UCS Blog - Food & Agriculture (text only)

Trump Administration’s Attacks on SNAP Hurt Farmers and Rural Areas

Photo: UCS

If you haven’t already, you really should read this week’s post from our resident food systems and health expert Sarah Reinhardt. In it, Sarah breaks down everything that’s wrong with agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue’s latest regulatory attack on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Or rather, nearly everything that’s wrong with it. Because in addition to the dishonesty, denialism, and downright cruelty (I know, it’s the point) that oozes from a rule change that, if enacted, would take food off the plates of $3.1 million low-income people, there’s something else.

Secretary Perdue’s proposed SNAP cuts would hurt the very people he calls his “customers”: farmers and rural communities.

As we head into National Farmers Market Week, an annual celebration of local food, let’s look at the impact of SNAP cuts on farmers who are bringing the rest of us a bounty of summer peaches, tomatoes, corn, and green beans right now.

Many of those farmers have a larger customer base and higher sales than they otherwise would because there are now (according to USDA data updated in July) 3,441 SNAP-authorized farmers markets operating nationwide. Farmers at those markets can sell their fresh produce, meats, and dairy products to people at all income levels because of the program. And SNAP redemptions at farmers markets has been rising, up 35 percent between 2012 and 2017. Community-based programs that double SNAP dollars, also on the rise, mean even more sales for farmers.

But markets won’t be able to double the benefits of SNAP recipients who are kicked out of the program as a result of Perdue’s short-sighted and punitive eligibility change. And while his proposed rule provides an estimate of the losses to small retailers ($183 loss of revenue per small authorized retailer on average per month), there’s no consideration for how this rule would affect farmers market vendors specifically. Surely though, some slice of such farmers’ incomes would simply disappear.

And there’s more. As Salon reported during the SNAP fight that nearly hijacked the 2018 farm bill, some small farmers use SNAP to supplement their own families’ food budgets. Some of them will likely lose their benefits as well.

Finally, as the Union of Concerned Scientists has shown, 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. We found that 136 of the 150 counties with the highest percentages of SNAP participation by household are located in rural areas. And SNAP dollars spent at rural grocery stores help boost struggling economies.

For National Farmers Market Week, how about actually helping farmers?

Any minute now, I expect to see a cheerful press release from Secretary Perdue praising farmers markets and the farmers who supply them. Don’t get me wrong, he should acknowledge those farmers. We should all raise a glass to them during this celebratory week. (Grilled watermelon margarita, anyone?)

But Secretary Perdue’s USDA really should do more to ensure their success, instead of shortsightedly shrinking their customer base and leaving their neighbors hungry.

Photo: UCS

Trump Administration Sidesteps Congress to Cut SNAP. Again.

The Trump administration has announced a new proposed rule that would make it harder for millions to feed their families—and is defying Congress in the process.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve seen this movie before. Several times.

Remember that in 2018, Trump allies in the House of Representatives hijacked the 5-year farm bill in an attempt to make drastic cuts to the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, or SNAP (formerly known as food stamps). Perhaps you recall some of their proposals, including the much-derided America’s Harvest Box idea. Those proposals were ultimately rejected by Congress, which in December passed a farm bill that allowed SNAP to continue doing what it does best: providing nutrition assistance to the most vulnerable individuals and families in our country. But that hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from circumventing Congress and taking matters into its own hands with a series of regulatory changes to slash SNAP spending and participation.

For example, last November, amidst a blitz of baseless changes to immigration policy, the administration called for a rule change that would force many immigrants to choose between keeping food on the table and maintaining a path to citizenship.

And in December, on the heels of the farm bill’s passage in Congress, Secretary Perdue unveiled a plan that could cause more than 750,000 unemployed and underemployed adults to lose access to SNAP. And despite strong opposition from public health and anti-hunger groups and outright rejection by Congress itself, this proposal continues its slow and defiant march through the rulemaking process.

Now, Secretary Perdue is proposing an additional regulatory change that would make it harder for millions of parents, seniors, and children to qualify for SNAP, and could also put affordable school lunches out of reach for half a million kids in the process.

If we’ve become accustomed to the Trump administration’s attacks on the federal safety net, it’s because they’re part of a consistent pattern of undermining science-based policies that protect public health and safety. But that doesn’t make them any less alarming. The consequences are real, and could be felt by communities across the country—rural and urban alike—for years to come.

Understanding the latest SNAP proposal: Cutting categorical eligibility

This particular policy change focuses on what’s called “broad-based categorical eligibility,” or “cat-el” for short. Put simply, it’s a legal provision that allows households who qualify for a federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to automatically qualify for SNAP. This makes it easier for people who need help to apply for it—and it eases the administrative burden on the state and federal agencies responsible for running these programs.

Here’s the rub: States have flexibility in deciding what makes someone eligible for TANF and can set their own income limits and asset limits. Broadly, this has resulted in lower eligibility standards for TANF (meaning it’s generally easier to qualify for TANF than for SNAP) and some variability in regulations from state to state.

Enter the Trump administration, declaring it’s time to close this “loophole” by limiting the circumstances in which cat-el can be used. Specifically, the proposed rule suggests that cat-el should only be used in cases where TANF is providing a household with “ongoing and substantial benefits” of at least $50 per month over six months. It would also allow just three types of non-cash TANF assistance to count toward this minimum: subsidized employment, work supports, and childcare (together, these make up about 30 percent of all federal and state TANF dollars spent).

But categorical eligibility isn’t a loophole, and calling it one is both demeaning and dishonest. It’s an intentional policy provision, and it has been upheld by Congress for decades—most recently in the passage of the bipartisan 2018 farm bill. There’s a reason cat-el exists, and there’s a reason more than 40 states are using it.

Until we can prevent persistent poverty, we need anti-poverty programs

It isn’t difficult to become poor in America, but it’s undeniably difficult to be poor. Last year’s report from the Economic Policy income (EPI) showed that income inequality has been widening in every state since the 1970s, meaning it’s only getting harder for most families to make ends meet. On average, those in the top 1 percent of US families by income earned 26.3 times more than those in the bottom 99 percent in 2015. Of course, poverty and hunger are closely related, and it shows in the data. Nearly 12 percent of all households in the US—15 million in total—are classified as food insecure, and rates of food insecurity among black and Hispanic households are nearly double those among white households.

But rather than proposing policies to address the underlying causes of hunger and poverty, the Trump  administration keeps trying to slash the safety net, while pushing misperceptions that poverty is a personal failure or character flaw—or worse, that it doesn’t exist at all. But make no mistake: the consequences of cutting access to SNAP are real, and they will have lasting impacts for families and communities across the country. The research is clear on the benefits that SNAP delivers to local economies, and on the critical protection it provides against food insecurity—particularly for kids. Young children who participate in SNAP are more likely to complete high school, and to have lower rates of obesity and metabolic syndrome in adulthood.

According to the USDA’s own estimates, this latest proposed rule would cause more than 3.1 million individuals to lose access to SNAP. Households with elderly members would be disproportionately affected: more than 13 percent of households with elderly members are expected to lose benefits. Furthermore, the rule may cause 500,000 children to become ineligible for free and reduced-price school lunches—a fact the USDA revealed on a press call last week, but omitted from the proposed rule itself and has refused to acknowledge since.

What you can do now

From now through September 23, the USDA is accepting public comments on the proposed rule. The next two months is a critical period for the administration to receive feedback about the policy and its potentially devastating consequences, both from members of the general public who can communicate what the rule would likely mean for their families, neighbors, and communities, and from public health professionals who can leverage their expertise to defend a program that is effective and evidence-based.

For more information on writing effective public comments, including quick tips and templates for writing your own, check out these resources from Food Research & Action Center and Hands Off SNAP.

Photo: USDA.

How Cereal Companies and Consumers Can Make Breakfast Better

Adrian V. Floyd/flickr

What’s for breakfast? Maybe it’s a bagel and cream cheese, or toast and coffee, or eggs (or not). For millions of Americans, though, cereal is a breakfast mainstay. There’s a mind-boggling array of ready-to-eat cereal brands on offer, and everyone has their favorites.

But what really goes into your cereal of choice? What impact does that have on the planet? What can cereal-makers—and those of us who buy their products—do to lessen that impact? These are questions UCS asked in a new report, Champions of Breakfast: How Cereal-Makers Can Help Save Our Soil, Support Farmers, and Take a Bite out of Climate Change.

Breakfast cereal is mostly grain…and in many cases, a whole lot of sugar, but that’s another topic. For this report, we looked at some of the top-selling cereal brands, the particular grains that go into them, the way most of those grains are grown now, and the alternative ways these could be grown if farmers had different incentives. Lead author Marcia DeLonge summarizes our number-crunching (see what I did there?) and the top takeaways here.

But what does it all mean for conscientious consumers who also happen to love cereal?

  • Your favorite flakes aren’t always so g-r-r-r-reat for farmers and the environment. Many popular breakfast cereals have corn as their main ingredient. Not just the eponymous cornflakes (both plain and top-selling Frosted Flakes), Corn Chex, and Corn Pops, but also such brands as Froot Loops, Kix, and Trix. While most of it doesn’t end up in your cereal, US farmers grow a lot of corn: in 2017, more than 89 million acres worth, an area larger than the state of New Mexico. Most of that corn is grown is grown in environmentally damaging ways. Much of the nitrate in Iowa’s drinking water is due to corn. Toxic algae in Lake Eerie is largely due to corn. Coastal “dead zones”—especially the one in the Gulf of Mexico that is forecast to be the size of Massachusetts this summer—are largely due to corn. While it wasn’t part of our analysis, a recent study revealed that corn is also a major source of air pollution. Today’s dominant corn production system damages our soil, pollutes our water, releases heat-trapping gases, and misses the opportunity to store carbon in the soil. And lately it isn’t working out so well for farmers, either. In other words, there’s a lot of room for improvement.
  • Those little O’s could have big impact. But maybe you’re like this guy, and Cheerios are your thing. Those O’s, whether plain or honey-nutted, are mostly whole oats; other oat-based cereals include Honey Bunches of Oats and Lucky Charms. US farmers used to grow a lot of oats, but they’ve been replaced by other crops (see “Corn,” above). Now, oats are seen as a key to diversifying Corn Belt landscapes. A long-running Iowa State University study has shown that rotating oats and other crops with corn and soybeans can dramatically reduce soil erosion and pollutant runoff while maintaining farmer profits.
  • What about wheat? Our analysis didn’t include a scenario for wheat cereals like Wheaties, Raisin Bran, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, or my personal favorite, the oddly-named Grape-Nuts (which contain neither grapes nor nuts, but rather wheat and barley). Like corn, wheat is grown across large swaths of the country, with similar effects on the soil. But there are soil-health building practices available to these farmers, too. For example, Montana farmers have found that crop rotations that include lentils—a legume requiring little moisture—have helped build soil health and increase farm resilience in that arid region, with added economic benefits.
Consumers have power in the cereal aisle…but big companies have more.

