by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Farm-policy

Jan 1 2011

Predictions: national nutrition issues for 2011

My first San Francisco Chronicle “Food Matters” column for the new year deals with some predictions:

Q: Whatever you used as a crystal ball last year turned out to be a pretty good predictor of the most prominent food issues of 2010. How about trying again: What food matters will we be hearing about in 2011?

A: It doesn’t take a crystal ball to figure out what’s coming up with food issues. I’m happy to make predictions, especially since most seem fairly safe.

Dietary guidelines will be released this month. By law, they were due last year and are already late. What will they say? The 2010 guidelines advisory committee recommended eating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, but introduced a new euphemism – SOFAs, or Solid Fats and Added Sugars – for the “eat less” advice. SOFAs really mean “cut down on fatty meat and dairy products” and “avoid sugary sodas.”

Will government agencies have the nerve to say so? Let’s hope.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will issue a new food guide. The 2005 pyramid’s rainbow stripes proved impossible to teach and useless to anyone without a computer. I’ve heard a rumor that I will love the new design. I’m skeptical. I liked the original 1992 pyramid. It showed that bottom-of-the-pyramid foods were healthiest, making it unpopular with companies selling top-of-the-pyramid products. But it is healthier to eat some foods than others (see: dietary guidelines).

Will the USDA improve on the 1992 design? We will soon find out.

The fights over food safety will continue. At the last possible moment, Congress passed the food safety bill by a large majority. Now the fights really begin.

Funding will be most contentious, with the actual regulations not far behind. The Congressional Budget Office absurdly considered the bill’s provisions to be “budget neutral.” They are anything but.

The bill’s provisions require the Food and Drug Administration to hire more inspectors just at a time when Republican lawmakers have sworn to cut domestic spending. The FDA also must translate the bill’s requirements and exemptions for small farmers into regulations.

Rule-making is a lengthy process subject to public comment and, therefore, political maneuvering. Watch the lobbying efforts ratchet up as food producers, large and small, attempt to head off safety rules they think they won’t like.

Expect more lawsuits over the scientific basis of health claims. The Federal Trade Commission just settled a $21 million claim against Dannon for advertising that yogurt protects against the flu. The agency also has gone after scientifically unsubstantiated claims that omega-3s in kiddie supplements promote brain development and that pomegranate juice protects against prostate problems. POM Wonderful has already countersued the FTC on grounds that the First Amendment protects commercial speech. I’ll be watching this case carefully.

The FDA will issue new front-of-package label regulations. The FDA has promised to propose an at-a-glance symbol to indicate the overall nutritional value of food products. Food companies like the Guideline Daily Amount spots they are using in the upper corners of food packages because the symbols are factual but nonjudgmental. The FDA, however, is considering red, yellow and green traffic-light symbols that do convey judgments. Food companies say they will not voluntarily use a symbol that tells people to eat less of their products.

Will the FDA have the courage to make traffic lights mandatory? It will need courage. The new British government dealt with the traffic-light idea by summarily dismantling the food agency that suggested it.

Corporations will seek new ways to co-opt critics. Under the guise of corporate social responsibility, food companies have been making large donations to organizations that might otherwise criticize their products. The most recent example is the decision by Save the Children, formerly a staunch advocate of soda taxes, to drop that cause coincidentally at a time when its executives were negotiating funding from Coca-Cola.

Such strategies remind me of how the Philip Morris cigarette company distributed grants to leading arts groups. Expect food companies to use generosity to neutralize critics and buy silence.

School meals will make front-page news. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act last month. Now the USDA must implement it by setting nutrition standards, adding fresh fruits and vegetables (some locally grown) and expanding eligibility.

President Obama has promised to restore the $4.5 billion “borrowed” from the SNAP (food stamp) program to fund this act. The scrambling over the regulations and financing should make excellent spectator sport.

Farm bill advocates will be mobilizing. You might think it too early to be worrying about the 2012 Farm Bill, but I’ve already gotten position papers analyzing commodity and food-assistance issues from groups gearing up to lobby Congress to bring agricultural policy in line with nutrition and public health policy.

I have a personal interest in such papers. I will be teaching a course on the Farm Bill at New York University next fall. Please get busy and write more of them!

Happy new year, and let’s see how my guesses play out.

Sep 29 2010

Colbert on farm workers

I would have loved to be in the room when Stephen Colbert testified before Congress a few days ago.

I’ve been to congressional hearings.  They are a peculiarly American form of Kabuki theater, full of posturing, entirely predictable script-following, and institutionalized rudeness.  Colbert, in character, took perfect advantage of the opportunity.

I thought his testimony was brilliantly funny.  But I can well understand why the members of Congress stuck with Kabuki rituals—stony silence and hiding behind their equivalents of fluttering fans–BlackBerries.

