by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Nov 28 2016

Small farms: the new math

My former student, Michael Bulger sends interesting tidbits.  This one is an article on 538 by Maggie Koerth-Baker how the USDA’s ways of measuring farm size and number obscure the (a) the increasingly rapid consolidation of large farms and (b) the fact that many small farms aren’t farms at all.

From 2001 to 2011, the number of very large farms — 2,000 acres or more — grew from 1.7 percent of all farms to 2.2 percent. In other words, a relative handful of big farms are getting even bigger, even though the amount of land being farmed stayed about the same.

From 1982 to 2012, the number of very small farms grew from about 637,000 farms of 49 acres or less to more than 800,000.

Big farms and tiny farms are increasing; the ones in the middle are declining.

A lot of this has to do with the definition of a farm as “any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the reference year.”

$1,000 isn’t much, and this makes it difficult to tell real farms from big backyards.

But changing the definition to up the cut point has consequences.

  • Votes for the Farm Bill: Large farms don’t need government aid; if there are fewer small farms it might be harder to pass the bill.
  • States might lose federal revenues.
  • Land-grant colleges might lose research revenues.

As I keep saying, agricultural policy is hard for mere mortals to understand (but I keep trying).

 

 

Nov 18 2016

Weekend reading: USDA’s analysis of decline in mid-size farms

The USDA has a report out on midsize farms, those with gross cash farm income of $350,000 to $1 million.

The reason for the report is that the number of midsize farms declined by 5% from 1992 to 2012.

How worried should we be about this?  Of the 125,000 midsize farms, the great majority grow grain and oilseeds—animal feed.

USDA finds:

  • The loss in midsize farms is higher among beginning farmers, retired farmers, and renters.
  • Government subsidies helped stave off losses.
  • If past patterns hold, a significant percentage (15%?) of today’s midsize farms will be tomorrow’s large farms.

I can’t wait to see how the next farm bill handles this one.

Nov 15 2016

Trump’s Agriculture Policy?

I never believe any promises made by candidates during election campaigns because once in office they do whatever they please.

But yesterday’s Politico Morning Agriculture obtained a leaked copy of pre-election Talking Points prepared for Trump’s Advisory Committee on Agriculture and Rural Issues, which hints at the team’s thinking (you have to read between the lines).

My favorites:

  • 7.  The Trump-Pence Secretary of Agriculture will defend American Agriculture against its critics, particularly those who have never grown or produced anything beyond a backyard tomato plant.
  • 9. …The next EPA Administrator should be an individual that fully understands ad embraces the complexity of agriculture and rural issues.
  • 10.  …agriculture will NOT be regulated based upon the latest trend on social media.

Speculation is fun (or maybe not in this instance).  We have no choice but to wait and see.  Stay tuned.

 

Oct 21 2016

Weekend reading: a how-to for sustainable food systems

Darryl Benjamin and Lyndon Virkler.  Farm to Table: The Essential Guide to Sustainable Food Systems for Students, Professionals, and Consumers.  Chelsea Green, 2016.

 

Sep 16 2016

Weekend reading: Conservation Heroes of the Heartland

Miriam Horn.  Rancher, Farmer Fisherman: Conservation Heroes of the American Heartland.  WW Norton, 2016.

Actually, this book should be titled “Rancher, Farmer, Riverman, Shrimper, Fisherman: Conservation of Life around the Mississippi River.” It consists of deep interviews with one person in each category who is working hard to protect some part of the environment.

My favorite is the shrimper, the truly remarkable woman who is devoting her life to saving the livelihoods of the people engaged in Louisiana’s highly endangered—by hurricanes, floods, oil spills, and regulators—shrimp-fishing industry.

Each of the people highlighted in this book is doing something for conservation, not always in the ways you and I might choose.  As Miriam Horn explains in her introduction,

Which is not to say they have found the perfect way to fish or farm; they would be the first to acknowledge that there is no such ideal.  Rather, their heroism lied in the depth of their commitment to consider the largest implications of what they do, across geographic and generational lines; to forever listen more intently, weight each choice for the impact it will have on their neighbors and all of life, challenge themselves to do better as they understand more and the world changes around them.

Jun 29 2016

Brexit: What it means for the food and drink industries

What Britain’s exit from the European Union (“Brexit”) means for food and agriculture is worth attention.

As The Guardian put it,

It is no coincidence that food and drink is at the heart of so much of the debate about whether we are better off in or out of the EU. Worth £80bn a year and employing 400,000 people, it is our largest manufacturing sector and a big exporter and importer. Moreover, 38% of its workers are foreign-born, placing its demand for cheap labour at the centre of arguments about immigration.

The common agriculture policy (CAP) swallows up nearly 40% of the total EU budget…Britain produces just more than half what it consumes and depends on Europe to provide more than a quarter of the rest, while the EU’s population of more than 500 million people provides the UK’s most significant export market for food.

Agrimoney, a London-based concern that reports on commodity markets began its report on Brexit’s impact with these words:

Oh dear.

Tim Lang, professor at City University London’s Centre for Food Policy, told Food Navigator:

People will pay more for food. The British people have voted to raise the food prices…Where do they think their food comes from? Planet Zog?

Bakery & Snacks is especially interested in the meaning of Brexit for the food and drink industries.

It produced a Special Edition highlighting its articles on the topic.