As UCS showed with this interactive feature earlier this year, we have choices when we go to the supermarket (though public policies and corporate actions largely create and prop up those choices). To improve the impact of your cereal habit, the best option right now is probably to choose an organic brand. Grains grown organically avoid a lot of environmental damage, and while farmers can pursue sustainable practices without being certified organic, the USDA organic label is currently the best signal to consumers that packaged food ingredients are grown in better ways.

Then there’s oatmeal. I wrote about its power a couple of years ago, and our new report bears out that sustainably grown whole oats have even more soil-saving, pollution-preventing potential than formulated oat-based cereals, simply because there are more oats per serving. (Although personally, I won’t return to my favorite organic oatmeal until this heat breaks in the fall.)

Beyond that, clearly sustainable cereal choices are pretty limited. The biggest cereal companies could take steps to change this, however. There are four of them, and you know their names: General Mills, Kellogg Company, Post Consumer Brands, and Quaker Oats (a division of PepsiCo). Together, these companies account for 86 percent of the $8.5 billion US breakfast cereal market; many of their brands are household names, and they make more than just cereal. These companies have begun to take steps to improve the sourcing of their ingredients (check out some of their initiatives here and here), but there’s plenty of opportunity to do more. By investing in more supply chain improvements, defining and improving sustainability standards, and raising consumer awareness, these companies can play a major role in expanding opportunities for sustainable US grain farmers, setting the wheels in motion for larger-scale market shifts.

In the heart of corn country, the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) are ready to work with these companies. They’ve been coaching farmers to grow cover crops and incorporate oats and other crops into rotations. But PepsiCo’s Quaker Oats, which has a large plant in Iowa, reportedly doesn’t buy oats from there.  And while General Mills also uses a lot of oats, is based in the Midwest, and has committed to shifting a million acres of farmland to more regenerative practices by 2030, the company hasn’t—so far—committed to buying oats from diversified farms close to home. And it’s precisely this lack of market certainty that is holding Iowa farmers back, according to PFI.

It’s clear the big cereal companies can do more. And with our new report in hand, my colleagues and I will be thinking about how organizations like UCS—and all of us as eaters—can help make that happen.

A Spoonful of Science in Your Surprisingly Powerful Cereal Bowl

Photo: Matt Liebman/Iowa State University

When you think about “farm to table”, what comes to mind? Heirloom tomatoes? Local mixed greens? Farmstead cheese? Whatever it may be, I hope you’ll add breakfast cereal to that list. Yes, breakfast cereal. 

Why? Although a morning bowl of flakes, puffs, or other tasty choices might not strike you as a “farm to table” item, the corn, wheat, oats, rice, or other grains that made your meal possible all started out on farms. Not only that, but they came from exactly the types of farms that stretch across millions of acres of the US and around the world. These farms have received a lot of attention for the role they play in challenges such as soil erosionwater pollution, and climate change. But they’ve also been identified as among the most powerful levers we have to solve these problems, and others.

In a report released this week, we shine a spotlight on the potential of the farms behind your breakfast grains. And we crunch some numbers to give you a taste for how your modest morning meals—and the companies that bring them to your table—present both challenges and opportunities for change for farmers across the nation.

Can a helping of breakfast grains help deliver big (enough) change?

Before going any further, I’d like to offer a caveat, or two. First, breakfast cereals are only a relatively small user of the tens of millions of acres of grains planted across the US. Relatedly, it’s going to take a lot more than more sustainable breakfast bowls to leverage the full power of farmers. All true.

That said, for millions of us, breakfast is a daily dose of grain. Those grains connect us to farms (hundreds of thousands of acres of them, we estimate). And companies that purchase these grains buy even more of these crops for other products. So, while breakfast cereals themselves may not be the biggest agent for change in US agriculture as a whole, we thought they were a compelling one.

But just how much change are we talking about?

How cereal companies and farmers could save thousands of tons of soil, millions of dollars, and more

To get a grasp on how far cereal could take us towards a more regenerative agriculture, cleaner water, and climate resilience, we looked to science. More specifically, we looked to science from a place that’s covered in grains (though currently mostly not ones used for human food), and where long-term research has illustrated an opportunity for substantial change: Iowa.

As we’ve reported previously, Iowa State University boasts a rigorous 17-year (and counting) study investigating the impacts of shifting standard corn-soybean fields to more diverse systems (adding in oats and cover crops, or oats and alfalfa). The results have been encouraging, showing that these diverse rotations can dramatically reduce soil erosion while still maintaining farmer profits. Furthermore, the most recent update published just this year demonstrates the potential for significant reductions in fertilizer pollution, while also keeping weeds at bay with less herbicide. Yet, Iowa remains blanketed in corn and soybeans (used mostly for feed and industrial purposes), largely because a combination of public policies and grain markets incentivize those crops, and farmers don’t have certainty that they could sell other crops (such as food-grade oats).

This all begs the question: what if cereal companies committed to purchasing modest but meaningful amounts of ingredients from farmers transitioning to more diverse rotations? For example, say, an amount of corn roughly equivalent to what is used annually just in a top-selling corn-based cereal (Frosted Flakes), or an amount of oats roughly equivalent to that used annually in a top-selling oat-based cereal (Honey Nut Cheerios)? How much progress could this make toward a more sustainable farming system?

To get the full answer, you’ll have to read our report. But here’s the short story: even sourcing changes at these relatively small scales could make a big difference. For example, purchasing the amount of oats we estimate is needed to make a year’s worth of Honey Nut Cheerios (produced in the sustainable ways recommended by the Iowa State University researchers) could impact 180,000 acres, save over 70,000 metric tons of soil (avoiding over $400,000 in water cleanup costs), reduce nitrogen runoff by 262 metric tons (saving over $5 million in surface freshwater pollution costs), and prevent over 20,000 metric tons of CO2-equivalents due to nitrogen fertilizer emission (amounting to taking 5,040 cars off the road).

As you can imagine, given that breakfast cereal is just one entry point into the potential to improve tens of millions of acres of US grains, and that the science of soil health is rapidly growing, this could be just the beginning.

Winning at breakfast

So, if you’re one of the millions of breakfast-lovers who kick off their day with a serving of grains, take note! The farmers and companies who work hard to fill your bowls each morning have science-based tools at their disposal that can be deployed not only to improve your breakfast, but also to protect clean water, build resilience to extreme weather and climate change, and more. The growing collection of healthy soils policies emerging in several states across the country is one key step toward making this happen. And engaged eaters, with the help of elected representatives and other stakeholders, could put companies in a better position to do much more, much faster. That would make you, dear reader, a champion of breakfast.

Our Children Deserve Better: Trump’s EPA Refuses to Ban Brain-Damaging Pesticide. Again

While many of us were buoyed this past weekend by the 50th anniversary of our nation’s moon landing, the Trump administration gave the U.S. chemical industry another reason to celebrate. This time at the expense of children’s health.

The Dow company was the prime beneficiary of this latest gift from the EPA. On Thursday, July 18, the agency announced that it will not ban the use of chlorpyrifos, a dangerous pesticide, on our nation’s food crops (see here, here, here).  That’s right, the EPA said it was OK to spray this brain-damaging chemical on the array of fruits, nuts, vegetables, and cereal crops that we and our children consume on a daily basis.

With this decision, the EPA continues to sideline science, put public health at risk, and roll back public safeguards in favor of private interests. (And this right after another case in point: the EPA’s new “no surprises” inspection policy. Don’t get me started on this one.)

The science is clear. Chlorpyrifos is a significant public health threat

Pregnant women and their fetuses, young children, farm workers, and their communities are particularly at risk Numerous studies (see for example, here and here) have linked chlorpyrifos to brain damage and abnormal neurological development in children, including learning disabilities, reduced IQ, and behavioral problems.

Known commercially as Lorsban and Dursban, the EPA banned chlorpyrifos for household use in 2000.  In 2007, the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) petitioned the EPA to cancel the product registration for chlorpyrifos and ban all uses.  In 2015, the Obama administration announced it would ban its use in agriculture given the scientific evidence and the assessment of the EPA’s own scientists.

Enter the Trump Administration and Scott Pruitt, who in 2017 reversed this decision. In June 2017, EarthJustice filed objections to this reversal on behalf of 12 public interest groups and 7 states. The American Academy of Pediatrics weighed in, noting grave risks to children’s health and calling on the EPA to take the product off the market. In April, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals gave the EPA 90 days to make a decision.

And last week EPA Administrator Wheeler did just that.  The agency denied all objections and refused to ban chlorpyrifos, while also promising an expedited review of the products’ pesticide registration – sometime before the 2022 statutory deadline. Even if the Trump administration’s EPA actually expedites the review and considers the trove of existing scientific evidence, that’s kicking the can years down the road.  And our nation’s kids, farm workers, and rural families will bear the burden of this abject federal failure to protect our health.

Dow Chemical (and its pesticide spin-off company Corteva Agriscience) may be popping corks, but some states are having none of itHawaii was the first state to ban chlorpyrifos; California has announced that it will do the same; New York recently approved legislation to ban it by December 1, 2021; and New Jersey and Maryland are also considering statewide bans.

In issuing its final order, the EPA had the temerity (OK, gall might be the better word) to say that there’s still a lot of scientific uncertainty. Only in an alternative universe (or one blinded by anti-regulatory zeal) would an agency say that we need more animal studies when epidemiologic studies have clearly demonstrated serious health effects on humans.  I note also that in its order, the agency renews its call for access to raw data from epidemiologic studies; you can see our take on that issue here and here.

Vigilance, accountability, and action needed

The effort to ban chlorpyrifos might be stalled, but it’s not over. Our children deserve better. Let your elected representatives know that the EPA is taking us backwards. They should hold the agency accountable. And we will be watching to ensure that they do.

Public domain

Climate Change and Wine – Is the Glass Half Full or Half Empty?

In the past decade, there have been a number of stories written on the connection between climate change and wine. Climate change is already one of the greatest challenges our planet is facing. Its effect will continue to take hold and shake up countless aspects of our lives. As a scientist who studies the connection between climate and agriculture with a focus on viticulture, I’m asked routinely – is climate change good, or bad, for wine? – which is a fair question. Perhaps better put: If the world is on fire, will there be Merlot?

It depends, in part, on if you are a wineglass half-empty, or half-full kind of person. And in part on other factors, like terroir.

Lightning wine 101 lesson

The concept of terroir is central to winemaking. Terroir, or the characteristics of the land where grapes are grown, is made up of four components:

  • Soil
  • Topography
  • Tradition/Grape variety
  • Climate

Soils are important for vine growth and fruit quality. Soils control factors like water and nutrient availability, drainage and pH. Topography is also critical, as even a slight slope to the land can have a large influence in vineyard management. Tradition and grape variety are tied more to the history and types of wine produced in a region. These are all significant variables that  explain why one area may be famous for an expensive delicate white wine that one would pair with a heavenly seafood meal and another region may be famous for a bold red that you picked at the store for $6 that’s going to go great with that $4 frozen pizza* you also bought. These components change over space, but they stay relatively static over time. The fourth component, climate, changes over space too.

