by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

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.

Dec 11 2019

Food corporations recognize need to improve their practices: a glimmer of hope?

I have a subscription to Politico’s Morning Agriculture daily newsletter, an invaluable source of information about doings in Washington DC that I would not otherwise know about.

Politico’s business model usually blocks access to articles from non-subscribers, which makes it difficult to refer to articles that you will not be able to read for yourself.  Sometimes I can find other sources for the same information, but not always.

Nevertheless, I want to point you to two recent Politico articles about how food corporations are getting together to jointly try to improve their production and supply chain practices.

Chocolate companies

The first was about how three large chocolate firms— Mars Wrigley, Mondelēz and Barry Callebaut—have called on the European Union to promote sustainable cocoa production and to enact regulations that will stop environmental and human rights abuses in production.

According to Politico’s behind-a-paywall article,

The Commission declined to comment on the corporates’ move but officials are considering due diligence schemes, market controls and product labeling with a possibility of specific measures for commodities such as soy, palm oil and beef.

Cocoa is a major driver of deforestation and human rights abuses, including child labor, in countries such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which together account for around two-thirds of global production.

Effects of agriculture on climate change

Politico, happily, released this magazine-length article titled “How a closed-door meeting shows farmers are waking up on climate change,” for open access.  It ought to win prizes for its author, Helena Bottemiller Evich.

In it, she describes how Big Ag companies, high-level US agricultural officials, and CEOs of major food companies are not only talking about climate change, but recognizing that they have to act to prevent it.

But that’s not all:

In Nebraska, farmers are exploring ways to reorient their farms to focus on rebuilding soil and sequestering carbon — a buzzy concept known as regenerative agriculture. In Florida, where rising sea levels are not a hypothetical discussion, farmers and ranchers have recently launched a working group to discuss climate change and how agriculture can help. Similar groups have cropped up in North Carolina, Ohio and Missouri and more states are expected to follow. In Iowa, faith leaders have been engaging farmers on the topic, hosting discussion groups in churches and building a network of farmers who are comfortable speaking publicly about climate change, whether it’s telling their story to reporters or 2020 Democratic candidates.

This is happening despite the politics of climate change.

Rural communities tend to be overwhelmingly Republican, which is one reason why talking about climate change has been politically taboo. It’s seen as a Democrat thing. Dig a little further, though, and the resistance runs much deeper than party politics. In many ways, climate change denial has become a proxy for rural Americans to push back against out-of-touch urbanites, meddlesome environmentalists and alarmist liberals who are seen as trying to impose their will on small towns and farming communities they do not understand.

Recognition of a problem is a necessary first step to getting it fixed.

Many of these companies are increasingly recognizing they can’t meet their goals without significant changes to farming practices at the base of their supply chains.

Yes!

This article is worth reading in its entirety.  It offers glimmers of hope that Big Ag and Big Food will change their practices and embrace sustainability and regenerative agriculture.

Our job?  To push them to change and cheer them on when they do.

 

 

 

Dec 4 2019

U.S. agriculture policies are a mess: trade, tariffs, payments

Food trade is a mess right now, but I keep trying to keep up with it.  Here are some recent items that caught my attention..

Trade deals dump U.S. junk foods in Central America.  The University of Buffalo sent out a press release about a study of the effects of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) on dietary practices in that country.

Our analysis demonstrates that low-income consumers face increasing household food expenditures in a context of overall food price inflation, in addition to relatively higher price increases for healthy versus ultraprocessed foods. Neoliberal policies not only contribute to restructuring the availability and pricing of healthy food for low-income consumers, but they also exacerbate social inequality in the food system through corporate-controlled supply chains and farmer displacement.

Current tariff policies threaten nearly 1.5 million jobs and raise prices.   This is the conclusion of a 75-page report conducted by economic consulting firm BST Associates .

A new study commissioned by the Port of Los Angeles finds that U.S. tariffs put nearly 1.5 million American jobs and more than $185 billion in economic activity at risk nationwide – based solely on the impact of tariffs on cargo handled in the San Pedro Bay port complex….China is the primary target of the Trump administration’s tariff policy, and Chinese producers account for about half of the imports passing through San Pedro Bay. Chinese retaliatory tariffs affect China-bound American exports, and Chinese buyers account for nearly a third of the American products headed overseas out of LA and Long Beach…“With 25 percent fewer ship calls, 12 consecutive months of declining exports and now decreasing imports, we’re beginning to feel the far-reaching effects of the U.S.-China trade war…With the holiday season upon us, less cargo means fewer jobs for American workers.”

The USDA has released the second collection of payments compensating agriculture for losses due to the trade war with China.  This comes to more than $14 billion on this round.  This is on top of the previous $9 billion already paid.  All of this is way beyond what the Farm Bill authorizes in agricultural support.  Supporting Big Ag this way sets an expensive precedent.  And guess where the payments are going.  To “a bundle of states that are essential to his re-election chances,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

As for why those payments are needed:  USDA’s complicated-to-read economic report explains how farm debt is increasing and income decreasing.  As the Des Moines Register reports, Iowa’s farm debt reached $18.9 billion in the second quarter of 2019—the highest level in the nation.  USDA’s farm income and wealth statistics are here.

In the meantime, what’s happening to small farms?  They face extinction, according to Time Magazine.

A mess indeed.  Fixable?  Only with political will.  It’s hard to be optimistic at this point.

Oct 29 2019

Who gets trade aid? Big Ag, of course.

I’m catching up on posts put on hold for quieter times.  Here’s one that’s worth a look.

The Environmental Working Group’s analysis finds that more than half of the $8.4 billion aid meant to compensate farmers for the loss of export sales went to the top 10% of farmers.  Check this for yourself in the EWG Farm Subsidy Database.

The  Farm Bill Law Enterprise points out that almost all of it went to white farmers.

Nearly 250 farms received more than $375,000 — the highest amount permitted — out of a total of more than 550,000 recipients.

Politico wrote about the second round of trade aid:

USDA last week rolled out details of the new $16 billion package, an estimated $14.5 billion of which will be sent to farmers in the form of direct payments…under trade aid 2.0, it will be easier for farmers to collect more money. USDA raised the payment limit to $500,000 per person or legal entity, and also loosened a means test that had disqualified farmers earning more than $900,000 a year in adjusted gross income from receiving assistance under the 2018 program. Those earning above that threshold can collect trade aid this year as long as 75 percent of their income comes from agriculture, a change Congress directed in recently enacted disaster-aid legislation.

The Politico article notes that farms are legally allowed to get around payment caps.  Multiple family members or business partners can receive subsidies as long as they appear to be “actively engaged” in the operation.

Politico cites one example from the EWG database: “The top recipient of 2018 trade assistance, DeLine Farms, registered three partnerships at the same address and collected $2.8 million.”

Comment: This is a rigged system that could not be better designed to put small farms out of business.

Oct 11 2019

Weekend reading: World Resources Report

The World Resources Institute has issued its final report on Creating a Sustainable Food Future.

The report addresses the central dilemma of our time: how to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050 without destroying the planet in the process.

The report takes a deep dive into potential solutions:

  • Reduce demand
  • Increase production
  • Protect national ecosystems
  • Increase fish supply
  • Reduce greenhouse gases produced by agriculture
  • Policy options

This report deals with these issues, none of them simple, in more than 550 pages.  It offers no simple solutions.  Dealing with this dilemma will take a great many actions by a great many people, governments, and industry.  The report sets the agenda.  Now it’s our turn.