Farm Bill Remains on Life Support

As former Yankee catcher Yogi Berra is supposed to have said,

“It’s like déjà vu all over again.”


Inside the Farm Bill

What is the Farm Bill anyway? It’s a massive piece of legislation – 942 pages in one version before Congress, compared with about 1,200 pages in the average Bible. To many, it’s not blasphemy to think of the Farm Bill as the Bible for American agriculture.

The 2018 Farm bill contained 12 separate titles, including commodity support programs, crop insurance, conservation, trade, bioenergy, research, forestry, rural development, credit, nutrition and more. It provides the basic “rules of the road” for our entire food system.

The Farm Bill provides everyone, from farmers to consumers, with the guidance they need to make intelligent decisions about how we produce and consume our food and maintain a vibrant farming sector and thriving rural communities.

Historically, Congress has approved 18 separate farm bills since the 1930s, usually one every five years or so.

That’s no small feat legislatively.

But by combining farm support measures with nutrition programs – notably the old “Food Stamp” program, now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) – rural and urban legislators have been able to come together to produce a much too complex and far-reaching piece of legislation.

The process consistently has produced farm policies and programs that have fed the nation.

And much of the rest of the world.

Political Pushback 

Three of the past four Farm Bills have required one-year extensions, including the extension passed last November. Despite ambitious efforts by both House and Senate legislators, a fresh Farm Bill still hasn’t passed Congress. In fact, it’s so far from the final passage that many worry that yet another one-year extension is almost inevitable.

With a crowded legislative agenda on Capitol Hill, a looming presidential election, and continuing political divisions still in play, hope for passage seems to be waning with each passing week. The ostensible reasons for the delay are familiar.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle point to a long list of philosophic and practical differences, most seeming to boil down to matters of how to divide the funds in a bill estimated by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to cost an estimated $1.4 trillion over the coming decade.

Some of the key issues under debate include:

Allocating funds provided by the Inflation Reduction Act

President Biden’s Act of 2022 added $19.5 billion to existing conservation programs for “climate-smart mitigation practices” that contribute to carbon sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gases.

  • Some legislators favor moving those funds into the Farm Bill spending and expanding eligibility for producers.
  • GOP senators point out that about half of ‘traditional’ farm conservation activities currently are excluded from the IRA and want to use more of the IRA monies to support those activities.
  • Environmental groups and their political supporters want to make sure any funding shift does not weaken the federal commitment to addressing climate issues or in any way contribute to a shift in overall funding away from these environmental goals.

Increases in reference prices

Basically, a means of raising support payments to food producers in the face of inflation-driven costs increases and historically weak commodity prices.

  • Critics of the increases worry that the money for such added Farm Bill expenses would come from savings achieved by reductions in SNAP costs.
  • SNAP supporters question why farmers’ economic needs are more important than feeding hungry people.

Changes in SNAP payments and program eligibility

The CBO estimates that revised calculations and refinements to its eligibility standards would save as much as $30 billion over ten years.

  • Nutritional program costs represent nearly 82 percent of all Farm Bill spending – a share that has been steadily increasing over recent years.
  • Critics wonder what the SNAP program has to do with producing food. They think this should be a separate bill instead of hidden in payment to producers.
  • Budget hawks seek ways of controlling the costs – or at least temper the rate of growth in nutrition spending.

The central issue is how to spend the available money. In highly simplified terms:

One camp argues for using the available pot of money on a wider range of traditional farm and rural community support policies and programsand

the other wants to preserve the Biden focus on policies and programs aimed at facilitating the movement of the farm and food community to more “green” practices – and equally important, protection of the people served by the SNAP program.

The Path to Passage

Part of the delay is procedural. Passing a Farm Bill is a complicated series of actions: developing and approving a bill by committees, passage by the House and Senate, reconciling differences through a House-Senate conference, and submission to the President for signature. It may not sound all that difficult, but it is.

Note that the House and Senate Agriculture Committees have spent almost an entire year listening to and engaging farmers, farm and commodity groups, consumers, health and nutrition experts, academics, local authorities and many others in discussions about farm policies and programs. Legislation of nearly 1,000 pages reflecting all these interests takes time to develop.

Maybe more importantly, the calendar is not the Farm Bill’s friend. The legislative time available for action is limited, and competition for floor time is intense. The House of Representatives averages about 151 days in session each year, and the Senate 168 days. Election years—especially presidential election years—usually provide members with extended time to campaign. This year is no different.

In the final six months of 2024, the U.S. Senate is tentatively scheduled to be in session for 53 days. In the House, it’s 42 days. “Tentative” schedules are just that, and they may be subject to change. Lame-duck sessions also are possible. But whatever decisions might be made for keeping Congress at work, the calendar – and history – don’t suggest a rosy outlook for Farm Bill resolution in 2024.

Opposing Points of View

Beyond the realities of the calendar, simple politics is part of the delay in resolving the fundamental issues.

First, the farm bill process has succeeded for almost a century because of the willingness of all parties involved to come to agreement, if not total consensus. Compromise on any issue has proved elusive to this Congress, obviously. But old Farm Bill hands also point out that this time around, as much as 70 percent of Congress has never been through a Farm Bill process.

One in four U.S. senators has been in office for six or fewer years.  In the House, it’s 45 percent – almost half. There’s less experience with – or appreciation for – the importance of finding agreement on something as essential as the food security of the populace. Some members simply don’t have the background to see the Farm Bill as anything but yet another football to be kicked around the political playing field.

Bird Flu: Another Pandemic?

As of this writing, in 2024 only three dairy farm workers have caught this virus. However, the concern is that it has been transmitted to humans from dairy cows and could potentially be transmitted from human to human. As of today, there is no evidence that it has transferred from person to person.

We spoke to Dr. Kenneth Odde, veterinarian, beef cattle operator, and former Professor at Kansas State University. who stated:

“The risk of a pandemic is very low. It will never be zero, but with everything I understand, it is low”. 

Let’s start at the beginning…

In 1996, H5N1 was first detected in domestic waterfowl in southern China. It then spread to farmed poultry. A small number of people caught the virus who worked in very close proximity to their birds: touching, feeding, and cleaning their cages.

Over time, 860 people were identified with the virus and there was a 50% death rate.  Governments and companies around the world began preparing for a pandemic.

However, the virus stayed mainly in Asia and was fairly dormant until 2003 when it affected widespread poultry.

Wild birds then spread H5N1 to Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. The H5N1 virus continues to evolve and has become well-adapted to spread efficiently among wild birds and poultry. In 2021, new variants of the H5N1 virus were spread by wild birds in the U.S. and Canada.

Because wild birds easily spread it, commercial poultry flocks have been affected across the country.  H5N1 is highly pathogenic (deadly) to birds, and when one bird gets it, the entire flock is at risk and is culled. While not as prevalent, this has affected backyard poultry operations as well.

In March of 2023, we wrote about how H5N1 has affected mammals all over the country: sea lions, minks, otters, foxes, and even bears.  At the time, the CDC said that these bird flu viruses didn’t have the ability to bind to the human respiratory system.

H5N1 in the news today

The concern today is that the virus has spread from wild birds to dairy cows.

Unlike birds, dairy cows are only mildly sick for about 7 – 10 days. Once a bird infects one cow, the virus spreads from cow to cow by contact with either through their respiratory system and/or unpasteurized milk droplets. For instance, workers could unknowingly spread the unpasteurized milk among cows.  Or the milking equipment and transport vehicles could carry droplets of infected milk.

So far, in 2024, there have been three human cases with dairy farm workers. As a result, two individuals just had a minor eye infection which was easily resolved with antiviral medicine. The third did get flu-like symptoms and recovered with Tamiflu.

Because this is not widely tested among people, it is hard to know if more farm workers have had flu-like symptoms that would be attributed to H5N1. Symptoms can appear to be a mild cold or flu. Neither of these would make one think to go to a Dr. for an Avian Influenza test.

But there are a lot of unanswered questions. Why do some birds and animals react differently to the same virus?  For instance, why do mammals such as sea lions, otters, and bears die from H5N1, and dairy cows can recover?

Dr. Odde explained that there is a difference in how a species receives the virus. Recent research shows that the receptor influences influenza symptoms within poultry or mammals. Receptors are proteins within the body that let a virus enter the cell.  He also emphasized that many studies are being conducted right now to understand how the virus passes between and among species.

As you know, the best way to stay healthy is to wash your hands before touching your nose, eyes, and mouth. This is because humans have receptors in our respiratory system and you can get sick when a virus touches our respiratory system. The same principle applies to H5N1. Dr. Odde also reminded us that we have had much exposure to the flu over the decades so that humans will have some resistance to H5N1.

Chickens seem to be more susceptible as they receive the virus through their trachea in their respiratory system. Ducks do not have the same mortality rate and early studies show that the virus enters the cells through a different receptor.

Dairy cows receive the virus in their mammary glands as well as their respiratory system. This is not common and is a cause for concern for the replication of H5N1. As of this writing, H5N1 has been detected in 12 states and 92 herds.

Sources for USDA data: Commercial flock detections by state; HPAI in domestic livestock

Is our food safe?


There is no need to be worried about the milk from the grocery store. The pasteurization process kills all bacteria and viruses.  99% of all dairy farmers who sell milk for public consumption follow the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance and participate in the Grade “A” milk program.

To be sure this applied with H5N1, the FDA took milk samples from retail locations in 17 states representing 132 milk processing locations in 38 states. H5N1 was not present in any of the samples.

Raw milk poses the danger. Some people think that raw milk has more amino acids, vitamins, and minerals and is a better choice for your immune system. That is not necessarily true as homogenization and pasteurization doesn’t kill the benefits of milk, it only kills the pathogens. Drinking raw milk, can lead to food-borne illnesses, including H5N1 if it is present.

Eggs are safe to eat. Because Avian Influenza rapidly affects a poultry flock, the eggs are not sold on the market. However, like milk, if you cook your eggs properly and do not eat a raw egg, the chance of getting H5N1 is reduced even further.

The USDA is confident that the meat supply is safe. Ground beef samples were collected in states where dairy herds have tested positive for H5N1 and no virus particles were present. Cooking burgers to 120, 145, and 160 degrees Fahrenheit ensures further safety.

The USDA also reminds us that safe poultry follows the same guidelines as all meats. If handled and cooked properly, poultry is safe. As a reminder, CLEAN, SEPARATE, COOK, and CHILL are good guidelines for safe food in your kitchen.

Backyard poultry can also be affected by wild birds. If one of your chickens dies unexpectedly, you should get it tested by your veterinarian. Also, wash your hands after handling your chickens and the eggs. And of course, cook your eggs properly.

How is the government maintaining food safety with H5N1?

Three government agencies are focused on solving Avian Influenza:

  • The FDA is testing milk, poultry, and beef to ensure it is safe
  • The CDC  protects public health, actively monitors the situation, and provides updates
  • The USDA is overseeing dairy producers and proper herd management

In particular, the USDA has added $824 million, to the $1.3 million designed for poultry, to give dairy producers the ability to monitor the health of their herds with continual testing to understand the scope of H5N1.

Once a farm has been disease-free for three weeks, they can then move their animals to different farms.  This will also give the USDA an understanding of how producers with affected herds can show elimination of the virus.

Going beyond just the USDA, we spoke to Dr. Lisa Koonin, Founder and Principal at Health Preparedness Partners which helps businesses, nonprofits and governments plan for future health emergencies. She is also an Adjunct Professor at Indiana University. During her 30+ year career at the CDC, she worked as a Director and Deputy Director of the agency’s Influenza Coordination Unit.

“For every human infection that occurs, we are that much closer to a pandemic because the virus adapts to a human and can spread to other people or to animals and then to people.”

– Dr. Lisa Koonin

Dr. Koonin identified six suggestions for these agencies to prevent H5N1 from a widespread dairy pandemic.

  • Increase virus surveillance. Test dairy workers and cows in both affected and non-affected areas
  • Increase wastewater testing. Sewers that test positive for viruses and bacteria can give us an early warning if it is in the community.
  • Promote worker safety. Make sure that farm workers have protective equipment available.
  • Communicate with farmers and producers. It is important that those who operate dairy production and poultry farms know how to test, prevent and detect outbreaks.
  • Stay away from raw milk. Raw milk can contain a number of disease-causing viruses and bacteria, including H5N1.
  • Communicate with the public. It is important that current information about what is known about the outbreak is provided to the public in a timely way. People should avoid close, long, or unprotected exposures to sick or dead animals, including wild birds, poultry, other domesticated birds, and other wild or domesticated animals (including cows).
  • Prepare vaccines. It is not known if this virus will spread and become a widespread outbreak. However, several countries are developing and procuring vaccines just in case they are needed.

Does my produce have pesticide residues?

In the realm of healthy eating, fruits and vegetables reign supreme. However, alongside their abundant vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients, we’re bombarded with a reminder of a less savory and potentially harmful aspect: the presence of pesticide residues on our produce.

A Brief History of Pesticides & the EPA

But first, let’s get one thing straight: pesticides have a very necessary place in our global food system. Without products like insecticides, fungicides and other pesticide types, all crops would be prone to rot, leading to famine, disease, global hunger…just to name a few. If we suddenly nixed all pesticides, our current situation with egregious food waste in this country would seem inconsequential.

However, too much of a seemingly good thing always has unintended consequences. In the 1940s, the advent of powerful broad-spectrum pesticides, like DDT, gave farmers an effective, long-lasting tool to protect their animals and crops from insects. Furthermore, these powerful tools also helped combat malaria, typhus, and other insect-born human diseases.

But then its surge in application came at a cost.

By the ‘60s, word got out that excessive use of DDT posed unacceptable acute and long-term health risks to humans, including seizures, birth defects, and cancer, as well as damaging wildlife and the environment. In response to the outcry, the U.S. government took swift action and created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to protect human health and the environment from toxic chemicals, including now-prohibited pesticides like DDT, aldrin, and hexachlorobenzene (HCB).

Pesticide Reporting

Now, in conjunction with the USDA, various crops are monitored annually for pesticide residues with the annual Pesticide Data Program (PDP).

This year’s report is based on data from the 2022/23 season and includes multiple samples from over 20 fresh crops, like green beans, potatoes, and blueberries. Popular crops not tested this particular season, like apples, oranges, and avocadoes, will be included in the next rotation of tested crops.

The USDA then reports its findings in a comprehensive summary released on the PDP website. Once released to the public, consumer information agencies like Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group reinterpret the USDA’s findings to create these derivative reports, like the notorious “Dirty Dozen” list.

When you use the massive PDP database to start weaving information together across various crops over a multitude of years, you often find a conflicting story. Suddenly, these reports stating that you’re ingesting endocrine-disrupting and cancer-causing nerve agents feel sensational, at best, against the opposing PDP data that show a downward trend year-over-year in highly toxic pesticides.

Non-governmental or non-academic, consumer-centric reports can generate fear and deceive us into believing that ingesting any fresh fruit or vegetable is detrimental to our overall health, or that organic produce is free from all pesticides.

Despite the many claims in these consumer reports, available evidence suggests that the low levels of pesticide residues typically found on produce are unlikely to make most people sick or cause cancer.

Focusing on Facts

With that stated, we can’t ignore some of the pesticide residue data these reports found. Specifically, reports from the PDP and Consumer Reports shared the below facts based on information from the PDP database when the USDA’s initiative began in 1994:

The good news:

  • 99% of the samples tested in this year’s report had residues below the EPA’s legal limits (or “tolerances”)
  • 28% didn’t have any detectible pesticide residues

  • Despite growing fears about the long-term effects of Roundup, or glyphosate, the controversial herbicide was only detected on crops largely intended for animal feed – soybean grain and corn grain
  • The World Health Organization (WHO), and its Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) committee, have found that pesticide residues in food are unlikely to cause cancer in people through dietary exposure:

“JMPR’s risk assessment found that based on the weight-of-evidence approach, these compounds are unlikely to cause cancer in people via dietary exposure. This means it is possible to establish safe exposure levels – acceptable daily intakes (ADI) – for consumers.”

The bad news:

  • Green beans had numerous residues exceeding current tolerance levels
    • The USDA found 16 unique pesticides on these samples, some of which the EPA canceled use or banned over a decade ago, like methamidophos
  • Of all produce exceeding EPA tolerances, 66% were from imported crops
    • Crop samples from Mexico reported the highest residue levels, including green bean samples with multiple residues exceeding EPA tolerances
    • Largely imported crops include blueberries, grapes, tomatoes and watermelon (rind removed).

An Optimistic Outlook

Though some of these findings sound concerning, we found plenty of information that shows the needle moving in the right direction.

Here are some of the highlights we found in these reports over the last few years, plus some information gathered from conducting our own research in the PDP database and other farming resources:

Lower toxicity

  • D2D analysis shows top residues found across most fresh produce crops are less toxic than previously reported years, as indicated by WHOs pesticide toxicity classifications
    • Lesser toxic fungicides include boscalid, azoxystrobin, and fluopyram; insecticides bifenthrin and imidacloprid

Increased localization

  • The USDA’s most considerable residue risks stem from just a few pesticides concentrated in specific foods grown on a small fraction of U.S. farmland
    • CR’s food safety expert, James E. Rogers, emphasizes that this concentrated risk makes it easier to identify problems and develop targeted solutions.

Better technology

  • Farmers and food producers continue to implement improved pest management practices, including advanced technologies
    • Precision ag systems in the field
      • AgZen’s patented pesticide droplet optimizer
      • FruitScout’s crop load manager platform
      • John Deere’s comprehensive machinery and production management tools
    • Scientific applications for crop management

What can we do right now?

It’s more like what you can’t do.

It feels counterintuitive, but don’t eat fewer fruits and vegetables because of pesticide concerns. The health benefits of eating lots of produce far outweigh the potential risks from these residues.

There’s no doubt about it: produce is loaded with vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients necessary for a healthy body and well-functioning brain.

If anything, we all should eat more produce.

And yes, while some pesticides can negatively affect health and the environment, the levels found on most produce are extremely low and not linked to adverse health effects.

If we follow the food-prep tips below, the surface residues will be largely eliminated, allowing us to enjoy our fresh foods without fear.

  • Wash fruits and veggies under running water for 15 to 20 seconds.
    • For those especially concerned about residues, consider one of the following methods:
      • Soak your fresh produce in a bath for a few minutes with 5 parts water and 1 part vinegar, then rinse; or
      • Soak your produce in a solution of one teaspoon of baking soda per two cups of cold water for 10-15 minutes, then rinse
  • Peel and trim produce when possible
  • Eat a variety of produce from different sources to reduce exposure to a single pesticide or environmental contaminant
    • If you can only tolerate certain produce items, consider purchasing the following alternatives:
      • Selecting the organic counterpart, which the PDP reports to have fewer residues despite having the same nutrient density as conventional
      • Frozen produce has already been through rigorous cleaning and processing, further reducing residues than its fresh counterparts
  • Try to stick with produce farmed in the U.S.

The key is moderation and making informed choices, not eliminating nutrient-rich produce from your diet due to pesticide fears.

Will Consumers Pay to Go Green?

After years of serious debate about the reality or extent of actual climate change, governments around the world have responded to rising public support for “green” policies and programs.

For the United States, it’s a 2021 pledge by President Biden in the Paris Climate Accord to cut GHG emissions in half by 2030. Biden’s ambitions continue for the United States by stating that we will reach 100% carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035 and net-zero emissions economy by 2050, just 26 years from now.

International leaders also speak of commitments to massive greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions by mid-century, and businesses around the world have jumped on the prevalent environmental bandwagon with ambitious GHG reductions of their own. But things have changed since the glory days of the Paris Accord.

The subject of climate change has had sufficient time to percolate in the public mind. The issue has moved on from an initial era of awareness-building – years of helping define the issue in the public mind and marshaling political support for ambitious targets and extensive policies and programs.  We now appear to be entering the next stage of public discussion and debate, focusing on the practical realities of moving the issue from an abstraction to reality.

As more and more of the policies and programs initiated in the undoubted enthusiasm for a better environment begin to gain traction, people are beginning to ask questions – sometimes difficult questions.

The Evil of Fossil Fuels

The largest area of concern centers on the extent of our dependence on fossil fuels. We’ve successfully created the picture of a self-destructive reliance on an energy source that is deemed to be harmful to the environment and to people.  It’s so bad, critics argue, that we have no choice but to embrace draconian actions that effectively cut our use of fossil fuels – and cut it now rather than later.

Reduced use of petroleum products in the transportation industry and generation of electricity is a key objective, as is the development and use of other non-fossil fuel energy sources, including such renewable sources as solar, tidal, biofuels and wind. In short, transforming it fundamentally transforms our entire energy system.

According to 2022 government data, nearly 80% of U.S. energy consumption comes from fossil fuels, with the country consuming almost 20.3 million barrels of petroleum, about a fifth of the global total, every day.

The best-intentioned efforts, however, have proven to have some sobering realities.  The largest of those realities is the sheer scale of the challenge. We have built an enormous economy on the basis of fossil fuels. Our gross domestic product is now roughly $25.5 trillion. Retooling such an economic engine away from dependence on fossil fuels will take money – a lot of money – not to mention the time needed to make such a transition without sending the economy into a tailspin.

Proponents of aggressive change believe that the huge costs of transformation will indeed lead to short-term run-up in consumer costs, as the price for new technologies and equipment and support systems come into play.

However, over time, they argue that these price-run-ups will be offset by improved efficiencies and lower costs that come from moving to a low-carbon energy model.

Analysis by leading consulting organizations echo this argument. But those same consultants also acknowledge that the cost of transitioning to net-zero emissions of GHG by 2050 will cost an extra $3.5 trillion per year.  Cynics pointedly ask for an example of cost reductions actually being passed back to consumers, once the increases have been implemented.

Who Pays?

The question of “who pays” has become an increasingly troublesome matter to more than energy consumers.  The food and agriculture sector is not immune to the economic questions posed by the wide range of green policies and regulations imposed in the name of protecting people and the planet.

The most immediate issue raised by people across the food chain is the enormous role played by energy costs in producing commodities and food products. Farming and ranching have massive energy needs and agriculture contributes approximately 11% of global green house gas emissions.

Nitrogen fertilizers are derived primarily from natural gas and make up one of the most critical crop inputs and remain a key to productivity. Field equipment such as tractors, combines, and trucks demand fuel, as well as power for moving, storing, drying, and maintaining crops. Basic processing of commodities into the food ingredients used by food manufacturers also demands significant energy. Warehousing and distribution of food to retailers and restaurants is inherently transportation-dependent.

Moving to vehicles not dependent on fossil fuels is a noble objective.  But once again, the reality is that such a transformation in a system as large as the U.S. food system will be an expensive proposition. The more rapid the required conversion, the higher the risk of short-term adverse effects on the producer bottom-line.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that our national food system accounts for 12.5 percent of U.S. energy use (2012). Between 1998 and 2002, more than half of the increase in U.S. energy use came from the food system, USDA noted.

If you want the gee-whiz numbers this represents, consider an estimate from USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) that found the U.S. food system consumed about 12 quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTUs) in 2012. Each of those 12 quads works out to the energy in about 8 billion gallons of gasoline, or 293 billion kilowatt hours of electricity., or 36 million tons of coal. No matter how detailed or debatable the conversion arithmetic, that’s a lot of wind turbines and solar panels.

Food inflation has averaged roughly 3.2 percent each year for most of the past century. A host of factors during the Covid pandemic converged to drive food inflation to 6.3 percent in 2021 and a whopping 10.4 percent in 2022.  (Inflation rates in other parts of the world remain elevated as well. In the European Union, for example, food inflation peaked in mid-2023 at 19 percent before dropping to “only” 5.9 percent by year’s end.)

Cutting through all the numbers leaves one clear message: consumer food costs remain under considerable inflationary pressures for multiple reasons.  Energy costs – and the immediate transitional costs imposed by a growing roster of green requirements – will help maintain these pressures.

Post Covid, the inflation rate has dropped back to more traditional rates. But the rising concern with further disruptions to global energy markets – and the unrelenting cost pressures on producers and others across the food chain from green policies and other cost sectors – once again have people looking a bit nervously over their shoulders about future food costs.

Green Politics

The worry over continuing food inflation – and the possible role of green policies in fueling that pressure – have taken root across many of the countries at the heart of the Paris Climate Accord and their ambitious targets for moving to a more carbon-neutral global energy system.

The issue has prompted vocal protests and confrontational demonstrations from European and UK farmers – and generated rising concern among the elected officials who must reconcile those protests with existing and planned green commitments.

EU and UK farmers argue they are being squeezed on a number of economic fronts.  Shifting marketing flows in the wake of the Ukraine conflict have increased supplies, with resultant price pressure on commodities.  The Middle East is fraught with conflict and the future is uncertain in regard to oil prices. Cuts in diesel subsidies and other energy-related supports have added to costs and hurt producer bottom lines, German farmers contend. Restrictions on nitrogen-based fertilizers and sequestration of some farmlands have hurt productivity and profitability, others argue.

Complying with a growing roster of green requirements involves ever-more bureaucracy and takes more and more time and expense.  Protests have spread across France, Germany, Spain, Romania, Poland, Greece, Portugal, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom.

As one farmer summed up the litany of complaints to CNN, “We are no longer making a living from our profession.”


Eurostat findings tends to support the complaint: data shows a nearly 9 percent drop in the prices paid to EU farmers from 2022 to 2023.


Put that in perspective by imagining what you would do with that drop in your own household income – especially in an inflationary period.

The protests have reached sufficient size to prompt elected officials – many facing autumn elections – to rethink the extent and, perhaps more importantly, the timing of the ambitious green agenda. Some changes and restrictions have been rolled back or delayed. At this time, the discussion seems to focus on getting farmers more involved in the planning and development of green policies and programs and looking at time frames that provide greater opportunity for transition and adaptation.

European Commission President U chief Ursula von der Leyen has given up on an ambitious bill to reduce the use of chemical pesticides and softened the European Commission’s next raft of recommendations on cutting agricultural pollution. “We want to make sure that in this process, the farmers remain in the driving seat,” she said at the European Parliament. “Only if we achieve our climate and environmental goals together will farmers be able to continue to make a living.”

Evolutionary reality seems to be gaining traction over economically revolutionary good intentions.

Back in the U.S.

U.S. policy-makers still debating a massive long-term Farm Bill aren’t ignoring what is going on in the EU on the farm front. Many of the concerns and complaints heard across Europe and the UK sound all too similar to what U.S. producers may be thinking and saying.

Consumer attitudes also come into political play.  Current estimates place the U.S. inflation rate at 3.5 percent, down significantly from the 7 percent and 6.5 percent seen in 2021 and 2022 but up slightly from last year’s 3.4 percent.  Energy and food inflation, however, remain well above this level and represent two of the most powerful drivers of the cost increases facing consumers in the United States and elsewhere around the globe. Inflation hits hard. The other day in the grocery store, we overheard a child asking for a watermelon and his mother said no, at $7 it is too expensive. Sensitivity to those points of view grows especially strong as November looms.

How other countries handle the economic and political realities of ‘going green’ may offer some important advice on how to make that transition acceptable to everyone – none the least the American farmers and ranchers worried about their financial security, or the average food consumer tired of unrelenting increases in the costs of feeding their families.

Getting Over the Fear of Food


My wife and I sat down at our favorite local eatery and stared at the mushroom pizza in front of us for what seemed like an unusually long time. Over the many years of our marriage, we’ve usually grabbed a slice before the pie actually hit the table. So, what’s going on here tonight?

That’s a lot of mushrooms, I kept thinking over and over again. An awful lot. How do I know where they came from? Which country were they grown in? Who knows what’s been sprayed on them, or by whom, or when?

How do I know they were stored and handled safely back in the kitchen or on the way here from who knows where?

This place isn’t exactly famous for its Michelin star.

And what about the flour? The cheese? The tomato sauce? Oh my gosh, I can see the headline now. Local Man Murders Wife with Mushroom Pizza.

Could it be I am afraid of my food?

Food like this has sustained me over seven decades. I’ve eaten more pizza, hot dogs, burritos, sushi, in-law’s casseroles, school lunches, roadside diner blue-plate specials, barbeque, and even more fruit and vegetables than Godzilla. Why should I even consider the threats posed by food, let alone allow this enormously satisfying staple of my life to get cold?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been exposed to a steady drumbeat of dire cautionary tales and outright warnings about all sorts of things that would make my food suspect. It’s full of carcinogens and other nasty things that will kill me or turn me and my progeny into vile, godless mutants. It’s full of empty calories and tons of sugar that will deprive me of the actual nutrition I need to be healthy.

I am warned by some social media platforms that it’s produced by greedy, uncaring, and faceless entities who rape and pillage the consumer landscape to secure outrageous profits. It’s being genetically manipulated to replace its nutritional value with longer shelf-life and other marketing-driven priorities.

It’s handled and prepared by indifferent people in unsanitary conditions. It’s driving climate change that dooms all of us to a bleak and very hot circle of Dante’s underworld. And on and on and on…

An avalanche of agendas

Come to think of it, that’s not so much a drumbeat as an avalanche. How much of that is pure hyperbole and ideological agendas, I can’t say. And that’s what gives me the greatest pause right now, staring at this pizza.

Why should I be afraid when most of that fear comes from sources I don’t know – or trust – to tell me the straight of the matter?

How can the very stuff that sustains me…that gives me (and my family and companions) so much pleasure…that keeps over 8 billion people alive and energetic enough to pursue a better life and a better world…be such a cause of fear?

As a reasonably well-educated and life-experienced individual, I know the first response should be to qualify my sources of information. Who do I trust to tell me the truth – or to at least be fair in telling the different sides of any food-related story? Who has an agenda?

Ideologues and well-intentioned do-gooders who might be telling me this to advance a point of view they consider more moral, more rational, more something. Or maybe it’s people with an economic stake in creating an environment favorable to one interest at the expense of another. Or could it just be bat-shit crazies who get their instructions on what to say from Elvis and The Alien Consortium of Tin-Foil Hats?

I want a combination of Walter Cronkite and Mr. Rogers to help me figure this out.

Is all food dangerous?

That kind of truth-seeking can be a daunting task. We’re surrounded every day by waves of opinion about our food and the system that produces it. Google ‘dangers of food’ and pick from the 7,310,000 responses to see the latest and gravest threats.

Let me help speed you on your way with just a few examples of what lies ahead for you in that quest:

  • Unsafe food containing harmful bacteria, viruses, parasites, or chemical substances causes more than 200 diseases, ranging from diarrhea to cancers. (World Health Organization).

  • “Around the world, there are certain dangerous foods that can cause everything from mild food poisoning to, in extreme cases, death.” World’s Most Dangerous Foods,

  • “It’s important to keep food safety in mind when selecting a shopping cart rather than just avoiding that undesirable squeaky wheel… The first point of contact for most food is the shopping cart, and it’s important to wipe down the handle to remove germs” (The Poultry Site).

  • Foods That Kill Testosterone: Dairy Foods. Soy Foods. Trans Fats. Peppermint. Alcohol.

  • Twelve Foods Bad for the Planet: Rice. Genetically Modified Foods. Sugar. Meat. Fast Food. Foods Containing Palm Oil. Packaged and Processed Food. Many Non-Organic foods. Some Seafood. White Bread. High Fructose Corn Syrup. Much Non-Local Food.

That last one invites the question: Is there any food that doesn’t harm the planet?

Demanding common sense

None of this horror list is designed to suggest that thinking about food safety is unimportant. I’m not about to eat anything that I truly believe will harm me, let alone anything that might kill me. I know enough to respect my food and take prudent steps to eat safely and wisely. But fear my food? I don’t think so. Come on, people.

One of my favorite John Wayne quotes summarizes the situation succinctly:

“Life is hard. It’s harder when you are stupid.”

The point is, we can’t be stupid when it comes to evaluating the safety – and nutritional value – of the food we eat. Let’s not let this avalanche of fear-mongering kill our ability to make informed, rational decisions about our food.

There’s an avalanche of real and potential misinformation, all right. But there is another avalanche coming down the mountainside – one based on science and fact, driven by growing recognition of the need for accurate information essential to making good food choices.

The climate of fear seems to me to be changing. Like most others, I have no peer-reviewed, data-driven to back that up. But I have my own common sense and a lot of reasons to respect my food – but not to fear it.

  • Few, if any, would deny that Americans seem to be increasingly aware of the need for safe and nutritious food. That’s true not just of consumers but among producers, the scientific community, policymakers, food manufacturers, and voters

Whether it comes from the outreach efforts of agricultural extensions services, commercial marketing with an increasing educational content, media attention or any other communications channel, consumers inarguably have benefitted from a rising public focus on food and food safety.

We’re growing smarter every day, too.

  • Maybe just as important, as we learn more about our food and the system that produces it, confidence in our food seems to grow in parallel. A study by Food Insight found that 70 percent of Americans say they are “very” or “somewhat” confident about the safety of the U.S. food supply. That’s an impressive number – and a slight increase from a year ago.

  • I believe in the power of scientific advancements and continuing research to achieve better, greater things. The available data on food-related research shows an aggressive partnership between the public and private sector in exploring various improvements to the foods we eat and how we produce them. U.S. private sector spending has increased, even as public sector spending has declined. The total is well into the billions of dollars each year.

However we measure it, there’s a potful of money going to produce steps forward in our food system. It’s harnessing the collective expertise and passion resident in a blue-chip roster of universities, land-grant colleges, and private and commercial organizations.

  • I’m not alone in my attention to food safety. There are a lot of allies and watchdog organizations after the same goal. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) employs 9,000 people to enforce the Federal Meat Inspection Act, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, and the Egg Products Inspection Act, as well as humane animal handling through the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

  • Beyond that, FSIS works with other USDA entities such as Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Food and Nutrition Service and other federal and state organizations focused on consumer health and safety. The FAO established, CODEX, located in Rome, that monitors international food safety. The combined effort means there are literally tens of thousands of people out there actively working to keep my food safe.

  • That doesn’t include state regulatory and safety entities or the scrutiny provided by an aggressive media and various food-safety activists. The restaurant industry notes that there are about 750,000 restaurants in the United States, providing food for 72 percent of Americans at least twice each week. FDA’s Food Code provides a detailed model for sanitary inspection by local and state authorities. In simple terms, there are a lot of eyes on how our food is handled, prepared and served. Mine are just two of them.

  • The roster of NGOs, charitable organizations and private citizens working to reduce waste, expand food availability, reach those most in need and educate the public on food and food safety is steadily expanding. has recognized 122 such organizations, all committed to some aspect of improvement in the global food system.

  • And none the least, there may be cause for some small degree of optimism in the statistics related to food-borne illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that 128,000 Americans are hospitalized each year from food-related illnesses, and about 3,000 actually die. But experts caution that assessment of the safety of the food system is a daunting task, complicated by the complexity of factors involved. Increased attention to and reporting of food related problems and issues further complicate the evaluation.

But as the National Institute of Health has noted:

“FoodNet provides annual data from designated sentinel surveillance sites on numbers of laboratory-diagnosed cases of 10 predominantly foodborne bacterial and parasitic pathogens; it reports actual case totals, not estimates.

Despite year-to-year variability…the overall trends show an initial drop in incidence of infection with the major bacterial foodborne pathogens after implementation of the 1995 USDA regulations, followed by a leveling off of incidence in subsequent years..”

Consider these questions…

The reality is that we’re making great strides in the right direction in providing the world with the safest, most nutritious food in all of human history. The system is far from perfect, certainly. There is still important work to do.

We all bear individual responsibility for having some basic understanding of what the best foods are, how to handle and store them, and how to prepare them for the family table.

But come on, there’s ample cause to believe there’s no need to fear our food – at least not in the way some of these people want us to fear it.

When it comes to my food, I’m proudly wearing my John Wayne tee shirt that tells the world, “DON’T BE STUPID.”

But even so, I’m going to continue to do my best to sort out the credible snowflakes from the misleading and outright wrong ones. I don’t pretend to have a complete and perfect solution for dealing with the avalanche of misinformation, half-truths, subjective opinion, conjecture, and outright lies out there. A perfect solution will take more time than I have, and I suspect you have neither.

So I’ll have to rely on a few simple guidelines for deciding just how much I should fear my food. I share them with you, loyal reader, for what they may be worth to you.

What do the experts I know and trust have to say?

It may start with my doctor, or respected health and nutrition specialists associated with credible science and peer-reviewed studies. Good things happen—like smart food decisions—when I narrow my search to trustworthy sources rather than a wild-wild west of opinion and allegation.

What credible sources exist through the media?

What publications or websites or other channels of communication exist to address food issues in a fair, responsible, and objective way? Where does my doctor turn to stay on top of these kinds of issues – beyond the scientific journals too dense for me to absorb? What do reputable health and nutrition experts read and view and listen to?

What do my friends have to say?

What can I learn about our food from the simple yet powerful tool of actual human observation? What do the healthy families I know eat? What are their dietary habits? It may not provide a complete answer to my questions. But it’s a starting point – and one that I can see and learn from first-hand.



Uncovering Illegal Fishing Boats

Growing up in northern New England, we were spoiled with abundant fresh, local seafood. It wasn’t until I moved away that I realized how good I had it eating freshly caught fish. The United States imports 70-80% of its seafood, mostly from China, Thailand, Canada, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Ecuador.   

My new reality was pulling out my phone at the seafood counter in my grocery store to find out where the catch originated. But with confusing adjectives, like “line caught,” “wild,” “farmed,” “no antibiotic-free,” “pole caught,” and “sustainable,”… I ended up just sticking with salmon farmed in Norway, where I knew the standard was high.

Turns out, I had every reason to be overly cautious. A study released in the January 2024 issue of Nature reports that 75% of global fishing vessels are untraceable. Research jointly conducted by Global Fishing Watch, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Duke University, UC Santa Barbara, and SkyTruth, gave concrete insights into this murky world of “dark vessels”. These stealthy ships roam the seas, plundering marine resources without a trace.

Understanding Dark Vessel Fishing

Dark vessel fishing ships operate well beyond the reach of regulation and oversight, hence the name ‘dark’.  Their impropriety threatens the delicate balance of marine ecosystems across the globe, not to mention posing a significant concern to global food security, economic stability, and the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on the ocean for sustenance.

The fishing industry has experienced a slowdown in recent years. Prolonged COVID shutdowns and overfishing in previous decades, as well as an increase in on-land and shore-based aquaculture operations, have contributed to decreased demand. Despite this, seafood remains a $250 billion market, with an estimated loss due to illegal fishing as high as $23.5 billion.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) activity continues to proliferate, prompted by an increasing demand for fish. As long as there are fish to capture, these stealthy ships will attempt to reap profits by exploiting fishing grounds beyond the reach of authorities.

IUU fishing vessels use a variety of tactics to evade detection, from turning off or manipulating their automatic identification system (AIS) transponders to operating in remote and poorly monitored ocean regions. The result is a cat-and-mouse game between authorities and illicit operators, with significant implications for marine biodiversity and the sustainability of global fisheries.

“A new industrial revolution has been emerging in our seas undetected—until now. On land, we have detailed maps of almost every road and building on the planet.

In contrast, growth in our ocean has been largely hidden from public view.”


          David Kroodsma, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Identifying Dark Vessels

The study, conducted by an international team of researchers, analyzed satellite data and harnessed the power of artificial intelligence to track the movements of dark vessel fishing boats to identify hotspots of illegal fishing activity and gain a deeper understanding of the factors driving these activities.

The study’s findings paint a troubling picture of the prevalence of dark vessel fishing across various regions of the world, even in marine protected areas like the Galapagos Marine Reserve. Their study also found more than 25 percent of transport and energy vessels are considered “dark.”

“Historically, vessel activity has been poorly documented, limiting our understanding of how the world’s largest public resource—the ocean—is being used.

By combining space technology with state-of-the-art machine learning, we mapped undisclosed industrial activity at sea on a scale never done before.”


          Fernando Paolo, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Collecting and analyzing the incomprehensible amount of data (2 thousand terabytes worth) needed to find this specific information was no small feat. Thankfully, these brilliant researchers mined disparate sets of public data to pinpoint exact locations of fishing vessels, both traceable and non-traceable.

They started with amassing satellite images of coastal waters worldwide from the European Space Agency from 2017 to 2021. They then created proprietary automated technology to identify which of those vessels were fishing boats. Next, the researchers compared images of the ships with public records disclosing their AIS location to determine which vessels did not broadcast their whereabouts.

Armed with this information, they create a “heat map” to show legal and illegal fishing activity across the globe:

Targeting Dark Vessel Locations

One of the key insights revealed by the research is the concentration of dark vessel fishing activity in some geographic regions.

Despite public AIS records indicating a somewhat distributed sprawl across most continents, these researchers prove that most illegal activity occurs in Asia.

The study identified several regions in Asia as the primary hotspots of IUU activity, notably Southeast and East Asia.

These regions are characterized by complex maritime disputes, porous borders, a vast array of fish species, and limited law enforcement presence to oversee farmed aquaculture practices, environmental protections, water toxicity, and many other factors.

“Publicly available data wrongly suggests that Asia and Europe have similar amounts of fishing within their borders, but our mapping reveals that Asia dominates — for every 10 fishing vessels we found on the water, seven were in Asia while only one was in Europe.

By revealing dark vessels, we have created the most comprehensive public picture of global industrial fishing available.”


Jennifer Raynor, study author, University of Wisconsin-Madison

This lethal combination creates fertile ground for dark vessel operators to carry out an unconscionable number of illicit activities, especially in specific hotbeds of IUU activity:

Korean Peninsula

In East Asia, the waters off the Korean Peninsula have become premier battlegrounds in the fight against IUU fishing, with crustaceans, shellfish, and finfish populating the waters.

Also of note, South Korea is the largest global consumer of seafood. Surprisingly, 65% of their seafood is imported, despite their seemingly abundant waters.

Bay of Bengal

Similarly, the Bay of Bengal off the coast of South Asia’s Bangladesh and Myanmar, has emerged as a hotspot of illegal fishing activity, where 100% of all fishing activity is not tracked.

And to make matters worse, some fishers off of these shores use poison to catch the area’s abundance of finfish and shrimp. This not only damages the health of those who consume the poisoned products, but it also endangers the largest mangrove forest ecosystem in the world.

Strengthening Global Cooperation & Enforcement Efforts

This study can serve as a loud and clear warning sign for all of us. Addressing the scourge of dark vessel fishing requires international cooperation, significant investment in monitoring and onsite enforcement, and promoting sustainable fishing practices are all essential components of a comprehensive strategy to combat IUU fishing.

Though daunting, this undertaking would help recover an estimated global economic loss due to illegal fishing as high as $23.5 billion annually. Not to mention the restoration of vulnerable coastal communities and local economies suffering from devastating poverty and food insecurity.

Furthermore, this methodology can be easily adapted to tackle other global issues, like climate change. Mapping all vessels can improve estimates of oceanic carbon emissions and track marine degradation.

“Previously, this type of satellite monitoring was only available to those who could pay for it. Now it is freely available to all nations.

This study marks the beginning of a new era in ocean management and transparency.”


          David Kroodsma, study author, Global Fishing Watch

Much can be learned from this team of researchers in terms of determination to source discreet data sets around the globe, innovative implementation of artificial intelligence, and cross-organization cooperation. If we follow suit, we can find new ways to shine a light on these activities and hold those responsible for their crimes.

What We Can Do Today

We can empower ourselves right away by realizing the trickle-down effect of our everyday purchase decisions. If we don’t buy fish products sourced from countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, and other areas of the world with rampant dark vessels, fewer IUU ships will bother fishing in less lucrative territories.

As for discrete locations, if you prefer wild-caught, stick with fish caught in the northern shores of Europe. For farmed, consider fish from reputable countries like Norway, Scotland, Canada, and Chile.

Organizations focused on sustainable seafood can provide practical, research-based recommendations, too. Seafood Watch creates helpful guides to better navigate our grocery aisles and stick to more sustainable species and acceptable countries of origin (here’s the Watch’s guide for shrimp). You can also keep an eye out for the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue “MSC” label to stick with sustainable fish species.

Still can’t find the country of origin for the fish you want? Ask someone, whether it’s the associate behind the seafood counter, customer service at the grocery store, or the waiter who must ask the chef. If many of us ask this question wherever we purchase seafood, more industry players will be compelled to start readily providing these details.

Expert Insights on Water Security

Water, water everywhere. But is there enough to drink? 

With oceans and aquifers and ice caps, you would think we have plenty, but just a fraction of that is considered freshwater. Add to that the need for water for household use, for crop production and food processing and a myriad of other uses and situations, and there’s ample reason to worry.

Dr. Fleming sits down with Dirt to Dinner’s Digging In to explain why we need to be concerned, and what’s being done to make sure we have the water security we need. 

Dr. Hubert Fleming is a Senior Advisor at Worley, an American-Australian energy engineering company. Hu has been Sr. Advisor to Morgan Stanley, Loeb Partners, and the World Bank, as well as other investment organizations and the U.S. Department of Energy. He’s formerly Global Head, Water, Anglo American and Global Director at Hatch. Hu holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Cornell and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

We’ll also talk with Fleming about how a more thoughtful and coordinated approach to tackling the subject can work for everyone’s benefit. Take a listen and quench your thirst for knowing more about this important issue facing all of us.

Food Safety at Farmers’ Markets

farmers market sign in front of vegetables

Who doesn’t enjoy visiting a farmers’ market and buying recently harvested fruits, veggies, jams, honey, and meats from local farms? Many times you can shake the farmer’s hand, ask questions about how they grow their food, and discuss what crops to expect this summer. This sentiment is enjoyed by many and as a result, U.S. farmers’ markets have become increasingly popular.

Popularity of U.S. farmers’ markets

Consumers love these seasonal markets – and so do our farmers. By selling at farmers’ markets, farmers can get a better profit margin on their goods as they bypass their traditional vendor to sell their freshly harvested produce and other products directly to consumers.

An additional benefit of these direct-to-consumer venues is when consumers gain a better understanding of where their food comes from, and farmers can meet the people purchasing and enjoying the fruits of their labor.

But what about food safety? As consumers, how do you know these farmers have followed best food safety practices in the growing, harvesting, and processing of their harvests?

How safe are products from farmers’ markets?

The primary food safety concerns are foodborne pathogens, such as ListeriaSalmonella, pathogenic E. coli as well as norovirus that, at the least, cause gastrointestinal symptoms but, in some cases, can also cause other more serious health effects.

A farmer’s level of food safety awareness certainly affects the steps taken to prevent contamination from occurring i.e., implementing food safety practices and procedures to reduce the contamination risk. In some cases, such as with wildlife or birds infected with avian flu moving through or over a field, it is impossible to prevent potential contamination sources from contacting crops.

So, in these cases, farmers monitor these potential sources to minimize the possibility of pathogens being transferred to their crops.

For example, one method they may use is to look for feces on produce or the surrounding soil and not harvest product within a specified radius of the fecal material.

In researching this topic, we found several studies that tested specific produce from both farmers’ markets and grocery stores for bacteria that can serve as indicators of pathogens that could cause illness.

The study results indicated that produce from farmers’ markets typically had significantly more bacterial counts in general than produce from grocery stores.


But this is not necessarily bad since many bacteria are not harmful to humans and may even be beneficial for maintaining product quality and human health when consumed.

How is food safety monitored for smaller producers?

Most farmers selling their products at farmers’ markets qualify for some exemptions to the level of food safety regulations practiced by larger producers, as per the Food Safety Modernization Act.

This Act requires farms grossing more than $500,000 annually to follow all applicable regulations and to undergo food safety inspections. But for farms with lower annual revenues, food safety policies are more lax.

Industry leaders also have a say in the prevention of pathogenic material on produce. Those in favor of small farm exemptions and reduced requirements emphasize the cost of complying with this Act’s rules, as it could put many small farms out of business. However, both sides agree that food safety at the small farm level needs to be a priority for the health and safety of our communities throughout the United States.

At the end of the day, we want our food to be safe regardless of where it comes from, because

pathogens do not discriminate between small and large farms and local does not mean microbiologically safer.

