Monday, October 21, 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, October 18, 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, October 17, 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, October 07, 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, October 03, 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.