UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

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

Photo: dvs/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

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

OVERALL STATE FOOD SYSTEM RANKINGS

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

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

It’s funny. But not really.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RANKINGS BY FOOD PRODUCED

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

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

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

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

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

                RANKINGS BY RESOURCE RELIANCE

 

RANKINGS BY USE OF CONSERVATION PRACTICES

 

 

But Midwestern farmers want to change the map.

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT YOU CAN DO:

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

 

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

Photo: Bradley Gordon/Flickr

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

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

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

The formula industry’s long, sordid history spreading misinformation

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

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

Breaking down the science on breastfeeding

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

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

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

The 2020 Dietary Guidelines must preserve scientific integrity

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

 

Photo: Bradley Gordon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Could local food be changing the game?

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

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/CC BY SA 2.0

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

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

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

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

Say, what else connects farming to food and health?

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

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

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

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

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

*Spearman correlation coefficients and associated two-tailed probabilities:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: NOAA National Ocean Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAP 4: REDUCED ECOSYSTEM IMPACTS

 

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

Other states didn’t do so well.

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

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

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

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

Big problems need big solutions

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

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

MAP 5: CONSERVATION PRACTICES

 

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

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

MAP 6: FARM INVESTMENTS

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more and take action on the farm bill today.

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

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

Photo: Preston Keres, USDA

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

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

What’s the fuss about the food system?

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

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

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

The not-so-secret ingredients in our scorecard

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

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

The report? A mixed bag 

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

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

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

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

What the Failed House Farm Bill Got Wrong About SNAP and Work

The House of Representatives voted down a farm bill last Friday. It was a bill that lived and died by its insistence on subjecting participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) to a slew of unnecessary and misguided work requirements. Had it passed and been signed into law, the bill would have effectively reduced or eliminated benefits for millions of people. And though it promised to channel the resulting “savings” into state-administered job training programs, this proposal, too, was deeply flawed and betrayed serious misperceptions about the populations that participate in SNAP.

While this version of the farm bill failed (good riddance), chances are we haven’t seen the last of proposals to achieve so-called welfare reform through farm policy. So this seems like a good time to assess what the House bill’s sponsors got wrong about the people in their own districts who rely on SNAP—and what Congress should do to achieve a farm bill that really works for these communities.

Who are SNAP participants?

We’ve shown that rural communities rely on SNAP at higher rates than their urban counterparts and derive substantial economic benefit from the program, but are often overlooked in federal policy discussions about nutrition assistance programs—allowing policymakers who represent these communities to repeatedly make decisions that aren’t in their best interest. (See: Kentucky Representative Hal Rogers.) Amid the calls for work requirements that promote “self-sufficiency” and discourage a “lifestyle of dependency,” it is particularly important that we continue to push for policies grounded not in ideology, but in evidence. To this end, we used the publicly-available 2016 USDA Quality Control data and a linked geographic indicator to gain a better understanding of SNAP use in urban (metropolitan) and rural (nonmetropolitan) areas nationwide.

In many ways, the demographics of SNAP use in urban and rural areas differ little, and support what we already know about the populations that use the program. Among all SNAP participants nationwide, about 40 percent of participants are children, while roughly 10 percent are elderly. Meanwhile, able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs—the population at the center of the highly contested work requirements—make up only eight percent of all SNAP participants. (You read that correctly. Eight percent.) And among that population, research indicates that one-quarter work while receiving SNAP, and about three-quarters work during the year before or after receiving benefits. Which means the House leadership willingly, enthusiastically even, jeopardized their chance at passing a farm bill in order to target fewer than eight percent of SNAP participants—the vast majority of whom are still actively participating in the labor force.

In rural communities, more SNAP participants live with disabilities

But the USDA dataset does point to one key difference between urban and rural SNAP participants: a greater percentage of those in rural areas are living with disabilities.

In rural areas, SNAP users with disabilities make up 11.3 percent of participants, compared to 9.5 percent in urban areas. Though the difference may seem slight, think of it this way: if the proportion of SNAP users with disabilities in urban areas matched rural areas, it would equal an additional 70,000 participants. The disparity shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise, given that rural rates of disability are themselves higher; according to the Center for Disease Control, residents of rural areas tend to be older, poorer, and sicker than their urban counterparts.

Work requirements won’t end persistent poverty—least of all with untested and underfunded job training programs

All of this should trigger some realizations for those on the House and Senate agriculture committees who will draft and campaign for subsequent versions of the farm bill. Firstly, additional work requirements will apply to a small fraction of their constituencies, while delivering a particularly devastating blow to the participants it does touch. Secondly, the same set of social, economic, and demographic factors that contribute to higher disability rates are likely among the factors that continue to drive unemployment and underemployment in rural areas.

Broadly speaking, these are but a few of the symptoms of the same disease: persistent poverty. And the bottom line is that no amount of job training will counteract a lack of well-paying jobs, least of all while we’re punching holes in the federal safety net.

The consolation prize of last week’s failed farm bill was supposed to be the promise of delivering people from poverty by providing Employment and Training (E&T) opportunities for “anyone who wants one.” This proposal, too, was deeply flawed: it lacked empirical evidence showing that E&T models would be effective and scalable, and grossly underfunded the program, offering what would be equivalent to just $30 per month per eligible SNAP participant. Even if a lack of employable skills were the primary factor driving SNAP use—and it’s not, by a long shot—the House bill’s job training solutions would still be feckless and paper-thin.

What should Congress do instead?

Addressing some of the major root causes of poverty and food insecurity is no easy task—particularly given the wide variation among rural communities across the country. But using the farm bill to make investments in local economies would be a good place to start. The House bill failed to invest in a number of proposed policies and programs with demonstrated success in supporting farmers, bolstering local and regional food systems, and making nutritious foods more affordable and readily available to communities. These programs include the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program and Value-Added Producer Grant program, both of which are contained in the bipartisan Local FARMS Act; the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program; the Food and Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program; and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative. These programs have received broad support from families, farmers, and food producers around the country who know their communities best and see a better way forward.

The Senate will release its own draft farm bill in the coming weeks, and the House is expected to hold another vote late in June—meaning there are plenty of opportunities to tell your elected officials what you want to see (and definitely don’t want to see) in the next farm bill. Visit our website for all things farm bill, including policy updates, easy ways to reach out to your Senators and Representatives, and helpful talking points around SNAP and the Local FARMS Act. Let’s keep working toward a food system we can be proud of.

Sonny Perdue’s USDA Is in Bed with Big Pork. That’s Really Bad for Everyone Else.

North Carolina hog barns with waste lagoons. Photo courtesy Waterkeeper Alliance Inc./Flickr

In his first year running the US Department of Agriculture, Secretary Sonny Perdue has displayed a curious tendency to say things he really shouldn’t. The most recent example is his striking off-the-cuff comment about a big court judgment won by neighbors of a massive hog farm and its stinking cesspools in North Carolina. Perdue told reporters he was not familiar with the case, in which a US District Court jury leveled a landmark $50 million verdict against Murphy-Brown LLC, a subsidiary of pork giant Smithfield Foods. But that didn’t stop him from calling the jury’s decision “despicable.”

Secretary Perdue’s alignment with big corporate interests over the public interest has been clear for a while. But his knee-jerk reaction to this case, along with related pending actions at his USDA, suggests that he is willing to throw workers, farmers, rural residents, consumers, and clean air and water overboard to protect Big Pork’s bottom line.

“Nuisance” is putting it mildly

When the jury in the Murphy-Brown case (a so-called “nuisance” suit filed on behalf of a group of 10 neighbors) handed down its decision on April 26, fear surely rippled through the pork industry. Led by Iowa, North Carolina, and Minnesota, annual US pig production exceeded 110 million animals in 2014, with the total national swine herd that year valued at $9.5 billion. In 2018, the industry is forecast to produce even more pigs—an estimated 134 million. The vast majority of those animals will be raised in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), which generate huge quantities of concentrated manure waste. In North Carolina alone, hog and poultry CAFOs produce 15,000 Olympic-size pools’ worth of waste each year.

In that state, there’s a long line of angry CAFO neighbors awaiting their chance to demand justice for the harm these operations cause. More than 500 plaintiffs have filed 26 lawsuits alleging damage from Murphy-Brown’s operations. The company’s practice of holding liquified manure in open pits and spraying the excess on nearby fields, common in the CAFO industry for decades, leaves a reeking stench over nearby communities. Residents, most of them working class and black, complain of health problems—which researchers have shown can include nausea and respiratory problems such as asthma—along with reductions in property values and quality of life from the CAFOs that built up around them. If juries in the other North Carolina cases (and in CAFO lawsuits elsewhere, like one filed this week by Iowa residents against that state) decide in favor of plaintiffs, it could be a watershed moment for environmental justice—and may force the industry to change.

In the weeks since the North Carolina jury’s bombshell announcement, the judge in the case has bowed to a state law that caps punitive damage awards, reducing the $50 million award to a mere $3.25 million. Still not exactly small potatoes, but the reduction must have prompted sighs of relief from the board rooms of Murphy-Brown, parent company Smithfield Foods, and WH Group, the Chinese company that owns Smithfield and is the world’s largest pork company.

And there’s more for giant pork companies to smile about. In addition to state laws that have long enabled the pork industry to operate profitably at the expense of its neighbors and continue to protect it from major consequences, Big Pork appears to have the Trump administration on its side.

Perdue backs Big Pork over farmers…

Two regulatory actions initiated by the USDA in its first year under Secretary Perdue show how it has favored the big corporations that process and sell US pork at the expense of small farmers and workers in the industry. First, last fall the department announced it would withdraw the Farmer Fair Practices Rules, Obama-era rules that would have made it easier for livestock and poultry farmers to sue meat processing companies with which they have contracts and to protect farmers from unfair and predatory corporate practices. In response, a group of farmer plaintiffs and the Organization for Competitive Markets filed suit in December, calling the rules’ cancellation arbitrary and capricious, a gift to the industry, and a failure to protect small farmers.

Speaking to reporters as part of a farm tour in Ohio last month, Perdue suggested farmers are on their own:

There are farmers there, some of which will not survive because other people do it better. That’s the American capitalistic society. The best producers thrive and provide, and the others find another industry where they can thrive.

That’s a startling statement from a guy who claims to serve the interest of farmers—Perdue calls them the USDA’s “customers,” and they still largely support the Trump administration (though their support is slipping).

