Join us for the webinar: Bridging Food Systems and Public Health

Posted February 22, 2010

The latest issue of the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition (JHEN) lays out a blueprint for research and policy within agriculture, food and health to advance a food system that supports healthier diets and reduced obesity.

Three of the lead authors of the special JHEN issue will participate in a webinar tomorrow at noon Central time to discuss the latest research on food systems and health:

  • Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LD and IATP Food and Society Fellow
  • Michael Hamm, PhD, of Michigan State University
  • David Wallinga, MD, of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

You're invited! Space is limited, so please register here.

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The new face of USDA [and the old one]

Posted February 19, 2010

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from the 2010 USDA Outlook Forum.

Where am I?

When I arrived early to the afternoon session at the USDA Outlook Forum on sustainable agriculture, I did a double take. On the screen at the front of the hall was a 30-foot-tall image of IATP’s Food and Society Fellows web site! Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was at the podium preparing for her talk, and she wanted to download a video about the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act that she knew we were involved in producing. This is the new face of the USDA, and it’s evident everywhere. There were presentations on Native American tribes in South Dakota using community development financial institutions to build a locally-owned economy; 2000-member CSAs clearing $1 million/year in Pennsylvania; landscape approaches to sustainable biomass production; and lots and lots of talk about organic.

Exciting stuff, but really only half the story. Secretary Tom Vilsack’s keynote really embodied the conflicting interests and priorities that somehow coexist in the Obama USDA. There was a lot to be excited about, including a defense of U.S. support for long-term agriculture development (not just food aid) to poor countries, an enumeration of domestic programs to assist local and regional food systems, and a stirring call for a new generation of young Americans to rebuild rural communities. But the free trade and biotech agendas were also in there, including an ominous reference to our duty to “educate” other countries about the wonders of biotechnology. It was like listening to a mashup of Farm Aid and a Monsanto shareholders meeting.

It’s hard to imagine that a guy [Vilsack] so smart is unaware of the diametrically opposed views of food and agriculture the Department is espousing. Thanks to a refreshing new openness, you can decide for yourself: speeches and presentations should be available for download here after the forum concludes.

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Game on for child nutrition

Posted February 11, 2010

Earlier this week, First Lady Michelle Obama announced her Let's Move initiative to combat childhood obesity. Rising childhood obesity rates, however, tell only part of the story. As IATP Food and Society Fellow Andy Fisher writes in a new article, the states ranking highest for childhood obesity also have the highest rates of hunger. In other words, hunger and obesity are two sides of the same broken food system—where obesity-driving food prevails and healthy food is not accessible for everyone.

Fisher's article appears in the latest IATP Food and Society Fellows digest—a must read for those concerned about child nutrition. Congress is currently debating the Child Nutrition Act (CNA). The CNA comes up only every five years. Two big programs within the CNA are the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program. In other words, the stakes are high for those dealing with obesity and hunger.

The digest includes articles by Debra Eschmeyer on the school lunch program; Arnelle Hinkle on healthy snacks; school lunch videos by Shalini Kantayya and Nicole Betancourt; Mark Muller on the child nutrition policy landscape; Alethia Carr on the WIC and SNAP programs; and IATP board member and former USDA official Rod Leonard on the origins of the WIC program.

In these times of tight budgets, it's hard to think of a better investment than child nutrition.

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Katie Couric challenges antibiotic use in factory farms

Posted February 11, 2010

Katie Couric's two-part series (see part one and part two) on antibiotics and agriculture that ended last night won't help agribusiness sleep any better. The series highlights the human costs of this practice through the story of poultry workers infected with the antibiotic resistant MRSA bacteria (IATP's David Wallinga and Marie Kulick have highlighted this emerging threat). It includes an admission by FDA Deputy Director Joshua Sharfstein that monitoring (some would be a start) of antibiotic use at these industrial operations needs to be improved. And finally, it shows that this massive overuse of antibiotics isn't necessary—Denmark and other countries in Europe have seen their hog industry do just fine after limiting antibiotic use to sick animals.

It's hard to overstate how important this issue is to the big industrial hog and poultry companies. There is a sense of near panic in agribusiness publications like Feedstuffs and Meatingplace, where the challenge to antibiotic overuse is daily front page news.

