by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Oct 17 2012

The latest dismal report on world hunger

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has just released the latest iteration of its annual report on the State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012.

It’s bottom line estimate: 870 million people in the world are hungry, 852 million of them in developing countries.

The good news is that this figure represents a decline of 132 million people from 1990-92 to 2010-12, or from 18.6 percent to 12.5 percent of the world’s population.  In developing countries, the decline is from 23.2 percent to 14.9 percent.

The not-so-good news: Since 2007-2008, global progress in reducing hunger has slowed and leveled off, and hunger in Africa has gotten worse.

Much of the press attention to the report yawned at the major message but instead focused on errors in the previous estimates, which were higher.

the projections were wrong. They were calculated using figures from non-U.N. sources that were fed into the U.N.’s number-crunching model, because FAO was expected to quickly come up with an estimate of how many people might go hungry from the dual crises of high food prices and the global downturn

The UN bases its hunger projections on figures on population, food supply, food losses, dietary energy requirements, food distribution, and other factors.

The report contains other bad news.  While 870 million people remain hungry, the world confronts a double burden of malnutrition: 1.4 billion people are dealing with the consequences of overweight and obesity.

Focusing on the need to address world hunger Sir Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development, Imperial College, London writes in the Huffington Post:

as I set out in my latest book One billion hungry: can we feed the world?, I believe there is reason for optimism. Yes we can feed the world, but only if we accept that agricultural development is the best route to achieving sustainable economic growth in developing countries, and achieve an agriculture that is highly productive, stable, resilient and equitable.

Sounds like a good plan to me.  Let’s get busy.

Aug 17 2012

To ponder over the weekend: What to do about corn and biofuels

Think about this over the weekend.

Among the other consequences of the current drought—along with the ruin of this year’s corn crop—is a complicated political battle over who gets the corn.

The players:

  • Corn producers: Want high prices.  Don’t care whether meat or ethanol producers get the corn.  Note: Many own their own ethanol refineries.
  • Meat producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Do not want corn grown for ethanol.  Want the ethanol quota waived.
  • Ethanol producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Want to keep the quota.
  • International aid agencies: Want corn to be grown for food and feed, not fuel.  Want the ethanol quota waived.

The ethanol quota:

Three big industries—corn agribusiness, industrial meat, ethanol—plus international agencies have a stake in the U.S. corn crop.

How should the Obama administration handle this?

  • Waive the ethanol quota?
  • Keep the ethanol quota?
  • Do nothing?
  • Do something else?  If so, what?
Aug 8 2012

Question for today: how should we support mid-size dairy farms?

My “thought for a summer weekend” post elicited interesting comments.

Let’s start with the one from FarmerJane, a mid-size dairy farmer who is a frequent contributor.

She asks: How can farmers and consumers find ways to dialog and share information?

She says (and I’m doing some heavy editing here, with her permission):

Thoughts about ag are dominated by a few powerful big media writers.  When we farmers try to speak, we find ourselves excoriated….Rural America does not seem to have any sort of spokesperson who has access to national media.  The issues are framed by a handful of urban food-elite writing whose thoughts then trickle down to how rural farmers are perceived…I think the inclusion of farmers in food dialog would bring a multidisciplinary approach to the issue of food:  environment, ag economics, animal welfare, food systems to name a few. But what are the ways this could happen?

I feel that we, the average farmer of the middle are being marginalized.

I asked: What would you like to see done for farmers like you, neither CAFO, nor small.  She had several suggestions, which I summarize here mostly in my words (hers are in quotes):

Fix milk marketing orders and “end-product” pricing.  Right now, prices are paid to farmers according to the use of the milk.  From high prices to low: Class I (fluid milk), Class II (yogurt), Class III (cheese), Class IV(butter/powder).  If the push is to turn milk into yogurt, cheese, or butter, dairy farmers don’t get paid as much.

Encourage local production.  “The eastern half of the country is actually in “milk deficit” of about 3.2 billion pounds per month, while the western half is pushing the milk out like there is no tomorrow…Farmers in the western part of the country are calling for supply management to rein in some of this rapid growth, while we here in the east are generally opposed to it.”

Make pricing more transparent.  “Farmers don’t know instantly what dairy prices are (hopefully this will change as farmers have pushed hard on this issue to come out of the Stone Age).”

Cap supports on CAFOs.  “Some of the major NY CAFO’s got millions in terms of ‘corn subsidies’ in addition to dairy payments.”

Support mid-size dairy herds: The trigger point at which a farm becomes a CAFO in NY is only 200 cows.  Extension estimates that meeting CAFO requirements at this limit keeps farmers at 199 cows because the compliance cost is something like $162,000.

Reregionalize dairy processing: “meaning more processors in NY who can compete for the farmers’ milk….The more competition for milk the better, especially from a number of smaller processors that farmers and smaller coops can negotiate with.”

