by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

Nov 18 2015

Food Policy Action releases 2015 Congressional scorecard

I went yesterday to the press conference for the release of the Food Policy Action 2015 Scorecard.










This was outdoors at Campos Community Garden in Manhattan’s East Village, attended by classes of schoolkids.  The speakers:

Food Policy Action aims to improve national discussions of food policy issues by informing the public about how elected officials vote on these issues.  Hence: the Scorecard.

As I discussed last year, points are awarded for votes on bills introduced or co-sponsored that deal with:

  • Domestic and international hunger
  • Food safety
  • Food access
  • Farm subsidies
  • Animal welfare
  • Food and farm labor
  • Nutrition
  • Food additives
  • Food transparency
  • Local and regional food production
  • The environmental effects of food production

In the Senate, for example, there were just 5 bills to be voted on an 10 that were co-sponsored (but not voted on).  In the House, there were votes on 10 bills and 12 that were co-sponsored (no vote).  This leaves lots of room for improvement, even among the best.

The speakers explained to the kids that the Scorecard gave grades to members of Congress, just like they get, and took them through a discussion of thumbs up and thumbs down appraisals of legislators’ votes on key food issues.  Congress is doing a little better this year than last, they said, but still has a long way to go.

Those of us in New York are lucky.  Both of our Senators, Kirsten Gillbrand and Charles Schumer scored 100.

Here are my reports on the Scorecards from 2013 and 2014.  The Scorecard is a great first step in holding legislators accountable.

Nov 12 2015

Candidate Cruz and sugar policy

I”m feeling wonky this morning and can’t resist commenting on Senator Ted Cruz’s remarks about the US sugar program.

According to BuzzFeed,

while railing against “corporate welfare,” Cruz singled out subsidies for the sugar industry — a policy Rubio has consistently, and controversially, supported despite objections by free-market critics.

“Sugar farmers farm under roughly 0.2% of the farmland in America, and yet they give 40% of the lobbying money,” Cruz said in the debate. “That sort of corporate welfare is why we’re bankrupting our kids, and grandkids.”

Chase Purdy of Politico quoted Cruz as saying “I would end those subsidies to pay for defending this nation.”

Only that’s not how the sugar program works. Subsidies for U.S. sugar producers are provided by consumers, through artificially high prices, rather than by the government. Rather than direct subsidies, the sugar program involves limiting import and supporting prices, leading to U.S. sugar prices that are higher than sugar on the global market.

Politico also investigated “40% of the lobbying money.”

Forty percent of what? It’s not clear. But it’s hard to imagine any way to get there. Total spending on lobbying was $3.24 billion last year, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. Agribusiness spent $127.5 million, or about 4 percent. The sugar cane and sugar beets industry? $9.6 million, or 0.3 percent.

I love writing about our arcane sugar policies, which do indeed involve quotas and tariffs, but not subsidies.  The USDA explains sugar policies on its website.  The important ones:

Sugarcane growers have their own explanation of how the system protects them.

And because politics makes strange bedfellows, the Heritage Foundation’s explains how US sugar policies gouge US consumers, costing us more money than sugar consumers anywhere else.

From a public health standpoint, higher prices for cane and beet sugar aren’t all that bad if they encourage people to consume less.

But on a per person basis, the increased cost isn’t all that much: on the order of $10 per capita per year.

This explains the lack of public opposition to the policies.  They are hard to notice at the grocery store.

It also explains why  food companies prefer using high fructose corn syrup.  It’s cheaper.  Corn production, after all, does get subsidies for crop insurance.  But then, we use corn to make ethanol.

Aren’t ag policies fun?  No wonder candidates don’t understand them.

Feb 5 2014

The 2014 Farm Bill: Reactions from relief to aghast

Jerry Hagstrom, who writes the daily Hagstrom report on agriculture matters, explains why the farm bill passed.   After 3 or 4 years of fuss, practically everyone thought it was the best they could do:

Critics on the right and the left say that such an outpouring of endorsements shows that the farm bill is filled with government spending, but it also shows the importance of the farm bill—and the activities of the Agriculture Department—in every corner of the country. [The farm bill] provides purchasing power and food for low-income people in cities and it allows for the inspection of meat, poultry, and eggs. It also pays for financing electricity, telephones, and the Internet in rural America.

