Friday, 27 December 2013

At Civil Eats, nutrition policy reformer Andy Bellatti included a kind word for Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction (Routledge/Earthscan) as part of his year-end review for 2013.
Let’s wrap up this look back at 2013 by remembering just a small selection of the many great books that saw the light of day. When it came to an inside look at the world of processed foods, two journalists masterfully pulled back the curtain: Melanie Warner in Pandora’s Lunchbox and Michael Moss in Salt Sugar Fat. Food politics were front and center in Dr. Gyorgy Scrinis’–a lecturer in food and nutrition politics and policy in the Department of Agriculture and Food Systems in the Melbourne School of Land and Environmen–Nutritionism, and literally illustrated in Marion Nestle’s Eat, Drink, Vote.

The plight of restaurant workers was well-detailed in Saru Jayamaran’s Behind the Kitchen Door, while New York Times writer Mark Bittman made a solid case for eating a plant-based diet before 6 PM in VB6. In the textbook realm, Parke Wilde, Associate Professor at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, released Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction to much acclaim from his peers.

Okay, 2014, now it’s your turn. Impress us and give the “good food” movement something to cheer about, please!

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

U.S. cranberry policy

Even the cranberries on Christmas tree chains have a U.S. food policy story to accompany them. I enjoyed speaking to David Gura for his Christmas Eve Marketplace Morning Report story this morning:
The Congressional Cranberry Caucus -- yes, such a thing exists -- asked the Department of Agriculture to add cranberries to what’s called the “USDA Foods Available List.” These are “foods that are available for schools to purchase as part of their commodity feeding programs,” says Scott Soares, the head of the Cranberry Marketing Committee.

These are the kinds of fruits and vegetables the federal government buys for school meals programs.

“When the National School Lunch Program started in 1946, it was very explicitly half about helping children and half about commodity disposal,” says Parke Wilde, who teaches nutrition at Tufts.

These days, Wilde says, that balance has shifted; now it is more about nutrition goals.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

A debate in NYC over soda policy

Heritage Radio Network has posted in full a debate Thursday night about the NYC soda policy proposals.

The debate had four participants:
  • I spoke gently in favor of New York City's effort to experiment with moderate policies to change the environment in which sugar sweetened beverages are marketed and sold.  I suggested that the Board of Health's proposed limit on sweetened beverage container sizes was not as radical as it has been portrayed. My 2-minute opening statement begins at 17:25.
  • Lisa Young, an author and adjunct professor at New York University, spoke strongly in favor of the proposal, using cups of various sizes as props to buttress her points.
  • J. Justin Wilson trashed the proposal on libertarian and free-market grounds.  Wilson represents the Center for Consumer Freedom, an industry-funded organization that runs ads calling NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg a nutrition nanny.
  • Joel Berg directs the New York City Coalition Against Hunger.  He appealed strongly for broader policies to address U.S. poverty and expressed his organization's intention to neither endorse nor oppose the beverage size limitation proposal.  Then, Berg livened the debate by launching into an enjoyably vivid and highly critical analysis of such paternalistic policies.
The event was organized by the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) and hosted by the New York City Food Policy Center at Hunter College.


Monday, 25 November 2013

Bread for the World publishes 2014 Hunger Report

The faith-based anti-hunger advocacy organization Bread for the World today released its 2014 report on Ending Hunger in America.  This organization stands out for its economically sensible poverty-centered approach to thinking about the problem of hunger. 

It is right for such an organization to press for greater generosity in federal nutrition assistance programs (as Step #3 out of 4 steps).  But it also seems wise for Bread for the World to give jobs and education their proper place (as Steps #1 and #2). 

The #1 plank has the tag-line: "The best defense against hunger is a good job."


Saturday, 23 November 2013

Report and audit from the Fair Food Standards Council

The Fair Food Standards Council this week published its first report and audit from the Fair Food Program.

This report explains the operations, monitoring, and auditing of the agreements that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has reached with selected major food manufacturers, restaurant chains, and food retailers.  Through these agreements, farm workers are able to protect their rights and earn a wage premium for part of their work (for example, they may earn a bonus per bucket on tomato harvest).  The report includes inspiring accounts of the difference these agreements can make, on issues ranging from getting paid for the full amount of time on worksite to protecting women from risk of rape by a crew boss. 

Previous posts on this blog describe my visits to the CIW in Florida in 2009 and 2012, which have affected how I think and teach about labor issues in the U.S. food system.  Barry Estabrook includes an engaging account of these labor issues in Tomatoland.

The new report on the Fair Food Program includes more detail than I have previously seen about how the fair food premiums are recorded, distributed, and audited.  I had been wanting to read about these audits, which increase my confidence in the pass-through mechanism for the premium -- the brand-name companies must pay tomato grower enterprises, which must pass along the correct amount to the workers (minus a specified deduction for the paper-work and transactions costs).  The CIW is able to reach such agreements with brand-name food and restaurant companies (which have a public reputation to protect), while it would have been more difficult to win agreement on a premium directly from the growers (who operate in a cut-throat competitive market).  I found it illuminating to see an exhibit with a photograph of an actual pay stub recording the premium.  Understanding this slightly convoluted system better, it is easier to think of it as a feasible business model worth expanding to other areas of U.S. farm labor.



Friday, 15 November 2013

Coca-Cola's "Cap the Tap" campaign

The MyPlate consumer education materials (.pdf) from the U.S. government wisely encourage folks to "drink water instead of sugary beverages."

The message from beverage companies is something else altogether.

Through its "Cap the Tap" campaign and related materials, Coca-Cola encourages restaurants to talk customers out of choosing tap water and instead to choose higher-profit items such as Coke, Minute Maid juice, Dasani bottled water, or an alcoholic drink. I read about this campaign recently in a hard-hitting post by Andy Bellatti at Civil Eats. A related link to Coca-Cola's CokeSolutions website appears to be broken now, but I found you can still read about the company's message for restaurants on Google Cache. [Note 11/18/2013: the basic link to CokeSolutions is working.  Bellatti points out by Twitter that the "Cap the Tap" graphic from that site is only available now in a Huffington Post screenshot.  Nice work.]

Bellatti also linked to this great, blunt, fascinating page by graphic designer Pen Williamson, with proposed posters that Coca-Cola could use to get restaurants to discourage healthy and inexpensive tap water as a beverage choice [Note: this sentence edited slightly Nov 15 afternoon]. The poster suggests, "provide tap water to guests upon request only."  I don't know if this poster or another similar poster was used in Coca-Cola's "Cap the Tap" campaign.

There is nothing the government can or should do to restrict this type of marketing to restaurants. Yet, I think it is terrible marketing from a nutrition standpoint, which gives us useful context as we interpret the public policy debate over the potential role of beverage companies as part of the solution to the nation's health and nutrition challenges.

WCRF policy strategies to reduce non-communicable disease around the world

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) this month published a new 2-page document (.pdf) summarizing the organization's recommendations on using food policy to address the problem of high rates of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

The recommendations encourage clear nutrition labeling, healthy school meals programs, well-targeted taxes and healthy food subsidies, and restrictions on advertising for breastmilk substitutes and for unhealthy foods (especially to children).

The WCRF is an international not-for-profit umbrella organization for a network of cancer prevention organizations. WCRF literature reviews on dietary patterns and cancer risk are used by the U.S. federal government as one of several evidence sources for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The WCRF policy recommendations are bolder and more activist than some policy-makers would be ready to consider in the United States, but the WCRF approach nonetheless offers a lot of insight.  For example, a background document on law and obesity prevention (.pdf) carefully considers both advantages and disadvantages of legal approaches to addressing public health nutrition challenges.  It acknowledges not just the political power of food and beverage manufacturers to thwart such policies but also the constitutional protections for commercial speech and the serious concerns consumers may have about policy interventions that limit their autonomy.

