Union of Concerned ScientistsFood and Agriculture – Union of Concerned Scientists https://blog.ucsusa.org a blog on independent science + practical solutions Wed, 26 Sep 2018 13:28:21 +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 In a Warming World, Carolina CAFOs Are a Disaster for Farmers, Animals, and Public Health https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/in-a-warming-world-carolina-cafos-are-a-disaster-for-farmers-animals-and-public-health https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/in-a-warming-world-carolina-cafos-are-a-disaster-for-farmers-animals-and-public-health#comments Fri, 21 Sep 2018 19:33:10 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=61413
North Carolina hog CAFO in Hurricane Florence floodwaters, September 18, 2018. Photo: Larry Baldwin, Crystal Coast Waterkeeper/Waterkeeper Alliance

In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, I’ve joined millions who’ve watched with horror as the Carolinas have been inundated with floodwaters and worried about the various hazards those waters can contain. We’ve seen heavy metal-laden coal ash spills, a nuclear plant go on alert (thankfully without incident), and sewage treatment plants get swamped. But the biggest and most widely reported hazard associated with Florence appears to be the hog waste that is spilling from many of the state’s thousands of CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), and which threatens lasting havoc on public health and the local economy.

And while the state’s pork industry was already under fire for its day-to-day impacts on the health and quality of life of nearby residents, Florence has laid bare the lie that millions of animals and their copious waste can be safely concentrated in flood-prone coastal areas like southeastern North Carolina.

CAFO “lagoons” are releasing a toxic soup

The state is home to 9.7 million pigs that produce 10 billion gallons of manure annually. As rivers crested on Wednesday, state officials believed that at least 110 hog manure lagoons—open, earthen pools where pig waste is liquified and broken down by anaerobic bacteria (causing their bubblegum-pink color) before being sprayed on fields—had been breached or inundated by flood waters across the state:

The tally by the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is rising rapidly (it was just 34 on Monday). Perhaps not surprisingly, the state’s pork industry lobby group is reporting much smaller numbers: by Wednesday afternoon, the North Carolina Pork Council’s website listed only 43 lagoons affected by the storm and flood.

In any case, the true extent of the spills may not be known for many days, as extensive road closures in the state continue to make travel and assessment difficult or impossible.

The scale of North Carolina’s CAFO industry is shocking

In 2016, the Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group used federal and state geographical data and analyzed high-resolution aerial photography to create a series of interactive maps showing the locations and scale of CAFOs concentration in the state. The map below shows the location of hog CAFOs (pink dots), poultry CAFOs (yellow dots), and cattle feedlots (purple dots) throughout the state.

Waterkeeper Alliance and the Environmental Working Group used public data to create maps of CAFO locations in North Carolina in 2016. For more information and interactive maps, visit https://www.ewg.org/interactive-maps/2016_north_carolina_animal_feeding_operations.php#.W6KBLPZReUk.

Note the two counties in the southeastern part of the state, Duplin and Sampson, where the most hog CAFOs are concentrated—nearly as pink as a hog lagoon, these counties are Ground Zero for the state’s pork industry. In Duplin County alone, where hogs outnumber humans 40-to-1, the Waterkeeper/EWG data show there were, as of 2016, more than 2.3 million head of swine producing 2 billion gallons of liquid waste per year, stored in 865 waste lagoons. (Duplin County was also home to 1,049 poultry houses containing some 16 million birds that year.)

The state’s CAFOs harm communities of color most

“Lagoon” is a curious euphemism for a cesspool. Even without hurricanes, these gruesome ponds pose a hazard to nearby communities. In addition to the obvious problem of odor, they emit a variety of gases—ammonia and methane, both of which can irritate eyes and respiratory systems, and hydrogen sulfide, which is an irritant at very low exposure levels but can be extremely toxic at higher exposures.

These everyday health hazards hurt North Carolinians of color most of all. To pick on Duplin County again, US Census figures show that one-quarter of its residents are black and 22 percent are Hispanic or Latino. And a 2014 study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that, compared to white people, black people are 54 percent more likely to reside near these hog operations, Hispanics are 39 percent more likely, and Native Americans are more than twice as likely.

What does all that mean for health and environmental justice? Residents near the state’s hog CAFOs have complained for years of sickening odors, headaches, respiratory distress, and other illnesses, and have filed (and begun winning) a series of class-action lawsuits against the companies responsible for them.

Just this month, researchers at Duke University published new findings on health outcomes in communities close to hog CAFOs in the state. They found that, compared with a control group, such residents have higher rates of infant death, death from anemia, and death from all causes, along with higher rates of kidney disease, tuberculosis, septicemia, emergency room visits and hospital admissions for low-birthweight infants. (Read the full study or this review.)

CAFO damage from Florence was predictable…and will get worse

Releases of bacteria-laden manure sludge from CAFO lagoons in flooding like we’re seeing this week compound the day-to-day problem, and they’re inevitable in a hurricane- and flood-prone state like North Carolina. Between 1851 and 2017, 372 hurricanes have affected the state, with 83 making direct landfall in North Carolina. Hurricane Floyd in 1999 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 wreaked havoc similar to what we’re seeing this week.

As you can see on the map below, Florence dumped between 18 and 30+ inches on every part of Duplin County.

http://www.nc-climate.ncsu.edu/climateblog?id=266

It’s not surprising that flooding from such an event would be severe. And while the North Carolina Pork Council called Florence “a once-in-lifetime storm,” anyone who’s paying attention knows it’s just a matter of time before the next one.

Millions of animals are likely drowned, starved, or asphyxiated

In addition to the effects on communities near North Carolina’s CAFOs, it’s clear that Hurricane Florence has caused tremendous suffering and death to animals housed in those facilities. Earlier this week, poultry company Sanderson Farms reported at least 1.7 million chickens dead, drowned by floodwaters that swamped their warehouse-like “houses.” Some 6 million more of the company’s chickens cannot yet be accounted for. Overall, the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on Tuesday put the death toll at 3.4 million chickens and turkeys and 5,500 hogs, but those numbers may very well rise.

A major reason we don’t yet know the full extent of animal deaths in North Carolina’s CAFOs is that road closures due to flooding has cut off many of the facilities, preventing feed deliveries and inspections. Many animals likely also died in areas that experienced power failures due to the storm. According to this poultry industry document, a power outage that interrupts the ventilation system in a totally enclosed poultry CAFO can kill large numbers of birds by asphyxiation “within minutes.”

North Carolina farmers face staggering financial losses and likely bankruptcies

And what about the farmers? Many of the nation’s hog and poultry producers are in already in a predicament. Corporate concentration has squeezed out many independent farmers, meaning more operate as contractors to food industry giants like Smithfield and Tyson. In the US pork industry, contract growers accounted for 44 percent of all hogs and pigs sold in 2012. The farmers have little power in those contracts, and an early action of the Trump administration’s USDA served to remove newly-gained protections against exploitation by those companies. The administration’s trade war isn’t helping either.

As one expert in North Carolina put it as Hurricane Florence approached:

A farmer (who operates a CAFO) has very little flexibility. They take out very large loans, north of a million dollars, on a facility that is specifically designed by the industry, as well as how the facility will be managed. Remember that 97% of chickens and more than 50% of hogs are owned by the industry. These farmers never even own the animals. But if the animal dies, and how to handle the waste, that’s on the farmer. That’s their responsibility.

I know many individual farmers who do the best they can, who work as hard as they can, who treat their animals with respect. But there’s only so much they control. They can’t control the weather. They can’t control the hurricane. These farmers are part of an industry that says, for the sake of efficiency, you have to put as many animals as possible into these facilities.

Post-Florence, these contract farmers are likely to receive inadequate compensation for the losses of animals in their care. A series of tweets this week by journalist Maryn McKenna, who has studied the poultry industry, illuminates the issues:

So, as the waters recede, many hog and poultry farmers are about to find themselves responsible for a ghastly cleanup job. Imagine returning home to find thousands of bloated animal corpses rotting in the September sun. They they were your livelihood, and now they’re not only lost, but an actual liability you must pay to have hauled away.

Public policies should encourage sustainable livestock production, not CAFOs

And so it goes for farmers in today’s vertically-integrated, corporate-dominated, CAFO model. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Public policies can give more power to livestock farmers in the marketplace, protect animals and nearby communities from hazards associated with CAFOs, and facilitate a shift to more environmentally and economically sustainable livestock production practices.

