What do probiotics have to do with it? Why soil health matters.

Dirt to Dinner is pleased to have Renée Vassilos contribute to our site. Renée is The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Agriculture Innovation where she manages investments in companies practicing regenerative agriculture. Previously, Renée worked at John Deere, including several years in Beijing, building global market product strategies, design and manufacture equipment, and marketing and sales. She also led her consulting firm, Banyan Innovation Group, advising growth-stage agriculture technology start-ups and investors. Renée has a BS and MS in agricultural economics from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and University of California, Davis respectively.

Probiotics: For Our Body and Our Soil

As you’re walking through grocery store aisles, I suspect you’ve seen items labeled as ‘prebiotic’ and ‘probiotic’. Much of this push comes from a compelling and growing body of research around the critical role our complex gut microbiome plays in our immune system. Our immune system’s role is to protect our body from outside invaders, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This system is made up of different organs, cells, and proteins all working together. We can either support or hinder our gut health by what we consume.

David Montgomery and Anne Bikle’s book, The Hidden Half of Nature, puts it simply:

“It’s not only how much we eat, but also what we eat and what lives within us that matters.”

In parallel to this growing body of knowledge around the role of our gut microbiome, there is a growing and compelling body of research around the critical role of the soil microbiome.

We are learning a tremendous amount about the role the soil microbiome plays in healthy environmental ecosystems. The soil microbiome is a complex group of microorganisms that can be found in soil, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbial forms of life. At the farm-level ecosystem, the benefits of improved soil microbiome include higher rates of productivity and profitability over the long term. At the societal level ecosystem, the benefits of boosting the soil microbiome are even more profound, including improved water quality, filtration, and storage; richer biodiversity; and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, mitigating the impacts of climate change.

It is because of these profound ecosystem benefits we at The Nature Conservancy have a critical body of work focused on rebuilding the U.S. soil microbiome. We refer to this as rebuilding soil health, the equivalent of rebuilding gut health. Since 2016,  TNC scientists, economists, and policy experts are focused on executing our roadmap to soil health and getting us closer to our audacious goal: 50% of U.S. cropland under adaptive soil health systems by 2025. The core focus of this brilliant team is to scale four critical practices we know are part of adaptive soil health systems: maintaining a living root in soils, minimizing tillage or disturbance, increasing crop diversity, and optimizing nutrient application.

This critical work towards our goal continues with our team of scientists, economists, and policy experts at the national level and at the tactical, boots-on-the-ground level. In 2019, however, it was acknowledged that we were not moving fast enough towards our goal. We needed to think about other ways to expedite change. How could we tap into innovation to drive farming for soil health?

Taking a Seat at the Venture Investment Table

We believe there is tremendous opportunity to drive progress towards adaptive soil health systems through innovation. We believe that TNC’s investments in those innovations will send a critical signal to other investors around the opportunity to invest for returns and impact. To date, TNC has invested in five companies. Their solutions are wide-ranging:

  • Kula Bio is developing an organic alternative to synthetic nitrogen with the potential for localized production.
  • Swarm Farm is developing an autonomous tractor that will provide farm enterprises a cost-effective way to practice precision application of inputs. This eliminates unnecessary treatments.
  • Growers Edge is a financial technology company that is using warranties to help de-risk the adoption of new technologies on-farm. We are working with them to develop a warranty to de-risk the practices we know build soil health.
  • Stony Creek Colors provides the enabling services for farmers to diversify crop rotations with crops that can be used for plant-derived dye.
  • Pattern Ag provides soil microbiome analysis and recommendations for input optimization on farm.

Our work continues to support the transformation towards large scaling farming of adaptive soil health systems.

What can you do to support the transformation?

Start with your own microbiome. What foods foster your healthy gut microbiome? How do you see these efforts improving the overall health of your immune system? Then you can make that intellectual leap to the microbiome needed in the soil for it to thrive and support plant growth. The better our collective understanding and appreciation for our gut microbiome, the easier it will be for all to make the connection to the soil microbiome and a recognition of how critical it is to move the needle on soil health for our collective planetary ecosystem.

An excellent resource to read, David Montgomery and Anne Biklé, The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health. You can also watch them discuss their book.

Can Rural America Lead in AgTech?

Lucy recently spoke at a Boy Scouts of America event hosting community business leaders and politicians in Pennsylvania. She chose to speak about rural America’s potential to pave the way for the future of agricultural innovations.

Below is her speech.

Thank you for the introduction, Jeff Homer, President of Grovedale Winery. And thank you to the Andaste District Scouts for having me here tonight to speak to all of you about my favorite subjects: agriculture, food, and the technologies that lead us.

