by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Mar 19 2024

European Big Ag in action

Science Magazine has this editorial headline: Reverse EU’s growing greenlash**

After several weeks of violent protests, European farmers have achieved a tactical triumph that does not bode well for the future of environmental policies.
Let’s stop right here at “farmers.”  This is not the right word.
This editorial is talking about industrial agricultural producers—Big Ag—not small organic farmers using regenerative principles.
The editorial continues, “In response to the demonstrations, the European Commission has
  • Enacted a derogation in the European Union’s (EU’s) Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to set aside 4% of farmland for biodiversity and landscape protection,
  • Withdrawn a bill to halve pesticide use,
  • Removed a target to reduce agriculture emissions by 30% by 2040, and
  • Called for further changes in the CAP to loosen environmental requirements.”
The editorial points out (my translation) that the EU spends about a third of its annual budget on subsidizing industrial agriculture.  This gives Big Ag plenty of political clout, making it “”impossible to modify the CAP in ways that reduce the environmental impact of modern agricultural practices and promote sustainable farming..”
Its bottom line: “Such capture of government by an interest group is dangerous.”
Well, yes.  If this sounds familiar, consider the US farm bill.  Its support money goes to Big Corn, Big Soy, and Big Ethanol fuel.
In this system food for people doesn’t stand a chance, and forget about mitigating climate change.
**Thanks to Brian Ogilvie, a historian at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, for alerting me to this.
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.

Jan 16 2024

Is pasture-raised beef better for the environment? It sure could be.

A reader, Kris, sent me this query:

I hope in a future writing you can help sort out the mixed statements I’m reading  about how pasture-raised meat lines up in terms of environmental/climate change concerns, (particularly if it doesn’t involve extensive shipping). I’ve seen statements and studies on both sides of the argument and I’m having a hard time determining what is supported science vs wishful thinking or greenwashing marketing hype. (Links to 2 difference examples below).

I looked at her sources. Grass-finished beef operations found to have higher carbon footprint, study reveals. 

In a recent study published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, researchers from the Breakthrough Institute in the United States, led by Daniel Blaustein-Rejto, present findings challenging the common belief that beef operations with lifelong grass-based diets have a lower carbon footprint than those incorporating grain-based diets, reported.  Cattle raised on lifelong grass diets, termed “pasture finished,” have been traditionally thought to be more environmentally friendly. But the study delves into a more comprehensive analysis, considering factors beyond direct greenhouse gas emissions.

This took me to the PLoS ONE article:  Carbon opportunity cost increases carbon footprint advantage of grain-finished beef.

We assess the carbon footprint of 100 beef production systems in 16 countries, including production emissions, soil carbon sequestration from grazing, and carbon opportunity cost—the potential carbon sequestration that could occur on land if it were not used for production. We conduct a pairwise comparison of pasture-finished operations in which cattle almost exclusively consume grasses and forage, and grain-finished operations in which cattle are first grazed and then fed a grain-based diet. We find that pasture-finished operations have 20% higher production emissions and 42% higher carbon footprint than grain-finished systems.

Agricltural Systems: Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems.

We used on-farm data collected from the Michigan State University Lake City AgBioResearch Center for AMP [adaptive multi-paddock] grazing. Impact scope included GHG emissions from enteric methane, feed production and mineral supplement manufacture, manure, and on-farm energy use and transportation, as well as the potential C sink arising from SOC [soil organic carbon] sequestration…This research suggests that AMP grazing can contribute to climate change mitigation through SOC sequestration and challenges existing conclusions that only feedlot-intensification reduces the overall beef GHG footprint through greater productivity.


I can understand Kris’s confusion.  The arguments about the environmental impact of grazing methods depend on assumptions about what needs to be measured.   There should be no argument, however, that pasture-raised animals are treated better and have better lives.  They enrich soil rather than polluting it, air, and water, as do animals raised in CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations).  When raised in a regenerative system, pastured animals replenish soil, cause carbon to be sequestered, and do other good things.  The downside?  Lower yields (but we overproduce meat anyway).  So, I’m all for pasture grazing.

The climate-change arguments depend on decisions about what gets counted; these vary depending on who is doing the counting.

Until everyone can agree on what has to be measured and included in climate-change assessments—and I see no sign of a movement to forge such an agreement—I’m voting for pasture-raised,.  Animal welfare and soil health are reasons enough.

Thanks Kris, for raising the issue so thoughtfully.

