by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Apr 21 2020

USDA announces COVID-19 food assistance

The USDA has established a new Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP).

This has $19 billion to distribute to farmers, ranchers, and consumers.

Cutting through the rhetoric, the new program has two parts:

  1. Direct Support to Farmers and Ranchers—$16 billion: for direct support and marketing costs.  [Note: producers say this is not enough].
  2. USDA Purchase and Distribution—$3 billion: for buying fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and meat products at the rate of $100 million per month, each.  “The distributors and wholesalers will then provide a pre-approved box of fresh produce, dairy, and meat products to food banks, community and faith based organizations, and other non-profits serving Americans in need.”  [Note: Fruit and vegetable producers say this is not enough].

In addition, the USDA says it will:

  • Allocate $873.3 million to purchase a variety of agricultural products for distribution to food banks, as determined by industry requests, USDA agricultural market analysis, and food bank needs.
  • Under previous acts, allocate $850 million for food bank administrative costs and USDA food purchases, of which a minimum of $600 million will be designated for food purchases, as determined by food bank need and product availability.

Comment 

  • The bulk of this program goes to Big Ag—on top of the $22 billion or so Big Ag got in compensation for trade losses last year.
  • The much smaller Purchase and Distribution program is to deal with the shocking problem of producers destroying foods while hungry people line up for food distribution from food banks overwhelmed by the demand.
  • USDA is using this to reinstate its “harvest box” proposals as a means to replace SNAP benefits.
  • USDA is not backing off from its other long-term strategy to do all it can to reduce SNAP enrollments and benefits, or from Trump Administration public charge policies that put anyone who is not a citizen at risk of never getting citizenship or of deportation if they apply for public benefits.
  • These measures are expensive band-aids.  They do not address fundamental flaws in agricultural support programs.
  • Maybe this crisis will at last cause Congress to start supporting sustainable, resiliant agriculture?  Hey, I can dream.

Here is everything else the USDA says it is doing

the USDA announcement also says what it is already doing  “to make sure children and families are fed during a time of school closures and job losses, as well as increase flexibilities and extensions in USDA’s farm programs to ensure the U.S. food supply chain remains safe and secure.”  What follows is a direct quote.

Feeding Kids and Families

  • USDA expanded flexibilities and waivers in all 50 states and territories to ensure kids and families who need food can get it during this national emergency.
  • USDA is partnering with the Baylor Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, McLane Global, PepsiCo, and others to deliver more than 1,000,000 meals a week to students in a limited number of rural schools closed due to COVID-19.
  • USDA authorized Pandemic EBT in Michigan and Rhode Island, a supplemental food purchasing benefit to current SNAP participants and as a new EBT benefit to other eligible households to offset the cost of meals that would have otherwise been consumed at school.
  • USDA expanded an innovative SNAP online grocery purchase pilot program in Arizona and CaliforniaFlorida and Idaho, and DC and North Carolina, in addition to Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, New York, Oregon and Washington.

Actions to Ensure a Strong Food Supply Chain

Whole of Government Response in Rural America

  • USDA released The COVID-19 Federal Rural Resource Guide (PDF, 349 KB), a first-of-its-kind resource for rural leaders looking for federal funding and partnership opportunities to help address this pandemic.
  • USDA opened a second application window (April 14, 2020 to July 13, 2020) for $72 million of funding under the Distance Learning and Telemedicine (DLT) grant program.
  • USDA Rural Development lenders may offer 180-day loan payment deferrals without prior agency approval for Business and Industry Loan Guarantees, Rural Energy for America Program Loan Guarantees, Community Facilities Loan Guarantees, and Water and Waste Disposal Loan Guarantees.
  • USDA will use the $100 million provided for the ReConnect Program in the CARES Act to invest in qualified 100 percent grant projects.

For all the information on USDA’s work during the COVID-19 pandemic and resources available, please visit www.usda.gov/coronavirus.

 

 

Apr 9 2020

Food and Coronavirus continued: food dumping and other reminders of the Great Depression

The Miami Herald reports that millions of pounds of fresh produce are being left to die on the vine or plowed under because the shutdown of the hospitality industry — restaurants, cruise ships, schools, airlines, and theme parks — has reduced demand.

Harvesting that fruit can cost more than twice as much as simply razing it. Workers who usually make between $15-$17 an hour, paid by the amount they pick, instead earn minimum wage doing field work.  So one million pounds of green beans and four million pounds of cabbage at R.C. Hatton will be churned into mulch in the next few days.

Dairy farmers in New York are dumping milk:

Grimshaw Farms in Henderson, New York milks about 300 cows. This week they’ve dumped 30,000 pounds of milk. “We are being told there is too much milk on the market,” Grimshaw shared on Facebook. “This is very strange when we are being told many milk shelves across the country are empty. Sure hope we can remain in business after these trying times.”

