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Blog Posts: Agricultural policy

September 12th, 2014

Where Corporate Agribusiness Meets Cooperative Extension

By Tim Schwab

Agriculture(2)As this series of blogs in recent weeks has shown, cooperative extension has come a long way since its founding in 1914, when county agents diligently reached out to farmers to address their needs and offer impartial advice on best practices. On its centennial anniversary, extension appears to avoid addressing some of agriculture’s most pressing needs, especially the economic challenges farmers face from intense corporate concentration. Elsewhere, cooperative extension acts as an advocate for the biotechnology industry, offering farmers and consumers biased materials and information about the so-called benefits and necessity of GMOs.

Today’s piece considers the explicit ways that extension, which is facing eroding federal support from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is reaching out to industry as an active partner and funder of its activities, resulting in projects that aren’t clearly in the public interest. Some of the most egregious examples come from industry support for extension programs about consumer nutrition. Recent highlights include:

The corporate influence also extends to extension programs designed for farmers:

  • The CEO of Tyson Foods donated $3.2 million to endow a professorship at the University of Tennessee that will work on international programs through extension “to find solutions to encourage less-equipped societies to maximize available resources in an effort to provide better nutrition for all of Earth’s inhabitants.”

These examples illustrate the financial ties between industry and extension that could compromise extension’s ability to carry out its role as an impartial source of information and advice to farmers and consumers. Indeed, as this series of blogs has shown, on the most pressing topics of modern agriculture, extension is too often absent or advocating industry positions—and not standing up for farmers and consumers.

On the 100-year anniversary of extension, which follows the 150-year anniversary of our land-grant university system, it’s time that we take a good, hard look at the priorities and mission of our public agriculture infrastructure. Do these public institutions fulfill the role and mission that Congress intended? Do they still serve the public first and foremost?

August 29th, 2014

Extension’s Role, and Retreat, in Improving Farmers’ Bottom Lines

By Tim Schwab

IMG_3898Alabama’s Farm Analysis Program represents the best of what our nation’s “extension” program can be — utilizing the technical expertise of land-grant universities to improve farmer livelihoods. Extension, which this summer celebrates its centennial and is the subject of a series of blogs from Food & Water Watch, uses programs like this to connect farmers with university experts, in this case trained economists who conduct careful financial analyses of farm income.

Importantly, universities benefit as much from the program as farmers. From PhD students working on a graduate research to economics professors publishing peer-reviewed articles, academics have used the valuable data produced from the Farm Analysis Program to further their research and propose economic policy changes to help farmers.

This is especially the case for data about poultry production, where little meaningful, independent, financial data related to on-farm income is available. As Auburn University Professor Robert Taylor has noted, Alabama’s Farm Analysis Program “maintains the only set of consistent records on the actual economics of contract poultry production.”

Using this data, Taylor in 2002 highlighted the gross inequalities that exist in the poultry industry, concluding: “Farm business records show that contract producers who once had acceptable income from their poultry operations now put a few hundred thousand dollars of equity, and borrow several hundred thousand more to hire themselves at minimum wage with no benefits and no real rate of return on their equity. Yet integrators [large chicken processing companies] continue to earn 10-25% rates of return on equity.”

Ten years on, the problem is much worse. Most money generated from poultry production—including that from the 100 million chickens produced each year in Alabama—ends up in the coffers of one of a handful of corporate chicken companies while farmers exist on razor-thin margins, one or two bad flocks away from losing the farm.

Business journalist Chris Leonard’s new book “The Meat Racket” brilliantly describes the abuse and economic exploitation that poultry growers suffer under the thumb of companies like Tyson. Even the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Justice’s antitrust enforcement office offered a cursory acknowledgement of anti-competitive practices in the poultry industry with a public workshop at Alabama A&M in 2010, which has spurred talk of possible action from Congress and the USDA.

With the public spotlight finally shining on the rampant abuses in the poultry industry, it’s an awfully odd time for Alabama to jettison the Farm Analysis Program, as it did last May. An extension officer there told me that the state decided to shift resources to broader educational efforts. Farmers can still take classes on how to use QuickBooks and learn the basics of agricultural accounting, he told me, but extension now has greater time and flexibility to perform a range of functions that serve the public interest. But consider the public value that’s been lost with the demise of the “only set of consistent records on the actual economics of contract poultry production.”

The kind of economic concentration that exists in the chicken industry also exists elsewhere in the food system, with a handful of companies selling most of the seeds and agrochemicals, slaughtering most of the pigs and cattle, processing most food products, and selling food to consumers at grocery stores. This system greatly enriches the handful of companies at the top, but hurts farmers, workers, communities and consumers.