Farmer’s markets make their own policies

State and local governments oversee farmers’ markets. For the most part, research indicates that states rely on county health departments to regulate food safety at farmers’ markets and the health departments rely on market managers to enforce food safety practices at the market.

Many state and local governments do not have adequate staffing to visit each local farmers’ market leaving food safety rule development and enforcement to the market manager.

In her job as liaison between the King County/Seattle (WA) Public Health Department and farmers’ markets, Jill Trohimovich, an environmental health specialist, told Food Safety News her department does “a quick walk-by” when inspecting farmers’ markets.

Public health officials from other states have made similar statements about their inspections of farmers’ markets. Dave Stockdale, a past executive director of the nonprofit Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, describes market managers as having “a general understanding” of agriculture and food safety guidelines, but no specific training.

Stacy Miller, a former executive director of the Farmers Market Coalition, explained how the process of vetting potential farmers’ market vendors differs from one market to the next. One market may require potential vendors to fill out an application, present proof of insurance, and have an onsite inspection while others may only require proof of insurance.

An example of a more rigorous set of requirements is the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market in San Francisco, California. Due to limited space and enormous popularity with shoppers, this San Franciscan market requires farmers who want to sell their products to complete a 17-page application and pass an on-farm food safety and sustainability inspection by market managers.

What are farmers’ markets doing to improve food safety?

Small farmers realize that food safety is crucial for business and protecting consumers. Amy Annable, manager of sprout operations at Edrich Farms in Randallstown, MD, knows that if anyone gets sick from her sprouts it would ruin her livelihood. A foodborne illness outbreak is her “worst nightmare”—sprouts are known for being susceptible to microorganisms that cause food-borne illnesses.

So, Edrich Farms established its own food safety plan, and Amy spends extra time during the week on paperwork and testing to ensure their sprouts are safe. Many other small farmers are also starting their own food safety programs and implementing practices to keep produce safe.

Many food safety specialists in the USDA’s cooperative extension system work closely with their state’s farmers’ markets to provide food safety information to their market vendors. These programs provide workshops and online materials for both farmers and market managers.

How to be a proactive food safety shopper

When shopping at your local farmers’ market, it is valuable to proactively ask the right questions and follow certain practices to reduce your risk of getting sick from foodborne pathogens.

One researcher who investigated the correlation between foodborne illness and farmers’ markets suggested that the data may indicate that people “erroneously believe that food bought at farmers’ markets needn’t be washed because it is ‘natural’.”

It is always a good idea to follow certain food safety practice when preparing and consuming food in your home. Here are some recommendations provided by and Eat Right, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Digging into GMOs: Mintel’s Megan Stanton

Listen in as Megan shares her expert insights about the meaningful benefits of genetic modification that so often become misunderstood in popular culture. She discusses how bioengineered crops and foods have the potential to feed a growing population, the truth behind their sustainable and regenerative benefits, considerations for developing nations, and what should really come to mind when you see “GMO” or “bioengineered” on a label.

Based in Sydney, Megan joined Mintel in 2018 with over 26 years experience in the food and drink industry. As Associate Director of Mintel’s Food & Drink division, Megan’s expertise gives her unique insight into consumer demands, industry trends and key market developments across the protein sector. She also specializes in the Mintel Purchase Intelligence tool helping clients understand what drives consumers to purchase new product innovations.

Immediately prior to joining Mintel, Megan worked for the global flavor and fragrance company Givaudan where she managed the Oceania flavor portfolio team and connected industry-leading flavor technology with global macro trends. Megan holds a Bachelor of Applied Science degree in Food Technology from The University of Western Sydney Hawkesbury, and a Graduate Certificate in Marketing from The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

Bobo’s Global Balancing Act at TNC

Prior to TNC, Jack Bobo served as CEO of Futurity, a food foresight company and is the author of the 2021 book, Why Smart People Make Bad Food Choices“. Recognized by Scientific American in 2015 as one of the 100 most influential people in biotechnology, Jack is a global thought leader who has delivered more than 500 speeches in 50 countries on the future of food.

He previously served as the Chief Communications Officer and Senior Vice President for Global Policy and Government Affairs at Intrexon Corporation. Prior to joining Intrexon, Jack worked at the U.S. Department of State for thirteen years as a senior advisor for global food policy.

An attorney with a scientific background, Jack received a J.D., M.S. in Environmental Science, B.S. in biology and B.A. in psychology and chemistry, all from Indiana University.

Can food packaging & global health coexist?

On the run? LISTEN to our post!

Look around you – how many plastic products do you see? For someone who’s trying to limit plastic use, I already count 12 products in my living room… and I haven’t even gotten to the kids’ toys yet.

But we can’t help it. Plastic makes our lives super convenient and our products cheaper, safer, and longer-lasting. Sadly, this material is also clogging up our waterways and shorelines, killing off species, and devastating our planet. With its approximate 400-year lifespan, most plastics have nowhere to go but up, whether heaped onto a towering pile or incinerated into greenhouse gases.

And almost half of the plastics we go through are from packaging, with food packaging being the largest contributor. This isn’t hard to believe, especially among those of us who order our groceries online.

The last time I received a grocery delivery, I opened up a box lined with a thin plastic film to find my produce individually wrapped in plastic bags. And my more delicate produce was even in a Styrofoam-like sheet within a plastic clamshell within the bag. Talk about Pandora’s box of mismanagement.

And yet, there is a reason for it. In fact, there are several.

A case for plastics

When growing up in a functional food system, it’s easy to overlook the many benefits we take for granted. Take, for instance, food safety. Contaminants like allergens, foodborne pathogens and safety hazards abound as food travels across the globe, so we must mitigate exposure when and where necessary.

With plastic, our global system has made food far less of a threat to our health than before its advent, with practices and procedures that keep our products safer and storing its nutritional content for longer. These coordinated efforts have made food distribution possible during even the worst of times (like during a pandemic).

Packaging also increases the shelf-life of perishable foods, giving us a chance to enjoy fresh raspberries in February and cook fresh Chilean and Norwegian salmon around the world. Without plastic, the raspberries would quickly grow mold and the salmon would harbor a dangerous amount of pathogens. See the chart to the right for more demonstrated benefits of food packaging advancements.

Plastic packaging also lowers transportation costs and fuel needs. Plastic containers can be impossibly thin and infinitely stackable. They’re also more supportive and water-resistant than cardboard, less rigid than tin, and far lighter and more durable than glass.

But isn’t plastic inherently bad? And made from things it supposedly offsets, like fuel and gas? This is where it gets hard to balance plastic’s omnipresence in global commerce.

Oh, it’s definitely bad…

In 2018, food containers and packaging generated more than 82 million tons of waste in the U.S. alone. With 122 million households in the U.S. at that time, that comes to 1,350 pounds of plastic waste per household in a single year.

And unfortunately, it’s only gotten worse. While supermarkets and manufacturers began implementing rigorous greenhouse gas-reducing strategies in the 2010s, the pandemic hit. This event alone reversed the course of seeing sizeable gains in slowing single-use plastic production.

During Covid, plastic production increased by 30% to meet CDC requirements for heightened hygiene efforts and consumer demand for online orders from supermarkets and retailers. Even more concerning, online grocery shopping spend isn’t slowing down anytime soon (see the projection through 2025 below).

To offset this increase in plastics production, Americans are recycling more than ever. Unfortunately, the issue extends beyond our immediate control — it’s in the hands of our municipal recycling programs. And some of these programs are more diligent about recycling than others.

The U.S. has historically sent approximately one-third of its recyclable waste abroad. Since 2018, when China stopped accepting shipments of our plastic waste, the U.S. redirected most of its recyclables to other countries, including Canada, Mexico, and Malaysia.

But as more countries refuse shipments, we are forced to use our own domestic recycling facilities more often. With sudden overuse and little to no budget allocated, these municipal plants grow in disrepair, resulting in only 9% of total recyclables currently getting recycled.

Recycling: breaking down a complicated process

Though the majority of plastic waste isn’t recycled because of lack of proper facilities, it’s also because recycling requires a very precise sorting process. For instance, even the smallest bit of food “contaminates” a potentially recyclable container.

Materials we assume are easily recyclable turn out to be the opposite. Take polymer films, like plastic wraps, grocery bags, and sandwich bags. Throw those into regular recycling bins and they can ruin the whole load. Low-quality, non-recyclable plastic film (often labeled as #4 LDPE plastics) contaminates higher-quality polymers and, due to sorting costs, the entire bin will likely be routed to the landfill or incinerator. So we must pay attention to those recyclable numbers on the bottom of a package.

On the other end of the packaging spectrum is highly complex, multi-layered packaging. Think that organic applesauce pouch or shelf-stable oat milk is recyclable?

The revolutionary yet complex design is anything but, as this illustration shows. Just recycle the plastic top (not included in this diagram, by the way), and throw the pouch or carton out. Even if it were recyclable, the residue inside can render it “contaminated”.

Some companies freely use the ubiquitous green triangle on their packaging, or tout their products as “organic” or “natural” without any further information or instruction (we’re looking at you, plastic bags and yogurt pouches).

This misleads many of us so we assume that these kinds of containers are universally recyclable. Until companies correct misleading recycling labels, this kind of packaging, plus the load of recyclables they’re combined with, are less likely to get recycled.

“You look at an organic, gluten-free kale chip package and it’s wrapped in seven plastics with undefined inks and metallized polymers. It doesn’t have a recycling symbol on it because you could never recycle it.

Isn’t it astonishing that we would have that much focus on what’s inside the package and so little focus on what’s outside?”

– William McDonough, sustainability designer & entrepreneur

What can all of us do?

While the market is growing for green packaging materials to replace many common plastics, we are still a ways off till we see widespread implementation, especially among common consumer goods. So what can we do to move this process along faster?

As regular grocery store customers, we have an impact and can reroute demand to improve channels and packaging. Even just implementing one or two of these tips can have a meaningful impact on your local recycling system, as well as the greater good of the environment:

  • Limit use of thin plastic films (#4 LDPE in above image), like plastic wrap and single-use resealable bags. And instead of recycling these at home, bring these products to grocery stores that recycle the menacing films.
  • Refrain from buying products with multiple materials, especially pouches and lined paper products. This includes milk and juice cartons with the screw-top and to-go containers and cups.
  • Just because a product is “organic” or “all natural” doesn’t mean it’s recyclable, so be sure to check the recycling label.
  • Avoid products with “pointless packaging”, like baby spinach that’s in a clear bag within a plastic clamshell. Packaging like this hurts the whole system.
  • Thoroughly wash out all recyclables. Even a small piece of food can render it “contaminated.”
  • Buy products with packaging that clearly states that it’s made from recycled materials.
  • When ordering food for takeout or delivery, ask the restaurant to exclude cutlery, packets, etc.
  • Consider composting, but don’t recycle compostable plastics – that will contaminate the whole load of plastic. Want to compost but afraid of pests or don’t have the space? Some Whole Foods stores have composting available.
  • Opt for glass food containers that you’ll use forever, instead of plastic ones.

The best thing we can do for global health?

Only buy what we know we’re going to consume. It’s a holistic solution that decreases food waste and packaging, lessens transport, reduces energy use and greenhouse gases, and improves our health and well-being while being mindful of the next generation.

Remember: everything comes at a cost. It’s tough to put into practice but here are some helpful grocery-store shopping tips.

Fertilizer Restrictions’ Unintended Consequences

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Want to fight climate change right now? Need to meet short-term targets for reductions in greenhouse gases? Then restrict applications of certain fertilizers. That should work…right?

Maybe. Maybe not. The jury is still out. Why? Because of the gap between theory and practice… the ideal and the reality… the noble aspiration and the unintended consequences. It could be that we are pushing ideas too soon and too fast. For instance, if we were to eliminate or drastically reduce fossil fuels before wind and solar are ready for prime time, we would be riding our bicycles to the grocery store to buy only locally-produced food, a particularly hard feat in the dead of winter.

Matching idealism with practical reality

Idealism is a powerful driver of a better world. But it works best only if married to worldly reality. The solutions we all seek for our ag system’s sustainability and responsible role in managing climate issues will take time and cooperation, not a rush to ill-considered magic-bullet thinking and win-lose confrontation.

We’re seeing evidence of that all around us. The Netherlands is the world’s second-largest agricultural exporter, with annual sales of roughly $100 billion. But government officials are implementing controversial plans to mandate changes to farming practices to meet targeted reductions in nitrogen emissions and buy-out programs for lands that can’t meet specified targets.  Producers have been outspoken in their concerns about the implications of such controls on the future of the farming sector.

Better still, ask farmers in Sri Lanka about the 2021 flash-cut to organic farming. Without available practical options to replace commercial fertilizers, farmers faced draconian reductions in farm output – and farm income. Reduced production threatened food shortages and dramatic price increases.

The resulting unrest saw an estimated 300,000 protestors take to the streets, prompting violence and forcing a government literally to flee for its life.

A proposed reduction in some fertilizer use by the Canadian government brought a flurry of opposition from farming and trade interests across the middle of the country, where wheat and other crop production is the economic lifeblood of more than one province.

But an interesting fact is that the countries using the most fertilizer are not yet in the political crosshairs.

The driving idea is to embrace new ag production techniques that overcome the problems identified with traditional commercial fertilization. Too much fertilizer, haphazardly applied, more frequently and copiously than needed, can actually harm the soil, deplete it of essential nutritive properties, lead to the release of too much carbon from the soil into the air, and harm the watersheds. Everybody seems to know that – including the farm community, and the fertilizer and input industry that serves them.

Superficially, it sounds oh-so-reasonable. After all, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), ag is supposed to account for about 11 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. That’s substantially less than other sources, such as transportation (27%), electricity (25%), and industry (24%). The fertilizer industry alone is about 1.5%, mainly through using natural gas.

Finding the best balance point

Proper delivery of commercial fertilizers, such as precision farming, helps reduce these risks. It finds the optimal balance point between the use of costly inputs and the crop productivity that makes the difference between profit and loss for producers. The practical reality of farming is the existential need to operate profitably.

Many farmers already embrace sensible regulatory guidelines on fertilizer applications, such as those in Minnesota that spell out when and under what conditions nitrogen may be applied in fields. More broadly, producers are embracing soil-replenishing regenerative agricultural practices. It includes things such as expensive high-precision application equipment, sophisticated analysis of soil nutrient needs, and use of crops and cropping patterns that feed organic biomass back onto the soil to enrich it and make it healthier, among other practices. It means more minimum-till and no-till, and greater use of cover crops.

The roster of innovations and practical, real-world experimentation and data-based decisions expands every day – and not in a committee room or a lecture hall, but in the actual fields where the desire to do good and noble and rewarding things meets cold hard reality.

Also in reality, the key consideration is balance. Farmers aren’t indifferent to environmental issues. It’s more than a do-gooder syndrome. It’s recognition of their status as stewards of the land – people at the front lines of protecting and preserving the natural resources base that makes their lives and livelihoods possible. They want to do the right thing and are working like hell to find the optimal balance point in how to maximize productivity and protect the soil, water, and air that keep us all alive.

It’s simple: the world needs fertilizers to have a prayer of meeting the food needs of a growing world. It needs those fertilizers most in the parts of the world that can least afford them, and places where the alternatives to commercial fertilizers are most lacking.

The desired level of efficiency and productivity remains elusive in many parts of our world. It’s especially challenging in areas without the extensive investment needed to improve the availability of equipment and infrastructure essential to creating more biomass, or advancing education and support critical to higher productivity.

Is regenerative ag the same as organic farming?

Much of the support for mandated reductions in fertilizer applications is based on faith in alternative methods of delivering important plant nutrients. Proponents sometimes simplistically refer to this as greater reliance on ‘organic’ farming. After all, organic farming is predicated on avoiding the use of harmful chemicals.

Casual use of the term “organic’ may be a convenient shorthand for the idea of an environmentally friendly approach to food production. But is technically incorrect in this instance. ‘Organic’ farming is simply compliance with regulatory guidelines on the avoidance of a select group of chemicals in farming. It has nothing to do with the ecological effects of such practices.

In short, ‘organic’ farming is focused on how our food is produced, not the consequences of those practices on our environment – and most importantly, our soil. For instance, the yield per acre for organic corn, soybeans, and wheat is at least 40% less than its conventionally-grown counterpart. Which means, more land under plow to feed the world today. And all organic fertilizers are not manure-based. Organic farming is based on natural nutrients but many of them can be made synthetically.

The more recent thinking about innovative approaches to better fertilization practices is to focus on “regenerative” practices – the complex mix of crops, crop rotations, tillage practices, water use and other conservation practices that rehabilitate and renew topsoil. It focuses on making the soil work harder to provide its own necessary nutrients.

Regenerative agriculture encompasses a more holistic approach to the ultimate goal behind the fertilizer debate – which is building a sustainable food production system capable of meeting the rising demand for food – and especially plant proteins.

The world recognizes the need to take a new, bigger view of how fertilizers fit into the need for a kind of new Green Revolution. We’re moving to understand how to use fertilizers more wisely, and how to deliver critical soil nutrients more effectively and more sustainably. But the solution isn’t an either-or choice. It’s an “and” answer.

Commercial fertilizers, organic farming and the regenerative soil movement are partners in getting the absolute best from our existing natural resources, while actually enriching them in the process. They are partners not just in better management of carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse gas emissions and best management of climate change. They are partners in feeding the world today and for future generations.

Even with aggressive implementation of soil-enriching practices and superior crop management practices, the responsible use of commercial fertilizers as a component of overall plant-nutrient management still promises to be the difference between failure and survival for many, many growers.

Is Ag the Key to Future U.S.-China Relations?

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We can’t live with them, and we can’t live without them.

We are sure you have heard this expression before – but not related to an important country with a $17 trillion GDP trying to close in on the U.S. $23 trillion GDP.

Tenuous relations with China

The issues between our two countries are vast: trade imbalance, Covid shutdown, supply chain shortages, intellectual property theft, tariff agreements, Xi-Putin relationship, human rights abuses, Chinese military buildup in South China sea, and worry regarding the Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

“As we face a complex and severe situation in agricultural development and food security worldwide, I firmly believe that China and the U.S., as major agricultural producers, consumers and traders, should meet challenges together, maintain stable development of agriculture, enhance the resilience of agricultural supply chains, ensure food security domestically, and promote cooperation for international food security. This will certainly be helpful for maintaining world peace, promoting global economic development and social stability, and delivering sustainable development.

Let’s bear in mind: no food, no stability, no peace.”

– Qin Gang, Ambassador to the United States, People’s Republic of China

Can our agricultural trade relations put the U.S. on a more equal footing?

The simple facts of mutual self-interest in food are obvious.

China needs a reliable supply of the food and feeds needed to offer improved diets for a burgeoning, increasingly affluent populace.

American farmers need markets for the incredible bounty produced by the most advanced, efficient food system on earth.

And in 2020, China was the largest market for U.S. agricultural exports. For instance, soybeans are 11% of U.S. total exports to China.

The history of U.S.-China trade in commodities and food products reflects those realities.

Phase One of Trump’s Trade Agreement called for China to purchase and import an average of $40 billion annually in food, agricultural, and seafood products for two years (2020 and 2021).

Chinese officials claim the actual 2020 purchases of $26.5 billion reflected the special circumstances facing the world as Covid took hold. In that environment, food and agricultural imports of that amount are noteworthy and still constitute the largest single export market for U.S. agriculture. The U.S. also happened to be China’s largest import market.

Can agriculture help bring our two countries together?  It seems that we are at a standoff. Both countries have initiatives in place to be dominant global leaders. China has the Made in China 2025 plan where they have selected key technologies that they strive to dominate globally.

The U.S. Congress has a bill outstanding called the America Competes Act of 2022 which is aimed at reducing long-term dependence on China. The bill includes everything from providing massive subsidies supporting U.S. semiconductor manufacturing to prohibiting federal funding for the Wuhan Lab.

Trade imbalance and tariffs on Chinese imports

The trade imbalance puts the U.S. at risk. U.S.-China trade has increased in value since China joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001. Today, trade between the two countries is $650 billion, give or take a boatload or two of soybeans, compared to $120 billion just two decades ago.

But the U.S. trade deficit has grown quickly, too, along with worries that the imbalance is costing the United States jobs and economic growth. In 2021, the total trade imbalance was $355 billion. The U.S. exported $151 billion to China versus imports totaling $506 billion.

The Economic Policy Institute estimates the trade deficit accounts for as many as 3.7 million lost American jobs between 2001 and 2018. Already in January and February of 2022, the trade deficit was 67 billion, up from 501 billion during the same period in 2021. That alone helps explain Washington’s growing interest in tariffs.

Now let’s combine inflation, a trade deficit, and tariffs. With prices at their highest level in four decades, politicians are grasping for any and all options for reducing the price pain felt by voters in an election year. As more than one public figure has opined, tariffs may be a good negotiating tool, but they serve no strategic purpose and are essentially a tax on consumers.

The most recent Covid shutdown has only exacerbated high prices and inflation. Once again China is in the spotlight for holding up the global supply chain. In their quest for zero Covid tolerance, 26 cities are in lockdown including Shanghai and soon to be Beijing. Citizens are quarantined, factories are partially shut down with employees living on floor mattresses, and global supply chains are suffering.

The United States imports 18 percent of all products from China and 33 percent of electronics. Looks like that new car you might have ordered might not be here by summer.

Timing is everything

But is this the right time to increase tariffs? Psaki and other officials emphasized that the entire question of tariffs remains under discussion within the Biden Administration. They also emphasize that the tariff-reduction and tariff-elimination talks involve “non-strategic goods.”

U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen helped bring the issue out into the open last month in testimony before Congress. Reductions in tariffs on U.S imports from China were “worth considering,” she told lawmakers and the assembled media. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki later added that the Biden Administration indeed is evaluating the inflationary effects of the tariffs on imports from China imposed by the Trump Administration.

The idea has considerable bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. But efforts to link the issue with further reductions or elimination of tariffs – especially for popular “non-strategic” consumer goods – have proved more contentious.

The political picture has grown more complicated by the much-publicized public polling that shows many Americans still favor the use of tariffs as a lever in building better relations with China. As Forbes reported on a survey from Morning Consult:

“61 percent of voters believe that increased imports have caused the U.S. to become dependent on China for goods that are critical to the U.S. economy and U.S. national security…73 percent of survey respondents said they support the U.S. government using trade remedies on China to protect U.S. industries and American workers with a similar high number – 71 percent – supporting the trade war tariffs imposed on $250 billion worth of China imports during the Trump Administration.  

– Kenneth Rapoza, Forbes, April 24, 2022

Take for instance the excitement around emission-reducing electric cars. The world is expected to drive about 400 million of these in the next 20 years. Which country is responsible for extracting rare earth minerals and processing lithium-ion batteries? You guessed it: China. While the cobalt, nickel, and manganese might come from Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile – Chinese state-run companies have a hold on extraction and dominate the processing.

Many politicians agree with those sentiments and argue for the continuation of aggressive tactics to deal with the perceived problems arising from a “one-sided” trade relationship. Some argue against further tariff reductions or exemptions and instead favor ramping up pressure on China to do more to correct the trade imbalance.

One solution would be to bring back manufacturing to the U.S. and reduce our reliance on Chinese imports. This would also address U.S. concerns over intellectual property rights, human rights issues, investment policy, and a host of other matters.

The debate over tariffs fits nicely into the simmering question of how best to revamp U.S. policy toward China. The continuing questions about the direction of U.S. strategy toward relations with China promises to be animated and protracted.

Amid all the arguments, two important points in that debate should be considered…

China is far more inclined to embrace trade in goods essential to citizens’ well-being than in non-essential products. Chinese leaders will look for suppliers who can reliably deliver essentials such as food. With arguably the most efficient and productive agricultural and food system in the world, the United States has the potential to be an important agent in shaping a more constructive relationship between the two countries.

Recognizing and accommodating China’s expanding food needs and objectives – and encouraging a competitive farm and food system to serve those needs and objectives – seems like a more productive approach than mandated quotas and fixed sales commitments.

Will more ethanol fight inflation…or fuel it? 

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The effects of inflation and turbulent energy prices have shocked many of us – and our wallets – to the point of exhaustion. The U.S. government wants to ease this cycle, but when crop supplies are tight and inflation is running high, we must find the delicate balance with America’s agricultural abundance for food and fuel.

Where does ethanol come from?

Ethanol is a byproduct that comes mostly from fermentable carbohydrates in corn, but can also be derived from sorghum, wheat, and other starchy crops. What makes corn so attractive is that most of the kernel goes to use in the production of ethanol.

Corn is a cornerstone commodity of the modern food system. Along with high-value meals from soybeans, it is a critical and abundant protein source for maintaining flocks and herds around the world. As the world’s leading producer of corn, the United States is at the virtual center of the animal-protein system.

Last year’s U.S. crop totaled 15.1 billion bushels.

That’s enough to give every person on Earth two bushels of corn.

What is behind high food prices?

The causes of current food price inflation are many and varied, with higher energy costs as the most prominent factor.

Consider this: the world uses about 100 million barrels of oil a day. During Covid, demand dropped to around 92 million. That excess capacity maxed out global oil storage, and with nowhere to store the oil, prices dropped to below $0 at one point, essentially paying companies to buy their oil. As a result, drilling and capital investment in new wells stopped.

Then, the world came back to life. And with that, energy demand picked back up to previous levels.

So now we have high demand again due to economic growth. And when we put a war on top of that, it creates the perfect conditions for a high inflationary environment. But it all started before the Russia-Ukraine conflict. And even Covid, for that matter.

Inflation’s global grasp

Our current environment is the result of compounding events. For instance, do you remember when China lost most of its pigs to African Swine Fever back in 2018? Their hog population has recovered which only increased their demand for animal feed – coming from corn and soybeans. Yet supplies for animal feed were tight. Droughts in North and South America – where China imports its crops – decreased supply and of course increased crop prices.

And then a serious global disruption hit and with it, unpredictable consumer behavior and perpetually mutating supply chains. Now, add in a global recovery, leading to increased oil and natural gas demand – and prices. High energy prices make everything more expensive – including farming the global crop supply as fertilizer prices and transportation costs increase.

Next up: volatility and uncertainty with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The invasion alone has devastated local economies and rocked supply chains, but with China, Russia, Canada, and Belarus as major exporters of fertilizer needed for crops around the world, our global food system is pushed further into price uncertainty.

Because of these factors, farmers now have even more pressure than ever before to plant more crops using less fertilizer while consuming less energy. Many farmers are already maximizing their yield with technology improvements such as precision farming and regenerative agriculture. In fact, corn yields last year were 177 bushels an acre, a robust 4 percent increase from 2020.

What’s behind the move to expand ethanol use?

President Biden wants to reduce gas prices by adding more ethanol into the gas pumps to make sure gas prices don’t float over $5 a gallon for the summer.

Raising the current standard of allowing a 10-percent blend of ethanol (“E10”) into the gas used in our cars to 15 percent (“E15”) seems like a good idea, with prices at the pump now averaging just over $4 per gallon.

At such levels, the ethanol component of a gas mix seems to be less costly than the gasoline it displaces. And with a simmering voter revolt against the highest inflation rate in 40 years or more, the idea obviously has its political allure. Wrapping the decision in the guise of evolving energy policy and economic aid to consumers makes it an easy, flag-waving exercise. Especially before the mid-term elections.

This move may also help farmers. Purdue University studied renewable fuels and found that biofuel income has also shown to increase annual farm income by $10.6 billion between 2004 and 2016 since the Renewable Fuel Act was introduced.

But would this really work?

The story is much more complex than an academic study – and full of additional realities that also need to be considered. Expanding ethanol use for energy may not ease farmer production pressure. In fact, it may have adverse effects as it could maintain the upward price pressures that currently are sweeping through commodity markets – especially for corn and other cornerstone commodities.

Administration officials and media reports say an increase to a 15-percent ethanol mix will reduce prices at the pump by about 10 cents per gallon. At a national average per-gallon gas cost of $4.03, that equates to a 2.4 percent drop, at best.

What’s more, that small savings may have limited availability. Our nation has roughly 150,000 gas stations, serving an estimated 270 million cars. But only 3 percent of all stations offer the E15 blend. Additionally, these E15 stations are largely concentrated in the Midwest and South.

Though we can hope for a quick nationwide expansion of E15 stations, it will take time, as these stations require compliance with additional regulations, unless the Administration releases a temporary waiver. And then we have taxpayer dollars to consider for these improvements.

Whatever minimal gains that come at the gas pump could be offset by the losses at the supermarket generated by food price inflation and additional taxes

Perhaps cognizant of the practical problems created by having so few facilities available to deliver in the expanded ethanol formulation, Administration officials and many economists said President Biden’s decision will have no significant effect on corn prices. They also probably said that because E15 has already been sold through the fall, winter, and spring from 2019 to 2021, making E15’s availability in the summer months the only meaningful addition.

Ethanol’s ‘byproduct’ effects

Even so, the announcement will have an important psychological effect in the marketplace. Any steps to expand demand must have some effect on price if basic laws of supply and demand still apply. Even if the ethanol action had a completely neutral influence on the market, it does nothing to reduce the upward pressures driving food price inflation, especially in the animal protein industries.

An increase in the price of corn increases the price of the steak or chicken at your table.

President Biden’s announcement only helped maintain the currently strong corn price, which now stands at around $8 per bushel.

Most market analysis also cites the importance of China as a growing market for U.S. corn and other commodities – and with ethanol, a major factor in the historically high commodity prices seen this year by farmers and consumers alike. Corn prices have risen by more than one-third since the beginning of this year, adding more than $2 per bushel in less than four months.

The simple truth is that demand for corn for domestic use, for exports and for current ethanol production remains robust, with real and immediate bullish effects on the price of a cornerstone commodity in our modern food system.

Will farmers see an upside?

Some large farmers already warn they simply don’t have the production elasticity needed to increase corn production to offset growing demand, including higher ethanol mandates and targets. These forward-looking producers say they already are coping with increases in input costs, rising land values and other practical day-to-day issues that make large boosts in crop production difficult – if not impossible for many. And, let’s not forget about the weather. Spring is slow to come to the Midwest this year, with planting season already delayed.

In such an environment, don’t expect inflationary pressures on commodity prices and food costs to go away. If anything, the latest ethanol action only adds to worries from consumers and farmers alike about the future price picture for all sorts of food.

This is a double-edged sword: Higher demand for corn – and the support for corn prices it provides – is good for farmers and their bottom line amid dramatically rising production costs. But anyone who goes to the grocery store will see the inflationary prices eating into their wallet.

Thinking bigger

What would really help gas prices would be to have a solid energy plan that realizes the world is not ready for all renewable energy at this point.

Green energy sounds good but it is not ready for prime time in 2022. We are all very dependent on fossil fuels. Let oil companies drill responsibly, increase the natural gas pipelines, expand nuclear, and keep technology improving for renewable energy. There is not just one answer for energy – it is multi-faceted.

Goodbye “GMO”, Hello “Bioengineered”

Food labels create confusion over what’s considered “safe” and “healthy” food. They all represent different things, and some are just a clever way to increase the product’s price or reputation. So, what makes this “bioengineered” label special, and why is this change happening now? Let’s start by taking a look at the GMO label of the past.

The ‘Non-GMO’ Label

The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit based in Bellingham, Washington, was created in 2007 and is responsible for the “non-GMO” butterfly label that we see on many of our foods. The premise is that consumers should know how their food was grown. However, in many cases, the non-GMO label has been used to influence the consumer’s thinking that GMOs are unhealthy and non-GMO is better for them.

Fear is a great motivator and in this case, people were scared of harming their health by eating GMOs. This is similar to how many consumers associate organic as the only food choice for long-term health and sustainability.

But those correlations are not always accurate. Non-GMO does not mean you are getting a healthier, safer, or more sustainably-produced food item. It is just grown with new technology that allows for fewer pesticides, resists disease, and handles drought, which in turn increases yield on existing land. GMOs are the most widely-tested food in the world and have been deemed safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In addition, 59 countries have granted a total of 2,497 approvals for different GMO products.

The non-GMO label may look official, but the FDA or other government organizations do not regulate it. Furthermore, the label was placed on products where no GMO counterpart existed, creating more confusion among consumers. There is no such thing as GMO salt, yet we still see the non-GMO label suggesting that there is, and we’re being charged more for the one with the “non-GMO” label. We have even seen non-GMO water!

Let’s also not forget that there are only ten genetically-modified crops currently approved in the United States.

How the new bioengineered label works

All U.S. food manufacturers, including those exporting food to the U.S., must label GMO products, or any products that contain GMO ingredients, as “bioengineered” or “derived from bioengineering.” This guideline was first announced by the USDA in 2018, but companies had until 2022 to add the labels to their packaging. This law aims to keep consumers better educated on their food. Also, some states required the labels and some did not, which caused even more confusion.

So what’s considered ”bioengineered” under this law? There is a threshold for how much genetically-modified materials need to be present in order to use the label. The USDA states that foods with 5% or more of their product derived from GMOs must have the new label. This is different from the threshold in the European Union, where it’s only 0.9%. Furthermore, the non-GMO Project also uses the threshold of 0.9%.

But why 5% if everyone else seems to use 0.9%? This is because trace amounts of genetic modifications, or parts of GMOs, can be found on equipment for processing those products. Genetic modifications can even be carried on pollen. With 5%, it leaves room for any trace amounts of “GMO residue” found on food products. There’s also less opportunity for food brands to capitalize on the label as a marketing tactic.

Producers can use this label in three ways. They can label their product using simple text, apply one of two graphics that the USDA has already approved, or use a QR code. Consumers can scan the code on the packaging to learn more about that product.

One loophole is if meat, poultry, or eggs are listed as the first ingredient on a food product, the label is not required. Even if one of these ingredients is listed second after water, stock, or broth, the label is not required. So, some prepared food items that may contain GMOs still won’t have this disclosed.

Why this label may just cause more problems  

This label may just leave consumers even more confused than they already were. Consumers are already confused about which products are and aren’t GMOs and what the term even means. The non-GMO label didn’t help with this, especially when it was placed on goods with no GMO counterpart.

There are other concerns, as well. Could this lead people to consume more processed foods if they find that their favorite fruits and veggies are now ”bioengineered”? As with organic, they may believe that processed foods without the label are the healthier and safer option. For instance, a non-GMO pizza with all the toppings versus a GMO arctic apple?

Lastly, some manufacturers may face economic loss due to these new standards. Although most GMO crops are used for animal feed, ingredients like corn, canola, soybeans, and sugar beets all have GMO counterparts used in routine products made for humans.

D2D did an Instagram poll in which followers were asked: “Are you more or less likely to purchase a product labeled ‘bioengineered’?”

100% stated they were less likely. Companies that use GMO products and the new corresponding label may see a decline in sales and/or customer loyalty.

Is there a potential upside to the change in labeling?

Despite the confusion, there are a couple of positives here. Consumers are already demanding transparency in their food system, a trend we see growing in 2022. People want to know nuts to bolts: where their food came from, how it was grown or raised, down to the farmer’s name. Using this new USDA-vetted label, we’re increasing more scientifically rigorous transparency in the food system.

The other positive effect this label could have is increased education among consumers. The QR code alone has the power to help educate others on GMOs – the truth. This code can help change the narrative that’s been present for way too long and finally help consumers understand why we need GMOs in our food system – for our planet’s health, food security, and much more.

We see this as an opportunity for the USDA and food manufacturers alike to take advantage of this label or QR code to educate consumers on the safety and benefits of GMOs rather than use it as a scare tactic.

And, if you’re still confused about what a GMO is or the benefits that it has for humans and the environment, check out these related articles:

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

Overall: ????

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.

Overall: ???? ????

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.

5 Things ‘Seaspiracy’ taught me about Seafood

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As native Bostonians, my husband and I instinctively demand seafood in our diet. When planning a visit with our family in coastal New England, the first two things on the to-do list are placing an uncomfortably large order with the local lobster pound and buying up all the unsalted butter at the grocery store. It gets intense, to say the least: the array of surgical-looking utensils, wet naps strewn all over the table, and those silly-but-necessary lobster bibs. But we feel comfortable in our consumption, knowing it’s all locally sourced and sustainably caught. And that our cholesterol levels are reasonably low.

So when our marketing director, Hayley, asked if I had seen the Netflix documentary, Seaspiracy, I guffawed and got a sudden pang for a buttered lobster roll. But then I started recalling my previous blindspots in our global food system and the deeply unsettling opacity of the seafood industry.

For instance, only 10-20% of the seafood we consume in the U.S. is sourced from here, leading to cases in which purveyors don’t even know the source, let alone the type of fish sold to us. So with that fundamental knowledge (and echoes of recent headlines questioning the main ingredient in  Subway’s tuna salad), I sat down and prepared myself for the incoming deluge of information.

Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices contribute to the mislabeling of seafood, as well as many other prohibited activities that Seaspiracy identifies throughout the film.

Seaspiracy Journey

The producers of Seaspiracy know how to create a compelling journey; after all, Kip Andersen and Jim Greenbaum also produced the very dramatic, very anti-meat documentaries, Cowspiracy and What the Health.

Knowing this, I assumed my reasonably rational thinking and iron-clad stomach would pull me through. But, disappointingly, I definitely grew queasy during some of the really brutal scenes, which then triggered my anger at human nature to pollute with such wild abandon. These filmmakers know what they’re doing, that’s for sure.

I then tried to see the larger picture of the story. Despite the obfuscated facts and pro-vegan sentiment that concludes each of their films, it still brings a lot of frightening but necessary issues to light.

“Even if it’s chocked full of lies and half-truths, maybe [Seaspiracy] is still good overall if it introduces people to ocean issues and inspires a desire to make a difference.”

– Liz Allen, marine sustainability writer at Forbes

But does that mean we must throw the delicious, soft-shell chick lobsters out with the bathwater? I would still like to eat seafood, after all. Just maybe not yet.

Diving back in

To help me get back on the seafood track, I merged some of the broader points made in the film and some of the concepts we practice here at Dirt to Dinner to find a simple yet strategic way to improve my selection of sustainably sourced and responsibly managed seafood. Below are five key rules.

Rule #1: Farmed fish can be the most sustainable seafood

Despite common misconceptions (including my own), farmed fish that’s sustainably managed is the most cost-effective and planet-conscious choice. How else can you be 100% certain that the fish you’re paying for is actually what you think it is. For wild-caught, it could be flounder bottom-trawled off the coast of Southern Asia and not the $30/lb halibut from Norway.

Since farms facilitate the entire lifecycle development, filtration systems, and production management, farmed seafood offers an unparalleled level of transparency compared to wild-caught seafood, making consumer research much more accessible.

Are you still feeling meh about aquaculture? When you zoom out on the fish-farming landscape, aquaculture is the same practice as livestock management for cattle, sheep, chickens, etc. Don’t forget that modern ag practices have guaranteed incredibly safe, fresh, and affordable food on our tables for decades.

Rule #2: Where your seafood is raised or caught matters

Just like buying your beef, lamb, and chicken, it matters which regulatory food system is involved. But trying to find a nice, tidy little crib sheet of countries with the most stringent sustainability and safety guidelines is like seeking out the elusive Mid-Atlantic blue lobster.

Though the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has done an incredible job defining various codes of conduct for sustainable fisheries all over the world and is highly regarded by many countries, I had a hard time finding any detailed data that I could play around with on their site.

My data source target then turned to Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch project.

This resource is impressive – it offers highly specific recommendations for sustainable seafood and is very transparent. I used their search function to see the most consumed seafood in the U.S., like shrimp, salmon, albacore tuna, and tilapia. The regions most often cited as offering the “best choice” in terms of sustainability among these kinds of seafood are the U.S. & Canada, Europe, New Zealand, and Japan.

But it’s important to note that more countries are following suit, like Australia, Chile, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya, Mexico, Namibia, and Palau. These countries will end harmful subsidies contributing to overfishing by 2025 as part of their sustainability initiative.

Rule #3: Labels can be an easy way to dress up a questionable product

I expect the producers of Seaspiracy and the Dirt to Dinner team to agree on this rule wholeheartedly: non-government-issued third-party verification package labels displaying a qualified, certified, or recommended product are generally garbage.

Unless you see a government department on the label from reputable countries with sustainable seafood practices and accompanied with some sort of grade or indication (think USDA “Choice” or “Prime” beef; USDA “Organic” products), focus on rules 1 and 2.

At best, labels allow non-government organizations (NGOs) to “certify” products to the degree they feel necessary. The organization then gets paid royalties by a food producer to apply the NGO’s label on their products. But at their worst, they can prey on our most basic survival instincts of fear and mistrust to manipulate us toward their often-obscured agenda. And I believe some organizations with these highly visible labels, like the Non-GMO Project and MSC, lie somewhere deep within that spectrum.

Rule #4: When in a rush, buy your seafood from highly reputable stores with not-too-cheap prices

First things first: I genuinely believe any decent grocer with U.S.-farmed seafood will have sustainably-produced fish that’s fresh and safe.

The trouble is, it’s not always easy to find. Our demand is low for U.S.-specific farmed fish, and it’s often a little more expensive than its potentially questionably-sourced counterpart, which really stinks because the U.S. is a global leader in sustainable and responsibly managed fisheries.

So I was disheartened to read the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA)’s assessment that U.S. production only accounts for $1 billion in a $100-billion global aquaculture market. Hungry for more market data? Please check out their site – it’s surprisingly easy-to-read and fact-heavy.

But as far as retailers are concerned, it appears that Whole Foods, Hy-Vee, Aldi, and Target are all great picks. These stores have seafood procurement departments that only purchase from sustainably caught or raised fisheries that are also responsibly managed.

There are some great home-delivery seafood options, too, like Crowd Cow. We really like the information they provide on where and how their fish are caught, and your selections arrive at your doorstep within a couple of days. Give online retailers like this a try by checking out how transparent they are with their sourcing and supply chain.

Rule #5: For wild-caught, dive deeper into your research…and wallet

Still want to stick with wild-caught fish? That’s ok! But you’re gonna have to check out a few more things and pony up a little more dough if sustainability is important to you.

Basically, nothing compares to wild-caught Alaskan seafood. Period. Producers feel incredibly responsible for maintaining their unique and pristine marine life, so everything is carefully managed to limit overfishing and bycatch. But this will affect your food budget, so prepare accordingly. And, again, if you stick with those aforementioned countries, you’re on the right path.

Another consideration is how the fish is caught, which you can better understand with the Seafood Watch site. It lists a bunch of reasons why it’s essential to be equally aware of seafood capture practices as country of origin. So try to stick with fish caught with handlines, pole-and-lines, midwater trawls, and trolling lines. And don’t buy seafloor captures, like trawls, seines, and dredges. Gillnets can be dangerous to local marine life, too.

Some quick dining and takeout rules

Need some time for research but craving shrimp pad thai tonight? Consider these tips:

  • Do your research about the meat & seafood philosophy of the restaurant and its holding company before you leave the house. This may help reduce awkward staredowns with your waitperson.
  • Feel free to ask questions that are important to you, like if they sell sustainable seafood, if it’s farmed or wild-caught, and which country it’s from. If the waitperson doesn’t know, ask them to check with the chef. If the chef doesn’t know, order the burger.
  • Are you a sushi lover who’s curious about sustainable yellowfin tuna? Or only interested in fish locally caught in the South? Seafood Watch has a guide for you. Seriously, this site has almost everything you need to make informed decisions about what you eat.

How we can create demand for responsibly managed fisheries

Yes, government and academic sources are great for a particular industry. But if you’re eager to find a company you feel you can stand behind, ask your local fish market where they buy their seafood from. And then check out the producer’s site. The more information the site has, the better.

And if you really like a tilapia that’s caught in a country not listed here, that’s fine! Fisheries aren’t inherently “good” or “bad” based on overgeneralized criteria – those are for finding our way initially. As with most things ag-related, it depends on the producer and their practices, so more reason for research.

And, if you’re open to it and it’s available, please give U.S. aquaculture a shot. We need to drive demand for responsible seafood by standing behind products that do just that. It’ll help drive down food waste, transportation costs, carbon emissions, and unfair labor practices while supporting supply chain transparency, marine biodiversity, and future generations to fully reap the benefits of our waters.

Why are my groceries so expensive right now?

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Dirt to Dinner decided to take a deeper look behind the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) recent projection of a 2.2 percent increase in food costs in May, on top of a 3.5 percent increase the year before.

Just how much more expensive is our food?

The most immediate thing we learned was how complex the answer to those questions really are. No one or two simple causes are out there. Instead, it’s a complex mix of factors – some matters of macroeconomics, some of unique circumstances and situations, some of the changing demands placed on our food system both here in the United States and around the world. What’s more, it seems likely at least some of them will continue for a while to come. Let’s dig into the details behind the numbers, and see what we can learn and what we can do about it.

Inflation is all around us. The latest Consumer Price Index from BLS tells us prices have climbed by 5 percent year over year, the largest jump since 2008. Sharp rises in energy costs (29 percent) are a major factor behind that number, as anyone who filled a car with gas recently can readily attest.

The prices we pay for our food are right at the top of the list of greater expenses. On a global scale, the BLS numbers sound downright reasonable. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently estimated that the global Food Price Index has jumped 30.8 percent above last year’s figure, to its highest level since 2014. Higher costs for oils, meats, dairy, and cereal products all contributed to the rise – and the increasing worries about food insecurity that come with them.

That sobering picture makes the 2.2 percent number from BLS sound almost reasonable. But for anyone who does the daily shopping, the reality behind that innocent-sounding figure quickly gives way to an immediate and personal recognition of just how significant 2.2 percent can be – especially as part of a steady stream of superficially innocuous annual increases.

What’s making it more expensive?

Let’s look at some reasons for food price increases, from the big-picture perspective.

  • The cornerstone commodities that provide the raw materials for our food are more expensive. Remember what you paid to fill your tank with gas a year ago? Wheat that sold for just one $5 per bushel one year ago today is near $7. Corn that sold for roughly $3 per bushel in August 2020 today is $6.85. Soybeans that were $8.33 in May of last year are almost $16 today.
  • Demand for food and commodities is growing, and our supply of reserves is tighter than before. No one today needs to be reminded of the increases in global population and economic growth that fuel steady growth in food demand. What’s less well recognized is the narrowing gap between global food production and global consumption. The simple fact is, in the current environment we are drawing down our reserve stocks. And when strong demand meets shrinking supply, prices go up.
  • Weather problems in key parts of the world add to the supply and demand imbalance, pushing prices up and increasing price volatility. Whether it’s climate change or normal weather cyclicality, some important growing regions around the world are experiencing record dry conditions in key production areas in South America, Russia, Australia, and the American West and Upper Midwest. Worries about crop sizes fuel a steady upward pressure on commodity prices.
  • The cost of producing commodities is rising. The rapid run-up in energy costs has a profound effect on-farm costs. Diesel fuel for farm equipment, gas for vehicles, propane and natural gas to dry wet crops, even fertilizers – all contribute to higher production costs, which inevitably factor into the final prices paid by food consumers.
  • Labor shortages complicate both farming and food manufacturing. Farmers and food manufacturers alike complain that they simply can’t find all the workers they need to cope with the current situation. And when they do, they often find they must pay more, if only to contend with the disincentives created by COVID relief payments. Department of Agriculture labor statistics indicates the number of workers hired by farmers and ranchers was down 11 percent from year-ago levels as recently as April, to about 613,000. The drop occurred despite an April increase of 6 percent over the previous April’s labor rates, to an average of $15.97 per hour.
  • Supply chain disruptions add to costs. As if labor shortages and higher fuel costs for hauling commodities and delivering food products weren’t enough, our finely tuned food distribution system is still adjusting to yet another cycle of changes and interruptions in delivery channels.  On a global scale, we’ve had to wrestle with complications in the location and availability of the ocean freight used to carry commodities around the world – not just what the United States exports, but also what we import to satisfy our food demands. Events such as the recent shutdown of the Suez Canal and the cyberattack that paralyzed JBS, the world’s largest meat producer, provide evidence of just how quickly and pervasively these disruptions can ripple across the entire food system.
  • More out-of-home dining. The Covid pandemic led to a dramatic decline in the amount of food eaten out of the home, requiring our food system to adjust to moving a greater share of the food supply to retail channels. With the pandemic now appearing to ease, the system must once again adjust to a more traditional pattern. That means change to packaging, more complicated transportation logistics and a raft of other costly changes. BLS points out that the overwhelming proportion of the increase in food costs came from a run-up on prices for food eaten away from home – a whopping 4 percent, compared with 0.7 percent for food eaten at home. We’re going out to eat once again – and paying more for the privilege.
  • Food waste remains an issue. We waste as much as a third of our food every day and every year. One online firm specializing in market data analysis estimates that about 1.6 billion tons of raw food products are never turned into consumable food to feed the hungry. Such waste only adds to the inflationary pressures of the big supply-demand picture.

