UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

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. 

Bah-humbug.

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 Soils 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 Soils 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.

You Might Be Wasting Food, Even If You’re Not Throwing It Away

Biofuels, if grown and processed correctly, can help contribute to emissions reductions.

When I was a child, I was often told not to waste food. Phrases like “Clean your plate or no dessert,” and “Just cut out that little spot. It’s a perfectly good banana,” and “Don’t put that in the back of the fridge. It’ll spoil and then we’ll have to throw it out.”

Now, half a century later, food waste has grown from family stories into a worldwide policy issue. A common estimate is that 40% of food is wasted. Scientific papers analyze consumers’ feelings about the sensory and social qualities of meals, and reducing waste is becoming just as much a concern as local, organic, and community-supported. This issue is critical. Yet an important part of the food waste problem remains unseen.

This additional waste involves not the food that is thrown out because no one eats it—but the food we do eat.

Recent studies by an international group of researchers led by Peter Alexander of the University of Edinburgh have shown just how important this additional kind of waste is. Alexander and his colleagues have published a series of papers that give detailed, quantitative analyses of the global flows of food, from field to fork and on into the garbage can. The results are striking. Only 25% of harvested food, by weight, is consumed by people. (Measuring food by its energy values in calories or by the amount of protein it contains, rather than by its dry weight, does increase the numbers but only a bit—to 32% and 29% respectively.)

But beyond these overall figures, Alexander and colleagues point to the importance of two kinds of waste in the ways in which we do eat our food, but in an extremely inefficient way. One is termed “over-consumption,” defined as food consumption in excess of nutritional requirements. (For the purposes of this discussion, I am referring to food consumption in excess of caloric requirements. However, it is critical to note that calories consumed only tells a small part of the story. A complete analysis would include the quality of the foods consumed and the many systemic reasons why we “over-consume”—including the structure of the food industry, the affordability of and access to processed foods relative to healthier foods, etc. But that is the subject for several books, not one blog post.)

Even using a generous definition of how much food humans require—e.g. 2342 kcals/person/day, compared to the 2100 kcal used in other studies—Alexander et al. find that over-consumption is at least comparable in size to the amount of food that consumers throw out (“consumer waste”). This is show in the graphic below, in which in each column, the uppermost part of each bar (in dark purple) represents over-consumption and the second-to-the-top section (light purple) shows consumer waste.

Losses of harvested crops at different stages of the global food system. The four columns represent different ways to measure the amount of food: from left to right, by dry weight, calories, protein, and wet weight. Source: Figure 4 of Alexander et al., 2017, Agricultural Systems; DOI: 10.1016/j.agsy.2017.01.014.

So, it turns out that for many people, reducing consumption could improve health while also potentially saving food and therefore also the many resources that go into growing and distributing it.

But neither overconsumption nor consumer waste are the largest way we waste the resources that can be used to produce food. That turns out to be livestock production—the dark red sections in the graphic above. Livestock are an extremely inefficient way of transforming crops (which they use as feed) into food for humans, with loss rates ranging from 82% (in terms of protein) up to 94% (by dry weight) once all of the feed they consume during their lifespans is considered. It’s not food that goes into our garbage or landfills, but it represents an enormous loss to the potential global supply of food for people just the same.

The reasons have to do with ecology: when we eat one level higher on the food web we’re losing about 90% of the edible resources from the level below.

Achieving the ultimate goals of reducing food waste—for example, reduced environmental consequences and ensuring more people have access to foods that meet their nutritional requirements—of course will require additional and critical steps. For example, additional food doesn’t help if it isn’t nutritious or can’t be accessed by the people who need it. Also, spared land doesn’t help if that land isn’t managed in a way that contributes to a healthier environment. However, thinking more about all types of food waste can help us to find better ways to protect our natural resources while producing and distributing healthy food for all.

The results of these new analyses should expand what we think of when we hear the words “food waste.” Yes, it includes the food we buy but don’t eat—the vegetables we leave on our plates and the bananas we throw into the compost bin—and it’s very important to develop habits and policies to reduce this waste. But we also need to confront the wastefulness in what we do eat, by asking: how much and what kind of food should we be buying in the first place?

Thanksgiving Dinner Is Cheapest in Years, But Are Family Farms Paying the Price?

Last week, the Farm Bureau released the results of its annual price survey on the cost of a typical Thanksgiving dinner. The grand total for a “feast” for 10 people, according to this year’s shoppers? About 50 dollars. ($49.87, if you want to be exact.) That includes a 16-pound turkey at $1.40 per pound, and a good number of your favorite sides: stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a veggie tray, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and coffee and milk.

After adjusting for inflation, the Farm Bureau concluded that the cost of Thanksgiving dinner was at its lowest level since 2013. Let’s talk about what that means for farmers, and for all of us.

We can debate whether the Farm Bureau’s survey captures the true cost of a holiday meal for most Americans. This isn’t the world’s most technical survey—it was based on 141 volunteer shoppers at 39 grocery stores across the country purchasing these items at the best prices they could find.

But according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, Americans do spend less than 10 percent of their disposable personal incomes on food. ERS data also shows that farmers receive just 16 cents for every dollar of food consumers purchase. (Speaking of historic lows, that’s the lowest farmer share of the food dollar in over a decade.) The rest of it is distributed throughout the food supply chain, which includes the companies that process, package, transport, and sell these foods at any number of retail outlets.