The bottom line: it could have been a lot worse.

The New York Times scores the winners and losers.  The big winner?  The insurance industry.

Unlike the food stamp program, the federally subsidized crop insurance program was not cut. The program, which is administered by 18 companies that are paid $1.4 billion annually by the government to sell policies to farmers, pays 62 percent of farmers’ premiums.

Enthusiasm for the bill depends on what it gives to whom.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack says, grudgingly:

Building on the historic economic gains in rural America over the past 5 years, this bill will accomplish those goals while achieving meaningful reform and billions of dollars in savings for the taxpayer. While no legislation is perfect, this bill is a strong investment in American agriculture and supports the continued global leadership of our farmers and ranchers.

Former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman, now with the Bipartisan Policy Center, looks at the bright side:

While this is not a perfect bill, its passage was critical for our nation’s agriculture infrastructure. I’m glad to see the bill will allow low-income Americans to double their SNAP benefits at farmers markets, which will help tens of thousands of people eat more nutritious foods. However, I believe there is still a fundamental disconnect between the nation’s farm policies and critical issues of public health and nutrition.

Wholesome Wave is pleased with the bill’s support (comparatively small as it is) for fruits and vegetables:

While we are reluctant to support this legislation because of the disheartening cuts to SNAP, the bill does include funding for many critical programs that will enhance access to affordable, local food and drive revenue to local and regional farmers. Specifically, there is mandatory funding for nutrition incentives at $20 million per year, for five years, as well as increased funding for the Farmers Market and Local Food Promotion Program, Community Food Projects, Specialty Crop Block Grants, the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program, Beginning Farmers and the Healthy Food Financing Initiative.

The Organic Farming Research Foundation calls the bill “a victory for organic farming:”

The Farm Bill restores long overdue support for organic agriculture including significant funding increases for the Organic Extension and Research Initiative (OREI), the National Organic Certification Cost Share Program (NOCCSP), the National Organic Program (NOP) and the Organic Data Initiative (ODI). Despite significant shortcomings in the commodity, conservation and crop insurance titles of the proposal, the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) is celebrating the victories for organic agriculture found in the bill and urging the president to sign it.

The Fair Food Network’s Oran Hesterman says:

While no Farm Bill is perfect, this bill continues support for critical programs and advances innovations that will support small and mid-scale farmers and help more low-income families access healthy and affordable foods in their communities…Specifically, the Farm Bill includes $100 million to support the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, a new national healthy produce program modeled after successful efforts such as Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks.

But, New York City Coalition Against Hunger Executive Director Joel Berg says:

I am devastated, but unfortunately not surprised, by the Senate’s passage of a Farm Bill cutting SNAP by nearly $9 billion, on top of $11 billion in cuts that took place last November 1st. Our political system is so broken it has morphed into spineless versus heartless, and low-income Americans are, once again, those who will suffer most…It’s an orgy of corporate welfare and subsidies for the wealthy paid for by cuts to programs that help the needy put food on the table. It is Robin Hood in reverse.

I’ll end with Senator John McCain (Rep-AZ), whose analysis of the specifics is worth a look:

Mr. President, how are we supposed to restore the American people’s confidence with this monstrosity? Just a few weeks ago we crammed down their throats a $1.1 trillion Omnibus Appropriations Bill loaded with wasteful spending. Tomorrow we’ll wash the Omnibus down with another trillion dollars. The only policy that gets bipartisan traction in Congress is Washington’s desire to hand out taxpayer money like its [sic] candy.

Will the President sign this bill?  He says he will, on Friday.

Feb 4 2014

The dairy programs in the farm bill: A helpful analysis?

Thanks to the Hagstrom Report for sending along analyses of the dairy programs in the farm bill.

I’m not a dairy farmer and I’ve never had to work with these programs, which is a good thing because I find them impenetrable.  

