UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

A Look Back at Dr. King’s Demands for Food Justice

Photo: National Archives and Records Administration/

In May of 1968, the Poor People’s March on Washington brought some 3,000 activists to the nation’s capital for more than six weeks. The campaign, planned by Dr. Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was designed to draw attention to the deep economic injustices that plagued communities of color, despite advances in civil rights, and to present Congress with policy solutions—chief among them an economic bill of rights.

But before the march started, on April 29th, Reverend Ralph David Abernathy visited the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to talk about food and farming. And with the list of demands he carried, the Reverend brought with him the voice of the late Dr. King, assassinated just one month prior, and of many thousands of others—including farmers who were denied land, families who were denied food, and people who were denied dignity.

So what, exactly, did he ask of the Secretary of Agriculture?

And 50 years later—are we still asking for the same things?

“That hunger exists is a national disgrace.”

Reverend Abernathy began his testimony to the Secretary of Agriculture by calling attention to hunger and malnutrition, calling the very existence of hunger in a country like America “a national disgrace.”

He asked that the USDA provide food stamps for those who couldn’t afford them. If this sounds strange, it’s because federal nutrition programs have changed during the last five decades—and largely for the better. When food stamps (the precursor to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) were first established with the Food Stamp Act of 1964, program participants had to actually purchase their food stamps. It wasn’t until the Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 that those who needed help putting food on the table could receive these benefits at no cost.

Reverend Ralph Abernathy at a National Press Club luncheon in 1968.

Reverend Abernathy also asked that the government provide free and reduced-price lunches for every school child in need. Because in the spring of 1968, a national committee report found that fewer than four percent of students were receiving free or reduced-price lunches—demonstrating the extent of hunger, malnutrition and unmet need among schoolchildren across the country. Now, there is uniform eligibility and consistent funding for the National School Lunch Program, which provides about 22 million students in 100,000 schools with free or reduced-price lunches every day.

Yet despite the progress made in our federal nutrition programs, the level of hunger in the United States remains a national disgrace. About one in eight households are food insecure—meaning families don’t consistently have the money or the resources to keep food on the table—and households of color experience hunger at twice the rate of white households. The protections that federal nutrition programs do offer have come under frequent fire by the current administration, which at this moment is proposing a rule that would make it harder for unemployed and underemployed adults to qualify for SNAP.

On threats to farmers of color: “The Department has done almost nothing to help.”

Click to enlarge.

The Reverend noted the decline in black-owned farms, asking the USDA to support cooperatives that could help sustain black and Mexican American farming operations in rural areas, and highlighted the widespread discrimination in the implementation of agricultural programs. He also took aim at USDA subsidies paid to agribusiness, declaring: “It is inequitable to pay large farmers huge amounts of Federal funds to grow nothing while poor people have insufficient amounts to eat.”

How much has farm policy changed since 1968? By many accounts, not enough. It’s estimated that black farmers currently make up less than two percent of all farmers in the United States, down from about 14 percent in 1920. And discriminatory practices by federal agencies got far worse before they got better. In 1999, the Pigford v. Glickman lawsuit determined that the USDA had systematically denied loans and disaster payments to black farmers between 1981 and 1996, resulting in more than $1 billion in damages being awarded to farmers and their relatives. Meanwhile, agribusiness still reigns supreme. Farm policy in the 1970s directed farmers to “get big or get out,” widening the gulf between small and large farms and increasingly diverting federal subsidies to the biggest and most profitable operations.

“By all means, keep moving.”

The last 50 years haven’t brought all the policy changes needed for a food system that meets the needs of all people. Not by a long shot. But if we’re reflecting on the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, we should also be indulging in his faith in humanity—in the arc of the moral universe—and acknowledging the progress we’ve made.

The 2018 farm bill, for example, provided permanent mandatory funding for programs serving beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers, and protected SNAP from cuts that would have taken food away from millions of people. It also included programs that support small farms and local economies and help low-income families purchase more fresh produce. And all the while, women and people of color, from Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman to Rise and Root’s Karen Washington, were getting their hands dirty and showing us what the future of food could really look like.

In Atlanta, Georgia, in April of 1960, Dr. King addressed the faculty and students of Spelman College. The address, “Keep Moving from This Mountain,” ended like this:

“If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl; but by all means keep moving.”

So here’s to movement—in all the brave, bold, and beautiful forms it takes. May the next 50 years bring much more of it.

Photo: Library of Congress

A Failure of US Biosecurity: How Federal Regulators Helped a Japanese Beetle Cross the Border

With a partial government shutdown now in its 3rd week, many Americans are learning the hard way about the wide range of functions their federal government normally serves. One of those little-known functions is preventing the spread of invasive plants, insects, and other species that threaten native ecosystems and valuable natural resources, costing the United States an every year. Just last week, the shutdown forced conference organizers at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to cancel an annual meeting of 300 scientists working to coordinate research and find solutions. Even before the shutdown, however, USDA regulators had failed to fully live up to their obligations—designated by law—to protect US resources from invasive species.

Science-based regulation is essential to control invasive species

L. naganoensis. Photo: World review of Laricobius (Coleoptera: Derodontidae); Zootaxa 2908: 1–44 (2011)

Efforts to control one invasive species sometimes involve introducing another non-native species to serve as “biocontrol” agents. Biocontrol uses natural enemies like predators or parasitoids to control weeds and pests, but this can lead to new problems. And so it was when, in 2010, the USDA permitted release of the biocontrol agent Laricobius osakensis, a beetle native to Japan, for control of the hemlock woolly adelgid—an insect pest that is killing hemlock trees, an important forest species in eastern North America. Colonies of the biocontrol beetle were subsequently found to contain another undescribed beetle species, also a Japan native later named Laricobius naganoensis. The discovery prompted research investigating possible hybridization between L. naganoensis and other species that could become a problem, for example, if varying behavior of hybrids might harm native ecosystems.

However, before scientists could fully understand what L. naganoensis eats, or its other interactions or natural history, its release was also permitted.  In December of 2017, the USDA approved unlimited “…field release of L. naganoensis for the control of HWA” as a contaminant because it “cannot be reasonably eliminated from L. osakensis cultures” despite efforts by researchers to help prevent its release.

Harmful impacts of poorly regulated biocontrol go back decades.  For example, the cane toad introduced to Australia in 1935 to control sugar cane pests instead caused declines in native predators; the small Indian mongoose wiped out native Fijian birds after its introduction for rat control; and the multicolored Asian lady beetle, introduced for aphid control, has become a serious pest to humans and ecosystems in North America and Europe.

Like many of my colleagues in the field of conservation biology, I believed such uninformed releases were a thing of the past. Biocontrol practitioners now agree that agents should be released only after an informed evaluation of potential risks and this consensus dominates the scientific literature, for example, in Bigler et al. 2006, Barratt et al. 2010, Van Driesche & Simberloff 2016Heimpel & Cock 2017, and Heimpel & Mills 2017. Information about the agent—how it behaves and interacts with other species in its native range—is needed to predict impacts in places it will be introduced. The importance of accurate identification of agents and avoidance of contamination, even with related species, has long been recognized. Legal safeguards now exist, for example in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States to ensure that regulatory officials and the public aren’t caught unaware.

A failure of science and public transparency

Unfortunately, in the case of the Japanese beetle L. naganoensis, the safeguards failed. The Plant Protection Act of 2000 (7 U.S.C. § § 7701-7786) requires the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service to conduct biocontrol agent permitting and tasks the agency with ensuring the process is transparent, accessible, and based on scientific evidence. This usually happens through public review and comment on a USDA-prepared Environmental Assessment (EA) that presents risks and, if necessary, a subsequent and more thorough Environmental Impact Statement. These documents are supposed to be prepared and made public before permitting decisions happen.

Instead, the first mention of L. naganoensis’ release came via a two-page “final decision” document issued by the USDA in December 2017. That document references an EA associated with L. osakensis that was written before L. naganoensis was known to exist. And it gives this groundless rationale for the permitting decision: because L. naganoensis’ diet is assumed similar to that of other Laricobius species, because L. naganoensis makes up a minor component of L. osakensis colonies, and because L. naganoensis is unlikely to persist owing to difficulty finding mates.

All these assumptions are questionable because scientists simply do not understand L. naganoensis well enough to confirm them. Moreover, the referenced EA was never provided for public review and comment. If it had been, the public would have seen that USDA acknowledges “there are no biological studies on L. naganoensis” and “the feeding rate of adult and larvae of L. naganoensis is unknown”.  In short, the USDA’s finding of “no evidence…[of] adverse environmental effects” is misleading because such a conclusion must be based on review of a substantial amount of evidence, and little is known about L. naganoensis. 

The seriousness of circumventing policy meant to inform and involve the US public and ensure informed decisions is compounded by the irony of allowing introduction of a little-understood species to control a previously introduced invasive species. What could go wrong?

 

Christy Leppanen is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.  She is interested in progressive and collaborative resource and pest management, particularly prevention and practices that minimize non-target impacts.  For more information visit her webpage.

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.

