Union of Concerned ScientistsFood and Agriculture – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Tue, 23 Jan 2018 20:38:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://blog.ucsusa.org/wp-content/uploads/cropped-favicon-32x32.png Food and Agriculture – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org 32 32 3 Reasons Why the Trump USDA’s School Nutrition Rollbacks Should Worry You—and What You Can Do About It https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/3-reasons-why-the-trump-usdas-school-nutrition-rollbacks-should-worry-you-and-what-you-can-do-about-it https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/3-reasons-why-the-trump-usdas-school-nutrition-rollbacks-should-worry-you-and-what-you-can-do-about-it#comments Fri, 19 Jan 2018 19:43:46 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=56106
Photo: USDA

In May of 2017, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue moved to make school meals great again by issuing a proclamation in support of more lenient school nutrition standards. Specifically, the proposed rule permits the continued use of whole grain waivers, which exempt certain products from meeting whole grain standards; freezes current sodium limits through 2020, rather than moving forward with progressive sodium targets; and allows schools to serve low-fat flavored milk, which is currently disallowed due to its added sugar and fat content.

The nutrition standards in jeopardy are among those established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, a landmark piece of legislation championed by former first lady Michelle Obama that marked the first overhaul of child nutrition regulations in decades.

And although May of last year might seem like a lifetime ago (a few things have happened since then), the USDA is now inviting public comments on the proposed rule, with a deadline of January 29, 2018.

Here are the top three reasons we should all be worried about this rule—and what’s driving us to take action to oppose it. You can use our UCS model comment, or write and submit your own here, to voice your concerns to the USDA.

1. We can’t afford to let children’s health become a second-tier priority.

Let’s get this out of the way: the most worrisome thing about the administration rolling back child nutrition standards is that the administration is rolling back child nutrition standards. Childhood obesity rates tripled between the early 1970s and 2005, prompting public health researchers to predict that, for the first time in centuries, children may have shorter life expectancies than their parents. Childhood obesity rates have since plateaued at around 17 percent—progress that has undoubtedly been propelled by nutrition and physical activity policies like the HHFKA—but we have a long way to go to change the trajectory of US population health. Half of all American adults currently live with one or more diet-related chronic diseases, and about two thirds are overweight or obese. The medical costs associated with obesity now account for an estimated 21 percent of all national health expenditures. Our kids deserve better.

2. We can’t afford to let industry interests become our top priority.

The proposed rule cites several justifications for altering school nutrition standards, including helping school food service authorities overcome procurement and menu planning challenges, and ensuring that students receive palatable meals that won’t go to waste. But according to the USDA, more than 99 percent of schools nationwide are already successfully meeting the nutrition standards put in place by the HHFKA. With full recognition of the tremendous amount of work it takes for schools and school food service staff to make these changes, the proof remains in the pudding: they did it. Meanwhile, the USDA reported higher school lunch revenue, greater fruit and vegetable consumption among kids, and no increase in food waste in the years following adoption of the new nutrition standards. So if this proposed rule isn’t for schools, and it isn’t for kids… who is it for? Hmm.

3. This rule could be a harbinger of more harmful regulatory rollbacks to come.

A multitude of other evidence-based health and nutrition standards were established with the passage of HHFKA, including required minimum servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables in school meals, availability of free water where meals are served, and limits on total calories, sodium, sugar, and fats in snacks sold in schools. These nutrition standards are rooted in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the cornerstone scientific report that guides federal nutrition policy and dietary recommendations for the general public; as such, they were adopted with the explicit aim of curbing childhood obesity and improving health outcomes for future generations. Just as a step toward these guidelines brings us closer to a healthier future, a step (or more) away takes us further, and lays bare a pointed preference for profit over people. If the “flexibility” granted to schools by this proposed rule is any indication of changes to come, we may be in some trouble.

 

 

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As President Trump Speaks to the Farm Bureau, Both Are Betraying Farmers https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/as-president-trump-speaks-to-the-farm-bureau-both-are-betraying-farmers https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/as-president-trump-speaks-to-the-farm-bureau-both-are-betraying-farmers#comments Fri, 05 Jan 2018 15:04:51 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55842

On Monday, the US president will take time out from his regular schedule to talk about agriculture. He’s scheduled to deliver a speech in Nashville at the annual convention of the American Farm Bureau Federation (aka “Farm Bureau”). The organization’s president, Zippy Duvall, called this a proud moment, and I’m not surprised. The Farm Bureau and Mr. Trump have a lot in common: they claim to serve farmers but in reality, they’re not doing much to improve most farmers’ lives and prospects.

The Farm Bureau bills itself as the nation’s largest nonprofit farmers’ organization and “the unified national voice of agriculture.” It is a powerful force in Washington, DC, spending millions of dollars each year lobbying Congress, and setting its sights on policy issues that range well beyond agriculture. After a 2016 presidential campaign that highlighted the plight of farming communities, Duvall cheered rural America’s role in electing Donald Trump. And now, the Trump administration is eager to tout its accomplishments for farmers and attempt to cement the support of this critical constituency.

The farmers Trump forgot

The problem is, despite all his populist rhetoric, President Trump and his agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, have delivered far more for agribusiness—the deep-pocketed corporations that buy, process, and trade farm commodities—than for the average farmer and farm worker. And while Secretary Perdue (a big agribiz guy from way back) trumpeted his department’s 2017 accomplishments in a self-congratulatory year-end press release, my assessment of the Trump administration’s actual contributions to the well-being of most farmers and their communities so far is quite different.

In his first 100 days, the president proposed steep cuts to the US Department of Agriculture’s budget, which would impact technical assistance to farmers as well as funding to improve rural water systems, and, potentially, food assistance programs that serve low-income rural residents. His hardline immigration rhetoric and increased deportation actions have led to a farmworker shortage that has affected farms from California to Michigan. He threatened early on to walk away from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which American farmers like because it has expanded markets for their grains, meat, and dairy products. And although President Trump later committed to “renegotiate” the pact with Canada and Mexico, his blustering, bullying tactics (disconcerting even to his own negotiators) may blow up the deal anyway. Many farmers feel betrayed.

Things haven’t gotten better from there.

In October, the Trump USDA rolled back the Farmer Fair Practices Rules, which the previous administration put in place to give poultry and livestock farmers more power in marketing contracts with meat processing companies, and to make it easier for contract farmers to sue those companies. The rollback means that farmers lose their recently-gained protection from exploitation by the consolidated corporate giants who control and monopolize nearly every step of the meat and poultry production chain. The Farm Bureau approved.

And then there’s the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act recently passed by the president’s party in Congress and signed into law. Among the provisions pushed by the White House (and the Farm Bureau) was all-out repeal of the estate tax, which the president said would “protect millions of small businesses and the American farmer” from disaster. With the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimating that only about 80 small business and small farm estates nationwide would face any estate tax in 2017, PolitiFact labeled the president’s statement a “pants-on-fire” claim. (Ultimately, the bill doubled the existing estate tax exemption to $11 million per person.)

