by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

Jul 10 2019

One more time: the Economic Research Service tragedy

I was asked to do a more formal write-up of my blog posts on what’s happening with the Economic Research Service for World Nutrition, a publication of the World Public Health Nutrition Association.

My article is now published as “The Trump Administration’s destruction of the Economic Research Service: An American Tragedy (World Nutrition 2019;10(2):87-91).

It covers events through June 22, 2019.  Since then:

 

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Jun 18 2019

The tragic destruction of the Economic Research Service, continued

I care about what’s happening to the ERS because I depend on the research it produces and have relied on its authoritative studies for decades.  I trust ERS researchers to be honest, independent, and wonderfully available to provide expert interpretation of USDA data.  It breaks my heart to see the destruction of an agency I considered to be a national treasure.  I thought it would be protected by being under the radar.  Apparently not.

Staff losses and politicization means that the ERS is highly unlikely to continue doing that same kind of independent, critical research.  This is an enormous loss.

The USDA sent out a press release announcing that the ERS offices would be moved to Kansas City.

USDA says it is doing this for these reasons:

The considerable taxpayer savings will allow us to be more efficient and improve our ability to retain more employees in the long run. We will be placing important USDA resources closer to many stakeholders, most of whom live and work far from Washington, D.C. In addition, we are increasing the probability of attracting highly-qualified staff with training and interests in agriculture, many of whom come from land-grant universities.

Do we believe this?  No, we do not.

As Politico reports,

The proposal has already sparked a brain-drain of veteran economists from ERS, and some lawmakers and ERS staff allege relocation is a back-door attempt to shrink the agency and clamp down on research that doesn’t align with the Trump administration’s priorities.

Politico notes that “USDA paid the consulting firm Ernst & Young $340,000 to run the site selection process.”

In the meantime, ERS employees voted to unionize.  OK, better late than never.

Jerry Hagstrom of The Hagstrom Report  attended USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue’s announcement of the location of the move to ERS employees.  Union members expressed their displeasure openly (they have nothing to lose at this point).

This was a small agency doing quality work.  Its destruction is an American tragedy.

Thanks to the Hagstrom report for providing links to relevant documents:

USDA Research, Education, and Economics — ERS Directed Reassignment Letter (sample)
— Notice of Voluntary Separation Incentive Payment Authority
— Offer of Directed Reassignment: Acceptance/Declination Form
— Application for Voluntary Separation Incentive Program Buyout
— Frequently Asked Questions: Voluntary Separation Incentive Payments (VSIP)
— Sample Buyout Computation Worksheets
— Tax Questions on Buyouts (VSIP)

KC Area Development Council — USDA + KC: Relocation
— KC Now (video)

The ERS union’s letter to USDA for help with the move

 

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May 29 2019

Trade mitigation payments are no substitute for effective agricultural policy

One of the daily newsletters I subscribe to is Chuck Abbott’s Ag Insider, sponsored by the Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN), which covers and analyzes agricultural policies otherwise unknown or incomprehensible to readers like me.  You can subscribe to it here.

The particular article that caught my eye is about how Trump’s program of compensating farmers for the losses caused by his trade war with China has gotten the government much deeper into supporting Big Ag than some congressional representatives think is appropriate.

The USDA has stated that it will spend $15 to $20 billion on trade mitigation payments this year.  This will pay $2 a bushel for soybeans, 63 cents a bushel for wheat, and 4 cents a bushel for corn.

If you were a farmer, which would you plant?

The promised new payments will

double the $8.5 billion that has been paid so far on 2018 production of almonds, cotton, corn, dairy, pork, soybeans, sorghum, sweet cherries, and wheat. And the $15-$20 billion would be on top of $11.5 billion previously forecast for federal payments this year. Last year, direct farm payments totaled $13.8 billion, largest in 12 years, because of trade mitigation aid.

This is big money, at taxpayers’ expense.

Abbott’s point is that the “Freedom to farm” act of 1996 encouraged farmers to make planting decisions based on market prices rather than expectation of subsidies, and to reserve part of their land for conservation purposes.  Farmers were able to sell their crops for market prices rather than have the government buy them.

But the USDA says

Farmers should continue to make their planting and production decisions with the current market signals in mind, rather than some expectation of what a farming support program might or might not look like, based on inaccurate media stories.

