UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

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

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

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

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

CAFO “lagoons” are releasing a toxic soup

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

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

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

The scale of North Carolina’s CAFO industry is shocking

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

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

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

The state’s CAFOs harm communities of color most

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

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

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

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

CAFO damage from Florence was predictable…and will get worse

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

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

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

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

Millions of animals are likely drowned, starved, or asphyxiated

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

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

North Carolina farmers face staggering financial losses and likely bankruptcies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public policies should encourage sustainable livestock production, not CAFOs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Source: Our World in Data.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Farmland LP Graphic: Our World In Data.

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

Photo: grobery/CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: USDA

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

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

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

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

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

The Process: More to do, and twice as fast

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

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

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

Photo: USDA

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

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

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

The Politics: When money talks

What happened during the 2015-2020 DGA cycle?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: grobery/CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)

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

Photo: Brazilian things/Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

Why then, did deforestation remain essentially the same?

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

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

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

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

Photo: Brazilian things/Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What are some of the objectives of your research program?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your experience talking with Congressional offices? 

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

Anything else you’d like to add?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two houses of Congress, two very different visions

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

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

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

Can negotiations bridge stark farm bill differences?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

While Congress negotiates, we need to keep the pressure on

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

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

What Congress Does Next Could Cost Farmers and Taxpayers Billions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Introducing the Conservation Stewardship Program

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

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

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

CSP offers taxpayers an eye-popping deal

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

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

Here’s what we found:

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

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

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

Farmers want—and need—incentives to pursue conservation goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Scientific Integrity Safe at the USDA?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New USDA scientist survey findings give more cause for concern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The case for crop insurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What would make more sense?

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

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

Perverse loopholes instead further enrich the largest farmers

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

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

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

What you can do:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SNAP EBT problem solved, for now

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

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

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

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

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

Congress can build lasting solutions

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

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

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

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

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

USDA/Flickr

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

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

Hutchins is a scientist…but is that enough?

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

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

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

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

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

A career steeped in Big Ag

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

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

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

Another day, another betrayal at the USDA

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

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

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

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

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

Dow and the Trump administration are cozy, and getting cozier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doubling down on Dow

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: US Department of Agriculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A is for August (and Action)

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

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

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

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

Trump Administration Declares Poverty is Over, We Can All Go Home Now

Photo: Michael Vadon/CC BY SA 4.0

Picture it: The loading dock of the city’s largest food bank is shrouded in silence. Pallets of food are stacked inside, draped with cobwebs, waiting for volunteers who will never come to unload them. The food bank is now a relic of a bygone era—when people befallen by any number of ills needed help feeding their families. From a window above, a boy’s face appears. “Haven’t you heard?” he shouts. “Poverty is over!”

Okay, okay—I know this is absurd. But does the Trump administration?

Earlier this month, its Council of Economic Advisers released a report defending its proposals for stricter work requirements in major social safety net programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). If you’ve been following the 2018 farm bill reauthorization, you’ll recall that a host of unnecessary and punitive work requirements were included in the House bill. The White House report justifies these work requirements by citing a decline in self-sufficiency alongside a decline in material hardship—in other words, many households continue to participate in public assistance programs, despite the fact that their purchasing power seems to be increasing on the whole. And it’s under this pretense that the authors make a dangerous claim: the “war on poverty” has been successful, and is effectively over.

We’ve discussed the work requirements contained in the House bill—by and large, they’re built on misinformation, prejudice, and partisan ideology. But this inaccurate and wildly irresponsible declaration of victory over poverty in America warrants a discussion of its own.

In a country of wealth and abundance, everyone should be able to eat

The new White House report contends that “most” people in the United States now have their basic needs met, and that’s true. But while more than 99 percent of us have housing on any given night, that still leaves more than half a million people on the streets. Similarly, “only” 4.6 percent of people live in households with very low food security—meaning an unthinkable 15 million people worry that their food will run out, cut back on portions, or skip meals altogether with some regularity. (This doesn’t include the additional 27 million people living in households with low food security.)

Caring only about what happens to most of us isn’t good enough in one of the wealthiest and most resource-abundant countries in the world—particularly when the “few” represent millions of people struggling to get by, with prospects for upward mobility that are increasingly bleak.

Prosperity is more than the absence of poverty, and it’s getting harder to come by

The administration correctly identifies that there are many able-bodied, working-age adults who don’t have consistent employment, but it’s wrong in naming “the American work ethic” as the culprit. The reality is that it’s getting harder and harder to climb the economic ladder—particularly if you’re starting at the bottom rung.

A new report from the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) shows that income inequality—the gulf between the haves and have-nots—continues to widen in every state, as it has since the 1970s. On average, those in the top 1 percent of US families by income earned 26.3 times more than the those in the bottom 99 percent. Not 26.3 percent more; 26.3 times more. As the authors state, “The gains of those at the top have come at the expense of the vast majority of working families.”

And the inequitable distribution of income affects some families more than others. Structural racism remains a powerful force that keeps doors to opportunity closed to people of color. A recent report found that rates of home ownership and unemployment among black Americans have remained virtually unchanged for the last five decades. Over the same time period, the share of black Americans in prison or jail nearly tripled and currently outpaces the incarceration rate of white Americans by a factor of six.