We also need to remember that we may have been lulled into a touch of complacency about our food prices over the last decade. Food price inflation has been largely muted in recent years. Between 2013 and last year, for example, annual food price inflation averaged roughly 1.4 percent, with 2016 and 2017 both coming in with less than a single percentage-point rise.

Economists say the current inflationary prices eventually will ease. But few are willing to say when, or by how much. As our look at the causes of food price inflation showed, many of the factors driving up food costs are likely to be with us to one degree or another for some time to come.

But what does it all mean for me?

For most of us, the dizzying array of things that influence our food prices are less important than their immediate effect on our pocketbooks.

Dirt-to-Dinner decided to take a look at the real-world – or at least an admittedly unscientific glimpse of what the CPI data actually means to U.S. food consumers.

A sincere thank you to the D2D Network of Unofficial Field Reporters: Gary Tomasello of San Jose, CA; Jake Cuaron of Denver, CO; Dick & Tanyia Williams of Jacksonville, FL; and Frank & Kathe St. Lawrence of Fairhope, AL.

We asked our network of friends across the country to help us with an exercise that builds on some insightful and valuable work done by the Toledo Blade. That highly respected newspaper created a market basket of 15 common food items and tracked its cost in 2003, 2008 and 2011.

We elected to continue that work by seeking current price information for the same 15-item food basket, but with data from the Northeast, mid-Atlantic, deep South, upper Midwest, Gulf Coast, Mountain region, and West Coast.

Our results are intended to provide a simple snapshot of what food price inflation really means at the consumer level – not a rigorous, statistically reliable economic analysis. Our results show the cumulative effect of what may seem like small annual cost increases.

We invite our readers to use the item checklist to take a closer look at what food inflation means for each of you.

The exercise taught us as consumers one very important lesson: shop smart.

We were surprised and pleased to see that the retail food industry seems to be doing its part to help consumers deal with rising food costs.  We found numerous examples of sales and discounts for various items on the list, as well as some potential savings from house brands and locally sourced food items. In some cases, those savings helped reduce the overall basket costs significantly.

Are Farmer Protests in India a Cautionary Tale for Americans?

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What’s behind the protests?

How can you keep food prices low for consumers but expect farmers to pay more to grow that same food? The brouhaha between farmers and the government of India began in 2018 with the passage of three farm laws altering long-standing farm policies. In simplest terms, the laws sought to change the way most farmers sold their products into the market, largely by deregulating wholesale markets. Rather than rely on the traditional middle-man system of wholesalers as purchasers, farmers would be allowed to sell to other commercial entities, and to use electronic and other new mechanisms for finding buyers.

On the surface, it all sounds very reasonable. The idea: give farmers more freedom to seek the best deal for what they produce. They no longer would have to rely only on the middlemen to provide the minimum guaranteed prices dictated by the government.

But change is rarely warmly embraced. And for India, the idea of reform affects not just the interests of farmers and overall food security, but the national economy and social structure, as well.

Over time, opposition to the laws has steadily escalated. News reports around the world tell of tens of thousands of protestors, many living in tent cities indefinitely, and many using tractors and other farm equipment to block and disrupt traffic to call attention to their cause. Video footage of angry men and women has become commonplace, seen by consumers around the world.

What prompts such intense debate – and protest?

To understand the impasse between the government and farmers, it’s essential to recognize the unique nature of Indian agriculture.

Farming and agriculture represent by far the largest component of the country’s employment. In India, just over half of its 1.3 billion people rely on agriculture for their livelihoods. Some credible estimates say as much as 70 percent. That means any changes to fundamental agricultural policies stand to affect between 600 and 800 million people in very meaningful ways.

In the United States, by comparison, farmers represent only 2 percent of the total population. The food and ag sector accounts for about 22 million jobs – or roughly 11 percent of our national workforce.

Despite the presence of a robust commercial farming sector in the United States, the overall agricultural picture in India is dominated by small land-holdings. America and India have comparable arable land areas. But the average farmer in India works roughly two and a half acres of ground, compared to the average U.S. farm of 444 acres. The prevailing small size of India’s average farm limits income opportunities and discourages investment in equipment, infrastructure, and other productivity enhancements.

Many farmers simply eke out a year-to-year existence. In many cases, their families have to live on less than $1,000 a year. They look to state support as the principal means not of growth, but of basic economic survival. This struggle to survive on very low, if any, profits, has manifested in over 300,000 farmer suicides since 1995. In 2018, there have been an average of 10 suicides a day.

So Indian agriculture isn’t simply a food-producing sector. It is a cornerstone of the entire society. Since the 1960s, national policies have attempted to accommodate both needs.

Government subsidies assist producers and rural residents in a number of ways: financial assistance for fertilizer, free electricity for water pumping, loan forgiveness, and direct financial aid all help hundreds of millions of producers stay afloat.

Protestors are deeply concerned about what happens to the government-guaranteed minimum prices for commodities such as rice, wheat, sugar, and other staples, which drive annual production on even the most un-economic farms. These supports have assured ample supplies for the domestic marketplace – and economic survival for millions.

In some instances, this policy has made exports possible. Today, for example, India is one of the world’s leading producers of wheat, cotton, groundnuts, fruits and vegetables, and even livestock — and among the largest global producers and exporters of rice, sugar, and wheat.

To protect consumers, the government has provided additional subsidies to keep prices low for basic foods, including rice. On one hand, food prices have to remain low to alleviate hunger and poverty and on the other hand, the low food prices are making life extremely difficult for over half the Indian population. This financial double-whammy of supporting two sometimes opposing sides of production and consumption can lead to unbelievable price distortions.

For example, the price of rice on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CMA) was actually lower than the fixed government price of rice in India, the largest rice-producing country in the world. A metric ton of rice costs $233 on the CME yet it costs $254 a ton for consumers in India. “A kilo of rice, which has an economic cost of 37 rupees to the taxpayer, is sold to two-thirds of the global population for 3 rupees.” as reported by Bloomberg’s David Fickling and Andy Mukherjee. Wheat support prices in India were 25 percent above the prevailing Chicago wheat futures price, the report also noted. To shield consumers, subsidies make the cost disparity magically disappear.

Changing market prices may have altered the arithmetic since that day, but the larger point remains valid.  Subsidies can distort markets – and create unintended but difficult consequences.

Arguments for reform:

  • Existing policies are economically unsustainable
  • Policies perpetuate poverty/dependence on state support
  • Policies create environmental concerns (fertilizer overuse, water depletion)
  • Reform promotes productivity improvements, long-term competitiveness for global market opportunities
  • Best for long-term interests of nation, economy, farmers, consumers

Arguments against reform:

  • Smaller producers (which are the majority of farmers) would lack the market clout to bargain with larger, more powerful commercial entities – and thus would wind up at their mercy
  • Increases the power of the larger commercial farming interests across India and invites greater involvement by multinational agricultural companies
  • Leaves far too many people economically vulnerable
  • Potential displacement of a huge number of people
  • Accelerates migration to urban centers

Is there a future for small and independent Indian farmers?

Proponents of reform say existing policies are simply financially unsustainable. Opponents of change say the risks are simply too large for too many people – and the threat to social order too great.

Both sides in the dispute say they won’t budge. All three farming laws have been passed but suspended by the Indian courts as discussions among farmers, farm groups and government officials continue.

But the clock is ticking for India. As the debate drags on, India’s population continues to expand. As it does, the twin responsibilities again emerge. Population growth means more mouths to feed – and more people dependent upon agriculture for their livelihood.

Various international agencies and institutions project that India will become the world’s most populous country within this decade. The total population is projected to climb from 1.3 billion to 1.7 billion by 2050 – within what amounts to a single generation.

That means another 400 million consumers and job seekers will enter the fray – well above the entire current population of the United States, and only slightly less than the number of people in the 27 nations making up the European Union.

The situation in India may add a perverse new economic dimension to the notion of agricultural “sustainability.” Can the country continue to afford the enormous expense of the current approach? Or must it seek some form of greater engagement with an open, competitive marketplace? What approach will best allow Indian agriculture to survive? What’s best for both producers and consumers?

What does any of this mean to Americans?

For the average person watching the video of men and women protesting the new laws, the situation may seem a world away. The truth is that decisions made in the coming months will have an impact on food prices, availability, the stock market, and more. And the same goes for here in the U.S.

Most obviously, the simple humanitarian aspects of the situation should matter to everyone. We are all food consumers.

Food is something we share. It unites us and ties us all together in a shared common basic human need. It is a cornerstone of the philosophy behind Dirt-to-Dinner. When any person’s food security is at risk, we all should pay attention.

For students of the global food system, the outcome will have important ramifications for how food moves around the world.  India already is a major factor in many global markets – rice, cotton, sugar, and wheat, to name just a few. Future policy decisions will help determine whether that involvement in global markets expands – or not. If India’s producers elect to apply their productive capacity to capturing more foreign market opportunities, the world will see an even larger player in the international food marketplace.  Consumers everywhere could have more choice, and also enjoy the discipline imposed on food prices when nations truly compete to supply the world’s food needs.

On another level, the situation in India should provide a cautionary tale for food consumers everywhere. It demonstrates the importance of making balanced decisions about the agricultural policies and programs that create our modern food system. It shows what happens when our best intentions — to provide food and incomes for all — veer too far from economic reality. The tragic decline of Venezuela’s economy and rampant food insecurity already have provided one important object lesson in fundamental food economics. It’s a lesson we all need to remember, from Delhi to DC, and everywhere in between.

What is the Biden Era Agricultural Agenda?

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The Changing Cast of Players

The new Congress and Administration will feature some new names in key roles for shaping our nation’s food and agriculture system. And while some familiar from the Obama Administration, experienced old hands in ag matters also will show up on the leadership roster, they will have an agenda that differs significantly from the past four years – and just as likely, a different approach to the role of government.

On Capitol Hill, long-time House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) is being replaced by Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.).

On the Senate side, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is expected to return to her previously-held role during the Obama Administration as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Another familiar name from the Obama Administration – Tom Vilsack — also has been tapped to return as Secretary of Agriculture. Some elements of the left-wing of the Democrat Party have been critical of his nomination due to his familiarity with traditional farm and food organizations, as well as his past comments on climate change and minority relations. But Vilsack brings extensive experience and knowledge of all aspects of the food system. He has enjoyed the support of a wide spectrum of the agricultural community throughout his extensive career in public service.

New Players, New Agenda

The new leadership group undoubtedly brings a lot of experience in food and agriculture to the table. But the challenges confronting the American food system are very different from just a few short years ago. The change in administration brought a new and updated set of priorities – and a very different view of the role of government in dealing with those challenges.

Expect to see Congress and the Biden Administration focus on:

  • Covid-19. Stemming the spread of the virus will be the most visible immediate priority not just for the agriculture committees but the entire government. Access to vaccines in rural areas will be high on the agenda, as will continuing economic support for those most damaged by the lockdown.
  • Climate change. Don’t look for omnibus “climate change” legislation from either ag committee as much as efforts to promote conservation and other regenerative environmental practices by farmers and ranchers through expansion of existing programs and additional incentives for responsible, environmentally beneficial farming practices, all carefully couched and presented as ‘climate change’ initiatives. Many immediate actions are likely to involve a flurry of executive orders rather than time-consuming and contentious legislation. The creation of a ‘carbon market’ for agriculture will be a popular item for debate.

While the focus on climate change comes as no surprise, the farm community anxiously awaits some sign of the approach to be taken. Farm leaders urge policymakers to think in terms of carrots rather than sticks. That is, they note that the farm community by and large is supportive of the broad effort to act responsibly on matters that affect the climate, and the environment.

Policies that incentivize and reward positive actions will work better than threats of punishment for failure to comply. That approach is best in unleashing the creative and entrepreneurial capabilities of the farm sector, far more than an imposition of rules and regulations devised solely or largely by bureaucrats.

  • Rural economic development and revitalization. After years of declining net farm income and massive direct government payments, both legislators and administration officials will be looking at bigger, more comprehensive packages to stimulate rural economic vitality. Look for initiatives to promote growth in ‘green’ jobs, expand health care services and improve broadband access.
  • Social equity. Congressional leaders, in particular, have been outspoken in the need to address perceived economic inequities, notably for smaller farm operators and minority farmers and ranchers. Prominent Democrats also have called for immediate attention to farm labor issues, to address matters of wages, work conditions, organizing rights, and other concerns.
  • Relations with China. No market remains more important to the economic interests of farmers and ranchers. Efforts to promote improved relations and fulfillment of ambitious purchase commitments by the Chinese will remain top priorities. But expect a more studied effort to assess overall U.S. China relations, of which agricultural interests are just one part of the bigger picture of future relations between the two countries. Also, look for greater movement toward a multilateral team approach – especially with the EU – from the Biden Administration…it will be a movement away from the bilateral approach of recent years to more emphasis on building coalitions capable of exerting influence on the Chinese.

  • Improved trade opportunities. The ‘America first’ approach of recent years is likely to evolve into a more traditional model of negotiation, built around ‘constructive engagement.’ Bilateral trade negotiations to open new market opportunities will no doubt continue. But also look for much more energy behind attempts to revive and rejoin broader trade initiatives and agreements, notably in the Pacific and among long-standing U.S. allies.
  • Don’t rock the boat. Basic farm programs and policies have worked well for years, providing Americans (and others around the world) with a steady supply of affordable, nutritious, safe, and expanding food choices. No one in government wants to change the basic direction of our farm and food policies or to risk radical changes that harm the hard-won framework of rules, protections, and incentives that makes such a system possible. But there is a strong new commitment to making the system work better for all those involved in the system, and to address the legitimate environmental issues and questions arising from the climate change debate.

Beyond the Agriculture Committees

The agriculture committees undeniably make up the center of gravity in crafting food and agricultural policy. But other parts of Congress also come into play.

  • Taxes. Any farmer will quickly point out that farming is a capital-intensive business. Finance and money management are critical skills – and a major area of interest, especially when candidates and elected officials in a new political era have made the issue of “revenue” a major target area for attention.

Continuing economic challenges from the pandemic, coupled with a generally more ambitious agenda of government initiatives, mean an almost certain review and revision of tax laws. It will likely involve examining a range of tax policies, including capital gains, gift taxes, inheritance taxes, accounting rules, and more.

For an economic sector largely based on family ownership and reliant on land values as a key element of their financial strength, these are highly important subjects. Expect the food and agriculture community to keep a close eye on the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, and the new Biden Administration’s role in shaping any changes to tax laws.

  • Technology. Advances in technology are sweeping across the global agricultural system. Congress is trying to keep pace. The current focus on communication technology is expanding to cover other areas, with the gradual emergence of a variety of science and technology groups advocating a re-think of how Congress deals with the need to better understand and constructively guide the sector’s expanding role in all aspects of life, from the farm to the dinner table. Keep an eye on this wild-card in the emerging new era of government.
  • Health care. The pandemic helped focus attention on the need to improve health-care delivery across the country, in particular in the rural areas underserved by the existing system. The Biden Administration has made economic revitalization of rural America a priority, and expansion of health care services and facilities should be a substantial component of that effort. Look for additional collaboration between the Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, as well as a greater collaborative effort among all health-related departments and agencies.

  • Infrastructure. Like health care, the broad issue of improving the nation’s crumbling infrastructure also will have implications for the agricultural community and all of rural America. Maintenance of roads and bridges is a key component of the modern food chain, and most local authorities will agree that more needs to be done to maintain and improve what already exists. The big question will be not so much where such efforts should be focused, but how to pay for them.
  • Research. The Department of Agriculture and congressional committees traditionally made science and research a key element of their policy agenda. The new administration has made “science-based” decision-making a fundamental plank of their campaign. The agricultural community is waiting anxiously to see exactly what that means, in terms of the decisions to be made regarding the role of genetics in expanding food production, and the willingness of the government to continue sharing the financial burden of aggressive research on food and environmental matters.

Digging into the Biden Era Agricultural Agenda

The Changing Cast of Players

The new Congress and Administration will feature some new names in key roles for shaping our nation’s food and agriculture system. And while some familiar from the Obama Administration, experienced old hands in ag matters also will show up on the leadership roster, they will have an agenda that differs significantly from the past four years – and just as likely, a different approach to the role of government.

On Capitol Hill, long-time House Agriculture Committee Chair Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) is being replaced by Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.).

On the Senate side, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) is expected to return to her previously-held role during the Obama Administration as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Another familiar name from the Obama Administration – Tom Vilsack — also has been tapped to return as Secretary of Agriculture. Some elements of the left-wing of the Democrat Party have been critical of his nomination due to his familiarity with traditional farm and food organizations, as well as his past comments on climate change and minority relations. But Vilsack brings extensive experience and knowledge of all aspects of the food system. He has enjoyed the support of a wide spectrum of the agricultural community throughout his extensive career in public service.

A Rare Glimpse of Bipartisanship

Food and agricultural policy has been one of the few examples of functional bipartisanship, crafting farm bills running hundreds of pages. This daunting task demands cooperation and a willingness to listen and compromise, among dozens of committee members representing rural, suburban, and urban interests. They cover everything from production agriculture to nutrition to rural development to commodity markets to SNAP to bioenergy – and a long list of all the policy matters that make our food system function. Between farm bills, the committees wrestle with the same dynamics in dealing with individual legislative proposals that emerge in every Congress.

The unique world of food and agriculture has helped foster a spirit of bipartisanship not often found elsewhere on Capitol Hill. That’s not to say there aren’t sharp differences in ideology or priorities or approaches. And as the committee membership continues to become more inclusive and diverse – with expanding representation from outside the rural sector – the potential for sharp differences certainly increases.

These committees share and are united by a recognition of the critical importance of providing not just Americans but others around the world with the safe, nutritious and affordable food they need, produced responsibly and sustainably.

Together, they have built the framework of the rules of the road that make such a remarkable food system possible.

In such an environment, the leaders from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue become especially important to continuing the bipartisan process. They must be solid leaders – knowledgeable of both the broad issues and specific details of farm policy, and highly skilled in building bridges with committee members and the rest of the Congress. They have no choice in the matter. Farm legislation simply can’t pass without the support of a diverse congressional membership that increasingly is urban and suburban, not uniquely rural.

Both outgoing House Agriculture Committee Chair Rep. Collin Peterson and Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Sen. Pat Roberts are widely regarded as consummate diplomats and political bridge-builders. It’s now up to Rep. Scott and Sen. Stabenow to maintain that spirit in an era of the continuing partisan divide. With both committees divided into almost equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, that means their relationships with the ranking minority members of each committee will be very important.

In the House, that role goes to Rep. Glenn Thompson of Pennsylvania. As another long-standing member of the panel, Thompson also has extensive first-hand experience in farm-related legislation. He also brings a particularly strong focus on education, including support for wider educational opportunities at land-grant colleges and universities, as well as strong advocacy for expanded access to better health care, especially in rural areas.

On the Senate side, the role of ranking minority member will go to Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas. He also brings an extensive record of service on the committee, as well as the highly important Senate Appropriations Committee. He has served on various subcommittees deal with a spectrum of key food and agricultural issues, from production agriculture, conservation, nutrition, and research. His background as a small business owner and an expert in health care matters also are noteworthy.

New Players, New Agenda

The new leadership group undoubtedly brings a lot of experience in food and agriculture to the table. But the challenges confronting the American food system are very different from just a few short years ago. The change in administration brought a new and updated set of priorities – and a very different view of the role of government in dealing with those challenges.

Expect to see Congress and the Biden Administration focus on:

  • Covid-19. Stemming the spread of the virus will be the most visible immediate priority not just for the agriculture committees but the entire government. Access to vaccines in rural areas will be high on the agenda, as will continuing economic support for those most damaged by the lockdown.
  • Climate change. Don’t look for omnibus “climate change’ legislation from either ag committee as much as efforts to promote conservation and other regenerative environmental practices by farmers and ranchers through expansion of existing programs and additional incentives for responsible, environmentally beneficial farming practices, all carefully couched and presented as ‘climate change’ initiatives. Many immediate actions are likely to involve a flurry of executive orders rather than time-consuming and contentious legislation. The creation of a ‘carbon market’ for agriculture will be a popular item for debate. (D2D will look at climate-related issues in more depth in future posts.

While the focus on climate change comes as no surprise, the farm community anxiously awaits some sign of the approach to be taken. Farm leaders urge policymakers to think in terms of carrots rather than sticks. That is, they note that the farm community by and large is supportive of the broad effort to act responsibly on matters that affect the climate, and the environment.

Policies that incentivize and reward positive actions will work better than threats of punishment for failure to comply. That approach is best in unleashing the creative and entrepreneurial capabilities of the farm sector, far more than an imposition of rules and regulations devised solely or largely by bureaucrats.

  • Rural economic development and revitalization. After years of declining net farm income and massive direct government payments, both legislators and administration officials will be looking at bigger, more comprehensive packages to stimulate rural economic vitality. Look for initiatives to promote growth in ‘green’ jobs, expand health care services and improve broadband access.
  • Social equity. Congressional leaders, in particular, have been outspoken in the need to address perceived economic inequities, notably for smaller farm operators and minority farmers and ranchers. Prominent Democrats also have called for immediate attention to farm labor issues, to address matters of wages, work conditions, organizing rights, and other concerns.
  • Relations with China. No market remains more important to the economic interests of farmers and ranchers. Efforts to promote improved relations and fulfillment of ambitious purchase commitments by the Chinese will remain top priorities. But expect a more studied effort to assess overall U.S. China relations, of which agricultural interests are just one part of the bigger picture of future relations between the two countries. Also, look for greater movement toward a multilateral team approach – especially with the EU – from the Biden Administration – It will be a movement away from the bilateral approach of recent years to more emphasis on building coalitions capable of exerting influence on the Chinese.

  • Improved trade opportunities. The ‘America first’ approach of recent years is likely to evolve into a more traditional model of negotiation, built around ‘constructive engagement.’ Bilateral trade negotiations to open new market opportunities will no doubt continue. But also look for much more energy behind attempts to revive and rejoin broader trade initiatives and agreements, notably in the Pacific and among long-standing U.S. allies.
  • Don’t rock the boat. Basic farm programs and policies have worked well for years, providing Americans (and others around the world) with a steady supply of affordable, nutritious, safe, and expanding food choices. No one in government wants to change the basic direction of our farm and food policies or to risk radical changes that harm the hard-won framework of rules, protections, and incentives that makes such a system possible. But there is a strong new commitment to making the system work better for all those involved in the system, and to address the legitimate environmental issues and questions arising from the climate change debate.

Beyond the Agriculture Committees

The agriculture committees undeniably make up the center of gravity in crafting food and agricultural policy. But other parts of Congress also come into play.

  • Taxes. Any farmer will quickly point out that farming is a capital-intensive business. Finance and money management are critical skills – and a major area of interest, especially when candidates and elected officials in a new political era have made the issue of “revenue” a major target area for attention.

Continuing economic challenges from the pandemic, coupled with a generally more ambitious agenda of government initiatives, mean an almost certain review and revision of tax laws. It will likely involve examining a range of tax policies, including capital gains, gift taxes, inheritance taxes, accounting rules, and more.

For an economic sector largely based on family ownership and reliant on land values as a key element of their financial strength, these are highly important subjects. Expect the food and agriculture community to keep a close eye on the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, and the new Biden Administration’s role in shaping any changes to tax laws.

  • Technology. Advances in technology are sweeping across the global agricultural system. Congress is trying to keep pace. The current focus on communication technology is expanding to cover other areas, with the gradual emergence of a variety of science and technology groups advocating a re-think of how Congress deals with the need to better understand and constructively guide the sector’s expanding role in all aspects of life, from the farm to the dinner table. Keep an eye on this wild-card in the emerging new era of government.
  • Health care. The pandemic helped focus attention on the need to improve health-care delivery across the country, in particular in the rural areas underserved by the existing system. The Biden Administration has made economic revitalization of rural America a priority, and expansion of health care services and facilities should be a substantial component of that effort. Look for additional collaboration between the Department of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, as well as a greater collaborative effort among all health-related departments and agencies.

  • Infrastructure. Like health care, the broad issue of improving the nation’s crumbling infrastructure also will have implications for the agricultural community and all of rural America. Maintenance of roads and bridges is a key component of the modern food chain, and most local authorities will agree that more needs to be done to maintain and improve what already exists. The big question will be not so much where such efforts should be focused, but how to pay for them.
  • Research. The Department of Agriculture and congressional committees traditionally made science and research a key element of their policy agenda. The new administration has made “science-based” decision-making a fundamental plank of their campaign. The agricultural community is waiting anxiously to see exactly what that means – in terms of the decisions to be made regarding the role of genetics in expanding food production, and the willingness of the government to continue sharing the financial burden of aggressive research on food and environmental matters.

Blue Zones: Long & Healthy Living

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Why are so many of us overweight, over-stressed, and prone to so many diseases? It’s easy to blame genetics or factors beyond our control. But as more and more studies pile up on the subject, we’re finding that the decisions we make every day affect our health much more so than our genetic makeup.

Living better and longer

Scientists and academics who have examined human longevity in-depth have identified locations called “Blue Zones.” These are geographic areas and cultural enclaves around the world with many citizens aged 90 and older. Here in the U.S., we have an average lifespan of only 78 years, so what’s the secret?

“Individuals get lucky, populations don’t,”  – Dr. Dan Buettner, longevity expert

Genetics indeed plays a role in making longer lives possible. But these studies suggest genetics is only about 20% of the equation. The remaining 80% is from epigenetics, where your lifestyle determines how your genes express themselves.

It comes down to a few simple yet powerful guidelines:

  • Eat a balanced and nutritious diet
  • Get plenty of physical exercise, and find ways to reduce stress
  • Stay mentally vibrant and intellectually engaged in life, and with others

Internationally recognized researcher, explorer, founder of Earthtreks, Inc., Emmy Award winner for co-producing PBS’s Scientific American, and most recently an author and American National Geographic Fellow, Dr. Dan Buettner, worked with the National Institute on Aging, pioneering incisive new research in the ways people everywhere pursue longer, healthier lives.

Dr. Buettner shared his discoveries in his book, Blue Zones: Lessons From the World’s Longest Lived where he interviewed 263 individuals from Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, California.

The “Power 9”

The nine common denominators discovered through this decade-long study were a series of lifestyle choices, not quick solutions, that are believed to slow our aging process.

  1. Moving naturally refers to our daily activities. Rather than setting aside an hour of the day to exercise, these populations are natural movers. They garden, they walk, they do housework both inside and outside, the commute on foot, their jobs are physical. Their everyday routines are much less sedentary than the typical American work-life cycle.
  2. The purpose of the Okinawans, called ikigai, is an understanding that they can make a difference in others’ lives every day. This motivation to live each day is fueled directly by a sense of purpose, a reason to get out there and live with meaning.
  3. Downshifting is a major takeaway from each culture, which often use a part of their day or week to seek rest. This “downshift” is the practice of managing their stress by ensuring rest. We know that stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which is associated with a variety of age-related diseases. The Okinawans take time each day to remember their ancestors, while the Ikarians commonly nap. Sardinians downshift by having daily happy hour, while Adventists rest on Sundays.
  4. The 80% Rule is a 2,500-year-old rule from Okinawa’s Confucian ancestors. They say the mantra before each meal to remind them to only eat to 80% capacity. That 20% gap is the difference between losing or gaining weight. People in the Blue Zones generally tend to eat their smallest meal in the late afternoon or early evening and then fast for the remainder of the day.

  1. Wine @ 5 refers to all Blue Zones, save for California, whose Adventist population does not drink alcohol. The trick is to keep drinks to 1 or 2 glasses per day, often with food and friends.
  2. Belonging is a critical part of the findings. All but five of the 263 centenarians who were interviewed belonged to some type of faith-based community. The denomination did not seem to matter. The research showed that attending a faith-based gathering four times per month added four to 14 years of life expectancy.
  3. Loved ones first is widely practiced in these communities by having their grandparents and great-grandparents live very close. Furthermore, these communities were known for committing to one partner for life, allowing them more time to invest in their children and to share love.
  4. The right tribe goes hand in hand with social circles. The world’s longest-living people were either born into or chose social groups that support healthy lifestyles. For example, the Okinawans created moais, which is a group of five friends that committed to each other for life. These groups proved to combat loneliness and decrease negative lifestyle factors.
  5. Eating practices for these locations included a diet rich in vegetables, legumes, whole grains, and nuts. Additionally, they also often practiced fasting, as well as decreased calorie intake. The Blue Zones also eat diets that are fish heavy, as a preferred protein. For example, in Icaria and Sardinia, fish is a staple and high in omega 3s.

Does location determine longevity?

National Geographic and Dr. Buettner did not originally set out to uncover these Blue Zones. In fact, they were embarking on what was originally designed to be an expedition to explore uniquely different areas of the world, only to find out that these 9 factors were major contributors to their longevity.

We know that there is no actual fountain of youth and that moving to these exotic places is not going to add years to your life. According to Buettner, these populations were not ‘trying’ to be healthy- they had not set out on a health quest to cleanse themselves, or create new ways of life. No, it was innate. The environment in which they lived was primarily natural, they worked near loved ones and knew their purpose. They broke bread with family and took the time to recharge.

Blue Zones, in partnership with Healthways, created what is called the Blue Zones Project which has set out to bring the Power 9 longevity principles to entire communities. To focus on changing environments, and creating long-term sustainable change for future generations.

This task is no small feat. Changing the way communities move, and share and eat and grow requires a lot of effort, as Buettner details:

“We work with restaurants, grocery stores, schools, and large employers to make healthier foods more accessible and less expensive. We also work with local community groups and religious institutions to create walking groups and other opportunities for residents to meet new people, create new connections, and improve their lives with volunteer work or new hobbies…we make it easier for people to move naturally, make new friends, and eat healthy.”

So far, the results have been dramatic. The first community work for this project was in Alberta Lea, MN. In a single year, the citizens added 2.9 years to their lifespans, with healthcare claims decreasing by 49%. There are now 42 Blue Zone project cities in the U.S. We look forward to seeing what changes these communities will actualize. According to Dr. Buettner:

“…through policy and environmental changes, the Blue Zones Project Communities have been able to increase life expectancy, reduce obesity, and make the healthy choice the easy choice for millions of Americans.”

Hope for the rest of us

And while we know this is one study, the initial results support other research for living longer. We know about some similar lifestyle suggestions such as meditation, the Mediterranean Diet, the importance of exercise, the need to have a purpose in life, and the critical component of love with family and friends.

We must, for the health of ourselves, and our children, focus on the whole body. From decreasing our stress to prioritizing our loved ones, to giving ourselves the time to relax and recharge, to not overeating and focusing more on the foods we eat than being full.

Meeting Demand: A New Type of Salmon

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Innovation and creative thinking in the protein industry is ever-evolving. You may have read some of our posts on the perils of overfishing our oceans and rivers. So when I heard about the genetically-modified AquAdvantage salmon that addresses sustainability issues as well as the potential to bring income to rural America, I was immediately curious. Of course, I wondered whether it was regulated and what the testing looked like. So I dug deeper and learned a lot about how this fish is grown.

AquAdvantage – What is it?

AquAdvantage Salmon is the first genetically-modified salmon approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada. AquaBounty, the company behind AquAdvantage, has its unlikely farm in Indiana. Yes – the Midwest can grow salmon!

This fish is more sustainable and unique because it can grow to maturity in just 18 months, compared to 36 months for a traditionally farmed salmon. Both take significantly less time than their wild cousins, which can take 7 years.

Farmed and wild Atlantic salmon stop growing during the winter and when they are environmentally stressed. Wild salmon take so long to reach maturity because they are foraging for food, avoiding predators, and dealing with tough environmental conditions. Farmed salmon also have a tough time growing because, even though they are swimming in enclosed sea nets, they are still exposed to diseases, parasites, and sometimes water that is too warm.

30 years ago, the AquaBounty salmon was genetically modified to help survive their early, most vulnerable stages of growth. Just like a labradoodle dog — a cross between a Labrador Retriever and a Poodle — an AquAdvantage salmon is a combination of the Atlantic salmon, the Chinook salmon’s growth gene, and a gene promoter from an ocean pout. Not the most attractive fish in the ocean, the major benefit of the ocean pout is that their ‘promoters’ turn on the Chinook growth gene to make the fish grow all the time, as opposed to seasonal growth with the Atlantic salmon’s promoters. And if an ocean pout was on the menu, I would certainly try one, growth promoter and all.

What does the FDA say?

The FDA approved the AquAdvantage salmon as “safe and effective” under the new animal drug provisions of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act in November 2015.

The FDA studied this fish for over 25 years. The first 10 years were setting up the prenotification process before filing for approval. For the next 15 years, they wanted to prove three things: Is it safe for the fish? Is it safe for humans? Is it safe for the environment? The answer to all three was yes.

Finally, after all these years of research development and regulatory evaluation, the first fish is expected to be harvested in December 2020 at AquaBounty’s farm in Indiana.

There is no mystery involved here. You will know when you are eating an AquaBounty fish when you buy your fish at a market or grocery store. The USDA National Bioengineered Food Disclosure Act requires ‘mandatory standards for disclosing foods that are or may be bioengineered’. However, restaurants are not under an obligation to highlight genetically modified salmon on their menu.

Less Feed – Better Conversion Rate

One of the most remarkable attributes of this breed is that, despite its continual growth, it requires less daily food. The on-farm results with AquAdvantage salmon have confirmed the scientific studies and demonstrated that it is possible to produce one pound of fish with less than one pound of feed. This is compared to most farmed Atlantic salmon which take one pound of fish feed to grow one pound of fish.

Grown without antibiotics in Indoor Farms

All of these fish are – and will be – grown in highly-regulated fish farms. If you ever had a fish tank, this is not the same thing. Biofiltration units keep the water clean, fresh, and provide great conditions where this salmon can thrive. Because of the clean environment, the fish do not get sick or acquire sea lice, so they are always grown without antibiotics.

The tanks are completely contained without the possibility of a fish escaping into the wild. Yet they are big enough for the fish to jump and swim in schools – allowing them to be their natural selves.  They do not have to forage for food as they are fed just enough for them to grow and not too much to stimulate excessive waste.

AquaBounty’s indoor grow-out tanks prevent escapement and eliminate parasites that lead to disease.

Stimulating Economic Growth in Rural America

So much of rural America has lost the benefits of agriculture. Bringing fish farms to parts of America is a way to boost economic growth, especially in the mountainous areas such as West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. It is an opportunity to bring jobs and income to areas that have lost their income in part due to bankruptcies in the farming sector, many in the dairy industry.

Riding my motorcycle around some of the beautiful Pennsylvania northern counties, all I see are fallow farms and beautiful, stately barns – falling apart.

AquaBounty has found that Indiana, where the company has its current U.S. farm, and other mid-west locations, are great examples of states committed to AgriTech.

AquaBounty actively works with local and state governments and agencies that are committed to AgriTech. They believe this is the future of agriculture as well as their state’s economic and employment growth.

AquaBounty also closely monitors the USDA Rural Economic Development Program as part of the site selection process.

Why do we need AquAdvantage?

In 2018, Atlantic salmon, second to shrimp, was the most valued farmed fish in the world. The upward projections continue and is expected to grow to 4 million tons by just 2023, from about 3.5 million tons in 2019. The U.S. imports about 400,000 tons of salmon every year. About 70% come from farms – mostly in Norway, Chile, Scotland, and Canada.

Salmon is particularly healthy — it is rich in minerals, micronutrients, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and many vitamins. Not only is salmon good for you, but it is easy to cook for dinner, throw together in a salad, or even have as sushi. More and more consumers are enjoying the health, taste, and ease of cooking it at home.

However, we cannot catch them all with a fishing pole or a fishing boat or we will not have any left.

Remember the Atlantic Cod off the coast of Maine? As a D2D reader, you may have read about the sustainable importance of farmed fish versus wild-caught.

As the oceans become over-fished, there are many benefits to eating fish grown from responsibly managed fish farms and ocean fisheries.

With diligent oversight, these operations help meet demand while natural aquatic habitats improve from current overfished conditions.

What do consumers say about GMO fish?

Concerned about whether consumers would embrace a genetically engineered fish, the AquaBounty management team conducted extensive research to determine their reaction. Here are key points from Quantitative Research Executive Summary:

  • 53% of consumers’ initial impressions of the term GMO/GE are neutral to positive – many are conflicted
  • Respondents are neutral about purchasing products they regularly buy if labeled GMO/GE.
  • Almost three-quarters rank level of trust for government agencies to provide oversight/guidelines as Neutral to Trust Very Much
  • Top-ranked attributes for AquAdvantage Salmon: Chemical free, Nutritious, Antibiotic Free Consistent Access to Fresh Fish, Affordability, FDA Approved

What do NGOs and Political Figures say about a GMO Fish?

When the news came out, even our local fish market had loud ‘NO GMO SALMON HERE’ signs posted everywhere. Of course, it was not sold ‘here’ because the salmon was a couple of years away from being available….

Concern: Anti-GMO, NGOs, and other groups filed a legal challenge in March 2016 in the San Francisco federal court. The first challenge was whether the FDA’s animal drug authority could oversee genetically-engineered animals and fish. The second claim said that the FDA violated core environmental laws in the event these fish escaped into the wild.

Response: Judge Vince Chhabria of San Francisco affirmed that the FDA had the authority to oversee genetically-engineered animals and fish. For the second claim, while he understood that the FDA had thoroughly analyzed the exceptionally low probability of escape, they did not address the consequences if this breed of salmon were to establish a persistent population in the wild. Judge Chhabria ruled that AquaBounty can continue its operations in Prince Edward Island, Canada and Indiana. Nor did the Judge prevent AquaBounty from harvesting in December 2020.

AquAdvantage salmon cannot make the leap from a land-based indoor tank to the wild. All these facilities have tightly-closed septic and water systems to prevent eggs or fish from escaping.

In addition, all the fish will be sterile females and, unlike the protogynous sea bass, a female salmon cannot turn into a productive male, thus procreating with wild salmon – or any other fish for that matter. Once a salmon is sterile – it is sterile.

Other concerns such as those from The Consumer’s Union are worth mentioning as their issues are similar to GMOs overall.

Concern: More and more children are getting allergic reactions to different types of foods, like nuts and eggs. Since these salmon are GMOs, they must contribute to children’s allergies.  They are also an advocate of labeling.

Response: As we have mentioned in previous posts regarding GMOs, all GMOs are tested for allergies…in fact, every single allergy known to humans. AquAdvantage fish are no exception. It is also worth noting that the gene brought into the salmon is a growth promoter. There are no known allergies to naturally occurring growth hormones.

Response:  These GMOs are required to be labeled if they are sold at the fish market or grocery store. However, not at a restaurant.

Concern: GM Watch says that these hormones can cause cancer and the fish could have different protein levels. The concern is that the additional hormones create a hormone called IGF-1 that increases insulin and causes cancer.

Response: When you eat an AquAdvantage salmon, the growth gene from the Chinook salmon and the growth promoter from the ocean pout could not affect you or change your genes.  It is the same as eating any type of seafood. They all have growth hormones – otherwise, they would not grow!

The IGF-1 hormone is necessary for all vertebrae and mammals to mature. While the ocean pout hormone is different than the salmon hormone, this hormone does not produce more insulin in the human body. In truth, the IGF-1 hormone is present in humans already and a too low level might cause diabetes and other health issues.

Concern: This fish has a higher ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3 fats, compared to other salmon that have more omega 3s.

Response: A different growth hormone does not affect the nutritional quality of this salmon. Also, most farmed fish are fed with by-catch. In this case, they are working with an algae product that produces the same fatty acid profile as fish.

5 Top Issues Important to Farmers

We asked hundreds of farmers and ranchers across the United States to tell us their thoughts on the 2020 presidential election and the issues that matter most to them going forward to help us better tell their stories. Here are the 5 issues they said were most important as a farmer in America.

5. Farmer Subsidies

“Farmer subsidies” refers to the financial assistance they receive from the government, and over half of our respondents said farm income is one of their top concerns. This also includes economic support programs during an especially weak and unsettled farm economy.

Over a quarter of respondents included farmer subsidies in the top 3 most important issues to them. However, many said that they don’t want to live on government subsidies and that agriculture needs an open market and fair trade instead.

4. Educate a Disconnected Consumer

28% of our respondents put this category into the top 3 most important issues to them and it is an issue we are seeing become more prevalent among farmers and consumers alike.

Transparency is a reoccurring topic and, in terms of farming, it refers to consumers being aware of where their food came from, along with every step of the production process until it is on their table. Education also includes pesticide application, GMO crops, organic farming, and farming practices in general.

When asked about common misperceptions regarding farmers, some responses were:

“They (think we) play in the dirt all day.”

“That we are not astute business people. They do not recognize that we are managing multi-million-dollar business enterprises… and that we are better educated than the majority of the US population.”

3. Input Costs

35% of our total respondents included input costs in their top 3 issues American farmers face today. Many feel as though politicians underestimate the costs it takes to run a farm and they think farmers are much more profitable and wealthy than they actually are.

Farmers made it clear they don’t want to live on government subsidies. Lower input costs would help them achieve this and become profitable.

2. Global Free Trade

Global free trade was a common issue among many farmers and 37% of our respondents put it in their top three.

When asked to address further what either political party could do to help, many responded to support free trade. They also want less government intervention across all aspects of agriculture. Some wrote that they want to see an improvement in economic policy and stability in regard to both global trade and all of ag.

1. Trade with China

Trade with China was the most common issue we saw among farmers. 40% of our respondents included it in their top three.

Farmers are especially concerned about the unsettled state of relations with China. When asked about the most important thing either party could do to help farmers and ranchers in America, many responded to resolve the trade war with China.

COVID had a large effect on global trade, however, China still remains a vital participant. In 2018, China led the country with the highest amount of combined imports and exports at $5 trillion. We need trade with China and they need trade with us, and farmers recognize this.

To see the full Farmer and Rancher Election Survey results, click here.

Farmer & Rancher Election Survey Results

Our thanks to the hundreds of farmers and ranchers who took time during a busy season to tell us what they think about how the two major political parties are addressing their interests and concerns in the 2020 election campaign. These responses will help D2D do even more to tell your story.

Given this heated political environment and neither presidential platform addressing highly-specific plans for agriculture and food production, we set out with a goal to better understand the issues affecting American farmers – their concerns, hopes, and thoughts about the next four years.

A look at our respondents

Our survey launched in late September and amassed 300 completions from U.S. farmers and ranchers. Respondents provided a good cross-section of the farm and ranch population. They tended to be:

  • 45 years of age or older, and overwhelmingly politically aware and engaged
  • Diverse, across all types of farms sizes and crops/livestock
  • Dispersed geographically with a heavy concentration in the Midwest, reflecting the overall national character of farming and ranching

Cutting to the chase

Overall, respondents believe the Republican party is stronger on general farm economics and trade, and earned consistently higher marks than the Democratic party across all areas of interest addressed in the survey. 

Furthermore, respondents believe Republicans better understand their professional challenges and that the party will better support them by promoting their sound farming practices.

Democrats fared relatively better on questions related to environmental protection, food safety, diet, and nutrition – but still trailed the GOP in each category.

Putting issues in order

Farmers and ranchers have a lot to say about the obstacles they face daily to sustain their way of life for their staff, families, livestock, and customers.

When presented with a specific laundry list of potential issues, three out of four respondents cited a trade-related matter as one of their three biggest worries today, especially the unsettled state of relations with China. Just over half said farm income was one of their top concerns, as reflected in both the cost of inputs and availability of subsidies and economic support programs during an especially weak and unsettled farm economy.

But which issue is most important?

When asked to write in detail about what either administration could do right now to help them, most respondents addressed anticipated needs, such as free trade and less government regulation. But a surprising number of respondents looked beyond particular policies and roadblocks and instead, demanded some diplomatic aplomb for the parties to work together and get these issues remedied.

Politicians’ biggest misperceptions

Despite many farmers and ranchers preferring the Republican take on key issues affecting their operations, respondents won’t be giving either political party a free pass on their approach to food and agriculture. They weren’t shy about offering advice to both candidates on how to better connect both politicians and the larger public with the people who produce the nation’s food.

In summary, they believe they are a very misunderstood group. Respondents felt that politicians think they don’t care about the environment, don’t understand the physical and financial demands to run a multi-faceted operation, and that they are just ‘dumb hicks wearing overalls’.

When asked what particular misperceptions about farming and ranching need to be addressed, respondents offered some often colorful comments:

“They [think we] play in the dirt all day.”

“That we are not astute business people. They do not recognize that we are managing multi-million-dollar business enterprises. They do not recognize that we know a balance sheet and that we are better educated than the majority of the US population.”

“We don’t want to have to live on government subsidies.”

Many respondents felt the average politician doesn’t see farming and ranching as a demanding profession that requires shrewd business and operational knowledge. Additionally, respondents believe they also fail to grasp the economic stakes of modern farming and the risks that come with it from so many directions.

Delivering a message to candidates

Farmers and ranchers also had some equally blunt advice to politicians when asked about what they’d tell the presidential candidates if they had the opportunity:

“We provide the best, safest, and cheapest supply of agricultural products in the world, but have to go through expensive risk to do so.”

“Production ag needs markets and fair trade, not subsidies, to succeed long-term.”

“You are both full of manure.” 

The overriding sentiment expressed in this open-ended question was that respondents felt as though the food system they operate every day for every American and countless others around the globe goes unnoticed by politicians and consumers alike. Farmers and ranchers remind us that “we in the middle of the country matter, too”, feeling forgotten or only catered to around election years.

And many expect better treatment for others, too — even presidential candidate to candidate. One piece of sage advice: “Get along with each other’s party…do what is best for America”.

Farmers remain resilient

Despite the litany of misperceptions that need to be addressed, the farmers and ranchers who responded to the D2D survey remain surprisingly optimistic about their future.

After almost seven years of declining income and sustained economic stress, seven in 10 respondents say they are optimistic about the future of their operations.

Making changes on the farm

When asked unaided about the biggest changes they’re currently facing in ag, most individual respondents described several ways they’ve continued their operations amid such instability. They’ve done everything, from cutting costs to utilizing marketing and technological strategies to adding new product lines and income sources.

Get ready…

So who do farmers foresee as president in 2021? Two-thirds of our respondents predict a victory for Donald Trump on Nov. 3.

In Closing

This feedback garnered from farmers and ranchers – our readers and friends—are not the end of the discussion, but just the beginning. Please stay tuned for further efforts to engage and empower our farmers and ranchers who sustain us and our families every day.

To review all quantitative responses in this survey, please click here

Trump vs. Biden: Comparing Ag Platforms

Everyone agrees it will be an important event for all Americans – a momentary pause, if not an end, to the endless argument about the future direction of the country. On November 3rd, we will select our President, our entire House of Representatives, and a third of our Senate.

When it comes to food and agriculture, what makes one presidential candidate different from the other? The significant farm issues are the economy, international trade relationships, China as a strong component but other countries as well; the Renewable Fuel Standard; rural broadband access; the regulatory environment, and COVID. What will be the key goals and objectives they set? What big ideas will drive their actions over the next four years? What is likely to change and what will stay the same?