And guess what: The National Corn Growers Association wants higher payments.

In other articles in this series, Abbott reports that “more than a third of net farm income for Kansas farmers comes from Trump tariff payments, but that won’t make up for lost export sales.”

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May 28 2019

USDA’s destruction of the Economic Research Service: A National Tragedy

The reasons behind the Trump Administration’s efforts to relocate the USDA’s Economic Research Service out of the Washington DC area are becoming increasingly transparent: the administration views the conclusions of ERS research on SNAP and other key issues as incompatible with its agenda.

I wrote about the real reasons behind the proposed transfer in a post on September 21 last year: 

Former [ERS] officials were unanimous in arguing that the proposal to relocate the agency outside of Washington DC and reorganize it into the USDA Secretary’s office was “ill-conceived,” made no sense, was done without appropriate consultation, was potentially illegal, would politicize the agency, and would damage, if not destroy, an agency that is the jewel of USDA. The USDA says the reasons for doing this are easier recruitment, cheaper rent, closer alignment with the Secretary’s policy initiatives, and getting the agency closer to stakeholders.  None of these bears up under even the most casual scrutiny. So what is this really about? I’m guess that this is about getting political control over—silencing—an agency that conducts independent, unbiased, nonpartisan research that risks leading to inconvenient truths.

Now, ERS employees are coming forward to state publicly that they view the transfer “as a crackdown on research that’s unflattering to White House policy priorities.”

According to Politico, ERS personnel have done an analysis of which researchers are being told to stay in Washington, DC, and which ones are being told to move.  The ones being transferred out

are largely specialists in issues like climate change, food stamps and trade policy, where economic assessments often clash with White House policies.  The list, shared exclusively with POLITICO, shows a clear emphasis was placed on keeping employees in Washington whose work covers less controversial issues like crop planting over those whose research focused on areas sensitive to the administration….USDA released a written statement from Perdue arguing the relocation is not connected to the work being carried out by ERS economists. The secretary has long said the move will save taxpayer money and bring the agencies closer to major farming regions.

Some members of the House of Representatives are trying to block the relocation but even if they can, it will be too late.  By the time any legislation gets passed, the move will already have been accomplished and key ERS researchers long gone.

Eight Democratic senators led by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) co-sponsored a measure that would prevent ERS and NIFA from being moved.  Van Hollen is also trying another route: Politico reports that he has  put a hold on the nomination of Scott Hutchins to be USDA’s chief scientist…”to indicate the seriousness of Van Hollen’s concerns about the proposed relocation.”

In the meantime, everyone is waiting to see where USDA intends to move the ERS.  The options are Kansas City, the Research Triangle in North Carolina and multiple spots in Indiana.

Whatever happens, the damage has been done.  Many ERS researchers have retired or resigned.

This agency produced authoritative analyses of food and nutrition issues that I relied on for much of my work.  This is an incalculable loss. and nothing less than a national tragedy.

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Mar 19 2019

Trump budget double-speak: USDA/ERS budget cuts

The Trump administration released more details on its proposed budget, in language straight out of George Orwell’s 1984.

Framed as “savings and reform,” the proposal is to move the USDA’s Economic Research Service out of Washington DC.   Although this proposal says the purpose is to bring the ERS closer to rural America, its real purpose is to put the ERS out of business.

Why do I say this?  Because this proposal comes with a $26 million budget cut.   I also hear rumors that ERS research staff are being offered retirement options.

ERS is the jewel in USDA’s crown, nothing less than a national treasure, not only worth preserving but worth extolling for its truly important contributions to society.

I’ve long said that ERS was the best kept secret in government.  Its researchers worked tirelessly to provide real data on America’s food production and what it means for health.

Here, for example, is its latest report on how the U.S. food dollar is spent.

The best thing I can say about this budget is that it is unlikely to pass.  Members of Congress have been trying to put a stop to this move.  Let’s hope they succeed.

This may be a small piece of what’s happening, but in my field it is essential.

Please tell your congressional representatives to restore ERS’s budget and keep it in Washington, DC.

How?

Addition

The Office of Management and Budget’s analysis

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Mar 13 2019

FDA and USDA agree on how to regulate cell-based (“fake”?) meat

Last week, the USDA and FDA ended their turf battle and announced a joint framework for jointly regulating cell-based meat products.