So are dairy farmers in Wisconsin,who used to sell most of their milk to schools, restaurants, and food service companies.

The Wisconsin dairy industry has been dealt a harsh blow from the economy that’s been slammed by coronavirus shutdowns. About one-third of the state’s dairy products, mostly cheese, are sold in the food-service trade.

And here is a letter from Gene McAvoy of the University of Florida’s Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences detailing what he has been hearing from growers about food dumping and losses.  This is a brief excerpt; it’s worth reading all of it.

On Tuesday, March 24, a local broker says, everything changed. From brokers, orders stopped and everything got quiet. Wednesday, the 25th, super-quiet.  Since then tomato volumes are down 85 percent, green beans are like 50 percent, cabbage is like 50 percent.  R.C. Hatton has plowed under 100 acres of green beans, around 2 million pounds, and 60 acres of cabbage, or 5 million pounds.  Florida’s tomato growers target 80% of their production to restaurants and other food service companies, rather than to supermarkets.   In this sector, growers are walking away from big portions of their crop. Tony DiMare estimates that by the end of the growing season, about 10 million pounds of his tomatoes will go unpicked.

Wait!  I’ve read this before!  I wrote the foreword to the updated edition of Janet Poppendieck’s “Breadlines Knee-Deep in Wheat: Food Assistance in the Great Depression.

Then, the public was so appalled by farmers’ destroying food while hungry people were lining up for food handouts that the federal government had to respond.  That’s when it authorized food assistance programs, among them food stamps (now SNAP).  This program was designed originally to help farmers as well as the poor.  Poppendieck’s book explains how small farmers got left out of those policies, a decision that haunts us to this day.

So here we are with farmers destroying food and New York City providing free meals to anyone who needs one (see my post on this).

Will all this produce a much stronger safety net for everyone who has been put out of work by this crisis or is paid too poorly to survive?

Will this at last lead to agricultural policies that support small and mid-size dairy farms and farms in general? 

If COVID-19 has done anything beyond making people sick, it has made these needs clear.

Apr 4 2020

America’s farms: a snapshot

The USDA has just issued its 2019 report on America’s Farms.

Its main observations:

In a nutshell:

If we want land conserved, we had best hang onto small farms:

Mar 31 2020

What does $2 Trillion do for US Food Systems? (Not much, alas)

President Trump’s $2 Trillion relief package is the “Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act of 2020.’’

This 880-page (!) bill addresses food systems in several ways, most of them in “Title I Agricultural Programs” which starts on page 609 like this:.

For an additional amount for the ‘‘Office of the Secretary’’, $9,500,000,000, to remain available until expended, to prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus by providing support for agricultural producers impacted by coronavirus, including producers of specialty crops, producers that supply local food systems, including farmers markets, restaurants, and schools, and livestock producers, including dairy producers: Provided, That such amount is designated by the Congress as being for an emergency requirement pursuant to section 22 251(b)(2)(A)(i) of the Balanced Budget and Emergency 23 Deficit Control Act of 1985.

This sounds good (in Ag-speak, specialty crops are fruits and vegetables), but what this means in practice, according to the New York Times, is

  • About $23.5 billion in assistance to farmers ($9.5 in subsidies, $14 in borrowing authority)

But this will go mainly to soy and corn producers, key Trump constituents in an election year.  This amount follows nearly $26 billion in aid already provided to offset losses from the China trade war.  This new funds exceed USDA’s entire discretionary budget request for next year.  The USDA Secretary may allocate the funds as he wishes, with no oversight.

So much for welfare for the rich.

As for the poor, the bill provides

  • About $25 billion for food assistance (domestic food programs $8.8 billion, SNAP $15.8 billion).

This too sounds like a lot but all it does is account for the expected increase in demand from people newly out of work.  It does not in any way increase the amount that individuals and families receive.

How did this happen?  Chalk it up to effective lobbying by agribusiness.

The gains for agribusiness were accomplished, says the Times, by “A small army of groups mounted the fast-moving campaign for aid, including the politically powerful American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. Joining them were other smaller players representing producers of goods like turkey, pork and potatoes or sunflowers, sorghum, peanuts and eggs.”

Earlier, Politico reported that nearly 50 organizations representing farmers, equipment manufacturers and agricultural lenders sent a letter stating their needs as a result of declining demand from school and restaurant shutdowns and direct-to-consumer sales.

The bill does little to help the folks who most need help.  Anti-hunger groups tried, but failed.

Poor people need to vote.  And organize.

Mar 20 2020

Weekend reading: USDA’s food and agriculture charts

In this strange era of social distancing, I am catching up on items of interest, this one on USDA’s Selected Charts from Ag and Food Statistics, published in February this year.

