by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: 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.


May 17 2017

Politico interviews Western Growers’ CEO about immigration reform

Politico Morning Agriculture’s Jason Huffman interviewed Tom Nassif, the CEO of the Western Growers a couple of days ago.  Nassif represents this trade association for industrial agricultural producers in the West and Southwest.  He discusses how immigration issues affect farm labor from the perspective of producers.

I can’t find this interview on either the Politico or Western Growers’ websites, but think it’s worth a read.  I’ve highlighted some of the key parts in red.

How quickly does the produce industry need immigration reform and what will the consequences be if something doesn’t get done in the next year or so?

It’s something we need to get done immediately, but we know, from our negotiations of the 2013 Senate bill, that it’ll probably take three years from the time it’s enacted for it to be implemented. Now maybe that can be condensed a bit and we’re further along with H-2A and with E-verify then we were before, but the fact is that the labor shortages we had for the last decade are now being severely exacerbated by the lack of foreign labor willing and interested in coming to the United States or in some cases even staying in the United States.

How in danger are produce growers of being put out of business by the current labor situation?

I think several of the smaller to midsize operators are in danger of either having to cease farming or sell their operations to larger producers who have the wherewithal to withstand some of the things that are happening because they are able to invest in and develop more mechanical harvesting and other robotic operations. In many cases it will take the farmer a million dollars or more just to develop a harvesting machine for a particular commodity.

You mentioned the so-called 2013 Gang of Eight legislation. Why has Congress not been able to bring up another bill like this since?

For a couple reasons. It was clear that the House of Representatives, when we passed the Senate bill in 2013, had absolutely no interest in passing an immigration bill, although the Judiciary Committee tried to get one passed. There really wasn’t interest by some of the Republicans in having anything that could possibly lead to a conference with the Senate bill. I think that’s why they never passed even a border enforcement bill, which we know has been a key point, certainly in this last election and for this administration. Then we had an election, and nothing was going to get done. Everybody wanted to wait to see what happened with the ratio of Senate and House members and the new president.

What’s different about the environment now that we simply can’t roll back out the 2013 bill?

The difference is that President Donald Trump made immigration a centerpiece of his campaign and, since he’s been in office, it has remained one of the more widely discussed issues and topics that has to be addressed. The administration has been focused mainly on border protection and interior enforcement more so than it has been on developing a program for existing workers or guest workers. But since these other measures are taking place, and because the president has said, either directly or through others in his cabinet, including Secretary [Sonny] Perdue, that he understands the need of the agricultural community for farm workers. He wants the industry to flourish and he is not targeting farm workers, even those who have come here illegally. He’s targeting those people who have committed crimes in addition to coming here illegally, especially dangerous felons and people who would threaten our national security.

So would enforcement have to be part of any immigration reform legislation in order to get passed by Congress?

I believe these issues all would have to be addressed in addition to what we did in 2013. For agriculture, the 2013 Senate bill — although there were a lot of things we didn’t like — was an excellent bill for agriculture, and what we now have to convince legislators of is, although they have political considerations to take into account, that agriculture’s position is not partisan, it’s economic. We’re obviously willing to pay higher wages, as you’ve seen the wages escalate in California alone. The average wage is $12 or $13 per hour in California, far more than the minimum wage, but we’re not getting more farm workers, we’re just having farm workers play musical chairs, from Farmer A to Farmer B, to get a little bit better deal on wages or on benefits.

Some people say farmers just have to pay more for their labor.

Anyone who is an enlightened observer of immigration reform and agriculture knows that’s not true. Wages have continually gone up. And the supply of labor keeps diminishing. … It’s not the wages, it’s the work. This is a difficult job. This is seasonal. This is migratory. This is not full time. This requires people to be away from their families. So that’s not very attractive work. And money alone isn’t going to do it, because farm workers aren’t raising their kids to be farm workers and certainly people here lawfully in the United States are not willing to do that kind of work when they have so many economic opportunities. As you know, Mexico is now importing farm workers [from other countries], because even in Mexico they are seeing better economic opportunities than being a farm worker.

There have been several bills introduced already in the new Congress that would address different aspects of immigration reform. Are there any components of these bills that are workable for the ag industry?

While the bills [that have been introduced by the current Congress] address certain needs for immigration, I don’t believe they have any chance of passing because they have to be part of a more complete immigration bill. I know that Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein [D-Calif.] in our 2013 bill recalled the “blue card” provision which allowed our existing workers who had come to us with false documents if they had worked the last couple of years before the enactment of the legislation and continue to work three to five years, depending on the number of hours they worked, that they would have a pathway to a green card. And in the meantime they would be considered “blue card” holders. That was an important bill because we are very concerned about existing workers. But will a bill introduced by only one party, the Democratic Party, that asks for a path to citizenship be something the Republicans are likely to pass? I think that’s highly doubtful. But there are important pieces of the entire puzzle that we need to put together so we can look at the whole picture.

Is there a particular type of lawmaker needed to introduce the bill you want?

Obviously, it has to be someone who has the respect of the [Republican] party and someone who understands the industry and its concerns. It has to be someone who understands what’s possible to get passed in a committee or on the floor and, we would hope, someone who believes that what is negotiated in the House may be modified if the Senate passes a different bill. It has to be someone who truly wants to see immigration reform done and understands how desperate our labor situation is, especially in the produce industry.

