Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Mar 27 2017

Our prospective USDA Secretary, Sonny Perdue

I’m traveling and having a hard time keeping up with all the input on Sonny Perdue, the nominee for USDA secretary who doesn’t seem to be encountering much trouble from Congress.

Here’s what I’ve collected so far.

The New York Times summarizes Perdue’s ethics problems while governor of Georgia.  He held onto four farming operations and at least 13 ethics complaints were filed against him.

The Environmental Working Group says its investigations reveal that from 2003 to 2010, Perdue:

  • Refused to put his businesses in a blind trust.
  • Signed state tax legislation that gave him a $100,000 tax break on a land deal.
  • Received gifts from lobbyists after signing a sweeping order to ban such gifts.
  • Filled state agencies and boards with business partners and political donors.
  • Allocated state funds to projects that benefited companies he created after his time in office.
  • Took joy rides in state helicopters.

And from 1996 to 2004, Perdue received more than $278,000 in federal farm subsidies.

Civil Eats and MapLight say that Perdue does not like regulations: 

Emails obtained by MapLight suggest Perdue was more preoccupied by the potential for government regulation than the possibility of more sick children.

Here’s the paperwork he submitted for his congressional hearing.

Politico, which has been covering the nomination process closely, says that in Perdue’s congressional hearing,

Perdue “pledged that he would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Trump administration’s top trade negotiators to ensure that U.S. agriculture, which is extremely reliant on exports, doesn’t get shortchanged by trade shakeups or any of the new bilateral deals the president wants to pursue. He committed to fighting to protect key rural and farm programs from the administration’s proposed budget cuts and to working to make sure farmers have an adequate supply of foreign workers to harvest their crops despite the administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants,” the Pro Ag team added. Perdue also said he’s “absolutely committed” to addressing the struggles of America’s dairy farmers ahead of the 2018 farm bill.

Politico also commented on what Perdue said during his hearing:

“Agriculture is in my heart, and I look forward to fighting for the producers of America,” Perdue told the committee. “I will absolutely be an advocate and a fighter, where necessary.”

Perdue, who wore a tie with tractors on it and often drew on his experience of being raised on a farm in Georgia, pledged that he would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Trump administration’s top trade negotiators to ensure that U.S. agriculture, which is extremely reliant on exports, doesn’t get shortchanged by trade shakeups or any of the new bilateral deals the president wants to pursue. He committed to fighting to protect key rural and farm programs from the administration’s proposed budget cuts and to working to make sure farmers have an adequate supply of foreign workers to harvest their crops despite the administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

Politico also summarized some of the coverage

  • Democrats in Georgia are hoping Democratic senators on Capitol Hill will bring up Perdue’s controversial role in a debate over state use of the Confederate battle flag. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution has it here.
  • WSJ has focused on Perdue’s record on anti-poverty policies and what it could mean for food stamps here.
  • Cosmopolitan (yes, Cosmopolitan) has rounded up 10 things to know about Perdue here.

Everyone expects his appointment to go through.

Addition: I somehow missed Ian Kullgren’s analysis in Politico a couple of weeks ago.  Worth a read

Mar 24 2017

Weekend reading: Supersizing Urban America

Chin Jou.  Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food with Government Help. University of Chicago Press, 2017.

Image result for supersizing urban america

I first read this book in manuscript form and have been its biggest fan ever since.  It’s terrific that it is now out and can—and should—be read by everyone.

I was delighted to do a back-cover blurb for it:

This page-turner of a book tells a virtually unknown story.  Federal policies to assist small businesses deliberately introduced fast-food outlets into low-income minority areas to the benefit of franchise owners but promoting widespread obesity in these communities.  For anyone interested in the role of government policy in food, health, and race relations, Supersizing Urban America is a must-read.

I met Chin Jou last year when I was at the University of Sydney, where she now teaches.  They are so lucky to have her there.  This is first-rate work–a model of how to make historical research totally relevant to today’s food issues.

