UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

Food Stamps Cuts Could Hit Rural America Hardest

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural America relies on SNAP

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

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

SNAP is not a wedge issue

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

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

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

Investing in the Future Farmers and Stewards of America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall, this progress was critical, but not sufficient.

Crafting better conditions for the next generation of farmers

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

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

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

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

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

Collaboration Between Ranchers and Scientists Leads to Rangeland Management Opportunities

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

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

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

How should we manage rangeland?

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

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

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

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

Building relationships with stakeholders

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

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

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

Hope for the future of natural resource management

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


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


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

Kris Hulvey

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

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


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

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

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

The French are safer

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

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

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

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

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

They’re healthier, too

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

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

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

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

They eat better

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

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

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

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

They make education more affordable

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

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

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

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

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

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

They treat workers better

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

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

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

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

They’re downplaying the role of nuclear weapons

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

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

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

They do a better job protecting the environment

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

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

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

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

They hold cleaner elections

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

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

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

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




White House

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

Nathaniel Currier lithograph, 1852

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Theodore Roosevelt: Cattle ranching and conservation

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

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

5. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Dust Bowl and soil conservation

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

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

6. Richard Nixon: Turning farming into big business

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

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

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

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

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

8. Barack Obama: Justice and healthy food, served

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

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

And now what?

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

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

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

Photo: Erik Scheel/CC0 BY SA, Pexels

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

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

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

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

Why do we need FINI?

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

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

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

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

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

A nutrition program that’s good for families and farmers

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

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

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

Let your elected officials know where you stand

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

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

Trump Administration Raids Workers’ Tip Jars, Buries Data Showing That’s a Horrible Idea

In December the Trump administration proposed a new rule that specifically allows employers to control and distribute tip income as they see fit, taking away control of tip money from the employees—food servers, baristas, and many other hardworking people—who earned it.

Now it has come to light that the Department of Labor, which proposed the rule, has provided yet another example of the Trump administration following its science motto: “If the data don’t tell you what you want to hear, bury the data.” In this case, by suppressing data and analysis from the department’s own experts showing the economic impacts of this rule.

People are always hurt by such an approach, and the casualties this time are the people who serve restaurant meals for minimum wage or less.

“Tip pooling”—banned for good reason

Last fall, the department halted a rule put in place in 2011 that banned the practice of “tip pooling” in restaurants and other businesses. The idea of the original rule was to ensure that when patrons add tips to their bills, that money is controlled by employees, not restaurant owners or managers. This is important because in many states, servers are exempt from the legal minimum wage—making as little as $2.13/hour in some states—so their incomes rely heavily on tips. But the Trump administration not only rescinded the pooling ban, it went further in December, proposing a new rule specifically allowing employers to control and distribute tip income as they see fit.

It has created a lot of controversy to say the least. Hundreds of thousands of tipped workers, the vast majority women,  may lose as much as $5.8 billion in income if the rule is finalized. Our allies at the Restaurant Opportunities Center United have warned that opening the door to tip theft would also exacerbate sexual harassment in an industry already rife with it, as it would give employers extraordinary power over their workers’ tips.

Suppressing the evidence

As a matter of human rights and fairness this is an important issue, but is it a science issue too?  Unfortunately, yes. That’s because, in the course of overturning this worker protection, the Trump administration suppressed data and analysis from their own staff showing the economic impact of the reversal. That impact comes from transferring income away from waitstaff to a broader set of workers, or to employers who directly retain some of the money.

Public policy decisions like these are supposed to be based on the best data and analyses available and the decision itself must be weighed and justified based on that evidence. And the public must have access to that information when the department takes comments on the proposed rule.

In this case, Labor Department analysts compiled data on the economic effects of the rule change, but according to Bloomberg, political appointees at the Labor Department later ordered the staff to change the analysis to appear more supportive of their proposal to allow tip-pooling. When changes to the data and analysis were still not sufficient to show the proposal favorably, the administration just buried the report altogether.  Not only does that misinform the public and industry, it also manipulates the decision process itself and “tips” it in favor of the administration (pun intended).

Unfortunately, this action to sideline science in order to allow politics and influence to rule the day is not unique to the Department of Labor, but is rife throughout this administration. In this case, the attorneys general of 17 states are warning that the administration’s failure to release its data on tip pooling is illegal under federal rulemaking law.

We need to push back with our elected representatives and demand the rule be withdrawn. This administration, like any other, may have policies it wants to advance, but they must do the scientific analyses straight up and allow the public to have a voice.  Misinforming the public shouldn’t be an acceptable tactic for pushing ahead with public policies that hurt everyday hard-working people.

3 Reasons Why the Trump USDA’s School Nutrition Rollbacks Should Worry You—and What You Can Do About It

Photo: USDA

In May of 2017, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue moved to make school meals great again by issuing a proclamation in support of more lenient school nutrition standards. Specifically, the proposed rule permits the continued use of whole grain waivers, which exempt certain products from meeting whole grain standards; freezes current sodium limits through 2020, rather than moving forward with progressive sodium targets; and allows schools to serve low-fat flavored milk, which is currently disallowed due to its added sugar and fat content.

The nutrition standards in jeopardy are among those established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a landmark piece of legislation championed by former first lady Michelle Obama that marked the first overhaul of child nutrition regulations in decades.