Even though my experience as a Girl Scout was very brief, the Boy Scouts are near and dear to my heart because my husband is an Eagle Scout and has remained involved with the Scouts for years. In fact, the Scouts are one of the reasons we are married.

When he asked my father to marry me, surprised for sure as we had only been dating a couple of months, he said no. But then, when my parents discovered that Mark was an Eagle Scout, they embraced him warmly.

So, my advice to you is to forget match.com – just become an Eagle Scout and make sure your future wife’s family knows it. You see, being a Scout – especially an Eagle Scout – still means something in this world. It signaled to my parents more than anything that Mark would be a good husband and father.

The Scouts are about character. Your values: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent –set you apart from many in our country. You cannot be a leader with virtue. What the scouts teach are the virtues needed for children to grow into good citizens.

I love how these values coincide with the American farmer. Every day we can thank a farmer for what is on our plate. America has one of the most affordable, clean, safe, and efficient food systems in the world. This is accomplished by hard-working people who have a strong purpose to bring food to your table.

I think a lot about agriculture, science, and food…

My interest in food really solidified when I had children. Two of them, including myself, have a blood disorder. To keep our immune systems strong, our pediatrician told me to make sure we ate well. What did that mean? I thought that it simply meant organic. But as I investigated further, I began to understand that there are many ways to bring healthy, safe, clean food to the dinner table.

The grocery store was – and still is – telling me that hormones are terrible in milk (all cows have hormones), GMOs are frankenfood , glyphosate – the main chemical in the weed killer Roundup – is poisoning our food, gluten is causing everything from allergies to back pain, and chickens raised indoors, cattle at the feedlot, and dairy cows in the milking parlor are experiencing animal welfare issues.

So other than starve to death – what was I supposed to do?

I started visiting farms, feedlots, dairy farms, and saw that none of this was true. Sure, some farmers and farms are better than others, but this dichotomy made me uncomfortable, and I wanted the truth to be told That’s why I started my blog, Dirt to Dinner. Our mission is to inspire curiosity, knowledge, and action about our food from the farmer’s field to the dinner table, using science as our guide.

I recently had the chance to think about agriculture from a unique perspective…the seat of my motorcycle. My husband, one of our sons, and I love to ride through the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside on our bikes.

As the wind was whipping by me and the rows of corn and dairy farms faded into a blur – I started thinking about how important our farmers are who grow our corn, meat, dairy, soybeans, fruits, and vegetables to feed the 7.71 billion of us on Earth. In less than four years, that number will jump to over 8 billion. This global increase of 400 million more people is more than the population in our entire country – in less than four years.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that we need 60% more food to feed the extra two billion people by 2050. It sounds like a long way away. But for those of you who are teenagers, you’ll be in your 50s. You are the ones that will shape the world you inherit.

How are you going to make sure the world is what you want it to be?

Will the farmer growing the corn I whizzed by have fresh water? Will he, or she, create and maintain healthy soil? Will we be eating meat from animals or foods made in a lab? And if it is grown in a lab, what does that mean for rural America and the farming communities that sustain it? At D2D we talk a lot about technology and how that is shaping our food system. It is the future. And I wonder if we are all prepared?

Logically, you might think that to produce more food, we need more land to farm. The good news? We can do this on existing agricultural land because of innovations in agricultural technology. And, personally, I love companies that solve problems and deliver solutions.

In the ’90s, someone told me that I would have my own personal phone number that would be carried around with me. I thought, ‘What is wrong with our house phone?’ Look at what sticks in our back pocket now. It is not just our phone number: it is movies, games, the internet of things. That is in my adult lifetime. Think of agriculture as making the same leaps.

Examining the challenges of sustainability

Sustainability means that our generation leaves your generation with clean water, healthy soil, no child labor, fair labor practices, animal welfare, enough water, clean air…the list is endless. Basically growing food with Scout values – meaning – Do the right thing.

And the first place to start answering that question is by starting at our feet. The next time you’re outside around dirt – pick up a small handful – and take a good look. Did you know that you would be looking at more microbes than all 7.8 billion people on Earth today? A small handful of soil has more diversity than all the frogs, plants, monkeys, birds, panthers, miniature elephants, and other billions of species in the vast, vast Amazon Rainforest.

Stop. Think about that for a minute…just in a handful of soil. All these fungi, insects, bacteria, and algae happily coexist in the soil keep us alive by growing our food. They control pathogens, reduce plant disease outbreaks, give plants nutrients, keep them resilient, give them energy to pull carbon out of the air, make land less prone to wind and water erosion, clean and filter water, and finally are a source of human medicine.

