by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Jan 3 2012

Musing about organics leads me to the Farm Bill

Sales of organic foods continue to increase at a faster pace than sales of conventional foods.  This alone makes people suspicious of the organic enterprise.

Another reason is confusion about what organic production methods are, exactly.  If you are part of the food movement, you probably want your foods to be organic, local, seasonal, and sustainable.  You might also want them produced by farm workers who have decent wages and living conditions.

Unfortunately, these things do not necessarily go together.

  • Organic means crops grown without artificial pesticides, fertilizers, GMOs, irradiation, or sewage sludge, and animals raised without hormones or antibiotics.  Certified Organic methods follow specific rules established by USDA.
  • Local means foods grown or raised within a given radius that can range from a few to hundreds of miles (you have to ask).
  • Seasonal refers to food plants eaten when they are ripe (and not preserved or transported from where they were grown).
  • Sustainable means—at least by some definitions—that the nutrients removed from the soil by growing plants are replenished without artificial inputs.

That these are different is illustrated by a recent article in the New York Times about industrial organic production in Mexico.  The story makes it clear that organics do not have to be local, seasonal, sustainable, or produced by well paid workers.

While the original organic ideal was to eat only local, seasonal produce, shoppers who buy their organics at supermarkets, from Whole Foods to Walmart, expect to find tomatoes in December and are very sensitive to price. Both factors stoke the demand for imports.

Few areas in the United States can farm organic produce in the winter without resorting to energy-guzzling hothouses. In addition, American labor costs are high. Day laborers who come to pick tomatoes in this part of Baja make about $10 a day, nearly twice the local minimum wage. Tomato pickers in Florida may earn $80 a day in high season.

The cost issues are critical.  Dairy farms in general, and organic dairy farms in particular, are entirely dependent on the cost of feed for their animals, and the cost of organic feed has become almost prohibitively expensive.  This has caused organic dairy producers to cut back on production or go out of business.  As another New York Times article explains,

The main reason for the shortage is that the cost of organic grain and hay to feed cows has gone up sharply while the price that farmers receive for their milk has not.

While the shortage may be frustrating for consumers, it reveals a bitter truth for organic dairy farmers, who say they simply need to be paid more for their milk.

Why is the price of feed rising?  Simple answer: because 40% of feed corn grown in the United States is being used to produce biofuels.

Why do farmers grow corn for biofuels?  Because the government gives them tax credits and other subsidies to do so.

But in a small step in the right direction, the ethanol tax credit program was allowed to expire last week,”ending an era in which the federal government provided more than $20 billion in subsidies for use of the product.”

One person quoted in the article connected the dots:

Production of ethanol, with its use of pesticides and fertilizer and heavy industrial machinery, causes soil erosion and air and water pollution. And it means that less land is available for growing food, so food prices go up.

Organics do not exist in isolation.  Their production is connected to every other aspect of the food system.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a food system that promoted organic, local, seasonal, sustainable agriculture and paid farm workers a living wage?

Wouldn’t it be nice if the 2012 Farm Bill supported that kind of a food system if not instead of than at least along side of the one we have now?

I will be watching to see what Congress does with the Farm Bill.  Stay tuned.

Oct 28 2011

Surprise! Consumers don’t trust the meat industry

According to MeatingPlace, the Center for Food Integrity asked more than 2,000 respondents to rank a field of 8 possible priorities for the  meat industry.  The rankings of meat industry respondents were quite different from those of consumers.

Meat industry respondents ranked profitability as #2 and humane treatment of farm animals as #8.

In contrast, consumer respondents ranked profitability way down the list as #7 but humane treatment of farm animals as #4.

These disconnects, say industry observers, are serious and “feed an overall distrust of commercial ag operations.”  The survey report explains:

There is an inverse relationship between the perception of shared values and priorities for commercial farms. Consumers fear that commercial farms will put profit ahead of principle and therefore cut corners when it comes to other priority issues. As farms continue to change in size and scale we have to overcome that bias by  effectively demonstrating our commitment to the
values and priorities of consumers.