These cover the ag and food sectors, the rural economy, land and natural resources, farm income, production, food spending and prices,  food consumption, trade, and food security.

I love charts.  These are especially informative (and date from when USDA’s Economic Research Service was still functional).

Examples:

This is one reason why China is so important to our food economy.

And here’s why the current Coronavirus crisis will be so tough on the restaurant industry:

At a glance, we can see what dietary recommendations ought to be saying, although the grouping together of meat, eggs, and nuts is not particularly helpful in understanding what’s going on here.

 

The other charts—there are lots of them—are worth a look and have much to teach.  They make me even sadder about the loss of two-thirds of ERS staff when USDA moved the agency to Kansas City.

Feb 12 2020

RIP Chlorpyrifos (well, almost)

Corteva Agroscience, the big agribiz company formed last year by merging much of Dow, DuPont and Pioneer, has apparently announced that it will cease producing chlorpyrifos.

Chlorpyrifos, according to the EPA, is “an organophosphate insecticide…used primarily to control foliage and soil-borne insect pests on a variety of food and feed crops.”  It is telling that the EPA’s definition fails to mention that this chemical has been linked to neurodevelopmental problems in children.

As the Washington Post explains,

Corteva Agriscience, the nation’s largest producer of chlorpyrifos, said the decision was driven by financial considerations, not safety concerns. “It’s a tough decision forW us to make, but we don’t feel like it’s viable going forward,” Susanne Wasson, Corteva’s president of crop protection, said in an interview. “It was a business decision.”  The announcement came the same day that California, a leading agricultural state, made it illegal to sell chlorphyrifos. It is one of a growing number of states that have moved to block the pesticide from the market.

This is big news. 

Last year, in an action considered a victory for the chemical industry, the EPA refused to ban chlorpyrifos.

The New York Times explained

The Trump administration took a major step to weaken the regulation of toxic chemicals on Thursday when the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would not ban a widely used pesticide that its own experts have linked to serious health problems in children.  The decision by Andrew R. Wheeler, the E.P.A. administrator, represents a victory for the chemical industry and for farmers who have lobbied to continue using the substance, chlorpyrifos, arguing it is necessary to protect crops.

The EPA’s decision reversed one made by the Obama administration, which banned chlorpyrifos in 2015 on the basis of the EPA’s own studies linking the chemical to impaired brain development in children.

Advocates for banning chlorpyrifos are not breaking out the champagne.  They say they still have work to do.  Other makers are still producing it.

Still, this has to be a win for the advocacy groups that have long been working hard to get rid of chlorpyrifos.

They deserve our congratulations and enthusiastic support.

Jan 31 2020

Weekend reading: the new immigrant farmers

Laura-Anne Minkoff-Zern.  The New American Farmer: Immigration, Race, and the Struggle for Sustainability.  MIT Press, 2019.

This book is a study of Mexican-American farmers: who they are, what they do, and why and how they farm the way they do.  The author visited farms and interviewed farmers in California, Washington, Virginia, New York, and Minnesota.

In my research, I have found that throughout the United States, there are pockets of first-generation Mexican immigrant farmers who, unlike the majority of farmers in the United States, use a combination of what have been identified as alternative farming techniques.  This includes simultaneously growing multiple crops (from four to hundreds), using integrated pest management techniques, maintaining small-scale production (ranging from three to eighty acres, with most between ten and twenty, employing mostly family labor, and selling directly at farmers markets to their local communities or regional wholesale distributors….Immigrant farmers are filling unmet gaps in knowledge and labor as they ascend to farrm ownership….

 

Dec 17 2019

What does Brexit mean for food and agriculture?

The election in the UK last week means that plans for Brexit will go forward (although the how and when are a wait-and-see).

I have been curious to know how Brexit would affect the UK’s food and agriculture systems.  A quick search turned up a Parliament briefing paper: “Brexit: Trade issues for food and agriculture.”

Its summary mentions these issues:

  • Only 61% of the food eaten in the UK is produced in the UK.  Of imported food, 70% comes from the EU.
  • The UK exported £22 billion in food, feed, and drink in 2018; two-thirds of that is exported to the EU.
  • Trade between EU members is tariff-free.  A UK-EU free trade agreement will have to be negotiated.
  • To continue trading with the EU, the UK would have to demonstrate compliance with EU food and safety standards.
  • UK exports might have to undergo additional animal and plant health checks at UK-EU borders.

Other sources mention additional issues:

There may be an upside, but I had to dig to find anyone hopeful of a silver lining.

The UK has an unprecedented opportunity, in the context of Brexit, to equip its food system
to withstand these challenges, but the transition will need to be managed carefully. Any
reconfiguration will first need to understand and take account of what citizens and consumers
value most about the food system. Second, a UK-wide and cross-government approach will be
necessary to foster a holistic, profitable, healthy and sustainable food system for all.