by Marion Nestle

Search results: coexistence

Nov 11 2013

USDA asks for public input on how to communicate “agricultural coexistence”

I am indebted to Farm Futures for the heads up about the USDA’s just-published request for public input on what it calls “enhancing agricultural coexistence.”

Agricultural coexistence, the USDA says,

refers to the concurrent cultivation of crops produced through diverse agricultural systems, including traditionally produced, organic, identity preserved (IP), and genetically engineered crops.  As the complexity and diversity of U.S. agriculture increases, so does the importance of managing issues that affect agricultural coexistence, such as seed purity, gene flow, post-harvest mixing, identity testing, and market requirements.

My translation: The USDA wants producers of traditional crops and organic foods to stop complaining that GMOs are contaminating their crops, and producers of GMO crops to stop complaining that they get prosecuted if they try to save seeds from year to year.

The USDA explains that it is doing this in response to recommendations from its Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture.  This committee recommended actions to promote agricultural coexistence in five areas:

  1. Potential compensation mechanisms
  2. Stewardship
  3. Education and outreach
  4. Research
  5. Seed quality

How come the USDA is collecting input on #3 rather than the far-more-likely-to-be-controversial #1 and #2?

Early in 2011, I wrote about USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s use of Cold War rhetoric to promote détente between growers of organic and GMO foods.  I pointed out that while the USDA had no intention of backing down on support of GM agriculture, it was at least recognizing the threat to organic production.

I noted that the USDA was unlikely to get very far with this initiative because so many farm groups representing industrial agriculture so strongly objected to Vilsack’s coexistence proposal.  The groups argued that coexistence could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

If you can’t do anything about underlying structural problems, try communication.

Have something to say about what it will take to support all systems of agricultural production?  Now is a good time to weigh in.

 

Jan 11 2011

Is GM alfalfa the new Cold War? USDA urges peaceful coexistence.

The USDA seems to be paving the way for approval of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa with pleas for coexistence and cooperation. These will be needed.  Organic alfalfa is the mainstay of organic animal feed.  Organic standards exclude GM.  But pollen from GM alfalfa transmits GM genes to organic alfalfa.

In releasing the Environmental Impact Statement on GM alfalfa, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack used Cold War rhetoric:

We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and non-genetically engineered sectors over the last several decades… While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country.

USDA is working hard on this one.  It held a stakeholders meeting to discuss the issues.  Secretary Vilsack also wrote an open letter to stakeholders pressing the need for coexistence:

The rapid adoption of GE crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GE products. This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so.

Regrettably, what the criticism we have received on our GE alfalfa approach suggests, is how comfortable we have become with litigation – with one side winning and one side losing – and how difficult it is to pursue compromise. Surely, there is a better way, a solution that acknowledges agriculture’s complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity.

By continuing to bring stakeholders together in an attempt to find common ground where the balanced interests of all sides could be advanced, we at USDA are striving to lead an effort to forge a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation. If successful, this effort can ensure that all forms of agriculture thrive so that food can remain abundant, affordable, and safe.

The USDA is not going to back down on GM.  But I see real progress here.  At least—and at last—USDA recognizes the threat of GM agriculture to organic production.

We have an obligation to carefully consider…the potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa – a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.

I’m guessing USDA will approve GM alfalfa.  Will approval include mandatory—and enforceable—safeguards to protect organic production?  Let’s hope.

Addition: Guess what.  Farm groups supporting GM alfalfa strongly object to Vilsack’s “coexistence” initiative.   In a  letter, the groups argue that the coexistence policy could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

Noting that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded that RR alfalfa does not pose a plant pest risk, the groups accuse the Department of using motives beyond science to impose “unprecedented” conditions on alfalfa growers that they say may include isolation distances and geographic planting restrictions.

By “alfalfa growers,” they do not mean organic. Here’s who signed the letter:

  • American Farm Bureau Federation
  • American Soybean Association
  • National Cotton Council
  • National Association of Wheat Growers
  • National Council of Farmer Cooperatives
  • USA Rice Federation
Dec 29 2013

My last San Francisco Chronicle column: Looking Back, Looking Forward

Looking back at year of progress for food system

After 5 1/2 years and 70 columns written exclusively for The Chronicle, this is my last. As I move on, I do so with much hope for a healthier and more equitable food system.