For perspective on U.S. food policy debates, it is illuminating to hear an international perspective that is (not surprisingly) comparatively interventionist, but which at the same time fully recognizes the challenges and tradeoffs involved in such policy proposals.


Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Greenhouse gas emissions flows

I recently had cause to remember and appreciate this 2008 graphic from the World Resources Institute (WRI).  Ordinarily, there is confusion between various statistics one reads about economic sectors (such as transportation, energy, agriculture), about economic activities and end uses (such as heating residential buildings, heating commercial buildings), and about gasses (such as carbon dioxide and methane).  The graphic still doesn't answer one of my questions -- I am trying to reconcile environmental accounts that (a) place food distribution with the corresponding manufacturing and distribution sectors or (b) attribute all of these costs to food itself.  Nonetheless, it is a good data visualization.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Maureen Ogle's history: In Meat We Trust

Maureen Ogle's new history of the meat industry is In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).  I enjoyed the many biographical summaries of leading industrial innovators (from Gustavus Swift to Coleman Natural Meats) and their critics (from Upton Sinclair to Michael Pollan and Michael Jacobson).

The book's most sound overall theme is that American consumers appear to demand contradictory things (perfect safety and environmental sustainability and yet low prices and massive quantities).  Ogle appeals to consumers to become more informed rather than throwing stones from afar.  In part, I think these contradictory demands arise because different consumers have always had different opinions, including sometimes well-motivated support for and concern about meat in general and industrial meat in particular.  Ogle instead treats these contradictory opinions as the ignorant and schizophrenic demand of a single personified American "we."  For example,
"If meat's American history tells us anything, it is that we Americans generally get what we want.  Meat three times a day? No problem.  Meat precut, deboned, and ready to cook?  There it is....  Organic, grass-fed, local pork and beef?  All yours, as long as you don't mind paying the price or taking the time to find it....  We're a complicated group, we Americans, and we struggle to reconcile our conflicting desires and passions."
In the end, Ogle ends up deeply skeptical of food system reformers and admiring of meat industry innovators: "So, thanks, Big Ag -- and the USDA and family and corporate farmers -- for giving us the cheap food that has nourished an extraordinary abundance of creative energy."  Here is a favorable review and interview by Chuck Jolley at Drovers Cattle Network.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Sprout covers government shutdown and Farm Bill

The November issue of the Sprout (the Friedman School's graduate student publication) includes coverage of the government shutdown and the Farm Bill, along with recipes, edible poems, and a calendar of food-related events.

For the Farm Bill article, reporter Lindsey Webb quotes me explaining the extent of my inside knowledge and prognostication ability about the arcane world of House-Senate negotiations over the omnibus nutrition and agricultural legislation: "I have no idea what will happen next."

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Living richly

Following an occasional thread on this blog, it is time for a more personal update on my family's decade-long experimentation in sustainable living. We are informed by the active online conversation about this topic, but we draw some different lessons as well.

First, my family begins with the awareness that we are rich.  It would be good for all but the very poorest Americans to begin from this proposition.  Many of us make unwise environmental decisions because we feel economically beleaguered -- constrained by jobs, family, and social expectations to commute by car, fly in airplanes, and eat environmentally expensive food.  Acknowledging that we are rich can liberate us to make the decisions that satisfy our consciences and truly bring us joy.  I rarely talk about faith on this semi-professional blog, but, among the four of us, including my wife and two children, we use religious language to describe this fact.  We know we have been blessed.

Second, our personal goal is not to experience hardship.  Over the centuries, many people have found great insight in taking a vow of poverty, but that is not for us.  We want to experiment with using fewer and fewer environmental resources in order to uncover the point at which we begin to feel materially poor.  Then we'll stop and think before proceeding further.

So, here is some of what we have learned so far about what resources are necessary to live well.

Shelter.  We have a 3-bedroom 2-bathroom free-standing house in a dense inner suburban neighborhood.  Clearly, this already makes us more prosperous than most people in the world, but it is a simpler home than most people in my professional circles have, and we have not yet taken steps toward selling our home and buying a smaller place.  In summer, we use no air conditioning, although air conditioning is common in Boston.  We have learned to open and shut our windows in summer on a schedule that keeps the house a pleasant temperature on all but about 7 days per year.  In winter, we keep the house at 50 degrees at night, and when we are away at school and work, and 61 degrees when we are at home.  The energy company tells us that we use 34% less gas than average homes in our neighborhood and save many hundreds of dollars each year.  We enjoy our slippers and sweaters and feel cozy. 

Food.  We eat nearly a vegetarian diet at home, but frequently have dairy products and occasionally fish.  Counting food from elsewhere, I eat some meat about 4 days per week.  My son eats meat with school lunch, and my daughter eats vegetarian at school.  We use some local food, and cook at home, but perhaps 90 percent of our food comes by way of the industrial food system.  We enjoy our food and feel richly fed all the time.

Transportation by car.  We own one 2000 Honda Civic, which we drive for short trips most days.  My wife bicycles to work, and I bike to a "T" station and then take the subway.  The children are old enough to go to school by bicycle or city bus.  Our car seldom has repair expenses, and the insurance company gives us a discount for low mileage.  Walking, cycling, and on the subway, we feel healthier, happier, and more connected with friends and strangers around us.

Transportation by air.  We realized that frequent travel by air for fun and work threatened to offset all of the gains our family made in shelter and food, leaving us with a carbon impact that exceeded national averages.  So, we gave up flying entirely for a time.  Despite being an active academic researcher, and despite having a new textbook to market, I haven't flown since the first week of May, 2013.  My university's website encourages faculty to reduce flying when possible, but in practice most researchers in my field spend immense resources on air travel to meetings and conferences.  This is strange if the meeting or conference addresses the problems of world poverty or sustainable food systems.  I had hoped to keep up my no-flying discipline for a year, but this week I could not resist adding a trip by air to my calendar for April, 2014, so my freedom from flying will last 11 months in total.  Since May, I've given presentations and attended meetings in DC, Woods Hole, Boston, Cornell University, and even by Amtrak to Ohio for presentations in Cleveland and Columbus, and I have forthcoming presentations in Albany and Philadelphia.  I've learned to work as effectively on the train as I do in my office, so train travel is both more pleasant and less time-consuming for me than air travel.  The rest of my family stopped flying even earlier, in April, 2012.  Our summer vacation in 2013 was a bicycle trip on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal.  My family will go without flying for 25 months, after which we will take a vacation in summer 2014 that can only be done by air, a 6-week walking pilgrimage together that we have wished for many years. If that trip comes to pass as we hope, we know it is a blessing.  Our vacations still leave us in the ranks of the world's most privileged people, but it is both good environmentalism and good wisdom to take longer and more peaceful breaks rather than shorter and more resource-intensive vacations wedged between periods of excessive work for high pay.

What is the lesson from this self-experimentation?  We found we can reduce resource use by a large margin without any symptoms of deprivation.  As the community of friends around us grows stronger, working on the same simple living project, we may find it psychologically easier to take more radical steps in this direction.