Here’s a great example of a very well-educated farmer who makes the most of his soil. Last summer we rode our motorcycles down to Trout Run to see Dave Albert’s farm, Misty Mountain.

Dave is the sixth generation of his family to farm the land. His ancestor and his wife immigrated to Philadelphia from Germany. After they got acclimated to their new country, they walked 200 miles to Trout Run pushing a wheelbarrow with their belongings.

Today Dave has a successful beef operation growing corn, soybeans, oats, barley, and canola to feed their cattle, sheep, and pastured poultry. How?

Dave became a soil expert reading about regenerative ag and is applying that to his farm today. He knows his soil is healthy because he can achieve the same yield per acre as conventional farmers with little to no herbicides and pesticides. He understands the power of the mighty microbes.

There’s more than one way

Big multinational companies, like Bayer and Mosaic, and smaller start-ups, like MyLand and AgBiome, are also changing the way we look and use soil.

Each farm has its own microalgae in the soil – just like we all have our own gut microbiome. Mine is different from yours and yours is different from your siblings. This company looks at which algae is essential to that specific farm. They then grow those algae in small vessels with lights and correct temperature. They make millions of cells – and sprays it back onto the soil using the farm’s irrigation system. in a tractor-trailer housed on the farm. The farm then uses less fertilizer, less water and increases their yield and thus their revenue.

Another company looks at all the soil microbes that kill insects, fungus, and weeds. They sequence the DNA, grow them in a lab, and take them out to spray on the field to have healthy crops – without pesticides and herbicides. Healthy soil, healthy planet.

These companies are leading agriculture to sustainability while making the difference between profitability and bankruptcy for family farms.

Animals can benefit, too…

It is not just soil that has excellent new technologies with sustainability. Animal welfare – taking care of our animals whether they are in a feedlot getting fat for our dinner plates, giving us milk to drink, ice cream, and mozzarella cheese, or chickens giving us eggs or chicken salad sandwiches is the right thing to do.

How do we keep track of all these animals? If one is not feeling well, they might tell you by a droopy head, not eating, not socializing. But when a farmer has hundreds of cattle on the range or in the dairy barn – it is hard to tell how each one is feeling. And often when they are sick, it is too late and you have to call the vet.

Today, it is not going a problem to keep track of them. Anyone wearing an Apple Watch or Fitbit?

Great – so is the cow.

Just like our watches – the cow version of fit bit is a necklace they wear. Where they are (important on the range), whether they are socializing, their body temperature, how much they are eating, and if they are a dairy cow, how much milk they are producing. One company does facial recognition for dairy cows instead of a necklace – because necklaces fall off.

These technologies relay information to sensors on gates and after leaving the milking parlor, if a cow is deemed to have a problem, she is automatically sorted into a ‘sick pen’. The herd manager immediately receives a text on his phone and goes to attend to the cow so she can be taken care of before she gets so sick that she needs antibiotics. Or if it is cattle on the range, the herd manager also receives this information on his phone. He, or she, can even move the cattle from pasture to pasture from sensors on the gates.

This unique technology is not only a more humane approach; it enhances the margin for the farmer by keeping their animals healthy which then makes the farmer more competitive in the market.

Alt meat’s place in the global food system

Of course, no conversation about cows would be complete without including alternative meats.

The world is also full of carnivores. According to Research and Markets, alternative meat consumption, mostly alt-poultry, beef, and pork, is projected to have a compounded annual growth rate of 7.4% through 2025. Did you know Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America will drive 83% of this growth?

As more and more people come out of poverty thanks to the free market, they can afford and consume more meat. Once people begin making more than $5,000 a year – yes, a year – they start incorporating protein in their diets.

Right now, the world eats about 300 million metric tons of meat a year. That doesn’t include sheep and goats. If you put all that meat in a rail-cars, how long is that train? It would go around the Earth’s equator almost two times.

I am so curious as to what will happen with the future of meat. Will this industry be entirely disrupted? It just might. There are four different ways to get meat.

How many of you have had the Impossible Burger or Beyond Burger? These are burgers made out of pea protein, potato protein, water, coconut or canola oil, and several other ingredients. They are not necessarily healthier or cheaper than a lean beef burger but they have created a lot of excitement. It is a great ‘meat’ option for vegans and vegetarians. And both CEOs are committed to improving the technology.

The other non-meat option is grown in a lab. It is called cell-based meat. For instance, Upside Foods, takes cells from a particular part of a cow, duck, and chicken and grows them in a lab to make flank steak, duck breast, or chicken thighs. We went to visit them in San Francisco. It was an impressive lab for sure. But this technology is challenging as you need science technicians to literally babysit the cells, cull out the bad ones, and feed the good ones so they can grow into a meal.

