Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Standards for the term "sustainable agriculture"

The Agricultural Law blog today links to an interesting controversy about the definition of "sustainable agriculture."

Under guidelines from the non-governmental but influential American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the Leonardo Academy is gathering stakeholders and experts to discuss standards for this widely used term. The academy, a Wisconsin-based non-profit "think and do tank," described the process in a press release (.pdf) yesterday.

USDA, which prefers a broader definition of the term "sustainable agriculture" than the draft under discussion, has petitioned (.pdf) ANSI to revoke the accreditation for the Leonardo Academy to lead this standard-setting process. The Leonardo Academy has responded (.pdf).

[Update 10/1/2008:] The proposed ANSI standard setting process has generated opposition from some longstanding sustainable agriculture advocates. Kathleen Merrigan at the Friedman School points out a letter that she and a few dozen others sent (.doc) Aug. 19, urging participants to consider a long series of concerns before pursuing the proposed approach. The concerns include potential overlap with the existing organic standards, the adequacy of farmer and farmworker participation in the standard setting, the capacity of any new definition to accomodate changes in sustainable agriculture practices as they develop, and the need for long-term enforcement of any new standard.

This is more material than I have been able to absorb yet, but it seems to offer an interesting mix of policy argument about both substance and process for defining what has until now been a fairly inclusive concept.

Briefing on food prices

I gave a briefing (.pdf) yesterday for House of Representatives staff in DC, on the topic of rising food prices. In the past 12 months, grocery food prices in the United States have risen about 6 to 8 percent (depending on how different types of food are weighted in the overall index).

This is of course much higher than the 3 percent increases that have been typical in the earlier part of this decade, but perhaps not as high as you thought if you have been following the news about raw food commodities. Some prices of raw commodities have doubled in just a couple years, for a variety of reasons, causing great alarm. Short term contributors include weather, low carry-over stocks, and export controls by some producer countries. Long term contributors include world population growth, rising demand for meat and dairy products, competition with biofuels, and rising energy prices.

Because the farm cost is less than 10 percent of the value of the grocery food dollar in the United States, consumer grocery prices are somewhat buffered in this country. Also, we have for a number of years spent a comparatively small fraction of our disposable income on food, on average. The slide below is based on international comparison data for selected countries (not all countries) from the Economic Research Service. It is not surprising that poor countries spend a higher fraction of income on food than the United States does. It is notable, though, that our food spending share at least through 2006 was small even by comparison to some more prosperous industrialized countries.

Other interesting data series from USDA/ERS include the food spending share over time.

The lunchtime seminar was organized by the Council on Food, Agricultural, and Resource Economics (C-FARE, an outreach organization for the agricultural economics profession) and the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research (a broader umbrella group that publicizes the value of research on these topics). In addition to my presentation with an economic perspective, the lunchtime briefing in an Agriculture Committee meeting room at the Longworth House Office Building included a representative of the American Dietetic Association (ADA), who turned out to provide a great interdisciplinary set of resources for staff questions afterwords. The moderator was Ephraim Leibtag from USDA/ERS, whose work on food prices has been widely followed lately, including this article from Philip Brasher.

In addition to consumer concerns about the overall food price level, bigger concerns for me include the rates of food insecurity and hunger in low-income U.S. populations, and the cost of healthy diets. Both issues have to do with more than just prices.

Meanwhile, for unrelated reasons, it was an exciting day to be on the House side of Capitol Hill. During the lunchtime seminar, I could hear from outside the voices of protesters against the bailout. Later, while I was in a follow-up meeting in the early afternoon with staff from one of the Massachusetts congressional delegations, there was a bustle in the office as the Congressman arrived and briskly rounded up staff for an urgent meeting. Only later in the airport did I hear the big news that the House voted down the financial bailout plan.

Data source: USDA/ERS. Follow link for clearer image.