Asserting that the state of economic well-being in this country is just fine, thank you, should elicit the same response as the declaration to Make America Great Again. For whom?

SNAP helps with more than just food – and it needs our support

Until our country gets its act together, we need to maintain a strong social safety net—and SNAP is a critical part of that safety net. Every year, it helps millions of households put food on the table. But more importantly, as we’ve shown, it also enables people to set aside more of their income for other necessities like housing, utilities, and transportation—as well as things like education, which is a key contributor to higher income and lifetime earnings.

As the 2018 farm bill enters a critical stage of negotiations, the fate of SNAP hangs in the balance. The best thing we can do for the millions of families across the United States who face the very real consequences of poverty—whether temporary or persistent—is to ask our senators and representatives to reject the draconian and ill-advised work requirements contained in the House version of the bill, and to adopt the Senate bill instead. Visit our website to take action today.

This isn’t exactly the main message of the report and so it could seem a little histrionic. Is there a way to reframe it to be more consistent with the key findings of the report?  I know this is in the report as an explanation, but it would be better if attacking the report to highlight something that is directly stated, like their stated finding below, and then using that to explain their stance that poverty is over.

Photo: Samuel Zeller/Unsplash

The Midwest’s Food System is Failing. Here’s Why.

Photo: dvs/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

If you’ve perused the new UCS 50-State Food System Scorecard, you’ve probably noticed a seeming contradiction. As shown on the map below, the heavily agricultural states in the middle of the country aren’t exactly knocking it out of the park when it comes to the overall health and sustainability of their food and farming systems. On the contrary, most of the leading farm states of the Midwest reside in the basement of our overall ranking.

OVERALL STATE FOOD SYSTEM RANKINGS

So what’s that about? A couple of reasons stand out to me.

First, much of what the Midwest grows today isn’t really food (much less healthy food).

It’s funny. But not really.

It’s true. While we often hear that the region’s farmers are feeding America and the world, in fact much of the Midwest’s farm output today is comprised of just two crops: corn and soybeans. There are various reasons for that, including some problematic food and farm polices, but that’s the reality.

Take the state of Indiana, for example. When I arrived there in 1992 for graduate school (go Hoosiers!), I bought the postcard at right. That year, Indiana farmers had planted 6.1 million acres of corn, followed by 4.55 million acres of soybeans. Together, the two crops covered more than two-thirds of the state’s total farm acres that year.

The situation remains much the same today, except that the crops have switched places: this year, Indiana farmers planted 6.2 million acres of soybeans and “just” 5.1 million acres of corn. Nationwide, soybean acreage will top corn in 2018 for the first time in 35 years.

Regardless of whether corn or soy reigns supreme, the fact is that most of it isn’t destined for our plates. Today, much of the corn goes into our gas tanks. The chart below shows how total US corn production tracked the commodity’s use for ethanol from 1986 to 2016:

Reprinted from the US Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, https://www.afdc.energy.gov/data/10339.

The two dominant Midwest crops also feed livestock to produce meat in industrial feedlots, and they become ingredients for heavily processed foods. A 2013 Scientific American essay summarized the problem with corn:

Although U.S. corn is a highly productive crop, with typical yields between 140 and 160 bushels per acre, the resulting delivery of food by the corn system is far lower. Today’s corn crop is mainly used for biofuels (roughly 40 percent of U.S. corn is used for ethanol) and as animal feed (roughly 36 percent of U.S. corn, plus distillers grains left over from ethanol production, is fed to cattle, pigs and chickens). Much of the rest is exported.  Only a tiny fraction of the national corn crop is directly used for food for Americans, much of that for high-fructose corn syrup.

All this is a big part of why, when UCS assessed the extent to which each US state is producing food that can contribute to healthy diets—using measures including percentage of cropland in fruits and vegetables, percentage of cropland in the top three crops (where a higher number means lower diversity), percentage of principal crop acres used for major animal feed and fuel crops, and meat production and large feeding operations per farm acres—we arrived at this map:

RANKINGS BY FOOD PRODUCED

As you can see, the bottom of our scorecard’s “food produced” ranking is dominated by Midwestern states. This includes the nation’s top corn-producing states—Iowa (#50) and Illinois (#48), which together account for about one-third of the entire US crop. It also includes my one-time home, Indiana (#49), where just 0.2 percent of the state’s 14.7 million farm acres was dedicated to vegetables, fruits/nuts, and berries in 2012.

Now let’s switch gears to look at another reason the Midwest performs so poorly overall in our scorecard.

Today’s Midwest agriculture tends to work against nature, not with it.

In addition to the fact that the Midwest currently produces primarily non-food and processed food crops, there’s also a big problem with the way it typically produces those commodities. Again, for a number of reasons—including the shape of federal farm subsidies—the agricultural landscape in states such as Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana is dominated by monoculture (a single crop planted year after year) or a slightly better two-crop rotation (you guessed it, corn and soybeans). These oversimplified farm ecosystems, combined with the common practice of plowing (aka tilling) the soil before each planting, degrade the soil and require large applications of fertilizer, much of which runs off farm fields to pollute lakes and streams. Lack of crop diversity also leads to more insect pests, increasing the need for pesticides. Moreover, as corn is increasingly grown in dry pockets of the Midwest such as Kansas and Nebraska, it requires ever-larger quantities of irrigation water. Finally, the whole system relies heavily on fossil fuels to run tilling, planting, spraying, and harvesting equipment.