For our hypothetical holiday dinner for 10 (including leftovers), this means that in total, the farms that produced the raw foods, from potatoes to pumpkins, made about eight dollars. That’s eight dollars total across all farms, which then must pay workers’ wages and cover operating costs. These margins can work for large-scale industrial farming operations, due in part to heavy reliance on and exploitation of undocumented agricultural workers, but the math doesn’t add up for most family farms and farm workers.

And despite the savings we enjoy as consumers, the reality is that the prevailing model of food production isn’t good for any of us—least of all rural farming communities.

Midsize farms and missed opportunities

Midsize family farms, generally defined by the USDA as those with a gross cash farm income between $350,000 and $1 million, have long been key drivers of rural economies. But since 2007, more than 56,000 midsize farms have disappeared from the American landscape—a trend that has had serious consequences for rural communities across the country.

These farms employ more people per acre than large industrial farms, and when they disappear, they take both farming and community jobs with them. Midsize farms are also more likely to purchase their inputs locally, keeping more money in the local economy. Research has shown that areas containing more midsize farms have lower unemployment rates, higher average household incomes, and greater socioeconomic stability than areas having larger farms.

Beyond their impact on local economies, midsize family-owned farms are more likely than large industrial farms to use more environmentally sustainable practices such as crop rotation and integrated livestock management, resulting in greater crop diversity. This, too, may have health implications: in a country in which about half of all available vegetables and legumes are either tomatoes or potatoes, with lettuce bringing home the bronze, it stands to reason that greater diversity in our food supply can only be a good thing.

So if midsize farms are so great… why are they disappearing, and what can we do to reverse the trend and revitalize rural farming communities?

 US Department of Agriculture/public domain (BY CC0)

The Local Food and Regional Market Supply (Local FARMS) Act

Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), and Sean Maloney (D-NY) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) recently offered their answer with a set of proposed policies and programs they want included in the 2018 farm bill. The Local Food and Regional Market Supply (Local FARMS) Act of 2017 would make new investments in local and regional food systems, helping small and midsize farmers connect with more consumers. It would ease the way for institutions like schools to purchase locally produced food, and would make fresh, healthy foods more accessible and affordable for low-income families.

In short, the Local FARMS Act is a win-win for farmers and eaters.

Leveraging consumer demand for local and regional foods and the substantial economic opportunity provided to midsize farmers by institutional food purchasers, this bill shortens the distance between producer and consumer. That ensures that a greater share of the food dollar ends up in farmers’ pockets—and that more fresh, healthy foods get to the people that need them.

Some of the key programs and provisions include:

  • The new Agricultural Market Development Program, which streamlines and consolidates local food programs to provide a coordinated approach to strengthen regional food supply chains. This program includes:
  • A Food Safety Certification Cost-share Program that allows farmers to share the cost of obtaining food safety certifications, which are required by many institutional purchasers but often prove cost-prohibitive for small and midsize producers—many of whom already have good food safety practices in place.
  • An amendment to the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act that allows schools to use locale as a product specification when soliciting bids, making it easier to procure local foods.
  • A Harvesting Health Pilot authorizing a pilot produce prescription program that would enable healthcare providers to offer nutrition education and fresh fruit and vegetable coupons to low-income patients.

By providing the infrastructure and support needed to bridge critical gaps between local producers and consumers, the proposed policies and programs contained in the Local FARMS Act lay the groundwork for stronger regional food systems, more vibrant local economies, and a healthier food supply.

Let’s give thanks and get to it

Whatever table you might gather around this Thursday, in whosever company you might enjoy, save some gratitude for the folks who put the food on your plate. And when you’re done enjoying your meal, let’s get to work take a nap. And when you’re done taking a nap, let’s get to work. If we want a financially viable alternative to industrial food production systems, it’s up to all of us to use our voices, our votes, and our dollars to start investing in one.

Stay tuned for action alerts from UCS on how you can help strengthen our regional food systems and support our local farmers through the 2018 farm bill. For updates, urgent actions, and breaking news at your fingertips, use your cell phone to text “food justice” to 662266.

The Natural Ways to (Help) Solve the Climate Problem

This week marks the beginning of the annual U.N. climate negotiations in Bonn, chaired by the nation of Fiji, and this year it’s going to be different. At most of the negotiating sessions from the early 90s up to the Paris Agreement in 2015, the emphasis was, reasonably, on reaching a broad consensus on how to prevent dangerous climate change. But Paris achieved that, and all the world’s countries, with one exception—the United States—have accepted that agreement. So now the question is, how can we make it work? A real challenge—particularly since a key delegation to the talks is now led by the climate-denialist Trump administration.

A new scientific paper, published two weeks ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Bronson Griscom and colleagues, will be extremely helpful in this task. (The multi-authored effort was led by The Nature Conservancy.) The paper’s title is “Natural climate solutions,” and it shows that changes in how we use forests, agricultural lands and wetlands can be a sizeable part of the solution. (Simplifying a bit, 37% of the solution by 2030, according to their calculations).

Among the many natural approaches that they evaluated, reforestation turns out to be one with the most potential (although also the largest uncertainty.) Here’s the key graphic summarizing the estimates:

The potential of 20 “natural climate solutions” by the year 2030, measured in PgCO2 per year. A Pg (petagram) is the same as a gigaton, i.e. a billion tons of carbon dioxide; current global greenhouse gas emissions total a bit over 50 gigatons of CO2/year. Solutions which also have benefits for the air, water, soil and biodiversity are indicated by the small colored bars just to the left of the vertical axis. Source: Figure 1 of B. Griscom et al. 2017, “Natural climate solutions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1710465114

 

The second-largest potential lies in reducing deforestation (or as the graph calls it, “Avoided Forest Conversion”), which also has the greatest low-cost potential and the benefit of lowering emissions immediately, and the third is improving natural forest management. So in terms of climate potential, forests are fundamental. But both agriculture (e.g. biochar, trees in croplands) and wetlands (e.g. protecting high-carbon peat swamps and mangrove forests, which also are important as buffers against storms and flooding) can make appreciable contributions, too. Furthermore, most of the potential solutions offer benefits not only to the climate, but also in terms of water, air, soil and biodiversity.

