by Marion Nestle

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Feb 28 2024

US Agricultural trade balance shifts negative

I’m always interested in the USDA’s charts displaying food and agriculture statistics.  They help to clarify complicated issues.

Agricultural trade is particularly opaque, but here it is at a glance.

First, what the US exports:

Next, what we import:

What so bizarre here is that the categories are the same; we export and import the same kinds of products.

The biggest difference is in horticultural products, which the USDA defines as “plants that are used by people for food, for medicinal purposes, and for aesthetic gratification.”

Horticulture includes “specialty crops,” the USDA’s name for the plant foods humans eat (as opposed to feed for animals)—fruits, vegetables , nuts, and seeds.  To further confuse the matter, the USDA also lumps medicinal herbs, flowers, and Christmas trees in this category.

Never mind.  The bottom line is we import most of our fruits and vegetables.  This is because the US agricultural system focuses on feed for animals and fuel for automobiles.

Overall, here’s what all this does to the balance of trade:

We used to export more food than we imported.  Now, we don’t.

Shouldn’t our food system mainly focus on producing food for people?

Obviously, yes.

Feb 27 2024

USDA’s latest census of agriculture: not an encouraging picture

The USDA announced the latest data on the US agricultural system in a press release.  It summarizes the highlights:

  • Number of farms: 1.9 million (down 7% from 2017)
  • Average size: 463 acres (up 5%)
  • Total farmland: 880 million acres of farmland (down 2%), accounting for 39% of all U.S. land.
  • Revenues: $543 billion (up from $389 billion)
  • Net cash income (less expenses): $152 billion.
  • Average farm income: $79,790. A total of 43% of farms had positive net cash farm
  • Percent farms with net income: 43%
  • Farms selling direct to consumers: 116,617 with sales of $3.3 billion (up 16%)
  • Farms with sales of $ 1 million or more: 105,384 (6% of all farms); they sell three-fourths of all agricultural products.
  • Farms with sales of $50,000 or less: 1.4 million (74% of farms); they sell 2%.
  • Percent of farmland used for oilseeds or grains: 32%
  • Percent of farmland used for beef cattle: 40%
  • Average age of farmers: 58.1 (up 0.6 years)
  • Average age of beginning farmers: 47.1

The 2022 census information is so complicated to access that the USDA provides a video on the main site to explain how to use it.   This helps—a lot.

The site for the full report is here.   For the full report itself, go here.

Highlights are here.

Most of the data refer to industrial crops like corn and soybeans: feed for animals, fuel for automobiles.

If you want to know about food for people , you can looik at Table 36. Vegetables, Potatoes, and Melons Harvested for Sale: 2022 and 2017

All of this is in miserable-to-read tables.  Fortunately, The Guardian to the rescue: ‘America is a factory farming nation’: key takeaways from US agriculture census.

It provides illuminting charts based on the data.  For example:

What more to say?  Only that our agricultural system needs a major refocusing on smaller, diverse, regenerative farms producing food, as well as those producing animal feed.  We should not be growing food crops to produce automobile fuel.

Feb 26 2024

Industry-funded studies of the week: meat

Every now and then, someone sends me something about industry-funded research that does my work for me.  Here is an example.

I received this e-mailed message from John Andrews (reproduced with permission).

I’m sure others will have shared this with you, but as someone primed by reading your work to dig into authors’ backgrounds, I couldn’t help but notice some aspects of a new special issue of Animal Frontiers on ‘The Societal Role of Meat’ (link) that you might be interested to see. There are 36 authors across the special issue, but to highlight just a handful:

  • Peer Ederer, guest editor and co-author of the introduction article, has his affiliation listed as ‘GOALScience at Global Food And Agriculture Network’ in Switzerland. However, the website of GOALScience describes themselves as an initiative of the ‘Global Food and Agribusiness Network’ (my italics), and describes itself as a commercial entity that operates as a “service to the global livestock stakeholder community” (link). The paper Ederer et al in the special issue (link) has a conflict of interest statement: “None declared.”
  • Thompson et al (link) lists among its authors Jason Rowntree. Rowntree is described in his biography as having worked with the Savory Institute to develop its ‘Ecological Outcome Verification’ scheme for livestock farming. Rowntree’s biography on his university page describes him as an ‘advisor and educator’ to the Savory Institute. Savory’s website indicates that Rowntree’s university is what’s called a ‘Savory Hub’, and that Rowntree has at some point been ‘Hub leader’ (link). Rowntree is also co-lead on a $19mn research project in which Savory is a partner (link). The conflicts of interest statement for the article: “None declared”.
  • Rod Polkinghorne, co-author of the perspective article (link), describes himself on his LinkedIn as “actively involved with the beef industry”. In fairness, his biography in the special issue does not disguise this, and the perspective article does not contain a conflict of interest statement of any kind.

I don’t want to suggest that this is particularly surprising in a journal that has a longstanding partnership with the American Meat Science Association, which partnership is not at all hidden (e.g. the journal’s ‘about’ page and Dilger, 2020). But the special issue is noteworthy as the claimed evidence base to support the ‘Dublin Declaration’ on the ‘societal role of livestock’, reported in the press in classic fashion (a Daily Telegraph headline in the UK reads ‘Meat is crucial for human health, scientists warn’), and actively being used as part of the current lobbying battles around EU environmental legislation (see e.g. here).

Perhaps I just don’t understand the subtleties of the term ‘conflict of interest’ well enough…

Comment: Thanks for all this.  Yes, industry connections like these pose conflicts.  These authors—and the journal in which they publish—have financial ties to an industry with an economic stake in the results of studies and the opinions of authors.

Indeed, these particular conflicts of interest are so evident that The Guardian did an article about them:  Revealed: The livestock consultants behind the Dublin Declaration of Scientists.

While I’m at it, let me toss in one more as an example of how meat industry funding works.

The study: Higher muscle protein synthesis rates following ingestion of an omnivorous meal compared with an isocaloric and isonitrogenous vegan meal in healthy, older adults (thanks to Charles Platkin for sending this one).

Conclusion: “Ingestion of a whole-food omnivorous meal containing beef results in greater postprandial muscle protein synthesis rates when compared with the ingestion of an isonitrogenous whole-food vegan meal in healthy, older adults.”

Funding: “This study was funded in part by The Beef Checkoff, Denver, USA, and Vion Food Group, Boxtel, The Netherlands.”

When I see a title like this, I can guess who paid for the study.  Not good.

Feb 23 2024

Weekend reading: FAO calls for food systems-based dietary guidelines

The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) is taking the lead on bringing dietary guidelines into the 21st Century.

It is calling for national dietary guidelines not only to be nutrient-based and food-based, but food systems-based.

Food systems-based guidelines extend beyond food-based guidelines that “provide advice on foods, food groups and dietary patterns to provide the required nutrients to the general public to promote overall health and prevent chronic diseases.”

Food system-based guidelines not only address health and nutritional priorities but also consider sociocultural, economic, and environmental sustainability factors.  This means

context-specific multilevel recommendations that enable governments to outline what constitutes a healthy diet from sustainable food systems, align food-related policies and programmes and support the population to adopt healthier and more sustainable dietary patterns and practices that favour, among other outcomes, environmental sustainability and socio-economic equity.

This is a huge advance.  It means that sustainability issues are essential components of dietary advice.

From now on, dietary guidelines that do not consider sustainability are out of date.

Note: By order of Congress, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines did not consider sustainability in its meat recommendations and sustainability was off the table for the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines and also for the 2025-2030 version now underway.  This means the new guidelines issues in 2025 will be dated and largely irrelevant to the modern era.

Unless the Advisory Committee gets to work.  I hope it does.

Feb 22 2024

USDA’s latest campaign: checkoff-based sandwiches of all things

I received this email from USDA’s MyPlate group:

Hi Marion

MyPlate National Strategic Partners, a group developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), just announced the launch of a new resource to help Americans build healthier sandwiches! The full press release is below, and I am happy to answer any questions or arrange any interviews!