*This is a judgement free zone here

Different wine-grape varieties thrive in different climates. Climate change will greatly influence regional, and global, wine trends. Click to enlarge.

The fact that climates changes over space is important because it helps establish the types of wine-grape variety grown in the major production regions of the world. Each variety has an optimal temperature threshold, thus growers traditionally pair their location’s climate with a certain type of grape. We have warm-climate regions like Sicily, Spain, Southern France, the Murray-Darling region in Australia, or the Central Valley in California which produce red wines; we have cool-climate regions that produce lighter reds and numerous white wines like Germany, Northern France, Oregon, or New Zealand; and we have many places in between. This concept of climate changing over space allows for thousands of varieties of wine-grapes to grow on six continents.

However, climate also changes over time. This can mean two things: 1.) year-to-year climates vary such that no two growing seasons are ever the same for one location, and 2.) large-scale climate change greatly influences regional, and global, wine trends. For now, let’s focus on the second aspect because the first feature is worth an entire blog post of its own.

A brief history of climate change and wine

Climate change is directly connected to wine throughout history. It is written in to the DNA of Vitis vinifera and its thousands of varieties. Even for times before there were reliable temperature or rainfall measurements, historians can estimate regional climate fluctuations via records of grape and wine production, wine quality, and even pricing. We have reliable historic records that tell us that when the world warms up (Medieval Warm Period, approximately 900 to 1250), wine production moves poleward. When the world cools down, production shifts equatorward (Little Ice Age, mid-1600s). We know where people were growing winegrapes, and we get a picture of their success – and the climates they were experiencing – on a year-by-year basis. This is incontrovertible data that bears no ability to be twisted to conform to an ideological thought process. Simply put, you can’t argue with it.

In modern times, we’ve seen warming of nearly 1˚C (>1.5°F), and we now have a robust, reliable network of weather measurements for entire planet. The change we see now is different than what we have seen in the past, and that change is yet again being reflected in the vines. Most of the world’s major producing regions have seen significant warming, particularly in the last few decades. This has sped up the cycles of fruit maturation, changed fruit biochemistry, introducing new pressures to these regions. Growers have methods for counter-acting some of these issues, but most problems do not have simple solutions. For example, increased water stress coupled with a rise in the cost of water, is one of several issues that warmer regions will need to contend with more and more.

Maybe that glass of Merlot is starting to look half-empty.

Michigan Pinot Noir grapes undergoing full fall colors.

Or is it? Warmer global temperatures allow for production to move poleward which can introduce winegrapes to regions that could not previously accommodate production. My research, across four peerreviewed papers, looked at one such region: Michigan. Before the late 1960s, there were virtually no Vitis vinifera varieties of grapes growing in the state. The growing season was too short and not reliably warm enough to sustain winegrapes. Additionally, brutal winter temperatures would drop below the threshold for traditional winegrape varieties. A few enterprising growers attempted some plantings, and after a few rough years, they managed to survive. By the mid-2010s, there were nearly 3000 acres of more than a dozen varieties of vinifera. So what happened?

Michigan, in particular the SW corner of the state along the shores of Lake Michigan, has experienced a rise in temperature of at least 0.55°C since 1950. Using seasonal Growing Degree Days (a measure of thermal time that allows one to compare how much heat “accumulated” over time), we found that the region had warmed significantly since the 1950s. Average growing season temperatures had increased, and, perhaps most importantly the growing season increased by 28.8 days from 1971 to 2011. That is nearly an entire month more of proper growing conditions that allow for growers to harvest when they want to, rather than when they need to. This reliability, particularly since 1980, saw an explosion of vinifera acreage that continues in to the present. There are, of course, challenges. Inconsistent late frosts, pest pressures, and severe weather still make Michigan a challenging location for expansion, but the opportunity is alluring.

As the climate changes, so will our wine

Currently, there are several “Michigans” across the globe which are emerging as viable winegrape producing regions. As global temperatures very likely will continue their rise, these regions will also grow in reputation, size, and number. At the moment, it’s a waiting game.

To recap: climate change is happening. And one place to see, or taste, it is a glass of Michigan Riesling or a snifter of Oloroso Sherry. Climate change has impacted global winegrape production in the past, it is having an impact in the present, and will almost certainly continue to do so in to the near and foreseeable future. For the warm wine producing regions of the world, it is already becoming more difficult and new vineyard management strategies will be needed. But, there are many areas that are now gaining the ability to produce winegrapes, like Michigan. Those places are not without difficulties, but as these regions continue to warm up, new varieties and methods will almost certainly bring them to the forefront of global wine production.

Ultimately, it largely depends on if you are a wineglass half-empty, or half-full kind of person.

 

Steven R. Schultze is an assistant professor of Geography at the University of South Alabama. He teaches courses on atmospheric processes, climatology, and the geography of alcohol. His research focuses on agricultural climatology and the links between wine and climate change. Additionally, he is conducting studies on the connection between microclimates and specialty crop production on a sub-field level, and on the viability of growing beer hops (Humulus lupulus) in the Central Gulf Coast region. For copies of studies done by the author, please email him. You can follow him on twitter @GEO_Schultze

 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.

Public Domain Image: WineFolly.com

Two Major Takeaways from the Second Dietary Guidelines Public Meeting

This week, the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee convened for its second public meeting at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The committee is charged with developing a scientific report that will lay the foundation for the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—the ninth edition of science-based nutrition recommendations that shape the food choices made by millions of kids, parents, and seniors every day.

These meetings are designed with transparency in mind: their purpose is to grant public access to the deliberations of the full committee as it builds out research protocols and eventually shares its findings. Last week’s meeting was the second in a series of five, and the first of two opportunities for the public to deliver comments to the committee in person.

And while this week’s public meeting made it crystal clear that the committee of experts is putting in hard work, there were also clear signs of the ways in which this work has been constrained by the Trump administration, including agency Secretaries at the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). These are our two major takeaways from the second public meeting of the committee.

1. It’s clear that the committee is putting in the work

Anyone hoping to see committee members clashing ideologies or lobbying for their diets of choice would have been disappointed. The committee, of which 16 of 20 members were present, engaged in substantive discussions for the better part of six hours. Each subcommittee delivered a presentation outlining the questions it was tasked with answering, as well as the research protocols that subcommittees have developed to begin to answer those questions. (These are available online, and will be updated with each subcommittee’s progress.) Some committee members, like Dr. Joan Sabaté, raised larger questions about the core focus of the guidelines—for example, is their objective to promote good health, with a focus on foods, or good nutritional status? But the majority of the questions posed throughout the course of the day were procedural. Things like, how do we make sure we’re including the right variables and setting the correct criteria to get the best results? Or, how can we better coordinate across subcommittees to ensure consistency? From where I sat, both the technical expertise in the room and the collaborative nature of the work—among committee members and USDA staff alike—were visible from start to finish.

2. It’s also clear that this work has been constrained by the administration

Even with the full dedication of the committee, the resulting scientific report—and the Dietary Guidelines issued thereafter—is likely to fall short of its full potential to promote public health. That’s because the Trump administration has hamstrung this committee at two critical junctions in its work: it preselected the questions the committee would address, and it limited the scope of research the committee could use.

The selection of research questions is the step that can put the rest of the Dietary Guidelines process on the right path. After all, there are hundreds of ways our diet can affect our health, and exponentially more questions about how and why. If I eat more fruits and vegetables, am I less likely to get cancer? Which types of cancer? Can I drink alcohol if my child is breastfeeding? If so, how much is safe? Choosing and prioritizing these questions so that the resulting research and recommendations maximize public health benefits is key. In previous iterations of the guidelines, the committee was asked to use its collective expertise to develop these questions. But in this cycle, the USDA and HHS developed the questions first. Though the agencies have claimed this was done to promote a deliberate and transparent process, it’s also clear that this move allowed the agencies to dodge controversial questions on topics like sustainability—with profound implications for public health.

The selection of the research that will be used to answer these questions is equally important. There’s a lot of nutrition research out there—not all of it good—and the committee needs to have the best information available to do its work. That’s why it was so puzzling when the USDA made an unprecedented decision to exclude one of four types of evidence previously used by Dietary Guidelines committees: systematic reviews from external groups. In other words, research produced by institutions like the World Health Organization—no matter how high the quality—can’t be used by the committee it to make recommendations. Instead, they will now have to rely on their own systematic review. The USDA addresses this protocol change on the Dietary Guidelines website, claiming that outside systematic reviews aren’t useful because they won’t directly address the questions the committee is considering, and won’t have the same criteria. Yet previous committees, which carefully screened external reviews for quality and relevance, were able to use these reviews to save time and more effectively address questions. In fact, the 2015 committee used such reviews and reports to answer nearly half (45%) of its research questions.

Though several comments from committee members alluded to the fact that topics had been predetermined before the committee selection, there was little mention of the limitations placed on external systematic reviews. As the subcommittees work with USDA staff to begin implementing their research plans, we’ll likely find out more about if and how this hinders the process.

The next chance to get a glimpse at the committee deliberations will be on October 24-25 in Washington, DC. In the meantime, you can learn more about some of the key science issues in the 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—and how to weigh in with your own public comment—on our website.

Don’t Fall for Atkins PR Ploy: For Healthy Diets, We Need Strong Government Support

Readers with an interest in food and health might have been intrigued by full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post calling for an overhaul of our nation’s official Dietary Guidelines for Americans. After all, as the ad argues, national obesity and diabetes rates have more than doubled since introduction of the Dietary Guidelines in 1980. They must be doing something wrong.

The problem with this seemingly sensible appeal is that it is misleading—not the least for being led by a company, Atkins Nutritionals, with a clear conflict of interest in that its transparent intent is to drum up business by arguing for a shift to a dubious low-carbohydrate regimen. But moreover, the ad’s basic premise is flawed: if we just had better information about healthy diets, we would all be healthier. But there’s an obvious difference between knowing what to do and being equipped with the right environment, genes, gut microbiota, health care, resources, or social support to do it successfully. And obesity in particular is a condition with a complex etiology. The notion that we could have curbed obesity rates in recent decades with stronger dietary recommendations alone is both inaccurate and insulting to the millions of Americans who wage war against their weight each day.

The reality is, with some notable exceptions, we do have strong science-based dietary recommendations. Historically, the process for developing Dietary Guidelines has employed some of the most rigorous methodology available for reviewing scientific nutrition literature. If we’re doing something wrong, it isn’t that we’re publishing Dietary Guidelines that are woefully inadequate. It’s that the food industry spends billions of dollars annually to fight medical advice, nutrition recommendations, and common sense to promote their products at the expense of our health—Atkins being one of any number of examples—and by and large, it has done so unchallenged by the federal government.

