Progress Toward a Healthy Food System

Published Nov 1, 2022

Food and agriculture expert Karen Perry Stillerman unpacks provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act that can set the US on the right path for a healthy and just food system.

In this episode

Colleen and Karen discuss:

  • the lesser-known provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act that will help transform our food system
  • how these provisions can be enacted through the Farm Bill
  • what we should be looking to in the next few years to ensure that we are on track
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:28)
Intro (0:28-2:13)
Interview p1 (2:13-14:30)
Break (14:30-15:18)
Interview p2 (15:18-22:32)
Throw (22:32-23:50)
Segment (23:50-27:59)
Outro (27:59-29:00)


Segment: Pablo Ortiz
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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Full transcript

Colleen: This episode of the Got Science Podcast is about a topic most of us take for granted: food, and what it takes to get it to our plates. No, I’m not talking about Door Dash here, I’m talking about the nation’s farms and farmers.

It’s difficult to exaggerate how vital farming is to all of us. And no matter how often you are actively thinking about it, you have a vested interest in ensuring that a diversity of new farmers is entering the profession, and that all farmers have access to the resources they need to provide a steady food supply for the future.

It’s a future in which climate change looms large, and with it, increasing threats to farming—including worsening pests, floods, and droughts. While the era of the dustbowl and the Great Depression may seem distant to most of us today, agriculture is facing a similar challenge and need for solutions. What’s more, racial inequity in farming is actually worse than it was a century ago; the low number of Black families owning and operating farms is a national disgrace.

But I’m happy to report some good news. Earlier this year, Congress made some substantial commitments to help farmers who are struggling, and to equip farmers for our climate future through the Inflation Reduction Act. Joining me today to walk us through these commitments is my colleague, Karen Perry Stillerman, Deputy Director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Food and Environment Program. Karen also explains another piece of vital legislation on this topic—the Farm Bill, and how important it is for everyone to make their voice heard at the table this coming year.

Colleen: Karen, welcome back to the podcast.

Karen: Well, thanks, Colleen. It's great to be here.

Colleen: Yeah, it's really great to have you back. The Inflation Reduction Act, which recently passed, has some exciting but little-known provisions in it that will take a big step toward making farms more resilient to climate change, and also to help compensate farmers of color for past discrimination. I mean, Congress and the USDA, they've got to do much more to transform our agricultural system to one that's sustainable, healthy, and just... there are so many opportunities before us. And, you know, for too long, we've talked about all the ills of the current system. So, let's talk about what the Inflation Reduction Act will do for farms and farmers. You know, what are you most excited about?

Karen: Well, there are a couple of things. And, you know, the Inflation Reduction Act does not tell you much about what's in it, but as you know, there's a ton of funding to help us combat climate change. And that includes combating climate change on the nation's farms. So, there are a couple of things we're really excited about.

The first one is $20 billion that Congress is investing for resilient farms and farmland. We've talked about this as the largest investment in conservation on farms since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. And it's coming really just in time because people have seen on the news, farmers are experiencing every day the climate impacts on our farms and in our communities are becoming really dire.

So, just as an example, California's farm sector alone has lost more than 14,000 jobs and $1.7 billion to the big drought out there in just 2021. And as that climate change-fueled mega-drought shows signs of intensifying, those costs are just gonna go up.

Colleen: How much does agriculture contribute to climate change?

Agriculture contributed in 2020 11% of all U.S. heat-trapping emissions. And every year, at least twice as much farm soil is lost to erosion as was lost during the peak of the Dust Bowl. So, this is a real wasted opportunity for farmers to store more carbon in their land and combat climate change that way. Poor soil also increases flood and drought risks. So, conservation on farms is something that's really needed to fight climate change.

Colleen: So, Karen, when you say that agriculture contributed to heat-trapping emissions, I think a lot of people don't think of agriculture as being that connected to climate.

Karen: Yeah, it is, right? So obviously, farmers use tractors and all sorts of equipment that burns fossil fuels just like our cars and trucks do. But beyond that, there are major greenhouse gases. Nitrous oxide is one that comes from overuse of fertilizer on farm fields, and is a very potent heat-trapping gas. And then livestock farms emit a lot of methane, another really potent climate change emission. So, there's a lot we can do on farms to decrease the contribution to climate change.

But, as I mentioned, farms and farmers are also really vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. And so there are things that we can do on farms that actually increase the resilience of farmland to things like drought and flood, and that all is about the practices that farmers employ and the ways that they manage their soil and their land.

So, this $20 billion that the Inflation Reduction Act is investing is intensely needed. So, farmers actually want to make the switch to practices like planting cover crops during the offseason or diversifying their crop rotations from just one or two crops, or other practices that can store more carbon in the soil and make their farmland spongier and so more resilient. But there's just not enough investment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help all the farmers who need just a little bit of investment to make the switch, andcover the initial cost of switching practices.