The cell-based meat was initially about $5,000 a hamburger. So, you haven’t seen it on the dollar menu at McDonald’s.

Not yet…

Finally, there is synthetic biology. This is the future. Many of you are familiar with the 0s and 1s used for computer programming. It always amazes me what you can do with just two numbers. Well, take four letters instead: A, C, T, G.

They make up our DNA – and all DNA of every single living organism. Your DNA is the blueprint for your body. Each one of your cells holds this six-foot-long strand tightly wrapped and folded within the nucleus.

Synthetic biology can change the genetic code within an organism and make it do something it might not do otherwise. Or, put another way, we can create food, medicine, lumber, clothing in entirely unconventional and different ways.

Ginkgo Bioworks can make vegan ice cream by programing and fermenting yeast to create the perfect milk protein. Ecovative Design ‘grows materials’ with mycelium – the root structure of a mushroom to grow meat that tastes like crab cakes or bacon.

We need all tools in our toolbelts to thrive

As I said before there are four ways to make meat. Don’t buy into ‘canceling’ out an entire industry. We can’t say, “Oh it’s better for the earth if we just make our food in a lab” and then wipe out traditional ways of raising meat. Because that does more than remove cows and chickens from our diets – it removes much of rural America’s way of life. Also, we will need all ways to feed a growing population who need protein in their diets.

Food can unite people – let’s not let it divide people. My point here is we do not need a protein war like we have a political and culture war between our very own shores.

The technologies I have just discussed are all successful – today. But they were generated on the backs of many, many failures. Rumor has it Edison tried 1000 times for the lightbulb. Everyone who has had success has failed. I certainly have.

Being a leader means stepping out and just get started.

I was worried about starting D2D. Take a risk my uncle said! If it doesn’t work – then shut it down. So far – so good. We are trying to take a leadership role by encouraging and embracing new and safe technologies that can increase our yield and grow our food in the most sustainable and healthy way.

Being a leader means taking the values you cherish as a scout and making a difference in your community – your world.

One of my favorite D2D stories is about Farm Link. During COVID, a college-aged boy was sitting around at his kitchen table – maybe a bit bored. His mother said, go out and do something – make a difference. So he and three of his friends linked the food waste problem in our country with food banks. Food waste is a serious issue: if you were to grow a garden the size of a football field, take all the food from the 40-yard line to the goal post – and throw it away. That is how much food is wasted every day.

The goal of Farm Link is simple: to rescue wasted and surplus food from farms and connect them with food banks around the country in need of food. This was especially poignant during Covid.

The time is now

Here is where you can come in. One of the worries for our country is the decline of income in rural American. I see the problems of rural America when I fly my Super Cub over the countryside. (I also love to fly airplanes). Even from 500 feet over the ground, you can tell that some farms are thriving, and some are struggling or non-existent with junk in the front yard.

Much of our manufacturing has moved to China. A bigger worry is that we have put cheap pharmaceuticals, furniture, clothes, and almost everything we buy ahead of American jobs. But the one thing we have not exported is our food.

We grow enough food to food 350 million people plus many in the rest of the world. But we can’t if we don’t accept technology and try new things. America exports our corn, soybeans, meat, fruits, and vegetables.

How can you link the need for income growth in rural America with our food security? Florida, Tennessee, South Carolina, Texas North Carolina are all states that are attracting businesses. Why not Pennsylvania? Why not change the tax and regulatory code in the county where you live to bring in new types of business thus creating jobs and income?

Why not grow fish in the middle of our state? The oceans are certainly getting overfished. You really don’t know whether you are eating cod or grouper? Is your fish really Chilean sea bass or something grown in China? Honestly, we have no idea. How about home-grown fish in rural America? It is a unique idea for sure, but why not grow salmon, shrimp, tilapia all indoors in a clean safe environment and truck them fresh to the grocery store?

A high percentage of Americans are obese, have diabetes, heart disease, or cancer. Much of that can be changed with our diets. Just eat five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day. But access to affordable produce is tough. It is cheaper to eat a box of macaroni and cheese with a hamburger than eating your required fruit and vegetable servings. So how to make it easier, more affordable, and more accessible? What about vertical farming? Nutritious fresh produce delivered that is grown hydroponically right to the market is wonderful – especially in the wintertime. This is a new and expanding industry that grows lettuce and other produce year-round?

