Walking a tightrope: Secretary Vilsack on U.S. agricultural policy

Posted October 8, 2009

On October 5, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack came to Minneapolis to deliver the fifth and last Freeman Lecture at the University of Minnesota. The lecture’s namesake, Orville Freeman, was governor of Minnesota and then Secretary of Agriculture during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations (1960–68). About a thousand people came on a rainy night to hear Secretary Vilsack speak and then engage in a “Great Conversation” program with University Deans Brian Atwood and Allen Levine. The audience included former Vice President Walter Mondale, former Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, Jane Freeman (Governor Freeman’s widow and political partner), and Senator Amy Klobuchar, who introduced Secretary Vilsack. IATP board member, Rod Leonard, Governor and Secretary Freeman’s aide, helped to organize the lecture.

However, before Secretary Vilsack arrived at the Ted Mann Concert Hall, he had to run a media gauntlet instigated by a New York Times story published the day before that recounted how a 22-year-old Minnesota woman had been paralyzed by consuming contaminated hamburger produced by Cargill, the Minnesota-headquartered, global agribusiness giant. As is usual with stories of alleged corporate malfeasance, the lawyers and public relations experts had told Cargill executives not to talk to the media, leaving Secretary Vilsack with the unhappy task of explaining why the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) is unable to require slaughterhouses to test for meat pathogens on carcasses before they are shipped to meat processors, such as Cargill. On the way from the airport, he was interviewed by Minnesota Public Radio, and parried questions about how both Cargill and FSIS had failed to detect the contamination and withdraw the hamburger from commerce before it could sicken Minnesotans and other consumers.

Secretary Vilsack had to walk an explanatory tight rope between USDA’s mandate, under different laws, both to protect public health and to advance agribusiness interests. Dr. Kenneth Peterson, FSIS’s assistant administrator, did not make the Secretary’s task any easier by telling the Times that FSIS “could mandate testing, but that it needed to consider the impact on companies as well as on consumers. ‘I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.’” Dr. Peterson interprets FSIS’s statutory responsibility under the Meat and Poultry Inspection Acts as protecting the industry’s reputation and bottom line. So if mandatory testing would harm either, FSIS would not insist on testing. At the Freeman lecture, Secretary Vilsack didn’t clean up Peterson’s statutory confusion, but asserted correctly in a press release the following day, "Protecting public health is the sole mission of the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service.” And yet the damage had been done—again, not only to consumer health, but to USDA’s reputation for continuing to allow the meat industry to self-regulate in fact, if not in law.

The Secretary walked other USDA tightropes more artfully and eloquently, aided by the recently published "Agricultural Census 2007." First, he noted that he would deliver a eulogy today for Dr. Norman Borlaug, a former University of Minnesota plant breeder and Nobel prize winner for his work to “feed the world.” Then the Secretary followed with a series of paradoxes shaped by facts and the programs that he is required to oversee.

Recalling the loss of millions of U.S. farmers since President Woodrow Wilson exhorted the nation to plant victory gardens to aid the World War I effort, Secretary Vilsack sang the praises of how the remaining 200,000 farms of more than a thousand acres, aided by biotechnological research, had doubled and tripled crop yields to feed the U.S.—and the world. But the loss of 80,000 mid-size farms in the last five years is something that the Obama administration would seek to prevent from re-occurring.

More than a billion people still don’t have enough to eat, so the Obama administration will help private companies to export not only U.S. crops but U.S. technology—especially genetically modified seeds—to enable the world to feed itself, said Vilsack. The President’s new global food security initiative would start in Afghanistan by deploying 64 former and current USDA staffers to help Afghan agriculture. Vilsack emphasized support for the 5 percent of U.S. farmers who produce 70 percent of U.S. agricultural production. He promised to cut subsidies to U.S. farmers, if U.S. trading partners open market access to U.S. exports under World Trade Organization rules.