Further Reading:

Leppanen C, Frank D, Simberloff D (2018) Circumventing regulatory safeguards: Laricobius spp. and biocontrol of the hemlock woolly adelgid.  Insect Conservation and Diversity

USDA (2017) Approval of Laricobius naganoensis (Coleoptera: Derodontidae), a Predatory Beetle for Biological Control of Hemlock Woolly Adelgid, Adelges tsugae (Hemiptera: Adelgidae), in the Continental United States, Draft Environmental Assessment 2017. Plant Protection and Quarantine, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, United States Department of Agriculture, Riverdale, MD. Publication forthcoming

Four Things the New Congress Can Do to Hold Trump’s USDA Accountable

Photo courtesy Phil Roeder/Flickr

The 116th Congress was sworn in last week, and not a moment too soon. The president’s babysitters have given up, his administration is spiraling out of control, and our country is desperately in need of the checks and balances we were taught about in school. Newly-elected Speaker Nancy Pelosi has vowed that under her leadership, the House of Representatives will step up to its constitutional role. In addition to demanding an end to the president’s hostage-taking of our government, new congressional leaders are expected to investigate a host of high-profile issues: the president’s Russia dealings, his unexamined tax returns, the administration’s cruel and senseless border policy, and its war on our environment. But other Team Trump efforts have flown well under the radar even though they affect all of us every time we sit down to a meal.

When it comes to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its handling of food and farming issues, Congressional oversight is sorely needed. Since Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue took office in April 2017, we’ve documented the many ways he has betrayed farmers and eaters. From siding with Big Pork over small farmers to rolling back school lunch rules aimed at improving the health of the nation’s children, he has repeatedly catered to industry while disregarding science. As the new Congress gets underway, here are four ways its leaders should seek to make Secretary Perdue and his USDA more accountable to the public interest:

1. Safeguarding federal dietary guidelines from industry manipulation. 

Every five years, the federal government revises and reissues the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs), and an update is due in 2020. These recommendations for healthy eating aren’t just intended to guide our individual decisions at the supermarket and the dinner table. In fact, their primary purpose is to offer science-based recommendations to help shape the National School Lunch Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and other efforts to improve public health—many of which are carried out by the USDA.

Since its inception in 1980, the guidelines update process has been rigorous and evidence based, relying on the best science and advice from nutrition experts. But that process is about to run smack into the Trump administration, where science and expertise aren’t exactly valued. And with Perdue’s USDA leading the process (in partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services), we’ve already seen signs of trouble. Back in October 2017, for example, Perdue reorganized the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in a way that threatens its scientific integrity, and he has hired officials with deep food industry ties to run the process.

The new Congress should:

  • Take a hard look at the USDA structures and personnel that will shape the next iteration of the DGAs and be on guard for undue influence from industry lobby groups
  • Examine the corporate ties and financial conflicts of the members of the new Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee when it is announced (likely this February)
  • Reject a repeat of 2015, when—at the tail end of the DGA process—heavily lobbied members of Congress sneaked into law industry-friendly provisions that eroded the integrity of the guidelines and precluded what could have been groundbreaking efforts to improve food safety, security, and sustainability.
2. Challenging Secretary Perdue’s attacks on hungry people.

We’ve written a lot on this blog about the value of the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). This effective, evidence-based program is the first line of defense against hunger and food insecurity for nearly 21 million American households. In 2016, the program lifted more than 3.5 million people out of poverty—nearly half of them children—and reduced food insecurity rates by up to 30 percent. But House Republicans held up the farm bill all last year in an effort to gut the program. And when that failed, just days before Christmas, Secretary Perdue announced a proposed new SNAP rule that would achieve similar results by denying benefits to work-ready adults who have trouble maintaining steady employment. Perdue’s new rule basically circumvents the judgment of last Congress in the final farm bill, and Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA), who just took the gavel as chairman of the House Rules Committee, is promising a fight. Moreover, on its first day in session, the new House voted to adopt a congressional rules package that instructed the chamber’s general counsel to “immediately explore all possible legal options” for responding to Perdue’s proposed rule.

The new Congress should also:

  • Make it clear that any other proposed rules that would undermine SNAP will not be tolerated;
  • Continue to champion smaller nutrition programs, such as the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive program (formerly known as the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program) that work alongside SNAP to help families purchase more healthy foods.
3. Stopping Perdue from sidelining USDA science.

The USDA employs thousands of scientists and makes significant investments in agricultural and food research—some $3 billion annually. But despite the department’s stated commitment to “the best available science”, the reality under Secretary Perdue has often looked different (ahem) and many of the department’s scientists have raised concerns about the effects of political interference. Then last summer, Perdue abruptly announced a plan to relocate two of the four USDA science agencies—the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA)—to undetermined sites outside the national capital area. He would also remove ERS from the purview of the USDA’s chief scientist and placed it instead within the Secretary’s office. More than 1,100 scientists have opposed the move, which looks like an attempt to marginalize and politicize these science agencies. Last fall, lawmakers requested a review of the plan by the USDA’s inspector general, and in the waning days of the last Congress, a group of House members introduced a bill to stop it.

Lawmakers should reintroduce the bill in the new Congress, and they should:

  • Investigate the shake-up decision to determine if it was politically motivated;
  • Examine Perdue’s legal authority for removing ERS from the chief scientist’s jurisdiction;
  • Challenge Perdue’s claims of recruitment and retention challenges at ERS and NIFA; and
  • Insist that he produce a claimed cost-benefit analysis of the proposal and a plan for ensuring program continuity and mitigating staff attrition.
4. Ensuring the new farm bill works for farmers, eaters, and future generations.

Last June, the House and Senate each passed a version of a farm bill, that five-year, $1 trillion legislative package that affects all parts of our food system: what farmers grow and how they grow it, the price of food and who can afford it, and more, with huge implications for our health, our economy, social justice, and the environment. The two proposals couldn’t have been more different, and—backed by the Trump administration—House leaders refused to budge from their short-sighted, punitive version for months. But in its waning days, the last Congress finally reauthorized this important legislation, and while the final product isn’t perfect, it maintains the SNAP program and makes other important investments in our food system that must be completely and properly implemented.

The new Congress should:

  • Conduct rigorous oversight of USDA to ensure full and effective implementation of all aspects of the newly-enacted 2018 farm bill;
  • Hold regular hearings to question Secretary Perdue and other USDA officials regarding SNAP implementation;
  • Use oversight power to ensure that the USDA is effectively promoting funding opportunities and, for new programs, expeditiously writing rules, creating systems, and hiring staff to implement them; and
  • Use the power of the purse to ensure that all farm bill programs are fully funded at the levels Congress intended.

Admittedly, there are many issues demanding the attention of lawmakers. New ones every day, in fact. But food and farming issues are too important—to all of us—to be left to the whims of a dangerously irresponsible administration. Congress must act to safeguard the safety net that keeps our neighbors from going hungry, the dietary advice that keeps us all healthy, and the science and other investments we need to maintain a safe and sustainable food supply for the future. UCS will be working with allies on Capitol Hill to make sure that they do.

The 2018 Farm Bill Is Now Law. But the Shenanigans Continue…

Today, President Trump signs the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018 (the “farm bill”) into law. Over the past year, our allies and supporters called their elected officials, signed petitions, wrote letters to the editor and organized their communities—doing everything possible to impress upon Congress the importance of legislation that supports the nation’s farmers, and the food insecure, in an equitable and responsible way. It is time for a quick inventory of achievements and the work yet ahead, though there isn’t much time for us, or our supporters and allies, to catch our breath.

Case in point was today’s 5 am announcement from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) of a rule that all but states that in this administration’s view Congress doesn’t have the final word on formulating food and farm law. Senator Debbie Stabenow, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, immediately and forcefully articulated the subversion of democratic process that this is: “Congress writes laws, and the administration is required to write rules based on the law, not the other way around. Congress chose not to change the current Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or “food stamp”) work rules in the farm bill and, instead, focused on strengthening work programs that actually help people get jobs.”

As our Food Systems and Health Analyst Sarah Reinhardt has pointed out, the draconian “work-requirement” provisions originally proposed by the House, rejected by the Senate, and now proposed for resurrection by the USDA, dissemble: they would apply to only 8 percent of current SNAP participants, many of whom do work but aren’t paid enough to provide for all their needs. The timing of this announcement made it plain that the President required this petty grandstanding to secure his signature on the bill. Pragmatically, what will follow is a comment period during which we must continue to work to demonstrate that there are more effective and compassionate ways to support our fellow citizens to get back on their financial feet. And in the grander picture, it is a perfect illustration of the fact that though the legislation is authorized every five years, the farm bill is never really settled.

The Consensus: Farm bills consistently reinforce status quo, so why persist in engaging?

I’ll be the first to say it: This is another farm bill that largely maintains the status quo when it comes to food policy. At the same time, the legislation includes crucial wins for smart, forward-thinking investments in a healthier food and farm system. Programs that we fought for—such as those supporting farmers markets, promoting smarter farming practices that protect our soil and water, and increasing access to healthy foods for those who are most in need—are all included in the final package. These are important steps towards the kind of healthy food system we need.

Actually, I need to own up that I was not the first to articulate the preceding passage. It is exactly what we said when the 2014 farm bill was passed. And nothing more perfectly illustrates the vexing nature of farm bill work. It is what has led sharp colleagues to conclude that it is best to advance food system reform through alternate strategies. For example, former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan has determined that to escape the Groundhog Day spin cycle she will now emphasize partnering with innovators in the food industry: “It is a time of intractability in policymaking at the federal level. And while I’ll always be engaged and vocal in federal food policy…right now, the private sector is leading.” Many others argue that there is no way that a $900 billion bill that so emphatically preserves the agricultural status quo can ever be called a success. As Gracy Olmstead starkly articulates: “For years, Farm Bill subsidies have been skewed to benefit the rich and powerful.” And this has not changed. This year, efforts to curb farm subsidies, particularly for millionaires, were abandoned at the last minute. The thing is, that is actually how we described the 2014 farm bill’s machinations (this year’s big sop to the already wealthy was the broadening of eligibility for up to $125,000 of farm bill payments to non-farming relatives who can claim that they are involved in “farm management.” If nothing else, that should put in proper perspective the meanness of Secretary Perdue’s claim that “work requirement rules are about a second chance, not a way of life.”)

