Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
May 29 2013

Keeping track of the farm bill: 194 amendments so far, just in the Senate

Congress is in recess this week so nothing new is happening on the farm bill.

I’m indebted to Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the Hagstrom Report and follows farm bill issues closely, for publishing a list of amendments filed to date on the Senate draft of the bill.  Would you believe 194?

Of these, the Senate has managed to deal with a few.

The Senate passed:

  • Cantwell amendment to allow Indian tribes to participate in certain soil and water conservation programs. (#919)
  • Sessions amendment to clarify eligibility criteria for agricultural irrigation assistance. (#945, as modified) by unanimous consent.
  • Franken amendment to provide access to grocery delivery for homebound seniors and individuals with disabilities eligible for supplemental nutrition assistance benefits. (#992) by unanimous consent.
  • Vitter amendment to end food stamp eligibility for convicted violent rapists, pedophiles, and murderers. (#1056) by unanimous consent. 
It rejected:
  • Shaheen amendment to reform the federal sugar program, and for other purposes. (#925)
  • Gillibrand amendment to strike a reduction in the supplemental nutrition assistance program, with an offset that limits crop insurance reimbursements to providers. (#931)
  • Roberts amendment to improve and extend certain nutrition programs. (#948)
  • Inhofe amendment to repeal the nutrition entitlement programs and establish a nutrition assistance block grant program. (#960)
  • Sanders amendment to permit states to require that any food, beverage, or other edible product offered for sale have a label on indicating that the food, beverage, or other edible product contains a genetically engineered ingredient. (#965) by a vote of 71 to 27.

Attempts to eliminate cuts to SNAP failed (sigh) but so did an attempt to leave food stamps up to states (cheers).  This means SNAP will have at least a $4 billion cut over 10 years—the best that can be hoped for at this point.

The Senate rejected  GM labeling.

Reform the sugar program?  Don’t be silly.  At some point, I’ll have more to say about that one.

As for the next 190 or so….  And as for what the House will do….

It would be great drama if it weren’t so sad and so much weren’t at stake. 

May 28 2013

It’s summer reading time, at last

I’m going to try to get caught up with some reading recommendations this week, starting with this lovely one:

Marcy, Nikiko, and David Mas Masumoto.  The Perfect Peach: Stories and Recipes from the Masumoto Family Farm.  Ten Speed Press, 2013.

The Perfect Peach: Recipes and Stories from the Masumoto Family Farm

I was asked to blurb this book and did so right away (who could possibly say no to Mas Masumoto?):

I have one word for the writing, photography, essays, and topic of this book: luscious.  The Masumoto family has produced a glorious paean to the fruit they raise along with delightful ideas about what to do with an abundance of this heavenly fruit: sangria, salsa, pizza, and, of course, shortcake.  I can’t wait for summer.

May 24 2013

Weekend viewing: A food politics story for kids—Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory

I’ve been waiting for the weekend to write about the kids’ story by Bettina Elias Siegel, the school food advocate who writes The Lunch Tray blog  (and who put “pink slime” on the map).

Her video story—in rhyme yet—is titled Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory: A Tale of Processed Food and is worth the 12 minutes it takes to watch it (try it out on your kids!).

I wondered about the back story: how did she come to write it, who did the illustrations, how did she put it together?    Fortunately, Dana Woldow, also a long time food advocate, has just posted an interview with Ms. Siegel on just those points (the interview starts about half way down the post).  Ms. Siegel says:

If kids could see more clearly how the processed food, fast food and soda industries are earning profits at the expense of their health, I do think they might grow resistant to those industries’ marketing tactics. That was the idea behind Mr. Zee and his apples.

The interview explains the details of how the story got written, illustrated, and posted.

Ms. Woldow’s column concludes:

Of course, not everyone has the equipment, the confidence, or the patience to make their own video, but anyone can use social media. Watch Bettina’s video (with your children, if you have any), and if you like it, share it with your friends. It won’t undo all the marketing that Big Food does to kids, but it’s a start.

Try it out on your kids.  What do they think of it?

May 23 2013

Kathleen Merrigan on agriculture’s political problems

The Farm Journal reports on a speech given by Kathleen Merrigan, who recently stepped down as USDA Deputy Secretary, to  Crop Life’s 2013 National Policy Conference.     

Why did she step down?  “Because it’s a hard job.”

Her speech dealt with problems faced by agriculture in today’s political climate.  She listed ten.  These begin with (1) immigration, (2) tax reform, and (3) food safety.

Number 9 was GMO labeling:

Merrigan described this as a sort of “whack-a-mole” problem. USDA and FDA haven’t allowed organic producers to put “non-GMO” on labels, but support is growing in some states, such as Washington, to require labeling. She says people want a verdict and she doesn’t expect the issue to go away. 

I don’t either.

May 22 2013

Civics lesson: SNAP amendments to the farm bill

I know the mere words “farm bill” are enough to put any sane person into a coma, but what’s happening in Congress can be quite entertaining if you don’t care what happens.

For example, the bill is so big and covers so much territory that just about every legislator introduces amendments (these are tracked by FarmBillPrimer.org).

Because SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) takes up 80% of farm bill funding to the tune of about $80 billion a year, lots of amendments deal with further decreasing the budget allocation or restoring amounts that have been cut.  So far, none of these has passed.

But legislators have other things they want SNAP to do.  For example, Senator Tom Coburn MD (Rep-Oklahoma) has introduced several amendments pertaining to SNAP, among them:

Amendment 1000 - Junk Food Purchases with SNAP: Requires the Secretary of Agriculture to approve state demonstration projects that limit the purchase of junk food under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Additional information here

 

Energy drinks, candy bars, sodas, ice cream, potato chips, fancy bakery cakes and cookies are all eligible foods under the program, as defined by statute…Few people would qualify these goods as “nutritional assistance.”