Although two-thirds of USDA’s budget goes to feed an increasing number of hungry Americans, 35 percent of U.S. children are obese, so USDA would work to improve nutrition, remove the stigma of free school lunches and breakfasts, and work with the National Football League on an exercise program for school children, said Vilsack.

The average age of farmers is 57-years-old, and getting older. More than 50 percent of all farmers work off-farm jobs more than 200 days a year (with 90 percent working off farm jobs at some point in the year) to enable them to stay on their farms. USDA’s new Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program would support the small-scale farmers—108,000 new farmers from 2003–2008 alone—who would satisfy the demand (13 percent increase in local farmers markets in 2008) for local, largely organic food. USDA’s support for rural internet service would help them market that food and help rural people develop new businesses.

While the Secretary's presentation has been rearranged above, my overwhelming impression of him is that of a compassionate and politically adroit man trying to manage conflicting duties. The Secretary spoke about his visit to a Kenyan orphanage (he too was an orphan) and how his question “What do you like most about school?” to a child was met with the response, “Our meal.” He recalled how Secretary Freeman had initiated the first pilot project in federal food assistance and how it had grown to feed 38 million (climbing to 40 million due to growing unemployment or under-employment) Americans today. He clearly aspires to do something similarly great.

Jane Freeman closed the evening by thanking Secretary Vilsack, the University of Minnesota and the advisory group to the Freeman Lecture. Ever the politician to issue a challenge, she remarked that in Secretary Vilsack, the USDA has leadership to regain what had been lost during the previous administration.

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Can food reserves address global hunger?

Posted October 7, 2009

Almost since the beginning of time, people have put food away in times of plenty to ensure they have food in times of need. Many countries, including the United States, have utilized food reserves over the years for a number of reasons like addressing hunger, stabilizing food prices and ensuring a fair return to farmers.

Now, as global hunger has surpassed one billion people, and the global cereal stocks/to use ratio has tightened, there is talk at the international level of food reserves. At the G-8 meeting in July, leaders agreed to explore: "The feasibility, effectiveness and administrative modalities of a system of stockholding in dealing with humanitarian food emergencies or as a means to limit price volatility need to be further explored." These sentiments were further supported at the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh last month.

In light of this interest, IATP and Action Aid are co-sponsoring an open briefing, "Food Reserves: Facing the Hunger Challenge" in Washington, D.C., on October 15. Representatives from Brazil, Canada, West Africa, Mexico and the United Kingdom will meet with U.S. agriculture experts to discuss:

  • past experiences with food reserves at the country and regional level;
  • what role international institutions might play within a food reserve system;
  • the opportunities and pitfalls of a strategic grain reserve in the U.S.

We hope you can join us. Watch the below video with IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch to learn more about the food reserve meeting.

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Building bridges between climate and agriculture in Bangkok

Posted October 6, 2009

IATP's Jim Harkness and Anne Laure Constantin are in Bangkok at the global climate talks. Below, Anne Laure blogs on what is at stake for agriculture.

Bangkok is humid (as it should be at this time), and much of South Asia is under heavy rain, with disastrous floods in South India and The Philippines hitting international headlines. Advocates for climate action are rushing around the UN Conference Center in Bangkok pointing to the floods as yet another example of the perils of climate change. The talks have been on for about 10 days and will end this week.

Further away from the conference center (a painful 40-minute ride in Bangkok’s busy traffic), the Asian Farmers Association is holding a series of meetings on agriculture and climate change, with some looking particularly at the role of women farmers. AFA also took an active part in the meeting we organized on Sunday with farmers' groups and climate activists.

And so, slowly, the new and growing call around international circles for the need to include agriculture in a new climate treaty is trickling down to those who really matter: farmers who grow most of the world’s food! As things move forward swiftly inside the climate negotiations, it is urgent that the voices of small farmers and Indigenous peoples be heard by negotiators working on agriculture. This is what we argue in our Benchmarks for Copenhagen and we will keep working to make it happen!

