UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

Perdue’s Paradox: Proposed USDA Reorganization Would Undermine Farmers and Science-Based Research

Presidential budgets are wish lists. Very detailed and public wish lists.

That’s why on Monday, when the Trump Administration released its FY2020 Budget, it was alarming to see a 7 percent reduction to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area.

Thankfully, Congress has routinely rejected President’s Trumps budget proposals. Still, there’s a lot we can learn from the hundreds of millions in proposed cuts to food and agriculture research.

Late last year, the USDA unveiled major changes to two of the Department’s world-class research agencies—the National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA), and the Economic Research Service (ERS). At the time, USDA claimed the changes were to benefit taxpayers.

Since the changes were announced, key Senators and Representatives, bipartisan former agency heads, and thousands of researchers have raised legitimate concerns—from scientific integrity to whether or not the proposed changes would increase and improve publicly funded USDA research. Of all these concerns, one fundamental question still looms large:

Will American agriculture research—and the farmers, ranchers, and consumers who rely on it—benefit from the proposal?  

With a quick scan of recent headlines, it’s clear that from international trade anxiety to the devastating havoc of natural disasters, uncertainty is ruling the day for many producers around the country. At times of uncertainty, USDA’s role is to provide leadership and stability.

Strategic investments in food and agriculture research are some of the best our government can make. Scientific advances generated by ERS and NIFA—the two agencies impacted by the proposed reorganization—have benefitted countless communities in all 50 states and have contributed to rural economic development, food safety and security, and environmental stewardship, among others. But the good doesn’t stop there—the USDA itself has said that public investment in agriculture research results in “large economic benefits with annual rates of return between 20 and 60 percent.”

Given the clear benefit of research and the need for stability in American agriculture, we need to increase and improve our public investment in food and agriculture research—not produce half-baked proposals which further sow doubt about USDA’s diminishing leadership in agriculture research.

Yet, paradoxically, the proposed reorganization of ERS and NIFA has only raised doubt as to whether USDA still values agriculture research. In fact, the press release announcing the reorganization cited three justifications for the proposal—and none of them include increasing or improving public investment in food and agriculture research. Even USDA’s own employees have expressed their deep concerns about the intent behind the move.

Congressional requests for clarity from USDA have gone unanswered for months even though lawmakers have now requested “an indefinite delay” to the proposed reorganization. On March 12, USDA further ignored Congress and announced the 67 finalists for the new ERS and NIFA location. Now more than ever, it’s becoming obvious that USDA has no desire to listen to Congress.

Given the mounting opposition and continued lack of clarity on the proposed reorganization, it’s completely reasonable to ask—what’s the true motivation behind the reorganization? Will it benefit food and agriculture research, and the millions who rely on it? If so, why is there no evidence after more than seven months?

Unfortunately, the evidence is already in plain sight: the President’s budget proposes more than $225 million in cuts to food and agriculture research, which maintains the theme from previous Trump budget proposals. An administration that values rigorous science-based food and agriculture research wouldn’t do that.

American farmers, ranchers, and consumers should never have to question whether USDA has their back, nor should the talented and dedicated staff of USDA’s research agencies.

Yet, with this proposal, that’s exactly what’s happened.

After Two Years, Trump’s USDA Is Making Good on Promises (to Agribusiness)

USDA Photo by Lance Cheung/Flickr

This week, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is set to appear before Congress for the first time in a year. When he testifies on the state of the rural economy at a hearing of the House agriculture committee, he’ll have a lot to answer for. Over the last year—Perdue’s second at the helm of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)—he has been busy sidelining science and undermining the nation’s health on behalf of the Big Food and Big Ag industries.

Oh, and the state of the rural economy? That’s not looking so great under Perdue’s and the president’s watch either.

Let’s start with the economic news. Agriculture reporter Chris Clayton summarized it this way:

In a forecast released last week, USDA sees net cash income for agriculture remaining relatively flat over the next decade as expenses steadily rise and income for crops and livestock fails to keep pace. The Minneapolis Federal Reserve highlighted farmers’ economic stress in an update last week, suggesting more farm operations are at risk of “throwing in the towel.”

Yikes. Indeed, farm bankruptcies are on the rise (subscription). And while farm income has been mostly declining since 2013, the Trump administration’s shenanigans—a tax cut that was vastly oversold, a trade war that grinds on, and a lengthy and pointless government shutdown at the very time farmers needed the USDA’s services—certainly aren’t helping. Repeated insistence of the administration’s devotion to farmers and their livelihoods rings hollow.

Our Nation was founded by farmers. Our independence was won by farmers. And our continent was tamed by farmers. Our farmers always lead the way — we are PROUD of them, and we are DELIVERING for them! #NationalAgricultureDay

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 20, 2018

It is great to be at the @FarmBureau’s Centennial Annual Convention and introduce @POTUS who is a true friend to the American farmer. #AFBF19 #AFBF100 pic.twitter.com/BUFOXFq6FM

— Sec. Sonny Perdue (@SecretarySonny) January 14, 2019

So yes, Secretary Perdue should have to answer tough questions about the farm economy. But there are other pressing issues—for farmers and eaters—that the House agriculture committee should ask him about as well. For example:

SCHOOL LUNCHES: Why is Perdue making them less healthy? Who does that serve? Earlier this week, Secretary Perdue gave a speech at the School Nutrition Association’s annual legislative conference. His comments on school lunch “flexibility” were applauded there, but don’t be fooled—it’s not about helping kindly lunch ladies better serve our kids. This industry-backed association (as we documented back in 2015) happily supported Perdue’s recent rollback of science-based rules on salt, whole grains, and sugar-sweetened milk in school meals. The milk rollback, in particular, is a clear gift to Big Dairy (a deep-pocketed industry that undercuts small dairy farmers and very much wants to sell more milk). Meanwhile, two of Perdue’s predecessors recently penned an op-ed highlighting how watered-down nutrition standards contribute to a diet-related health crisis that threatens our national security and our future. (But no big deal, right?)

DIETARY GUIDELINES: Why is Perdue stacking the expert committee and short-changing the science-based process of developing nutrition advice? Last week, the USDA announced the composition of a 20-member expert advisory committee that will consider the state of nutrition science and make recommendations to Perdue and the secretary of health and human services. It’s the science-based heart of the process of updating the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which influences how millions of Americans eat and offers an opportunity to improve public health. But the new panel appears to be more heavily industry-influenced than usual, with members connected to the meat, infant formula, and soda industries. Comments this week by Perdue indicate he is taking a “both sides” approach to nutrition science. Moreover, other recent comments suggest that the process—which is already months behind schedule and not previously expected to be completed until well into 2020—might be rushed to generate final 2020 guidelines by the end of this year. Why?

.@SecretarySonny on need for “balance” on Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee – "You know our history with food. Eggs are good, eggs are not good; they're good now…Fat: Not good, good. So we're trying to have a balanced perspective of that.”