So why do we and other organizations committed to effective food and equitable agriculture policy engage every five years in a struggle that seems to be for marginal gain? An omnibus bill by its nature comes to us as a whole, as my colleague Karen Stillerman summarized in 2014, and is thereby inherently about accepting a manifold package. Therefore, our struggle cannot be about taking or leaving a bill so massive in its reach that it touches all of us—for good or ill—but instead to do everything possible to shape the contents and intents of the legislation. One of the ways of doing this is persistence. For example, over the course of 30 years of constant work across five farm bills, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (UCS is a proud and active member) has accounted for a suite of programs ranging from local food systems, beginning farmers, fruit and vegetable production, organic research and working lands conservation that approaches $5 billion over five years. As Ferd Hoefner, the Coalition’s Senior Strategic Advisor puts it, “That is getting to be real money.”

2018 Farm Bill wins

This year’s wins include permanent funding for the Local Agriculture Market Program, Farmer Opportunity Training and Outreach Program, and a series of measures that will more equitably fund Land Grant Universities serving primarily African Americans, protect African American farmers from loss of land and provide training for farm laborers who wish to take up farming. On the cautionary side, our agroecologist Marcia DeLonge has summarized this farm bill’s effect on conservation programs and the consequent prospects for our long-term agricultural resilience.

This illustrates why all of us working toward an equitable food and agriculture system need to keep our eye on the ball and persist. While we pursue multiple strategies and work patiently to build the political power and will to overcome the narrow interests of the agribusiness lobby (which outspends us to the tune of $100,000,000 per year), we cannot afford to be dispirited or fail to measure the long-term cumulative impact of every “small” victory.

Trump Administration Seeks to Undermine SNAP After Congress Negotiates Bipartisan Farm Bill

As the adage goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again, but less diplomatically.”

“And be a little sneaky about it.”

And yesterday—after work hours, in peak holiday season—that’s just what the Secretary of Agriculture did. At 5:30 PM, Secretary Sonny Perdue held an off-camera, on-record, over-the-phone briefing about proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) that would result in major cuts to the program. At 5:03 am this morning the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) posted its new proposed rule.

The proposed changes, which seek stricter enforcement of work requirements for work-ready adults (which the USDA labels “able-bodied adults without dependents,” or ABAWDs), come on the heels of a failed effort to implement other ineffective and punitive work requirements in the farm bill.

Now, the administration is targeting waivers that states can use to suspend these participants’ time limits in the face of high unemployment or low job availability. And, unlike the proposed changes in early farm bill drafts, these regulations come without the guise of investing in paths to employment—because the rulemaking process doesn’t require bipartisanship, compromise, or votes, and Secretary Perdue isn’t even pretending that this is a way to provide the resources people need to find gainful employment. Make no mistake—this program “reform” is a convoluted way to take food off people’s plates.

What, exactly, would the proposed rule do?

Currently, states can request full- or partial-state waivers by providing government data on the status of employment and job availability in a given area. Per the administration’s proposal, the agency would severely restrict states’ ability to receive waivers by engineering numerous changes to program regulations, including:

  • Changing or eliminating some of the key metrics and data sources that states can currently use to demonstrate need. For example, states can currently request partial waivers in areas where the average unemployment rate is 20 percent above the national average over 2 years; as reported by Agripulse, this is by far the most common way that counties and reservations qualify for partial waivers. The new rule, as of yet without rationale, requires that states also demonstrate that local unemployment meets a supposedly scientific standard of 7 percent.
  • Limiting waiver access in high-need areas that may be located near low-need areas. According to the proposal, the USDA plans to “limit waivers of larger geographical areas that may include sections with sufficient available jobs.” The consequences of this change will likely be borne disproportionately by urban populations and communities of color, as cities often contain pockets of extremely high-poverty and high-need areas in close proximity to affluent areas. Needless to say, geographic proximity to wealth and job opportunities rarely guarantees access.
  • Winnowing down the 15 (soon to be 12) percent exemptions afforded to states. States can currently receive exemptions for time limits for up to 15 percent of those work-ready SNAP users who would otherwise face benefit termination. The farm bill reduces this cap to 12 percent, and the proposed rule further weakens the exemptions by banning the carryover of unused exemptions from previous years. While individual exemptions are used far less than full- or partial-state waivers, they could become a more valued resource in the face of extreme cuts to state waiver options.

Many of the specifics of the proposed rule remain unclear—including how the administration would implement the new rules, and exactly how administrative costs would be impacted—but early estimates suggest that more than 750,000 work-ready adults who would lose SNAP benefits over the course of three years. Currently, there are about 3.8 million such adults participating in SNAP, of which about 2.8 million are not working. About 29 states are operating on partial waivers, while only seven states and US territories are operating on full waivers. The USDA has estimated (though, fittingly, this figure itself is suspect) that the cost savings of the proposal would amount to about $15 billion over the course of 10 years.

The Bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill Brings Some Consequences, Cautious Optimism for Conservation

Filter strips on a Michigan farm, part of a USDA conservation partnership. Photo: USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Last week, 11 weeks since the 2014 farm bill expired, Congress passed the latest version, the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, which President Trump is expected to sign into law. This $867 billion food and farm policy passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, and it includes some important wins for farmers and consumers.

For example, the bill protects the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from punitive work requirements, establishes a new Local Agriculture Market Program to strengthen regional economies and connect farmers with consumers, increases funding for critical research programs such as the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, and increases support for new farmers and farmers of color.

Although there are many things to celebrate in the new farm bill, there were also disappointments. This was the case for conservation, which was a bit of a mixed bag—and worth a closer look.

To get straight to the punchline, the new farm bill keeps conversation funding steady overall, and it certainly could have been (much) worse. However, faced with today’s growing challenges, status quo in conservation feels like a step back. Worse, a crucial conservation program suffered a significant setback.

Why worry about conservation, the smallest big piece of the farm bill?

Before getting into the details, it’s worth noting that there’s some dark history behind both the farm bill and its conservation programs. Each can be traced back to the 1930’s, when aggressive expansion of croplands (in part due to policy) and an 8-year drought (exacerbated by agriculture) led to the Dust Bowl — and tremendous suffering. In response, the federal government worked both to directly support struggling farmers, and to restore the damaged land at the heart of the tragedy. Over time, the emergent farm bill and its soil-conscious conservation programs have evolved and expanded.

Recently, the farm bill’s conservation programs have received a relatively small portion of funding (accounting for just 6 percent of spending, about $6 billion annually, in the 2014 farm bill). This investment seems too low, considering that the included programs offer otherwise rare support for farmers looking to adopt practices that could, say, prevent another dust bowl or build vital resilience to this century’s intensifying extreme climate conditions.

Where the 2018 farm bill conservation title falls short

With that context in mind, let’s get back to today. As I mentioned above, the newest version of the farm bill didn’t quite cut it when it came to conservation. There are two big reasons for this:

  1. First, by failing to increase requested and urgently-needed support for farmers, this bill let a big opportunity slip through the cracks. Yes, that’s right—farmers have been looking for additional support for conservation practices. The chronic waiting lists for USDA conservation programs are one indication of that. But also, there’s this survey of more than 2,800 farmers from 7 states, in which three-quarters of farmers indicated that they wanted to see policies offering more incentives to adopt practices that reduce runoff and soil loss, improve water quality, and increase resilience to floods and droughts. This demand should come as no surprise, as farmers are increasingly struggling with extreme weather, and research shows that these challenges can be addressed by building soil health. Meanwhile, a growing list of scientific studies is showing how we all benefit from farms with healthier soils, suggesting it’s critical to scale these up to secure clean air, clean water, food security, and a sustainable future. So, by letting down farmers, we all took a loss.
  2. Second, in slashing the valued Conservation Stewardship Program, this bill was a setback for many—especially the pioneering farmers who raise the bar. Unfortunately, avoiding an increase to conservation funding while squeezing in new opportunities meant that something had to go. Even more unfortunately, the program that bore the brunt of these cuts was the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), an exceptional program that we have estimated quadruples the value of each taxpayer dollar. This high return on investment is made possible by the program’s embrace of holistic, systems-science approaches, something that leaders in organizations such as the USDA and the National Academies have recently called for more of. Not only that, but CSP is already popular and chronically underfunded, with between 50 and 75 percent of applying farmers unable to make it into the program each year. Needless to say, the cuts to this program are confounding, and they will hurt.
Some key wins soften the blow

Despite the disappointments, some welcome changes in the title help soften the blow. For one thing, the other major working lands program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) received a slight bump in funding. It was also amended in a few ways that could strengthen its effectiveness, such as through supporting soil health and organic farming. Additionally, the final bill tasks USDA with improving coordination between EQIP and CSP, which we hope can be done in a way that preserve the integrity of both programs, while optimizing resources.