There are hundreds of decision points between accessing information and acting on it. And in all the places we make decisions about our diets, from the cafeteria to the checkout lane, we are likely to find that industry is there to whisper in our ears. By comparison, the federal government has done very little to bridge the enormous gulf between the scientific recommendations contained in the Dietary Guidelines and the effective implementation of those recommendations. Although law requires that the official dietary guidelines be integrated across all federal agencies carrying out federal food and nutrition programs—programs used by approximately one in four Americans over the course of a year—there is little enforcement or accountability to ensure that this happens. Our country spends $3.5 trillion in health care costs each year, the vast majority of which are attributable to chronic disease. The government allocates no funding to the implementation of our federal nutrition guidance.

So, yes, we need to take drastic action to change the current trajectory of population health. But overhauling the Dietary Guidelines isn’t going to do it. To counter the market power and sophisticated techniques of the food industry to promote unhealthful eating, the public sector should be implementing measures commensurate with the gravity of our public health crisis—particularly when it comes to the industry’s deliberate practice of influencing lifelong eating patterns by heavily targeting their advertising to children. This starts with thorough integration of the Dietary Guidelines into public spaces where federal nutrition programs operate, but it should also manifest in stronger funding and support for policy, systems, and environmental changes within the private sector. Our health care system, in particular, would benefit enormously from greater investment in nutrition, both for the prevention and treatment of disease.

That’s the political economy of the matter.

Now, for the nutrition science. The ad calls for a “controlled carbohydrate eating approach” as a viable option for Americans. While there isn’t a set definition of a controlled carbohydrate diet, it sounds similar to carbohydrate counting—a legitimate dietary approach, endorsed by organizations like the American Diabetes Association, that can help people with type 2 diabetes manage their blood glucose. If the Dietary Guidelines were designed to cater to different chronic disease states (and they’re not), this would be reasonable enough. Controlled carbohydrate diets would, indeed, be a choice for Americans with diabetes.

But the signers of the letter aren’t just talking about diabetes; they’re talking about obesity, too. Which makes me think they’re not really talking about carbohydrate counting; they’re talking about low-carbohydrate, or low-carb, diets. Which would make a whole lot of sense for a company called Atkins Nutritionals. Unfortunately, there have been mixed results at best on the efficacy of low-carb diets, particularly when it comes to long-term health outcomes. And even where research shows promising results, the success of the low-carb diet depends on what you put on your plate instead—and your ability to stick with it.

Don’t get me wrong: we have a complicated relationship with carbs, and it’s hurting our health. As a nation, we eat far too much refined grains and not enough whole grains. Research also suggests that highly processed foods—of which refined grains are a common ingredient—are also likely harming our health by promoting weight gain. But the answer isn’t simply to eat less. It’s also to eat better. Science continues to show that whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet, and can help prevent chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and—you guessed it—type 2 diabetes.

Readers concerned that their eating choices are their own business—and not any affair of the government’s—should reflect that the nation’s dismal public health status (intrinsically and by contrast with other wealthy nations) is both a first-order crisis as well as a massive market failure, reflecting the disproportionate power of industry messaging over that of the public sector. Trillions of dollars of profits are gained on one side and trillions of dollars of healthcare costs are lost on the other, not to mention the years and quality of lives lost. The market failure is clear in that—contrary to the expectation that in a market economy the best outcomes for all are produced with open competition and perfect information—in the real world, the more profit the food sector makes, the sicker we all seem to get. Per the social contract that undergirds all modern democracies, it is the proper role of government to step in when such obvious and catastrophic market failure occurs.

Rather than undermine or relinquish the rigorously evidence-based Dietary Guidelines—least of all in favor of a niche special-interest business—we should double down on the government’s role and responsibility to the public. As we and many others have documented, we must create social and economic conditions where access to nourishing food and routine physical activity result in default healthy lifestyles.

 

Is the USDA Relocation Just Good Old-Fashioned Rent Seeking?

Photo: aisletwentytwo/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

One of things I cherish about economists is their ability to call BS when they see it. In research settings economists tend to have a reputation for asking hard-hitting questions during seminars. They are known for having the most unpopular opinion and for being unabashedly proud of it. I’ve personally seen non-economists bristle at the thought of giving a talk to an economics-oriented audience. As someone who straddles the worlds of public health and economics I get it, trust me. I’ve been there.

Without doubt, this attitude is partially a function of the male-dominated nature of the profession, which has serious drawbacks and has been the center of much negative attention lately. That aside, there is still great value in having the ability to be constructively and compassionately critical, and to voice an evidence or theory-based opinion even when it is unpopular, and to be mighty proud of it. The world needs a great deal of this right now.

Personally, I’ve taken the economists’ contrarian culture to heart over the last several years, which is part of my rationale for coming to Washington to work for evidence-based food and agriculture policy.

In the very short time I’ve been in DC one issue I’ve worked closely on is the relocation of USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) and its National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). And throughout this work so far I’ve been proud—and unsurprised—that many economists have loudly and publicly opposed the controversial plan to relocate these two agencies.

For example, Dr. Brian Stacy, who was a former ERS researcher now working at the World Bank, explained why he thinks the relocation is so harmful to the agency and agricultural research. Former ERS Administrator Dr. Susan Offutt said in an op-ed that USDA is throwing away a world-class research institute. Dr. Dawn Thilmany, president-elect of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) and associate department head at Colorado State University’s College of Agricultural Sciences, recently penned a column in Colorado’s Daily Sentinel about the harms the relocation will have on the state’s farmers and food system. Former AAEA president Dr. Scott Swinton wrote a hard-hitting op-ed claiming that, done properly, a relocation of ERS and NIFA could have made sense for farmers and food consumers, and I happen to agree with this view. AAEA itself, which represents thousands of economists, has come out strongly against the relocation. AAEA recently dealt a serious blow to the Administration’s so-called “cost benefit” analysis that was intended to justify the move as a “cost saving” measure.

These economists know the relocation will dilute, diminish, and at worst, cause long-term damage to government research that serves the interests of our nation’s farmers and food supply. In addition, as any good student of economics would tell you, these economists know this relocation may come with a heavy dose of rent-seeking.

Rent seeking 101

For my non-economist readers, rent-seeking is when individuals or groups ask the government to change policies to benefit themselves without a concomitant benefit to the rest of us. “Rent” in this phrase doesn’t refer to the money spent to pay for a house or apartment. Rather rent in this context is a cost paid by the producer of some good or service to generate a sort of “unearned” income. Unearned? Yes, unearned because the income wasn’t generated from producing or selling a good or service. The income was generated directly from changing policies or currying favor or privilege (typically) from government officials or those in power.

Crucially, part of the theory of rent-seeking explains that those seeking policy change to benefit themselves spend resources to capture these “rents” for themselves (e.g., lobbying activities), and these expenditures will not create new wealth for society at large. The story can be further complicated when the benefits to those engaging in lobbying activities are concentrated and the costs of their actions are borne by many people. And in many instances, the people who are harmed by the change may have less incentive or ability to launch their own attempt to block the changes being asked for by the rent-seekers.

With respect to the relocation of ERS and NIFA, economists and experts (including several former high-level USDA officials) have repeatedly exclaimed how the move will be a huge loss to our nation’s farmers and consumers since the agencies are losing talented, seasoned food and agriculture experts who will now be far away from where policy is made. Some claim that this relocation even jeopardizes the scientific integrity of USDA. Moreover, Secretary Perdue has never articulated specific, credible reasons for how this relocation will benefit farmers and the public at large. But on the other hand, the Kansas City region stands to gain new jobs and federal funding from the relocation. Thus, the rent-seekers gain, and the rest of us lose.

Keep in mind with this rent-seeking hypothesis I am posing, I’m being optimistic. I’m taking Secretary Perdue at his word that he will rehire all the vacancies that have been created since the relocation proposal was announced. However, if I’m being pessimistic (which I’ve already been), this relocation is an attempt to dismantle important USDA research. Current estimates indicate that 80% of the current ERS roster will quit before the relocation is complete AND the Administration’s FY 2020 budget proposal has a 30% budget cut and 52% cut to staff years at ERS. Who knows if this administration will actually rehire the hundreds of employees who have already quit and who plan to do so in the coming months.

But, let’s hold on to what little shred of optimism we have for the moment. Is it possible then that the relocation of ERS and NIFA was motivated by rent-seeking by some group or individual? Is there any evidence to suggest that rent-seeking might be what’s really going on here? That’s a great question!

Who’s who among the rent seekers

In addition to the Missouri and Kansas Congressional delegation—who have been vocally in favor of this no matter the harms it will cause (because they will gain many jobs and federal funding, of course)—one lobbyist has also been particularly outspoken and actively in favor of the relocation. His name is Randy Russell, and he runs the Russell Group, one of DC’s most powerful food and agriculture lobby shops. An Agripulse “Signal to Noise” podcast has Russell in February 2019 boasting the virtues of the relocation. Our own research into Congressional lobbying records (here is one for example) indicate that Russell Group was lobbying on behalf of BioSTL, a St. Louis, Missouri bioscience firm that was one of the applicants on the USDA short list of potential relocation sites. Clearly these groups are seeking rents—either for the states of Missouri or Kansas, or for some other groups such as real estate firms or other businesses who see an economic opportunity in the relocation.

Of course, we found records of many other interest groups lobbying on the relocation, so Russell Group is not the only one who is seeking rents for its clients. For example, Broad Square Partners, a Kansas City non-residential building operator, hired lobby firm Kit Bond Strategies to lobby on the relocation of ERS and NIFA. The University of Kansas also did its own lobbying, presumably in the hopes that it could help sway Secretary Perdue to move the agencies closer to its campus.

Meanwhile, Secretary Perdue said to the Senate Appropriations agriculture committee in April 2019 that to make his final decision on the relocation site he was going back to the finalist (or short list) sites to ask them for “their last and best offers”.  In other words, Secretary Perdue was asking the rent-seekers for more.

But regardless of who exactly was lobbying and no matter which place Secretary Perdue decided to move these agencies—Kansas City, Purdue University, St. Louis, North Carolina’s Research Triangle were all finalists—this is, bottom line, a big win for one small locality (and perhaps a certain set of food system industries or interest groups) and a giant loss for farmers and our nation’s food supply. In other words, the relocation can be viewed as classic rent-seeking. That is, if this whole thing isn’t just an attempt to dismantle both agencies.

And knowing my economist colleagues who have yet to voice their contrarian views in their typical outspoken fashion, they ought to be furious that this rent-seeking behavior has already caused substantial damage to one of our nation’s most treasured economic research institutions.

The Best School Lunch News You Never Heard

This spring, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a groundbreaking new study showing that kids and schools alike have benefited enormously from new school nutrition standards adopted over the course of the last seven years. This is the first comprehensive assessment of how schools across the nation have fared since the standards were first rolled out in 2012-2013.

But if you missed the press release, it’s because there wasn’t one.

The report, which should have served as a glowing testament to the bipartisan Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and the USDA’s subsequent work implementing its improved nutrition standards, was unceremoniously posted in a quiet corner of the agency website, presumably meant to collect the cyberspace equivalent of cobwebs.

Why?