…and workers and food safety, too

In a related action, the USDA in January proposed a rule it claims will “modernize” swine slaughter. In fact, by reducing the number of trained government food inspectors in pork processing plants and allowing plants to operate at higher speeds (something the administration has also tried in poultry plants). These changes would likely increase rates of worker injury and incidents of meat contamination, and the proposed rule faces broad opposition from food safety, labor, and animal welfare groups. More than 83,500 people wrote to the USDA about it during a public comment period that closed May 2, and dozens of members of Congress have also entered the fray. In their letter to Secretary Perdue, 63 members of the House of Representatives (including several from leading pork states) cited the danger posed by the hog slaughter rule to workers and urging the secretary to withdraw it.

As various lawsuits wind their way through the courts and the swine slaughter rule proceeds through the regulatory process, we’ll see whether Secretary Perdue’s USDA backs down or continues to back Big Pork. Meanwhile, the perception of the Trump administration’s coziness with the industry is peaking in a weird way: in the online video game Bacon Defender, players navigate an animated high speed pork plant—complete with falling poop emojis and oddly Trump-like voice effects—armed only with a mustard-shooting hot dog. “Even a novice Bacon Defender player quickly learns that at higher speeds feces can contaminate your food more easily,” say the game’s creators.

I wish I had a sad poop emoji for that.

 

SNAP is a boon to urban and rural economies—and small-town stores may not survive cuts

In case you missed it, Congress is in the midst of a pretty major food fight. At the center of it is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is the first line of defense against hunger for more than 21 million American households. Going forward, however, an estimated 2 million people stand to lose SNAP benefits if the farm bill proposal passed by the House Agriculture Committee last month becomes law. The bill’s draconian work requirements and eligibility changes threaten to upend the lives of some of the nation’s most vulnerable individuals and families. But it could also deliver a serious blow to the economic vitality of many rural and small-town communities, in an economic domino effect that often starts at the local grocery store.

Despite improvements in the national economy since the 2008 recession, rural communities across the United States continue to face economic uncertainty, and grocery stores are among the small-town businesses that are finding it hard to stay afloat. The challenges faced by rural food retailers are numerous: competition from increasingly powerful “big-box” stores, the rise of online retailers, and high operating costs are but a few of the challenges threatening the economic viability of today’s grocery stores. But there’s another major driver of food sales that impacts rural retailers and residents alike, and it has to do with how much families can afford to spend.

Many households in low-wage, low-prosperity rural counties turn to SNAP to augment their food budgets—in fact, they do so at higher rates than their urban counterparts. About 16 percent of households in rural or non-metro areas participate in the program, compared to 13 percent in metro areas. And in a recent analysis of publicly available data, UCS found that 136 of the 150 counties with the highest percentages of SNAP participation by household are located in rural areas.

We know the benefits that SNAP dollars bring to the people who use them. SNAP participation bolsters financial stability and food security; increases the likelihood that kids complete high school, while decreasing their risk of obesity and metabolic syndrome into adulthood; and saves about $1,400 in annual medical costs for low-income adults. But where do those dollars go next?

The ripple effect of SNAP spending

Following the path of a SNAP dollar can help us understand the invaluable role SNAP plays in supporting local industries and bolstering the broader economy. The graphic below shows the path of a dollar spent at a local grocery store.

It isn’t difficult to see how SNAP dollars are a boon to grocery stores—particularly for businesses in low-income areas, where SNAP purchases account for a greater share of sales. Dr. David Procter, Director of Kansas State University’s Center for Engagement and Community Development, knows a thing or two about the food economy. He’s been working with rural grocers for over a decade as part of the Rural Grocery Initiative, which helps small-town stores develop sustainable business models in the face of a food landscape that is rapidly changing.

“Small town grocery stores stand as a bulwark against the ever-rising number of rural Americans living in food deserts,” says Procter. “These food retail businesses are a vital element of the local food system, providing residents with access to produce, dairy, breads, grains, and meats. They are important to the local economy, creating jobs and generating tax revenue. Finally, these stores are community hubs, gathering places where social capital is built and maintained.”

Beyond the grocery checkout, SNAP dollars keep working

But the economic impact of SNAP doesn’t end at the store; in fact, this is only the beginning of a series of transactions that results in what is referred to as a “multiplier effect.” The standard USDA model estimates that, during a weak economy, $1 in SNAP spending generates about $1.80 in economic activity. This would mean that the $64.7 billion in SNAP benefits distributed in fiscal year 2017 could have generated an estimated $114 billion in economic activity, creating and supporting more than 567,000 jobs across the country.

So how does it work? Suppose the economy in Anytown, USA takes a turn for the worse. A factory relocates, or maybe a natural disaster shuts down the town’s major industry for an extended period of time. Many households find that they have less money to spend, and business at local establishments slows. Because of hardships resulting from the economic downturn—perhaps job loss, or reduced hours—some families apply for SNAP benefits. As those families use SNAP dollars to help put food on their tables, the grocery stores they shop at begin to recover. With more revenue, these stores can hire back staff; resume full operation and pay for operational costs like lighting and refrigeration; and, of course, purchase more food from farmers and distributors to meet growing demand. And as SNAP spending is propagated through the supply chain, each sector that gets a share of that additional money is able to spend more money in turn.

The effect extends to a wide range of sectors. Here’s why: studies have suggested that each additional dollar received in SNAP benefits results in between 26 and 60 additional cents spent on food—meaning an extra SNAP dollar received doesn’t equal an additional dollar spent on groceries. This is because, as many of us know, low-income households (including those experiencing temporary financial distress) are constantly making difficult decisions about how and when to pay for necessities such as housing, education, and transportation. And when SNAP benefits relieve some of the strain on a family’s food budget, they also help to free up a portion of income once spent on food for other expenses. From an economic standpoint, this means that a range of industries outside of the food supply chain also benefit indirectly—and not insignificantly—from SNAP spending. This multiplier effect shows how SNAP can effectively guide economic recovery.

Strong nutrition policy can help build strong communities and economies

This brings us back to the farm bill. If we want to preserve SNAP’s essential function as a safety net for our families and for our economy during tough times, we need to protect the program from the ill-advised overhaul making its way through Congress.

We can also leverage farm bill legislation to ensure that more of each SNAP dollar goes straight into farmers’ pockets and stays in our local communities. According to USDA models, the jobs that could have been created or supported by SNAP spending during fiscal year 2017 include nearly 50,000 agricultural jobs—a significant number, yet less than 9 percent of the estimated total. Many of the programs contained in the Local FARMS Act, a bipartisan marker bill introduced early in the farm bill process, offer win-win solutions that help farmers expand local and regional food sales while providing low-income populations with greater access to fresh, nutritious foods. Though these “tiny but mighty” programs represent a small fraction of the farm bill budget, they provide the means to effectively amplify the return on federal investment in programs like SNAP—which can make all the difference for families and rural farming communities that have been slower to recover from economic depression.

The full House is expected to take up H.R. 2 this week, with the possibility of introducing amendments before a final vote. UCS is working to ensure that members of Congress in both houses reject a SNAP overhaul, and instead take meaningful action to support low-income households in both rural and urban communities—while also giving a boost to small and midsize farmers. Got five minutes and want to make a difference? We’ve made it easy to call your members of Congress today to tell them to vote NO on H.R. 2.

The New Farm Bill’s Pesticide Provisions are a Sneak Attack on the Environment

A bald eagle resting on a log by a lake in Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge.

Bald eagles, such as this one in the Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge in New Hampshire and Maine, were driven to near extinction in the contiguous 48 states by pesticides. Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

If fish could wail, they would scream over the lethal powers granted to the Environmental Protection Agency in part of the draft farm bill recently rolled out by the House Agriculture Committee. The bill, passed out of committee by Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) on a party-line vote last month, desperately fails farmers and low-income families. It also contains a number of sneak attacks on the environment. One such provision would allow the EPA to approve new pesticides with no assessment of their potential impact on fish and wildlife covered under the Endangered Species Act.

That means that EPA would no longer need to wait for independent research on the toxicity of pesticides in rivers, wetlands and prairies from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the Interior Department, or in estuaries and coastal waters from the National Marine Fisheries Service in the Commerce Department. The bill chillingly specifies that the EPA administrator “shall not be required to consult or communicate with the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Commerce.”

To date, most of the national publicity about the House farm bill has understandably focused on its potentially devastating effect on America’s poor, with expanded work requirements that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would eliminate 1.2 million people from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program rolls. The CBO also estimates that 400,000 households would lose benefits under higher income thresholds, eliminating free school lunch for 265,000 children. The bill also slashes child support and home heating and cooling assistance.

When it comes to wildlife, the bill envisions an EPA that pays no heed to environmental science, potentially wreaking a different kind of devastation.

Chlorpyrifos clearance only the beginning

This continues the attack on federal environmental science that began in earnest a year ago when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt derailed a ban on chlorpyrifos that was long in the works during the Obama administration. In 2000, the EPA ended that neurotoxin’s use in residential lawn and garden and indoor pest control for its toxicity to children. However, it remained America’s most-used conventional insecticide in commercial agriculture, used so heavily that the Obama-era EPA could not conclude that human exposure in residues and water runoffs met federal safety standards. One study last year found that 7-year-old children in Salinas Valley, California who lived near farms using organophosphates such as chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion suffered deficits in intelligence and verbal comprehension.

But Pruitt cleared chlorpyrifos after meeting with the CEO of Dow Chemical, the top maker of the pesticide. The Los Angeles Times exposed the meeting after an EPA spokesman lied that it never happened.

Emboldened by that success, Dow, which donated $1 million to President Trump’s inaugural committee and spent nearly $14 million on lobbying in 2016, pursued a far more outrageous free pass for its toxic products. It feared the results of a massive National Marine Fisheries Management study launched by the Obama administration that was not yet final, but that would likely render a very negative biological opinion on the effect of chlorpyrifos, diazinon and malathion on fish and wildlife. As reported by the Associated Press, Dow’s Washington law firm wrote Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, urging them to dismiss any results that would come of that research, complaining that the methodology wrongly produced “unrealistically high and sometimes physically impossible estimates.”

A fleeting victory for science

For a hopeful second, it appeared that Dow had lost the argument when the fisheries service officially concluded that chlorpyrifos and malathion were each likely to directly “jeopardize” 38 species of sea life, including several species of salmon, sturgeon and killer whales, and diazinon would jeopardize 25 species. The pesticides would also “adversely” harm about the same number of critical habitats. The opinion emphasized: “Species and their prey residing in shallow aquatic habitats proximal to pesticide use sites are expected to be the most at risk.”

