Saturday, 26 December 2009

Hope, global warming, and new year's resolutions

Here is some good news if you are crafting a personal resolution about global warming or the environment as part of your New Year's Day tradition this week.

Reducing your energy use is easier than you think.

You can lower your fossil fuel use by a surprisingly large fraction, without trying to live like No Impact Man. We totally love No Impact Man in every venue -- blog, movie, book, anything. But, Colin Beavan and his family adopt some environmental practices that most Americans would be reluctant to attempt, while doing other things that look more difficult than they are. In my own family's experience, the trick to reducing energy use by a large fraction without much hardship is to focus on a few big things, such as (1) car use, (2) air travel, and (3) home energy use.

This approach is different from the usual conservation tips you hear about choosing the right green toilet paper or practicing 101 little things you can do to save the environment. We pursue many little efforts, too, especially to reduce the energy impact of our food choices, but with a relaxed and permissive spirit. Food plays a special role in our life, and environmental disciplines are easier to keep if food and cooking stay fun and enjoyable.

The main thing we learned is that major reductions in energy use can be achieved with little or no reduction in basic quality of life.

Car use

In 2006 and 2007, my children, wife, and I began to use our car less. It turned out to be more fun than we expected. At every turn, where we expected to find hardship, we found instead a way of getting around that we enjoyed better than driving.

Air travel

As our New Year's resolution for 2009, we decided to try to reduce our air travel. We had come to see that my own travel as a university teacher and researcher was swamping the impact of our family car use efforts. Psychologically, I had always blamed my work travel on the demands of the job, allocating responsibility to somebody else's moral account rather than my own.

The air travel resolution worked far better than expected. I didn't take a single work trip by air, but my work didn't suffer. I kept in touch with professional colleagues as well as ever on multiple business trips by train to DC and New York, and I drove once to Ithaca for a week as a guest scholar at Cornell, visiting a dozen colleagues with expertise in diverse areas of U.S. food policy on a single trip. My family took a single vacation by air to visit relatives in Florida, choosing to spend a longer time than usual, camping in the Florida Keys, visiting Key West, and having more fun than we would have had otherwise.

Home energy

Our third effort in recent years has been to reduce our home energy consumption. We began to hang up about half of our laundry, saving on our gas clothes dryer. We lowered our night-time temperature a bit, as many people do. We installed a programmable thermostat, so the house warmed up in the morning before we had to rise. We relied on our old gas furnace until it wore out in 2008, when we replaced it with one that had an energy star rating. We added some insulation to our walls.

Then, something more surprising happened. We talked to our kids about whether they were cold at night (they weren't). We agreed that we would experiment with lowering the thermostat at night about one degree a week, until we found ourselves chilly under our blankets, and then we would stop there. Far from being environmental zealots, our whole point was not to be uncomfortable. The thing is, we never did get cold. We have finally stopped at 53 degrees Fahrenheit as our night-time temperature, not because we are cold at night, but because our friends and relatives were close to deciding that we were insane. Fear of being perceived as environmental nutcases is all that keeps us from saving more energy still. Our comfort is just fine.

Saving money

A great paradox is that most people think environmentalism is something that only the privileged can afford.

The truth is that our efforts save us so much money that we feel, psychologically, as if we are living more richly than ever. That is something to consider in these times of financial crisis.

We save money on our automobile, and even get a discount from our insurance company for low mileage. We spend less money on air fare and more money on the fun parts of our vacations. Here is a chart of our home gas use by fiscal year (running from October of the previous year through September of the current year). From 2004 to 2009 our gas use fell by 57%.

Go ahead and brainstorm what you would do with the savings if your home energy bill were cut by half or more.

Resolutions

I follow the news from Copenhagen this month with the distress of somebody listening to a conversation where everybody is speaking a foreign language (and I don't mean Danish).

The rich countries dragged their feet about making the type of bold commitments that scientists believe could really halt climate change. The poor countries heard the clear message that acquiring riches of their own will require nearly unlimited energy consumption. Some analysts hoped for new technologies that will make commitments unnecessary.

And all of them seem to exaggerate the hardship -- in real terms of welfare, happiness, and comfort -- that bold conservation would bring. If our diplomats ever find the courage to commit to real reductions in energy use, we will still live plenty richly.

(Feel free to post comments, including your resolutions, or your own experience of personal conservation efforts that seem big but are actually psychologically easy.)

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Help us understand the new study that shows GMOs are toxic

Tom Philpott and Tom Laskawy are reporting on a new study by French researchers, which re-analyzes some Monsanto data and concludes that GMO varieties may be toxic in rats.

Philpott explains the history.
The researchers analyzed data from tests done on rats by Monsanto and another biotech firm, Covance Laboratories, submitted to European government in 2000 and 2001. The firms conducted the tests to prove that their products were safe to eat; scrutinizing the same data, the researchers arrived at a different conclusion.

The three products in question are still quite relevant: one strain of Roundup Ready corn, engineered to withstand Monsanto’s flagship herbicide; and two strands of Bt corn, engineered to contain the insect-killing gene from the BT bacteria. Roundup Ready and Bt products are ubiquitous in the U.S. seed supply, often “stacked” into the same seed.
Laskawy says the earlier Monsanto study fudged the analysis.
Firstly, let's be clear -- industry scientists got bad results, fudged the analysis and then figured no one would notice. Well, it took almost a decade, but these enterprising French scientists did notice.
To see if this is true, I read the new study. The abstract is clear enough, and it does indeed say the GMO varieties were toxic to rats:
Our analysis clearly reveals for the 3 GMOs new side effects linked with GM maize consumption, which were sex- and often dose-dependent. Effects were mostly associated with the kidney and liver, the dietary detoxifying organs, although different between the 3 GMOs. Other effects were also noticed in the heart, adrenal glands, spleen and haematopoietic system. We conclude that these data highlight signs of hepatorenal toxicity, possibly due to the new pesticides specific to each GM corn.
But, I wanted to read the actual empirical results that back this claim. There are dozens of results reported in the study, and I could not understand many of them.

Here is my request for help: Can you point to some particular table entries that support the claim in the abstract?

If you have a particular result to suggest, we can read it closely together, with one dose of open-mindedness and one dose of skepticism. Then, we can decide whether Laskawy is right that the Monsanto researchers have committed a scientific crime.

You might look for such a result in Table 1 and Table 2, which report selected parameters showing the difference between GMO-fed rats and conventional-fed rats. From the abstract, the important parameters might relate to liver or kidney outcomes. All I need is for somebody to pick and explain one or two of those parameters. Personally, I couldn't understand these tables because they seemed to lack clear information about the mean values for the GMO-fed and conventional-fed rats, the column headings were confusing to me, and the accompanying discussion did not include clear interpretation sentences.

Alternatively, you might look for such a result in Tables F or G of the appendix. Here, too, my understanding is confused, because I could not tell if these are raw results, or statistically-adjusted results based on Tables 1 and 2.

Philpott and Laskawy and the French researchers make a striking claim about the dangers of GMO crops. I'd like to understand the empirical evidence that supports this claim.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

US dairy industry's "sustainability plan"

This week the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy announced a joint agreement to support a U.S. dairy industry goal to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 25% over 20 years. Unfortunately, the dairy industry's idea of sustainability through mitigation inhibits the real process changes needed to combat climate change and the creation of a truly sustainable food system.

The real way to combat climate change in dairy is by reducing dairy consumption (and therefore, production) and by producing dairy from cows raised on pasture, two things the industry is far from considering.

The Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy (ICUSD) was created in 2008 to foster industry-wide pre-competitive collaboration and innovation in strategies designed to increase sales of milk and milk products. One of the founding organizations of the ICUSD is Dairy Management Inc™, which manages the national dairy check-off program.