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The risks for agriculture in global climate talks

Posted October 5, 2009

IATP's Jim Harkness and Anne Laure Constantin are in Bangkok at the global climate talks. Below, Jim blogs on what is at stake for agriculture.

“Fifty years: no Bangkok!

In the sea!

Hot, hot! Very hot!”

This was the very surprising, almost haiku-like declaration of my taxi driver earlier tonight. He then said, “Ice: TOOM!,” illustrating the second word by chopping downward with one hand, in a motion that to me looked a lot like a huge chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf splitting off and falling into the sea.

Bkk_09_02_2_348 I am in Thailand’s capital with Anne-Laure Constantin for the penultimate preparatory talks before the Copenhagen climate summit in December. Earlier today, we had a workshop that brought representatives of grassroots farmers’ organizations from Asia, Africa and Latin America together with climate lobbyists from development and environment groups. One important conclusion, confirming what we had observed at earlier prep meetings from Poznan to Bonn, was that this kind of exchange is sorely needed, both to inform the national-level advocacy of farm groups and to deepen the international lobbyists’ understanding of what’s at stake for farmers in the developing world. For more background, see our new fact sheet, "Integrating agriculture in a global climate deal: Benchmarks for Copenhagen."

Now the connections among these groups are finally taking shape, and participants from our workshop met this evening with Climate Action Network, the largest and most influential non-governmental alliance pushing for a strong climate deal. The hope is that we can get wider backing for language about agriculture in the climate treaty that is informed by both strong science and the climate justice demands of developing country farmers. The drafts that we have seen to date have neither.

If the clearing of forests and grasslands to expand cultivation is included, then agriculture is far and away the biggest contributor to climate change worldwide. (Its climate footprint is considerably smaller in the U.S., not because our farming is climate-friendly, but because we wiped out all of the original vegetative cover by the end of the last century.)  It’s also incredibly complex, and the science is so far behind the rest of what we know about climate change that basic questions—like how much carbon soils can sequester and for how long—remain unanswered. As a result, wild and speculative (in more ways than one) schemes are being promoted—including techno-fixes like industrial biochar that would take enormous areas of land in poor countries out of food production and put them into the hands of rich-country investors. Some of these schemes actually have a chance of getting into the official text.

Not long ago, we were concerned that the important role of agriculture might be ignored in a climate deal. Now it appears the danger is that agriculture will be included with such broad or vague language that the door will be open to schemes that could gobble up vast areas of land and displace food production without actually helping to solve the climate crisis.

Jim Harkness

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Biomass program rolls out, raises eyebrows

Posted October 2, 2009

The Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), launched in the last Farm Bill, was hailed as an opportunity to spur the wider adoption of new, more sustainable crops to feed a growing bioeconomy. Now, we are reminded once again that the intent of legislation and real-world implemention are two different things. In a new IATP commentary ("Questionable start for biomass program"), policy analyst Loni Kemp sheds light on why BCAP is raising eyebrows. Kemp writes:

The way the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has rolled out the first part of BCAP is raising eyebrows, as initial funding seems to be going to pay for already-existing biomass supplies used for renewable energy, instead of focusing on helping to jump-start the new cellulosic energy future.

In September, IATP submitted comments as part of BCAP's Environmental Impact Statement. We've also written a BCAP factsheet with a number of recommendations for implementation, including:

  • Perennial and multiple-species biomass feedstocks should be the focus of BCAP, with preference for native species. No invasive, noxious or genetically modified feedstocks should be included. If funds allow, then annual crops in a resource-conserving crop rotation would be acceptable.

  • Preference should be given to projects that provide local ownership opportunities; will
    have local economic benefits; and will involve new and socially disadvantaged farmers.

  • Annual payments are intended to be an incentive to establish new energy crops, and thus should not be drastically lowered if the crop is sold or if it is used for another purpose.