The UK’s decision to leave the European Union goes against the wishes of 71% of the UK food & drink industry, according to a poll by the Food and Drink Federation. William Reed Business Media publications assess the impact for individual sectors such as snacks, confectionery, dairy, bakery and feed as well as food ingredients suppliers. What will Brexit mean for the food, feed and drink industries?

And here is one more.

It’s obvious from reading all this that the effects of the Brexit decision are largely unknown. not easy to predict, but unlikely to be good.  The follow-up will be interesting to watch.

Fingers crossed that the fallout won’t be as bad as predicted.

Additions

  • Bee Wilson’s eloquent elegy for the benefits of European Union food for British palates in the New Yorker
  • Tim Lang’s expanded and referenced discussion in The Guardian
Jun 7 2016

World Resources Institute report

The World Resources Institute has a new paper out: Shifting Diets for a Sustainable Food Future.

This is the most recent item in its series: World Resources Report: Creating a Sustainable Food Future.

The paper is about how food choices affect land, water and climate change.  It provides further evidence that eating less meat and dairy would be more sustainable.

Resources:

May 26 2016

Those top-secret trade agreements: leaked TTIP documents

A couple of years ago, I wrote a long post attempting to explain the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade agreement under negotiation since then with the European Union.  Like all trade agreements, this one is done secretly, making it difficult for interested parties to weigh in.

But Greenpeace Netherlands has now leaked what it says are the texts of 13 chapters of the TTIP.  These include 248 pages of internal documents dating from TTIP talks at some uncertain date.  These include chapters about food and agriculture, as well as many other issues.

The documents include a 25-page “Tactical State of Play” on the negotiations similar to a 20-page public EU report, but with more detail on points of disagreement and consensus.

Greenpeace claims that the documents demonstrate major risks for the climate, environment and consumer safety.  The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative strongly disagrees, and European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malström says the leaked documents only reflect negotiating positions.

I took a look at the leaked Chapter X Agriculture [US: Market Access].  The European Union proposes, for example:

  • [On public health and safety] The Parties recognize that their respective societal choices may differ with respect to public policy decisions affecting agriculture. In this regard, nothing in this Agreement will restrain the Parties from taking measures necessary to achieve legitimate policy objectives such as the protection of public health, safety, environment or public morals, social or consumer protection, or the promotion and protection of cultural diversity that each side deems appropriate.
  • [On sustainability] The Parties recall the prominent role of sustainability in its economic, social and environmental dimensions in agriculture and aim at developing a fruitful cooperation and dialogue on agricultural sustainability issues. To this end, the Parties shall work together to…exchange ideas and share experience in developing sustainable farming practices, particularly with regards to organic farming, and environmentally friendly rural development programs.
  • [On geographical indicators] The Parties shall cooperate in matters related to geographical indications…The Parties reaffirm the importance of origin-linked products and geographical indications for sustainable agriculture and rural development, and in particular for small and medium-sized enterprises.

On international agricultural development, the United States proposes

The Parties shall work to promote international agricultural development and enhanced global food security by: (a) promoting robust global markets for food products and agricultural inputs; (b) seeking to avoid unwarranted trade measures that increase global food prices or exacerbate price volatility, in particular through avoiding the use of export taxes, export prohibitions or export restrictions on agricultural goods; and (c) encouraging and supporting research and education to develop innovative new agricultural products and strategies that address global challenges related to the production of abundant, safe and affordable food, feed, fiber, and energy.

You have to read between the lines to figure out what they are really talking about (GMOs in the case of this last one).

Politico Pro’s analysis suggests that several issues remain unresolved:

  • The link between agriculture and car parts: we take European car parts and they take our agricultural exports.
  • Protection of wine names. The EU does not want us to use European names for our wines; Washington does.
  • The EU’s October proposal to cut back on antibiotic use in livestock is not in these documents.
  • The sanitary and phytosanitary chapter (the one that deals with food safety) finds little agreement on use of animal growth hormones or GMOs.
  • GMOs: The US wants the EU to accept them. The US language says “Each Party shall endeavor to meet applicable timelines for all steps in its approval or authorization processes for products of modern agricultural technology.”

Perhaps in response, the EU has now released its own version of the agriculture chapter, and  the European Commission has released all of its working documents related to the TTIP, including draft proposals on agriculture and other matters.

The European Commission also released a report on the state of the negotiations.  Several points are unsettled.  The EU, for example:

  • Indicated it does not support a US proposal on modern agricultural technologies.
  • Insisted on the importance of animal welfare provisions in trade agreements and the relevance of the matter for SPS [Sanitary and Phytosanitary issues, such as food safety].
  • Stressed the importance of joint efforts to fight AMR [antimicrobial resistance] at all levels in all fora and argued for the inclusion of AMR in the SPS Chapter.

On our part, the U.S. goals for agricultural trade are

  • Eliminate tariffs and quotas
  • Address SPS measures and technical barriers to trade (TBT).

More than two dozen Senators urged U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to ensure there is “a strong framework” for agriculture in the TTIP, warning that its absence could have a negative impact on Congressional support for any deal.

As long as the negotiations continue in secret, all of this will remain mysterious and out of the reach of the public.  This makes trade negotiations inherently undemocratic, something Greenpeace attempted to reverse in releasing the leaked documents.

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