For me, this experience provides crucial information about the possibility that our global family can thrive even during the forthcoming time of scarcity.  Far more than any technological development (such as GMOs or biofuels), what matters most for the future of the world is the capacity of those who are rich to use fewer material resources.  Because the rich of the world also are politically powerful, and unlikely to will themselves into poverty voluntarily, my hope for this capacity depends in part on whether higher-income people can use fewer resources and still recognize themselves as prosperous.  Quite possibly, the stresses the world faces will cause disruptions, crisis, famine, or war, but I think those events arise from our foolishness as social animals rather than from any material economic requirement we have for an adequate standard of living.  On a material basis, I have seen with my own eyes and felt in my own skin that people in rich countries can undertake drastically lower resource use in shelter, food, and transportation, and still live richly.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Problems in industrial food animal production are only getting worse

The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins in October released an update on problems in industrial food animal production, five years after a landmark Pew Commission report in 2008.  Ralph Loglisci has a good overview at Civil Eats

Sadly, in most areas of concern, there has been no progress.  On many issues there has been backwards motion.

I found the new update report generally fair and sober.  (I took the closing appeal from Fred Kirschenmann for an "agriculture that mimics nature" to be an inspirational homily rather than a concrete scientific or food policy proposition).  I know that people in the animal production industries, and even many of my colleagues in the mainstream of the agricultural economics profession, will be tempted to classify the Pew Commission and its descendents along with radical environmentalist critics of the modern food system, but I see this report far more favorably.  At every turn, it offers informative explanations of the serious potential problems with unrestrained antibiotic use, disease monitoring, water and air pollution, animal confinement, and economic competition.

Because most of these topics are intensely contested and debated, perhaps the most interesting passages of the report explain how meat producers have been able to evade increased information collection.  On topics from antibiotic use to water pollution by CAFOs to contracts in poultry marketing, the industry resists efforts to share the information we need in order to judge these debates in a sensible manner.  For example:
Delivering Antibiotic Transparency in Animals Act (2013 to present)

The Delivering Antibiotic Transparency in Animals (DATA) Act, sponsored by Rep. Henry Waxman (D–CA), would amend the reporting requirements contained in ADUFA Section 105 to require drug companies to report additional sales data, and to require integrators to report data on antimicrobial use.

The bill would also direct the FDA to include additional information on reported data in the annual summaries, including breakdowns by route of administration and approved indication, animal species, and production class. The legislation, which was introduced in February 2013 prior to reauthorization of ADUFA, has not been enacted.

Antimicrobial Data Collection Act (2013 to present)

The Antimicrobial Data Collection Act, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D–NY), would, like the DATA Act, require the FDA to include additional information on antimicrobial sales data in the annual summaries required under ADUFA. It would not, however, require any additional reporting of sales by drug companies or require reporting of antimicrobial use by integrators. It has not been enacted.
If private sector and government initiatives did a better job of addressing these environmental and health issues, our meat and dairy products might be somewhat more expensive, but we would be able to bear this price increase just fine.  Americans have room to reduce meat and dairy intake by a certain amount while still maintaining a very high nutritional standard of living.  Many of the foods that provide similar nutrients, such as alternative sources of protein and fats, are less expensive than meat.  It is therefore false that addressing important environmental and health concerns would be an unbearable hardship for any stratum of Americans, whether low-income or middle-income.  This is not about government overreach, nor is it about taxation to influence consumer food choices, it is simply about designing production systems that correctly account for environmental and health constraints, and then letting the free market set appropriate corresponding prices.

I'd be glad for any rebuttal, or tough questions about the main points of this report, but I found it highly persuasive. 

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Media coverage of SNAP (food stamp) cuts

A temporary boost to SNAP benefits, which was instituted in 2009 as part of the federal government's response to the Great Recession, ended yesterday (November 1). This means that all SNAP participants, approximately 48 million Americans, have reduced benefits this year. For example, a 4-person family will lose $36 in monthly benefits. Overall, the cuts amount to approximately $5 billion in the 2014 fiscal year. Congress is contemplating further cuts as part of Farm Bill negotiations between the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Media organizations this week covered these cuts in slightly different ways, but generally agreed on the overall message.

The concern that SNAP participants will turn to emergency food sources such as food pantries was featured by Julie Siple at Minnesota Public Radio and by Marisol Bello at USA Today.

Perhaps surprisingly, media outlets that are considered more conservative or more market-oriented highlighted many of the same themes.  FoxNews did expand on AP coverage by giving high-profile space to a claim by Michael Tanner at the Cato Institute that lax eligibility requirements contributed to recent caseload increases.  Yet, that same story quoted Ellen Vollinger from the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) and also described the cuts themselves in stark terms, saying SNAP benefits were being "slashed."

In this sense, FoxNews provided essentially the same mix of views as did the Minnesota Public Radio story, which included an interview with Tad DeHaven of the Cato Institute, who emphasized that the 2009 increase was always intended to be temporary.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank that is considered comparatively liberal, but whose reports are always careful with facts and largely free of spin, similarly acknowledged in a very informative report and press release that the 2009 increase was intended to be temporary.  I imagine that most journalists covering this story had read the Center's report.

A separate FoxNews story by Joseph Weber on October 30 claimed that a crackdown on food stamp fraud could "save millions," but the body of the article recognized that the potential savings from such efforts really may be quite small, amounting to less than 1 percent of total program costs.  Moreover, I could not find the FoxNews statistic in the "recent" USDA Inspector General audit report on which it was supposedly based.  The most recent related national audit report from the Inspector General appears to be this 2012 report (.pdf), which includes some praise for existing USDA efforts along with some suggestions for improvement.  The report concludes with a statement that USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) agreed with all the suggestions and planned to implement them by September, 2013, along with a statement from the Inspector General that this response was satisfactory.

Derek Wallbank and Alan Bjerga at Bloomberg News included fascinating coverage of related food retail business topics, including comments from retailers who are highly concerned about the benefit cuts and also those, such as Walmart, that may prosper in times when hard-hit consumers are even more price conscious.

I spent a good deal of time this week speaking to media about the SNAP cuts.  Because I had never before done a live television news interview, perhaps the most interesting was a conversation last night with Elaine Reyes of China's CCTV America network (my interview begins at minute 30:00).  I pointed out that the SNAP program is a particularly important part of the general social safety net in the United States, and that the economic recovery from the Great Recession has been slow, only recently beginning to provide improved private-sector opportunities for low-wage workers, so many people feel that now is a tough time for cuts.

In general, across the spectrum of coverage, I saw perhaps more balance and consistency than I might have expected.  Food stamp policy used to be fairly bipartisan, because the program was perceived more favorably in the United States than cash assistance programs have been perceived.  In the House of Representatives in particular, food stamp policy used to be decided through bipartisan conversations in the Agriculture Committee's hearing room, rather than fiery speeches on the floor of the House.  I wonder if the end of the budget shutdown has cooled some tempers and shown some limits to political rhetoric that really seeks to stick it to poor people.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Some food stamp cuts take effect Nov. 1, and Congress is contemplating more cuts

On Nov. 1, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants will stop receiving a boost to their benefits.  The boost was implemented in 2009 as part of the federal government's response to the recession and financial crisis.

In addition, in Farm Bill legislation, Congress is considering proposals for moderate cuts ($4 billion over ten years in Senate legislation) and deep cuts ($40 billion over ten years in the House of Representatives).

I do not think any of these cuts are a good idea.  The economic recovery has not yet effectively reached the labor markets most important for low-income Americans.  Still, given the state of things in Washington, I am resigned to the end of the 2009 benefit boost, and to cuts of the magnitude proposed in the Senate, which are proportional to cuts being made to other Farm Bill programs.  I reserve the word "terrible" for the deeper cuts proposed in the House of Representatives, in part because of their magnitude, and in part because the proposals have been accompanied by intemperate language that seemed hateful toward the poor.

All these above points came out in an interview I had with NBC News online, published today. 

Next steps for preventing Salmonella in chicken ... and fresh produce?