What is most telling from the Couric series is the response from the National Pork Board, arguing that costs would increase for consumers without using antibiotics as the industry does today (largely for growth promotion and to prevent the spread of disease linked to overcrowding). The industry doesn't acknowledge the considerable hidden cost of contributing to rising antibiotic resistant bacteria—a cost not reflected in supermarket aisles. 

No wonder common-sense restrictions on unnecessary overuse of antibiotics in animal production, proposed in a bill rapidly gaining support in Congress, has kicked the industry's lobbying machine into overdrive. Hopefully, Couric's series will open a few more eyes in Congress. 

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Getting US Dietary Guidelines right

Posted February 5, 2010

Every five years since 1980, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture set the U.S. Dietary Guidelines for healthy eating and ways to reduce diet-related disease. These guidelines are about more than just personal advice. They serve as the basis for federal food and nutrition education programs including research, labeling and nutrition promotion. The U.S. school lunch program, the food stamp program and the Women, Children and Infant (WIC) program all use the U.S. dietary guidelines as the scientific underpinning for their work.

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee holds its next public hearing to consider input on February 9–10 and you can view it via webinar. IATP submitted its comments earlier this week, encouraging the committee to take a systems-based approach to promote healthier food. This includes greater support for locally produced food, more fresh and less processed food, and an emphasis on grass-fed beef. 

The final guidelines are expected this fall. You can find out more at the Dietary Guidelines Web site.

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Do we need a US Department of Food?

Posted February 4, 2010

If we want to fix our broken food system—a system that isn't working for farmers, consumers or the environment—changing government policy is essential. In the U.S., policy set by Congress and implemented by government agencies deeply affects what, and how, food is produced and consumed. Most food system reformers have rightly zeroed in on the USDA and the 5-year farm bill as the main targets for change.

A new IATP paper by Maggie Gosselin identifies many other government agencies that also impact our food system. The report, “Beyond the USDA: How other government agencies can support a healthier, more sustainable food system,” analyzes more than a dozen federal agencies and their role in administering programs, grants and regulatory oversight that affect food. This agency-by-agency review covers food safety regulations, community economic and housing development, health education, food procurement, labor standards, trade negotiations and transportation infrastructure.

Currently, there is no integrated approach among government departments and agencies to address food-related issues. It's not uncommon for the policies of one U.S. agency to undermine the work of another. The paper recommends that there be greater coordination among federal agencies and, as a start, that the USDA, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) convene an interdepartmental task force on food policy.

To find out more, check out the full report and our press release.

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CBS to air antibiotics and agriculture series

Posted February 3, 2010

Update: The CBS feature has been moved to next week due to a high volume of material, which may expand the feature into a three-night series. More updates will be made on this story as information becomes available.

Tonight, CBS News with Katie Couric will air the first of a two-part series on public health risks associated with the overuse of antibiotics in industrial animal production. Antibiotics are often added to animal feed to increase growth and prevent disease in confined animal feeding operations. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that over 70 percent of antibiotics used in the U.S. are used in animal production. Such use is contributing to growing antibiotic resistant bacteria that is affecting our ability to treat disease. Just about every medical association, including the American Medical Association, American Public Health Association and the American Nurses Association, have called for an end to the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture. Even many farm groupsKeep Antibiotics Working coalition are supporting the Preservation of Antibiotics for Medical Treatment Act in Congress to address this very issue.

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China's nitrogen problem

Posted January 29, 2010

IATP President Jim Harkness is blogging from China.

Earlier this week I wrote about dinner with Cheng Cunwang, a sustainable food activist who IATP hosted last fall. Once Cheng returned, he began researching pollution from nitrogen fertilizers in China. His findings were  released by Greenpeace China last week.

They haven’t put it on their web site yet, but among their report’s findings:

  • The cost of nitrogen fertilizer that runs off fields and is therefore wasted is 30 billion Chinese yuan ($4.5 billion) per year
  • This runoff constitutes a massive source of freshwater pollution, and as “non-point source” pollution, it is nearly impossible to control
  • Coal is the energy source for 70 percent of China’s nitrogen fertilizer production. Approximately 100 million tons of coal are used for this purpose each year—an amount that's increasing by about 10 percent each year

Following the release, I was interviewed by Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo), an influential paper published out of Guangdong. The reporter wanted to know whether China’s experience was unique, whether nitrogen fertilizer overuse is a problem in the United States, and what might be done to control it.