But Conaway (who has received nearly $5 million in campaign contributions from the agribusiness sector since 2005, according to the Center for Responsive Politics) and his fellow republicans want to come to the rescue of Dow and the entire toxic agricultural chemical industry. Complaining that it took too long for EPA, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service to complete reviews to register new compounds, all 26 Republicans, over the opposition of all 20 Democrats, voted to allow the EPA to utterly ignore any assessments by the NMFS or Fish and Wildlife.

If reauthorized as written, the farm bill would also allow the “lawful use” of pesticides to kill endangered species without fear of federal penalties and would prevent EPA and the states from requiring pesticide permits under the Water Pollution Control Act for discharges into navigable rivers. Plus, even though a vast majority of farmers embrace sustainable practices to avoid erosion and pollution, a fact recently highlighted by UCS Senior Analyst for Food Karen Perry Stillerman, the farm bill would eliminate the Conservation Stewardship Program.

For humans, the danger of chlorpyrifos alone was enough for the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Environmental Working Group to write a joint letter to Pruitt last summer saying his EPA was rejecting years of the agency’s own science that said the pesticide’s “risk to infant and children’s health and development is unambiguous.”

A Dining Bald eagle in Conowingo, Maryland eating fish.

Dining Bald eagle, Conowingo, Maryland. In the DDT era, consumption of poisoned fished lead eagles to lay eggs too thin to hatch, leading to near-complete nesting failure by the 1970s. Photo by Derrick Z. Jackson

Specter of silent spring

For both humans and wildlife, the Republican reauthorization of the farm bill would usher in the weakest federal protections against pesticide abuse since Rachel Carson charted the destruction of species by overuse of DDT and other pesticides in her seminal 1962 book Silent Spring. She wrote of pesticide poisonings, and mental illness to people, documented by American, British, New Zealand and Australian researchers. One study by the University of Melbourne noted how three chemical scientists, eight greenhouse workers and five farm workers suffered from impaired memory, schizophrenia and depression. “All had normal medical histories before the chemicals they were using boomeranged and struck them down,” she wrote. She said their illness was “a heavy price to pay for the temporary destruction of a few insects, but a price that will continue to be exacted as long as we insist upon using chemicals that strike directly at the nervous system.”

As regards wildlife, Carson chronicled the near complete “annihilation” of young Coho salmon in one river in Canada and massive die-offs of trout, bluegill, sunfish, crappies, bass, catfish and many other prized fish and the insects and prey they eat in Maine, Montana, Alabama, California, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Oklahoma. Poisoned fish went up the food chain to lead to the near extinction in the contiguous 48 states of America’s national bird, the bald eagle.

In a haunting reminder of how far pesticides can travel and their ability to destroy far more than their intended pest, Carson wrote about a pesticide induced fish kill that stretched for 200 miles down the Colorado River and about how pesticides led to the decimation of 20 to 30 tons of some 30 different species of fish in a Florida salt marsh. A marine biologist by training, Carson concluded that the threat of pesticides to America’s freshwater and saltwater fisheries alike “can no longer be doubted. If we would divert to constructive research even a small fraction of the money spent each year on the development of ever more toxic sprays, we could find ways to use less dangerous materials and to keep poisons out of our waterways. When will the public become sufficiently aware of the facts to demand such action?”

The proposed farm bill forces Americans to ask that question all over again. The House Agriculture Committee and the EPA under Pruitt already have their answer and the facts do not appear to matter to them. If concern for the developing brains of children was not enough to provoke the Trump administration into any real environmental protection with chlorpyrifos, concern for fish, birds and other wildlife will almost certainly not constrain EPA from approving toxic pesticides at will. The rest of America will have to wail for the fish and sing for the birds to prevent this latest attempt to roll back environmental gains from delivering another silent spring.

Do Local Food Markets Support Profitable Farms and Ranches?

Local produce, sold through direct-to-consumer channels like farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs, is often sold at a price premium. But does that premium impact farmers’ bottom line? Photo: Todd Johnson/ Oklahoma State University.

How many times have you heard that when you shop locally, farmers win? Families shop at farmers markets, school districts procure locally-grown and raised items, and restaurants curate seasonal menus at least in part because they believe they are supporting the economic viability of local producers. But do we have evidence that these local markets actually provide economic benefits to farmers and ranchers?

For the past decade, we have seen growing evidence that household and commercial buyers are willing to pay a premium for local products, and that farmers capture a larger share of the retail dollar through sales at local markets. But until recently, there was little evidence of the impact of these markets on farmers’ and ranchers’ bottom line.

To better understand the potential of local food markets, we evaluated the financial performance of farmers and ranchers selling through local markets compared to those selling through traditional wholesale markets, which may pool undifferentiated grains, animals or produce from hundreds of producers to sell to large food manufacturers or retailers. We use data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS), a nationally representative survey providing annual, national-level data on farm and ranch businesses. ARMS targets about 30,000 farms annually, of which about 1,000 report some local food sales.

For this research, we define local markets in two distinct categories: direct to consumer sales (such as farmers’ markets; community supported agriculture, or CSAs; and farm stands) or intermediated sales to local food marketing enterprises that maintain the product’s local identity (such as restaurants, grocery stores, or food hubs).

Local food can spur rural development

The first notable difference between farms and ranches that sell through local food markets and those that do not is that, on average, farms selling through local food markets spend a higher percentage of their total expenditure on labor (8% compared to 5%). Even more interesting is that as local food producers get larger, their share of expenditure on labor increases! (See the green bars in figure 1). This stands in contrast to the ‘efficiency’ story we have long heard in agriculture. Conventional wisdom dictates that as farms scale up, they substitute capital for labor, becoming more efficient and producing more with less. But in the case of local markets, it appears that as the volume of direct and intermediary sales grows, the hours, skills, and expertise needed to manage buyer-responsive supply chains increases, as well. This finding supports the argument that local food can serve as a rural economic development driver; farms selling through local markets require more labor per dollar of sales, thus creating jobs.

Figure 1 Share of Variable Expenses, Local Food Producers, by Scale (Bauman, Thilmany, Jablonski 2018)

 

Do these additional labor expenditures impact the profitability of local producers? To answer this question, we categorized farms and ranches that sell through local markets by size, or sales class—the smallest reporting less than $75,000 in sales, and the biggest reporting $1,000,000 or more. We then broke down each sales class by performance, using return on assets as our indicator for performance, and organized farms and ranches into quartiles (see Figure 2). This categorization allowed us to zero in on the highest performing producers of every sales class.

Though performance varies widely, we found that of all producers with more than $75,000 in sales, at least half were break-even or profitable. Of every sales class – even the smallest!—farms in the top quartile reported returns over 20 percent—very strong profitability for the agricultural sector, where profit margins are generally slim.

What makes a local farm succeed?

To explore patterns in profitability a little bit further, we can compare how various financial measures vary across those with low vs. high profits. Among the top performing quartile, farms and ranches that sell through intermediated channels only or a combination of direct and intermediated channels performed much better than those using direct markets only. This may signal the importance of intermediated markets, and justify support for intermediated market development through grant programs such as the Local Food Promotion Program. Further, using more in-depth statistical analysis of local and regional producers, we found that farms and ranches selling only through direct-to-consumer markets may be struggling to control their costs, and that strategic management changes to these operations could result in significant improvements in profitability.

Figure 2 Local Food Producers Return on Assets by Sales Class and Market Channel (Quartile 4 is the most profitable) (Bauman, Thilmany, Jablonski 2018)

In summary, we see that local food markets provide opportunities for profitable operations at any scale, but that sales through intermediary markets are correlated with higher profitability when compared to producers that use only direct channels.

To learn more about the economics of local food systems (including more about this research), we encourage you to visit localfoodeconomics.com, where we have compiled a number of fact sheets on this topic. We started this community of practice in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service and eXtension. The website and listserv serve as a virtual community in which academic, nonprofit and policy professionals can engage in conversations about the economic implications of the many activities that fall under the umbrella of local food. For the broader food system community and consumers, gaining insights on the underlying economic implications of how food markets work may inform their decisions on how they can use their food dollars in ways that impact their community in a positive way. We hope to see you there!

Becca B.R. Jablonski is Assistant Professor and Food Systems Extension Economist at Colorado State University.

Dawn Thilmany McFadden is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Outreach Coordinator at Colorado State University.

Allie Bauman is Research Assistant in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Colorado State University.

Dave Shideler is Associate Professor of Agricultural Economics at Oklahoma State University.

This research is supported through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (award number 2014-68006-21871).

 

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.

Will Congress Give Farmers the Farm Bill They Want?

U.S. Marine Corps veteran Calvin Riggleman holds an oregano seedling and soil on Bigg Riggs farm in Hampshire County, WV Photo courtesy Flickr/Lance Cheung, USDA

Last week, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee made headlines by unveiling a truly terrible farm bill proposal, one that dramatically undercuts the nation’s most successful nutrition assistance program and threatens to throw the entire farm bill process into chaos. His committee is set to vote out the measure this morning, though Democrats have rejected it out of hand.

Beyond this highly partisan bill’s cynical slap at millions of low-income people and their communities, there’s also very little for farmers to like. Deep cuts to incentive programs that help them protect water quality, conserve soil, and build resilience to floods and droughts are among the bill’s many disappointing aspects, along with a failure to invest in connecting farmers with new local customers. In stark contrast, a poll released today shows that farmers across the political spectrum are eager for precisely the kind of tools and incentives House Republicans have firmly turned their backs on. And soon they may be looking for political candidates who will give it to them.

Survey says: Farmers want more support for local, sustainable agriculture

The new poll was conducted in March by Iowa-based RABA Research on behalf of UCS. Using telephone interviews supplemented by an online questionnaire, the researchers queried more than 2,800 farmers in seven states—Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—to better understand how they are thinking about farm policy and sustainable agriculture.

You might expect that farmers would regard the farm bill as an important piece of legislation, and the poll shows that they do. Fully three-quarters of them said the farm bill is “somewhat” or “very important” to their personal livelihoods. In an era of deep cynicism about the ability of Congress to helpfully affect the lives of everyday Americans, it’s a striking number, and it particularly contradicts recent news reports suggesting that rural America “doesn’t have time” for the farm bill.