Don’t expect any great epiphanies from reading party platforms. Such documents are great at grand philosophical statements, but light on the specifics that might risk offending some potential voter. But there are insights in there anyway, especially when combined with the public statements and media coverage that have emerged in this campaign.

Candidates’ Philosophies

We took a look at comparing the policies that would most affect food and agriculture from each of the candidates. We focused on trade, the economy, climate change, and immigration.


America is in trouble, due largely to the missteps of the current administration. America must return to many of the approaches of the previous Democratic administrations, including:

  • a stronger focus on building consensus, stepping up government support and engagement in things that build a fairer society

  • governmental programs to protect individual rights, reduce anti-competitive practices among agricultural businesses, reform our criminal justice system, and expand access to health care, broadband, and other social services

  • more aggressive governmental regulations to climate change, and in the process spur a broad effort to generate new jobs, protect our environment and revive the economy with innovative environmental products and technologies

  • revive a spirit of international cooperation to boost trade


America is on the right track, so let’s stick with what we have started:


  • take the tough steps needed to compete in a global marketplace, while shielding U.S. citizens, with subsidies, from the immediate adverse effects of such actions

  • keep current policies and programs and continue to reduce the governmental barriers that hold back enterprise and initiative

  • support worthwhile government programs but still rely on private enterprise and voluntary effort as the primary engines of progress in protecting the environment and managing financial risk

  • stand up for American interests first in the international arena, especially on matters of trade

Both platforms share some commonalities around the ideas of conservation. Their differing philosophies are on the role of the government as it pertains to conservation, trade, taxes, regulations, and immigration.

Plans for Trade


  • seek international consensus: multilateral and bilateral before negotiating trade agreements

  • restore more traditional negotiating style and posturing with trade partners

  • revitalize focus on boosting ag exports; concerned about Brazil and Argentina taking place of U.S.

  • expand focus on workers’ rights and interests in trade negotiations


  • take the tough steps needed to compete in a global marketplace, while shielding U.S. citizens, with subsidies, from the immediate adverse effects of such actions

  • maintain efforts to implement improved trade deals with China, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Britain, and E.U.

  • enforce tougher negotiating philosophy with focus on exports and long-term opportunities

  • continue direct aid to farmers while negotiating trade deals, currently at $32 billion

 Trump favors the aggressive use of higher tariffs as a tool for negotiating better trade deals. Biden prefers a more traditional approach of focusing on progressive tariff reductions.

Addressing Farm & Rural Economies


  • raise taxes: income, capital gains, corporate tax rate; end stepped-up basis

  • provide more financial support for rural economy via initiatives and infrastructure modernization, including direct farm support, rural health care, broadband

  • support local trade between farmers and schools and hospitals

  • preserve and protect smaller operators from unfair, anti-competitive forces with a higher focus on FTC antitrust regulations such as the Clayton Act, Dodd-Frank, etc., trickling down to farm economy

  • enhance labor rights and protections; support union workers

  • provide more financial support for younger, beginning farmers/ranchers, and smaller farms

  • support Farm Bill and SNAP


  • continue 2017’s tax plan that enables farmers to pass their farms to their next-generation farmers

  • preserve lower-tax environment

  • continue efforts to identify and remove regulatory and other barriers to support private initiative and innovation

  • support broadband throughout rural America

  • continue financial relief through direct payments to affected producers, as needed

  • maintain financial discipline in existing government programs

  • support Farm Bill and SNAP, but close loopholes that allow ‘able-bodied working-age adults’ collecting food stamps to move into a work environment to create a sense of fiscal independence

Trump offers a strategy to continue the ‘America First’ initiative, providing increased business opportunities by limiting regulatory barriers, while providing relief to those in need. Biden proposes tax increases to overhaul current systems in rural America, such as broadband access and healthcare. He also plans to strengthen antitrust enforcement.

Climate Change & Sustainability Affecting Ag


  • Green New Deal is ‘a crucial framework’ for climate challenges

  • make American ag first in the world to achieve net-zero carbon emissions

  • increase research funding focused on zero-carbon and productivity-increase goals

  • support renewable fuels and ethanol mandates

  • expand financial incentives for programs that reduce greenhouse gases – conservation reserves, reduced tillage, ‘blue sink’ programs, regenerative ag

  • expand USDA’s Conservation Stewardship Program

  • promote development of new, innovative products and technologies related to environmental protection, reduced carbon footprint


  • against Green New Deal due to added costs and reduced income for farmers and added regulations

  • maintain existing conservation programs, including Conservation Stewardship Program, based on voluntary participation

  • encourage regenerative ag, soil and farm technology, and clean water

  • continue to support Renewable Fuel Standard program, including ethanol

Both parties maintain conservation efforts as a priority and state that ’sound science’ is highly important in addressing food and ag issues, but neither is anxious to define exactly what ’sound science’ is, other than a broad philosophic concept.

While Biden looks to increase funding on its zero-carbon emission goal, Trump focuses its funding on renewable energy sources and fuel alternatives.



  • take immediate action to undo policies regarding wall construction on U.S. and Mexico border

  • reassert a commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees and investigate the root cause of irregular immigration

  • reexamine relationships in Central American nations as part of plan to deter violence causing influx of refugees

  • create doorway for seasonal farm labor and migrant workers

  • address path to citizenship for undocumented workers


  • continue funding for construction of a wall to differentiate nation’s border with Mexico

  • close legal loopholes that enable illegal immigration

  • end chain migration and eliminate visa lottery program

  • continue work on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and move to a more merit-based immigration plan

Biden would work to reverse the Trump administration’s U.S.-Mexico wall construction and instead focus on refugees and irregular migration from the southern border. Trump would maintain a strong process for legalizing immigrants, including the continuation of his work on DACA. In a continued effort to deter illegal immigration, construction would resume on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Summing it all up…

Biden & Harris’ platform proposes a larger and more aggressive role for the federal government in guiding the system through wide-ranging policies and programs that overlap with wider social, environmental, and other policy objectives.

Trump & Pence maintain a more traditional role for the government in creating an environment that rewards individual initiative and competitiveness in pursuing many of the same ultimate goals — economic growth, environmental protection and sustainability, adaptation to changing societal needs, and expectations of our modern food system.

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Chlorinated Chicken: Public Health or Politics?

On the run? Listen to our post!

The United Kingdom says no to chlorinated chicken. But is their opposition based on science – or something else?

As I took my chicken breasts out of the package and put them in the baking dish, some of the chicken juice splashed into the sink. I dutifully scrubbed the sink and threw away the packaging, hoping no pathogens survived or dripped on the floor on the way to the garbage. I know I’m not the only one concerned about contamination in a food prep area. No one wants to get food poisoning.

To counter this concern, a small share of U.S. poultry processors use a mild sanitizing spray as the chicken pieces are getting washed which includes chlorine as part of their rigorous food safety procedures. Most scientists – as well as U.S. and even European food safety agencies — agree the practice poses no substantial health threat to people who consume the chicken.

But UK trade negotiators say ‘no’ to such a practice anyway, and use this reason to deny U.S. imports of lower-cost poultry into Great Britain. They argue such practices are inconsistent with the more stringent food standards they prefer. Better to focus on how poultry is grown, processed, and handled, they say. Focus on preventing a potential food safety problem more than on correcting it. to prevents E. Coli in cattle. U.S. trade officials say it’s just an excuse to close off an important export market for U.S. agriculture and to protect the UK industry.

As Mild as a Swimming Pool

On hearing some of the rhetoric in this debate, you would think U.S. chicken is coated in chlorine. That’s not the case.

We’ve all gone swimming in chlorinated pools.  It gets on our skin, goes in our mouth, and even up our noses. We certainly don’t mind that much because we know it’s cleaning the pool and for our overall benefit. Chlorinated water for sprays or rinses in chicken processing – much like the water in swimming pools and in many municipal water supplies – is used in only about 5 percent of processing plants, according to the National Chicken Council. Most of the chlorine used by the industry goes into cleaning and sanitizing equipment, not on chickens.

The industry makes much greater use of antimicrobial products to kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria and pathogens like salmonella. Used repeatedly and sequentially across the processing chain, these agents help minimize contamination and create a safety-first philosophy of seemingly redundant levels of sanitization.

It’s an important part of providing consumers with a safe supply of poultry.  If you eat undercooked chicken or other foods or beverages contaminated by raw chicken or its juices, you can get a foodborne illness, which is also called food poisoning.

To help consumers avoid microbes, chickens go through a ‘car wash’ where the industry routinely uses various FDA approved acidic washes in multiple stages of processing and chilling poultry, many with imposing and clinical names like paracetic acid (PAA), cetylpyridinium chloride (CPC), and acidified sodium chlorite (ASC).

Food safety experts, however, warn against a natural tendency to look at such imposing names as somehow dangerous substances. PAA, for example, is nothing more than an organic compound of vinegar and hydrogen peroxide, used by the poultry industry in concentrations that make it less acidic than lemon juice. CPC is an antiseptic commonly found in toothpaste, mouthwash, and nasal sprays. In addition, bromine and diverse organic acids are sometimes used. The industry simply does not rely on one ‘magic bullet’ antimicrobial agent – or some terrifying chemical cocktail out of a teenage sci-fi horror movie.

In most cases, the antimicrobials are used in very minute quantities – generally parts per million.  The amount can be visualized as “an inch out of nearly 16 miles,” or as “one minute in almost two years.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and its Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), and the international Codex Alimentarius Commission all have found no serious threat from safe levels of chlorinated water or chlorine washes. Various university studies have drawn similar conclusions.

Reasons for UK and EU opposition

These approaches the U.S. uses to potentially reduce harmful food contamination seem to have worked well. But even with these science-based arguments behind the U.S. poultry industry, the European Union and the United Kingdom have banned imports of chlorinated poultry for almost 25 years. Politicians there dismiss the science – even from their food-safety related agencies and scientists. Their reasoning follows largely political lines.

The UK and the EU generally prefer to argue for a food safety system focused very strongly on avoidance of contamination, much more so than dealing with actual contamination. Food safety policy focuses on all aspects of how animals are raised, handled, processed, and delivered, even if that might make the production process less efficient than the U.S. model. Indeed, many opponents of chlorinated chicken are in fact fundamentally opposed to what they see as the “industrialized farming” of the United States.

The UK imports large volumes of poultry products – worth close to a half-billion dollars – each year, almost half from the Netherlands and much of the remainder from other EU-based nations. While UK poultry production continues to grow each year, demand has recently outstripped the industry’s ability to meet it. The importance of trade is clearly recognized in the UK, and apparently increasing – prompting hopes for progress in the continuing trade debate with the United States.

The argument against U.S. chicken imports reflects a desire to preserve and protect the rural nature of much of the UK and EU countryside, with maintenance of long-standing food-based segments of the economy. 

Poultry is just one front in an on-going war to guard against the demise of a valued way of life. 

Likewise, these opponents also often cite the humane aspects of their preferred approach as a strong reason for an adamant trade position. Critics sometimes allege the defense of science-based sanitary practices is in reality advocacy for “U.S.-style industrialized farming” practices that compromise not just a valued way of life but the safety of workers in these labor-intensive facilities as well.

Science or Protectionism?

Those favoring a more liberalized approach to poultry trade often call such arguments a “weak defense of outright trade protectionism” – the use of non-science-based reasoning to insulate a special interest from the global competition that drives higher productivity across the food system – greater savings for consumers, and better access to the food consumers want.

But with the UK facing an uncertain future with its largest historic trading partner – the European Union – there’s hope for some kind of breakthrough. One option talked about quietly behind the scenes would allow some imports of U.S. chicken, but with a hefty tariff attached. That would buy some time to gauge public reaction to the new food option – and its effect on the existing UK poultry industry – and the larger agricultural system.

Consumer Considerations

The United States exported about $4.5 billion in poultry and eggs in 2017, and is the second-largest provider of broiler meat for the international market, with exports exceeding $4 billion annually. Growing global demand for animal protein, rising dietary and health concerns, and relatively rapid production cycles make the industry ripe for further growth – and additional economic opportunity for those capable of serving the demand.

U.S. producers want access to every possible market. And in one important respect, so should American poultry consumers. The economic vitality that exports help make possible for poultry producers help provide the money for further investment in producing more of the animal protein the world increasingly demands – and in making that process yield the safe, wholesome, and affordable product that makes food contamination a much lower risk for everyone.  

What happens next? It’s up to us…

Our highly-regulated food system in the U.S. is designed to provide us with food we want, at a price we can afford, and to safely consume it without fear of contamination. But’s it’s our job at home to prepare our foods in a way that maintains those rigorous practices.

Nearly one in six Americans suffer from some form of food poisoning each year. And while most cases are generally mild, following a few sound safety steps can help make sure you and your family members don’t become victims. Want to read more on the safe handling of poultry? Read this.

How COVID Affects Global GM Crops

Dirt to Dinner is pleased to introduce accomplished Ghanian agriculture journalist, Joseph Opoku Gakpo, to Dirt to Dinner. A 2016 Cornell Alliance for Science Global Leadership Fellow, Joseph contributes to the Multimedia Group Limited in Ghana, working with Joy FM, Joy News TV, and MyJoyOnline. He has a master’s degree in communications studies from the University of Ghana and is a member of the Ghana Journalists Association, where he was awarded the 2015 prize for Best Journalist in Poverty Alleviation Reporting for “Poor Millionaires,” his story about cocoa farmers. His main interest is telling the story of how farmers and rural residents struggle to survive, with the objective of bringing development to their communities.

The Dirt

The demand rising from COVID-19 has ramped up vaccines using various genetic modification technologies, but when it comes to agriculture, the inverse has been true. Covid significantly slowed down the global process to commercialize genetically modified (GM) crops, and no one feels it more than farmers in developing countries, like Kenya, Ghana, and Bangladesh, where significant progress quickly came to a screeching halt.

Although many countries have approved the fast track use of genetic modification in the production of COVID-19 vaccines, the contrary is the case when it comes to approvals for GM crops. Kenya, Ghana, and Bangladesh are some of the countries where efforts to get GM crops into the hands of farmers have either stalled, or timelines for approval been rescheduled because of COVID-19. Genetically engineered crops bring more food to a continent that struggles with food security. And these crops can grow with fewer pesticides, thus keeping us healthier while working in the fields.

“In Kenya, we have had regulatory delays in the continuation of the national performance trials on [insect-resistant] Bt maize,” Kenyan plant breeder Dr. Murenga Mwimali told Dirt to Dinner in an interview. “There were planned national performance trials in six sites in Kenya. However, with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns, the activities by all stakeholders were all stopped.”

Bt maize has been genetically modified to produce a protein -safe for humans and other animals-but can kill the destructive stemborer insects that destroy maize crops. Bt crops have been shown to reduce pesticide use. Bt maize also often contains traits for drought tolerance, which can help increase productivity on farms by at least 10%.

It is Essential to Continue Moving Forward

Dr. Mwimali is worried the situation with COVID-19 will push back the expected time frame for commercializing GM maize for use by Kenya’s farmers. It is already being grown in South Africa, as well as the United States, Brazil, and Argentina, among other countries.

“It takes about 100-150 days to gain [government] approval but now it is taking longer and longer given the many requirements for a team of regulatory institutions to sit and approve the processes,” Dr. Mwimali explained. “This [approval] period may now double and the food and nutrition security of more than 80 percent of smallscale farmers will continue to suffer.”

Stakeholders, however, remain confident things will change in the months ahead as COVID-19-related lockdowns ease. Recently, Kenya’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock and Fisheries, National Biosafety Authority, National Environment Management Authority, Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services, and other regulatory stakeholders have been meeting to brainstorm ways to proceed with the national performance trials on Bt maize.

“Despite the current COVID-19 situation, there is hope that the national performance trial activities on Bt maize will proceed with the teams observing the safety requirements by the Ministry of Health,” Dr. Mwimali said.

Dr. Rose Gidado, assistant director of the National Biotechnology Development Authority in Nigeria, said the situation there is no different. For some years now, the government has fast-tracked the adoption of GM crops and has approved Bt cotton and cowpea for commercialization.

Since last year, the multiplication of seeds has been ongoing to allow for the mass sale of GM seeds to farmers. But COVID-19 has slowed down activities so the farmer does not have access to the seeds. “The process is only affected by COVID-19 in terms of restricted movements, limited travels, and social distancing,” she told Dirt to Dinner. “You cannot do so much at this time. Things are moving at a slow pace.”

Dr. Gidado argues, however, that Nigeria needs GM crops now more than ever in the COVID-19 era.

“There is the need to step up production in order to measure up as well as prepare for the high demand for food in the country in the post-COVID-19 era,” Dr. Gidado said.The potential for economic growth arising from the cultivation of genetically engineered crops in Nigeria is high with increased access to food, good health, and productivity. It will also attract foreign investments and earnings, leading to wealth creation.”

As the Nigerian government eases COVID-19 restrictions, work has begun to revive the GM crop commercialization processes. “We are still on track to produce GE cowpea,” she said. Insect-resistant cowpea is the country’s first GM food crop.

Complicated GMO regulations

The regulation of GM crops in much of the world is guided by the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, an international agreement currently ratified by about 170 countries to ensure the safe use of living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology. The protocol requires that products arising out of technologies like genetic modification be regulated based on the precautionary principle, which requires that countries pause and review new technologies extensively before they are adopted.

A lot of countries have thus passed new legislation that lays out extensive, in-depth and complicated processes that need to be exhausted before GM crops are approved for use. When plant researchers finish breeding a new GM seed, it has to be taken through trials in confined areas, then contained trials on a fairly large scale. If it passes both of those reviews, then governments authorize an environmental release, which allows it to be grown by farmers in several areas of a country.

The next step is applying for commercialization so farmers can legally access and cultivate the seeds. It can take more than a decade, and tens of millions of dollars, to bring a GM crop to market.

In Ghana, efforts to allow for the commercialization of GM crops started more than 10 years ago but crystalized in 2011 with the passage of the National Biosafety Act to guide the process. In 2018, Ghanaian scientists completed field trials on the insect-resistant Bt cowpea, the country’s first GM crop variety. This GM crop is expected to help farmers dramatically reduce their use of pesticides, while also enjoying better yields of this important staple food. “When you look at the conventional seeds, you can spray as much as eight times (a season). But with the Bt, you spray only two times.

“Just the two sprays can confer resistance in Bt crops like the eight sprays in the conventional,” Dr. Mumuni Abdulai, principal investigator in charge of the Bt cowpea project, explained.

After years of additional background work following completion of tests on the varieties, scientists were hoping to zoom into the final approval processes by applying to the National Biosafety Authority for environmental release of the variety in the first half of 2020. But the process stalled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The document is ready for submission. Everything is ready…if not because of COVID-19, we would have done it by now.”

Burkina Faso is the third West African country, apart from Ghana and Nigeria, that is working to get the Bt cowpea variety into the hands of farmers. Burkina Faso is hoping to use the GM cowpea project to re-establish itself as a nation that puts science first after its government halted the cultivation of Bt cotton in 2015. But the Bt cowpea approval process has slowed down there, just as in Ghana and Nigeria.

Farmers in Burkina Faso are calling on the government to fast-track the approvals for Bt cowpea in response to COVID-19. Burkina Faso farmer Wiledio Naboho said COVID-19 has negatively impacted production this year and farmers are counting on GM crops to help them increase productivity.

“Really, COVID-19 has impacted us as farmers negatively,” Naboho said. “First, it’s limited our access to quality seeds. And also, the few [seeds] we have are sold at a high price. Secondly, access to food is limited because of lockdown… So, COVID-19 came to add more sorrow to my people. I can tell a lot of families don’t have food to feed themselves.”

Of the 53 countries in Africa, only South Africa, Eswatini, and South Sudan farmers are currently growing GM crops commercially. More than 20 nations are currently undertaking trials on about eight GM crops, including banana, cassava, and maize, in preparation for their introduction into the food supply. The research and approval processes have slowed down in virtually all these countries as a result of COVID-19.

Situations elsewhere

The challenge in Africa is being experienced in Asia, as well. In the Philippines, the COVID-19 pandemic has added energy and vigor to the activities of anti-science groups campaigning against Golden Rice, a GM rice variety rich in vitamin A, a nutrient to prevent blindness and other serious health challenges in millions of children. In December 2019, the Philippines Department of Agriculture-Bureau of Plant Industry issued an official notice of permit approving Golden Rice for direct use in food, feed or processing.

In early August, the Stop Golden Rice Network launched its annual week-long line up of activities to protest plans to commercialize Golden Rice. “There are enough reasons to safely conclude that non-governmental organizations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are exploiting the dire situation of our food system during COVID-19”, Mr. Cris Panerio, one of the coordinators of the campaign claimed, even though Golden Rice is a philanthropic endeavor.  Such re-invigorated campaigns linking COVID-19 and GM crops will make it more difficult for the authorities to introduce the lifesaving varieties.

In Bangladesh, following the success of genetically modified Bt brinjal (eggplant), the country is also researching Golden Rice, potatoes resistant to the devasting late blight disease and pest-resistant Bt cotton. Bt brinjal, which is the first GM crop developed by public sector scientists for farmers in South Asia, increased farmer income by $658 per hectare over the four years between 2014 and 2018. GM rice, potato, and cotton are expected to make an even higher and better impact on the population, but COVID-19 is now serving as a distraction against its approval.

“COVID-19 is having a grave impact in Bangladesh and soon we might have more positive cases than Italy. It has slowed down the whole system and our economy. So, the government has many burning priorities other than speeding up the process of research and development of Golden Rice and other biotech crops,” Arif Hossain, executive director of Farming Future Bangladesh, told Dirt to Dinner. “We hope that our research system will resume all its activities in full swing after this pandemic. But right at this moment, the government is giving priorities to production, mechanization, and market value chain, along with large scale subsidy programs for farmers and others engaged in agriculture.”

The opposite appears to be the case in some South American countries. Over the last few months, reports indicate that the transitional government in Bolivia has approved 5 GM crops, including sugar cane and cotton, as part of its efforts to boost agriculture during the pandemic. A pilot project for GM wheat is also being planned.

Since the outbreak of the pandemic in Mexico, a group of researchers at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León have begun work on using bioinformatics and computational genetic engineering to possibly produce a tomato that can deliver an edible COVID-19 vaccine. In the US, very little movement has been seen on the GM crop front since the pandemic broke. Europe continues to resist the technology, though the United Kingdom is considering its adoption as part of its break from the European Union.

Learning to live with – or without – Ethanol *Click for poll results!*

For several decades, we have watched a sometimes animated debate about ethanol – the alcohol made from plants such as corn and sugarcane that the government has mandated we add to gasoline used by the cars and other vehicles we drive every day. We built a big processing industry to produce ethanol, mostly from the corn that the United States produces so well and so abundantly.

On the surface, it seemed to make a lot of sense. It used a renewable resource. It helped us reduce dependence on foreign oil imports. It was supposed to be good for the air and our environment. It helped prop up corn prices and injected a lot of money into the rural economy.

But over the years, I couldn’t help but have this not-so-vague sense that something might not be quite right. More and more scientists popped up to debate the so-called environmental benefits. Engineers warned of the effects of ethanol on machinery. Lower-cost petroleum costs made ethanol increasingly non-economic. Experts argued the whole system might have net energy costs more than net energy gains. In addition, producing ethanol costs more to the environment than saving it.

To add to my unease, it simply bothered me enormously that we were devoting four of every 10 acres of the corn we produce to feeding machines, not people or animals. I kept asking myself a lot of questions. Is ethanol still the right thing to do? Have changes in the world around us made ethanol less appealing and less practical? Am I being told the complete story, or only a story cranked out by a well-funded, aggressive PR machine?

What’s the real story behind ethanol today?

What is ethanol, anyway?

In simple terms, ethanol is a form of alcohol – a volatile liquid produced from the natural fermentation of sugars. It’s been around for literally thousands of years, often used as a recreational beverage – also known as moonshine. It’s made from a very wide variety of plants – anything containing the starch and cellulose that provide sugars for fermentation.

Sugarcane is a common source material in production of ethanol in South America and other locations.

But in America, by far the most common source is good old corn.

Several decades ago, with growing concern everywhere about both our dependence on foreign energy sources and the protection of our environment, lawmakers found a way to make corn a part of the public-policy response. Lawmakers rushed to bring a vibrant ethanol industry to life. Tax breaks, subsidies, grants, loan guarantees – all these and more emerged to stimulate ethanol production. Farmers responded by making investments in a productive capacity. Investors poured massive amounts of money into new processing plants, handling equipment, and other necessary production tools.

Today, the ethanol industry appears to be on shaky ground. Competing commodity prices made the raw material for ethanol processes that much less competitive, tightening their operating margins. Lower gas prices have cut demand for ethanol substantially. Production plants, key economic cornerstones of rural communities, are seeking new markets or new products to produce. Some are closing down, and many are up for sale.

At the same time, the United States has stepped up its energy independence with fracking and other energy-development initiatives. Pandemic stay-at-home orders added to the problem by drastically reducing gasoline demand. By April 2020, production had dropped by almost half from its peak earlier in the year. Almost a third of ethanol plants had shut down, and another third were operating on reduced schedules.

What’s the right future for ethanol?

Ethanol critics argue for radical change – or an end to the program. To critics, ethanol’s day has passed and we should be glad.

  • Ethanol is non-economic and a drain on taxpayers. Even in the heyday of our fight to reduce dependence on foreign oil imports, we still had to pay ethanol producers (not the farmers) tens of billions in all sorts of subsidies and incentives to keep them afloat.
  • With oil prices below the cost of ethanol, ethanol no longer lowers gas prices. Our domestic energy production picture and global markets tell us we don’t need to mandate the addition of a more expensive component to gasoline.
  • A 10-percent ethanol blend in our gasoline may actually hinder rather than help fuel economy. The biofuels industry has long claimed that the ethanol blend can boost mileage by 1-3 percent. But some reports – including figures from the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy – contend the 10-percent ethanol blend can reduce fuel economy by 3-4 percent, and a 15 percent blend by as much as 4-5 percent. We could be adding as much as $10 billion to the fuel bill for American consumers, according to the Institute for Energy Research.
  • The energy gains from ethanol are illusory. Some studies contend that it takes as much as 29 percent more energy to produce a gallon of ethanol than to produce a gallon of gasoline. The energy needed to refine ethanol may be greater than the energy it delivers.
  • Ethanol artificially raises commodity prices, and the prices consumers pay for food. Analysts at the Congressional Budget Office estimate that consumers may pay an additional $3.5 billion for food as a result of the program and its effect on commodity prices.
  • It’s more about politics than anything else. The ethanol program had at its core a desire to provide an appealing economic opportunity for a group very important to politicians seeking rural votes, especially in key primary election states.

But there’s another side to the debate. Ethanol supporters challenge many of the criticisms and point to other critical considerations. Supporters of ethanol say the rural economy needs ethanol more than ever – and so do food consumers, even if they don’t realize it.

  • We’re in too deep to quit now. Our country has made massive commitments to the ethanol industry, in good faith. We have invested literally billions of dollars in plants and equipment, and in the production tools and systems we need to serve a huge market for a crop critical to farmers and our economy. Farmers have built ethanol into their production and marketing plans and their budgeting. We just can’t let that investment go down the tubes.
  • Farmers need a vibrant ethanol industry for their economic security. Rural communities need the money generated by the industry up and down Main Street America. Investors need to know they can continue to place their money – and faith – in building a multifaceted agricultural system.
  • The ethanol industry is about a lot more than energy. By-products from its production have multiple other uses – such as livestock feed additives, other forms of alcohol, and other potential fuels, not to mention things like hand sanitizer and disinfectants. There is more at stake here for consumers than just fuel for our cars and other vehicles.
  • Economic risks to farmers and rural America from Covid make ethanol more important than ever. We need to make the investment – government and taxpayer dollars – necessary to preserving this critical element of our farm economy. We need to do that just as much as we need to keep Main Street restaurants and other businesses alive during a pandemic, using the same government tools and resources. In comparison to what we are spending to deal with Covid-19, the ethanol program is small change.
  • The energy picture can change quickly. The global and national energy picture isn’t carved in stone. The fracking industry is on edge because of low prices. Oil markets are in turmoil. The global economy eventually will open up and begin growing again – and energy demand will grow with it.
  • We must protect our environment in every way we can. Cutting greenhouse emissions should be a priority, and ethanol can help us do exactly that. Ethanol has real, important advantages over petroleum, reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 39 percent compared to those of traditional gasoline. That alone makes the industry worth special effort to preserve it.
  • We should exploit our natural advantages. Producing ethanol from corn is another way to exploit the natural advantage the United States has in producing corn. U.S. farmers are the most productive corn farmers in the world. Maintaining an ethanol industry just helps us use that capability to our advantage.
  • Consumers need the healthy farm sector ethanol helps provide. Ethanol provides the economic support needed to keep many of the 400,000 farmers who grow corn in business. It helps them make the necessary investments in producing crops critical to our food system, and in the technology and equipment needed to drive continuing improvements in operational efficiency – and the lower food costs that come with them.

So which way forward?

We asked what you thought is the best solution: maintain the current ethanol program…or disassemble it? Below are your responses, and some of you even offered some alternative solutions worthy of serious consideration. Stay tuned to see your ideas implemented into our next ethanol post…it’s already in the works.

Coronavirus and Our Food: Should We Be Scared?

From its emergence in the food market of Wuhan, China in early 2020, the deadly COVID-19 continues to infect individuals around the world. While we all nervously monitor its spread, the global medical community is working frantically to find both a treatment and a vaccine.

As medical professionals find the answers they seek, Dirt-to-Dinner takes a look at what we already know about the coronavirus. What risks do Americans face? And what does the consumer need to know about the potential risks of going about daily life? Is our food safe? The answers we’ve found tell us to be careful – but not to panic when it comes to our food supply.

Is my food safe?

Health authorities note that it is possible to transmit the virus from a contaminated surface, such as a package or other object, if that object had been contaminated through direct contact with an infected person who had sneezed on or otherwise deposited droplets on the surface.

Current findings from the National Institutes of Health and CDC show that the virus causing COVID-19 can be stable on surfaces for up to four hours on copper, one day on cardboard, and up to three days on plastics and steel. For aerosols, the virus can be stable for up to three hours. However, bear in mind this is assessed from controlled lab conditions, making the aerosolized virus an unlikely cause for transmission, as reported by the CDC.

The most likely form of COVID-19 transmission is in droplet form, when the virus is airborne for a few seconds after someone sneezes or coughs. In this form, it can only travel a short distance before it lands on something (hence why we’re staying 6 feet away from people right now). So be mindful when you go grocery shopping and maintain a safe distance in those aisles as best you can.

As for surfaces, it’s good practice to thoroughly wash your hands after handling any items in or from public places, such as shopping carts, your mail, packages delivered to your doorstop, and – to be extra cautious – your food.

“We are not aware of any reports at this time of human illnesses that suggest COVID-19 can be transmitted by food or food packaging. However, it is always important to follow good hygiene practices…when handling or preparing foods.”

– U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)

What can we do?

While coronavirus is not known to spread through our food, especially food that is cooked, it is wise to take grocery store precautions and while cooking. Here are some simple tips to keep your kitchen clean and your family healthy.

Wash your hands. Before the grocery store, when you get home, and after you have unpacked your groceries. You have heard this everywhere, but it can’t be said enough. If your hands are clean and you touch your face, you can’t contract COVID-19.

Wash your produce. You don’t know who has handled it before you brought it home. You don’t need to use soap – any virus or dirt will come off with just plain water. Don’t wait to wash your produce – wash it before you put it in your refrigerator or on your counter.

After you unpack your bags, wash your counter with soap and water.  You should probably do this anyway – but this keeps you extra vigilant. It is also wise to rinse off any containers that you are about to put in your refrigerator such as milk, yogurt, and ketchup with soap and water. If you forgot this step and are thinking about the food in your refrigerator, then wash your hands after using what was in the carton. Keep your shelves washed every once in a while, as well.

Cook your food to the appropriate temperature. Use a meat thermometer. Heat is going to quickly kill the virus.

How does coronavirus spread?

Health officials admit they have much to learn about how coronavirus COVID-19 spreads. But based upon experience with other viruses, some basic facts are known.

First and foremost, this virus is spread through direct contact with an infected person, and most often through the respiratory system. Much like the flu or a bad cold, people are contaminated by “respiratory droplets” – a polite term for being sneezed or coughed on, or being in close enough proximity to inhale the virus. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) warns that the virus is spread by “close contact” with an infected person – meaning “about six feet.”

Some health officials also warn against touching your eyes, nose or other mucous surfaces if your hands have been contaminated by droplets.

While the transmission mechanism may seem straightforward enough, it’s not always easy to spot who may be carrying the virus – and who may simply have a cold or flu. While medical experts dive deeper into transmission factors and other aspects of COVID-19, the safest course would seem to be to avoid close contact with anyone showing signs of a respiratory condition or problem. And definitely don’t shake the hand of an infected person and then touch any of your own mucous surfaces.

What happens next?

While the dangers of COVID-19 are undoubtedly real and significant to people everywhere, health experts point to a number of reasons to avoid panic.

First, there is widespread agreement among the global community for a collaborative effort to contain spread of the virus, primarily through careful control of travel from where the virus is known to exist.

Also, information about the virus is being aggressively shared across the world. One of the best tools to combat the virus is a better understanding of what to look for to spot the disease, and how to avoid risk of contamination.

And just as important, there is a concerted effort among the scientific, academic, governmental and health communities to pool knowledge and resources to combat the problem. While there is much to learn about COVID-19, painful experience with pernicious coronaviruses has helped us learn a great deal to execute an effective response. As much work as remains to be done in developing comprehensive treatment regimens and potential vaccines, we’re not starting from ground zero.

What should I do?

Practice simple but effective basic health routines.

And don’t be afraid of your food.

  • Continue to eat the foods you enjoy – and enjoy the foods you eat!
  • Thoroughly wash and cook your foods 
  • Maintain a healthy diet to keep your immune system strong

And remember, there is little to no evidence that you can get COVID-19 by eating food. It is a respiratory illness and contagion spreads through mucous droplets. 

2 Trade Deals and Plant Food in a Pear Tree: Top News in 2019

This year’s reporting sets the stage for some tough discussions for the ag industry to what no doubt will be a series of challenges in 2020 – and beyond. Though it seems out of our hands, we as consumers have serious pull here based on our purchase decisions. And for the future of food and agriculture at large.


“Gee, that’s a tough one. So much happened it’s almost impossible to pick just a few!”

2019 has been jam-packed with news headlines affecting our choices in food, the well-being of our farmers, and how new technologies will disrupt the industry. Every day, we’ve heard and read about…

  • Throughout the year, farmers remained highly focused and surprisingly hopeful on trade issues, especially involving China and our North American trading partners
  • African swine fever is reshaping entire markets, with the virus resulting in 40% of the global pig population to be culled
  • The ongoing RoundUp trial regarding glyphosate has enormous implications for farm production, Bayer’s balance sheet, and legal stakes with human health
  • Investment in ag technology has exploded in areas such as big data, precision farming, and food supply transparency, with all sorts of new doors opening for all parts of the food system
  • And the rapid developments in genetic engineering, such as GMOs, CRISPR, and synthetic biology, have created an ongoing debate over their regulation worldwide
  • A focus on soil health and other dimensions of ‘regenerative agriculture’ has become more critical for the health of future harvests
  • Claims and counter-claims have been made about finding the right balance between a healthy diet and best use of natural resources for our global health
  • Food labeling requirements have gathered steam as consumers drive greater demand for transparency along the entire supply chain
  • Food insecurity once again is on the rise around the world, as the United Nations reports

So, how do you pick from that hefty list? Here’s my attempt to weed out the most critical issues as we come into 2020. Take a look at my countdown and let me know your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter!

#4. Food Safety.

The African Swine Flu swept through Asia and decimated the pig population. There are 770 million domestic pigs on various farms worldwide – at least 300 million have died. That is a lot of pigs to bury. China was hit the hardest as they have 440 million pigs – almost half of which have been affected. This does not only have implications for the hog farmers, but it shows how quickly a virus can spread around the world.

Food safety and animal welfare are critical components here:

  • How can we improve the quarantine process for animals and poultry?
  • Will the African Swine Flu virus spread? What are the implications?
  • Will the reduced pork supply change our buying habits? If so, what other forms of protein are we likely to eat?

This is an incredible amount to think about as we head into the new year, and we are only on the first point!

 #3. Weather alert.

When a 95-year-old corn and beans farmer in Central Illinois, who is still farming the 1,500 acres he owned since the 1920s, says he can’t remember a worse spring for planting in seven decades of farming, we all should pay attention. Add lingering wet conditions to the mix, and you have the prescription for significant harvest delays and losses – we’re talking up to half of last year’s corn and soybean crop levels in parts of the upper Midwest.

Bad weather is nothing new for farmers, of course. But the extent and severity of this year’s bad conditions caused huge damage, disrupted lives and entire communities, and only complicated the production picture for farmers already reeling from steady income declines.

Maybe more significantly, these reports may prove to be harbingers of the bigger questions yet to come for agriculture about climate change:

  • Will consumers accept seed technology and gene editing to help crops grow in wetter, cooler, drier, and/or drought conditions?
  • Can the four-row crops, canola, soybeans, cotton, and corn, be modified to grow in new climate regions?
  • Are there specialized crops that are more adaptable to varied climates?
  • What technologies and farming practices will be implemented to keep our soil secure? No-till farming and cover cropping quickly come to mind here.

And focusing on farmers is just a piece to a much larger puzzle. The right response to climate change involves all industries: from the municipalities, to the golf course, to the housing developer and homeowner, and beyond.

#2. It’s all about the trade.

I wish I had a dime for every time the word “China” appeared in a farm-related story this year. By now, we’ve all figured out just how important China is to U.S. agricultural interests – not just soybean producers, but a lot of other growers, suppliers, and people along the supply chain, too.

That political football has been kicked around all year, with a fair amount of optimism with China’s agreement to buy $50 billion in agricultural goods, up from $23.8 billion in 2017 (52% of which was comprised of soybeans). We hope to get this all sorted out so we can get back to normal in a huge and growing trade relationship.

Finalized on December 10th, the USMCA (U.S.- Mexico-Canada Agreement), formerly NAFTA, was a win for American agriculture. Canada and Mexico are integral to our trade health, as these countries are the U.S.’s first and third largest export markets for food and ag, respectively. Together, this equals about 28% of total food and ag exports in 2017. The USMCA is anticipated to increase US ag exports by $2 billion. Even though NAFTA was a free trade zone, there were still some tariffs and quotas.

The new USMCA will be a win for U.S. dairy farmers, as this agreement will open up opportunities for milk products such as cheese, cream, and yogurt. It will also expand U.S. poultry and egg market access to Canada. Mexico and the U.S. will have the same grading standards for ag products. Finally, the three countries will have the same sanitary standards, based on science as well as agricultural biotechnology and gene editing.

As Trump pushes forward with success on these fronts, it still brings forward new questions for the future:

  • What will China buy to reach $50 billion? More soybeans?
  • Will trade always be used as a leverage point between the U.S. and other countries?
  • How can we protect the U.S. while still ensuring we have global fair trade?
  • Will we have other multilateral agreements such as USMCA?
  • Will China’s theft of intellectual property continue to occur?

#1. Plant-based protein.

I used to call it “alternative meat,” but the story is a lot bigger than that now. Plant-based meats, eggs, fish, milk, leather, and even collagen for your skin, are here to stay. The speed with which companies like Beyond Meat and Memphis Meats gathered steam (and investor dollars) absolutely amazed me in 2019.

According to AgFunder, ‘The alternative meat market sales growth is expected to grow from $4.6 billion in 2018 to $140 billion ten years from now, growing to 10% of the total meat market.’

But let’s put this in perspective: the total animal products industry in 2018 was close to $2.23 trillion and is expected to grow to $3 trillion by 2025. There is plenty of opportunity for all types of protein producers. But I never would have expected to be deluged with fast-food ads on television pushing exciting new vegetable-based burgers, or to see so many people willing to give it a try.

To me, that’s surprising, but in a very good way: consumers should have a choice. They should be able to choose products that meet their tastes and align with their values.

If someone wants to eat a veggie burger or a meat product produced in a lab, for health reasons, for environmental concerns, for moral values, so be it. Just don’t tell me that I have to eat one or the other. Let me choose. But let me choose facts, not marketing. Let the markets work.

As more and more consumers indicate their preference for plant-based foods, what implications does this have?

  • Are consumers getting the facts about meat and dairy, or is it marketing?
  • As consumers move away from meat, how are they getting their daily recommended protein requirements?
  • Demand for plants and meat will rise as our population grows. How do global producers sustainably meet demand?
  • What kind of labeling information does the consumer require to make an educated choice?

This is a profoundly important story about how responsive our food system is proving to be. Consumer tastes and preferences are changing as society changes around us. That should surprise no one. But the story of how fast and how well the food system can recognize that change and accommodate it is indeed newsworthy and earns my number one spot for the Top Food and Ag story of 2019. It will be fascinating to see where the story goes from here.

5 Surprising Facts about Our Organic Foods

Did you know that vitamin C doesn’t cure the common cold? And that Twinkies don’t last forever – they’re only fresh for around 25 days? And that gum doesn’t stay in your gut for 7 years – it passes through just like everything else? These myths have been proven false by credible institutions.

So, in this age of transparency and information, how can we still believe so many falsehoods?

There’s another big misconception in the food industry. And with two kids and a goal to prepare nutritious foods for us this holiday season, I decided to closely examine what it means when a food is labeled “organic”. Is it really worth splurging for that organic heritage turkey and finding herbs and vegetables locally grown on organic farms to prepare and season our dishes?

What I’ve found when asking what “organic” means to people is that it’s a very contentious term with very strong opinions. It means many different things to different people: pesticide-free, GMO-free, small local farms, nutrient-dense, richer soil…the list goes on.

For many, choosing organic foods is an emotional decision. Mintel reports that most of us purchasing “natural” or “organic” products don’t fully understand the nuances of these claims, but just feel better about buying them, for one reason or another. This leads to most of us purchasing these products for our family while not knowing precisely why, besides a broad feeling of moral obligation.

So, despite its perceived flexibility in definition, what makes a food officially “organic” in the U.S. is not as wholly-encompassing as many of us think it is.

So what does “organic” really mean, then?

In its simplest terms, organic foods must be produced while protecting natural resources, conserving biodiversity, and cultivated with no genetic engineering or ionizing radiation and with mostly natural pesticides and fertilizers.

For a food to be considered “organic”, it requires the approval of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS). The overarching purpose of the AMS is to create worldwide marketing opportunities for U.S. producers of food, fiber, and specialty crops while also ensuring the quality and availability of applicable food products.

In addition to the National Organic Program, the AMS oversees a variety of other programs affecting our food and ag system, including food quality protection, hemp production and country of origin labeling. With the U.S. organic industry under the scrutiny of the AMS, all such foods must be produced using their approved methods, whether it is grown in the U.S. or another country.

So now we understand that organic foods can’t be genetically engineered nor cultivated with popular synthetic pesticides, like Roundup. But what about other claims, like “pesticide-free”, “clean”, “locally-farmed”, “grass-fed”, and all those other terms that are tossed about when thinking of organic food? Let’s take a closer look.

Organic food can have pesticides?

Contrary to popular belief, organic foods have pesticides, whether used directly on the crops or not. Organic foods can be treated with pesticides from the USDA’s approved substances list, which includes products like copper sulfate and hydrogen peroxide. Though organic farmers mostly use natural pesticides on their crops, there are synthetic pesticides approved for use on organic crops, as well. Also, the USDA reports that pesticide residues are found on both organic and conventional crops alike in its Pesticide Data Program, but all crops are held to regulations governing safe consumption levels.

Aren’t organic foods locally farmed?

Just as conventional farms have larger and smaller operations throughout the country, so do organic farms. In fact, many larger farms have both organic and conventional operations. Because of this flexibility, it is awesome that we can find both conventional AND organic raspberries on our grocery shelves in the dead of winter. An amazing feat!

Organic foods are also imported into the U.S. every day from countries all over the world. All farms exporting their organic products to the U.S. must also be organically certified according to the USDA organic regulations. Though not all organic products indicate their country of origin, the products must still comply with the U.S. National Organic program.

How about only grassfed and no drugs?

Contrary to popular belief, organic livestock can indeed be raised in a feedlot; purchasing organic meat does not guarantee grass-fed or grass-finished animals. However, the USDA organic seal on meats does mean a few other things that may be important to you.

For instance, organic livestock must be raised and must have year-round access to the outdoors. They must also be fed an all-organic diet (which can include organic grains), and may not be given antibiotics or hormones. However, they can receive vaccines for disease prevention and a handful of approved drugs, like pain and deworming medications.

It’s important to note that, for the U.S., hormones are prohibited for use on all chickens, turkeys, and pigs – whether organic or not. So if you’re buying your family organic chicken tenders only to avoid added hormones, save your money and buy conventional chicken! Furthermore, almost all dairy cows, both organic and conventional, don’t receive additional hormones, like rBST.

But at the least, aren’t organic foods better for us and the environment?

Many of us assume that organic foods are better for our bodies than their conventional counterparts. However, a consensus has not been formed by the scientific community on this hypothesis, as many studies have had inconsistent research parameters, such as too small of sample size to apply to a larger population.

Of particular note, several studies have shown that those eating organic foods more frequently are less likely to be overweight and have heart disease, but it turns out they were more likely to practice healthier diet and exercise choices, in general.

But you know what’s definitely better for all of us? Eating a fresh salad instead of a bowl of Annie’s organic and grassfed mac & cheese! No offense to Annie’s – my kids are obsessed with their shells with white cheddar 😉 But the answer is to just eat lots of veggies, no matter how they’re grown!

There’s another big issue here that’s not as black and white as “organic” or “conventional”. If nutrient-rich soil is of utmost importance for you, then you’ll need to do some research and look into the farms growing your produce. As stewards of the land, good farmers – whether of organic or conventional crops – take great care of their soil, crops and livestock, which is the most integral part in creating healthy, wholesome foods.

Thinking about it a different way, let’s say you lease a modestly-priced, mid-range SUV for your family, while your neighbors, the Joneses, purchase a top-of-the-line, luxury SUV. Darn those Joneses! Three years later, when the lease is up, you’re eager to trade in your car because you’ve taken such good care of it. However, your neighbors have significantly damaged their once-sweet ride and must suffer the consequences. It’s not the model of the car, or the type of farm, that mattersit’s the owner – the farmer.

I hope this has been enlightening for you as doing this research was for me. It’s definitely opened my eyes to how easily we make decisions based on marketing and misperceptions without thinking about what’s really important – our ongoing health and wellness that can only be achieved by making sound dietary choices.

For my family and me, that means paying less attention to gimmicky food labels and simply just eating tons more fresh fruits and veggies, organic or not.

How Blockchain is Disrupting the Ag Supply Chain

Consider the lone chicken.

The modern poultry farm is a vast and complex place, a maze of houses, yards and transportation centers that can easily support more than 14,000 animals at a time. All part of an industry that raises more than 50 billion chickens annually.

But, even in such a large space, there are reasons to pay attention to each individual chicken. Maybe we want to keep track of what that bird was fed over the course of its lifetime. Maybe we need to maintain a record of the antibiotics it was given (or not given) and its associated disease history. Maybe we simply want to prove to the end consumer exactly where that chicken came from and how it was raised.

Because the path from farm to plate today is far from a straight line.

The poultry supply chain starts in the coop: when that chicken is hatched it begins its life on the farm. Then, over the course of the next three to five months, it grows into a mature bird, packing on several pounds of new weight and prepares for harvesting.

At that point, its time on the farm is over and it enters the production chain. Depending on what it will eventually be used for – maybe it will be sold as a whole broiler, or maybe it will be broken up into individual parts, or maybe it will be turned into something entirely different – the chicken is sent to a production facility, processed and sent on its way to the retailer. That retailer, also known as your local grocer, is the last step in the chain, finally delivering that chicken to the end consumer.