If Hurricane Florence teaches us anything, it’s that flood-prone coastal states like North Carolina are no place for CAFOs. At a minimum, the state must tighten regulations on these facilities to protect public health and safety. A 2016 WaterKeeper Alliance analysis found that just a dozen of North Carolina’s 2,246 hog CAFOs had been required to obtain permits under the Clean Water Act, with the rest operating under lax state regulation. The state and federal government should also more aggressively seek to close down hog lagoons and help farmers transition to more sustainable livestock practices or even switch from hogs to crops. A buyout program already exists but needs much more funding.

In the meantime, the federal farm bill now being negotiated by Congress also has a role to play. At least one farm bill program, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, or EQIP, has been used in ways that underwrite CAFOs. In a 2017 analysis of FY16 EQIP spending, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition noted that 11 percent ($113 million) of EQIP funds were allocated toward CAFO operations, funding improvements to waste storage facilities and subsidizing manure transfer costs. And the House version of the 2018 farm bill could potentially increase support for CAFOs by eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program—which incentivizes more sustainable livestock practices and offers a 4-to-1 return on taxpayer investment overall—and shifting much of its funding to EQIP.

The post-Florence mess in North Carolina illustrates precisely why that’s a bad idea. Particularly in a warmer and wetter world, public policies and taxpayer investments should seek to reduce reliance on CAFOs, not prop them up.

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Here’s What Agriculture of the Future Looks Like: The Multiple Benefits of Regenerative Agriculture Quantified https://blog.ucsusa.org/ricardo-salvador/heres-what-agriculture-of-the-future-looks-like-the-multiple-benefits-of-regenerative-agriculture-quantified https://blog.ucsusa.org/ricardo-salvador/heres-what-agriculture-of-the-future-looks-like-the-multiple-benefits-of-regenerative-agriculture-quantified#comments Wed, 19 Sep 2018 13:11:39 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=61292
Crops and livestock integrated in a regenerative agricultural system. Photo: Farmland LP

At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we have long advocated agricultural systems that are productive and better for the environment, the economy, farmers, farmworkers and eaters than the dominant industrial system. We refer to such a system as our Healthy Farm vision. Based on comprehensive science, we have specified that healthy farm systems must be multifunctional, biodiverse, interconnected and regenerative.

The scientific case for agricultural systems that renew rather than diminish resources is comprehensive, and research demonstrates the productivity and agronomic feasibility of such systems. Yet, economically viable real-world examples are necessary to spur acceptance and adoption of such schemes. Further, we need to overcome the limitations of economic thinking and measures that were developed in the 19th century—when it seemed that the Earth’s resources and its capacity to absorb waste were inexhaustible—and improve them to create more modern assessments, appropriate for the 21st century and beyond. A new report from our colleagues at Farmland LP, Delta Institute and Earth Economics will make a major contribution toward this end.

Healthy Farmland Vision – Click the graphic for an interactive web feature.

Economists view agriculture as a primary sector of the economy, meaning that without the activity of that sector, the remainder of the economy (such as manufacturing and service) could not be developed. Together with other primary economic enterprises such as mining and forestry, agriculture has generally been practiced and acknowledged as an extractive industry. Whereas mining is visibly extractive, agriculture is less so, because degradative processes such as soil erosion, fertility loss, and water and air pollution are not as obvious as mountaintop removal and strip mining. Yet, as practiced industrially, agriculture is both extractive and more extensive than mining.


 

Source: Our World in Data.

Extractive agricultural practices are abetted by strategies such as importing nutrients to compensate for loss of native soil fertility and by the fact that we value the gains from the extraction but don’t discount the losses. For example, we measure crop and animal yield and translate that to sales and profit, but don’t subtract from the ledger the soil, nutrients, air and water quality lost to produce crops and livestock. One superficial reason for this is that we don’t know the “cost” of those resources, but that is simply a polite way to say that historically we don’t value them. This is a perfect example of the nostrum that we measure what we care about and care about what we measure.

Yet, agriculture need not be inherently extractive. Through practices that build soil, recycle nutrients and store water it can become a regenerative system while still providing abundant food and other agricultural products. A key to shift from extractive to regenerative mode is to build a more complete picture of the total benefits and costs associated with agricultural management. For nearly a decade, the investment firm Farmland LP has been managing thousands of acres with regenerative techniques, thereby providing an opportunity for scientists and economists to assess the value of these practices to soil, water, climate, energy and social sectors. The Delta Institute and Earth Economics, with grant support from the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, worked with Farmland LP on just such a project.

Based on a comprehensive review of scientific literature examining the value of various ecosystem services, the researchers applied the rigorous methodologies of Ecosystem Services Valuation and Greenhouse Gas Accounting to assess the effects of farm management on items such as soil formation and quality, water capture and quality, pollination and seed dispersal, climate stability, disaster risk reduction, air quality and biological control. Using Colorado State University’s COMET-Farm model, and the USDA’s Revised Universal Soil Los Equation, the researchers evaluated the effect of regenerative techniques on farmed and non-farmed land under Farmland LP’s management. They compared these model outputs with those from land managed conventionally to construct a comprehensive impact balance sheet.

The sums cited in this report are astounding, ascending into the millions of dollars of added ecological value from regenerative process—against millions of dollars of ecological losses due to standard industrial practices. The practices Farmland LP implements are well-known, backed by science and practice, and accessible to all farmers and farm managers with an interest in managing whole systems to increase returns to management. Examples include integrated crop and livestock production, crop rotation, biodiverse annual and perennial mixes, stream buffers, grassed waterways, organic fertilizers, biological pest control and uncultivated land to provide ecological services (erosion control, water capture, habitat and refugia for beneficial organisms.) The combination of these regenerative methods generated net value while industrial methods destroyed value—all while performing comparably on the dominant indicator of agricultural yield.

Ecological Service Value of farmed and non-farmed areas by impact metric – Delta Institute (see report for methods, context and further data.)

This assessment affirms the concrete value and effectiveness of multifunctional regenerative approaches. Since many of these ecosystem services are not currently quantified—much less traded—on markets that would remunerate farmers, the benefits are primarily experienced by way of cleaner environment, lower costs of production and added value of agricultural land. This is because land managed with regenerative practices will produce bountifully, at lower cost and for an indeterminate period of time, whereas the value of industrially managed land depends on false and brittle economies, such as access to government subsidies and the availability of cheap industrial fertilizer.

In fact, the main business of Farmland LP, a real estate investment trust, is to add long-term value to agricultural land for landowners and investors. A remarkable aspect of this strategy and business model, in addition to more faithfully reflecting actual ecological economics, is how quickly Farmland LP management has been able to produce results. In addition to demonstrating the effectiveness of regenerative methods, these findings indicate the kinds of practices that should be more broadly adopted across all of agriculture to assure our livelihood at present and far into the future.

The skilled agronomists and farm managers at Farmland LP, together with the rigorous scientists and economists who have developed and used the ecosystem evaluation technique, are demonstrating that regenerative agriculture is not an aspirational figment. It is real, it is possible, it is productive, it is profitable and it is environmentally beneficial. These things can all exist with one another. A successful business model is predicated on this. As long as reliable scientific information influences decisions and behavior, this report provides a beacon toward more viable, ethical and realistic agricultural practice for the long term.

Photo: Farmland LP
Graphic: Our World In Data.
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What’s for Dinner? A Preview of the People, Process, and Politics Updating Federal Dietary Guidelines https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/whats-for-dinner-a-preview-of-the-people-process-and-politics-updating-federal-dietary-guidelines https://blog.ucsusa.org/sarah-reinhardt/whats-for-dinner-a-preview-of-the-people-process-and-politics-updating-federal-dietary-guidelines#comments Mon, 17 Sep 2018 16:20:36 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=61236
Photo: grobery/CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)

Months behind schedule, two federal departments have officially kicked off the process for writing the 2020-2025 iteration of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Updated and reissued every five years, these guidelines are the nation’s most comprehensive and authoritative set of nutrition recommendations. And although the process is meant to be science-based and support population health—and has historically done so, with some notable exceptions—there are plenty of reasons to believe that the Trump administration is preparing to pitch a few curveballs.

First, a little background: The two agencies responsible for issuing the guidelines are the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Earlier this month, the agencies released a call for nominations to the advisory committee that will review current nutrition science and write recommendations for the new guidelines. For the first time, the guidelines will include recommendations for maternal nutrition and for infants and toddlers through 24 months—meaning we may see a larger advisory committee and some extra work put into developing these recommendations from scratch.