Only half the farmers that want to do these things every year are able to get funding from the USDA. And so this $20 billion would expand the number of farmers that we can help with financial incentives and technical assistance to be able to take up more climate-friendly practices.

Colleen: it's interesting as you were talking, I'm thinking, and this is probably making this very simplistic, but I'm thinking, I can plant a cover crop when I'm done with my vegetable garden. And I think when you think of larger-scale farms, just to plant cover crops, that's got to be incredibly expensive, right?

Karen: Well, right, they have to pay for the seed. They have to figure out how to cut down or kill that crop before they can plant their next crop. Sometimes they need different equipment that can cost a lot to invest in upfront. So, there are costs that farmers really are looking for some help with to be able to do these more climate-friendly things.

Colleen: So, what else is in this bill?

Karen: Yeah. So, there's also a much smaller chunk of money, but $300 million, that will be invested in the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help better understand how farmers can be part of the climate solution. I talked about how these different practices can store more carbon in the soil, but we don't know as much as we need to know about exactly how that happens about soil carbon, how to keep it in the soil.

So, you know, farmers can do one thing one year and put a lot of carbon into the soil, but if they change their practices the next year, that carbon may come back out of the soil. And so, understanding better the ways we can store the most carbon and keep it there in the soil is something that we need more research for, and this investment would do that.

Then the last thing that we're super excited about is $5 billion that would be invested to help economically distressed farmers, and also those who've been discriminated against in the past. This is a provision that was added to the Inflation Reduction Act at the very last minute. And it's really important, but there's a pretty painful and troubling backstory to that.

Black farmers 100 years ago, made up about 14% of all U.S. farmers. But in more recent times, they've been denied equal access to land, financing, and other resources by the kind of entrenched systemic racism in our society. And so black farmers make up less than 2% of all farmers in the U.S. now.

And then, if you remember all the funding that farmers got after the trade wars of the previous administration disrupted their markets...and it turns out that white farmers got the vast majority of that help. And so now farmers of color, black farmers and others are the ones who are most at risk of foreclosure, basically losing their farms.

Some data I saw show that they represent almost a third of those who are behind in their loan payments to the USDA, even though they account for just 16% of the loans that have been made since 2020. So, these are farmers who really need help. And they've waited a long time for that help.

Earlier in the COVID pandemic, the American Rescue Plan, the law that Congress passed early in the pandemic, attempted to right some of these wrongs by offering loan forgiveness to Black farmers and other farmers of color. But, of course, some white farmers objected and sued the USDA claiming reverse discrimination, and so that loan forgiveness program has been on hold's on hold indefinitely.

The inflation Reduction Act now takes a different tact, and so it's directing aid to economically distressed farmers, but also specifically to those who have faced discrimination at the hands of the USDA. And so this should mean that black farmers start to get the kind of compensation that they deserve, though it remains to be seen how that plays out.

Colleen: Well, you know, that's a perfect segue to my next question, which is how do we make this happen? And I think, I don't know, maybe we need a quick food policy history lesson here. But, you know, what's the mechanism that pulls together all of these potential provisions and plans and actually turns them into reality?

Karen: Right. Well, so there's a law that Congress negotiates and passes about every five years, colloquially known as the Farm Bill. And you'd think that the Farm Bill would be something that only farmers would be interested in, but it actually shapes our entire food and farming system. And so the Farm Bill really touches you and me and everyone else in this country every day.

It makes something close to a trillion dollars in investment in food systems and in agriculture. So, it's really important to everything in the food system. And if we want to see real large-scale changes in how farmers do what they do, and what kinds of foods all of us can access, and how affordable it is, and how people at the lowest end of the income spectrum can put food on their tables, then all of that is done in the Farm Bill.

Colleen: Does the Farm Bill have anything to do with, you know, what I'm having for breakfast?

Karen: It does. It has everything to do with what you're having for breakfast. So, the Farm Bill, in part, kind of directs by the investments that makes what farmers choose to grow. So, we know that the most widely grown crops in the United States are corn and soybeans. And that's not an accident, farmers didn't just decide to grow corn and soybeans. You know, all the investments in the Farm Bills kind of point to those crops.

And in part, the reason that they do is because the large corporations involved in our farm system find those crops really useful for making processed foods, for feeding to livestock, for ethanol for our cars. And so the Farm Bill really shapes every bit of the food system, including the fact that, packaged breakfast cereal is pretty cheap.

Colleen: So, if I want Corn Pops for breakfast, I should thank the Farm Bill, but what if I want, you know, yogurt and fruit?

