Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Feb 5 2014

The 2014 Farm Bill: Reactions from relief to aghast

Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the daily Hagstrom report on agriculture matters, explains why the farm bill passed.   After 3 or 4 years of fuss, practically everyone thought it was the best they could do:

Critics on the right and the left say that such an outpouring of endorsements shows that the farm bill is filled with government spending, but it also shows the importance of the farm bill—and the activities of the Agriculture Department—in every corner of the country. [The farm bill] provides purchasing power and food for low-income people in cities and it allows for the inspection of meat, poultry, and eggs. It also pays for financing electricity, telephones, and the Internet in rural America.

The bottom line: it could have been a lot worse.

The New York Times scores the winners and losers.  The big winner?  The insurance industry.

Unlike the food stamp program, the federally subsidized crop insurance program was not cut. The program, which is administered by 18 companies that are paid $1.4 billion annually by the government to sell policies to farmers, pays 62 percent of farmers’ premiums.

Enthusiasm for the bill depends on what it gives to whom.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack says, grudgingly:

Building on the historic economic gains in rural America over the past 5 years, this bill will accomplish those goals while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for the taxpayer. While no legislation is perfect, this bill is a strong investment in American agriculture and supports the continued global leadership of our farmers and ranchers.

Former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, looks at the bright side:

While this is not a perfect bill, its passage was critical for our nation’s agriculture infrastructure. I’m glad to see the bill will allow low-income Americans to double their SNAP benefits at farmers markets, which will help tens of thousands of people eat more nutritious foods. However, I believe there is still a fundamental disconnect between the nation’s farm policies and critical issues of public health and nutrition.

Wholesome Wave is pleased with the bill’s support (comparatively small as it is) for fruits and vegetables:

While we are reluctant to support this legislation because of the disheartening cuts to SNAP, the bill does include funding for many critical programs that will enhance access to affordable, local food and drive revenue to local and regional farmers. Specifically, there is mandatory funding for nutrition incentives at $20 million per year, for five years, as well as increased funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Community Food Projects, Specialty Crop Block Grants, the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, Beginning Farmers and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

The Organic Farming Research Foundation calls the bill “a victory for organic farming:”

The Farm Bill restores long overdue support for organic agriculture including significant funding increases for the Organic Extension and Research Initiative (OREI), the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP), the National Organic Program (NOP) and the Organic Data Initiative (ODI). Despite significant shortcomings in the commodity, conservation and crop insurance titles of the proposal, the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) is celebrating the victories for organic agriculture found in the bill and urging the president to sign it.

The Fair Food Network’s Oran Hesterman says:

While no Farm Bill is perfect, this bill continues support for critical programs and advances innovations that will support small and mid-scale farmers and help more low-income families access healthy and affordable foods in their communities…Specifically, the Farm Bill includes $100 million to support the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, a new national healthy produce program modeled after successful efforts such as Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks.

But, New York City Coalition Against Hunger Executive Director Joel Berg says:

I am devastated, but unfortunately not surprised, by the Senate’s passage of a Farm Bill cutting SNAP by nearly $9 billion, on top of $11 billion in cuts that took place last November 1st. Our political system is so broken it has morphed into spineless versus heartless, and low-income Americans are, once again, those who will suffer most…It’s an orgy of corporate welfare and subsidies for the wealthy paid for by cuts to programs that help the needy put food on the table. It is Robin Hood in reverse.

I’ll end with Senator John McCain (Rep-AZ), whose analysis of the specifics is worth a look:

Mr. President, how are we supposed to restore the American people’s confidence with this monstrosity? Just a few weeks ago we crammed down their throats a $1.1 trillion Omnibus Appropriations Bill loaded with wasteful spending. Tomorrow we’ll wash the Omnibus down with another trillion dollars. The only policy that gets bipartisan traction in Congress is Washington’s desire to hand out taxpayer money like its [sic] candy.

Will the President sign this bill?  He says he will, on Friday.

Feb 4 2014

The dairy programs in the farm bill: A helpful analysis?

Thanks to the Hagstrom Report for sending along analyses of the dairy programs in the farm bill.

I’m not a dairy farmer and I’ve never had to work with these programs, which is a good thing because I find them impenetrable.  

For one thing, support for dairy farmers—and protection against disastrous cost and price fluctuations—is accomplished through several extraordinarily complicated programs that survive or are newly enacted in this farm bill.  

  • The permanent Dairy Price Support Program from the 1949 farm bill.
  • The Dairy Forward Pricing Program
  • The Dairy Indemnity Program
  • Export market development in the National Dairy Promotion and Research Program
  • The Margin Protection Program for Dairy Producers (MPP)
  • The Dairy Product Donation Program (DPDP)
  • Federal Milk Marketing Order for California

Why impenetrable?  Try this explanation (from the first document listed below) of the new Margin Protection Program:

A voluntary program that pays participating farmers an indemnity when a national benchmark for milk income over feed costs (the actual dairy production margin or ADPM) falls below an insured level that can vary over a $4 per cwt range.