Other noteworthy changes include an expansion of the Conservation Reserve Program, which takes environmentally sensitive land out production, and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The latter, as a public-private partnership, has the power to pull more funding into conservation efforts, although the usual risks apply.

Looking beyond the farm bill to advance a more resilient agriculture

In addition to some of the pieces of good news in the conservation title, there are other things that conservation fans can also be happy about. For one, agricultural research funding got a boost in the new farm bill, including more funding for the Organic Research Extension Initiative and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research, as well as a new pilot project, the Agriculture Advanced Research and Development Authority (AGARDA), that seeks innovations to improve agricultural sustainability and resilience. If invested wisely, these dollars can be leveraged to find better solutions for farmers and help each future conservation dollar go further.

Also, although the farm bill is the primary federal mechanism to get conservation agriculture moving, it’s not the only mechanism. Many state governments have been taking matters into their own hands through state-level healthy soils policies. Further, within the food sector, industry leaders have been taking initiative and making commitments that promise to support farmers in driving change.

Does the new farm bill invest enough in the conservation practices that will prevent disasters and protect the future of farming? I don’t think so. But, if we play our cards right, we have a lot to work with.

Sonny Perdue’s School Lunch Bait-and-Switch

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue holds up his chocolate milk drink at Discovery Elementary School, in Arlington, VA, on October 18, 2018. USDA Photo by Lance Cheung/Flickr

Last week, the Trump administration finalized a rule that will weaken nutrition standards governing what kids are served in the school lunch line. This rollback had been in works for more than a year—Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue first signaled his intention in May 2017, just weeks into his new job. But now, one key component of the final rule is different from what he proposed back then. And you probably won’t be shocked to hear that it’s worse, not better, for children’s health.

If the Trump crowd stands for anything, it’s wiping out every visible trace of the Obama legacy. So it isn’t surprising that the former First Lady’s signature achievement is a target. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), which Michelle Obama championed, ushered in new, science-based nutrition requirements for meals served in the nation’s schools. It has also roiled conservatives and threatened Big Food’s grip on what kids eat.

Enter Perdue’s 2017 proposed rule change. To food industry applause, it promised to make it easier for schools to get waivers from some of the law’s requirements, including the mandate that all bread and other grain-based products served in schools be whole grain rich, defined as containing at least 50 percent whole grains. Perdue’s proposed rule also delayed the implementation of new low-sodium limits until after 2020 and allowed schools to serve low-fat flavored (i.e., sugar-sweetened) milk.

The Secretary’s defended the move, telling reporters, “This is not reducing the nutritional standards whatsoever.” (The non-partisan fact-checking site PolitiFact disagreed.)

On whole grains, Perdue said one thing and did another

Since HHFKA rules first started ratcheting up the whole grain requirements in the 2012-2013 school year, schools in some places have reported difficulties finding sources of, say, whole grain tortillas that are as pliable as their white flour counterparts, or biscuits that bake up as fluffy. As proposed last year, Secretary Perdue’s rule change would have extended the period in which schools that are struggling to meet the whole grain-rich standard could be granted waivers.

But instead, the final rule announced last week has done away with the need for whole grain waivers by relaxing the standard for all schools. That standard will now revert to what it was in 2012, the very first year of the new HHFKA regulations, when only half the grain products offered in school lunch program had to be whole grain rich.

That was meant to be a first step toward 100 percent whole grain-rich menus, but now it has become a fallback. And remember, because “whole grain-rich” products need only exceed 50 percent whole grains to be classified as such, weakening the standard by half means that a lot of processed, low-nutrient grains will end up on kids’ plates again.

And as my colleague Sarah Reinhardt wrote on this blog earlier this year, this move by the Trump administration could just be a first step in dismantling progress toward healthier school food and healthier kids.

Perdue is failing to follow the science

Secretary Perdue’s changes to established school food nutrition standards contradict the best available nutritional science and the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which explicitly recommend a healthy eating pattern that includes whole grains and limits added sugars, saturated fats, and sodium. (An aside: The next iteration of these usually-science-based guidelines is now also at risk at the hands of the Trump administration. Read more here.)

Moreover, the school nutrition rollbacks threaten to increase an already serious threat to the nation’s health and its future. The US childhood obesity rate tripled between the early 1970s and 2005, prompting public health researchers to suggest that, for the first time in centuries, children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents. And while the childhood obesity rate appeared to plateau in recent years—due in part to smart policies like HHFKA—obesity continues to affect more than 18 percent of all children.

With all that’s at stake, I have to wonder why Secretary Perdue is rolling back these rules. It isn’t because large numbers of schools are asking. On the contrary, in 2016 the USDA reported that more than 99 percent of schools nationwide were meeting the new nutrition standards. But Perdue apparently believes that if any school can’t meet a standard, none of them should have to. Moreover, he’s willing to let children decide what they’ll be served in schools. To quote his final rule notice:

“USDA acknowledges the significant efforts and progress these schools have achieved. However, the changes are only truly successful when all of America’s school children eat and enjoy the school meals.”

But here’s the thing: kids are kids, and they need to be taught to enjoy nutritious meals. They may never enjoy whole wheat bread as much as they like white bread. Or ice cream, for that matter. But this is school we’re talking about, and healthy eating is kind of like math—something kids need to do for their own good.

Of course, part of the job of school administrators and policymakers is to make such things as appealing as possible.  There are lots of ways to teach kids that healthy food can be delicious—including fun school activities like taste tests and cooking contests—and they’re showing success. But these efforts need to be maintained and encouraged, consistently, through USDA policy. Because at the end of the day, we can’t abandon math or healthy food because kids say they don’t like them.

And while the USDA’s new rules for the current school year are a done deal, UCS and our allies will be looking for other ways to improve nutrition for the nation’s children, both inside and out of school. Our very future depends on it.

As the Dietary Guidelines Process Begins, Health Experts Want to Keep Science Front and Center

The Trump administration is now laying the foundation for the next quinquennial (five-year) makeover of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the public health community is taking notice.

These guidelines are the cornerstone of the food and nutrition programs that help protect our most vulnerable populations—including millions of kids, seniors, and low-income families—from hunger and malnutrition, and provide the public with information about what makes a healthy diet. But the Trump administration’s record of sidelining science and catering to industry interests doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that leading government agencies are prepared to prioritize public health. That’s why more than 200 public health experts from 42 states have signed onto a letter asking administration officials to keep science at the center of the dietary guidelines process.

Ensuring science is the main ingredient of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. Source: Wikipedia Commons

HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Source: Wikipedia Commons

In the coming months, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are expected to announce the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a panel of up to 20 experts that will be charged with developing the nation’s next set of science-based nutrition guidelines. This committee is typically made up of experts with combined decades of experience in nutrition, medicine, and public health research. (Take a look at past committee membership—if nutrition science were a sport, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee would be its dream team). And, with some notable exceptions, the scientific recommendations made by this committee form the basis of the final dietary guidelines issued by the USDA and HHS.

But the political circumstances and cast of characters surrounding the development of the next Dietary Guidelines aren’t necessarily typical. Here are a few of the key reasons public health experts are paying close attention to this process—and urging the agencies to keep science at its center:

1. The Trump administration has a poor track record when it comes to pursuing evidence-based policymaking and relying on scientific expertise.

The process to develop the dietary guidelines has historically been rigorous and evidence-based, bolstered by the advisory committee’s outstanding credentials and the expertise of dedicated career staff.

Yet there are dozens of documented examples of the current administration disregarding data, silencing scientists, and compromising scientific integrity in policymaking—which has frequently extended to scientific advisory committees. In a January 2018 report, UCS analyzed 73 science advisory committees across six federal departments and agencies (not including the USDA and HHS) during the administration’s first year. The report found that membership on these advisory committees had decreased, and the committees met less often than in any year since the government started tracking in 1997—nearly two-thirds of them met less often than their own charters specified.

2. USDA leadership in food and nutrition lacks scientific expertise, and the department’s existing expertise has been marginalized.

The Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services (FNCS) at the USDA, who plays a lead role in overseeing the 2020 Dietary Guidelines, has yet to be appointed. Currently serving as the Acting Deputy Undersecretary for FNCS is Brandon Lipps, Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). With a background in agriculture, applied economics, and law, Lipps lacks any education or experience in public health or nutrition science—making him poorly qualified to oversee the process that will produce the nation’s next dietary guidelines. And though highly qualified career staff have retained positions within the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP), the recent reorganization implemented by the administration has placed CNPP under the direction of FNS—potentially compromising its ability to independently review the advisory committee’s report.

3. Other USDA appointments indicate that the food industry—with heightened incentive to influence the 2020 DGAs—has improper access to the process.

To be clear, food companies and trade associations have long had interest in shaping dietary guidelines to favor their products. But for the first time, the guidelines will include key nutrition recommendations for pregnant women and infants from birth through 24 months—providing critical information to health professionals and food service providers, and inadvertently offering a major market opportunity for makers of children’s foods, sugar-sweetened beverages, and infant formula.

 And industry need not rely solely on influencing the development of the dietary guidelines from the outside. The appointments of deeply-conflicted individuals to influential positions in the USDA may give the industry unprecedented backdoor access to the process. Most notably, in July 2017, Kailee Tkacz—who until 2017 lobbied for corn syrup and snack food manufacturers—joined the USDA to work on the update of the DGAs. Tkacz was issued an ethics waiver contending that her participation in these issues at the USDA “is in the public interest”—though she has no training in science, public health, or nutrition, and has previously lobbied for two firms that have attempted to weaken federal recommendations on added sugar.