From an industry perspective, the "sustainability" focus is on CO2 emissions, largely in response to anticipated government regulation. Further, the approach is how to extract value and utilize opportunities to leverage demand. Much of the results from lifecycle analysis (LCA) conducted by land grant universities, show the largest reduction potential in the production phase of the dairy value-chain. Consequently, their strategy for sustainability is targeting nutrition management of cows (changing ratio of corn and protein feed) and the utilization of methane digesters to mitigate methane from manure lagoons.

Research presented on the Measurement of GHG Emissions from Dairy Farms at the Climate Change Research Conference by Dr. Frank Mitloehner, Air Quality CE Specialist Animal Science at UC Davis, had some interesting findings:
  • The main dairy GHG source is cows, rather than waste.
  • The CO2 emissions from cow respiration cannot be mitigated without reducing herd size.
  • The leading methane contributor is enteric fermentation from cows eating corn instead of their natural fodder, grass.
  • The leading nitrous oxide contributor is land application of manure and fertilizer for growing feed (corn).
  • Nitrous oxide has almost 15 times more the global warming potential as methane.
That scientific perspective, emphasizing smaller herd sizes and the value of grass, is overlooked in much industry communication. Industry communication instead boasts of past efficiency gains and promotes increased milk consumption for good nutrition.

The most cited piece of literature by industry dairy sustainability initiatives is from Dr. Jude Capper currently at Washington State University. “The Environmental Impact of Dairy Production: 1944 compared with 2007” published in The Journal of Animal Science found that the carbon footprint per billion kg of milk produced in 2007 was 37% of the equivalent milk production in 1944. It concludes:

"Contrary to the negative image often associated with “factory farms”, fulfilling the U.S. population’s requirement for dairy products while improving environmental stewardship can only be achieved by using modern agricultural techniques. The immediate challenge for the dairy industry is to actively communicate…the considerable potential for environmental mitigation yet to be gained through use of modern dairy production systems."

Jill Richardson at La Vida Locavore recently criticized Capper's research in her post "Junk Science Study Says Factory Farming is Better" for including Roger Cady, former Sustainability Lead Monsanto and now works for Elanco (the former and current owners of rBGH), on the team of researchers. Cady was criticized by Tom Phillpot at Grist for conflict of interest in research extolling the environmental benefits of rBGH.

Capper’s twitter name is “Lactolobbyist” and she describes herself as a “dairy scientist passionately spreading the word about reducing environmental impact through improved productive efficiency and use of biotechnology.”

The other most cited resource in the milk industry's sustainability literature is the USDA's 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends consumption of 3 cups per day of fat-free or low-fat milk or equivalent milk products. According to Open Secrets, the dairy industry spent $3.3 million on federal lobbying in 2006, with Dean Foods, the National Milk Producers Federation and the Dairy Foods Association topping the list of spenders. The Dietary Guideline Advisory committee in 2005 was heavily criticized for its ties to dairy.

Ironically, the ICUSD primer reveals two important pillars of sustainable agriculture: the importance of place and scale:
“Today, in many states where climate is conducive, roughly 50% of producers use pastures to meet some fraction of their herds’ dietary needs. Of these producers roughly half practice continuous grazing which, compared to intensive grazing, is a less efficient method of providing forage and of sequestering carbon.”
They note: “generally this includes dairies in the Midwest, Southeast, and New England regions. although the amount of a herd’s dietary needs that can be met by pasturage varies by climate, management practices, and site-specific constraints.”

But, this discussion of pasturing and Midwestern production overlooks the dairy industry's real home base -- industrial production in California and other places with water shortages. According to the University of Minnesota Extension, California ranks #1 in the U.S. in total dairy cows (1.7 million cows on 2,030 dairies) and #1 in total milk production (21% of U.S. milk supply). The average herd size is 850 milking cows, with 46 percent of all dairies over 500 head.

These cows are not raised on pasture. They are raised on dairy freestall and drylot housing (concrete) in Tulare County in the San Joaquin Valley with 1,071,956 of their closest friends. Tulare County and five counties in the central valley account for 49% of the total milk production in California. Tulare County alone accounts for 25% of California’s total milk production and has an average herd size of 1,300 head.

And they drink a lot of water (in the desert) - 20-50 gallons a day and create a lot of waste - approximately 120 pounds, or 14.475 gallons of manure a day per cow.

Even with mitigation with methane digesters, the industry is off the mark towards sustainability. A real commitment comes from decreasing consumption of dairy and producing milk in the way it was intended, through cows on pasture. Seems like nature's own supply and demand curve. Until we have the dairy industry's commitment to these tenets, I am not convinced that sustainability in dairy is possible.

From the ICUSD site:
"Ideally the dairy industry will chart our own course in sustainability." -Jed Davis, Cabot Creamery

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Joel Berg: Good Food, Good Jobs

In a new report from the Progressive Policy Institute, Joel Berg can be tough on writers who are naive about food policy.

For example, Berg quotes Marlene Kennedy, who suggested in the Albany Times-Union in 2008 that SNAP (food stamp) participants take up gardening:
Rather than working hard to increase participation in food and nutrition assistance programs, why not try to reduce the need for such aid? Instead of spreading the word about food stamps to the urban poor, why not give them a way to grow their own food?
Berg responds with a tart call to realism:
The idea that people should work in a community garden instead of getting food stamps is simply preposterous. SNAP is a vital safety-net program that makes a real difference in the lives of millions of Americans, providing mass sustenance in a way community gardens still have yet to achieve.... Saying that seasonal gardens can take the place of a year-round government safety net is ridiculous and counterproductive.
On the other hand, Berg can also be rough on writers who are too narrowly realistic.

For example, many community food programs start small, but Berg disagrees with those who sneer at the small initial scale of such programs.
[J]ust as I rebuke food security theorists for glossing over the class-insensitive aspects of the movement, I must also chide my colleagues in traditional hunger organizations for too frequently looking down their noses at the community food security movement just because most of the projects are still small-scale. If anti-hunger advocates agree that such projects are helpful but believe their scale is too small to make a meaningful difference, the most logical response should be to work together to develop public policies to help them expand.
So, using Berg's perspective, in which it is possible to be too naive, too realistic, or just right, I invite comments on the balance struck in several of the proposals in Berg's report.

A. A new $1 billion tax credit.
The president and Congress should authorize $1 billion in new, special tax credits for food-related businesses, contingent on their paying living-wage salaries to their employees, locating or staying in areas of particularly high unemployment, or providing affordable food to low-income Americans.
B. The bully pulpit.
The president should use his “bully pulpit” to encourage private investments in food-related social innovation projects.
C. A food access index.
USDA should develop a “food access index,” a new measure that takes into account both the availability and affordability of nutritious foods, and use this measure as another tool to judge the success of all the efforts it funds.
D. $50 million in community food grants.
The president and Congress should increase the funding for the USDA Community Food Grant Program to $50 million, from its current $5 million level.
Berg directs the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and is author of All You Can Eat: How Hungry Is America?

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

A food policy debate

The Economist debate this week addresses the proposition:
This house believes that governments should play a stronger role in guiding food and nutrition choices.
Kelly Brownell of Yale University is for the motion:
Three major food issues face the world. Local, national, and global governing authorities must take bold and innovative action to avoid catastrophic health consequences, political upheaval, and political and financial instability around the globe.
Melanie Leech of the Food and Drink Federation is opposed:
The food and drink industry shares society's concerns about the health of the nation, particularly rising obesity levels, and it is committed to playing a positive role in responding to this vital debate.

Food stamp participation by race and ethnicity

The New York Times recently posted a terrific web utility for mapping SNAP (food stamp) participation across the counties of the United States.