As Kemp writes:

Unfortunately, at least so far, USDA seems to be getting BCAP wrong. They should reconsider the true intent of the program and focus on helping farmers plant and deliver new crops for renewable energy.

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Vilsack robs Peter to pay Paul to address the hypoxic zone

Posted September 30, 2009

At the Mississippi River/Gulf of Mexico Watershed Nutrient task force meeting, Sept 24, 2009, Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the release of $320 million to fund a new Mississippi River Basin Initiative (MRBI). The initiative will “fund efforts in 12 states along the 2,350-mile long Mississippi River.” The states are Arkansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin. The funds will be available over the next four years.

According to the USDA news release, the initiative will be managed by the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) at USDA. Partner organizations will include state and local agencies and agricultural producers. Partners mentioned in an interview of NRCS chief David White by Frank Holdmeyer, include the Farm Bureau, commodity organizations and the Environmental Defense Fund, among others. These partners will “coordinate their resources in areas requiring the most immediate attention and offer the best returns on the funds invested.” It will be a voluntary program.

Conservation methods that avoid, control and trap nutrient runoff will be implemented by agricultural producers. The initiative will be performance oriented. This means that ”measurable conservation results are required in order to participate.” It will concentrate on 8-digit or smaller watersheds, those that are known to contribute high loads of nutrients into the Mississippi River and its tributaries. Watersheds will be identified by an in-house evaluation process. According to White, each state will select one to three large watersheds of 250,000 to 1.2 million acres and then select a sub-watershed of 10,000 to 40,000 acres for application of the conservation measures. White said that the agency wants proposals by the end of October and plans to select eligible watersheds by late January or early February.

Reading through the releases and statements, it is obvious that this is not new money, but a re-direction of funds from other programs such as the Cooperative Conservation Initiative, Conservation Innovative Grants, and the Wetlands Reserve Enhancement Program. It would appear that other funds will be shaved from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, and the Conservation Stewardship Program.

My take on the MRBI is that it is a shuffling of the chairs exercise. Since no new funds are allotted, and established programs that have had the benefit of outside comment before establishment are being short-sheeted, the program may well end up as another of those ghost acronyms that float across the political landscape. Consider these issues:

Targeting is not likely: In spite of indications that the projects will be targeted, all 12 states will have participating watersheds. While $320 million is not a small amount of money, when spread over 12 states and four years, only about $6.6 million per state, before administrative costs, will be available each year. Unfortunately, peanut buttering is the typical outcome of watershed programs and ensures they will be limited in scope. Consider that about 160 to 165 million acres of corn and soybeans are grown each year (these crops are often planted alternate years and both cause nitrate leaching and erosion). Iowa, Minnesota and Illinois have about 60 million of these acres, or about 38 percent of the total annual row crops, and contribute close to 40 to 50 percent of the nitrate runoff, yet may receive only about 25 percent of the funds.

Measuring Performance: The initiative appears to call for measurable conservation efforts in order to participate; yet we know that measured outcomes require background monitoring, usually for a decade or more, to account for weather variation and then another decade or more of measurements after the practices have been implemented. In the MRBI, we have a 4-year program and no apparent requirement for monitoring before or after the project. Thus watershed selection will be based on less than perfect criteria and likely performance will not be evaluated. White admitted there are some complicating issues that will have to be worked out such as how to establish good baseline and the lag time between when the conservation practices are applied and measurable results. "It can take from several months to 15 years to see results he noted. But I think we can work through this.”

It's Voluntary: All conservation programs have been voluntary as far as I can recall. The agricultural community lives in fear of regulations that might be binding, and refuses to cooperate unless the program is voluntary. But we know over the years that voluntary has not worked. Again, this assures that little will be gained.

Who will be around to ensure that the expensive conservation practices will be maintained over time, as crop land changes ownership or management? Who will continue the monitoring on a voluntary basis? In the end, the MRBI promises to be another initiative that solves little, creates more work for bureaucrats, and could actually lessen the effectiveness of the excellent programs already underway in NRCS. But it sounds good.