One notable feature of the paper is that it’s conservative, in the best sense of that word. The estimates take as a basic premise that natural approaches should only be implemented with safeguards for food security, biodiversity and people’s rights and livelihoods. Thus, for example, the calculations for reforestation assume that it will done using native species and only be implemented on grazing lands that were previously forested, so that afforestation of croplands and of natural grasslands is excluded. “Solutions” whose technical feasibility or social impact are questionable—e.g. Biological Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) or no-till crop production—are also excluded. And the authors go to great lengths (literally—there are over 90 pages of Supporting Information) to make sure that they’re not double-counting any of the potentials.

The paper does omit, at least in its explicit calculations, the kinds of solutions that involve changing how human societies consume rather than how we use nature to produce. In other words, the approaches it considers are supply-side ones, not demand-side ones such as changing our diets or reducing how much food we waste.

But the authors clearly realize the importance of consumption, and indeed they point out that the reforestation of grazing lands will have important impacts on livestock products, particularly beef. These effects could be of several kinds: shifting human diets away from beef, reducing herd sizes, improving the quality of cattle pastures or the nutritional value of their feed, and others. But what they have in common is that they would tend to reduce emissions of methane and nitrous oxide—both considerably more powerful greenhouse gases than CO2—from beef cattle and their manure. So there’d be an additional benefit in terms of emissions reduction, in addition to large amounts of carbon that will be sequestered by the new forests.

Just as important as the paper’s demonstration that natural solutions can be an important part of solving the climate problem, is their emphasis that they can only work if accompanied by massive cuts in fossil fuel emissions. Here’s their graphic showing the scenario they envisage, which includes cutting greenhouse gases from fossil fuels by 93% by 2050:

The scenario combining a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel emissions with Natural Climate Solution (NCS) mitigation to keep global temperature increases less than 2 degrees C. above the pre-industrial level. Source: Figure 2 of B. Griscom et al. 2017, “Natural climate solutions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1710465114

 

Combined with the natural climate solutions, this would achieve the “negative emissions” needed to keep global warming below the 2 degrees C. recognized as dangerous for the future of humanity. And it would do it without using BECCS or other approaches whose feasibility and acceptability remains to be seen.

The critical but at the same time secondary role of natural solutions is the reason I wrote “(help)” in my title, despite my dislike of the post-modern fad for excessive parenthesization. With its conservative approach, the paper by Griscom et al. demonstrates that forests, agriculture and wetlands can’t solve the climate problem alone, but are nonetheless a critical part of an approach that can solve it. Thus, it’s a key step forward in how we think about, and what we do about, the most important environmental challenge of our time.

USDA Secretary Sidelines Science, Sells Out Farmers, Workers, and Eaters

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Lest you think the Trump administration’s headlong rush toward rejecting science in favor of industry deregulation is mostly a problem in Scott Pruitt’s EPA, recent less-reported developments at the US Department of Agriculture demonstrate otherwise. Over the past few weeks, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has taken a variety of steps to sideline science and betray farmers, food chain workers, and eaters. Let’s review…

Secretary Sonny’s approach to science and policy takes shape (and it doesn’t look good)

Don’t be fooled by his folksy moniker and down-home anecdotes. Secretary Sonny is a big agribiz guy through and through, with a long history of ethics run-ins and rewarding his friends and business associates. And though he likes to talk about science-based decision-making and serving farmers and taxpayers as customers, so far it doesn’t appear that he’s walking the walk.

Since he took up the reins at the USDA last April, we’ve seen Secretary Sonny take steps to reorganize the department in ways that don’t bode well for rural development, conservation, nutrition, and other essential programs. His steadfast support of the troubling (and now-withdrawn) nomination of non-scientist Sam Clovis should be another big red flag.

For a big-picture look at the Trump administration’s USDA, read Moneyball author Michael Lewis’s in-depth (and disturbing) new Vanity Fair article on the topic. Meanwhile, I’ll pull out three recent moves that give us a clear indication of who stands to gain (and who is likely to lose) under Secretary Perdue’s watch.

Poultry workers: Unsafe at any speed?

First, Perdue’s Food Safety and Inspection Service quietly opened a comment period on a petition from the National Chicken Council (NCC) to speed up the process of processing chickens. Plants operated by the NCC’s member companies—which include giants Tyson Foods and Perdue Farms (no relation to the Secretary)—slaughter, cut up, and debone billions of chickens every year. The industry and at least one of its allies in Congress, looking to capitalize on the Trump administration’s zeal for deregulation, are lobbying Perdue’s USDA to let them process chickens even faster than the current speed of 140 birds per minute.

Civil Eats has a devastating account of the dangerous conditions already faced by workers in those plants. And under President Obama, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) determined that allowing plants to operate at higher speeds could result in more injuries among workers deboning chickens. NBC News reports:

“USDA wanted to raise the maximum line speed, but OSHA was very concerned that it would result in more workers being injured,” said David Michaels, Obama’s former head of OSHA. “We had support (from White House officials) who agreed that we didn’t want thousands of workers to have their arms destroyed by having to cut up chickens at 175 birds per minute.”