The federal government's Food and Nutrition Service publishes only state-level SNAP data on the web, not county level. When one maps state-level data, the visual result is too blocky to communicate much information. So, the clever and hard-working New York Times data folks contacted states directly for county-level information.

As a result, one gets a clear image of the landscape of American poverty from county-level data. At a glance, one sees the layout of high rates of SNAP participation across Appalachia, the Mississippi delta and the deep south, the Texas borderlands, and remote rural parts of the West.


Mostly, the outstanding features of the map above reflect the economic landscape rather than state boundaries (although I wonder what to make of the Missouri / Arkansas border, which may reflect either data quality issues or policy differences across states).

An especially interesting feature of the New York Times utility is the ability to map changes in SNAP participation from 2007 to 2009:


Here, the outstanding features are not the overall level of poverty, but instead: (a) the impact of the current financial crisis, including terrible rates of foreclosure in places like Atlanta and Florida, and (b) state boundaries seem more pronounced. For example, notice the Wisconsin border, and the Ohio / Indiana border. Does this mean differences in state SNAP policies have contributed to differences in enrollment recently?

The New York Times utility also permits the user to break down the data by age (children versus adults) and by race and ethnicity. For some purposes, it would be even more interesting to look at the number of SNAP (food stamp) participants relative to all poor people, by race and ethnicity, rather than relative to all people. Such a map, which cannot be created using the New York Times utility, would be more useful if you are interested in discrimination issues in food stamp policy.

A few years ago, Chris Dicken at ERS and I created maps of that sort using California data in a working paper. For example, here is a map of white and black food stamp participants as a fraction of the corresponding poor population.


Similarly, here is the map showing Hispanic food stamp participants as a fraction of the corresponding poor population.


The New York Times mapping utility was produced by Matthew Bloch, Jason DeParle, Matthew Ericson and Robert Gebeloff. DeParle and Gebeloff wrote a related feature article on the SNAP program, which has experienced rapid growth recently. The newspaper also ran a lively debate about SNAP policy with leading bloggers and new media writers.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Gaining Ground Cookbook

The Gaining Ground community is excited about its new cookbook, which is already on its second printing run. My Friedman School colleague, Lisa Troy, president of the board for Gaining Ground, writes that the organization has been contacted for an entry to be included in the White House Cookbook for Children, featuring recipes using produce grown in the White House garden.

Gaining Ground is a not-for-profit 17-acre community farm in Concord, MA, which donates its produce to area food pantries and meal programs.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Local processing for poultry

Tom Laskawy features my Friedman School colleague Jennifer Hashley in his fascinating Grist article about an innovative poultry processing operation sponsored by Whole Foods.
Massachusetts poultry farmer Jennifer Hashley has a problem. From the moment she started raising pastured chickens outside Concord, Mass. in 2002, there was, as she put it “nowhere to go to get them processed.” While she had the option of slaughtering her chickens in her own backyard, Hashley knew that selling her chickens would be easier if she used a licensed slaughterhouse. Nor is she alone in her troubles. Despite growing demand for local, pasture-raised chickens, small poultry producers throughout Massachusetts, Connecticut, and even New York can’t or won’t expand for lack of processing capacity

It isn’t only small producers who are feeling the pinch—a widespread lack of processing infrastructure appropriate for small farmers has caused supply chain problems for the big retailers as well. Whole Foods—the world’s largest natural-foods supermarket—wants to aggressively expand its local meat sourcing, according to its head meat buyer, Theo Weening. But it faces the same limitation as Hashley. Most regions of the country have “lots of agriculture but nowhere to process,” Weening told me, adding that the phenomenon is most acute in the northeast.

Whole Foods wants to change all that. In a move that has national implications, the retail giant has confirmed to Grist that it is working with the USDA as well as state authorities to establish a fleet of top-of-the-line “mobile slaughterhouses” for chicken. Starting with a single unit serving Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Hudson Valley, N.Y. area, Whole Foods hopes to offer small farmers an affordable way to process chickens as well as to vastly increase the amount of locally-sourced chicken it sells. If successful, this program could be expanded to any region of the country with similar infrastructure shortages.
See an earlier post about Hashley's work.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Climate science emails

Peter Watts writes about the recent climate change email disclosure controversy (quoted on boingboing):
Science doesn't work despite scientists being asses. Science works, to at least some extent, because scientists are asses. Bickering and backstabbing are essential elements of the process. Haven't any of these guys ever heard of "peer review"? ... That's how science works. It's not a hippie love-in; it's rugby.
My comment :
Peter Watts implies that the bickering and backstabbing in the recent email disclosures are a good thing.

But science usually works better than this. Though it is true that all scientists gossip and complain about peer review, science is usually more cooperative than rugby. Rugby is a zero sum game. Science is usually a positive sum game, where each team's discovery advances that team's interest in part and the collective interest of all competing teams in part.

There a couple reasons why the climate scientist's emails showed more bickering and backstabbing than usual. Climate science is more intertwined with partisan politics than most science is, and the future of civilization is at stake. I think those folks are playing a rougher ballgame than scientists usually play.

In contrast with Peter Watts, with hindsight I think they would all have scored better if they had played a more fastidiously high-minded game.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Food insecurity jumps to 14.6% of U.S. households, highest level since survey began

Following the post earlier today, here is the new report from USDA's Economic Research Service:
More American households had difficulty putting enough food on the table in 2008.

In 2008, 85 percent of U.S. households were food secure throughout the entire year, but 14.6 percent of households were food insecure at least some time during that year, up from 11.1 percent in 2007.

This is the highest recorded prevalence rate of food insecurity since 1995 when the first national food security survey was conducted.

Report on U.S. household food insecurity and hunger expected today

The federal government's annual report on U.S. household food insecurity and hunger is expected to be published today at noon. The new statistics will estimate hardship in 2008, based on a national survey last December, which asked respondents about their experience in the preceding 12 months.

The report will be posted to the front page of USDA's Economic Research Service.

I have two suggestions for media coverage of this report today: (1) report the contrast between the official estimates and national objectives for hunger reduction, which were adopted during the 1990s, and (2) report the simple percentage of U.S. survey respondents who experienced hunger, based on a straightforward and eloquent single survey question found in the appendix to the annual report.

Taking cues from the report itself, press coverage in past years has focused on small year-to-year changes in the prevalence of household food insecurity. For example, last year's report showed that 11.1% of households were food insecure in 2007, up an insignificant 0.2 percentage points from the year before.

I hope today's press coverage focuses on a more meaningful contrast: each year's official estimate of food security has fallen further behind the planned improvements that the United States adopted in the 1990s as national objectives for 2010. The national objective in the Rome Declaration, and the Healthy People 2010 plan, was to reduce food insecurity by half. When the new report is published today, we can add another data point to the chart below.


The failure to reduce food insecurity in the United States provides an interesting backdrop to the new Rome food security summit in news reports today.

It is sometimes said that the federal government no longer reports an official measure of "hunger." Beginning with the 2005 report, the federal government changed the name of the classification formerly known as "food insecurity with hunger," and now labels this category "very low food security."

However, I have always appreciated the question in the annual survey, which asks whether the survey respondent was hungry but didn't eat because he or she couldn't afford food. In recent years, this statistic has been reported in appendix Table A-1 of the annual report. In contrast with many of the complex statistics cited in the academic literature on food security measurement, this simple hunger count speaks most clearly about the prevalence of hunger in America. In 2007, the respondent reported such hunger in 3.3% of U.S. households.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

CNN calls obese kids "coronary time bombs"

The top story on CNN online this morning has the headline: "Obese kids are coronary time bombs."

What is your opinion of that headline?