After this year's Salmonella Heidelberg outbreak, which has caused more than 300 illnesses and an unusually high rate of hospitalizations, was linked to Foster Farms, observers were surprised that USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) did not ask the chicken processor to recall product that may have been contaminated.

Participants in a recent meeting with FSIS reported that agency officials seemed to take the position that they required proof of culpability before they could request a recall.  That cautious stance makes sense when an agency is bringing a criminal case, but not when an agency is deciding merely whether to recall contaminated chicken. 

In a Salmonella case that may be related, Costco has recalled rotisserie chicken sold at a store in California.  Why didn't FSIS ask for a recall of the Foster Farms chicken?  There may be several reasons.

  • The agency may simply be satisfied with Foster Farms proposed remedial actions and may feel incapable of doing much good by chasing after the chicken that has already left the farm gate, so to speak.
  • The agency may feel that Salmonella on chicken is a tolerable hazard, because consumers should be able to kill it by cooking at home.  The agency has a tolerance for the presence of Salmonella on whole chickens and tends to take action only if the rate of Salmonella contamination exceeds this percentage.  There is no specific tolerance established for chicken parts, as in the Foster Farms case, but the agency may feel that Foster Farms' rate of contamination is in line with the rest of the industry.
A coalition of consumer groups has asked for stronger action (.pdf), including a list of 7 specific steps the federal government could take.  For example, the government could declare antibiotic resistant Salmonella and Salmonella that has been linked to an outbreak in poultry as "adulterants," a legal term which triggers specific legal power to prohibit sale.  Also on the list, the government could require companies to revise their food safety plans.

The politics of such food safety regulations is complex, however.  Separate from this Salmonella outbreak in processed chicken, I have been following the very tough stance that some sustainable agriculture advocates have been taking against allowing new food safety rules under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) to be applied to foods produced locally and on small farms.  Salmonella contamination is much more common on chicken from processing factories than on small farm produce; still, when contamination occurs on fruits or vegetables, there is not even a "kill step" through consumer cooking at home, so the safety issues are quite serious.  Some small farm advocates say it would be too burdensome to have formal "HACCP" food safety plans and bacterial monitoring of on-farm water sources, in the same manner that poultry plants must do.

When the industry under discussion is chicken processing, it is tempting to say we should bear any cost necessary to protect food safety.  But I've noticed that when public-interest minded people think in a parallel fashion about both chicken and fresh produce, they tend to conclude that our society must find a sensible balance between food safety protection and the costs -- for farmers, manufacturers, and for the consumers who ultimately purchase the product.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Distinct viewpoints on GMOs and GMO labeling

The debate over Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is shrill and frequently lacks clarity.

For example, people commonly fail two distinguish two separate issues:
  • Is GMO technology dangerous or beneficial?
  • Should GMO labeling be mandatory or voluntary?
This scatter plot separates the two issues by putting attitudes toward GMOs on the horizontal axis and attitudes toward mandatory labeling on the vertical axis.

At the top left, most anti-GMO activists are against GMOs and in favor of mandatory GMO labeling.  For example, I recently was asked to lead a discussion for the Northeast Massachusetts Dietetic Association (NMDA) about the anti-GMO movie Genetic Roulette.  I found the film unpersuasive.  It overstated its case, preyed on parents' emotional fears for the health of their children, and misrepresented the balance of scientific viewpoints on the safety of GMOs.  Here is an online review.

At the other end of the spectrum, toward the bottom right, most conventional food industry organizations are in favor of GMOs and against mandatory GMO labeling.  Food industry presentations commonly overstate the necessity of genetic engineering for addressing the world food situation, fail to mention non-technological solutions (such as eating less meat), exaggerate the potential of specific appealing GMO technologies (such as drought-resistant maize), and omit discussion of reasonable concerns that have been raised on particular issues (such as Monsanto's control of the seed industry or the development of glyphosate resistant weeds).

The leading GMO labeling campaign, Just Label It, clearly is in favor of mandatory labeling (and hence clearly is located high on the vertical axis).  But the campaign tries to have it both ways when taking a stance on attitudes toward GMOs more generally.  Sometimes it implicitly endorses the fear-mongering anti-GMO crowd (and so might be located toward the left edge of the diagram).  The campaign should be embarrassed for linking out to the movie Genetic Roulette, whose faults are mentioned above.  At other times, the campaign seems to say, "We don't engage in those unscientific food safety claims; we just think everybody should have a right to know what's in their food" (and so might be located toward the middle, neither left nor right).

Some environmentalists have more unpredictable views, some of which are summarized in a recent article by Monica Eng.  In the lower left corner, the maverick farmer Joel Salatin takes a delightfully market-oriented approach to revolutionizing the food system, so he doesn't think it's the government's business to make labeling rules mandatory.  In the top right corner, Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO activist turned pro-GMO zealot, surprised the audience at a recent conference by favoring mandatory GMO labeling. 

For myself, I am a soft GMO critic.  For a long time, I've been covering concerns about monopoly control of the seed industry, about glyphosate resistant weeds, and inadequate FDA review of some proposed new technologies such as GMO salmon.  But I have no fundamental objection to GMO technology in principle.  With adequate review from federal agencies, as more beneficial new seeds come down the pike, I may have to go on the record in support of future GMO technologies.  With regard to mandatory labeling, I think it is not enough to say "people are curious about this issue so labeling should be mandatory."  If I broadly thought GMO technologies were systematically dangerous, I would favor not only stronger labeling rules, but also stronger regulation.  Mandatory labeling is not the right policy tool if you believe there is a safety problem, and mandatory labeling is hard to justify if you think there is not a safety problem.




Thursday, 17 October 2013

Should food policy be part of the Farm Bill?

In presentations at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on October 23, Neal Hooker and Jill Clark will address the question, "Should food policy be part of the Farm Bill?" (free event, but with registration).  Neal and Jill teach at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at the Ohio State University. 

The event will address the political dynamics that historically led both urban and rural legislators to support combining farm policy and food policy in a single omnibus Farm Bill.  As this blog discussed in July, the consensus in favor of a single bill has been falling apart this year.

In a visit to Ohio this week, I enjoyed speaking to student and community audiences at the Glenn School and at Cleveland State University.   The website for the food policy programs at the Glenn School also currently has posted a nice presentation on local food by my Friedman School colleague Christian Peters.  Chris' intense interest in local food, combined with realism and quantification, is appealing.

At Cleveland State University, I visited with students and faculty involved with the Academic Association for Food Policy Research (AAFPR) (site and Facebook), which seems to have a lively event series including regular discussions of documentaries related to food policy.  The organization brings together folks from the university, local food, and anti-hunger organizations in the Cleveland area.  The advisory group includes Michael Dover (Social Work, CSU), Michelle Kaiser (Social Work, OSU, and Food Innovation Center), Mary Waith (Philosophy), and Dana Irribarren (CEO, Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland).

Monday, 7 October 2013

Balancing multiple concerns in Oxfam's Behind the Brands campaign

On September 17, Oxfam America released the most recent update to company scorecards from its Behind the Brands campaign.  For example, the update ...
  • praised Nestle for improvements in recognizing land rights,
  • noted that changes to Coca-Cola's guiding principles earned small increases in environmental sustainability scores,
  • assigned an increased score to Unilever for improvements on gender issues, and
  • reported that Associated British Foods, General Mills and Kellogg’s "remain at the bottom of the scorecard with few signs of progress."

The Behind the Brands campaign urges leading branded food and beverage manufacturers to improve the anti-poverty impact and environmental sustainability of their activities in developing countries.   The campaign reflects Oxfam's characteristically sensible approach toward the role of private sector initiative in economic development. While some non-governmental advocacy organizations might wish these multi-national corporations would leave developing countries alone, Oxfam instead wishes them to stick around ... and perform better for the interests of the world's poor.