We can reinvigorate rural America – places where traditional manufacturing and industry have abandoned our towns and counties – but we can only do this by being open to new and innovative ways of doing old things…— it starts not with governments or industries but us – people just like you…

It will take pioneers – friendly and courteous and educated and helping one another along the way…you can be today’s pioneers. You don’t have to be Elon Musk or Richard Branson.

Millions of Americans have gone before you and done it. They were not all wealthy. Most had no connections and had left behind everything they knew – think of Dave Albert’s ancestors. Scouts, you can create your own legacy of making the world a better place. That is the definition of a good life and what all people of character strive for.

Thank you all for your time tonight.

Getting nutrition info from social media? Think again…

On the run? LISTEN to our post!

Food Trends on Social Media

Social media is a space for finding trends: music, videos, life hacks, fashion, food. On Instagram, there are over 3 million posts containing #avocado, 1.7 million with #kale, and over 1 million with #quinoa. Just a few years ago, we had never even heard of some of these, let alone labeled them as healthy, trendy, or superfoods.

Pinterest’s “food and drink” category has long been a hotspot for millions of popular recipes, videos, and photos. Facebook and Twitter, of course, contribute their fair share as well, escalating the White Claw viral craze in 2019 that led to a national shortage, and also the Twitter feud between Popeyes and Chick-fil-A.

More recently, the feta pasta recipe craze on Tik Tok led to empty feta shelves at grocery stores. And these are just a couple of examples that demonstrate the power of social media on our food distribution systems.

Now, if social media can do all this with food, imagine what they can do to our minds. With an overabundance of information on nutrition, health, and food all in one place displayed in fun and memorable ways, it’s no surprise that more people are getting their health information from social media than ever before.

Viral Nutritional (Mis)information

What’s worrisome is that social media can also spread information on nutrition just as fast as it causes disruptions in the food supply chain. I noticed it first-hand when I couldn’t find feta at my local supermarket during the height of the TikTok’s pasta craze.

Since the start of COVID-19, many users have been taking to Tik Tok to share what they eat and why and encourage others to do the same. For example, keto and low-carb are two huge trends on social media right now. Eating in a calorie deficit, meaning eating fewer calories than what you’re burning off in a given day, is another.

Almost every other video I see in my feed pertains to one of these categories (I take partial blame because clearly, the algorithm knows what videos I stay on). And while I know my body needs both carbs and calories, some people don’t understand that, and they could easily take to the wrong diet.

Many registered nutritionists and dietitians also have accounts on these platforms, intending to inform users of what’s true and not. One account, @NutritionalSarah, drives home the research behind a well-balanced diet and even answers questions her followers have on food. She follows more of an intuitive-eating diet, meaning she feeds her body what it wants without counting calories or macro and micro-nutrients.

Is This Filling the Education Gap?

A report released in July 2020 from Tufts University’s Federal Nutrition Research Advisory Group said that one of the reasons we are facing a health crisis in America is because there’s a lack of education on nutrition. There are two reasons for this. First, there are so many diet trends popping up that it’s hard to keep track of what’s right and wrong. Should I start Keto or Paleo? Should I start eating vegan? Should I only eat plant-based? The list goes on and on.  Second, there’s no governing unit at the federal level to oversee what research is being done and how to get the science to consumers.

Experts at Mintel say that health was the top priority of many Americans in 2020. It led to an increase in demand for nutritious food and drinks as many wanted to strengthen their immune systems in the wake of COVID-19. And, Mintel states, the demand for educational food facts is predicted to continue growing over the next couple of years.

Since the beginning of Covid, many of us actively seek out legitimate health information to increase overall health and well-being during this stressful time. But how can we be sure our sources of information and inspiration are valid, and not just fluff or, even worse, flat-out dangerous to our health?

The “Influencer-Turned-Nutritionist”

Many of the people online who influence our diets and the foods we eat are not nutritionists or doctors. Social media platforms, especially Instagram and Tik Tok, are dominated by celebrity influencers or just attractive people who steer others toward specific trends, foods, clothes, and more.

These influencers post more “nutrition” information than ever before, including promoting specific diets, foods, and drinks to their followers without providing fact-based information. Many of them are paid by partners and sponsors to post positively about products. For example, the Kardashians are paid by Fit Tea to say they drink the tea every day to achieve their desired figure.

But sometimes nutrition misinformation is not entirely the influencer’s fault. Their followers crave a role model to follow, especially for what they eat every day. Are you plant-based? Do you consume dairy? And should I follow the same diet?

As we learned from Jack Bobo, our brain has a strong tendency to take in selective evidence to confirm our existing beliefs. This is called confirmation bias. Also, we are bombarded with information that is both confusing and fearful. Jack Bobo also points out that when it comes time to make a decision, our brain is in overload and takes the easiest path possible to decide.