It is good to be frank about the health consequences of childhood obesity, to motivate a vigorous response from parents and policy-makers alike. At the same time, we should respect and support the quality of life for the many children who will be overweight for much of their lives.

It seems helpful to say, as an expert quoted in the body of the CNN article does, "Our study suggests that more of these young adults will have heart disease when they are 35-50 years old, resulting in more hospitalizations, medical procedures, need for chronic medications, missed work days and shortened life expectancy."

But it seems unhelpful to call obese kids time bombs. It's stigmatizing. As a metaphor or image, "time bomb" doesn't bring to mind a correct impression of the health consequences as a scientist would see them. The article seems at times to be concerned about the teasing that heavy kids get in school, but that nuance is not carried through consistently. The "coronary time bomb" language was not from any of the experts quoted or evidence cited, but was in the CNN author's own voice.

The article is supported by direct advertising for an anti-cholesterol drug, Vytorin. Clearly, the advertising is linked with the content of the article. The fear-enhancing message in the article text serves well to generate interest in the ad. The ad has the same color scheme as the CNN website, increasing the visual sense of linkage. The teaser for the ad is: "What are you doing about cholesterol and the Two Sources -- food and family?"

Here is information, which does not appear in the ad on CNN, but rather on the Zytorin website linked from the ad:
VYTORIN contains two cholesterol medicines, Zetia (ezetimibe) and Zocor (simvastatin), in a single tablet. VYTORIN has not been shown to reduce heart attacks or strokes more than Zocor alone.

Selected Important Risk Information About VYTORIN
VYTORIN is a prescription tablet and isn‘t right for everyone, including women who are nursing or pregnant or who may become pregnant, and anyone with liver problems.

Unexplained muscle pain or weakness could be a sign of a rare but serious side effect and should be reported to your doctor right away. VYTORIN may interact with other medicines or certain foods, increasing your risk of getting this serious side effect. So, tell your doctor about any other medications you are taking.


Monday, 9 November 2009

Picking sides about GMOs

It seems that food policy folks are all expected to pick sides about genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

But, exactly what question are we picking sides on?

Question A is:
Could there ever exist a GMO technology worth supporting?
Questions B1, B2, B3, and B4 are:
Are current oversight systems inadequate to protect against food safety failures and environmental harms? Do current GMO technologies promote increased chemical use? Have current GMO technologies been oversold prematurely? Does the current regime of intellectual property rights favor multinational corporations over farmers?
I have no answer to Question A right now. I'll find out the correct answer in a few years.

Here's where I am more confident: If you oppose GMOs, it benefits you to remain friendly with everybody who shares your answers on Question B, regardless of their answer to Question A.

H1N1 flu identified in U.S. swine herd

After months of saying that the H1N1 flu had not been found in the U.S. swine herd, USDA in October reported that the H1N1 flu virus was found in swine at the Minnesota State Fair.

At the time, USDA reassured the public that this news did not indicate flu would be found in commercial herds, "because show pigs and commercially raised pigs are in separate segments of the swine industry that do not typically interchange personnel or animal stock."

This month, USDA found the virus in a commercial swine herd in Indiana (.pdf).

USDA may need to update its frequently asked questions page (.pdf). The website document still contains the sentence: "To date, the 2009 pandemic H1N1 flu virus has not been found in the U.S. swine herd." However, a notation in red has been added to the top of several pages, saying, "as of 9/1/2009 9:58 PM," apparently to indicate that this statement is no longer current.

The CDC's frequently asked questions page, dated November 5, contains the question, "Why is 2009 H1N1 virus sometimes called “swine flu”?" The response indicates that the term "swine flu" is incorrect, because "further study has shown that this new virus is very different from what normally circulates in North American pigs." Depending on how one defines "normally," this page may also need editing.

USDA has previously asked people not to call the H1N1 flu by the common name, "swine flu."

The National Pork Board provides reassurance that you cannot get the flu from eating pork products. Instead, the virus is transmitted from humans to commercial swine when the pigs catch the flu from farm workers. It is possible that the virus is also transmitted from pigs to humans in a similar manner.

The H1N1 flu in swine has been covered by David Kirby at the Huffington Post, Tom Philpott at Grist, and, just today, the New York Times blog Green Inc.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Healthy choices for school meals

The Institute of Medicine (IOM) at the National Academies on October 20 published new guidelines, which may lead to more healthy meals in federal school nutrition programs.

The recommendations, if implemented by USDA, will bring school meals standards in line with the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In light of current concerns about overweight and obesity, the IOM report suggests food energy maximum levels as well as the current minimum levels. It also suggests upper bounds on salt and saturated fat.

The report, titled School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children, seems astutely focused and un-fussy. It recommends a drastic simplification in the way nutrition standards are used in meal planning and determining a meal's eligibility for federal reimbursement. It suggests nutrient benchmarks for developing federal standards, but it recommends that actual meal planning and reimbursements be based primarily on foods instead of nutrients. Rather than pursue a long list of distracting micronutrient benchmarks, the report promotes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

In a special child nutrition issue of Choices Magazine from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), published today, Iowa State University economist Helen Jensen comments: "the recommendations are consistent with a growing body of research, as well as encouragement from stakeholder groups to change the school meals to be consistent with the dietary needs of school children today." Jensen is editor of the special issue and also a member of the IOM committee that produced the new report.

Today's special issue of Choices also contains gently contrasting views about measures that school food services might take to improve school meals, while remaining financially viable. Cornell economists David Just and Brian Wansink use principles of behavior science to suggest nudges in the direction of healthier meals:
Thus, the object of using behavioral economics in school lunch rooms is to guide choices in a way that is subtle enough that children are unaware of the mechanism. These subtle changes often have the advantage of being relatively cheap and easy to implement. This is a clear advantage given the financial climate. However, behavioral economic instruments cannot achieve 100% compliance. For example, the only way to eliminate soda consumption in a school is to eliminate the soda. If we instead approach the problem by allowing choice but place the soda at some disadvantage in the marketplace, we can reduce soda consumption substantially but not eliminate it. To preserve choice, we will necessarily have to allow some individuals to purchase items that are less nutritious. But we can make these choices less convenient or less visible, by moving the soda machines into more distant, less visited parts of the school.
(Wansink was interviewed at U.S. Food Policy in 2007).

On the other hand, I have an article in Choices, with Friedman School graduate student Mary Kennedy, discussing the economic environment in which school food services must operate. Because of interactions between student demand for more and less healthy options, we suggest that reining in less healthy competitive foods may give school food authorities more room to maneuver in providing better choices.
The Just and Wansink article in this theme warns against unintentionally increasing the appeal of unhealthy products by banning them outright. Nevertheless, placing some reasonable limits on competitive food is not really economic heresy.

For centuries, economists have admired markets as a coordinating tool for economic decisions in communities composed of households, but economists have always acknowledged beneficent non-market decision-making within households. Schools are not marketplaces but educational institutions responsible for the welfare of their charges.

If schools are expected to respond to the current epidemic of childhood obesity by improving the school food environment, and taxpayers are reluctant simply to provide more resources, then there is some merit in considering measures to enhance the relative competitive position of healthy meals served through the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Kitchen Gardeners International

The non-profit group Kitchen Gardeners International has a video celebrating the success this year of the campaign to establish a White House garden, and looking forward to new projects promoting kitchen and yard gardening around the world.



Roger Doiron, a Tufts alum and founder of Kitchen Gardeners International, spoke at the Friedman School this past week.