In the tax bill as a whole, some observers see more downsides than benefits for all but the richest farmers, and analysis by one national agricultural accounting firm indicates that the benefits to farmers will be temporary. Still, the Farm Bureau applauded the final bill, including its imaginary estate tax benefit for farmers.

“Farm Bureau” ≠ “Farmers”

And of course the Farm Bureau applauded it. Because the agribusiness CEOs and investors that will reap benefits from big tax cuts and other Trump administration policies are the organization’s real constituency. That doesn’t mean the president’s audience in Nashville next week won’t include many honest-to-goodness farmers and ranchers. There will be many, but their actual interests are not served by the Farm Bureau’s federal policy priorities.

Moreover, as actual farmers, they make up a fraction of the Farm Bureau’s claimed membership numbers. Here’s how the organization describes its membership in legal filings:

The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), a not-for-profit, voluntary general farm organization, was founded to protect, promote, and represent the business, economic, social, and educational interests of American farmers and ranchers. AFBF has member organizations in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, representing about 6 million member families.

But the Farm Bureau’s own website simultaneously acknowledges that there are about 2.2 million farms in the United States today. Now, math isn’t my strong suit, but I’d say it’s impossible for most Farm Bureau “members” to be farm families. Instead, it appears that the organization’s membership figure has been vastly inflated by…wait for it…

Insurance customers. That’s right, many state farm bureau affiliates are heavily invested in, or actually operate, insurance companies. And many, many of the insurance customers that the Farm Bureau then automatically claims as “members” have little or no connection to farming.

Moreover, investments in insurance companies have made at least a few state Farm Bureau affiliates spectacularly wealthy. For example, IRS documents from 2013 show that the Iowa Farm Bureau had investment income topping $46 million and total assets exceeding $1 billion that year.  So it’s easy to see why the Farm Bureau would promote big business interests while opposing programs and legislation that would benefit the majority of farmers.

Farmers deserve better champions

Still, many farmers get their information about the public policies that affect them from the Farm Bureau. And the farmers in Nashville will surely be seeking help—from the Farm Bureau and from the president—to succeed in a perilous farm economy that may become a full-blown farm crisis; to cope with the flood, drought, and wildfire disasters that are becoming increasingly common; and to pass down thriving farms to the next generation.

Mr. Trump seems to think he can drop in on the Farm Bureau’s annual shindig and tell them how much he cares about farmers (“believe me”). Perhaps he’ll deliver one of his infamous rally speeches, and maybe the assembled crowd of Farm Bureau leaders in Nashville will eat it up. Or maybe they will realize that it’s all talk, and the administration doesn’t really care about the interests of the average American farm family. As for the president and his team, I suspect they are mistaken to equate the Farm Bureau with “farmers” (and by extension, rural voters), but that remains to be seen.

Ultimately, farmers need more than speeches and slogans. They need real investments in their communities, in research and technical assistance, and in the long-term viability of farming. But it’s unlikely they’ll get it from the Farm Bureau, or the Trump administration.

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All I Want for Christmas Is Added Sugar Information Over Disinformation https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/all-i-want-for-christmas-is-added-sugar-information-over-disinformation https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/all-i-want-for-christmas-is-added-sugar-information-over-disinformation#respond Thu, 21 Dec 2017 22:25:58 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55606

The struggle is real right now for all of us trying to watch our added sugar intake this holiday season as we await the implementation of the revised nutrition facts label. Now, thanks to the administration’s delay of implementation dates, we’ll have longer to wait for clear labels.  Want to know how much sugar was added to that egg nog? Tough. How about that fruit cake? None of your business. Trying to figure out whether you’ll max out on your daily sugar intake from that cup of hot cocoa? Better luck in 2020!

The Sugar Association had the gall to claim that the added sugar label was “not grounded in science” when it was finalized in May 2016. Now, multiple revelations over the past year have shown the way in which the organization has sidelined science using the disinformation playbook since at least the 1950s. It is clear as crystal that the Sugar Association cares only about science that downplays the risks of sugar consumption. All other data is subject to being contested or buried altogether.

Speaking of burying data, here’s how the Sugar Association used “The Fake” to end a research study with inconvenient initial findings.

In a November PLoS article, UCSF researchers found that the Sugar Research Foundation had suppressed its own research when its results indicated that rats fed a high-sugar diet had a statistically significant increase in likelihood that they would have higher levels of beta-glucoronidase which is associated with bladder cancer. SRF funded the 15-month study in 1968 to be led by W.F.R. Pover at the University of Birmingham. When Pover reported his results and asked for more time to complete the study, SRF Vice President, Hickson, described the study’s value as “nil” to industry executives, leading to a denial of the funding request and a termination of the incomplete study. This meant that the study’s conclusions were never published and that the link between a high sugar diet and associated cancer risk were kept secret from the public, until now. As recently as 2016, the Sugar Association has denied the link between sugar consumption and cancer, stating that “no credible link between ingested sugars and cancer has been established.”

The Sugar Association has also spent years trying to shift attention off of the harmful impacts of added sugar, using “The Diversion.”

The same UCSF research team published a study last year which revealed that as a part of its campaign to increase sugar consumption in the 1960s, the Sugar Research Foundation funded its own literature review on sugars, fats, and chronic heart disease in an obvious attempt to dispel the rumors that calories from sugar were at least part of the problem. The SRF paid Dr. Mark Hegsted and Dr. Robert McGandy, under the supervision of Harvard University’s Fredrick Stare, a total of nearly $50,000 (in 2015 dollars) for their work. And the SRF was heavily involved throughout the review process, urging the scientists to focus on the perils of fat consumption. The SRF vice president and director of research, John Hickson, emphasized in 1965, “Our particular interest had to do with that part of nutrition in which there are claims that carbohydrates in the form of sucrose make an inordinate contribution to the metabolic condition, hitherto ascribed to aberrations called fat metabolism. I will be disappointed if this aspect is drowned out in a cascade of review and general interpretation.”

Another trick up the sleeve of the Sugar Association was their use of “The Screen,” taking advantage of the funding relationship it had with Harvard University’s nutrition department.

Just as the Sugar Association and Corn Refiners Association today work with academic scientists to advance their talking points, when the trade association’s aforementioned literature review was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, the authors did not disclose the funding or close involvement of the SRF in the review. Dr. Fredrick Stare, the founder and chairman of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, had an extended history of funding from the sugar and food industry: over 30 papers authored by members of his department were funded by the SRF just between 1952 and 1956. Stare’s department at Harvard is a key example of how industry funding can influence academic science, with dangerous consequences for public discourse and public policy.

Despite all we know about the disinformation campaign of the sugar industry, government officials are still failing to see through their same old distraction tactics and talking points about “sound science” to act to protect our health rather than the trade association’s profit margin. The result? Delayed access to information on the nutrition facts label even though we know that sugar is one of the risk factors implicated in the obesity crisis that continues to worsen every year.