What’s next?

The agencies are expected to announce the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee as soon as this month, or early in the new year. The committee will then begin its work to develop the scientific report that should serve as a blueprint for the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To the agencies’ credit, there will be ample opportunity for stakeholders—aka, all of us who eat—to get involved throughout the process: according to the USDA, there will be a total of five scientific advisory committee meetings open to the public, accompanied by requests for public comment. In the meantime, you can learn more by reading some of the Frequently Asked Questions on the USDA website, or checking out our website.

What if “Sustainable Agriculture” Weren’t Theoretical? The Case of Cuba

May 2000 Iowa State University delegation, Habana Province, Cuba. Photo: Jennifer Gay.

“Are you farming without fossil-based chemicals because you have to? Would you do it if you had a choice?” We put our hosts on the spot with this question. They were agronomists at Habana’s Agrarian University, and they had just finished presenting some of their organic agriculture innovations to us. We were a group of 13 researchers, students and farmers visiting from the U.S., most of us from Iowa. We didn’t feel like fat-cat, inquisitive tourists, but of course we were. Except for the three farmers among us, sustainable agriculture was an object of study for us, whereas it was a necessity—a matter of literal life and death—to our patient and gracious hosts. It was May 2000, and the island nation had already endured a decade-long “Special Period in Peacetime” that severely imperiled the viability of its economy and society. We happened to be visiting at around the turning point of that particular existential crisis. At the time, however, that wasn’t at all clear and the situation was still precarious. The trigger for the Special Period had been the implosion of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the late 80s. This forced the removal of all manner of direct and indirect subsidies the USSR had provided its client state in the Caribbean. In turn, Cuba was forced to devise strategies to support its 11 million people without that foreign input of cash, commodities and oil. One of the outcomes was the adoption of sustainable methods to assure the food supply. All of this is now the stuff of legend in sustainable agriculture lore, which holds that Cuba became then, and remains, a paragon of sustainable agriculture adoption and success. Even then, however, we could tell it was more complicated than that.

The implosion of Cuba’s economy following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In 2000, Fidel Castro was still in power and had pursued all manner of tactics to supplement the island’s cash reserves. Opening up to tourism and the concomitant inflow of U. S. dollars was one of the stratagems, and our little delegation of course was a part of that, unwitting as we were. If Cuba has been a socialist stronghold as long as you can remember (or have paid attention), I underscore that welcoming foreign tourists was a significant development because the revolution that Castro and allies rode to power in the late 1950s was a reaction against (among other things) the rampant corruption that had turned Cuba into a rum-soaked, mafia-run playground for tourists and for businesses that plundered at will. When the Castros declared themselves socialists and their policies began to show that they meant it (for example, by expropriating foreign holdings), the eventual denouement was the economic embargo of the island that has been led and enforced by the United States since then. Dollars, and thereby global purchasing power, became scarce. When Castro essentially rebuilt beachside grand hotels and casinos and welcomed European tourists and their currency with the lure of the tropical diversions that had been banished with the revolution, there was resentment about the two-tiered economy that resulted. I learned about this nuance, normally invisible to short-term visitors, quite by accident. During one of our breaks on this tour I went happily looking for a highly recommended record store (vinyl discs encoded with analog music were still a thing in 2000), and I was berated by one of the locals when I asked for directions. It wasn’t really personal, but he needed to vent. After he identified from my accent exactly what part of Mexico I was from, he told me that I had the freedom to come and go, whereas he claimed he didn’t have that luxury in his own country and that he had to bear under constant vigilance. I never did find that record store, but I did gain some insight.

On alert for sustainable agriculture shtick

The author working hard in Habana Province, May 2000

One evening, our group enjoyed a memorable performance of baroque music and Dadaism at a downtown theatre. The facility had seen better days but the art was world class and accessible to the general populace. However, we also had the opportunity, almost offhandedly, of seeing the fabled Irakere band at an intimate nighttime venue. It was clear here that, casual as such events seemed to us visitors, this particular locale wasn’t  accessible to the hoi polloi. Except for the artists and staff, we were an audience of foreigners. So we were on our toes about the sustainable agriculture story. The agricultural equivalent of entertaining ourselves with the Habana nightlife while the good Habaneros outside hustled for a living was brought into sharp contrast when we visited a neighborhood market. Our hosts had been open about the fact that a system of food rationing had long been in place. It was emblematic of the Cuban Revolution’s value of food as a human right, and had provided plentifully for all prior to the Special Period. During our visit, however, the food supply was at a historical low point (although not for us visitors.) We saw this for ourselves at the market. Even though our chaperon had a stub signifying the amount of meat he had a right to purchase, the meat counter was bare. He could barely disguise his contempt, even as our official guide.

But I’ve dragged you through this not to justify your skepticism about either sustainable agriculture or socialism, but to allay your concerns about our idealization of the experience, and to be real about what we saw and learned from this visit. The island wasn’t completely without oil, but the supply had tightened to the point where the centrally planned economy had to prioritize its use. Allocating the limited amount of fuel available for agriculture to the production of large-scale, mechanized commodities destined for export and the generation of cash receipts (e.g., sugar, tobacco, citrus) meant that there was little to none for food production (with the exception of rice—a Cuban staple—which was grown extensively and rationed to the island’s population.) Of necessity, a system of organic urban agriculture had evolved that took good advantage of every bare parcel of land, and even of cement patches of sidewalk or rooftop with sun exposure. As far as we could tell, this was a successful innovation based on two primary factors. One was the skill to use organic waste to build soil on the spot and to manage its fertility through regenerative methods. The other was an official policy shift that permitted urban gardeners and farmers to use or sell all that they produced, even though the ground on which they produced remained national “patrimony” (property.) This incentivized petite enterprise to the point where we met, and heard of, government functionaries who resigned their salaried sinecures because urban farming had become disproportionately remunerative, yielding up to four times what could be earned on a government income. We saw with our own eyes, and sampled, the abundant production of leafy greens, fruits, cassava and plantains in densely urban settings. You couldn’t stage the family-managed parcels, raised beds and compost piles, nor everyone’s conversational familiarity and enthusiasm for the basic principles of regenerative agriculture.

Cuba Oil Consumption, 1980-2014

In a tropical environment, however, nutrient and pest cycles move quickly, and it is no mean feat to maintain soil fertility, retain soil water, and keep insects and diseases from running amok. Which brings us back to that visit with the researchers at Havana’s Agrarian University. We came from luxuriously appointed university facilities, which contrasted greatly with the resources that our counterparts had available. When I heard that they were microbiologists and that they had devised mixtures and inoculum to stimulate and maintain soil fertility I immediately expected biodynamic nostrums and vacuous hand-waving. The moment these scientists began speaking, however, it was plain that their erudition was of a sort that not only wasn’t valued or pursued in the “state of the art” agricultural universities of the global north, but which had been entirely dismissed. The Cuban scientists spoke cogently and authoritatively about microbiota by their individual names, their ecology and interactions with other soil organisms, and their agricultural roles. They described how a nutrient or disease cycle could be managed through that understanding. And they were open about their gaps of understanding and concomitant research agenda. I’ve seldom been as humbled as during that hour, not just by their store of knowledge in an area that has become a blind spot for agricultural researchers in the U.S. (who sometimes can barely be distinguished from chemical salespeople), but because the knowledge they clearly commanded was gleaned despite hugely limited circumstances. By 2000 we fat cats already flung communications, research data and journal articles at the push of a button via the internet. We had access to any information we desired. Our Cuban counterparts could only dream of this. They labored hard to obtain, and then share, tattered paper copies of journal articles that were dear to come by. For a few months I remained in contact with some of my new acquaintances, but between slow and unreliable connections and the limited quotas on computer time on the Cuban end, real collaboration proved next to impossible. And while this immobilized the likes of us, the Cuban scientists were not deterred.

So when I asked the question quoted at the top, it was borne of genuine curiosity. The unspoken sentiment, among furtive sideglances—both foreign and Cuban—was that sooner or later Fidel Castro was going to die, relations with the U.S. would thaw, and oil would flow again. Because life is life, in the event what actually happened was that between Fidel and his brother Raúl, the Castros were to remain in power through the present day, and while oil did eventually flow again, it was Venezuelan oil, which meant that its supply would once again wane with the onset of the Venezuelan crisis. Furthermore, though relations with the U.S. did begin to thaw during the latter years of the Obama administration, as with so many other issues there has since been serious backtracking. Not knowing this, it was reasonable to wonder whether organic practices would last only so long as the petroleum-induced duress, and whether the siren call of petroleum-based, brute-force agriculture would make a comeback the moment it became possible. And here is the answer we received, from the legendary Cuban agriculturist Fernando Funes Aguilar: “That is a logical thing to wonder. I can honestly tell you that at one time we wondered that ourselves. But now that we have developed this knowledge and are seeing the results, why would we go back to something that works less well than what we have now?” Depending on your level of credulity, that perspective is astonishing either for its disingenuousness, or for its profound insight and commitment. I determined then that this was something to keep an eye on.

