindset, that is incompatible with the kinds of ecologically-sophisticated, knowledge-based solutions farmers say they want and scientists urge the USDA to invest in. It’s also incompatible with what eaters are increasingly looking for: healthy and sustainable food. Yet perversely, the Trump USDA is embracing that model as the nation’s official stance on what agriculture should be. With yet another Dow exec in a position of power at the USDA, that model would be reinforced further.

Bottom line: taxpayer-funded research of the kind Hutchins would oversee at the USDA should focus on solutions in the public interest, not Dow’s interest. Ultimately, that’s why UCS is decidedly less-than-enthusiastic about Scott Hutchins. But he is the nominee, and the Senate must now vet his appointment and give their advice and consent. In another post, I’ll share my thoughts on key questions Senators should ask him.

Why Republican Farm Bill Negotiators Should Think Twice About Attacks on SNAP

Photo: US Department of Agriculture

This September, after Congress returns from its August recess, we can expect to see the first public meeting of the farm bill conference committee.

The committee—currently composed of a healthy 47 appointees (or “conferees”) from the House and nine from the Senate—will have the difficult task of reconciling two vastly different versions of the bill. The House bill received sharp criticism for its proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), including extreme and unjustified work requirements that would reduce or eliminate benefits for millions of people. The Senate, by contrast, passed a bipartisan bill that left the structure of SNAP largely intact and made additional investments in healthy and sustainable food systems.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, it wouldn’t surprise us if House Republican conferees continue to push for changes that will make it harder for people to access SNAP. But based on the data, this strategy seems pretty misguided.

We looked at household SNAP participation among the counties represented by the 28 House Republican conferees and found that restricting SNAP would not only harm many of their constituents—it would harm them disproportionately compared to counties represented by House Democrats.*

Will conferees push SNAP changes at the expense of their own voters?

Evidence shows that SNAP is one of the most effective public assistance programs we have. In 2016, it lifted 3.6 million people out of poverty and provided many more with temporary assistance between jobs or in crisis. And as we’ve shown, it benefits people of every zip code and political persuasion across the country, helping families put food on the table and set aside money for other critical expenses. Yet SNAP has become an intensely partisan issue, and its work requirements are now the most polarizing piece of the farm bill debate.

But dogma and data don’t always converge—and this could prove particularly troublesome for the House Republican conferees.

We looked at the average household SNAP participation among counties represented by both the 28 House Republicans and 19 Democrats appointed to the farm bill conference committee. Here’s what we found:

  • On average, households in counties represented by Republican conferees are more likely to participate in SNAP than those in counties represented by Democratic conferees. The average household participation across the nearly 600 Republican counties is 13.9 percent, compared to an average of 12.3 percent across 135 Democratic counties.
  • Nationwide, about 14.3 percent of households in a given county participate in SNAP. Nearly half of all counties represented by Republican conferees exceed this average (288 out of 597) —compared to just a quarter of counties represented by Democratic conferees (34 out of 135).
  • For some Republican conferees, a vast majority of the counties they represent have above-average household SNAP participation:
    • All but one of the 13 counties Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL-3) represents have above-average SNAP participation. In Macon County, nearly a third of households participates in SNAP.
    • Likewise, 23 of the 24 counties represented by Rep. Austin Scott (R-GA-8) have above-average SNAP participation. In Atkinson County, Ben Hill County, and Turner County, more than a quarter of households participate in SNAP.
    • A vast majority of counties (147 out of 174 in total) represented by eight other Republican conferees exceed the national average for household SNAP participation. Those counties are represented by Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR-1), Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-AR-4), Rep. Neal Dunn (R-FL-2), Rep. Rick Allen (R-GA-12), Rep. James Comer (R-KY-1), Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-LA-5), Rep. David Rouzer (R-NC-7), and Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC-6).

The data beg the question: are House Republicans unaware of the extent to which SNAP helps people in the counties they represent, or are they just indifferent?

A is for August (and Action)

As we mentioned, it’s August recess (sort of—Principal McConnell cut summer break short in the Senate), which means your Senators and Representatives are probably spending some time at home. If one of the farm bill conferees (see the full list of House Republicans and Democrats) represents your district, pay them a visit.

If your Representative isn’t on the committee, there’s still plenty you can do to be vocal about your priorities:

  • Sign onto our national action alert urging farm bill conferees to adopt the Senate version of the bill. (If you’re a public health expert, we’ve got something special for you.)
  • Tweet, email, or snail mail a “thank you” to your Representative if they voted no on the House bill—or a “no thank you” if they voted yes.
  • Take a look at the Senate list, too. Though they managed to pass a bipartisan bill the first time around, they’ll need our support more than ever if they hope to engage in successful negotiations with the House.

*Does not include Virgin Islands. 5-year estimates of county-level SNAP participation provided by the 2011-2015 American Community Survey.