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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Water consumption questions for biofuels—irrigated or non?

Posted January 13, 2010

It is well accepted that consumptive water use in ethanol distilleries ranges from 3 to 4 gallons of water per gallon of ethanol, but this is only part of the story. Water consumptive use for crop growth differs by climate regime and  must be differentiated between rain-fed agriculture—where irrigation, if used at all, may supplement rainfall only during periods of extreme drought—and irrigated agriculture, as practiced west of the 100th meridian (essentially west of the Missouri River for the northern states).

If one calculates ethanol water use on a “gallons per mile” basis (a hard term to use because it depends on assumptions and vehicle fuel efficiency) the values are startling—up to 62 gallons of water are used per mile driven if irrigated corn is used for ethanol production. 

U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Dick Kempthorne, quoted in a recent issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine stated: “To reach our ethanol production target of 7.5 billion gallons per year by 2012 will require 30 billion gallons of water a year to process, or the amount of the annual water needs of Minneapolis, Minn. And if just 25 percent of the new corn crop requires irrigation, ethanol will demand more water than the combined annual usage of all cities in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada. As we increase ethanol production, we must have a holistic approach that takes into account its impact on water supply.”

Yet, we are now slated for over 12 billion gallons of ethanol per year by 2012 and the U.S. already has a total capacity, as of September 2009, of over 13 billion gallons per year, which according to the Renewable Fuel Standard, is set to grow quickly to 36 billion gallons per year by 2022.

While ethanol from cellulosic sources is slated to overtake ethanol from corn, the difficulties of developing commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants are considerable. And there is no indication that cellulosic crops will actually lower water use. What is of concern is that the increasing push for ethanol from corn will result in corn production stretching beyond the usual rain-fed agricultural regions, where more of the land must be irrigated. For example over 80 percent of the corn land in Nebraska is currently irrigated and there are calls for increased land for irrigated corn production.

The title of a November 2009 GAO report stated it well: “Many Uncertainties Remain about National and Regional Effects of Increased Biofuel Production on Water Resources.” These uncertainties need to be better understood to ensure that biofuel production does not put our water resources at risk.

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BCAP boondoggle

Posted January 12, 2010

By Loni Kemp, a consultant to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy

While the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) designed to help farmers plant new energy crops languishes in administrative limbo (the BCAP that family farm, sustainable agriculture advocates and others fought so hard for in the 2008 farm bill) —the other BCAP has grown into a monster. What started out as a couple of paragraphs in the law to help pay for collection, harvest, storage and transportation of biomass has, under the hand of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Services Administration, morphed into another commodity entitlement program, this time for the wood products industry. I first identified these concerns in October.

Now, BCAP has caught the eye of the Washington Post, and the unintended ripples from the biomass subsidy program went public. It turns out that the vast majority of the 300-some renewable energy facilities approved on FSA’s BCAP list are pulp, paper and wood companies—most of which have burned their own wood wastes for energy for decades. Some have seen declining sales to biomass energy facilities which are now turning to cheaper energy supplies. USDA gave away $24 million last year in matching biomass payments, and announced they are giving away $514 million this year—the vast majority of which won’t support any new biomass or new renewable energy, but instead is free money for a struggling pulp and wood industry. They didn’t lobby for it, Congress certainly didn’t intend it, yet once the loophole was opened, the industry has come rushing in for it.

In a flash BCAP went from an estimated $70 million cost over five years, to $514 million in 2010 alone, and that is without the core program to help farmers plant energy crops.

Yet not all industry is happy. Composite wood manufacturers charge that BCAP is taking their feedstocks away by paying double the established market price for residual wood that can also be made into furniture, flooring and construction material, according to the Composite Panel Association. Others are concerned that established markets for all biomass are being destroyed, and will result in chaos when each facility comes to the end of their two year eligibility period.

How could FSA have gone so far astray? They seem to have interpreted the law itself in a number of unusual ways. They claim the program is an entitlement and that they have to make the full payments, despite the fact that BCAP says they “may”—not “shall”—provide payments of  “not more than $45 per ton.” They could have limited payments to biomass with no higher-value products, no adverse environmental impacts from over-harvest and biomass not already being used for energy. The draft environmental impact statement failed to consider impacts from the matching payments. Requirements for biomass removal only under a Forest Stewardship Plan or conservation plan do not seem to be monitored or enforced.

The opportunity for the Obama Administration to fix all of these problems is at hand. A draft rule covering both the matching payments and crop establishment is going to be released in the next couple of months. While the money for 2010 will probably be gone by then, USDA could put in place requirements for a sensible program that furthers renewable energy without the pulp and wood products boondoggle.

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The year to challenge corporate control in agriculture

Posted January 11, 2010

After yet another decade of accelerated market concentration, there are fewer companies controlling our food system than at any time in history. The groundswell of energy and excitement for local foods and "growing our own" has been inspiring, but excess corporate control of our food system limits how much this movement can grow. This year, we'll have a chance to tell government regulators what we think.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Justice are holding a series of workshops around the country on concentration in agriculture. The first workshop will be in Iowa on March 12 and will focus on the seed industry and other issues of concern for farmers. Other workshops will cover the poultry, dairy and livestock industries as well as margins (the difference between what farmers are paid and what consumers pay in the supermarket).

The workshops have already stirred things up in the seed industry. In an 18 page report submitted to the USDA, DuPont/Pioneer charged that Monsanto has monopoly control over the sector. Monsanto responds to the general allegations here. IATP submitted comments to the USDA and Department of Justice outlining key points we hope the workshops will consider, including the role of trade policies in driving corporate concentration. We also signed onto a comment by over 25 farm and food organizations focusing in on the problems of corporate control in the poultry sector.

A year-long series of workshops doesn't oblige the government to act. It's going to take a ton of political pressure to give government the backbone to take on Monsanto, Cargill, ADM and others. But the workshops are an opportunity to start building the political momentum necessary for a better food system that fairly rewards farmers and workers, protects the environment and provides enough healthy food for all.

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The race for the world's farmland

Posted January 8, 2010

The accelerated practice of land grabbing—where countries or corporations buy up agricultural land, usually in poor countries—is one of the most troubling responses we've seen to the sharp rise in food prices in late 2007 and early 2008. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars has published a valuable new book on the topic: Land Grab? The Race for the World's Farmland. It includes a diversity of perspectives on land grabs—including an article by IATP's Alexandra Spieldoch and Sophia Murphy on what this development could mean for food security and poverty reduction. Other articles cover potential "codes of conduct" for land grabs and regional case studies for Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe.

The NGO GRAIN is documenting land grabs around the world. Unfortunately, with rising hunger and energy prices we can expect this dangerous trend to continue.  

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APHA: No more hormones

Posted December 23, 2009

The American Public Health Association's (APHA) resolution to oppose the use of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) in beef and dairy production brings much needed support to a seemingly common sense case. In a press release issued yesterday, IATP, Food and Water Watch and the Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility applauded APHA's recent resolution.

From the press release:

"Americans are now awash in environmental hormones, while the science reveals that hormone-related diseases are on the rise,” said David Wallinga, M.D., physician/director of Food and Health program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “The most prudent step—and the one called for by APHA—is to reduce the needless and risky addition of hormones to the food chain wherever possible.”

Take a look at APHA's resolution, or check out IATP's Smart Guide to Hormones in the Food System.

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