Recent Articles About Food Policy

Over the last few months, most of the presidential candidates have found their way to Bill Couser’s farm in Nevada, Iowa, where he raises more than 5,000 head of cattle, and grows corn and soybeans. Couser says he’s played host to all the Republicans vying for the Oval Office this cycle in the conference room he built at his feedlot specifically for the parade of presidential candidates.

“Carly Fiorina—I was with her yesterday,” Couser told Civil Eats. “I sat with Trump for a couple hours last week.”

But unlike in the lead-up to past Iowa Caususes, when Ben Carson or Ted Cruz arrive at the Couser farm, the candidates’ ears aren’t being bent on food production, land access, or even a specific wishlist for the next Farm Bill. When he’s with the candidates, Couser grills them on ethanol, or fuel made from corn byproduct.

As a co-chair of advocacy group America’s Renewable Future and a corn grower, Couser wants to make candidates understand what ethanol means to farmers. He has made it his mission to educate each candidate on why they should support and strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS)—which requires that transportation fuel sold in the U.S. contain a certain percentage of “renewable” fuel—usually ethanol.

“We want to make sure that stays intact and that we build on this new energy. As a farmer, that’s my safety net now. It’s a win-win for ag and a win-win for small communities,” he says. And he’s not alone. According to a recent poll, more than three out of four likely Iowa caucus-goers support the 2007 requirement.

Although many of the voters in next week’s caucus will be farmers and farmworkers, food rarely comes up in the campaigns in Iowa these days, says Dr. Steffen Schmidt, Iowa State professor of political science. Schmidt has closely observed every Iowa caucus since 1970, and he says even Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who has arguably the most fleshed-out and progressive positions on food productions and farms, has not made the subject a regular part of his Iowa stump speech.

Sanders has, at times, hedged when asked about his positions, too. When asked by a Carroll Daily Times Herald reporter last summer whether his opposition of all things big (banks, money) extends to farms, he responded, “Good question, I just don’t know,” before continuing, “I’m not a great fan of factory farming, I should tell you that.”

Schmidt remembers when non-fuel-based agriculture was among the top four or five issues during the caucus. These days, though, he says candidates may bring up an issue specific to food production, such as federal crop subsidies, about once a decade, when the Farm Bill is up for reauthorization.

“Other than that, what comes up mostly nowadays is ethanol and renewable fuels,” says Schmidt, who is also a neighbor of Couser’s.

One reason traditional agricultural issues have moved to the background in Iowa politics is that fewer Iowans than ever are farming—just 66,000 of 3.1 million people—resulting in fewer voters considering agriculture when they vote.

“It’s simple math,” Matt Strawn, the former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party, told the Kansas City Star. “You’re seeing a generational shift. You hear fewer farm voices as more and more family farms have gone away.”

But even among the remaining farm voices, agriculture is seemingly off voters’ radar this election cycle—despite a quarter of Iowans being directly connected to farms and farming. Iowa State pollsters asked 1,074 likely caucus-goers about the “most important problems facing the country today,” and agriculture did not make the final list of 16.

“A Republican candidate is better off talking about abortion and gay marriage than agriculture,” Schmidt says. “And a Democrat is better off talking about income inequality and Black Lives Matter and all that.”

In one recent exception, Sanders released an ad online featuring a third-generation farm couple speaking out against a proposed crude oil pipeline that would cut diagonally across the state, threatening to take significant amounts of farmland, some by eminent domain. But even in that case, the ad steered around addressing farming explicitly.

On the Republican side, voters’ preference for non-agriculture issues may explain why social conservative Senator Ted Cruz continues to do well in Iowa—where he is currently in second place, but has led at times—despite his publicly stated desire to phase out the Renewable Fuel Standard. Earlier this month, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad publicly denounced Cruz, citing his opposition to renewable energy and support from oil companies. Cruz and Senator Rand Paul are the only candidates from either party who oppose the RFS. Cruz and Paul represent a current GOP that is “anti-government” and “anti-spending,” says Schmidt, which may be another reason why this year’s candidates have not talked as much about food and farming. Fuel production is an easier lift for the current crop of Republican candidates.

“A lot of farm programs, food stamps, research—it’s big government,” he adds.

Couser insists that his concerns extend beyond energy interests, however, such as the recent attempt to restructure the dietary guidelines and the Des Moines’ lawsuit against rural counties for allegedly polluting the city’s water supply—issues he says he discussed with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently.