Mar 23 2017

Two U.N. Rapporteurs take on pesticides

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, and the Special Rapporteur on Toxics, Baskut Tuncak, have issued a report on pesticides as a human rights issue.

They

Told the Human Rights Council in Geneva that widely divergent standards of production, use and protection from hazardous pesticides in different countries are creating double standards, which are having a serious impact on human rights…The Special Rapporteurs pointed to research showing that pesticides were responsible for an estimated 200,000 acute poisoning deaths each year. The overwhelming number of fatalities, some 99%, occurred in developing countries where health, safety and environmental regulations were weaker.

The site says the full report is available here, but I could not access it from that site and requested it.  It is here).

In the meantime, The Lancet has an editorial about it: “Phasing out harmful use of pesticides.”

The UN rapporteurs are damning about the “aggressive, unethical marketing tactics” of the pesticides industry and the money spent on influencing policy makers and disputing scientific evidence. They call for a new global treaty to regulate and phase out the use of hazardous pesticides in farming. Such an international pact would be a welcome addition to efforts towards a more sustainable future but it will take time to form, especially considering the likelihood of industry opposition to it. More immediately, much more can be done nationally to strengthen existing weak regulations on the use and safety of these chemicals to protect the health of populations and the environments that they depend on.

Let’s hope these statements bring this issue to public attention—again.  We need another Rachel Carson!

Mar 22 2017

Blueprint for a National Food Strategy

Food policy clinics at the Harvard and Vermont law schools have issued a new report—interactive no less.

The report argues that

our food system often works at cross-purposes, providing abundance while creating inefficiencies, and imposing unnecessary burdens on our economy, environment, and overall health. Many federal policies, laws, and regulations guide and structure our food system. However, these laws are fragmented and sometimes inconsistent, hindering food system improvements. To promote a healthy, economically viable, equitable, and resilient food system, the United States needs a coordinated federal approach to food and agricultural law and policy – that is, a national food strategy.

The strategy needs to focus on :

  • Coordination: Create a lead office and an interagency working group, and engage local governments.
  • Participation: Create an advisory council, develop methods for participation, feedback, and response.
  • Transparency and accountability: Create a strategy document,  publish progress reports.
  • Durability: Ensure updating, implement procedures.

Yes, it’s wonky, but if you download the pdf you get to weigh in on all this.

Mar 21 2017

The proposed organic “checkoff:” an analysis

The New Food Economy’s Weekly Dish has a riveting piece about the debates over a proposal for an organic “checkoff” program.

Checkoffs are USDA-sponsored generic marketing and research programs for specific commodities.  They raise money from fees based on sales (the “checkoff”) that can be used for advertising campaigns such as the the dairy checkoff’s “milk mustache” or the pork checkoff’s “other white meat.”

Joe Fassler writes:

The proposed organic checkoff, technically termed the Generic Research and Promotion Order for Organic (GRO Organic), is unusual for many reasons, but the most unprecedented thing is this: rather than advocating for one single commodity, the program would represent a huge and diverse class of goods. …That means not just organic apple farmers and organic pple snack-peddlers, but organic cotton producers and organic chocolatiers, as well as organic winemakers from Napa and importers of organic white grapes from Chile. …Taken together, the fees are estimated to generate anywhere from $25 to $40 million a year for the industry to spend on advertising, consumer education, and research.

There’s just one problem. Many organic farmers feel the checkoff is a bad idea….while checkoff programs tax an entire industry, they don’t benefit all stakeholders equally. The organic program will have to overcome a stigma that plagues checkoffs generally: they serve the most powerful players, the processors and middlemen, at the expense of small producers. Checkoffs, simply, have a lot of baggage.

What that baggage is takes up most of the article.

If you want to understand checkoffs in general and the peculiarities of the organic one in particular, this is the place to begin.

Mar 20 2017

The President’s Budget: What Does it Mean for Food Politics?

The President announced his budget last week.