In total, Oxfam's scorecards address seven issues
  • land,
  • women,
  • farmers,
  • workers,
  • climate,
  • transparency, and
  • water.
This is a good list of issues.  Still, as an economist in a nutrition school, I couldn't resist asking Oxfam whether nutrition issues might ever be considered as well.

Laura Rusu, a media manager for the non-profit organization, acknowledged that "health advocates are rightly asking tough questions about the effects of high-sugar diets."  She described Oxfam as "an organization working to right the wrongs of poverty and injustice."  While the Behind the Brands efforts "do not focus on the nutrition profile of these companies," Rusu gave a respectful shout out to initiatives that do, including the Access to Nutrition Index

Even recognizing that developing countries have major challenges of hunger and under-nutrition, I rank broader nutrition concerns higher today than I did a few years ago.  Given the focus specifically on major branded food and beverage companies, such as Nestle and Coca-Cola, I personally might rank nutrition concerns about product offerings as one of the top seven issues.  New branded food products are replacing traditional foodways that have considerable appeal both in terms of nutrition quality and in terms of economic opportunities for smaller farmers and small-business distributors and retailers.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Beyond the Farm Bill

I was interviewed recently by Beyond the Farm Bill, a project of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP). As the name suggests, the project wisely focuses on initiatives and progress other than the traditional policy-making process in the U.S. Congress, which now has broken down so badly.
What specific issues that fall outside the current Farm Bill should be considered part of food and farm policy? 

You are right to ask about policies outside of the Farm Bill. A whole world of food and farm policy happens outside of the Farm Bill. It is true that the Farm Bill is the largest single piece of authorizing legislation in U.S. food policy. The Farm Bill is an "omnibus bill" -- a term that for me generates an amusing image of an overburdened and rickety old city bus belching diesel and puffing with great effort up a long hill. The major titles address nutrition assistance programs, conservation programs, crop insurance, and (to a smaller extent than ever before) more traditional farm programs.

Within the federal legislative arena, other authorizing vehicles also are important. If the House of Representatives has its way, even the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) may need a new home. Separately, school meals programs are authorized as part of Child Nutrition Reauthorization. The nation's most important environmental, food safety, and tax bills that influence food policy are separate from the Farm Bill.

Moreover, much of food policy happens outside of federal legislation altogether. In these times of dysfunction and stagnation in federal lawmaking, many important innovations in the food system are led by the private and non-profit sectors, rather than the government sector. The local and organic food movements each do have a policy agenda, but they are fundamentally driven by consumer and producer initiative.

What local/regional or other model(s) should we be scaling up? 

Many innovations in environmentally sound food production and distribution begin their lives on a scale that is too small to make the best use of limited resources. I enjoy seeing these initiatives grow. I have special interest in mid-scale businesses and non-profit initiatives, larger than a small farm but smaller than Cargill or Monsanto. Energy use in food production depends on miles traveled, of course, but also on other qualities such as packaging, degree of processing, and type of transportation. In bringing food to a retailer (near to the consumer), a cargo ship, train container, or tractor trailer truck can carry comparatively more food per gallon of fuel. A smaller box truck or pickup truck can carry less food per gallon of fuel. Good stewardship of environmental resources requires achieving a substantial scale of operation, and yet it may be very different from our current industrial approach.

Where do you see the best opportunities for collective action in the food movement?

For any food policy initiative, it is valuable to consider its degree of promise in a society that seeks to operate on democratic principles, recognizing that food producers have an important place at the table when policies are determined. Let us ask not only, "What policies do I favor?" Instead, let us also ask, "What policies can win support from a broad swath of food producers and consumers, given that we share a sense of common purpose on some principles and not on others?" In the United States, this likely means proposing measures that do address the leading environmental concerns of the day -- greenhouse gases, hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, water scarcity, water quality -- but without necessarily envisioning some type of revolutionary political victory over the market-oriented capital-intensive and technologically optimistic commercial agriculture that holds sway over the American heartland.

Monsanto invests in decision-making data tools

At Modern Farmer yesterday, Dan Mitchell explains the new Monsanto purchase of the Climate Corporation:
Monsanto is hot to expand further into data services for farmers. Toward that end, the company on Tuesday morning announced that it will acquire The Climate Corporation for $930 million. Climate Corporation underwrites weather insurance for farmers, basically in real time, using some of the most sophisticated data tools available to determine the risks posed by future weather conditions and events.

Monday, 30 September 2013

WIC benefits for low-income mothers, infants, and children expected to stop during government shutdown

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has posted a document explaining the contingency plan (.pdf) for nutrition assistance in the likely event that the federal government is shut down this week.

In the document, the major nutrition assistance program most in jeopardy appears to be WIC, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.  Except in cases where states have some state-level money in hand, WIC participants may stop getting benefits in October.  

It should be noted that WIC has long had bi-partisan support, including heartfelt support from leading Republicans.  The program provides a targeted package of selected nutritious supplemental foods, not a general food subsidy.  The program provides no support for adults without children -- for example, no support whatsoever for single men who could be out getting a job.

By contrast, the SNAP program appears to be funded in October even with a shutdown, because it is mandatory spending.  And school meals programs appear likely to continue in October because of the way the program expenses are reimbursed, as the contingency plan explains.

Niraj Chokshi has a brief report this week at the Washington Post.

I wish those in Congress who seek this government shutdown would relent.  Surely there are better ways to make a good point about small-government virtues or the best design of market-oriented health insurance programs.

McDonald's offers to make some alterations to beverages in children's Happy Meals by 2020

McDonald's this month announced at a White House event that it would make some changes to beverages marketed to children in Happy Meals.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a project of the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association, praised the announcement warmly.  President Bill Clinton encouraged other companies to emulate McDonald's:
If we want to curb the catastrophic economic and health implications of obesity across the world, we need more companies to follow McDonald’s lead and to step up to the plate and make meaningful changes. I applaud them for doing it.
McDonald's appeared to say that sodas would be removed from Happy Meals.  A McDonald's ad (.pdf), and the press release from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, both used the same language, saying that Happy Meals would:
Promote and market only water, milk, and juice as the beverage in Happy Meals on menu boards and in-store and external advertising.
That would be a big change if it were true.  But it appears not to be true.

As Marion Nestle and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) later reported, McDonald's agreement with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation reads quite differently from the advertising copy and the Alliance's press release.  Instead of saying McDonald's would only "promote and market" healthy beverages on menu boards and in advertising, the agreement (.pdf) actually says McDonald's would only "feature" the comparatively healthy beverages.

The agreement explicitly adds that McDonald's may continue to put soft drinks on the Happy Meals section of menu boards.  In plain English, this contradicts the company's summary statement.  Moreover, a confusing sentence in the agreement appears to say that Fruitizz and Robinson's Fruit Shoot count as compliant with the "CGI commitment," which may indicate that sweetened fruit soft drinks will be treated as juice.  Finally, the commitment has a timeline that was not mentioned in the company's ad: it will apply to up to 50% of key markets within 3 years, and 100% of key markets by 2020 (and these key markets themselves represent 85% of all sales).

What lesson can we draw from this?
  • If you think the marketing environment children face today is fine, and you don't believe any major change is needed, the small voluntary changes offered by McDonald's are satisfactory.
  • If you want to see a substantial change in children's marketing environment, it is reasonable to think that these voluntary self-regulation initiatives are far too mild to make any difference, and that the government should take stronger action to protect our children.
  • If you want to see a substantial change in children's marketing environment, but you are skeptical of government initiative to improve things, you should turn to one of the best private-sector tools for defending the consumer's interests -- you should speak up for yourself in every public forum you can.  Many sensible parents who prioritize their children's nutrition have simply concluded that nothing but grief comes from patronizing these quick service restaurant companies and their special meals targeting children.  Tell your friends and family what you are doing as a responsible parent in your own community.    