That document explains the two new programs, MPP and DPDP, in great detail, with charts and formulas.  For them, I have to take the authors’ conclusions on faith:

The two new programs (MPP and DPDP) offer a total revamping of the safety nets that have been in place for the dairy sector going back to the middle of the 20th Century…Whether the programs proposed here will prove to be the answer farmers seek is something that will be debated and estimated, but we won’t really know unless and until they are tried.

Dairy farmer readers:  Will these new programs make your lives easier?  More secure?  Bring you more income?

Here are the analyses:

 

 

 

Feb 3 2014

Food art: Comments on food politics

At the last minute, I caught the exhibit of student art at the School of Visual Arts (209 East 23rd street @3rd Avenue) just before it closed.

The exhibit was called “Putting it All on the Table.”

The instructor must have asked students to create installations that comment on the most important issues in food politics today: hunger, obesity, corporate control of food systems, garbage and food waste, pesticides and their effects, globalization, immigrant labor, and others.

This one commented on the ubiquity of corn (in this case, candy corn) in the food supply.

2014-01-25 14.52.11

And this one looked at issues related to nuclear waste in the food supply.

2014-01-25 14.54.18

Worth the visit?  I thought so.  Food for thought and all that.

Jan 31 2014

Yes, the farm bill is politically corrupt. Veto it!

I’ve been hearing from readers challenging my disgusted comments about the politics of the farm bill.

The bill is so awful that the Washington Post says it deserves a veto:

Tipping the financial scales at $956 billion over 10 years, or just over $1 billion per page, the hideously complex bill is supposedly a compromise that reforms crop subsidy programs…what the bill takes from the ag lobby with one hand, it largely gives back with the other…the bill cuts $8.5 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the poor…attached to so much corporate welfare, it’s hard to swallow, especially when that corporate welfare isn’t rigorously means-tested.

The New York Times doesn’t go that far.  It supports the bill, but grudgingly: “The farm bill could have been worse:”

On balance, the bill is clearly worthy of support, particularly because it will prevent austerity fanatics in future Congresses from gutting food stamps for the next five years….But endorsing the bill also means acknowledging the low expectations for real progress in Washington…As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues, rejecting the farm bill means rolling the dice that the next Congress will do a better job. In today’s environment, that’s a tough bet.

Why is the farm bill politically corrupt?

  • It is indeed “hideously complex,” so much so that nobody can possibly make intelligent decisions about very much of it.
  • It is so difficult to read (because it refers to previously legislation) that all kinds of things can get into it without being noticed or discussed.
  • It is mired in “pork,” things put into it by members of agriculture committees to please particular groups of constituents or lobbyists.
  • It is not about what’s best for the American people, farmers, or the poor; it is about what’s best for getting legislators elected.
  • It represents a substantial transfer of taxpayer dollars to the wealthiest “farmers” (i.e., agribusiness) at the expense of the poor and, therefore, legislates further income inequity.

I’m with the Washington Post on this one.  If the Senate passes it and the president signs it, it’s only because they’ve given up on trying to govern the country from some rational perspective.

Jan 30 2014

Supplement infographic: most users are healthy to begin with

I love this new graphic from the Council for Responsible Nutrition, the trade association for the dietary supplement industry.

My favorite: “Supplement consumers are more likely to engage in other healthy habits than non-consumers.”

This is delightfully ambiguous.  Does it mean: Supplements make consumers healthier?

Or does it mean: consumers who are healthy to begin with are the ones who take supplements?

I vote for the latter.  That’s why the great majority of studies of supplements and health show no effect.  Study subjects are already healthy and don’t need them.

The Dietary Supplement Consumer: The 5 W’s answered about the more than two-thirds of U.S. adults taking dietary supplements, according to the most recent annual survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs on behalf of the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN).�

 

 

Jan 29 2014

More on the politically corrupt farm bill, not yet passed

Brad Plumer, the WonkBlogger at the Washington Post did some homework on the farm bill based on cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

The grand total: $956.4 billion over 10 years.chart_1

Whether the total cuts (“savings”) from the previous bill amount to $16 billion (the CBO estimate) or $23 billion (the congressional estimate) depends on how they do the calculations, but all estimates agree that the big cuts over ten years come from three areas:

  • Farm programs: -$18.4 billion
  • Conservation: -$6.1 billion
  • SNAP: -$8 billion

ProPolitico Morning Agriculture points out that President Obama’s speech last night did not mention the farm bill.  Really, it’s too awful to talk about in public.

Jan 28 2014

A brief early comment on the (ugh) farm bill

It’s too soon for me to say much about the farm bill other than to express disgust for the entire process.