I’ve been asked to comment on what it means for food programs.

My quick and dirty answer: small-minded and mean-spirited.

The document lacks crucial details essential for interpretation, so you can only guess.

For USDA, for example, the document says the 21% cut in its budget:

  • Fully funds the Food Safety and Inspection Service.
  • Provides $6.2 billion for WIC (that’s a few hundred million below what it gets now)
  • Provides $350 million for USDA’s competitive research program(that’s about what it got in 2016)
  • Reduces USDA”s statistical capabilities (it doesn’t say by how much)
  • Eliminates the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education program.  This program is tiny—$200 million in 2016–but it reaches more than 2 million people.  Will cutting McGovern-Dole make America great again?  Hard to imagine.

It cuts FDA’s department but says nothing about FDA’s food or food safety programs.

One problem is that you have to know how to read these things.  For example:

  • The budget eliminates or sharply reduces Meals on Wheels, the program for senior citizens.  This is because it eliminates the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s $3 billion Community Development Block Grant program.  Why get rid of it?  They say because it’s not proven to work—but it does.
  • The National Institutes of Health will lose $6 billion.

The cuts are in programs that can be cut, the smaller and most vulnerable.  Hence: small-minded, mean-spirited.

Urge your representatives to resist!

Addition, March 21

Do not miss John Oliver’s analysis of this budget

Mar 17 2017

Weekend reading: Andy Smith’s latest encyclopedia, “Food in America”

Smith, Andrew F. Food in America: The Past, Present and Future of Food, Farming and the Family Meal. 3 vols. [Volume 1: Food and the Environment; Volume 2: Food and Health and Nutrition; Volume 3: Food and the Economy]. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2017.

Image result for food in america smith abc-clio

The prolific and ever astonishing Andy Smith has done something breathtaking: produced a three-volume encyclopedia on the environmental, health, and economic implications of food–which he wrote in its entirety.

This is classic Andy Smith: well written, well referenced, highly accurate, and covering an enormous territory.  He introduces each volume with an historical chapter and ends them with invaluable appendices giving chronological timelines and providing landmark documents.  These last are wonderful to have in one place, although finding them is a challenge (there is no list at the front).

The work that must have gone into this is beyond comprehension.  I’ve done timelines myself and have some idea of the amount of research needed to produce one.  But he’s got three covering at least 200 years and in one case starting with the Ice Age.

If you collect food encyclopedias, as I do, you will want this one.

Here’s what’s in it:

VOLUME 1: FOOD AND THE ENVIRONMENT
Introduction 1
History 5
Controversies: Going Forward 81
Climate Change 83
Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) 100
Fertilizer 114
Fish and Shellfish 126
Food Waste 143
Locavores 157
Organic 168
Pesticides 178
Sustainable Food 193
Water 205
Landmark Documents 219
Chronology of Landmark Events 345
Sources of Further Information 351
Index 361

VOLUME 2: FOOD AND HEALTH AND NUTRITION
Introduction 1
History 5
Controversies: Going Forward 77
Antibiotics 79
Diet 94
Food Additives 107
Food Insecurity 118
Food Labeling 129
Foodborne Illness 145
Obesity 159
Salt 173
Soda 184
Sugar 199
Landmark Documents 213
Chronology of Landmark Events 339
Sources of Further Information 347
Index 355
VOLUME 3: FOOD AND THE ECONOMY
Introduction 1
History 5
Controversies: Going Forward 83
Advertising and Marketing 85
Aquaculture 100
Fast Food 112
Food Corporations 126
Genetically Modified Food 141
Globalization 159
Industrial Farming 171
Labor 181
Meat 195
Megagrocery Chains 207
Landmark Documents 217
Chronology of Landmark Events 331
Sources of Further Information 339
Index 347

 

Mar 16 2017

Does Monsanto collude with EPA to cast doubt on the carcinogenicity of Roundup?