And that won’t be the only change since the last cycle. There was a bitter political battle over the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines, in which the advisory committee made mention of environmental sustainability, noting that plant-based diets that include plenty of foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are good for both our health and the future of our food supply. These recommendations were ultimately omitted, and the episode culminated in Congress writing new legislation to limit the scope of the guidelines and mandate a so-called critical review of their scientific integrity. The full impact of this anti-science legislation, which was tacked onto a 2016 appropriations bill (despite strong opposition from public health and nutrition groups), will be brought to bear during the coming months.

All that said, there’s one thing that’s likely to remain the same: the industries that wielded influence over the 2015-2020 Guidelines haven’t gone anywhere. On the contrary, they may be emboldened by an administration that has repeatedly given preference to corporate interests, sidelining science and sacrificing the public good in the process.

The People: What will become of the Scientific Advisory Committee in the Trump era?

Typically, the first major step in developing new Dietary Guidelines is to identify the group of nutrition and health experts who will form the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (or DGAC). These nominees will be well-known in their fields, and will bring with them more than a decade each of experience as medical or nutrition researchers, academics, and practitioners. Members of the DGAC serve the committee for two years, after which they submit a final scientific report to the USDA and HHS with their recommendations.

This part of the process is happening in real-time. The 30-day call for nominations is now open and will close on October 6. (Read more about the criteria for nominees here.)

Photo: USDA

But the negligence the Trump administration has shown in maintaining existing scientific advisory committees is concerning, to say the least. An analysis by my colleagues here at the Union of Concerned Scientists shows that, during the administration’s first year in office, federal science advisory committees met less frequently than in any other year since 1997, when the government began tracking this data. A majority of the committees are meeting less than their charters require, and committee membership has also decreased—with some agencies disbanding entire advisory committees altogether.

Furthermore, what happens after the public submits nominations to the DGAC happens largely behind closed doors. Nominations will be reviewed by USDA and HHS program staff, and the slate of chosen nominees will be evaluated and vetted internally. Formal recommendations for the committee will then be reviewed and approved by the USDA and HHS secretaries. Per their most recent communication, the agencies hope to announce the 2020-2025 DGAC by early next year.

If you’re thinking that the committee selection lacks a certain element of transparency, you’re not the only one.

In one of two reports released last year examining the Dietary Guidelines process (the result of the aforementioned legislation, passed in 2016 appropriations rider), the National Academy of Medicine recommended that the public have the opportunity to review the provisional committee for bias and conflicts of interest before it’s approved.

It’s worth repeating that the selection of committees in recent DGA cycles has successfully brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to the process—resulting, for the most part, in strong evidence-based recommendations. But in an administration where the “D” in USDA has come to stand for DowDuPont, concerns about undue influence on the committee selection may be well warranted. (See “The Politics” below.)

The Process: More to do, and twice as fast

After the advisory committee is appointed, the committee begins to review the current body of nutritional science to generate its recommendations. The recommendations are based on a “preponderance of scientific evidence,” which means they consider a variety of research and study designs. (Though randomized controlled trials are typically the gold standard in science, this type of study is incredibly difficult to do with diet.)

The committee won’t review everything—there are certain topics that are selected each cycle, based on what new evidence has emerged and what issues are of greatest concern to public health. And here’s the first place you’ll see the 2020-2025 DGAs break from tradition: rather than identifying topics of interest after the committee is selected, USDA and HHS have developed a list of topics first, soliciting public comments in the process. You can read their list here.

There are immediate glaring absences in the topic list, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—some of the staples of what we consider a healthy diet. This may just mean that the committee won’t be revisiting these topics, and will instead default to existing recommendations—but the lack of clarity here is disconcerting. A brief note at the end of the topic list, perhaps meant to explain the omissions, has left public health and nutrition groups scratching their heads: “Some topics are not included above because they are addressed in existing evidence-based Federal guidance. In an effort to avoid duplication with other Federal efforts, it is expected that these topics will be reflected in the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines by referencing the existing guidance. Thus, these topics do not require a review of the evidence by the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee.”

Photo: USDA

Meanwhile, the topics that have been explicitly named include added sugars; beverages, such as dairy, sugar-sweetened beverages, and alcohol; the relationship between certain diets (think: Mediterranean Diet, vegetarian, etc.) and chronic disease; and different dietary patterns across life stages, including infancy and toddlers through 24 months. What didn’t make the cut? A mention of red meat or processed meats—which have been linked to certain types of cancer and other health risks. The agencies (predictably) sidestepped this issue, making reference only to types of dietary fats.

If this sounds like a lot to sort through, it will be. And the tentative timeline that the agencies have proposed is ambitious. After the committee is announced in early 2019, it will have just over one year to deliberate before releasing its scientific report. During that time, the committee will hold approximately five public meetings (last cycle, there were seven) and offer an extended period of open public comment. After the DGAC scientific report is released, the public will also have one final opportunity to comment.

But if there’s anything we learned from the last DGA cycle, it’s that what can happen during that gap—between the release of the DGAC scientific report and the issuance of the DGAs—is critical, and it isn’t always clear. Enter “The Politics.”

The Politics: When money talks

What happened during the 2015-2020 DGA cycle?

The DGAC advisory report, submitted in February 2015, included recommendations for plant-based diets that supported both human health and environmental sustainability—an unprecedented move. Per the report: “A diet higher in plant-based foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, and lower in calories and animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with less environmental impact than is the current U.S. diet.”

But eight months later, the writing was on the proverbial wall, in the form of a blog written by former USDA Secretary Vilsack and HHS Secretary Burwell. Sustainability is outside the scope of the DGAs and would not be included.

Two months after that, the 2016 appropriations bill was passed, stating that any revisions to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans be limited in scope to nutritional and dietary information.

By all appearances, the key concern seemed to be that science-based sustainability recommendations were outside the scope of the DGAs. But you don’t have to read too far between the lines to see that many were more concerned about sales—as in, sales of foods that aren’t central to a plant-based diet. Like, for example, meat and dairy.

At a Congressional hearing on the matter, Rep. Mike Conaway, current chair of the House Agriculture Committee, put it this way: “[the inclusion of sustainability] could result in misguided recommendations that could have ill effects on consumer habits and agricultural production.”

Rep. Glenn Thompson, current chair of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, put a finer point on his interests: “What can we do to remove policies that hinder milk consumption, and to promote policies that could enhance milk consumption?”

It’s hardly a stretch to imagine that what happened during the 2015-2020 DGA cycle—and to the advisory committee’s recommendations that were seemingly lost in translation—was a direct product of industry influence.

And though efforts to communicate the science behind more sustainable, plant-based diets have been all but stymied, there is still plenty at stake for industry groups in the 2020-2025 DGA cycle. Expect to see some of the usual suspects make an appearance, including the meat industry, dairy industry, and sugar-sweetened beverage associations, as well as formula companies, which will have vested interest in shaping the new recommendations for infants and toddlers. (This may be happening in real-time, too. Just this spring, Gerber announced it would join its parent company, Nestle, at its headquarters in Rosslyn, Virginia—just a stone’s throw from the capitol.)

As this process unfolds, the Union of Concerned Scientists will be there—watchdogging and waiting. Stay tuned to learn more about how you can help us stand up for science and make the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans the strongest, most health-promoting edition yet.

Photo: grobery/CC BY SA 2.0 (Flickr)
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Amazon Deforestation in Brazil: What Does it Mean When There’s no Change? https://blog.ucsusa.org/doug-boucher/theres-no-change-in-amazon-deforestation-in-brazil https://blog.ucsusa.org/doug-boucher/theres-no-change-in-amazon-deforestation-in-brazil#comments Fri, 07 Sep 2018 15:54:08 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=61052
Photo: Brazilian things/Wikimedia Commons

I was recently invited by the editors of the journal Tropical Conservation Science to write an update of a 2013 article on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon that I had published with Sarah Roquemore and Estrellita Fitzhugh. They asked me to review how deforestation has changed over the past five years. The most notable result, as you can see from the graph in the just-published article (open-access), is that overall it hasn’t changed. And that’s actually quite surprising.

During the late 90s and early 2000s the deforestation rate in the Brazilian Amazon averaged about 20,000 square kilometers per year, driven by the rapid expansion of cattle pasture and the commercial soybean industry. Then, starting around 2005, it began to drop rapidly, falling by 70% in just half a dozen years. This dramatic drop cut Brazil’s national global warming emissions very substantially, in addition to having important benefits for biodiversity and for the people of the Amazon basin.