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Why it is difficult to develop good SNAP policy

When legislators want to make cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), they don't write in a change to an appropriated dollar amount.  Instead, because the program is a "mandatory" or entitlement program, they change the eligibility and benefit rules in some particular way, and then the Congressional Budget Office "scores" the change to provide an estimate of the budgetary change that is generated.

When House Republicans proposed this summer to cut SNAP, the particular legislative vehicle was a proposal by Rep. Steve Southerland (R-FL) to increase work requirements.  Democrats opposed the change, not so much because of an objection to work requirements, but rather because the proposal was first and foremost the vehicle for SNAP cuts.  In the past, proposals for work requirements that weren't about cutting program rolls have sometimes had broad support and sometimes not.

In the Washington Post today, Eli Saslow has an excellent feature about Southerland and his interest in work requirements.  The article has two especially captivating passages.  The first passage is a conversation between Southerland and low-income participants in a job readiness program.  I sometimes read a promising reform proposal from a constituency that is not traditionally a core program supporter (whether budget-cutting conservatives, or whether nutrition-promoting public health advocates) and think to myself, "This promising proposal certainly could be strengthened if the sponsors would first vet it with program participants themselves, then make some modifications so that the proposal really could be even more relevant to people's needs, rather than just what an outsider thinks they need."

The second captivating passage is about how Southerland, though he has the courage to speak to program participants, lacks the ability to speak to program supporters in Congress:
He explained that he had spent the past few days studying 20 years of food stamp policy, trying to differentiate himself from his colleagues by becoming an expert. “Nobody here really knows anything,” he said. He thought about that for a second and then reconsidered. “There’s one other guy,” he said. “A Democrat.” He told her about a Massachusetts liberal named Jim McGovern, who had been giving a speech about hunger on the House floor each week. McGovern had rallied the Democrats against Southerland’s proposal. Out of 435 people in the House, he was the only one who had studied food stamps just as hard and who seemed to care just as much.

“What does he say about all of this to you?” his daughter asked. “I don’t know,” Southerland said. “I haven’t talked to him.”

“What?” she said. “Seriously? Never? That doesn’t make sense.” She knew her dad as a conciliator who valued mentoring young men at church, yearly hunting trips with his three siblings and funeral director retreats to the mountains. “Your whole thing is connecting with people,” she said.

“Everybody likes you.” And yet here was another Washington lawmaker, elected to solve the same problems, who had become an expert on the same issue, who worked in the same place, and her dad had never met with him?

“Can’t you ask him to coffee?” she asked. “You could work together.”

“That wouldn’t play so well with the conservative base,” Hayes said.

“Or back in district,” McCullough said.

“Honey, look,” Southerland said, staring at her intently, pleading with her to understand. “Washington is a runaway freight train. There isn’t time here for anything.” He reached for two empty milkshake glasses to help him illustrate the problem, setting the glasses side by side on the table, their rims touching. “This is me, and this is the other guy when we get to Washington,” he said. “Different ideas, different people, but we are close. We are touching. Democrat and Republican. We can do something with this.”

He started to slowly pull the glasses in separate directions, ticking off reasons for the escalating divide. “Fundraising. Campaigns,” he said, moving the glasses farther apart. “Votes, strategy, rushing around, lobbyists, name-calling,” he continued, spreading the glasses farther, moving his daughter’s plate to clear a path for one of them. “I have my meetings and they have theirs. I run by them. They run by me. It’s all about winning, winning, winning. Winning – not fixing problems – defines all.”

Now Southerland stretched his arms as far as he could, placing each glass at a distant edge of the table. Each was just an inch from falling and shattering on the ground. This was the congressional divide over food stamps and so much else. This was Washington in 2013 – one place, Southerland was beginning to realize, where legislation depended on so much more than hard work.

“So now I’m here and they’re way over there,” he said, pointing to the glasses. “We can barely see each other. We can’t solve anything like this.”
This totally matches my own impressions about what is going wrong in Congressional politics in the United States on all the important food policy issues of the day.

I want to shout, "Take a risk, Mr. Southerland!"  You are thinking clearly about important issues.  You are getting out in the field to speak to real people.  Why, then, restrict your policy conversations to government-hating anti-poor conservatives in the majority caucus of the House of Representatives? Perhaps you have a calling in educating and persuading instinctive liberals about a genuinely helpful vision of a social safety net that gives an honored central place to hard work.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

USDA Under Secretary Kevin Concannon speaks at the Friedman School

Kevin W. Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services spoke this month at the Friedman School's weekly Wednesday seminar.  He gave a broad overview of USDA's nutrition assistance programs and nutrition education initiatives.
Kevin W. Concannon has served as President Obama's and Secretary Vilsack's Under Secretary for FNS since July 2009.

He oversees the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) which serves 1 in 4 Americans, and has lead responsibilities for promoting healthful diet through the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

Working in partnership with State and local organizations, FNS oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program; child nutrition programs including National School Lunch, School Breakfast, and Summer Food Service Programs; The Child and Adult Care Food Program; the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); the Commodity Supplemental Food Program; Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations; The Emergency Food Assistance Program; and other nutrition programs.
A video of the presentation and discussion is available from iTunes.

Monday, 23 September 2013

USDA ERS releases "Charting the Essentials"

USDA's Economic Research Service this month published a delightful set of exhibits for food and agricultural statistics, titled "Charting the Essentials."

I especially like the maps.  For example, maps using the widely known definitions of "metro" and "non-metro" counties have the disadvantage of obscuring important rural areas within counties that are defined as "metropolitan."  As a remedy, the new ERS chart series provides this nice map of urban and rural areas, with much smaller resolution.


Similarly, it is interesting to see the contrast between the comparatively concentrated geographic location of crop production in the Midwest and California and animal agriculture production all over the country.  These maps use dot displays for the density of production value.

Should federal dietary guidelines address environmental sustainability issues?

The federal government revises the Dietary Guidelines for Americans every five years and currently is working on the next revision, scheduled for completion in 2015.

Traditionally, the guidelines have focused quite narrowly on nutrition issues, although Kate Clancy, Joan Dye Gussow, and a few others have been encouraging greater attention to sustainability issues in connection with dietary guidelines for many years.  During recent times of population growth, changing consumption patterns, and increasingly severe environmental constraints on global food production, it is interesting to ask whether the 2015 guidelines should also address environmental sustainability issues.

In May, 2013, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) at the National Academy of Sciences convened The Food Forum Workshop on Sustainable Diets: Food for Healthy People and a Healthy Planet.  Former USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan was the keynote speaker.

In one session of the workshop, I compared and contrasted the economics of market signals for healthy eating and environmental sustainability.  Here is a slightly shortened video of the talk.  (As always, neither the IOM nor the Food Forum nor anybody else but me is responsible for any errors I make or opinions I offer).  Extensive background material is available in my book, published this year, Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction (Routledge/Earthscan).

In some ways, it is easy to imagine the government offering guidance on environmental aspects of food production just as it offers suggestions on nutrition.  In another sense, the two issue areas are very different.

Here is one difference.  Given the trends of recent decades, it is entirely conceivable that Americans will continue to eat badly for ever more.  There is no automatic nutritional feedback loop that ensures our eating patterns will some day converge in the direction of greater healthfulness.  In the future, we will have healthier nutrition only if we choose to make some change in our current trajectory.