Early last month, UCS submitted a comment to the FDA urging them to choose information over disinformation and not to go through with the further delay of enforcement of the revised label. To formally delay compliance of this already long-awaited and scientifically supported rule would be an arbitrary step backward for public health. 

Bah-humbug.

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As a Government Funding Deadline Looms, Scientists Seek Support for Agroecology Research https://blog.ucsusa.org/mike-lavender/as-a-government-funding-deadline-looms-scientists-seek-support-for-agroecology-research https://blog.ucsusa.org/mike-lavender/as-a-government-funding-deadline-looms-scientists-seek-support-for-agroecology-research#respond Thu, 21 Dec 2017 21:05:03 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55656
Photo: USDA-SARE/Edwin Remsberg

Among the many challenges Congress faces in the dwindling days of 2017 is this: the federal government will run out of money on December 22 unless lawmakers can agree on a budget extension.

In recent years, the threat of a government shutdown has become an unofficial December tradition in Washington. Unsurprisingly, this lack of certainty has real impacts on millions of Americans from all walks of life. But in recent years, scientist and researchers have started speaking up.

My colleague Tali Robbins works closely with these scientists and researchers and below has laid out the current landscape of Congressional funding, the importance of agroecological research, and exactly how new voices are getting involved:

In the vast complexity of funding the government, agriculture research rarely makes headlines. Yet, few investments are more important for the future of farming, rural communities, clean water, and healthy food. That’s because the federal budget is the key vehicle through which scientists, farmers, and others who care about our food system can push for more support of sustainable agriculture. Perhaps the biggest opportunity to hasten the transition to a more sustainable food and farming system is through public research funding for agroecology.

Agroecology shows tremendous promise to support farmers’ bottom line while achieving positive social and environmental outcomes, yet recent analysis shows that this area of research is vastly underfunded. Some USDA research programs have enjoyed modest funding increases in previous rounds of budget negotiations, but with pressure mounting from fiscal conservatives on the Hill, these programs are under serious threat. Let’s backtrack to earlier this year to understand the current budget drama and the outlook for agroecology in the next fiscal year.

In March, the President proposed a “skinny budget,” the administration’s first major foray into government funding decisions, which decimated research funding at USDA and throughout other federal agencies. Thankfully, allies in both the House and Senate recognized that public support of agricultural research results in an enormous return on investment of more than 20 percent, and they rejected Trump’s proposal wholesale. The agreement that was eventually signed into law in May maintained or increased funding levels for some of the key USDA programs that fund agroecological research, including the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI; a $25 million increase to $375 million), the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program (SARE; a $2.3 million increase to $27 million), and the Organic Research Extension Initiative (OREI; holding steady at $20 million).

As that deal was set to expire earlier this fall, the President signed another bill extending those same funding levels through December 8, and then signed yet another extension through December 22. That means that as of today, Congress has just days to reach another agreement to keep the government open – and keep researchers at USDA and land grant universities around the country working to find solutions to the nation’s most pressing agricultural challenges.

Agricultural research has historically found bipartisan support and rightly so. Despite the polarized political environment and the legislative logjam, members of Congress on both sides of the aisle agree that sustainable agriculture research programs need more funding. For example, SARE – the primary vehicle to conduct on-farm research – was only able to fund 7 percent of qualified pre-proposals for Research and Education grants last year. Farmer-driven research that would have supported farmers seeking to incorporate sustainable practices that mitigate the impact of floods and droughts, prevent fertilizer runoff, and sequester carbon in the soil has been left unfunded.

Over the last several months, congressional appropriators have drafted funding bills for the next fiscal year. And agricultural scientists around the country mobilized to impress upon these legislators the importance of fully funding key USDA programs that prioritize agroecology. Researchers from Oregon to Kansas to New Mexico have been working to demonstrate the value these programs have to farmers, ranchers, and rural communities around the country.

Steve Guldan, Professor of Plant and Environmental Sciences and superintendent of the Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at New Mexico State University, recently met with the office of Senator Tom Udall (D-NM). Senator Udall serves on the Senate Appropriations Committee and has been a champion for agroecology research. I reached out to Dr. Guldan to find out more about the impact of USDA funds on agricultural research in New Mexico.

You have decades of experience at New Mexico’s largest land grant university. What role do programs like AFRI, SARE, and OREI play in supporting region-specific research?

The southwestern U.S. has a different combination of climate, soils, and elevations than other areas of the country. For this reason, the development of sustainable farming and ranching practices must be based upon research carried out in our region. AFRI, SARE, and OREI are grant programs that allow researchers from the diverse regions that exist in the U.S. to develop agricultural and natural resource management principles and systems appropriate for each region.

SARE is the only USDA competitive grants research program that focuses solely on sustainable agriculture. Could you tell us about your recent SARE-funded research and its relevance to agricultural stakeholders in your state?

SARE allowed us to develop and evaluate low-cost high tunnels for winter greens (e.g., lettuce, spinach, kale) production systems, including organic systems, that can be used in our region of high elevations and relatively cold winters by making the most of our many sunny days. Increasing the capacity to grow vegetables locally during the winter months can help farmers develop more marketing options as well as provide locally-grown produce to schools, restaurants, and year-round farmers markets.

You drove two hours to meet with Senator Udall’s office and discuss your concerns around this budget. Tell us about that experience and the reception you got from the senator.

I was pleased to find Senator Udall’s staff to be very interested in hearing about the importance of AFRI, SARE, and related USDA research programs to New Mexico agricultural research. They were very generous in the amount of time they provided to me and another researcher. The two staff members we met with were experienced and knowledgeable about the legislative process and how funding for these research programs fits into it.

The Senate and House Appropriations committees have passed their funding packages, which tentatively include some important funding increases to key research programs. However, appropriators in both chambers must now negotiate to determine final spending levels on USDA programs for the remainder of FY18. Congress has a jam-packed schedule until the holiday break, but it’s imperative that appropriators recognize the importance of publicly funded agroecological research and the value that AFRI, SARE, and OREI provide to farmers, ranchers, and communities around the country.

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What’s in the Nutrition Title of the (Food and) Farm Bill? https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/whats-in-the-nutrition-title-of-the-food-and-farm-bill https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/whats-in-the-nutrition-title-of-the-food-and-farm-bill#respond Wed, 20 Dec 2017 20:27:03 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55626

We’ve been talking a lot about the federal legislation known as the Farm Bill, a major law governing key US food and agriculture programs that’s up for re-authorization during 2018. And while most of the dozen sections or “titles” of the 2014 Farm Bill are deep in the weeds of agriculture—from commodity crop programs and crop insurance to agriculture research and on-farm conservation—the title governing nutrition programs is actually the largest, and by a long shot. It accounts for approximately 80 percent of the bill’s spending, and its programs are among the most important resources in the federal safety net.

They are also among the most at risk of cuts each time the Farm Bill is reauthorized. This reauthorization cycle is no exception, with President Trump’s proposed budget earlier this year and recent comments by his agriculture secretary serving as some of the first of many indications that nutrition assistance programs could face structural changes and drastic reductions in funding by the time this is all over.