— Helena Bottemiller Evich (@hbottemiller) February 25, 2019


FOOD STAMPS: Why is Perdue circumventing Congress to take food off people’s plates? At this week’s hearing, Perdue will be face-to-face with the House agriculture committee, which just in December voted resoundingly against a major shakeup of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But on the very same day as that vote, Perdue announced that his USDA would propose a new rule that would undermine the program in a slightly different way, but with a similar result: some 750,000 unemployed or underemployed adults would lose SNAP benefits when the rule is fully implemented in fiscal year 2020. Why was this rule proposed immediately after Congress approved a bill that intentionally removed similar provisions?

USDA RESEARCH: Why is Perdue sidelining and politicizing science in his own department? We’ve written about Perdue’s ill-conceived proposal, announced last August, to reorganize and relocate two of the USDA’s four research agencies, the Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture. The move would unduly politicize important USDA research, and is not backed by any publicly-available cost-benefit analysis. It has been opposed by more than 1,100 scientists, former USDA officials, the agencies’ scientific staff, and members of Congress who hold the department’s pursestrings. Meanwhile, in another recent and related end-around, Perdue circumvented Congress by appointing Scott Hutchins—previously nominated to be USDA chief scientist but not yet been confirmed by the Senate as required by law—to the next-highest-ranking position, deputy under secretary of REE, a role that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Why is any of this necessary, and who does it serve?

I’ll be watching tomorrow to see what Perdue is asked—and what he says—about these and other issues. Hopefully, tomorrow’s hearing is just the beginning of Congress taking up its constitutional duty to provide a check on the USDA and hold Secretary Perdue accountable to the public interest.

¿Por qué es político el sistema agroalimentario?

Grato sería disfrutar un bocado sin molestarnos con consideraciones mayores al sabor y el agrado de nuestros platillos favoritos. Sin embargo, el sistema alimentario funciona de manera tal que la gran mayoría de nosotros lo repudiaríamos si comprendiéramos lo que hace con nuestro aval, el cual concedemos cada vez que pedimos algo de la carta de un restaurante, o nos paseamos llenando nuestro carrito en el supermercado. Por ejemplo, al alimentarnos sancionamos el desgaste de recursos naturales, la contaminación ambiental y la explotación laboral, muchas veces de niños. Tales cosas no ocurren en casos raros, o sin el conocimiento de los gerentes de los grandes corporativos agroalimentarios. Al contrario, a estas grandes industrias les conviene que no conozcamos, o que no nos preguntemos, lo que implica el acto de comer. Es tan contundente el poder del sistema agroalimentario, capaz de entregarnos cualquier cantidad de cualquier artículo comestible cuando se nos antoje—no obstante la temporada, el orígen del comestible, ni la preparación o conservación necesaria para que el artículo pueda consumirse casi al instante de que se nos apetezca—que es comprensible que pensemos que esta maravilla resulte de las mas avanzadas tecnologías y eficiencias industriales. Sin embargo, las eficiencias agroalimentarias engañan.

Consideremos que a cambio de la avalancha de comestibles procesados modernos, han explotado la obesidad y la diabetes. Entonces, la “eficiencia” evidente es la de causar grandes males, reducir la calidad de vida y nuestra longevidad, a cambio de grandes ganancias para los fabricantes de alimentos procesados. Que a cambio de la productividad aparente de las grandes extensiones industriales de maíz, trigo, arroz y papa se han desgastado los suelos, envenenado las fuentes de agua potable y extinguido los mantos acuíferos. Entonces, la “eficiencia” resultante es la de minar los bienes naturales acumulados durante milenios para bien económico de un número concentrado de industriales en el presente, sin consideración mayor para el futuro. Y por último, consideremos que este sistema, por mas “moderno” que se presente con sus altas tecnologías en maquinaria, agroquímicos y semillas mejoradas, sería imposible sustentar sin la explotación de los jornaleros agrícolas. Entonces la “eficiencia” que contemplamos es la pobreza, desplazamiento y migración de millones de personas, para bien de quienes nos rehusamos a pagar el precio justo de nuestro alimento.

Para que todo esto sea posible—las prácticas nocivas y sus mitologías correspondientes—los sistemas políticos refuerzan, en pleno siglo XXI, los modelos de negocio y las tendencias humanas de eras pasadas, cuando la explotación del planeta y del prójimo se justificaban porque nuestra mella sobre el planeta era mínima. Ahora en día, cuando la actividad acumulada del ser humano dirime la capacidad del planeta para sustentarnos, y gravemente limita la viabilidad de nuestra descendencia, urge un giro iluminado tanto de nuestras prácticas como de nuestras leyes. Por eso es político el sistema alimentario. De manera acérrima, la contienda política está entre una visión fundamentada sobre comprendimiento moderno, informado por la ciencia y por una moralidad que coloca los derechos humanos por sobre los derechos corporativos, contra todo lo contrario, legado de un pasado extractivo, desgastante y sin futuro.

Todo esto está de por medio en nuestro sistema agroalimentario, desde los campos de producción hasta los restaurantes y supermercados, casi siempre pasando inadvertidos los reglamentos y las leyes que arbitran lo que se permite hacer a nuestro nombre. A partir de este entendimiento, debemos exigir un sistema alimentario digno del bien público, evidente en nuestra salud, nuestro bienestar, nuestro medio ambiente, y en las leyes que promuevan un futuro vigente y justo.

Todo esto lo discutimos recientemente con mi colega Abbie Figueroa en una reciente entrevista, donde contemplamos a grandes rasgos las propiedades del sistema agroalimentario, y nos imaginamos un paseo por un supermercado. Escúchenos aquí, y de paso aprenda de manera amena el trasfondo de nuestro sistema agroalimentario mediante esta gira virtual de un supermercado, en donde irá ilustrándose con cada artículo que añada a su carrito de compras.

Disfrute de su alimento, pero a la vez únase a nuestros esfuerzos por mejorar los reglamentos y las leyes que definen al sistema alimentario que formamos todos.

Shopping for Change: A Virtual Trip to the Supermarket, and 4 Key Takeaways

Photo courtesy flickr/Marco Verch

The average US supermarket carries more than 30,000 items. With all that choice, you’d think it would be easy to make day-to-day food-buying decisions that are good for people, animals, and the planet. But a trip to a virtual supermarket in a new online feature shows why that isn’t necessarily true, and what it will take to make real change in our food and farming system.

But first, a confession of sorts: I shop for groceries as many as four times a week, frequenting multiple grocery stores, a local orchard and farm stand, and one of the country’s top farmers markets. I’m a little obsessive, and I like what I like. But I’m also hyper-aware of issues in the food system, so I look at labels, seek to “know my farmer(s),” and fork over more money for food that is in line with my values.

Overall, I feel pretty good about how I wield my personal buying power when it comes to food. And yet, I’m very aware that my choices at the checkout stand—even in combination with millions of other American consumers—aren’t enough. Because even for those of us with the income, education, and interest to make these choices, there is a lot about our food production system that remains hidden from view, and a lot of choices that aren’t ours to make. Moreover, we know everyone doesn’t have the same wherewithal to make the choices I do.

And that’s why my colleagues and I at the Union of Concerned Scientists created Shopping for Change. This new online feature lets users wheel virtual shopping carts around a virtual supermarket to uncover some of the actual stories of our food system—from farm to fork—that lurk behind the packages on the shelves. In the process, we hope to help more of our fellow shoppers understand that system, with all its problems and opportunities, and see how they can help push it in the right direction.