My optimism comes from taking the long view of progress in agriculture, food, nutrition and public health. When I look back on what’s happened since, say, 1980, I see enormous improvement in the foods available in supermarkets and in schools, the availability of organic and locally grown food, and public interest in everything about food, from taste to politics.

At this time of year, it’s customary to highlight the 10 most notable achievements of the past 12 months. But let me point out one conspicuous absence from this list – the creation of a stronger and more compassionate safety net for the poor and unemployed. Working toward this goal needs to be high on the food advocacy agenda for 2014.

With that gap in mind, here’s where I’ve seen noteworthy progress:

School nutrition standardsThe new rules are the result of the most significant achievement of Michelle Obama‘s Let’s Move! campaign – the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act of 2010. This act required schools to provide not only healthier meals, but also snacks. Early reports find most schools to be doing a good job of putting the new rules into effect. Yes, the rules do not go nearly far enough (they are too generous in sugar, for example), but they are a step in the right direction and lay the groundwork for even better standards.

Food safety rulesThe Food and Drug Administration finally started issuing regulations for the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2010. Once final, these rules will go a long way toward requiring food producers to take measures to ensure safety, and giving the FDA the authority to make sure they do. Yes, its details still need tweaking, but FSMA is a milestone on the road to a safer food supply. The next steps will be to bring the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s authority in line with the FDA’s, and to develop a single food safety agency that combines the functions of both.

FDA’s guidance on antibiotic resistanceThe FDA has called on drug companies to voluntarily agree to stop using medically important antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals and to require a veterinarian’s prescription when using these drugs to treat, prevent or control animal disease. Yes, this is voluntary and drug companies have three years to comply. But the FDA has taken the first step toward banning antibiotics for anything but therapeutic purposes, an impressive achievement given current political realities.

Let’s Move!’s food marketing initiativeMarketing is the elephant in the room of childhood obesity. It overwhelmingly influences kids to prefer, demand and consume junk foods and sodas. Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign has no authority to regulate marketing to kids. By keeping a focus on this issue, she gives advocates plenty of room to hold food companies publicly accountable for their marketing practices.

Soda and junk food taxes in MexicoDespite intense and well-organized opposition by its soda, sugar and small-business industries, the Mexican government passed a 1-peso-per-liter tax on soft drinks and an 8 percent tax on junk foods.

These measures were meant to counter the country’s 70 percent of overweight people and, no coincidence, record-breaking soda consumption. The initiative succeeded as a result of strong advocacy support and also because the revenues were committed to social purposes, among them providing clean drinking water in schools. Other countries are likely to be inspired to enact similar measures.

GMO labeling initiativesConnecticut passed a GMO labeling law in 2013, but election initiatives in California and Washington failed. Even though the food and biotechnology industries poured tens of millions of dollars into defeating labeling measures, the margins of defeat were small. My crystal ball says that some such measures will eventually pass. The food biotechnology industry must think so too; some of its groups are calling for voluntary GMO labeling.

Fast-food workers’ wage demandsPeople who work full time should be able to support their families and not have to be on public assistance. If you work 40 hours at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, you will earn less than $300, and that’s before taxes.

USDA‘s agricultural coexistence initiativesBy agricultural coexistence, the USDA means peaceful relations between quite different farming systems – industrial and GMO versus organic and sustainable. Peaceful coexistence would be a lot easier if GMO pollen didn’t drift onto organic crops, if Congress supported sustainable agriculture in proportion to its size, and if the ag-biotech industry didn’t dismiss cooperation out of hand.

The New York City mayoral candidates forum and coalition buildingAbout 85 food and nutrition advocacy groups put their differences aside to jointly question mayoral candidates on their views about food problems facing city residents. Seven candidates showed up to answer questions, a clear sign that coalitions are strong enough to demand attention.

A personal perspectiveThe past year brought many new food studies programs into universities. When we created food studies programs at New York University in 1996, only one other such program existed. Today, universities throughout the country are training young people to advocate for food systems healthier for the planet and for people, rich and poor.

University of California Press released the 10th anniversary edition of “Food Politics,” and Rodale Books issued “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.”