That’s a very high-level overview, and even at that level, there are a lot of moving pieces in the process that can cause problems.

Maybe that chicken was not raised in an organic manner but ends up on the wrong truck to be sold as an organic broiler.

Maybe it was fed a high-quality, low-grain diet that cost the poultry farmer extra, but that fact didn’t earn them anything extra at the sale because they couldn’t prove it to the wholesaler.

Or maybe that chicken contracted a disease somewhere along the way that went unnoticed, and it ended up being combined with healthy chickens from elsewhere and contaminating them as well.

Whatever the case, the industry has a problem. It needs a way to accurately and securely track and monitor the entire supply chain, and it needs to be scalable to handle the needs of one of the largest logistical operations in the world. After all, agriculture, on the whole, is a massive industry worth $1 trillion and accounting for 5.4% of U.S. GDP in 2017.

The solution is waiting in a somewhat unlikely place.

A new frontier for technology

The last few years might as well be renamed “the age of blockchain.”

What was, until fairly recently, a subject only well known among tech enthusiasts and cryptocurrency buffs burst into the mainstream in the fall of 2017, during Bitcoin’s epic run-up to $19,000 and beyond.

Seemingly overnight, everyone suddenly had an opinion on cryptocurrencies and the obscure technology underpinning them. Because that’s how blockchain technology got its start in 2009: as the fundamental technology on which the cryptocurrency market is built. Blockchain is defined as: “a digital database containing information (such as records of financial transactions) that can be simultaneously used and shared within a large decentralized, publicly accessible network.”

Essentially, it’s a way to digitally prove who you are and what you have that’s permanent and cannot be altered or forged. The information is recorded on a public ledger to ensure transparency.

When applied to cryptocurrencies, this functionality is very straightforward. Blockchain is a way for me to prove to you that I have the coins I say I do and, when I send them to you, is a verifiable way for you to prove that value has been transferred to you.

But blockchain has other applications across industries that are just starting to come to the surface.

For example, banks are using the technology to better facilitate cross-border financial transfers and speed up digital transactions. Western Union, for instance, has been using blockchain to power its money transfers for more than a year.

IBM is using it to create iron-clad “digital identities” and prevent identify theft.

And governments are even using it to improve public services and crackdown on crime.

But it’s in agriculture that the true power of blockchain technology might fully come to life, enabling all of the tracking and security measures that the industry has been working on for years while simultaneously stepping up to meet today’s consumer demands.

Adapting to a more engaged consumer

“The industry has been moving toward traceability for years, with the advent of natural and organic and so on and so forth,” explains Steve Sands, VP of Protein at Performance Food Group (PFG), one of the largest food distributors in the U.S. “But most of those systems were affidavit based, so they were only as good as the guy who signed the piece of paper saying, ‘I raised my animal this way.’”

That worked for a while, but in the face of new customer expectations and tastes, it just wasn’t enough.

“For us as a food distributor, we want to make sure that the brands that we own are infallible in those claims,” Sands says, “and that led us to introduce an extra layer of infallibility, or auditability, to ensure that we weren’t making claims that we couldn’t back up. In a $20-billion company like PFG, you better be doing what you say you’re doing.”

– Steve Sands, VP of Protein at Performance Food Group

Over the years, PFG has developed a number of processes to help make this a reality, establishing verifiable standards for the farmers it worked with, auditing the records, tracking the DNA of the animals it was purchasing and more. Blockchain is a natural evolution of these efforts.

“I think [blockchain] has different applications for different food products,” he explains, “so it might be better suited to things like produce that travel through the supply chain largely intact but may go through many different hands before ending up at a restaurant.”

That’s opposed to something like a 550-pound animal carcass that will be cut up into hundreds of different products and then combined with hundreds of other products before being shipped out. In those cases, DNA might be a better tool, but blockchain still addresses a need.

“Where blockchain would come in handy is on the live side, because that live animal may trade several times before it gets to the point of slaughter,” Sands says. “Typically, a cow-calf operation is going to try to sell that animal once it’s weaned, and off to a rancher who will put it on grass and let it grow for a year before selling it off to a feedlot. Every time that animal changes hands, blockchain would be very useful because it would be a way to maintain that chain of custody without having to go to the expense of DNA at every step, which you really can’t do.”

And PFG is far from alone in this.

IBM has teamed up with companies including Dole, Driscoll’s, Kroger, Nestle, Tyson, and Unilever on the so-called IBM Food Trust, which is leveraging IBM’s computing platform to improve data traceability and speed up results for all involved. According to reports, the time it takes to trace an individual item from a grocer’s shelf to the field where it was produced has been trimmed from seven days to as little as 2.2 seconds, enabling companies to quickly identify and isolate contaminated supply chains and issue recalls in real-time.

Starbucks is working on a new “bean to cup” program that’s built on the blockchain to promote ethical sourcing in the coffee industry.

French retail chain Carrefour in 2018 launched what it called Europe’s first food blockchain in order to track the one million-plus free-range chickens it sells in its stores every year, with plans to extend the technology to 8 more animal and vegetable product lines in the coming year.

And last Thanksgiving, Cargill expanded its popular “blockchain for turkeys” program to 30 states, offering consumers direct access to information about 200,000 turkeys from 70 farms under its Honeysuckle White brand.

What’s next?

If that is any indication, the potential applications of blockchain technology are broad and the industry is just beginning to scratch the surface. From traceability to verification, to sourcing, quality and more, blockchain stands to revolutionize not only the agriculture supply chain, but what consumers can expect from it going forward.

But questions remain, according to Christophe Uzureau, a blockchain and token analyst with Gartner and the co-author, along with Gartner colleague David Furlonger, of the book “The Real Business of Blockchain: How Leaders Can Create Value in a New Digital Age,” which discusses the pitfalls and possibilities of the technology for businesses.

“Today we’re at the stage of adoption where we’re reaching critical mass,” he says, “so now we need to complete the blockchain in order for it to reach its full potential. We’re moving in that direction, but we’re still only likely to see maturity post-2020, or more likely 2023.”

– Christophe Uzureau, Gartner analyst

In Uzureau’s view, there are five elements that need to be in place before blockchain can truly revolutionize the ag supply chain: trust, distribution, encryption, tokenization, and specialization, all of which the industry has up and running in at least their early stages. The next step, then, is what he calls the “enhanced blockchain,” which is when the technology gets fully integrated with existing ag system, including Internet of Thing (IoT) sensors, artificial intelligence and more.

“That’s the fundamental next step,” he says, “and it’s clearly a challenge, but the potential for what it could mean for the supply chain could be very big. Farmers today have many different sensors and capture lots of data. By bringing all of that information today and using it to make better decisions about the supply chain, even the smallest players in the market could contribute directly to the whole system. It would revolutionize what the supply chain can do.”

Now imagine reconnecting with that lone chicken in your grocery store. On its packaging label, you see a QR code. With your phone, you scan the code and immediately see the chicken’s farm, feed and medical information – the power of blockchain demonstrated for consumers and processors alike.

Back to Business: D2D News Recap

Glyphosate Wars Continue to Rage

The battle over the potential health risks of glyphosate – the key ingredient of the popular weed killer, Roundup – saw new developments that seemed helpful to both sides in the debate. The number of U.S. civil lawsuits against Roundup’s parent company (Monsanto, later acquired by Bayer AG) has grown to 18,400 – a number prompting courts in California to consolidate various actions into class-action suits and multi-court district litigation. Initial jury awards in the hundreds of millions of dollars have been lowered afterward by judges reviewing the cases. But Bayer reportedly has offered to pay as much as $8 billion to settle the outstanding claims. The company also welcomed the Environmental Protection Agency’s following announcement:

“It is irresponsible to require labels on products that are inaccurate when the EPA knows the product does not pose a cancer risk,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “It is critical that federal regulatory agencies like EPA relay to consumers accurate, scientific-based information about risks that pesticides may pose to them.”

However, California officials said they will maintain their labeling requirement.

FAO Food Security Report Offers Grim News

The Food and Agriculture Organization at the United Nations released its annual assessment of global food security, highlighted by the grim news that the number of people facing food insecurity rose again for the third straight year. For more than a decade, the number had been declining amid a collective effort to deal with the problem by member nations. But the 2019 FAO report estimates the number of people without enough nutrition rose to 822 million – over 10% of the planet.

Poor economic conditions attracted much of the blame, but continuing episodes of natural disaster and disruption to local food production, political instability, outright conflict, and displaced populations also drew attention. In contrast, the report also noted the still-significant role played by obesity in contributing to global malnutrition.

Further Evidence of Weather Woes

The lingering effects of wet weather in key U.S. agricultural areas resulted in almost 20 million acres of cropland going unplanted this spring, according to reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). That’s the largest “prevented planting” area since the USDA began collecting such data back in 2007. Despite this, other USDA crop production estimates point to robust crops this year for most major commodities. Soybean farmers, beset by the ongoing trade dispute between the United States and China, are expected to cut production by a whopping 19% as they shift to planting more of other crops, notably corn. USDA continues to predict modest overall food price increases for the year.

FDA Cautions Against Certain Pet Foods

As Dirt to Dinner previously reported, growing concerns with the adverse health effects of certain pet foods have attracted the attention of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA has now issued a consumer advisory on the issue, naming several specific dry dog food products and launching a recall of products found to have toxic levels of vitamin D. To see the complete list of products covered by the alert, please visit this site.

Like We Also Said….

Following our recent post on the emergence of aquatic dead zones in the U.S. Gulf and other locations, the Trump Administration has spoken out about plans to use $100 million already authorized by Congress to fight “red tide” – the toxic algae bloom blamed for damage to fishing, recreational activities, and aquatic wildlife, notably in many Florida waters. Local authorities and water-related interests welcomed the attention called to the issue, despite the political overtones of the discussion. Red tide has played havoc with commercial and recreational fishing in some areas and made swimming in contaminated areas a very risky proposition.

Brexit Prompts Another Salvo in Debate over Genetic Engineering

British and European officials continue to trade barbs as the Oct. 31 deadline approaches for the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. New UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson added to the fun by distancing his government from last summer’s gene-editing ruling by the European Court of Justice imposing stringent regulatory requirements. Many believe this “CRISPR” approach to genetics holds the key to the rapid development of better plant varieties that will increase food production and enhance food security.

Johnson recently promised “…to liberate the UK’s extraordinary bio-science sector from anti-genetic modification rules and…develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world.”

UN Climate Report Urges Attention to Ag Production

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has jumped on the growing effort to curtail the role of modern eating habits and the global agricultural production system in contributing to what it warned could be “climate change-induced environmental catastrophe.”

In a report issued this summer, the panel of international scientists observed that “Earth’s climate is entering a qualitatively different stage.” Adding insult to injury, the IPCC claims that current ag practices misuse resources and actually make global warming worse, creating a “vicious cycle” that makes food more expensive, scarcer and less nutritious. So far leaders of major farm and food organizations have avoided substantive public comment on the report.

So what solutions does the report offer? One big idea: consuming less meat (especially red meats) and more plant-based foods. Other suggestions include more environmentally-friendly tillage techniques and more targeted use of fertilizers, coupled with serious efforts to reduce food waste. Such efforts would cut greenhouse gas emissions and make better use of precious natural resources, the experts concluded.

A Tax on Traditional Meats?

The broad subject of meat alternatives – both plant-based and cultured cell products – doesn’t seem to be losing any steam across the news media. Stories abound of efforts by fast-food chains and independent restaurants to add meat alternatives to their menus, including novel new offerings such as an “Impossible Burger” and a “Beyond Meatball Marinara.” Who would have thought these products would push us toward meat taxation?

A sign of the economic steam behind this emerging food product category might be in comments from government officials about the need to add taxes to the competitive mix. A study lead by Dr. Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food estimated there will be 2.4 million deaths due to red and processed meat consumption by 2020.

Governments with socialized medicine might also be licking their chops to recoup the estimated $285 billion in health care costs. German politicians have suggested an increase in taxes on traditional meats, from today’s 7% to upwards of 19%, with Sweden, The Netherlands and Denmark considering similar taxation practices.

And to Wash It Down

The Natural Hemp Company has announced launch of a CBD-infused sparkling water for people with an active lifestyle, creatively positioned as “the Gatorade of CBD beverages.” The product is called Day One CBD Sparkling Water and claims to have no sugars, calories or carbohydrates. The company didn’t elaborate on what constitutes an appropriate “active lifestyle.”

Packing Social Concerns in the Lunchbox

Dirt to Dinner is excited to feature Dr. Sarah Evanega’s post on our site. Dr. Evanega earned her PhD in plant biology and science communications from Cornell University, where she now directs the Alliance for Science and serves as Senior Associate Director of International Programs in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She resides in Ithaca with her husband and three young children.

The Cornell Alliance for Science works to ensure global access to life-improving agricultural innovations that can shrink farming’s footprint, deliver food security, reduce the drudgery of field work that often falls on women and children, provide rural families with sufficient income to educate their children, and inspire young people to pursue a career in agriculture and science.

As a child, I highly anticipated the return to school, the thrilling day when my siblings and I headed over to campus to pay our fee and look on the bulletin board to see which teacher we were assigned to and which of our friends would join us in class. The hallways had a distinct smell that we barely noticed during the school year and nearly forgot over the summer break, which meant the odor of paper and gymnasium hit us hard as we walked in the front door after months away. Back to school meant buying supplies, the hope of getting a Trapper Keeper with a cool design, and maybe even a new pair of jeans or shoes.

Today, as a mom of three young kids, back to school means shifting from the laid-back rhythm of summer to a tightly tuned schedule of early-to-bed, early-to-rise, the regularity of dinner, bath and bedtime books, and early mornings. After the coffee is on, I pull out three lunch boxes and face the challenge of packing lunches that will both appeal to my kids and my sense of what’s healthy and socially just.

As I pull together sandwich fixings, carrot sticks and fruit, I’m aware that our well-stocked refrigerator and cupboards are a luxury that many families throughout the world do not share: that my choice of what to pack, and what to leave out, is not available to the millions who struggle with the hunger and poverty that accompanies failed crops. I know my children won’t have to skip school to hand-weed the family’s fields or miss class entirely because a miserable harvest left no extra money to pay tuition.

As a plant scientist who works in international programs at Cornell University, I’m fully aware that fussing over the ever-growing list of food items restricted in schools is very much a “first-world” problem, as are the half-eaten apples and the sandwich crusts my kids bring back home at the end of the day. Hunger, the frequent companion of far too many children in developing nations, always trumps the pickiness that leads to food waste.

I know that many other American parents share my concern about hungry children, others and our own, and that they want to see a world that’s just. But because of my job, I know something they may not—that technology exists to solve some of the problems that face us all…

I’m talking about using genetic engineering to improve crops, boost the livelihoods of smallholder farm families, enhance nutrition, reduce climate change impacts, even remove the pesky protein that makes the classic PB&J sandwich an unwelcome allergenic addition to lunch boxes across the country.

Yes, the same technology that can reduce the use of pesticides in crops can also render peanuts hypoallergenic. The same technology that can eliminate the need for nitrogen fertilizers that generate greenhouse gases can keep cut apples from browning. The same technology that can add essential nutrients like vitamin A to staple foods like bananas and rice can silence the gluten proteins that make life miserable for those with celiac disease.

Sadly, this technology has been pushed to the sidelines, dismissed as a dirty three-letter word: GMO. Never has a plant breeding technique been so reviled, so falsely accused of everything from solidifying corporate control over the food supply to making people sick. The demonization of this technology funds numerous NGOs and has even become a cottage industry of sorts. American supermarkets are filled with products that bear the badge of misinformation—the trademark butterfly of the “non-GMO verified” label. This marketing ploy tricks consumers into believing GMOs are somehow bad, and so they should pay more for products without them — even products like salt and water, for which there is no GM equivalent. Sorry—those tricks don’t work on scientist moms like me. And they shouldn’t work on you.

As Americans, our ideologies and shopping habits reverberate around the world. And when we say no to GMO, we’re simultaneously depriving smallholder farmers and consumers in developing nations from exercising choice about what to grow, what to eat. Or in too many cases, about whether they will eat.

Would you say no to GMO if you knew it could save orange trees from the devastation of citrus greening disease, bananas from the scourge of wilt, crops from succumbing to drought or cattle to heat? Would you push it away if you knew this technology could help keep cacao, the primary ingredient in chocolate, from going extinct?  Would you get on board if you knew it meant that kids could safely munch a bag of peanuts without risking anaphylactic shock, be spared the blindness of vitamin A deficiency? Would you have a change of heart if you knew that biotechnology could increase the income of a smallholder farmer in Bangladesh six-fold — enough to send his children to school, buy a propane stove so his wife didn’t have to prepare food over a cow dung or charcoal fire?

Or to bring it back home, would you embrace this technology if you knew it meant the daily challenge of packing a school lunch could be immensely simplified with hypoallergenic peanut butter spread on gluten-free wheat bread and accompanied by an apple that retained its fresh, white flesh, even hours after slicing?

Some of these products, like the Arctic Apple, are already available. Others are moving forward and many more are in the works, ready and able to do their part to end hunger, shrink agriculture’s outsized environmental footprint, increase crop yields, reduce pesticide use, withstand the temperamental and often extreme growing conditions that characterize climate change, and curb food waste. Even more products are likely now that the science has advanced through the precise, predictable use of gene editing tools like CRISPR.

But these new plant varieties, created by scientists working in public institutions like me, won’t advance without our support, our recognition that they have a role, just like organics and conventional and natural, in keeping our planet healthy and our kids fed. They aren’t backed by the multinational corporations that can pay $100 million to move a genetically-engineered crop through an unreasonably onerous regulatory process. They need consumers, people like you and me, to say that we want scientific evidence, not ideology, to determine what enters the food supply.

These are the thoughts that enter my mind as I sip coffee, pack lunches, prepare my children for another day in the school environment that I loved. I want them to have the same opportunities that I enjoyed, and I want those opportunities extended to kids across the globe. And from where I sit, access to the healthy, affordable food that genetic engineering can provide is a huge part of that.

As we bid farewell to the unstructured days of summer and re-enter the school year routine, let’s remember that the decisions we make each day in the grocery store reverberate not only in our children’s lunch boxes, but all around the world.  

Don’t Be Fooled by Food Labels

Here I am at Costco, getting far too many things for my household of four. As I try to navigate my unwieldy cart around, I see a new product – avocado oil. Apparently, this oil has a higher smoke point for cooking AND has healthy fats! But, wait…look at all these labels: organic, non-GMO, all natural, gluten free…what??? Avocados have gluten!?

It happens to all of us – we’re hit with a barrage of food labels every time we go grocery shopping. Many of us assume the more labels, the better the product…but you’d be mistaken. Food companies are in a constant battle to prove superiority of their products over the competitors—even at the expense of the truth. Take a look at our label guide to know when a label is meaningful and when you’re just throwing away money.

header photo credit:


What it means:

  • USDA organic products have strict production and labeling requirements. These requirements demand that approved food items are produced using no genetic engineering or ionizing radiation and with natural pesticides and fertilizers. Organic products are overseen by authorized personnel of the USDA National Organic Program.

Don’t be fooled:

  • Several USDA-certified organic labels exist, so just because you see “organic” in the label, don’t assume the entire product is organic. For food products claiming “100% Organic”, you can be assured of just that. However, food products with simply “Organic” are made with at least 95% organic products. Lastly, the label, “Made with Organic Ingredients”, indicates that at least 70% of the product is organic.

  • Organic foods have pesticides. Many consumers assume organic means zero pesticides, when in fact, organic foods can be treated with pesticides from the USDA’s approved list. Also, the USDA reports that pesticide residues are found on both organic and conventional crops alike in its Pesticide Data Program, but all crops are held to regulations governing safe consumption levels.


What it means:

  • When it comes to treating livestock humanely, the USDA requires meat, dairy and egg producers to submit applications and receive permission before using terms like “humanely raised” or “raised with care” on packages. However, in the absence of conducting regular inspections, several organizations created more stringent criteria for animal welfare.

  • Third-party humane-certifying organizations strive to improve the lives of farm animals in food production. Producers and facilities must meet precise, objective standards for farm animal treatment to be issued certification, and they undergo regular verification. The Humane Farm Animal Care is the leading non-profit certification organization issuing the “Certified Humane” label, but similar organizations exist with slightly different labels, such as Animal Welfare Certified and Animal Welfare Approved.

Don’t be fooled:

  • Producers don’t need to do anything after receiving permission from the USDA to include “humanely raised” on their packaging, as the USDA does not perform onsite inspections for this purpose. So if this is really important to you, then stick with a third-party humane verifier.


What it means:

  • “Grass-fed” is a term used on cow, sheep and goat products. It indicates that the animals’ diet is primarily comprised of grass, hay, and forage in a pasture. To claim “grassfed”, the cows must have access to a pasture during most of its life, but feedlots are allowed in the months before harvesting. This term is no longer monitored by the USDA.

  • However, products with the American Grassfed label label indicate that the cows, sheep and goats had continuous access to pasture and a diet of 100% forage. Cage confinement, hormones and all antibiotics are expressly prohibited by the organization.

Don’t be fooled:


Before we start with the GMO conversation, remember that there are only 10 GMO crops currently approved for consumption in the U.S.: alfalfa, apples, canola, corn, cotton, papaya, potatoes, soybeans, squash and sugar beets. That’s it. No GMO wheat, strawberries, tomatoes, rice, chickens, etc. And, by the way, GMO crops are completely safe for consumption: they are the most thoroughly-tested products in our food system and have the same nutritional profile as their non-GMO counterparts. And lastly, the term, “non-GMO”, is not regulated by the FDA. Ok, now that we have that down, let’s continue.

What it means:

  • When you see food products with a “non-GMO” label at the grocery store, it means one of two things:

      • The first and acceptable use of the label is that the food product is made from a crop with a GMO counterpart and the producer chose to use the non-GMO version. For instance, tortilla corn chips made from non-GMO corn.

      • The second and less acceptable use of the label is when it’s used on products with no GMO alternative: think avocados, strawberry jam, and hummus.

Don’t be fooled:

  • When companies slap a “non-GMO” label on foods with no GMO counterpart, they’re creating unnecessary fear among consumers. They’re probably ripping you off, too!

  • The Non-GMO Project, a nonprofit organization, provides companies with a non-GMO “verification” program to make their products more appealing to customers. However, the Non-GMO Project will “verify” products containing crops with no GMO alternative and deliver their stamp of approval on items like avocado oil, salt, and even water!

      • If avoiding GMOs is important to you, you can look for the logo on products with a GMO counterpart; otherwise you’re just paying more for a fancy logo.

  • Another note for these products: organic products certified by the USDA (and with the USDA logo) will always be non-GMO products. However, non-GMO products are not necessarily organic.


What it means:

  • Despite the humanitarian appeal, these labels don’t say much. With both “cage free” and “free range”, cages are prohibited. However, the hens can still be raised in an enclosed space. The added benefit of “free range” is that the animals have access to the outdoors.

Don’t be fooled:


What it means:

  • Beef and sheep producers sometimes administer hormones to help their livestock grow more quickly, thus entering the meat market earlier in their lives. Dairy cow producers can also add hormones, like rBST or rBGH, to help their cows produce more milk, but fewer producers practice this now. Labels showing “no hormones added” or “no hormones administered” are allowed if these producers can prove that no hormones were used during the animal’s life.

Don’t be fooled:


What it means:

  • Antibiotics are used when livestock are unwell or confined to close quarters, where illness can quickly spread. So the USDA approves the labels, “No antibiotics administered,” “no antibiotics added” and “raised without antibiotics”, if producers can prove that antibiotics were not administered at any point. The “antibiotic-free” label is not allowed by the USDA, as antibiotic residue testing technology can’t verify if the animal ever received antibiotics. Furthermore, the FDA has strict withdrawal guidelines that require all livestock to be clear of any antibiotic residue before it is harvested.

Don’t be fooled:


What it means:

  • This label is seemingly everywhere now! Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in cereal grains, like wheat, barley and rye, so this label informs those with a gluten allergy or celiac disease that the product is safe for their consumption.

Don’t be fooled:

  • This label is now being used on products that don’t normally include cereal grains (think sugar, rice and corn products), thus becoming another marketing gimmick.

  • Also, know that gluten-free products are not inherently healthier, as gluten-free substitutes may contain other additives and are not typically enriched with additional nutrients. In fact, many gluten-free products are higher in saturated fat and sugar.



Don’t be fooled:

Here’s a quick reference chart for your next grocery run:


Click here to download chart


My Nightmare Meal: A Personal Reflection of Our Food System

food fear

SPOILER ALERT: Your food is safe. We have one of the safest food systems in the world. But upon reflection, I can see why he made such a comment.  Indeed, there seems to be a constant avalanche of reports targeting a threat or cause for worry.  And if I don’t already fear the food, some people want me to feel guilty for not just what I eat, but almost for even eating at all.  

My So-Called Wrongdoings

Think I’m crazy?  Sit down in your local diner and order a meal.  Let’s go for comfort food:  meatloaf, mac and cheese, and a side salad with Thousand Island dressing.  Oh, and some apple pie with ice cream for dessert.  A glass of ice water with lemon, and maybe a nice cup of really good coffee to cap things off.

So what have I just done here?  How does this food get me into a maze of controversies about human, animal and environmental welfare?  Let’s look at it piece by piece, or bite by bite, if you prefer.

Let’s start with the meatloaf…

It’s hamburger, plus some breadcrumbs, some spices and maybe a few chunks of peppers or mushrooms.  Maybe I sprinkle some salt and pepper on it, and a touch of ketchup, just for flavor.

  • Should I be eating beef at all? It takes lots of water and feed grains to bring an animal to market.  It gave off a lot of greenhouse gas while it fattened up, too.  It may have been finished off for market confined in a feed lot, and maybe injected with antibiotics at some point.  It certainly didn’t enjoy the trip to the processing plant.  Dietitians tell me too much red meat will clog my arteries, or at least contribute to those extra pounds I seem to carry these days. And if I eat it more than five days a week, I might get Alzheimer’s.

  • I probably didn’t need all that salt, either. It could kick up my blood pressure.

  • And what was in those breadcrumbs? Were they from stale old bread they had lying around?  Was it made from GMO crops?  If so, should I worry?

  • What about those peppers and mushrooms? How do I know they were grown responsibly, without taking up too much water, or using too much fertilizer and pesticides?  And were the people who picked them paid fairly and treated well?

  • Did they add an egg to the meatloaf? My mom used to do that. But if they did, was that egg from a happy, free-range chicken? Was it fed antibiotics? How much cholesterol does the egg add?

  • Ketchup…organic tomatoes, or mass-produced in a hothouse or grown hydroponically in an indoor farm somewhere?  Picked by whom?  And using how much added sugar? What is ascorbic acid, or citric acid anyway, and why in the world is it in there?

Now I’m afraid to even think about the mac & cheese…

  • What grain did they use to make the macaroni? Is it also a GMO crop?

  • Is the cheese really cheese? What kinds of preservatives, colorings, flavorings and anti-coagulants are squirming around in there, just waiting for me to eat them up?

As for the salad…

  • Where in the heck did this Romaine lettuce come from? Should I worry about food poisoning? And what about the tomato, and the cucumber, and that reddish stuff that looks like an onion…is it local? How did it get here?  How many hands have actually touched the food I’m about to eat?  Who checked to make sure it’s clean, fresh and safe?

  • As for the dressing, did it come out of a bottle or a 20-gallon vat somewhere?

food fear

You know, I used to love my apple pie…

Now I’m feeling a little squeamish about it!

  • Who is this mysterious Mrs. Smith, and just where is this bucolic Pepperidge Farm, anyway? How do I know it wasn’t some team of minimum-wage newbies on an assembly line churning out my mass-produced pie?

  • Just where did these apples come from?  How much sugar is in there?  Or is it high fructose corn syrup?  Or maybe some alternative sweetener made from the leaves of a plant the Aztecs once used to smoke to get high?  Is the crust an actual food, or maybe some form of bio-degradable, flavor-enhanced cellulose?

  • The ice cream isn’t really helping, either. Did the cows who supplied the milk have drugs used on them to stimulate more milk production?  Were they treated humanely?  How was the milk handled?  How much sugar went into the mix in making this?  How much artificial flavor?

Maybe a sip of water will help calm me down…

But wait a minute.

  • Did this come out of the tap, or from a bottle? What kind of pipes are in the city’s water system?  Who checks the water for contamination, and for what kind, and when?

  • And what about that slice of lemon? Did anybody wash that lemon before they cut it up?  How long has it been lying around waiting to be plunked into somebody’s water, or iced tea, or finger bowl?  Where did it come from, anyway?

Let’s just forget about the coffee…and the sugar or artificial sweetener I put in it, or the milk.  I no longer care where the coffee beans came from, or who picked them, or much of anything else.  I certainly don’t care if the milk came from a cow or an almond.  I don’t even want to think about how much energy was needed to cook all this, or to heat the hot water they will use to wash up.

Wasteful Worries

Now my appetite is pretty much gone, thanks to all this thinking I’ve been doing.  So what do I do with all this left-over food on the plate?

  • If I don’t do something with it, they will just scrape it off into the garbage and send it to the local landfill. It will decompose slowly, I suppose.  But while it does, it will generate still more greenhouse gas.  Food waste in landfills already accounts for 7 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.  My contribution here could pollute the water table, if the landfill isn’t up to spec.  Am I more responsible for global warming if I eat this food, or if I throw it out?

  • Maybe the diner will call the local food bank and make sure the left-overs go to good use – you know, for a needy person, or a soup kitchen, or something like that.

Or maybe I just stop eating.

Phew. I just woke up from my nightmare.  But this sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?  However, this is just a superficial look at some of the issues that surround the food we eat these days.  Actually, there are a great many more than these to consider – real, serious issues that people in the food sector wrestle with every day in trying to satisfy the public demand for safe, sustainable food.

OK, Now Here’s the Good News…

Educating worried consumers on our food system is one of the big reasons why we created this blog, so you’re in luck.  People want to know more about our food system: where their food comes from, how it is produced, how it is delivered, how we keep it safe and make it as wholesome as possible, and more.  We all need to know, and, frankly, we should know.  And thankfully, farmers have a great story to tell.

There is no way to adequately describe the commitment, the resilience, the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit of the men and women who produce, farm, ranch, and those who manufacture the food products, and those who prepare the food we need and want.  We look forward to continued innovation and advancement in our established food system. And what we hear is loud, clear and unequivocal faith in the future of food.

Secretary Perdue is correct: “This growing fear has the potential to sideline, deter, critical technologies that we already use, and derail technologies in the pipeline, that we already know how to achieve.”

Never underestimate our farmers and producers. When commitment, capability and capital converge – look out. All things are possible — including food that people don’t fear, and a food system that doesn’t induce guilt. If you want to learn more about how our food is grown, food safety, and food waste, take a look at these posts for more information:

Farming and production: Where do our fruits & veggies come from? | What is the Farm Bill | America’s salad bowlGMOs: a recipe for understanding

Food safety: There is no such thing as a dirty vegetable | CDC foodborne illness detection | Food safety at farmers’ markets

Food waste: Waste not, want not | Eat beer and drink sandwiches

Government resources: FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act | USDA’s Food & Nutrition page | EPA & Pesticides | FAO’s State of Food Security & Nutrition | WHO & Food Safety

Maybe our food system isn’t perfect yet. We need all the intelligence and technologies possible to feed a growing population while regenerating the land. We’re doing a better job today than we did yesterday, and we’ll do a better job tomorrow than we do today.

Indeed, it’s a great big world of possibilities — except maybe for a decent tasting diet cola.

What’s Happening in Ag?

aerial view of grain harvest

There’s no such thing as a completely quiet time in farming, and the job of bringing food from the field to the dinner table never takes a day off.  Something constantly needs to be done, at every step of the dirt-to-dinner journey.  But spring always seems to be a particularly busy time of year, and 2019 is proving to be no different.

Like any good farmer, let’s start with a look at the weather.

Enough Already

More rains in key agricultural producing regions of the central United States continue to delay spring planting.  As fields slowly dry out and recovery efforts continue for areas devastated by floods, the Department of Agriculture reports the corn crop is behind its normal planting progress, with 23 percent planted, trailing the five-year average of 46 percent. The soybean crop is behind by even more, now at 6 percent complete and behind the average of 14 percent.  Spring wheat planting stands at about 22 percent, also below last year. Generally, with low spring plantings, markets might expect higher prices come harvest. But the outlook for U.S. Agricultural trade exports expected to remain the same from 2018, as a result, no one is so far predicting a major run-up in prices that would lead to higher consumer prices.

US agricultural trade and trade balanceSource: USDA Economic Research Service

New Soybean Reality

And, to add to the rainy day, China will continue to affect the global soybean market. Not just because of U.S. tariffs but also because of African Swine Fever. The Chinese pig herd has dropped by 20% in the past 20 months.  The USDA is predicting a global 42 million ton decline for China’s import demand. The sliver of a silver lining is that this will help U.S. pork exports to Singapore.


Source: USDA Foreign Agricultural Service

New Hope for Dairy Farmers

The plight facing U.S. dairy farmers has been well documented. Due to a global oversupply of milk and increasing consumption of almond and soy milk, dairy farmers are in their fifth year of low milk prices. Many are operating on a negative margin. The USDA is planning on helping the farmer by rolling out the Dairy Margin Coverage program which will send out $600 million in payments to milk producers.


Survey Finds Glum Farm Investments

The economic uncertainty in the agricultural sector is doing more than reducing farm income. It’s also affecting farmers’ willingness to invest. The Ag Economy Barometer produced regularly by Purdue University and the CME Group this spring found that 78 percent of farmers surveyed felt it’s a “bad time” to make major investments in farm operations. Continuing tensions over trade with China and continuing weather problems in key producing areas are concerns for investing in technologies and equipment to increase productivity and profitability for farmers.

This also impacts food security for the people who depend upon them.  The Barometer measures a monthly economic sentiment with 400 agricultural producers and a quarterly survey of 100 agriculture and agribusiness thought leaders. The latest survey showed the fourth largest one-month drop since data collection began in October 2015.



US-China Trade Dispute Escalates — Again

 The continuing trade dispute between the United States and China has taken a new and ugly turn, with U.S. farm interests firmly in the cross-hairs.  The latest round of economic tit-for-tat saw the United States impose further tariffs on a wide range of imports from China, followed by China’s announcement of new tariffs on imports of U.S. farm products, including wheat, poultry, sugar, and peanuts.  The escalation of trade tensions sent financial markets into a sharp decline – and raised concerns among a farm community already beset by another year of declining farm income.

image showing usa-china-rivarly


EU Acts to Spur Food Waste Reduction

The fight against food waste continues everywhere.  The European Commission has adopted a common methodology for uniform measurement of food waste across all 28 member countries.  This unified measurement system will allow improved reporting of efforts to cut food waste across the food chain.  It also is expected to promote greater cooperation with food processors by food manufacturers and retailers, notably in promoting greater diversion of waste to bioenergy.

The total amount of food waste the EU 27 is estimated at 89 Mt. , i.e 179 kg/per capita/year. Households produce the largest fraction of EU food waste at 38 Mt or 76 kg per capita.

Some African Countries Think Again on GMOs

Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria have recognized the benefit of GMO crops to help feed their people. Prolonged drought and widespread hunger have the Kenyan government looking more closely at food security and re-thinking its ban on genetically modified corn.  With an estimated 1 million Kenyans facing hunger and malnutrition, government officials say they will make a decision in the next two months.  Their decision could help open the door to wider use of the GMO seeds important to improving Kenyan food security. Uganda has moved ahead and pulled together a legal framework to approve GMO cassava, potatoes, cotton, and corn all of which are now resistant to insects requiring less insecticide and better yield. Their research has also developed a biofortified banana. Nigeria has commercialized Bt cotton and also approved the GMO pest resistant cowpea.


Danes Turn up the GMO Heat on EU

Denmark’s Ethics Council has added to the pressure on the European Union to rethink its opposition to GMOs.  Much has changed since the 1990s, the Council observed, and policymakers must now think about how genetic technologies can help advance the development of the crops needed to contend with climate change, with greater resistance to pests and disease and more efficient use of water and nutrients. Until now, the Danes have been among the most vocal critics of GMOs, so the Council’s call for a new debate can’t be easily ignored by lawmakers and regulators.

Beyond Meat Goes Beyond Expectations

When Beyond Meat, who wants to separate meat from animals, began operations in 2009, no one saw the amazing response to the alternative meat producer that was to come from the investing public.  Beyond Meat’s initial public offering (IPO)had set its opening price at $25 per share, only to see the trading price immediately jump to $46 and rise to a high of $85- the best performing first day for an IPO in 20 years.  As of Tuesday, May 14th, the price is $79.68 with a market cap of $4.58 billion.

beyond meat

Presidential Hopefuls Look to Change Ag policies

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) are looking to get attention by making agricultural policy a key element of their campaigns.  Warren and Sanders, for example, would attack economic concentration in agriculture, looking to break up large vertically integrated operations. Klobuchar, who helped write the farm bill would boost all aspects of farming from dairy to animal disease outbreaks, to conservation. She also suggested a fee for mergers that would be used to investigate anti-competitive practices.  As more and more attention shifts to the difficult economic environment facing farmers and rural America, expect the list of candidates with other provocative policy ideas for our farm and food system to expand still more.




Rallying for our Flooded Farmers


At Dirt-to-Dinner, we love working with farmers and telling their story. We want to take a moment to not only inform others of the flooding’s magnitude but also to consider a few ways to help those in need.

Floods sweep away livestock and buildings

Farmers and ranchers in Nebraska and Iowa have been suffering through a natural catastrophe that has yielded unprecedented damage. The flooding that began in March was so strong that it literally swept away cattle and other livestock, never to be seen again. But the devastation doesn’t end there. As flood waters continue to roll in, farmers’ losses are compounded as time eats away at what would otherwise have been used to plant crops for the upcoming harvest.

“The extensive flooding we’ve seen…will continue through May and may be exacerbated in the coming weeks as the water flows downstream.”
– Ed Clark, Director of NOAA’s National Water Center

The timing of these floods couldn’t be worse for farmers and ranchers, many of whom currently struggle to keep their farms in operation. Farmers have been working on very slim profit margins with historically low commodity prices and punitive export taxes in ongoing trade wars. When this flood rushed in, it hit our farm belt like a tsunami.

The flooding also wiped out farmers’ reserves. Many farmers strategically store last season’s crops to protect against a downturn, like a rough trading climate or a bad storm. In fact, because of tensions with China, farmers stored more of their harvest last year than in previous years for such protection. Sadly, all those efforts – and lost income – went to waste.

Damage is in the billions

Nebraska and Iowa were hit the hardest by the flooding, with initial damage estimated at $1.4 billion and $2.0 billion, respectively, and these estimates exclude long-term damage, which can multiply the loss, especially when you consider all the unplanted and unharvested crops this year. Furthermore, other affected factors like feed, soil quality, and water supply, will have a profound ripple effect throughout the system that lingers far beyond the current flood.

“This flood isn’t just bigger; the effects will last longer. Long after waters recede, the sand and debris left behind must be cleaned up before planting. But the equipment to remove that debris is not always available quickly and fields may not be ready in time for farmers to get a crop in at all this year.”
– Sam Funk, Iowa Farm Bureau’s Senior Economist

More than 500,000 acres of land were flooded in total, mostly comprised of corn and soybean crops. That’s the equivalent of the area of 35 Manhattans! While floodwaters are now receding in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa, river levels are increasing across the northern Plains, with more flooding likely. In Nebraska alone, $400 million worth of livestock have been killed or displaced. This affects not only the ranchers’ operations and livelihoods, but also our dinner plates as the market seeks to find a new balance, leading to beef price fluctuations.

Additionally, with 81 of the 93 counties in Nebraska in a state of emergency as of March-end, many of the roads, bridges, and tunnels are in disrepair, leaving farmers unable to get their goods to the market or transportation hub. For instance, what normally took one Nebraskan farmer around 15 minutes now takes more than three hours to bring his food to market, increasing costs during an already extremely challenging economic time.

A farmer’s limited protection

Our nation provides protection in such disasters at both a federal and state level that farmers can utilize. Of particular aid to farmers in need is the Farm Bill, which significantly extended disaster assistance as of 2014 to include livestock loss from weather events, livestock emergency assistance, and other relevant programs. Also, farmers and ranchers not previously signed up for protection prior to these catastrophic events now have access to coverage.

Despite the breadth of programs offered to those in need, they can still leave the farmer vulnerable to massive loss, as many of these programs only cover a fraction of the damage, if even at all. For instance, with the stored crops we mentioned earlier, neither insurance nor the Farm Bill will cover the loss. In more typical weather events, farmers would have enough time to relocate their grains and seeds in the event of flooding. However, the recent flooding filled the fields too quickly, leaving farmers with no time to relocate their millions of dollars’ worth of stored crops. Any farmer depending on selling those crops for necessary operations and taxes will likely go out of business.

Given the magnitude of loss and the lack of farmer protection in particular issues like stored crops, we expect that new legislation may be proposed in the near future to cover such devastation. But, for many hurting families and communities in the Midwest, those funds can’t come soon enough.

Humanity at its finest

For those who have lost so much, not all hope is lost. Thanks to the compassion of many individuals, companies, and organizations, these farmers and ranchers can find more relief from the storm. Addy Tritt, a recent college graduate, found a remarkable way to help: she purchased a stores’ worth of shoes to donate. Now some may think she must have pretty deep pockets to donate over 200 pairs of shoes, but she used her ingenuity to provide relief. Knowing that Payless was going out of business, she called the corporate office and negotiated over $6,000 worth of inventory down to $100. Talk about a good deal!!

Ralco, an ag tech company, has donated over $15,000 of their animal feed and wellness products to farmers in need. With products that help cattle overcome high-stress situations, Ralco’s donation will go far with livestock that may have temporarily suffered from malnutrition and trauma.

And organizations like Farm Rescue are continually seeking ways to help farmers and ranchers by providing the necessary equipment and manpower to plant or harvest their crops. They also provide livestock feeding assistance and other services.

What can we all do to help?

For one, know that it’s never too late to give. And two, every little bit helps. Even providing a can of beans, donating $5, or just sending a hand-written note of support and warmth will go far. You can donate money or other services at Farm Rescue which has locations throughout the farm belt.

Nebraska Farm Bureau established a Disaster Relief Fund, where 100% of the donations will be distributed to Nebraska farmers, ranchers, and rural communities affected by the disasters. And if you are a farmer in the area and have hay, feedstuffs, fencing materials or equipment to spare, please consider donating to the Nebraska Department of Agriculture, where they will provide supplies to those in need.

Should your spring cleaning leave you with extra gently-used clothes, the United Way of the Midlands’ Omaha office at 2201 Farnam Street in Omaha, NE 68102 is set up for donations. They have established the Nebraska & Iowa Flood Relief Fund to help people who lost homes or suffered other setbacks in the flooding. 100% of every donation will be given to nonprofit programs that provide shelter, food and other services in the area.

The Green New Deal: Where’s the Beef?

cow walking down road

As you’ve probably heard in the news, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) presented a proposal to Congress called the Green New Deal that addresses how the U.S. can achieve net-zero greenhouse emissions in ten years, in addition to tackling inequality and wage reform. This deal, brashly named after Roosevelt’s New Deal to help the U.S. economy recover from the Great Depression, puts forth a lot of idealistic proposals but without much specificity, strategic planning and research. Since we’re a blog about food and agriculture, let’s focus on the initiatives affecting farmers and our food supply.

Ag Initiatives

The bulk of this resolution concentrates on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a concept not new to the ag industry. And while ag contributes the smallest amount of total U.S. emissions among the EPA’s designated sectors, the resolution focuses on three initiatives for agriculture to become more environmentally friendly:

  1. Supporting family farming
  2. Investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health
  3. Building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food

source: EPA

Though these initiatives may sound original, those in ag have been implementing these goals for years now and without government intervention! Farmers regularly collaborate with cross sections of both corporations and organizations to formalize efforts on sustainability and productivity. Not one successful farmer or rancher acts independently – they know the best way to take care of their land while feeding a hungry nation is to work interdependently across sectors to achieve these goals.

Farmers collaborate to better their land and products. PepsiCo’s Sustainable Farming Program teaches farmers practices they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. The Global Salmon Initiative helps salmon farmers all over the world create the standard for sustainably farmed salmon.

Supporting Family Farming

The USDA states that 96% of the 2.2 million U.S. farms are family-owned, and this number is on the rise. Furthermore, these family-operated farms account for 78% of total farm production in the U.S. We are already a nation of family farms!

Additionally, consumers are shifting towards a preference for locally-grown produce and meat. While being a small farmer today brings little financial security, those who are innovative and creative continue to add value to our food system, as well as make profits to stay in business.

Investing in sustainable farming and land use practices that increase soil health

Contrary to how they are depicted in most media outlets, farmers and ranchers are the most vested stewards of the land.

Take, for example, the now-viral response to The Green New Deal from Kansas rancher, Brandi Buzzard Frobose:

“As a rancher, I can tell you that we take the quality of the great outdoors very seriously – air, soil and water quality are all of utmost importance to us here because, well we are the ones living here in the sticks. Which is why our segment of agriculture actively works to reduce our impact on the environment every. single. day.”

To help food producers and the millions of other concerned American citizens make more informed decisions on issues like climate change, The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) released a Cost/Benefit Principles for Climate-Change Policy.

Colin Woodall, NCBA Senior Vice-President, Government Affairs told Northern Ag Network:

“These are very straightforward questions that any concerned citizen or reporter should be asking anyone who proposes new climate-change policy. What specifically are you proposing, how much will it cost, how much will it affect global temperatures down the road, and how did you arrive at those numbers? Seems like anyone who is proposing billions or trillions of dollars’ worth of policy changes should be happy to answer those questions. Yet for some reason, few currently are.”

According to Woodall, U.S. beef producers have already made a great deal of progress on environmental issues like climate change, such as producing the same amount of beef with 33% fewer cattle, compared to 1977.

Woodall also pointed out that beef producers in the U.S. now have one of the lowest carbon footprints compared to many of their worldwide counterparts, now producing only 2% of all carbon emissions in the U.S.

As for the quality of soil, many farmers employ best practices to increase soil health, as they know first-hand how essential healthy soil is for producing the best fruits, vegetables, and livestock. These farmers, much like the McMenamins at Versailles Farms, utilize precision technologies like soil moisture sensors, irrigation sensors, and, when necessary, synthetic inputs based on detailed soil analyses. Farmers and ranchers consider all these factors to operate the most productive farms possible while being stewards of the land.

Building a more sustainable food system that ensures universal access to healthy food

Not much argument here about a right to food – we completely agree. However, this system has been in place for quite some time now. In fact, it is because of the U.S. food supply system and the SNAP (food stamp) program that everyone currently has access to clean, healthy, affordable food.

We also understand that there’s always room for improvement, but creating efficiencies in this intricate web of food producers, suppliers and distributors will take a very detailed plan – something far more specific than the gross generalities outlined in The Green New Deal.

A strategic plan for something of this magnitude requires government, corporate and organizational compliance and oversight.

Technological Feasibility and Consumer Acceptance

We as consumers are eating more than ever, now clocking in over 3,600 calories per day. Farmers and ranchers are being asked to produce more food on less land using less water, fewer pesticide, and less energy.

Farmers are adopting precision farming technologies to help them reduce their water usage, reduce emissions, use less energy, increase crop yield, reduce pesticides, and reduce fertilizers. Genetic engineering, like GMOs and CRISPR, can also help create a more sustainable food system, but consumers and red tape often stall technological innovations.

The resolution calls on achieving net-zero emissions in ten years in whatever means is technologically feasible.  Roadblocks and propaganda create a sentiment that has such advances either stuck in a prolonged approval process or generally distrusted among consumers.