Karen: Yeah. So, right, the Farm Bill doesn't do enough to make those sorts of healthy foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, but also other foods more accessible to all of us. And so, you know, that's something, we want to see a Farm Bill that not only prevents people from going hungry, and that should be the bare minimum, right, but also helps people access a wide variety of really nutritious foods. That helps them access foods grown nearby that help shape local farming systems that can provide healthy affordable foods in people's communities. Those are the kinds of things we want to see a Farm Bill do.

We also want to see a Farm Bill that doesn't exploit farmworkers, right? That keeps the people who produce our food, get it to our tables healthy and safe, and that's just not the case now. We saw early in COVID how in the nation's meat and poultry processing plants COVID ran rampant. A lot of those workers got sick and died because they're working in really crowded and unsafe conditions already, and we think federal farm policy ought to be more involved in making sure that doesn't happen. So, there are many, many things the Farm Bill could do, and we think should do, but isn't doing a good job of now.

Colleen: So going back to the Farm Bill, I assume it’s hard to make changes because the farm bill is so all encompassing and unwieldy. But, what other factors are at play?

Karen: I think partly because it is so large and complicated and because there are some really deep-pocketed interests who have the loudest voices in what gets passed every five years. And by that, I'm talking about, some of the largest food companies. Some that people know, like Tyson Foods, but others that, maybe less well-known companies like Cargill, who are in the business of trading corn and soybeans, and in the meat business, as well.

These companies over decades of deregulation, including in the Farm Bill, have unfairly consolidated their power over farmers and workers, and all of us. So, for example, two of those I mentioned, Cargill, and Tyson, and two others, now control 85% of the beef market. And so when you have companies that are that powerful, they really make the rules. They have great influence over the policies that over time, they've really shaped in their favor. And so, I think it really will take a people-powered movement to overcome that kind of corporate power in our food system. And that's something that we're really looking to build.

Colleen: So, how did we end up with the Farm Bill system in the first place?

Karen: Well, I mean, the first version of the Farm Bill was passed in 1933, again, during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. And, at that time, it was mostly concerned with helping farmers stay in business when crop prices plummeted in the depression. But, like many things in our society, it's just gotten a lot more complex and bigger. And so now, as I said, the sections addressing everything from international trade and farm products to, the nutritional quality of school lunches to how our national forests are managed, and really everything else in agriculture and food.

Colleen: So, what are some of the ways that you think the Inflation Reduction Act can make some inroads and really make some change?

Karen: So, besides the kick start towards some of these things—it’s not that the Inflation Reduction Act has a direct impact on the Farm Bill, but it's that we maybe have some momentum, we know the things that we need to do to make our food system more sustainable, more climate-friendly, more just, and now we just need to do more of them. And that's where going into negotiating a new Farm Bill, we hope to take advantage of some of that momentum.

Colleen: So, the current Farm Bill, it will expire in a year. Is that correct?

Karen: Yeah. So, it's a five-year cycle, but they're usually late. So, it may not actually be that we have a new Farm Bill until 2024. And many of the programs actually don't expire per se, but they do need to be reauthorized. So yes, sometime in 2023, or early 2024 is when we expect that something will be passed and signed. And it takes a lot of work to get there because, again, this is such a large piece of legislation. It's unwieldy and it takes months and months and months for Congress to write a new one.

Colleen: So in the next couple of years as the Farm Bill is going through it’s process, what are some of the signposts that you'll be looking at to ensure that progress is being made?

Karen: Yeah. So, I mean, one thing I'll be looking to is who is at the table who's advocating around the Farm Bill, and if it's just the same-old parties banging down the doors of Congress, then I don't think we'll see the change that we need. But on the other hand, if we really do have more of a people-powered movement, and more constituencies really seeing that they have a stake in the Farm Bill, then I think we can see change.

And that's something that at the Union of Concerned Scientists, we're trying to build that kind of coalition, that kind of movement that can make a difference in this Farm Bill. So, we recently sent President Biden a letter about the Farm Bill. And the reason we did that is, I guess, one of the other signposts we'll be looking for is, how is he talking about the Farm Bill? Congress will write it, but the President ultimately needs to sign it. And so, President Biden has made commitments on climate action, commitments to advance racial justice in this country during his administration, and so here in the Farm Bill, we see another opportunity for him to make progress on those fronts.

And so we sent a letter that was signed by 170 organizations. And that may not sound like much but to have that many organizations agreeing on something is actually kind of a big deal, and to have the breadth of organizations. So, this was everyone from big environmental groups, to frontline food justice groups, to the AFL-CIO, saying,--we need a different kind of Farm Bill. We need one that is a climate bill. That is a racial justice bill. That is, you know, a nutrition bill that is a food safety bill. That is different from the status quo." And so, you know, we'll be looking to the President to see, does he demand that Congress sent him a different kind of Farm Bill, one that reflects his values and that he can be proud to sign, and then we'll know we're really making progress.