Why the supermarket?

Like me, you may get your groceries from many sources. Farmers markets saw explosive growth in recent years, and online food shopping, though still a tiny share of the market, is increasing. But even after a decade of decline, the supermarket still reigns supreme—according to a 2018 survey by the Food Marketing Institute, 58 percent of shoppers say it’s their go-to place to shop for food.

(If you want to really geek out on the history and evolution of supermarkets, see this fascinating 2015 paper from University of Rochester economics and marketing professor Paul Ellickson.)

With most of us shopping there—and spending some $682 billion a year—we set our food system story in the supermarket. And then we filled it with some of the most commonly-purchased fresh food items and pantry staples, which also reflect a range of issues.

Take breakfast cereal, for example—nearly nine out of 10 Americans eat it sometimes, and it’s the go-to breakfast for almost a third of us, which makes the cereal bowl a common place we encounter grains like corn and wheat…and the environmental problems they can cause. By contrast, beans and lentils are eaten less frequently, but offer farmers a range of benefits, from diversifying the landscape and building healthy soil to improving their bottom lines.

Our supermarket experience tackles questions about other foods: eggs (what does “cage-free” really mean?), meat (what is its impact on the climate?), fruits (can we protect workers from pesticides?) and vegetables (how can we help people eat more of them?).

There are also some non-food stops on our supermarket tour. We visit the dumpster to look at the problem of food waste, for example, and the back office to explore issues of power, ownership, and equity in the food system.

The food-buying bottom line

We hope the result is helpful to people when they’re thinking about the foods they buy, as well as the public policies we all support with our tax dollars (and our votes). So as you take our shopping cart for a spin and share it with your friends, relatives, neighbors, and co-workers, here are four key things we hope you’ll get from it:

TAKEAWAY #1: Consumers need to do their homework. Labels—fair trade, organic, cage-free, and the like—can be hard to sort out, and some are more meaningful than others. Dig in and do your research. We offer resources with the “receipt” you’ll get when you check out of our virtual supermarket.

TAKEAWAY #2: In the food system, everything is connected. While our virtual supermarket necessarily deals with food items and issues one at a time, the food system doesn’t work that way. Fairness and justice for workers, profitability for farmers, and affordability for consumers are inextricably linked. My colleague Rafter Ferguson recently dealt masterfully with those linkages in this blog post. You should read it.

TAKEAWAY #3: Large buyers have more power to drive change. Food purchasing decisions aren’t just made individually, consumer by consumer. They’re also made by large institutions like universities, hospitals, and corporate campuses. And, for that matter, by supermarket chains and other retailers. If you don’t see what you’re looking for where you shop, ask for it, or look elsewhere. And for more on opportunities to drive change through institutional food purchasing, read our 2017 report, Purchasing Power, and check out the Good Food Purchasing Program.

TAKEAWAY #4: Systemic change also requires policy solutions. Myriad public policies shape our food system—and the choices we have available to us as consumers. This includes, for example: laws and regulations governing everything from pesticide use to food labels; government carrots and sticks for various foods (like vegetable subsidies and soda taxes); and even decisions about which food and agriculture questions get studied using public research dollars.

And this was one of the stickiest issues we encountered in designing this feature—how to deliver useful consumer information without suggesting that our food system’s problems can be solved if we all just make the right choices at the supermarket checkout. As our team wrestled with that, a colleague unearthed an old Economist magazine article in which the writer Michael Pollan discussed this exact topic:

The $30 billion organic-food industry “was created by consumers voting with their dollars,” says Michael Pollan, the author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (2006), another of this year’s crop of books on food politics. Normally, he says, a sharp distinction is made between people’s actions as citizens, in which they are expected to consider the well-being of society, and their actions as consumers, which are assumed to be selfish. Food choices appear to reconcile the two.

He’s right, of course. But even with food choices, the reality is that we’re usually wearing one hat or the other—consumer or citizen—at any given time. The more we can learn to merge those roles when thinking about food, the sooner we’ll create a fairer, healthier, and more sustainable food system for the future.

Big Dairy Is Looking to Sell More Milk—and a Perception of Better Health

The dairy industry has been busy lately. Or should I say, “Big Dairy,” a powerful collective of deep-pocketed lobby groups including the International Dairy Foods Associations and multinational corporations like Land O’Lakes and Dean Foods. In total, these and other big industry players spent $7.4 million on lobbying during 2018—and the payoff is showing up in various new government policies.

Just in the last month, for example:

  • The 2018 Farm Bill included a new section, “Healthy fluid milk incentives projects,” which authorizes projects that would boost milk sales among Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) users.
  • The Food and Drug Administration concluded a public comment period on whether it was acceptable to use terms like “milk,” “yogurt,” or “cheese” on the labels of plant-based dairy alternatives, such as soy milk or almond milk—whose markets are rapidly expanding.
  • And now, House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) has teamed up with Representative Glenn Thompson (R-PA) to introduce a bill that would roll back school nutrition regulations by allowing schools to serve full-fat flavored (read: sweetened) varieties. This builds on a rule published by the USDA late last year that allowed low-fat flavored milk, rather than just fat-free flavored milk, in schools.

Is whole milk bad for our health? Maybe not, suggests emerging research. But this legislation, much like the others, isn’t about health. It’s about scoring simultaneous wins for Big Dairy and the sugar industry, who see the 30 million students across the country as a receptive audience for more of their products, and full-fat chocolate milk as a good way to deliver them.

These policy changes are responses to a multi-year crisis facing dairy farms of all stripes, which has had real and lasting consequences for farmers across the country.

But is pushing more milk really what’s best for struggling small farms—and is it really what’s best for our health?

More milk could keep Big Dairy in a cycle of subsidies—and won’t do small farms any favors

There is no mistaking the severity of the US dairy crisis that has been building for more than a decade. A steady flow of federal farm subsidies have driven overproduction and resulted in tremendous price drops, creating an environment in which only industrial dairy farms are likely to survive. Between 1970 and 2017, the United States lost nearly 94 percent of its dairy farms, with surviving farms trending toward more cows and higher milk production. In 2017, the state of Wisconsin alone lost 500 dairy farms. To make matters worse, dairy farmers were caught in the middle of last year’s trade wars, as Mexico and Canada responded to US tariffs with tariffs on a number of dairy products. While the government offered farmers a bailout program to cushion the blow, for most, it was too little and too late. As many farmers continue to face the reality of losing their livelihoods, the outcomes are nothing short of tragic.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett talks with a local dairy farmer. In 2017, the state of Wisconsin lost 500 dairy farms. Photo: barrett4wi/CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)

But this isn’t the first time our agricultural system has been confronted by a crisis of overproduction, and it certainly isn’t the first time we’ve tried to remedy it by strengthening subsidies and expanding markets, rather than by limiting production. And history has shown us that this doubling-down strategy can leave farmers unwittingly trapped in a perpetual cycle of high production and low prices that really only works for Big Dairy. As retired Wisconsin dairyman Jim Goodman wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed, “Farmers don’t want subsidies. All we ever asked for were fair prices.”