Especially for those who are easily influenced, copying others on social media is the same as mimicking whatever the popular girl did in school. Just as we thought she had it all figured out, we believe the same of influencers. Finally, it’s hard to know the difference between someone who studied the subject and someone who did not.

Examining Influencers in the Nutrition Realm

Here are some of the internet’s most popular influencers-turned-nutritionists:

When perusing your next social media feed that may or may not have one of these influencers, practice good research skills to avoid falling down a hole of social media information. Want some tips to help on your fact-finding journey? Scroll further down…

  1. Janelle Rohner – Janelle is both Instagram and Tik Tok-famous, with over 4 million followers. At first, she was your one-stop shop for all things keto. But now, she is gaining fame through much more. Recently, she’s promoted swapping every carb with bell peppers. And she also eats cucumbers dipped in Stevia instead of watermelon.
  2. The Kardashians – I know we already mentioned them before, but it’s worth doing so again because they’re paid to promote many different “nutrition” remedies. Not only were they paid to sell Fit Tea, promising to make women skinny by just drinking a cup a day, but they also endorsed “diet lollipops” that stopped you from being hungry.
  3. Gwyneth Paltrow – Gwyneth Paltrow has been on everyone’s radars the last few years. As the creator of GOOP and a well-known celebrity, it’s no surprise that she’s come forward as an active nutrition influencer online, as well. She promoted “intuitive fasting”, two diet methods that totally contradict each other. Intuitive eating is about listening to your body when it tells you you’re hungry by promoting mindfulness, while intermittent fasting requires consuming your daily caloric intake within a specified amount of time. For example, consuming your meals within eight hours during the day.
  4. Katie Price – Katie Price gained her fame from both reality TV and modeling. She faced backlash for similar reasons to Kim Kardashian. Price promoted an appetite suppressant on her Instagram page to over 2 million followers. The advertisement was for a weight-loss shot by BoomBod.
  5. Miranda Kerr – Miranda Kerr, Victoria’s Secret model and Founder & CEO of KORA Organics, has over 12 million followers on Instagram. She was one of the biggest promoters of the celery juice cleanse. The cleanse claimed to transform your health in just one week by drinking 16 ounces of raw celery juice every morning on an empty stomach.

Navigating Nutrition Advice for Credible Sources

If something sounds too good to be true (“just buy my product and the weight will melt off!”) or counter-intuitive, it’s time to dig deeper. The first step is to see if any peer-reviewed studies back what you heard. This can be done easily by going to Google Scholar and typing in a topic. The best studies are peer-reviewed and cited multiple times by others.

You can also find credible information on university websites, for example, Harvard Health. You can check to see if the person has any partnerships or sponsors, meaning they may be paid for promoting specific products. For more tips on how to decipher good science from bad, click here.

And finally, to find out what works best for you, please talk to your doctor before making any significant dietary changes.

Keeping Score on Biden’s Ag Initiatives

It’s been a hectic half-year for Congress and the new Biden Administration, with enormous amounts of time and energy devoted to dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, the largest economic stimulus bill ever passed, the infamous January 6 attack on the Capitol, comprehensive infrastructure legislation, and more.

But behind the scenes of these high-profile issues, what has been done related to our food and agricultural system? What does the scorecard show for efforts to fulfill the promises and pledges made during the 2020 campaign for farmers and ranchers and everyone else along the chain from dirt to dinner?

Want to jump ahead to a particular issue? Click on one of the following initiatives:

Climate Change    Rural Economic Revitalization    Equity & Social Justice    Trade    Labor    Consolidation & Competition

Crop Programs and Disaster Assistance

The campaign theme:

A greater role for government in helping all farmers and ranchers, especially during difficult times and circumstances

Both the Biden Administration and Congress have focused on providing disaster relief for farmers and ranchers plagued by drought and severe weather events. Updates to long-standing crop programs in the 2018 Farm Bill allowed legislators and administrators to focus on expanding many of the economic protections available to producers.

The Department of Agriculture has relaxed some bureaucratic requirements, eased some terms and conditions, and expanded funding where possible for a variety of disaster programs, including crop insurance.

Before leaving town for the August recess, the House Agriculture Committee voted to add $8.5 billion in disaster aid for 2020 and 2021 disasters through the Wildfire Hurricane Indemnity Program (WHIP). In the Senate, bipartisan legislation has been introduced to allow early haying under the Conservation Reserve Program. Another bill before the Senate Agriculture Committee would offer loan forgiveness and other economic aid for producers.