USDA maintained the speed at 140. But now Secretary Sonny seems poised to reverse that decision.

Citing research on the danger to workers and consumers, our allies at the Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Council submitted a public comment urging the USDA to “follow the law and the agency’s own findings” and reject the NCC’s petition. The comment period closes December 13.

Farewell, Farmer Fair Practices

And the Secretary also had another gift for Big Meat and Poultry last month. As Politico reported, he rolled back a pair of rules known collectively as the Farmer Fair Practices Rules:

Perdue withdrew an interim final rule that would have lowered the bar for producers of poultry and other livestock to sue the meatpacking or processing companies with which they have contracts. And USDA also will take no further action on a proposed rule to shield contract growers from unfair practices.

The rollback of these two rules administered by the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) means that contract farmers lose their newly-gained protection from exploitation by the corporate giants who control nearly every step of the meat and poultry production chain. The National Farmers Union, which represents family farmers across the country, called the move “deeply disappointing,” noting in a statement:

With this decision, USDA has given the green light to the few multinational meatpackers that dominate the market to discriminate against family farmers. As the administration has signaled its intent to side with the meat and poultry giants, NFU will pursue congressional action that addresses competition issues and protects family farmers and ranchers.

Do right and feed…well, maybe not everyone

In addition to turning his back on small farmers and underpaid food workers, Secretary Sonny also appears to be taking aim at low-income consumers. Since being confirmed as agriculture secretary in April 2017, Perdue has often repeated his “new motto” for the USDA:

I like to say that @USDA‘s new motto is “Do right and feed everyone.” Feel like today at our first #USDAFamilyDay we did just that. pic.twitter.com/CFl6X1rJck

— Sec. Sonny Perdue (@SecretarySonny) June 24, 2017

“Do right and feed everyone” is a fine motto, but now it seems the Secretary didn’t really mean everyone. He recently went on record suggesting that enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) would fall if individuals who are able to work are restricted from using it.

Perdue’s suggestion that the working poor should be barred from receiving nutrition benefits via SNAP is confounding. Data show that most SNAP recipients who can work do so—though usually for low or inconsistent pay that isn’t enough to feed their families. As Perdue’s home-state newspaper points out:

[I]n a state hostile to unions and with a minimum wage of only $5.15 an hour, also barring those who receive paychecks from receiving food stamps would have tremendous impact. An estimated 546,000 working Georgians live in households that receive the help, according to one study.

Even so, members of Congress have increasingly called for strengthening work requirements for SNAP participants. So, which is it—should SNAP beneficiaries work or not?

Mr. Secretary, we’re keeping our eye on you

Secretary Perdue has now been in office just over six months. Of his department’s 13 other leadership positions requiring Senate confirmation, only three are in place, and seven positions don’t even have a nominee yet. And the Secretary’s proposed departmental reorganization is still taking shape. But with early signs already troubling, we’ll be tracking further developments to paint a fuller picture of his intentions for science-based policy making for the nation’s food and farm system.

Stay tuned…

Scientists to Senate: Reject Sam Clovis for USDA Science Post

For months, controversy has swirled around the Trump administration’s…shall we say…deeply flawed nominee for USDA chief scientist. A former business professor, talk radio host, and Trump campaign advisor, Sam Clovis has embraced unfounded conspiracy theories and espoused racist and homophobic views. And did I mention he has no scientific training whatsoever?

It’s true. And while Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is standing by the nomination, thousands of the nation’s scientists are having none of it.

Experts say no way to unqualified “chief scientist”

In a highly unusual move, a group of more than 3,100 scientists and researchers—including leading experts in agriculture and food systems from all 50 states and the District of Columbia—today sent a letter to the Senate agriculture committee expressing opposition to the president’s choice to lead science at the USDA. The letter describes the nomination of the severely under-qualified Sam Clovis to be under secretary for research, education, and economics and chief scientist as “an abandonment of our nation’s commitment to scientifically-informed governance,” and calls on the Senate committee to reject it.

One of the letter’s lead signers is Dr. Mike Hamm, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Regional Food Systems, and C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University. Dr. Hamm has a PhD in human nutrition and decades of experience at the intersection of food and agriculture, and his research interests include community-based food systems, food security, sustainable agriculture and nutrition education. In addition to his academic posts, he served as a member of the governor-appointed Michigan Food Policy Council from 2005 to 2013 and was instrumental in developing the Michigan Good Food Charter.

I asked Dr. Hamm why this nomination has him so concerned, and what the practical impacts might be if Clovis were to take charge of scientific research at the USDA.

Dr. Mike Hamm is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Regional Food Systems and C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University.

KPS: Scientists don’t usually rally by the thousands to oppose nominees for relatively obscure government positions. Why is this nomination so alarming to you personally?

MH: I was really concerned when I heard about this nomination, as were a number of colleagues. We look to the USDA as an authoritative source of scientific, economic, and statistical information about the nation’s food system, and it seemed extremely careless to put all that into the hands of an unqualified person. Also, we rely on the USDA to develop research funding programs that not only tackle issues of concern to agricultural production and the food system right now but also look for probable challenges down the road—finding solutions takes time and thoughtfulness, and it is clear to me that the nominee hasn’t demonstrated the ability to do this in a scientific manner.

KPS: This under secretary position holds the purse strings for $3 billion in annual research grants to universities and other institutions. How significant is that investment in the universe of agricultural and food systems research?