Since then – essentially no net change. There have been small fluctuations up and down in the annual measurements of deforestation (up in three years and down in three years, to be specific) but it remains at basically the same level. In 2017 the annual loss of Amazon forest was 6,947 km2; that compares to 6,418 km2 in 2011.

Why is this surprising? Because in the same period, Brazilian politics has been incredibly chaotic. To cite the most striking developments during this turbulent period: one President has been impeached and removed from office; an ex-President (during whose administration the decrease in deforestation was achieved) has been jailed and prevented from running again; and politicians across the political spectrum have been implicated in the corruption scandal known as “Lava Jato” – or Car Wash. Not to mention a major economic depression, the passage of legislation weakening of Brazil’s Forest Code, and the indictment of the world’s largest meatpacking company, JBS S.A., on charges relating both to deforestation and to selling tainted meat.

Why then, did deforestation remain essentially the same?

While there are many factors involved, the lack of change does seem to reflect the institutionalization of the reasons that caused deforestation to drop in the earlier period. These include regulations (and prosecutions) limiting the sale of beef and soy from deforested areas; increased transparency concerning who is deforesting and to whom they’re selling their beef and soy; improvements in efficiency which allowed farmers and ranchers to raise output without clearing more land; and underlying these, the development of a political movement, led by Brazilian NGOs, that made deforestation an important issue in national politics.

If the lack of change in deforestation is interesting, so is the way that the international media have covered it. My co-author Dora Chi and I reviewed news stories on Amazon deforestation (using Lexis-Nexis; our search found 134 print articles from 2013 through 2017) and discovered a common theme: the idea that although deforestation had fallen in earlier years, now it had gone back up. As our review showed, even though this interpretation isn’t borne out by the data, it was nonetheless quite frequently used in the media narratives about deforestation.

Perhaps this mis-interpretation simply reflects a common journalistic tendency to write “on the one hand… but on the other hand…” stories. Or maybe it’s that you can’t get a story into print if it says that there’s nothing new. It may also reflect our tendency to present data such as deforestation rates as percentages, without realizing how they can be misleading because they’re using different denominators. A quick example – if my income dropped by 50% last year, then turned around and increased by 50% this year – am I now back to where I was two years ago? No – I’m actually still 25% below that level.

So, both the lack of change in the data, and the mis-communication of its stability in the media, are notable phenomena. But there’s a third (non-)event worth noting, and that’s the fact that deforestation hasn’t dropped to zero, as it would have if the earlier trend had continued. This is a major failure in terms of its effect on climate change and efforts to reign in global emissions. It shows that Brazil’s political turbulence has had important consequences for the global environment.

Photo: Brazilian things/Wikimedia Commons
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Why the Farm Bill Should Invest in Agroecology Research: An Interview with Dr. Selena Ahmed https://blog.ucsusa.org/mike-lavender/why-the-farm-bill-should-invest-in-agroecology-research-an-interview-with-dr-selena-ahmed https://blog.ucsusa.org/mike-lavender/why-the-farm-bill-should-invest-in-agroecology-research-an-interview-with-dr-selena-ahmed#respond Wed, 05 Sep 2018 21:37:58 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60886

Recently, the 2018 farm bill—the massive federal legislative package that shapes our country’s food and agriculture system—cleared a major hurdle, as both the House and Senate voted to begin negotiations toward a compromise bill. This process is important for many reasons, including how it will impact the US Department of Agriculture’s $3 billion annual investment in research to help the nation’s farmers and eaters alike.

In case your Schoolhouse Rock memories are fuzzy, a quick civics lesson: A bill becomes a law after it is passed by both the House and the Senate and signed by the president. When the House and Senate versions of a bill are not the same, a conference committee—made up of negotiators from both chambers—must meet to hash out their differences. The resulting bill then returns to both chambers of Congress for a final vote before heading to the president’s desk for signature. In the case of the farm bill, negotiators have some serious work to do to bridge the yawning gap between major components of the two bills, including nutrition and conservation provisions. Yet while these differences have generated bigger headlines, agriculture research is quietly one of the most important parts of the farm bill.

That’s because the USDA’s investment in science-based research—again, nearly $3 billion every year—helps to keep farmers and ranchers viable and profitable amidst a whole host of challenges, from changing patterns of pests to extreme weather to the economic uncertainty created by the president’s volatile trade policy. Publicly-funded agricultural research is crucial to advancing the sort of farming systems that can benefit both growers and the public, for example by improving soil health, diversifying our food supply, and reducing water pollution while maintaining farmers’ profits.  Research suggests that a field of science known as agroecology can be particularly effective at uncovering such solutions. Yet our investment in public agricultural research overall has been declining —both in comparison to funding from private industry, and to other global powers like China—and  investment in agroecology research is particularly insufficient.

Since the farm bill is the major legislative vehicle for supporting public agricultural research—and for transforming our food system more broadly—the agricultural research community has been outspoken in demanding a substantive increase in research funding. Last October, more than 60 organizations, including UCS, called on Congress to double total USDA food and agricultural research, education, and extension funding by the time the next farm bill comes up for reauthorization in 2023. And earlier this summer, a group of researchers from across the country traveled to Washington, D.C. to make a case for agroecology and interdisciplinary food systems science.

One of those researchers was Selena Ahmed, Assistant Professor of Sustainable Food and Bioenergy Systems at Montana State University. While in D.C., Dr. Ahmed met with seven senators and representatives who serve on the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, which are responsible for drafting the next farm bill and funding USDA research programs. I recently caught up with Dr. Ahmed to hear more about why the U.S. should invest in interdisciplinary, systems-based food and farm research, and how her message was received by Congress.


 

What are some of the objectives of your research program?

The overall goal of the research program that I lead through the Food and Health Lab at Montana State University is to strengthen sustainability and design innovations in the food system towards supporting local, national, and global food security for all. In my research program, I approach food security as equitable access to healthy, affordable, and desirable food that strengthens the capacity of individuals and communities to serve the challenges and needs of our nation and our world. My research has three key objectives. First, on the agriculture side of food systems, is to identify and design innovations that strengthen the resilience of farms and farmers to support environmental and human wellbeing. Second, on the consumption side of food systems, is to identify and design innovations that enhance access to high-quality and affordable food for healthy communities. Lastly, as a faculty member of Sustainable Food Systems at one of our nation’s land-grant institutions, I seek to build the capacity of future food system leaders to effectively address complex food system challenges towards supporting long-term local, national, and global food security.

How does your research and outreach work impact communities—in Montana, and across the country (and world)?

It is my hope that my work impacts communities in Montana, nationally, and globally through generating evidence to identify food system innovations, developing plans, and informing policies that support food security as well as environmental and human wellbeing. I lead and collaborate on multiple federally-funded projects as part of achieving this goal. This work is providing research evidence towards developing plans and policies to support farms, farmers, and communities.

For example, I have two funded projects through the National Science Foundation that are examining the effects of environmental and management factors on crop quality and farmer livelihoods as well as identifying agricultural innovations to build the resilience of farms and farmers to climate and market risk. This work is being conducted locally to support farmers and communities in Montana and regionally in the Upper Missouri River Basin, as well as in countries globally where many of our food supply chains start and those countries that have agricultural innovations that we can learn from in the United States. This research has generated evidence on multiple agroecological innovations that can be applied to reduce vulnerability to droughts and extreme weather events in order to more effectively feed our communities. These innovations include multiple agricultural solutions including diversified agriculture such as agroforestry, precision agriculture, tree planting, and management of soil organic matter and soil carbon sequestration through organic agriculture, manure management, mulching, and cover crops. I have generated data that agricultural diversification at the landscape, species, and genetic levels not only supports the environment, it can also result in crops with higher quality based on phytochemical and sensory profiles that are associated with higher price premiums and livelihoods for farmers as well as higher health attributes for human consumers.

On the consumption side of the food system, I have been engaging in a series of community-based projects in rural and tribal communities of Montana to generate research evidence to identity and design food system innovations that can enhance access to high-quality food. The goal of this work is to mitigate food insecurity, diet-related chronic disease, and health disparities through projects with community partners on the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Through a funding mechanism of the National Institutes of Health, our team has been taking a food systems approach to strengthen access of participants of nutrition assistance programs such as the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (also known as the Commodities Program) to fresh, healthy, local food. We see this food systems approach being ‘win-win’ for local communities by enhancing food security and human health while supporting local farms and strengthening the local economy.

Why were you motivated to come to DC to talk about agroecology research?