For starters, the report undermines statements made by USDA secretary Sonny Perdue to justify his recent rollbacks to some of those same nutrition standards. When Perdue first announced the rule that knocked down nutrition standards for milk, sodium, and whole grains in school meals, he declared, “It doesn’t do any good to serve nutritious meals if they wind up in the trash can.” That would be true—except the new report by his own department’s researchers found that food waste was essentially unchanged after these nutrition standards were adopted.

And with an update of the law behind school nutrition regulations on the horizon, this new research comes at an inconvenient time for an administration that might like to see its evidence-based public health protections eroded. Congress is now beginning child nutrition reauthorization, a legislative process that sets nutrition standards for federal programs providing school lunches, breakfasts, snacks, and summer and after-school meals, as well as grocery staples for low-income women, infants, and children. Although these laws are supposed to be reauthorized every five years, it has been nearly ten years since the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the landmark bipartisan legislation championed by Michelle Obama that finally brought school nutrition standards up to speed with the science-based Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Given the recent USDA report and research that has been published in the interim, it’s going to be difficult for the Trump administration to ignore the data that shows just how successful these standards have been.

So—in lieu of a press release—we’re highlighting the report for you. Here’s what you should know about the findings from the 2019 USDA School Nutrition and Meal Cost Study.

School meals have gotten healthier

The new USDA report compares the healthfulness of school lunches and breakfasts before the new nutrition standards were implemented (school year 2009-2010) and after (school year 2014-2015). Using a tool called the Healthy Eating Index (HEI), a measure of diet quality that scores eating patterns on a scale of 0 to 100, the researchers found that scores significantly improved for both school lunches and breakfasts. The mean total HEI score for lunches increased 41 percent, achieving a score of 81.5 out of 100 after the new standards were adopted, while the mean total score for breakfasts increased 44 percent, achieving a score of 71.3 out of 100. This is good news for the 30 million students eating school meals daily, and is particularly important for kids from low-income and food-insecure families who rely more on school breakfast and lunch to meet their nutritional needs.

First Lady Michelle Obama championed stronger nutrition standards in the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Healthier meals are linked to higher participation

One of the most encouraging results from the report? Healthier school meals seem to go hand-in-hand with higher participation—in other words, when schools are serving healthier meals, more kids are buying or receiving them. According to its authors, “There was a positive and statistically significant association between student participation in the [National School Lunch Program] and the nutritional quality of [National School Lunch Program] lunches.” When the researchers ranked the healthfulness of school meals using HEI scores, they found that schools in the top half of HEI scores had student participation rates of about 60 percent, compared to only 50 percent at schools in the bottom half of HEI scores. This is good for kids, who don’t seem to be dissuaded from purchasing healthier school food, but it’s also good for schools, which rely on enough students buying meals to keep their budgets balanced.

Kids aren’t wasting more food (but they’re still wasting too much)

Despite the claims made by Secretary Perdue, kids aren’t wasting more food under the new nutrition standards. The study found that plate waste, a measurement of the food thrown away or not eaten at mealtime, was “comparable to findings from studies that examined plate waste prior to implementation of the updated nutrition standards.” This confirms the findings of a 2015 study from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

That being said, it’s clear that there’s still work to be done to help kids eat (and enjoy) more of the healthy foods that schools are working hard to prepare. The USDA study found that nearly one third of all vegetables served on lunch trays went to waste, followed by milk (29 percent), fruits and fruit juice (26 percent), and side dishes containing grains and breads (23 percent). The study also found that the timing of lunch periods was associated with plate waste: the percentage of calories wasted was much lower in lunch periods starting at 12:00 PM or later than for lunch periods starting before 11:30 AM, meaning kids may be tossing food in part because they’re not hungry yet.

Schools are generally meeting nutrition requirements

Based on previous reports, we already knew that a vast majority of schools are complying with school nutrition standards. According to the USDA, in 2016, more than 99 percent of schools nationwide reported that they were meeting standards for breakfast and lunches. But a closer look at what’s in the serving line revealed that not all meals would qualify as reimbursable. The new report shows that more than 90 percent of daily lunch menus meet quantity requirements for fruits, meats and meat alternatives, and milk, while about 80 percent meet requirements for vegetables and grains. Similarly, more than 80 percent of school breakfast menus met daily requirements. However, many of the meals fell outside of the calorie ranges specified for different age groups—the study found that elementary and middle school lunches often had too many calories, and high school lunches often had too few.

Preparing to champion child nutrition

This USDA report delivered a lot of good news for students and schools. And as Congress prepares to rewrite the legislation that guides our child nutrition programs, it could not have come at a better time for policymakers and public health advocates.

The USDA research provides critical confirmation of what independent studies have been suggesting for several years now: bringing our school nutrition programs into better alignment with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans is not only possible, but it can be profitable, too.

Despite its clear importance, public health advocates and science champions should be prepared to push for this research to feature prominently in forthcoming policy discussions. The Trump administration has a demonstrated track record of burying studies it finds unpalatable—most recently in its refusal to publicize government-funded studies on climate change—and this one may be no exception.

What’s the Difference Between Food Stamp Abuse and a First-Class Exposé? Race.

Photo: Pixabay

Yesterday, at a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing, lawmakers engaged in a debate over something called “broad-based categorical eligibility.” Put simply, it’s a legal provision that allows low-income people who qualify for one social assistance program (like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) to more easily qualify for another (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps).

But this isn’t a blog post about federal food programs. This is a blog post about racism.

At yesterday’s hearing, the story of a man named Rob Undersander stole the show. A retiree from Minnesota, Undersander and his wife lived comfortably off her social security benefits and, according to the couple, had additional savings and assets worth upwards of $1 million. In 2016, Undersander applied for SNAP benefits and was accepted. (Minnesota, like many states, uses only an income limit to determine eligibility.) Undersander and his wife received monthly benefits from 2016 into the following year.

How you decide to look at this story might depend on a lot of things: your economic status, your political leanings, your general feelings about the Midwest.

But it might also depend on how you view race, consciously or otherwise.

Undersander is white. And this is important.

It was the key factor allowing House Republicans to paint him as the hearing’s hero. Instead of an abuser of the system, Undersander was portrayed as an undercover investigator; a savvy citizen producing a powerful exposé on the loopholes in government systems; a vigilante taking the law into his own hands in the name of fiscal responsibility. Perhaps most importantly, he was granted the privilege of participating in the shaping of his own narrative—a privilege often denied to people of color, particularly when accused of any wrongdoing. A quick search for his name yields a number of news stories in which Undersander is quoted, including a video interview explaining his actions and intentions.

“He did this to call attention to the flaws in the system,” affirmed Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-SD). Meanwhile, Fox News called him a “food stamp program watchdog.”

It didn’t matter that no one asked him to conduct this experiment, or that he continued to receive benefits for months after he “exposed” the so-called loophole. Applying for benefits and being approved, despite his apparent wealth, would have been enough to prove a point.

If he were black, these things would have mattered.

If he were black, this story wouldn’t have been quite so useful to House Republicans.

If he were black, Rob Undersander might have looked a little too much like Linda Taylor.

No, he didn’t break any laws. But this isn’t a blog about federal food programs—just as yesterday’s hearing wasn’t about running those programs more efficiently.

It was yet another platform created to push a partisan political agenda to dismantle social assistance programs—an agenda that failed to find success in the bipartisan 2018 Farm Bill. This agenda flies in the face of science, and often reason, and at its core is defined by gross mischaracterizations by a powerful majority about poverty, prosperity, and, inextricably, race.

 

He’s a Science Denier—and He Oversees the Nation’s Farm Policy

The pattern is clear: by consistently requesting that Congress cut budgets for science, and by decreeing that all federal executive agencies arbitrarily terminate “at least one third” of their advisory committees, the Trump administration is in an all-out war against science—against the premise that evidence and analysis should inform policy-making.

This agenda has been assiduously pursued by Mr. Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, in myriad ways: from cynically attempting to appoint a figurehead non-scientist as the Department’s Chief Scientist, to undermining the Department’s world-class Economic Research Service. A prime example of this explicitly anti-science bent is the following curious tale.

On 22 April, a team of economists from the University of Georgia (UGA) released a policy brief forecasting that the newly proposed United States-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) trade agreement will result in loss of income and jobs among the state’s fruit and vegetable industry. Alarmed, the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association (GFVGA) issued a press release observing: “The conclusions of this study vividly state the economic losses to Georgia’s blueberry and vegetable industries will be considerable,” and calling “on the Administration and our congressional leaders to work together to find an acceptable solution to prevent the devastation forecast in this report.” Whereupon, Sonny Perdue himself wrote in to the Macon Telegraph to say, in essence: The UGA facts are inconvenient. Here are alternative facts more to my liking.

The problem for the Secretary of Agriculture is that he is politically invested in the claim that USMCA is a vastly improved version of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement, its predecessor). Among other reasons, this is because Perdue’s signature achievement on entering office was to avert President Trump’s intention to summarily scrap NAFTA. This Perdue was able to pull off by appealing to Mr. Trump’s self-image as a brilliant dealmaker, arguing that instead of scrapping NAFTA the administration should renegotiate the quarter-century agreement in order to forge a better deal for the US. That is why, two years on, after the replacement deal has been crafted and is in line for a Congressional vote—and after it has been roundly assessed as only a marginal improvement on the prior agreement—the Secretary can ill afford doubts about the “better deal” for farmers that was the whole reason for being of USMCA. So, instead of acknowledging the facts of the matter, Perdue insists that:

  1. The USMCA is a “big win” and a major improvement (“Chapter by chapter, verse by verse, USMCA improves virtually every component of NAFTA”);
  2. Nothing is wrong. Georgia farmers live in an agricultural paradise (“Our farmers, ranchers, and producers have an abundance of the highest quality products they want to sell around the globe.”)

As scientists and economists, we specialize in testing claims. Because so much is at stake for farmers in Georgia (and across the land), we have examined Secretary Perdue’s arguments and his evidence.

What’s the deal?

At issue is that imports from Mexico of a group of six fruits and vegetables that are also grown by Georgia farmers have quadrupled since 2009. If this trend continues—as all signs indicate—up to 75% of the jobs currently tied to the production of these crops will be lost because Georgia farmers won’t be able to compete with Mexican prices that can reach as little as half of U.S. prices. Georgia fruit and vegetable growers contend that a component of the Mexican advantage is season extension due to that country’s government subsidies (to expand greenhouse and hothouse capacity), and that therefore the USMCA should contain a protection clause for U.S. producers. If nothing is done, the economic damage ($895 million foregone) would be greatest for Georgia’s rural sector—in particular for three counties where the UGA economists foresee harm comparable to that of the Great Depression.

When politics cloud the view of a public servant

It would be unproductive (not to mention tedious) to dwell too much at length on Perdue’s politicized misrepresentations, because what matters most is what is to be done about the dire circumstance of a Secretary of Agriculture whose actions are clearly harming farmers. However, you really must sample a few of Perdue’s distortions to grasp the Secretary’s malfeasance.