Digging a little deeper, the researchers uncovered even more surprising results:

  • Three-quarters of farmers surveyed said it’s important to the future of farming for farm policies to offer incentives for farmers to take steps to reduce runoff and soil loss, improve water quality, and increase resilience to floods and droughts. That number was even higher in some states—76 percent in Ohio, 78 percent in Kansas, and a whopping 84 percent in Iowa. The finding indicates that farmers are keenly aware of the negative impacts of agriculture on our water and soil resources—and, with extreme weather becoming more common, they are concerned about their ability to cope. Farmers urgently want tools to minimize these impacts.
  • Furthermore, 74 percent said that strengthening the hand of farmers in dealings with companies that control the production chain is important. This view directly contradicts the recent action by the Trump administration and Secretary Sonny Perdue to end the USDA’s Farmer Fair Practices Rules, which would have leveled the playing field for poultry and livestock farmers in contracts with the giant corporations that control meat production and processing and made it easier for those farmers to sue the companies for unfair treatment.
  • Similarly, 74 percent of farmers said farm policies should support research on ways to increase farm profitability by decreasing the need for costly chemical inputs. They might not call it agroecology, but that’s what it is and what it does, and farmers want farm policy to fund more of it.
  • And 69 percent of farmers said policies should help connect farmers with new buyers through marketing arrangements like food hubs and farm-to-school programs. These are the kinds of arrangements UCS and other groups have advocated for in the bipartisan Local FARMS Act.
  • Most astonishingly, these results hold across the partisan divide. Poll respondents spanned the political spectrum but leaned heavily Republican. Across the seven states, 55 percent of respondents were Republican, 20 percent Democratic, and 25 percent other.

 

Graph showing results from farmer surveyQUESTION: I’m going to read a list of ways that US farm policy can shape agriculture in the years ahead.  Answer yes or no to indicate which you think are important to the future of farming.

It’s election season, and farmer-voters are looking for change

Perhaps the most striking finding in the poll is this: Farmers are looking to back political candidates who will deliver innovation and sustainability for agriculture.

A surprising 72 percent of farmers across the seven states said they would be more likely to support a candidate for public office who seemed to favor farm success through sustainable agriculture priorities instead of business as usual. That number was even higher in some states—74 percent in both Michigan and Pennsylvania. (Swing states, anyone?)

And remarkably, that high level of support wasn’t dependent upon party affiliation, but was held by 76 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of Republicans, and 67 percent of those who identified politically as “something else” across the seven states.

QUESTION: If a candidate for public office seemed to favor farm success through sustainable ag priorities instead of business as usual, would you be more or less likely to support that candidate? 

This finding shows that an overwhelming majority of farmers are seeking change in the federal government’s priorities for supporting US agriculture. And why should we be surprised? The poll was conducted just before tensions over trade with China threatened to erupt into a full-scale trade war—in which farmers would be early casualties. But those trade tensions are merely compounding the trouble farmers have faced in recent years as prices of leading US farm commodities have plunged. Farm income is projected to hit a 12-year low this year, leaving many farmers uneasy about the status quo and looking for new solutions.

House farm bill offers less—not more—of what farmers want (and farm groups call BS)

The bill the House agriculture committee will vote on today neglects or actively undercuts precisely the programs that our poll shows farmers want. Existing working land conservation programs provide incentives and technical support for farmers to adopt science-based practices—like planting cover crops and more diverse crop rotations—that reduce erosion and water-polluting runoff, lessen the need for expensive chemical inputs, and build healthy soil to buffer farmers from the impact of floods and droughts. The bill on the table today cuts nearly $5 billion from these programs over 10 years, and completely eliminates the Conservation Stewardship Program—a program so popular with farmers and already so underfunded that in recent years it has had to turn away as many as 75 percent of qualified applicants.

At the same time, the House farm bill as written also largely fails to take on provisions of the Local FARMS Act, a bipartisan proposal meant to expand the customer base for small and midsize farmers while improving access to healthy food (which is inadequate for 15.6 million US households). By overlooking the Local FARMS Act—which includes provisions to strengthen farm to school programs, promote farmers markets, and otherwise build connections between farmers and local consumers, especially low-income individuals and families—the authors of today’s bill are bypassing an opportunity to create jobs and establish reliable revenue streams for struggling farmers while also increasing access to healthy and affordable food for more of our neighbors.

Congress can do better—and we need to tell them

All this has led farm and conservation groups to join health and anti-hunger groups in panning the House farm bill proposal. The National Farmers Union—while attempting to be positive—similarly expressed frustration with its failure to give farmers what they need:

“[C]ongressional leadership has severely hamstrung the committee’s ability to address the six-year, 50 percent decline in the farm economy. While they’ve shown little regard for spending and deficits this Congress, they’ve failed to provide adequate resources for food and agriculture at a time of grave financial strain on family farmers and ranchers. This is irresponsible and harmful.  

The draft bill that the House Agriculture Committee will vote on today is so fundamentally flawed, we don’t expect many opportunities to strengthen it through the amendment process. But here are two areas—the Local FARMS Act and the SNAP program—where we may be able to make the bill more responsive to the needs of farmers and the public interest.

Tell Congress to fight for farmers and healthy food in the farm bill today.

Photo: Lance Cheung, USDA

SNAP Work Requirements Provoke Broad Opposition to House Farm Bill

House Agriculture Committee chair Mike Conaway speaks at a hearing.House Committee on Agriculture Chair Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) opens the hearing with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue in Washington, D.C., May 17, 2017. (Photo: USDA/public domain)

The nutrition title of the draft farm bill released by the House last Thursday is an affront to millions of individuals and families across the country—many of whom are part of the electorate that put our current political leaders in office. Despite an outcry of opposition from advocacy groups, the public, and Democrats on the House Agriculture Committee, it appears that Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-TX) is prepared to push through a bill that would be devastating to rural and urban communities alike.

What is it, exactly, that makes this proposal so devastating?

Under the guise of new work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the bill would cut billions of dollars currently protecting people nationwide from the consequences of food insecurity and economic instability. The draft language expands the population subject to work requirements to include caretakers of children over six and people between the ages of 50 to 59, establishes tighter time frames for participants to find work or job training programs, and imposes more severe penalties for those who are unable to do so. The proposed policies would allow participants only a month to secure work or job training for at least twenty hours per week; the first “violation” of these requirements would result in removal from the program for one year, and subsequent violations would result in removal for a period of three years.

Under current legislation, those who are subject to work requirements include only childless adults without disabilities between the ages of 18 to 49 (often called able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs); current penalties for failing to secure work or job training placement for at least 80 hours per month are removal from the program for a period of three years. Though the total number of hours required per month remains unchanged, the move from a monthly to a weekly minimum means that participants must also find work that offers steady and consistent hours. This can create additional barriers to program participation, particularly among those facing primarily low-wage employment options.

A Trojan Horse with dire consequences Family shopping for vegetables at grocery store.

Research shows that SNAP works, alleviating food insecurity and improving the health of families. However, the reauthorization of the farm bill could threaten the program’s effectiveness.

At best, these additional requirements are empty solutions to problems that don’t exist. At worst, they create new ones. Per House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, “The GOP’s ‘workforce requirements’ are nothing but a cynical Trojan Horse to take away SNAP from millions of hungry families.”

As we wrote last week, data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) counters the notion that working-age adults have become dependent upon SNAP. The populations who might depend on the program for longer periods of time include children, the elderly, and those with disabilities; together, these groups make up about two thirds of all SNAP participants. The population of ABAWDs makes up just a small fraction—only two percent—of all those who stay on SNAP for a period of eight years or longer.

Furthermore, more stringent work requirements won’t do anything to address poverty—on the contrary, they may well exacerbate conditions of food insecurity and economic instability among communities already challenged by a persistent lack of access to resources and opportunities. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that even for those in the general population, securing a job within three months is an unattainable goal: last year, nearly 40 percent of those able to work and looking for jobs were unable to find work within 15 weeks, while nearly 25 percent were unable to find work within 27 weeks. To expect that adults who have recently enrolled in SNAP—for reasons ranging from unexpected unemployment to family crisis to natural disaster—should accomplish this task within one month is to set them up for failure.

Of course, House majority leaders have touted employment and training (E&T) programs as the answer to unemployment and underemployment among SNAP beneficiaries. According to Chairman Conaway, SNAP participants will have “guaranteed access” to E&T programs by way of government investment in training and case management. But effective programs come with a price tag, and the $1 billion pledged in the draft bill won’t come close to cutting it. According to the Center for Budget Policies and Priorities (CBPP), that investment amounts to only $28 per person per month for a caseload of 3 million SNAP participants—far less than the typical cost of effective employment programs, and less even than the cost of existing employment services provided by the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. It’s also worth noting that the bill counters the USDA’s own findings on best practices in E&T programs. A 2016 review of over 160 studies on SNAP E&T and workforce development programs found that the most effective programs serve those who volunteer to participate, rather than following a mandate as a condition of eligibility.

Entire communities will feel the fallout from SNAP cuts

Mechanic working on tractor in garageThe Committee anticipates that the new work requirements would impact between 5 and 7 million recipients, and that the proposed bill would cause about 1 million people to leave SNAP over the course of a decade. Meanwhile, the CBPP estimates that changes would cause either a reduction or total loss of benefits for more than 1 million low-income households, impacting about 2 million people.

But the economic implications of such severe cuts would extend far beyond program participants, due to the economic multiplier associated with SNAP benefits. A USDA model has estimated that each dollar in SNAP benefits generates about $1.80 in economic activity, particularly in times of economic downturn. This means that the $64.7 billion in benefits administered in FY 2017 could have generated $114 billion in economic activity, with the potential to create and support an estimated 567,000 to 624,000 jobs—including 48,700 to 59,800 in the agricultural sector.

And these benefits aren’t limited to food production, distribution, and retail sectors. With each additional SNAP dollar received, program participants can not only spend more on food, but can also afford to spend more on other necessities, such as utilities, car payments, or medical expenses, as some of the income once allocated to their food budget is displaced by SNAP dollars. This means that a wide range of industries end up getting a boost from SNAP benefits—and that many would be adversely affected by dramatic cuts.

An uncertain future for a hyper-partisan House bill

Of course, none of the policy changes contained in the House bill are set in stone—not by a long shot. This week, the Committee will markup their draft farm bill, the next step in developing a draft that would go to the House floor for further consideration and, eventually, a final vote.

Regardless of the immediate outcome, the draft text that was presented to the public last week must be recognized for what it is: a bold-faced attempt to undermine a program that effectively and efficiently serves some of our most vulnerable populations, and a blatant disregard for how these populations will actually fare. And though it was put forth with seemingly little concern for political fallout or blowback, this is a program that reaches communities—and voters—in every corner of our country, and won’t be easily forgotten.

Photo: USDA Photo: Plush Studios/Blend Photo: Flavio/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

SNAP already has work requirements. Adding more won’t solve poverty.