A rare opportunity to check a prediction

And now we can know. See this sober assessment of developments since that time. Cuba’s place in global socioeconomic history is destined to be prominent, if for no other reason than for the valor and capacity of that nation to take on—and survive the odds against—the fury and might of the most powerful economic empire the world has known. But even limiting myself to the agricultural realm, you can tell how enthralled I was by the real achievement I saw in regenerative productivity in urban and periurban settings, and what respect I developed for fellow scientists who were achieving orders of magnitude more than my counterparts and me relative to their resources and circumstances. In checking my memory of these events I consulted one of my fellow travelers, the Iowa State University weed ecologist Matt Liebman. He corroborated my impressions and added the following important observation of his own: “One thing that stood out for me was that many of the Cubans we met were willing to use both conventional and organic farming techniques, e.g. soil applied fungicides and large amounts of compost. I came back thinking that Cuban agriculturalists were pragmatic and adaptable people rather than ideological zealots. I also remember Funes Sr. saying that most people in Cuba died of old age, which contrasted sharply with what I had seen and heard in Brazil not too many years earlier.”

There can be none better than the Cuban scientists we visited, and their successors, to share with us the reality of the Cuban agricultural experience since that era. And, in a truly unusual fashion, the journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene is providing just that opportunity. Elementa has dedicated a special issue to this topic, entitled “Cuba Agrifood Systems in Transition.” The authors are the Cuban scientists at the center of this plot line, including the aforementioned Fernando Funes Aguilar (who served as guest editor for this issue), and some of their international collaborators. I won’t attempt to summarize or give away the lessons imparted by the contributing specialists. Suffice it to say that over the course of eight articles readers will gain a pragmatic perspective about what it takes to develop sustainable agricultural systems based on agroecological principles, complete with honest descriptions of obstacles (the world isn’t tidy), and of what stands to be gained by nonetheless prevailing. You are sure to come away with a deeper appreciation for the importance of food sovereignty (the freedom to decide what to grow, how to grow it, and for whom), and for the vastly neglected potential for agroecological methods to feed and sustain humans and the planet.

Coincidentally, my lifetime has essentially run on the same timeline as the Cuban Revolution. Also coincidentally, this is the exact period that has seen the haughty rise of industrial agriculture. It is clear to me that the time lag between Cuba having to figure out how to reduce its oil-dependence due to brutal realpolitik, and the world entering a global Special Period due to outright profligacy, is just a matter of decades. In the end, Cuban scientists and the knowledge and practice they have gained may well turn out to be the vanguard we all come to depend on to survive beyond that.

That is just one reason why you should read this special feature of Elementa.

Photo: Jennifer Gay. Source: World Bank Photo: Jennifer Gay. Source: The U. S. Energy Information Administration, The Global Economy

Let’s Celebrate Soil! New Science and Stories for World Soils Day

Photo: NRCS Soil Health/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

There’s never a bad time to celebrate soil—it’s an incredible living ecosystem and a foundation for much of the food, fiber, and fuel we use every day. But if there was ever a time when celebrating soil seemed particularly important, it might be now. And it’s not just because another World Soils Day has rolled around.

Over the past year, a series of scientific studies and reports have contributed to a message that is growing and crystallizing day by day: investing in our soil is a no-brainer—for farmers, rural communities, the environment, and (probably) you. There are lots of reasons why building up soil is a smart way forward, but here are just a few that have emerged since soil’s last big day:

Healthy soils = resilience to climate impacts

According to the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), written by over 300 experts and representing 13 federal agencies, farmers and rural communities have a lot at stake as climate change is settling in. This federal report describes significant risks and challenges ahead for agricultural productivity, soil and water resources, livestock health, and the lives and livelihoods of rural communities.

Alongside the dire projections, the NCA4 makes it clear that growing intensities in both extreme rainfall and droughts create an urgent need for spongier soils. That’s because soils with sponge-like qualities cover at least two critical bases. Not only do they hold onto precious water during times of drought, but they reduce polluted runoff and flooding during extreme rain events, preventing degradation of water quality and damage to downstream communities.

Fortunately, the NCA4 also provides several examples of possible next steps to manage the risks ahead, and these include adopting practices that protect and build soil health. Among the examples highlighted is one we have written about before—integrating strips of deep-rooted native prairie plants back into crop fields. Based on several years of research in Iowa, scientists and farmers have shown that it is possible to protect valuable soils, improve water quality, and boost biodiversity, all by introducing just a small change to croplands. Through the phenomenal power of soils, scaling up practices like this could play a big role in a future with thriving farms and ranches, perhaps against the odds.

Soil carbon can be part of the climate solution

Healthy soils can do more than just build resilience to extreme weather and enhance productivity. They also store a lot of carbon, which has direct implications for climate change. The links between the carbon cycle and soils (including in agricultural lands) are just one of the valuable topics covered in the Second State of the Carbon Cycle Report (SOCCR2), another major report released the same day as the NCA4 and involving over 200 experts. And it’s this relationship between soil and carbon that forms the basis of what two additional reports had to say about soils just weeks earlier.

In late October, the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine—the nation’s premier source of expert advice on scientific, engineering, and medical issues—released a report titled Negative Emissions Technologies and Reliable Sequestration: A Research Agenda. The goal of this report was to explore what we know and what we need to learn about how we can get carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. The findings? With more research to avoid unintended consequences, increasing soil carbon by changing agricultural practices is a promising strategy that can be scaled up at relatively low cost.

The other report, also released in October, was from the International Panel on Climate Change, the leading world body for evaluating climate change science. The Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5ºC paints a grim picture for our world if we stick to the current trajectory, emphasizing the substantial benefits that would come from limiting global warming. Like the Academies report, it identifies soil carbon sequestration as a potential part of the solution, flagging potential co-benefits like biodiversity and food security.

Time to invest in soils

The steady drumbeat of major studies highlighting the importance of soils to a brighter future is encouraging, and at the same time makes it all the more important to remember that there’s still a lot to learn. That’s why it’s great news that the scientific community is continuing to dig in—working to figure out what practices and strategies are (and aren’t) the most promising, and how much we can bank on soils in the portfolio of solutions to a long list of challenges.

But continued and increased investment in soil is critical going forward. That means new and expanded public policies that direct research and incentives to the healthy soil effort. For starters, Congress should invest more (not less) in the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program, and research and technical assistance for on-farm soil-building through programs like the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) program, and the Organic Research and Extension Initiative (OREI).

The science is clear: paying attention to soils is key. Now let’s get to it.

Photo: NRCS Soil Health/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

With Lessons from Los Angeles, D.C. Takes a Good Food Policy Coast to Coast

Lunch at DC Public Schools prepared by DC Central Kitchen (DCCK). DCCK prepares nearly 6,300 healthy, scratch-cooked breakfasts, lunches, and suppers each day for low-income children at 10 public and private schools in Washington, DC, working closely with local farmers to supply healthy, seasonal food. Photo: DC Central Kitchen/Flickr

Just a week after the Council of the District of Columbia advanced a bill that would transition the city to all renewable energy sources by 2032, it scored a big win on another forward-looking policy issue: putting healthy, local, and sustainable food on the plates of many of its youngest residents.

The D.C. Council voted unanimously today on the passage of the Healthy Students Amendment Act (HSAA), a bill aimed at improving student health and wellness. But don’t let the title fool you—the bill isn’t just about healthy school meals, and it won’t just benefit students. In fact, the positive impacts of this legislation will likely extend to farmers, food businesses, and families throughout the mid-Atlantic.

That’s because it endorses a food purchasing model called the Good Food Purchasing Program. This innovative program helps schools and other institutions source food that not only is healthy, but also supports the local economy and promotes environmental sustainability, fair labor, and animal welfare. (Think of it as farm to school on steroids.) And if the program’s previous successes are any indication, the potential reach of ripple effects in the D.C. region is vast.

Lessons from Los Angeles, birthplace of the Good Food Purchasing Program

With today’s vote, D.C. Public Schools are now the first on the east coast to adopt the Good Food Purchasing Program—but their big win was built on the success of their west coast predecessors.

Among the ways LAUSD is working to meet Good Food Purchasing Program standards is by sourcing more food from certified sustainable producers. More than 80 percent of all bread products served in LAUSD schools is made with sustainably produced wheat grown and milled in California.

A quick history of the program: it was first developed by the Los Angeles Food Policy Council in 2012 with input from more than 100 stakeholders and procurement experts. That same year, it was officially adopted by the City of Los Angeles, followed by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). As the second largest school district in the country, LAUSD serves more than 739,000 meals and snacks per day, with an annual food budget of more than $150 million. And while school staff and supporters will be the first to tell you that the purchasing program continues to be a work-in-progress, they were also among the first to prove that it could work.

In our 2017 report Purchasing Power, we teamed up with the L.A. food policy council, school district, and other local and national partners to demonstrate the impact and reach of the program. Here’s what we found:

Since its adoption in 2012, the Good Food Purchasing Program has helped LAUSD:

  • Direct about $30 million annually to local food purchases—including 45 million servings of bread and rolls made from sustainably and locally grown wheat—with a projected benefit of between $48 and $94 million to the local economy;
  • Create more than 220 well-paying jobs in the food chain and helped more than 300 workers achieve union contracts with higher wages, better health benefits, and stronger workplace protections;
  • Reduce purchases of industrially produced meat by nearly a third, with substantial decreases in the district’s carbon footprint and water usage; and
  • Shift US poultry production through the negotiation of new contracts of up to $50 million for antibiotic-free chicken.
What’s next for D.C.?