Mr. Colbert gave devastating testimony, well worth 5 minutes to watch.  One of the Times’ bloggers (Sept 24) made a point of what he said at the end when he went out of character:  “I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights themselves.”

In character, his testimony offered some ideas about how to stop undocumented farm labor: “The obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables–and if you look at the recent obesity statistics, you’ll see that many Americans have already started.”

He’s right on about that one.  Kim Severson of the New York Times reports:

Despite two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the east of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables.

Quoting CDC statistics, she reports that “only 26 percent of the nation’s adults eat vegetables three or more times a day…and no, that does not include French fries.”  We do better with fruit: 33% of Americans eat 2 servings of fruit a day.

All of this is why concern about our food system and where our food comes from also must include concern about who works in the fields, raises the animals, and works in the slaughterhousese.  Immigration is a food issue, big time.

Thanks Colbert–in character and not–for taking this issue to our government.  May it do some good.

Aug 12 2010

Fix the farm bill so it promotes public health

The Farmers Legal Action Group has a new report out analyzing the 2008 Farm Bill and explaining what needs to happen to bring our agricultural policies in line with public health policies.  The report has a title that warms my heart, “Planting the Seeds for Public Health.” Its subtitle: “How the farm bill can help farmers to produce and distribute healthy foods.”

Its main findings:

  • Fruit and vegetable farmers lack a safety net to protect them from natural disasters in a manner comparable to programs that are available for farmers producing major commodity crops, such as corn, soybeans and wheat;
  • Crop insurance, disaster assistance, and loan and conservation programs are not designed to address the unique characteristics of fruit and vegetable production and marketing; and
  • Nutrition program expenditures are not adequately directed to ensure children, including those from low-income households, receive healthy food.

And one key observation: many of the recommended changes could be made by the USDA without the need for additional direction from Congress.  Translation: No need to wait until 2012 when the Farm Bill comes up again.

USDA could do a lot of this NOW!

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.

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.

May 6 2010

Where do farm subsidies go? Now we know!

Yesterday, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released the latest update of its highly entertaining farm subsidy database. The links cover $245 billion in federal farm subsidies distributed from 1995 -2009.  The site lets you search for subsidies by state, county, congressional district, and specific farm, and by commodity.  There is also a national summary.

As the EWG puts it:

taxpayer-funded federal farm subsidies lavished on the wealthiest farms have resisted even modest efforts for reform. Introduced after the Great Depression and once the savior of struggling small family farms, these subsidy programs have been co-opted by the largest agriculture interests and now work to ensure profits for plantation-scale growers of corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and wheat.

I went straight to New York State.  Alas, my home state only ranks #30 in payments and our farmers only got $156 million in 2009.  Some of them got as little as $1,000 or $2,000 (numbers in Illinois, Kansas, and Iowa go into the millions).  Even so, corn and dairy farmers in Rep. (now Sen.) Gillibrand’s district did better than the New York average last year.

For a quick lesson in the complexity of farm supports, take a look at the chart of corn subsidies in New York State from 1995 to 2009.  No wonder farm supports are so hard to understand.

Let’s hope this site inspires people to start gearing up for dealing with the next Farm Bill, coming up in a year or so.  The EWG’s farm subsidy primer is a great place to begin.  Happy searching!

Apr 2 2010

The latest on organic production

For all the complaints about organics, production and sales are booming.  USDA economists in the Economic Research Service (ERS) keep track of such things and have just produced tables that display the growth in organic production from 1992 to 2008.  Organic crop and pasture lands still comprise less than 1% of the total in the U.S., but this will surely increase.

USDA/ERS compiles all of its information on organics in a briefing room that links to recommended readings and handy maps and images.

I think it’s interesting that the ERS sites do not link to the National Organic Program (NOP) itself.  This is, no doubt, because the NOP  is housed in a different part of USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Service.  Whether any of that makes sense is something one hopes will be considered in the next Farm Bill.

And here’s a link to the European Union’s organic site.  The EU ran a competition to create a new organic logo, and this one is the winner.

Jul 20 2009

Food politics: European version

I’m always suprised when people ask me what I mean by “food politics.”    What, they say, does politics have to do with food?   Here’s a good example: European farm subsidies.  These were originally supposed to promote farm production, but today the European Union drops $75 billion, at least a third of it for other purposes.  As an investigative report in the New York Times explains, the biggest subsidies – just as in the U.S. – go to the wealthiest recipients.   A typical small farmer in Romania gets $550.  But the Queen of England and the Prince of Monaco get $700,000 or more, each, and Cargill, that needy company, got $14 million.  And then there are subsidies like this one: €127,000 for Ligabue, a Venetian caterer, for sugar and dairy packets considered as exports because they are consumed on cruise ships?   Why do I think politics enters into this somehow?

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