Secretary Vilsack can be thanked for trying something, especially in years of extremely tight budgeting. But I would remind him and others that a lot of money is flowing from Washington to keep the current corn and soybean system intact and expanding. From various crop supports to large biofuel (primarily ethanol) subsidies, many billions are spent each year. Moving $320 million from existing programs to the MRBI seems to me to be a pitifully small token payment toward addressing a key national environmental problem, namely Gulf of Mexico hypoxia.

We will have to do better.

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Fresh ideas on food

Posted September 28, 2009

If you could make one major change in our food system, what would it be? This is the question IATP's Food and Society Fellows program put to some of the leading food system thinkers in the country. The results are in the first FAS digest, chock full of great ideas to transform our food system to become more healthy, fair and sustainable. You'll find ideas on improving school lunches, combining food and faith, helping women farmers, ensuring fair working conditions for farmworkers and fair prices for farmers, and the launching of school gardens.

As IATP's Mark Muller writes in the digest's intro, "These remarkable ideas give us a greater appreciation for what is possible. The diversity of the fresh ideas also demonstrates the breadth of issues affected by food systems."

Check out Fresh Ideas on food.

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Why Agriculture and the Climate Bill don't Mix

Posted September 25, 2009

It seems everyone is in a tizzy over agriculture and the climate change bill. Environmentalists are mad about concessions given to farm-state legislators to get the bill—known as "Waxman-Markey," after its two principal sponsors—through the House last July. The industrial farm lobby is mad about the climate bill generally, worried it will raise energy costs. And farmers are unsure how, if at all, they will benefit from the offset credits they could receive, and what they would need to do to get them.

It is high time we took steps as a nation to cut greenhouse gas emissions. Tackling climate change is perhaps one of the most important and difficult challenges we have faced as a society; but including agriculture in the Waxman-Markey bill is bad for farmers, eaters and the planet.

For the bulk of human history, we’ve grown food, fiber and energy without reconfiguring the atmosphere, but the industrial revolution made the bulk of agriculture highly dependent on fossil fuels. Today in the U.S., agriculture accounts for about 13 percent of our nation’s total greenhouse gas emissions, and it also contributes heavily to soil erosion, water contamination and the loss of biodiversity—but it doesn’t have to be this way.

Waxman-Markey has recognized agriculture’s enormous potential to not only mitigate the ills it has caused, but to also act as a carbon sink. This is the basis for the bill’s carbon offsets program for agriculture, where farmers would receive government credits for doing things like tilling their soil less and planting trees on cropland. Polluting industries and investors could buy these credits, in theory helping fund these on-farm carbon-sequestering activities.

This program is troubling for several reasons. Technically, carbon offset projects are notoriously difficult to measure and verify—making the incentive for change subject to the whims of a speculative market dominated by Wall Street banks. And making it awfully difficult to ensure that offsets will be a long-term, reliable solution to climate change. Falling carbon offset prices would be poor incentives for farmers to switch to climate-friendly agriculture practices. It is hard to envision this having much of a positive impact—for farmers or the planet.

Agriculture is among our greatest achievements and one of our most precious resources. It gives us season after season of food and fiber. Done right, it builds healthy soils, helps purify our drinking water, provides wildlife habitat, and yes, even helps mitigate climate change. With support, agriculture creates livelihoods for farmers, helps preserve the culture and knowledge of food production, and promotes an ethic of land stewardship and preservation. And let’s be clear, good farming has been the basis for a sustainable planet for centuries. Agriculture should in no way be given a free pass when it comes to climate change mitigation, but it is not the source of the climate change problem.

Making Waxman-Markey a primary vehicle for debating agricultural sustainability schemes distracts from making real progress toward more climate-friendly, sustainable agriculture, and takes away much needed resources.