Colleen: That's a powerful and much more diverse coalition than we've seen in the past.

Karen: Right. Yeah. I mean, we're really gonna have to have voices at the table who aren't usually there, haven't been there in the past. some groups just haven't seen that the Farm Bill as something that would matter to them. But also, you know, some of the constituencies, farm workers or food workers or people of color, don't necessarily either see themselves in it or have the wherewithal, the resources to be involved in these kinds of federal policy debates.

And so, we're looking to try to expand the resources that are available and help people who do have a stake in the Farm Bill have a voice, and to make sure that people in Congress and in the White House are hearing from a wide variety of constituencies and organizations.

Colleen: Karen, thanks so much for joining me on the podcast. It's been really great to talk about potential opportunities on the horizon. And let's hope that we get a stronger Farm Bill that really starts to push the momentum and get things moving in the right direction.

Karen: Absolutely. Thanks, Colleen. It's been great to be here.

Colleen: Danger Season in the United States is finally over. That’s right, that perilous time between May and October… when climate change increases the frequency, intensity, and duration of extreme weather like heat waves, hurricanes, and wildfires.

But it’s not leaving us without a few nasty parting shots. Hurricane Ivan slammed into Florida’s west coast, knocking out power and causing devastating flooding. A rare September storm made more likely by climate change… caused storm surge flooding to wash away roads and homes in Western Alaska. And in California, my colleague Pablo Ortiz, who lives in the state’s Central Valley, sweltered through the worst heat wave in the region’s history, with temperatures over 115 degrees Fahrenheit.

Central Valley is the most important agricultural region in the United States, and it’s home to hundreds of thousands of farmworkers who must choose between laboring in dangerous heat… or not getting paid. Pablo joined me to describe what 115 degrees felt like for him—and what it might be like for a farmworker who has little choice but to stay outside and work.

Pablo: Thank you, Colleen. I can definitely tell you what 115 degrees felt like. Because I’m a scientist who works with communities who do outdoor work in the heat… I wanted to try out an experiment. I decided I’d go outside during our recent heat wave and garden for a bit, to see what it felt like.

I started out with a heart monitor—and the best intentions.

When I opened the door, I felt searing heat. It was almost like opening a hot oven and sticking my face inside. After a few minutes, my heart rate was above 160 beats per minute. I was already wet with sweat. I burned my hand when I accidentally grabbed the metal part of a shovel that had been under the sun. I felt dizzy and weak—and honestly, a little silly for pretending I could put myself in the shoes of people who work on farms for a living. It just wasn’t even comparable. The results from my experiment… were that my respect, admiration, and gratitude for farmworkers, and all outdoor workers, grew even more.

If you were a farmworker, here’s what 115 degrees would feel like to you.

You wake up before the sun comes out. The lowest temperature overnight was 75 degrees. Your workplace is a dusty agricultural field, with little to no shade, and it has infinite rows of crops for you and your co-workers to pick up, package, and load onto a truck. At 9 am, it’s already 90 degrees. Dust sticks to your skin. The breaks for rest, water, and shade that your employer is required to give you are short. But you don’t want to rest too long anyway, because you get paid by how much you pick.

It’s 5 pm, and the heat has just reached its peak. You’re back home with your family, friends, or roommates. Or maybe you’re alone, because your family and friends are thousands of miles away in your home country. The AC doesn’t work. Even if it is working, you don’t run it, because the cost of the electricity eats up your wages. Soon, it’s time to sleep. The sun has gone down, but it’s still hot. And after a restless night, you have to get up early, again, to do it all over again.

Okay… so, neither you nor I may ever know what it really feels like—but this is the reality for many people where I live. And as long as global heat-trapping gas emissions don’t stop, extreme heat and heat waves will continue to break records every summer, endangering their health and safety.

Here are three things we can do about it:

One: We can advocate for stronger federal outdoor workers’ protections… like access to breaks in shaded areas, rest time, and training for workers and supervisors to recognize and act on heat-related illnesses. Ask your members of Congress to pass the Asunción Valdivia Heat Illness and Fatality Prevention Act.

Two: We can advocate for the National Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy Act to pass in Congress… so we can have a national plan to manage compounding hazards.

Three: we can demand other measures locally… like requiring paid days when it’s too hot to work, so that outdoor workers don’t have to choose between their health and livelihoods.

While we work to cut emissions, we also must adapt to our new reality. It’s time to try to make Danger Season a little safer for everyone.

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