MH: It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this. Whether it’s developing strategies to improve current yields while reducing environmental impacts of agricultural production, or identifying resilience strategies for increasingly prevalent issues, the person in this position has to be both reactive to current events and proactive about likely future scenarios. The under secretary controls the budget for this very broad range of research needs.

KPS: What worries you most about the prospect of the USDA going backward on science?

MH: The breadth of knowledge we now have on a wide range of strategies for agricultural production and the food system is remarkable. We know a great deal about strategies for producing a greater variety and quantity of crops under different conditions and with increasingly agro-ecosystem strategies. To lose this momentum would be a disservice to the agricultural community and to consumers and the general public. Whether it’s water use in California, Texas, and other water challenged states, or late frosts for tart cherries in Michigan, we can ‘see’ an increasing range of challenges in the near future. Going backwards means not thinking about these. Going backwards means not looking for ever more ecologically sound solutions to emerging issues and recognizing that we can often improve the situation to a range of societal issues while improving agriculture. This is frightening.

Scientists speak…but is the Senate listening?

Ecologist Irit Altman speaks to a staff person for Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) in August about the need for a qualified chief scientist to oversee USDA research on climate change and agriculture.

Scientists and their allies around the country have been mobilizing for months to oppose Clovis’s nomination. They’ve published letters to the editor in newspapers across the country, including Chicago, Illinois; Bloomington, Indiana (paywall); Wichita, Kansas; Missoula and Great Falls, Montana; Scottsbluff, Nebraska; Nashville, Tennessee; and Spokane, Washington. They’ve also met with Senate staff and delivered petitions from UCS supporters directly to key Senate offices in Maine, Colorado, and Ohio (see photos from the Maine petition delivery below).

Dr. Altman was joined by local Maine farmers Lindsey and Jake Roche in delivering a petition opposing the Clovis nomination to Senator Collins.

Sam Clovis to (finally) get a hearing

Today’s letter comes as the Senate agriculture committee is expected to announce that it will hold a long-awaited hearing on November 9 to hear directly from the nominee, and to dig into Clovis’s credentials and suitability for the chief scientist position. While many Senators, including key Senate leaders, have expressed opposition to the Clovis nomination, others are still uncommitted or even supportive.

Those Senators had better think hard about it, because the scientific community is watching. As 3,100+ experts have now told them, “We expect that when your committee evaluates Clovis’ record and qualifications, you will similarly conclude that he is unfit for this position.”

ACTION NEEDED! The time to act is now, and we can win this fight. The scientists’ letter has been delivered to the Senate, but you can still tell the Senate to reject the Clovis nomination.

Use UCS’s new call-back tool to make a phone call to your senator’s office, or send a personalized email today!

For This DC School, Every Month is Farm to School Month

Photo: Sarah Reinhardt

It’s the end of October, which means National Farm to School Month is drawing to a close. But that doesn’t matter to the students at School Within School in northeast DC—for them, it’s always farm to school month.

Thanks to a farm to school tour hosted by DC Greens and the National Farm to School Network, I was lucky enough to visit a handful of the cutest (and smartest) gardeners in the district as they cooked up some ratatouille with their fall harvest. At School Within School, kids from three years old through fifth grade get to participate in FoodPrints, a gardening, cooking, and nutrition education program that integrates science, math, and social studies into hands-on lessons about local food.

You may have heard that farm-to-school programs support the economy (they generate an additional $0.60 to $2.16 in economic activity for every dollar schools spend on local foods), benefit public health (they help kids choose healthier options and eat more fruits and vegetables in school and at home), and foster community engagement (they fuel interest in local foods and offer opportunities to combat racial and economic inequities), but if you’re like me, you may have learned most of this from behind a computer screen. It’s another thing entirely to see farm-to-school programs in action, and to hear firsthand about what they could accomplish for our kids and communities with the right funding and support.

Walking in the footsteps of FoodPrints

Around the corner from School Within School, Ludlow-Taylor Elementary also boasts a beautiful school garden. Photo: Sarah Reinhardt

Our tour, led by FRESHFARM director of education Jenn Mampara, kicked off with a quick stop at the chicken coops and then took us to the school garden, where the kids go for lessons once a week. The gardener plants summer crops in August, and when school starts, kids get to weed, water, harvest, replant, and repeat through late spring. During the summer, the garden soil is kept healthy with a rotation of cover crops and beans, which are then dried and used in the fall.

From the garden, we headed up to the teaching kitchen, where students were busy mixing together beans and onions (“It’s watering my eyes!”) from the garden. Produce from the garden is supplemented by local farmers market produce to provide all the ingredients for the monthly cooking lesson that each FoodPrints student attends. The lesson on ratatouille moved fluidly from math (“What will happen if I add one cup of water?”) to science (“Why do we need to soak the beans?”) and back again, and students were engaged in active learning every step of the way.

Watching the educator walk the kids through their recipe, it struck me as wholly unsurprising that studies have shown that kids participating in farm to school programs display greater overall academic achievement, as well as social and emotional growth. Needless to say, kids who participate in farm to school programs also tend to show increased knowledge about gardening, agriculture, and healthy eating.

“It’s a meaningful experience for these kids to have in elementary school,” Mampara said. “This will have a lasting impact on their understanding of good food and where it comes from.”

And speaking of good food—the cooking doesn’t stop in the teaching kitchen. Once a week, the school cafeteria borrows a recipe from FoodPrints, so that kids continue to connect their experience in the garden to the food on their plate. Kristen Rowe, the Nutrition and Compliance Specialist at DCP Public Schools (DCPS) said that when students are involved in the entire process, they’re more willing to try foods like fruits and vegetables. “This initiative has created an appreciation and a connection between our students and nutritious food, and it’s evident in our cafeterias on FoodPrint days!”