For one thing, support for dairy farmers—and protection against disastrous cost and price fluctuations—is accomplished through several extraordinarily complicated programs that survive or are newly enacted in this farm bill.  

  • The permanent Dairy Price Support Program from the 1949 farm bill.
  • The Dairy Forward Pricing Program
  • The Dairy Indemnity Program
  • Export market development in the National Dairy Promotion and Research Program
  • The Margin Protection Program for Dairy Producers (MPP)
  • The Dairy Product Donation Program (DPDP)
  • Federal Milk Marketing Order for California

Why impenetrable?  Try this explanation (from the first document listed below) of the new Margin Protection Program:

A voluntary program that pays participating farmers an indemnity when a national benchmark for milk income over feed costs (the actual dairy production margin or ADPM) falls below an insured level that can vary over a $4 per cwt range.

That document explains the two new programs, MPP and DPDP, in great detail, with charts and formulas.  For them, I have to take the authors’ conclusions on faith:

The two new programs (MPP and DPDP) offer a total revamping of the safety nets that have been in place for the dairy sector going back to the middle of the 20th Century…Whether the programs proposed here will prove to be the answer farmers seek is something that will be debated and estimated, but we won’t really know unless and until they are tried.

Dairy farmer readers:  Will these new programs make your lives easier?  More secure?  Bring you more income?

Here are the analyses:




Jan 31 2014

Yes, the farm bill is politically corrupt. Veto it!

I’ve been hearing from readers challenging my disgusted comments about the politics of the farm bill.

The bill is so awful that the Washington Post says it deserves a veto:

Tipping the financial scales at $956 billion over 10 years, or just over $1 billion per page, the hideously complex bill is supposedly a compromise that reforms crop subsidy programs…what the bill takes from the ag lobby with one hand, it largely gives back with the other…the bill cuts $8.5 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the poor…attached to so much corporate welfare, it’s hard to swallow, especially when that corporate welfare isn’t rigorously means-tested.

The New York Times doesn’t go that far.  It supports the bill, but grudgingly: “The farm bill could have been worse:”

On balance, the bill is clearly worthy of support, particularly because it will prevent austerity fanatics in future Congresses from gutting food stamps for the next five years….But endorsing the bill also means acknowledging the low expectations for real progress in Washington…As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues, rejecting the farm bill means rolling the dice that the next Congress will do a better job. In today’s environment, that’s a tough bet.

Why is the farm bill politically corrupt?

  • It is indeed “hideously complex,” so much so that nobody can possibly make intelligent decisions about very much of it.
  • It is so difficult to read (because it refers to previously legislation) that all kinds of things can get into it without being noticed or discussed.
  • It is mired in “pork,” things put into it by members of agriculture committees to please particular groups of constituents or lobbyists.
  • It is not about what’s best for the American people, farmers, or the poor; it is about what’s best for getting legislators elected.
  • It represents a substantial transfer of taxpayer dollars to the wealthiest “farmers” (i.e., agribusiness) at the expense of the poor and, therefore, legislates further income inequity.

I’m with the Washington Post on this one.  If the Senate passes it and the president signs it, it’s only because they’ve given up on trying to govern the country from some rational perspective.

Jan 29 2014

More on the politically corrupt farm bill, not yet passed

Brad Plumer, the WonkBlogger at the Washington Post did some homework on the farm bill based on cost estimates from the Congressional Budget Office.

The grand total: $956.4 billion over 10 years.chart_1

Whether the total cuts (“savings”) from the previous bill amount to $16 billion (the CBO estimate) or $23 billion (the congressional estimate) depends on how they do the calculations, but all estimates agree that the big cuts over ten years come from three areas:

  • Farm programs: -$18.4 billion
  • Conservation: -$6.1 billion
  • SNAP: -$8 billion

ProPolitico Morning Agriculture points out that President Obama’s speech last night did not mention the farm bill.  Really, it’s too awful to talk about in public.

Jan 28 2014

A brief early comment on the (ugh) farm bill

It’s too soon for me to say much about the farm bill other than to express disgust for the entire process.

