by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: USDA

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!

Research

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

Education

  • 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.”

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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

Addition

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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?

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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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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

Dec 19 2016

USDA issues rules to protect poultry growers: a compromise, but still better

USDA has just released three sets of GIPSA rules governing poultry grower ranking (“tournament”) systems (GIPSA stands for Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration).

These are draconian systems in which poultry growers working for giant, vertically integrated poultry companies compete with each other for payments.

The system works like this:

The vertically integrated live poultry dealer provides the chicks, feed, and medication to poultry growers who house and feed the birds under a contract. The poultry grower grows the birds to market size (preferred weight for slaughter) and then, after slaughter, receives a settlement check for that flock. The payment received depends on how efficiently the poultry grower converted feed to meat as compared to the other poultry growers in the settlement group.

It’s hard to begin to imagine how unfair this system can be.

The poultry companies control the following inputs and production variables: chick health, number of chicks placed, feed quality, medications, growout time, breed and type of bird, weighing of the birds, and weighing of the feed.

And on top of this, “company employees who are also poultry growers get preferential treatment and may get better birds or get to keep flocks longer.”

Or, as GIPSA’s Q and A puts it:

For example, if a chicken grower attempts to organize other chicken growers to bargain for better pay or publicly expresses unhappiness with the way they are being treated by a processor, they can suffer retaliation. Processors can require growers to make investments that are not economically justifiable for the grower, or can terminate contracts with little notice. And because in contract growing the processors own the birds and provide inputs like feed, they can choose to provide poultry growers with bad feed or sickly birds that have a higher mortality rate, which cuts deeply into a grower’s opportunity to earn income on those birds.

The USDA press release pointed out that

the four largest poultry processors control 51 percent of the broiler market and 57 percent of the turkey market.  In part due to this concentration, poultry growers often have limited options for processors available in their local communities: 52 percent of growers have only one or two processors in their state or region to whom they can sell.  That means processors can often wield market power over the growers, treating them unfairly, suppressing how much they are paid, or pitting them against each other.

GIPSA initially proposed rules in 2010 that would protect growers from some of these abuses by paying them more fairly, but the industry objected.  It doesn’t like the revised rules either.  As the National Chicken Council puts it, “Obama Administration Strangles Poultry and Livestock Producers with New, Controversial Regulations.”  And the pork producers say they will work with president Trump to get rid of the rule.

The current proposals are a compromise, but a reasonably good one.  The proposal establishes criteria that the USDA Secretary may use to determine:

whether a live poultry dealer has used a poultry grower ranking system to compensate poultry growers in an unfair, unjustly discriminatory, or deceptive manner, or in a way that gives an undue or unreasonable preference or advantage to any poultry grower or subjects any poultry grower to an undue or unreasonable prejudice or disadvantage.

The National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition says the rules

finally give the largely toothless act some bite. The “Farmer Fair Practices Rules” published today…will provide much-needed protections to contract farmers in the poultry and livestock industry.

Food and Water Watch says (via email)

These proposed and interim rules provide important, though modest, protections for farmers, but fall far short of the safeguards mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill. Hopefully, these rules can provide a foundation for strengthening farmer protections in the face of an increasingly consolidated poultry, hog and cattle slaughter and processing industry.

But I particularly love the tell-it-like-it-is statement from the Government Accountability Project’s Amanda Hitt (also via email):

It’s been a long time since we have been in a position to praise the Department of Agriculture, but today, Secretary Vilsack got it right…The GIPSA rules that came out today are not only a welcome attempt to right a series of wrongs that heretofore have gone unchecked, but are also simple common sense.

These farmers…were lied to and manipulated by a corporate machine that has been using its political influence to profit at the peril of the American farmer. This is not a partisan issue; this is about putting limits on corporate greed. I hope that all can agree that something needs to be done and that these rules are an important first step.

Here are the relevant documents:

 

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