No wonder that whether we look at resource reliance (including use of commercial fertilizers and chemical pesticides, irrigation, and fuel use) or, conversely, implementation of more sustainable practices (reduced tillage, cover crops, and organic practices, among others), most Midwest states once again lag.

                RANKINGS BY RESOURCE RELIANCE

 

RANKINGS BY USE OF CONSERVATION PRACTICES

 

 

But Midwestern farmers want to change the map.

To sum up: in general, the Midwest is using up a variety of limited resources and farming in ways that degrade its soil and water, while falling far short of producing the variety of foods we need for healthy diets. Not a great system. But there are hopeful signs that the region may be starting to change course.

For example, in Iowa, more and more farmers are expanding their crop rotations to add oats or other small grains, which research has shown aids in regenerating soils, improving soil health, and delivering clean water, while also increasing productivity and maintaining profits. Diversifying crops in the field can also help to diversify our food supply and improve nutrition.

Back in my alma mater state of Indiana, farmers planted 970,000 acres of cover crops in 2017—making these soil protectors the third-most planted crop in the state. And in a surprising turn of events just last week, Ohio’s Republican governor signed an executive order that will require farmers in eight Northwest Ohio watersheds to take steps to curb runoff that contributes to a recurring problem of toxic algae in Lake Erie that hurts recreation and poisons Toledo’s drinking water.

A recent UCS poll provides additional evidence that farmers across the region are looking for change. Earlier this year, we asked more than 2,800 farmers across the partisan divide in seven states (Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) about federal farm policies that today incentivize the Midwest agricultural status quo. Nearly three-quarters of respondents indicated they are looking for a farm bill that prioritizes soil and water conservation, while 69 percent supported policies (like farm-to-school supports) that help farmers grow more real food for local consumption. More than 70 percent even said they’d be more likely to back a candidate for public office who favors such priorities.

Speaking of the farm bill, things are coming to a head in Congress this summer over that $1 trillion legislative package that affects all aspects of our food system. As the clock ticks toward a September 30 deadline, the shape of the next farm bill is in question, with drastically different proposals passed by the House and the Senate. Critically important programs—including investments that could help farmers in the Midwest and elsewhere produce more healthy food and farm more sustainably—are at risk.

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

Leaders from the House and Senate need to come together to hash out their differences and agree on a compromise before the current farm bill expires. As they negotiate behind closed doors this summer, urge them to prioritize proven, science-based policies and programs that will alleviate hunger, improve nutrition, sustain our land, soil, and water, and help farmers prosper. Add your name to our petition to farm bill negotiators today!

 

Intimidation, Disinformation, the Formula Industry and the Next Dietary Guidelines

Photo: Bradley Gordon/Flickr

It’s nearly time for the federal government to update its Dietary Guidelines for the public, and this time around the recommendations will include legally mandated dietary guidance for pregnant women, infants, and toddlers (from birth to age 24 months). With that in mind, my colleagues and I were troubled to read of a dust-up over infant formula that occurred at the World Health Organization this past spring.

According to attendees of the World Health Assembly in Geneva, the United States advocated for industry positions as it negotiated a draft resolution on infant and young child feeding, threatening countries with trade retaliation if they introduced the resolution as written. This led to Ecuador who had originally drafted the resolution to pull out from introducing it. Fortunately, Russia stepped in to reintroduce it and member countries worked together to ensure the passage of a version with strong language in support of breastfeeding over breast milk substitute therein, however the final version was missing some important provisions, including one that would give member countries the ability to ask the WHO director general for support in “implementation, mobilization of financial resources, monitoring and assessment” and legal and regulatory enforcement of the code and those countries seeking to halt “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and children.”

This type of inappropriate interference from the infant formula industry and the willingness of the US to aggressively push for its positions by employing threats of trade restrictions does not bode well for the what lies ahead for the Dietary Guidelines, the process for which kicked off this year. Like with all science-based processes in federal policymaking, there is an opportunity for undue influence to occur to obscure the facts in order to achieve outcomes that maintain the status quo. And undue industry influence is not a stranger to this process. For example, in the 2015 guidelines, the final recommendations failed to incorporate all of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s  (DGAC’s) evidence-based recommendations that food system sustainability be incorporated into the guidelines, after the big food industry players, most notably the meat industry, opposed the scientific conclusion. Already, the Infant Nutrition Council of America has been actively engaged in the start of the Dietary Guidelines 2020 process, and has lobbied the USDA and HHS on the issue this year. While it makes sense that they’re weighing in on this process, there is no room for inappropriate influence and false characterization of the science.

