Union of Concerned ScientistsFood and Agriculture – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Thu, 21 Jun 2018 20:00:46 +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 What Our 50-State Scorecard Says About Farming and Water Pollution (and What the Farm Bill Should Do About It) https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/what-our-50-state-scorecard-says-about-farming-and-water-pollution-and-what-the-farm-bill-should-do-about-it https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/what-our-50-state-scorecard-says-about-farming-and-water-pollution-and-what-the-farm-bill-should-do-about-it#respond Thu, 21 Jun 2018 19:07:58 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59266
Water flows off a farm in Tennessee following a storm. Photo: Tim McCabe, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

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

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

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

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

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

MAP 4: REDUCED ECOSYSTEM IMPACTS

 

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

Other states didn’t do so well.

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

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

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

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

Big problems need big solutions

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

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

MAP 5: CONSERVATION PRACTICES

 

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

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

MAP 6: FARM INVESTMENTS

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more and take action on the farm bill today.

Photo: Tim McCable, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
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We Ranked All 50 States from Farm to Fork. Why We Bothered—and a Taste of Our Takeaways https://blog.ucsusa.org/marcia-delonge/we-ranked-all-50-states-from-farm-to-fork-why-we-bothered-and-a-taste-of-our-takeaways https://blog.ucsusa.org/marcia-delonge/we-ranked-all-50-states-from-farm-to-fork-why-we-bothered-and-a-taste-of-our-takeaways#respond Tue, 12 Jun 2018 15:25:35 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=59086
Photo: Preston Keres, USDA

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

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

What’s the fuss about the food system?

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

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

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

The not-so-secret ingredients in our scorecard

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

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

The report? A mixed bag 

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

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

Fighting for food systems that fare better

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

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

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What the Failed House Farm Bill Got Wrong About SNAP and Work https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/what-the-failed-house-farm-bill-got-wrong-about-snap-and-work https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/what-the-failed-house-farm-bill-got-wrong-about-snap-and-work#comments Fri, 01 Jun 2018 17:07:03 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58887

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

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

Who are SNAP participants?

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

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

In rural communities, more SNAP participants live with disabilities

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should Congress do instead?

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

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

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Sonny Perdue’s USDA Is in Bed with Big Pork. That’s Really Bad for Everyone Else. https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/sonny-perdues-usda-is-in-bed-with-big-pork-thats-really-bad-for-everyone-else https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/sonny-perdues-usda-is-in-bed-with-big-pork-thats-really-bad-for-everyone-else#respond Thu, 17 May 2018 20:53:50 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58678

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

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

“Nuisance” is putting it mildly

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

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

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

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

Perdue backs Big Pork over farmers…

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

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

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

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

…and workers and food safety, too

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

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

I wish I had a sad poop emoji for that.

 

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SNAP is a boon to urban and rural economies—and small-town stores may not survive cuts https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/snap-is-a-boon-to-urban-and-rural-economies-and-small-town-stores-may-not-survive-cuts https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/snap-is-a-boon-to-urban-and-rural-economies-and-small-town-stores-may-not-survive-cuts#respond Mon, 14 May 2018 13:34:22 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58606

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

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

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

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

The ripple effect of SNAP spending

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

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

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

Beyond the grocery checkout, SNAP dollars keep working

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

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

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

Strong nutrition policy can help build strong communities and economies

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

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

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

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The New Farm Bill’s Pesticide Provisions are a Sneak Attack on the Environment https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/the-new-farm-bills-pesticide-provisions-are-a-sneak-attack-on-the-environment https://blog.ucsusa.org/derrick-jackson/the-new-farm-bills-pesticide-provisions-are-a-sneak-attack-on-the-environment#comments Thu, 10 May 2018 17:41:20 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58504
A bald eagle resting on a log by a lake in Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge.

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

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

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

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

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

Chlorpyrifos clearance only the beginning

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

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

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

A fleeting victory for science

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

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

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

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

A Dining Bald eagle in Conowingo, Maryland eating fish.

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

Specter of silent spring

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

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

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

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

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Do Local Food Markets Support Profitable Farms and Ranches? https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/do-local-food-markets-support-profitable-farms-and-ranches https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/do-local-food-markets-support-profitable-farms-and-ranches#respond Thu, 26 Apr 2018 18:13:33 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58341
Local produce, sold through direct-to-consumer channels like farmers markets and community supported agriculture programs, is often sold at a price premium. But does that premium impact farmers’ bottom line? Photo: Todd Johnson/ Oklahoma State University.

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

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

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

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

Local food can spur rural development

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

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

 

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

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

What makes a local farm succeed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Will Congress Give Farmers the Farm Bill They Want? https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/will-congress-give-farmers-the-farm-bill-they-want https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/will-congress-give-farmers-the-farm-bill-they-want#comments Wed, 18 Apr 2018 13:16:13 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58165
Photo courtesy Flickr/Lance Cheung, USDA

UPDATE, 4/18/2018, 3:50pm: Today, the House Agriculture Committee failed to give farmers the farm bill they want. After 4-plus hours of rancorous debate, the committee advanced the chairman’s deeply flawed bill on a party-line vote, 26–20. We expect the full House to take up the bill in the coming weeks.


 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congress can do better—and we need to tell them

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

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

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

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

Photo: Lance Cheung, USDA
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SNAP Work Requirements Provoke Broad Opposition to House Farm Bill https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/snap-work-requirements-provoke-broad-opposition-to-house-farm-bill https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/snap-work-requirements-provoke-broad-opposition-to-house-farm-bill#comments Mon, 16 Apr 2018 20:29:02 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58118
House Committee on Agriculture Chair Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-TX) opens the hearing with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Sonny Perdue in Washington, D.C., May 17, 2017. (Photo: USDA/public domain)

UPDATE, 4/20/2018, 2:50 PM: On April 18, the House Agriculture Committee passed its farm bill proposal—H.R. 2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018—with the deeply troubling provisions described below intact. The bill advanced on a party-line vote, 26–20. We expect the full House to take up H.R. 2 in the coming weeks.

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

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

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

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

A Trojan Horse with dire consequences

Family shopping for vegetables at grocery store.

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

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

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

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

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

Entire communities will feel the fallout from SNAP cuts

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

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

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

An uncertain future for a hyper-partisan House bill

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

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

Photo: USDA
Photo: Plush Studios/Blend
Photo: Flavio/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
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SNAP already has work requirements. Adding more won’t solve poverty. https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/snap-already-has-work-requirements-adding-more-wont-solve-poverty https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/snap-already-has-work-requirements-adding-more-wont-solve-poverty#respond Thu, 12 Apr 2018 13:31:09 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=58024
Photo: US Air Force

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

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

Falsehood 1: The federal safety net is causing poverty.

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

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

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

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

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


 

April 9, 2018

The Union of Concerned Scientists

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

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

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

The work requirements in place for ABAWDs are already extensive.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you for your consideration.

 

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

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

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

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


 

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

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