The message of both books – the first in text and the second in cartoons – is the same: Vote with your fork for a more delicious and sustainable food system. Even better, vote with your vote! Engage in food politics to make our food system more conducive to health and social justice.

The food movement is making much progress, but much more remains to be done. I’ve had a great run at The Chronicle, for which I deeply thank readers and editors. I will continue to write about food matters on my blog, at www.foodpolitics.com. Please join me there.

Marion Nestle is also the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics” and “What to Eat.” She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at www.foodpolitics.com. E-mail:food@sfchronicle.com

Feb 15 2013

A gift from AGree: position papers on food and agriculture.

AGree is a foundation-sponsored group devoted to nonpartisan ways to “transform federal food and agriculture policy to meet the challenges of the future:”  future demands for food and improvements in conservation, public health, and agricultural communities.   

It has just posted a series of position papers reflecting its members’ short- and long-term thinking about how to:

AGree also offers a report on Facing the Future: Critical Challenges to Food and Agriculture.  It has identified a set of strategies in addition to the ones listed above to address the challenges confronting the global food and agriculture system.

 

These papers are useful for anyone interested in how to improve agricultural systems and it’s great that this group is laying the groundwork for serious thinking about these issues.

Sep 7 2011

USDA seeks method to compensate farmers for GM contamination

I am a long-time reader of Food Chemical News, a weekly newsletter covering a huge range of food issues and invaluable for someone like me who lives outside the Beltway and does not have access to the ins and outs of Washington DC politics.

An item in the August 30 issue caught my attention:  USDA secretary Tom Vilsack’s instructions to his department’s new Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture (AC21).

Get this: Vilsack told AC21 to come up with a plan for compensating organic or conventional farmers whose crops become contaminated by GM genes through pollen drift.

According to Food Chemical News, Vilsack gave a three-part charge to the panel:

  1. What types of compensation mechanisms, if any, would be appropriate?
  2. What would be necessary to implement such mechanisms?
  3. What other actions would be appropriate to bolster or facilitate coexistence among different agricultural production systems in the United States?

Vilsack urged the committee to address the questions in order and not yield to temptation to address the third question first.

“This is a very specific charge,” Vilsack stressed. He also told the AC21 not to worry if their proposed solutions would require an act of Congress or new regulations. “Don’t worry about the mechanism. We’ll figure out how to make it happen.”

Why is Vilsack doing this?

“What motivates me is an opportunity to revitalize the rural economy,” the agriculture secretary declared. “I have no favorite [type of agriculture] here. I don’t have that luxury. I just want to find consensus. I believe that people who are smart and reasonable can find a solution.”

Responding to a question from panel member, Vilsack said the AC21’s failure to come up with solutions would result in “continuation of what we have today….If we want to revitalize rural America, we can’t do it while we’re fighting each other.”

Deputy USDA secretary Kathleen Merrigan cited the recent droughts and flooding as an “overwhelming time for agriculture.”

I wonder how we are going to prevent the loss of more farmers and encourage young people to take up farming….you have to come up with scenarios where there’s lack of data.  You don’t have to figure out the politics.  That’s my job and the secretary’s.  Just answer the questions [in the charge] and let us carry the water.

Interesting, no?

Could this possibly mean that instead of Monsanto suing organic or conventional farmers whose crops get intermingled with patented GM varieties, Monsanto might now have to pay the farmers for the damage caused by the contamination?

I can’t wait to see what AC21 comes up with.

Feb 4 2011

GM alfalfa: the politics explained

I’m still trying to understand how it happened that USDA’s plan for peaceful coexistence among growers of alfalfa—genetically modified (GM), industrial (but not GM), and organic (definitely not GM))—failed so miserably.  It was the first time that USDA seemed to be recognizing the legitimacy of complaints that GM crops are contaminating organic crops.  I thought this was a food step forward.

But the USDA ended up approving GM alfalfa with no restrictions—just promises to study the matter.

I’ve now seen some explanations that not only make sense, but also shed considerable light on how agricultural politics works in Washington these days.

Sam Fromartz, author of Organic, Inc, writes on his blog that after USDA’s decision:

The only appeasement the USDA offered were panels on studying ways to prevent contamination from occurring in the future. But this seems akin to studying ways to protect a forest after loggers have been allowed to cut down the trees.