Refresh blog from Supermarket News

I recently started reading the Refresh blog from Supermarket News staff. One recent post summarizes how different supermarkets are participating in various approaches to labeling humane production practices for animal products, based on survey data from the World Society for the Protection of Animals. Another post has some gentle fun with the expansive view of local food taken by a fine internet site in the Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) area, called eatgreendfw, which does however include a link to delivery from Fred's Alaska Seafood. "Last I checked," Jeff Wells writes, "Kenai salmon were not native to north Texas."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

And while you're voting no...

I rely on the wisdom of others to explain financial markets, including the proposed $700 billion bailout proposed by Treasury Secretary Paulson. It counts as food policy, in the sense that it counts as everything policy and will dominate the U.S. fiscal situation for years to come, well into the new administration. Let me summarize the wisdom of people I trust on the Paulson plan. Tyler Cowen thinks it's awful. He quotes Matthew Yglesias (who claims to be drunk but seems to be blogging quite lucidly):
The plan is bad. But bad policies get enacted all the time. But we’re at a point now where congress is, allegedly, in the hands of progressive leadership. Simply put, if congressional Democrats manage to acquiesce in a plan that spends $700 billion on a bailout while doing nothing for average working people and giving the taxpayer virtually no upside in a way that guarantees that even electoral victory would give an Obama administration no resources with which to implement a progressive domestic agenda in 2009 then everyone’s going to have to give serious consideration to becoming a pretty hard-core libertarian.

It’d be one thing for a bunch of conservative politicians to ram a terrible policy through. Then we could say “well, if some progressives win the next election things will be different.” But if this comes through an allegedly progressive congress then the whole enterprise starts looking pretty hollow.
Politico says many economists are skeptical and Greg Mankiw thinks it's awful. Mankiw links to Yves Smith, who hates the plan and thinks you should too. You can see the pattern here.

Update 1:50 pm: I can't help adding this commentary, from ABC's Jack Tapper.
As the Bush Administration asks for close to a trillion dollars to prevent a worldwide financial cataclysm, here are some numbers you might find interesting -- courtesy of the ABC News Research Center and ABC News' Barbara Paulson.

In 2007, Wall Street's five biggest firms -- Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley -- paid a record $39 billion in bonuses to themselves.

That's $10 billion more than the $29 billion loan taxpayers are making to J.P. Morgan to save Bear Stearns.

Those 2007 bonuses were paid, even though the shareholders in those firms last year collectively lost about $74 billion in stock declines -- their worst year since 2002.

Boston GreenFest Sep. 27-28

The Boston GreenFest will have music, food, fun for kids, and interesting talks this Friday and Saturday, Sep. 26-27, from 10 am to 5 pm, at City Hall Plaza. At 11 am Saturday, sociologist and economist Juliet Schor will speak about "Green Economics."

Massachusetts referendum on income tax repeal

This election, there will be a binding referendum on the Massachusetts ballot to end the state income tax. The proposal would eliminate 40% of state revenues, causing havoc in state budgets and public services, from education to policing.

(U.S. Food Policy is nonpartisan, so I re-read the sentence above several times to be sure it is a dispassionate summary of the facts.)

Several public interest groups are leading a campaign to Vote No on what they call this "reckless" referendum. The groups include Stand for Children and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization (GBIO), an inspirational and astonishingly diverse multi-faith multi-community organization that U.S. Food Policy has covered previously because of its work on the Massachusetts health care reform.

The groups are collecting pledges from registered MA voters who plan to vote no on the referendum. There is no cost to fill out the form. The Vote No campaign tells me contact information you supply will be used once for a reminder before the election, and not sold or shared with other organizations. The main advantage of giving your name is to inform policy-makers about the level of public concern about the referendum. If you would like to pledge in this way, and are willing to let GBIO get credit for having helped to collect your pledge, follow the link to GBIO's part of the Vote No on Question 1 site.

Monday, September 22, 2008

AP reports on video showing abuse of pigs

I haven't yet decided to watch the video accompanying this report from the Associated Press. Don't worry, the video does not launch automatically when you follow the link.
WASHINGTON (Sept. 16) - An undercover video shot at an Iowa pig farm shows workers hitting sows with metal rods, slamming piglets on a concrete floor and bragging about jamming rods up into sows' hindquarters.