So, where is extension on this issue? Largely absent. This, again, raises questions about how relevant this institution is today, and to what extent extension is fulfilling  the mission Congress laid out for it in 1914. All too often, extension avoids the most pressing economic and social issues facing farmers.

Stay tuned for Food & Water Watch’s continuing analysis of the hundred-year anniversary of cooperative extension.

August 27th, 2014

100 Years of Cooperative Extension: Using Research to Improve Lives (at Least in Theory)

By Tim Schwab

AgricultureThis summer marks the 100-year anniversary of cooperative extension, maybe the oldest federal agricultural program you’ve never heard of. Awkwardly named, “extension” was established by Congress in 1914 to help disseminate the groundbreaking agricultural research produced by our public, land-grant universities.

In its earliest years, extension showed its potential to shape American agriculture, partnering with farmers, consumers and universities to develop and share best products and practices. That same potential exists today, but eroding federal support and growing corporate influence threaten to undermine it. Through a series of blogs in the weeks ahead, we’ll examine whether extension today is fulfilling its original mission set by Congress.

As extension turns 100, state programs around the country are celebrating their early successes. The University of Florida is highlighting the work of extension to inoculate hogs during a cholera epidemic in 1915. The University of Arizona, only two-years of age when extension came into force, is reflecting on extension’s important role in “…bringing science to bear on practical problems…and help[ing] transform this land that we call Arizona from a raw wild western frontier of 100 years ago into the vibrant place we call Arizona today…”

Fast-forward 100 years, and the “science” really is bearing down on our broken food system, as technologies like GMOs and the factory farm model dominate American agriculture and the public health and environmental consequences of this system become ever more apparent.

Yet, you can still find good examples of extension working to improve our food system. Organic food production, one of the fastest growing sectors in agriculture, is getting some love from extension through a program called eOrganic, designed to share best practices with organic producers via the internet. In addition, many land-grant schools, including Cornell, Iowa State and the University of Georgia, conduct outreach through their extension offices on organic agriculture.

Many states also now offer much-needed assistance to small and mid-sized animal producers through a program called the Niche Meat Processors Assistance Network.Because a handful of companies now slaughter and sell most of the cattle, pigs and poultry in the United States, small producers struggle to find the USDA-inspected slaughter facilities necessary for processing animals for commercial markets. By promoting innovative programs like mobile slaughter units that bring the abattoir to the farm and training programs on food safety rules, this extension program helps smaller producers get a fighting chance to enter a marketplace controlled by a handful of meatpackers.

While these efforts are valuable and indicative of the power and potential of extension to transform agriculture, they are also, unfortunately, too rare, and they don’t get at the most pressing problems in agriculture, like growing corporate power. That’s because the public mission that Congress intended for our land-grant universities and extension offices has been weakened or reinterpreted over the decades, and cooperative extension today appears to do as much, or more, to help corporate agribusiness as it does to help farmers.

Mending our broken food system also requires fixing the outreach efforts of extension and the research agenda of our land-grant universities. Stay tuned for more about that in the weeks ahead, but, in the meantime, take a look at Food & Water Watch’s report, Public Research, Private Gain.

August 22nd, 2014

Hyporkrisy

Meet Scott Edwards of Food & Water WatchBy Scott Edwards

The meat industry knows no shame, and you can put the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) at the top of the list.

Back in 1985 Congress enacted a law that placed a fee on every hog farmer and exporter in the country. The money taken from farmers went into the National Pork Board (NPB), which in turn funneled a considerable amount of the funds to the NPPC. In 2000, NPPC received $36.5 million of the $48.1 million NPB spending budget raised from these required payments. This NPPC pigs-at-the-trough funding scheme became known as the “check-off” program.

In 1999 a group called the Campaign for Family Farms (CFF) submitted a petition to USDA signed by over 19,000 hog farmers in the country who wanted to get rid of the mandatory NPB payments and replace it with a voluntary check-off program. NPPC promptly filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with USDA asking for the names and addresses of producers who signed the petition so they could compile a list of people who threatened their check-off cash cow.

When CFF went to federal court in Minnesota to stop USDA from releasing the petition list, NPPC intervened in the case and tried to force disclosure of the information. The court, though, denied NPPC access to the list of anti-check-off farmers. Undeterred, NPPC took their case to the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals, where the higher court also sent NPPC packing, stating “[t]o make public such an unequivocal statement of their position on the referendum effectively would vitiate petitioners’ privacy interest in a secret ballot.”