WASHINGTON, D.C. – January 11, 2024 – As MyPlate National Strategic Partners, the Grain Foods Foundation, Hass Avocado Board, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture Foundation and National Wheat Foundation are excited to introduce a new resource aimed at helping individuals build healthier and more nutritious sandwiches.

Every day, nearly half of all Americans enjoy a sandwich – and most people are not meeting recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.[1] The new “Build a Better Sandwich” resource features practical tips to help bridge this gap, with realistic and inspiring ideas for enjoying a variety of grains, lean proteins and fiber-filled fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy in better-built sandwiches…To download the “Build a Better Sandwich” resource and other materials created by MyPlate National Strategic Partners, please visit https://www.myplate.gov/partner-resources.

[1] Sebastian et al. Sandwich consumption by adults in the U.S.: What We Eat In America, NHANES 2009-2012. Food Surveys Research Group Dietary Data Brief No. 14. Dec 2015.

Given the sponsors, want to take a guess at how you are supposed to make these sandwiches?

I’m all for healthier sandwiches and eating avocados (love them!), but this is an example of the Hass Avocado Board—a USDA-sponsored checkoff (marketing and promotion) program—at work.

Don’t you think it’s odd that the USDA’s doesn’t include a broader range of vegetables or plant foods in its sandwich advice?

This is one of the many things wrong with USDA sponsorship of checkoff programs….

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Feb 21 2024

Mac & Cheese sales down: blame SNAP

Every now and then a headline makes me gasp:

Deena Shankar’s article in Bloomberg News begins:

It’s been just about a year since the US government slashed additional pandemic-related food-stamp benefits, and some of the companies that make and sell food are seeing that hit their sales.

As she explains,

Enhanced benefits for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, ended last February, meaning families and individuals saw monthly cuts of $95 to $250 or more in what they received. Families with kids lost at the high end of the spectrum, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute.

Never mind the effects of reduced benefits on low-income families.

packaged-food giant Kraft Heinz Co. cited the reduction in benefits as a major headwind that the company and the industry faced in 2023. “We saw some challenges in our mac-and-cheese business,” Chief Executive Officer Carlos Abrams-Rivera said on an earnings call. “Frankly, it’s a business that is driven disproportionately by our SNAP exposure.”

How’s that for a gasp-inducing statement.  SNAP recipients are the core customers for this product.

If you want to know about inequities in the US food system, start here.

Kraft Mac & Cheese exemplifies cheap ultra-processed food.

Walmart sells five boxes for $4.88, less than a dollar a box.

For that, you are supposed to get three servings per box, but the whole box adds up to:

  • 750 calories
  • 1680 mg sodium,(4.2 grams of salt)
  • 27 grams sugars

And what’s in this?

ENRICHED MACARONI (WHEAT FLOUR, DURUM FLOUR, NIACIN, FERROUS SULFATE [IRON], THIAMIN MONONITRATE [VITAMIN B1], RIBOFLAVIN [VITAMIN B2], FOLIC ACID), CHEESE SAUCE MIX (WHEY, MILKFAT, SALT, MILK PROTEIN CONCENTRATE, SODIUM TRIPHOSPHATE, CONTAINS LESS THAN 2% OF TAPIOCA FLOUR, CITRIC ACID, LACTIC ACID, SODIUM PHOSPHATE, CALCIUM PHOSPHATE, WITH PAPRIKA, TURMERIC, AND ANNATTO ADDED FOR COLOR, ENZYMES, CHEESE CULTURE).

Walmart sells a pound of carrots for $1.38.

There is something seriously wrong with a food system that makes a 750-calorie Mac and Cheese product so much cheaper than a pound of carrots.

Feb 20 2024

Harmful chemicals in food: recent studies are not reassuring

I don’t say much about potentially harmful agricultural or other industrial chemicals in food for several reasons:

BUT (in capital letters because it is a bit one):

Studies of three chemicals illustrate these problems.

DICAMBA 

What it is: A herbicide used to kill broadleaf weeds that grow in fields of corn, wheat, and dicamba-tolerant soybeans.