On the video, obtained by The Associated Press, a supervisor tells an undercover investigator for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that when he gets angry or a sow won't move, "I grab one of these rods and jam it in her (anus)."

The farm, located outside of Bayard, Iowa, about 60 miles west of Des Moines, is a supplier to Hormel Foods of Austin, Minn. PETA wants to use the results of the investigation to pressure Hormel, the maker of Spam and other food products, to demand that its suppliers ensure humane treatment of pigs.

Hormel spokeswoman Julie Henderson Craven on Tuesday called the abuses "completely unacceptable."
Apparently, nobody is disputing the evidence on the video. An expert who works on animal health issues with the industry denies such practices are widespread.

A Healthy Incentive Pilot to supplement food stamp benefits

There seems to be real motion this year on proposals to pilot some type of healthy incentives supplement to the basic benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the new name for the Food Stamp Program). The supplemental benefits could be targeted to particularly healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, or whole grains.

Technical questions concern whether a supplemental benefit should be incorporated into Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card benefits, or whether it should use some type of paper coupon system. If the EBT cards are used, would a single card be re-programmed to have separate accounts for restricted and unrestricted food benefits, or would a client carry two EBT cards?

The Farm Bill included language promoting a pilot program. USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is hosting an upcoming symposium on the topic, on Oct. 16, in Alexandria, VA. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in July released a report (.pdf), describing some of the options:
Changing individuals’ eating habits is difficult, given the many factors that influence food choices. However, the pilot projects authorized in the recent Farm Bill provide FNS with a unique opportunity to test whether financial incentives would help low-income Americans purchase and consume more of the foods that contribute to a healthy diet. Although research has found that financial incentives and nutrition education both show promise, not enough is known about the costs and long-term effectiveness of these approaches, either alone or in combination. Moreover, the financial incentives studied included coupons. Incentives using the current EBT technology, although technically feasible, are largely untested at this point. Also, the success of efforts to improve dietary intake may hinge in part on the availability of targeted foods, which may be limited in certain areas, such as small stores in large urban areas. Little is known about efforts to increase access to healthy foods. Only by testing these approaches, either alone or in combination, can the costs of such a program be estimated.
Here is a partial illustration of just one of several mechanisms explored in the GAO report.

FDA drafts a policy on meat and dairy products from genetically modified animals

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Thursday published a draft policy guidance document, explaining how the agency would approach regulation of food from genetically modified animals.

In large part, FDA would treat the genetic modification like it would treat a new veterinary drug. A company would have to prove that the new product is safe for human consumption, and it would have to prepare an environmental assessment. If these documents seemed satisfactory, FDA would "exercise discretion" by allowing the product to market under existing regulations, even though those regulations don't address genetic engineering specifically. FDA would retain the right to regulate a genetically engineered animal product more strictly at a later date, if health or environmental problems became apparent later.

Some concerns have been raised about the FDA draft guidance. For example, Michael Hansen from Consumers Union pointed out that the draft guidance says nothing about labeling genetically modified meat and dairy products, so consumers who care about this issue would not necessarily be able to identify the genetically modified foods. Gregory Jaffe from the Center for Science in the Public Interest asked whether, for example, FDA would on its own be able to assess the environmental impact of a new genetically modified breed of salmon, whose rapid growth could threaten natural wild populations.

The public may comment on the draft guidance through November 18.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Beef packing industry consolidates further

As of April, 2007, the top four firms in the beef packing industry had 83.5% of the market share (.pdf). That's high enough to raise concerns about market power for both farmers (as cattle suppliers) and consumers (as beef food buyers).
Firm (number of animals slaughtered daily)
1. Tyson (36,000)
2. Cargill (28,300)
3. Swift & Co. (16,759)
4. National Beef Packing Co. (13,000)
Then, still in 2007, the Brazillian company JBS bought Swift. And kept on munching.