I thought it was a critical time to visit DC to discuss agroecology and food systems research with Congress in session working on the Farm Bill. I wanted to provide whatever input I could while also wanting to learn more about food policy in the United States and the varied perspectives of the Congressional offices regarding the Farm Bill. As a scientist, I believe it is our duty to share findings of our research to a broad audience including to policy makers in order for our research findings to be operationalizable and have far-reaching impacts. I do what I do to positively transition food systems to sustainability and a critical part of this work is engagement with community partners, industry stakeholders, policy makers, and advocacy groups.  I am extremely grateful for the federal funding that has supported my research program and I was honored for the opportunity to share the relevance of this work with Congressional offices.

What was your experience talking with Congressional offices? 

I very much benefited from the opportunity to share the relevance of my research program with Congressional offices while learning more about the varied priorities of these offices in respect to the Farm Bill. Overall, I found the members of the Congressional offices receptive in hearing about agroecology and food systems research as well as its relevance for communities and the nation. Multiple representatives from these offices noted that they appreciated learning about the work that is supported by federal funds. I also found the experience valuable in better understanding policy in the United States. Some of the Congressional representatives noted some of the policy opportunities and challenges in response to the recommendations offered based on our experiences. These perspectives were extremely insightful and I found this experience to be something I would like to continue to be involved in.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Ensuring food security is critical for a strong nation and a healthy planet. An agroecology and local food systems approach is crucial for ensuring food security while strengthening local economies and their capacity to serve the challenges and needs of our nation and our world. There are key attributes of specific federal research funding mechanisms that I believe result in the most successful outcomes for communities and the nation. One key attribute of funding mechanisms is their long-term nature. Agricultural and environmental processes are long-term and I have found that grant mechanisms that are also relatively long-term (4-5 years in length) allow for greater monitoring of long-term processes as well as greater impact. In addition, successful community-based work is dependent on developing relationships that can also be a long-term process; thus, grant mechanisms that are relatively long-term also allow for greater development of relationships with communities towards greater positive impact. Lastly, I wanted to highlight the importance of interdisciplinary and international research. Solutions for food system challenges we face in the United States may be found in the agricultural fields and communities of other nations. It is my hope such Congressional visits can serve to increase federal funding for agroecology and food systems research.


 

As luck would have it, Dr. Ahmed’s meetings with Congress were perfectly timed to make an impact. Just as she was heading back to Montana, the Senate Agriculture Committee released its draft farm bill, which was eventually approved by the full Senate on June 28. The Senate version of the bill makes important strides to protect and ramp up investment in agricultural research that supports agroecology. The Organic Agriculture Research Extension Initiative got a boost from $20 million to $50 million annually. A matching requirement for federal funding was eliminated, leveling the playing field for research institutions with fewer financial resources—including historically black and tribal colleges and universities. And the USDA’s Office of the Chief Scientist (which plays an influential role, as evidenced by last year’s fight to defeat the nomination of Sam Clovis) was empowered with increased funding to improve staffing, increase coordination between federal research agencies, and expand oversight and scientific integrity.

The Senate bill was a welcome contrast to the House bill, passed earlier, which does not substantively improve the landscape for public agriculture research.

As negotiators in the House and Senate reconcile their two opposing bills, researchers like Dr. Ahmed will have to keep up the pressure, urging their members of Congress to adopt the Senate’s research title to prioritize strong investment in food and agriculture research. In the meantime, you can add your name to the petition calling on Congress to prioritize proven, science-based policies and programs in the farm bill. It’s what the agricultural research community wants, and it’s what we all need to build a world-class food system that makes affordable, healthy, and sustainably grown food available to everyone.

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What Happens in the Next 26 Days Could Change Our Food and Farm Future https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/what-happens-in-the-next-26-days-could-change-our-food-and-farm-future https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/what-happens-in-the-next-26-days-could-change-our-food-and-farm-future#comments Tue, 04 Sep 2018 14:34:10 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60743

It feels like I’ve been thinking about the 2018 farm bill forever, but we may have finally reached the beginning of the end. Tomorrow, an unusually large group of 56 (!) negotiators from the House and Senate are expected to shoehorn themselves into a room on Capitol Hill to begin the formal process of reconciling two very different visions of our food and farm system.

What happens next will either help small and midsize farmers thrive, put more healthy food on the dinner tables of our most vulnerable neighbors, and invest in farming practices that prevent water pollution and build healthy soil for the future…or not. There’s also an unfortunate third option, in which the farm bill process fails completely, leaving farmers and eaters in limbo.

But first, let’s review where we are, because this day has been a long time coming. As always, there have been ups and downs in the process of crafting a new farm bill, but this time the resulting bills passed in the House and Senate are particularly far apart on several crucial issues.

Two houses of Congress, two very different visions

The divisive House bill’s attack on the SNAP program (formerly food stamps) would be a disaster for millions of people in this country who struggle  to put food on the table—despite a strong economy, and even if they have a job. The House bill also cuts conservation incentives for farmers, completely eliminating the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the USDA’s biggest and most comprehensive initiative that helps farmers take steps to protect their soil and prevent water pollution. The House bill even throws endangered species under the bus as a gift to the pesticide industry.

Contrast all that with the Senate bill, which passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. That bill protects and improves SNAP and includes funding for innovative programs that connect farmers with local consumers, expanding farming opportunities, enabling more people to afford nutritious food, and keeping food dollars in communities. Moreover, the Senate bill maintains CSP and improves the program in a way that would really pay off—returning $1.2 billion in net benefits to farmers and taxpayers (compared to the House bill’s CSP net loss of $4.7 billion in benefits).

More wonky details about the differences between the House and Senate farm bills can be found here and here.

Can negotiations bridge stark farm bill differences?

Leaders of the congressional agriculture committees (including the Senate committee’s chairman and the House committee’s ranking member) keep issuing statements reassuring farmers that the process is on track. But there are signs that negotiations will be very difficult, and as reported last week, hardliners bent on gutting SNAP are vowing not to budge, leaving little room for compromise.

It remains to be seen whether negotiators will come to some agreement before the current farm bill expires on September 30. But with every day that passes, that outcome seems less likely.

So what happens if they don’t beat the clock? Well, there are a couple of scenarios.

Scenario #1, A Farm Bill Fumble: If the House and Senate fail to pass an identical bill before the end of this month, or if the president decides he doesn’t like the bill they pass and refuses to sign it (a thing that could happen), Congress could vote to extend the current legislation for some period of time. That could be a week, a month, or even a year, depending on whether they just need a little more time to negotiate a sticky detail, or rather they want to kick the can to the next Congress.

Regardless of the extension’s duration, legislators would need to vote specifically to continue funding certain programs, due to a quirk in the legislative process (more on that below). And then the whole new-farm-bill-writing process would start over with a new Congress in 2019.

Scenario #2, A Total Farm Bill Fail: But if Congress fails to pass a new bill this month and they fail to pass an extension keeping money flowing to key programs, that’s when bad things happen. In this situation—let’s call it a TFBF for short—money would immediately dry up for a variety of programs that lack so-called baseline funding. These are programs that farmers, rural communities, and low-income consumers depend upon, and they include:

The Congressional Research Service has a good explanation of farm bill “baseline” funding, with a full listing of programs that don’t have it and would thus be stranded without a new farm bill or an extension of the current one.

While Congress negotiates, we need to keep the pressure on

Let’s assume for the moment that Congress manages to avoid a TFBF at the end of this month. In that case, the entire Congress will need to vote on something—either a new farm bill or an extension of current law. So even for the majority of representatives and senators that won’t be actively negotiating over the next couple of weeks, the farm bill is a thing they need to be thinking about.

You can help keep the pressure up by contacting your representatives and senators. Urge them to reject any farm bill that undercuts SNAP, fails to include local food programs, or eliminates CSP—send an email today.

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What Congress Does Next Could Cost Farmers and Taxpayers Billions https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/what-congress-does-next-could-cost-farmers-and-taxpayers-billions https://blog.ucsusa.org/science-blogger/what-congress-does-next-could-cost-farmers-and-taxpayers-billions#respond Wed, 22 Aug 2018 14:16:40 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60620
Management intensive rotational grazing of beef cattle is one example of a conservation practice incentivized by CSP. Here, the author moves cows at the Michigan State University AgBioResearch Center in Lake City, Michigan Photo: Paige Stanley

This year has been hard for all farmers—they have faced an ongoing trade war from the Trump administration and an uphill battle with climate change. But farmers who want to use sustainable practices are being particularly hard hit, as their interests are sidelined for the benefit of agribusinesses. And for the rest of us, 2018 has—almost like clockwork—shown the failure of half-hearted efforts to control farm-sourced water pollution that contaminates drinking water and destroys fisheries.  