Monday, 26 October 2009

Colpaart earns award from American Dietetic Association

U.S. Food Policy contributor Ashley Colpaart this week received the 2009 Award of Excellence in Hunger and Environmental Nutrition, a dietetic practice group award from the American Dietetic Association.
Ashley’s work and commitment to the field of hunger and environmental nutrition is broad and diverse. She serves as the Nutrition Services Coordinator for the Meals for Kids Intervention where she brought healthful meals to lowincome, at-risk populations in East and South Austin (Texas). As the Legislation & Public Policy Chair for the HEN dietetic practice group, she has worked tirelessly to educate HEN members on a variety of important public policy issues, such as: farm and food policy, the food system’s connection with nutritional health, Child Nutrition Reauthorization, the effect of industrial farming on the environment and food safety, conflicts of interest, country of origin labeling (COOL), and genetically engineered (GE) foods and crops.

To disseminate her message to a wide audience, Ashley has used a variety of venues including the HEN-listserv, the HEN DPG newsletter, her personal blog, and a joint blog with professor Parke Wilde, PhD at Tufts University.

“I’ve no doubt that the contributions that Ashley has already made in academia and in the field will gain her notoriety in the world of dietetics. I’m equally certain that down the road, Ashley will be leaving her mark on the future – one that will be a whole lot brighter for us all, because of her effort and devotion.”
-- Loretta Jaus, an Organic Valley Family of Farms dairy farmer

East Arlington Livable Streets (EALS), November 4 at the Capitol Theatre

Of interest to local readers in the Boston area. . .

The East Arlington Livable Streets (EALS) Coalition will host a fun and educational event to promote:
  • traffic calming throughout the neighborhood,
  • a safer environment for everyone (walkers, motorists, cyclists, children and the elderly), and
  • an enhanced quality of life throughout East Arlington.
The featured speaker for the evening will be Jackie Douglas, Advocacy Director for the Cambridge-based LivableStreets Alliance, whose moniker is "Rethinking Urban Transportation." Ms. Douglas will present a 30-minute presentation about the need for sustainable transportation policies and street design throughout the Boston region. Following Ms. Douglas' presentation, the EALS Coalition will facilitate a short discussion about our advocacy work, including our support for the current plan to enhance Mass Ave.

If you are interested in promoting a more walkable, bikeable neighborhood free of speeding traffic, or if you want to know more about the work of the EALS Coalition, this is the event for you!

Wednesday, November 4 at the Capitol Theatre

7:00 - meet and greet, refreshments and raffle tickets
7:30 - Rethinking Urban Transportation presentation

The event is FREE and open to the public, though seating is limited so arrive early.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Inflation-adjusted food spending fell, and food insecurity worsened, for low-income households in 2000-2007

A USDA report this week suggested that U.S. families spent less on food as their housing costs increased from 2000 to 2007, leading to increased risk of food insecurity.

The report by USDA's Economic Research Service said that inflation-adjusted median food spending fell by 6 percent from 2000 to 2007. Meanwhile, ERS said, the national prevalence of very low food security (the condition formerly called "household food insecurity with hunger") increased from 3.1 percent of households in 2000 to 4.1 percent of households in 2007.

In other words, people were spending less in real inflation-adjusted terms, and they were experiencing higher rates of food-related hardship.

When I first read this study, I wondered if ERS was correct to imply a connection between these two trends. The report's author, Mark Nord, strengthens the argument by disaggregating the data according to income strata. It turns out that the second-poorest fifth of households experienced both the greatest fall in food spending and the greatest increase in food-related hardship.

Moreover, the food spending and food insecurity trends were connected in a plausible way to overall spending trends: "The declines in food spending by middle- and low-income households were accompanied by increases in spending for housing and, in the two lowest income quintiles, by declines in income and total spending."

Still, one should resist the temptation to think of food insecurity as primarily a problem of low average food spending. The food security survey that is used for classification asks households about their experience of particular hardship events, such as skipping meals or going a whole day without food, in the preceding 12 months. If a family runs out of food occasionally, it can seem to have adequate average food spending, but still experience food insecurity. Participation in the SNAP (food stamp) program seems to be associated with higher food spending, holding other factors constant, but associated also with higher rates of food insecurity (presumably because people with greater needs for food are more likely to take the trouble to participate). It is not clear whether increased average food spending is itself a cure for food insecurity.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Smart Choices suspends operations

In an effort to better coordinate with the Food and Drug Administration, the Smart Choices front-of-pack labeling program today announced that it would suspend operations for the present time.

The labeling program had been criticized for giving a stamp of approval to marginal products, such as a somewhat reformulated version of Froot Loops. This blog had previously covered both this criticism and the response from the program's supporters, including leading nutrition experts at the Friedman School and elsewhere.

In today's announcement, Mike Hughes, chair of the Smart Choices Program and vice president for science and public policy at the Keystone Center, stood by the actual nutrition criteria used in the program. "Our nutrition criteria are based on sound, consensus science," said Hughes.

We suggested in the previous post, "the program could have considered stricter criteria in some areas, such as sweetened cereals. More importantly, it could have achieved a different emphasis even with the program's current criteria. It could have more strongly highlighted fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while giving a lower profile to products that have been slightly reformulated and artificially enriched to just barely meet the nutrient criteria."

In either case, the FDA may be in a better position than the manufacturer-led Smart Choices Program to referee this question. In today's announcement, Hughes said, "[W]ith the FDA's announcement this week that they will be addressing both on front-of-package and on-shelf systems, and that uniform criteria may follow, it is more appropriate to postpone active operations and channel our information and learnings to the agency to support their initiative."

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Home Ec at the Faster Times

In the most recent edition of her Home Ec column at the Faster Times, Sarah Sliwa considers Mark Bittman's vision of how on-line shopping services, such as PeaPod, could evolve to provide much more information about ethical and local sourcing for food.
I think Mr. Bittman sees online shopping as a way to correct informational asymmetries in retail. He seems to be saying ‘There are people who would pay to know this stuff. Why don’t we let them.’ Our food system is wanting for greater transparency. But what preparation would consumers need to sift through that onslaught of information? Would those willing to chip in for traceback merely be the same individuals who pay attention to that anyway?
But Sliwa has some doubts:
Even if online shopping emerges as a means to control unplanned food purchasing, I fear this will be undermined as manufacturers grow savvy to online shoppers’ behaviors. For years, marketing researchers have been studying ’shelf-effects’ online and the relationship between relative screen placement, sequence, and shopping behavior. Virtual store layouts also matter. The more we learn about consumer behaviors online, the more tactical placement of ads and products we’ll see.
Sliwa is a graduate student at the Friedman School at Tufts.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Growing Green awards from NRDC

The Natural Resources Defense Council is taking nominations through December 4 for its second annual "Growing Green" awards program. See Jonathan Kaplan's blog for more information. There are four categories: food producer, business leader, thought leader, and water steward. There is a cash award for the food producer category and non-pecuniary praise for the other award recipients.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Hispanic farmers seek class action status for discrimination suit

Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been compensating Black farmers who sued for past discrimination in USDA programs over many years, Hispanic farmers who allege similar discrimination have not been certified as a legal "class" that can jointly bring a lawsuit. The Hispanic farmers are still permitted to bring individual lawsuits alleging discrimination, but these are expensive and have little chance of success.

NPR's All Things Considered yesterday afternoon emphasized similarities between the two legal disputes, suggesting that the Hispanic farmers are being treated unfairly by comparison to Black farmers in similar circumstances.
Soon after President Reagan took office in the early 1980s, the USDA's civil rights division was quietly dismantled. Nevertheless, the agency continued to tell farmers that if they felt they weren't getting loans because of their color or gender, they should file a complaint.

But for the next 14 years, those complaints were put into an empty government office and never investigated. By the 1990s, black farmers filed a lawsuit — Pigford v. Glickman. Because the USDA failed to investigate years of discrimination complaints, U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman certified the black farmers' case as a class action. And with that ruling, rather than risk a trial, the federal government settled with 15,000 black farmers for $1 billion.