Deal with anti-competitive forces. Large dairies are engaged in market collusion and this hurts smaller dairies.  “ Massive retail level buyer consolidation is another issue… Walmart has the power to drive down farmer prices in all dairy categories… The more we can do to break the Walmart grip, the better off we all will be.”

Look at the trends.  “ I know that NY has gone from 30,000,000 acres of farmland when we were kids, to just 7,000,000 today.  There are some 3,000,000 acres of abandoned grazing farmlands Upstate, with empty barns as far as one can see in some areas.  And, I see an increasing number of huge CAFO’s with all-immigrant work forces who send every penny home, cows that never go outdoors, and emptied out Main Streets up here….I wonder how it could possibly make sense not to encourage farms of all kinds, especially making use of the grasslands that are close to NYC.”

Her overall question: “How does one move these questions into the public realm for intelligent discussion?

Senator Gillibrand has made it her business to understand dairy policies as they affect New York State.  For anyone who has ever tried to understand milk marketing orders, that’s an achievement (see below).

Responses?  Any good ideas for FarmerJane?

Jun 6 2012

What’s at stake in the farm bill?

Whoever at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) is doing the analysis and summaries of the farm bill deserves much praise for performing a major public service.

The Senate version of the bill under discussion right now is 1009 pages long and estimated to cost taxpayers $969 billion over the next ten years, of which nearly 80% goes for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps).

The NSAC account deals with the big issues: the lack of conservation requirements attached to taxpayer subsidies for crop insurance, the enormous complexity of the bill, and the lack of an overriding vision of what the farm bill should do. 

In one sense, the Senate bill reflects not so much a new farm policy as a new, confusing, and costly set of options targeted at different segments of commodity agriculture…the emerging bill is a bundle of contradictions with respect to subsidy caps and conservation requirements…. This results from, among other things, the complete lack of clearly identified policy goals.…All of this would be complicated enough by itself, but as the headlines and hearings of the past several weeks amply demonstrate, before this farm bill is finished, it will very likely get more complicated still.

As I have said repeatedly, the farm bill is a vast collection of specific programs aimed at specific constituencies, each with its own lobbyists and congressional supporters.  It is so big and covers so many issues that nobody in Congress can possibly be expected to understand more than a tiny fraction of what is involved.  Hence: lobbyists.

I will leave consideration of the big issues to the NSAC analysts, and just focus on a few very small ones that caught my eye as an example of the absurdity of conducting farm policy through this mechanism.  The current Senate proposal:

Adds popcorn to covered commodities: Only some crops are eligible for federal support.  These include wheat, corn, grain sorghum,barley, oats, long grain rice, medium grain rice,pulse crops, soybeans, other oilseeds, and peanuts.  Now: “The Secretary shall study the feasibility of including popcorn as a covered commodity by 2014.”

Specifies use of fortified foods in international food aid: “adjust products and formulations,including potential introduction of new fortificants and products, as necessary to cost ffectively meet nutrient needs of target populations, to test prototypes;to adopt new specifications or improve existing specifications for micronutrient fortified food aid products.”

Calls for a report on honey: “Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary, in consultation with affected stakeholders, shall submit to the Commissioner of Food and Drugs a report describing how an appropriate Federal standard for the identity of honey would promotes honesty and fair dealing and would be in the interest of consumers, the honey industry, and United States agriculture.

Removes Canada geese from within five miles of airports, especially JFK: “by the first subsequent molting period for Canada geese that occurs after the date of enactment of this Act, publish a management plan that provides for the removal, by not later than 1 year after the date of publication, of all Canada geese residing on the applicable land.”

On the brighter side, it also:

Expands farmers’ market promotion to include local food: “domestic farmers’ markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture programs, agritourism activities, and other direct producer-to-consumer market opportunities; and local and regional food enterprises that are not direct producer-to-consumer markets but process, distribute, aggregate, store,and market locally or regionally produced food products.”

NASC’s assessment:

that may be, as the saying goes, the best that can be accomplished under current circumstances.  If so, one would hope that if nothing else, it would spur a major re-evaluation and thorough overhaul between now and the next farm bill to create something that might begin to approximate a goal-driven, fairer, less costly, more rationale, less environmentally damaging, more economic opportunity-creating, and less market distorting approach then where it appears the current process will end up. 

Hey—we all can dream.

May 22 2012

Get your kids interested in farming: here’s how?

 

This appeared in my e-mail.  I tried to find out where it came from, but no luck.  Can anyone tell me its source?

Apr 16 2012

The exceedingly strange world of federal crop insurance subsidies

According to an account in last week’s New York Times, the federal government could save about $1 billion a year by reducing the subsidies it pays to large farmers to cover much of the cost of their crop insurance.  Crop insurance subsidies are expected to cost $39 billion from 2012 to 2016, or about $7.8 billion a year.

