by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Nov 13 2017

An Atlas of Agribusiness for Food Systems Advocates

I’m going to be using this week’s posts to catch up on reports that have been flooding in.

Let’s start with a publication from the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, and Friends of the Earth Europe.

Agrifood Atlas: Facts and figures about the Corporations that Control What We Eat

Agrifood corporations are driving industrialization along the entire global value chain, from farm to plate. Their purchasing and sales policies promote a form of agriculture that revolves around productivity. The fight for market share is achieved at the expense of the weakest links in the chain: farmers, and workers…It is high time for a socially and politically oriented regulation of the agrifood industry.

The Atlas provides the facts and figures you need to advocate for healthier food systems.

Here is one example:

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Nov 1 2017

It’s NAFTA again: an update

I haven’t said anything about NAFTA since August, but events are moving so quickly in the Trump administration’s attempts to undo this trade agreement with Canada and Mexico that I’m having a hard time keeping up (Politico Morning Agriculture helps).

Also fortunately for anyone interested in this issue, the Haynes and Boone law firm has created the “NAFTA Renegotiation Monitor.”  This tracks the countries’ positions on more than 30 issues under debate. I’m particularly interested in agricultural and phytosanitary (translation: food safety) issues, but this is a great place to find out about any any of them.  This Monitor makes clear what is at stake:

According to Politico,

Trump has vowed to withdraw from the 23-year-old agreement altogether. That would usher in the new isolationist era that he has long threatened, potentially endangering tens of thousands of American jobs that depend on cross-border agreements for everything from manufacturing automobiles to the export of beef… officials made clear they were at an impasse on a number of changes specifically sought by the Trump administration that dovetail with its “America First” agenda. As a result, Canada, Mexico and the United States have agreed to delay their next round of talks by nearly a month 

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) and similar groups in Mexico and Canada issued a joint statement calling on their governments to make sure that whatever gets done to NAFTA does not hurt agriculture.

Politico reports that 86 food and agricultural industry groups say that if the Trump administration really does ask Congress to withdraw from NAFTA to pressure Canada and Mexico into meeting U.S. demands (as it has threatened to do, then it risks causing substantial harm to the U.S. economy: “Contracts would be canceled, sales would be lost, able competitors would rush to seize our export markets, and litigation would abound, even before withdrawal would take effect.”

Furthermore, a NAFTA withdrawal would affect specific agriculture sectors.  These effects are outlined in a letter to Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross signed by numerous agriculture organizations.

  • Poultry: In 2016, U.S. poultry exports were 7.95 billion pounds, over 16 percent of total production. Canada was the second-largest market for the chicken industry and in the top five for turkey. Almost 70 percent of U.S. exports of turkey go to Mexico.
  • High-fructose corn syrup: U.S. exports to Mexico would decrease by $500 million per year.
  • Fruits and veggies: Canada and Mexico account for 18 percent of U.S. fresh fruit exports and 60 percent of U.S. fresh vegetable exports. Since 1993, fruit and vegetable exports from the U.S. to Mexico and Canada have more than tripled, totaling $7.2 billion.
  • Beef: In 2016, U.S. beef exports to Mexico and Canada exceeded $1.7 billion and accounted for 27 percent of total U.S. beef exports.
  • Dairy: Over $1 billion a year in U.S. dairy products are shipped to Mexico.

In other words, food and agriculture groups view NAFTA as good for US agriculture.  They do not view it as so broken that it needs fixing.

Oct 25 2017

Farewell to GIPSA and bad news for family farmers

Last week, the USDA withdrew its Farmer Fair Practices Interim Final Rule (a.k.a. the GIPSA—Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration—rule).

The USDA announced this rule at the end of 2016 with great fanfare but, as I explained last April, then delayed it under pressure from the meat and poultry industries.  Now those industries have succeeded in getting rid of it.

The official explanation?  “Serious legal and policy concerns related to its promulgation and implementation.”

Oh, please.

According to last year’s USDA, the new rules would have leveled “the playing field for farmers by proposing protections against the most egregious retaliatory practices harming chicken growers.”  Without this rule, family farmers have little defense against the mean and unfair practices of meat packers and poultry dealers.

Senator Chuck Grassley (Rep – Iowa) minces no words: The USDA is “just pandering to big corporations. They aren’t interested in the family farmer…The USDA is the U.S. Department of Agriculture, not the U.S. Department of Big Agribusiness.”