Farm and food programs go hand-in-hand

Before we go down that road, it’s worth noting that the cornerstone food assistance programs of the nutrition title have roots that are intricately intertwined with those of early agricultural programs. In 1933, as farmers were faced with surpluses and historically low prices in the midst of the Great Depression, the federal government responded with the first Farm Bill: The Agriculture Adjustment Act of 1933. This legislation established, among other things, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, which allowed the government to purchase farm commodities at discounted prices and distribute them at hunger relief agencies. In leveraging federal resources to relieve the strain on both US farmers and families, the program offered a model for what would become the first food stamp program in 1939.

Eight decades and 16 Farm Bills later, the nutrition title continues to support households at risk of food insecurity—though the relationship between nutrition and farm programs is increasingly complicated by financial and political interests. This is evident in the dissonance between our farm policies, which tend to give preference to commodity crops like corn and soy, and our dietary guidelines, which encourage us to consume more foods like fruits and vegetables. And while the food stamp program—now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—remains a foundational component of the nutrition title, other nutrition programs have emerged alongside it with renewed interest in a healthy food supply that benefits both consumers and regional food producers.

So what did the nutrition title look like in the last Farm Bill passed in 2014, and what’s on the horizon for its reauthorization in 2018?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: The fabric of the federal safety net

SNAP is one of the largest components of the federal safety net, providing critical financial support for more than 21 million American households. The program helps to prevent hunger and poverty among some of our most vulnerable populations, including children, who account for about 4 out of 10 SNAP participants, as well as seniors and people with disabilities. It also acts as a critical safeguard in circumstances causing temporary food insecurity or financial strain, such as natural disasters or unexpected gaps in employment. In 2014, the program lifted an estimated 4.7 million people out of poverty, including 2.1 million children, and reduced food insecurity rates by nearly a third.

There are currently few restrictions on the foods and beverages that can be purchased with SNAP benefits, though benefits can’t be used to buy alcohol, vitamins, medicine, and hot foods or foods consumed in-store. (An exception: states offering the Restaurant Meals Program may allow homeless, disabled, or elderly participants to redeem benefits in restaurants.)

Disaster SNAP was used to provide emergency food relief to those impacted by Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas. Photo: US Department of Agriculture/CC by public domain

SNAP eligibility is primarily determined by household gross income (set at 130 percent of the poverty line) and net income tests, with exceptions for seniors and those receiving disability payments. Applicants may also be eligible for SNAP benefits if they’re qualified for other assistance programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), through a provision called broad-based categorical eligibility. Adults in households without children, seniors, or people with disabilities must meet work requirements or face benefit termination after a period of three months (renewed every three years). During periods of severe economic downturn, as in the years following the Great Recession, states may be given the option to grant waivers lifting the three-month time limit.

SNAP is uniquely equipped to respond to changing economic conditions due to its status as an entitlement program, which ensures that increases in eligibility or program participation are matched by increases in funding. The Great Recession highlighted the importance of this funding structure: when unemployment grew by 93 percent between 2007 and 2011, SNAP participation grew by 70 percent. Meanwhile, assistance programs funded through block grants, such as TANF, experienced only marginal increases in participation.

Increased SNAP spending not only improves food security among participating households, but also acts as an economic stimulus, with every five dollars in new SNAP benefits generating as much as nine dollars in economic activity. Following economic recovery, enrollment and spending tend to decline. Between 2013 and 2016, caseloads in a majority of states experienced steady declines, due to both economic recovery and the reinstatement of three-month time limits for adult participants without employment. The Congressional Budget Office predicts that program costs will continue to decline throughout the next decade.

The Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Grant Program, generally referred to as SNAP Education or SNAP-Ed, complements SNAP benefits by providing grant funding for nutrition education. SNAP-Ed prioritizes evidence-based programs and interventions that support healthy eating behaviors and physical activity among low-income populations. Evaluations of nutrition education programs have reported increases in fruit and vegetable intake, reductions in overweight youth, and increases in physical activity among adults, with some studies estimating a $10 savings in overall long-term health care costs for every dollar invested.

SNAP Education grants help kids and adults learn new skills and develop healthy eating behaviors. Photo: Coqui the Chef/CC by SA 2.0

Nutrition assistance for special populations

There are multiple programs contained in the nutrition title of the 2014 Farm Bill that provide nutrition assistance to special populations and supplement existing programs with increased access to fresh, healthy foods.

  • The Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) works in lieu of SNAP, providing USDA foods to low-income households living on Indian reservations, as well as Native American families residing in designated areas.
  • The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) provides USDA commodity foods to public or private nonprofit organizations preparing or distributing meals to primarily low-income populations.
  • The Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) provides nutritious USDA commodity foods to participating states and Indian Tribal Organizations to supplement the diets of low-income elderly persons 60 years of age and older.
  • The Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program provides grant funding for state agencies to offer low-income seniors coupons that can be redeemed for fruits, vegetables, honey, and herbs at farmers markets, roadside stands, and community-supported agriculture programs.
  • The Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program provides eligible elementary schools with free fresh fruits and vegetables during the day, with the goal of supporting nutrition education and introducing children to greater varieties of health-promoting foods.

Nutrition programs supporting healthy food access and stronger food systems

A number of innovative programs established in the 2008 and 2014 Farm Bills called attention to the importance of improving healthy food access and supporting local and regional farm economies through nutrition assistance programs. These programs play a crucial role in helping families secure access to healthy and affordable foods—especially as recent research has confirmed that, at current levels, SNAP benefits alone aren’t enough to help families achieve a healthy diet.

  • The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program provides grant funding to help provide point-of-purchase incentives that encourage the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants. Modeled after Wholesome Wave’s Double Value Coupon Program, which matches the value of SNAP benefits spent on fruits and vegetables at participating farmers markets and grocery stores, the FINI grant program helped thousands of low-income SNAP households spend over $5 million in SNAP benefits on fresh fruits and vegetables in 2015. More than three quarters of participating SNAP farmers market shoppers reported buying or consuming more fruits and vegetables as a result, and over half of all participating farmers reported making greater profits or increasing the scope of their operations.
  • The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) provides grants, tax credits, low-cost loans, and technical assistance to help increase access to healthy, affordable foods in low-income and underserved communities. Applications of HFFI funding include investments in new grocery stores, corner stores, farmers markets, and other retail outlets offering nutritious foods. Modeled after the Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative, HFFI helped communities invest more than $69 million in 119 retail projects for a total of more than 1.5 million square feet of new retail space as of 2015.
  • The Food and Agricultural Service Learning Program is administered by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and complements federal farm-to-school grants to increase the capacity for food, garden, and nutrition education programs.

Looking ahead: Nutrition in the 2018 Farm Bill

The upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization introduces both opportunities and threats to key components of the nutrition title, with the latter most likely to impact SNAP.