The Times based this statement on a new report from the Government Accountability Office.  This report explains that the billion-a-year savings would occur if the government applied the same limits to subsidies for crop insurance as it applies to other farm support programs.

The report raised the prospect of the government’s capping the amount that farmers receive at $40,000 a year, much as the government caps payments in other farm programs. Any move to limit the subsidy, however, is likely to be opposed by rural lawmakers, who say the program provides a safety net for agriculture.

Get this:

Under the federal crop insurance program, farmers can buy insurance policies that cover poor yields, declines in prices or both. The insurance is obtained through private companies, but the federal government pays about 62 percent of the premiums, plus administrative expenses.

And that’s not all.  The Environmental Working Group says many of the crop insurers are foreign companies.

Twenty insurance companies in Bermuda, Japan, Switzerland, Australia, Canada and the U.S. were paid $7.1 billion in U.S. taxpayer funds from 2007 to 2011 to sell American farmers crop insurance policies, an Environmental Working Group analysis shows. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Risk Management Agency paid these companies for administrative and operating expenses for the federally subsidized crop insurance program.

We talked about crop insurance subsidies in the class on the farm bill that I taught at NYU last fall.   My class thought all of us should immediately go into the crop insurance business.  The government pays most of the premiums and administrative expenses and also covers most of the risk.  This is a really good deal for Big Ag and the lucky few insurance companies.

You find this difficult to believe?  Take a look at two of the readings for the course:

Shields DA.  Federal crop insurance: background and issues.  Congressional Research Service, December 13, 2010.

Insurance policies are sold and completely serviced through 16 approved private insurance companies. Independent insurance agents are paid sales commissions by the companies. The insurance companies’ losses are reinsured by USDA, and their administrative and operating costs are reimbursed by the federal government.

Smith VH.  Premium payments: why crop insurance costs too much.  American Enterprise Institute, 2011.

Since 2007, government subsidies for crop insurance have averaged about $5.6 billion per year, representing over one-third of total expenditures on income transfers and other government payments for programs targeted directly to farmers.

However, about 58 percent of those expenditures have ended up in the hands of agricultural insurance companies and agricultural insurance agents.

In fact, since 2005, on average, the agricultural insurance industry has received $1.44 for every dollar farmers have received in crop insurance subsidies.

No wonder Big Ag wants crop insurance subsidies continued.

Will the 2012 farm bill fix this?  I’m not optimistic but will stay tuned.

Mar 16 2012

New books on farming, urban and not

Atina Diffley, Turn Here Sweet Corn: Organic Farming Works, University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

I blurbed this one, with much pleasure: “Turn Here Sweet Corn is an unexpected page-turner.  Atina Diffley’s compelling account of her life as a Minnesota organic farmer is deeply moving not only from a personal standpoint but also from the political.  Diffley reveals the evident difficulties of small-scale organic farming but is inspirational about its value to people and the planet.”  The book comes with an insert of glorious photographs illustrating the history she recounts.  The political?  The Diffley’s fought to keep an oil company from running a pipeline through their property—and won.

David Hanson and Edwin Marty, Breaking Through Concrete: Building an Urban Farm Revival, University of California Press, 2012.

Wonderfully photographed visits to a dozen urban farms all over America from Seattle (P-Patch) to Brooklyn’s own Annie Novak’s Eagle Street.  The authors asked hard questions and got honest answers.  This is a great resource for anyone who wants to get started, and the beautiful farms and farmers are well worth a look.

Jennifer Cockrall-King, Food and the City: Urban Agriculture and the New Food Revolution, Prometheus Books, 2012.

Cockrall-King went international.  She visited cities in the U.S., England, France, Canada, and Cuba to see what urban farmers were doing to create alternative food systems.  They are doing plenty.  This looks like a great excuse for ecotourism, dropping by, seeing for yourself, and getting to work.

Mar 14 2012

New books: the farm bill and farming

It’s spring and the books about food and farms are flooding in.  I’ll start with these.

Daniel Imhoff, Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill, Watershed Media, 2012.

Michael Pollan and Fred Kirschnmann introduce this new, gorgeously illustrated edition of Imhoff’s lucid explanation of the farm bill and the vast number of issues it covers.  I’m not aware of anything else that comes close to explaining this most obscure and obfuscated piece of legislation.   Congress is fussing with the bill right now.  If you want to understand what your elected officials are fussing about, start here.  I will use this book in my NYU classes and will borrow the stunning illustrations for talks.

Jim VanDerPol, Conversations with the Land, No Bull Press, 2012.

This is a book of personal reflections on farms, farming, and farmers.  VanDerPol talks about the weather, people and communities, and better ways to produce food and to live.  From his base in Minnesota, he gives his thoughts  about the way agriculture has changed and what can be done to make it better.

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