We should not aim to define agriculture’s role in our society through a climate bill. Instead, we should begin a separate, equally urgent process to decide how best to promote agricultural systems that provide us with the kind of farms, rivers, livelihoods, and climate we value as a society. The USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program, which pays farmers for sustainable practices on working, productive lands, provides one good place to start such conversations. Expanding such programs should be a clear priority for policymakers and the public, but ultimately, agriculture policy will have to reach much further, to a vision and scale that match the historic challenges we face.

Let’s push forward with strong climate policies, but let’s not use agriculture to circumvent the source of the problem. Our food system is too precious. We already know that agriculture can benefit us all; let’s find a way to make certain that it does.

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Spuds anyone?

Posted September 17, 2009

Devin Foote is a 24-year-old beginning farmer at Common Ground Farm in Beacon, New York. Throughout the growing season, Devin will be chronicling his experiences as a young farmer growing for a local food system.

In the last posting on Late Blight in the mid-Atlantic and Northeast this season, I failed to mention its potential effects on this year's potato crop. In monitoring our potato fields we found that Late Blight had arrived on our potatoes. In late July I decided to mow all of our potatoes in order to kill any living tissue matter that the late blight fungus could attack and cause a potential crop failure. Since then we've started digging our potatoes. The results have been mixed with more success in the last few diggings than the earlier attempts.

In the spirit of fall and the tremendous varieties of potatoes I beg to ask: Do you recall the original Mr. Potato Head?

My grandfather tells me that back when it was introduced in 1952, the head wasn’t plastic. The toy consisted of plastic features that children stuck into a real potato which their parents provided. Different potato sizes and shapes increased the fun!

No other crop produces more energy per acre. Hardy and adaptable, potatoes grow from sea level to 14,000 ft in the chilly Andes, and produce food in a wider range of soil and climatic conditions than any other staple crop. The average American eats 120 pounds of potatoes a year. That is almost 365 potatoes per person—a spud a day! There are only 100 calories in an 8-ounce baked potato. Potatoes are only 20 percent solids and 80 percent water! Potatoes are fat free, contain vitamin C, are rich in potassium and are an excellent source of fiber. Potatoes shouldn’t be stored in a refrigerator, but kept dark and dry with good ventilation: ideally between 45 and 50 degrees.

Although last year was the United Nations International Year of the Potato it isn’t too late to go out and celebrate—vodka anyone?

Fact for the future: China and India harvest one third of all potatoes in the world, and developing countries are climbing in potato production while developed countries are on the decline. See the World Potato Production Chart for more information.  

For the time being I think we’ll just worry about our single acre of production. Even after a battle with the infamous Colorado Potato Beetle and the newly arrived Late Blight fungus, we are finding an above average potato year. And with 650 pounds of seed potatoes in the ground we hope to get over 5,000 pounds in return!

To the potato!

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Close Encounters of the Mashed Potato Kind

Posted September 15, 2009

In one of two new videos released last week, a boy named Dreyfus builds a mash potato mountain at the school lunch table. This spoof of Close Encounters of the Third Kind has Dreyfus telling his classmates, "What we eat. It means something." Suddenly, his mountain of unappetizing mashed potatoes transforms into healthy food and the kids celebrate.

8-logo_onetray The second video is a Mastercard spoof focusing on the "priceless" value of healthy school lunches. The videos, by IATP Food and Society Fellows Shalini Kantayya, Nicole Betancourt and Debra Eschmeyer, are helping to launch the One Tray, One Nation campaign, pushing for a new school food system that supports healthy children, local farms and smart schools.

The Child Nutrition Act, which expires on September 30, determines what more than 30 million children eat at school. The One Tray, One Nation campaign is advocating for  $250 million over 5 years, with $50 million mandatory, to support local foods, farm to school and school garden grants to schools; the establishment of a farm to institution initiative within the Secretary of Agriculture’s Office; and increased funding for improving and evaluating school food procurement. The Farm to School Network gives you the details.

Check out the great videos, and take action with One Tray, One Nation to support healthier school lunches for all.

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