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Victory! Farm Bureau case challenging EPA’s right to share factory farm data dismissed. more wins »
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Blog Posts: Food

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?

September 11th, 2014

GM-Uh-Oh? Annie’s Inc. Sells Out to General Mills 

By Patrick Woodall  OrganicsOwnership_WEB

This week, General Mills announced that it will purchase the organic (and “natural”) food company Annie’s, Inc. This is just another in a long line of food company mergers, but it highlights how no matter what foods you love, corporate consolidation is taking over your grocery cart.  Read the full article…

September 5th, 2014

FDA: Playing Chicken With Our Public Health

The USDA is under pressure — due to trade negotiations — to approve Chinese chicken imports.

By Scott Edwards

Public outcry against irresponsible use of antibiotics in the livestock industry continues to mount as the evidence about its impact on antibiotic resistance accumulates. In response, Perdue recently announced that it was reducing the use of antibiotics in its poultry operations. Perdue’s announcement comes on the heels of several recent developments in the ongoing overuse of these drugs by poultry producers, including a 2012 Food and Drug Administration ban on injecting cephalosporins into chicken eggs and the Agency’s recent announcement of its voluntary strategy to curtail the industry’s use of growth-enhancing antimicrobials.

Not only are the regulatory authorities finally making some moves to counter the abuse, but public sentiment against the use of antibiotics is also reaching a fever pitch. A Consumer Reports food label survey just issued shows that 78 percent of consumers think that reducing antibiotic use in food is “important” or “very important.”

The fact is, people are starting to demand better food choices while pointing out the dire human consequences of irresponsible industry actions, and regulators are being forced to respond; industry’s marketing people are also seeing the writing on the wall. It’s no coincidence that Perdue’s announcement comes just as the company is making a move to become the dominant player in the organic chicken market.

A Perdue spokesperson stated that the company’s voluntary reduction in the use of antibiotics shows that the industry doesn’t need to be regulated to change its ways. If only that were true. One of the big problems with industry’s use of antibiotics is that the FDA does a poor job of tracking the use of these drugs in U.S. meat producers. There are very weak reporting requirements and industry’s admissions of antibiotic use are purposefully murky and undefined. Even Perdue’s official statement leaves it unclear how antibiotics will continue to be used to “treat and control illness in sick flocks.”

Chicken Farm, PoultryBut where Perdue’s “we don’t really need to be regulated” argument really falls apart is when you look at many of the other problems associated with its industrialized meat production system. For example, Perdue’s hundreds of Delmarva factory farms continue to be a significant source of water pollution to a dying Chesapeake Bay, where agriculture remains the largest source of nitrogen and phosphorus discharges. And, while nutrient-caused dead zones continue their annual summer haunt of the Bay, Perdue has spent decades refusing to take any responsibility for the mountains of manure from their own chickens that pile up on the Eastern Shore each spring. The Bay, and the many people who rely on it, simply cannot wait until the company decides that it’s marketable to clean up after itself.

Likewise, with the antibiotic issue, voluntary simply doesn’t cut it; antibiotic abuse by industry is a current crisis and our public health and safety cannot afford to wait until there’s an industry-wide decision to do the right thing. So while we should be throwing Perdue a chicken bone for its marketing decision to reduce antibiotic use, the most important part of Perdue’s announcement is that it shows what the industry has been claiming for years – that it can’t produce meat without the abuse of antibiotics – is false. It’s past time for the FDA to do what we all know is possible, and that is to force the meat industry to eliminate its use of harmful antibiotics though protective, non-voluntary regulation.

 

 

September 3rd, 2014

Extension: Now Advocating on Behalf of Industry?

By Tim Schwab Farm

As we’ve detailed in recent blogs, this summer marks the 100-year anniversary of Congress’s implementation of “cooperative extension,” tasked with the mission of “…diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics…”

During World War II the extension system successfully lead 15 million families to plant victory gardens, which in 1943 produced an almost unbelievable 40 percent of our nation’s fresh vegetables. Extension offices located in every county also acted as crucial vehicles for connecting farmers to new research from our burgeoning, public land-grant-university system, an arrangement that benefited farmers and consumers for decades. Read the full article…

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 28th, 2014

Is Cornell the Go-To University for Industry Science?