Photo: US Air Force

On Tuesday, President Trump signed an executive order calling for a review of the nation’s federal safety net, with the stated aim of “moving people into the workforce and out of poverty.” This is almost certainly thinly veiled code language for additional work requirements in programs that serve millions of low-income individuals and families, including Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

There are a number of inaccuracies and logic flaws contained in the text, but chief among them are these:

Falsehood 1: The federal safety net is causing poverty.

The order states, “Many of the programs designed to help families have instead delayed economic independence, perpetuated poverty, and weakened family bonds.”

It is a grim truth that poverty has a strong grip on too many communities in this country. But poverty is not created by social support programs, nor is it perpetuated by the people who use them. Persistent poverty is far more likely a product of the complex structural inequities embedded in our everyday lives—income inequality, for example, and institutional racism and discrimination. And until we address and remedy these underlying factors, it is essential that we have a strong federal safety net to fall back on.

Falsehood 2: Working-age adults have become dependent on programs like SNAP.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) counters this notion with its own data. The populations who might depend on the program for longer periods of time include children, the elderly, and those with disabilities; together, these groups make up about two thirds of all SNAP participants. The population of SNAP participants who are classified as able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) and are required to work make up just a small fraction—only two percent—of all those who stay on SNAP for a period of eight years or longer.

Yet there is every indication that ABAWDs will be the target of more stringent work requirements in the months to come. A recent USDA federal register notice asked for public input on “innovative ideas to promote work and self-sufficiency” among the ABAWD population. Here’s what we offered.

 

April 9, 2018

The Union of Concerned Scientists

Re: Document No. FNS-2018-03752: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Requirements and Services for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents; Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking

We submit this comment to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to express broad opposition to policy and programmatic changes that would further limit SNAP eligibility for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). While we appreciate USDA efforts to address food insecurity and provide adequate opportunities for employment and training among low-income populations, any proposals which would remove participants from the program—either through more stringent work requirements, further restrictions on eligibility, or other means—would fail to accomplish either, and may in fact contribute to worsening economic hardship among low-income individuals while imposing undue administrative burden and cost on state and federal agencies.

Our opposition to the aforementioned policy and programmatic changes is grounded in the following:

The work requirements in place for ABAWDs are already extensive.

In addition to meeting general work requirements for SNAP participation, ABAWDs are subject to a second set of time-limited work requirements. These dictate that an ABAWD must work or participate in a work program for at least 80 hours per month, or will face benefit termination after a period of three months, renewable after three years. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that for many, securing a job within three months is an unattainable goal: last year, nearly 40 percent of those able to work and looking for jobs in the general population were unable to find work within 15 weeks, while nearly 25 percent were unable to find work within 27 weeks.[1]

The population of unemployed ABAWDs is a small fraction of SNAP participants.

The vast majority of SNAP recipients are children, the elderly, caregivers, or persons with disabilities. The ABAWD population makes up a small fraction of all SNAP recipients, and many are already working or looking for work. Fewer than 8.8 percent of all SNAP participants are classified as ABAWDs, and the number of unemployed ABAWDs at any given time constitutes only 6.5 percent of all program participants.[2] It should be noted that the population of unemployed ABAWDs is not stagnant, but shifts depending on need: research shows that among SNAP households with at least one non-disabled, working-age adult, eight in 10 participants were employed in the year before or after receiving benefits, meaning SNAP is providing effective temporary assistance during periods of economic difficulty.[3] Many of the policy changes addressed in the federal register notice, including new review processes, certification processes, and reporting requirements, would incur administrative burdens and costs with little demonstrable benefit for low-income populations, and may in fact detract from the efficacy of the program.

Bolstering employment and training programs will do little to counter the root causes of poverty and food insecurity—particularly when other public assistance programs are at risk.

Employment and training (E&T) programs can provide a path to self-sufficiency if evidence-based and adequately funded. Currently, there is wide variation among state E&T programs, with varying efficacy, and limited full federal funding available to states.[4] Until there is consistent implementation of effective and scalable models for job training across states—accompanied by a strong government commitment to invest in such models—we cannot rely on E&T programs alone to keep low-income populations employed and out of poverty. This is particularly important at a time when numerous other public assistance programs serving low-income populations are at risk.

We appreciate the opportunity to provide comments on the manner in which the USDA intends to pursue its stated goals of addressing food insecurity and providing adequate opportunities for employment and training among low-income populations. However, the questions posed by the agency suggest that forthcoming policy proposals will do more harm than good. Any policy changes to SNAP resulting in removal of individuals from the program—including more stringent work requirements or restricted eligibility among the ABAWD population—present serious risks to the health, well-being, and economic vitality of the individuals and communities served by this program.

Thank you for your consideration.

 

[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2018. Table A-12: Unemployed persons by duration of employment. Washington, DC: US Department of Labor. Online at www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.t12.htm, accessed March 2, 2018.

[2] Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). 2016. Characteristics of able-bodied adults without dependents. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture. Online at https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/snap/nondisabled-adults.pdf, accessed March 2, 2018.

[3] Council of Economic Advisers (CEA). 2015. Long-term benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Washington, DC: Executive Office of the President of the United States.

[4] Food and Nutrition Services (FNS). 2016. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Employment and Training (E&T) Best Practices Study: Final Report. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture. Online at https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/ops/SNAPEandTBestPractices.pdf, accessed March 8, 2018.

 

Want to learn more about SNAP? Listen to Sarah Reinhardt on our Got Science? Podcast!

USDA Focus on Nutrition Program “Integrity” is a Smokescreen

Photo: US Air Force

The US Department of Agriculture has announced it will hire a new “chief integrity officer” to oversee federal nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs, Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). The integrity of SNAP in particular has been a popular topic among those in the Trump administration, including USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who argue that SNAP enables a “lifestyle of dependency” and seek major program reforms in the upcoming Farm Bill. But these arguments have been conjured from very little science and a whole lot of smoke—and have the effect of distracting the public from more pressing issues at hand.

SNAP is among the nation’s most effective and efficient programs

Monitoring any government program is necessary to ensure that taxpayer dollars are being spent effectively, and the USDA does so through its quality control process and periodic reports on fraud and abuse. In fiscal year 2011, as part of the Obama administration’s Campaign to Cut Waste, the USDA Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted an extensive review of more than 15,000 stores for compliance with SNAP program rules. The results of these assessments, combined with USDA participation data, tell us the program is working as intended, and with remarkably few problems.

SNAP fraud1—broadly defined as exchanging benefits for cash or falsifying participant or retailer applications to illegally obtain or accept benefits—happens relatively infrequently, though it’s difficult to measure. The USDA’s most recent report on the topic estimated that it affected about 1.5 percent of all SNAP benefits received between 2012 and 2014. This represents a slight increase since the early 2000s (1.0 to 1.3 percent between 2002 and 2011), but remains substantially lower than in the 1990s, when reported rates were as high as 3.8 percent.

Compare this to some of the other federal programs contained in the Farm Bill—like crop insurance. Back in 2013, former USDA secretary Tom Vilsack voiced concerns about the integrity of crop insurance programs due to error and fraud rates that exceeded those of SNAP. As with SNAP, illegal activity is largely uncovered by way of criminal investigations. According to the Department of Justice, recent convictions and sentences connected with the federal crop insurance program have included the indictment of a Kentucky agricultural producer for insurance fraud, wire fraud, and money laundering; an Iowa farmer who received more than $450,000 in crop insurance proceeds illegally; a Louisiana farmer who created shell farms to receive more than $5.4 million in subsidy payments; and a Kentucky crop insurance agent whose clients received nearly $170,000 in indemnity payments for false claims. And those are just the cases from the last six months. Unlike SNAP, no chief integrity officer has been assigned to monitor fraud and abuse in the program.

So yes, we should be striving for continuous improvement in the operation of all federal programs. But explaining why SNAP in particular has come under such intense scrutiny requires some historical and political context—and a good understanding of who might benefit from maintaining old narratives.

 

Learn more about SNAP, listen to Sarah Reinhardt on the Got Science? podcast

The rise, fall, and flatline of SNAP fraud

Though President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act into law in 1964, the program began to gain popularity in the 1970s, when participation doubled from 5 million to 10 million over the course of the decade. As participation increased, the USDA began to discover incidents of abuse, eventually revealing a widespread pattern of illegal activity that would plague the program for the next twenty years. Reported rates of fraud at this time were between 10 and 20 percent.

The widespread abuse lent itself to growing public disapproval of the food stamps program and,  accompanied by racist and classist rhetoric around so-called “welfare queens,” fueled substantial program reform by the Reagan administration in the early 1980s.

But what likely ushered in drastic improvements in rates of fraud and abuse was the introduction of new electronic benefit transfer (EBT) systems, which fully replaced paper food stamps in 2004. In addition to requiring a 4-digit PIN number, EBT cards create a record of each purchase, increasing the ease with which agencies can identify and document illegal use.

That brings us, more or less, to the efficient and effective program that we’ve seen for the last decade.

Despite how well SNAP works, politicians have continued to frame it as a program that suffers from rampant misuse and illegal activity. For those seeking drastic budget cuts and reforms, that negative narrative grants permission to discredit both the program and those who use it—and one needs to look no further than President Trump’s welfare reform proposals or Speaker Paul Ryan’s comment about the tailspin of “inner-city culture” to know that the legacy of the welfare queen is alive and well.

Speaking of integrity…

Photo: USDA

To get a sense of where this is all headed, keep your eyes on USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue—if you can. He’s been making some quick pivots lately.

At a May 2017 House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture hearing, Perdue stated that “SNAP has been a very important, effective program,” and that the agency was considering no changes. “You don’t try to fix something that isn’t broken.”

Less than a year later, the secretary has voiced his support for a number of proposed program changes, including stricter work requirements for adults without dependents. Not unlike the recent announcement aimed at nutrition program integrity, these proposals are often grounded more in political ideology than fact. USDA’s own data shows that most SNAP participants who can work do work—albeit in unstable jobs—and counters the notion that participants stay on the program for long periods of time.

When the House releases its draft of the Farm Bill, which may happen as early as this week, Perdue’s response (or lack thereof) could provide insight on the policy proposals he’s prepared to support. More than likely, he’ll continue to endorse the positions of his party—but then again, we’ve been surprised before.

 

  1. Fraud and abuse should be distinguished from error rates, or improper payment rates, which capture how often SNAP participants receive underpayment or overpayment of benefits. (The overwhelming majority of SNAP errors are attributed to unintentional error by recipients or administrative staff.) Program error rates have also experienced substantial declines in recent years: they reached an all-time low of 2 percent in 2013, down from 6.6 percent in 2003. And though a 2015 USDA OIG review of the quality control process found understated error rates in some states, the resulting corrective actions target state agencies—not individual SNAP participants.