Farm to school funding is in high demand

Students use foods from the school garden and local farmers markets in the teaching kitchen at School Within School. Photo: Sarah Reinhardt

But the success of farm to school programs like FoodPrints, which currently operates in 10 DC schools, can come at a price. Rob Jaber, Director of Food and Nutrition Services at DCPS, said he would like to expand the program to serve all DC students, and to do that, he needs resources. Since the “heat and serve” model became a staple of school food service, many schools lack the equipment and kitchen skills needed to start making food from scratch again.

Jaber hopes that DCPS will soon be the recipient of a USDA Farm to School grant, one of the most sought-after funding sources for districts looking to adopt or expand food-based curriculum. The USDA Farm to School Grant Program, established in 2010, provides $5 million annually to fund training, planning, equipment, gardens, education, and other operational costs for farm to school programs nationwide. While that may seem like a lot, it meets only a fraction of the need demonstrated by schools. To date, 365 grants totaling $25 million have been awarded out of more than 1,600 applications requesting more than $120 million. This means that, on average, only one in five applications receives funding.

DC Central Kitchen, a community kitchen and job training program providing meals to 12 schools in the district, was awarded a grant back in 2012. Theresa Myers, DC Central Kitchen’s Foundation and Government Relations Manager, explained how their food service capacity flourished with the grant. The organization received $100,000 to purchase new equipment and hire additional staff, and increased their processing and storage capacity by nearly a third as a result. DC Central Kitchen now purchases over $350,000 in local foods from 30 regional farmers each year, which means that about half of every tray of food served in these schools is local.

What’s happening in DC Public Schools is a microcosm, explained Maximilian Merrill, National Farm to School Network Policy Director. “This is a great model of what’s going on across the country.”

Photo: Sarah Reinhardt

A farm bill for farm to school

Not far from the garden, senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Thad Cochran (R-MS) and representatives Marcia Fudge (D-OH) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) are also thinking about how to support successful farm to school programs around the country. On September 6th, they introduced the Farm to School Act of 2017, which would increase annual funding for the USDA Farm to School Grant Program from $5 million to $15 million; make the grants more accessible to a broader range of childcare settings and populations, including early child care, summer food service, after school programs, and tribal schools; and help beginning, veteran, and socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers sell more of their produce through farm to school programs.

While National Farm to School Month is almost over (until next year), the farm bill is just getting started. To show your support for farm to school programs, you can sign on to this letter of support written by the National Farm to School Network endorsing the Farm to School Act of 2017. (You can also sign on behalf of an organization.)

Increasing the funding available for programs like FoodPrints by threefold means triple the opportunities for education and engagement, triple the economic benefit, and triple the happy and healthy kids. If that doesn’t water your eyes, I don’t know what will.

 

USDA Reorganization Sidelines Dietary Guidelines

Photo: Cristie Guevara/public domain (BY CC0)

Last month, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced a number of proposed changes to the organization of the vast federal department he oversees. With its 29 agencies and offices and nearly 100,000 employees, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is charged with a wide-ranging mission, from helping farmers to be profitable and environmentally sustainable to ensuring the nutritional well-being of all Americans. And while some of the organizational changes Secretary Perdue is pursuing (which all stem from a March executive order from President Trump) may seem arcane, they will have real impacts on all of us. The proposed merger of two key nutrition programs is a case in point.

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Public domain (Flickr)

The plan involves relocating the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) into the department’s Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). While FNS is well-known in anti-hunger and agricultural communities for its role in administering nutrition assistance programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), CNPP is less so—though not for lack of impact or importance.

Established in 1994, CNPP is the agency responsible for reviewing and compiling the best available scientific literature on human nutrition, developing measures of dietary quality such as the Healthy Eating Index, and (jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services) issuing the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and dietary guidance. At a time when more than 117 million Americans—half of all adults—are living with one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, the role that CNPP plays in protecting public health has never been more critical.

Reorganization compromises health without achieving efficiency

In the words of Perdue himself, the proposed reorganizations are aimed at making the USDA “the most effective, most efficient, and best managed department in the federal government.”

To be clear, reorganization (or “realignment”) is not an inherently bad thing. Proposals that could successfully increase the effectiveness and accountability of government agencies without compromising mission or purpose would be laudable. But merging CNPP into FNS accomplishes neither—and follows a dangerous pattern of this administration pushing back on science with its policy agenda. Furthermore, the merger poses serious threats to the scientific integrity of the agency charged with developing evidence-based dietary guidelines for the entire country, for several key reasons:

  1. FNS and CNPP serve distinctly different purposes. FNS administers 15 food and nutrition programs targeting distinct populations, serving only a fraction of Americans. CNPP develops science-based recommendations designed to identify nutritional deficiencies and address dietary needs at a population level, which are then applied to dozens of programs across the federal government. To conflate the distinct purposes of each agency would be to detract from the efficiency of each.
  2. The CNPP administrator will lack appropriate credentials to oversee the development of evidence-based national nutrition guidelines. Following the reorganization, CNPP would no longer be headed by a politically-appointed administrator, but instead by a career associate administrator. This individual is highly unlikely to possess the education and level of expertise required by this position.
  3. Merging CNPP into FNS introduces a conflict of interest. Nutrition programs administered by FNS must adhere to dietary recommendations established by CNPP, introducing a potential conflict of interest. Without clear separation between CNPP and FNS, undue influence on the former by the latter—or even the perception thereof—would present a threat to the integrity of evidence-based recommendations.