The decision was a stunning reversal of a more measured approach that Vilsack appeared to be taking in December, when the USDA talked about considering the impact of the GM crop on other sectors of agriculture. But that was before he faced an uproar by the GM industry and the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal for playing nice with organic farmers.

Gary Hirshberg, in response to heavy criticism that he sold out to Monsanto, writes on the Huffington Post:

Stonyfield is absolutely and utterly opposed to the deregulation of GE crops. We believe that these crops are resulting in significantly higher uses of toxic herbicides and water, creating a new generation of costly “super” weeds, pose severe and irreversible threats to biodiversity and seed stocks, do not live up to the superior yield claims of their patent holders and are unaffordable for small family farmers in the US and around the world.

We believe that organic farming methods are proving through objective, scientific validation to offer far better solutions. We also believe that unrestricted deregulation of GE crops unfairly limits farmer and consumer choice.

…From the outset of these stakeholder discussions, it was clear that GE alfalfa had overwhelming political, legal, financial and regulatory support, and thus the odds were severely stacked against any possibility of preventing some level of approval, just as has been the case with GE cotton, soy, canola and corn.

Keep in mind that, according to Food and Water Watch, biotech has spent more than half a billion dollars ($547 million) lobbying Congress since 1999. Their lobby expenditures more than doubled during that time. In 2009 alone they spent $71 million. Last year they had more than 100 lobbying firms working for them, as well as their own in-house lobbyists.

In an interview with Food Chemical News (Feb 3), Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety,  one of the groups leading the opposition to GM alfalfa:

describes USDA’s promises as a “stale gesture” toward organic and other industry groups that had worked with the department on its proposed option for partial deregulation of RR alfalfa. He speculates that USDA was prepared to go down the partial deregulation route but was “shot down at the White House level….

“It’s not about organic and GMOs,” Kimbrell continues. “The real losses are not with organic crops but with conventional crops,” such as rice commingled with Bayer’s authorized LibertyLink 601 variety and corn commingled with the StarLink variety. “The growers can’t sell their crops to Europe or Asia. The issue is how do we keep GMOs from contaminating conventional crops such as rice, corn and now alfalfa?”

Food and Water Watch, another leading group on this issue and the source of the lobbying data in Hirshberg’s comments,  points out that the USDA’s decision to allow unrestricted planting of GM alfalfa is not likely to be an isolated case.  The FDA is currently considering approval of GM salmon, and its decision is expected soon.

Both organizations are organizing protests on their websites, but this is how agricultural politics works these days.

Jan 28 2011

USDA approves controversial GM alfalfa

In an action long expected, the USDA approved commercial production of genetically modified alfalfa.

The announcement makes it clear that USDA did not do this lightly.  The agency was well aware of the concerns of organic farmers that GM alfalfa could—and will—contaminate their fields.

Secretary Vilsack said:

After conducting a thorough and transparent examination of alfalfa through a multi-alternative environmental impact statement (EIS) and several public comment opportunities, APHIS has determined that Roundup Ready alfalfa is as safe as traditionally bred alfalfa…All of the alfalfa production stakeholders involved in this issue have stressed their willingness to work together to find solutions.

…USDA brought together a diverse group of stakeholders to discuss feasible strategies for coexistence between genetically engineered (GE), organic, and other non-GE stakeholders.

…In response to the request for support from its stakeholders, USDA is taking a number of steps, including:

  • Reestablishing two important USDA advisory committees – Advisory Committee on Biotechnology and 21st Century Agriculture, and the National Genetic Resources Advisory Committee.
  • Conducting research into areas such as ensuring the genetic integrity, production and preservation of alfalfa seeds entrusted to the germplasm system;
  • Refining and extending current models of gene flow in alfalfa;
  • Requesting proposals through the Small Business Innovation Research program to improve handling of forage seeds and detection of transgenes in alfalfa seeds and hay; and,
  • Providing voluntary, third-party audits and verification of industry-led stewardship initiatives.

USDA seems to think it has brokered “peaceful coexistence” (see previous post).  Skeptics, take note.

The USDA is providing more information about this decision online .  It also has issued a Q and A.  Here’s the Federal Register notice.