Is there anything the administration can do without legislation to help the problem?

Clearly we’ve been trying to get changes in H-2A, though we are hopeful, with new secretaries of Labor and Agriculture, that we are going to be able to get H-2A reform. If it takes three years to implement a new immigration bill, the only thing we are going to have is H-2A. The program has to be more economical and speedier. We now have to go through four agencies — the state workforce agency, the Department of Labor, the Department of State, the Department of Homeland Security — and by the time each one does their thing separately … If we could just get them to act concurrently instead of consecutively, and get those timetables done, we’d have a much better chance of getting these workers when we need them. Because we have to file these papers months in advance of our season, the farmer has to guess what the weather is going to be like, and that’s an impossible situation. We can’t have workers appear in our fields after the time for harvest. Because we have to have housing, we also have to have that inspected before we can get our workforce approved.

Mar 27 2017

Our prospective USDA Secretary, Sonny Perdue

I’m traveling and having a hard time keeping up with all the input on Sonny Perdue, the nominee for USDA secretary who doesn’t seem to be encountering much trouble from Congress.

Here’s what I’ve collected so far.

The New York Times summarizes Perdue’s ethics problems while governor of Georgia.  He held onto four farming operations and at least 13 ethics complaints were filed against him.

The Environmental Working Group says its investigations reveal that from 2003 to 2010, Perdue:

  • Refused to put his businesses in a blind trust.
  • Signed state tax legislation that gave him a $100,000 tax break on a land deal.
  • Received gifts from lobbyists after signing a sweeping order to ban such gifts.
  • Filled state agencies and boards with business partners and political donors.
  • Allocated state funds to projects that benefited companies he created after his time in office.
  • Took joy rides in state helicopters.

And from 1996 to 2004, Perdue received more than $278,000 in federal farm subsidies.

Civil Eats and MapLight say that Perdue does not like regulations: 

Emails obtained by MapLight suggest Perdue was more preoccupied by the potential for government regulation than the possibility of more sick children.

Here’s the paperwork he submitted for his congressional hearing.

Politico, which has been covering the nomination process closely, says that in Perdue’s congressional hearing,

Perdue “pledged that he would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Trump administration’s top trade negotiators to ensure that U.S. agriculture, which is extremely reliant on exports, doesn’t get shortchanged by trade shakeups or any of the new bilateral deals the president wants to pursue. He committed to fighting to protect key rural and farm programs from the administration’s proposed budget cuts and to working to make sure farmers have an adequate supply of foreign workers to harvest their crops despite the administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants,” the Pro Ag team added. Perdue also said he’s “absolutely committed” to addressing the struggles of America’s dairy farmers ahead of the 2018 farm bill.

Politico also commented on what Perdue said during his hearing:

“Agriculture is in my heart, and I look forward to fighting for the producers of America,” Perdue told the committee. “I will absolutely be an advocate and a fighter, where necessary.”

Perdue, who wore a tie with tractors on it and often drew on his experience of being raised on a farm in Georgia, pledged that he would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Trump administration’s top trade negotiators to ensure that U.S. agriculture, which is extremely reliant on exports, doesn’t get shortchanged by trade shakeups or any of the new bilateral deals the president wants to pursue. He committed to fighting to protect key rural and farm programs from the administration’s proposed budget cuts and to working to make sure farmers have an adequate supply of foreign workers to harvest their crops despite the administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

Politico also summarized some of the coverage

  • Democrats in Georgia are hoping Democratic senators on Capitol Hill will bring up Perdue’s controversial role in a debate over state use of the Confederate battle flag. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution has it here.
  • WSJ has focused on Perdue’s record on anti-poverty policies and what it could mean for food stamps here.
  • Cosmopolitan (yes, Cosmopolitan) has rounded up 10 things to know about Perdue here.

Everyone expects his appointment to go through.

Addition: I somehow missed Ian Kullgren’s analysis in Politico a couple of weeks ago.  Worth a read

Mar 3 2017

Weekend Reading: Letters to a Young Farmer

Martha Hodgkins, ed.  Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future.  Princeton Architectural Press, 2017.

This publication is from the Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture.  Its executive director, Jill Isenbarger, explains what it is:

Letters to a Young Farmer, written by some of the most influential farmers, writers, leaders, and entrepreneurs of our time, offers advice, observations, gratitude, and a measure of harsh reality.  Farming is a difficult endeavor and an arduous undertaking at best, yet farming remains one of the most important, tangible, and meaningful things one can do to improve human and environmental health and community well-being.  And it is vital to our future.

The book contains 36 letters, all inspiring.  One of them is mine (you can read it here).

Feb 27 2017

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas)

The chair of the House Ag Committee , Mike Conaway from Texas, provides his votes on issues summarized in a handy chart.  ‘

According to Politico, his opinion on whether SNAP should omit sugary beverages is unclear, although

He did offer his take on sugar-sweetened drinks: “Sugary drinks have a clear impact on people’s health, but if we eliminated them off the face of the earth, I don’t know that obesity rates would be any different.”

And then there’s The Food Marketing Institute , which posted this appreciative tweet:*