“It’s all very important to us,” he says. “We want to make sure we have a seat at the table and are not just on the menu.”

Separate from the interests of large-scale agriculture, chef and activist Kurt Michael Friese—who edits Edible Iowa River Valley—says he’d like to see candidates talking more about issues such as school lunch reform. And launched last fall, the Plate of the Union campaign is challenging presidential candidates to discuss solutions to problems like food access, diet-related illness, the treatment of food workers, and the impact of agriculture on the environment.

Then, during Monday’s Democratic Town Hall, televised on CNN, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley answered a question from Iowa Farmers’ Union President Jana Linderman about how he would provide opportunities for young farmers and small family farms. O’Malley’s answer—he would use the Farm Bill to lower the barrier for young people who want to farm, pushing back against consolidation in agriculture—might have pleased sustainable farming advocates, but neither Sanders not Clinton was asked about farming.

That’s because in a state where corporatization and consolidation has dramatically cut into the number of smaller, family-run farms, sustainable agriculture advocates are generally outnumbered when candidates show up in Iowa. Friese remembers cornering then-Senator Barack Obama at a 2007 Earth Day rally in Iowa City and asking him what he would do to transform an industrialized food system. After indicating that he’d been moved by a recent Michael Pollan column in the New York Times, Obama followed with a sobering piece of advice: “If you want to do anything in Washington about [the food system], you’ve got to bring me 1 million people. That’s the only thing that will counteract the billions of lobbyist dollars.”

Back in Iowa, Bill Couser says he and many of his neighbors are tired of being bombarded by political ads, but glad that the candidates start their campaigns in farm country, and bring the media with them. Has he met the perfect Iowa candidate in this field?

Many of them are “very smart and understand most issues,” but “when [they] come to the Midwest and talk about ag,” he says, “they’re all just a little bit short.”

Americans eat a lot of chicken—around 60 pounds of it per person, at last count.

Meeting that demand has come at a price along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, one of the most concentrated areas for industrial chicken farming in the U.S. Here, farmers often raise tens of thousands of birds at a time, and spread their manure on the surrounding land in quantities the land cannot possibly absorb. As a result, over 200,000 tons of excess manure seeps into nearby waterways every year, and from there it washes into the nearby Chesapeake Bay. These high levels of nitrogen and phosphorus runoff can stimulate algae blooms, starving the water of oxygen, and killing fish and shellfish. The “dead zones” left behind also pose health risks to humans exposed to the contaminated water.

“We’re raising too many animals in a small geographic area and don’t have the cropland to use [the manure],” said Michele Merkel, co-director of the legal arm of Food & Water Watch, a national advocacy group. “So farmers end up dumping it on the land because there’s nowhere else for it to go.”

Companies like Perdue, Tyson and Mountaire contract with farmers across the U.S. to grow their broilers—an estimated 300 million per year are raised in Maryland alone. These companies retain ownership of the chickens and expect farmers to take on debt for upgrades to chicken houses and equipment. As a result they are left with few resources to help get rid of the manure responsibly.

Taxpayers have often helped foot the bill, through state programs such as one that can help pay for transporting it. But, as Merkel and other advocates see it, “The [big chicken] companies have walked away from responsibility.”

Now, that could change. The Poultry Litter Management Act (Update: which was introduced by Senator Richard Madaleno in the Maryland state legislature on February 2, 2016) would absolve contract farmers of their disposal responsibilities—and pass on that requirement to the chicken companies. The legislation would follow new state regulations that went into effect in June, which barred the disposal of phosphorus on soil that has the greatest risk of runoff.

If passed, the Act would be the first U.S. state legislation to require companies to take responsibility for the waste caused by the farms they work with, according to Merkel.

The local trade association for the group is opposed to the Act. “If the chicken companies become the owners through state action, hundreds of chicken growers could have a loss of income or could be forced to spend tens of thousands of dollars for fertilizers,” Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc. director Bill Satterfield told DelawareOnline last week.

Carole Morison, the Maryland chicken farmer who became known for showing the world her contract growing operations for Perdue in the 2008 documentary Food, Inc., says that the expected proposed legislation is especially timely. Morison, who now runs a pasture-based farm, says she has seen a recent rise in extra large chicken production facilities along the Delmarva Peninsula, where she lives.