Jan 4 2024

The food movement rising: targeting the Farm Bill

One of the big issues in food advocacy is how to develop coalitions broad and strong enough to demand—and achieve—real change.  Thousands of organiations are working on food issues, local, regional, and national.  But for the most part, each works on its own thing, with its own leadership and staff, competing with all the others for limited funding.

This is why the work that the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) is doing to organize support for Farm Bill change is so important and so exciting—the cheeriest food news possible.

Here’s the headline:  Nonprofit Groups Award $2.2 Million to Equip Frontline and BIPOC-led Organizations to Engage in Food and Farm Bill Debates:  With 15 Organizations Collaborating to Select 28 Grantees Across the Country, the Effort is Among Largest Participatory Grantmaking in Food and Farming to Date.

As Congress continues to negotiate the next food and farm bill, a group of organizations with expertise in agriculture, labor, climate change, food security, and nutrition have announced a first of its kind effort to uplift the voices of food and farmworkers, marginalized farmers, and frontline communities in the farm bill process. Through a participatory grantmaking process, the groups awarded $2.235 million in grants to support 28 grassroots groups. The grants will support capacity building, organizing and advocacy efforts around the food and farm bill.

I had not heard about this and wrote Dr. Ricardo Salvador, director of the Food and Environment Program at UCS, the group behind this initiative.

He explained:

This got started (publicly, at least) with this note last summer to Biden (we continue to work with his team at EEOP, with whom we have regular meetings.) In that opening salvo you’ll see the broad categories on which our initial 170 members were able to agree. An example of how we’ve put this to use are our wedging labor issues into the farm bill debate, which as you know has steadfastly been resisted until now on grounds of jurisdiction. The pandemic’s meat processing horrors gave us traction. Just before the recess, we started to press collectively for the coherent set of reforms embodied in over 30 marker bills that would update the farm bill to more accurately reflect 21st century priorities. The farm bill extension is giving us extra time to work on this.

The history of farmer coalitions goes back a couple of hundred years in the United States to agrarian and grange movements.  But real farmers (as opposed to corporate) have been too small and too dispersed to gain enough political power to change the system.

The UCS project wants to work with farmers who have a real stake in federal policy and want to do something about it.

This is ambitious.  But UCS is going about this in an especially thoughtful way, which makes me think it has a change of succeeding where other attempts could not.

This effort deserves enthusiastic applause and support.

I will be watching what UCS and its grantees do with great interest.  Stay tuned.

Dec 5 2023

The COP-28 UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai—items

COP-28, the UN’s climate change conference is happening in Dubai, right now.

I’m trying to make sense of it.  For starters, the irony:

But food—the effects of agriculture on climate change (and vice versa) is on its agenda this year—a major big deal.

That’s why a coalition of farmers, communities, business, and philanthropy has issued a call to transform food systems.

Here’s my collection of food-related items.

I.  Food Tank’s Danielle Nierenberg is on the job: more than 30 Food Tank partnered events are scheduled.

Once again, four pavilions will be devoted to food systems: Food and Agriculture, led by our partners and friends at FAO, CGIAR, International Fund for Agricultural Development, and The Rockefeller Foundation; Food Systems, spearheaded by the European Union-backed program EIT Food and a variety of other groups including the Food and Land Use Coalition; Food4Climate, organized by a variety of partners—including youth voices—pushing for a more humane and sustainable food system; and the Sustainable Agriculture of the Americas Pavilion facilitated by IICA, bringing together the global north and south across the hemisphere.  You can read Food Tank’s coverage of the roadmap, which was announced last year, here.

IIFoodDive: Food system transformation on the menu at COP28

III.  Reuters: Countries urged to curb factory farming to meet climate goals

IV.  The lunch menu: The summit is featuries roughly two-thirds plant-based menu to highlight the link between greenhouse gas emissions and livestock.  But the meat industry is fighting  back.

V.  DeSmog: Big Meat Unveils Battle Plans for COP28

VI.  The Guardian: Plans to present meat as ‘sustainable nutrition’ at Cop28 revealed: Documents show industry intends to go ‘full force’ in arguing meat is beneficial to the environment at climate summit.

VII.  The Meat Institute

The Meat Institute and the Protein PACT for the People, Animals & Climate of Tomorrow will highlight animal agriculture’s commitments and progress toward global goals in multiple high-level engagements at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28) in Dubai November 30-December 12. The Protein PACT has organized or assisted with inviting expert speakers for six panels across five COP28 pavilions, including:

  • December 5 panel in the Food Pavilion, co-organized by IICA and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) on the topic of sustainable and healthy livestock production systems
  • December 6 panel in the IICA pavilion, organized by the ​​Canadian Alliance for Net-Zero Agri-food on the topic of achieving net zero in agrifood systems
  • December 8 panel in the IICA pavilion, organized by the Protein PACT on the topic of principles, practices, and proof for animal agriculture driving climate and food security solutions
  • December 9 panel in the IICA pavilion, co-organized by IICA and ILRI on the topic of innovation and investment in livestock systems for climate change adaptation and  mitigation

VIII.  International Dairy Federation & European Dairy Association side event: How Animal Source Food Nourishes The World In Times of Climate Change.