The House Agriculture Committee conducted a comprehensive review of SNAP between 2015 and 2016, gathering testimony from 60 witnesses across a total of 16 hearings, and published a report highlighting its findings. This report, paired with recent statements from the administration regarding SNAP and welfare reform, indicate that a number of changes that may befall the program in the coming Farm Bill, including stricter work requirements, mandatory drug testing, and other mechanisms to reduce eligibility. There is little evidence supporting the need for and utility of such reforms: USDA data demonstrates that most participants who can work, do work, while past attempts to implement drug testing in TANF have proved costly and yielded low rates of drug abuse.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue attends a Farmer’s Roundtable where President Donald Trump signed the Executive Order Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America in April 2017. Photo: USDA/CC by public domain

However, the re-authorization of the Farm Bill also provides important opportunities to lift up the voices of those who have relied on SNAP benefits during disasters and economic downturn, highlighting the ways in which the program helps all Americans; to make positive changes that can increase the reach of existing programs, such as the inclusion of veterans in the Senior Farmers Market Promotion Program; and to provide continued funding and support for programs like FINI and HFFI that are making substantial progress in bridging the gap between low-income consumers and local food producers.

Though the nutrition title may appear to be an outlier by name, the benefits it provides to our households and communities are also in large part sustaining our food and farming systems—and have great potential to also help them thrive. To receive updates on the ways in which we’re working to build stronger food systems and healthier populations in the next Farm Bill, or to learn how you can get involved and support the programs that are important to you, text “food justice” to 662266.

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7 Reasons the Farm Bill’s Research Title is Worth Fighting For https://blog.ucsusa.org/marcia-delonge/7-reasons-the-farm-bills-research-title-is-worth-fighting-for https://blog.ucsusa.org/marcia-delonge/7-reasons-the-farm-bills-research-title-is-worth-fighting-for#respond Tue, 19 Dec 2017 22:23:30 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55622

The Farm Bill may not sound that flashy, but you might be surprised by the vital contribution it makes to the on-the-ground decisions of farmers, and the consequences of those decisions from soil to spoon. Or maybe I should say, from science to soil to spoon, because research is a key piece of this contribution, and one I’d like to talk about today.

Wait, what’s the Farm Bill again?

If you’re not familiar with the Farm Bill, here are some basic facts. The Farm Bill started in 1933, in response to the Dust Bowl. It’s a collection of US Department of Agriculture (USDA) programs and investments broadly related to food and agriculture that are reviewed about every five years and passed into law as a giant package. The Agricultural Act of 2014—the official name of the last Farm Bill—will expire in 2018, and the process of drafting the next one, including finding ways to protect and improve programs, is well under way.

Of the 12 sections (or “titles”) included in the 2014 bill, the seventh covers “Research, Extension, and Related Matters.” Projected spending for this slice of the bill was a measly 0.2% of the bill’s total expenditures ($800 million of more than $488 billion). However, investments in research pave the way for the future, and they tend to pay back big-time, so the research title is important.

UCS Senior Washington Representative Mike Lavender (center) with Dr. Randy Jackson (left) and Dr. Don Ross (right) during a UCS advocacy fly-in day to support public agricultural research funding.

Here are my top 7 reasons Congress should invest more heavily in the Farm Bill’s Title 7 programs:

  1. Public research creates public benefits. At the most basic level, research made possible through the Farm Bill is critical simply because it is research for the public good. In the United States, public funding for food and farm research has been in decline, and concerns about corporate influence on research directions have been on the rise. To make matters worse, urgently needed agroecology research is unlikely to attract private funding, as it tends to reduce reliance on purchased inputs, while increasing benefits that cannot be easily monetized. Therefore, as scientists have attested, remaining public research funds are essential, and should be increased. Such additional research support is needed across all USDA agencies within the Research, Extension, and Education (REE) Mission Area, which include internal and external, as well as competitive and non-competitive, research projects.
  2. Competitive grants inspire cutting-edge science. Competitive grants are an important component of Farm Bill-supported research. The largest is the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI, authorized for $700 million; read more here). However, additional funds are available through other programs, such as those focused on organic agriculture (especially the Organic Research and Extension Initiative, OREI, authorized $20 million per year). By making funds available through a competitive process, the research title enables the USDA to selectively review the most innovative project ideas each year. This approach stimulates a competitive spirit that encourages the development of novel research that can lead to scientific breakthroughs.
  3. Sustainable agriculture starts with farmers. Among the available competitive research grant programs made possible through the Farm Bill, a smaller but immensely valuable one is the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension (SARE) program. This program was created by the 1990 Farm Bill and is unique in that it is entirely focused on sustainable agriculture and facilitates farmer-driven research. Recently, sustainable agriculture scientists emphasized the value of community-based and farmer-participatory research, indicating that SARE fills an important and under-supported niche. Yet, despite its value, SARE has never received the full funding for which it was authorized ($60 million per year).
  4. The next generation of farmers and ranchers needs our support. The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program is a Farm Bill program that was allocated $20 million per year (at least 5% of which is required to go toward supporting military veterans) to help beginning farmers get on their feet. The need for this type of support has become increasingly pressing, as the average age of farmers has been rising, and many obstacles—such as limited access to land, credit, and training—are barriers to entry for new farmers. Programs like the BFRDP can help provide just enough support to help get new farmers the resources they need to pursue their goals.
  5. Partnerships leverage private funding. With public funding falling short, another strategy to pull together more funds for research is through public-private partnerships. The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) is a non-profit that was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to accomplish just that. FFAR was allocated a relatively large sum of money—$200 million—that could be granted once a private match was secured. Early grants from FFAR have shown great promise, in that they address gaps in knowledge of broad interest to sustainable food systems, including aspects of soil health, integrated crop and livestock systems, and more.
  6. Research programs can make space to advance racial and social justice in the food system, across all Land Grant Colleges and Universities. Advancing racial and social justice, and equity, in food systems science has been put forward by experts as a top priority. In this same spirit, it’s essential that research, extension and education supported by the Farm Bill emphasize the needs of the full suite of stakeholders in the Land Grant system—a system that includes not only the original 1862 institutions, but also the 1890 historically black colleges and universities and Tuskegee University, and the 1994 tribal colleges and universities. Recognizing the unique strengths and needs of diverse communities and institutions is likely to lead to the most powerful food systems solutions (for one example, see this report on the Farm Bill needs of native communities).
  7. Agricultural extension strengthens connections from science to practice, and practice to science. The Cooperative Extension system started even before the Farm Bill did, and was developed to ensure that scientific findings related to farming and ranching made it to the individuals and communities that could put the knowledge to practice. In addition to delivering science to stakeholder, this crucial program also serves as a bridge from farms to universities, making scientists aware of the top challenges and opportunities experienced by farmers and ranchers. Today, many of the funds and programs that ensure the success of extension programs are supported through the research title as well.

What’s the next step to getting the most research bang out of the Farm Bill buck?