The next year, Hispanic farmers filed their lawsuit. And although their discrimination complaints had been thrown into the same empty USDA office, the judge in their case decided the Hispanic farmers would not be allowed to sue as a class.
I looked up the 2006 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals, to see if the court mentioned any differences between the class-action petition of the Hispanic farmers and the earlier lawsuit by Black farmers. That appeals court decision centered on a debate about statistics. Because the USDA program rules on their face seemed to be non-discriminatory, the lawyers for the Hispanic farmers needed to show that there was systematic discrimination in practice.

First, an econometrician, Jerry Hausman, showed that Hispanic farmers seemed to get USDA program support at lower rates than non-Hispanic farmers. But, opposing attorneys and their experts pointed out that many of the Hispanic farmers may have never applied for support, in which case USDA could not be blamed if the farmers did not receive report. Second, the farmers presented another statistical analysis that appeared to show differences in USDA data for Hispanic and non-Hispanic loan applicants. But, opposing attorneys argued that some of the Hispanic applicants might not have been citizens, or they may have had deficient applications in other respects that were not "controlled" using regression analysis.

However, details such as citizenship information were not provided in the USDA data that were available for the second analysis. At one point, the author of this analysis, Karl Pavlovic, gave vent to his frustration (.pdf):
Dr. Freedman [the opposing expert] is simply using the myriad deficiencies in the databases produced by USDA to play a speculative game of 'gotcha' against the simple analyses that can be performed with the limited data produced. USDA produced some boards and a few nails. Dr. Freedman then criticizes my analyses for being a serviceable raft and not the Queen Mary.
As with many policy arguments, the question turns on where one places the burden of proof when absolutely clear answers cannot be found. The USDA and the court of appeals place the full burden on the plaintiffs to provide proofs that rule out alternative explanations for the disparate treatment of Hispanic farmers by USDA programs.

Because the chosen standard of proof is essentially impossible, this approach would mean that a farmer who faced real discrimination would not in fact be able to pursue a remedy through USDA or the courts.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Baseball gets dietary supplement regulation back in the game

In part due to Major League Baseball, members of Congress are re-considering how the $25 billion U.S. dietary supplement industry is regulated.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs heard testimony on whether current laws and regulations are sufficient to protect consumers from ingredients that may appear in supplements, but not on their labels. The interest of Chairman Arlen Specter (Dem-PA) is due in part to the court case of Philadelphia Phillies pitcher J.C. Romero, who was suspended for 50 games this year after testing positive for a banned substance. Earlier this year, Romero sued the manufacturer of an over-the-counter supplement, blaming the company for his suspension on the claim that it misrepresented ingredients in its products.

Under current law, no government agency evaluates the contents of dietary supplements to confirm the presence of ingredients listed on the label (or to discover those unlisted). Furthermore, dietary supplement manufacturers do not have to prove the safety or efficacy of the product to gain Food and Drug Administration approval prior to marketing. Rather, companies must submit some evidence that the product has a history of use or benefit 75 days before selling it. The safety burden falls on the FDA: if it believes a supplement to be unsafe it must demonstrate the public health risk in court. NYU nutrition professor Marion Nestle covers the history of this issue in detail in her book, Food Politics, as well as on her blog.

In his testimony, Michael Levy, the Director of the Division of New Drugs and Labeling Compliance at the FDA, describes this as, “a painstaking investigative and analytical process to show that [the products] are violative.” He states that the process can take many months, during which the product in question remains on the market, limiting the FDA’s ability to effectively protect consumers.

The largest trade association for the natural products industry, the Natural Products Association, also supported stricter enforcement of supplement contents. However, rather than questioning the effectiveness of current procedures, Interim Executive Director Daniel Fabricant called for increased money and manpower to enforce current law. He argues that sufficient resources would enable the FDA to pursue a larger number of investigations and court cases.

Batting averages are not the only outcomes at stake in this regulatory debate. Use of steroid-like compounds has been associated with kidney failure, liver injury, and stroke.

It will be interesting to see how the debate unfolds. The Major League Baseball Players Association is reported to be lobbying Congress to require that a federally certified lab analyze all supplements to identify the ingredients that should be listed on the label. Professional athletes may hit a regulatory home run that consumer safety advocates have sought for more than a decade.

Written by Natalie Valpiani, a graduate student at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. Cross-posted from a University of North Carolina food seminar blog, Eats 101.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Can data alone increase government transparency?

Among blogs, as well as the mainstream media, Congress generally gets all the attention, at least where policy is concerned, and I've found most food blogs to be no exception. And among the public--forget it. It's pretty clear that as little as people understand how a bill becomes a law, most people are even more clueless when it comes to what happens after a bill becomes a law.

So for us food [and other] policy wonks out there, the recent attempts by the Obama administration to open up the process to make it easier for blogs and others to follow the post-bill signing policymaking process via the Federal Register, can only help begin to expose the public and facilitate more input.

As a non-tech expert myself, I don't quite know what it means that as of today, the Federal Register is available in XML. But I do know that it has allowed for the development of a host of new websites and applications which utilize the daily updated data in the federal register to allow better tracking and communication.

One of these websites is called FedThread, and my first reaction was that it bares a striking resemblance to the way Jews traditionally study and comment on rabbinic texts, like the Talmud, comparing several annotated versions of the text. In the latter case, this allows the text to operate almost as a living document, with controversial yet accepted differences of opinion among highly revered scholars.

More about the features of FedThread from the site:

  • collaborative annotation: Attach a note to any paragraph of the Federal Register; start a conversation.
  • advanced search: Search the Federal Register back to 2000 on full text, by date, agency, and other fields.
  • customized feeds: Turn any search into an RSS or email feed, which will send you any new items that match the search query.

While I haven't seen it in action yet, the site seems like it will allow individual register notices to read like a cross between a bulletin board and a Wikipedia entry, and may present an opportunity for government regulators to get feedback from the public in real time.

Whether they will actually do that, and whether there are concerns that people will post to the site instead of submitting actual comments to the relevant agency, remains to be seen. The site explicitly states that posting comments on FedThread does not substitute for sending in an official public comment, and government regulators are under no obligation to read or take note of comments posted on FedThread.

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Truth in food?

The website "Truth in Food" has a commentary about farming, titled, "10 reasons why they hate you so." It caricatures the sustainable agriculture movement as being full of hate for farmers and includes the photograph below.

Here is my comment submitted to the site.
You can win an argument against haters any time. But, so much more of the criticism of modern industrial agriculture is thoughtful and worth reading. It is fair to ask how we can feed ourselves in a way that doesn't sacrifice the future for our children and grandchildren. You won't find hate in the writing of Michael Pollan or the movie Food, Inc. It makes me wonder if you are largely fighting just a straw dummy.

And that brings me to ask, where did you get the top photograph of the protester? The alt text says "top news photography." Is that posed or photoshopped? Who took the photograph and when?

You can win an argument against the boy with the sign in the picture. But I wonder if he is even real. In any case, he isn't representative of a movement.
Update: edited slightly 9/30, 1:45 p.m.

USDA discussion live on Facebook

USDA Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan will hold a Live Facebook Chat about local food systems on Thursday, October 1 at 3:45 pm ET. Comments and questions can be submitted via the USDA Facebook page.

The discussion is a part of the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" initiative launched in early September. According to the website:
USDA-wide effort to create new economic opportunities by better connecting consumers with local producers. It is also the start of a national conversation about the importance of understanding where your food comes from and how it gets to your plate. Today, there is too much distance between the average American and their farmer and we are marshalling resources from across USDA to help create the link between local production and local consumption.
As a former student of Kathleen, I am reminded of something she told us in her policy class: "think big!" She is dedicated to the "People's Department" being just that, and this is her way of including all in the conversation.