And although May of last year might seem like a lifetime ago (a few things have happened since then), the USDA is now inviting public comments on the proposed rule, with a deadline of January 29, 2018.

Here are the top three reasons we should all be worried about this rule—and what’s driving us to take action to oppose it. You can use our UCS model comment, or write and submit your own here, to voice your concerns to the USDA.

1. We can’t afford to let children’s health become a second-tier priority.

Let’s get this out of the way: the most worrisome thing about the administration rolling back child nutrition standards is that the administration is rolling back child nutrition standards. Childhood obesity rates tripled between the early 1970s and 2005, prompting public health researchers to predict that, for the first time in centuries, children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents. Childhood obesity rates have since plateaued at around 17 percent—progress that has undoubtedly been propelled by nutrition and physical activity policies like the HHFKA—but we have a long way to go to change the trajectory of US population health. Half of all American adults currently live with one or more diet-related chronic diseases, and about two thirds are overweight or obese. The medical costs associated with obesity now account for an estimated 21 percent of all national health expenditures. Our kids deserve better.

2. We can’t afford to let industry interests become our top priority.

The proposed rule cites several justifications for altering school nutrition standards, including helping school food service authorities overcome procurement and menu planning challenges, and ensuring that students receive palatable meals that won’t go to waste. But according to the USDA, more than 99 percent of schools nationwide are already successfully meeting the nutrition standards put in place by the HHFKA. With full recognition of the tremendous amount of work it takes for schools and school food service staff to make these changes, the proof remains in the pudding: they did it. Meanwhile, the USDA reported higher school lunch revenue, greater fruit and vegetable consumption among kids, and no increase in food waste in the years following adoption of the new nutrition standards. So if this proposed rule isn’t for schools, and it isn’t for kids… who is it for? Hmm.

3. This rule could be a harbinger of more harmful regulatory rollbacks to come.

A multitude of other evidence-based health and nutrition standards were established with the passage of HHFKA, including required minimum servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables in school meals, availability of free water where meals are served, and limits on total calories, sodium, sugar, and fats in snacks sold in schools. These nutrition standards are rooted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the cornerstone scientific report that guides federal nutrition policy and dietary recommendations for the general public; as such, they were adopted with the explicit aim of curbing childhood obesity and improving health outcomes for future generations. Just as a step toward these guidelines brings us closer to a healthier future, a step (or more) away takes us further, and lays bare a pointed preference for profit over people. If the “flexibility” granted to schools by this proposed rule is any indication of changes to come, we may be in some trouble.



As President Trump Speaks to the Farm Bureau, Both Are Betraying Farmers

Photo courtesy raymondclarkeimages/flickr

On Monday, the US president will take time out from his regular schedule to talk about agriculture. He’s scheduled to deliver a speech in Nashville at the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation (aka “Farm Bureau”). The organization’s president, Zippy Duvall, called this a proud moment, and I’m not surprised. The Farm Bureau and Mr. Trump have a lot in common: they claim to serve farmers but in reality, they’re not doing much to improve most farmers’ lives and prospects.

The Farm Bureau bills itself as the nation’s largest nonprofit farmers’ organization and “the unified national voice of agriculture.” It is a powerful force in Washington, DC, spending millions of dollars each year lobbying Congress, and setting its sights on policy issues that range well beyond agriculture. After a 2016 presidential campaign that highlighted the plight of farming communities, Duvall cheered rural America’s role in electing Donald Trump. And now, the Trump administration is eager to tout its accomplishments for farmers and attempt to cement the support of this critical constituency.

The farmers Trump forgot

The problem is, despite all his populist rhetoric, President Trump and his agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, have delivered far more for agribusiness—the deep-pocketed corporations that buy, process, and trade farm commodities—than for the average farmer and farm worker. And while Secretary Perdue (a big agribiz guy from way back) trumpeted his department’s 2017 accomplishments in a self-congratulatory year-end press release, my assessment of the Trump administration’s actual contributions to the well-being of most farmers and their communities so far is quite different.

In his first 100 days, the president proposed steep cuts to the US Department of Agriculture’s budget, which would impact technical assistance to farmers as well as funding to improve rural water systems, and, potentially, food assistance programs that serve low-income rural residents. His hardline immigration rhetoric and increased deportation actions have led to a farmworker shortage that has affected farms from California to Michigan. He threatened early on to walk away from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which American farmers like because it has expanded markets for their grains, meat, and dairy products. And although President Trump later committed to “renegotiate” the pact with Canada and Mexico, his blustering, bullying tactics (disconcerting even to his own negotiators) may blow up the deal anyway. Many farmers feel betrayed.

Things haven’t gotten better from there.

In October, the Trump USDA rolled back the Farmer Fair Practices Rules, which the previous administration put in place to give poultry and livestock farmers more power in marketing contracts with meat processing companies, and to make it easier for contract farmers to sue those companies. The rollback means that farmers lose their recently-gained protection from exploitation by the consolidated corporate giants who control and monopolize nearly every step of the meat and poultry production chain. The Farm Bureau approved.

And then there’s the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act recently passed by the president’s party in Congress and signed into law. Among the provisions pushed by the White House (and the Farm Bureau) was all-out repeal of the estate tax, which the president said would “protect millions of small businesses and the American farmer” from disaster. With the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimating that only about 80 small business and small farm estates nationwide would face any estate tax in 2017, PolitiFact labeled the president’s statement a “pants-on-fire” claim. (Ultimately, the bill doubled the existing estate tax exemption to $11 million per person.)