 

The World’s Population Hasn’t Grown Exponentially for at Least Half a Century

Recently I was looking at some data about world food production on the excellent Our World in Data site, and I discovered something very simple, but very surprising about the world’s population. We often hear (and I used to teach) about the threat of an exponentially growing population and the pressure it is supposed to be putting on our food supply and the natural resources that sustain it (land, water, nutrients, etc). But I found that the global population isn’t growing exponentially, and hasn’t been for at least half a century.

It has actually been growing in a simpler way than exponentially—in a straight line.

What exponential growth is

Exponential growth (sometimes also called geometric or compound-interest growth) can be described by an equation in which time is raised to a power, i.e. has an exponent—hence the name. But it also can be described in simpler terms: the growth rate of the population, as a fraction of the population’s size, is a constant. Thus, if a population has a growth rate of 2%, and it remains 2% as the population gets bigger, it’s growing exponentially. And there’s nothing magic about the 2; it’s growing exponentially whether that growth rate is 2% or 10% or 0.5% or 0.01%.

Another way to put it is that the doubling time of the population—the number of years it takes to grow to twice its initial size—is also a constant. So, if the population will double in the next 36 years, and double again in the following 36 years, and so on, then it’s growing exponentially. There’s even a simple rule-of-thumb relationship between doubling time and the percentage growth rate: Doubling Time = 72/(Percentage Growth Rate). So that population with a 36 year doubling time, is growing at a rate of 2% per year.

But probably the simplest way to describe exponential growth is with a graph, so here’s how it looks:

Figure 1. Exponential growth versus linear (straight-line) growth.

This graphic not only shows the classic upward-curving shape of the exponential growth curve, but also how it contrasts with growth that is linear, i.e. in a straight line. Additionally, it demonstrates a simple mathematical result: if one quantity is growing exponentially and a second quantity is growing linearly, the first quantity will eventually become larger than the second, no matter what their specific starting points or rates of growth.

This isn’t just abstract math; it also illustrates the most famous use of exponential growth in political debate. It was put forward by the English parson Robert Malthus over two centuries ago. He argued that the human population grows exponentially while food production can only grow linearly. Thus, it follows inevitably that the population will eventually outgrow the food supply, resulting in mass starvation. This is the case even if the food supply is initially abundant and growing rapidly (but linearly). The upward-bending-curve of an exponentially-growing population will always overtake it sooner or later, resulting in catastrophe.

Looking at real data

Critics ever since Malthus’ time have pointed out that his assumption that food production grows in a straight line is just that—an assumption, with little basis in theory. So I wasn’t surprised to see that the OWID data showed faster-than-linear (upward-curving) growth in global food production over the past half-century. What did surprise me was that the growth of the world’s population over that time period has actually been very close to a straight line.

Here’s that graph:

Figure 2. World population growth from 1961 to 2016, from the official U.N. figures available at ourworldindata.org. The data are expressed as an index, with the 1961 population = 100. To convert the index to actual numbers of people, just multiply the index value by 30,830,000, since the world population in 1961 was 3.083 billion.

The graph looks very much like a straight line rather than the upward-curving exponential, but is that really the case? We can test this by calculating the value of what statisticians call the R2 (or “coefficient of determination”) for this curve. The closer it is to a straight line, the higher R2 will be, and if the data fits a straight line perfectly then R2 will be exactly 1.0.

So, what’s the actual value for this data? It’s 0.9992. I.e. the fit to a straight line isn’t quite perfect, but it’s very, very close.

Is this some sort of artifact?

I was actually quite surprised at how well the data fit a straight line—so much so that I wondered if this was just an artifact of the method I used, rather than a real result. So I applied the same method—plot the data, fit a straight line to it, and calculate the value of R2—to the data for some of the world’s largest countries and regions, rather than the world as a whole.

For several of these, the lines looked very straight and the value of R2 was almost as high as in the graph for the world as a whole, or even slightly higher, e.g.:

Country or Region  R2 for the linear equation of Population vs. Time Brazil .9977 India .9954 Indonesia .9995 Latin America and the Caribbean .9994 North America .9966 Pacific island small states .9991

But for others it was considerably lower (e.g. .9777 for China, .9668 for the European Union) and two graphs proved clearly that the excellent fit to a straight line is a real result, not an artifact. These were the ones for Sub-Saharan Africa and Russia:

Figure 3. Population growth of Sub-Saharan Africa from 1961 to 2016, from the official U.N. figures available at ourworldindata.org. The data are expressed as an index, with the 1961 population = 100. Thin dotted line shows the best-fit straight line; thick dots show the actual data.

Figure 4. Population growth of Russia from 1961 to 2016, from the official U.N. figures available at ourworldindata.org. The data are expressed as an index, with the 1961 population = 100. Thin dotted line shows the best-fit straight line; thick dots show the actual data.

The point about the Sub-Saharan African graph is not simply that it has a lower value of R2 (0.964), but that its data deviates from the straight line in the way that an exponential curve should: higher than the straight line at the lowest and the highest time values, and lower than the straight line at the intermediate ones. It does fit an exponential curve quite well, thus showing that the method can pick out an exponential curve if the data do follow one. But this is the only region or large country for which that’s actually true.

The Russia graph doesn’t fit an exponential curve well at all—it actually curves downward overall, rather than upward as it should if it were an exponential—but it does show that the value of R2 can be much lower than 1.0 for real data. For Russia it’s 0.632. So as with the Sub-Saharan Africa case, it proves that the high value of R2 for the world as a whole is not an artifact caused by the method. It reflects the reality of the past 55 years.

Finally, since I and many of my readers are from the United States, here’s that graph:

Figure 5. Population growth of the United States from 1961 to 2016, from the official U.N. figures available at ourworldindata.org. The data are expressed as an index, with the 1961 population = 100. Thin dotted line shows the best-fit straight line; thick dots show the actual data.

For the US as for the whole world, population growth over the past half-century has been quite close to a straight line; the R2 is 0.9956.

A direct test of whether growth is exponential

These graphs and R2 values seem to indicate that linear growth is the best model for the world population over the past 55 years, but there’s another way to show that it’s not exponential. As I said above, exponential growth occurs when the percentage growth rate remains constant as the population gets bigger. So a simple test is to graph the percentage growth rate over time, and see whether it’s a constant—i.e., a horizontal line. So here’s that graph:

Figure 6. Percentage growth rate of the world population from 1961 to 2016, calculated from the official U.N. figures available at ourworldindata.org. The trend lines goes downward over time, rather than being horizontal as it would if the percentage were a constant.

This result, like the others, is quite clear. The percentage growth rate is not a constant, as it should be if the population were growing exponentially. Rather, it has been dropping steadily over the past half-century, from over 2.0% in the early sixties to below 1.2% now.

What exponential growth is Not

So, we should stop saying that the world’s population is growing exponentially. That hasn’t been the case for at least 50 years. Exponential growth clearly doesn’t describe the global reality of the twenty-first century.

But there’s actually a second reason to stop saying that the global population is growing exponentially, and that’s because the term is so commonly misused and misunderstood. Note the next few times that you hear someone use the word, and I think you’ll find that it’s not being used in the sense of “constant percentage-growth-rate” or “constant doubling-time” or even just “an upward-bending curve.” Rather, it’s being used—often with an emphatic stress on the “-nen-” syllable and an implicit exclamation mark at the end of the phrase—to mean “rapidly” or “quickly” or “fast” or “big.”

That way of speaking is common, but it’s also just plain wrong. Remember the example that I started with: the exponential growth rate can be high (e.g. 10%) or low (e.g. 0.01%) or intermediate (e.g. 2%). In every case it’s exponential growth, but it’s very fast exponential growth if the growth rate is 10% and very slow exponential growth if it’s 0.01%.

I’m not that sanguine about getting people to go back to using “exponential” in its correct sense, but I think it’s at least worth a try. After all, we already have several other good words for that other, incorrect meaning—e.g. “fast” or “big.”

Implications

The results don’t just imply that we should talk about population growth differently, but also that we need to re-think how it relates to food production. There is good news in these data, because they show that hunger and environmental catastrophe is not at all inevitable. Malthus’ argument just doesn’t fit reality.

While linear growth has its challenges, it’s far easier to deal with than exponential growth. The distinction between growing exponentially and growing in a straight line does matter. On that point, at least, Malthus got it right.

Crop Diversity: A Nice Thing If You Can Get It (and You Can Get It If You Try)

Extended crop rotations, which often include small grains like oats, pictured here, can provide financial benefits to farmers while also providing broader environmental benefits, like reduced soil erosion and runoff. Nick Ohde/Practical Farmers of Iowa

Diversity is incredibly important for a productive and resilient agrifood system. Diverse cropping systems can lead to greater  productivity, profitability and environmental health. Diversity in the form of extended crop rotations can also reduce weed, insect, and disease pressure, which can help farmers cut the costs of their purchased inputs like herbicides and insecticides. Beyond these financial benefits, diversifying crop rotations also provides broader environmental benefits that can be experienced at both the field scale (e.g., reduced erosion) and landscape scale (e.g., reduced water quality impairment), as noted in the UCS report Rotating Crops, Turning Profits

Greater cropping systems diversity can also help mitigate risks associated with the impacts of global climate change, which will drive more extreme and variable weather events, not to mention sustained temperature and precipitation changes that will impact agricultural production. Sadly, much of the agricultural production in the US, particularly in the Midwest, is lacking in biological diversity (at the genetic, species, and community level).

If diversity is a key ingredient in building a more resilient agroecosystem, good for the land and often for our bottom line, why then are so few farmers, particularly in the Midwest, implementing diverse crop rotations?

Corn is king

In collaboration with colleagues at Iowa State University, I attempted to answer this question in a recent paper published with Global Environmental Change, using information from Midwest Corn Belt farmers collected via surveys and in-depth interviews to examine the facilitators and barriers of more diversified crop rotations. Overall, we found that many farmers are interested in more diverse crop rotations. However, many of them feel constrained by the current corn-corn and corn-soybean rotation that is ubiquitous across much of the Midwest—as a Wisconsin farmer said in our study, “now, you live or die by two crops.” This farmer went on to note that he did not think this adherence to such a limited crop rotation was sustainable for the long-term health of the region’s agricultural system.