The formula industry’s long, sordid history spreading misinformation

Three companies dominate the infant formula market: Nestle, Abbott Laboratories, and Mead Johnson. They are members of the Infant Nutrition Council of America, the trade association representing the infant formula industry. There’s a long history of the infant formula and baby food manufacturers pushing back against science-based policies that would limit their ability to make health claims on or sell their products to limited demographics. As a result, we’ve seen delays to evidence-based added sugar labels, missed opportunities to tighten the language on health claims in children’s foods, and even the language in government breastfeeding campaigns toned down.

The infant formula industry used this same disinformation playbook tactic as in the recent WHO proceedings decades ago. In 1977, there was a massive boycott of major formula maker Nestle that urged participants not to buy Nestle products until the company stopped misleading advertising that favored bottle-feeding over breastfeeding. The company then ardently fought against a WHO/UNICEF Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes which, once passed in 1981, prevented formula companies from targeting mothers and health care providers with promotions and health claims on packaging. When it passed, 118 countries voted to approve. The United States was absent from that list of countries, presumably because of industry sway.

Breaking down the science on breastfeeding

Leading scientific authorities on maternal and children’s health at The American Academy of Pediatrics, The American Public Health Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life as the preferred method of infant feeding due to the health benefits for both mother and child. The literature on breastfeeding has revealed its association with a variety of beneficial health outcomes including decreased risk of asthma, obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, and respiratory tract infections for the infant and decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and breast and ovarian cancers for the mother. Not only is it healthful, but it is cost-effective. A 2013 Lancet series on maternal and child nutrition estimates that universal breastfeeding would prevent the deaths of over 800,000 children and 20,000 mothers, saving $300 billion globally each year. According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, in the United States alone, if 90% of families breastfed exclusively for 6 months, it would save $13 billion per year in healthcare costs and prevent 911 deaths.

It’s imperative that moms are supported in breastfeeding as an option, some moms are unable to for a variety of reasons and formula is the best alternative. Having breast milk substitutes as alternatives is crucial, but spreading misleading information about the benefits of formula over breastfeeding and marketing accordingly to certain demographic groups is completely irresponsible.

Despite what President Trump and others might argue about the need for infant formula for poor women in developing countries, the data has shown that it may actually be more feasible for women to produce healthy breast milk than to have access to clean water to mix with powdered infant formula to feed their infants. A 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research study found that the availability of formula actually increased infant mortality by 9.4 per 1,000 births and estimated that, as a result, 66,000 infants died in low- and middle-income countries just in 1981.

The 2020 Dietary Guidelines must preserve scientific integrity

UCS submitted comments to HHS and USDA in April on the Dietary Guidelines process urging the agencies to “maintain a high degree of integrity, autonomy, and transparency to ensure that the guidelines represent the best available science and avoid any bias that could work against the interests of public health.” In other words, the US government cannot allow the makers of infant formula to pressure them into weaker dietary guidelines that go against the best available science. Ultimately, we need access to accurate information so that we can make dietary decisions that help us achieve optimal health through nutrition, and we are counting on our government to rely on evidence, not industry talking points on matters of our children’s health. We will continue to monitor this process as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is formed in the coming months to ensure that scientific integrity at the agencies is upheld.

 

Photo: Bradley Gordon

Across the United States, Local Food Investments Link Harvest to Health

Earlier this month, we took a deep, data-driven dive into the state of food and farming across the US with the release of our 50-State Food System Scorecard. Although the country as a whole isn’t exactly the poster child for healthy and sustainable food systems (far from it), there’s a lot of variability in what’s happening at farms, grocery stores, and dinner tables from one state to the next—and we’re here to learn from it.

Of course, we couldn’t assess the food system without taking a good, hard look at how it impacts its end users: us. The map below shows how states stack up when it comes to diet and health outcomes.

But our food system is complex, and understanding how all of its various parts are connected—for example, mathematically demonstrating how a diet-related disease like hypertension might be linked to something like land use—isn’t easy. There are a lot of factors that influence what, how, and why we eat what we do, and the path from farm to fork is long and winding. Meaning that what a state’s farmers are doing doesn’t seem likely to strongly drive the state’s diet-related health outcomes. But being part of the same system, these two things do have a relationship (status: it’s complicated), and the wide array of data we’ve analyzed just might help us see it more clearly.

The diet and health outcomes map includes indicators related to food security, dietary intake, and diet-related chronic disease. See more at www.ucsusa.org/food-system-scorecard.

A general food rule: What happens in your state doesn’t stay in your state

For the most part, we wouldn’t expect to see a strong relationship between the types of food a state produces and the types of food its population consumes—much less any diet-related health outcomes. As I mentioned, there are a lot of things that factor into our dietary decisions, and dozens more that determine how they’ll impact our health in the long run. Plus, much of the food produced in any given state usually doesn’t stay there for long. Take the state of Washington, for example. It produces about 6.7 billion pounds of apples per year—nearly 20 billion apples. That’s enough for every adult, child, and infant in the whole state to eat an apple for breakfast, lunch, and dinner six days out of the week. (Fun to picture, but definitely not happening.) Instead, Washington exports nearly a third of its apples to countries around the world and ships a whole lot more to other states nationwide.

Could local food be changing the game?