The House and Senate still have to vote on it, which leaves plenty more opportunity for last-minute amendments, the addition of even more pork, and even more welfare for the rich at the expense of the poor.

In the meantime, we have the

What can I say?  The farm bill is a mess—the worst example of the worst of food politics.

Every clause in those 949 pages exists as the result of special-interest lobbying.  Guess what: some special-interest groups have more money and power than others.

The result: an unattractive compromise.

If the bill is ever to pass, everyone has to compromise, but some groups have to compromise more than others.

How else to explain the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities’ statement that the SNAP cuts represent a reasonable compromise?

To be sure, the conference agreement does include $8.6 billion in SNAP cuts over the next decade. Yet it stands in sharp contrast to the nearly $40 billion in SNAP cuts in the House-passed bill of September, which contained an array of draconian provisions and would have thrown 3.8 million people off SNAP in 2014, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The conference agreement includes none of the draconian House provisions — and it removes virtually no low-income households from SNAP.

I am indebted to ProPoliticoAg for listing the winners: groups that want to retain Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL), the dairy manufacturers, organic producers (!), the U.S. catfish industry (USDA will inspect catfish, not FDA), and animal welfare groups (states can insist on standards),   The soybean and rice industries are also happy with the bill, as are groups that want more flexibility in food aid.

ProPoliticoAg’s losers:  meat packers and processors who wanted to get rid of COOL, dairy farmers who preferred a different program, the poultry industry (which will have to abide by state cage-size requirements), anti-hunger advocates (the SNAP cuts).

ProPoliticoAg also read the fine print (as I promise to do once the bill passes):

  • $20 million per year for emergency relief to producers of livestock, honey bees and farm raised fish (p. 131-132)
  • A USDA report on the federal standard for the identity of honey (p. 802)
  • A citrus disease subcommittee to advise on citrus research (p. 568-569)
  • A requirement for USDA to recognize feral swine risks (p. 890)
  • $2.25 million per year through 2019 for wool research and promotion (p. 928)
  • A go-ahead to create a Christmas tree promotion board and 15-cent tax on fresh-cut trees (p. 805).
Jan 14 2014

Congress releases its draft budget bill (sigh)

In the strange way the U.S. government works, Congress has produced the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014,” which authorizes payments for government services, including those related to agriculture.

This is not the farm bill.  It’s what Congress decides taxpayers will pay for in the farm bill as well as bills that cover other programs run by USDA.

The House summary of agriculture appropriations is a lot easier to read than the bill itself, although it contains its share of double speak.  Try this:

WIC – This program provides supplemental nutritional foods needed by pregnant and nursing mothers, babies and young children. The bill provides full funding for WIC at $6.7 billion – $153 million below the fiscal year 2013 enacted level…This level will ensure all eligible participants will be served.

Can someone please explain to me how a cut of $153 million will ensure service to everyone who is eligible?  WIC is not an entitlement; eligible people cannot be served once the money runs out.

The bill does provide full spending—$82.2 billion—for SNAP, but only because it has to.  SNAP is an entitlement and spending for it is mandatory.  Unless, of course, Congress ever passes the farm bill, which currently contains a $9 billion proposed cut.

And here’s more double speak.  “The legislation includes several provisions to reduce spending and increase oversight of taxpayer dollars.”  How?  By authorizing spending for:

  • Oversight and monitoring requirements for the WIC program, including a directive for the Secretary of Agriculture to increase oversight of vendors to help rein in food costs;
  • A provision requiring USDA to submit a plan for reducing high error rates and improper payments in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs;
  • Requirements for the Secretary of Agriculture to help weed out and eliminate waste, fraud, and abuse in the SNAP program – including a directive to ban fraudulent vendors, and a prohibition on advertisements or outreach with foreign governments.

And why does the FDA’s budget still get decided by committees dealing with agricultural appropriations?

The FDA is a public health agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, which is funded by entirely different committees which you might think understand its mission a lot better than committees fussing about legislation that

restricts the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) from implementing certain regulations that would allow harmful government interference in the private market for the livestock and poultry industry.

I can hardly wait to see what the farm bill will look like.

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