By Tim Schwab

GMO_CanolaCornell University announced last week that it is embarking on a multi-million dollar campaign to “depolarize the charged debate” around GMOs. Can you guess who’s behind this effort? The biotech industry and its supporters.

The website for this project, the Cornell Alliance for Science, is pretty sparse, but it does note its pro-GMO partners, including the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), which is funded by Monsanto, CropLife and Bayer.

This use of surrogates is par for the course with the biotech industry. Sometimes called the soft lobby, corporations routinely engage neutral-appearing scientists and impartial-sounding front groups to help advance their political and economic agendas. Food & Water Watch detailed the enormous amount of industry research coming out of our public land-grant universities in our 2012 report, Public Research, Private Gain.

Cornell is no stranger to this science-for-sale approach. Earlier this year, Cornell economist William Lesser took money from a biotech front group to produce a questionable analysis showing that GMO labeling will be very costly for consumers. While he noted that the study reflected his personal opinions, not those of Cornell, GMO supporters began publicizing the findings of “the Cornell study” in their campaign to defeat state-labeling initiatives around the country. Independent studies, meanwhile, show that GMO labeling will not increase costs significantly—and perhaps not at all.

Cornell’s newest foray into the GMO debate, the “Alliance for Science,” will add to the confusion and distortion in the public discourse around GMOs. Rather than trying to promote a civil, honest, impartial dialogue about GMOs—as you would expect from a university like Cornell—the school has chosen to partner with some of the biotechnology industry’s most prominent supporters and defenders. Read the full article…

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 26th, 2014

A Burger King’s Ransom: New Merger Seizes Cross-Border Tax Loophole

By Patrick Woodall Hamburger_Factory

Not even the fast food industry is immune from merger mania. Burger King has announced that it is merging with the Canadian breakfast chain Tim Hortons, creating the world’s third largest fast food chain with more than 18,000 restaurants and $22 billion in revenue (mostly from franchise fees, not burger and coffee sales).

This year has seen an incredible litany of food company mergers including supermarkets, dollar stores, sausage and pork companies,  flour mills, food distributors and many, many more. There have been a host of recent cross-border global mergers as well, most notably the sale of Smithfield to a meatpacker in China, but this latest merger includes a global corporate tax dodge.

The deal takes advantage of a corporate tax loophole that allows U.S. companies to merge with foreign firms and relocate their headquarters to lower-tax countries. This “tax inversion” or “tax expatriation” merger strategy has become a common tax shelter. Other food companies have exploited opportunities for tax inversion mergers this year, including the Chiquita Brands (when it purchased Fyffes, the Irish banana distributor) and Mondelez International, formerly the cookie, cracker and candy arm of Kraft Foods, when it merged with the Dutch firm D.E. Master Blends. Companies have been merged and spun-off so frequently, you really do need a scorecard to know who is who these days.

Despite renouncing American corporate citizenship, Burger King is unlikely to reap substantial tax benefits. Although the big business lobby harps on the high U.S. corporate tax rate, the reality is that few companies actually pay the statutory rate because of tax loopholes and subsidies tucked into the tax code. Many of America’s largest and most profitable companies pay no taxes at all, according to a 2014 study by Citizens for Tax Justice.

Some $900 billion in merger deals have been announced this year, and most observers believe that more corporate takeovers are in the works. The U.S. food and agriculture sector was already too consolidated, with a few firms controlling every link in the food chain from seed to supermarket. Unless the antitrust cops start to vigorously enforce the law, the current merger wave will only make a bad situation worse for farmers and consumers.

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 19th, 2014

News from the Front Lines of Fighting Antibiotic Resistance

By Sarah Borron Antibiotics_Pill_Bottle

I recently spent two fascinating days at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for a public meeting on the National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (NARMS). Between the technical jargon and numerous acronyms, what emerges is a story about government scientists working on the front lines to keep antibiotics working for you and me.

An FDA researcher described how “whole genome sequencing,” reading the entire DNA strand of foodborne pathogens, is allowing them to create evolutionary trees that demonstrate how bacteria and patterns of antibiotic resistance change over time. In one recent outbreak, whole genome sequences of bacteria from the people affected, the food they all ate, and the nearby plant that produced the food allowed scientists to identify the source of the outbreak, which allowed for quicker closure of the plant in order to solve the problem. Comment after comment pointed to whole genome sequencing as the “next big thing” for addressing illness outbreaks.

Read the full article…

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