However, the local food movement is making small shifts in the way our food system works. There are now nearly 9,000 farmers markets in the US, and facilities like and cooperatives are making it easier for farmers to join forces to supply food to local institutions like schools, hospitals, and universities. What’s more, many federal programs are working to help make these foods more affordable and accessible to everyone. Many markets now accept benefits from nutrition programs like SNAP or WIC, often offering incentives for fresh fruit and vegetable purchases. In addition to being good for farmers and low-income families, these programs offer data that can help us better understand the connections between farm, food, and health.

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/CC BY SA 2.0

As I mentioned, we wouldn’t necessarily expect food production and diet-related health outcomes to be strongly related, especially at the scale we looked at. (We call this relationship “correlation,” and a stronger correlation means two variables are more strongly related. And as any good statistician will tell you, correlation does not imply causation.) Data we evaluated from all 50 states show that these variables display some correlation, but it’s nothing to write home about.*

However, when you look at food production, food investments, and local food infrastructure together, it turns out that they’re much more strongly correlated to diet and health outcomes than food production alone. Meaning, when you take into account what a state grows, along with things like food hubs, farmers markets, and investments of federal funds to get more healthy food onto people’s plates, you start to see a clearer connection to diet and health outcomes in that state. Could this mean that the local food movement may meet some of the lofty expectations we’ve set for it, like improving public health by getting more fresh produce to people?

We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves—it’s possible, and likely, that there’s another variable we didn’t look at that could be partly responsible for driving both. (This is typically called a “confounding variable.” See the classic example of murder rates and ice cream sales for a good explainer of this term.) In our case, a confounding variable could be something like the effectiveness of a state’s government—a well-resourced and high-functioning state government could potentially contribute to higher rankings for all the variables in question.

But it’s worth a second look. Scorecard aside, we’ve heard plenty of anecdotes that suggest these local food programs are working for farmers and families, and there’s a growing amount of evidence to back them up. And intuitively, it makes some sense that achieving better diets and health would require both a healthier food supply and the means to get that food to the people who need it most. Is local food a silver bullet? Definitely not. But if we’re ever going to achieve a food system that is truly sustainable, equitable, and health-promoting, investments in local and regional food systems and in healthy food access will likely be at least one piece of the puzzle.

Say, what else connects farming to food and health?

You guessed it—the farm bill. If you’ve followed this year’s reauthorization of this massive piece of food and farm legislation, you might know that it includes everything from agriculture research that helps farmers to nutrition programs like SNAP (the largest nutrition assistance program, with a correspondingly large target on its back). But it also includes a lot of “tiny but mighty” programs that could help connect the dots between healthy food production and healthy populations.

The ideologically motivated House farm bill, which would heap additional work requirements onto SNAP participants and would reduce or eliminate benefits for millions, passed on June 21—and leaves many of these small local food programs in the dust. The Senate bill passed a week later and, by contrast, makes much-needed investments in a range of science-based food and farm programs. In addition to maintaining the core function and structure of SNAP, the Senate bill also includes many of the local food infrastructure programs that factored into our food system scorecard—like the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program (FINI), the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program (as part of the newly created Local Agriculture Marketing Program), and more.

Want to see these programs fully funded in the next farm bill? So do we.

House and Senate negotiators are likely to begin meeting this month to try to merge these two drastically different bills into one that everyone can live with. That process will be challenging, and it will need to be informed by people like you.

If you’re as invested as we are in the future of our food and farming systems, now is the time to act. Sign our petition to House and Senate negotiators today. 

*Spearman correlation coefficients and associated two-tailed probabilities:

Food produced; diet and health outcomes (r = .39, p < .005)

Food produced, food infrastructure, and food investments indicators, averaged and ranked; diet and health outcomes (r = .54, p < .001)

Food infrastructure and food investments indicators, averaged and ranked; diet and health outcomes (r = .40, p < .005)

Ocean Conservation Is Still Significantly at Risk Despite Backtrack on NOAA Mission Change

Aquaculture pens off the coast of Maine. Photo: NOAA National Ocean Service

Last week, following press attention to a presentation by the Acting Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) on new directions for the agency, Adm. Tim Gallaudet quickly backtracked and stated that the mission would not fundamentally change.

That’s a good thing, but there are other signals coming out of the Trump Administration that point to a real change in priorities at NOAA and other agencies. Some of those I pointed out earlier this week. Here I want to turn to some of the specific priorities the Admiral discussed in his presentation. One of the highlighted strategic priorities related to reducing our trade deficit in seafood. The President has spoken of trade deficits as if the US is losing money if we have a deficit, but most economists don’t see it that way. With regard to seafood, the US imports about 90% of the seafood we consume. That means we have a substantial trade deficit in seafood. On the other hand, American businesses from retailers to restaurants make a lot of money from seafood products, well beyond the imported value. They are able to market a much wider range of products and at a range of prices for a food source that generally contributes to a healthy diet. And, the production of US seafood products has made huge strides toward sustainability. That progress was hard fought, and hard won for the industry and government acting in the public interest.

So what are the priorities for the Trump Administration? Here is the slide the Admiral presented. As someone who has spent much of my career in ocean science and fisheries management several things jump out at me.