Denying the facts

First, on the core issue, Perdue contends that Georgia farmers are competitive with Mexican farmers. He argues that this is proved by the fact that production of most of the fruits and vegetables considered by the UGA rose over the last decade (under NAFTA). This neglects that the value of Mexican imports has overwhelmed that growth, as the UGA researchers clearly document:

Source: Dorfman, J.H., J.M. Worley, S.P. Kane, 2019. “Policy Brief: The Impact of the USMCA on Georgia’s Small Fruit and Vegetable Industries”. Athens, GA: University of Georgia.

Misdirection

Further, Perdue conflates the issue under analysis (fruit and vegetable production—in specific fruit and vegetable growing regions of Georgia) with the overall agricultural economy of Georgia: “Georgia growers have seen vegetable sales increase by more than 23%, fruit and nut sales have gone up more than 100% and crop receipts have gone up more than 50%.” Countering the valid concerns of a segment of Georgia farmers by touting the strength of Georgia’s overall agricultural industry is deliberate lack of acknowledgment of the real threats faced by those farmers. In other words, Perdue claims that the data do not call for action. For the Secretary of Agriculture, whose Department’s vaunted Economic Research Service can rigorously slice and dice agricultural information by any category and geography for which there are data, this blurring of both the point and the evidence is tantamount to willful malpractice.

Special pleading

Then the Secretary critiques the methodology of the UGA economists. He states: “The premise for UGA’s study is USMCA will not protect Georgia farmers from cheap Mexican fruits and vegetables.” This is an accurate premise, per the non-partisan Congressional Research Service: “…the agreement does not include changes to trade remedy laws to address imports of seasonal produce as requested by Southeastern U.S. produce growers.” But Perdue goes on: “Because of that, the researchers came up with imagined scenarios.” The Secretary is referring to a standard method, scenario analysis, routinely employed when socioeconomic trends are not exactly predictable. In such instances, it is common to develop a spectrum of possible future paths. In standard practice, scenario analysts rigorously build (not “imagine”) mild, intermediate and extreme future contingencies that are within the realm of possibility. These the UGA economists specify exactingly: “Based on…Mexican acreage expansion and the observed drops in prices the past few years when Mexican imports entered the U.S. market, the three scenarios were constructed.” The resulting data are presented in toto so that readers can evaluate the range of futures reasonably possible:

Projected Annual Economic Losses Under USMCA by Georgia’s Small Fruit and Vegetable Industry Scenario Jobs Total Economic Output Baseline 11,496 $1,192.0 million Mild Damage 8,172 $852.1 million Medium Damage 5,704 $589.9 million Catastrophic Damage 2,869 $297.3 million   Losses Relative to Baseline Mild Damage 3,323 $339.9 million Medium Damage 5,791 $602.2 million Catastrophic Damage 8,627 $894.7 million

Source: Dorfman et al 2019.

Try lots of things to see what sticks

In a final flair of science denial, the Secretary exhibits a penchant for whiplashing positions, in swift succession. First Perdue would have it that the UGA findings (that USMCA will put fruit and vegetable jobs and revenue at risk), are “sensational assertions” that “are flat wrong.” But then he acknowledges the lack of protections at issue by saying: “We didn’t get all the improvements we wanted for seasonal fruits and vegetables” and “the UGA study assumed we lost ground, but the facts are it wasn’t ground we had to begin with.” So, is USMCA an improvement for Georgia fruit and vegetable farmers? Yes or no? Since the protections GFVGA wants are not in place in USMCA, will that harm farmers? Yes or no? Are there credible data about the consequences for these farmers of exposure to increased competition? Yes or no? Clearly—and sadly—you don’t look to the Secretary of Agriculture for clear answers on these direct questions. However, the Secretary does have a clear recommendation about what these farmers should do.

In the same statement that first claims: “USMCA benefits Georgia’s entire agricultural industry,” Perdue then hedges with the claim that “…it is not unreasonable that my fellow Georgians would switch to crops that provide higher levels of profit.” In other words, “It is not true that your livelihood will be harmed by increased competition, but if it does, then you’ll just grow something else.” This cavalier approach to farmers’ investment in their crops, the infrastructure to grow and process them, in their technical knowledge and market relationships, is not likely to endear the Secretary to the fruit and vegetable growers of his home state. Nor will the Secretary’s cherry picking of facts and arguments endear him to scientists and economists. For example, to justify his claim that farmers harmed by competition will simply move to different crops, Perdue states: “That is the beauty of our agricultural system — producers plant for the market, not the program.” The Secretary should acquaint himself with his state’s corn, peanut and cotton farmers, who literally depend on planting “for the program” (refer to requirements for “base acres” to qualify for government commodity and crop insurance support).

What Secretary Perdue’s politicized administration means for food and agriculture

To be sure, it is core to market principles that when producers everywhere specialize per their comparative advantage, buyers and sellers everywhere benefit. And that you evaluate the overall effect of economic tradeoffs at an aggregate level, such as the economy of a state or a nation. But the Secretary is not owning up to any of these things. Instead, Perdue dissembles. Pointedly, in an instance where the nation’s Secretary of Agriculture has an opportunity to acknowledge and act upon facts, and to demonstrate a consistent adherence to principles—whether prioritizing the public interest as a public servant; or as an advocate of the market economy who is committed to support entrepreneurs as they adjust to the consequences of policies and trade deals he champions—Perdue exposes himself as a politicized administrator unable to accept verifiable evidence and therefore incapable of providing sound leadership for the nation’s food and agriculture system.

And speaking of verifiable evidence, here are a couple of data points whose consequences you don’t need to be a scientist or economist to understand. Under Secretary Perdue’s watch:

  1. The farm economy has experienced the worst consistent downturn since the 1980s farm crisis, a product primarily of the uncertainty resulting from willful destruction of foreign commodity markets—compounded by climate change, a phenomenon that the Secretary denies, and whose study he characterizes as “junk science.”
  2. The Secretary is actively dismantling the Department of Agriculture’s scientific foundations, the very capacity for research and analysis that we depend upon to make the best decisions, and to best prepare for the future.

Think of scientific and economic policy analysis as the instrument panel that a responsible administrator can use to gather data about the effectiveness of programs, to monitor progress and set accurate direction, specifically, one that would be good for our nation’s farmers, ranchers and our food system. A Secretary of Agriculture who has at his disposal scientific and economic analysis capacity that is the envy of the world, but prefers to “fly blind” in favor of political expedience, is an impaired leader—and one who is actively undermining the rural and farm economy, the nation’s food supply, and the future health and wellbeing of us all.

Secretary Perdue is Moving The Cheese and It’s Not Good For Any Of Us

U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue takes a big bite out of his bacon cheeseburger at the Discovery Elementary School cafeteria, in Arlington, VA. Photo: USDA

In a recent interview by the North Carolina News and Observer, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue discussed the current proposal to relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) outside Washington DC. When asked if he was worried about employee backlash he replied, “anytime you make change or move people’s cheese, there’s always anxiety.”

While I’m sure Secretary Perdue isn’t the first Agriculture Secretary to use a food reference to get across a message in a folksy way, this felt different. So far as I can tell, the reference to people’s “cheese” comes from a highly popular 1998 self-help book called Who Moved My Cheese? Having only seen the book in thrift stores until now, I did a little internet search to learn what it was about. I quickly discovered that Who Moved My Cheese? was (and maybe still is) the go-to resource for corporate leaders to ease employee concerns in times of great change (think reorganizations, layoffs).  In the book, mice seek cheese in a maze, but an unseen hand moves the cheese, forcing the mice to adapt, resulting in lessons learned about life and work, and the joy that can be had from change.

Albeit a bestseller, the book has been criticized by many. For example, Harvard Business School Professor Deepak Malhotra wrote a 2011 book titled I Moved Your Cheese: For those Who Refuse to Live as Mice in Someone Else’s Maze. He said of the original book, “There are ways in which the message of Who Moved My Cheese? is not simply incomplete, it’s dangerous.” Professor Malhotra explains that the danger of the book lies in its key message to employees: don’t “waste time wondering why things are the way they are”. Just put “your heads down and keep running around the maze chasing after cheese”.

The Secretary’s tone-deaf reference is a signal to me that, at best, he doesn’t understand why USDA employees (willing to speak on the record to reporters about how bad this is), along with thousands of outside scientists, plus farm groups, members of Congress, and a who’s-who of former USDA administrators—are so concerned about the damage this relocation and restructuring will do to the quality of work done by ERS and NIFA which directly supports farmers and protects our food supply. At worst, he simply doesn’t care.

Does this Administration think so little of its workers, by comparing them to mice on the hunt for cheese? And if it has such apathy, then the logical next question is: does it value the work they do in direct service to farmers and consumers across the country? I’m not sure, and that’s the problem.

But whatever is in Secretary Perdue’s heart, he has not clearly articulated to the public how the proposed restructuring of ERS and NIFA will be better for farmers, our environment, and the people who eat food every day (that’s all of us). So my key message for the Secretary is that what’s at stake here isn’t just “people’s cheese.” He should know that.

Photo: USDA

Will the Trump USDA Deliver on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans? Our New Report Shows What’s at Stake

Sixty percent of adults the United States are now living with one or more chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. That’s 150 million people—not counting millions of children and young adults—whose daily lives are disrupted by poor health. These chronic conditions are the leading causes of death and disability, and they’re also the leading drivers of the $3.5 trillion we spend on health care each year.

I’m not quick to call something a “crisis,” but the current trajectory of population health renders possible a future in which the vast majority of us are simply too sick to thrive. If we don’t make some changes, that future may come sooner than we think.

Luckily, we’re far from exhausting our options. One of the most powerful pathways to better health is through better nutrition. A recent study estimated that nearly half of all deaths from heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes in the US could be attributed to poor diets. This and other research suggest that there is vast untapped potential to improve our health and wellbeing with the food we put on our plates.

That’s why, in a new report, we examined just how many lives might be saved and medical costs might be spared if adults in the US made key dietary changes to eat less processed meat, less added sugar, and more fruits and vegetables. We looked at these changes through the lens of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the leading set of science-based dietary recommendations in the US, currently in the process of being updated. The results make an overwhelming case for the federal government to take a fresh look at its food policy.

A menu with multi-billion dollar benefits

Our analysis considered three separate kinds of food and their respective relationships to common chronic diseases: processed meat and colorectal cancer, sugar-sweetened beverages and type 2 diabetes, and fruits and vegetables and cardiovascular disease. (For more on our research methods, including topic selection, tables and figures, and references, see the full report online.)

Processed meat

When it comes to processed meat (a category that includes foods like bacon, deli meat, hot dogs and sausage), there is strong evidence linking consumption to higher risk of colorectal cancer. Colorectal cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in the US, and although overall rates are declining, there has been an alarming increase in colorectal cancer among younger populations—which researchers believe may be partially related to diet. Experts have found that each additional 50 grams of processed meat (equal to two to four pieces of deli meat or bacon, or about one hot dog) eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 16 to 18 percent. As a result, most leading agencies—with one notable exception—recommend that people consume little to no processed meat. That exception, of course, is in the US Dietary Guidelines. Despite overwhelming scientific consensus, industry groups have successfully prevented federal agencies from issuing a limit on processed meat.