By contrast, it is not physically possible for the world's consumers to eat more than the planet can provide.  If we continue to seek to exceed the planet's productive resources, there will be a reconciliation one way or another.  If we are unfortunate, the reconciliation will involve some manner of crisis, widespread death, and reduced population, until food needs are back in line with productive capacity.  If we are fortunate, the reconciliation will involve moderately higher food prices, especially for animal foods and other foods with comparatively high environmental impact.  These price increases will lead consumers to temper their excesses while simultaneously sending signals to producers to innovate and invest even more fruitfully in new productive capacity.  Whether unfortunate or fortunate, we can no more evade the environmental reconciliation than we can stop the sun from rising.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Crop insurance subsidizes big financial firms, not just farmers

The House and the Senate have not yet agreed on a Farm Bill, but both houses of Congress propose to shrink the role of traditional crop subsidies and expand the role of crop insurance.

Crop insurance may sound like a good thing, because it brings to mind an image of market-oriented insurance instruments that ameliorate the production and price risks of farming, much like automobile insurance spreads the risk of using automobiles.  However, the reality is far different.  Rather than merely facilitating insurance markets with actuarially fair premiums, federal crop insurance policies use taxpayer money to subsidize large for-profit insurance companies.

A report by David Lynch in Bloomberg last week explains:
The government subsidies show how a program created to safeguard the nation’s farmers has evolved into a system that in most years all but guarantees profits for insurers. In 2012, taxpayers spent $14 billion paying more than 60 percent of farmers’ insurance premiums, the companies’ operating costs and the lion’s share of claims triggered by a historic drought, according to the Congressional Research Service (.pdf).

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

In Tufts research on "golden rice" in China, the procedure for parents' informed consent was flawed

In research in China on genetically modified "golden rice," Tufts researchers did not provide adequate information to parents whose consent was requested for their children's participation, according to information provided by Tufts University this week.

The rice contains beta carotene, a precursor to vitamin A.  The research by Tufts professor Guangwen Tang and colleagues studied whether the new rice could make a difference in actual vitamin A status in children.  Vitamin A deficiency is a leading preventable cause of blindness in children.

Tufts conducted internal and external reviews of the research, following public criticism of the study in 2012.  In its statement this week, Tufts concluded that there was no safety concern, but there were flaws in informed consent procedures:
While the study data were validated and no health or safety concerns were identified, the research itself was found not to have been conducted in full compliance with IRB policy or federal regulations. Reviews found insufficient evidence of appropriate reviews and approvals in China.  They also identified concerns with the informed consent process, including inadequate explanation of the genetically-modified nature of Golden Rice. The principal investigator also did not obtain IRB approval for some changes to study procedures before implementing the changes.
The Tufts statement puts to rest the suspicion by some GMO supporters that the criticism of the informed consent procedures was merely an invention by anti-GMO activists or by Chinese officials who had developed regrets about having approved the research.  On the contrary, the Tufts statement confirms that informed consent procedures were inadequate.  The university announced several changes to human subjects review procedures and will not allow the principal investigator to conduct human subjects research for two years.

Dan Charles reported on this controversy for NPR this week.

Although golden rice is an important high-profile line of research, I consider the two most important strategies for improving vitamin A status in children to be supplementation and increasing dietary diversity through ordinary fruits and vegetables, neither of which requires GM technology.

New resources on local meat slaughter

In a series of blog posts for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), Friedman School graduate student Barbara Patterson has been reporting on several aspects of slaughter, processing, and market development for local meat production and sale.

One update described USDA/ERS reporting on the role of business commitments:
Earlier this month, the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) released a report titled “Local Meat and Poultry Processing: The Importance of Business Commitments for Long-Term Viability”.  This report follows a related report, published last year by ERS, that evaluated the availability of slaughter and processing facilities for local meat production and the impact on market supply of local meat.

The authors of the new report, Lauren Gwin, Arion Thiboumery, and Richard Stillman, reported that consumer demand for local meat and poultry has risen, yet there are constraints on production both due to limited processing infrastructure and, at the same time, insufficient business for processors necessary for profitability.  They report, through seven case studies of local and regional processors, that best practices center around long-term commitments by processors to provide consistent and high quality services, and by farmers that commit to a steady level of meat for processing.
A second post drew on Patterson's interview with Ali Berlow, author of The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse.
Ali Berlow, founder of Island Grown Initiative, an NSAC member group, recently published The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse, a manual for building a humane, mobile chicken-processing unit.  Using her experience establishing a mobile poultry slaughterhouse on Martha’s Vineyard, Berlow comprehensively describes how to adapt her methods to other communities based on their unique needs to ensure an economically feasible production for poultry slaughter.

The total number of small-scale livestock slaughter facilities has declined over the past 10 years, despite tremendous growth in total sales of foods direct-to-consumer.  Mobile slaughter trailers can help serve poultry growers who lack access to nearby or appropriately-sized slaughterhouses, as well as helping processors maintain a stable volume of business, necessary for economic success.

Berlow described transparency and community as the keys to a successful slaughterhouse.  “When you engage the community, it helps them to know where their food is coming from and the difficulties and challenges that come with that.”  One such difficulty, complying with local, state, and federal regulations, can only be helped by more community engagement and outreach to local and state regulators, according to Berlow.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Thinking like an economist ... about grocery stores

In a recent blog post, my Friedman School colleague Will Masters considers the differences in the economic incentives that manufacturers, restaurants, and supermarkets face when it comes to selling healthier food:
Today’s New York Times has a terrific news story about this frontier of research by their reporter Michael Moss. Moss just released a lively new book about how food manufacturers raise the levels of salt, sugar, fat and other ingredients in processed foods far beyond what you’d add in your own kitchen, while research at Tufts and elsewhere has shown similar problems in restaurant food. In contrast, grocery stores sell a lot of fruits, vegetables and other relatively healthy stuff, generally around the perimeter of the store. So, in the choice between processed foods, restaurant foods, and plain old groceries, what determines how consumers’ spend their hard-earned money?
Part of the answer is advertising.  I imagine other key factors are consumer tastes, demand for convenience, prices, and overall health orientation. The comments to Will's post are interesting.

Will, incidentally, this year won the prestigious Bruce Gardner Memorial Prize for Applied Policy Analysis from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA).

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Food Tank recommends books for fall 2013

Danielle Nierenberg and Anna Glasser at Food Tank this week listed Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction as a "must read" book for fall 2013.

Food Tank: The Food Think Tank was founded by Nierenberg (a graduate of the Friedman School at Tufts) and Ellen Gustafson. This video lays out the initiative's objectives.
 

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Better wages for fast food restaurant workers

Let's honor the picket lines today. Fast food workers are striking for higher wages across the country. It will be a good thing all around if they succeed.

Inadequate private-sector wages at the low end of the wage distribution are a key source of our country's hard economic times and basic feeling of distress. As individual consumers, we cannot be proud to save a couple bucks ourselves by supporting companies who pay people so little. The coalition of groups that has organized today's walk-out has been circulating this video, mocking McDonald's own website that purports to educate its workers about how to survive on a low budget. A technical detail: the McDonald's website actually allowed for a miscellaneous category for some expenses, so some have quibbled with the video's list of all the basic needs that are excluded, but this is a very minor correction. I found the video completely persuasive on its main point: somebody in the McDonald's hierarchy was tasked with trying to demonstrate that the company's wages were adquate, and discovered exactly the opposite.