But what has given this political strategy some degree of cover is the notion that increasing dairy sales is a win-win, with the underlying message that more dairy is good—even essential—for our health.

Is that really true?

Milk may not be essential to health

Given the ways that milk has been integrated into the fabric of our federal food programs, it would be natural to assume that the science is settled on its health benefits. Milk is a required component of every federally subsidized school breakfast and lunch, as well as after-school and summer meals; is included in food packages for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); and even has a designated place on USDA’s MyPlate. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that each of us consume about 3 cups (or cup equivalents) of dairy per day.

But in reality, the science isn’t quite so straightforward.

In fact, existing evidence has led groups like the American Medical Association to adopt the position that both meat and dairy products should be optional components of the diet, while both Harvard’s Healthy Eating Plate and Canada’s dietary guidelines recommend water—not milk—as their beverage of choice.

Milk does contain key vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium, and (when fortified) vitamin D—all nutrients we’re not getting enough of in a typical diet. And some studies have shown that dairy intake is associated with reduced risk of certain chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease. But dairy isn’t the only place we can find these beneficial nutrients. Certain types of fish, beans, leafy greens, and tofu offer calcium; a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables provide ample potassium; and fatty fish and other fortified foods are good sources of vitamin D. (Of course, there’s also the sun.) According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, most of these are foods that we generally under-consume, and eating a diet with more of them would come with its own health benefits.

We also know that many people have an impaired ability to digest milk, a condition known as lactose intolerance. It’s estimated that about 36 percent, or just over a third, of all people in the US have lactose intolerance, with higher rates among African Americans, American Indians, Asian Americans, and Hispanics and Latinos. If dairy is truly a necessary component of the diet, a lot of us are in trouble.

What does it all mean?

Enjoying a tub of ice cream, circa 1995.

Do you like dairy? Nice. Me too.

Do we need to stop eating it? No. (Although there are cases to be made for eating less.)

Does that mean that the dairy industry, rather than public health, should set our policy agenda? Absolutely not.

The bottom line is this: the science may yet be unsettled on dairy, but we can say with certainty that it’s not good for any of us when our public policies are shaped by industry—least of all by Big Dairy.

Let’s look for a different kind of win-win—one that will benefit real family farmers more than multinational corporations and provide the public with reliable information about our dietary choices. It’s about time.


Two Years in, and the State of Our Union Is Weakened—but It’ll Be Strong Again

We are now midway through the Trump administration, and the state of our union—while far too fractured and polarized to be judged strong—has, at least, proven resilient. The key institutions we count on—a free media, an independent judiciary, vigorous NGOs, strong governors and state attorneys general, and opposition representatives in Congress—have, for the most part, held the line and stemmed the damage that might have been inflicted by the wrecking ball that is the Trump presidency.

At the same time as our “old guard” institutions have held the line, a “new guard” is moving the line and changing the terms of the debate. People-powered activism is surging nationwide, and groups such as Indivisible, the Parkland students, and the Sunrise Movement captivate our imagination and demand attention with stirring ideas such as the “Green New Deal.”

Even the recent shutdown over the border wall, while a stunning example of government dysfunction that caused needless suffering, may have set a helpful precedent. How so? The border wall started out as a mnemonic device for a fledgling presidential candidate and became a symbol of toughness on immigration to Mr. Trump’s base. What it never was shown to be was an effective solution for border security. And when a policy, particularly one that involves billions of taxpayer dollars, cannot be supported by the evidence, and when there is an opposition party that will not suspend its disbelief out of blind loyalty to the president, such a policy will usually fail. That is the primary lesson of the shutdown, and one that President Trump’s administration would do well to learn if he wishes to salvage a failing presidency.

So, the question for UCS is this: How do we intend to operate in this landscape for the next two years?

Remain vigilant, but focus less on legislative defense

Two years ago, many of us reasonably feared that the president and his allies in Congress would enact what I have often referred to as “scorched earth” laws that would weaken key environmental safeguards, and restrict the ability of government scientists to do their vital work. Many of these bills had been passed by Congress but vetoed by President Obama, and we reasonably feared that they would be passed again by Congress and signed into law by President Trump.

Fortunately, for the most part this did not happen due to Senate Democrats working together to block noxious legislation. This was an all-hands-on-deck effort, supported by the work of many, including UCS, and it produced good results. Now, with a new majority in the House of Representatives that seems guided by science and motivated by constituencies who value clean air and water, it seems highly unlikely that such legislation will pass. For UCS, this means that some of the resources devoted to legislative defense can be deployed for other purposes.

Counter executive action

However, because Mr. Trump’s agenda will be stymied in Congress, it is also likely that he will double down on executive action.

Perhaps the most dangerous of these gambits lie in foreign policy, an area presidents often turn to when their domestic agendas are blocked. President Trump has already inflicted damage on our standing in the world and relationships with allies by seeking to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal. Now he has announced the U.S. will begin withdrawing from the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, with the potential risk of unraveling other arms accords, such as the New Start Treaty which expires in 2021 unless extended. There is no obvious way to counter these actions, at least in the short term, but we and others can and will challenge these actions.

On the domestic front, we will continue to see the president attempt to impose his will even when he cannot get Congress behind it. An example is the recently-announced effort to impose punitive work requirements on recipients of the SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps) after Congress chose not to include these requirements when it passed the farm bill in late 2018. As UCS experts have noted, the Department of Agriculture is now charging forward with a proposal that makes it harder for states (that have high unemployment rates and other barriers) to waive work requirements, thereby disqualifying many hungry Americans from accessing food through the program.

On top of new efforts such as cutting SNAP eligibility, the Trump administration will scurry to complete final rules eviscerating climate change policies. His administration will keep forcing rollbacks of proactive climate policies such as fuel economy standards and the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, threatening public health by changing the formula for conducting cost-benefit analyses, stacking federal advisory boards with industry representatives, and limiting how scientific evidence can be used by federal agencies. These may be the only remaining “wins” Mr. Trump will be able to secure, and they are highlighted well in this recent UCS report.

UCS, and others, have fought hard against these rollbacks, soliciting thousands of comments of concern on these regulations before they’re finalized. What will most effectively derail the deregulation train? The nation’s courts. Courts are fact-based forums: when an administration makes spurious claims, they can expect skepticism from federal courts, particularly because the administrative record, as added to by UCS and others, contains the grounds to tear such arguments apart.

Take advantage of new oversight opportunities

In addition to litigation, we now have a new tool in countering excesses—Congressional oversight. Our elected officials can—and should—expose malfeasance and cronyism, rouse public opinion, and block misguided executive branch initiatives.

The challenge is that there is much material to work with—the US House committees that conduct any review of the Trump administration’s actions since taking office will need to be judicious. While there will be many competing demands, part of the new Congress’s agenda must be devoted to investigating regulatory rollbacks. We will be prepared to assist Congress in the legwork that goes into making oversight effective.