Another lesson learned from Los Angeles? You don’t achieve progress without participation. One of the common threads among the dozen school districts, cities, and municipalities currently working to pass or implement the Good Food Purchasing Program is a dedicated group of individuals driving the work forward. And D.C. is no different—a coalition of parents, D.C. Food and Nutrition Services, labor unions, local business leaders and community groups have been working for more than a year to make sure that students have access to healthy, high quality meals, and that local communities can reap the added benefits of “good food.” In the coming months, this group will continue to work to engage D.C. parents, food producers, and community members to propel the policy in the right direction.

To find out more about the Good Food Purchasing program—and to see if there’s an active coalition in your area—visit the Center for Good Purchasing website, and check out our website to view our full report.

Five Takeaways From the Fourth National Climate Assessment and What They Mean for Food and Farms

This year’s harvest season has been bittersweet. Interspersed with delightful treats like apple cider and pumpkin pie has been a disheartening stream of news from America’s farmers, many of whom are struggling to stay afloat amidst low crop prices, trade wars, and disasters stretching from east coast hurricanes to west coast wildfires. As if there weren’t enough to worry about, the newly released Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) sends a sobering message that things likely won’t get easier anytime soon. Although, spoiler alert: it’s also clear that farmers have agency on climate change matters, and could play a pivotal role to make things better.

Climate impacts on agriculture are dire and getting worse

The NCA4 is a quadrennial scientific review mandated by Congress to help the nation “understand, assess, predict and respond” to climate change. Building on the most recent version (2014), the overarching message for agriculture is unambiguous: climate change is already impacting farms and ranches nationwide,  and there are many challenges ahead. The 1,500 page document is filled with important details, but here are some top takeaways:

  1.  The farm and food system as we know it is transforming before our eyes, and the productivity we’ve benefited from is in jeopardy. Year by year, increasing temperatures, shifting rainfall, and rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are messing with farming basics–like growing seasons, pollination, and more. As conditions deteriorate for some crops, many weeds and pests are expected to thrive, cutting deeper into productivity. For farms along the coast, sea level rise and salt intrusion are encroaching, creating additional strains. As a result of multiple forces, significant declines in productivity of livestock and major crops, such as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, and cotton, are expected within the century.
  2. Extreme events are devastating farms and ranches, and rapidly getting worse. Extreme rains, droughts, and fires cause costly damage and disrupt farmers’ capacity to adapt to the steady pulse of more gradual changes. For instance, heavy rainfall drowns crops and flushes valuable soils and fertilizers into waterways. Increasing frequency and duration of droughts can wreak havoc on crops, livestock and dwindling water resources. And in increasingly warm and dry conditions, wildfires are becoming more frequent and damaging throughout grasslands and forests, many of which are used for, among other things, the important agricultural activity of livestock grazing.
  3. Climate change is contributing to deteriorating soil and water quality, entrenching challenges that have ripple effects felt far beyond farms. As heavy rainfall pummels farms and sweeps soils and fertilizers off fields, polluted water travels to rivers, streams, lakes, and oceans where it contributes to toxic algal blooms and dead zones. The effects of such water quality woes have already translated to decades of costly problems in the US, including contaminated drinking water, impaired fisheries and recreation industries, and damaged rural infrastructure. Not to mention the fact that excess water running off of farms can contribute to flooding and destruction in communities far downstream.
  4. In farming communities across the country, lives and livelihoods are on the line, with some populations suffering disproportionate risk. Climate change poses serious health and safety risks to agricultural workers, who are increasingly exposed to extreme heat, which can cause heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and heart attacks, with additional implications for lost wages and livelihoods (the NCA4 reports that heat stress in outdoor workers will lead to an estimated 2 billion labor hours and billions of dollars in wages lost annually by 2090). Combined with declining yields and deteriorating natural resources, these factors will put additional stress on agricultural and rural communities, many of which already experience high levels of poverty, unemployment, and other challenges. To make matters worse, critical infrastructure, such as for communication, transportation, and water, are all at risk. And, some groups will be more vulnerable than others, such as low income communities, which are disproportionately communities of color, and Indigenous peoples, and are likely to bear the brunt of the consequences.
  5. The number of people who go hungry each day will climb–in the US, and abroad. Despite today’s productive farming system, far too many American households struggle to put the food they need on the table. The USDA estimated that around 12 percent of US households were food insecure in 2017 as a result of stagnant wages and other barriers to accessing and affording healthy food. Climate change impacts–including declining productivity, price shocks from extreme weather, and effects on food processing, storage, transportation–could lead to even lower levels of food security in the US and worldwide.
Farmers and rural communities can be part of the climate solution

While the impacts described in the NCA4 are alarming, compounding effects and certain surprises could make matters even worse than predicted. That’s why it comes as a relief that the report suggests several possible steps forward, including ways in which farmers and rural communities can be part of the climate solution.

As the report notes, transforming our food and farm system can directly reduce emissions (agriculture contributes about 9% to the US carbon footprint) and also pull carbon out of the atmosphere and into plants and soil.  Farmers can make these changes happen by adopting complex crop rotations, managed grazing, and many other practices that boost soil health, make farms more resilient to extreme weather, and solve other problems (for example, with water and energy) along the way.

Some pioneering farmers are already adopting new practices and seeing benefits. But many more will have to join in to avoid the worst climate impacts. And in order to shift practices at the required scale, we must ensure farmers and ranchers have the support, tools, and know-how they need. While the NCA4 doesn’t take the step of making policy recommendations, one thing seems clear: setting farmers up for success will set us all up for a brighter future.

USDA /Cynthia Mendoza

7 Questions the Senate Should Ask Trump’s New USDA Chief Scientist Nominee

The Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee hears testimony at the confirmation hearing of Agriculture Secretary-nominee Sonny Perdue, March 23, 2017. USDA Photo by Preston Keres.

Back in early August (or roughly two Trump years ago), I wrote about the president’s nomination of Scott Hutchins to head up science at the US Department of Agriculture. In that post, I argued that Hutchins, an entomologist with a 30-year career at pesticide-maker Dow, is the wrong choice for the job.

On November 28, the Senate agriculture committee will hold a confirmation hearing for Hutchins, their chance to interview him for the position of USDA under secretary for research, education, and economics. Following are seven questions I think they should ask.

1. As chief scientist, would you push back on efforts to cut, marginalize, and politicize USDA research? The position Hutchins is seeking has, until now, overseen four agencies that make up the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area, which collectively carry out or facilitate nearly $3 billion worth of research on food and agriculture topics every year. But in August, Secretary Perdue dropped a bombshell with an abrupt reorganization proposal that would pluck the Economic Research Service (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 National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA), to as-yet-undetermined locations outside the DC area. More than 1,100 of Hutchins’ fellow scientists recently signed a letter opposing the move, which threatens to marginalize and politicize the agencies, and would cost millions of dollars that could otherwise be spent on their important science work. And even before the reorganization proposal, the Trump administration had been gunning for ERS in particular—its FY2019 budget request, unveiled in February, would have cut the agency’s budget in half. What would Hutchins do to push back on these anti-science moves?

2. Would you champion independent economic analysis at the USDA that helps policymakers and the public understand the economic impact of taxpayer investments and federal policies…even when it doesn’t support the administration’s political agenda? ERS—the agency that Perdue and the White House seem most determined to muzzle—plays an important role in building from data collected by the USDA to illuminate the socio-economics of food and agriculture. US farms and farmers are impacted not only by market forces of supply and demand, but also by the sometimes-unexpected consequences of public policies. ERS has a history of publishing reports that examine policy implications and overarching trends, bringing life to complex but critical data; examples include recent reports on consolidation of agriculture, public research funding, and food availability and dietary trends. The Trump White House may not always appreciate ERS findings, but maintaining unvarnished, independent analysis on a wide range of topics is particularly important in this era of low crop prices and escalating trade tensions. As chief scientist, would Hutchins go to bat for such research?

3. As a scientist, are you concerned about the administration’s science record? Why or why not? And if you’re confirmed, how will you ensure scientific integrity at the USDA? The Trump administration’s record on respecting science in federal decision-making is abysmal. And while the USDA hasn’t seen the same level of attacks on science as, say, Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department, our 2018 survey of USDA scientists shows there is cause for concern. What would Hutchins do to swim against this administration’s tide and maintain a high standard of scientific integrity at the USDA? Will he commit to uphold the department’s scientific integrity policy, and to resist politically-motivated moves that would undercut the ability of the thousands of USDA scientists under his purview to do their vitally important jobs?

4. How would your pesticide industry ties affect USDA efforts to help farmers reduce their dependence on expensive and dangerous chemical inputs? Do you think that’s an important goal? Why or why not? These are increasingly important questions for the Senate to ask, as problems brought on by decades of over-reliance on pesticides come home to roost. In August, for example, a court ordered the EPA to ban all remaining agricultural uses of Dow’s brain-damaging insecticide chlorpyrifos (which former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt had refused to do the year before). Days later, a San Francisco jury handed down a $289 million judgment against Monsanto in the case of a former school groundskeeper who developed terminal cancer after years of spraying the company’s popular Roundup herbicide. Then there’s the ongoing dicamba debacle: Another widely-used weedkiller, dicamba has many farmers in a bind because of its propensity to drift from fields of soybeans and cotton specifically engineered to resist it, and damage neighboring farmers’ non-resistant crops. By the middle of this year’s growing season, weed scientists had estimated that well over a million acres of soybeans—at least 1.2 percent of the entire US crop for the year—had already suffered drift damage. Hutchins’ longtime employer DowDuPont is one of several companies that sells dicamba and dicamba-resistant seed and has been named in an ongoing lawsuit over drift damage. Clearly, farmers (and eaters) need safer, more sustainable solutions, but the Trump administration is moving in the opposite direction—the White House budget request earlier this year would have eliminated the Organic Agriculture Research & Extension Initiative and cut the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program by nearly 30 percent. As a pesticide industry insider, would Hutchins be able to rise above the interests of his long-term employers and colleagues, and to consider instead the larger public interest to be served through investment in these valuable research and education programs?

