by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Jun 8 2017

What’s up with trade in agriculture?

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue says this about our new “trade breakthrough” with China:

This is tremendous news for the American beef industry, the agriculture community, and the U.S. economy in general.  We will once again have access to the enormous Chinese market, with a strong and growing middle class, which had been closed to our ranchers for a long, long time. .. When the Chinese people taste our high-quality U.S. beef, there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll want more of it.”

Why “breakthrough”?  China refused to buy US beef after a case of mad cow disease turned up.

The  point of US trade policy is to have open markets for our products.  USDA has a quick summary of our current balance of trade.  We are doing pretty well with it.

And here’s why:

Hence: Selling beef to China should up those numbers.

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 18 2017

U.S. agriculture at a glance: USDA’s charts

USDA’s charts make it easy to understand basic aspects of farming in the United States.  This one covers about 175 years of American history.   The number of farms fell fast after the end of World War II and is still declining, while the size of farms increased.

Where are the jobs in the food and agriculture industries?  Mostly in food and beverage service and stores.

Farming?  A mere 1.4%.

May 16 2017

Let’s help protect and strengthen our favorite USDA agencies

I’m indebted to Jerry Hagstrom’s Hagstrom Report for letting me know about USDA’s new reorganization plan.

We get to file comments on the reorganization.

Now is our chance to tell this administration how important USDA agencies are and why they need to be strengthened.

Reading through the list makes me realize how many of USDA’s agencies do work that I admire and use frequently.

Reform?  Yes!

Ask for more resources for all of them!


  • Agricultural Research Service
  • Economic Research Service
  • National Agricultural Library
  • National Agriculture Statistics Service


  • Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion

Food assistance and school meals

  • Food and Nutrition Service

Food safety

  • Food Safety and Inspection Service

Here are the relevant documents.  Let’s look at this as an opportunity to protect and strengthen these critically important agencies.

Addition: A reader writes: “Meanwhile in Iowa the legislature voted to eliminate the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. Governor Bransted did a line item veto and saved it sort of. Looks like it can live on in name only.  And the top scientist at the USDA probably won’t be a scientist.”

May 15 2017

What fruits and vegetables do Americans eat? More charts from USDA

I love USDA’s charts of food and agriculture statistics because they tell most of the story at a glance.

These are based on USDA’s compilations of foods produced in the U.S. plus imports, less exports, divided by the total population.

The most commonly consumed vegetable?  Potatoes by a long shot (think: French fries).  Next comes tomatoes (pizza).  Variety anyone?

How about fruit?  Oranges, apples, bananas.   Really, can’t we be more adventurous?

Apr 27 2017

Does the USDA promote and support scientific integrity?

I was interested to read a discussion by PEER (Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility) of a report from USDA’s Inspector General on a survey of the research climate within the agency.

The USDA did the survey after

Dr. Jon Lundgren, one of USDA’s top entomologists represented by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), publicly complained of political suppression of research linking potent new insecticides pushed by agribusiness with declines in wild pollinators, such as monarch butterflies.

The Survey of USDA Scientists Regarding Scientific Integrity produced either good or bad news, depending on how you look at it.  The USDA says that the vast majority of scientists reported no problems; only 2%-3% reported problems:

  • Most scientists have not had problems with scientific integrity in their research in recent years…29 scientists (2 percent) indicated that entities external to USDA had pressured them to alter their work and 42 scientists (3 percent) indicated a Department official had pressured them to omit or significantly alter their research findings for reasons other than technical merit.
  • Of those scientists who felt pressure to alter their research (referenced in the previous bullet), most did not report the incident because of fear of retaliation, reprimand, and reprisal.

The Washington Post says:

Nearly 40 percent didn’t bother to take the survey…Of those who did, more than half said they didn’t know how to file a complaint and some said they didn’t do so because they feared retaliation.

PEER notes that 41% of the scientists asked to fill out the survey failed to do so.  Of those who did fill it out,

nearly one-tenth report their research findings have “been altered or suppressed for reasons other than technical merit.” However, not one filed a Scientific Integrity complaint. Most (60%) confess they did not know how to file a complaint….[and] A majority of respondents (51%) do not think that USDA strongly promotes scientific integrity or refused to venture an opinion.

PEER points out that

nearly three-quarters (74%) of the responding scientists say agency management flags certain research areas as “sensitive/controversial,” with climate change, pollinator health, and anti-microbial resistance as the leading hot button topics. As one scientist commented “subtle tampering is common: with interpretations on politically sensitive topics, whether and how we address a certain research question, how we interpret our findings for the public are all interfered with on occasion.”

The PEER document collection


PEER and US Right to know have filed separate petitions to USDA to protect its researchers







Apr 25 2017

What’s the fuss about GIPSA rules?

The USDA has just agreed to delay its controversial GIPSA rules which were supposed to go into effect this week but are now delayed until October.

GIPSA stands for USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration.

USDA calls them “Farmer Fair Practices Rules.”

But the meat industry calls them “disaster rules.”

Like everything else having to do with agricultural policy, the rules are next-to-impossible for outsiders to understand.  I’m using the USDA’s lengthy Q and A as a starting point.

The rules are designed to protect poultry producers who work under contract with highly concentrated chicken and turkey processors who monopolize the market.

As the USDA puts it, “processors can often wield market power over the growers, treating them unfairly, suppressing how much they are paid, and pitting them against each other.”

Furthermore, processors retaliate against growers who object to these unfair practices.

The GIPSA rules are supposed to

  • Strengthen enforcement of existing fair-to-farmer regulations
  • Establish criteria for determining if practices are unfair

Former USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack explained:

“You shouldn’t have to show if you’ve been treated unfairly or in a discriminatory way, that somehow what’s happened to you harms competition to the entire industry,” Vilsack told reporters as the rules were released. “That’s just an unreasonably high burden for anyone to have to meet.”  Industry groups are, for the most part, not pleased.

That last is an understatement.  The meat industry hates the rules..

The National Chicken Council, a trade association, says the GIPSA rules are “draconian” and “would inflict billions of dollars of economic harm to American agriculture.”

We are particularly troubled that the interim final rule and proposed rules appear designed to increase uncertainty and costly litigation—GIPSA even admits  that substantial litigation will ensue—with no quantifiable benefits…Throughout the rules, GIPSA consistently substitutes government fiat for private, market-based decision making.

This looks like contract chicken growers vs. Big Chicken to me, with Big Chicken calling the tune.

Or do I misunderstand?

Apr 24 2017

USDA asks Maine for more information–lot more–about its SNAP waiver request

In recent years, the USDA has received requests from several cities and states to allow pilot projects to remove sodas from items that can be purchased with SNAP benefit cards.

The agency has always found reasons to deny the requests, as it did for one from New York City in 2011.

The latest “denial” is to a request from the state of Maine for a pilot project to eliminate soft drinks and candy.  I put denial in quotes because it’s not actually a denial.   It’s a request for more information.  USDA wants to know:

  • Whether Maine’s previous responses to previous queries still apply.
  • What would happen without this restriction?
  • Whether there will be a pre- and post-implementation data collection on purchases before and after the pilot.
  • How Maine will correct for biases due to self-reporting of purchase data.
  • Why Maine isn’t planning to get agreement from retailers to provide data.
  • If Maine plans to provide a reasonable and legal time frame.
  • Whether Maine plans to submit a new request for a waiver to cover use of SNAP-ED funds.
  • What the evidence base is for using SNAP-ED funds as Maine plans.
  • The full costs of this effort.

If Maine is serious about wanting to do this, it will have a lot more work to do.  USDA might as well have issued another denial.

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