Our study also found that many farmers acknowledge the benefits of diversifying their crop rotation. Some also see diverse crop rotations as a way to take advantage of climate-related changes. Unfortunately, many farmers could not figure out what crops would be financially viable in their operation given that there are few regionally competitive markets for diverse crops. We did find that greater diversity at the watershed level (measured at the HUC6 level) facilitates farmers’ use of diverse crop rotations, likely due to the presence of alternative markets (e.g., small grains or feed) and associated technological and market infrastructure. It might also be that closer proximity with other farmers who have diverse rotations provides greater support to farmers considering adopting extended rotations. Our study also found that the loss of crop/livestock integration in the region had greatly reduced the need for more diverse rotations, with many farmers noting that they used to have more diverse rotations in the past, when they managed for an integrated crop and livestock system.

Overall, our study examined how path dependence, which limits the technological and economic options that farmers have within the corn-based cropping system in the US Corn Belt, restricts farmers’ options for changing their production systems to incorporate more diverse crop rotations.

An enabling environment for diversity

To enable greater diversity, it may be necessary to address both technology and informational barriers while also identifying incentives for more economically and environmentally resilient agricultural systems. Unfortunately, many farmers who are doing things differently from their neighbors can feel ostracized in their communities. Luckily organizations like Practical Farmers of Iowa and Women Food and Agriculture Network can provide farmers with communities of practice that enable them to experiment with new cropping systems or different production/conservation practices that might not be commonplace. Organizations such as the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, at Iowa State University, have been critically important in funding agricultural research that investigates diverse alternatives to the corn-based cropping system, such as the Prairie STRIPS project (check out efforts to re-imagine a new Leopold Center given recent funding cuts).

In our study, we suggest two primary strategies for facilitating greater cropping systems diversity in the US Corn Belt:

1) Increasing financial incentives to assist farmers with up-front costs associated with investing in new cropping systems or alternative crops, while also putting in place disincentives for monoculture production (e.g., conservation compliance); and

2) Investing in programs that will enable the development of alternative markets (e.g., perennial biofuel feedstock sources).

Diversity is a key ingredient in building a more resilient agroecosystem, yet there is much work to be done to cultivate more diverse cropping systems in the Corn Belt and other agricultural regions in the U.S. In an era of global climate change, it is more important than ever to invest in agricultural production systems that reduce vulnerability by embracing the merits of agroecological diversity.

 

Gabrielle Roesch McNally received her PhD in Sociology and Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. She worked in the US Corn Belt for over four years conducting and analyzing survey data and in-depth interviews with large-scale corn producers as part of a multi-state effort to examine climate change impacts and resilience-building strategies for corn-based cropping systems. The results reported in this blog were published in a co-authored manuscript entitled, “Barriers to implementing climate resilient agricultural strategies: The case of crop diversification in the U.S. Corn Belt” in the journal Global Environmental Change. Gabrielle is a Fellow with the USDA Northwest Climate Hubs. Follow Gabrielle on Twitter @G_Roesch or on Research Gate.

Nick Ohde /Practical Farmers of Iowa

Betrayal at the USDA

Photo: Preston Keres/USDA

Unqualified government employees. Elected officials using their positions for personal gain. Policymakers favoring industry and disregarding science. Such betrayals of the public trust have become commonplace in the Trump administration. And while there’s been plenty of press coverage of HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s lavish dining set, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s shady condo deal, and President Trump choosing the White House physician to lead the VA, the same pattern is apparent in corners of the administration that have received less scrutiny.

Over the past year, I’ve tracked the actions of Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and his USDA. In a new UCS report released today, I document the many ways Secretary Perdue has, in his first full year on the job, betrayed farmers and the public he is sworn to serve. And I highlight ways we can push back (as some farmers are already doing—see below).

Welcome to the Department of Agribusiness

When Perdue took the helm at the USDA on April 25, 2017, he spoke of rolling up his sleeves and vowed to “work tirelessly to solve the issues facing our farm families.” Using his down-home Twitter handle @SecretarySonny, he regularly issues folksy tweets championing hardworking farmers. This week, he’s trundling through three states in an RV, making a show of getting out of Washington and talking to people in the heartland.

But over the past year, Perdue’s actual record of policy decisions has favored ideology over expertise and the interests of the Big Ag lobby over that of the majority of America’s 2 million farmers—and of all of us who eat.

A few examples:

  • There was the time last year when Perdue reversed newly-minted USDA rules meant to protect small farmers who raise poultry and livestock for big meat companies (think Tyson Farms and Smithfield Foods). As their name suggests, the Farmer Fair Practices Rules would have evened the playing field for those farmers, giving them more leverage in contracts with these corporate giants and making it easier for farmers to sue for abuses. (Lobbyists for the meat industry hailed Perdue’s action and suggested celebrating “with a top-quality steak.
  • Then there’s a pair of decidedly unscientific decisions related to nutrition, an important USDA responsibility that affects the health and well-being of our country. First, Perdue disregarded the best nutrition science in rolling back standards for school meals served to 45 million children every day. Under Perdue’s new rules, schools can serve “flavored” (read: sugar-sweetened) milk again and get a pass on implementing progressive sodium targets until at least 2020. In announcing the decision last May, Perdue assured reporters, “This is not reducing the nutritional standards whatsoever,” adding, “I wouldn’t be as big as I am today without flavored milk.” (The International Dairy Foods Association cheered.)
Farmers fight back

Secretary Perdue’s betrayal of farmers, in particular, may soon catch up with him. Already, his apparent failure to avert a Trumpian trade war that will hurt farm exports is causing anxiety and anger in farm country.

And now, a group of farmers is fighting his decision on the Farmer Fair Practice Rules in court.

In December, a handful of farmers and the watchdog Organization for Competitive Markets sued Perdue and the USDA, alleging that his decision to end the Farmer Fair Practices Rules unlawfully harms farmers. Just last week, the plaintiffs filed a new brief in the case, detailing the ways large agricultural companies have retaliated against them for standing up for their rights and how the now-rescinded rules would have helped them seek legal redress. The plaintiffs’ stories include companies lowballing them on price, retaliating against them when they complained, and even driving some out of business—practices they say the USDA’s own analysis shows are rampant in the livestock and poultry industries.

And OCM argues that Secretary Perdue and his USDA have failed to explain why rules that would prevent such actions are suddenly not needed.

Will sunshine be Sonny’s downfall?

Of course Perdue is siding with the agribusiness industry over the little guy. It’s who he has always been, going back to his days as Georgia governor. Back then, he made ethics pledges and promptly accepted gifts from lobbyists. He was fined by the state ethics board for campaign finance violations. And he went easy on big food companies in the state, which led to a pair of food safety crises—in the form of tainted peanut butter—that killed nine people and sickened more than 1,300. For all this, Perdue was named one of country’s the worst governors in 2010.

Anyone who studied Perdue’s record could have predicted how his tenure at the USDA would play out (and actually, some of us did). Still, over the past year, he has kept a relatively low profile as a member of the Trump cabinet “under the radar club,” avoiding serious scrutiny from the press while hewing closely to the boss’s deregulatory agenda.

As he hits the road this week, I’d like to see him field tough questions about why he is taking actions that hurt—rather than help—farmers and everyday people across this country.

 

Photo: Preston Keres/USDA

Room for Ruminants in a Sustainable Future? Taking a Step Back to Find More Steps Forward

Photo: USDA/ARS

Ruminants, especially cattle (particularly beef cattle), have gotten a bad rap for their effects on climate, water, land and health. However, research and practice also point to cases in which ruminants can help improve the sustainability of farms, increasing farm resilience to extreme weather and supporting the livelihoods of some of the land’s best stewards.

In this post, I want to explore some ways that agroecology can reduce environmental damage from farms and ranches that support beef cattle production. First, I want to talk about how cattle production in the US involves a substantial amount of both grass and grain, and how we should be thinking about ways to grow both better. Then I’ll discuss how integrating crops and cattle could be one strategy for optimizing potential farm and environmental benefits. Yes, it’s context-dependent, and it’s complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s not possible.

Wait, what’s a ruminant?

Before digging in, a bit of Ruminant 101. Ruminants are mammals defined by their unique digestive process, which is quite slick from a scientific perspective. Ruminants, which include cattle, sheep, goats, elk, giraffes, antelopes, buffalo, and camels (but not other common farm animals such as pigs and chickens), can get their nutritional needs from grasses and leaves, which are inedible to most of us mammals. This ability means that they can convert otherwise inedible plants into sellable products, like meat and milk, and help farmers profit from grasslands. Ruminants also can, and do, eat other plant material, like grains. Overall, their digestive flexibility enables them to take advantage of foods that might otherwise go to waste (which in part explains why some producers have used ingredients as unusual as candy, in moderation, as an energy source within a balanced diet).

So, what’s the problem?

In brief, like all forms of animal agriculture, ruminant production requires land and other resources, such as fertilizers and energy, to produce feed. Ruminants also produce manure, which must be carefully managed, and can lead to climate-warming emissions and water pollution. Due to their unique digestive process, these animals also produce large amounts of methane, a potent climate-disrupting gas. Finally, the sheer number of cattle raised, in response to high demand for meat and dairy, ensures that consequences from production add up particularly fast.

Levers for more sustainable beef? On grass, grain, and goldilocks

Beef provides an interesting lens into food system solutions. For one thing, there’s a lot of room for improvement. Furthermore, solving sustainability challenges with beef production means looking not just at the final product, but at management all along the way. In the US, all beef cattle begin their lives grazing on grass, but most are “finished” on grain—largely corn—in industrial feedlots known as CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations). Thus, the scope of solutions for beef production can include both grass and grain management. For example:

  • Improving grass: Grasslands and pastures used for beef production could be improved by managing them according to best practices, potentially leading to several benefits. Well-managed grasslands can reduce soil erosion or even build soil health, improving resilience to droughts and floods, and storing or even sequestering soil carbon. Also, protecting species-rich grasslands or planting diverse pastures can benefit biodiversity and pollinators. In addition, cattle production in well-managed grazing systems tends to improve animal health and reduce reliance on antibiotics that are often used heavily in feedlots.
  • Improving grain: Farms growing feed crops for cattle can also be improved by adopting regenerative practices. For example, rotating corn and soy with other crops can reduce erosion and build soil health and soil carbon, while also interrupting pest cycles and reducing pesticide use. Transitioning some areas of farms to perennial plants (including grasses and trees) and adopting cover crops can help to keep soils protected and healthy year-round, while also improving resilience to droughts and floods. Diverse farms can include “nitrogen-fixing” crops, which take advantage of natural processes that add nitrogen to the soil, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers.
  • Grass versus grain, or a goldilocks effect? In addition to improving both grass and grain production, it’s worth thinking about the proportion of either that is ultimately used to feed cattle. As I mentioned above, most producers “finish” cattle on grain, but others stick with grass, and whether one is better than the other has been the subject of many inquiries (learn more here and here). On the one hand, finishing more cattle on more grass could help protect grasslands, potentially countering a disturbing trend of grassland loss in the US. On the other hand, finishing cattle with more grain decreases digestive methane emissions each day, and speeds up production, resulting in fewer total emissions. Given the tradeoffs and complexities, a broader context is needed to determine the best steps for more sustainable beef production.
Designing diversified, integrated farms

Among the potential ways to improve beef production, reconfiguring farms to diversify crops and reintegrate cattle stands out as one way to make things work better—for both farmers and the environment (see my post on regenerative farmers for success stories).