In the tax bill as a whole, some observers see more downsides than benefits for all but the richest farmers, and analysis by one national agricultural accounting firm indicates that the benefits to farmers will be temporary. Still, the Farm Bureau applauded the final bill, including its imaginary estate tax benefit for farmers.

“Farm Bureau” ≠ “Farmers”

And of course the Farm Bureau applauded it. Because the agribusiness CEOs and investors that will reap benefits from big tax cuts and other Trump administration policies are the organization’s real constituency. That doesn’t mean the president’s audience in Nashville next week won’t include many honest-to-goodness farmers and ranchers. There will be many, but their actual interests are not served by the Farm Bureau’s federal policy priorities.

Moreover, as actual farmers, they make up a fraction of the Farm Bureau’s claimed membership numbers. Here’s how the organization describes its membership in legal filings:

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), a not-for-profit, voluntary general farm organization, was founded to protect, promote, and represent the business, economic, social, and educational interests of American farmers and ranchers. AFBF has member organizations in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, representing about 6 million member families.

But the Farm Bureau’s own website simultaneously acknowledges that there are about 2.2 million farms in the United States today. Now, math isn’t my strong suit, but I’d say it’s impossible for most Farm Bureau “members” to be farm families. Instead, it appears that the organization’s membership figure has been vastly inflated by…wait for it…

Insurance customers. That’s right, many state farm bureau affiliates are heavily invested in, or actually operate, insurance companies. And many, many of the insurance customers that the Farm Bureau then automatically claims as “members” have little or no connection to farming.

Moreover, investments in insurance companies have made at least a few state Farm Bureau affiliates spectacularly wealthy. For example, IRS documents from 2013 show that the Iowa Farm Bureau had investment income topping $46 million and total assets exceeding $1 billion that year.  So it’s easy to see why the Farm Bureau would promote big business interests while opposing programs and legislation that would benefit the majority of farmers.

Farmers deserve better champions

Still, many farmers get their information about the public policies that affect them from the Farm Bureau. And the farmers in Nashville will surely be seeking help—from the Farm Bureau and from the president—to succeed in a perilous farm economy that may become a full-blown farm crisis; to cope with the flood, drought, and wildfire disasters that are becoming increasingly common; and to pass down thriving farms to the next generation.

Mr. Trump seems to think he can drop in on the Farm Bureau’s annual shindig and tell them how much he cares about farmers (“believe me”). Perhaps he’ll deliver one of his infamous rally speeches, and maybe the assembled crowd of Farm Bureau leaders in Nashville will eat it up. Or maybe they will realize that it’s all talk, and the administration doesn’t really care about the interests of the average American farm family. As for the president and his team, I suspect they are mistaken to equate the Farm Bureau with “farmers” (and by extension, rural voters), but that remains to be seen.

Ultimately, farmers need more than speeches and slogans. They need real investments in their communities, in research and technical assistance, and in the long-term viability of farming. But it’s unlikely they’ll get it from the Farm Bureau, or the Trump administration.

All I Want for Christmas Is Added Sugar Information Over Disinformation

The struggle is real right now for all of us trying to watch our added sugar intake this holiday season as we await the implementation of the revised nutrition facts label. Now, thanks to the administration’s delay of implementation dates, we’ll have longer to wait for clear labels.  Want to know how much sugar was added to that egg nog? Tough. How about that fruit cake? None of your business. Trying to figure out whether you’ll max out on your daily sugar intake from that cup of hot cocoa? Better luck in 2020!

The Sugar Association had the gall to claim that the added sugar label was “not grounded in science” when it was finalized in May 2016. Now, multiple revelations over the past year have shown the way in which the organization has sidelined science using the disinformation playbook since at least the 1950s. It is clear as crystal that the Sugar Association cares only about science that downplays the risks of sugar consumption. All other data is subject to being contested or buried altogether.

Speaking of burying data, here’s how the Sugar Association used “The Fake” to end a research study with inconvenient initial findings.

In a November PLoS article, UCSF researchers found that the Sugar Research Foundation had suppressed its own research when its results indicated that rats fed a high-sugar diet had a statistically significant increase in likelihood that they would have higher levels of beta-glucoronidase which is associated with bladder cancer. SRF funded the 15-month study in 1968 to be led by W.F.R. Pover at the University of Birmingham. When Pover reported his results and asked for more time to complete the study, SRF Vice President, Hickson, described the study’s value as “nil” to industry executives, leading to a denial of the funding request and a termination of the incomplete study. This meant that the study’s conclusions were never published and that the link between a high sugar diet and associated cancer risk were kept secret from the public, until now. As recently as 2016, the Sugar Association has denied the link between sugar consumption and cancer, stating that “no credible link between ingested sugars and cancer has been established.”

The Sugar Association has also spent years trying to shift attention off of the harmful impacts of added sugar, using “The Diversion.”