Restaurant industry defenders have claimed that higher wages would cost jobs, but I see things differently. First, labor economists are divided on this question. Some leading labor economists believe there would be no job loss and might even be employment gains (see, for example, Jeremy Stahl at Slate). Second, even if there were a small loss of employment in particular quick service restaurant outlets, here is how that loss would play out: a substantial percentage increase in wages would lead to a small percentage increase in actual restaurant product prices, which would then cause a small decrease in fast food consumption, which would finally lead to an even smaller decrease in employment. The fast food consumers who reduce their restaurant consumption will not go hungry; they will buy other things from other businesses instead, and those other businesses hire workers too. The upshot is economically healthy and nutritionally healthy all around.

Some people think of striking for higher wages as anti-market or anti-capitalist, but again I see things differently.  Our great market economy will only work if it provides prosperity that reaches even down to the lower end of the wage distribution.  It would be an unpatriotic and anti-market sentiment to say that the American economy is somehow incapable of this modest accomplishment.  I expect decent wages at the restaurants I patronize precisely because that's what makes this whole fine system work.  That's what makes a market system better than the alternatives.

See Time and AP for more news reports.  The AFL-CIO has links to labor movement sites.  In Boston, there is a rally on the Boston Common at 4 pm today.  I'll be there. 


Friday, 23 August 2013

What is your general view about the safety of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

The public debate over genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is shrill.

GMO opponents are very tough on occasional environmentalists who express a public view that GMOs might be safe or useful.  GMO supporters belittle the serious concerns that critics have about corporate control of the food supply and shortcomings in the U.S. approach to safety testing.

For rhetorical purposes, most writers on this topic spend all their ink criticizing the errors their opponents make, while carefully avoiding committing themselves to the sometimes untenable implications of their own side's position.

I think it would help if people paused the rock-throwing and reflected on what broad general statements they could support and defend under scrutiny.  I suspect that this reflection would make people more aware of the weaknesses on their own side and more willing to listen to multiple points of view on this divisive issue.


Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey , the world's leading questionnaire tool.

Rodney Leonard: "No food stamps, no farm program."

The Republican-led House of Representatives recently passed a Farm Bill with no food stamp provisions.  Fiscal conservatives in the House hope this will allow them to make deep cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) without jeopardizing their political support from farmers.

It is unlikely to work out that way.

In a note this week on the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) site, Rodney Leonard, who had been a special assistant to Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman in the early 1960s, described the early politics that led Congress to combine nutrition assistance and farm programs into a single Farm Bill.
The union began when Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman finally pushed the Democratic majority of House of Representatives to approve by a narrow 30-vote margin legislation to adopt the statute creating a permanent food stamp program originally proposed in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. That program is a far cry from the program that today ensures the right of every American adult to choose to protect themselves and their children from hunger. Freeman was intent on linking the capacity to feed a growing nation to a policy insuring that every person, regardless of income, is entitled to share in an abundantly productive agriculture. Within two weeks of the passage of the food stamp legislation, Freeman was able to convince an urban dominated Congress to adopt a Farm Bill establishing supply management as the new post-war policy for American agriculture. Agriculture could maintain remunerative prices for farmers despite a structural tendency to overproduce year after year.
To some extent, this policy logic remains intact. Leonard argues that -- far from allowing farm programs to thrive without SNAP -- the divorce between the two parts of the Farm Bill will allow the nutrition assistance program to survive.  It is the farm programs that will lose support.
The effort of the House GOP to perform political surgery to remove food stamps can have only one predictably disastrous outcome:  Food stamps will survive. An urban nation will not compel millions of its residents to accept a life dominated by hunger. But, if divorced from food stamps, farm programs, whose benefits largely are delivered to the largest 200,000 farm operations, likely will perish in the ideological bonfire that is the GOP Farm Bill. The political conflagration will inevitably include rural America as well.

Simply put, no food stamps, no farm program.
I am not sure.  With separate bills, SNAP also faces political hazards.  We will see what happens next.

In addition to being a former special assistant at USDA, Rod Leonard is a past board member for IATP, and he is author of a history about Orville Freeman's time as governor.  Rod was the long-time executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute (where he hired me as an editor in 1990, my first-ever job in U.S. food policy).

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

30% price incentive has positive impact on fruit and vegetable intake for SNAP participants

USDA's Food and Nutrition Service today released the Interim Report from the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP), a major study of price incentives for fruit and vegetable intake for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants.

This study may help to inform the national discussion about the economic environment and its influence on food choices.  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today said, "The results of the Healthy Incentives Pilot demonstrate the clear impact that promoting nutritious food choices can have on improving the healthfulness of SNAP purchases."

Here is the punchline:
Our interim results indicate that HIP participants (adults aged 16 and older) consumed one-fifth of a cup-equivalent more fruits and vegetables per day than did non-participants (ES.1). This represents a difference of 25 percent in consumption over control group members. Approximately 60 percent of the observed difference was due to a difference in consumption of vegetables and 40 percent due to a difference in consumption of fruit.

These impact estimates are statistically significant, and they are big in percentage terms, but the baseline intake for the control group is quite low, so the impact seems fairly small in terms of cup-equivalents.  There is evidence that some retailers and participants in the pilot were still in the process of learning how the incentive worked.

The pilot was implemented in Hampden County, MA.  The study used a random assignment research design.  The Interim Report is based on a pre-implementation survey and an early post-implementation survey.  A Final Report in several months will use an additional later second post-implementation survey.

The authors of the Interim Report are Susan Bartlett, Jacob Klerman, Parke Wilde, Lauren Olsho, Michelle Blocklin, Christopher Logan, and Ayesha Enver.  As one of the co-authors, I worked on this study as part of a team led by Abt Associates, with funding from USDA's Food and Nutrition Service.  I will be presenting some results from this report on August 5 in Washington, DC, at the annual meeting of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA).  For me, personally, the project is the most terrifically ambitious research effort to which I have ever contributed.

This pilot initiative is related to other efforts to enhance incentives for purchasing fruits and vegetables, in farmers' markets and other outlets.  Some municipalities, including Boston, have Bounty Bucks programs, and Wholesome Wave has a series of related efforts.  One cool thing about the HIP study is that it worked through the SNAP participants' Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card in all sorts of participating retailers.

With declines in Ogallala Aquifer, a reflection on the politics of agricultural environmentalism

Here is an excellent, sober, persuasive, and worrisome report at Science 360 about the accelerated decline of the Ogallala Aquifer from 2011 to 2013, because of drought on the Great Plains.

 

In the summer of 2010, I drove across the country visiting farms, markets, agricultural research stations, and other food policy sites.  One of the most interesting stops was a visit with a large-scale corn farmer in southern Nebraska, who showed me the modern irrigation equipment and careful monitoring system he used in an effort to waste as little water as possible from the Ogallala Aquifer.  He argued that aquifer declines were really only a problem further south, in Kansas and Oklahoma, not in his part of Nebraska.  He said farmers have a strong economic incentive to conserve water, because of the electricity costs and other variable costs from pumping water.  I think many farmers in his situation don't want government regulation or too much attention from worried environmentalists.


At the time, I wondered if these internalized costs really provided a strong enough incentive.  The big cost of irrigation is the value of the aquifer water itself.  Without coordination among farmers, each farmer has an incentive to use too much water.  I thought at the time that environmentally aware corn farmers in Kansas and Nebraska should go a little softer in their ferocious criticism of government environmental regulations, because without these regulations their own livelihoods are in jeopardy.

Climate science includes big uncertainties, but it seems likely that global climate change is causing more frequent droughts in the Great Plains.  I hope scientifically savvy and pragmatic corn farmers who rely on the Ogallala Aquifer have the political courage to resist the temptation to ally with anti-government conservatives who flirt with climate denialism.  Even though it takes some work and some compromise, and even some tolerance for cultural differences between heartland folks and city dwellers, I think farmers have a more promising long-term future allied with the pragmatic wing of the environmental movement.