“Right now we are just barely getting a handle on what needs to be done [for] runoff from the poultry industry, yet 200 more chicken houses are slated [to be built] this year,” she told Civil Eats. “We have people coming in, buying up prime farmland, and building up huge warehouses—and they live elsewhere.”

The new houses, she says, will hold 60,000 birds each—more than two times the capacity of her houses back when she was a contract grower from 1987 to 2008.Chesapeake Bay farmland

This burst of development is paralleling the rise in global chicken consumption. In 2014, the U.S. produced over 38,000 million pounds of broiler chicken, according to the National Chicken Council. This year, the industry group expects that it will rise to almost 41,000 million pounds. And in less than 10 years, chicken is expected to become the world’s most consumed meat, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

But residents along the Delmarva Peninsula who have had these mega chicken houses sprout up in their neighborhood have reported ill effects of the facilities, including the smell of ammonia and a dusty haze. In North Carolina, where large chicken houses are being built increasingly close to residential areas, neighbors have also encountering harmful gas emissions.

Regulations for the industry issued by county officials have allowed the houses to be built anywhere between 200 and 600 feet away from the road.

Residents and environmental groups have gathered at forums to figure out how to respond to the proliferation of industrial chicken farms. And they have asked for a moratorium on the farms until the government has completely phased in the tool that will show farmers which soil is at greatest risk for phosphorus runoff.

“It’s sad, because the Chesapeake Bay is a national treasure,” said Morison. “But the people who live nearby [the large chicken houses] can’t enjoy it. They can’t go outside because it smells so bad, and they can’t open their windows.”


Photos, from top: Chickens in a concentrated feeding house, Shutterstock; farmland on the Chesapeake, courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr.

For the third year in a row, a bill that would have put warning labels on sodas and other sugary beverages sold in California will not be considered by the state Legislature this session. Senate Bill 203, the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Act, this week met the same fate it did in 2015, failing to move out of the Senate Health Committee despite widespread support among voters. Read more

On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it will withdraw its approval for three chemicals used to make grease, stain, and water repelling food packaging and consider banning seven food additives used in both “artificial” and “natural” flavors. While the news may have gotten lost during the first post-holiday weekday, it’s worth noting. And it raises much larger questions about one of the agencies with the most control over the safety of what we eat. Here’s what you need to know. Read more

A version of this post previously appeared on Modern Farmer.

Earlier this week the USDA reached out to Modern Farmer asking if Secretary Tom Vilsack, the only member of President Obama’s cabinet that has lasted through both terms in office, could give us a call. He wanted to plug the $17.6 million in grant money that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently made available for organic farming research, as well as a few other things he’s been working on to support the local food movement, or what the USDA often refers to as the “farm-identity preserved” market. But we got to chat about a few other things, too, like Vilsack’s recent trip to Cuba and his views on the GMO labeling debate. Read more

The holidays are a busy time—but many of us also paradoxically read more this time of year, thanks to travel, time off, and a slowed-down inbox. If you’re looking for your next big read or a gift for a food-minded friend, look no further. We asked our editors and contributors to recommend some of the books they enjoyed most this year. Read more

Update: On January 29, 2016, the FDA banned imports of GMO salmon until the agency can publish guidelines for how it should be labeled.  

Late last week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved AquAdvantage salmon—the first edible genetically engineered animal to earn such an approval. The salmon, produced by AquaBounty Technologies, are genetically engineered (GE) with DNA that causes them to grow to market size much faster than other salmon. And while many advocates have shown concern over the fish in recent years, the FDA has declared it safe to eat.

The AquAdvantage salmon will only be raised in contained, inland facilities in Panama, from eggs produced in Canada. Once harvested, they will be imported for sale in the U.S. But exactly when they could show up on store shelves remains uncertain. “It is too early to discuss commercialization plans, but there are several paths to market that are being considered,” AquaBounty spokesperson Dave Conley told Civil Eats. Read more

When it comes to the disparities within the food system, the numbers are pretty stark. The 10 largest mega-corporations generate $450 million annually in food sales. These companies’ CEOs earn, on average, 12 times what their workers make. Of those food workers, women of color make less than half of the salaries of their male counterparts and are far more likely to need nutrition assistance than workers in other industries. Black farmers have lost 80 percent of their land since 1920, while large-scale and corporate farms make nearly half the agricultural sales—despite accounting for less than five percent of all farms. Read more