IX. Vox: There’s less meat at this year’s climate talks. But there’s plenty of bull.  Meat and dairy are driving the climate crisis. Why won’t world leaders at COP28 do anything about it?

X.  Food Navigator: on The Emirates Declaration.  Food is finally at the top table but measurable targets are missing.  Over 130 prime ministers and presidents have today signed the Emirates Declaration at COP28 – a first of its kind commitment to adapt and ‘transform’ food systems as part of action on the climate crisis…. Read more

Comment: The Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action is the firsr statement out of this meeting.  It doesn’t mention fossil fuels (the elephant in this particular room) or meat.  But it does propose:

1. Financial and technical support for sustainable solutions, capacity building, infrastructure, and innovations for farmers, fisherfolk, and other food producers.while conserving, protecting and restoring nature.

2. Promoting food security and nutrition.

3. Supporting workers in agriculture and food systems whose livelihoods are threatened by climate change.

4. Strengthening water management .

5. Conserving, protecting and restoring land and natural ecosystems, enhancing soil health, and biodiversity, and shifting from higher greenhouse
gas-emitting practices to more sustainable production and consumption approaches, including by reducing food loss and waste and promoting sustainable aquatic blue foods.

As for how and when?

To achieve these aims – according to our own national circumstances – we commit to expedite the integration of agriculture and food systems into our climate action and, simultaneously, to mainstream climate action across our policy agendas and actions related to agriculture and food

In the meantime, consider these:

What will it take to stop the impending disaster?  This has to be #1 on the advocacy agenda.

Nov 3 2023

Weekend reading: Farm Action’s analysis and policy recommendations

Farm Action, an organization devoted to stopping corporate agrocultural monopolies and building fair competition in rural America, has issued a short report, Balancing the US Agricuiltural Trade Deficit with Higher Value Food Crops.  

Its point (you have heard this from me repeatedly): the U.S. food system focuses on feed for animals and fuel for automobiles.  It ought to focus on food for people.

The current situation:

  • Most American farmland acreage is dedicated to animal feed and fuel production.
  • Over the last 5 years, American consumption of chicken and exports of pork continued to climb, increasing demand for soy, a key feed crop for pork and poultry.
  • Acreage of many key food crops including potatoes, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, tomatoes, apples, and oranges has fallen precipitously 20-90% from peaks in the 20th century.
  • Exports fell and imports rose for vegetables, fruits, melons, and key food grains.
  • Across produce items, the US was or became a net importer of all 5 of the top vegetables by 2021.

What can be done:

  • At 2022 prices, just 3.5-4.4 million acres of higher value fruit, vegetables, and melons would be needed to generate $32.9B in sales, the 2022 size of the US produce trade deficit and more than the projected $27.5B
    overall ag deficit projected for 2024—this amounts to just 0.4% of US farmland.
  • This could be accomplished by approximately doubling the amount of land currently harvested for these crops.

Policy (Legislative) recommendations for farmers who grow food for people:

  • Improve crop insurance and risk management
  • Expand market access

These analyses make these fixes look easy.  Make them happen!

Oct 6 2023

Weekend reading: the cost of growing Romaine lettuce in California

Every now and then I run across a report about something I know absolutely nothing about but wish I did, and this is one of them—an analysis from the University of California on Sample Costs to Produce and Harvest Romaine Hearts Lettuce.

I’m particularly interested in Romaine because it is one of those foods that turns up frequently in food poisoning incidents.  Why?  Because in California and Arizona it is often grown in close proximity to Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), as shown in the Netflix film, Poisoned, in which I appear briefly.

Bill Marler, the lawyer featured in the film, does not eat bagged Romaine.  Neither do I.

The cost analysis, which concludes that it takes about $17,000 an acre to produce Romaine, does not factor in fmeasures to assure safety.

But what it does consider is impressive.  Here is just the first part of a Table that continues well into another page.

I would not have guessed.

I grow Romaine lettuce in pots on my Manhattan terrace.  All I pay for is seeds.  I’ve never gotten sick from eating it.

Apparently, industrial lettuce is an entirely different matter.

Enjoy the weekend!