The same UCSF research team published a study last year which revealed that as a part of its campaign to increase sugar consumption in the 1960s, the Sugar Research Foundation funded its own literature review on sugars, fats, and chronic heart disease in an obvious attempt to dispel the rumors that calories from sugar were at least part of the problem. The SRF paid Dr. Mark Hegsted and Dr. Robert McGandy, under the supervision of Harvard University’s Fredrick Stare, a total of nearly $50,000 (in 2015 dollars) for their work. And the SRF was heavily involved throughout the review process, urging the scientists to focus on the perils of fat consumption. The SRF vice president and director of research, John Hickson, emphasized in 1965, “Our particular interest had to do with that part of nutrition in which there are claims that carbohydrates in the form of sucrose make an inordinate contribution to the metabolic condition, hitherto ascribed to aberrations called fat metabolism. I will be disappointed if this aspect is drowned out in a cascade of review and general interpretation.”

Another trick up the sleeve of the Sugar Association was their use of “The Screen,” taking advantage of the funding relationship it had with Harvard University’s nutrition department.

Just as the Sugar Association and Corn Refiners Association today work with academic scientists to advance their talking points, when the trade association’s aforementioned literature review was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, the authors did not disclose the funding or close involvement of the SRF in the review. Dr. Fredrick Stare, the founder and chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, had an extended history of funding from the sugar and food industry: over 30 papers authored by members of his department were funded by the SRF just between 1952 and 1956. Stare’s department at Harvard is a key example of how industry funding can influence academic science, with dangerous consequences for public discourse and public policy.

Despite all we know about the disinformation campaign of the sugar industry, government officials are still failing to see through their same old distraction tactics and talking points about “sound science” to act to protect our health rather than the trade association’s profit margin. The result? Delayed access to information on the nutrition facts label even though we know that sugar is one of the risk factors implicated in the obesity crisis that continues to worsen every year.

Early last month, UCS submitted a comment to the FDA urging them to choose information over disinformation and not to go through with the further delay of enforcement of the revised label. To formally delay compliance of this already long-awaited and scientifically supported rule would be an arbitrary step backward for public health. 


As a Government Funding Deadline Looms, Scientists Seek Support for Agroecology Research

Photo: USDA-SARE/Edwin Remsberg

Among the many challenges Congress faces in the dwindling days of 2017 is this: the federal government will run out of money on December 22 unless lawmakers can agree on a budget extension.

In recent years, the threat of a government shutdown has become an unofficial December tradition in Washington. Unsurprisingly, this lack of certainty has real impacts on millions of Americans from all walks of life. But in recent years, scientist and researchers have started speaking up.

My colleague Tali Robbins works closely with these scientists and researchers and below has laid out the current landscape of Congressional funding, the importance of agroecological research, and exactly how new voices are getting involved:

In the vast complexity of funding the government, agriculture research rarely makes headlines. Yet, few investments are more important for the future of farming, rural communities, clean water, and healthy food. That’s because the federal budget is the key vehicle through which scientists, farmers, and others who care about our food system can push for more support of sustainable agriculture. Perhaps the biggest opportunity to hasten the transition to a more sustainable food and farming system is through public research funding for agroecology.

Agroecology shows tremendous promise to support farmers’ bottom line while achieving positive social and environmental outcomes, yet recent analysis shows that this area of research is vastly underfunded. Some USDA research programs have enjoyed modest funding increases in previous rounds of budget negotiations, but with pressure mounting from fiscal conservatives on the Hill, these programs are under serious threat. Let’s backtrack to earlier this year to understand the current budget drama and the outlook for agroecology in the next fiscal year.

In March, the President proposed a “skinny budget,” the administration’s first major foray into government funding decisions, which decimated research funding at USDA and throughout other federal agencies. Thankfully, allies in both the House and Senate recognized that public support of agricultural research results in an enormous return on investment of more than 20 percent, and they rejected Trump’s proposal wholesale. The agreement that was eventually signed into law in May maintained or increased funding levels for some of the key USDA programs that fund agroecological research, including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI; a $25 million increase to $375 million), the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE; a $2.3 million increase to $27 million), and the Organic Research Extension Initiative (OREI; holding steady at $20 million).

As that deal was set to expire earlier this fall, the President signed another bill extending those same funding levels through December 8, and then signed yet another extension through December 22. That means that as of today, Congress has just days to reach another agreement to keep the government open – and keep researchers at USDA and land grant universities around the country working to find solutions to the nation’s most pressing agricultural challenges.

Agricultural research has historically found bipartisan support and rightly so. Despite the polarized political environment and the legislative logjam, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle agree that sustainable agriculture research programs need more funding. For example, SARE – the primary vehicle to conduct on-farm research – was only able to fund 7 percent of qualified pre-proposals for Research and Education grants last year. Farmer-driven research that would have supported farmers seeking to incorporate sustainable practices that mitigate the impact of floods and droughts, prevent fertilizer runoff, and sequester carbon in the soil has been left unfunded.

Over the last several months, congressional appropriators have drafted funding bills for the next fiscal year. And agricultural scientists around the country mobilized to impress upon these legislators the importance of fully funding key USDA programs that prioritize agroecology. Researchers from Oregon to Kansas to New Mexico have been working to demonstrate the value these programs have to farmers, ranchers, and rural communities around the country.

Steve Guldan, Professor of Plant and Environmental Sciences and superintendent of the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at New Mexico State University, recently met with the office of Senator Tom Udall (D-NM). Senator Udall serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee and has been a champion for agroecology research. I reached out to Dr. Guldan to find out more about the impact of USDA funds on agricultural research in New Mexico.

You have decades of experience at New Mexico’s largest land grant university. What role do programs like AFRI, SARE, and OREI play in supporting region-specific research?