Fast forward to today, and NPPC has a very different view about disclosure of names and addresses of the country’s pork producers.

In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) succumbed to political pressure and withdrew a proposed rule to collect baseline information from highly polluting industrial meat operations. EPA’s knowledge of this industry, which contributes significantly to nutrient impairment of waterways across the country, is so abysmal that the agency can’t even tell us how many facilities exist or where they’re located. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Chesapeake Bay, to Toledo, Ohio where the city’s citizens just recently had their drinking water taken from them because of algae blooms in Lake Erie, communities across the nation suffer from the irresponsible dumping of excess animal manure from these facilities, while EPA wrings its hands.

After EPA’s improper abandonment, a group of environmental organizations filed a FOIA asking for all the documents that EPA relied on to withdraw the rule. Included in the documents were a number of spreadsheets culled from publicly available state databases and websites that listed the names and addresses of many of these factory farms.

Predictably, NPPC threw a fit when this public information was released. NPPC president R.C. Hunt said he felt “betrayed” by the disclosure. Press statements by NPPC and other industry groups verged on hysteria, invoking empty claims of “eco terrorism” and “dangerous militants.” Their uncontrolled fear mongering stopped just short of asking for the Administration to place the nation on red alert.

Last summer, NPPC walked back into the same Minnesota court that sent them back to D.C. with their tails between their legs in 2000 and asked the judge to issue an order to prevent EPA from disclosing the names and addresses of these industrial facilities, the very same type of information they went into court in 2000 seeking to obtain for themselves.

In their recent filing with the Minnesota court, NPPC suggests that the 8th Circuit’s 2000 ruling supports their newly invented position that the disclosure of names and address of industrial farms are disallowed because of “privacy” concerns. But that’s not what the court said. It’s not names and addresses of farms that the court held to be subject to a “privacy interest,” but the check-off program opinion of hog farmers reflected in the “secret ballot.”

Hypocrisy is nothing new to the meat industry. Industrial agriculture, which relies heavily on federal and state taxpayer subsidies while denouncing any governmental interference in their non-control of their vast pollution problem, literally lives off hypocrisy. Their latest hypocritical position on farm data disclosure is not based on any noble notion of sanctity of farmers; they proved they don’t give a damn about that in 2000. Back in 2000, disclosure was good because they were fighting hog farmers who were threatening their funding. Today, it’s bad because they’re fighting environmentalists who are concerned about the adverse impact from modern industrial agriculture on our waterways, communities and public health.

That contradiction tells you where NPPC’s real interests lie. It’s not about farming, or farmers, or about being responsible and accountable; it’s all about using whatever tactic is necessary, including attacking its own base, ignoring the facts and instilling fear to maintain NPPC’s funding and political power.

 

August 12th, 2014

A “Science-based” Look at GMOs

By Tim Schwab

As the National Research Council (NRC) sets out on an 18-month, “science-based” study into the safety, benefits and drawbacks of GMOs, it will be interesting to see which science—and which scientists—the NRC will be consulting. 

The initial indications aren’t great. While the NRC boasts that it is aiming to “provide an independent, objective assessment of what has been learned since GE crops were introduced,” several of the scientific experts it has selected to direct the new report have substantial ties to industry—and are clearly in a position to advocate on behalf of biotech companies. 

The reason this matters is because the biotech industry has long had an outsized role in shaping the science surrounding GMOs, with tactics including funding and authoring countless studies, censoring or restricting independent research and attacking unfavorable findings. The result of this influence is a body of scientific literature with substantial industry bias and major gaps—especially in safety research. Industry also uses its unparalleled financial resources to bulldoze the public debate on GMOs, including spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying Congress. Do biotech companies really need another platform to advocate their pro-GMO stance? Read the full article…

June 4th, 2014

Can Factory Farms Make YOU Sick?

By Briana Kerensky

It’s really easy to believe that factory farms aren’t your problem. If you don’t eat meat, limit yourself to only local and organic meat, or live in a city, it can be tough to draw a connection between yourself and a factory farm. But with the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections, they’re quickly becoming everyone’s problem.

Follow Food & Water Watch’s flowchart and find out: can factory farms make you sick? Click the image below to get started.

When you’re done, take action: Tell Congress to save antibiotics for medicine, NOT factory farms.

Click to go to the full flowchart.

 

May 7th, 2014

What’s Beyond GMO Contamination?