Told by Agri-Pulse of USDA’s decision to withdraw the rule, Sen. Grassley said he “violently opposed USDA’s decision to withdraw the rule:

If they would know how some of these people are treated that contract with these big multi-corporations, they wouldn’t be withdrawing that,…They’re just pandering to big corporations. They aren’t interested in the family farmer…Everybody thinks draining the swamp is firing a whole bunch of congressmen and a whole bunch of bureaucrats; it’s changing the culture of the bureaucracy…This is a perfect example of a swamp that’s being refilled by withdrawing these rules.

What happens now?  More than 200 agriculture groups signed a letter to key ag-state lawmakers asking for more market transparency and anti-trust protections.

Will such calls grow?  I certainly hope so.

For further reading

Aug 18 2017

Reports about sustainable and local farming: one after another

Sustainable Food Trust has a report on a conference on the True Cost of American Food.

Health is the obvious cost, but others include:

  • the cost of nitrate and pesticide pollution of ground and river water from agro-chemicals, which in some areas of the US are so high that the water industry is struggling to provide drinking water within legal limits,
  • air pollution from CAFOs shown to be increasing respiratory infections and other diseases in people living nearby,
  • the loss of biodiversity, including the decline of farmland birds and pollinating insects,
  • soil degradation and erosion from continuous monoculture crop production,
  • the human health costs to employees working in stressful conditions in food processing plants.

The American Farmland Trust and Growing Food Connections have published GROWING LOCAL: A Community Guide to Planning for Agriculture and Food Systems.

This is an enormously useful how-to guide to developing local food systems with lots of facts and figures .  Here is an example:

The Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis , of all things, has issued “Harvesting Opportunity: The Power of Regional Food System Investments to Transform Communities.”

Harvesting Opportunity…highlights models for collaboration between policymakers, practitioners and the financial community, and discusses research, policy and resource gaps that, if addressed, might contribute to the success of regional food systems strategies.

New Food Economy has an analysis by Katy Kieffer on who really owns America’s farmland

While urban commercial real estate has skyrocketed in places like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., powerful investors have also sought to turn a profit by investing in the most valuable rural real estate: farmland. It’s a trend that’s driving up costs up for the people who grow our food, and—slowly—it’s started to change the economics of American agriculture.

Aug 15 2017

Agroecology: it’s the hot issue in agriculture, but what does it mean?

If you are like me, you may have trouble understanding what this term means, but it’s the hot new word in alternative agriculture.

Farms of the Future says agroecology is the only way forward.  It is collecting signatures on a petition to make agricultural production practices tore ecological.

But what does that mean, exactly?

The Wikipedia definition is no help at all.

Agroecology is the study of ecological processes applied to agricultural production systems. The prefix agro- refers to agriculture. Bringing ecological principles to bear in agroecosystems can suggest novel management approaches that would not otherwise be considered. The term is often used imprecisely and may refer to “a science, a movement, [or] a practice”. Agroecologists study a variety of agroecosystems, and the field of agroecology is not associated with any one particular method of farming, whether it be organicintegrated, or conventionalintensive or extensive.

Thanks a lot.

Does agroecology mean the same thing as sustainable agriculture?

Fortunately help is at hand.

Start reading!

 

Jul 10 2017

Rotating crops in Iowa–a better way to farm

I am a big fan of Wendell Berry, the inspiring Kentucky professor and farmer, long a leading and inspiring proponent of agrarian values.  He displays these values in his own life—he walks the talk—as well as in his many books, poems, and, these days, tweets (@WendellDaily).

Now there is a movie about him, “Look and See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.”  It’s a lovely and touching film about Berry’s early start and young family.  His wife and daughter appear in the film, but the contemporary man does not.  He says he doesn’t do movies (a position with which I am increasingly sympathetic).

The film documents what industrial agriculture has done to rural America—emptied it of people, communities, and a way of life (as Berry puts it, the Russians did this with police; we did it with economics).

The film also shows how going  back to a more sustainable production system is good for soil, animals, and food, and makes farmers better off and happier.

This may sound like fantasy, but here is the Union of Concerned Scientists with a new report documenting precisely those benefits: Rotating Crops, Turning Profits.

