Plus, a new partnership to ‘save organic dairy,’ the USDA invests in school food and conservation programs, and farmworkers mobilize.
January 12, 2022
Welcome to The Field Report, our new weekly round-up of easy-to-digest stories. Each week, we’ll keep you updated on the most important food system news out of Washington, D.C. and around the country, with added perspective, analysis, and context. Email email@example.com with tips.
On Sunday, a bright blue advertisement spanning the equivalent of four full pages was wrapped conspicuously around the entire New York Times. It shouted, in massive type, “Chicken is broken.”
The ad was for Daring, a plant-based chicken company that raised $65 million and began selling its products in Walmart stores across the country in late October. And Daring isn’t the only faux-poultry brand fluffing its feathers this week: KFC announced that, for the first time, plant-based Beyond Fried Chicken will be available as a regular menu item at all of its 4,000 U.S. locations.
While burgers have been the central focus of the recent faux-meat manufacturing explosion, chicken—by far, America’s most popular protein—is now racing ahead. In December, an Israeli company that makes cell-based chicken secured $347 million in funding—the largest investment in lab-produced or “cultured” meat to date.
Daring’s ad blamed the chicken industry for “toxic runoff” and “unethical factory farming problems” and said it is on a mission “to make plant chicken so delicious, nutritious, and versatile that someday we remove animal chicken from our food system entirely.” It’s an ambitious goal, but if that day is coming, it’s still a long way off. Per capita chicken consumption in the U.S. has more than doubled in the last 50 years. In 2021, Americans ate an average of 97.2 pounds of chicken each year, compared to 40.1 pounds in 1970, and the National Chicken Council estimates that number will rise to 98.8 in 2022.
So far, all the cluck around “chicken without the chickens” hasn’t put a dent in how many birds get processed into boneless, skinless breasts. That could change, but for now, as New York Times food reporter Kim Severson tweeted, “The faux chicken arms race is very good for print advertising.”
Giant Meat and Dairy Companies Are Dominating the Plant-Based and Cellular Meat Market
Fast Food and Grocery Giants Promise to Sell ‘Better’ Chicken: Is It Enough?
Do Americans Eat Too Much Chicken?
Organic Dairy Hail Mary? This morning, Stonyfield Organic co-founder Gary Hirshberg announced the creation of the “Northeast Organic Family Farm Partnership,” an initiative it says aims to offer immediate help to 135 small organic dairy farms set to lose their contracts by 2023 and long-term solutions to “the national crisis of disappearing family farms.” Horizon, owned by Danone, issued notices to 89 of the farms in August, a move that sparked outrage among organic advocates. The others are losing contracts with Maple Hill Creamery, a regional leader in organic grass-fed dairy that has struggled alongside other organic companies in recent years. Today’s announcement does not add details to Stonyfield’s earlier commitment to absorb some of the Horizon farms into its supply—we have plenty of questions about the partnership program, and are working to find out more—but focuses on consumer, brand, and retail “partners” pledging to buy “one-fourth of their weekly dairy purchases from a handful of companies that support family farms in the hardest hit region from New York to Maine. Representatives from local agriculture agencies in Vermont and Maine also appear to be involved.
More Money for School Food. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it is investing $750 million in school meal programs by allowing schools to use higher reimbursement rates usually reserved for summer meals to help food service directors meet the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. It estimates that schools will be reimbursed an additional 25 cents per lunch, which is significant, especially at a time when food service directors are still struggling to feed students due to rising food costs, labor shortages, supply chain issues, and ongoing COVID outbreaks that keep staff and children home from school. Advocacy groups applauded the decision. “First, it will help bolster the purchasing power of our nation’s schools, allowing them to stretch their budgets during these uncertain times. Second, at a time when families continue to face financial strain and hardship, this will give them fewer meal expenses to worry about each day,” Lisa Davis, a senior vice president at Share Our Strength, said in a statement.
Conservation Programs That Prioritize Climate? In other USDA news, the agency also announced updates to its conservation programs, which pay farmers for environmental stewardship. The biggest is a special $38 million cover crop initiative through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which has a a goal of “doubling the number of corn and soybean acres using cover crops to 30 million acres by 2030.” The initiative will target 11 states and involves a partnership with “Farmers For Soil Health,” an industry initiative of the United Soybean Board, National Corn Growers Association, and National Pork Board. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack debuted the program in a speech to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
While EQIP pays farmers for a wide range of practices, advocates for a more climate-resilient food system have long pushed for the USDA to target and prioritize funding practices with clear climate benefits rather than commodity crops. A report late last month showed that the USDA in 2019 overpaid U.S. corn farmers by $3 billion as part of the reimbursement for former president Trump’s trade war with China, and a 2021 study found a very small sliver of the program’s funding was being used to boost soil health. It’s also worth noting that even this relatively ambitious goal from the USDA is a drop in the bucket when compared to what needs to be done to improve soil health at a scale that will enable farmers to build up their defenses against extreme weather. In 2021, the USDA estimated that U.S. farmers planted a combined 180 million acres of corn and soybeans.
More Monsanto Legal Drama. Over the past few years, Monsanto (now owned by Bayer) has faced many lawsuits over whether its flagship weedkiller, Roundup, causes cancer. This week, the company was in court in Hawaii for a different reason. According to the Associated Press, Monsanto was charged with 30 environmental crimes for allowing workers to go into fields that had recently been sprayed with a product called Forfeit 280. Its active ingredient is glufosinate, another broad-spectrum herbicide that has been in high demand as herbicides such as glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) and paraquat come under fire. The company pled guilty to the charges.
Farmworkers Are Mobilizing. One quarter of America’s food is grown in California’s Central Valley, and the workers who labor in the fields there face increasing hazards. According to The Los Angeles Times, a new report found the annual average temperature in the southern part of the valley could rise by four degrees within the next three decades. Those hardest hit by the dangerous heat levels and a lack of clean drinking water will be the region’s low-income farmworker communities, the report found. However, workers are also mobilizing for their own protection. California farmworkers finally became eligible for overtime pay on January 1 and New York organizers recently formed the state’s first farmworker union. In Maine, farmworkers and their advocates also pushed for a bill that would have allowed them to unionize, but the governor vetoed it late last week.
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