Farms in the balance: Countering attacks against EPA on climate

Posted March 3, 2010

Attacks on the EPA have been coming fast and furious in the past few months. In contrast to Congress’s limp attempts to pass comprehensive climate legislation, the EPA has begun taking steps to address climate change. Most significantly, the agency declared greenhouse gases (GHGs) an “endangerment” to public health last year—a finding that enables the EPA to regulate GHGs under the Clean Air Act. That hasn’t sat well with those opposed to climate action.

In January, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) introduced a “resolution of disapproval” in the Senate that would kill the EPA’s ability to regulate GHGs. Although the resolution’s viability is unlikely, if passed it would require Obama’s signature, setting a disturbing precedent. The EPA decision was based on science. Murkowski’s resolution is pure politics. Congress shouldn’t have the authority to usurp science just because it doesn’t like the outcome.

Murkowski’s resolution has created something of a snowball effect. Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, introduced a copycat resolution in the House earlier this week, no doubt pleasing mightily his supporters in the Farm Bureau, National Corn Growers’ Association and other conventional agriculture groups who have come out strongly in favor of Murkowski’s resolution.

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Childhood obesity and our cheap food policy

Posted March 2, 2010

Cover The latest issue of the influential Health Affairs journal comes out blazing with editor-in-chief Susan Dentzer writing that “America is guilty of child abuse.” The March issue focuses on childhood obesity and includes a series of articles related to kid's snacks, school lunches, food marketing and strategies for prevention.

IATP's David Wallinga contributes the article “Agricultural Policy and Childhood Obesity.” The article traces the role of U.S. agricultural policy in promoting the overproduction of certain farm commodities like corn and soybeans. These cheap commodities have been converted into calorie-rich but nutrient-poor snacks, sweets and sweetened beverages that have led to an excess of daily calories for all Americans, children and adults alike.

"As a nation, we must understand that farm policy is public health policy," said Dr. Wallinga in our press release. "We need to transition from a cheap calorie farm policy to one that nourishes our children's health. It's going to take steps across the food system and at every level of government to not only bend the curve on the obesity epidemic, but to reverse it."

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What's so radical about family farming?

Posted March 1, 2010

In mid-February, the third Farmers' Forum was held just prior to the 33rd Governing Council meeting of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome. IFAD is a specialized agency of the UN that funds agriculture production projects in developing countries. The forum brought together 70 representatives of farmer organizations from around the world, representing tens of millions of farmers. IATP was unable to participate due to the tight meeting quota, but the forum's statement and the IFAD president's statement merit comment, if only because they seem at odds with trends in U.S. agriculture, at least at first glance.

The forum's “synthesis of deliberations” noted first how the economic crisis had increased global rural poverty and hunger. Furthermore, “We are witnessing all over the world an increasing competition for land and water, with rising land concentration and large-scale land acquisition by transnational corporations and local elites. These practices result in exclusion of people from land and water resources, the fundamental resources on which we rely as food producers.” In response, the forum called for a return of control over agriculture to family farmers and for a United Nations International Year of the Family Farming. This call may seem out of touch with the statistical reality of U.S. farming and with an increasing concentration of market share of agricultural input production, agri-processing and food retailing that has prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice to initiate hearings in anti-competitive agribusiness practices.

In the United States, the February updating of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest (2007) census shows an unremitting concentration of agricultural resources into an ever-smaller number of ever-larger industrialized raw materials production facilities, which the USDA describes as “very large family farms.” Nine percent of the estimated 2.2 million U.S. farms produce about 63 percent of the total value of all U.S. agricultural production. However, USDA reports that the growth in new farms and new farmers since 2003 is occurring on farms averaging about 200 acres in size and $71,000 in annual sales. Such sales are not enough to support full time employment in farming, so two-thirds of these farmers do not report farming as their primary occupation. For these U.S. farmers and for the declining number of mid-size family farms reported in the census, the Farmers' Forum statement on farmer control of agricultural production may be something they would like to see implemented by USDA.