Why it’s a worry: It can cause immediate toxic effects and might be carcinogenic.  It is highly volatile and can damage non-target plants through drifting, causing constant complaints from neighboring farmers.  The courts have overturned the EPA’s approval of dicamba use.  Even though the EPA admits dicamba has adverse effects on handlers as well as “birds, mammals, bees (larvae), aquatic plants and non-target terrestrial plants,” it is allowing existing stocks of dicamba to continue to be used.

The recent study: The headline: Alarming levels of weed killer found in study of pregnant women.  The study examined changes in the the number of pregnant women with dicamba in their urine and the amounts excreted from 2020-2012 to 2020-2022.  It found increases in both measures.

Conclusion: “Reliance on herbicides has drastically increased in the last ten years in the United States, and the results obtained in this study highlight the need to track exposure and impacts on adverse maternal and neonatal outcomes.”

PHTHALATES

What these are: Chemicals used to soften polyvinylchloride plastics.

The concern: Phthalates leach into food from plastic packaging materials.  They disrupt endocrine function.

The recent study:  Exposure to phthalates is associated with adverse birth outcomes such as decreased gestational age and increased risk of preterm birth.

Conclusion: “The $1·63–8·14 billion costs of preterm birth described here …add to the disease burden and costs of plastic in the USA, which were recently estimated to be $250 billion annually….Our findings also support individual behavioural interventions to reduce exposure. These include choosing personal care products labelled to be free of phthalates, and replacement of packaged foods with fresh foods.

CHLORMEQUAT

What this is: a plant growth regulator used on wheat, oats, and barley to decrease stem height, making the plants easier to harvest.

Why it’s a worry: Chlormequat has been linked to reduced fertility, altered fetal growth, and delayed puberty in animals.

The recent study: The headline: 80% of Americans test positive for chemical found in Cheerios, Quaker Oats that may cause infertility, delayed puberty.   The study found increasing amounts of this chemical in food and urine samples.

Conclusion: “These findings and chlormequat toxicity data raise concerns about current exposure levels, and warrant more expansive toxicity testing, food monitoring, and epidemiological studies.”

Comment: These are only three of all the chemicals out there that get into our food and appear in our bodies.  Yes, more research is needed to find out just how harmful they are.  But I see no evidence that they are good for us.  I think we need:

  • Much greater urgency and attention from FDA and EPA on getting these chemicals out of the food supply
  • More information about how to avoid the chemicals, especially in pregnant women and young children
  • Coalition advocacy for more stringent regulation (the Environmental Working Group is doing a great job but cannot do this alone)
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Feb 19 2024

Industry-sponsored study of the week: a menstruation supplement

The study:  Lactobacillus paragasseri OLL2809 Improves Premenstrual Psychological Symptoms in Healthy Women: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study. Nutrients. 2023; 15(23):4985. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu15234985

Methods: “This study employed a randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, parallel-group design to assess the efficacy of continuous ingestion of OLL2809 [the supplement] for managing menstrual symptoms in healthy women.”

Conclusion: “This study suggests that the consumption of OLL2809 over three menstrual cycles in healthy women can alleviate premenstrual ‘decline in activity’ and ‘irritability’, thereby indicating the potential of OLL2809 to enhance women’s QOL [Quality of Life].

Conflicts of Interest:  All authors are employees of Meiji Co., Ltd. The company funded this research. All authors are the inventors of pending patent (Japanese Patent Application No. 2023-182470).

Comment: The supplement is a bacterial probiotic.  The authors are employed by its maker and hold a patent for it, which they fully disclose.  Just as a reminder, industry-funded studies tend to come out with results favoring the sponsor’s interest, as is certainly the case here.

I need to say something about the journal, Nutrients, since many of the studies I post on industry-funded Mondays appear in that journal.  It charges authors €2900 (about $3300) to publish their articles.  It’s an open-access journal, so all authors have to pay to publish their articles.  More rigorous journals do not usually require page charges from authors unless they want open access.  Nutrients gives me the impression of pay to play.