So what would it look like if adults in the US were following the science on processed meat, consuming the equivalent of no more than one hot dog every two weeks? According to our analysis, this might have saved nearly 3,900 lives and $1.5 billion in medical costs due to colorectal cancer in 2018, with an additional $1 billion recouped in productivity costs.

Added sugar

Adults and kids alike are getting too much added sugar in their diets. And a lot of it comes in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages, including fruit drinks, soft drinks, sports drinks, and sweetened coffee and tea. Sugar-sweetened beverages make up almost half of all the added sugars consumed in the US, accounting for nearly 150 calories eaten by the average person each day. To put that into context, that means the average eight-year-old is getting one out of every 10 calories from sugar-sweetened beverages. And an ever-growing body of research shows that added sugar intake is harmful to our health in many ways—including increasing our risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Studies show that the risk of type 2 diabetes, a metabolic disorder affecting close to 30 million people in the US, increases by between 13 and 21 percent for each additional serving of sugar-sweetened beverages each day. And while the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines took a major step forward in recommending that we limit added sugar to less than 10 percent of total calories, research suggests that an even lower limit would provide greater protection against chronic disease.

What would it mean for our health if our diets were in better alignment with the science on added sugar? Our analysis found that, if adults in the US who drink sugar-sweetened beverages were consuming one fewer serving each day, this would have saved nearly 19,000 lives and decreased medical costs by $16 billion in 2018 from type 2 diabetes, and an additional $6 billion recouped in productivity costs.

Fruits and vegetables

Most of us are accustomed to hearing about the virtues of eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, but we might be surprised to learn just how good they are for us. A strong body of research shows that eating more fruits and vegetables can protect us against cardiovascular disease—the leading cause of death for both men and women. Cardiovascular disease, which includes heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke, is responsible for one in three deaths, or more than 800,000 deaths annually, in the US. The Dietary Guidelines have consistently recommended that adults and children in the US eat more fruits and vegetables. And—with equal consistency—we have fallen short. People may face any number of challenges to eating healthfully, from cost to convenience to culture, and for many populations, including low-income communities and people of color, these challenges are amplified by systemic barriers that can make foods like fruits and vegetables much harder to come by. This points to an urgent need for more than just the best science-based guidelines, but also for a coordinated strategy that will allow the federal government to implement them and the general public to apply them.

If the guidelines were implemented to their fullest—if the healthy choice could be the healthy choice the easy choice when it comes to fruits and vegetables—what would it mean for our health? Our analysis found that, if adults in the US were able to meet recommendations for fruit and vegetable intake, this could have saved almost 110,000 deaths and more than $32 billion in medical costs, with an additional $20 billion in recouped productivity costs, in 2018.

Delivering on the Dietary Guidelines

Though there are notable cases in which food companies have managed to influence the guidelines via Congress or agency secretaries, these have proven to be the exception, not the rule. By and large, the Dietary Guidelines is consistently undergirded by high-quality scientific evidence and expertise, and its content has changed relatively little over the last 35 years: recommendations typically call on us to consume more fruit, vegetables, and whole grains; to limit foods that contain high amounts of sugar or sodium; and to develop healthy eating habits based on moderation and variety.

That being said, the Trump administration has ushered in a new era. With a particularly friendly attitude toward industry and a demonstrated distaste for science and scientific expertise, it may prove more challenging under such an administration to protect the current scientific process for developing the guidelines. As the scientific advisory committee meets throughout the course of the next year to review current evidence, we are encouraging the public to get involved and hold the administration accountable. (Right now, and through early 2020, the best way to do that is to submit a public comment—check our website later this month for a helpful how-to guide.)

On the road to making a healthy diet accessible to everyone, the Dietary Guidelines will continue to be an invaluable tool for health professionals, federal nutrition program operators, and many families. But we are far from reaching our destination.

The bottom line is this: if it is important to ensure the guidelines are evidence-based, it is essential to recognize that even evidence-based guidelines are only as effective as their implementation. As the development of the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines is underway, the federal government should be making a renewed commitment to public health by developing a strategy that will allow the benefits of a healthy diet to be realized by all communities, particularly those most vulnerable to the effects of chronic disease. With adequate resources supporting scientific recommendations, we could begin to deliver the full potential of the Dietary Guidelines.

“Big Food” Companies Spend Big Money in Hopes of Shaping the Dietary Guidelines for Americans

Photo courtesy of 401kcalculator.org/Flickr

The maker of Snickers, M&Ms, and Skittles has built a global conglomerate on sugar. The privately held Mars Incorporated let it be known earlier this year that it hopes to double its $35 billion annual revenue over the next decade, reportedly through expansion in pet food and other areas. But for now, confectionery treats are a main business, which could be why the company spent more than $2 million, in 2018 and early 2019, lobbying Congress around the federal government’s nutrition advice, among other food policy issues. Of course, it’s also possible Mars has a more socially responsible motive, which I’ll get to in a minute.

Why the food industry cares about the Dietary Guidelines

In general, processed food and beverage companies have an intense interest in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nation’s leading set of science-based nutrition recommendations. This federal dietary advice is revised every five years to reflect the best available science, and it informs healthy eating decisions for consumers and, most significantly, guides federal nutrition programs that serve millions of children, parents, seniors, and veterans every day.

The process to develop the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans is now underway. And while this is a rigorous process that tends to produce strong and relatively consistent guidelines (with some exceptions), that doesn’t stop the food industry from trying to influence them through various channels.

…and what companies hope the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines won’t say.

The disclosure forms lobbyists are legally required to file with the House and Senate every quarter provide a window into who is seeking to influence the Dietary Guidelines. But without being behind the closed doors of those meetings, we have to imagine what kinds of advice Big Food companies and their lobbyists would rather we didn’t hear from the federal government’s nutrition experts. Here’s some of the science-based recommendations I suspect many of Big Food’s lobbyists don’t want included in the next iteration of the Dietary Guidelines:

  • Eat processed meat rarely. According to new UCS analysis of processed meat intake and colorectal cancer risk, that could mean something like half a hot dog per week—or for those of us who don’t eat hot dogs in increments, no more than one every other week. But such moderation wouldn’t be good for big meat processors and their lobby groups, including the Livestock Marketing Association, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Chicken Council, the National Pork Producers Council, Smithfield Foods, the Texas Cattle Feeders Association, and the United States Cattlemen’s Association. Those groups collectively spent $4.5 million lobbying Congress on issues including the Dietary Guidelines during the two-year process of updating them for 2015. So far this cycle, the main processed meat player appears to be Hormel Foods Corporation, maker of the inimitable Spam canned meat, which has already plunked down $740,000 on such lobbying between January 2018 and March 2019.
  • Drink less soda. By our analysis, the government should consider lowering the Dietary Guidelines added sugar limit to reflect adults’ average calorie needs, and provide age-specific recommendations for kids. One good way to help people cut back on sugar and reduce their risk of type 2 diabetes, among other conditions? Continue to recommend that people drink less soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. But soda makers Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, along with their industry lobby group (the American Beverage Association, or ABA), spent a combined $23.8 million on related lobbying in 2014-2015. Since the beginning of 2018, the ABA has shouldered the burden, racking up $1.68 million in lobbying expenses, joined by Red Bull North America at $320,000.
  • For infants, breastfeeding is best. For the first time, the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines will include recommendations specifically for infants and toddlers. Clear, science-based advice to breastfeed whenever possible would be a problem for leading infant formula-maker Nestlé S.A. (also the world’s largest food company). Known for its long, troubling history pushing formula on new moms, the company reorganized its infant nutrition business in 2017, listing the area as a priority for growth. Since the beginning of 2018, Nestlé has spent $1.58 million, at least in part, presumably, to ensure that growth isn’t hampered by the Dietary Guidelines.
So why are they lobbying Congress?

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—and specifically, the secretaries of those federal departments—set the Dietary Guidelines, appointing a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) to review the science and present them evidence-based recommendations. (Here’s a backgrounder on the process.)

Yet as that process was ongoing five years ago, food and beverage companies and trade associations were lobbying Congress aggressively. Quarterly disclosure forms filed by such groups during 2014-2015 show more than $77 million in lobbying activities directed at Congress, on issues including the Dietary Guidelines. (Note that it’s impossible to say exactly how much of that lobbying effort was specific to the guidelines, as lobbyists lump various issues on each quarterly disclosure form filed with Congress. But it’s the best indicator we’ve got.)

There’s a reason companies and industry groups expend time and money lobbying Congress, even when legislators aren’t officially the decisionmakers—because once in a while it works. Take the Dietary Guidelines sustainability debate in 2015. Then, the DGAC took a forward-looking approach, spelling out the sizeable environmental side benefits that healthy, plant-based eating can have, and recommending that the final Dietary Guidelines include that advice. Of course, that didn’t sit well with the meat lobby, and after they gave Congress an earful…sure enough, those recommendations disappeared.

(An intriguing development: After Congress essentially barred the prior administration from considering sustainability issues as part of the Dietary Guidelines, the topic list the agencies prepared for its new expert DGAC doesn’t include those issues, and DGAC members have been instructed that it’s not part of their charge. Still, some Big Food companies—including Mars and Nestle—are, surprisingly, advocating for consideration of the environmental impacts of our dietary choices once again. UCS is all for that, of course, as we said back in 2015, and it will be interesting to see where it goes.)

Who else is Big Food lobbying?

Of course, the food industry’s lobbying surely isn’t limited to Congress. It’s just that their visits to Capitol Hill are the only ones we can document easily, with publicly available, if imperfect, data as indicated above. It’s a reasonable assumption that many of these companies are lobbying Trump administration officials directly about the Dietary Guidelines, even though we don’t have documents to prove it. And these industries surely have a ready ear in the USDA and HHS secretaries. I think it’s fair to say that big corporations and industry groups of all kinds have no bigger friend than the Trump administration. Whether coal companies, oil companies, big automakers, pesticide makers, or big poultry conglomerates, this administration has rewarded them all, giving each more or less exactly what it has asked for.

Now to be clear, past industry lobbying hasn’t been able to substantially subvert the Dietary Guidelines, which have mostly remained strong and science based. But with the current administration, I’m more concerned. After all, former food industry lobbyists are now staffing the USDA through a revolving door that only sped up with the Trump administration. As USDA staff geared up for the Dietary Guidelines update early in the administration, they were led by former snack food and corn syrup lobbyist Kailee Tkacz (now the chief of staff to the USDA deputy secretary).

For the record, Tkacz herself lobbied on the Dietary Guidelines on behalf of global snack foods trade association SNAC International back in 2014-15 (SNAC spent $340,000 then). Now, her successors are making the rounds in Congress—SNAC has invested $440,000 just since the beginning of 2018.

What happens now?