The USDA received public comments on this issue between September 12 and October 10. The full comment authored by the UCS Food and Environment Program, outlining the risks to scientific integrity and population health posed by the proposed reorganization, follows.

UCS Comments on USDA Notice, “Improving Customer Service”

October 10, 2017

Dear Secretary Perdue and Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary Bice,

On behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), we are compelled to respond to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notice, “Improving Customer Service,” with concerns regarding the proposed merging of the Center for Nutrition and Policy Promotion (CNPP) into the Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). This proposed action would threaten the scientific integrity of CNPP and compromise public health, while providing zero demonstrable financial or public benefit.

UCS, a science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and a safer world, combines independent scientific research and citizen action to develop innovative, practical solutions and secure responsible changes in government policy, corporate practices, and consumer choices. The Food and Environment Program at UCS makes evidence-based policy recommendations to shift our nation’s food and agriculture system to produce healthier, more sustainable and just outcomes for all Americans.

CNPP evidence-based recommendations play a critical role in protecting population health.
The current state of US population health poses enormous costs both to quality of life and health care systems. More than 117 million Americans—half of all adults—are now living with one or more preventable, diet-related chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, overweight/obesity, and certain types of cancer. Recent research shows that dietary factors may now play a role in nearly half of all deaths resulting from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. In 2012, the direct medical expenses and lost productivity due to cardiovascular disease alone averaged $316 billion, while those due to diagnosed diabetes totaled $245 billion. In total, chronic diseases account for approximately 86 percent of all US health care expenditures.

However, just as diet is a key factor driving these trends, it also offers great potential to reverse them. The federal government has a critical role to play in promoting health and reducing the burden of chronic disease by supporting evidence-based policies and programs that improve the dietary patterns of Americans. For more than twenty years, CNPP has filled this role. The Nutrition Evidence Library (NEL) at CNPP applies rigorous scientific standards to conduct systematic reviews of current nutrition research, and informs a range of federal nutrition programs, including the National School Breakfast Program, National School Lunch Program, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Working jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), CNPP is also responsible for overseeing the development of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nutrition recommendations that are a cornerstone of federal nutrition policy and dietary guidance. As an autonomous agency, CNPP is well positioned to deliver unbiased and scientifically sound recommendations to other federal agencies and to the general public.

The proposed merger is unlikely to result in increased efficiency.
As stated in USDA-2017-05399, Executive Order 13781, “Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch,” was intended to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability through agency reorganization. However, there is no duplication of function between CNPP and FNS. FNS administers 15 food and nutrition programs targeting distinct populations, serving only a fraction of Americans. CNPP develops science-based recommendations designed to identify nutritional deficiencies and address dietary needs at a population level, which are then applied to dozens of programs across the federal government. To conflate the distinct purposes of each agency would be to detract from the efficiency of each. Changes in allocation of resources from restructuring would also threaten the ability of CNPP to conduct its mission.

The proposed merger threatens the scientific integrity of CNPP, compromising its core function.
Merging CNPP into FNS will weaken the ability of the USDA to provide the most current evidence-based nutrition guidance to federal food and nutrition programs. The change would also jeopardize the ability of CNPP to comply with Congressional mandates, chiefly the National Nutrition Monitoring and Related Research Act of 1990, which requires the establishment of dietary guidelines at least once every five years and the promotion of these guidelines by any federal agency carrying out a federal food, nutrition, or health program.

The proposed reorganization would degrade the scientific integrity and core function of CNPP, particularly if:

  1. The CNPP administrator lacks appropriate credentials to guide the development of science based recommendations, including the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA).
    The CNPP administrator has previously been appointed by the Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services program. With the proposed reorganization, this position would be filled by a career official lacking necessary technical expertise. In its recent review of the DGA process, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS) stated that it is of critical importance that “the DGA be viewed as valid, evidence-based, and free of bias or conflict of interest.” As the individual responsible for overseeing management of the NEL and development of DGAs and other science-based recommendations, the CNPP administrator must have strong credentials, including a background in dietetics, nutrition, medicine, and/or public health, with demonstrated experience relevant to nutrition science/research, population health, chronic disease prevention, epidemiology, economics, surveillance systems, and nutrition communications and marketing. This individual must also possess experience in advanced management and budget oversight; continuous quality improvement; program planning; implementation and evaluation; data analytics; information technology; and public policy.
  2. There is inadequate separation of agency function, diminishing the autonomy of CNPP.
    The application of dietary recommendations in programs administered by FNS introduces a potential conflict of interest. Without clear separation between CNPP and FNS, undue influence on the former by the latter—or even the perception thereof—would present a threat to the integrity of evidence-based recommendations. The development of the DGAs and the USDA Food Plans (e.g. Thrifty Food Plan) are of particular concern, as they inform programs administered by FNS.

The Union of Concerned Scientists appreciates the USDA’s efforts to increase the effectiveness and accountability of government agencies. However, the merging of CNPP into FNS accomplishes neither. The ability of CNPP to effectively and independently fulfill its mission of developing evidence-based dietary guidelines without undue influence may be compromised by: 1) the replacement of an appointed administrator with a career associated administrator who may not possess the qualifications needed to oversee the development of science-based federal nutrition recommendations; and 2) the inherent conflict of interest that occurs by way of FNS oversight over CNPP, as the latter develops guidelines that the former must adhere to in the implementation of various nutrition programs.