"Unbelievably," Gristmill reported in March this year, "the beef market is about to get dramatically more concentrated."
JBS ... signed deals to buy the fourth-biggest packer, National Beef Packing, as well as the beef-packing assets of hog giant Smithfield, the fifth-biggest beef packer.

If U.S. antitrust regulators wave the deals through -- and nothing in recent history suggests they won't -- JBS will control 33 percent of the market, Reuters reports. One company will slaughter one in three U.S. cows.
The environmental web magazine is worried, naturally. So are many cattle producers. And that's not all. This week, the sober policy outreach publication of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) had this to say:
The acquisition of the fourth and fifth largest U.S. beef packers (National and Smithfield, respectively) would push JBS Swift Group past Tyson Foods as the largest beef processor in the United States. It will also contribute to further consolidation in the already–highly–concentrated U.S. beef processing sector. Consequently, the purchase is certain to invite close scrutiny from the Department of Justice (DOJ) as well as from other participants at every level of the beef industry. The deal has already sparked high–level debate, with Sen. Herb Kohl (D–WI), chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights, penning a letter to the DOJ urging them to block the proposed acquisitions.

The expansion of JBS is notable not only for its possible effect on the horizontal structure of the beef processing industry but also because it involves a substantial degree of vertical integration. Five Rivers Ranch is the largest cattle feeding entity in the U.S., with a one–time feeding capacity of over 800,000 head. Having consolidated ownership and, presumably, management of the largest feeding and processing operations in the country would be an unprecedented arrangement for the industry. This development is quite likely to reinvigorate the debate over statutory restrictions on vertical control of livestock by packers.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Contaminated infant formula in China

Chinese officials say more than 1,000 infants were sickened, and two died, in a recent scandal over melamine adulteration, which is being covered in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Associated Press. Part of the back story stems from international concern over watered down infant formula from China, with insufficient amounts of protein and other nutrients. Adding melamine can trick testing laboratories into thinking there is more protein than there really is. Unfortunately, the adulterated formula may be less nutritious and, at least in conjunction with other contaminants, melamine is implicated in kidney problems for infants. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned in 2004 against use of infant formula from a Chinese manufacturer, but formula from China may nevertheless be imported and sold in some specialty markets.

Marion Nestle, whose new book Pet Food Politics recounts an earlier melamine scandal in pet food, this week describes the implications of the new scandal in an interview on the Eating Liberally blog:
Astonished doesn’t begin to describe it. The point of The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, the subtitle of Pet Food Politics, is that the 2007 pet food recalls were an early warning of disasters to follow. By the time the book went to press in May this year, we were already dealing with the heparin crisis. This was a completely analogous situation in which Chinese producers substituted chondroitin sulfate for heparin because the heparin assay only looks for sulfur, apparently. Melamine has a lot of nitrogen. Protein assays test for nitrogen and don’t care whether it comes from protein or melamine. Chondroitin sulfate and melamine are a lot cheaper than the drugs or food ingredients they replace.

In Pet Food Politics, I trace the use of melamine—fraudulent and not—back to the mid-1960s. David Barboza, the intrepid New York Times reporter based in China, actually got animal and pet food producers to confess that they had been fraudulently adding melamine to feed for years. My guess is that these producers had been adding it in lower doses, got greedy, and upped the dose or used sloppier formulations that contained cyanuric acid. You need a lot of melamine to damage kidneys. But when melamine is mixed with cyanuric acid, it crystallizes in kidneys at very low doses. If it could be added to food for cats, dogs, and farm animals, why not add it to other foods? If nobody is checking—which, apparently, nobody is--you have a good chance of getting away with it, especially if the animals are eating other foods as well.

But infant formulas? These are just like pet foods in that the animal or baby is completely dependent on the one product for complete nutrition. So as with pet foods, there is a good chance of doing great harm and getting caught. Officials didn’t get upset about pet foods because they view dogs and cats as “just pets.” Infant formulas get everyone’s attention. And you can find plenty of Chinese infant formula in Chinese markets in the U.S. It’s doubtful that getting rid of them would be on anyone’s priority list for enforcement.