The current Farm Bill will expire in 2018, and legislators are working to draft new legislation to replace it. If they don’t make the September 30 deadline, several programs that are most central to sustainable agriculture research (including OREI, SARE, BFRDP, and FFAR) will be stranded without any funding at all. To ensure the survival of these specific programs and to encourage the support of the research title overall, a wide number of agricultural stakeholders have already made their suggestions for needed farm bill reforms.

For example, just recently, a coalition of over 60 members called for an significant increase in funding for several Farm Bill research programs. Also, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition released their platform for the upcoming Farm Bill, including priorities related to research and extension. Earlier this year, new legislation proposed increased support for organic research (the Organic Agriculture Research Act, which we wrote about here). And, the new Food and Farm Act also highlights a need to expand research and development dollars for food systems in the next Farm Bill. Even individual scientists have spoken up to make a stronger case for the public agricultural research (see Emily Monosson’s letter to the editor on SARE, and Cynthia Annett’s letter on USDA research overall).

While a lot has already happened, there’s much more to come. So, all science fans out there—please stay tuned.

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It’s World Soil Day: Celebrate Soil, Carbon, and the Opportunities Right Under Our Feet https://blog.ucsusa.org/marcia-delonge/its-world-soils-day-celebrate-soil-carbon-and-the-opportunities-right-under-our-feet https://blog.ucsusa.org/marcia-delonge/its-world-soils-day-celebrate-soil-carbon-and-the-opportunities-right-under-our-feet#respond Tue, 05 Dec 2017 20:49:48 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55393

These days, stories about soil health and regenerative farming seem to be catching on, so much so that it’s almost hard to keep up, at least for the avid soil geek.  The New York Times and the Huffington Post both featured op-eds just last week explaining why soil is worth getting excited about, while tales of soil health and science from North Dakota to New England were recently shared by other sources.  Yesterday, NPR hosted an hour-long panel on soil health. And that’s just a short list.

Maybe the rush of soil-slanted stories has something to do with today being World Soil Day. Or maybe it’s because soils and agriculture finally got some love at the latest climate convention.  Or perhaps it has to do with the growing list of states that are working towards healthy soils policies, or that the conversation surrounding the next Farm Bill has actually included soil health.

Or, just maybe, it’s because people are figuring out that the soils beneath our feet, and the farmers and ranchers that tend to them, need more of our attention.  After all, healthy soils are the living, breathing ecosystems that help grow our food, clean our water, store carbon, and reduce risks of droughts and floods.  Together, soils and their stewards can produce food while making agriculture part of the solution to several challenges (including climate change). Let me explain.

Soils stash carbon and deliver services

Some of the amazing features of soils that are finally being celebrated are not new. For some time, scientists have known that soils store a lot of carbon (about three times more than the atmosphere), and that carbon-rich soils tend to hold more water.  They have also known that soil varies a lot, even across small distances, that it changes over time, and that it is affected by management practices.  But we also know that there’s a lot we don’t know.  Thankfully, that’s starting to change.

Getting the numbers right on how soil can fight a changing climate (because we can’t afford not to)

Even just in the past year, soil science—including soil carbon science—has advanced, pushed along by new tools, interests, and urgency.  A lot of the urgency has come as climate change picks up the pace. Today, scientists say that we can’t afford to choose between reducing emissions and sequestering carbon—we must do both.  That puts a spotlight (and pressure) on soils.

Fortunately, new science is rapidly uncovering more details about soils.  For example, pivotal papers have discussed how specific soil-based management practices could help mitigate climate change, and how soil carbon sequestration could be scaled up in the US and around the globe to achieve significant outcomes. Within the past months, key papers demonstrated that the majority (75%) of the organic carbon in the top meter of soil is directly impacted by management and that croplands may hold particular potential to be managed for carbon sequestration, but that soils continue to be at risk.

It’s important to note that while many studies have stressed opportunities in soils, others have questioned them.  For example, some research has suggested that soils may not be able to hold as much carbon as some scientists think, while other research has indicated that links between soil carbon and water are not as strong as previously thought.  Other research has questioned whether certain practices (e.g., abandoning cropland) can bring expected benefits.

In my opinion, all these studies just make more research more important.  Getting the numbers right will help us to find, and fine-tune, the best solutions for healthier, more resilient soil. But as we work out these details, we also need to act – and fast.

The role of farmers and ranchers in bringing out the best in soils, for better farms and futures

Fortunately, many farmers and ranchers already know how to build soil health (and carbon) on their land – and they are taking action (lucky for us, because the health of the soil is in their hands). Farmers and ranchers like Gabe Brown (ND), David Brandt (OH), Will Harris (GA), Ted Alexander (KS), and Seth Watkins (IA), just to name a few, have been experimenting for years with ways to build soil health for more resilient land.  New research from South Dakota shows that farmers are adopting cover crops and other practices in large part to build soil health.  And a growing list of companies and non-profits have supported a standardized definition of regenerative agriculture, suggesting that these healthy soils practices are gaining even more traction.

Recognizing the soils and stewardship beneath food “footprints”

As important as soil carbon, health, and stewardship are to ensuring farms are functioning at their best, it’s surprising that we think so little about them.  There is a larger discussion going on around sustainable diets and the notion that food has an environmental “footprint,” but the fact is that most of the studies that seek to quantify the carbon (or water, or land) footprints of food items haven’t accounted for the role of soil management and stewardship. Therefore, while the conversation about the impact of consumers’ food choices has been an important starting point, we also need to understand how the decisions made by farmers affect the world around us. That means bringing soil carbon to the table, and the sooner the better. With the growing appreciation for soil health science, practice, and story-telling, I think we might be getting somewhere.

P.S.  Prefer a little video inspiration? There’s plenty to choose from if you want to learn the basics of soil organic carbon, how “dead stuff” is key to the food chain, how healthy soils reduce flood risk, or more about the 4 per mille campaign, which puts soils at the forefront of climate change solutions.

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You Might Be Wasting Food, Even If You’re Not Throwing It Away https://blog.ucsusa.org/doug-boucher/ways-we-waste-food https://blog.ucsusa.org/doug-boucher/ways-we-waste-food#comments Wed, 29 Nov 2017 15:24:20 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54990

When I was a child, I was often told not to waste food. Phrases like “Clean your plate or no dessert,” and “Just cut out that little spot. It’s a perfectly good banana,” and “Don’t put that in the back of the fridge. It’ll spoil and then we’ll have to throw it out.”

Now, half a century later, food waste has grown from family stories into a worldwide policy issue. A common estimate is that 40% of food is wasted. Scientific papers analyze consumers’ feelings about the sensory and social qualities of meals, and reducing waste is becoming just as much a concern as local, organic, and community-supported. This issue is critical. Yet an important part of the food waste problem remains unseen.

This additional waste involves not the food that is thrown out because no one eats it—but the food we do eat.