For those agribusinesses and their government supporters who often state that they “feed the world,” the forum statement might sound downright revolutionary. And yet, as noted by IFAD's president Kanayo Nwanze, about 500 million small land holders provide 80 percent of food consumed in the developing world. IFAD's budget for assisting farmers in developing countries is very modest compared to that of USDA. The forum's demands are correspondingly modest, but very much directed towards establishing farmer control over agriculture through advocating participation in the design and implementation of IFAD projects. The marginalization of farmers from agricultural planning in favor of corporate and central government official control is not the kind of partnership that the forum wants farmers to be involved with in IFAD. Rather than appending the Farmers' Forum to IFAD annual meetings in Rome, the Forum statement proposes to integrate forum participation in all IFAD regional meetings.

Furthermore, nearly half of the forum statement is dedicated to the disparity between the many responsibilities of women in farming as providers of household food security and the paucity of technical and financial resources for them to carry out those responsibilities. President Nwanze gave a special welcome to the 40 percent of the 2010 forum participants who are women and remarked that only nine percent of 2006 Forum participants were women. As women continue to be denied the resources afforded to exporting farms, the forum statement notes “our sons and daughters do not wish to be farmers and continue to migrate to urban areas. This raises a critical question: How can the profitability and sustainability of farming be secured so as to ensure a future for the next generation of women and men farmers?” This question, though formulated in the context of IFAD's developing country members, is surely not foreign to U.S. family farm households.

If IFAD's members agree to a 67 percent budget increase over the next three years, President Nwanze said that the resulting annual $1 billion budget would be able to improve the livelihoods of about 60 million rural people. Programs would be targeted to involve rural youth in farming and to support the women farmers who globally produce about 60 percent of all food crops in developing countries. The role of small land holding farmers in climate change mitigation and adaptation would be another program focus.

Despite the differences between the size and sales of U.S. and developing country farms, and the differences between U.S. government and IFAD budgets, few, if any, of the concerns in the forum and IFAD presidential statements should be foreign to U.S. farmers.

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Finding the intersection of hope and action in Cuba

Posted March 1, 2010

Mark Muller is the director of IATP's Food and Society Fellows program. See the full set of photos from the fellows' trip on their Facebook page.

Following a Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance meeting in Tulum, Mexico titled “Finding the Intersection of Hope and Action” we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tour food, health and agriculture systems in Cuba. Several Food and Society Fellows participated in the forum in Tulum, and ten fellows, with IATP’s Abby Rogosheske and myself, continued on for the Cuba trip. The themes of the forum were hope and action, and we found plenty of both in

 It will take a long time before we can appropriately digest everything we saw and heard during the trip. Cuban society functions so much differently than other Latin American countries, let alone the United States. Some observations of interest:

  • A University of Havana professor told us that 78 percent of Cuban food is imported.
  • The Cuban government is creating incentives for people to cultivate the more than three million hectares of land that is idle, and has closed several sugar mills because of the low price of sugar and to encourage more food production for domestic use, like milk and vegetables.
  • At the successful vegetable farms we visited, farm workers would often earn a better salary than a doctor.
  • We saw very few grocery stores in Cuba, and those that we did had an extremely limited number of products. It was the first grocery store that I have ever been to that didn’t have Coca Cola or PepsiCo products!

The trip provided a fascinating glimpse into an economic and political structure foreign to most in the United States. We have already had some interesting discussions about the pluses and minuses of the Cuban approach. And perhaps most usefully, Cuba has created an 11-million-person experiment on how to manage food and health systems. As we prepare for a world with a changing climate, reduced fossil fuels and complex international relations, Cuba provides some examples of both what to do and what not to do.

—Mark Muller

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Three experts on child nutrition

Posted February 25, 2010

The new episode of IATP's Radio Sustain looks at child nutrition through three very distinct lenses. First, Rod Leonard, former USDA official and IATP board member, shares his experience of helping launch the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program in the late 1960s. “The brain is growing at a much different rate up to age five than it does after that period, so […] the WIC program fulfills a social responsibility that can’t be met by any of the other food programs.”