Examples of Congressional oversight that could be particularly illuminating include investigating:

  • The nefarious role that oil companies may have played in convincing the Trump administration to weaken fuel economy standards further than even the car companies wished;
  • The EPA’s decision to jerry-rig its cost-benefit analysis to minimize the benefits of regulations that Trump campaign contributors such as Murray Energy oppose;
  • The true facts about whether proposed missile defense systems actually work in real-world testing.
Perfect our science-based policies and build a coalition to support them

The next two years also give us time to lay the groundwork for 2020 and beyond. In part, we can start this by pushing for relatively modest measures that have bipartisan support now. Examples include funding increases for clean energy R&D, extensions of popular tax incentives for wind and solar energy, and broadening current incentives for deploying more energy storage and electric vehicles. And, if there’s a national infrastructure bill, UCS will push for “green” components, such as transmission lines that connect renewable energy to population centers and building EV charging stations.

But more importantly, we can use these next two years to draw up “rough drafts” of more ambitious legislation to solve our greatest challenges. Lawmakers can get feedback from stakeholders, for example, and continue to build public support for science-based policies so that when change happens again in Washington, we as a nation are ready to act decisively on climate change.

In addition to climate legislation, we should also lay the groundwork for ambitious action on nuclear weapons, including a bill to prohibit the US from launching a first use of nuclear weapons and/or restrict the president’s sole authority to launch a nuclear strike. We’ll be ready to inject these ideas into the next presidential debates, and educate a new cadre of legislators, as well as mobilize the public around them. We should also anticipate opportunities around—and lay the groundwork for—bills to protect scientific integrity and restore hollowed-out federal agencies.

Drive change at the state level

The polarized and dysfunctional state of the federal government likely won’t get better without a new election. But at the state level, there are abundant opportunities to make progress now. On the West Coast, all three governors and their legislatures can continue to show leadership on climate change—and California must begin the hard work of implementing the goals it set under Governor Brown. States like New Mexico, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have new governors who recognized the value of clean energy in their campaigns, and these states are poised to adopt ambitious climate goals, aided by ample and inexpensive supplies of renewable energy. And on the East Coast, nine states and Washington, DC, just pledged to create a “cap and invest” program to tackle greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector—the largest source of emissions. These local governments can make good on their pledge in 2019 and transition their states to clean transportation.

So, at this two-year mark, we have a weakened president, a resurgent House of Representatives, new governors committed to state-level progress, and an engaged and mobilized public. So, while I cannot call our state of the union strong at this moment, I see clear signs that in less time than I might have anticipated two years ago, our state of the union will be strong again.

Photo: Wikimedia

Will the Real State of the Union Please Stand Up? 7 Things President Trump Won’t Say

A great public servant and one of my mentors, William Ruckelshaus, always emphasized to me that the State of the Union was a time to put big ideas on the table, to talk about the truly great challenges facing the country, and to provide leadership for what we as a nation needed to do to live up to the ideals of our democracy. New education initiatives, cleaning up pollution, providing health care—these are some of the big ideas that previous presidents have talked about on this national stage.

Call me crazy but I don’t think that is what we will hear from President Trump.

Instead we’re likely to hear misdirection and falsehoods. According to the Washington Post, President Trump has made 8,158 false or misleading claims during his first two years in office. Even if by some miracle he sticks to actual facts during his State of the Union address, it’s a safe bet that he won’t address many of the most crucial challenges facing America. Instead he’s likely to tout the strong economy, while ignoring rising inequality and continuing losses for everyone but the wealthy. He’ll rail about border security, while dismissing the real security threats highlighted by his intelligence agencies. And he will talk about jobs, while ignoring worker safety and threats to public health.

What should be in the speech are some of the truly great challenges we need to tackle as a nation. We need a real change in direction and focus from this administration, and so I will be watching the speech live, tweeting the #RealSOTU, and calling for this nation to face up to the truth.

Here are seven BIG things that President Trump won’t say in his 2019 State of the Union speech.

Rolling back regulations hurts people

President Trump and his appointed agency heads have cut down landmark public protections that we all depend on for our health and safety, and sidelining science has consistently been one of their go-to strategies to accomplish it.

Rolling back regulations that reduce air pollution, water pollution, toxic contamination, worker protections, and more might give windfall profits to some companies. But those profits come at public expense. And who’s bearing the brunt of those impacts and costs? Poorer communities and communities of color.

That all needs to stop, right now.

And right now, with a new Congress in place there is a renewed opportunity to call on our elected officials to represent their constituents and to hold the Trump administration accountable. The administration should be doing its job of serving the public, not special interests.

We need policies that treat our people equitably, that require those who pollute to clean up their mess regardless of what neighborhood they are located in. And we need our government to hold polluters to account. Mr. President, do you want to make real change?  Then work for the people who need the government’s help. That isn’t the oil and gas or chemical industry.

We have one decade left to avoid catastrophic climate change

We have about a decade left to dramatically reduce carbon pollution and avoid truly catastrophic climate change impacts, including unprecedented and life-threatening heat waves, the loss of millions of coastal homes to rising seas, and a growing number of extreme and damaging weather events.

The IPCC’s recent special report and the Trump administration’s own National Climate Assessment (NCA4) both tell us that climate change is already affecting all of us, and that right now we are speeding down one of the most costly and damaging paths possible.

Whether it’s national security, natural disasters, the military, the economy, immigration, or any other number of issues, there’s one thing Trump will surely fail to recognize in his speech: Climate change affects all of them.

Consider, for example, the 2018 report on the vulnerability of military installations to climate-related impacts, which showed that about 10 percent of sites are being affected by extreme temperatures, and some six percent are affected by flooding due to storm surge and by wildfire. Or the 2019 worldwide threat assessment of the US intelligence community, which identifies climate change as a national security risk.  Or how the NCA4 finds that existing water, transportation, and energy infrastructure are already being impacted by heavy rainfall, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, drought, wildfire, heat waves, and other weather and climate events.

The last two years of natural disasters and extreme weather brought huge costs to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are also part and parcel of a warming climate, and our economy—indeed our very future—depends on the country getting deadly serious about the climate crisis right now.

Coal is dying and renewables are booming. Not fast enough.

Our electricity system is moving away from dirty fossil fuels and toward clean energy. Today coal produces only a quarter of our nation’s electricity, down from 50 percent a short dozen years ago. That’s an encouraging trend, but we still need faster progress and more ambitious policies to achieve the emissions cuts needed to meet the climate crisis head on.

The Trump administration is instead doing everything it can think of to try and prop up the failing coal industry. It’s not working, and coal is still on it way out, but President Trump is still wasting precious time that would be much better spent on ramping up clean energy across the country.

In his speech, Trump will also likely ignore the remarkable economic benefits of renewable energy, especially that the US clean energy industry means jobs, with already more than 100,000 working in the wind sector, 250,000 working in solar, and more than 2 million making our homes and businesses more energy efficient. And the nascent US offshore wind sector offers the potential for tens of thousands of new jobs up and down our coasts.

The administration is moving full speed backwards on transportation emissions

Transportation is the largest source of carbon pollution in the US, making it more important than ever to increase the fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks and reduce the amount of planet-warming emissions we’re putting into the atmosphere. (Plus I like saving money—and driving a cleaner, more fuel-efficient car helps consumers do that as well.)