As of now, it isn’t clear whether food industry lobbying—whether in the halls of Congress or directly with the Trump administration—will undermine the next Dietary Guidelines. For the moment, the scientific review is in the hands of the 20 experts on the DGAC, which will hold a series of public meetings (the next one on July 11-12) before presenting its recommendations to the USDA and HHS secretaries around the middle of 2020. What the agencies choose to include—or leave out—when they translate these scientific recommendations to a set of final guidelines by the end of 2020 may tell us if and how industry made its mark.

In the intervening months, it will be up to us, as eaters and taxpayers, to tell the administration they must resist industry lobbying, publish guidelines that prioritize public health, and invest in strategies to address systemic barriers to healthier diets. For more information, see our new report, Delivering on the Dietary Guidelines, and stay tuned for a comment guide you can use to weigh in.

It’s National Heat Awareness Day—Let’s Protect Farmworkers from Extreme Heat

Strawberry pickers in Salinas, CA. Farmworkers typically wear long-sleeve shirts year-round in order to protect themselves from sun, insects, and pesticides.

The last Friday in May is National Heat Awareness Day. For those of us in parts of the country where summer has already arrived like a sack of bricks, you might be thinking “Don’t remind me!” I know that here in DC, my short morning commute is starting to feel like a steamy tropical hike.

But I know I’m lucky. I still remember what it’s like to have a commute that doesn’t end in an air-conditioned office. And honestly, I was lucky even back when I was working in construction. I could often work in the shade, and because I worked for a responsible employer, I could also count on access to water and regular rest breaks. So when I arrive at this air-conditioned oasis where I research food and farming issues, my thoughts go to the 2-3 million people growing our food whose workplace is a farm field. Like warehouse workers, construction workers, and many others, farmworkers can’t count on regular access to water, rest breaks, and shade—much less climate control.

Working in hot conditions isn’t just difficult—it’s dangerous. And in the absence of AC, it’s these three things: water, rest, and shade, that are the keys to avoiding heat-related injury. That’s why the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the National Weather Service (NWS) are joining forces to remind employers to provide water, rest, and shade for their employees.

But experience shows that—however welcome those reminders—workers need legal protection, not just helpful suggestions. As with other climate impacts, it’s people without economic and political power—like farmworkers—that are hit first and hardest by dangerous heat. Unfortunately, there are no heat-related worker protection standards at the Federal level. While workers are theoretically protected by general duty standards that require employers to maintain a safe workplace, the lack of any heat-specific standards renders this protection vague, weak, and difficult to enforce.

This lack standards for heat is shocking given that we know heat is a killer both on and off the job. Heat is the number one cause of weather-related deaths in the US (and many countries around the world). The national Weather Service just released their Natural Hazard Statistics for 2018, and heat killed more people last year than lightning, tornadoes, hurricanes, cold, and winter weather combined. At work, heat was responsible for the death of 815 workers and serious injury to more than 70,000 between 1992 and 2017.

I was lucky, but you shouldn’t have to be lucky to be protected against injury at work. No occupation better illustrates the need for protection than farm labor. Despite being the foundation of our food system, farmworkers have less protection from exploitation and abuse than other workers. They can’t count on having responsible employers and safe working conditions, and it shows:  Farmworkers die from heat at a mind-boggling 20 times the rate of the general population (and that’s without factoring the under-reporting of heat-related mortality and farmworker mortality in general). Hours before I arrive in my comfortable office, they are in the field doing one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs our country has to offer, in order to produce the food we all eat.

Thanks to climate change, the need for strong protection is only becoming more urgent. Danger from extreme heat is on the rise everywhere, and heat-related deaths are expected to increase in the coming decades.  Last summer saw a record-breaking and dangerous heat wave across much of the Northern Hemisphere. The first half of this year has already brought unprecedented lethal heat in India, Vietnam, and Australia.

Fortunately, the need for change is not going unrecognized. A national coalition of organizations is calling for OSHA to issue a National Heat Protection Standard. Last July, more than 130 organizations, supported by members of Congress, delivered a petition to OSHA to draft such a standard. In the fall the organizational petition was followed by a grassroots petition signed by over 61,000 individuals so far. And in April, UCS joined 109 other organizations in signing on to a letter of support for worker protections from climate change.

Farmworkers, like all workers, deserve protection from dangerous working conditions. We can all help make sure they get that protection. You can learn more about the national campaign and find ways to get involved here—starting with the grassroots petition that is still open. For this National Heat Awareness Day, let’s commit to make protecting workers from dangerous heat a matter of law, not luck.

Holger Hubbs

Healthy Soil, Coming to a Theater Near You: 5 Lessons from “The Biggest Little Farm”

Photo courtesy of Apricot Lane Farms

An email in my inbox last month caught my attention. It was from author, environmental advocate, and Academy Award-winning film producer Laurie David (“An Inconvenient Truth”), and it offered a preview of “The Biggest Little Farm,” a new documentary film David had coming out soon. “I promise you that any person that goes to see this film will leave inspired and caring a whole lot more for the planet,” her note said. “I promise you it will help your organization achieve your goals!”

I clicked on the link, watched the trailer, was intrigued. The movie looked gorgeous. But would it hold up to scrutiny from skeptical agricultural scientists?

A few days later, in a conference room with several members of the UCS food and agriculture team, I dimmed the lights and let the film roll. “The Biggest Little Farm” (in theaters this month) chronicles the adventures of filmmaker John Chester and his wife Molly as they leave their lives in Los Angeles behind to start a diversified farm on an exhausted piece of land north of the city, where they intend to live and grow food “in perfect harmony with nature.”

At first, the storytelling seems to veer toward the precious. John documents the promise they made to their rescue pup Todd about how much he’d love being a farm dog. The narration, over cute animation, extols the idyllic life John and Molly imagine for themselves. But I soon realized he was setting up viewers for the same jolt he and Molly would soon get—repeatedly—about the harsh realities of farming, especially when you’re trying something new and complex.

Because it turns out this kind of farming isn’t all rainbows and puppies and adorable baby goats. It’s also exhausting and sometimes heartbreaking. Before long, the story got real—very real—and I was hooked. After the credits rolled, my colleagues’ reviews came in:

A really beautiful, honest, and engaging film. It shows the many tough challenges of farming with nature rather than against it, but leads with the opportunities and a hopeful optimism.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a stunning illustration of the ecology of diversified farming – the challenges, the potential, and all the interconnectedness of a complex farm ecosystem.  

More dead chickens! Why did you make me watch this??

Indeed, midway through the film, the casualties start to pile up. John, Molly and their team face a seemingly never-ending string of predator attacks, pest and disease outbreaks, and other deadly natural phenomena as they struggle to make Apricot Lane Farms a sustainable enterprise. Although the relentless mishaps challenge their core belief in working with nature rather than against it, they persist, learning something from each experience and finding creative ways to adapt.

Their story, while unique in many ways, contains some key lessons for US agriculture:

  1. Soil is paramount. When the Chesters first arrived at Apricot Lane Farms, their newly acquired soil was so compacted and devoid of organic matter, they could hardly break it with a shovel. “The soil is dead,” John says flatly. “And we have no idea how to bring it back to life.” But with the help of consultant and soil guru Alan York, they set about enriching it. “Plants build soil,” Alan said as they seeded cover crops. They also installed a state-of-the-art compost tea system and added animals (so many animals!) for their manure. And indeed, by the end of the film—which spans a seven-year period of historic California drought followed by an unusually wet year—the Chesters’ spongier soil seemed to have paid off, as it held water better during dry periods and soaked up more of it when the rains fell. At a time when climate change is driving more weather extremes in every part of the country, building healthy soil will be critical to ensuring that farmers can be successful.
  1. Increasing a farm’s biodiversity is critical (and hard). Someone recently said to me that farmers are the only manufacturers who work outside, completely exposed to the elements. There’s truth in that, for sure, but the choice of the word “manufacturers” is revealing. Factories typically make one thing, over and over, day in and day out. And farming in the United States has become a lot like that—an overwhelmingly industrial process, divorced from nature and, in fact, often fighting it tooth and nail. In the film, we see Alan explaining how the Chesters must emulate how natural ecosystems work (we call this agroecology). His mantra: “Diversify, diversify, diversify.” John and Molly take this to the extreme, eventually farming 200+ crops and animals across pastures, orchards, and a large vegetable garden. A plethora of wildlife also returns, including new pests that require more creativity and further diversification to combat. Alan promises all this diversity will become simplicity, but as John notes, “a simple way of farming is just not easy.”
  1. Few farmers can go to the lengths the Chesters have. But most don’t need to. The 76 varieties of stone fruit trees John and Molly now tend is…probably a bit much for most farmers. And without access to investors like they recruited, few farm startups can afford fancy composting systems, miles of new irrigation line, and the costs associated with repeated trial and error. It is never clear, in the film, how much up-front and continued investment was necessary to do what they did at Apricot Lane Farms (though we can assume it was a lot). Nor do we know at what point in the saga that investment was fully recouped, if it has been. But recent research has shown that even more limited and lower-cost efforts at diversification on farms—for example, expanding from two crops to three or four, or planting prairie strips around the edges of crop fields—can have substantial benefits. And federal farm programs provide help (though not nearly enough) for farmers to do such things.
  1. One way or another, the ecological debts of our industrial farming system must be paid. Apricot Lane Farms required substantial upfront investment not only because the Chesters had ambitious plans, but also because they needed to pay down an enormous ecological debt racked up on that piece of land over the years. Industrial agriculture has been called an “extraction industry” because it takes nutrients from the land without replacing them, allows precious soil to wash or blow away, and sends rainwater running off the surface rather than percolating down to refill underground aquifers for later use. Due to decades of short-sighted management, this is the situation on farmland all across this country. And while John, Molly, and their investors had the means to take on Apricot Lane’s ecological debt, it’s not fair or realistic to expect farmers to make up for the damage caused by industrial practices and the public policies that have incentivized them. Rather, “The Biggest Little Farm” shows once again why shifting agricultural policies to help farmers diversify the landscape and rebuild their soil and is a smart investment in the future.
  1. Nature is breathtakingly beautiful. The film’s message is in line with what the science tells us about farmland diversification and healthy soil, and it comes at a time when legislators in many states and in Congress are looking to expand policy supports and public investments to help more farmers advance soil health. Even though Apricot Lane is just one farm, and a unique one at that, my hope is that this film adds to the conversation. But you don’t have to be an advocate for healthy soil policy to appreciate the movie, which above all is visually stunning and brimming with optimism. You’ll marvel at the ways John Chester’s cinematography captures the beauty and devastation of nature and life on a diversified, ecologically-based farm—from aerial footage of painstakingly designed orchards to images of playful lambs and terrifying wildfires, infrared footage of nocturnal predators, and superslomo shots of the hummingbirds and beneficial insects who return as part of the farm’s renewal. If you like that iPhone commercial, you’ll find this film equally appealing.

“The Biggest Little Farm” opens this Friday, May 10, in Los Angeles and New York, and nationwide May 17.