The southwestern U.S. has a different combination of climate, soils, and elevations than other areas of the country. For this reason, the development of sustainable farming and ranching practices must be based upon research carried out in our region. AFRI, SARE, and OREI are grant programs that allow researchers from the diverse regions that exist in the U.S. to develop agricultural and natural resource management principles and systems appropriate for each region.

SARE is the only USDA competitive grants research program that focuses solely on sustainable agriculture. Could you tell us about your recent SARE-funded research and its relevance to agricultural stakeholders in your state?

SARE allowed us to develop and evaluate low-cost high tunnels for winter greens (e.g., lettuce, spinach, kale) production systems, including organic systems, that can be used in our region of high elevations and relatively cold winters by making the most of our many sunny days. Increasing the capacity to grow vegetables locally during the winter months can help farmers develop more marketing options as well as provide locally-grown produce to schools, restaurants, and year-round farmers markets.

You drove two hours to meet with Senator Udall’s office and discuss your concerns around this budget. Tell us about that experience and the reception you got from the senator.

I was pleased to find Senator Udall’s staff to be very interested in hearing about the importance of AFRI, SARE, and related USDA research programs to New Mexico agricultural research. They were very generous in the amount of time they provided to me and another researcher. The two staff members we met with were experienced and knowledgeable about the legislative process and how funding for these research programs fits into it.

The Senate and House Appropriations committees have passed their funding packages, which tentatively include some important funding increases to key research programs. However, appropriators in both chambers must now negotiate to determine final spending levels on USDA programs for the remainder of FY18. Congress has a jam-packed schedule until the holiday break, but it’s imperative that appropriators recognize the importance of publicly funded agroecological research and the value that AFRI, SARE, and OREI provide to farmers, ranchers, and communities around the country.

What’s in the Nutrition Title of the (Food and) Farm Bill?

We’ve been talking a lot about the federal legislation known as the Farm Bill, a major law governing key US food and agriculture programs that’s up for re-authorization during 2018. And while most of the dozen sections or “titles” of the 2014 Farm Bill are deep in the weeds of agriculture—from commodity crop programs and crop insurance to agriculture research and on-farm conservation—the title governing nutrition programs is actually the largest, and by a long shot. It accounts for approximately 80 percent of the bill’s spending, and its programs are among the most important resources in the federal safety net.

They are also among the most at risk of cuts each time the Farm Bill is reauthorized. This reauthorization cycle is no exception, with President Trump’s proposed budget earlier this year and recent comments by his agriculture secretary serving as some of the first of many indications that nutrition assistance programs could face structural changes and drastic reductions in funding by the time this is all over.

Farm and food programs go hand-in-hand

Before we go down that road, it’s worth noting that the cornerstone food assistance programs of the nutrition title have roots that are intricately intertwined with those of early agricultural programs. In 1933, as farmers were faced with surpluses and historically low prices in the midst of the Great Depression, the federal government responded with the first Farm Bill: The Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1933. This legislation established, among other things, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, which allowed the government to purchase farm commodities at discounted prices and distribute them at hunger relief agencies. In leveraging federal resources to relieve the strain on both US farmers and families, the program offered a model for what would become the first food stamp program in 1939.

Eight decades and 16 Farm Bills later, the nutrition title continues to support households at risk of food insecurity—though the relationship between nutrition and farm programs is increasingly complicated by financial and political interests. This is evident in the dissonance between our farm policies, which tend to give preference to commodity crops like corn and soy, and our dietary guidelines, which encourage us to consume more foods like fruits and vegetables. And while the food stamp program—now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—remains a foundational component of the nutrition title, other nutrition programs have emerged alongside it with renewed interest in a healthy food supply that benefits both consumers and regional food producers.

So what did the nutrition title look like in the last Farm Bill passed in 2014, and what’s on the horizon for its reauthorization in 2018?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: The fabric of the federal safety net

SNAP is one of the largest components of the federal safety net, providing critical financial support for more than 21 million American households. The program helps to prevent hunger and poverty among some of our most vulnerable populations, including children, who account for about 4 out of 10 SNAP participants, as well as seniors and people with disabilities. It also acts as a critical safeguard in circumstances causing temporary food insecurity or financial strain, such as natural disasters or unexpected gaps in employment. In 2014, the program lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty, including 2.1 million children, and reduced food insecurity rates by nearly a third.

There are currently few restrictions on the foods and beverages that can be purchased with SNAP benefits, though benefits can’t be used to buy alcohol, vitamins, medicine, and hot foods or foods consumed in-store. (An exception: states offering the Restaurant Meals Program may allow homeless, disabled, or elderly participants to redeem benefits in restaurants.)

Disaster SNAP was used to provide emergency food relief to those impacted by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. Photo: US Department of Agriculture/CC by public domain

SNAP eligibility is primarily determined by household gross income (set at 130 percent of the poverty line) and net income tests, with exceptions for seniors and those receiving disability payments. Applicants may also be eligible for SNAP benefits if they’re qualified for other assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), through a provision called broad-based categorical eligibility. Adults in households without children, seniors, or people with disabilities must meet work requirements or face benefit termination after a period of three months (renewed every three years). During periods of severe economic downturn, as in the years following the Great Recession, states may be given the option to grant waivers lifting the three-month time limit.

