by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Aug 6 2010

International food politics: Save Russia’s fruit seed bank!

The Global Crop Diversity Trust is writing to warn readers about the impending destruction of Russia’s historic fruit-and-seed collection in order to make way for commercial development.  Its press release begins:

As the fate of Europe’s largest collection of fruit and berries hangs in the balance of a Russian court decision, the Global Crop Diversity Trust issued an urgent appeal for the Russian government to embrace its heroic tradition as protector of the world’s crop diversity and halt the planned destruction of an incredibly valuable crop collection near St. Petersburg.

Pavlovsk Experiment Station is the largest European field genebank for fruits and berries, and is part of the N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, where Russian scientists famously starved to death rather than eat the seeds under their protection during the 900-day siege of Leningrad during World War II.

At issue is an effort by residential real estate developers to build houses on land occupied by Pavlovsk Station. The take-over would involve bulldozing Pavlovsk’s field collections amassed over the last century—collections that contain thousands of varieties of apples, strawberries, cherries, raspberries, currants and other crops—90 percent of which are not found anywhere else in the world.

Want to know more?  Read the Vavilov Research Institute’s discussion of the history and significance of this collection, its press release, and articles about this situation from the Independent and New Scientist.

Change.org is encouraging people to write to the president of Russia to save the collection. Want to add your signature?  Here’ s how.

Aug 3 2010

I’m shocked, shocked. Cattlemen misuse checkoff funds.

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which got $51 million in checkoff funds last year, is improperly allowing some of this money to be spent on lobbying activities, according to William Neuman in today’s New York Times.

Checkoff programs are administered by the USDA.  They tax commodity producers to fund generic marketing campaigns (think: Milk Mustache).  As I explained in my book, Food Politics:

Although the check-off legislation specifically prohibits use of the funds for lobbying, the distinction between promoting a product to consumers as opposed to promoting it to lawmakers can be subtle. Some of the boards are so closely affiliated with lobbying groups that they share office space.

For many years, the Cattlemen’s Beef Promotion and Research Board (check-off organization) shared an address with the National Cattleman’s Association (trade association lobbying group), and the National Pork Board (check-off) shared offices, staff, and telephone services with the National Pork Producers Council (lobbying).

Even cozier, the legislation specifies that a certain percentage of the funds must be allocated to the commodity groups responsible for nominating the board members who run the programs; these members are officially appointed by USDA.

Check-off funds are supposed to be used for research as well as advertising, but only a small fraction is used for that purpose. In the mid-1990s, 8% of the beef check-off’s $80 million or so went to research, and the rest for promotion and “information;” research percentages for dairy, egg, potato, and soybean checkoff programs were slightly higher.

Regardless of level, nearly all of the research is designed to promote the commodity. Beef check-off research is designed to “dispel negative perceptions about beef,” and to develop a factual basis for viewing beef products as “part of a varied, convenient, and healthful diet”….The great majority of the funds are spent to convince consumers to choose one type of food product over another.

The Meat and Beef Boards, for example, design campaigns to build demand for red meats and meat products; encourage consumers to view beef as wholesome, versatile, and lower in cholesterol; and educate doctors, nurses, dietitians, teachers, and the media about the nutritional benefits of beef.

Checkoff programs reek of conflicts of interest.  What makes this particular audit so interesting is that it was done by an outside accounting firm.  Usually, these things are done internally and remain private.  Chalk one up for this administration’s attempt to be transparent.

Jul 30 2010

Want to get active on farm policy? Here’s a start.

I’ve been sent a press release from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis to announce the creation of its new Healthy Food Action website.

The website, says IATP:

makes it simple for health professionals—nurses, dieticians, physicians, public health workers, social workers and others—to engage in major public policy debates that affect our food system. It provides both vital information and easy-to-use tools to contact legislators, government officials and companies.

“Will make it simple” seems more like it.  At the moment, the site seems to be devoted exclusively to the issue of arsenic in poultry feed.  Eventually, it promises to take on other issues such as antibiotics in food animals and the Farm Bill.

Ah yes, the Farm Bill.  It’s none to early to get started on the next one.  Sites like this could help once they get into full swing.


The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy works locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems.

Jul 10 2010

“Silent raids” demonstrate need for a better immigration policy

Today’s New York Times reports:

The Obama administration has replaced immigration raids at factories and farms with a quieter enforcement strategy: sending federal agents to scour companies’ records for illegal immigrant workers. ..the “silent raids,” as employers call the audits, usually result in the workers being fired, but in many cases they are not deported.

What does this have to do with food politics?

Employers say the Obama administration is leaving them short of labor for some low-wage work, conducting silent raids but offering no new legal immigrant laborers in occupations, like farm work, that Americans continue to shun despite the recession. Federal labor officials estimate that more than 60 percent of farm workers in the United States are illegal immigrants.

In my visit to Alaskan seafood processing plants this summer, I saw cannery workers imported from the Philippines or Eastern Europe to work 16 hours a day, 6 or 7 days a week, for the minimum wage or close to it.

Residents of one remote cannery town said they all worked in canneries as teenagers for good wages.  But when the large cannery moved into town, it reduced wages, increased hours, halved the amount paid to fishermen, and imported the Philippine workers.  The canneries, they said, made it clear that they did not want locals working in the plants.

The result: near-poverty life for community residents and near-slavery conditions for the imported workers.

Our immigration system needs a fix to allow workers to come and go without fear of random arrests, firings, or deportations.  Farm working conditions need a fix.  Reexamining the minimum wage might be a good starting point.

Your thoughts?

Jun 30 2010

National Academies issues report on agricultural sustainability

The National Academies have just released Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century. You can read it online, one page at a time.  Otherwise, you have to come up with the $76.50 it costs in print (electronic versions are somewhat cheaper).