Fuel inputs in the food system could be reduced by 50%

Here is the abstract from David Pimentel's recent article in Human Ecology:
Petroleum and natural gas are the primary fuels in the US food system. Both fuels are now in short supply and significant quantities are being imported into the USA from various nations. An investigation documented that fossil energy use in the food system could be reduced by about 50% by appropriate technology changes in food production, processing, packaging, transportation, and consumption. The results suggest that overall, farmers benefit as well as consumers.
Somebody tell me, why not?

Calvin Beale, 1923 - 2008

USDA's influential senior demographer Calvin Beale passed away this month at the age of 85. He lent his name unwillingly to the "Beale codes," which measure a locality's rural or urban character on a continuum, and which he modestly credited to a predecessor at USDA. He was also famous for a series of demographic analyses of newly reversed migration flows from urban to rural areas. His most beloved work, which offers a window on the whole United States as well as his own sense of connection to America's rural people and places, is his long series of hundreds of photographs of county courthouses. The Washington Post has an insightful and respectful obituary this week, including a nice interview with John Cromartie, Beales' friend and protege for many years at USDA'S Economic Research Service.

Photo: Calvin Beale. Former courthouse in Johnson County, MO, built in 1838.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Foodies on the Web, Jan. 30 - 31, 2009

Boston University's Food, Wine, and Art programs are hosting a symposium in January called "Foodies on the Web."
The goal of the Symposium on Food and New Media is to explore how, if at all, these new technologies have changed the way people eat, cook, share recipes, decide where to have dinner, learn about nutrition, or simply think about food?

Topics of interest include, but are by no means limited to, the following:
  • Blogging
  • Community building tools such as Yelp, Chowhound and Citysearch
  • Online shopping (artisanal products, cooking tools, eBay, etc.)
  • Wikis
  • Web Video: YouTube, How-to’s
  • Video, Web-based or other games (Cooking Mama, Diner Dash, Food Fight)
  • Non-digital interactive forms such as interactive installations or museum exhibits
We welcome all perspectives, including:
  • Explorations or critiques of the above technologies or tools
  • Discussions of legitimacy and authority around the question, who gets to write about food?
  • What is the role of a restaurant critic and food writer in the age of the web?
  • Historical perspectives in terms of how these new forms of communication fit with or extend from more traditional forms: recipe books, restaurant criticism, newspaper columns, food TV, etc?
  • Discussion of the ways these developments are seen as a threat to "traditional" media (i.e. TV, magazines and newspapers) and to "traditional" trades (i.e. restaurant critic, recipe writer, food writer, etc)
There is a call for papers (.pdf) with a Sep. 15 deadline.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The economics of the Thrifty Food Plan

Join us for the first weekly Wednesday seminar of Fall 2008 at the Friedman School, tomorrow Sep. 10, at noon in Behrakis auditorium in the Jaharis building at 150 Harrison Ave., on Tufts University's Boston campus. I will be speaking on "The Economics of the Thrifty Food Plan," sharing a new approach to measuring the real cost of a nutritious diet.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The down side to academic patenting of food and agricultural technologies

Janet Rae-Dupree in the New York Times:
The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 started out with the best of intentions. By clearing away the thicket of conflicting rules and regulations at various federal agencies, it set out to encourage universities to patent and license results of federally financed research. For the first time, academicians were able to profit personally from the market transfer of their work. For the first time, academia could be powered as much by a profit motive as by the psychic reward of new discovery.

None of these are necessarily negative outcomes. But more than a quarter-century after President Jimmy Carter signed it into law, the Bayh-Dole Act, sponsored by the former Senators Birch Bayh, Democrat of Indiana, and Robert Dole, Republican of Kansas, is under increasing scrutiny by swelling ranks of critics. The primary concern is that its original intent — to infuse the American marketplace with the fruits of academic innovation — has also distorted the fundamental mission of universities.
The OCM blog adds:
In the same week we read of Monsanto making investments at Iowa State University and the University of Illinois. It's clear that an analysis of Bayh-Dole, aka "University Small Business Patent Procedures Act," needs to occur. And soon, before we further sell out America's longstanding history of reputable public research to the highest bidder. In the Monsanto/University of Illinois venture, the 8 doctorate students will work on Monsanto projects. Monsanto pays for their research fellowships, gets access to all the university infrastructure and facilities, and then gets to release the varieties under its patented control (or perhaps a joint patent with the school).