Take the “Non-GMO Project Verified” label, which not only vilifies GMOs, but also encourages companies with food products that don’t even have a GMO counterpart (like wheat, avocadoes, berries, even water!) to buy the rights to use its label, stoking fears among consumers to only purchase non-GMO products.

Counterproductive organizations and lack of government oversight in their practices make technological advances like genetic engineering a very formidable challenge in consumer perception and adoption.

What Does This Mean for Farmers?

Because of the Green New Deal’s lack of clarity, many in the sector have become fearful that further plans will place a cap on livestock, dairy production, and other industry-shaking restrictions.

Others think it may just be a matter of perspective. Popular Science sheds a positive light on the proposal, writing that perhaps it has less to do with reducing fossil fuels (and the farting cow fiasco – which, if we really want to be specific, should be corrected to cow burps) and more to do with the “net-zero carbon” aspect of carbon farming, planting more trees, and revitalizing our soils.

What’s probably the most disheartening about the Green New Deal is that these green initiatives are not considering developments already taking place in our food supply using fewer resources.  We are improving nutrition by advancing supply chains while reducing food waste. We’re also reducing environmental impacts by breeding more productive plants and animals and investing in biotechnology. We hope that as this proposal develops, those behind the Deal take the time to learn more about current initiatives.


The Year in Food News: What To Know Before 2019

world being pierced by a fork illustration

Within this post we discuss the following topics:

Trade Tensions with China. How does this affect you?

NAFTA is Dead, Long Live USMCA. Well, Sort Of…

What’s the Farm Bill? About a half-trillion dollars— or maybe more.

The 2018 harvest is almost done. What does it mean for food prices?

Keeping CRISPR Alive in Europe

Glyphosate Debate No Closer to Resolution

Trade Tensions with China. How does this affect you?

After the G20 summit in Buenos Aires, the United States and China announced a pause in the on-going trade dispute between the two nations, with President Donald Trump agreeing to postpone a scheduled increase in U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods set to go into effect January 1, 2019.

On December 1st, Trump agreed to a 90-day tariff truce in order to give both sides time to begin a serious discussion of the myriad of trade and intellectual property issues leading to the escalating series of tariffs. News reports indicate that as part of the agreement, the Chinese have agreed to step up purchases from the United States, including agricultural products such as soybeans. Just exactly what other agricultural products, and in what time frame, remain unclear.

As of December 11, the Chinese are believed to have resumed soybean purchases. President Trump was quoted saying the Chinese are “buying tremendous amounts of soybeans.”

So what does this mean for U.S. food consumers?  Not much, immediately.

The food industry continues to have more than enough commodities to satisfy immediate demand, even if the Chinese resume larger purchases of U.S. soybeans and other farm products.

The real issue for consumers is the long-term economic health of the farm sector. Exports are an important aspect of farm revenue, yet net farm income has been declining steadily in recent years, to a level about half its 2013 peak.  Without a clearer picture of future market stability for U.S. exports, that pressure is likely to continue.

With more and more farm operations on margin, look for further growth in farm size as farmers consolidate, and continued pressure for investment in the technological and operational improvements to keep food costs down.

Related Reading:
In the News: China Trade on Soybeans and Pork
Net Farm Income Projected to Drop to 12-year Low
How Consolidation is Changing Rural Agriculture
Examining Consolidation in U.S. Agriculture

NAFTA is Dead, Long Live USMCA. Well, Sort Of…

President Trump raised eyebrows by signing a new trade deal among the three countries known as USMCA (the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement), formerly known as NAFTA.

What’s the big deal?  Quite a bit for certain sectors of the U.S. economy, notably the automotive industry – and agricultural interest in all three countries.  Favorable trade terms under NAFTA helped agricultural trade among the three explode.

U.S. agricultural exports under NAFTA grew from $11 billion in 1993 to over $43 billion in 2016, making Canada and Mexico the second- and third-largest markets in the world for U.S. producers.  Canadian and Mexican ag interests – and consumers – reaped comparable benefits.

USMCA would build on NAFTA’s open trade principles to extend favorable ag trade terms to several sectors previously outside the tri-lateral agreement, including poultry, dairy, and eggs.

Preserving the open trade spirit behind this long-standing trade policy has never been more important to U.S. agriculture. The U.S. farm sector’s reliance on a robust export market as a major source of farm income provides us with the low-cost food we eat today.

Should food consumers care?  As with most major public food policy issues, the immediate effect of all this is virtually undetectable. But its role in preserving the economic health of a vibrant and responsive food system isn’t.  Without policies that help create economic opportunity for U.S. farmers, consumers can’t assume the world’s most productive and efficient food system can stay that way indefinitely.

So, if you like to eat and feed your family with an abundant and affordable supply of wholesome food,you might listen with at least one ear when those talking heads on TV mention trade.

Related Reading:
The USMCA explained: Winners and losers, what’s in and what’s out
United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement
What is NAFTA?

What’s the Farm Bill? About a half-trillion dollars— or maybe more

As the year winds down, a lot of people in and out of Washington are breathing a sigh of relief over the final resolution of the running battle for new farm legislation. The bill passed with an 87-to-13 vote in the Senate on Tuesday, Dec 11thand will now go to the house, where it is expected to pass as well. This new five-year bill lays out the complex web of policies and programs governing the U.S. food system.

The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture

The bill makes no major changes in policy direction, and still covers everything from crop subsidies, crop insurance and conservation programs to urban farming, research and nutrition assistance programs – and a heck of a lot more in between, including new hemp regulations.

The 2014 Farm Bill has been estimated to cost taxpayers about $488 billion, although the final tally may come in a tad lower than that figure. Comparatively, the 2018 Farm Bill is expected to cost taxpayers $827 billion.

The share of that spending going to farmers? This is a bit controversial. Commodity programs, crop insurance, and conservation make up only 19 percent of the tab.  About 80 percent – four of every five dollars in the bill – goes to some form of nutritional assistance for those who are in need. This is commonly referred to as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), or food stamps.

The 2018 compromise is expected to address various cost-control mechanisms but nonetheless entails 10-year spending of about $687 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

So, what do consumers get for their tax dollar?  Even though a small amount goes to the farming network, the Farm Bill provides the framework of policies and programs — the rules of the road — needed to guide production, processing, research, product innovation, manufacturing, marketing, retailing and all the other elements of a modern food system.

It provides the framework essential to attracting investment and incentivizing the effort that keeps the system responsive to the evolving needs and demands of consumers.

The American public gets a stable, innovative and reliable food system, unlike anything seen in previoushistory. It’s government policy-making that can be argued to actually work, and work well, especially in today’s fractured political system.

Related Reading:
What is the Farm Bill — and why should you care?
Congress just passed an $867 billion farm bill. Here’s what’s in it.
Farm Bill: A Short History and Summary
The Farm Bill (archives from the NYT)

The 2018 harvest is almost done. What does this mean for food prices?

The end of the calendar year normally means corn and soybean farmers are wrapping up harvests of their crops.  Tough weather conditions have slowed the harvest in some production areas.  But overall, more than 90 percent of the corn and soybean harvest is completed. The final numbers will impact future farm production trends and have implications for future food prices.

Corn and Soybean Digest

The Department of Agriculture will release official numbers for the crops in mid-January.  But all signs point to a good harvest for corn and soybean producers, with some early estimates pointing to crops of more than 14.6 billion and 4.6 billion bushels, respectively.

Why should anyone outside the farm community care about such dry and mind-numbing statistics?  Because they point toward the future for supplies of the commodities that fuel the American food system – and the prices consumers are likely to be paying.

Experts are looking to see not just what stocks are on hand, but what farmers’ intentions for the next crop year will be.  Big stockpiles – and an export outlook clouded by trade tensions — can mean tough markets for soybean exports, for example.  Waiting for higher commodity prices, many farmers stockpile their crops rather than sell them thus creating more uncertainties. That may lead to smaller planted acreage for soybeans in the coming year as stocks increase and producers look for alternative crops, such as corn or specialty crops such as hemp.

Government estimates of food expenditures, meanwhile, show modest growth in prices paid for food.  USDA estimates say, prices for food consumed in the home should hold flat, or rise by only 1 percent, while prices for food consumed away from home are projected to be up 2-3 percent.  This is mainly due to higher labor costs.  Projections for 2019 show similar modest increases in food prices.

What keeps food costs so stable in the midst of such ups and downs in the commodity world? Part of the answer lies in the complexity and efficiency of the modern food chain.  Statistics show that the cost of key commodities represents a small fraction of the total food dollar – somewhere between 12 and 15 percent, by most estimates.  (Incidentally, the commodity share of the food dollar has shown a steady decline in recent decades.) The remainder goes to processing, packaging, transportation, retail costs, food service costs and other costs (such as energy, financial expenses, and insurance).

Related Reading:
USDA – Food Dollar Series
National Farmers Union: The Farmer’s Share
USDA Graphs Explain The Breakdown of a U.S. Food Dollar

Keeping CRISPR Alive in Europe

The European Court of Justice earlier this year ruled that held gene-edited crops must be subject to the same onerous regulatory standards as genetically modified organisms (GMOs).


While many anti-GMO groups hailed the Court’s actions, reaction to the ruling ranged from howls of outrage to sighs of despair among the scientific and agricultural communities.  The ruling would effectively make Europe a non-player in the world’s efforts to use gene editing technology – known as CRISPR – to spur the next generations of agricultural innovation and progress in better plant development.

Now 75 leading scientists from a spectrum of European life science research centers have called upon European policymakers to reverse the court’s decision.  How policymakers respond will provide the next big indictor of which direction Europe will move in the global effort to produce the innovative new plants needed to deal with growing world demand for food – plants capable of resisting disease and pests, crops capable of dealing with changing climatic conditions, organisms capable of thriving on less water and fewer added field nutrients.

Related Reading:
In the News: European Court Hinders CRISPR Technology
CRISPR & Co are GMOs, says EU court

Glyphosate Debate No Closer to Resolution

2018 was a big year for glyphosate – the key ingredient in Monsanto’s widely used herbicide, RoundUp.

Glyphosate has been under steady and sometimes heated attack by a range of individuals and organizations concerned that excessive exposure to RoundUp can cause cancer.  When a California jury awarded $289 million to a man claiming the product caused his cancer, the debate entered a new and even more contentious phase. The award was later reduced to “only” $78 million, but new trials involving thousands of claimants remain in the works in various locations.

Expect to see the battle spill from the media and courtroom to the legislative arena.  Bayer AG, who acquired Monsanto for $63 billion in June 2018, has signaled its intent to continue battling to defend what it sees as a proven and important tool for farmers worldwide.  In early December, the company garnered widespread media coverage when it posted more than 300 studies regarding the safety of glyphosate. As part of the company’s “Transparency Initiative,” the release was touted as an important step in establishing trust in the science behind its products.  That material also has been provided to the European Parliament as part of their deliberations on the renewal of authorization for glyphosate production.

The debate in the European Parliament mirrors the political divisions related to GMOs.  Many legislators see a need to embrace science and products that maintain the EU’s competitive position in the global agricultural system.  But others favor a more restrictive approach as they think it is the best way to protect human health and the environment.

Related Reading:
National Pesticide Information Center: Glyphosate
Bayer committed to transparency: Posts more than 300 glyphosate safety study summaries online

In the News: Glyphosate (again)


For most of us, weeds are a backyard annoyance. Whether they are in a flower or vegetable garden or sprouting up in the lawn, manual eviction is possible. For farmers around the world, however, weeds are a lot more than an annoyance. Weeds in a farm field mean that crop producers must spend valuable time and money getting rid of them before they steal the water and nutrients that crops rely on to grow.

Weeds make a difference in how big the crop is at harvest time, and how much money is left over after all the expenses of production, harvesting, storage, transportation, and marketing are paid.

For close to four decades, the safest and most effective herbicide has been Roundup, made by Monsanto. Its active ingredient is glyphosate – which in geek-speak is “an organophosphorus compound, specifically a phosphonate, which acts by inhibiting the plant enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase.” In perhaps overly simplistic but understandable terms, it’s a salt that dries up and ultimately kills plants.

Why do farmers use glyphosate? Read our post: Is Glyphosate Safe?

Back in 2015, the use of glyphosate took on a strong international political flavor. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a World Health Organization (WHO) agency devoted to cancer research, concluded that glyphosate is a “probable carcinogen.” IARC’s methodology evaluated hazard and not risk (coffee is a hazard too if you drink too much of it), and has been widely disputed by many other scientific organizations, including the European Food Safety Authority and the Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/World Health Organization (WHO) Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR). In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Toxicology Programdoes not list glyphosate as either “known to be a human carcinogen” or “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

The difference of opinion on glyphosate has prompted intense battles and lobbying – in academic circles, in the media, in the courtroom and regulatory arena, and beyond.  Despite the fact that its use reduces the amount of herbicide needed, decreases use of more toxic herbicides, and enables farmers to till their fields less thereby improving soil health, environmental groups have made glyphosate almost an evil incarnate, to be either completely banned or at least extremely tightly controlled.  A new claim or new study seems to emerge regularly, alleging some new danger or additional “proof” of real and serious danger to the public health, the environment or some other vulnerable group. Notably, the EU debated further restrictions on the use of glyphosate or an outright ban on its sale or use but ultimately kicked the can down the road until at least 2022.

Closer to home, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental advocacy group, recently released a report claiming to have found minute levels of glyphosate in 26 of 28 breakfast cereals and snack bars tested.  Such presence should worry consumers, EWG suggested, especially where the health of children is concerned.

Hold on a minute, said others across the scientific, public health and business communities. The levels detected in the study are far, far below the threshold set by even the most stringent regulatory standards. People would need to consume vast quantities of these products over their lifetime before reaching the Allowable Daily Intake.  This is nothing more than a clear effort to cry wolf, using children as a tool to advance an environmental or ideological agenda.

A child weighing 11 pounds would have to eat 29 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 101 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

An older child weighing about 44 pounds would have to eat 115 servings of Quaker® Old Fashioned Oats and 404 servings of Cheerios™ every day over a lifetime.

The FDA began testing for glyphosate levels in harvested crops for the first time in 2016 and released that data in October 2018. According to the agency’s report, no glyphosate was detected in milk and eggs. In corn and soybean samples that did test positive (many tested negative), the amounts were below minimum levels established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

As these EWG headlines renewed the controversy, a judge in California substantially reduced to $78 million the initial $289 million awarded last summer by a San Francisco jury to the groundskeeper who claimed his cancer resulted from exposure to Roundup. The ruling came despite hundreds of reviews and studies, most by government regulatory oversight agencies and independent scientists, that has found the popular weed killer to be safe as used.

The size of the initial award had attracted global media attention and raised eyebrows across the business community and around the world.  The recent reduction enabled Monsanto to claim some sort of victory – if only in the chance to repeat the defense of its product.

“There is an extensive body of research on glyphosate and glyphosate-based herbicides, including more than 800 rigorous registration studies required by the EPA and European and other regulators that confirm that these products are safe when used as directed.” (Monsanto)

The EPA, as part of a normal chemical review process, is currently engaged in its latest routine review of glyphosate and will publish its decision in 2019.  However, in December 2017, the EPA published the following:

“The draft human health risk assessment concludes that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic to humans. The Agency’s assessment found no other meaningful risks to human health when the product is used according to the pesticide label. The Agency’s scientific findings are consistent with the conclusions of science reviews by a number of other countries as well as the 2017 National Institute of Health’s Agricultural Health Survey.”

The release of the EPA’s registration review report is certain to trigger the next animated round of debate.  Meanwhile, expect still more of the steady drip of claims and counterarguments from a broad spectrum of interest groups – public health, environmental, scientific and business, just to name a few.  The headlines aren’t going away any time soon.

FAO Reports an Increase in Hungry People Around the World

women mixing grains in large bowl - Africa

In its 2018 report, the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports an increase in the number of hungry people around the world. After years of steady improvement in reducing hunger, the number of people facing chronic food deprivation in 2017 is nearly 821 million, up from 804 million the year before.

What is the definition of hunger? According to author Robert Paarlberg, in his book Food Politics, What Everyone Needs to Know, hunger is defined as “those that are living on less than $1 a day, with a daily energy intake below 2,200 calories or a diet lacking in essential diversity. ” A bowl of rice or corn, for example, may be heavy on calories but lacks essential nutrients.

Hunger results in malnutrition which is a deficiency in macro and/or micro ingredients needed to maintain healthy tissues and organ function. Malnutrition results in a weak immune system more susceptible to disease.

Hunger in Sudan. /Stephanie Glinski

Malnutrition can also be synonymous with obesity, which is the consumption of overeating foods without nutrients. For many people around the world, foods that are high in sugar, salt and fat can be cheaper and more readily available than fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, and other nutrient-dense foods. According to the FAO report, childhood overweight and obesity rates are rising in most regions and adult obesity is increasing in all regions.

Chronic malnourishment is widespread, but there are regions of vulnerability. Sub-Saharan, Eastern, and Middle Africa have more than 20% of undernourished people.  While not as severe, Southern and Central Asia hover around 15%. Even the sunny Caribbean doesn’t escape with 16.5% undernourishment.

What is the cause of hunger?

FAO pointed out that there are three major forces that contribute to chronic hunger:

Weather and climate. Climate-related events have consequences of food safety and availability. In fact, the FAO reports that from 1990-2016, the number of droughts, floods and storms has averaged to 213 per year. Those countries with high exposure to climate extremes have a higher malnourished population. Africa, Central America, and Southeast Asia, for example, not only have been experiencing lower rainfall but also fewer days of rain.

In some cases, hunger can be a direct result of a specific event, like a tsunami or hurricane. As a result, international food aid comes from a collaboration of the FAO, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other NGOs until the crisis is over.

Of the extreme climate-related disasters, drought is the most destructive for crops and livestock.

Global Conflict. Wars and civil upheavals are a double whammy for food security. Political uncertainty and terrorism force mass immigration toward the developed world. The endless stream of images on television from Syria, North Africa, and other global trouble spots tell the story vividly.

Conflict events in Africa, 1997–2015. The final boundary between the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan has not yet been determined. SOURCE: Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) and FAO 2017 Report of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.

Economics. People go hungry when fundamental economic principles are abandoned.  For example, the people of Venezuela have suffered from poor government choices. Socialism-gone-awry has triggered rampant food insecurity, refugees, and a collapsed country.

Venezuelan migrants fleeing economic meltdown at home. Source: The Times, UK

There are more mouths to feed today than yesterday…

As the population increases, so will the number of hungry people. Let’s look at 2035—just 17 years away. We will have 1.1 billion more people to feed. It is no surprise that 51% of the population growth will be in India, China, Europe, Indonesia, and Pakistan. In India alone, 339 million people currently live below the poverty line. That is more than all the population in the United States! If the percentage stays the same at 10.9%, in 2035 there will be 100 million more people facing starvation.

“Access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food must be framed as a human right, with priority given to the most vulnerable. Policies must pay special attention to the food security and nutrition of children under five, school-age children, adolescent girls, and women in order to halt the intergenerational cycle of malnutrition. A shift is needed towards nutrition-sensitive agriculture and food systems that provide safe and high-quality food, promoting healthy diets for all.” (FAO)

How will CRISPR impact our food?

non-browning crispr mushrooms - Penn State
The CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system is revolutionizing food and will be used in the near future to address global hunger, create more nutritious food, and grow more sustainable crops. It has the potential to positively impact all aspects of our global food system.

What is CRISPR?

CRISPR is a gene-editing technology that actually mutates a gene within the plant itself.  Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley, the co-inventor of CRISPR, likens gene editing to editing a word document using the “find and replace” function. This means that CRISPR locates a specific gene within the plant genome and changes it in order to alter the traditional outcome. (Want more information on CRISPR technology? Read our post here).

You are probably wondering what the difference between GMO and CRISPR technology is? To put it simply, GMOs enhance a crop by taking a gene out of another organism altogether and inserting it in the crop, while CRISPR edits the existing gene within a crop.

This ingenious technology has the ability to expedite our traditional plant crossbreeding process. Remember: the food we eat today is not how it was found in the wild; plants have been cross-bred for millions of years to become the edible fruits and veggies we now know and love. CRISPR allows us to breed these plants sooner by at least three or four years.

From turning gene expression on and off to fluorescently tagging particular sequences, this animation explores some of the exciting possibilities of CRISPR.

“CRISPR is as profound a shift in thinking as genetics was in the 1970s.  Looking back from the future it will seem obvious.  We are just now comprehending the possibilities.” -Carter Williams, CEO, iSelectFund

From turning gene expression on and off to fluorescently tagging particular sequences, this animation explores some of the exciting possibilities of CRISPR

“CRISPR is as profound a shift in thinking as genetics was in the 1970s.  Looking back from the future it will seem obvious.  We are just now comprehending the possibilities.” -Carter Williams, CEO, iSelectFund

CRISPR is just one of the technologies shaping the future of the food supply chain.

The Dirt-to-Dinner team speaks with Craig Herron from iSelectFund at the Davos on the Delta Conference.

The Dirt-to-Dinner team recently attended an iSelectFund sponsored agricultural technology conference, called Davos on the Delta. We learned about what our food and agriculture system might look like in the future as technology advances. We met and heard from a number of innovative companies that are already revolutionizing the way we farm and the food we eat. At the helm of the conference was Carter Williams, CEO of iSelectFund, who hopes to encourage consumers to accept these revolutionary technologies all along the food supply chain.

As we listened to the speakers during the conference, it became clear that three critical innovations: CRISPR, microbiota and big data on the farm will affect the way we grow, process and eat our food. Stay tuned for more on microbes and big data.

What are some of the applications of CRISPR technology?

Scientists from AgroParisTech reviewed 52 peer-reviewed agricultural applications of CRISPR in order to better understand how CRISPR technology has been applied to various crops from 2014 to 2017.


It is very interesting that rice is the largest CRISPR application in a crop to date and is primarily being studied in China. The United States comes in second with CRISPR crops from the mustard plant, presumably because these crops can easily be tested and understood as a precursor for other crops.

How CRISPR will affect crop production

CRISPR will enable farmers to grow more dynamic crops, as opposed to the traditional corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola. They can mature faster, require less water, contain more nutrients…or even all three! Today, there are 30,000 different types of crops available, but our overall food system only relies on about 30 and, interestingly enough, 66% of our calories come from only eight crops.

Benson Hill Biosystems is a biotech company that helps farmers differentiate their crops with unique traits as well as predict crop trait outcomes by combining artificial intelligence and big data. They work closely with consumer products companies to make specialty foods; for instance, heat resistant chocolate from the cacao plant. Benson Hill has also patented a way for corn to enhance the photosynthesis process so that it can take more carbon out of the air while growing more quickly.

Using CRISPR to expand the geographical range of important food crops – Dec 2016

Scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York are changing the way we appreciate tomatoes. Using CRISPR, the tomatoes flower and mature two weeks earlier than traditional tomatoes. This means that farmers can grow two crops per season, inevitably becoming more profitable. This also gives consumers more tomatoes and allows farmers to grow the crop in more northerly latitudes. The best part? No more mealy tomatoes in the wintertime!

Corteva Agriscience (a merger of Dow AgroSciences and DuPont Pioneer) is growing the next generation of waxy corn. What is waxy corn, you ask? It has a high amylopectin starch that is used for consumer and industrial use. For instance, when you next enjoy a printed picture on high glossy paper, you can thank waxy corn for that!

Crops grown for industrial use will expand beyond starch, ethanol, and biodiesels. For example, your tires may soon be made from dandelions. Another small biotech company, Kultevat, has identified a Russian Dandelion that can make rubber exactly like the rubber from a tree. It is easier to grow, more sustainable, less expensive, and its byproduct can be used for fuel.

A more familiar name in this space, Monsanto, invested in Pairwise in order to address global food challenges via gene editing technology. They will initially focus on the major crops of corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and canola. They licensed editing technology from Harvard University, but Pairwise will also work with other agriculture and food processing companies.

How CRISPR can solve global hunger

We need about 40 known nutrients to live healthy lives and right now there are 2 billion people globally who don’t have enough nutrition in their bodies when they go to bed, millions of those are children. Nutrient deficiencies prevent brain development, increases the chance of infections, and have serious social and economic repercussions. This doesn’t just apply to those in the developing world. For instance, many of us are literally starving ourselves of essential vitamins and minerals when we choose to eat an abundance of unhealthy foods over healthier options. Now with advancements in CRISPR, farmers will be able to grow crops that are biofortified – making crops more nutritious and shelf-stable.

Biofortification is when scientists breed crops to have more micronutrients and vitamins. You may already be familiar with the GMO-developed golden rice, rice made with Vitamin A to prevent night blindness and even death among those severely deficient in the vitamin. Rather than using transgenic technology, CRISPR is helping the larger agriculture science companies develop staple crops such as sweet potatoes, legumes and maize with iron, zinc, amino acids and proteins by tweaking the genetic code of the plant itself to make it more nutritionally diverse for those who have a monotonous diet.

Additionally, because of the long lead time to develop a crop, the larger agricultural science companies are better suited using CRISPR technology for biofortification.

Some of the companies leading the way with biofortified foods.

CRISPR in your grocery cart.

Some CRISPR edited crops are simply just to keep fruits and vegetables fresh and appealing. The non-browning mushroom from Yinong Yang and his team at Pennsylvania State University was the first to come to market. Harry J. Klee from the Plant Innovation Center at the University of Florida found the 13 important flavor components in a variety of different tomatoes. Editing the tomatoes to meet those components means an even better tasting tomato – especially in the wintertime.

Anti-browning mushroom developed by plant pathologist Yinong Yang using CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology.

Nutraceuticals are also becoming a possibility. This means better health from the daily foods we eat. The Institute for Sustainable Agriculture in Spain has created gluten-free wheat for those with celiac disease that will soon be coming to our own grocery shelves. According to the WSJ, DowDuPont will soon be selling CRISPR corn for healthy salad dressings and Calyxt will sell healthier vegetable oil.

What are the regulations surrounding CRISPR?

Currently, the USDA has chosen not to regulate CRISPR crops because there are no transgenics involved and the CRISPR results could have been done through cross-breeding. They do not see a risk present with CRISPR, not to mention that there is no way to tell the difference between a CRISPR crop or one which has been cross-bred. We hope this leads to a swift adoption of this amazing technology to make our crops more efficient, healthier, and more sustainable.

While the possibilities are exciting, the patent process is also something to keep your eyes on. Jennifer Doudna from University California Berkeley vs. Feng Zhang from The Broad Institute (M.I.T. and Harvard) have gone to court over who receives the patent over CRISPR- Cas9. The disagreement will continue in agriculture as Corteva (DowDuPont) is using the patent from UC Berkeley and Pairwise (Monsanto) signed a deal for their CRISPR/Cpf1 technology with Harvard and M.I.T.

The FDA’s Role in Solving a Foodborne Illness Outbreak

baby mixed lettuces
The Mystery is Solved! The FDA announced on June 28th that the E.coli outbreak tied to romaine lettuce is over. New evidence shows bacteria taken from canal water samples, which link Yuma-based farmers and suppliers, matched the E. coli 0157:H7 strain that caused the outbreak. Federal agency work continues to determine how and why this strain entered into the canal.

Summer is officially underway! Now is the time to enjoy fresh salads loaded with fruits and veggies. And, despite the recent outbreak, we now know the romaine available today is safe so there’s no need to be deterred from enjoying your favorite summer salads.

Pinpointing the source of a foodborne illness outbreak

The FDA is charged with determining how, when and why an outbreak occurred. Collaborating with the CDC, state and local regulatory agents, public health officials, and agriculture departments, the investigative process examines documentation from growers, harvesters, processors and distributors.

The collected data is then shared with the FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation (CORE) Network. A CORE response team is assigned to find out the exact cause, control the spread, and ultimately stop the outbreak. The CORE team tracks down the source of the contaminated food and its movement through the supply chain. The data is then compared to what is known about the illnesses to ensure the investigation is on the right track.

Electronic labeling helps the process

About a decade ago, produce industry members started the Produce Traceability Initiative (PTI) and invested heavily in PTI technologies so they could trace harvested products back to the field. Currently, about 60% of the produce industry uses labeling through the initiative.

When fruits and vegetables are harvested in the field, cartons holding the fresh produce are typically labeled with an electronic-coded sticker containing detailed information about the harvest date and time, the grower, farm and location, as well as information about the harvesting company and crew members who performed the harvesting.

While PTI is extremely helpful to trace a product back to its farm source, every other entity along the supply chain to the consumer must also maintain the integrity of product tracing information. One example of this is Supplier X that sells food to restaurants: it may buy lettuce from Companies A, B, and C, and then repackage it into different cartons. These newly repackaged cartons, now containing a variety of lettuces, have new labels that only include data about the product as it was handled at Supplier X and not information from Companies A, B, and C.

Another example is the grocery stores. Have you ever walked behind a restaurant or grocery store and seen a pile of empty boxes that once held food? After the produce is removed, the box with the label telling the restaurant or grocery store where the product came from, when it was picked, who picked it, etc. needs to be properly scanned into the store or restaurant’s system.

The FDA detective work begins….

So, what does the FDA do when they come to a dead-end, like a break in the electronic chain of information? They must sift through the company’s paper records and interview company personnel to piece together as much supply chain information as possible. This elusive detective work takes days – sometimes weeks.

As we know, it is so easy to purchase a bag of pre-mixed vegetables or salad straight from the grocery store. Well, as we saw with romaine, many of these items are mixed together from different suppliers. So you can see how the supply chain gets complicated! Here’s an example of a supply chain that the FDA may encounter during an investigation:

Investigating the supply chain gets complicated! There can be many companies and farms involved.

As you can see, the investigation quickly broadens to include multiple potential paths. Because Company B mixes lettuce from three sources, the FDA must assume that the contaminated lettuce came from any one of Companies C, D, and E. In reality, the contaminated product may only have come from Company C, but the FDA has no way of knowing this since the lettuce from all three companies is mixed together.

To further add to the complexity, Companies C, D, and E each have four farms and each farm has 1,500 acres of lettuce which are divided into multiple lots. If Company B retains the information from the lettuces from their three suppliers, then the FDA may be able to narrow the potential farm sources from 12 to 4, but too often this information is lost when the carton is thrown away.

Environmental Assessments

After tracing the contaminated product as close to its origin as possible, the FDA’s CORE team visits the location where contamination is thought to have occurred. If the location is a farm(s), they conduct what is referred to as an “environmental assessment”, noting potential hazards and taking samples of water, soil, and other agricultural inputs. They also assess the surrounding areas and collect samples related to wildlife and domestic animals (e.g., feces, water troughs, bedding) known to carry the pathogen.

If the contamination is believed to have happened at a facility, they visit the facilities involved and swab equipment, walls, floors, drains, etc. In addition to sampling, CORE members interview personnel who work at the farm or facility, asking questions about their practices and observations, as well as anything out of the ordinary that may have happened before the outbreak.

Race against the clock

When investigating foodborne illness outbreaks, the CORE teams are working against the clock, as weather and other environmental conditions may become unfavorable to pathogen survival and the bug may begin to die off. Even in facilities, conditions change (i.e., equipment is cleaned and sanitized), and the responsible pathogen may no longer be found. Because of this, there is a real possibility we may never know what caused the E. coli outbreak in romaine. However, that does not mean the work will not continue. Industry members join forces with government investigators – meeting with FDA officials and CORE members to discuss their practices, growing conditions, and potential risk factors.

You begin to see how much ground investigators need to cover in order to determine where and how the lettuce became contaminated.  But the FDA CORE teams work tirelessly to ensure that Americans are eating safe produce. While it is a tough job with many challenges, the CORE teams have many tools in their toolbox to help them solve outbreak causes

Farmers and growers continually work on food safety protocols

Farmers and growers need to know how the contamination happened so they can do everything possible to keep it from happening again. In the case of the romaine outbreak, the leafy greens industry has formed a task force and members are actively researching and gathering information as well as re-evaluating their food safety practices. In addition, the produce industry trade associations are working on solutions that will enable the industry to address gaps in traceability to more efficiently find the source of problems when they occur.

Special thanks to Dirt-to-Dinner contributors Susan Leaman and Diane Wetherington of iFoods Decision Sciences.

How Does the CDC Detect Foodborne Illnesses, like E. coli in Romaine lettuce?

vast field of romaine lettuce


As of June 1, 2018, the E. coli O157: H7-contaminated romaine lettuce outbreak has caused 5 deaths, 89 hospitalizations, and 197 known illnesses in 35 states. Even though the contaminated romaine is no longer in our food supply, the impact will undoubtedly be felt for some time as consumers continue to be concerned about eating the lettuce.

If you haven’t seen the headlines, you probably noticed the momentary disappearance of Caesar salads from restaurant menus and romaine lettuce from grocery store shelves when retail and food service companies around the country pulled products containing romaine lettuce from shelves in response to the foodborne illness outbreak linked to the consumption of contaminated romaine lettuce.

How do we determine when foodborne illness outbreaks occur?

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is the federal government agency responsible for determining when outbreaks occur, identifying the microorganism that caused the outbreak, and identifying the contaminated product. The CDC defines a foodborne illness outbreak as an illness where two or more people get sick from eating the same food in roughly the same timeframe.

Detecting an outbreak is not easy

The CDC collaborates with the FDA and USDA in foodborne illness outbreak investigations, helping to identify what caused the outbreak and alerting the public when a source is identified.

Diagnosing a foodborne illness outbreak is tricky business

Have you ever been sick and wondered if it was a virus or something you ate? Unless your symptoms are very severe and/or have lasted longer than a few days, a visit to your doctor might result in being told to go home, get rest, and stay hydrated. Most often with this circumstance, you will not undergo any tests to determine what is causing your symptoms.

What is not widely known is that the leading cause of foodborne illnesses recorded each year in the U.S. is norovirus. This virus causes more than 5.5 million illnesses and cost more than $2 billion in healthcare and lost productivity costs annually. It accounts for more than 58% of all foodborne illnesses where the agent is known. Norovirus can be transmitted person-to-person or indirectly from contaminated surfaces, food, and water. 

Most foodborne illnesses are detected when many people are eating their meals at the same place and around the same time. Prime examples are school and workplace cafeterias, social gatherings, and foodservice providers on cruise ships or at a resort.

Most foodborne illnesses are detected when many people are eating their meals at the same place and around the same time. Prime examples are school and workplace cafeterias, social gatherings, and foodservice providers on cruise ships or at a resort.

The CDC identified a foodborne illness outbreak — what’s next?

Based on the pathogen detected, state health officials develop a questionnaire for the patients to gather very specific details of what, where, and when they ate the likely contaminated food. Of significant importance is the pathogen’s incubation period — the time from when someone consumes contaminated food until symptoms start. For example, an E. coli O157: H7-caused illness typically takes 3-4 days for symptoms to appear and commonly lasts 5-10 days in healthy adults. An incubation period like this one can be a challenge when patients are asked what they ate up to 10 days before arriving at their doctors’ offices.

After the dietary data is gathered from reporting patients, the information is analyzed to find common foods that were eaten more often than expected based on the typical American diet. This can be a riddle. For example, those infected by the illness may have gotten sick after eating hamburgers at a picnic. But it may be unclear whether the burger, tomato, lettuce, onion, or the mayo was responsible.

Without a clear determination, the CDC lists all potentially responsible ingredients in its PulseNet database as part of the outbreak data collection and investigation process.

Of all the outbreaks studied in 2015, only 40% identified a specific food vehicle or cause. In about half of outbreaks where a food vehicle was identified, multiple food ingredients are typically involved and no particular ingredient has been pinpointed as the vehicle.

The curious case of romaine

In the romaine outbreak, public health officials determined that romaine was what made people sick after interviewing those who had become ill. More than 90% of interviewees reported eating romaine before getting sick. However, identifying exactly where that lettuce came from is a much more complicated process. Before lettuce reaches a restaurant or grocery store, it may pass through several other companies (e.g., distributors, brokers, etc.). When lettuce leaves the field, it is packed into cartons that contain detailed information about how, where, and when it was grown and harvested including the individual harvesting crew members who picked it. But restaurants and grocery stores buying lettuce from the produce industry typically throw the carton away and do not retain all that detailed information tracing product back to the farm and field.

Only in one instance in this outbreak was the FDA able to identify a company that grew some of the contaminated romaine, and that was the prison in Alaska where eight prisoners got sick. But the implicated produce company has several farms in the desert growing region and product information retained by the prison and the distributor from which the prison bought the lettuce was not adequate to identify the field in which the lettuce was grown. In order to solve the mystery of how the lettuce became contaminated, investigators need to know which farm and fields the lettuce came from.

Is it safe to eat romaine lettuce again?

Yes. In the current E. coli O157: H7 outbreak, the CDC stated that the identified food vehicle is romaine lettuce. As of early May, 112 people had been interviewed and of those people, 91% stated they ate romaine lettuce a week before becoming ill. Because romaine lettuce has a shelf-life of approximately 21 days and the last shipment of romaine from the desert-growing region was in mid-April, the CDC, state and local health departments and the industry have all confidently assured the public that romaine lettuce is safe to eat again.

How can we be sure?

The answer lies in the seasonal production in lettuce-growing locations in the west. Arizona and California, the two largest lettuce-producing states in the U.S., grow lettuce in an annual production cycle: as northern California moves into winter around November, lettuce production shifts to the desert in Arizona. And when spring arrives in California, production moves back north in California as the desert becomes too warm to grow – usually in April. The CDC was thus able to isolate the general location of the affected romaine by following the annual production cycle. As we have discussed on Dirt-to-Dinner, seasonality shifts suppliers for U.S. produce. When the seasons change, your produce changes, too— and that also means when a growing season ends in one state it can begin in another.

Despite the tragic consequences of this outbreak, the U.S. has one of the safest food systems in the world. It may be difficult to fathom, but the amount of food circulating in the U.S. on a daily basis is staggering. Our produce is grown by over 200,000 growers, supplemented by millions of other growers around the world. We typically consume this food three or more times a day in our homes or in more than 600,000 restaurants. Public health experts estimate that in our nation of 330 million people, 47.8 million people or 15% get sick, and 3,000 people or 0.0009% die annually in the U.S. from contaminated foods. The goal, of course, is to prevent any illnesses from occurring in the first place.

Special thanks to Dirt-to-Dinner contributors Susan Leaman and Diane Wetherington of iFoods Decision Sciences.

What is the Farm Bill — and why should you care?

red barn in autumn

There’s something that we all come into contact with every day and rarely consider – our food system.

Did you know Americans spend the least amount of our hard-earned income on food when compared to all other countries in the world? Only 10% of our income is spent purchasing food for us to consume at home and elsewhere, like restaurants and take-out…and it comes from one of the safest food systems in the world.

Our Canadian neighbors and many in Western Europe also spend very little of their income on food, less than 10%. On the opposite end of the spectrum, citizens in some countries in Asia and Africa spend almost half of their income on food, making these particular countries susceptible to widespread malnutrition due to food scarcity.

So, what exactly is the Farm Bill?

Simply put, the Farm Bill is a seriously complex blueprint of our national food system. It helps all farmers, from those growing Christmas trees to those harvesting corn, wheat, and chickpeas to dairy farmers. It’s created by farmers, policy makers, economists and academics to further improve all the intricately-moving parts, policies and sectors that come together to provide a system that works for all.

However, its start was a bit more humble as a means to keep farmers in business so we can be assured to have a steady food supply. Back in 1933, the Farm Bill was initiated to stabilize farm income during the great Dust Bowl, which devastated America’s farmland in the Midwest and thus, greatly affected our agriculture sector. Over time, the Bill has been expanded to include market regulation, nutrition assistance programs, trade, research, food safety and conservation.

Today, the Farm Bill affects us all. As you can imagine given all these moving pieces, this is not a simple little bill. In fact, the current Bill is upwards of 600 pages! But within all those pages, we can expect innovations to our agriculture and food programs that will continue providing safe and affordable food to everyone.

Why is the Farm Bill so important?

Every successful food system needs a solid foundation in sound public policy. Those of us in developed countries benefit from having guidelines in place that enable every component in our complex food system to have the incentives, safeguards and consistent regulations to do their jobs more efficiently to provide our food…every day. The relentless drive to improve across the entire food and agricultural chain— to do better, to innovate, to solve any challenge or problem that remains— is the engine driving the system forward.

Every part of our modern food system – from the farmer and rancher at one end of the food chain, to the food manufacturer and preparer at the other, works hard every day to make our food system deliver more and better food at every meal – food that is safe, wholesome, convenient, and above all, readily available and eminently affordable.

The purpose of the Bill is to maintain the policies that will need to be upheld for the following five years to ensure every farmer, manufacturer, preparer and consumer can do their job more efficiently and with the resources they need.

The Farm Bill’s reach extends beyond the food supply system to include improvements in infrastructure and education, too. Since 2009, former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently noted that farm bill programs have helped 1.2 million Americans obtain home loans and made broadband services more available to 6 million rural residents.  Water systems have improved, and other infrastructure enhanced. Universities have been strengthened, and access to education improved. Hundreds of thousands of jobs have been created through farm legislation.

What are some of the contentious issues in this Bill?

There is a lot of bipartisan discussions fueled by the concern over crop prices and how to address the amount given to farmers and those in the industry. Currently, much of the funding goes to ‘reference prices’. These prices guarantee payments to the farmers regardless of market price. Free market advocates think the formula for setting the price does not cover deep price declines, as it was originally designed, but just guarantees payments to farmers.

Also, if you have been privy to the developments in the Farm Bill this year, you’re definitely aware that 80% of the funding is allocated to nutritional programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”, or what was known as “food stamps”). There is a lot of discussion as to why these programs are included in a bill that is really geared toward the production, not consumption, of food. However, nutritional assistance programs were incorporated into the Bill in the 1970s to pass legislation so all U.S. citizens were involved in its policies.

So, how much is this Farm Bill going to cost you?

The farm bill covers not just all sorts of farm and food related provisions but also the host of nutrition assistance programs designed to attract votes from urban legislators. The price tag for the complete farm bill comes to about $90 billion per year— or approximately $275 per American— for arguably the most efficient food system in the world.

Of that $275, about $75 goes for commodity supports, conservation, research, farm credit, food safety, and other ‘traditional’ farm programs. The other $200 goes for nutrition assistance programs, mostly the widely used SNAP program.

When will the Farm Bill be passed?

As in all important matters that affect many people, these things take time. The Bill has already gone back and forth several times. On June 13th, it passed the Senate Agriculture Committee and will now proceed to the Senate floor in the next two weeks. Given such contentious topics as SNAP and other matters of debate, the political outlook surrounding the legislation is still murky. Furthermore, should U.S. trade and NAFTA not have a resolution soon, implications surrounding these issues may end up in the Farm Bill itself, adding further complexity to an already complicated deal. However, there is hope that the Bill will be passed by September-end of this year.

A Stop Sign for Obesity?

donuts fat obesity

We know it is important to eat well— but that doesn’t mean we don’t crave foods that aren’t good for us. When you’re hungry, bored, or feeling indulgent it is easy to wolf down the nearest food or treat available, despite the knowledge that it may not be very nutritious.

Obesity is a global health challenge that requires action.

25% of the world’s population is either overweight or obese— and eating too many empty calories has been a key contributor to this rising epidemic. In fact, the evidence is clear that if we exercised more, ate and drank less, and didn’t smoke, 40% of cancers and 75% of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases would be mitigated.

Is Labeling a Solution?

Over the past 10 years, studies have been performed to better understand the effectiveness of labeling for consumers. The results, thus far, have been mixed. Generally speaking, women are more likely than men to read labels. Additionally, consumers who did not exercise but read the labels on their food lost more weight than those who exercised but did not read the labels. Of course, the best health results occur if you check the labels on your food and exercise.

In 2016, the Journal of Public Health published a study that evaluated consumers’ knowledge and perception about food labels.  The study concluded what consumers care most about when purchasing food products is: “the global quality level rather than the nutritional values.” So, while nutritional labeling can be effective, overall it seems that a more aggressive approach is needed.

Traffic Alert! A Black Stop Sign?

In 2015, alarmed that 67% of their population was either overweight or obese, Chile began to take action. The Chilean government placed a mandate that all food companies put a black stop sign on the labels for food that were in excess of 275 calories, 400 milligrams of sodium, 10 grams of sugar, and/or 4 grams of saturated fats, per a 100-gram serving size. To put this into perspective, 1 serving of peanut M&M’s has 240 calories, 13g of fat, and 23g of sugar. This qualifies for two black stop signs!! The law also prevents companies from advertising to children those products that exceed the labeling requirements.

Stop signs on these cream-filled pastries warn consumers of high saturated fat, high sugar and high calories. A triple warning!

Is the labeling program effective?

The desired outcome is that these labels cause consumers to stop and think before purchasing and overeating, and ultimately help change eating patterns. Even though the label was just recently implemented, it has been reported that nearly 40% of Chilean citizens use the labels as a purchasing guide. Additionally, children are also said to be responding well to the logos.

“We have shown that a simple message and a symbol is enough to communicate that you should be consuming less of certain foods. There’s nothing misleading about a warning logo, and clearly, this is what worries the industry.” (Dr. Camila Corvalán, a nutritionist at the University of Chile who helped develop the food labels)

Some food companies are reformulating rather than labeling

Certainly, these labels are getting attention, but what is even more impactful is that, according to The Food and Beverage Association of Chile, this new labeling has caused food processing companies to take note of their products and reformulate them to meet healthier standards.

More than 1,500 products have been reformulated to avoid carrying the black stop sign. For example, Nestlé has taken the lead and reformulated 6,500 products, globally, for better health and nutrition. For instance, Acticol, their alternative milk product, has been reformulated to help control cholesterol and support heart health. According to the company, “two glasses a day can help reduce cholesterol levels by as much as 10% in 30 days.”

If Chile can continue to successfully decrease their obesity problem, this program would be deemed a success and serve as an example for other countries in need. In fact, other Central and South American countries are already taking notice. Mexico, Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, and Columbia are aiming to adopt the black stop sign labeling to help warn and educate their consumers about the risks associated with junk food.

Why aren’t more food companies labeling or reformulating their products?

Cost. Labeling costs are a steep proposition for food producers and have become a somewhat controversial topic. Food processing companies are not inclined to make costly labeling changes unless there are government mandates. In addition, many corporations will have to spend the R&D to make the same foods with the same taste…but with reduced ingredients. And from a government standpoint, officials are asking themselves if big brother needs to be in your lunchbox! It is clear that change is needed, but are labels the best solution?

Labeling can be misleading. For example, 100 grams of almonds contains more than 275 calories and would qualify for a black stop sign. But, almonds are a healthy snack that contains healthy fats and essential nutrients, such as Vitamin E and magnesium. So, D2D would argue that this should be exempt from such labeling!

What about youdo you read the labels on your food purchases? Would you pause and reconsider your food purchase if it had a black stop sign on it warning you of the high levels of sugar, salt, and fat? Or would you just buy it anyway and know it was a treat? Let the D2D team know on Facebook!

China, Soybeans, Pork and the American Farmer

pig on a fence in front of a soybean field

As the $375 billion trade gap between the U.S. and China continues to widen, the Trump administration is calling China to the table for unfair trade practices, currency manipulation, intellectual property theft and posing a threat to national security. Sticking to his “America First” message, the administration is engaged in a chess match of retaliatory measures with the Chinese government, with each government threatening tariffs on a wide range of goods. U.S. and global markets have been rattled, and U.S. farmers are stuck in the middle.

Source: Barron’s

Chinese officials announced proposed tariffs on imports of 128 U.S. agricultural products from pork and soybeans to apples, strawberries, and almonds. The total value of these diverse products equals $3 billion to the American farmer.

Most notably, the Chinese have threatened to put a 25% tariff on American pork and soybeans and thus these exports are receiving the most media attention. This has created tremendous unease and uncertainty with U.S. farmers, who are already operating on thin margins. This means that for every dollar sold of American pork or soybeans, it will cost the Chinese buyer $1.25. And as a result, we are worried that the Chinese could look to other countries to buy the same product.

