Farm Bill Conservation Programs Can Do More to Clean Up California’s Water

Hundreds of millions of conservation dollars in the federal farm bill should be used more effectively to address widespread water pollution problems in California, concludes a new report released today by Environmental Working Group (EWG). Too much money is going to install micro-irrigation systems and build facilities to manage and treat the millions of tons of animal waste generated by dairies and cattle feedlots. Too little is going to support high-impact ecological farming practices such as cover cropping, nutrient management, filter strips and conservation tillage. Read more

CA Boosts Funding Opportunities for a New Generation of Sustainable Farmers and Local, Healthy Food

It’s a new day for those who have felt poorly served by California’s chief food and agriculture agency.

In a significant shift, an $18 million state-managed program that supports growers of vegetables, fruit and nuts is strengthening its focus on ecologically minded farmers and local, urban and healthy food programs.

New funding guidelines announced by the California Department of Food and Agriculture mark an important break from decades of mostly serving the interests of larger, conventional growers. Read more

Making a Good Farm Bill Program Better: Specialty Crop Grants in California

Compared to the billions that the government pays to subsidize industrial-scale growers of commodity crops such as corn, rice and soybeans, federal farm bill spending to promote cultivation and marketing of healthy fruits, nuts and vegetables is tiny.  The Specialty Crop Block Grant program is one of the more important programs to support these healthy foods, known also as “specialty crops”. Last year the US Department of Agriculture distributed $55 million in these grants to increase “the competitiveness of the specialty crop sector,” more than 30 percent of it in California, the source of nearly half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.

Although the money comes from the federal budget, it’s the California Department of Food and Agriculture that manages the grant-making process in the state and sets the program’s priorities. California is a nationwide leader in its efforts to craft a broader state strategy that goes well beyond USDA’s minimal guidelines, focusing its funding in three broad categories: research, marketing and nutrition.

The program is extremely competitive. Grant applications in California in 2009 totaled $65 million, nearly four times the amount available. Because this is such an important source of funding for innovative food and agriculture projects, Environmental Working Group took a close look at three years of grant awards to assess whether they were in line with the state’s top priorities and strategies as defined by the California Agricultural Vision, a strategic plan adopted in 2010 in a broad process involving multiple stakeholders.  Read more

Healthy School Food: Pay Now, Save Later

New school food standards proposed last week by the Obama administration could nearly double the amount of fruits and vegetables that more than 32 million kids eat every day. If these standards come into force, they could set American children on a healthier eating track that could last a lifetime. The proposed rule, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the newly-passed Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, could also save billions of dollars in future health care costs.

Putting this plan into action seems like a no-brainer, but its expense, which USDA estimates at  almost $7 billion over five years, is a major stumbling block. Nearly half of that cost would go to put more fresh produce on school breakfast and lunch menus.

As we see it, $7 billion is a bargain when you consider the price of doing nothing.    Read more

US, Mexican and European Ag Policy Experts Talk Subsidy Reform

Mexico and the United States have a lot more in common than a border.  Their agricultural and rural policies have strikingly similar flaws–and present parallel opportunities for reform and revitalization.

In a September 1st seminar in Mexico City, a range of international participants concluded that both countries have bloated government subsidy programs whose benefits are captured disproportionately by a few states, individuals and large farms.  As a result, little governmental money is left over for research, market development, infrastructure and credit–key elements for stimulating lagging rural economies and bolstering production of healthy, sustainable and affordable food for local and domestic markets.  Worse, subsidy programs that dole out cash based on acreage encourage industrial-scale farming, exacerbating social injustice and environmental damage. Read more

California Climate Policy Leaves Agriculture in the Dust

Climate change presents California agriculture with two major challenges: how to reduce its contribution to climate change while arming itself against the threats a warming planet poses to agricultural production.

Fortunately, many of the measures that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions or sequester carbon in the soil will also make agriculture more resilient to extreme weather patterns, such as the current drought. Cover cropping, composting, conservation tillage, organic fertilization and other best management practices will increase the amount of soil organic matter, reduce erosion, conserve water and enhance fertility. This, in turn, will help increase crop productivity and drought and pest resistance in the face of an increasingly dry and hot climate. According to a January 2009, ground-breaking study by University of California at Davis researchers, these practices, when combined, will generate significant greenhouse gas reduction benefits, primarily through carbon sequestration. Read more

California Releases First of its Kind State Climate Adaptation Strategy

California is once again at the forefront of national climate change policy. California’s Department of Natural Resources recently issued the nation’s first state-wide strategy of its kind that lays out a blue print for how California should adapt and respond to the impacts of climate change. Many of these impacts, including severe drought, increased wildfires and floods, and prolonged warmer temperatures are already being felt across the state. The plan puts forth key recommendations across seven different sectors, including agriculture.

Unfortunately, the action plan for agriculture leaves out one critical proven strategy for coping with extreme weather events: the promotion of organic agricultural practices that will make soils healthier and more productive, while also conserving water and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The draft adaptation strategy points out what most critics of federal and state climate change legislation constantly fail to acknowledge: That taking no action to address climate change now could cost key sectors in the state “tens of billions of dollars per year in direct costs.” Read more