In a nutshell, the U.S. government has actually taken some important steps to reduce fertilizer overuse and pollution. Fertilizer management programs, use of cover crops (although still rarely used on the Midwest's larger sized farms) and letting land along watercourses lay fallow have all helped. (A great short paper on the perils of poor soil nutrition management appeared in Science last summer.) However, nutrient runoff from U.S. agriculture still poses a serious threat to U.S. waterways, a clear sign of which is the enormous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

In both China and the U.S., the root problem is “cheap food” policies that subsidize over-production (of commodity crops in the U.S., and of fertilizer itself in China). The drive to increase yields at all costs—understandable in situations of extreme food insecurity—quickly builds economic constituencies for subsidies that prove difficult to dislodge once food security has been achieved. And cheap food has come to be seen as an entitlement by urban populations around the world whose other rights have been denied or eroded in recent decades. The problem is that a whole slew of externalities result from such policies, from the environmental and economic costs outlined in Cheng’s report to epidemic childhood obesity in the U.S. and the undermining of food security in poor countries—the destination of “surplus” commodities from the United States.

The result is that China basically has nitrogen coming out of its ears. For literally thousands of years, China’s farmers were able to maintain soil fertility through careful management of organic matter. They may not have known it was nitrogen they were managing, but farmers here went to tremendous lengths to retain, renew and recycle organic matter of all kinds. The advent of chemical fertilizers freed up lots of labor for China’s industrialization in the 1980s and 90s, but it turned animal and human wastes—once a prized resource—into a burden. Today manure is the largest source of freshwater pollution. The irony is that it is closely followed by the very nitrogen fertilizers that replaced it!

Jim Harkness

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Organic agriculture and climate policy

Posted January 20, 2010

Organic agriculture stores more carbon in the soil than conventional agriculture. It has fewer greenhouse gas emissions than conventional agriculture because it doesn't use fossil fuel intensive pesticides or fertilizers. Its combination of expanded soil fertility and flexible crop rotations make it more adaptable to the effects of climate change and, in the case of developing countries, may be better suited to produce more food. These are the conclusions of a new paper by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, titled Organic Agriculture and Carbon Sequestration.

The FAO researchers also point out that the precise measuring of carbon sequestration for agriculture is not well developed. This is a problem for those pushing for carbon accounting standards that would designate agriculture as an offset market for polluters (IATP has been critical of this approach) and why most existing carbon accounting systems do not consider agricultural carbon sequestration. Those carbon accounting systems that do consider sequestration do not adequately consider the full contributions of organic agriculture, according to the FAO paper.

Despite these clear advantages, organic agriculture continues to be on the outside looking in when it comes to climate policy. At the global climate talks in Copenhagen, the new Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases emphasized the development of new technologies for agriculture. Organic agriculture wasn't mentioned. It's easy to be cynical about this: organic practices are knowledge-based versus techno fixes that are patent-based and benefit agribusiness companies.

Over the next four years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture expects to invest $320 million in climate change mitigation and adaptation research for agriculture. The USDA should read this new FAO report and make sure that organic agriculture has a prominent place on its research agenda.

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Ideas for a healthier food system

Posted January 14, 2010

If you were to redesign our food system to provide enough healthy, nutritious food for everyone, what would it look like? That's the premise of the latest issue of the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, which includes contributions from leading thinkers on why public health goals must be integrated into agriculture and food policy.

IATP's David Wallinga, M.D., contributed to the journal's overview as well as a chapter on safety (or lack thereof) in our current health system. IATP's Mark Muller, along with Angie Tagtow, Susan Roberts and Erin MacDougall, offers ideas on how local, state and national policies could better support healthier food systems. The journal also includes contributions from leading researchers Mary Story, Michael Hamm and Tim Lang among others.

Reforming national policy is one place to take these ideas forward. House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson has announced he is already planning hearings in the spring to consider new ideas for the 2012 Farm Bill. The Child Nutrition Act is expected to come up for reauthorization in the next month or two, offering another opportunity to expand access to healthy food in school lunch programs.

But one of the common themes of the contributors is that there are public health benefits to food systems that are more community and regionally-based, and that local actions are essential for building a healthier food system. This remarkable issue of the Journal of Hunger and Environmental Nutrition shows us what is at stake, and what is possible.

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