SNAP is uniquely equipped to respond to changing economic conditions due to its status as an entitlement program, which ensures that increases in eligibility or program participation are matched by increases in funding. The Great Recession highlighted the importance of this funding structure: when unemployment grew by 93 percent between 2007 and 2011, SNAP participation grew by 70 percent. Meanwhile, assistance programs funded through block grants, such as TANF, experienced only marginal increases in participation.

Increased SNAP spending not only improves food security among participating households, but also acts as an economic stimulus, with every five dollars in new SNAP benefits generating as much as nine dollars in economic activity. Following economic recovery, enrollment and spending tend to decline. Between 2013 and 2016, caseloads in a majority of states experienced steady declines, due to both economic recovery and the reinstatement of three-month time limits for adult participants without employment. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that program costs will continue to decline throughout the next decade.

The Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Grant Program, generally referred to as SNAP Education or SNAP-Ed, complements SNAP benefits by providing grant funding for nutrition education. SNAP-Ed prioritizes evidence-based programs and interventions that support healthy eating behaviors and physical activity among low-income populations. Evaluations of nutrition education programs have reported increases in fruit and vegetable intake, reductions in overweight youth, and increases in physical activity among adults, with some studies estimating a $10 savings in overall long-term health care costs for every dollar invested.

SNAP Education grants help kids and adults learn new skills and develop healthy eating behaviors. Photo: Coqui the Chef/CC by SA 2.0

Nutrition assistance for special populations

There are multiple programs contained in the nutrition title of the 2014 Farm Bill that provide nutrition assistance to special populations and supplement existing programs with increased access to fresh, healthy foods.

  • The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) works in lieu of SNAP, providing USDA foods to low-income households living on Indian reservations, as well as Native American families residing in designated areas.
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provides USDA commodity foods to public or private nonprofit organizations preparing or distributing meals to primarily low-income populations.
  • The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) provides nutritious USDA commodity foods to participating states and Indian Tribal Organizations to supplement the diets of low-income elderly persons 60 years of age and older.
  • The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program provides grant funding for state agencies to offer low-income seniors coupons that can be redeemed for fruits, vegetables, honey, and herbs at farmers markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture programs.
  • The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides eligible elementary schools with free fresh fruits and vegetables during the day, with the goal of supporting nutrition education and introducing children to greater varieties of health-promoting foods.
Nutrition programs supporting healthy food access and stronger food systems

A number of innovative programs established in the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills called attention to the importance of improving healthy food access and supporting local and regional farm economies through nutrition assistance programs. These programs play a crucial role in helping families secure access to healthy and affordable foods—especially as recent research has confirmed that, at current levels, SNAP benefits alone aren’t enough to help families achieve a healthy diet.

  • The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program provides grant funding to help provide point-of-purchase incentives that encourage the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants. Modeled after Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program, which matches the value of SNAP benefits spent on fruits and vegetables at participating farmers markets and grocery stores, the FINI grant program helped thousands of low-income SNAP households spend over $5 million in SNAP benefits on fresh fruits and vegetables in 2015. More than three quarters of participating SNAP farmers market shoppers reported buying or consuming more fruits and vegetables as a result, and over half of all participating farmers reported making greater profits or increasing the scope of their operations.
  • The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) provides grants, tax credits, low-cost loans, and technical assistance to help increase access to healthy, affordable foods in low-income and underserved communities. Applications of HFFI funding include investments in new grocery stores, corner stores, farmers markets, and other retail outlets offering nutritious foods. Modeled after the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, HFFI helped communities invest more than $69 million in 119 retail projects for a total of more than 1.5 million square feet of new retail space as of 2015.
  • The Food and Agricultural Service Learning Program is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and complements federal farm-to-school grants to increase the capacity for food, garden, and nutrition education programs.
Looking ahead: Nutrition in the 2018 Farm Bill

The upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization introduces both opportunities and threats to key components of the nutrition title, with the latter most likely to impact SNAP.

The House Agriculture Committee conducted a comprehensive review of SNAP between 2015 and 2016, gathering testimony from 60 witnesses across a total of 16 hearings, and published a report highlighting its findings. This report, paired with recent statements from the administration regarding SNAP and welfare reform, indicate that a number of changes that may befall the program in the coming Farm Bill, including stricter work requirements, mandatory drug testing, and other mechanisms to reduce eligibility. There is little evidence supporting the need for and utility of such reforms: USDA data demonstrates that most participants who can work, do work, while past attempts to implement drug testing in TANF have proved costly and yielded low rates of drug abuse.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue attends a Farmer’s Roundtable where President Donald Trump signed the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America in April 2017. Photo: USDA/CC by public domain

However, the re-authorization of the Farm Bill also provides important opportunities to lift up the voices of those who have relied on SNAP benefits during disasters and economic downturn, highlighting the ways in which the program helps all Americans; to make positive changes that can increase the reach of existing programs, such as the inclusion of veterans in the Senior Farmers Market Promotion Program; and to provide continued funding and support for programs like FINI and HFFI that are making substantial progress in bridging the gap between low-income consumers and local food producers.

Though the nutrition title may appear to be an outlier by name, the benefits it provides to our households and communities are also in large part sustaining our food and farming systems—and have great potential to also help them thrive. To receive updates on the ways in which we’re working to build stronger food systems and healthier populations in the next Farm Bill, or to learn how you can get involved and support the programs that are important to you, text “food justice” to 662266.