Recent studies by an international group of researchers led by Peter Alexander of the University of Edinburgh have shown just how important this additional kind of waste is. Alexander and his colleagues have published a series of papers that give detailed, quantitative analyses of the global flows of food, from field to fork and on into the garbage can. The results are striking. Only 25% of harvested food, by weight, is consumed by people. (Measuring food by its energy values in calories or by the amount of protein it contains, rather than by its dry weight, does increase the numbers but only a bit—to 32% and 29% respectively.)

But beyond these overall figures, Alexander and colleagues point to the importance of two kinds of waste in the ways in which we do eat our food, but in an extremely inefficient way. One is termed “over-consumption,” defined as food consumption in excess of nutritional requirements. (For the purposes of this discussion, I am referring to food consumption in excess of caloric requirements. However, it is critical to note that calories consumed only tells a small part of the story. A complete analysis would include the quality of the foods consumed and the many systemic reasons why we “over-consume”—including the structure of the food industry, the affordability of and access to processed foods relative to healthier foods, etc. But that is the subject for several books, not one blog post.)

Even using a generous definition of how much food humans require—e.g. 2342 kcals/person/day, compared to the 2100 kcal used in other studies—Alexander et al. find that over-consumption is at least comparable in size to the amount of food that consumers throw out (“consumer waste”). This is show in the graphic below, in which in each column, the uppermost part of each bar (in dark purple) represents over-consumption and the second-to-the-top section (light purple) shows consumer waste.

Losses of harvested crops at different stages of the global food system. The four columns represent different ways to measure the amount of food: from left to right, by dry weight, calories, protein, and wet weight. Source: Figure 4 of Alexander et al., 2017, Agricultural Systems; DOI: 10.1016/j.agsy.2017.01.014.

So, it turns out that for many people, reducing consumption could improve health while also potentially saving food and therefore also the many resources that go into growing and distributing it.

But neither overconsumption nor consumer waste are the largest way we waste the resources that can be used to produce food. That turns out to be livestock production—the dark red sections in the graphic above. Livestock are an extremely inefficient way of transforming crops (which they use as feed) into food for humans, with loss rates ranging from 82% (in terms of protein) up to 94% (by dry weight) once all of the feed they consume during their lifespans is considered. It’s not food that goes into our garbage or landfills, but it represents an enormous loss to the potential global supply of food for people just the same.

The reasons have to do with ecology: when we eat one level higher on the food web we’re losing about 90% of the edible resources from the level below.

Achieving the ultimate goals of reducing food waste—for example, reduced environmental consequences and ensuring more people have access to foods that meet their nutritional requirements—of course will require additional and critical steps. For example, additional food doesn’t help if it isn’t nutritious or can’t be accessed by the people who need it. Also, spared land doesn’t help if that land isn’t managed in a way that contributes to a healthier environment. However, thinking more about all types of food waste can help us to find better ways to protect our natural resources while producing and distributing healthy food for all.

The results of these new analyses should expand what we think of when we hear the words “food waste.” Yes, it includes the food we buy but don’t eat—the vegetables we leave on our plates and the bananas we throw into the compost bin—and it’s very important to develop habits and policies to reduce this waste. But we also need to confront the wastefulness in what we do eat, by asking: how much and what kind of food should we be buying in the first place?

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Thanksgiving Dinner Is Cheapest in Years, But Are Family Farms Paying the Price? https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/thanksgiving-dinner-is-cheapest-in-years-but-are-family-farms-paying-the-price https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/thanksgiving-dinner-is-cheapest-in-years-but-are-family-farms-paying-the-price#comments Tue, 21 Nov 2017 15:34:12 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=55049

Last week, the Farm Bureau released the results of its annual price survey on the cost of a typical Thanksgiving dinner. The grand total for a “feast” for 10 people, according to this year’s shoppers? About 50 dollars. ($49.87, if you want to be exact.) That includes a 16-pound turkey at $1.40 per pound, and a good number of your favorite sides: stuffing, sweet potatoes, rolls with butter, peas, cranberries, a veggie tray, pumpkin pie with whipped cream, and coffee and milk.

After adjusting for inflation, the Farm Bureau concluded that the cost of Thanksgiving dinner was at its lowest level since 2013. Let’s talk about what that means for farmers, and for all of us.

We can debate whether the Farm Bureau’s survey captures the true cost of a holiday meal for most Americans. This isn’t the world’s most technical survey—it was based on 141 volunteer shoppers at 39 grocery stores across the country purchasing these items at the best prices they could find.

But according to the USDA’s Economic Research Service, Americans do spend less than 10 percent of their disposable personal incomes on food. ERS data also shows that farmers receive just 16 cents for every dollar of food consumers purchase. (Speaking of historic lows, that’s the lowest farmer share of the food dollar in over a decade.) The rest of it is distributed throughout the food supply chain, which includes the companies that process, package, transport, and sell these foods at any number of retail outlets.

For our hypothetical holiday dinner for 10 (including leftovers), this means that in total, the farms that produced the raw foods, from potatoes to pumpkins, made about eight dollars. That’s eight dollars total across all farms, which then must pay workers’ wages and cover operating costs. These margins can work for large-scale industrial farming operations, due in part to heavy reliance on and exploitation of undocumented agricultural workers, but the math doesn’t add up for most family farms and farm workers.

And despite the savings we enjoy as consumers, the reality is that the prevailing model of food production isn’t good for any of us—least of all rural farming communities.

Midsize farms and missed opportunities

Midsize family farms, generally defined by the USDA as those with a gross cash farm income between $350,000 and $1 million, have long been key drivers of rural economies. But since 2007, more than 56,000 midsize farms have disappeared from the American landscape—a trend that has had serious consequences for rural communities across the country.

These farms employ more people per acre than large industrial farms, and when they disappear, they take both farming and community jobs with them. Midsize farms are also more likely to purchase their inputs locally, keeping more money in the local economy. Research has shown that areas containing more midsize farms have lower unemployment rates, higher average household incomes, and greater socioeconomic stability than areas having larger farms.

Beyond their impact on local economies, midsize family-owned farms are more likely than large industrial farms to use more environmentally sustainable practices such as crop rotation and integrated livestock management, resulting in greater crop diversity. This, too, may have health implications: in a country in which about half of all available vegetables and legumes are either tomatoes or potatoes, with lettuce bringing home the bronze, it stands to reason that greater diversity in our food supply can only be a good thing.

So if midsize farms are so great… why are they disappearing, and what can we do to reverse the trend and revitalize rural farming communities?

Photo: US Department of Agriculture/public domain (BY CC0)

The Local Food and Regional Market Supply (Local FARMS) Act

Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), and Sean Maloney (D-NY) and Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) recently offered their answer with a set of proposed policies and programs they want included in the 2018 farm bill. The Local Food and Regional Market Supply (Local FARMS) Act of 2017 would make new investments in local and regional food systems, helping small and midsize farmers connect with more consumers. It would ease the way for institutions like schools to purchase locally produced food, and would make fresh, healthy foods more accessible and affordable for low-income families.

In short, the Local FARMS Act is a win-win for farmers and eaters.

