by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

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.

Feb 23 2012

Never mind food: let’s Aginvest!

As a keen observer of the Occupy Big Food movement (sign up for social media day of action February 27), I hardly know what to make of an invitation I received yesterday to an upcoming conference  on “aginvestment.”

Aginvestment?  This is a new word in my vocabulary but I guess it means forget food: agriculture is the hot new investment opportunity.

I’ve edited out the details, but here’s the invitation, just as sent:

As you are aware, the trend of investing in agriculture has already started. I can foresee that more and more farmers will become rich and agricultural commodity prices will continue to rise in the long-term. I think ag will be a great place for the next 10-20 years.

I invite you to join me this year…where I will present my views on ag investing and be on-hand throughout the day to answer attendee questions. This conference is a reflection of the real money at work in the space, as well as the increased interest from new allocators.

With investments in agriculture expected to increase up to 5% in institutional portfolios in the next five years, the trailblazing investment experts at this conference will help define the future and how to capitalize on that growth. I have said it before that the power is shifting from the financial centers to the producers of real goods. The place to be is in commodities, raw materials, natural resources, and the place to learn about it is here …

And you thought farming was about growing food?

Follow-up February 24: I received a message apologizing for the previous message.

On February 22, you may have received an email…the marketing and promotional information expressed in that message were issued without [the writer’s] full consent or knowledge.

Oh dear.

Feb 14 2012

The Prince’s Speech—On the Future of Food—is now a book

I’ve just received my copy of the book based on the speech given by Prince Charles at a conference I attended in Washington DC a few months ago.

The tiny, 46-page book (published by Rodale and available online and at your local Indie) reprints the speech along with color photographs and a foreword by Wendell Berry and Afterword by Eric Schlosser.

Grist asked me some questions about it.

What sticks out to you most in this speech/book? What surprised you? What do you most hope the reader comes away with?

I attended the meeting at which Prince Charles spoke and was impressed at the time by his broad overview and understanding of the problems inherent in industrial food and the implications of those problems.  He described himself as a farmer, which was not exactly how I had imagined him.  It’s impressive that someone of his stature cares about these issues and is willing to go on record promoting a healthier food system.

Most Americans are probably not aware that Prince Charles is an organic farmer and long-term advocate of sustainable food. What do you think the ultimate value of hearing such an urgent message about the need to change our food system from him? In other words: Do you think it will have more weight/reach coming from him than say Michael Pollan or Alice Waters?

Americans in general love royalty.  Whether food movement participants care about royalty is a different matter.  I can’t imagine anyone in America having more weight than Michael Pollan and Alice Waters but it’s great to have Michelle Obama and now the Prince on our side.

On a related note, the food movement has been working to free itself of the “elitist” charges for years? How do you think inviting one of the true elite (i.e. he grew up in a working castle!) to speak about these issues impacts the discussion.

I don’t know anyone in the food movement who isn’t actively concerned and working hard to make healthy food available to everyone, rich and poor alike.  I see the food movement as an important player in efforts to reduce income inequities.  People will care whether the Prince has anything to say about this or not depending on their feelings about celebrities in general and royalty in particular.

In the book, Prince Charles says “farmers are better off using intensive methods and where consumers who would prefer to buy sustainably produced food are unable to do so because of the price. There are many producers and consumers who want to do the right thing but, as things stand, “doing the right thing” is penalized.” What, in your opinion, would it take to reverse this predicament?

This is a matter of public policy.  Our agricultural support system rewards big, intensive, and commodities like corn and soybeans.  It barely acknowledges small, sustainable, and “specialty” (translation: fruits and vegetables).  Policy is a matter of political will and can be changed.

Prince Charles also suggests that it’s time to “re-assess what has become a fundamental aspect of our entire economic model…Because we cannot possibly maintain the approach in the long-term if we continue to consume our planet as rapaciously as we are doing. Capitalism depends upon capital, but our capital ultimately depends upon the health of Nature’s capital. Whether we like it or not, the two are in fact inseparable.” What role do you think can food play in “re-assessing this economic model?

Food is such a good way to introduce people to every one of these concepts: capitalism, depletion of natural resources, and climate change, for that matter.  At NYU, we explain what food studies is about by saying that food is a lens through which to view, analyze, and work to improve the most important problems facing societies today.  I can hardly think of a social problem that is not linked to food in some way.  That’s what makes it fun to teach.  It’s also what makes the food movement so important.

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.

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