Friday, September 05, 2008

No Impact Man

I enjoyed this post from No Impact Man.

The Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy

For many, September is the season of returning to school.

This blog grew out of a second-year master's-level course each Fall on "Determinants of U.S. Food Policy," at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Students and alumni frequently share comments and suggest ideas for posts on this site. Though I don't always mention the connection, this blog also links to things former students are doing elsewhere online. Tufts is a great place for this type of engagement with real-world issues. Other faculty members blog as a form of public communication, and the university has a long-standing commitment to active citizenship.

This year, the first food policy class was today. It is a good time to send some links to interesting sources of news and food policy ideas at the Friedman School. For more information, I have just added a permanent image link in the sidebar to the School's web site.

The school covers a diverse area of work, from community interventions to improve diet and physical activity in the United States to humanitarian work in some of the most challenging settings around the world. For many readers, the most relevant academic areas are the Agriculture, Food, and Environment (AFE) program and the Food Policy and Applied Nutrition (FPAN) program. The FPAN program has a working paper series, including recent research on rethinking food security in humanitarian response (.pdf), a major study on diet diversity (.pdf), and hunger mapping in developing countries (.pdf) (image below). More research from the school can be found on the faculty pages.

A high-profile event at the school each Fall is the Friedman Symposium. This year, the event is scheduled for Sep. 24-26, and will feature former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman as the keynote speaker. Despite sponsorship from major food companies, the symposium registration is fairly expensive for most people (though a more reasonable $100 for students). Other important annual events include the graduate student research conference, which last Spring drew diverse contributors from 11 universities, and the annual Gershoff Symposium.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Hygiene grade cards for restaurants

We have long been covering the case for hygiene grade cards for restaurants. These grades are a great example of market-oriented information solutions to food safety problems. Part of the appeal is that this information is already generated by local inspectors, so there is no new bureaucracy or work in information generation. All one needs to do is get the information from inspection reports to consumers, so they can defend their own interests in the marketplace. Choices Magazine had a good article on this approach in 2005.

Last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) released the results of many months of hard work, requesting information from local inspection offices. The most entertaining passage gives one local agency's explanation for its inability to respond to the advocacy group's request for information:
In one city, a health department employee informed CSPI that there were simply not enough employees in the office to catalog the inspection reports: thousands of reports thus sat untouched in unorganized boxes.

Facebook, targeted ads, and body image

Like many, I am undecided about the role of advertising business models in free web software. The price is right, but is that all that matters? I like Gmail, but it bothers me to see targeted ads based on things I wrote in my non-public correspondence. I have never become addicted to wasting time on Facebook, using a page there mainly as a point of contact for distant friends and colleagues (and as a place to post an RSS feed for U.S. Food Policy). Facebook is good for those uses, but the ads there also seem crude and manipulative. Today, Rachel Beckman in the Washington Post puts the nail in the coffin. The lead sentence is, "My Facebook page called me fat." She describes targeted weight loss ads that prey on women's body image insecurities, based on demographic profile information known to Facebook from their participation in the social networking site.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Jim Hightower talk on Nov. 7 in Massachusetts

Jim Hightower -- the populist writer and speaker, radio personality, and former Commissioner of Agriculture for Texas -- will speak at the Massachusetts Public Health Association's 2008 annual meeting in Marlborough, MA, on Nov. 7, 2008.

Update 9/3/2008: See more coverage of Hightower at Culinate. Right now, I am having fun listening to the audio exerpt clip at Hightower's book site, which describes the Fighting Bob Fest, being held this coming weekend, Sep. 6, 2008, in Baraboo, WI.

Northeast Food and Farm Network

A social networking site with a sustainable agriculture focus in the Northeast.