Leveraging consumer demand for local and regional foods and the substantial economic opportunity provided to midsize farmers by institutional food purchasers, this bill shortens the distance between producer and consumer. That ensures that a greater share of the food dollar ends up in farmers’ pockets—and that more fresh, healthy foods get to the people that need them.

Some of the key programs and provisions include:

  • The new Agricultural Market Development Program, which streamlines and consolidates local food programs to provide a coordinated approach to strengthen regional food supply chains. This program includes:
  • A Food Safety Certification Cost-share Program that allows farmers to share the cost of obtaining food safety certifications, which are required by many institutional purchasers but often prove cost-prohibitive for small and midsize producers—many of whom already have good food safety practices in place.
  • An amendment to the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act that allows schools to use locale as a product specification when soliciting bids, making it easier to procure local foods.
  • A Harvesting Health Pilot authorizing a pilot produce prescription program that would enable healthcare providers to offer nutrition education and fresh fruit and vegetable coupons to low-income patients.

By providing the infrastructure and support needed to bridge critical gaps between local producers and consumers, the proposed policies and programs contained in the Local FARMS Act lay the groundwork for stronger regional food systems, more vibrant local economies, and a healthier food supply.

Let’s give thanks and get to it

Whatever table you might gather around this Thursday, in whosever company you might enjoy, save some gratitude for the folks who put the food on your plate. And when you’re done enjoying your meal, let’s get to work take a nap. And when you’re done taking a nap, let’s get to work. If we want a financially viable alternative to industrial food production systems, it’s up to all of us to use our voices, our votes, and our dollars to start investing in one.

The Local FARMS Act urgently needs co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle to demonstrate widespread support for smart, science-based food and farm solutions. Write to your legislators today and ask them to co-sponsor the Local FARMS Act. For updates, urgent actions, and breaking news at your fingertips, use your cell phone to text “food justice” to 662266.

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The Natural Ways to (Help) Solve the Climate Problem https://blog.ucsusa.org/doug-boucher/the-natural-ways-to-help-solve-the-climate-problem https://blog.ucsusa.org/doug-boucher/the-natural-ways-to-help-solve-the-climate-problem#comments Tue, 07 Nov 2017 21:13:40 +0000 http://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=54898

This week marks the beginning of the annual U.N. climate negotiations in Bonn, chaired by the nation of Fiji, and this year it’s going to be different. At most of the negotiating sessions from the early 90s up to the Paris Agreement in 2015, the emphasis was, reasonably, on reaching a broad consensus on how to prevent dangerous climate change. But Paris achieved that, and all the world’s countries, with one exception—the United States—have accepted that agreement. So now the question is, how can we make it work? A real challenge—particularly since a key delegation to the talks is now led by the climate-denialist Trump administration.

A new scientific paper, published two weeks ago in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by Bronson Griscom and colleagues, will be extremely helpful in this task. (The multi-authored effort was led by The Nature Conservancy.) The paper’s title is “Natural climate solutions,” and it shows that changes in how we use forests, agricultural lands and wetlands can be a sizeable part of the solution. (Simplifying a bit, 37% of the solution by 2030, according to their calculations).

Among the many natural approaches that they evaluated, reforestation turns out to be one with the most potential (although also the largest uncertainty.) Here’s the key graphic summarizing the estimates:

The potential of 20 “natural climate solutions” by the year 2030, measured in PgCO2 per year. A Pg (petagram) is the same as a gigaton, i.e. a billion tons of carbon dioxide; current global greenhouse gas emissions total a bit over 50 gigatons of CO2/year. Solutions which also have benefits for the air, water, soil and biodiversity are indicated by the small colored bars just to the left of the vertical axis. Source: Figure 1 of B. Griscom et al. 2017, “Natural climate solutions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1710465114

 

The second-largest potential lies in reducing deforestation (or as the graph calls it, “Avoided Forest Conversion”), which also has the greatest low-cost potential and the benefit of lowering emissions immediately, and the third is improving natural forest management. So in terms of climate potential, forests are fundamental. But both agriculture (e.g. biochar, trees in croplands) and wetlands (e.g. protecting high-carbon peat swamps and mangrove forests, which also are important as buffers against storms and flooding) can make appreciable contributions, too. Furthermore, most of the potential solutions offer benefits not only to the climate, but also in terms of water, air, soil and biodiversity.

One notable feature of the paper is that it’s conservative, in the best sense of that word. The estimates take as a basic premise that natural approaches should only be implemented with safeguards for food security, biodiversity and people’s rights and livelihoods. Thus, for example, the calculations for reforestation assume that it will done using native species and only be implemented on grazing lands that were previously forested, so that afforestation of croplands and of natural grasslands is excluded. “Solutions” whose technical feasibility or social impact are questionable—e.g. Biological Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) or no-till crop production—are also excluded. And the authors go to great lengths (literally—there are over 90 pages of Supporting Information) to make sure that they’re not double-counting any of the potentials.

The paper does omit, at least in its explicit calculations, the kinds of solutions that involve changing how human societies consume rather than how we use nature to produce. In other words, the approaches it considers are supply-side ones, not demand-side ones such as changing our diets or reducing how much food we waste.

But the authors clearly realize the importance of consumption, and indeed they point out that the reforestation of grazing lands will have important impacts on livestock products, particularly beef. These effects could be of several kinds: shifting human diets away from beef, reducing herd sizes, improving the quality of cattle pastures or the nutritional value of their feed, and others. But what they have in common is that they would tend to reduce emissions of methane and nitrous oxide—both considerably more powerful greenhouse gases than CO2—from beef cattle and their manure. So there’d be an additional benefit in terms of emissions reduction, in addition to large amounts of carbon that will be sequestered by the new forests.

Just as important as the paper’s demonstration that natural solutions can be an important part of solving the climate problem, is their emphasis that they can only work if accompanied by massive cuts in fossil fuel emissions. Here’s their graphic showing the scenario they envisage, which includes cutting greenhouse gases from fossil fuels by 93% by 2050:

The scenario combining a dramatic reduction in fossil fuel emissions with Natural Climate Solution (NCS) mitigation to keep global temperature increases less than 2 degrees C. above the pre-industrial level. Source: Figure 2 of B. Griscom et al. 2017, “Natural climate solutions”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; DOI:10.1073/pnas.1710465114

 


Combined with the natural climate solutions, this would achieve the “negative emissions” needed to keep global warming below the 2 degrees C. recognized as dangerous for the future of humanity. And it would do it without using BECCS or other approaches whose feasibility and acceptability remains to be seen.

The critical but at the same time secondary role of natural solutions is the reason I wrote “(help)” in my title, despite my dislike of the post-modern fad for excessive parenthesization. With its conservative approach, the paper by Griscom et al. demonstrates that forests, agriculture and wetlands can’t solve the climate problem alone, but are nonetheless a critical part of an approach that can solve it. Thus, it’s a key step forward in how we think about, and what we do about, the most important environmental challenge of our time.

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