But these proposed tariffs are not entirely surprising. When a country wants to retaliate with trade tariffs they will strategically aim for a vulnerable product. Not to mention, China knows how critical American farmers are to President Trump’s voter base and will do their best to ‘rattle their cages’ to create political uncertainty.

Tim Burrack, a soybean farmer from Iowa, wrote on the Global Farmer Network the effect of potential tariffs:

“This week the price of hogs dropped $12 for every pig I sell.  A few mornings ago, soybeans were down 40 cents a bushel – a $1.7 billion loss to the value of U.S. soybeans.  And if I want to make new capital purchases of machinery or grain bins—anything made with steel or aluminum—I’ll have to pay a higher amount.”

Trade is important to American farmers and America

U.S. agricultural exports totaled $140.5 billion in fiscal 2017, up nearly $11 billion from the previous year to the third-highest level on record. The question is not whether trade tensions and trade wars will adversely affect that track record.  The only question is, “how much?”  At D2D, we have previously explored the effects of beef trade around the world as well as the benefits of NAFTA, which we encourage you to read as well.

Why Pork?

China is both the largest pork producer and pork consumer in the world— they consume a LOT of pig products! Keep in mind, they have 1.4 billion mouths to feed! That is 1 billion more people than the U.S. And they must do this on roughly the same amount of land. 65% of the meat they consume is pork. Additionally, China has a rising middle class that is able to afford to eat more protein. As you can see, their pork consumption and GDP per capita is expected to continue.

Large Chinese producers and smaller hog farmers raise 97% of the pork to feed their population, but they look to the European Union, the United States, and Canada to round out the remaining 3%. Approximately 1% of their imports come from the U.S. – equaling roughly 496 thousand metric tons worth $1.1 billion. China is our second largest pork export destination, after Mexico. (The United States sold 801 thousand metric tons to Mexico, which speaks to the importance of NAFTA.) However, the higher price of U.S. pork could force China to turn to the European Union and Canada – at the detriment of American pork farmers.

“The United States is a reliable supplier of pork products to China, and this decision will have an immediate impact on U.S. producers and exporters, as well as our customers in China. We are hopeful that the additional duties can be rescinded quickly so that U.S. pork can again compete on a level playing field with pork from other exporting countries.” – Dan Halstrom, Meat Export Federation President and CEO.

Why Soybeans?

China’s proposed tariffs on U.S. soybeans is also significant, albeit a bit different. Soybeans are linked to pork production as they are integral to feeding and growing approximately 435 million pigs. There are more pigs in China than people in the U.S.! Pigs need soybean meal because it has the highest protein concentration of any oilseeds or grains. Soybeans are one of those perfect foods. It has a complete range of amino acids, more than other proteins, and more protein than pork, milk, or eggs. Protein is needed in order to grow to the pig farmer’s goal of almost two pounds a day.

Soybeans are made into soybean meal (80%) to feed to animals or make into soybean oil and biodiesel (20%) for cooking and fuel. China imports its soybeans from the United States, Brazil, and Argentina. The United States is the world’s largest soybean producer and the largest exporter just ahead of Brazil and Argentina. Over the years, U.S. farmers have shipped massive quantities of soybeans to China, Japan, Mexico, Taiwan, even the European Union. As the world eats more protein, more soybeans are expected as well.

Tariffs could make the U.S. less competitive

While the United States is the largest soybean producer, we are not always the lowest cost producer. Brazil and Argentina operate with 11-28% lower costs because of cheaper land and lower capital costs. Adding a 25% tariff on our soybeans makes the U.S. even less competitive. On top of all that, the past five years have been wonderful growing seasons, which has produced a surplus of soybean crops, and this inevitably lowers the selling price.

However, fortunately for the U.S., China needs a lot of soybeans and they can’t get them all from Brazil and Argentina because the volume is not enough as they are in the Southern Hemisphere – at the opposite time of harvest in the Northern Hemisphere.

In the long run, a tariff on soybeans would stand to hurt China more than the U.S., because China will always need soybean meal for their pigs. Despite market volatility, unless the Chinese stop eating pork, U.S. soybeans will be needed in China.

Many factors affect the price of soybeans. Break even for farmers varies but is generally from $8.50/bushel – $9.00/bushel.

What is NAFTA?

what is Nafta with American, Mexican and Canadian flags

NAFTA at the grocery store

At D2D, we wanted to explore the role international trade plays in bringing food to your dinner table.

While you are selecting avocados or blueberries at the grocery store, the last thing you are thinking about is Mexico. Or when you eat a ham sandwich, does Canada come to mind? Probably not. But these are just a few of the products that depend on trade between North American countries to satisfy our food demands.

You can buy most fresh food all year round largely because other countries can either grow them cheaper than the U.S. or have growing seasons that are opposite of ours. Trade provides the best possible price for the products we want by moving food from where it is grown and produced to where it is eaten. It is an efficient, universal means of bringing balance to supply and demand, and taking the wild swings out of our daily food prices.

Those opposed to NAFTA, on the other hand, argue that the influx of produce from Mexico or Canada negatively affect their prices. For instance, the avocado farmer in California is able to sell the farms produce at a premium if avocados are not being imported from Mexico. However, NAFTA and trade with other countries have encouraged farmers to be more diverse and versatile in their farming practices. Today, some avocado farmers in California are adapting by diversifying into coffee plants.

NAFTA impacts the cost of groceries

How much your food costs or whether you can get your favorite produce out of season is very important. Agriculture is an intertwined network of farming, crops, transportation, water usage, labor, and processing. Since crops require different growing environments, food is not often grown in the same location as where it is consumed. We all know that blueberries don’t grow in North Dakota in December, and wheat is not grown in Florida…ever! Different climates with different growing conditions in Mexico, the United States, and Canada can give us the best prices for available produce and the most sustainable agricultural supply chain.

The North American Free Trade Agreement is one of the most important tools used by the United States, Mexico and Canada in maintaining exactly this sort of open trade. It was put into action in 1994 as a bipartisan effort originated by President Reagan and signed into law by President Clinton.  NAFTA created a trilateral trade block designed to help ease product movement across borders in North America. In simple terms, NAFTA was based in the belief that trade would help generate mutually beneficial economic growth by better enabling each country to use its natural advantages in various economic activities to find larger, more rewarding markets.  And in the process, consumers would reap substantial benefits, too.

Billions of dollars worth of agricultural products are traded between the US, Canada, and Mexico.

One can distill NAFTA into three basic categories as it relates to Canada, the United States, and Mexico:

1. It eliminates taxes (tariffs) on all imports and exports coming across the borders. To confirm this, exporters must get a certificate of origin that states the product was made or grown in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico.

2. All three countries have a ‘most favored nation’ status. This means that every business and product gets the same treatment from the governments regardless of which country it originated.

3. Government policies and environmental and labor laws are respected. That also includes all patents, trademarks, and copyrights and ensures that they are respected among the countries. There are also specific rules in place to prevent any trade disputes.

Since 2010, the U.S. export of agricultural goods has averaged $140 billion. We export the most to China with Canada and Mexico coming in a close second. Without the strong North American trade partnerships, our agricultural exports could decline up to $40 billion in revenue.

Since 2010, the U.S. export of agricultural goods has averaged $140 billion. We export the most to China with Canada and Mexico coming in a close second. Without the strong North American trade partnerships, our agricultural exports could decline up to $40 billion in revenue.

NAFTA helps keep groceries affordable

Let’s put NAFTA into perspective— here is how it affects your kitchen. You love breakfast and enjoy frying up some bacon and eggs every morning. But how did that pork end up at your local grocery store? Your bacon probably started its life as a piglet in Manitoba, Canada; was then trucked to southern Minnesota where it was fed corn from Iowa, processed into bacon in Iowa, and finally sent to a U.S. grocery store or back to Canada. Baby pigs, otherwise known as feeder pigs, are primarily born in Canada (most often in Manitoba) and then shipped to the United States when they are about 40 pounds.

In 2016, 4.8 million feeder pigs were trucked to those states that have cheap access to corn. After they grow to their production size of 280 pounds in the U.S., they are ready to be processed into sausage, bacon, ham, tenderloin or chops. These finished pork products are then trucked back to Canada, across the U.S., and down to Mexico. Because of NAFTA, the pigs and the processed meat can flow back and forth across the border without taxes. As a result, the U.S. has 27% of the global pork export market, which benefits our farmers, and your morning bacon is made much more affordable!

“The integrated nature of our trade relationship enables the three North American countries to remain competitive internationally. It allows us to create jobs and exports and enhances our potential to increase our respective contributions to the American Canadian, and Mexican economies.” (Canadian Pork Council)

Without NAFTA, there will be higher tariffs

What if there were no NAFTA? If NAFTA is removed, each country would revert to the import tariffs put in place by the World Trade Organization. The average cost to export to Mexico would be 7.1%, to the U.S. 3.5% and to Canada 4.2%. However, this varies product by product. For instance, Mexico would charge a 75% tariff on chicken coming from the U.S. This would reduce chicken exports and force chicken suppliers to send their chicken to other countries or produce less.

Free trade helps all economies grow

While some industries want to put a protectionist status on their products, having a competitive flow between borders creates more jobs. Economic growth allows more purchases and more products to be created. “Every $1.00 in ag exports generates an additional $1.27 in economic activity for the exporting country.” This is an increase of 127%! Free trade also provides a comparative advantage for the country that is producing a certain product. For instance, corn grows very well in the mid-west and is exported to Mexico for their animal feed. Or, if we’re looking again at growing blueberries in a North Dakota, an indoor environment just doesn’t make sense compared to importing blueberries grown in Mexico.

U.S. demand for produce has helped farmers in Mexico generate more income and create secure jobs because they are able to easily export fresh fruits and vegetables like avocados, tomatoes, watermelon, and blueberries. As a result, these farmers can also invest in more sustainable farming, education, and food safety. They are able to use phosphate fertilizer instead of night soil. They can drive tractors instead of using oxen. They will then buy cars, clothes, and send their children to school. This is mutually beneficial for the United States because of the higher the Mexican GDP per capita – the better the likelihood that they import more products from the U.S.

In speaking with 4th generation North Dakota farmer, Terry Wanzek, he emphasized the importance of NAFTA to American farmers as well as farmers in Canada and Mexico. Terry grows corn, wheat, and pinto beans. While discussing the beans, he said that about 70% a month goes to Mexico. He points out that if we didn’t have the agreement with Mexico then the demand for pinto beans would be far less, and the prices would not be enough to cover the production costs.

“If the United States quits NAFTA, then the United States quits on its farmers. It’s that simple: Withdrawal would devastate us. We wouldn’t just lose our jobs. Some of us could lose our homes and our farms.” Terry Wanzek

What are the issues with NAFTA?

NAFTA isn’t universally praised. The issue that President Trump has with NAFTA is that some of the trade with different products is not necessarily fair.  As with any trade agreement, NAFTA demands adjustment for some sectors in all three nations.  Some economic sectors that had enjoyed a safe national marketplace now have to deal with other competition and tougher economics.  But overall, trade experts argue, each economy benefits as citizens gain the benefits that come from open, freer trade.

There are still examples of where NAFTA can be modernized. For instance, while the food safety regulations are the same in both countries, meat crossing the border is subject to different standards. From the U.S. to Canada, meat can enter relatively easily. When meat comes from Canada to the U.S., there are inspection houses with set fees that slow down the transport – without an added benefit to food safety.

Trade between Mexico, U.S., and Canada means that consumers in North Dakota can enjoy blueberries whenever they like, even in December.  It means Mexican families can afford and enjoy more meals of beef, thanks to the feed grains imported from American farms.  It means farmers in both Mexico and the United States can count on fertilizers from Canada to achieve optimal crop yields and optimal profits every year.

Sustainable Ag Series: Farmers

combine and tractor at harvest time - aerial photo

In our four-part series on agricultural sustainability, we illustrate how NGOsgovernment regulatorscorporations, and in this article, farmers, each achieve their sustainability goals as well as how they work together in larger initiatives.

“Growers are performing ‘sustainable practices’ but do not see them as such; they see them as just good farming practices and being good stewards of their land.” – Hank Giclas, Western Growers

The agriculture industry is often criticized for using too much water, using too many chemicals, and adding more carbon to the atmosphere. However, farmers have their boots on the ground and occupy the front lines of sustainability initiatives within agriculture. No farms, no food!

While some farmers employ better approaches to farming sustainably, no farmer deliberately damages human or environmental health or wants to waste their inputs, such as water, pesticide, and labor. As stewards of the land, it is in a farmer’s best interest to preserve all of their resources for future generations of farming.

Farmers are on the front lines of sustainable agriculture.

Sustainability encompasses many different initiatives for agriculture.

How do farmers address sustainable agriculture?

The road to sustainable farming is long and complex, simply because no single farming practice by itself establishes sustainability. Farmers are a community that must work together to protect their resources. To get insight into how farmers practice sustainability, we interviewed Nikki Rodoni, founder & CEO of Measure to Improve, LLC, a recognized leader in the fresh produce industry for building and implementing sustainability programs.

Farmers are taking care of the soil…

Rodoni emphasized the importance of healthy soil and states that farmers are already doing a fantastic job at improving soil health. As we discussed in Soil: It is much more than Dirt, healthy soil means healthy crops. Healthy crops lead to more resilient crops that, in turn, help farmers in many other facets of sustainability, such as decreased water usage since the soil holds and absorbs more water, thus preventing running off; less fertilizer usage since healthy soils hold more essential nutrients and reduce nutrient runoff; and less pesticide usage because crops are more resilient and better equipped to fight off pests with their innate defenses.

Healthy soil = healthy crops. The soil is a paramount sustainable initiative for farmers.

All those benefits can be enhanced when farmers adopt and use additional technologies and practices such as soil moisture sensors, precise irrigation methods, and Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to further increase efficiencies. And to top it all off, the farmer ends up with a higher yield and better quality of the crop.

Healthy soil is a win for farmers and consumers around the world because it increases the soil’s resilience, which in turn increases crop resilience and, ultimately, the resiliency of farming communities.

Farmers are conserving water…

Craig MacKenzie, a New Zealand farmer highlighted on Global Farmer Network, discussed his ability to manage irrigation on his farm from his cell phone. His carrot, radish, chicory, wheat, and ryegrass fields have sensors buried in the soil that send him real-time information about the soil moisture levels. This allows MacKenzie to adjust irrigation accordingly. He’s currently looking into fertilizer sensors to help detect the levels of nitrate, potassium, and phosphorus in the soil.

Ceres Imaging provides an app for farmers to help understand water stress, plant nutrient uniformity, pest emergence, and other issues in their fields. source: Precision Ag

Duncan Family Farms, which operates farms in Arizona and California, also uses sensor technologies as well as plastic mulches and floating row covers to help create and maintain moisture in their fields. Other methods they use to conserve water include growing crops during cooler months of the year to avoid high evaporative heat conditions; using transplants instead of seeds as seeds take more water to germinate, and growing some crops under cover in controlled environments.

Row covers can help maintain soil temperatures, reduce water inputs, and reduce weed infestation.

In addition to the use of sensor technologies to conserve water, farmers are also switching from furrow and overhead irrigation systems to drip irrigation, thus substantially cutting their water use.

Sustainable farming helps to sequester CO2

All these practices have many benefits including playing a role in reducing atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations through carbon storage in soil and vegetation called carbon sequestration.Scientists at the  University of California, Davis estimate that U.S. rangelands could potentially sequester up to 330 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in their soils, and croplands are estimated to lock up more than twice that amount—up to 770 million metric tons. That is the CO2 emissions equivalent of powering 114 million homes with electricity for a year.

Sustainable agriculture practices enhance carbon sequestration in soils.

In addition to on-farm sustainable practices, farmers must also work with a wider network which includes local government, corporations, and NGOs.

How corporations, governments and NGOs are working with our farmers

By working together, sustainable agricultural practices can be referenced, measured and validated. There have been efforts throughout the agriculture industry to assist farmers in implementing sustainable practices. While many agricultural companies such as DriscollTaylor Farms, Tanimura and Antle’s Plant TapeJohn DeereMonsantoCargill, and Bunge (to name a few) have their own corporate sustainabilityinitiatives to help guide farmers, there are many joint initiatives as well.

Sustainable Agriculture Initiative Platform was created in 2002 by Nestlé, Unilever, and Danone to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and best practices throughout the food value chain to support the development and implementation of sustainable agriculture practices.

Farm Sustainability Assessment (FSA). Farmers can use the FSA to assess and improve their on-farm sustainability practices while communicating them to customers in a consistent way. Additionally, the assessment criteria meet the sustainable sourcing needs of many companies and can be used by governments, NGOs, universities, and consultants as a reference for defining the scope of sustainable agricultural practices.

Two organizations with more specialized and narrowly focused missions are Land O Lakes’ SUSTAIN and the Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops.

SUSTAIN works with their partner retailers, like Walmart, to develop customized solutions that allow farmers to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions without reducing their profits. For example, SUSTAIN created a product to help farmers use nitrogen more efficiently and, when used properly, allows them to use less nitrogen fertilizer.

Stewardship Index for Specialty Crops (SISC) is comprised of growers, buyers, and public interest groups collaborating to develop and share metrics and stewardship indicators in the specialty crops (fruits, vegetables, and nuts) industry. Alison Edwards, director and facilitator at SISC, spoke to us about the importance of the entire supply chain’s involvement with sustainability. When the whole supply chain is involved, the data being collected on the farm can be interpreted correctly and the sustainable farming story can be told in a more effective way.

Alison talked about the importance of having metrics— “you cannot manage what you cannot measure.” SISC’s metrics allow growers to internally benchmark which sustainable practices work the best for their farm, crop, climate, and soil conditions and report these tangible efforts to buyers and consumers.

In 2012 Campbell Soup Company began collecting sustainability performance metrics from their tomato grower using SISC’s metrics. Over a five-year period, they were able to track water and fertilizer use on their supplier farms. The adoption of drip irrigation across a group of 50 tomato farms resulted in a 22% reduction in average water volume.  By collecting this data, Campbell’s can now concretely demonstrate and share with their stakeholders how their tomato growers are actively adopting best practices and driving real resource conservation.

The government is also involved with sustainable agricultural efforts. For example, the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service has advocated and established several conservation and soil health programs into the 2014 Farm Bill, as well as supporting working land conservation programs like Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), and Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP). These programs support farmers and ranchers adopting conservation practices, like crop rotation, cover cropping, low tillage system management, etc., and in turn receive financial and technical assistance for their contribution to sustainability.   

Communicating Sustainability to the Consumer

The farmer-consumer relationship certainly has its challenges. When farmers are trying to implement new and more sustainable practices, it can be nearly impossible to communicate the results to consumers. We know that consumers want to know where their food comes from— but there is little-to-no communication between farmer and consumer. Because of this, marketing experts are telling farmers that they need to tell their stories, to reconnect with and inform consumers about how their farm operates and how their crops are grown and harvested. Walk down the aisle of the grocery store and you will see farmer’s highlighted on milk and orange juice cartons and boxes of cereal. But aside from these ad campaigns, creating a direct link between farmer and consumer is no easy task. Complicating the dialogue is that these days, when farmers make the news, especially regarding environmental issues, they are depicted as environmental villains. Unfortunately, these stories are misrepresentative and ignore the genuine stories of farmers and ranchers who are adapting to and embracing sustainable practices promoting soil health, minimizing water use and pollution, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions while contributing to and improving the quality of the food supply.

Sustainable Ag Series: Governments

looking up at a government building with blue sky above

In a four-part series on sustainability, we are illustrating how farmers, NGOs, corporations, and in this article, government regulators, work together in order to facilitate and execute sustainable objectives in agriculture. We want to better understand how these partnerships affect consumers and our food supply chain.

How do government officials address agricultural sustainability?

The role of sustainability and governments is difficult to define. There is no ‘unified government’. Each town, city, state, and country has its own unique agenda, accountability to their constituents, and the concept of collaboration with other organizations.

Adding further complexity to this equation are lobbyist organizations that attempt to influence regulators from the municipal level all the way up to the country’s legislative system. As a result of these variants, governments can either help or hinder those they have vowed to protect. For example, the Great Lakes, the Mississippi River, and the Hudson River are cleaner today due to government-imposed pollution controls. The Colorado River, on the other hand, is regulated under numerous contracts, laws, and regulatory guidelines within seven different states, leading to many environmental and river flow issues.

Including the three branches of the U.S. Government, there are many variants within the legislative process. (image source:

At the end of the day, government officials have authority. They can allocate the financial resources that support farmers and their sustainability efforts. Additionally, there are many government grants that support scientific research that promotes eco-friendly and sustainable business practices. Elected officials can play a very important role within agricultural sustainability: they create, negotiate and pass the laws and regulations that protect our environment.

For example, the EPA’s renewable energy and clean energy programs are designed to help energy consumers, state policymakers, and energy providers by creating technical assistance and networks between the public and private sector across energy, water, and waste. Agstar promotes the use of biogas recovery systems to reduce methane emissions from livestock waste. The Smartway Transport Partnership is a public-private collaboration between EPA and the freight transportation industry to improve fuel efficiency.

The government can also allocate funds to sustainable projects that are already underway. In November 2015, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack announced $314 million in funding for waste and water infrastructure improvements in rural communities in the United States. Coordinating this initiative is The EPA’s Water Infrastructure and Resiliency Finance Center.

Watch this video on how the Farmer’s Irrigation District in Oregon used these loans to improve and protect the water supply for the area’s farmers.

The authority that governing bodies possess are meant to be helpful— but, there are instances where governments overstep and implement a regulation that may negatively affect agriculture.

In Zimbabwe, for example, GMOs are illegal to grow, sell, and import. The government has argued that this policy protects the environment and makes its sellable crops more favorable for export to Europe. However, the country is still struggling to feed its growing population and poverty levels are rising. If the Zimbabwean government were to legalize GMOs, the drought facing farmers and hunger plaguing the country would finally have a feasible solution.

One solution to help Africa’s farmers produce crops and food is to let them gain access to the crop technologies that millions of others take for granted. (image: GMO Answers)

“We are not picky when it comes to receiving GMO or non-GMO food. The situation is unbearable.”
— Spiwe Mucharanji, Tariro Orphanage Trust

Closer to home, the obesity epidemic in the United States has prompted cities such as Berkeley, Philadelphia, and New York to impose a sugar tax on sugary drinks. While there are conflicting studies indicating whether this has actually curbed consumer behavior, the tax demonstrates the government’s ability to try and persuade certain behavior from consumers. Is it the government’s responsibility to influence personal decisions?

Read Dirt-to-Dinner’s post on the Sugar Tax.

How government regulators work with corporations

“Government and business, acting together, can accomplish a great deal by utilizing each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses.” (Global Sustainability, Mark Lefko)

The public-private partnership is the one that can work well. Many large corporations will work with local governments to better execute and grow their sustainability efforts. As we discussed in our Sustainable Ag Series on Corporations, governments possess a reach and authority that corporations often do not. Therefore, international corporations will work closely with governments to 1) abide by local laws and 2) to enable their sustainability initiatives to have optimum impact.

Unilever, an international consumer goods company whose brands include Dove, Lipton, and Hellman’s, “works with governments around the world to train small farmers in modern agriculture and business methods.” (Global Sustainability). The governments can act as an intermediary between farmer and corporation and provide incentives for these partnerships— i.e. tax credits for corporations and loans for farmers.

Without the help of the local government, Unilever could never accomplish as much as they do.

“We don’t have the capabilities to reach that many farmers, aggregate them, and train them in management, agricultural techniques, board management, social standards, etc. So you work with these different organizations, and as you do this, you secure your value chain, you provide the livelihoods that undoubtedly will come back to you, because obviously, we cannot prosper if these communities don’t prosper.”
-Paul Polman, CEO Unilever

In Xinjiang, China, Unilever is providing smallholder tomato farmers training. As a result, farmers in the program have seen, per hectare, yields increase by 7.5 tonnes, water use reduced by 1500m3, and pesticide spraying reduced by 150g. (image: Unilever)

How government regulators work with farmers

Government funding will provide farmers with financial grants and loans in order to promote and help expand sustainable farming efforts. In the United States, there are many innovative programs and resources provided by the USDA. If you are a first-time farm buyer, for example, the US government will help you obtain access to affordable farmland by providing a special joint-financing loan option.

The USDA offers many programs for small scale farmers. (image: USDA – Guide to Sustainable Farming Programs)

Internationally, governments will facilitate partnerships between corporations and farmers to help encourage local development. In 2015, international food-production company, DSM and the World Food Program, in partnership with Africa Improved Foods Ltd. (AIF) and the Rwandan government, facilitated the construction of a $60m factory in Rwanda. In addition to the commercially sold food made at the factory, AIF also works with the Government of Rwanda to create nutrient-dense foods for impoverished communities, which are distributed by the World Food Program. (DSM)

In addition to providing factory jobs, this initiative also helped farmers improve the local-food processing industry and motivated farmers to utilize sustainable farming practices. The factory currently works with over 9,000 large and small grain cereal farmers.

Another example of regulators working with farmers is the Renewable Fuel Standard of 2005, which was put in place for the benefit of American farmers. Each tank of gas must contain roughly 10% corn or soy, which has been converted into fuel— this is called ethanol.

On November 30th, 2017, the Trump administration continued this mandate requiring US refineries to incorporate 19.29 billion gallons of biofuels into our gasoline supply. This is about 40% of the US corn crop and 30% of the US soybean crop. This keeps corn and soy prices higher than they normally would be, which benefits farmers— but there are significant environmental side effects. Corn and soy are grown on land that ultimately requires more irrigation for these demanding crops. 

Ethanol production requirements may be good for farmers and their production of corn and soy crops but put an ecological strain on the environment. (image: US Department of Labor)

Producing one gallon of ethanol takes half a gallon more water than producing a gallon of gasoline. The issue is that most ethanol facilities are within a 100-mile range of the crops, which means that precious water sources are being tapped, including the Ogallala Aquifer.

Better to use that water to grow crops for food and not fuel.

The ecological strain it places on US farming does not outweigh the monetary benefit of higher corn and soy prices. It will be interesting to see how the US government and farmers will work together in this space moving forward.

How government regulators work with NGOs

“Under ideal circumstances, all three types of entities—businesses, governments, and NGOs—can come together to maximize the power of all three to address the problems of poverty, health, gender inequality, and disease.”

As we saw with the Government of Rwanda’s partnership between DSM, AIF and the United Nations: World Food Program, farmer, government, NGO, and corporation have successfully worked together in order promote change and sustainability.

Heifer International is another NGO that works closely with both farmers and governments to provide microfinancing to alleviate hunger. They teach environmental sustainability to their farmers and promote climate-smart agriculture and livestock production solutions. They do so by lending money to families to help them to buy agricultural products, such as a cow, chickens, or bees. This then helps the family to sell goods like milk, eggs, or honey. Heifer teaches these families how to manage their purchase and grow their livestock, thus helping families become self-sufficient rather than depending on government handouts. In order to expand its global reach, Heifer has partnered with other large-scale corporations and local government officials.

Food Network chef and avid Heifer International supporter Alton Brown explains how Heifer makes a difference through gifts that keep on giving.

How government regulators address consumer concerns

The government is legally responsible for the safety of the people, or consumers, that they were elected to represent. So, while various governing bodies might address sustainability initiatives differently, they all want to make their environment a better place for their current residents and their future inhabitants.

There are many different laws in place that can affect consumers. The United States, for example, has over 30 different laws that regulate the interaction of humans and the environment, This list includes the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, which help to regulate and protect air and water quality.

The Clean Water and Air and Acts are celebrated across college campuses and non-profit organizations to motivate consumers to be a part of a healthy living environment. (Image sources: My Clean Water Act and The Clean Air Campaign)

Additionally, on a local level, governments will often monitor town water levels to help maintain the needs of local farmers. If the area is experiencing drought, those living in the town will be asked to stop sprinkler use, take shorter showers, and even turn off the faucet while brushing teeth. While refusing to abide by these requests won’t land you in jail, being a mindful consumer will help to protect the environment.

“Businesses, governments, and NGOs can and often do work together for their mutual benefit and for the benefit of global society as a whole”
Global Sustainability, Mark Lefko

Sustainable Ag Series: Corporations

looking up at skyscrapers

In a four-part series on sustainability, we are illustrating how farmers, NGOs, governments, and in this article, corporations, work together in order to facilitate sustainable objectives in agriculture.

Corporations often are maligned when it comes to their sustainability efforts. In general, consumers perceive small companies or “local” operations to be better and environmentally friendlier than large companies and their wider distribution networks. When in reality, it is often the sustainability efforts of large corporations that influence smaller operations. Sustainability has no borders— everyone is involved.

“Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
-International Institute for Sustainable Development

How do corporations address agricultural sustainability?

Responsible corporations can help improve our food supply chain. Today, it is not enough for corporations to focus solely on making a profit and increasing shareholder value; they are expected to leave the world a better place for consumers and stakeholders alike. In many cases, large agriculture corporations are the leaders in sustainability and create a bar for other smaller-scale companies to follow.

While each responsible corporation generally accepts the same overarching definition of sustainability, they implement it uniquely, according to the factors that are the most important to their corporate practices and the products they are creating. Individual corporations will create a plan for sustainability that is good for the environment, good for business, and good for social welfare. However, it is important to note that not all corporations treat sustainability in the same way. Some use it as a marketing ploy— they don’t ‘walk the talk’. An increasingly important aspect of today’s sustainability initiatives is a verification process to ensure that they are meeting their goals.

How do these large-scale corporations figure out which sustainability efforts to promote while maintaining a profit and achieving their vision? 

Corporations will perform research and poll their stakeholders (customers, suppliers, shareholders, governments) to see what is most important to these key players. Generally, companies will target water usage, food and packing waste, greenhouse gas and energy consumption, farmers, and/or employee welfare. Corporations in the agriculture industry recognize how important the environment is for both current consumers and future generations. They want to be known for responsible, good business practices and will be vigilant about their sustainability initiatives. And, let’s not sugar coat it— they have their brand and reputation to protect, which is a driving force for doing good.

PepsiCo Sustainable Agriculture’s Water Project uses technology and agricultural skills to reduce global water use. source: Pepsico- Agriculture Sustainability

PepsiCo’s Sustainable Farming Initiative (SFI), for example, is a program that encourages all of their farmers to continually improve their sustainable agricultural practices. The key ingredients they source are potatoes, corn, oats, and oranges. They “aim to implement specific programs and measurement processes to improve overall agriculture supply chain performance.” Their lofty goal includes topics within the social, economic, and environmental framework of agricultural sustainability.

Source: The Coca-Cola Company 2016 Sustainability Report

The Coca-Cola Company, another titan of industry in the beverage sector, has expansive environmental goals that include water and energy preservation. Looking specifically at their water initiative, Coca-Cola has pledged that for every drop of water they use, they will give one back to the environment. Essentially, they are water neutral.  Coke and their bottling partners set this as their goal for 2020, but they were able to achieve it by 2016! Not only did they use less water, but they replenished it through community water partnerships in 71 different countries.

How corporations work with Farmers

Within the agriculture sector, many sustainable corporate initiatives are often met with backlash. The prime example of this, of course, is genetically modified organisms (GMO). Without getting too much into the debate behind GMOs, regardless of where you stand on this issue, there is no denying that genetically engineered (GE) crops save environmental resources. And many farmers that provide food to big corporations will grow environmentally-friendly GE crops in order to help support sustainability initiatives in Ag.

For example, Monsanto is constantly under fire for “poisoning agriculture” with its GE crops, when in reality the reverse is true. While Monsanto has 17 sustainability efforts, their biggest contributing factor to consumers and our environment alike is to to double the yield size of canola, corn, cotton, and soybeans by 2030. What gets lost in the GMO conversation with environmentalists is that higher yields actually protect the environment. How? This means less land under plow and less water usage, energy, herbicides, and pesticides used to grow non-GMO crops.

Source: Monsanto 2016 Sustainability Highlights

McDonald’s is another company looking to “make a positive difference in the lives of farmers and our planet by advancing more sustainable beef production.” This means that when you sit down to eat a Quarter Pounder, you can be assured that the particular cow was raised by farmers employing the most sustainable environmental practices. McDonalds Canada started a ‘birth-to-burger’ program where for the first time you can track hamburger meat back to the cow it came from. You can be assured that the cow was raised humanely and in a sustainable environment, discover what the cow ate during its lifetime, and know that it was processed with food safety standards. This program is a collaboration with specific ranchers, the World Wildlife Fund, JBS, and Cargill. They currently track 9,000 head of cattle, which supply roughly 2.4 million beef patties.

Source:  McDonald’s Sustainability Reports

Small-Scale Sustainability…

Sustainability efforts can be harder to accomplish for smaller-scale farmers who are trying to eke out a living in the developing world— especially when these farms are nestled next to rainforests. Keeping ancient forestintactct is better and more productive for the Earth than slash and burn farming. Additionally, destroying these forests, which provide tremendous plant and animal life biodiversity, as well as CO2 sinks, is damaging to the Earth’s ecosystem.

According to the Rainforest Allianceattempted agriculture accounts for more than 70% of tropical deforestation. As a result, some of the world’s largest agriculture and food companies have signed an agreement to monitor their outsourced supply chains. Some of these companies and organizations are Carrefour, Walmart, Bunge, Cargill, Conservation International, Rainforest Alliance, and the Nature Conservancy. Unilever, Wilmar, and Hershey also have their own commitments against purchasing goods produced on deforested land. Using satellite imagery, they can track exactly where the crops came from and ensure that the crops were grown safely and sustainably.

How corporations work with NGOs

As we discussed in the first installment of this series, NGOs and corporations create meaningful partnerships to achieve corporate sustainability goals while benefitting farmers and the environment. The Nature Conservancy, for example, is an NGO that has partnered with many different corporations to help achieve various goals within agricultural sustainability.

The Nature Conservancy has recognized that the private sector has an important role to play in advancing our conservation mission. Businesses around the globe can, and do, have significant impacts on our climate and on the lands and waters that people and nature rely upon for survival. That’s why we are applying our science, reach, expertise in conservation planning, and on-the-ground experience to help businesses make better decisions, understand the value of nature, and ultimately protect it.”

In 2016, the Nature Conservancy and PepsiCo announced a 5-year partnership entitled “Recycle for Nature,” which aims to protect our drinking water through recycling. Their primary goal is to save 1.2 billion gallons of water over five years. This partnership is also working to protect the important rivers and lands that are integral to our water resources in North America.


How corporations work with governments

“Much can be achieved by combining the authority and resources of government with the efficiency of a for-profit business.”
Mark Lefko, Global Sustainability

Governments often have more influence and power than private corporations and as a result, companies will work with local or national governments and legislative representation to implement sustainability initiatives. For example, in Terneuzen, a city in the Netherlands, the Dow Chemical Company worked with government officials to successfully re-purpose three times the amount of water, which in turn saves energy equivalent to the CO2 emissions of 13,000 cars every year. (Global Sustainability)

Scott Pruitt, EPA Chief, has been soundly criticized for supporting the withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, encouraging discussion about the cause of climate change, and repealing Obama’s Clean Power plan. His approach to environmental sustainability takes a different tact – obtaining immediate benefits. He is working with Walt Disney World to convert 120,000 tons of food waste into electricity. This will help the EPA goal toward reducing the 21% of food waste that fills landfills by 50%.

How corporations address consumer concerns

It all starts with good values. In all successful cases, ethics and transparency are at the forefront of any sustainability initiative. Looking specifically at agricultural sustainability, consumers want to feel more connected to the environment and have a good understanding of where food is coming from. To that end, consumers are more likely to support a corporation if they are successfully supporting the environment and transparent about their corporate practices. Furthermore, employees will go the extra mile if they feel their company has the same values they do.

“Our people feel there is a soul in the company, a purpose. It has an effect not only internally, but also externally– especially for the younger generations. They don’t want to work for a company for the benefits or the pension packages, they want to work for a company where they can say the values match with their own values”.                                                                                            —Feike Sijbesma, CEO, DSM.
Social Media & Corporate Sustainability  Sustainability is important to consumers, who use social media to determine whether the product they are buying meets their personal values. As a result, sustainable brands tend to grow faster than others. For example, Unilever has 16 sustainable brands that grew 50% faster than other comparable brands and represented 60% of overall growth in 2016.

Corporations working together

“If we can find ways to collaborate with those who share our values on the topic of sustainability, we will find that many of our principles are transferable regardless of the industry in which we work.”
Mark Lefko, Global Sustainability.

Finally, many similar-minded companies in the same industry form partnerships to set the standard for their industry. In many cases, they use vision, innovation, and accountability to raise the bar…

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is a CEO led organization of innovative companies that spurs the business community toward sustainability in the following area: Energy, Food and Land Use, Cities and Mobility, and Redefining Value.

The Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef defines themselves as promoting an environmentally sound and economically viable product that prioritizes the plant, people, animals and progress. They are a consortium including McDonalds, Cargill, JBS, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association as well as the Rainforest Alliance and the World Wildlife Fund.

The Global Salmon Initiative sets the standard for sustainably farmed salmon. It is represented by a group of salmon farmers from 8 different countries.

The Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtableis a collaboration of companies such as Diageo, Danone, Heineken, Coke, and AB InBev in the beer, bottle water, juice, tea, coffee, soft drink, and alcohol business. They are far reaching with over $260 billion in combined revenue, over 2100 facilities across 170 countries and have over 5,600 brands. Their purpose is to advance environmental sustainability within the beverage sector.

Sustainable Ag Series: NGOs

many hands on top of each other-symbol of unity

In a four-part series on sustainability, we are illustrating how farmersgovernments, corporations and in this article, NGOs, work together in order to facilitate sustainable objectives in agriculture.

The term ‘sustainability’ is thrown around a lot…in the media, on corporate websites, in the government—even on D2D! The term is now used so frequently that it often has more than one interpretation.

At Dirt-to-Dinner, sustainability means protecting our global environmental and human resources for future generations while still providing for today’s population. Agricultural sustainability initiatives can address clean water, ocean health, deforestation, soil health, global hunger, food waste, human rights, child labor, and general ethical practices. As you can see, sustainability can wear many different hats.

Sustainability can pertain to anything from clean water to deforestation to global hunger to just plain ethics.

How do NGOs address agricultural sustainability?

NGOs are non-profit, usually voluntary citizen groups that advocate for certain policies and monitor various government initiatives. They often rally around an important cause with the hopes of achieving a specific outcome in government regulations.

Sustainable NGOs are defined as organizations that make “essential contributions to the environment, society, and the sustainability of the world at large.”

You can find an NGO cheering section for just about every cause. While some have lost credibility due to overly angry and theatrical behaviors,  (like chaining themselves to pieces of equipment in order to prevent a corporation from instituting a strategy or business plan) most NGOs have a sound, solid mission to make the world a better place. You may recognize some of these names: World Wildlife Fund, Conservation Initiative, CERES, OxFam, and Heifer International.

NGOs work on their own initiatives and facilitate connections between corporations, farmers, and government regulation. They even help motivate consumers around a specific cause. Here’s how…

How NGOs work with government regulators.

NGOs often advocate the concerns of citizens to the appropriate government regulators. These concerns and differences of opinion can have a lot to do with government spending and the appropriation of funds. For example, there is frequently a debate over the funds given to the Ag industry. In July 2017, Politico reported a proposed $10 billion spending cut to agricultural programs in the United States. In direct opposition to this, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) is lobbying for the 2018 Farm Bill, which advocates for the continued support and funding of American farming. This is an area where different NGOs would advocate for a specific allocation of funds on behalf of stakeholders.

How NGOs work with corporations.

If aligned on culture and mission, corporations and NGOs can work well together. Previously, they were more foes than friends, but today they can create meaningful partnerships. A corporation looks to an NGO for critical research and to help motivate consumer awareness. NGOs also offer support to corporations looking to better monitor their own definition of sustainability. Companies have the jobs, resources, and execution skills that NGOs might not have, particularly in the developing world. They also have relationships with various government regulators.

Today, there is a big emphasis on the importance of corporate sustainability in relationship to how the manufacturing or production of a product affects the environment. How much emissions are used, how much water is wasted, what materials are recycled? These are all questions being asked by consumers, suppliers, and even employees. NGOs have assumed an important role here by helping strategize and create a plan for big business to achieve transparency and realistic environmental sustainability goals.

CERES, for example, is an NGO with over 80 corporate partnerships focusing on issues such as water scarcity, reducing CO2 emissions and human rights. Additionally, Carbon Trust has helped companies like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola create climate change strategies. In their partnership with Coca-Cola, The Nature Conservancy helped Coke replenish the water equivalent to what will be used in finished beverages by the year 2020. This means that each drop of water that is used in making their drinks will be matched by a drop of water saved in the environment.

“Ensuring that all the people on the planet have the resources and environment necessary for them to survive and thrive, both now and in the future.”

-Global Sustainability by Mark Lefko

How NGOs work with Farmers.

On the ground level, NGOs can connect farmers with corporations to offer financial stipends for their conservation and sustainability efforts. These might include water conservation, cover cropping, or no-till farming. Many small scale farmers are motivated to participate in sustainability efforts in return for financial support.

Conservation International, for example, can provide loans to corporations in order to help create programs that benefit small-scale farmers. For example, CI acted as an influential advisor to Starbucks when exploring the sustainability of coffee trade and how to make the harvesting of coffee beans more environmentally friendly. CI provided Starbucks with a $2.5 million-dollar loan to form Verde Ventures. Verde Ventures in turn provides financial support to small and medium-sized business that contribute to healthy ecosystems. This venture has helped protect and restore more than 515,353 hectares of land and has helped employ 59,000 local people in 14 different countries.

Verde Ventures provides debt and equit y financing to businesses that benefit healthy ecosystems and human well-being, including agroforestry, ecotourism, sustainable harvest of wild products and marine initiatives.

Another example of an NGO assisting small-scale farmers is Heifer International, which has helped over 21 million families around the world obtain farm animals so they can provide for their families and end their poverty and hunger. These are just some of the different ways in which NGOs offer their support to farmers while promoting the principles of sustainability.

How NGOs help consumers.

NGOs help to increase social awareness and motivate consumers around specific causes. Whether they want to rally citizens around impending government regulation or appeal to the moral responsibility of consumers to participate in conservation efforts, NGOs offer resources to support sustainability efforts on the consumer level. For example, Consumers International was founded in order to work on any issues that are facing consumers globally. Additionally, the US Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA) is creating a dialogue between consumers and farmers to help consumers understand where their food is coming from.

When is “Science” Truly Science?

science activists with signs

The Power of a Headline

Remember when we were told drinking red wine was as good for us as an hour in the gym? This headline surfaced after researchers at the University of Alberta published a study demonstrated the benefits of a heart-healthy antioxidant found in red wine. However, “cover stories” like this one largely misrepresents the data found from the research.

These days, our desire for a healthy lifestyle has made us gullible for any research that touts miracle health benefits. And it seems that companies, scientists, marketers, and non-profit organizations use scientific findings to sway public opinion so they can sell products or convince people to their point of view.

Furthermore, the media has fed this interest by featuring medical and scientific experts supporting their products and services on social media, TV, and radio, and print publications— making it easier for consumers to believe the information. We as educated consumers must go beyond the ad and do research of our own.

Here’s a quick way to distinguish science from pseudoscience:

  • If science is being reported, who is reporting it? Are they selling something? Do they have an objective?
  • If you are reading a scientific journal, is it peer reviewed? Has the scientist cited opposing views? Is the scientist unbiased?

As readers and listeners from non-scientific or research backgrounds, how do we evaluate a study presented to us to determine its quality and accuracy?



The problem, it seems, is that media outlets and publications are not always transparent about:

  • How they decide what to report, and
  • The methods they use to determine the scientific discoveries are fact-based and supportable.

There is a call for the media to be more accurate in their reporting of science.

Some non-profit groups are trying to improve the quality of science being reported. Organizations like the Science Media Centre help scientists engage more effectively with the media. The Centre will connect scientists with journalists so that there can be a conversation— particularly when it comes to controversial science-related issues.

Additionally, following some high profile retractions, the Center for Open Science, several major scientific journals and individual science journalists are calling for news outlets to do a better job of reporting science to the public by creating reporting guidelines for the industry.

Let’s be better-informed consumers…

When you hear about or read a second-hand review of a particular scientific study or a so-called science-based claim, be sure to read the original study or related studies.

Relying on reports written by someone other than the study author(s) increases the possibility of getting a flawed, biased interpretation of the study’s findings. Reading the primary source will get you closer to understanding the research findings.

If you’re not a scientist and have never cracked the cover of a scientific journal, this may seem daunting and that’s understandable! But if you wish to read original publications, we’d like to equip you with some tools to help you better understand what you are reading. If you decide reading scientific studies is not for you, this article provides some critical issues to look for when findings are being interpreted by others:

Another reliable method of fact-checking is to see if other scientists in the same field have critiqued the report. Scientists have opinions and, sometimes, their opinions cloud their reasoning,  just like everybody else. However, if multiple scientists point out the same flaws in a study, then there’s a good chance the criticism has merit.

For example, in our previously published post, Dear New York Times, D2D reported on the response of various scientists to a New York Times article on genetically modified crops. The scientists’ critiques were detailed regarding the choice of data and the analytical methods used.

The Power of the Scientist: Good studies require “Good Scientific Practice”

“Researchers have a professional obligation to perform research and present the results of that research as objectively and as accurately as possible.”

 National Academies of Science and Engineering; Institute of Medicine

According to the National Academies of Science, the leading U.S. science body, good scientific practices include:

  • Precision when defining terms, processes, context, results, and limitations;
  • Openness to criticism and refutation; and
  • Addressing bias and avoid overstatement.

Let’s explore each of these good scientific practices a bit further:

Scientific Precision = Addressing Uncertainty

All scientific data and processes have limitations and therefore include a measure of uncertainty to account for the unknown. For example, if you run 200 meters twice daily for two weeks you will post different times. This is why numerical data in a scientific or technical paper should never be only one value but should include a range of plausible values.

When designing or conducting a scientific study, one of the key tasks is to identify and control for errors or variations as much as possible and to estimate the magnitude of the remaining errors. Going back to our running example, to eliminate as much variability in your data as possible, you would run on the same indoor track at the same time each day, one hour after you eat a bowl of oatmeal and a banana. Your results might not otherwise be the same.

Size of the study matters

Another factor that affects the researcher’s ability to detect an effect, such as differences between treatment and controls, is the size of a study. This is referred to as the statistical “power” of a study and determines the confidence with which conclusions can be drawn. When it comes to the sample size, bigger is usually better. You can think of this in terms of the average: the average of a large number of samples is more informative than the average of a smaller sample set.

Scientists must be open to criticism and refutation…

Science is all about discovery and exploration – the pursuit of knowledge at the expense of opinions. When researchers discuss their work, they should compare their findings to what is already known and address how it fits as one piece into the larger puzzle. If their results conflict with others’ work, they should discuss what they believe is the reason for this. If their results were unanticipated or introduced unanswered questions, these should be discussed along with suggestions for further research that may provide the missing information.

“Researchers must remain open to new ideas and continually test their own and other’s ideas against new information and observations.”

 National Academies of Science and Engineering; Institute of Medicine

What does “peer-reviewed” mean?

You may have seen the term “peer-reviewed” used to describe scientific and technical studies. What does this mean and why is it important? When a paper is “peer-reviewed” it means it was submitted to other experts in the particular field of research to judge the quality of the work.

“Methods of communication that do not incorporate peer review or a comparable vetting process could reduce the reliability of scientific information.”

 National Academies of Science and Engineering; Institute of Medicine

The practice of peer-review offers a valuable way of evaluating and improving the quality of scientific studies. Peer-reviewed journals are publications that follow a process of subjecting an author’s scholarly research to the inspection of other experts in the same field before publishing a study. Journals that do not go through the peer-review process are missing an important quality control mechanism.  And by publishing a paper in a non-peer-reviewed journal, scientists run a greater risk of having to correct or retract flawed work after it was published versus making corrections prior to publication during the peer-review process.