We also talk with Rosemary Dederichs, Director of Nutrition for Minneapolis Public Schools, about a new set of USDA nutrition guidelines for the National School Lunch and Breakfast programs. She was part of a panel of experts charged with bringing nutritious foods to the lunch table while staying within budget, a complex task when you consider that the National School Lunch program feeds more than 30 million kids every day.

Farm to school programs offer one emerging option for districts looking to bring fresh produce to their menus. JoAnne Berkenkamp, director of IATP’s Local Foods program, describes her goal as “emphasiz[ing] farm to school strategies that work within schools’ budgets. […] That’s critical, because when it works within the existing budget environment, that’s when you get change that becomes woven into how they do business. That’s a form of change that’s sustainable.”

Listen to the episode here (mp3).

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Agriculture and floods

Posted February 25, 2010

As the spring thaw begins in many parts the country, flood season in the Midwest will soon be upon us. Communities in the Red River Valley and even St. Paul are already bracing for the worst. Are we experiencing more floods in this age of climate change? What role is agriculture playing? And what could be done to better adapt or reduce their effects? These are some of the issues looked at in the new book "A Watershed year: Anatomy of the Iowa Floods of 2008."

In June 2008, the rivers of Eastern Iowa rose rapidly, flooding farmland and displacing thousands of residents and hundreds of businesses in east-central Iowa and southeast Minnesota. While the book, edited by Cornelia Mutel, focuses on Iowa, it offers lessons for the whole Midwest Corn Belt, which stretches from Nebraska through Ohio.

Several of the chapters zero in on the role of the corn/soybean agricultural landscape (two-thirds of Iowa) in decreasing the region's ability to absorb water."It would be difficult to find two crops that do a worse job of handling Iowa's rainfall," write Laura Jackson and IATP Senior Fellow Dennis Keeney in a chapter on how perennial farming systems could better resist flooding. Perennial plant roots add to the organic matter of the soil, and that soil can absorb tremendous quantities of water without producing runoff into rivers and streams.

"Scientists studying the problems of surface and groundwater contamination, the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and flooding have arrived at the same conclusion: we need to re-perennialize the landscape," write Jackson and Keeney.They argue for more cover crops, longer crop rotations and more grass-based farming integrated with livestock. They suggest policy reforms that would reward farmers for the proportion of precipitation landing on their field that stays on the farm for a significant time period, and other farmer incentives to replace row crops with perennials.

"As flood damages increase, the need for hydrological resilience grows more urgent," write Jackson and Keeney. "A re-perennialized agricultural landscape will still produce food but also will restore community values and ecosystem services that have been lost."

You can order the book here.

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Proposed locks for Miss River: Big price, little benefit

Posted February 23, 2010

Imagine the federal government chucking $2 billion down the Mississippi River. Wouldn’t happen, right? Unfortunately, it could, if the Army Corps of Engineers gets the go-ahead to build seven new navigational locks it wants on the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Rivers.

As part of the Nicollet Island Coalition (NIC), IATP co-released a report today, Big Price, Little Benefit, criticizing the Army Corps’ plan to build the new locks, concluding that the project would be not only a waste of taxpayer dollars, but would also do nothing to repair devastated fish and wildlife habitats that river navigation systems have heavily damaged.

For years, the Army Corps has argued that the volume of traffic running down the Mississippi merits new lock construction. For just as long, IATP and the NIC have argued that the data just don’t bear that argument out. Since the 1970s, barge traffic has fluctuated, remaining relatively flat. Even the increase in corn production generated by the ethanol boom didn’t create increased barge traffic—most of that grain stayed local.

IATP wants Midwestern farms to thrive. It’s clear, however, that lock expansion on the Upper Mississippi will do nothing to help grow farmers’ incomes and would likely contribute to environmental degradation. Two billion dollars could go a long way toward investments in making Midwestern agriculture more diverse, more ecologically sustainable and more profitable.

Find the report and executive summary here: Big Price, Little Benefit.

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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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