The House and Senate still have to vote on it, which leaves plenty more opportunity for last-minute amendments, the addition of even more pork, and even more welfare for the rich at the expense of the poor.

In the meantime, we have the

What can I say?  The farm bill is a mess—the worst example of the worst of food politics.

Every clause in those 949 pages exists as the result of special-interest lobbying.  Guess what: some special-interest groups have more money and power than others.

The result: an unattractive compromise.

If the bill is ever to pass, everyone has to compromise, but some groups have to compromise more than others.

How else to explain the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities’ statement that the SNAP cuts represent a reasonable compromise?

To be sure, the conference agreement does include $8.6 billion in SNAP cuts over the next decade. Yet it stands in sharp contrast to the nearly $40 billion in SNAP cuts in the House-passed bill of September, which contained an array of draconian provisions and would have thrown 3.8 million people off SNAP in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The conference agreement includes none of the draconian House provisions — and it removes virtually no low-income households from SNAP.

I am indebted to ProPoliticoAg for listing the winners: groups that want to retain Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL), the dairy manufacturers, organic producers (!), the U.S. catfish industry (USDA will inspect catfish, not FDA), and animal welfare groups (states can insist on standards),   The soybean and rice industries are also happy with the bill, as are groups that want more flexibility in food aid.

ProPoliticoAg’s losers:  meat packers and processors who wanted to get rid of COOL, dairy farmers who preferred a different program, the poultry industry (which will have to abide by state cage-size requirements), anti-hunger advocates (the SNAP cuts).

ProPoliticoAg also read the fine print (as I promise to do once the bill passes):

  • $20 million per year for emergency relief to producers of livestock, honey bees and farm raised fish (p. 131-132)
  • A USDA report on the federal standard for the identity of honey (p. 802)
  • A citrus disease subcommittee to advise on citrus research (p. 568-569)
  • A requirement for USDA to recognize feral swine risks (p. 890)
  • $2.25 million per year through 2019 for wool research and promotion (p. 928)
  • A go-ahead to create a Christmas tree promotion board and 15-cent tax on fresh-cut trees (p. 805).
Jan 27 2014

The fight over white potatoes in WIC

Once again, Congress—under pressure from lobbyists—is micromanaging USDA’s food assistance programs.

This time it’s the WIC program (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants, and Children).

The lobbying is coming from the National Potato Council, which wants—no surprise—white potatoes to be included the list of foods approved for purchase with WIC benefits (the “WIC Package”).

I love potatoes but they don’t need to be in WIC.

Here’s what this is about.

The WIC Food Package

This is designed to meet the special nutritional needs of at-risk low-income pregnant, breastfeeding, non-breastfeeding postpartum women, infants and children up to five years of age.  Rules published in the Federal Register in 2007 aimed to promote long-term breastfeeding by providing WIC participants with a wider variety of foods including fruits and vegetables and whole grains (see summary here).

Although the rules allow states considerable flexibility, they specifically exclude white potatoes.

The New York State WIC package, for example, allows any variety of fresh vegetables and fruits except white potatoes (sweet potatoes and yams are allowed).

These rules are the result of an Institute of Medicine study released in 2005.  This study found that WIC participants already ate plenty of white potatoes.  The report said it would be better for WIC to encourage consumption of a wider variety of vegetables.

Potato industry lobbying

For the last five years, the potato industry has been lobbying to include white potatoes in the WIC package.

Potato lobbyists are active these days.

For example, the Maine potato lobby succeeded in getting Congress to tell the USDA that it could not set any limits on the number of times per week that white potatoes could be served in school lunches.  That ploy worked and this one may work too.

The National Potato Council lobbyists induced Congress to add a clause to the 2014 omnibus appropriations bill.  When President Obama signed that bill on January 17, he directed the USDA to allow all varieties of fresh, whole, or cut vegetables to be included.  Translation: white potatoes, and French fries at that.

If the USDA fails to comply, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack must submit a report to Congress explaining why not.

The National Potato Council makes this statement: “This action sends a clear message to USDA that it is obligated to base its nutritional policy on the latest nutritional science, which calls for an increase in starchy vegetable consumption for all Americans, including WIC mothers and children.”

It does?  I’m not aware of such science.

The Institute of Medicine is currently reviewing the WIC package and I seriously doubt that it will find a deficiency of starchy vegetables in American diets.

This is about getting potato growers a chunk of taxpayer money spent for the WIC program.

Why should anyone care?

If Congress caves in on white potatoes, it will open a Pandora’s box of pressures from lobbyists representing every food product currently excluded from the WIC package.

If lobbyists for white potatoes succeed, can those for “fruit”-flavored cereals and sports drinks be far behind?

The WIC program has always focused on encouraging recipients to consume foods that will best promote their own health and that of their children.

It would be better for WIC recipients—and a lot better for American democracy—if the potato industry stopped manipulating Congress and interfering with USDA nutrition programs.

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