Congress instructed them to do this in a statement related to the Appropriations Act:

Not later than 60 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Commissioner of Food and Drugs shall enter into a formal agreement delineating the responsibilities of the two agencies for the regulation of cell-cultured food products derived from livestock and poultry. Such agreement shall be made public on the USDA and FDA websites within one day of the completion of the agreement.

These products, not yet on the market, are made from animal cells grown in tissue culture; no animals are killed in the process.

What to call these emerging products is a matter of some debate.  Proponents call them such things as in vitro, lab-based, vat-grown, or clean.

The meat industry wants them called artificial, synthetic, or fake.  It publishes a flier called “Fake Meat Facts.”

The proposed plan calls for the FDA to regulate the collection of animal cells, cell banks, and cell growth—the processes.  USDA will oversee production, as it does for live animals and poultry.

Much must be at stake.  The agencies’ framework is proactive; the products are not expected to be marketed for several years.

The meat industry is relieved that USDA is in charge.

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Jennifer Houston said, “The formal agreement announced today solidifies USDA’s lead oversight role in the production and labeling of lab-grown fake meat products.”

“This is what NCBA has been asking for, and it is what consumers deserve,” Houston said.

The market for these products is expected to be huge, but questions remain:

We will be hearing a lot more about these products as they head to market.

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Feb 6 2019

Mind-boggle of the week: USDA buys pork from JBS

The Washington Post reports that the USDA has committed about $5 million of bailout funds to buy 1.8 million pounds of pork products from the Brazilian meatpacker, JBS.

The bailout funds were supposed to help U.S. commodity producers who lost sales because of the tariff disputes with China.

JBS is the biggest meat seller in the U.S. It employs 73,000 people here.

Maybe the USDA thought it was an American company?

Globalization in action…

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Dec 26 2018

The Farm Bill did not destroy SNAP, but USDA did an end run on work requirement waivers

As I noted earlier, Congress passed the 2018 Farm Bill without gutting SNAP but President Trump exacted a price for signing it—making it harder for States to exempt participants from work requirements.

The USDA released its new work-requirement rules just as Congress was passing the bill (here is the USDA’s quick Infographic summary).

As Politico put it, USDA unveils crackdown on SNAP waivers.”

In his Orwellian press release, USDA Secretary Purdue said the new rules are:

intended to move more able-bodied recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to self-sufficiency through the dignity of work. The rule is meant to restore the system to what it was meant to be: assistance through difficult times, not lifelong dependency…Long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream.

In an even more Orwellian op-ed, Purdue said:

This restores the dignity of work to a sizeable segment of our population, while it is also respectful of the taxpayers who fund the program.

Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch. That is the commitment behind SNAP. But like other Federal welfare programs, it was never intended to be a way of life. A central theme of the Trump administration has been to expand prosperity for all Americans, which includes helping people lift themselves out of pervasive poverty.

Trump’s statement outdoes anything Orwell could have imagined:

Today’s action will help Americans transition from welfare to gainful employment, strengthening families and uplifting communities…That was a difficult thing to get done, but the farmers wanted it done. We all wanted it done. I think, in the end, it’s going to make a lot of people very happy.

Why Orwellian?

Farmers?  Strengthening families?  Uplifting communities?  Making people happy?  Trump has to be kidding.

The true purpose of the new requirements is to reduce SNAP enrollment, never mind that most people who participate in SNAP really need it.  The USDA says the new policy will 755,000 people out of the current 39 million.

Under current SNAP rules, adults who can work (able-bodied adults without dependents— ABAWDs) must work or be in training at least 80 hours per month.  Otherwise they are only allowed to get SNAP benefits for up to three months in a three-year period.

But states can apply for waivers of this time limit, and 36 states have done so.

One reality check: Because the USDA does not keep data on food stamp recipients who participate in state employment and training programs, or on whether such programs do anything useful to help SNAP recipients achieve self-sufficiency, there is no way to know whether the new requirements will do any good.

I’m not the only one saying so.  The Government Accountability Office has just issued a report making precisely this point.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains:

Taking essential benefits like food benefits away from those who are unemployed wouldn’t address the inequities in the labor market or the challenges that so many workers face. Instead of punishing struggling workers, policymakers should support them through ideas with bipartisan support, such as a higher minimum wage, a stronger Earned Income Tax Credit, and paid family leave.

Maybe someday.