Yesterday’s New York Times reports about how the agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto is trying to cast doubt on evidence that its herbicide Roundup (glyphosate) is carcinogenic or otherwise harmful to human health.

The Times based its analysis on documents unsealed by a federal court in a case in which people are claiming that glyphosate caused them to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) determined a couple of years ago.

The documents indicate collusion between EPA officials and Monsanto over the IARC finding:

Court records show that Monsanto was tipped off to the determination by a deputy division director at the E.P.A., Jess Rowland, months beforehand. That led the company to prepare a public relations assault on the finding well in advance of its publication. Monsanto executives, in their internal email traffic, also said Mr. Rowland had promised to beat back an effort by the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct its own review.

The documents confirm previous disclosures of Monsanto’s attempts to manipulate academic research.

The disclosures are the latest to raise concerns about the integrity of academic research financed by agrochemical companies. Last year, a review by The New York Times showed how the industry can manipulate academic research or misstate findings. Declarations of interest included in a Monsanto-financed paper on glyphosate that appeared in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology said panel members were recruited by a consulting firm. Email traffic made public shows that Monsanto officials discussed and debated scientists who should be considered, and shaped the project.

The Times article does not link to the actual documents, but these are posted on the Website of US Right to Know.

They make interesting reading.  Here, for example, is a quote from the first document, Jess Rowland unsealed, (page 4, lines 19-24):

Monsanto has made it clear throughout this litigation that it intends to rely on EPA’s conclusions in the defense of this case, particularly in this first phase of general causation. Based on these documents alone, it is clear that Monsanto enjoyed considerable influence within the EPA’s OPP, and was close with Mr. Rowland, who promised to try to “kill” the glyphosate issue for them; coincidentally, a report authored chiefly by him was “accidentally leaked” just at the time of his planned retirement.

Posted on

Court documents:

Jess Rowland documents unsealed (115 pages) (3.14.17)
— Documents unsealed (227 pages) (3.14.17)
— Judge Vince Chhabria’s ruling to unseal documents (3.13.17)
Plaintiffs Reply In Support of Motion to Compel Deposition of Jess Rowland (see especially Marion Copley letter on p. 11) (2.27.17)

Reporting & analysis:

Unsealed Documents Raise Questions on Monsanto Weed Killer, by Danny Hakim (New York Times) (3.15.17)
— Court Documents Reveal Ghostwritten Studies, Questions On Monsanto Weed Killer’s Safety, by Katrina Pascual (Tech Times) (3.15.17)
EPA Official Accused of Helping Monsanto “Kill” Cancer Study, by Joel Rosenblatt, Lydia Mulvany and Peter Waldman (Bloomberg) (3.14.17)
Monsanto Accused of Ghostwriting Papers on Roundup Cancer Risk, by Joel Rosenblatt (Bloomberg) (3.14.17)
Plaintiffs in U.S. Lawsuit Say Monsanto Ghostwrote Roundup Studies, by Brendan Pierson (Reuters) (3.14.17)
— Judge Threatens to Sanction Monsanto for Secrecy in Roundup Cancer Litigation, by Carey Gillam (Huffington Post/USRTK)) (3.10.17)
Monsanto Cancer Suits Turn to EPA Deputy’s “Suspicious” Role, by Joel Rosenblatt (Bloomberg) (2.27.17)
Questions Raised About EPA-Monsanto Collusion Raised in Cancer Lawsuits, by Carey Gillam (Huffington Post/USRTK) (2.13.17)
Monsanto, EPA Seek to Keep Talks About Glyphosate Cancer Review a Secret, by Carey Gillam (Huffington Post/USRTK) (1.18.17)

Other related documents and articles:

Glyphosate: discorde à l’agence de protection de l’environnement américaine, by Stéphane Foucart (Le Monde) (3.14.17)
Summary of ORD comments on OPP’s glyphosate cancer assessment (12.14.15)

Addition: The New York Times reports that a European Chemical agency says Roundup is not carcinogenic.

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