5. Do you accept the science of climate change, and would you increase support for the evidence-based tools farmers need to build resilience to a warmer, more volatile climate? Many Trump administration officials—including the president himself and Secretary Perdue—have scoffed at the science of climate change. But when it comes to farmers and our food supply, inaction on climate change just not an option. What does Hutchins think about the contribution of soil health to climate resilience and productivity? As chief scientist, would he stand behind USDA investments in research, education, and extension to help farmers and ranchers better cope with our changing climate?

6. What scientific and economic research would help policymakers better understand and improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)? Formerly known as the food stamps program, SNAP has been at the center of controversy in the farm bill, and it’s under attack by the Trump administration. But in 2014, this program lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty, including 2.1 million children, and abundant data show that SNAP is a smart investment in the nation’s health and well-being and a boon to local economies. As chief scientist, what research would Hutchins prioritize to improve understanding of the program’s benefits and how it could be improved to better serve public health and Americans still struggling economically?

7. How would you help ensure that the next update of federal dietary guidelines is based on the best science? The USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services recently embarked on a two-year process to update the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. My colleague Sarah Reinhardt recently wrote about what we expect from that process—including our concerns that it will be particularly vulnerable, under the Trump administration, to influence by food industry interests. Hutchins would not be directly responsible for the process—it will be run out of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, which Secretary Perdue reorganized last year, and which is led by a Trump appointee with zero nutrition background. But as chief scientist, Hutchins could play an important role. By prioritizing USDA nutrition research over the next two years to inform the process, he could help ensure that the 2020 DGAs are based on sound science in the interest of public health. Will he?

A Stealth Move to Undermine Science at the US Department of Agriculture

NIFA research teamA team of scientists gathers data for a NIFA research project. Photo: USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

In its latest scheme to undermine science, the Trump administration is brazenly trying to—pun intended—farm out to the hinterlands the most important research arms of the Department of Agriculture.

When Secretary Sonny Perdue recently boasted that 136 entities in 35 states are vying for the relocation of the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), his press release claimed that the move would place scientists closer to many “stakeholders” who live and work far from Washington, DC, would give “significant savings on employment costs,” and would “improve USDA’s ability to attract and retain highly qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture.”

It sounds benign enough, but the rhetoric of moving these divisions closer to farming “stakeholders” purposely masks the likely damage to the far bigger world of stakeholders—the American people. The truth is, the move by Perdue and the Trump administration will further disconnect the perspective and expertise of USDA scientists from direct contact with policymaking on Capitol Hill.

Key data and research agencies

The 57-year-old ERS is no household acronym, but it is the principal agency that scours data on the impact of agricultural practices on the environment. It studies nutrition, food safety and food access for the poor, employment in rural economies, and the pros and cons of international agricultural trade proposals and regulations.

NIFA, created in the 2008 Farm Bill, funds research and programs that guide policymakers on improving nutrition and food safety, promoting sustainable agriculture, and keeping American agriculture competitive at a global level.

The data collected and questions explored by these agencies cross-pollinate in Washington, DC with research from the 12 other federal statistical agencies to help Americans understand economic trends and realities in our nation’s urban, suburban, and rural populations. Here’s the rub: these agencies’ collaborative and impartial search for facts is often at odds with the skewed and sometimes false narratives of lobbyists and politicians, such as in pleas for farm subsidies and stereotypes about how low-income mothers abuse food assistance benefits.

Widespread opposition

The Trump administration wants to break up this science-based collaboration, which runs parallel to its more highly publicized efforts to defang science in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department. Not only that, but the move by Perdue follows an effort earlier this year to cut the ERS budget in half—a request Congress rightfully dismissed. And this latest attempt to hamstring both ERS and NIFA has similarly drawn the ire of leading scientists around the nation. More than 1,100 of them signed a letter, coordinated by the Union of Concerned Scientists, urging key Senate and House agriculture committee members to block the move of the ERS and NIFA.

“The world class research carried out through NIFA and ERS comprises part of the science-based bedrock of our food and farm system,” that letter explains. “It empowers producers, businesses, and decisionmakers across the country with the accurate, unbiased data they rely on every day.”

In a stunning display of how seriously this professional community takes the proposed move, 56 former senior administration officials and heads of statistical agencies wrote a similar letter to congressional leaders. The signatories include Susan Offutt, who ran ERS from 1996 to 2006, under both the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations; her successor Katherine Smith Evans; and former leaders from the Census Bureau, the Office of Management and Budget, the Internal Revenue Service, the Energy Information Administration, the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the National Center for Health Statistics. They say the move “jeopardizes” the independence of federal data gathering by increasing “the potential for interference in the direction, design, analysis and release of studies and reports.”

Fears of political interference

Interference should be inconceivable when public health is at stake, as with food safety. For instance, ERS studies whether salmonella testing programs on poultry are effective. A report last year concluded, based on the evidence, that tougher and more clear federal regulations reduced salmonella contamination.

Top critics of the relocation proposal see it as a form of interference. Smith Evans, who ran ERS from 2007 to 2011, under both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, told me that her former agency “will be decimated. It will not be able to hire the best and the brightest and compete for skilled people if it is relocated in an isolated area.”

Those fears are gaining political traction on Capitol Hill as the USDA Inspector General is now reviewing the proposed move at the request of Representatives Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia) and Steny Hoyer (D-Maryland). Equally concerning is the fact that Perdue has also proposed to reorganize ERS out from under the Office of Research, Education and Economics and into the Office of the USDA’s Chief Economist. Since the chief economist reports directly to Perdue, many worry the shift will further compromise the agency’s independence.

Steve Gliessman, an emeritus professor and founding director of agroecology at the University of California Santa Cruz, is one of many scientists concerned about the proposal. From 2004 to 2008, Gliessman used a NIFA grant to improve the technique for growing strawberries organically. His research demonstrated that strawberries could be grown without pesticides by rotating cover crops that did not play host to diseases that bedevil the berries. Such techniques helped increase acreage for organic strawberries from 134 acres two decades ago to 4,000 today.

Gliessman says he fears that moving NIFA to a more rural state gives big producers more opportunity to influence the direction of research while their lobbyists remain in DC to work over the politicians. Between the two, he worries that advocates for more sustainable, diversified and safer food production will be drowned out.

“I see this resulting as a return to a focus on production and profit rather than a deep understanding of the ecological and social impacts of that mode,” he said. “We’ve seen more than enough of the unsustainable nature of the industrial food model. We really should be moving toward an ecological model.”

A wealth of research and data at stake

The fact is, ERS data and NIFA research have shown why the nation should be moving toward an ecological model of agriculture and a more nutritious food system. ERS has shown that conservation compliance programs, which tie more sustainable agricultural practices to eligibility for federal price supports and relief, work to reduce erosion. It has shown that programs that pay farmers a rental fee to take millions of acres a year out of production work to reduce erosion, pollution, restore wildlife and diversify rural economies through recreation.

Analysts at the Union of Concerned Scientists built upon ERS research to show that measures to reduce fertilizer pollution in the Corn Belt could save taxpayers, farmers and businesses $850 million a year, instead of costing the nation $157 billion in lost tourism, fishing, health care costs and water treatment. UCS has also found that sophisticated three-crop and four-crop rotations that preserve soil can lead to higher yields than two-crop rotations.

Among its other contributions, ERS developed the definition for US food deserts and a national atlas of low food access areas, giving the federal government and states specific geographic areas to target with programs, data that helped inform Obama-era healthy food initiatives and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program. An ERS report last year found that the percentage of low-income census tracts with large grocery stores or supercenters nearly doubled, mirroring the growth for moderate- and high-income census tracts. Another ERS report showed how the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program helps low-income individuals and families alleviate food insecurity while pointing out a myriad of social and educational challenges to securing the best nutrition.

Those successes are a reminder that you cannot have progress unless you have data as a reference point. “People should understand that it takes decades to assemble the data on issues like this,” Offutt says. “You just don’t go out and instantly collect data on grocery stores or how food is cooked and processed. Home waste is different than waste in restaurants. Food choices change. There’s no single university or institute that can put together the intellectual firepower necessary to get the entire picture as can the federal government.”

As Smith Evans put it, “ERS never says USDA must do this or that. We say: ‘Let’s lay out the facts, and the facts will inform without prescribing. That’s so hard for other institutions to do. It would seem we need that more than ever.”

Offutt added, “My philosophy at ERS and government research in general is that you want to look over the horizon and ask questions two, five, six, 10 years down the road. That’s an important function for a public agency. With this proposed move, I’m really concerned that longer-term view will be lost. If your biggest public agency isn’t doing this work, who will?”

Put another way, if your biggest public agency isn’t doing this long-term work, who is there to protect your food, your health and the environment? If Perdue is allowed to move ERS and NIFA out of the mainstream of federal data gathering, the answer from the USDA will likely be: no one.

Photo: USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

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.

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