Compared to the trillions of dollars and weeks of negotiation represented in Covid and infrastructure initiatives, it may not sound like all that much. But to rural America, it’s a significant potential for help.

Overall: ???? ???? ????

Both Congress and the Administration have made help for producers amid exceptional weather circumstances a top priority – perhaps consuming a portion of the political energy needed to fulfill other campaign pledges and priorities. Much more remains to be done to finalize some legislative initiatives, but the often-slow wheels of the legislative process are in motion.

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Climate Change

The campaign theme:

U.S. agriculture has a major role to play in dealing with global climate change, and it’s time for our food and agricultural policies and programs to take on a more aggressive role in tackling the problem

With many U.S. farmers and ranchers facing extreme conditions right now, climate change policies seem to have taken a bit of a back seat to emergency relief efforts. But the broad issue of climate change – and in particular the farm sector’s role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions – remains an active interest in the Biden Administration and on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps most significantly, the Senate voted 92-8 to pass the Growing Climate Solutions Act, authorizing the Department of Agriculture to establish a Voluntary Greenhouse Gas Technical Assistance Provider and Third-Party Verifier Certification Program. That’s a long-winded name for a critical first step: to create a marketplace for environmental credits for farmers and others willing to engage in sustainable land-use practices that advance climate-change goals. Similar legislation is pending in the House of Representatives, with 50 bipartisan co-sponsors.

Overall: ???? ????

Talk is cheap, especially in the heat of a political campaign, but passage of the Senate bill represents a concrete first step in transforming talk into action. Attention now shifts to the House for completion of the job.

The White House, meanwhile, continues to focus on non-ag accomplishments through executive orders and presidential memoranda, such as rejoining the Paris Climate Accords and canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, as well as the appointment of a Presidential Envoy for Climate and creation of an Office of Climate Change Support within the State Department.

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Rural Economic Revitalization

The campaign theme:

Make the federal government a more active partner in a comprehensive effort to revitalize the rural economy

The promise to help rural communities is nothing new to American politics. But the sheer breadth of the Biden Administration’s proposed actions is noteworthy nonetheless and includes a vast array of initiatives, such as:

  • Added funding for credit in promoting new and growing businesses in rural areas, delivered equitably
  • Extended broadband and wireless access
  • More primary health providers and money for health centers
  • Additional emphasis on renewable energy and green energy jobs
  • Improvements to infrastructure and transportation
  • Expanded conservation programs
  • Better access to healthy foods

It all sounds great. But how is it all delivered? It begins with more funding for existing programs and a different mindset among those charged with administering them.

But the real accomplishment since Inauguration Day in this area undoubtedly is the development of a massive bipartisan infrastructure deal – a 2,702-page piece of legislation spending roughly one trillion dollars ($1,000,000,000,000.00…that’s a lot of zeroes). The massive bill still requires extensive additional Congressional attention before going to President Biden for signature. But the bipartisan agreement is a huge political achievement.

The White House calls it “a generational investment in rural America.” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack notes the far-reaching effects of the bill on rural areas, including roads, bridges, wastewater systems, broadband expansion, telemedicine and tele-education, power system improvements, environmental clean-up, rail expansion, and many of the other areas touched upon during the 2020 campaign.

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Politics aside, this agreement represents an enormous commitment to improvements across America, and nowhere more so than rural America. The details of how this massive piece of legislation is enacted remain to be seen. But its intent is clear: invest in America, nowhere more so than our rural areas.

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Equity and Social Justice

The campaign theme:

Past farm policies and programs too often have been skewed to the disadvantage of certain groups, notably minority farmers and smaller operators. Social justice demands a new, more equitable approach – and remediation of past injustices.

Both the Biden Administration and the Congressional agriculture committees have made this subject a centerpiece of hearings and public outreach efforts. But the flagship initiative in fulfilling this promise has been an element of the American Rescue Plan enacted in March in response to the Covid pandemic.

The $1.9-trillion Plan includes a $4 billion fund for debt-relief payments for “socially disadvantaged” farmers. This includes Black, Hispanic, American Indian and Asian American farmers who are deemed to have been discriminated against in past farm programs and policies, representing roughly 3.3 percent of U.S. food producers, according to the 2017 Census. Additionally, another $1 billion would go for education, training, outreach programs, grants and loans helping improve land access for disadvantaged farmers.

Initial payments for roughly 13,000 qualifying farmers were scheduled to go out this summer. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack notes the payments will cover the entirety of outstanding loans, plus an additional 20 percent of the loan as a cash payment to deal with the tax consequences of the loan forgiveness. Legal challenges in federal court alleging discrimination are pending, and several banks have expressed concern over the damages they might face as a result of early loan pay-offs.