The House Committee on Agriculture’s farm bill proposal to eliminate a program that offers tangible hope in difficult times is the biggest blow yet. Not only is the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) popular among farmers, it addresses agricultural challenges and delivers environmental benefits that impact us all. As the deadline to complete the 2018 farm bill approaches, Congress should think long and hard before giving CSP the axe. According to new UCS analysis, they’d sacrifice as much as $4.7 billion dollars in annual taxpayer value to do it.

Maybe you’re not familiar with the farm bill (no one completely understands it), or maybe you’re more concerned with other happenings, like the current attack on science at the EPA. I can’t say I blame you. But if you like to eat food and drink clean water—and you want strong returns on your tax dollars—then listen up.

The good, the bad, and the ugly of today’s farming system

Industrialized US agriculture is highly productive, but it comes at an enormous cost. UCS has documented how the two most widely-grown commodity crops, corn and soy, are failing to feed people and are grown in ways that degrade our soil, increase damage from droughts and floodspollute drinking water, and create vast dead zones along our coasts. Industrialized animal agriculture often leads to even worse outcomes for the environment.

Luckily, there are better methods of agricultural production, and scaling them up is within reach. Conservation and ecologically based farming (agroecology) can not only prevent pollution and soil loss, they can help regenerate ecosystemsincrease productivity, and improve farmer livelihoods. And while federal policies have played a big role in incentivizing many of today’s damaging practices, there are also federal programs that deliver solutions.

Introducing the Conservation Stewardship Program

Conservation practices can improve soil health and soil ecosystem function, which leads to reduced erosion and runoff, improved water quality, and taxpayer savings.

The five-year farm bill funds several such programs run by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Some, like the Conservation Reserve Program, pay for farmers to retire sensitive land from production. Others, like the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), termed “working lands programs,” incentivize farmers to adopt more sustainable practices on farm lands that stay in production. Although these programs make up only 6 percent of total farm bill spending, they pack in co-benefits like soil, air and water quality, climate change mitigation, and wildlife habitat. Tiny, but mighty.

Of these, CSP is the crown jewel. It is the only program that promotes comprehensive, whole farm sustainability. As the largest conservation program covering over 72 million acres, CSP targets high priority sustainability concerns and ensures we’re getting the most bang for our buck. Not only does this program pay for practices that are scientifically proven to produce results, such as resource conserving crop rotations, management intensive rotational grazing, cover cropping, and establishment of wildlife habitats, it pays for farmers to implement such practices in combination. And that is where the money is, literally, as our analysis shows.

CSP offers taxpayers an eye-popping deal

We sought to quantify the return on investment of public dollars in CSP and compare the effects that Senate and House farm bill changes to CSP could have on farmers and taxpayers. You can dig into our detailed methodology but, in short, we did this by considering the cost of CSP to taxpayers (according to the USDA budget) and estimating the benefits that CSP is known to deliver, including things like reduced erosion, increased grazing land productivity, improved air quality, carbon sequestration, and more.

Benefits included costs savings to farmers (like reduced need for fertilizer) and consumers (like reduced expenses for contaminated water), as well as the projected benefits of other ecosystem services (like increased productivity and reduced greenhouse gases).

Here’s what we found:

  • For every dollar of taxpayer money invested into CSP, we get about $3.95 in returned value. This value is notably higher than ROIs estimated for other conservation programs, thanks to CSP’s holistic approach and synergistic benefits that maximize returns.
  • Using this ROI, we estimated that the House bill eliminating CSP would result in lost benefits of $4.7 billion dollars per year. (This is the estimated net loss of benefits, even after including the benefits derived from increased spending on EQIP.) Pause for shock effect (I know we did). These are costs that would impact us ALL- from increased input costs for farmers, increased environmental degradation, and risking food security with a changing climate.
  • Conversely, we estimate that the Senate bill would lead to a net increase of benefits likely valued at around $1.2 billion dollars per year. Though the Senate bill does include some CSP funding cuts, it also improves the program in ways that emphasize high-value practices, so it’s more efficient.

The chart below summarizes the economic impacts of each of our farm bill scenarios.

Change in benefits calculated across four possible farm bill outcomes: 1) House bill is adopted and CSP is eliminated, 2) Senate bill is adopted, but without program improvements, and 3) Senate bill is adopted but with improvements resulting in a) a small increase (10 percent) to the expected ROI in both the Minimal and Likely ROI scenarios and b) a larger (33 percent) increase in both the Minimal and Likely ROI scenarios (see appendix for more details)

Farmers want—and need—incentives to pursue conservation goals

This program is in high demand. An average of between 50 and 75 percent of farmers and ranchers who apply each year are turned away. Recently, more than 165 farmers and ranchers wrote a letter to the House of Representatives Ranking Member Collin Peterson urging him to not only maintain the program, but to keep the promise of enrolling 10 million new acres per year. The results of a survey of more than 2,800 farmers earlier this year provided even more evidence that farmers are interested in this type of support from the farm bill.

The future fate of the CSP rests in the hands of those negotiating the 2018 farm bill. With the current farm bill set to expire on September 30, 2018, the House and Senate agriculture committees are scrambling to reauthorize a bill in time. Considering the intense backlash from farmers on Trump’s current tariff war and hot debates on proposed cuts to SNAP, this egregious crime of side-stepping the environment by cutting CSP is happening largely under the radar.

It’s illogical to eliminate, or even cut, a program that so efficiently provides broad-ranging environmental benefits to so many people across the country. Farmers are begging to keep it. Taxpayers benefit from it. The environment depends on it. So, while the House is busy trying to eliminate it – which would effectively cost us billions of dollars – all evidence suggests that strengthening it should be the real priority.

House and Senate negotiators are now deciding on the final outlines of the 2018 farm bill, including what happens to CSP. Tell them to prioritize this and other proven, science-based policies and programs that are good for all of us.

Paige L. Stanley has a Master of Animal Science degree from Michigan State University and is currently a Doctoral Researcher at the University of California Berkeley in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management. She is interested in transitions toward sustainable and humane livestock production systems with a focus in beef cattle. Her research is currently focused on farmer and rancher barriers to entry to adopting sustainable management practices.

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.

Photo: Paige Stanley
NRCS/Ron Nichols, Flickr Creative Commons
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Is Scientific Integrity Safe at the USDA? https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/is-scientific-integrity-safe-at-the-usda https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/is-scientific-integrity-safe-at-the-usda#respond Wed, 15 Aug 2018 15:38:35 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60483
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agricultural Research Service (ARS) plant physiologist Franck Dayan observes wild-type and herbicide-resistant biotypes of Palmer Amaranth (pigweed) as Mississippi State University graduate student, Daniela Ribeiro collects samples for DNA analysis at the ARS Natural Products Utilization Research Unit in Oxford, MS on July 20, 2011. USDA photo by Stephen Ausmus. Photo: Stephen Ausmus, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Science is critical to everything the US Department of Agriculture does—helping farmers produce a safe, abundant food supply, protecting our soil and water for the future, and advising all of us about good nutrition to stay healthy. I recently wrote about the Trump administration’s new USDA chief scientist nominee, Scott Hutchins, and the conflicts he would bring from a career narrowly focused on developing pesticides for Dow.

But meanwhile, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue last week abruptly announced a proposed reorganization of the USDA’s research agencies. This move has implications for whoever takes up the post of chief scientist—as do new survey findings released yesterday, which suggest that the Trump administration is already having detrimental effects on science and scientists at the USDA.

An attack on science, and a shrinking portfolio for the next chief scientist

The job for which Scott Hutchins (and this guy before him) has been nominated is actually a multi-pronged position. The under secretary is responsible for overseeing the four agencies that currently make up the USDA’s Research, Education, and Economics (REE) mission area: the Agricultural Research Service, the Economic Research Service (ERS), the National Agricultural Statistics Service, and the National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA). Collectively, these agencies carry out or facilitate nearly $3 billion worth of research on food and agriculture topics every year. In addition, the REE under secretary is the USDA’s designated chief scientist, overseeing the Office of the Chief Scientist, established by Congress in 2008 to “provide strategic coordination of the science that informs the Department’s and the Federal government’s decisions, policies and regulations that impact all aspects of U.S. food and agriculture and related landscapes and communities.” OCS and the chief scientist are also responsible for ensuring scientific integrity across the department.