The first is “Permit Fishing in Marine Monuments” within 90 days. That will do absolutely nothing to address the seafood trade deficit, because literally it will allow access for 11 boats across the two monuments, but it will substantially undermine conservation because those few boats can do a lot of damage to fragile reefs and seamounts. And will send a broad, negative, signal to the US and the rest of the world that the US is backing away from protecting marine ecosystems particularly in offshore areas. And that will happen just at the time when the rest of the world is beginning to finally negotiate a new agreement for the conservation of the high seas.

Secondly, and no less important, the slide says that NOAA will reach 50 deregulatory actions in the next 30 days. Since virtually all of the regulatory work of NOAA is on fisheries, marine mammals and endangered species, this says to me that the agency will be in rapid retreat on actions that are conserving marine ecosystems. I was formerly the Deputy Director of NOAA Fisheries. I know for a fact that there is not some large number of useless regulations just lying around. I also know that the only way for fishing businesses and communities to be successful is if overfishing is ended and the ocean is healthy. So deregulation means we will stop protecting marine resources. Greater exploitation will result, and less sustainable oceans. There really isn’t another way to interpret this.

Then there are some truly puzzling items on the list, such as “Propose Vessel Financing Rule”. If that means reducing subsidies for fishing capacity, that’s good. If it means re-introducing federal financing, tax breaks and loan guarantees for new fishing vessels it is exactly the wrong way to go. The taxpayers have spent millions to reduce fishing capacity in an effort to end overfishing and recover depleted stocks. I sincerely hope we are not going to reverse that direction now.

And then, there are several potentially concerning points related to expanding marine fish farming or aquaculture. Release a plan, host a summit, provide grants. All of that seems OK, but the goal on subsequent slides is to increase aquaculture production three-fold in ten years. On its face that may be OK, but it depends on how, where and when. It doesn’t say. Aquaculture may be a good way to produce more seafood, but requires large inputs of wild caught fish to feed the farmed fish—and that fish meal is largely imported. And it requires for various forms of cage culture, exclusive use of ocean space. That creates its own challenges in resolving competing uses, because the US ocean is a busy place with lots of different users. And finally, it requires strict care to ensure that issues of contamination of wild stocks, disease, waste, chemical use and other issues are dealt with up front to ensure sustainability. As with all animal culture there are challenges. Is NOAA going to address those? In just 180 days?

There are other priorities that seem to suggest that NOAA will reduce protections for endangered species (“ESA streamlining rule”) and protections for marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico (“Marine Mammal Protection Rule for Gulf Energy Development”) that also worry me greatly.

Ocean conservation, like democracy, cannot be taken for granted, you have to work at it. We need to watch how things develop at NOAA very closely and be ready to raise our voices again if the conservation part of the NOAA mission gets short shrift. Congress needs to demand answers to the real direction for NOAA programs and how the money they have appropriated is being spent. Scientists need to scrutinize the proposals and how well they are supported by scientific evidence. And concerned people everywhere should be continuing to speak out, in their communities and to their elected officials as well as NOAA regional officials about the need to safeguard the public interest. That’s NOAA’s job.

Photo: NOAA National Ocean Service

What Our 50-State Scorecard Says About Farming and Water Pollution (and What the Farm Bill Should Do About It)

Water flows off a farm in Tennessee following a storm. Photo: Tim McCabe, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Last week, my colleagues and I launched a super-cool data tool on the UCS website. The 50-State Food System Scorecard compiles loads of publicly available data dealing with the health and sustainability of food and farming, and ranks the states on their performance in various data categories and overall.

Finding and evaluating a critical mass of data to say something reasonably comprehensive about each state’s food system—from farm to fork—was a big project, and its lead scientist Marcia DeLonge summarized how we did it and why we bothered in a post last week. So today, I want to home in on just one of the aspects we looked at.

We called it “ecosystem impacts,” which really means how farming affects critical natural resources like our water and soil, as well as our climate system.

We evaluated this impact by considering several kinds of indicators. First, we looked at existing data showing farming’s climate implications, with indicators including percentage of total climate emissions from agriculture, climate emissions per farm acre, and carbon loss or gain from land-use change and forestry. We also looked at data revealing agriculture’s impact on soil erosion. And finally, we incorporated data on water quality, with indicators ranging from nutrient loss (read: fertilizer runoff) per land area; percentage of surface waters that are impaired (the EPA’s term for rivers, lakes, and bays polluted beyond applicable water quality standards); and percentage of the state’s area with groundwater contaminated by high levels of nitrate, a common water pollutant for which agriculture is a major source.

As you can see on this map of state rankings in the “reduced ecosystem impact” category (one of nearly a dozen available maps), the 10 best performers are an eclectic collection of states from all corners of the country: Alaska, New Hampshire, Maine, West Virginia, Wyoming, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Massachusetts, and Michigan.

MAP 4: REDUCED ECOSYSTEM IMPACTS

 

And digging a little deeper into the data (which you can do yourself by downloading a data spreadsheet from our methodology document), we get a clearer picture of the states in which the water resources people depend on—for drinking, fishing, and swimming—are the least negatively affected by pollution strongly linked to agriculture. The data showed that Montana, New Hampshire, and South Dakota had the lowest groundwater nitrate pollution. Maryland and Wyoming had the smallest fraction of surface waters impaired, and Wyoming had the least nutrient loss.