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If spending is any measure of success in fulfilling a campaign pledge, this subject earns several thumbs up. What remains to be seen is the effectiveness of the effort in expanding the number of minority farmers from the present levels.

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The campaign theme:

Trade is critical to the economic interests of U.S. farmers, ranchers, and consumers. It’s time to stop the combative, go-it-alone approach we’ve used in recent years and get back to a more collaborative, less confrontational approach that will expand our trade opportunities.

The elephant in the room for this campaign promise obviously was trade relations with China, our largest foreign customer for U.S. food and agricultural products, and the most important player in international trade. A new Administration and a new Congressional leadership favored a strong focus on rebuilding relations with China; not through overt confrontation, but traditional diplomacy.

But a strange thing happened on the way to the promised bright future. Relations with China have remained frosty. Tensions over human rights, cyberpiracy, intellectual property rights, military aggressiveness, and a host of other issues made it difficult to define what a ‘traditional diplomatic approach’ actually means. After six months, we’re still waiting to see the comprehensive strategy for U.S.-China relations promised by the Biden Administration.

Instead, we see aggressive actions to re-introduce the United States as an active participant in various international organizations and initiatives. The United States rejoined the Paris Climate Accord and has promoted extensive engagement in international Covid relief and vaccination efforts. Reduced or ended military commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq also have been major areas of international focus.

Not by accident, the Biden Administration launched efforts to work with Capitol Hill in promoting expanded trade with Africa, where China has become the continent’s leading trade partner and leading lending source.

Overall: ????

Fulfilling this campaign pledge remains very much incomplete. Until the promised review of the long-term U.S. strategy for relations with China is completed, let’s hope the pragmatic approach taken by both sides on agricultural trade continues. China needs the food we produce, and our farmers and ranchers deserve the economic returns that the Chinese market offers.

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The campaign theme:

Farmers and ranchers increasingly have problems finding enough workers. We need a comprehensive approach to the problem that promotes a bigger pool of qualified labor and clarifies the role of migrant laborers.

Purdue University’s AGBarometer captures the problem very effectively. Roughly two-thirds of farmers responding to their survey said they face “some” or “a lot of difficulty” in hiring adequate labor. That’s up from less than a third of respondents the previous year. To add to the problem, the inability to find enough help extends beyond the farm gate all the way to restaurants, food retailers, farm equipment mechanics, truck drivers – and more.

The reasons behind the difficulty run the gamut. Historically low wages and government pandemic assistance that sometimes pays more to stay at home than to work. Uncertainty over changing approaches to immigration policies and practices, and requirements for the green cards needed by non-US citizens.

More attractive off-farm job opportunities, especially as the post-Covid economy recovers. Even simple fear of the Covid virus.

So far in 2021, most attention has focused on the controversial situation at America’s southern border and the Biden Administration’s proposed immigration legislation, which would allow large numbers of those living illegally in the United States to have green-card status and subsequently gain citizenship. However, that legislation does not deal with the issue of “guest workers” and permission to stay for extended periods.

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Given the focus on Covid relief and infrastructure, both Congress and the Biden Administration may be extended some forgiveness for apparently making this a back-burner issue. But it remains an important problem not just for farmers and ranchers but also for the entire food chain – and arguably our entire economy.

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Consolidation and Competition

The campaign theme:

More needs to be done to protect the little guy in our economic system, and that means a more aggressive approach to dealing with food industry consolidation and competition

The more liberal elements of the Biden Administration make no secret of their suspicion of organizations that grow to become what they consider “too big and too powerful.” That attitude prompted a promise to take a much tougher line on bigger mergers and acquisitions, as well as levels of competition.

So it came as no surprise President Biden in June issued a far-reaching executive order with 72 initiatives by more than a dozen federal agencies to take on “pressing competition problems across our economy.” Enforcement efforts should focus on the labor markets, agricultural markets, healthcare markets, and the tech sector, he instructed.

One of the primary anticipated targets of this order is expected to be the U.S. meat industry, notably the meat processing industry. Legislators on Capitol Hill joined the fray by calling for a special investigator at the Department of Agriculture to look into antitrust issues in the industry.

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Once again in politics, if the objective is to generate headlines and gain attention, 2021 has been a good year in fulfilling this particular campaign pledge. But it remains far less certain where the effort will actually lead.

Consolidation and growth have been hallmarks of the food and agriculture sector for decades, and the meat industry has been a prime target for critics alleging a lack of producer power in the buyer-seller relationship. Until we see some concrete actions, this must remain a promise in progress.