 

As UCS scientific director Ricardo Salvador wrote me in an email:

A valid critique of the [crop rotation] system, for all its benefits (saves soil, cleans water, reduces inputs and chemical pollution, increases biodiversity, reduces pest pressure, boosts yields and profitability), is that not all Iowa farmers could adopt the system without reducing supply of corn/soy, increasing their price, and thereby driving farmers back to the system. What is the economic equilibrium point? It is an important question.

The short of it, after our economist’s painstaking analysis, is that 20 – 40% of current Iowa corn/soy acreage could be transferred into the system without distorting market dynamics. Interestingly, approximately that amount of corn/soy land in Iowa is highly erodible and should not be in that system to begin with. Farmers attempt to force the issue because of current policy incentives. If instead that ground were put into the extended rotation, it would save megatons of soil and billions of dollars of environmental and health damage annually… All of this, at great profit to the farmer—it should not be forgotten.

This is important work and it’s just thrilling that the Register is writing about it.  I hope everyone in Iowa reads the editorial and pays attention to its lessons.

Jun 28 2017

Weed resistance to glyphosate on GMO crops: EPA needs to do better

The EPA is not doing enough to prevent weed resistance to the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) says a new report from the EPA’s Inspector General’s Office (OIG) ,which draws in part on a report from the agbiotech company, Pioneer: Weed Management in the Era of Glyphosate Resistance

The EPA OIG report explains that glyphosate (Roundup) is used on crops modified to tolerate this herbicide, which kills surrounding weeds but leaves the GMO crop intact.

If you use enough of it long enough, weeds develop resistance.

US farmers are planting more herbicide-resistant GMO corn and soybeans (this figure is from the Pioneer report):

Here’s how much glyphosate US farmers are using:

  • 2002: 110 million pounds
  • 2012: 283.5 million pounds

Weeds resistant to herbicides were first reported in 1968.  Weed resistance is now increasing rapidly (this figure is from the OIG report).

Weeds resistant to glyphosate are spreading rapidly throughout the US (this figure is in both reports).

What should government do to stop this?  A quick lesson on GMO regulation:

  • USDA regulates these crops.
  • EPA regulates herbicides used on these crops.
  • FDA regulates their safety.

The EPA Inspector General says EPA is not doing enough to mitigate herbicide resistance:

  • It is not communicating with farmers or other stakeholders about managing resistance.
  • It is not collecting data on herbicide resistance through its adverse incident reporting database.
  • It is not dealing with the need to develop alternatives.
  • It is not tracking progress in addressing weed resistance.
  • It needs to do better.

What should be done?  Pioneer says:

A truly integrated strategy should incorporate non-chemical control tactics as well. Mechanical weed control and crop rotation are examples of two such tactics available to growers, but the feasibility of their implementation will vary depending on the characteristics of a cropping system.

Non-chemical control tactics?  Sounds like sustainable agriculture, no?

Weed resistance is a big reason not to use glyphosate.

Another is its suspected carcinogenicity, but I will save that for another time.

May 23 2017

What ag schools really need to teach: a report

The Association of Public Land-Grant Universities has just released a report titled “Challenge of Change” about how the USDA can do a better job of funding research to solve important problems in food and agriculture.

The challenge:

 

Traditionally, the effort to achieve food security has been largely focused on the need to increase yields in order to produce more food. There is now broad recognition that production alone will not solve the grand challenge. All aspects of our food systems must be considered: nutrition, food safety, food loss, economic costs, individual behaviors, incentive structures, and societal factors affect not only production, but also access and utilization. There is also now an understanding that production increases must be achieved in the context of water availability, energy limitations, and environmental impact.

The report concludes that universities will need to change, so as to:

  • Elevate Food and Nutrition Security to a Top Priority
  • Align University Resources and Structures for Transdisciplinary Approaches
  • Enhance and Build University-Community Partnerships
  • Educate a New Generation of Students to be Transdisciplinary Problem Solvers

To achieve food security, food and agriculture will need to change to:

  • Broaden the Focus Beyond Yields
  • Change the Food System’s Incentive Structure
  • Develop the Capacity of Universities in Low-Income Countries
  • Leverage Technology, Big Data, and Information Science Information

This is an important report because it comes from land-grant universities .  These are currently responsible for supporting industrial agricultural systems and virtually ignoring—or firmly opposing—sustainable agricultural production methods.

A challenge for change indeed.  I hope land-grant universities listen hard.

 

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