Amendment 1001 - Food Stamps: Returns the title of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to its original name, the Food Stamp program. Additional information here.   

Congress renamed the Food Stamp Program to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and made a name change to the underlying legislative bill governing food stamps. Given spending patterns and eligible purchases in the program, though, SNAP is anything but nutritious for recipients or the country as a whole. Instead of misleading the public as to its benefits, SNAP should be renamed its original title, the Food Stamp Program. This name…is also a reminder of the core goal of the program: to serve our nation’s most vulnerable.

Amendment 1002 - SNAP Promotion Limitation: Limits the amount of SNAP funding that may be used to promote increased participation and enrollment in the program to 1% of overall funds and prevents SNAP funding for soap operas and parties. Additional information here.

Giveaways, soap operas, and radio miniseries all may be solid advertising opportunities for private companies wishing to market a product. They are not, however, appropriate uses of taxpayer funds to advocate for greater enrollment in SNAP, which would even further drain the government’s already-depleted coffers.

 Want to take bets on whether the Senate, let alone the House, will pass any of these?
May 21 2013

FoodNavigator-USA’s enlightening interview: the industry POV on GMOs

I just read Elaine Watson’s lengthy interview on FoodNavigator-USA with Cathy Enright, the executive vice president for food and agriculture at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)—the trade organization for producers of GMO foods.

If you have any doubts about why the agbiotech industry has failed “to win hearts and minds about the merits of genetically engineered ingredients,” read this interview.

Ms. Enright’s comments are remarkable for their tone-deafness to the issues that so trouble ordinary people about GMO foods.

Here, for example, are few selected quotes from the interview:

  • Consumers are not worried about biotechnology in other areas of their lives…Take human insulin [injected by millions of diabetics every day], which is genetically engineered, or some cancer drugs. But when it comes to food, people are making emotional not factual arguments.
  • The food industry has let the debate be hijacked by a small group of well-organized and media-savvy advocacy groups with connections to the natural and organic industry, which has a vested interest in this debate.
  • There has been a sophisticated and coordinated attempt to create a sense of alarm about foods we have been consuming safely for decades.
  • We have a climate in the US now that is incredibly unfriendly to food biotechnology. Yet we need to dramatically increase the protein supply if we are going to feed everyone by 2050.
  • If the anti-biotech lobby gets its way, these new products (plus a host of others…) will be rejected by consumers before they even get to market.
  • We are not saying that people don’t have the right to know what’s in their food, but mandatory GMO labeling ‘prominently displayed’, as is proposed, is not informing people, it’s scaring people.  It’s saying these foods are different, unhealthy or unsafe, and that is just not true.

One more time:  Whether or not GMO foods are the same as other foods, healthy, or safe, there are plenty of reasons for concerns about them, many of them quite rational.  The most obvious is transparency.  It’s time BIO recognized that it will never win the hearts and mind of the public until it labels GMO foods as such.

The sooner the industry does that, the sooner  the conversation about the merits of GMO foods can begin.

May 20 2013

What I’m reading about the farm bill: sarcastic, sober, troubling

The best recent analysis of what’s happening with the farm bill comes from Tom Laskawy on Grist.

For one thing, it has a great title: “Undead farm bill: Everyone’s favorite legislative zombie shuffles on.”

For another, it makes a troubling point: if Congress fails to pass a farm bill, the good parts go out with the bad.

Actually, the question really is whether Congress will ever pass a farm bill again. For the first time, those close to the legislative process are starting to have their doubts. And that may be a really bad thing.

Bah, humbug, you say! The farm bill is larded with bipartisan subsidies for the largest-scale farmers who grow commodities like corn, soy, and cotton. It’s also the bill that authorizes the federal crop insurance program, which has grown like gangbusters over the last decade. Last year (thanks to the drought) farmers received over $17 billion in insurance payouts — almost all of which benefited large-scale commodity agriculture. A chicken pox on all their coops!

That not an unreasonable reaction. But also at stake in the farm bill are billions of dollars for conservation programs that help farmers mitigate the environmental effects of their work, and pay them to set aside marginal farmland as wildlife habitat. It also contains millions in federal funds that support organic farmers, help younger and “new” farmers get their start, and prop up local food efforts, organic research, and farmers markets.

What’s good in the current farm bill draft?  The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance (which represents growers of fruits, vegetables, nuts) summarizes:

  • Specialty Crop Block Grants funded at $72.5 million in fiscal 2014-2017 and $85 million in FY2018
  • Specialty Crop Research Initiative funded at $50 million in FY2014-15; $55 million in FY 2016-2017; and $65 million in FY2018
  • Coordinated Plant Management Program funded at $62.5 million in FY2014-2017 and $75 million in FY2018
  • Market Access Program and Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program fully funded at 2008 Farm Bill levels
  • Section 32 specialty crop purchases at 2008 levels
  • DoD Fresh program fully funded at $50 million per year consistent with 2008 Farm Bill levels
Dan Flynn of Food Safety News compares the amount of time spent on the farm bill to the Korean War and explains the meaning of its  proposal to transfer “non-inspection” of catfish from USDA to FDA.

Here are the bills:

This is all so disheartening.  Eternal optimist that I am, even I am having trouble with this one.

May 17 2013

How to recognize industry groups in disguise

Michele Simon and the Center for Food Safety have just come out with a new report: Best Public Relations Money Can Buy: A Guide to Food Industry Front Groups.

 This report explains how how Big Food and Big Ag promote their agendas through organizations with consumer-friendly names such as the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, the Center for Consumer Freedom, and the Alliance to Feed the Future.

The report is guide to recognizing such groups for what they really are.

It’s great to have it.

Addition: Here’s Michele Simon’s discussion of her new report.

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