Sustainability, it says, has four goals:

  • Satisfy human food, feed, and fiber needs, and contribute to biofuel needs.
  • Enhance environmental quality and the resource base.
  • Sustain the economic viability of agriculture.
  • Enhance the quality of life for farmers, farm workers, and society as a whole.

To get there, the report proposes “two parallel and overlapping efforts:”

The incremental approach would be directed toward improving the sustainable performance of all farms, irrespective of size or farming system type….

The transformative approach would apply a systems perspective to agricultural research to identify and understand the significance of the linkages between farming components and how their interconnectedness and interactions with the environment make systems robust and resilient over time.

The report’s main conclusion:

If U.S. agricultural production is to meet the challenge of maintaining long-term adequacy of food, fiber, feed, and biofuels under scarce or declining resources and under challenges posed by climate change…agricultural production will have to substantially accelerate progress toward the four sustainability goals.

Take that, industrial agriculture!

May 29 2010

USDA’s latest collection of relevant reports

The USDA does terrific research on many useful topics.  Here is a sample of some just in.

STATE FACT SHEETS:  data on population, per-capita income, earnings per job, poverty rates, employment, unemployment, farm characteristics, farm financial characteristics, top agricultural and export commodities.

WIC PROGRAM: research, publications, and data related to WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). WIC served 9.1 million participants per month at a cost of $6.5 billion in 2009.

FEED GRAINS DATABASE: statistics on domestic corn, grain sorghum, barley, and oats; foreign grains plus rye, millet, and mixed grains. You can also get historical information through custom queries.

LIVESTOCK, DAIRY, AND POULTRY OUTLOOK:  current and forecast production, price, and trade statistics.

AGRICULTURAL OUTLOOK STATISTICAL INDICATORS: commodity and food prices, general economic indicators, government program expenditures, farm income estimates, and trade and export statistics.

ASPARAGUS STATISTICS: acreage, yield, production, price, crop value, and per capita use; also world area, production, and trade.

FOODBORNE ILLNESS COST CALCULATOR:   the cost of illness from specific foodborne pathogens, depending on the  annual number of cases, distribution of cases by severity,  use or costs of medical care, amount or value of time lost from work,  costs of premature death, and disutility costs for nonfatal cases.

ORGANIC FARMERS: explains why use of organic practices in U.S. lags behind other countries, differences and similarities between organic and conventional farmers, reduced consumer demand resulting from the weaker U.S. economy,  and potential competition from the “locally grown” label.

LOCAL FOOD SYSTEMS: defines local food,  market size and reach,  characteristics of local consumers and producers, and  economic and health impacts.  Addresses whether localization reduces energy use or greenhouse gas emissions (inconclusive).

BIOFUELS: Reaches 88 million gallons in 2010 as a result of one plant becoming commercially operational in 2010, using fat to produce diesel. Challenges include reducing high costs and overcoming the constraints of ethanol’s current 10-percent blending limit with gasoline.

Thanks to USDA for producing data that policy wonks like me just love to cite.

May 20 2010

What is a small farm? Can it survive?

Many of us have been heartened to learn that the number of small farms in the U.S. is increasing for the first time in a century.  The latest Census of Agriculture reports more small farms in 2007 than in 2002.

But the USDA, which tracks such things in reports such as the recent Small Farms in the United States: Persistence Under Pressure, offers a less optimistic message.

According to the authors of that report, defining a small farm is not so easy to do.   As they explain:

USDA defines a small farm as an operation with gross cash farm income under $250,000. Within that group are commercial and noncommercial farms. The number of small commercial farms – with sales of $10,000 to $250,000 – actually fell between 2002 and 2007….

In fact, all of the growth occurred among farms under $1,000 in sales…Most of these operations are better described as rural residences; the households on these farms – and on many other small farms – rely heavily on off-farm income.

Although most (91%) of U.S. farms are small, farms earning $250,000 and above account for 85 percent of the market value of agricultural production.

I’m surprised by these figures and wonder whether the USDA data capture the young farmers I keep hearing about who are producing for farmers’ markets and CSAs.  The ones I meet tell me they are making a living.  If so, I hope that means they are doing better than $1000 per year.  If not, we need the USDA to work with them to make sure they do.  Small farms grow food, not feed.  We need more of them.

May 15 2010

Lobbying and farm subsidies

It’s hard for mere mortals to track the extent of food lobbying and its effects on, for example, farm subsidies.

Thanks to the Yale Rudd Center for setting up a lobbying data base where you can track who spends money on what.  It is searchable by year, issue, and sponsor.

And thanks to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) for setting up a data base for tracking farm subsidies.  This, as I mentioned in an earlier post, linked subsidies to specific farms in specific locations.  Uh oh.  EWG can’t do that any more.  According to EWG:

Our 2007 database used previously unavailable records to uncover nearly 500,000 individuals who had never been identified as farm subsidy recipients. Many had been shielded by their involvement in byzantine mazes of co-ops and corporate entity shell games. For example, the database revealed that Florida real estate developer Maurice Wilder, reportedly worth $500 million, was pulling in almost $1 million a year in farm subsidies for corn farms he owns in several states.

Unfortunately for our 2010 update, the data that provided such a revelatory account of just who receives the billions paid out in the maze of federal farm subsidy programs is no longer available to us.

Why not?

That’s because Congress changed the wording of the 1614 provision in the 2008 farm bill from USDA “shall” release such data to USDA “may” release such data. USDA has since decided not to release the information. According to USDA officials, the database can cost as much as $6.7 million to produce, and Congress did not appropriate money to compile the database.

This, says EWG, makes the Obama administration less forthcoming than the Bush administration.  Amazing, the effects of one word change on EWG’s – and our – ability to see why farm subsidies are so corrupt.

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