Given the alarming trajectory of diet and disease in the US, it is in the best interests of the public and the US healthcare system that CNPP continues to operate independently from FNS to produce evidence-based recommendations for population health. As the Director of the Office of Management and Budget considers proposed agency reorganizations to meet the directive of Executive Order 13781, “Improving Customer Service,” UCS is hopeful that the Director recognizes the magnitude of the potential risks associated with merging these agencies and rejects the proposed action.

Congress Could Help Farmers, Prevent Pollution, and Reduce Flood and Drought Damage. Will They?

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Conservationist Garrett Duyck and David Brewer examine a soil sample on the Emerson Dell farm near The Dalles, OR. USDA NRCS photo by Ron Nichols.

The news lately has been full of Congressional battles—healthcare, the debt ceiling, and now tax “reform” (ahem)—and it’s starting to seem like Congress is only interested in blowing things up. But a huge legislative effort is gaining steam on Capitol Hill, one that is likely to have general bipartisan support, though you probably haven’t heard nearly as much about it. I’m talking about the next five-year Farm Bill—which really should be called the Food and Farm Bill, as it shapes that sprawling economic sector worth more than 5 percent of US GDP, and which Congress must reauthorize by September 30, 2018.

In this first of a series of posts on the 2018 Farm Bill, I look at how this legislation could do more to help farmers conserve their soil, deliver clean water, and even reduce the devastating impacts of floods and droughts, all of which would save taxpayers’ money.

Farm conservation works

Since 1985, the Farm Bill has promoted stewardship of soil, water, and wildlife by directing funding to a variety of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) conservation programs. These programs provide financial incentives and technical assistance for farmers and ranchers to protect their soil and store carbon by planting cover crops, reduce fertilizer and pesticide use by rotating a mix of crops, capture excess fertilizer and add wildlife habitat by planting perennial prairie strips in and around vast cornfields, and even take environmentally sensitive acres out of farming altogether.

Recent UCS analysis has shown that farm practices like these lead to positive environmental outcomes while maintaining or increasing farmers’ yields and profits and saving taxpayers’ money.

And our latest report, Turning Soils into Sponges, reveals a surprising additional benefit: growing cover crops and perennial crops can make farmers and downstream communities more resilient to the effects of floods and droughts. The report demonstrates that these practices—which keep living roots in the soil year-round—result in healthier, “spongier” soils soak up more water when it rains and hold it longer through dry periods. Using these practices, farmers can reduce rainfall runoff in flood years by nearly one-fifth, cut flood frequency by the same amount, and make as much as 16 percent more water available for crops to use during dry periods. But farmers need help to do it.

A changing climate demands more conservation, not less

So it was a real step backward when the 2014 Farm Bill cut the very programs that help farmers build healthy soil and prevent pollution. That bill cut the USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), for example, by more than 20 percent. A USDA official recently told a Senate committee that CSP is “greatly oversubscribed” and must turn away thousands of farmers who want to participate.

(Incidentally, the Senate will hear this week from President Trump’s nominee to lead the USDA’s conservation efforts, whose conservation record as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture has been mixed.)

Meanwhile (surprise!) the problems that on-farm conservation can help solve are not going away by themselves. Midwestern farm runoff has led to deteriorating water quality from Iowa to the Gulf of Mexico. And climate change will only worsen water quality and increase the frequency and severity of floods and droughts.

The latter is particularly bad news for farmers, and for all of us. A new report from the USDA’s Risk Management Agency, which operates the taxpayer-subsidized federal crop insurance program, shows that losses from drought and flooding were to blame for nearly three-quarters of all crop insurance claims paid to farmers and ranchers between 2001 and 2015.

Farmers are adopting conservation practices, and policy support is growing

For example, earlier this year researchers at Iowa State University released the results of their 2016 Iowa Farm and Rural Life Poll, which asked farmers across the state about conservation practices they used between 2013 and 2015. Nearly half (44 percent) reported an increase in the use of practices to improve soil health, with 20 percent reporting they’d increased their use of cover crops.

Meanwhile, the National Farmers Union (NFU), which represents family farmers and ranchers across the country, has become increasingly vocal about the need for USDA programs and research to help farmers build soil health and cope with climate change. And taxpayer advocates have lent their voice to the call stronger requirements for on-farm conservation as a condition of participating in the federal crop insurance program (so-called conservation compliance). A number of states have undertaken healthy soil initiatives, and some observers expect soil health to get more attention in this Farm Bill, as it should.

Congress: Don’t ask farmers to do the impossible

To recap: farm conservation works, farmers want to do it, and we all need more of it to cope with a changing climate and the floods, droughts, and escalating costs it will bring. So why wouldn’t Congress invest more?

As usual, budget-cutting fever is the problem. The Trump administration’s proposed USDA budget reductions shocked farmers and their allies in Congress last spring, cowing even the powerful Republican chair of the Senate agriculture committee, who warned that the 2018 Farm Bill will need to “do more with less.” That’s a silly thing to say, of course…with most things in life, doing more requires, well, more. For farm conservation, that means financial incentives and technical assistance for more farmers and more acres, along with more monitoring to ensure that it’s getting results.

That’s why UCS joined with NFU and two dozen other organizations in outlining our collective conservation priorities for the 2018 Farm Bill. These include a substantial increase in funding for USDA conservation programs including CSP, along with additional monitoring and evaluation of outcomes, better enforcement of conservation compliance, and improvements in the federal crop insurance program to remove barriers to conservation.

As Congress debates the Farm Bill in the coming months, UCS will be urging them to see farm conservation programs for what they are—critical programs to help farmers stay profitable today while preventing pollution, improving resilience, and avoiding more costly problems down the line.

In short, an excellent investment in our future.