By David Sánchez

Read “Organic Farmers Pay the Price for Contamination” in English or Spanish.

Felix is an organic farmer in Spain, the country that hosts 90 percent of genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe. He grows grains, alfalfa and vegetables. His organic maize was contaminated by a GM variety, and therefore he lost the organic certification for his 7.7 hectare farm. He lost €14,756 (US$20,585) as a result of the preventive measures he took to avoid contamination in addition to the direct loss of being forced to sell his harvest in the conventional markets. According to the Spanish law, he has no one to blame, so cannot claim for damages. 

Tom is an organic farmer in the U.S., a country where 90 percent of soy and 93 percent of maize area is planted with GM varieties. He grows maize and is forced to take many measures to prevent contamination: planting buffer strips, delaying planting or performing extra tests, with median annual costs up to US$8,000 (€5,735). One year his maize was contaminated by a GM variety, and the buyer rejected his load, with a median loss in that season of US$4,500 (€3,226). He has no one to blame for the damage either.

The first story was reported by Greenpeace a few years ago. It just shows the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the reality of GM cultivation in Spain. The second could be the story of any of the organic farmers surveyed by Food & Water Watch and OFARM earlier this year, just released in Europe in (available in English and in Spanish).

The stories of organic and GM-free farmers in both countries are extremely similar. They’ve been forced to abandon organic cultivation of crops where there is a GM variety, incur additional labour costs and economic damages, faced financial insecurity and experienced strained relations between neighbours—without any legal protections. Clearly, what the U.S. Government, the European Commission and the industry call “coexistence” simply mean imposing GM crops. 

Nevertheless, there is one important difference: the EU only allows the cultivation of one GM maize variety so far. But the reality of European small-scale agriculture shows that the situations in those countries that allow GM cultivation (Spain, Portugal or the Czech Republic) are already too serious to be ignored. And this is something the European Commission should keep in mind when deciding whether or not to approve a new GM crop, a maize engineered by Pioneer to kill insects and resist herbicides.

We have mounting scientific evidence on the right way to create a food system to achieve sustainability and social justice goals. And the European Commission will have to decide whom do they want to stand for. Will they stand for Felix and the organic farmers, a growing sector that creates employment and puts new energies in rural areas? Or will they stand for Pioneer, Monsanto and Syngenta, who are lobbying hard to get their GM crops approved in Europe? The answer will be coming soon.

Tell the European Food Safety Authority: If it’s dangerous you want less NOT more!

May 1st, 2014

How Industry Steers the Conversation on Pollinator Health

By Genna Reed

Earlier this week, I attended a hearing hosted by the House of Representatives Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Agriculture intended “to review current research and application of management strategies to control pests and diseases of pollinators.” Between the end of 2012 and the end of 2013, U.S. beekeepers lost an average of 45 percent of their colonies, which has threatened not only their livelihoods, but the very existence of one of the world’s most vital pollinators. The decline of bee populations across the country at levels higher than ever before seen is good reason for Congress to take notice, not only for the struggling bees, but also for the health of the broader environment, since bees are considered an indicator species of ecosystem health.

Colony Collapse Disorder is the term given to the disappearing-bee situation for which a single cause has not yet been defined. Members of the subcommittee saw the disorder as a problem caused by a wide variety of things, including varroa mites, disease, diet and nutrition, genetics, loss of habitat, beekeeping management practices and last but not least, “improper use of pesticides,” which “may also play a role.” The varroa mite is indeed a serious pest that should absolutely get some credit for bee losses, but it is also serving as the perfect scapegoat for Congress and agrichemical industry forces to take attention away from the harmful pesticide cocktails widely used in agriculture. As Jeff Pettis, Research Leader of the USDA’s Bee Research Lab in Beltsville, MD, testified, “…even if the varroa mite problem were solved today, this would not by itself solve all of the problems facing honey bees and beekeepers.” The weak language regarding pesticides’ impacts on bee health and the trivialization of the scientific evidence related to the adverse effects of pesticides on bees that was repeated throughout the hearing is a glaring example of how pesticide companies have been instrumental in framing the conversation surrounding bee health. Read the full article…

April 17th, 2014

Monsanto’s Dream Bill is a Nightmare for State GMO Labeling Efforts

By Genna Reed

Last week, Representative Mike Pompeo (R-KS) introduced the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” (HR 4432), a brainchild of the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) that would serve as a real road block to the thousands of people who have been fighting for the right to know what’s in their food. This piece of legislation would make voluntary (not mandatory) labeling for genetically engineered foods the national standard, ensure that GMOs can be ambiguously labeled as “natural,” create its own rules for non-GMO labeling and, most heinously, preempt all state efforts to require labeling of GMO foods.