The president and his administration, however, are still moving ahead with their plans to roll back fuel economy and emissions standards for cars and trucks and halt progress on reducing emissions from the transportation sector.

My colleagues cranked the numbers on what this rollback would mean and it is truly staggering, especially when it’s taken together with the administration’s threat to void state regulations on vehicle emissions. As senior UCS vehicles analyst Dave Cooke points out, rolling back these standards will result in an additional 2.2 billion metric tons of global warming emissions by 2040—that’s 170 million metric tons in 2040 alone, equivalent to keeping 43 coal-fired power plants online. These inefficient cars and trucks will use an additional 200 billion gallons of gasoline by 2040—that’s as much oil as we’ve imported from the Persian Gulf since the standards were first finalized in 2010. And it will cost consumers hundreds of billions of dollars—in 2040 alone, consumers will spend an additional $55 billion at the pump if these standards are rolled back.

It’s a safe bet that the president won’t mention any of this. And, for good measure, he will also likely fail to mention his desire to get rid of the electric vehicle tax credit, which makes it easier and more affordable to buy a cleaner car.

Fossil fuel companies are responsible, but still getting special treatment

Trump definitely won’t bring up the fact that fossil fuel companies have known for at least 50 years that their products—oil, gas, and coal—cause global warming. Or that companies like ExxonMobil and Chevron have spent decades and millions of dollars intentionally manufacturing doubt about climate science and lobbying to block sensible climate policy—and are still playing dirty even today as the costs of climate change grow.

Just this past fall, BP poured $13 million into a campaign opposing a carbon pricing measure in Washington state—while simultaneously publicly claiming to support a carbon tax. Other major fossil fuel companies, including ExxonMobil and Chevron, still fund industry groups like the American Petroleum Institute to do their dirty work lobbying for anti-climate policies.

Meanwhile regular people living through the disruptive impacts of climate change are currently paying for it with their tax dollars. All while fossil fuel companies continue to cash in, plan for and envision minimal disruption to their business models, and avoid paying their fair share of the costs of climate change.

The administration is betraying farmers, workers, and children

Regulatory rollbacks and putting profits over the interests of the public don’t just affect pollution and the environment. They also impact the food we eat and the people who bring it to us, from farm to fork.

In his speech, Trump won’t mention that he and his Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue have repeatedly favored ideology and the agribusiness industry while disregarding science—but that’s exactly what UCS has found. This not only restricts the products and practices that would make us healthier but also ignores the very people who feed us. Small farmers, workers, and children all lose when the administration betrays their interests for the profits of big agribusiness companies, from chemical giant Dow to multinational poultry and pork conglomerates.

Rolling back school lunch rules for the nation’s children or threatening to deny food assistance to immigrant families and low-wage workers is not worthy of this nation. Undermining the USDA’s research agencies, catering to the chemical industry, and waging a disastrous trade war threatens the future for farmers, consumers, and communities.

What the country needs is a food policy that supports public health, ensures that everyone gets the nutrition they need, and reduces the impact of agriculture on the environment and the planet.

Investing massive amounts of money in nuclear weapons is just wrong

Spending over a trillion dollars to re-build the entire nuclear arsenal while walking away from highly successful nuclear arms agreements with Russia is, well, a really bad idea. So is saying that one’s nuclear button is bigger. But the president probably won’t admit that, or indicate that doing so would take the country backwards and greatly increase the chance of nuclear war.

Nuclear weapons still pose an existential threat to our nation and the world. We should be doing all we can to reduce that threat, not just “win” another arms race. Instead the administration just announced that it plans to withdraw from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty—an agreement negotiated by President Ronald Reagan which eliminated a whole class of lethal weaponry and made the world a much safer place.

Bellicose rhetoric and building newer, more enhanced nuclear weapons won’t lessen the danger either. We need to be leading the world to reduce the nuclear arsenals, not increasing the odds of nuclear war.

Share the #RealSOTU

It can be hard to listen to the president when we’ve learned to expect an avoidance of essential truths like these.

But I’ll be watching his speech nonetheless, live-tweeting using the #RealSOTU hashtag, and highlighting some of the crucial facts that the president will not.

I hope you can join me.

My Food and Farm Reading List for Black History Month

February is Black History Month, and I’m taking the opportunity to deepen my understanding of our food system. I originally pulled together this short reading list for myself, before realizing that others might make use of it too! Since February is just one month (and the shortest month at that) I’ve kept it to just four books. That’s an ambitious reading goal in any event, but let’s not be intimidated – if you (or I) start now and take six months to read these books, it will be time very well spent. I’m excited to use this opportunity to understand the breadth and depth of these issues a little better. Luckily, there are some amazing resources to draw on.

In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World, by Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff

In the Shadow of Slavery by Judith Carney

As I mentioned in my first post, I’m working to better understand the grim legacy of slavery in this country. This book re-tells that story through the lens of the traditional crops and agricultural knowledge brought to the New World by African slaves. The authors focus on the subsistence gardens of slaves rather than the better-known brutalities of plantation agriculture, in order to show how these gardens were a place where slaves not only figured out how to survive, but also resisted their oppression by using and maintaining their own agricultural knowledge and skill. Find it online.

Dispossession: Discrimination against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights, by Peter Daniel

Over the decades that many smaller farmers were being driven out of business by Federal policy and competition with agri-business, the attrition rate was much, much worse for Black farmers (also discussed briefly in my earlier post). Daniel’s work fills in the gaps to show how systematic campaigns of discrimination by bureaucrats in the USDA drove a 93% drop in the number of Black farmers between 1940 and 1974. In the very same period that the civil rights movement was making its rightly celebrated gains, the Black community was being stripped of a fundamental basis of wealth and wellbeing. Find it online.

Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement, by Monica White

Freedom Farmers

The story of Black Americans in agriculture is not only a story of oppression, but also of visionary resistance. History makes it clear that farming can also be part of the practice of liberation. Professor White tells the story of Black agricultural cooperatives like Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farms Cooperative, and shows how the struggle for Black freedom in the 20th century included an agrarian vision of community self-sufficiency. The relevance of this history to contemporary discussions of food justice and food sovereignty is profound, and White helps make those connections explicit with a later chapter on the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. Find it online.

Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land, by Leah Penniman

The Farming While Black cover

Through her writing and her work, Leah Penniman embodies the spirit of a renaissance movement of Black farming. Farming While Black is both a celebration of the deep agricultural traditions of the African diaspora and a practical how-to guide for new and aspiring farmers to apply these traditions in present-day farming operations. The book grows out of Penniman’s work at Soul Fire Farm in upstate New York, where she and her family and collaborators have been growing food and running a variety of trainings and programs that center the experiences of Black, indigenous, and other people of color in the food system. It’s an inspiring project with it’s finger on the pulse of an emerging movement, and the book promises to reflect that. Find it online.

This list isn’t intended to be definitive – far from. For one thing, the ideal B.H.M. reading list would be all Black authors, but I strayed from that in order to address topics particularly central to my work (and my curiosity). These aren’t the only topics or the only authors we should be reading. Tell me what you think. What would you like to see on a list like this in the future?