Maybe the message is getting out there?

Sep 23 2011

Weekend reading: food politics reports

The U.S. Public Interest Group (USPIRG) has a new report out on the effects of farm subsidies on obesity: Apples to Twinkies: Comparing Federal Subsidies of Fresh Produce and Junk Food.  If you want people to eat more fruits and vegetables and less junk food, fixing the subsidy patterns might be a good place to begin.

New England Complex Systems Institute (whatever that might be) has an interesting explanation of the recent rise in world food prices: The Food Crises: A Quantitative Model of Food Prices Including Speculators and Ethanol Conversion.
The authors’ explanation: commodity speculation and growing corn for ethanol fully account for the rise in prices.  The remedy seems obvious, no?

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has just funded a report on the soft drink industry from the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN), a project of Public Health Law & Policy (PHLP): Breaking Down the Chain: A Guide to the Soft Drink Industry.  This is about the industry itself, but also what it is doing to market its products here, there, and everywhere.  This is required reading for anyone interested in public health measures to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.

Sep 20 2011

The farm bill course at NYU

I’m teaching a graduate course on the farm bill at New York University this semester.   The class has about 45 students from diverse fields—food studies, nutrition, public health, public policy, environmental studies, law—all closely related to the subjects under discussion.

Discussions, to say the least, have been lively.

Photo by Hemi Weingarten, 9-19-11

I’ve had many requests for the course syllabus, which describes the goals and content, readings, assignments, and resources.  It is posted along with the syllabi from other courses I’ve taught recently on my NYU faculty website.   These are freely available for downloading.

Most of the readings are available online and you can find them easily if you search for them by title.

Download, share, use, and enjoy!

Sep 17 2011

Public relations in action: the food dialogues

Like many food advocates I know, I’ve been invited to participate in a “food dialogue” (I couldn’t because of previous commitments):

Americans have a lot of questions about how our food is raised. What is the impact on our health and the health of the planet? It seems there are more questions than answers. Join us on September 22 for The Food Dialogues — a new effort to bring together different viewpoints on agriculture.

We are inviting leaders in food, cooking, media and policy, farmers of all types and business leaders to be part of the discussion. Four panels in key locations around the country will discuss Americans’ biggest questions about farming and ranching from the cost of food to the environmental impact. Join us live or virtually.

The invitation comes from the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA).  This is

a newly formed alliance currently representing more than 50 of the top farmer- and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners. We are committed to working together to continuously improve how we raise food that provides healthy choices for people everywhere. We are an industry that has always looked at how to do things better, including how we listen to and answer Americans’ questions.

What is this all about?

I am grateful to Nancy Huehnergarth of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance for her explanation, “Let the Big Ag reframing begin.”  She points out that this is a professional marketing campaign Zocaló Group (Ketchum Public Relations) and that

any alliance that starts out with a $30 million budget means business and will be a force to be reckoned with. The USFRA’s goal, obviously, is to begin to reframe the debate about food production and agriculture in this country — a debate that up until now has been dominated by food and agricultural reformers.

Pay close attention to what this group says to divert attention from what Nancy summarizes as the “deplorable conditions, unnecessary subsidies and unsafe/unhealthy practices that have, sadly, become mainstream in our food and agricultural system.”

Update September 18: Here is SourceWatch.com’s take on USFRA.

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.

Aug 1 2011

Who says you can’t grow vegetables in New York City?

The Wall Street Journal says you can.  If a Murdoch paper says so, it must be true.  I’ve got ripe tomatoes on my terrace.  But here’s serious urban farming in the Bronx.  Is local food a fad?  I don’t think so.

Jun 15 2011

U.S. food politics in action

For an instant tutorial in U.S. food politics, take a look at this Washington Post map of where agricultural subsidies go.

Presidents have been trying to get rid of subsidies for decades, but they also want to be reelected.  Will Obama succeed where others have failed?  We shall soon see.

Page 4 of 11« First...23456...Last »