We have been aware of the GMA’s plot to move into the GMO labeling policy world since Politico leaked its proposed bill language in January and then the GMA launched its “Safe and Affordable Food Coalition” in February. Unsurprisingly, the GMA found a sponsor who would support all of its original intended language in the bill, resulting in an extremely industry-friendly final version.

So, what is the GMA and why is it so powerful that congressmen do its bidding? Well, this massive trade organization represents 300 of the world’s biggest food and beverage companies as well as agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences and Syngenta. The GMA and its member companies have poured over $50 million into political action committees to help block GMO labeling ballot initiatives in California and Washington state over the past two years. To illustrate the type of political power GMA is wielding with its big pockets, here’s a paragraph from Food & Water Watch’s new profile on the GMA:

“Between 2001 and 2012, the GMA political action committee donated more than $1 million to federal candidates, political parties and other campaign committees. But it is a much bigger presence roaming the halls of Congress. From 2004 to 2013, the GMA spent $38.9 million lobbying the U.S. Congress and federal officials. In 2013 alone, the GMA spent $14.3 million lobbying on food labeling, country-of-origin labeling, labeling foods with genetically engineered ingredients (commonly known as GMO labeling), food marketing to children and other regulations affecting the food and beverage industry.” 

This kind of spending activity on the GMA’s part makes the food movement’s state-level efforts that much more significant. Not only does it show that grassroots organizing is working to hold elected officials accountable on food issues, but it also shows how work in the states is truly bothering the industry and impacting national policy. It gives us even more reason to keep pressuring our lawmakers to protect consumers because they want the right to know if GMOs are in their food. What consumers definitely don’t want is a voluntary labeling policy created by the very companies who have kept that information from them for 20 years.

Now is the time to stop the GMA from getting its way and fueling its own profit-driven interests. Food & Water Watch will continue to work with the grassroots movement to fight for  GMO labeling around the country. You can take action by telling your members of Congress not to pass Monsanto’s dream bill. For more information on the GMA, you can view our industry profile, here

April 2nd, 2014

If the Drug Companies Love FDA’s New Guidance, Should We?

drug take-back day

Photo by Tom Varco used with permission.

By Sarah Borron

Last week, FDA pronounced success in its voluntary Guidance to Industry #213 on the use of medically important antibiotics in feed for livestock. Every company but one that makes these drugs said they would participate, covering over 99 percent of the affected drugs. If the companies stick to their word, it means that in three years, medically important antibiotics should 1) no longer be used for growth promotion and 2) be used only under the oversight of a veterinarian. Both of these are long overdue first steps, but they still are not enough to stop the overuse of these critically important drugs for a couple of key reasons:

1) Overlap of Use: Giving healthy animals low doses of medically important antibiotics to make them grow faster is a really wasteful use of antibiotics. This practice promotes the development and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, putting profits ahead of public health. It’s high time this practice ended. Unfortunately, the same practice of giving healthy animals low doses of antibiotics can be done in the name of “disease prevention,” which is still allowed under the new FDA guidance. Of the drugs losing their approvals for growth promotion uses, 63 percent are still approved for disease prevention. So, producers aren’t necessarily going to lose the growth promoting benefit of many of the drugs, even if the purpose of using them is disease prevention. Only 11 percent of the drugs will fully discontinue nontherapeutic uses, any use for a purpose other than disease treatment.

2) Strength of Veterinary Oversight: But what about the veterinary oversight? Won’t that stop the use of antibiotics for routine disease prevention? That’s still unclear. FDA just accepted public comments on the Veterinary Feed Directive (VFD), which spells out the rules around veterinarians approving the use of antibiotics in feed. It’s possible that the rules will be written in such a way that veterinarian approval can carry on for months at time or for multiple herds or flocks of animals, possibly without the veterinarian ever visiting the farm. There is also an important issue that the FDA needs to address, the shortage of veterinarians in rural areas. While we want to ensure that lack of access to veterinarians for small farms is addressed, we do have to make sure that this doesn’t become an excuse for allowing injudicious uses of antibiotics to continue on large operations.

In three years, we’ll have a better sense of whether FDA’s initiative offers more shine than substance in changing practices. Regardless, to save antibiotics, we.need Congress to pass a complete ban on nontherapeutic uses of antibiotic use in livestock, and you can help us by asking for your members of Congress to support this important legislation here.

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