Tuesday, 29 September 2009

A list of food policy blogs at blogs.com

I was asked by blogs.com from Six Apart to compile a list of 10 food policy blogs.
In this list, [Parke] looked beyond the excellent sites that already appeared in a recent list at Culinate, which included Ethicurean, Green Fork, ChewsWise, Food Politics, Politics of the Plate, Grist, Civil Eats, and Obama Foodorama. Parke’s list adds some more blogs from within what might loosely be called the “good food movement,” but it emphasizes other selections that he reads to maintain diversity in his information stream.

Food Law Prof Blog
For legal news and insight, a member of the Law Professor Blog Network. More legal blogging comes from the Agricultural Law blog.

Amber Waves
The dry but substantial electronic magazine from USDA’s Economic Research Service, with accompanying RSS feed, is enough like a blog to make this list. In the same vein, one could mention Choices electronic magazine from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA).

La Vida Locavore
A thick stream of news and policy commentary from a local food perspective.

Blogriculture
By the staff of Capital News agriculture newspaper.

Farm Policy
A thorough summary of daily agricultural news coverage, with excerpts and little editorial commentary.

Fooducate
Practical food shopping advice. No pills. No industry affiliation.

Center for a Livable Future Blog
Focusing on industrialized food production systems.

Marler Blog
Commentary on food poisoning outbreaks and litigation.

TEFAP Alliance Blog
News about food assistance programs and the anti-hunger movement.

Daily Bread
The food business blog at Slate’s site, The Big Money.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Hearings held for a national Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) last week held the first in a series of formal hearings about the agency's proposed marketing agreement to improve the food safety of leafy greens.

The proposal stems from a deadly 2006 E. coli outbreak in spinach, which cast doubt on the adequacy of existing food safety oversight. An article by USDA's Economic Research in 2007 summarized the policy responses that were considered.

The hearings, in Monterey, California, September 22-25, collected public input on the federal government's proposal to create a national Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement (LGMA), similar in some respects to a marketing agreement that was adopted in California after the outbreak. Handlers who adopt certain food safety requirements stipulated in the agreement would earn the right to put a seal on the label, a sort of endorsement from USDA much like the "USDA prime" label for a particular grade of beef.

Federal food safety oversight is divided between multiple agencies, most importantly the Food and Drug Administration (in the Department of Health and Human Services), whose jurisdiction includes produce safety, and the Food Safety Inspection Service (in USDA), which oversees mandatory inspections for beef and poultry slaughter. Nevertheless, the marketing agreement would be voluntary for produce handlers and would be overseen by AMS, a USDA marketing agency, instead of either FDA or a food safety agency within USDA.

In the first of a series at Ethicurean, Elanor Starmer notes that marketing agreements usually enforce standards for the size or appearance of a product, not its food safety. She points out that the agreement would be voluntary for produce handlers, but would seem mandatory from the point of view of a farmer who must sell to a handler that participates in the agreement.

The Cornucopia Institute goes further in arguing that organic practices that preserve wildlife could be forbidden under the terms of the agreement, so small-scale organic producers could be prevented from using the proposed USDA seal: "[T]he proposed safety standards, which have been described as a 'corporate-backed marketing ploy,' may give agribusinesses using the new food safety seal a boost and lead many consumers to assume that vegetables from industrial-scale monoculture farms, primarily in California, are safer than the leafy greens available from local growers around the country."

[On a somewhat related topic, here is Carol Tucker-Foreman's recent Huffington Post commentary, saying that small and organic farms have little to fear from a food safety proposal under consideration in Congress].

An early Federal Register notice (.pdf) from AMS emphasizes the contrast between a voluntary marketing agreement and a potentially mandatory marketing order. Many produce handlers prefer the voluntary marketing agreement approach to federal regulation through a food safety agency.


Photo: USDA.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Setbacks for Smart Choices

The Smart Choices labeling program has created quite a stir.

Following a critical New York Times article earlier this month, which Ashley Colpaart discussed here, the story has been picked up by other major outlets. Rebecca Ruiz scrutinized the program's funding sources in Forbes magazine [update: sentence corrected 9/25/2009]. Mark Bittman shared his wit in a tour of a supermarket aisle on ABC's Nightline. Tom Laskawy at Grist called the program a dumb move.

My dean at the Friedman School at Tufts, Eileen Kennedy, who is a board member for the Smart Choices program, was quoted in the Times defending the inclusion of Froot Loops, which has become the poster child for questionable products included in the program. She has taken a lot of grief for this, including unfair emails and telephone calls. She argues, in person and in public, that the participating companies deserve credit for the social responsibility they showed in giving up their separate food labeling schemes and agreeing to the stricter "Smart Choices" standards. If Froot Loops meets well-defined standards, then wouldn't it be wrong to exclude the brand simply because one doesn't like its marketing associations?

The Froot Loops example highlights a weakness of the Smart Choices program, which seems to favor reformulated branded manufactured products over traditional simple healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables. Dean Kennedy responds that all fruits and vegetables without additives qualify for the program, a point that was omitted from the New York Times article.

The Smart Choices program would have been wise to anticipate the criticism that it favors highly processed foods. The program could have considered stricter criteria in some areas, such as sweetened cereals. More importantly, it could have achieved a different emphasis even with the program's current criteria. It could have more strongly highlighted fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while giving a lower profile to products that have been slightly reformulated and artificially enriched to just barely meet the nutrient criteria. Then, reformulated Froot Loops might still have qualified, but the program would have been on stronger ground choosing a different poster child product -- any of thousands of simple, healthy, delicious, traditional foods.

Instead, the program's one-page fact sheet (.pdf) promotes plenty of manufactured packaged food brands but no traditional healthy foods. The program's board includes major manufacturers, but no producers or retailers of less processed fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

The program should have anticipated criticism of its fee structure also. Although it has a sliding cost scale for food companies, with larger fees for products that have bigger sales, the low end of the scale is still too expensive for commodity producers (comparatively small-scale producers of a non-branded food product). If the program is not just a marketing ploy for food manufacturers, or a revenue stream for the non-profit program itself, then it should permit the seller of an apple without additives simply and freely to use the Smart Choices logo. If an apple automatically meets the program's criteria, it is difficult to see what type of review the program would undertake that would justify even a modest application cost. Currently, if you search for "apple" on the program's website, you find all about Apple Jacks and very little about apples.

Marion Nestle's blog has covered this issue with cutting insight. Advocacy groups have been having a field day. Change.org is running an email campaign, with thousands of signatories already. Somebody has apparently circulated an email list of people to contact that includes faculty like myself. I read every email with interest, even though there is not much mileage in lobbying me on this topic.

The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees federal policy on food labeling, wrote to the Smart Choices Program in August:
In the past five years, competing FOP [front-of-pack] symbols on food labels have proliferated. Consumer research suggests that these competing symbols, which are based on different nutrient criteria, are likely to confuse consumers. In this context, we recognize the potential value of a more standardized approach for FOP labeling.

However, since products bearing the Smart Choices symbol are just beginning to appear in the market, we will need to monitor and evaluate the products as they appear and their effect on consumers' food choices and perceptions.

FDA and FSIS would be concerned if any FOP labeling systems used criteria that were not stringent enough to protect consumers against misleading claims; were inconsistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans; or had the effect of encouraging consumers to choose highly processed foods and refined grains instead of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Of course, some of FDA's concerns would seem to apply equally well to other front-of-pack labeling programs, not just Smart Choices.