Altogether, it’s no small job, but it may soon get smaller. Secretary Perdue’s unexpected reorganization proposal last week would pluck ERS figuratively from within REE and place it in the Secretary’s office. Perdue’s announcement also included a plan to literally move ERS, along with NIFA, to as-yet-undetermined locations outside the DC area.

Perdue’s proposal cited lower rents and better opportunities to recruit agricultural specialists. But that rationale sounds fishy to UCS and other observers, as well as former USDA staff (the most recent NIFA administrator had this unvarnished reaction) and current staff who were caught by surprise. The move looks suspiciously like subordinating science to politics, likely giving big agribusiness and its boosters in farm-state universities ever more influence over the direction of USDA research that really should be driven by the public interest. Moreover, on the heels of a White House proposal earlier this year to cut the ERS budget in half—which Congress has thus far ignored—Perdue’s “relocate or leave” plan for ERS staff sure seems like a back-door way to gut the agency’s capacity.

New USDA scientist survey findings give more cause for concern

Even before announcements of a conflicted chief scientist nominee and ill-conceived reorganization, things weren’t exactly rosy for those working within REE agencies. In a survey conducted in February and March and released by UCS yesterday, scientists and economists in ARS, ERS, NASS, and NIFA raised concerns about the effects of political interference, budget cuts, and staff reductions. In partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, we asked more than 63,000 federal scientists across 16 government agencies about scientific integrity, agency effectiveness, and the working environment for scientists in the first year of the Trump administration. At the USDA, we sent the survey to more than 3,600 scientists, economists, and statisticians we identified in the four REE agencies; about 7 percent (n=258) responded.

Among the findings summarized in our USDA-specific fact sheet are that scientists:

  • Face restrictions on communicating their work—78 percent said they must obtain agency preapproval to communicate with journalists; and
  • Report workforce reductions are a problem—90 percent say they’ve noticed such reductions in their agencies. And of those, 92 percent say short-staffing is making it harder for the USDA to fulfill its science-based mission.

To sum up: the next USDA chief scientist will lead a shrinking, under-resourced, and somewhat demoralized cadre of scientists facing political interference and possibly increased influence from industry (a trend we are already seeing in the Trump/Perdue USDA). All this at a time when the department really needs to advance research that can help farmers meet the myriad challenges they face and safeguard the future of our food system.

Soon, I’ll follow up with questions the Senate might want to ask Scott Hutchins—in light of all this and his own chemical industry baggage—when they hold his confirmation hearing.

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In the Final Stretch of the Farm Bill, Keep an Eye on Crop Insurance. (Crop Insurance?) https://blog.ucsusa.org/ricardo-salvador/in-the-final-stretch-of-the-farm-bill-keep-an-eye-on-crop-insurance-crop-insurance https://blog.ucsusa.org/ricardo-salvador/in-the-final-stretch-of-the-farm-bill-keep-an-eye-on-crop-insurance-crop-insurance#respond Fri, 10 Aug 2018 17:09:27 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60380

You’re not a farmer, but you’re invested in crop insurance.

The chances that you are a farmer are nil. After all, there are only 2.1 million farms in a nation of 323.1 million people. Yet, you are deeply invested in the nation’s farming enterprise. As a taxpayer, you back U.S. agriculture by financing a range of government programs that hover around $20 billion annually. Those tax dollars fund such things as price supports, research, marketing and crop insurance.

The case for crop insurance

It is in the interest of the 99% of us who don’t farm to help protect family farmers against two major hazards that are outside their control: market downturns and weather disasters. We do this through a “farm safety net” that consists of coupling price supports for agricultural commodities with crop and livestock insurance. Over 300 million acres are covered for $100 billion of insured liability annually. The legislative vehicle that authorizes these federal programs is a “farm bill” that is renewed every five years. The current iteration is due to be renewed by September 30 of this year.

It is a game of “Who is going to get your money?”

If—amid the current swirl of political news—you’ve not been following the scintillating path of the Farm Bill through Congress, the current status is that each chamber has passed dramatically different drafts of the bill. If Congress is to meet its deadline for reauthorization, it needs to reconcile the differing versions of the farm bill within the next few weeks. The two versions differ on whether to make the bill more equitable for family farmers and those seeking to get into farming, as the Senate version proposes, or to make it easier to abuse and defraud taxpayers to further enrich a very few already wealthy farmers, which the House version would enable. Specifically, the Senate version would set limits on the total subsidy payments that farms would be eligible to receive—at $250,000 per year per farm. Coupled with this is a measure to prevent the wealthiest of farmers from drawing on public support that they do not actually need. The cut-off for eligibility would be reduced from the present $900,000 annual Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) per farmer to $700,000. Additionally, the Senate version proposes tying eligibility for insurance benefits to the effectiveness of conservation practices.

These are welcome adjustments, even though they still fall short of the comprehensive reform needed to prevent open abuse of the farm safety net. For example, an earlier effort to reduce the insurance premium subsidy drawn by farmers with an AGI greater than $700,000 was defeated. Yes, the federal government doles out insurance payouts to farmers, plus the majority of the cost of their insurance premiums! More on the rationale for this in a bit, but the point here is that payment limit measures would level the playing field for small and medium family farms. This is just one of the issues that pits the interests of these farmers—and of taxpayers and fiscal conservatives—against the political power of large farmers and their agribusiness backers. As for the House version of the Farm Bill? Not only does it not include these sensible—if mild—reforms, it brazenly creates loopholes that would have non-farming relatives become eligible for “per farmer” benefits.

We’ve done that. It doesn’t work. Shall we try something different?

If we keep doing more of the same, the cost of insurance will balloon and make some wealthy people even richer—but it doesn’t have to. While the rationale for public support of family farmers is self-evident, in practice our crop insurance policies could be better. Over the past five years, federal crop insurance cost American tax payers an average of $9 billion annually, according to analysis from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO.) Drought and flood damage accounted for 72% of insurance payouts between 2001 and 2015, per accounting from the RMA. Climate change will only make this worse, as more frequent and extreme weather episodes drive up costs for the program. The CBO estimates—using scenarios developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—that crop insurance costs will increase by $1 billion annually through 2080.

This upward spiral is compounded by the fact that our current policy incentivizes waste—because it focuses on production regardless of environmental and other costs—instead of adoption of well-known, scientifically sound production practices that can minimize crop losses even under climate extremes. Adoption of the latter practices would result in a more resilient agricultural system that would reduce farm losses and the need for, and expense of, insurance to the public. We therefore should incentivize these kinds of scientifically informed and fiscally responsible systems. While the 2014 farm bill intended to do just this by requiring “conservation compliance,” the Office of the Inspector General has found that such compliance is weakly enforced.

What would make more sense?

It is reasonable for the public to expect the best farming practices in return for the farm safety net that their tax dollars provide. In fact, this could be done by connecting the different parts (“titles”) of the farm bill so they work together. For example, the Research Title generates information about the most sustainable farming practices, which are supported in large measure by the Conservation Title. Better coordination of the Crop Insurance Title with these two would make the entire farm bill more coherent and should reduce total costs to farmers, taxpayers and the environment.

To understand how we might do this, consider the nation’s “corn belt,” an expanse of 180 million acres dominated by a lawn of corn and soybeans, each grown in extensive “monocrops” (swaths of homogenous stands of a single crop.) As currently managed, these systems promote soil degradation and soil loss, water pollution and runaway pest crises. In turn, this exposes farmers (and all of us, as their underwriters) to the risk inherent in betting on a single system to be successful under all circumstances all the time. Every one of the environmental crises listed above can be mitigated, if not eliminated, by adoption of well-researched “agroecological” methods. We can drive this shift in farm management by tying eligibility for government programs, including crop insurance, to verified implementation of practices that conserve soil, build soil health, sequester carbon and increase biodiversity. These practices make farming systems more resilient to weather extremes and are more profitable to farmers because they reduce farmer reliance on purchased inputs. Further, more resilient farms would rely less on government supports like the federal crop and livestock insurance programs.