Other states didn’t do so well.

Another year, another Corn Belt-fueled ‘dead zone’

Let’s look at the worst performers according to the data we have for nutrient loss in particular. They are New Jersey (50), Kentucky (49), Missouri (48), Louisiana (47), Iowa (46), Ohio (45), Indiana (44), and Illinois (43). Those last four clustered near the bottom are at the center of the Midwestern Corn Belt, a region that has long sent massive amounts of nutrient runoff to the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. Every year, that runoff contributes to a dead zone just off the Gulf coast, in which nutrient-fueled algae blooms rob the shallow waters of oxygen, killing or driving out other life forms. This year will be no exception. According to a recent press release from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), by August we can expect to see a Gulf dead zone that is about the size of Connecticut. That would be about 4 percent larger than the average over the past 31 years.

Unfortunately, that’s the good news. Because last year’s dead zone was even bigger—at least the size of New Jersey. And no matter which Eastern seaboard state you compare it to, it’s bad. In their 2018 prediction, the scientists at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (who partner with NOAA annually) note that, if they’re right, the dead zone will be about three and a half times the size of the federal goal set in 2001 and reiterated in 2008.

“Efforts to reduce the nitrate loading have not yet demonstrated success at the watershed scale,” they conclude, sounding glum, for scientists.

Big problems need big solutions

In fact, the efforts to reduce the problem to date haven’t exactly been monumental. Which brings me back to our scorecard and two of its other data categories.

We looked at the implementation of farming practices that can reduce farming’s contribution to water pollution and other negative ecosystem impacts. These practices include adopting no-till (aka no plowing) cropping systems; planting cover crops; using organic, rotational grazing, and other innovative techniques; and taking less-productive farmland out of cropping or grazing altogether. Ranking the states on these indicators produced a map that looks like this:

MAP 5: CONSERVATION PRACTICES

 

Comparing these rankings with the ecosystem impacts rankings is interesting. The four Corn Belt states that did poorly on water pollution measures above also rank low on conservation practices. But while one might expect states where sustainable farming practices have been implemented more widely would have better ecosystem outcomes, this is only sometimes true. Yes, New Hampshire and Maine each ranks in the top 5 in both categories. But then there’s a state like Maryland. Despite ranking #3 in implementation of conservation practices, it lags in terms of ecosystem impacts, coming in at #35.

The scorecard also ranks states according to federal dollars their farmers, scientists, and other stakeholders receive, through a variety of USDA programs, to study and implement soil-, climate-, and water-conserving agriculture.

MAP 6: FARM INVESTMENTS

 

This produces a different picture, though with some of the same states performing best (Vermont and New Hampshire) and worst (Arizona, Nevada, and Florida).

Because of the differences, comparing states across all three closely related farm sustainability categories is interesting, and there’s at least one state that stands out for me…

Iowa. The state is 49th for ecosystem impacts and 47th for implementation of conservation practices. But it finishes a surprising 15th in federal investment for sustainable agriculture. Now, you might be thinking, “doesn’t this mean those federal dollars just don’t work?” But I don’t think that’s the story here.

Instead, I think it’s that the scale of the problem is just so much bigger than the investments being made in solutions. Particularly in a state like Iowa, the beating heart of the Corn Belt and the epitome of the industrialized agriculture model. As the Des Moines Register had to acknowledge on the heels of last year’s huge Gulf dead zone, Iowa is a big part of that problem.

Of course, a growing number of the state’s farmers and agriculture researchers are working hard to refine and implement solutions. Researchers at Iowa State University, for instance, have developed an innovative crop rotation system that slashes fertilizer and pesticide use (and consequent runoff) while increasing yields. And the Practical Farmers of Iowa are implementing such methods one corn-and-soybean field at a time. Together, they’re changing the model. But system-wide change takes significant long-term investment, and generally speaking, the investment in sustainable agriculture in the United States has been pennies on the dollar.

Farmers want to be part of the solution—and Congress needs to support them

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that Congress is inching toward the finish line on a bitterly contested farm bill. While most of the controversy has centered around short-sighted efforts by House Republicans to gut the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, lawmakers in both houses of Congress have also taken aim at important investments that help farmers build healthy soil and prevent pollution, including the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). The USDA’s largest and most comprehensive working-land conservation program, CSP offers incentives and technical support for farmers to take up more sustainable practices on their land.

It’s not the first time CSP has been targeted for cuts. When Congress passed the last farm bill in 2014, they slashed the program by more than 20 percent. The result? By last summer, a USDA official told a Senate committee that CSP is “greatly oversubscribed” and must turn away thousands of farmers who want to participate. That’s why, when the debate over the 2018 farm bill started ramping up last fall, UCS joined more than two dozen organizations in outlining collective conservation priorities that include a substantial increase in funding for CSP and other USDA programs. And our recent survey of farmers across seven states suggests that large majorities want the farm bill to make those investments.