Scientists must address/deal with bias…

Just as no measurement is free from error, human interpretation is not free from bias. However, when conducting research, scientists must design experiments to provide unbiased, useful data that, when analyzed, either do or do not support the hypothesis.


Of course, this is easier said than done since bias constructs are innate and difficult to recognize in ourselves. But the scientific process takes this into account and scientists must give significant effort in addressing it.

In designing a study, scientists incorporate methods (e.g., randomized assignment to groups, investigator “blinding” so they do not know which subjects are being treated, etc.) to eliminate or control bias as much as possible. Whatever bias is not eliminated or controlled by study design, must be considered and discussed when researchers interpret their results

Other sources of bias such as conflicts of interest are more overt. Some peer-reviewed journals mandate researchers declare potential conflicts of interest. Even if a conflict of interest statement does not appear in the article, a reader can do their own research to determine if the author and/or a funding source benefits in any way from reporting the results as they were reported.

How do you evaluate a study?

Now that we’ve reviewed the basic architecture of a scientific article and the National Academies’ good scientific practice, let’s consider how to critically evaluate the actual research findings and conclusions.

In addition to the National Academies’ publication, three prominent scientists published concepts for interpreting scientific claims in the acclaimed peer-reviewed journal, Nature. The authors created the list with politicians in mind to provide them with some basic understanding so they could ask their advisors informed questions. However, the authors also stated that if everyone in society understood these concepts it “would be a marked step forward,” and we here at D2D couldn’t agree more!

Are you ready to try your hand at spotting some erroneous or misleading data? Two professors at the University of Washington developed a course called “Calling Bullshit in the Age of Big Data”, and as part of the coursework provide case studies illustrating statistical distortions, misleading data, and other violations of scientific principles and practices. These case studies provide great examples of how data is used intentionally and unintentionally in a way that misleads the reader if you are not aware or knowledgeable about what to look for. Take a moment and test your “BS” acumen by reading some case studies here.

Such a Waste!

wasted food in a landfill

Though the FAO estimates that 33% of our food goes to waste, other organizations like the U.S. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) puts the total at closer to 40%. That incorporates food lost or wasted in the field, in handling and processing, in retailing, in the home, and in all steps along that long chain. Whichever stat you choose, the information is still hard to ignore – we must curb our own food waste if we want to be more sustainable and mindful of a growing population.

“Even if just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted each year [globally] could be saved, it would be enough to feed 870 million hungry people in the world.” 

– UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

Food loss and waste is a worldwide problem. According to the FAO, the amount lost is roughly $680 billion annually in industrialized countries and $310 billion annually in the developing world.

While exact figures and statistics on food loss and waste can be debated, we can agree on the enormity of the problem.  With an annual estimated price tag of food waste and food loss approaching $1 trillion and a world in which the UN estimates one in seven people goes hungry, the issue has emerged as a high-priority action item. It has now become the intense focus of a coalition of global initiatives, led by diverse government and international agencies, dedicated charitable and religious organizations, the commercial food sector, and concerned individuals across the public and private sectors.

The prevailing government agencies involved include the FAO, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the European Commission, the Japanese Environment Ministry, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Commercial companies include Walmart, Kellogg’s, Campbell’s, General Mills, PepsiCo, ConAgra, and Cargill. The challenge is immense, but so are the stakes…

Where do food waste and loss occur?

On the farm and in the field.
Food production poses a variety of challenges and the FAO estimates that about one-quarter of global food waste and food loss (24%) occurs here. At this stage of the food chain, the problem is largest among fruits and vegetables. Commodities may spill from equipment onto the ground or simply rot in the field. These losses are greatly affected by weather problems and labor or equipment shortages. Some products may simply not be harvested, due to cosmetic or quality issues, or even simple market considerations. Seafood is also a source of waste. You may recall in “What’s the Catch,” the D2D team reviewed the issue of bycatch waste in aquaculture.

Post-harvest handling and storage.
Similarly, practical matters involving equipment, labor, and technology often contribute to the problem.  Lack of effective refrigeration and shortages of available storage are examples.  If not managed with food safety in mind, pests and diseases can also attack food supplies.  FAO estimates total food waste and food loss at this stage of the chain at about the same level as production— approximately 24%.

Processing, packaging, distribution.
Technical problems often contribute to food waste and food losses at this stage of the chain. As with post-harvest storage, lack of refrigeration, mechanical and other environmental malfunctions, and a host of other complications may contribute to the problem.

Food manufacturers acknowledge that a good deal of the waste associated with their work comes from a byproduct that is technically edible yet hugely unpopular – fat and skins (primarily pork and chicken) in animal processing, for example, or peels, crusts, and husks in fruits and vegetables.  However, according to the Grocery Manufacturers Association, as much as three-fourths of the more than 44 billion pounds of such waste created annually are reintroduced into the food stream— not for human consumption, but as animal feeds and feed ingredients.

Retail and consumer.
FAO estimates that the largest portion of food waste and loss occurs at this stage— roughly 35%. At the retail level, this waste can be contributed to the overstocking of product or rejection by customers on the basis of appearance.  Perishable items, such as bakery goods, fruits, and vegetables, fish, meat and dairy, are notable examples of the problem retailers – and often restaurants – face on a continuous basis.  At the consumer level, buyers also often fail to plan consumption needs, properly store or protect food products, or simply forget that the food is in their refrigerator.  Confusion over packaging terminology (“use by” or “best by” or “sell by”, for example) also is cited as an issue.

Which countries have the biggest problem with food waste and loss?

The problem is acknowledged as a global issue, rather than the sole problem of any country, region or group.

Analysis of FAO data suggests that about 56 percent of total food waste and food loss occurs in the developed world – meaning North America, Oceania, Europe and the industrialized Asian nations (China, Japan, South Korea).  The other 44 percent occurs in what is commonly called the ‘developing’ world.  On a per capita basis, food waste and food loss seem to be more pronounced in the developed.

In the developed (or industrialized) world, an estimated 40 percent of food waste and food loss occurs at the retail and consumer segments of the food chain.  Here, the problems seem to center more on behaviors – the decisions made and actions taken by individuals acting within the food chain, and especially at the consumer level. For instance, have you heard of the expression, “never go to the grocery store on an empty stomach?” Well, when it comes to food waste, there’s the truth here when you don’t consume what once looked so good on the shelf.

In the developing world, 40% of the food waste and food loss occurs at the early stages of the food chain – in the field and in post-harvest handling, especially.  Here, the problem is tied most closely to practical matters– the availability of equipment and related resources, often linked to necessary investment and adequate financing, as well as shortages in the best technology and lack of established technical or managerial expertise. For example, if a tractor breaks down at the end of the growing season, the parts might not be available in time to harvest the crop! Additionally, there might not be enough labor available to pick the crop at peak ripeness.

What other problems do food waste and food loss create?

Many environmental groups point to the enormous resource implications hidden within food waste and food loss.  The amount of energy, water, fertilizers, and other crop inputs lost through wasted or lost food is a serious concern— not to mention the financial costs that must be absorbed.  NRDC often cites a Scientific American report that estimates that as much as 10% of the total U.S. energy budget is related to farming.

Beyond the obvious links to food security and hunger, food loss and waste also raise significant issues about the potential waste of valuable natural resources. Lost and wasted food also wastes water, energy, money, and time – and creates a myriad of associated problems in how unused food is handled or otherwise dealt with.

Practical-minded local officials join environmentalists in another often overlooked issue: how they dispose of wasted or unwanted food.  The USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently noted that food waste is the largest single component going into municipal landfills – by some government estimates, more than 20 percent.  Environmental groups point to what they contend is a significant contribution to total methane emissions resulting from food waste in landfills.

FAO estimates the carbon footprint of food produced and not eaten at 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases, making food wastage the third top GHG emitter after the U.S. and China.  The same study concluded that food loss and food waste may account for as much as 30 percent of the world’s land in agricultural production. The significance of the link between food waste and the environment is becoming increasingly clear.  The Ogallala aquifer, for just one example, provides critical irrigation for as much as $20 billion in U.S. food and fiber production annually.  With aquifer levels showing a steady decline across major U.S. crop production areas, efforts to avoid food waste and food loss have taken on an increasingly prominent and important place in efforts to sustain our natural resource base.  Food waste and food loss are inextricably linked to water waste. Wasted food is also wasted water.

What is happening to deal with the problem of food waste and food loss?

Response to the challenge of food waste and food loss has been gaining momentum through the efforts of a diverse set of members of the public and private sectors.

Much of the drive to address the issue comes from grassroots efforts.  Churches, charitable groups, food banks, and concerned individuals have been at the forefront of various efforts to reduce waste and loss, often through better coordination and communication among those who have food and those who need it.  Collection of food that would otherwise go to waste from wholesalers, supermarkets, and restaurants is a high priority for these groups.

The roster of organizations devoted to dealing with some aspect of food waste and food loss now numbers well over 50 worldwide.

USDA and EPA recently joined forces to create the U.S. Food Waste Challenge – a united effort to reduce, recover, and recycle food loss and waste.  Among its various activities, the initiative provides a platform for collecting and sharing information, especially on best practices in waste and loss reduction.  In its initial year of existence, the Challenge surpassed expectations in attracting almost 4,000 participants from across the entire food chain and appears well on its way to meeting an ambitious target of reducing food waste and food loss by half by 2030.

What are some of the proposed solutions to food waste and loss?

Efforts to reduce food waste and food loss address a wide range of issues.  Some relate to the nature of the food system and its activities. Others focus on behavioral changes based on greater recognition of and attention to the causes of food waste and food loss.

The Food Waste Challenge, for example, points to three major areas for attention.

Reduction of food waste and food loss, through such things as improved food product development, enhanced storage mechanisms, cooking and preservation techniques, smarter shopping and ordering, and better labeling.

Recovery of food waste and food loss, by connecting organizations committed to alleviating hunger (such as food banks and pantries) with food products that otherwise would go unconsumed.

Take a look at the below table for additional proposed actions to curb food waste:

Trading Beef

close up of beef cattle grazing

President Trump has said he is in favor of Free Trade. A good thing, specifically for agriculture. However, when the Dirt-to-Dinner team caught wind of his plan to eliminate U.S. involvement in the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), which facilitates trade between the United States and 11 other Pacific Rim countries, and his intent to re-negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), among the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, we were immediately curious as to how this would affect some of the world’s most shared commodities: Specifically trade in beef which is important to our global economy.

President Trump has determined that the U.S. will not participate in “unfair trade” – and will only negotiate what has been deemed “fair trade” – with bi-lateral agreements as deemed more effective than multilateral agreements.

WTO, NAFTA, TPP, and Free Trade

The World Trade Organization (WTO) plays a critical role in enforcing the rules of global trade. It is through the WTO that governments work together to better facilitate international trade and resolve trade disputes. Most Favored Nation status means that member countries all have a ‘WTO Standard’ agreement with each other and all countries are treated equally. However, some countries choose to negotiate separate bi-lateral and multilateral agreements. NAFTA and TPP are examples. In addition, not all products from all industries are treated equally. For instance, there can be a tariff on car parts but none on oil. Free Trade, in its purest form, means that there are no tariffs or taxes on products going across borders.

Free Trade is Important

To illustrate the importance of free trade, think of how well America’s States work together. Let’s take a favorite dessert of ours: ice cream. For this example, Ben and Jerry’s, made in Vermont before they were acquired by Unilever, Haagen Dazs, from New York, and Talenti, from Minnesota. Suppose Vermont put a $1.00 tax on any ice cream coming into Vermont to protect Ben & Jerry’s? Then New York would respond by putting a tax on Ben & Jerry’s ice cream coming into New York to protect Haagen Dazs.

Free Trade across state borders keeps some of our favorite treats, like ice cream, free of onerous border taxes.

Minnesota would get into the action and put a tax on Ben & Jerry’s as well as Haagen Dazs. The ‘free trade’ across the state borders would be eliminated and ice cream lovers would pay more for their favorite treat. Now imagine that multiplied for every single consumer product made in every single state. Our grocery bill would be extraordinary!

And while the D2D team will not speculate on what the future holds, we wanted to examine the beef industry as a way to illustrate how trade agreements can affect important U.S. agricultural products. After all, global trade is an integral part of the agricultural industry.

Can trade legislation affect what ends up on your dinner plate?


Every country on earth imports and/or exports commodities such as grains, oilseeds, meat, or fruits/vegetables. Global trade is extremely important for the agricultural industry because of the fluctuations in supply and demand within countries and across borders.

There is not one country in the world that is completely self-sufficient with their food consumption

Weather variations, soil conditions, crop size, crop storage, and currency valuations are just a few factors that determine whether a country imports or exports any of its food or agriculture.

We highlight these statistics because it helps demonstrate the expansiveness of this industry and its importance to the American economy. The total retail value of the U.S. beef industry sales totaled $198 billion in 2015. Just for fun, we compare this to the U.S. retail value of total car sales which was $239 billion!

As the largest producer of beef in the world, the U.S. produces roughly 11.5 million metric tons of beef, 19% of global production. Yet, at the same time, the U.S. is also the largest beef importer in the world. The U.S. imported 18% of global beef with China coming in second at 11%.  On average, Americans consume 79 pounds of beef a year, per person. And while that number is impressive, we are not the largest consumer, Uruguay and Argentina eat over 120 pounds per capita!

Why can’t each country grow its own beef?

Each country does not necessarily have the land to grow corn and soybeans for animal feed or enough acreage to provide for animal grazing, concentrated feedlots, or space for various processing facilities. Nor may they be able to provide the transportation infrastructure to bring the beef to market. It is also important to be an efficient, environmentally sustainable and low-cost producer. The U.S, Brazil, the EU, and China are the largest producers. Yet while China is a big beef producer, they have to import their soybeans for feed.

For leaner ground beef, the U.S. must import frozen or chilled muscle cuts from other countries. We mix these lean trimmings into the beef to give the American consumer lean choices with hamburger. Many times, when eating a hamburger, a percentage of that burger is from across the border. The least expensive meat is ground beef and trade allows many people in the United States to afford this delicious American tradition of protein. Therefore, in order to put all of these popular items on one menu – we must import!

Because of NAFTA, the U.S. does not pay a tax from parts coming in from Canada and Mexico.  For the other meat producing countries’ such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Argentina, the United States is part of WTO where we incorporated a two-tiered system tariff (TRQs). The first tier, we pay 4.4 cents/kg and after that quota is met, there is a 26.4% tax.

Consumer preferences for beef parts impact trade

At D2D, we have stressed the health benefits of protein. Beef fits the bill. However, steaks and hamburgers are not the only tasty good-for-you meats. Tongue, intestines, the heart, liver, and other internal organs are considered delicacies for many nationalities. While they are not big sale items in the United States, other countries pay more for these ‘variety meats’ than they would for the basic muscle cuts.  Put simply, the export market for the ‘offal’ and other such small delicacies help offset the cost of the cuts of muscle such as the chuck, ribs, briskets, chuck, tenderloin, and round steak.

Beef trade around the world is complicated!

Trade Agreements

Each year the U.S. beef industry exports about 10% of its overall production. In 2016, this equaled about $6.1 billion. Roughly, 80% of US exports are to Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Hong Kong, and Canada. Since Japan is the leading importer of U.S. and Australian beef, we decided to look at the beef relationship between the United States, Australia, and Japan.

Now let’s focus on the beef tongue for a moment. Beef tongue is a delicacy in Japan. You can have it mashed, fried, roasted, smoked, salted, or barbecued. Want it with eggs? No problem. Because it sells for about $6.00 a pound, it is an important cow part!  In addition, the Japanese like the marbled meat from the U.S. for their ‘fast food’ beef bowl over rice. However, they prefer Australian grass-fed beef for their ground beef. The U.S. and Australia compete for Japan’s beef market, each providing roughly 40% and 50%, respectively. Japan is a particularly strong export market for the United States – which is why we need to have a competitive trade agreement.

Why does Australia export more beef than the United States? Australia is part of the Japan-Australia Economic Partnership Agreement (JAEPA) effective January 2015. As a result of this trade agreement, on muscle cuts, the Japanese pay 11% less on taxes for Australian beef than what they pay in U.S. muscle cuts. But on the beef tongue, the difference is 3%, in favor of the U.S. The U.S., on the other hand, just has a basic WTO agreement with Japan that does not differentiate itself from other countries.

According to a USDA analysis, the U.S. exports to Japan would lose significant market share to Australia unless similar trade agreements are formed. The analysis estimated that imports of Australian beef would rise by about $100 million and conversely, the imports of U.S. beef would fall by $100 million. Since the U.S. has decided not to participate in TPP, a ‘fair-trade’ bi-lateral agreement with Japan, or a ‘tri-lateral’ trade agreement with Japan and Australia, it could increase U.S. exports to Japan significantly and put us on par with Australia and other countries.

Trade is not all about taxes and tariffs

The important and interesting thing about trade is that it is not just about tariffs. Like any commodity, there are supply and demand fluctuations that change depending on the weather, crop prices, labor availability, the herd size, and supply/demand. Because of their drought, Australia had a smaller cattle herd – subsequently, it now costs more to process the cow. The United States, on the other hand, had a larger herd and could be more competitive on pricing. At times there can be as much as over a $600 a head difference! And as we look ahead, based on meat industry supply and demand history, the herd size is anticipated to shrink in the U.S. and grow in Australia – having the reverse effect.

The China Influence

Another important trade partner for beef will be China. Because of the growing middle class – who are eating more beef each year –, it is the world’s fastest-growing beef import market with a value of $2.39 billion in 2015. In 2016, the per capita beef consumption was 12.2 pounds. It is expected to continue to grow substantially as the middle class grows and the appetite for beef increases. Rising feed costs and limited land makes it easier and cost effective for China to import rather than grow all its own beef. Just think of the impact on the export industry if 1.3 billion people ate just one more pound a year! In 2003, because of BSE (Mad Cow disease), China restricted imports from the United States and has received their beef from Brazil, Uruguay, Australia, and New Zealand. In 2002, the United States supplied roughly 70% of China’s beef. A trade agreement between China and the United States will be interesting to watch as there will certainly have to be variations between industries – however, the US has not successfully concluded an agreement with China, yet. Market access is dependent up such items as to whether cattle have antibiotics, steroids, and whether they can be fully traced from birth.


Let’s not forget Canada and Mexico who are important trade partners for the U.S. as well. One would think that Canadians would be self-sufficient in their beef supply. Because their summer is so short, they are outside barbequing so they use up their meat supply and have to import their beef! Mexico and the U.S. export beef to each other. Because of the negotiated ‘no tariffs’ with NAFTA, trade is seamless and easy between these three countries.

Think about trade when eating your beef

In summary, beef travels around the world. How much you pay and the type of meat you eat at your dinner table depends on government access as well as government trade agreements.

Each country has its own supply and demand stresses with some years better than others. Many countries depend on exports. In 2015, for instance, Australia exported 74% of their beef, worth $9.3 billion – 32% to the U.S. and 22% Japan.

Adding government interference just adds more stress on employment, pricing, and trade flows around the world.

Do we need a Sugar Tax?

sugar cubes on top of coins

“Consumption of free sugars, including products like sugary drinks, is a major factor in the global increase of people suffering from obesity and diabetes.”
-Dr. Douglas Bettcher Director, Department for the Prevention of Non-Communicable Diseases World Health Organization

Last year, responding to the rise of obesity around the world, the World Health Organization accelerated a growing movement to address the role of sugar – and more directly, sugary drinks – in our modern diet.

Their recommended action: fiscal policies that raise the price of sugary drinks to levels that discourage consumption.  In simple terms,  – a tax to promote healthier eating habits.

  • Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980.
  • In 2014, more than 1.9 billion adults, 18 years and older, were overweight. Of these over 600 million were obese.
  • 39% of adults aged 18 years and over were overweight in 2014, and 13% were obese.
  • Most of the world’s population live in countries where overweight and obesity kills more people than underweight.
  • 41 million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2014. WHO, 2016

The WHO argued that a 20 percent tax on sugary drinks such as soda, sports drinks, and sweetened iced tea would result in “proportional reductions” in the consumption of sugary products. The report’s official recommendation has helped accelerate actions by a range of local, state, and national governments to tax sugary drinks.

The sugar tax also has fueled a corresponding debate about the effectiveness of using tax policy to shape consumer behaviors – and the unintended consequences that often come with such taxes.

Obesity is a major health concern

The health concern driving the attention on sugary-drink taxes is not in question. Data and analysis collected by academics and health organizations paint a bleak picture of rising obesity, heart disease, diabetes, tooth decay, and other health problems, and an apparent link with consumption patterns for various “free sugars.” But, it is not the consumption of sugar, it is the over-consumption which is the issue.  You may recall, we recently discussed how the average American consumes 2-3x more sugar than is recommended per day!

What is “free sugar?” Free sugars refer to monosaccharides (such as glucose or fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) added to a variety of foods and drinks, as well as sugars naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit juice concentrate. (World Health Organization, June 2016 Fact Sheet)

McKinsey Global Institute asserts that obesity rates have reached “crisis proportions,” with associated healthcare costs in the United States of $190 billion annually, including $14 billion devoted to caring for children. And the public response to this rising health concern has taken new forms in the past 15 years. Health organizations, governments, and consumer groups launched aggressive public education efforts on both sugar consumption, high caloric intake, and lack of exercise.

Obesity is often linked to many other health issues, including diabetes (costs are estimated at $312 billion per year), cardiovascular disease (healthcare costs are estimated to reach $818 billion by 2030) , and even cancer (oncology treatments in the United States were estimated at $100 billion last year).

State, local, and national governments shaping consumer behaviors

Worldwide, state, local, and national governments also initiated efforts to shape consumer behaviors through various actions. Clearly, the use of tax policy to fight for better dietary habits was gaining momentum…

Mexico, for example, implemented an excise tax on all non-alcoholic beverages with added sugar.  Hungary imposed a tax on packaged products with high levels of sugar, salt, or caffeine.  Most recently, France announced a total ban on the sale of unlimited soft drinks at a fixed price.  The Philippines, South Africa, and the United Kingdom also announced intentions to discuss and potentially implement taxes on sugary drinks.

Earlier this year, the debate over the role of sugar in modern diet entered a new front when a nonprofit group in California filed a federal lawsuit against Coca-Cola and the American Beverage Association alleging an “unlawful attempt to mislead the public regarding the link between sugar consumption.” The suit included a lengthy roster of health problems that have affected Coca-Cola consumers.  Additionally, a comparison is being drawn between the legal strategy used to attack the tobacco industry and that being used against Coca-Cola. But is this taking the sugar debate too far…?

In the United States, Berkeley, Calif., pioneered the sugary-drink tax approach in 2014.  Three Bay Area cities – San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany – followed suit with their own tax of “one cent per ounce” on sugary drinks.  Boulder, Colo., initiated a tax of two cents per ounce, and Philadelphia, Pa., joined in with its sugary-drink tax of 1.5 cents per ounce. Cook County, Ill., also has a sugary-drink tax in the process.

Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg with a visual of sugar and soda sizes.  Image Source: Vosisneias

Similarly, Major Bloomberg received a heavy amount of criticism when he attempted to ban the sale of large soft drinks in New York. Ultimately, this ban was overturned by New York state’s highest court, however, its aim was to raise awareness and fight against the rising levels of obesity (particularly in low-income areas).

The tax revenue is significant

The amounts raised by such taxes are significant.  The tax is estimated to raise about $15 million in San Francisco, from $6 million to $10 million in Oakland, and $3.8 million in Boulder. (This is just under the $4.83 million 2015 tax revenue from medical marijuana.) Revenues from the Philadelphia tax could run a high as $91 million, according to some media reports. Draft legislation on the sugary-drink tax in the UK projected has projected an additional cost of 18-24 pence (24-31 U.S. cents) per liter, with an estimated 520 million pounds (675 million U.S. dollars) of revenue in its first year.

As these taxes have been discussed and implemented, the debate regarding their effectiveness has also picked up steam. Supporters of the tax defend them as important tools in the effort to build better public health and critics question just how effective the tax really is. Additionally, these critics are skeptical of the unintended consequences of using tax policy in this way, as it may be causing harm to other important public interests.

Sales had been slowing before the taxes

Sales of sugar-sweetened beverages showed declines well before the implementation of these taxes.  As public attention to this burgeoning public health issue increased in the early 2000s, consumption patterns began to change.  According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average adult in 1999-2000 drank 196 calories’ worth of sweetened beverages per day. By 2009-2010, that number had fallen to 151. Between 2011 and 2014, it fell a few calories further, to 145.  U.S. soda sales dropped 1.2 percent in 2015 alone, according to industry statistics.

However, children are still drinking too many sugary drinks

Of concern to many health officials, consumption of sugary drinks among children seems to have plateaued, partly in response to the rising public attention to improved diets and healthy dietary habits.

According to the CDC, children drank 223 calories of soda and other drinks in 1999 and 155 calories in 2009. The number has stuck at 143 since then, which represents 7.3 percent of a child’s calorie intake, on average. “The latest declines were not considered statistically significant,” CDC concluded.

Nonetheless, the U.S. childhood obesity rate, CDC also observed, stands at 17 percent – or roughly 12.7 million children.  On a global basis, WHO estimates that as many as 42 million children under the age of five were obese in 2015. Amazingly enough, almost half lived in Asia and one quarter in Africa.

“If you extrapolate our findings, that means 111 million adults and 147 million kids still drink at least some sugar-sweetened beverage daily,” said Asher Rosinger, a CDC epidemiologist.

Health officials at CDC suggest consumption of no more than one sugary drink per week for children.  Yet agency data suggests that two-thirds of children still make at least one sugary drink part of their daily diet.  An estimated 30 percent of children have two or more sugary drinks daily.

Experts remain divided on the reasons behind the caloric numbers, although some speculate the stall may be attributable to increased consumption of other beverages, such as tea and other liquids, to which consumers may add their own sugar or sweetener.

Is the tax efficient, fair and effective?

The sugar tax has also fueled a corresponding debate about the effectiveness of using tax policy to shape consumer behaviors – and the unintended consequences that often come with such taxes.

In the face of this mixed picture of changed consumer behaviors, critics of the tax – and the larger issue of using tax policy to shape consumer behavior – have raised a number of issues for further debate.

Taxes such as those placed on sugary drinks simply aren’t high enough to affect consumption to the degree their supporters desire, Snowdon argues.

“For a tax to be justified, it should be efficient, fair, and effective,” according to Christopher Snowdon of the Cato Institute. “Taxes on food and drink meet none of these criteria.”

“Herein lies the problem with obesity-related taxes,” he says.  “If they are set low enough to be politically acceptable, they are merely stealth taxes which make no difference to health.  But if they are set any higher, they become politically toxic.”

Other academics have also weighed in on the debate…

“My guess is that we may be seeing different trends by age and socioeconomic status,” says Walter Willet, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard University.  “People with higher levels of education and income have made dramatic changes to their diets overall in recent years.  Many people with lower levels of education and income have seen no improvement.”

What happens at the retail store level?

Reaction to the tax in Philadelphia highlights other noteworthy criticisms.  Neighborhood retailers – especially the nearly 1,500 corner stores operating in the city — point to sales of snacks and beverages as major contributors to their economic survival.

When shoppers see a tax of $1.92 imposed on a container of tea priced at $1.77, their purchase patterns will undoubtedly change. In fact, store owners in Philadelphia reported a drop of 25-30 percent in revenues following implementation of the tax and the resultant “sticker shock” among customers.

One trenchant observer of the Philadelphia tax noted that the sugary-drink tax is 24 times the per-ounce tax levied on beer.

Is the tax a ruse to shore up tax-revenue streams?

In the seeming political cynicism of our age, critics also question how much of the initiative behind the sugary drink tax is driven by genuine health concerns versus a desire to shore up tax-revenue streams.  Why stop at sugary drinks, they ask?

If the governments do, in fact, believe so strongly in public health, why not impose comparable taxes on other products linked to public health issues— not just beer but also such foods as hamburgers and French fries and other fried foods? Critics fear this tax eventually extend to other products using sugar as an ingredient and to other foods containing “free sugars.”

Source: Food Navigator

Is there a magic bullet to resolve the role of sugar in public health?

Proponents of the sugary-drink tax point to tobacco and alcohol as examples of the ability for taxes to shape consumer behaviors.  Opponents argue education is the more favorable cornerstone of any policy response to obesity.

Others suggest a middle ground may prove more effective in the long run.  Like most complicated public policy questions, the debate over the role of sugar in public health may best be addressed not with a single “magic bullet,” but rather through a combination of incentives, disincentives, and comprehensive health education, as well as attention to other related issues.

For example, healthcare professionals need to be better trained in addressing obesity and lifestyle issues with patients. In the face of such a complicated public policy issue, they argue, a simplistic approach based on a new tax just won’t be enough to solve a complex problem.

Court challenges to the tax already are underway in Pennsylvania, and other legal actions can be anticipated elsewhere.  But no one expects final answers in the on-going debate anytime soon.

What’s the Catch?

red and blue fishing trawlers at port

Our oceans, rivers, and lakes are the last “farmable” frontiers. While we may not consider ourselves “hunters and gathers” anymore, we are still hunting the waters for 55% of the fish we consume and farming the remaining 45%.

Whether it is sushi or sautéed snapper, roughly 6.2 billion people— 84% of the global population— incorporate fish into their weekly diet.  In just 14 years, it is anticipated that there will be an additional one billion people on this planet— who will certainly continue to eat fish as well! But can the oceans provide enough sustainable fish for everyone?

The massive amount of fish (167 million metric tonnes) that are caught (55%) and farmed (45%) each year provides each person in the world with approximately 44 pounds of available fish per year.  To put this into perspective, the average American consumes about 16 pounds of fish and shellfish per year, compared to those in Iceland, who consume 90 pounds per year and those in Japan, who consume 53 pounds per person per year.

Fishing in fresh and salt waters has remained consistent at roughly 92 million metric tonnes of catch per year since 2009. Out of the 81 million metric tonnes of just wild ocean fish (versus wild freshwater fish), China is responsible for catching the largest quantity weighting in at 18% of the world total, followed by Indonesia (7%) and the United States (6%).

If we keep up this pace, how can we feed an additional 1 billion people by 2030?  If the fish consumption pattern holds, the world would need 32.2 million metric tonnes of more fish— without depleting our oceans.

Our oceans, rivers, and lakes are overfished….

For 40,000 years—beginning with our hunting and gathering ancestors— fishing has been both a sport and a primary food source for the human race. In fact, over-fishing the oceans first began in the era of Moby Dick when the schooners searched the global oceans for whale oil. And while it is nearly impossible to count the exact amount of fish in our oceans, it is clear that they have been overfished.

Adapted from an infographic produced by the Pew Charitable Trusts and The Sea Around Us.

Factors which contribute to overfishing in our oceans are aggressive fishing, lack of regulations, by-catch, and illegal fishing. Illegal fishing accounts for 15% of total captured fish. This pirating can take many forms such as fishing in protected areas, not reporting the full catch, or claiming a different country of origin. Boats registered to Africa, for example, are exempt from any regulatory approval.

Our waters at a glance

The FAO reports that 30 percent of our oceans are overexploited.

The World Wildlife Fund agrees that “more than 85 percent of the world’s fisheries have been pushed to or beyond their biological limits and are in need of strict management plans to restore them”.

SNAPP (Science for Nature and People Partnerships) says that over the last 40 years, marine life has been slashed in half and 90% of the swordfish and tuna have disappeared since the 1950s.

Source: The State of World Fisheries,

Overfishing in the world’s rivers and lakes has quadrupled since 1950 to 8.7 million metric tonnes, particularly in China where there are 12 million fishermen.

The technology behind large commercial fishing boats

According to the FAO, there are approximately 4.6 million fishing boats cruising the oceans to catch for dinner or sell commercially. Asia controls 75% of these boats while Africa controls 15%. But these boats are incredibly diverse. It is amazing to think that of the world’s fishing boats, only 64% operate with an engine! Obviously, the ones that have engines are far more efficient. The larger factory ships, for example, have huge freezers and new fishing technology that helps to locate and catch previously undetected fish. As a result, they are capable of hauling a tremendous amount of fish and bycatch. The bycatch ultimately gets wasted.

Nowadays, fishing vessels must be equipped with electronic devices, or “blue boxes”, which form part of the satellite-based vessel monitoring system (VMS). The blue box regularly sends data about the location of the vessel to the fisheries monitoring center (FMC). Vessels are also equipped with GPS transmitters which track the ship’s speed and position.

By-catch and the ocean habitat

Whether a vessel is trolling nets along the seabed floor to catch bottom feeders (like shellfish) or casting huge nets in the water, there is an unintended by-catch. Fish such as cod, haddock, shrimps, lobsters, and scallops get tangled in the nets dragged along the ocean floor.  The nets that are thrown in the water to catch the larger fish often result in other species, such as baby whales, dolphin, and sharks to get caught and killed in the process.

For every pound of fish purposefully caught, there are 5-10 pounds of wild fish killed during the process. Furthermore, the by-catch is not eaten— it is either ground up for fish feed or simply thrown overboard. Finally, these bottom draggers break up coral and disturb the ocean’s habitat. This can be visible, for instance, when there is an overabundance of seaweed on your favorite beach.

So how can we rebuild our fish stocks?

The international community which includes the U.N., FAO, OECD, World Bank, and the EU are all working on separate programs to help rebuild wild fish stocks. Satellites are being utilized to track the fishing vessels and monitor the ships to the port of origin. But it is difficult to control.  For more information, the WWF gives more detail on protecting our oceans in the film ‘From Bait to Plate’ as well as their traceability principles.

Sustainably Farmed Fish

China was farming fish as early as 3500 BCE and the ancient Egyptians and Romans grew fish for an easy varied diet.  Today, aquaculture is the fastest growing protein industry, with a growth rate of roughly 5% annually. In 2015, global aquaculture was valued at $156.27 billion and is expected to reach $209.42 billion in 2021. A 34% increase in just six years! To put this in perspective – in 2014 the U.S. meat and poultry industry sales totaled $186 billion. 

China produces over one-half (62%) of global aquaculture production. Indonesia, India, Vietnam, and Bangladesh are the top five producers after China. The United States aquaculture industry is still small, contributing only about 5%.

But both saltwater and freshwater fish farms have a bad reputation. It is a fragmented industry with some excellent players and some not-so-excellent participants. The issue is the lack of accountability and global regulatory standards. According to SNAPP, 65% of aquaculture is responsible for polluting the oceans, feeding inappropriate food to the fish, adding unnecessary chemicals, and inappropriate worker welfare.

We must start using the sea as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about – farming replacing hunting

-Jacques Cousteau

But not all fish farms are the same.  We have discussed some of these issues and differences in our previous posts: A Shrimp’s Tail and Farmed or Wild Salmon.  In the United States, regulations are being examined to allow for more fish farming along the California and Eastern coasts. Consumer demand is forcing more transparency in the industry, and in response, there are a growing number of small and large indoor fish farms in states like North Dakota, South Carolina, Mississippi, and New Hampshire. These fish farms are employing safe and regulated business practices. Blue Ridge Aquaculture, for example, is the largest producer of tilapia and is located in Virginia.

Around the world, there are indoor and outdoor farms that are also focused on transparency and quality.  Cooke Aquaculture, which has farms located in Canada, the U.S., Scotland, Spain, and Chile, is fully integrated with salmon, sea bass, and sea bream. Cermaq is one of the largest salmon farmers in Norway, Chile, and Canada.  Nireus Aquaculture, partnering with the WWF, is the largest Mediterranean Aquaculture company in the world.  Madagascar shrimp producer Unima is the first shrimp producer in Africa to receive the ASC certification.  Finally, the Chinese government is recognizing that they must ensure their farms do not pollute the environment.  In response to this, they are working with the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) to grow sustainable and certified fish. But until we see valid third-party certifications from imported fish – you don’t know exactly what is on your dinner plate.

Fish can be vegetarians!

Feeding fish with other fish is not sustainable. The total amount of fish caught and farmed is 167 million metric tons. Of this amount, 146 million metric tons are needed to feed humans and roughly 21 millionmetric tons are used to feed farmed fish or in human supplements. But, this practice is actually pretty unnecessary.

There are two nonexclusive, more sustainable, solutions to this problem. A fish food company, EWOS, is currently partaking in both.

Fish Farm of the Future Goes Vegetarian

1. When fish are processed, depending on the type of fish, about 40-70% is wasted. This is particularly bad if they are being fileted on the fishing boat, as the discarded portion of fish is often tossed overboard. These trimmings can be fully utilized for fish feed.

2. It is possible to turn fish into vegetarians. All fish require is a diet that is still high in omega-3s and DHA in order to ensure sufficient nutritional value. For instance, replacing fish oil with alternatives such as algal oil, canola, flax, soy, pistachios, or even insects would help keep our oceans full of fish. Additionally, including vitamins, phospholipids, essential fatty acids, trace minerals, and even probiotics will help produce healthy fish for us to eat.  Partners in Europe have introduced an innovative cloud tool called AquaSmart which will help fish farmers manage their profitability, feed, and production to ensure a strong profit and sustainable practices protect the environment. 

How do you find sustainable fish?

Sustainably farmed fish is the future of aquaculture. We want full transparency into where the fish on our plate comes from. This means we want to know that the fish was fed a healthy diet, that it was raised in an environmentally responsible farm, and that the employees in the fish industry were not exploited in the process. Here are some organizations that are trying to reshape the industry:

Google  supports two organizations that bring fresh, transparent seafood to the restaurant within 24 hours through Dock to Dish and Thimble Island Oyster Farm.

Grocery stores, like Target and Whole foods, are only buying fish that is sustainable and traceable.


Marine Stewardship Council

Aquaculture Stewardship Council


Whole Foods Responsibly Farmed

Supplements: Natural or Synthetic?

small glass bowl of supplements with herbs

Last week at D2D, we explained why vitamins and minerals are important to maintain both your short and long term health. So, we know we need to ingest vitamins to stay healthy, but now we need to investigate what type of vitamins we should take. If you turn to the Internet for help, you will find there is a lot of criticism from various nutritionists and natural vitamin companies on the use of synthetic vitamins; in particular, arguing that our bodies do not know how to digest these supplements. But is this true? Or is this another marketing ploy to make you buy the more expensive, naturally-created vitamins?

First, what is a natural vitamin? 

Similar to ‘natural’ foods, the natural vitamin label is not clearly defined and can be very misleading. A natural vitamin can be made from a component directly from the earth or it can be ‘naturally made’ in your body through digestion. Or, it can be a product, like vitamin B, that begins with natural fermentation but is additionally processed.

The most typical all-natural vitamin is classified as something that is created directly from plant material. However, since pills obviously don’t grow on trees, the only completely natural vitamin is something that comes directly from your food.

To remove any vitamin from its natural source is a tricky and expensive process that also reduces the potency of the particular nutrient. Isolating a specific vitamin from its source, like Vitamin A from cod liver oil, does not necessarily yield 100% of the vitamin. So you have to ‘synthesize’ the vitamin anyway to reach full potency.

In our exploration of synthetic vitamins, we came across some great research from Willner Chemists in New York City. These pharmaceutical researchers explain the purpose of synthetic vitamins very clearly. According to Dr. Donald Goldberg, R.Ph and Dr. Arnold Gitomer, R.Ph.:

“Yes, vitamins and minerals occur naturally in food. But the quantities are very small. When taking supplements, we are accustomed to potencies that would be impossible to obtain from natural vitamins in food concentrates. To get 500 milligrams of vitamin C and 10 milligrams of the various B vitamins from natural sources would require a tablet the size of a football. With a few exceptions—such as vitamin E, natural beta-carotene, and vitamin B12—all of the vitamins used in dietary supplements are synthetic. Regardless of what your local health-food store clerk or multilevel marketing zealot tells you, it’s a fact. And it’s also a fact that these synthetic vitamins are identical to their natural counterparts. To get high potencies of vitamins and minerals in a dietary supplement, synthetic or highly processed vitamins, and minerals must be used. You cannot have it both ways. High-potency vitamin levels in a product are always the result of added synthetic vitamins.”

What is a synthetic vitamin?

The molecular structure for each vitamin is well known. Those nutrients are exactly replicated in the lab to support their specific cellular structure and function. Because the vitamin is specifically isolated, the lab can easily control the purity and quality.

The only exception is vitamin E, which is important as an antioxidant and good for your skin. Vitamin C combined with vitamin E may increase the photoprotection of your skin more than vitamin E by itself. Naturally-occurring vitamin E such as spinach, nuts, and oils, contains eight molecules called tocopherols and tocotrienols. A synthetic vitamin can only capture one tocopherol. Look for a ‘d’ label before the word alpha-tocopherol rather than a ‘dl’ label which means it is synthetic.

Aside from Vitamin E, there is no difference between natural and synthetic vitamins. In fact, 95% of vitamins on the market are synthetic, because it’s actually very difficult to put natural vitamins into most supplements.

When looking at a label you will see that vitamin ingredients are identified as either “d-“ or “dl-“. If the ingredient is labeled with the prefix “dl-“, it means the ingredient is synthetic, whereas the prefix “d-“ indicates the natural form.

ingredient label from Solgar Vitamin E Vegetarian softgels

Save your wallet – Natural is not the only option.

“All-natural” vitamin companies often tout their process of creating “natural” vitamins as being better for your health. Natural supplements are typically far more taxing on your budget than synthetic supplements.

Companies producing all-natural vitamins indicate their products are free of artificial flavorings and colorings, chemical preservatives and excessive excipients (inactive substances that are carriers for active ingredients). Natural companies use only natural flavoring agents such as herbal extracts, lemon, and vanilla with no chemical dyes. Synthetic supplements are criticized for using binders to hold tablets together, or fillers such as cellulose or magnesium stearate for encapsulation. Cellulose is a vegetable plant; if you eat lettuce or spinach, you are eating cellulose. Magnesium stearate is used to make sure the ingredients blend together proportionally and easily slides through the manufacturing process. It is basically a combination of stearic acid (a saturated fat found in beef, cocoa butter, and coconut oil) and magnesium salt. Both are recognized as GRAS (generally regarded as safe) by the FDA.

Natural vitamin companies often claim that your body will not know how to process vitamins that have been created synthetically. The main criticism is that synthetic vitamins are ‘isolated’ and since they are not working in conjunction with other vitamins, enzymes and minerals the human body does not recognize the isolated ones.

The purpose of taking a vitamin is to get the benefit of the nutrients. Reputable labs will actually create a ‘human stomach’ to test how the vitamins break down and release the nutrients. They copy the temperature, average acidity, and how the stomach churns during digesting. Of course, there are individual variants such as your gut microbiota, your age, and your overall health that will affect how your own body digests and absorbs the vitamin.

The FDA and WHO do not distinguish between all natural and synthetic vitamins. In fact, dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA the same way drugs are – and with good reason! This is due to the fact that you can make therapeutic claims for drugs, which you cannot do for dietary supplements. In terms of vitamins, the FDA regulations are responsible for the purity, potency, and safety of dietary supplements being created. They concur that the molecular structures of nutrients are well known and the body cannot tell if a nutrient came from a lab or a plant. Thus, synthetically created vitamins are not taxing on your body.

The question is not whether a vitamin is synthetic or natural but was it made by a reputable manufacturer that uses FDA Good Manufacturing processes and uses a third party for their testing.

Be sure your vitamin supplements (whether they are synthetic or natural) are tested for toxicity and contaminants, are properly labeled, and will break down in your body in the appropriate amount of time.

GMO Labeling: What’s the Point?

GMO Label on snackfood

The Dirt-to-Dinner team understands the importance of food labeling. It helps consumers understand the nutritional content, identify ingredients, and to avoid an allergic reaction!

Nutrition labels help us identify the daily percentage or specific key nutrients and unhealthy additives, like sugar. (Sugar is Sugar discusses how sugar can cause long term health issues.) But, in the case of GMO vs. non-GMO products, this is not applicable. All genetically modified produce has the same nutritional content as non-GMO food. For instance, your corn tortilla has the exact same nutritional profile regardless if it was made with GM corn or not.

Labeling GMO produce gives implies that there must be something wrong with GMOs. It is labeling initiatives like this that fuel consumers distrust of GMOs. And a lack of understanding often leads to fear, which urges consumers to select ‘made without GMOs’ foods when given a choice. But, in reality, when polled, over 60% of people are not sure what the acronym “GMO” even means!

Vermont is the first state to require labeling — will others follow?

The state of Vermont is home to the most certified organic farms per capita. Thus, it is not surprising that Vermont is the first state to require such labeling. But this arduous labeling process is not solely focused on food transparency. More than helping the consumer “know what is in their food”, Vermont’s legislation condemns GMOs. The Vermont Labeling Rule implies that the FDA has not done a thorough review of GMOs; that there is no scientific consensus on the validity of GMO research; and that they are protecting public health and food safety. But, if we simply refer to the FDA’s website, you will find the agency’s exhaustive research on genetic engineering, from plant toxicity levels to the nutritional value against its traditionally-bred counterpart.

The FDA has a very real responsibility to protect its American citizens and would not lazily let some “new food technology” slip through the cracks. But GMOs are the most highly tested food ever created without one documented negative health event. Our food is safer than ever before. Why can’t we trust the FDA, USDA, WHO, EFSA, and even the EPA, all internationally recognized organizations indicating that GMOs pose no human health or environmental risk?

Proponents of GMOs have shown crops can be grown with a higher yield per acre while still reducing pesticide, herbicide, and water use. The opposition doesn’t like the use of the pesticide, glyphosate, which is a less toxic pesticide than most. They think it poses health risks as well as reducing crop biodiversity.

For those still opposed to genetically modified foods, there are still many options. Legally, certified Organic foods cannot contain GMOs. Whole Foods has even dedicated a portion of its website on ‘How to Shop if Avoiding GMOs’. There are cost-effective ways to be a smart shopper without wasting state government resources and money to further increase GMO labeling.

Scientific Studies on GMOs

USA National Academy of Sciences (NAS)
Transgenic Plants and World Agriculture (2000) | Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States (2010)

USA Institute of Medicine (IOM) & National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academies.
Safety of Genetically Engineered Foods: Approaches to Assessing Unintended Health Effects (2004)

USA National Academies (IOM, NRC, NAS, NAE)
A Science-Based Look at Genetically Engineered Crops (The study will be ready in 2016)

USA American Medical Association (AMA)
Council on Science and Public Health Report (2012)

USA American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS)
Statement by the AAAS Board of Directors On Labeling of Genetically Modified Foods (2012)

USA American Council of Science and Health (ACSH)
Biotechnology and Food (Second Edition) (2000)

USA Society of Toxicology (SOT)
The Safety of Genetically Modified Foods Produced through Biotechnology (2003)

USA American Dietetic Association
Position of the American Dietetic Association: Agricultural and food biotechnology (2006)

USA Genetics Society of America
Assessing Benefits and Risks of Genetically Modified Organisms (2001)

USA American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB)
ASCB Statement in Support of Research on Genetically Modified Organisms (2009)

USA American Society of Plant Biology (ASPB)
Statement on Plant Genetic Engineering 

USA American Society for Microbiology (ASM)
Statement of the American Society for Microbiology on Genetically Modified Organisms (2000)

USA American Phytopathological Society (APS)
APS Statement on Biotechnology and its Application to Plant Pathology (2001)

USA Society for In Vitro Biology (SIVB)
Position Statement on Crop Engineering 

USA Crop Science Society of America
CSSA Perspective on Biotechnology (2001)

USA Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST)
Crop Biotechnology and the Future of Food: A Scientific Assessment (2005)

USA Federation of Animal Sciences Societies (FASS) – representing the American Dairy Science Association (ADSA), American Society of Animal Science (ASAS) and the Poultry Science Association (PSA).
FASS Facts On Biotech Crops – Impact on Meat, Milk and Eggs (2001)

USA Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
Questions & Answers on Food from Genetically Engineered Plants