Perverse loopholes instead further enrich the largest farmers

At present, however, loopholes in our policies permit the largest and most profitable farms to receive both windfall payments and a disproportionate amount of farm bill subsidies. Because the current system rewards production, and not resilience, the result is that it is “large, very large and corporate farms,” just 4% of farms, that are the greatest beneficiaries of the public’s support. These farms account for 55% of US agricultural output and earn $1 M or more in gross farm cash income each year. Such farms face large risks, of course, but they don’t need public support to afford their insurance costs. It isn’t just that the public provides farmers insurance, but that we make it cheap insurance. The reason is that taxpayers subsidize 60% of crop insurance premiums. This is intended to incentivize farmers to buy insurance rather than force the government to come up with unbudgeted emergency payments every time major disasters strike. In practice, however, this has served to concentrate wealth. Those 4% of farms receiving the lion’s share of farm bill benefits have an operating profit margin greater than 10%. In contrast, the majority of small and midsize family farms—those which could readily adopt more diverse crop and livestock production methods, and which account for 45% of the nation’s farm assets—operate with a profit margin less than 10%. Those are the farmers who actually need the public’s support. It is a situation that clearly calls for payment limits to cap the amount of farm bill benefits that any one farm can receive.

Farmers can adopt and manage more resilient systems, and we should reward them for that

The 2014 Farm Bill—the most recent—introduced “Whole Farm Revenue” insurance for farmers wishing to diversify their farms (produce a variety of crops and livestock in integrated fashion.) Diversified farming systems protect farmers from catastrophic losses the same way diversified stock portfolios protect investors. Such systems tend to protect soil, filter and better store water, recycle and make better use of fertilizer nutrients, have fewer pest problems (and thereby require fewer pesticides), and result in lower costs and higher profits. Further, because fewer external inputs (such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides) are purchased, farmers earn more, and more of those earnings are recirculated in the local rural economy. However, under our existing risk management approach, these systems have proven more difficult to insure than large monocrops. The latter have long actuarial records, permitting insurers to set premiums with greater certainty, and are familiar to and therefore preferred by bankers and Farm Service Agency personnel. But this is counterproductive, as it discourages the best farming practices and encourages the worst. Barriers such as these, and those encountered by new and beginning farmers (who must establish a credit and cropping history to gain access to loans and insurance premium discounts), must instead be streamlined with more informed farm bill criteria. The Whole Farm Revenue insurance program is one step towards incentivizing resilient diversified systems.  Programs to support beginning and younger farmers, who are also more likely to use diversified systems, are another way to build more resilient farms. The Senate version of the current Farm Bill attempts to address these issues.

What you can do:

Demand That Members of Congress Who Will Reconcile the House and Senate Farm Bills Make Your Financial Backing of Farm Programs More Effective, Responsible and Equitable

Sign On: Even though the Farm Bill programs described above are directed to farmers, we all have a stake. As taxpayers, we back these programs and—as we’ve seen—it is important that the programs be equitable and balance production with environmental responsibility and resilience. You can help make it clear to Congress that you strongly support these goals by signing our statement urging farm bill conferees to adopt the Senate version of the bill. The “conferees” are the 47 members of Congress who will work with the currently disparate versions of the Farm Bill and decide the form of the final legislation. We will deliver this letter and your signatures to the chairs of the Senate and House Agriculture Committees as they begin deliberations.

Tell Conferees About the Farm Safety Net You Want: Members of Congress are visiting their districts right now! During the congressional recess that will last the remainder of this month, you can visit their offices, attend their town hall meetings, or call and write the offices of the Senate conferees, as well as of the Republican and Democrat House Farm Bill conferees. Remember that as a citizen and taxpayer your representatives are bound to take your calls and letters and consider your input. This is all the more important for direct constituents of Farm Bill conferees. When you call and write, be sure to make these particular points:

  • Adopt the Senate version of the Crop Insurance title (Title XI) because it improves and streamlines the Whole Farm Revenue Insurance program. Importantly, the Senate version recognizes the need to eliminate obstacles for new farmers and the “underserved” (in the Farm Bill this—tellingly—means farmers of color.) To this end, support the House measure that defines “Beginning Farmers” as those who have farmed less than 10 years.
  • Adopt the Senate recommendation to link crop insurance eligibility with the performance of adopted conservation practices.
  • Make the farm safety net more equitable by closing loopholes in the Commodity Title (Title I) that permit abuse. Specifically, restrict payment eligibility to individuals actually farming; establish an AGI limit of $700,000 for eligibility for commodity payments; and set maximum commodity payments per farmer to $250,000 per year.
Photo: Bob Nichols, USDA/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)
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Farmers Markets and SNAP: Thanks, New York…Your Move, Congress https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/farmers-markets-and-snap-thanks-new-yorkyour-move-congress https://blog.ucsusa.org/karen-perry-stillerman/farmers-markets-and-snap-thanks-new-yorkyour-move-congress#respond Wed, 08 Aug 2018 20:41:42 +0000 https://blog.ucsusa.org/?p=60309

This National Farmers Market Week, we have some things to celebrate. There’s peak summer produce, of course…I mean, who doesn’t like a perfectly ripe tomato? And now, we may be a little bit closer to a day when that lovely red orb is accessible to anyone who wants one on a hot day in August. But first, let’s talk about a crisis averted.

Late last month, the state of New York and the New York Farmers Market Federation came to the rescue of thousands of farmers markets—and the shoppers that rely on them. The emergency? A host of technical and financial problems threatened the sudden collapse of the systems that allow farmers markets to accept food stamp benefits electronically. And although that didn’t happen (thanks, New York!) the events that unfolded over the past month illustrate the need for more extensive and permanent infrastructure to connect low-income consumers with farmers and help local food systems thrive.

SNAP EBT problem solved, for now

Since 1997, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) has provided benefits via Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards, offering convenience and minimizing stigma in transactions at grocery stores. But EBT posed a challenge for farmers markets held outdoors without secure data lines, leading companies like the Austin-based Novo Dia Group to develop mobile software solutions. The firm now uses wireless technology to process some 40 percent of SNAP transactions at farmers markets nationwide.

But in early July, Novo Dia announced it was unable to fulfill the remainder of its contract with the USDA and would end its service within the month. This would have affected a significant number of the nation’s 8,720 farmers markets, at which low-income shoppers redeemed more than $22.4 million in SNAP benefits last year.

The factors contributing to the shutdown remain somewhat unclear; Novo Dia cites high operational costs associated with its wireless platform, compounded by the company’s exclusion from a new contract between the USDA and Financial Transaction Management (FTM)—a new and relatively unknown company that won the bid to provide equipment to farmers markets in March 2018. (For clarity: USDA previously contracted with the Farmers Market Coalition for this service, who then subcontracted with Novo Dia.)

But regardless of the reasons, the consequences would have been devastating. A shutdown would have left some 1,700 farmers markets across the country without a way to redeem SNAP EBT—meaning SNAP participants would lose access to fresh, nutritious, affordable food and farmers would lose customers and revenue—right smack in the middle of the season.

Enter the state of New York, which jumped in last week to provide financing that will keep Novo Dia’s system operating nationwide through early 2019. Novo Dia’s financial viability aside, questions remain about why the USDA selected FTM—a little-known company that will replace Novo Dia with other unknown subcontractors—to serve the nation’s farmers markets. Yes, it could be an unremarkable outcome of a routine government bidding process. But the USDA’s mid-July press statement describing the situation isn’t wholly reassuring.

Congress can build lasting solutions

While New York bails out Novo Dia, there’s much more that Congress can do to enable long-term solutions; namely, by connecting farmers with consumers to support the growth of economically vibrant local food systems in communities throughout the country. Using data from our 50-State Food System Scorecard, UCS health analyst Sarah Reinhardt wrote recently that in states whose farmers grow more fruits and vegetables—and who can rely on better infrastructure to get that healthy food onto people’s plates—diet and health outcomes are better.

And this is where Congress comes in. This month, the 2018 farm bill is entering a critical stage of negotiations, as leaders in the US Senate and House of Representatives come together to finalize this massive 5-year legislative package, which shapes everything about how we eat in this country and who can afford nutritious food. Earlier this summer, the Senate passed a version of the bill that would make much-needed investments in local food systems, creating an innovative Local Agriculture Market Program (LAMP). The bipartisan provisions of this program would help communities expand access to fresh, nutritious food for many consumers, grow the customer base for small and midsize farmers, and offer a much-needed boost to struggling rural economies. That’s a win all-around.

However, the House version of the farm bill passed up the opportunity to make such investments. And now, members of the House and Senate are coming together in a conference committee to hash out their differences and negotiate a final bill. It’s time to insist that negotiators prioritize smart local food policies and include LAMP provisions in the bill that goes to the president’s desk.

What you can do: Local food programs that connect producers to consumers can support profitable farms, enable more people to afford healthy food, and keep food dollars in rural communities. So while you’re celebrating farmers markets this week with a slice of tomato mayo toast (my latest obsession), take a moment to sign our petition to support healthy local food solutions in the farm bill TODAY!

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