Why We Can’t Separate Justice and Sustainability in the Food System

Betty-Ann Bryce, Mark Stout, at Miller Farms in Clinton, Md. USDA photo by Preston Keres

Most of us wish we could eat with the confidence that everything on our plate has a story we can feel good about, a story about taking care of both people and the environment. In the food system (as elsewhere) these twin issues, justice and sustainability, have often been talked about as if they were unrelated, independent problems with separate solutions.

This disconnect has consequences. Our understanding of the connections between justice and sustainability shapes our work in the food system and determines our chances of making real progress toward our goals. We know that industrial agriculture–large-scale, highly mechanized monoculture farming systems making intensive use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers–does not meet these aspirations. We know that the food system with industrial agriculture as its foundation does not protect the environment, does not protect human health, and doesn’t produce enough nutritious food or distribute it equitably. Sustainability and justice are connected, in part, because injustice and environmental degradation are connected. And if we don’t see the connections between the problems, we’re unlikely to see how the solutions must be integrated.

This disconnect has been on my mind since I became interested in sustainable agriculture in the early 2000s. It was then I started to find a lack of conversations that fully integrated concerns with treating people fairly and the earth gently. I got so curious about these missing connections that I eventually went back to school and became a political agroecologist. If you’re wondering what the heck that is, you’re not alone! It boils down to this: I study sustainability and justice in the food system. Of necessity, my training and my research have been very cross-disciplinary, incorporating agronomy, ecology, and social sciences. It’s a challenging, rewarding, and occasionally crazy-making arena to work in.

And a few months ago I came to work at UCS, because it’s a place where I can continue working toward a food system that takes care of people and the earth. And while we’ve seen increasing understanding in recent years that treating people well is closely intertwined with treating the earth well, there is still a lot of work to do.

Two problems with one painful history

In fact, injustice in the food system has always had implications for sustainability. The rise of industrial agriculture is not just a story of technological change. It is that, and it’s also inextricable from a long and grim history of theft and violence. I’ll trace the outlines of some of these connections here.

The story of our country’s origins is full of both heroic struggles and unspeakable atrocities, side by side.  Like many others, I’m still working to understand the full import and legacy of those atrocities–chief among them, colonization and slavery. Something that’s easy to miss is how the story of their terrible human toll is also a story of changing land use. The Europeans who colonized North America stole land from a tremendous diversity of peoples and communities, each with their own sophisticated understanding of how to grow food and manage landscapes that, with few exceptions, allowed them to provide for their needs without degrading the soils, rivers, and forests on which they depended.

When colonists displaced indigenous communities, they also replaced indigenous land management with European agriculture–notably, wholesale clearing of forest followed by intensive use of the plow. While the indigenous Wampanoag people kept early colonists in the northeast from starving by generously sharing their own locally-adapted crops and techniques, colonists would integrate these practices into their own approach to farming and launch a process of unprecedented deforestation, soil degradation, and soil erosion. Plugged into the international trade of the emerging capitalist economy, profits from these destructive practices would in turn drive the ongoing seizure of land and violent removal of the indigenous inhabitants.

Beginning in the 1600s, this ongoing expansion was powered by forced labor: first with indentured servants from Europe, then increasingly with the labor of enslaved Africans. The production of commodity crops such as wheat, corn, tobacco, and cotton spread through the 1800s as the influx of slave labor multiplied the profits of plantation owners and merchants. Following the abolition of slavery in 1865, sharecropping kept profits flowing while prolonging the servitude of many formerly enslaved people. At the same time, the footprint of colonial agriculture spread west along with a flood of settlers, enabled by the violent displacement of indigenous people, and extending the footprint of destructive agricultural practices.

More machines, fewer (and whiter) farmers

Sustainability, of course, is relative, and the environmental impacts of pre- and early 20th century agriculture can sometimes seem almost idyllic in retrospect. Since larger and more mechanized farms require fewer and fewer farmers, the rise of industrial agriculture is also the story of the depopulation of the farming sector. Government policies favoring larger farms enabled decades of consolidation, forcing out small and medium-sized farmers who found it impossible to compete with the emerging well-subsidized industrial farms.

The pressures of consolidation have fallen heavily across all small- and medium-sized farms, but racism and sexism throw more and higher barriers in the path of farmers who aren’t white and male. In addition to the many hurdles created by interpersonal discrimination, racism and sexism have often been expressed through the very institutions intended to support farmers. Institutional racism and sexism at the USDA have long made it harder for black, Hispanic, indigenous, and women farmers to access the resources and support vital to the survival of smaller farms, as shown in a series of successful class action lawsuits in the 1990s and 2000s. The slow pace of reform to antiquated property laws that disproportionately affect the descendants of slaves has helped drive massive land loss in the black community throughout the 20th century.

Optimized, streamlined, and decimated

The sum of all these pressures has left us with a depopulated farming sector dominated by industrial agriculture. As a result, diverse mosaics of annual and perennial crops and wild plants have been replaced with large uniform blocks of homogenous annual crops, the soil pummeled through the growing season with heavy plowing, fertilizers, and pesticides, then left bare and exposed to the elements through the cold season. As wild landscapes and biologically diverse agriculture disappear, so do the critical environmental services on which agriculture and all of us depend: water filtration, wildlife habitat, flood mitigation, and carbon sequestration, among others.

And while I’m focusing on the agricultural end of the food system, the linkages between sustainability and justice are present throughout the food system. While displacing forms of agriculture, we’ve also displaced food cultures—of distribution, preparation, and consumption. The systematic segregation of poor communities and communities of color from affluent and white communities creates the conditions for a literal food apartheid: fresh and minimally processed foods are sold at high prices for select markets that are geographically and economically inaccessible for the marginalized communities, who in turn provide a captive market for the highly processed and refined products of industrial agriculture. These apartheid conditions, the attendant loss of culinary and nutritional knowledge, and the staggering rise of diet-related health problems, are all symptoms of a food system designed for profit rather than care.

We need everyone at the table

As the problems are related, so are the solutions—and our strategies must reflect that. First and foremost, let’s do away with the idea that anyone could build a sustainable food system without centering social justice in the process. Only a broad and deeply inclusive coalition will bring enough of us together to marshal the kind of political power needed to change the status quo. Only a movement that acknowledges these legacies and prioritizes the voices of those who’ve been marginalized in the current food system will be able to assemble such a coalition.

Furthermore, only such broad and deep coalition will give us the insight and depth of perspective we need to create truly workable solutions. When people are left out of shaping the solutions to the problems they face, the solutions fail. To make a new food system we need everyone at the table.

Sustainability without justice… isn’t

There is good reason to doubt that a food system that is environmentally righteous but unjust could be anything more than a passing fantasy. The most ecologically elegant food system food system that leaves people out is just creating the building blocks for a new round of environmental harm. What are those building blocks? I’ll give some examples below, and follow each with a question that invites us to imagine an alternative—to imagine the consequences of not leaving anyone out.

  • Workers who have no choice but to sell their labor to destructive and extractive industries.

What would farming look like if every farmworker had alternatives, and the political capital to refuse to be exposed to dangerous pesticides?