But the bill that failed last month in the House (but is expected to get a re-vote any minute), did the opposite—it eliminated CSP altogether. And while the much better bipartisan bill on the Senate side takes steps to increase the effectiveness and accessibility of farm bill conservation programs, it would also trim the program’s allotted acres by another 12 percent. That’s the wrong direction.

Read more and take action on the farm bill today.

Photo: Tim McCable, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

We Ranked All 50 States from Farm to Fork. Why We Bothered—and a Taste of Our Takeaways

Photo: Preston Keres, USDA

Recently, some fellow data geeks and I spent (quite a lot of) time ranking all 50 states on the health and sustainability of their food systems, from soil to spoon.

We went through the trouble for a few reasons. First, as you may have heard in bits and pieces, the state of our farms, our food supply, and our dietary health is not good—globally, nationally, regionally, and likely even in your neighborhood. As all these things are interrelated, we wanted to dig into the data to better understand what’s going on. Second, when it comes to food systems, we believe that the United States can do better. And, since innovative solutions are already popping up across the country, highlighting these as models may be key to building a healthy, sustainable, and just world. Finally—call us crazy—but we just love data and (yes) food systems.

What’s the fuss about the food system?

Before explaining what we did, let me refresh your memory about some of the most worrisome food system trends. Globally, you likely know that with population growth, climate change, and 11 percent of the world facing hunger, pressures on food supplies and natural resources are intense. And although there’s growing dialogue around transformative solutions to these intertwined challenges, the United States isn’t exactly leading the way.

In the past year, we as a country fell squarely in the “also ran” category in a Food Sustainability Index; the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that our public agricultural R&D funding has been losing ground; and we withdrew from the Paris Agreement, which addresses the growing threat of climate change (with serious implications for agriculture, and maybe also the nutritional quality of our food).

But you don’t have to look beyond our borders to see signs of trouble. US farms are disappearing, rural communities are struggling, policy debates are putting farmers and eaters under stress, the food system includes some of the worst employers in the country, the Gulf of Mexico dead zone continues to be huge, and so on. Clearly, we need to seek solutions, but where to begin?

The not-so-secret ingredients in our scorecard

With an eye toward opportunities, we set off to capture and crunch the numbers to provide a snapshot of the US food system. To this end, we delved into data dealing with different pieces of the problem, including farming practices, labor conditions, water quality, public health, and more. We explored data sources such as the USDA, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Census Bureau.

While we can’t possibly claim to have uncovered everything, we searched until we felt we had a critical mass of information representing food systems from coast to coast. With data for 68 indicators, we looked for patterns and potential (read more about our methods). We aimed to standardize data to compare states with both similarities and differences (natural resources, geographies, histories, cultures, populations, etc.). Finally, we grouped data into categories representing core aspects of the food system, and we synthesized these to get a sense of which states are leading the way.

The report? A mixed bag 

All in all, our analysis revealed both strengths and weakness of US food systems, distributed all across the country. To learn more and see where your state falls in the rankings—with maps, charts, and stories—you should check out our interactive scorecard. Here, I’ll just offer a flavor for our findings:

  • Action abounds: On the plus side, we found that different states rank better on different aspects of food systems, meaning that all states have a role to play in leading the way to a better future. From Alaska (with a smaller ecosystem footprint from its farms) to Wyoming (with farm production supporting relatively healthy diets), and California (boasting stronger farmer-to-eater infrastructure) to Maryland (a role model for conservation agriculture), states from sea to sea show strengths.
  • Bright spots: In more good news, we discovered brilliant bright spots, even in states ranking lower in some aspects of our food system scorecard. For example, the Chillinois Young Farmers Coalition is devoted to improving the outlook of farming in Illinois, and Practical Farmers of Iowa has had a big hand in the recent surge of cover crop adoption—and associated conservation benefits—throughout that state.
  • Costly consequences: While our focus was on opportunities, our analysis also exposed some of the dangerous consequences of our current conditions, from climate change contributions to water quality challenges to health outcomes and inequities. It’s also important to note that we ranked states against one another, not against some hypothetical ideal, so even top-ranking states have lots of room for improvement.
  • Data limitations: In several cases, the ideal data we were seeking wasn’t available, because it either simply didn’t exist, or was difficult to access at the scales we needed. To really get a holistic understanding of the food system—one that measures needs and progress—we need more public, accessible, and transparent data.
Fighting for food systems that fare better

If we want a food system that we can all be proud of—one that is healthy and equitable for farmers, laborers, eaters, and the environment—we have a ways to go. Fortunately, however, our new analysis revealed a lot of bright spots worth building on.

With farm bill season in full force, there’s no better time to protect and build up the programs and investments that help make positive change possible. The draft House farm bill, which failed to pass last month, likely would have had a negative impact on food systems across the country due to its utter failure to invest in healthy food access. However, just last week, Senate leaders released their proposal for a bipartisan farm bill, which defends and even boosts many critical initiatives, such as those that support nutrition, regional economies, beginning farmers, and sustainable agriculture research. While it’s clear there’s a lot of work ahead, investments like these can give us confidence that we’re heading in the right direction—so raise your voice and urge your senators to pass a farm bill that brings us one step closer to a food system, from farm to fork, that we can be proud of.