7 Reasons the Farm Bill’s Research Title is Worth Fighting For

Photo: USDA

The Farm Bill may not sound that flashy, but you might be surprised by the vital contribution it makes to the on-the-ground decisions of farmers, and the consequences of those decisions from soil to spoon. Or maybe I should say, from science to soil to spoon, because research is a key piece of this contribution, and one I’d like to talk about today.

Wait, what’s the Farm Bill again?

If you’re not familiar with the Farm Bill, here are some basic facts. The Farm Bill started in 1933, in response to the Dust Bowl. It’s a collection of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and investments broadly related to food and agriculture that are reviewed about every five years and passed into law as a giant package. The Agricultural Act of 2014—the official name of the last Farm Bill—will expire in 2018, and the process of drafting the next one, including finding ways to protect and improve programs, is well under way.

Of the 12 sections (or “titles”) included in the 2014 bill, the seventh covers “Research, Extension, and Related Matters.” Projected spending for this slice of the bill was a measly 0.2% of the bill’s total expenditures ($800 million of more than $488 billion). However, investments in research pave the way for the future, and they tend to pay back big-time, so the research title is important.

UCS Senior Washington Representative Mike Lavender (center) with Dr. Randy Jackson (left) and Dr. Don Ross (right) during a UCS advocacy fly-in day to support public agricultural research funding.

Here are my top 7 reasons Congress should invest more heavily in the Farm Bill’s Title 7 programs:

  1. Public research creates public benefits. At the most basic level, research made possible through the Farm Bill is critical simply because it is research for the public good. In the United States, public funding for food and farm research has been in decline, and concerns about corporate influence on research directions have been on the rise. To make matters worse, urgently needed agroecology research is unlikely to attract private funding, as it tends to reduce reliance on purchased inputs, while increasing benefits that cannot be easily monetized. Therefore, as scientists have attested, remaining public research funds are essential, and should be increased. Such additional research support is needed across all USDA agencies within the Research, Extension, and Education (REE) Mission Area, which include internal and external, as well as competitive and non-competitive, research projects.
  2. Competitive grants inspire cutting-edge science. Competitive grants are an important component of Farm Bill-supported research. The largest is the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI, authorized for $700 million; read more here). However, additional funds are available through other programs, such as those focused on organic agriculture (especially the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, OREI, authorized $20 million per year). By making funds available through a competitive process, the research title enables the USDA to selectively review the most innovative project ideas each year. This approach stimulates a competitive spirit that encourages the development of novel research that can lead to scientific breakthroughs.
  3. Sustainable agriculture starts with farmers. Among the available competitive research grant programs made possible through the Farm Bill, a smaller but immensely valuable one is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) program. This program was created by the 1990 Farm Bill and is unique in that it is entirely focused on sustainable agriculture and facilitates farmer-driven research. Recently, sustainable agriculture scientists emphasized the value of community-based and farmer-participatory research, indicating that SARE fills an important and under-supported niche. Yet, despite its value, SARE has never received the full funding for which it was authorized ($60 million per year).
  4. The next generation of farmers and ranchers needs our support. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program is a Farm Bill program that was allocated $20 million per year (at least 5% of which is required to go toward supporting military veterans) to help beginning farmers get on their feet. The need for this type of support has become increasingly pressing, as the average age of farmers has been rising, and many obstacles—such as limited access to land, credit, and training—are barriers to entry for new farmers. Programs like the BFRDP can help provide just enough support to help get new farmers the resources they need to pursue their goals.
  5. Partnerships leverage private funding. With public funding falling short, another strategy to pull together more funds for research is through public-private partnerships. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) is a non-profit that was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to accomplish just that. FFAR was allocated a relatively large sum of money—$200 million—that could be granted once a private match was secured. Early grants from FFAR have shown great promise, in that they address gaps in knowledge of broad interest to sustainable food systems, including aspects of soil health, integrated crop and livestock systems, and more.
  6. Research programs can make space to advance racial and social justice in the food system, across all Land Grant Colleges and Universities. Advancing racial and social justice, and equity, in food systems science has been put forward by experts as a top priority. In this same spirit, it’s essential that research, extension and education supported by the Farm Bill emphasize the needs of the full suite of stakeholders in the Land Grant system—a system that includes not only the original 1862 institutions, but also the 1890 historically black colleges and universities and Tuskegee University, and the 1994 tribal colleges and universities. Recognizing the unique strengths and needs of diverse communities and institutions is likely to lead to the most powerful food systems solutions (for one example, see this report on the Farm Bill needs of native communities).
  7. Agricultural extension strengthens connections from science to practice, and practice to science. The Cooperative Extension system started even before the Farm Bill did, and was developed to ensure that scientific findings related to farming and ranching made it to the individuals and communities that could put the knowledge to practice. In addition to delivering science to stakeholder, this crucial program also serves as a bridge from farms to universities, making scientists aware of the top challenges and opportunities experienced by farmers and ranchers. Today, many of the funds and programs that ensure the success of extension programs are supported through the research title as well.
What’s the next step to getting the most research bang out of the Farm Bill buck?

The current Farm Bill will expire in 2018, and legislators are working to draft new legislation to replace it. If they don’t make the September 30 deadline, several programs that are most central to sustainable agriculture research (including OREI, SARE, BFRDP, and FFAR) will be stranded without any funding at all. To ensure the survival of these specific programs and to encourage the support of the research title overall, a wide number of agricultural stakeholders have already made their suggestions for needed farm bill reforms.