The Board of Directors page on the Smart Choices website formerly listed affiliations for directors with senior roles at the American Diabetes Association, Baylor University, and Tufts University, but these affiliations have been removed. In an August 5 press release, the American Society of Nutrition (ASN) seemed proud to "jointly administer" the Smart Choices program along with a non-profit organization called NSF International: "Together, ASN and NSF International are committed to ensuring that the Smart Choices Program is credibly implemented, governed, and monitored." Now, however, some of the references to the ASN role have been deleted from the Smart Choices site -- for example, they have been removed from the one-page fact sheet (.pdf). ASN has tried to clarify its role in the program in a letter to members: "ASN does not own the program and does not endorse the products under Smart Choices." I wonder if leading institutions in the nutrition profession are reconsidering the program.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Food Stamp Program (SNAP) serves record numbers

The federal government's most important anti-hunger program provided food assistance to record numbers of low-income Americans in June.

For the first time ever, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, served more than 35 million people in June, according to the most recent monthly data from USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.

The program supports a monthly budget for food from grocery stores (not counting restaurants) of $668 in a family of four (or $167 per person). Very poor households receive this full food budget from the SNAP program, while low-income households that are a little better off are expected to contribute a portion of their own cash income to their food budget.

(An interesting "food stamp challenge" or "SNAP challenge" is to try to live for a week on a food budget of $38, as a way of learning about food conditions for low-income Americans).

Following a substantial benefit increase in April (.pdf), which was part of the federal stimulus package, the average per person monthly benefit was $133 in June, compared with $101 a year earlier. This raised the federal cost for benefits to $4.7 billion in June, compared with $2.9 billion a year earlier.

The cost of the SNAP program responds automatically to economic conditions (.pdf), expanding during recessions and contracting during good times. A major research challenge over the years has been to understand exactly how strongly the SNAP caseload responds to economic conditions and policy changes.

Here is a Google gadget showing the time series for the SNAP / Food Stamp caseload over the years.

Here is a second gadget showing, for each state, how the SNAP caseload responds to the unemployment rate and other economic and policy variables. The size of the bubble is proportional to the state population. When the unemployment rate rises, the bubble moves rightward. When the proportion of the population receiving SNAP benefits rises, the bubble moves upwards. The color changes show the date of implementation for important welfare reforms during the 1990s.

One cool thing to do with the second gadget is to click on a particular state, to see how its experience is similar to or different from other states. For example, if you select Louisiana (near the top on the left in the opening setting), you can see the dramatic effect of Hurricane Katrina on food stamp / SNAP participation.

Another cool thing to do is to notice the effect of economic conditions on food stamp /SNAP participation. The whole cloud of bubbles drifts upward and rightward during recessions, and downward and leftward during economic expansions. But there are interesting exceptions. During parts of the current decade, there was economic expansion but food stamp / SNAP participation kept rising.

Graduate students Joseph Llobrera and Hanqi Luo helped with the gadgets. Feel free to comment on interesting things you notice in these data.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Food safety recalls and alerts

Though much remains to do, there has been progress in recent years in providing the public with information about food safety recalls.

An important development has been a USDA policy to release information about the retailers where recalled products were sold. Previously, this information was hard to get. Currently, the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) seems to provide retailer information about some but not all recalls.

There is a new widget for food safety recalls and alerts from the federal government's consolidated food safety page (I don't have the widget working right yet, and may add it to the sidebar in the future). Hat tip to Marion Nestle's Food Politics blog.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

A long road for farm laborers

The U.S. food system relies fundamentally on hired farm workers. The physical labor is as hard as any in the U.S. economy, it is sometimes dangerous, and it pays little.

From the summary of a recent USDA report:
Hired farm workers make up a third of the total agricultural labor force and are critical to U.S. agricultural production, particularly in labor-intensive sectors such as fruits and vegetables. The hired farm worker labor market is unique because it includes a large population of relatively disadvantaged and often unauthorized workers, a portion of whom migrate to, and within, the United States.
Hired farm workers are usually recent immigrants, and frequently undocumented. Wages remain low, because the supply of laborers is great, and their alternatives to farm labor are limited. Even as a market economist, who usually admires the way a free labor market assigns workers to the jobs where their work is most valuable, I can barely wrap my mind around the gulf between the farm laborer's wage and the consumer value of the food he grows.

Considering these economic fundamentals, hope for higher wages requires either great courage or an active imagination.

This July, I visited Immokalee, Florida, to meet a group of farm workers with that kind of imagination, and ... a strategy. Lucas Benitez, with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, gave a tour including the Coalition's community center, radio station, and cooperative food store. A walk through the neighborhood took in trailer residences for seasonal workers and the site of a compound where workers had been held against their will.

The Coalition focuses on winning concessions from branded retail and restaurant companies, like the Publix supermarket chain or the leading fast food brands such as Taco Bell, Burger King, and, most recently, Chipotle. For example, the CIW might ask Taco Bell for a penny per pound more for tomato pickers, who get paid according to the quantity they pick.

The strategy is clever, because these branded companies have a strong incentive to reach an agreement. The branded companies rely on consumer goodwill toward their brand, and the cost of the agreement is tiny relative to the final retail value of the foods sold. By contrast, the farms in Florida that actually hire the laborers and grow the tomatoes operate in a cutthroat competitive market. The farms are large, as farms go, but still they are very small compared to a supermarket company or a fast food chain. Even for a prosperous farmer, a small wage increase without a commensurate increase in the tomato price is a frightening proposition.

While in Immokalee, I spoke with University of Florida agricultural economist Fritz Roka, who has written about the economics of farm labor in Southwest Florida. He noted the competitive pressures on Florida growers and the possibility that higher costs could shift tomato production to other parts of the country, or overseas.

But perhaps it's not just economics that drives the Florida farmers to fear improved wages. One of the strangest twists in the CIW's campaign came after the Coalition won its first victories from several fast food chains, but then had trouble finding farmers who were willing to pass along the wage premium. Even though it didn't cost the grower anything, because the premium is paid by the fast food chain, most growers refused to collect the premium and pass it along to the workers. The Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, an organization of farmers, threatened to fine any member who participated in the premium agreements. In other words, it is not just market economics that keeps the laborer's wage low. The growers actively coordinate their efforts to prevent the premium from being paid.

Casting about in vain for an explanation for the growers' stance, I wonder if the farmers are just offended at the gumption of the immigrant laborers in demanding for a higher wage rather than accepting the natural hierarchy of the local economy. Among Florida's many cultural traditions, a flavor of the pre-Civil-Rights Deep South still has a place. I emailed Reggie Brown at the FTGE in July to get the growers' perspective for this post, but received no response.

The CIW's opponents in the region want to paint the Coalition as too radical, but it may be that any demand for higher wages gets counted as radical. I asked Benitez about the CIW's reputation. He responded that the CIW has many allies when it asks for better working conditions. For example, there is a broad support in Florida for better portable toilets in the field, or access to water to prevent dehydration, or food pantries and social services. But, I get the sense that the CIW occupies a more lonely piece of ground when it imagines that farm workers could ever have higher wages.

Further reading:
Tom Philpott, The human cost of industrial tomatoes.

Barry Estabrook, Politics of the plate: Florida's slave trade.

And, for its detailed word portraits of Immokalee's workers, Carlene Thissen, Immokalee's fields of hope.


Photo by Margaret Wilde.

Update (9/9/2009, 5:15 pm): A press release late this afternoon gives a timely update on the Chipotle situation, emphasizing the key challenge of finding a grower to pass along a per-pound premium to the workers. Chipotle has reached an agreement with East Coast Farms, a tomato grower, to pass along the premium. In the past, the CIW has pressed Chipotle, in addition to establishing the extra payment, to also commit in writing to keeping it (so the decision cannot be reversed). The press release says the new program follows months of discussion with the CIW, though it did not say explicitly whether CIW has yet endorsed the program as adequate.