  • Customers who have no options but to buy the cheapest food.

What would happen to the market for unhealthy processed foods if everyone had access to fresh and healthy whole foods, throughout their lives?

  • Communities who can’t defend themselves against the toxic byproducts and other consequences of industrial agriculture.

How could polluting industries continue if they had nowhere to pollute—i.e. if every community had the clout to refuse and reject the byproducts of those industries? 

  • Farmers who can’t afford to stay on their land.

How would industrial farms acquire land and undercut competition without the policies that favor them at every step—i.e., if all farmers received the support that they needed?

In short, an unsustainable food system requires a steady supply of people without options. We all need a  food system that creates options for people, and doesn’t leave anyone out, in order to ensure real and lasting sustainability.

How do we do that? Luckily, there is nothing that needs to be invented from scratch. Some of us are already doing it—and if you are, thank you. For those of us just finding our way to this work, our job is to seek out the farmers, activists, and entrepreneurs on the front lines of the struggle to remake the food system, and learn from them. Our job is to center the perspectives of communities who’ve been pushed to the margins of the food system, and to lift up the voices of people on the front lines: people of color, indigenous people, small farmers, farmworkers, and workers from all across the food system. Many of us will not have to look very far—the front lines may run through our own communities or our own backyards. For those who, like me, have never had to face the daily struggle of poverty, or have never been targeted by white supremacy—we will have to work harder and look farther to do the vital listening and learning that’s needed. It’s worth doing.

Then it’s just a matter of get in where you fit in. Transforming the food system requires work on many fronts: organizing workers and communities, political campaigning, lobbying lawmakers, research and education, along with the central, core work of growing, distributing, and preparing food—just to name a few! For us here at UCS, we work to learn from our grassroots coalition partners through ongoing dialogue, in order to shape and re-shape our research, analysis, and advocacy. There is no shortage of ways to get involved or work to do.

On whatever front we work for food system change, we are called to stay conscious of the inseparability of sustainability and justice—in our history, in the present, and in our strategies for transformation.

USDA photo by Preston Keres

Shutdown Fiasco Compounds Trump Assault on Kids’ Lunches

USDA photo by Lance Cheung/flickr

As if the Trump administration’s recent rollback of school lunch nutrition rules weren’t bad enough, the president’s ill-conceived, peevish partial government shutdown (now at 33 days and counting) is further endangering schools’ ability to provide healthy meals for the nation’s children. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which subsidizes school meal programs, has assured local school districts they would receive funding for those programs through March. But school administrators around the country are looking down the road and wondering whether they’ll have to dip into rainy day or emergency funds, cut afterschool programs, or raid money from summer programs to make ends meet if the shutdown continues beyond that.

The National School Lunch Program provides low-cost or free lunches to more than 30 million children. For many kids and their families, subsidized school meal programs are a lifeline. Children may consume as much as half of their daily calories in school, and for lower-income children, a school meal may be their only meal of the day.

USDA spending bills released by House and Senate leaders this week would fully fund school meals and other child nutrition programs, at more than $23 billion. But these bills are unlikely to be signed into law this week. If the government shutdown continues into February or even March—an astonishing outcome that nevertheless looks increasingly likely—school districts could run out of money to put food on kids’ lunch trays. At the same time, government employees who are furloughed or working without pay may need free or reduced-price lunches for their kids, further stretching school districts’ budgets.

A roundup of local news coverage in recent days documents the uncertainty and strain the shutdown is placing on school lunchrooms from coast to coast:

  • The Washington, DC, region, home to some 360,000 federal employees, has been particularly hard-hit by the ongoing shutdown. Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland have launched a charitable fund to raise money to provide meals for children affected by the shutdown. The district, which already subsidizes meals for some 60 percent of students, would like to offer free meals to all students, but at $190,000 per day, administrators have determined that would be “fiscally irresponsible.”
  • The Maine Department of Education is reminding school officials that applications for free and reduced-price meals may be submitted at any time throughout the school year, even during a federal shutdown. Across the country, Arizona’s Sahuarita Unified School District has already seen an uptick in applications for subsidized lunches since students returned from their winter break.
  • Officials at Vance County Schools in North Carolina announced on Facebook that lunch menus “have been revised to a minimum level to conserve food and funding.” Alarmingly, fresh produce is among the items cut from lunches. Elsewhere around the state, school nutrition directors are reportedly watching anxiously to see how long they’ll have to stretch their budgets without federal reimbursements.
  • In Missouri, the Hannibal Public Schools superintendent recently assured the school board that the shutdown’s impact on public education “should be minimal,” although the USDA has warned that commodity foods may run short if the shutdown persists, meaning the schools will have to purchase food elsewhere.
  • Williamsburg-James City County Schools in Virginia report having enough federal money left to support meal programs until the end of February. After that, it’s unclear what would happen. According to a spokesperson: “If there was a time when federal funding was not available to support these school meal programs, we are hopeful that other funds could be identified as a stop-gap measure in order for us to provide much-needed meals for children. But, we certainly hope it does not come to that.”
  • Similarly, officials with Grand Rapids Public School District in Michigan say they could be reaching into “rainy day funds” before the end of February if the shutdown continues, possibly relying on funds intended for the classroom to temporarily cover the costs of food service. “As of right now, we’re fine,” an official told local media. “However, if this drags on, at some point, there’s going to become a question that says, ‘how do we fund these services?'”

As the record-breaking partial federal shutdown continues with no end in sight, many more school districts are surely grappling with these questions. In both urban and rural areas, red states and blue states, they can only hope the fight over the president’s border wall won’t end up literally taking food out of children’s mouths.

Photo: USDA

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

Photo: National Archives and Records Administration/

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

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

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

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

“That hunger exists is a national disgrace.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click to enlarge.

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

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

“By all means, keep moving.”

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Library of Congress

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

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

Science-based regulation is essential to control invasive species

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

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

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

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

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

A failure of science and public transparency

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

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

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

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


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

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

Further Reading:

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

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

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

Photo courtesy Phil Roeder/Flickr

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

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

1. Safeguarding federal dietary guidelines from industry manipulation. 

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

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

The new Congress should:

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

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

The new Congress should also:

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

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

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

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

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

The new Congress should:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2018 Farm Bill wins

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

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

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

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

“And be a little sneaky about it.”

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

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

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

What, exactly, would the proposed rule do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where the 2018 farm bill conservation title falls short

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

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

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

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

Looking beyond the farm bill to advance a more resilient agriculture

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

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

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

Sonny Perdue’s School Lunch Bait-and-Switch

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

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

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

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

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

On whole grains, Perdue said one thing and did another

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

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

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

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

Perdue is failing to follow the science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ensuring science is the main ingredient of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. Source: Wikipedia Commons

HHS Secretary Alex Azar. Source: Wikipedia Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

On alert for sustainable agriculture shtick

The author working hard in Habana Province, May 2000

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

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

Cuba Oil Consumption, 1980-2014

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

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

A rare opportunity to check a prediction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Healthy soils = resilience to climate impacts

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

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

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

Soil carbon can be part of the climate solution

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

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

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

Time to invest in soils

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

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

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

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