Such integrated systems function by mimicking natural ecosystems in which plants are grown together with the animals that they feed and the animal manure can be used to fertilize plants, reducing reliance on (purchased) chemical fertilizers in some instances. As animals can get value out of a variety of crops, farmers managing integrated systems can more readily plant crop rotations and cover crops that are good for soils and farm resilience, even when markets may be unreliable. Another benefit of integrated systems is that they can be strategically designed to provide high-quality, nutritious diets for cattle that improve productivity and health, and reduce methane emissions.

Outcomes from reintegrating land and livestock

Given the advantages of integrated crop-livestock systems, we recently crunched some numbers to gain a better understanding of the impacts of transitioning common monocrop farms to more integrated, regenerative ones. From this exercise, we found that several scenarios of reintegrating cattle into conventional farms could meaningfully improve land, acre by acre, while boosting farmer profits. Benefits were possible even in cases where farmers were assumed to only convert a portion of their land to new practices (for our study, we considered the impacts of making changes to as little one third of a 1000-acre farm).

Of course, it’s complicated, as beef production in any case requires substantial feed, land, and water—on average, much more than other meat and dairy products. Based on current research, scaling up the practices that we explored may support fewer cattle per acre, which would imply that less beef could be produced or that more land would be required. However, future and ongoing research into regenerative practices and soil health could change these outcomes. And we know that many Americans could improve their health by reducing their red meat consumption, a shift that could also reduce demand over time.

In sum, although there’s no simple path forward, solutions that start by working with farmers and eaters alike could be an important part of the portfolio.

P.S. Finding more sustainable beef within the current food system is a challenge, but there is some advice out there if you want to try. While choices are limited these days, demonstrating interest in more sustainable foods is an important way to encourage more options in the future.

Regenerative Farming Trailblazers: How Reintegrating Livestock and Restoring Soils Can Lead to More Resilient Farms

Farmer using diverse cover crops and animal grazing to build soil health.Farmer Jonathan Cobb with cattle. Using diverse cover crops and diverse animal grazing, the Cobbs are building soil health on their farm. Photo: USDA/Ron Nichols

Across the United States, more farmers are finding that practices that have worked in the past are no longer cutting it. Persistent low prices for common crops (especially corn) paired with high production costs (for example, expensive equipment and fertilizers) have made it hard to stay afloat. At the same time agriculture has also moved increasingly toward systems dominated by a few annual crops—typically corn and soybeans—often with fields left bare between growing seasons. This trend has degraded core resources like soil and water, endangering the long-term viability of many farms.

Faced with growing pressures, some farmers are exploring their options, including testing regenerative farming practices that can rebuild soil health, conserve water, improve water quality, and more. For example, farmers are diversifying their crops and animals, implementing more complex crop rotations, and protecting soil year-round by using cover crops. Such changes come with both challenges and opportunities.

Overcoming the obstacles of regenerative farms, and a role for ruminants

Adding regenerative practices to farms can be great on many levels, but they aren’t always easy, at least under current conditions. For example, oats can improve crop rotations, but there’s not much demand for them, and farmers don’t want to plant something they can’t sell. Cover crops are good for soils, but farmers experience barriers to adopting them, such as costs, market forces, and risks of reduced yields. Getting grass back on land is fantastic for soil health, clean water, and more, but today’s trends are toward a loss rather than gain in grasslands.

Interestingly, one way to make regenerative farming more manageable, is to (re)integrate livestock. As I’ve written, livestock—when managed with best practices—can help turn challenges of regenerative agriculture into solutions, enabling a more self-reliant farming system. For instance, livestock can eat the oats, cover crops, and grass that protect the soil. In turn, the livestock’s manure can reduce reliance on costly alternatives while also building soil health.

But can such changes add up to meaningful benefits for farmers and the environment? Our recent analysis suggested that the answer to this question is yes. We found that several regenerative scenarios could translate to reduced soil erosion, fertilizer loss, and pollution, as well as increased soil organic matter, resilience to extreme weather, and potentially even more profits for farmers. But while these number-crunching exercises were hopeful, it’s important to also explore what’s happening on the ground. So, don’t take it from me—take it from the soil health heroes.

Tales from regenerative trailblazers

Fortunately for regenerative agriculture, farmers across the country are already pioneering promising paths forward, applying innovative practices and seeing results (I mentioned a few on World Soil Day). These land stewards are showing that there are ways to transform agriculture acre-by-acre that can support their livelihoods while also building soils, protecting water, and more. We recently connected with a handful of those who are leading the way on diverse and integrated farms, and their stories are insightful and inspiring.

Integrating regenerative agriculture and livestock can be a smart path to more profits

Take Del Ficke, a fifth-generation farmer from Pleasant Dale, Nebraska, for example. In Ficke’s words, “Regenerative farming is a no-brainer. Most of the soil in the country is on life support and it’ll only respond to synthetic chemicals…” However, as he has shown on his own farm, regenerative agriculture can turn things around. By adopting cover crops, reintegrating livestock, and using livestock to fertilize fields, Ficke estimates that the organic matter in his soils has increased substantially, reaching 4 percent or more, in some places. This is great news for the long-term health of his farm, as well as for other farmers looking to follow in his footsteps.

Not only that, but Ficke was able to transition his operation from the large scale to a smaller scale while improving his bottom line. As he puts it, “I used to farm 7,000 acres. Now I’m less than 700 acres, but 70 percent more profitable.” In other words, he has accrued more profits, but requires less land.

Benefits from state-to-state, and farm-to-sea

Over 100 miles away, Seth Watkins of Clarinda, Iowa is also finding that similar practices are good for business, even in the state that leads the nation in corn and soybean production. Over time, Watkins, a fourth-generation farmer, has diversified his farm and integrated livestock. While he primarily raises cattle, he also grows corn, hay and oats.

Watkins observes that “A lot of the way we farm now depletes soil organic matter. Having cattle on my land means I can utilize the diversified cropping system I have that builds health and ensures the long-term productivity of my land.” Watkins sees his crops feeding his cattle and his cattle’s manure feeding his crops. And because he saves money on “inputs” (fertilizer, feed, and antibiotics) he sees more profits.

Watkins has also found that the benefits of his practices go far beyond his farm. By creating a farming system that includes cover crops and crop rotations, he reduces water pollution on his farm and contributes to better water quality downstream—all the way to the Gulf of Mexico (which suffers from pollution-driven dead zones every year). Thus, innovations that happen just acre-by-acre, and drop by drop, can matter in a big way.

Cooperation and clear cost-effectiveness are two keys to getting more farmers on board

While regenerative farming can make a difference acre-by-acre, reaping more benefits is only going to be possible if these practices pick up more traction. For example, even as cover crop adoption rates break records, cover crops are still relatively rare. According to Jon Nelson, who grew up on a dairy farm in central Wisconsin, growing momentum around such practices will require more than just a few good examples. “To me, it’s intuitive but it takes cooperation,” said Nelson, citing the importance of colleagues, including extension agents, who can exchange ideas and help each other out.

Nelson, who now has a farm and cattle feeding operation in Lake Preston, South Dakota, noted the importance of this type of support in facilitating his own transition from a cash crop farm to a more integrated one. As a result of his success, he saw a drastic increase in organic matter (~25%) in just 3 years, and Nelson’s farm now offers another example of what can work well: “Cash crop and grazing—these two systems can be symbiotic. Our goal is the cattle to work for us, rather than us working for cattle.”

But making best practices spread, and continuing to improve them, will require more research and effective communication (as many scientists agree). As Nelson aptly noted, “If we can prove that diversified farming is more profitable than the traditional monocrop model, then this method of farming will take hold.”

Getting farmers’ feet wet

Despite the success stories, many farmers are still hesitant to adopt regenerative health practices, let alone think about scaling them up. As fifth-generation Nebraskan farmer Graham Christensen noted, “By nature, farmers are conservative with making changes on their farms, but they’re also willing to adapt in order to do what is best for their family and farm—farmers are innovators. We need to get our feet wet before we go all in. Getting folks started in utilizing regenerative practices, whether it’s converting their land to cover crops or applying improved rotational grazing or implementing agroforestry—is a good way for people to better understand the tremendous benefits to the soil, and therefore the pocketbook.”

Certainly, even small changes in the right direction can make a meaningful difference and are worth celebrating. Christensen, for one, has successfully convinced his parents to adopt regenerative practices on small portions of their farm, giving them a better understanding for the many “value-adds” that these can provide. Over time, as farmers and scientists continue to improve methods and measurements, these initial experiments will become a foundation for larger change.

Farmers are transforming agriculture to benefit us all: Let’s support them

With the growing stresses on farms and natural resources today, there’s a lot at stake. As Nelson put it, “I don’t want a piece of land that 100 years from now it’s completely depleted and top soil is gone and it ends up fueling another Dust Bowl. In the US, I don’t think we’re real far away from that in some areas. I want to do everything I can to prevent that.” The good news is, there is growing evidence that diversified farms—of many shapes and sizes—can benefit both farmers and the environment. And this all comes down to some basics: Working with Mother Nature, instead of against it, is the cheapest way to build a viable business,” says Watkins.

While several obstacles stand in the way, the upcoming farm bill provides numerous opportunities to support those who steward the land. For example, education and technical assistance for regenerative practices could be bolstered, crop insurance could be better designed to incentivize healthy soil practices, and research support for agroecology could be strengthened.

But the task of advocating for these advances can’t be left entirely to farmers: “We can’t do it by ourselves,” noted Christensen. Fortunately, even small progress can trigger a big impact down the line. As Ficke mentioned, “It’s a ripple effect. Money will follow the sustainability. Sometimes it takes a long time if the soil is very depleted. But you see family coming back as more people get involved on the farm, and that’s how you build community.”

Photo: USDA/Ron Nichols