For example, just recently, a coalition of over 60 members called for an significant increase in funding for several Farm Bill research programs. Also, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition released their platform for the upcoming Farm Bill, including priorities related to research and extension. Earlier this year, new legislation proposed increased support for organic research (the Organic Agriculture Research Act, which we wrote about here). And, the new Food and Farm Act also highlights a need to expand research and development dollars for food systems in the next Farm Bill. Even individual scientists have spoken up to make a stronger case for the public agricultural research (see Emily Monosson’s letter to the editor on SARE, and Cynthia Annett’s letter on USDA research overall).

While a lot has already happened, there’s much more to come. So, all science fans out there—please stay tuned.

It’s World Soil Day: Celebrate Soil, Carbon, and the Opportunities Right Under Our Feet

These days, stories about soil health and regenerative farming seem to be catching on, so much so that it’s almost hard to keep up, at least for the avid soil geek.  The New York Times and the Huffington Post both featured op-eds just last week explaining why soil is worth getting excited about, while tales of soil health and science from North Dakota to New England were recently shared by other sources.  Yesterday, NPR hosted an hour-long panel on soil health. And that’s just a short list.

Maybe the rush of soil-slanted stories has something to do with today being World Soil Day. Or maybe it’s because soils and agriculture finally got some love at the latest climate convention.  Or perhaps it has to do with the growing list of states that are working towards healthy soils policies, or that the conversation surrounding the next Farm Bill has actually included soil health.

Or, just maybe, it’s because people are figuring out that the soils beneath our feet, and the farmers and ranchers that tend to them, need more of our attention.  After all, healthy soils are the living, breathing ecosystems that help grow our food, clean our water, store carbon, and reduce risks of droughts and floods.  Together, soils and their stewards can produce food while making agriculture part of the solution to several challenges (including climate change). Let me explain.

Soils stash carbon and deliver services

Some of the amazing features of soils that are finally being celebrated are not new. For some time, scientists have known that soils store a lot of carbon (about three times more than the atmosphere), and that carbon-rich soils tend to hold more water.  They have also known that soil varies a lot, even across small distances, that it changes over time, and that it is affected by management practices.  But we also know that there’s a lot we don’t know.  Thankfully, that’s starting to change.

Getting the numbers right on how soil can fight a changing climate (because we can’t afford not to)

Even just in the past year, soil science—including soil carbon science—has advanced, pushed along by new tools, interests, and urgency.  A lot of the urgency has come as climate change picks up the pace. Today, scientists say that we can’t afford to choose between reducing emissions and sequestering carbon—we must do both.  That puts a spotlight (and pressure) on soils.

Fortunately, new science is rapidly uncovering more details about soils.  For example, pivotal papers have discussed how specific soil-based management practices could help mitigate climate change, and how soil carbon sequestration could be scaled up in the US and around the globe to achieve significant outcomes. Within the past months, key papers demonstrated that the majority (75%) of the organic carbon in the top meter of soil is directly impacted by management and that croplands may hold particular potential to be managed for carbon sequestration, but that soils continue to be at risk.

It’s important to note that while many studies have stressed opportunities in soils, others have questioned them.  For example, some research has suggested that soils may not be able to hold as much carbon as some scientists think, while other research has indicated that links between soil carbon and water are not as strong as previously thought.  Other research has questioned whether certain practices (e.g., abandoning cropland) can bring expected benefits.

In my opinion, all these studies just make more research more important.  Getting the numbers right will help us to find, and fine-tune, the best solutions for healthier, more resilient soil. But as we work out these details, we also need to act – and fast.

The role of farmers and ranchers in bringing out the best in soils, for better farms and futures

Fortunately, many farmers and ranchers already know how to build soil health (and carbon) on their land – and they are taking action (lucky for us, because the health of the soil is in their hands). Farmers and ranchers like Gabe Brown (ND), David Brandt (OH), Will Harris (GA), Ted Alexander (KS), and Seth Watkins (IA), just to name a few, have been experimenting for years with ways to build soil health for more resilient land.  New research from South Dakota shows that farmers are adopting cover crops and other practices in large part to build soil health.  And a growing list of companies and non-profits have supported a standardized definition of regenerative agriculture, suggesting that these healthy soils practices are gaining even more traction.

Recognizing the soils and stewardship beneath food “footprints”

As important as soil carbon, health, and stewardship are to ensuring farms are functioning at their best, it’s surprising that we think so little about them.  There is a larger discussion going on around sustainable diets and the notion that food has an environmental “footprint,” but the fact is that most of the studies that seek to quantify the carbon (or water, or land) footprints of food items haven’t accounted for the role of soil management and stewardship. Therefore, while the conversation about the impact of consumers’ food choices has been an important starting point, we also need to understand how the decisions made by farmers affect the world around us. That means bringing soil carbon to the table, and the sooner the better. With the growing appreciation for soil health science, practice, and story-telling, I think we might be getting somewhere.

P.S.  Prefer a little video inspiration? There’s plenty to choose from if you want to learn the basics of soil organic carbon, how “dead stuff” is key to the food chain, how healthy soils reduce flood risk, or more about the 4 per mille campaign, which puts soils at the forefront of climate change solutions.