Making Democracy Work

Agriculture

Background articles for LWVUS study of Agriculture

Ag Forum 1: Ag Industry's Strengths & Challenges (Oct. 2013)

Roz Shirack and Adrienne Pauly

At the Agricultural Forum on Oct. 23, 2013, four panelists gave attendees an overview of Oregon' s agricultural industry today, emphasizing its unique qualities and its current challenges.

Bruce Pokarney, Director of Communications at the Department of Agriculture, set the scene. Based on 2012 figures, agriculture represents 15% of Oregon's total economy, provides 12% of its jobs, and is the state's largest export sector by volume and second largest by value. Oregon absorbs 20% of its own agricultural production and exports 40% to other U.S. markets. The remaining 40% is exported to international markets, mostly Asian.

Despite its vibrant economy, three major concerns were cited by all the panelists.

1. The average age of Oregon farmers is 58 years. It is unclear who the next generation of farmers will be or where they will come from. Brenda Kirsch Frketich solved that dilemma for Krisch Family Farms. After enrolling at U.C.L.A. "to get away from the small-town environment of her youth," she realized by the time she earned her degree in business that what she had left behind was a true asset. After graduation she returned home and is now Business Manager of Kirsch Family Farms, Inc.

2. There is an urban-rural divide, each side not able to understand the needs of the other. Marie Bowers, a fifth-generation grass seed grower from Harrisburg, Oregon, tells of one illustrative incident. Her company had a grass-seed field that abutted a golf course on university land. To harvest grass seed, the land must be dry and this activity raises a lot of dust. "The golfers complained because they just didn't understand the need for harvesting during the dry season," Bowers said.

3. Another major concern is the uncertainty of a labor supply. Oregon must compete with neighboring states for seasonal farm workers. Some Oregon strawberry growers have dropped that crop because they cannot always get the labor they need during the short harvest season. The Hood River Company has found a solution to this problem. By providing housing, they attract and keep farm workers and has them rotate between crops rather than between states. However, a broad solution to an adequate labor supply will require immigration reform at the federal level.

The diversity of Oregon crops--the state produces 220 different agricultural crops--is positive in every way. If a farm is reliant on one crop and for whatever reason that crop fails or produces poorly for one year, that can be a serious financial hardship. But if a farm produces a variety of crops, one crop's failure can be balanced with other profitable ones.

Ivan Maluski, a director of the nonprofit Friends of Family Farms, explained "we are pro-pasture farmers," meaning these farmers resist the "industrialization of agriculture." The group's Agricultural Reclamation Project lists a number of "priority items" including: Working with farmers and producers for effective food safety policies and enacting simple, clear product labeling guidelines. They advocate for socially responsible agriculture, Ivan said.

Oregon Women for Agriculture is another nonprofit organization that promotes agricultural interests in education and legislative issues. President Marie Bowers said the organization maintains a public relations program to distribute its messages through the media.

Audience questions brought up the topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Bruce answered that generally U.S.D.A. testing and review is thorough and reliable. "We've had one accidental incident of GMO exposure in Oregon," he said. "The State is looking at the issue, looking at all sides of it. But it is not a state issue, it's a national issue." Marie noted that she felt that federal regulations involving the use of sprays were fairly safe. Brenda said, "I agree with that." Marie then added that if people are worried about the use of sprays or pesticides, "Go talk to the farmers. We have nothing to hide."

Bruce concluded, "I'm an optimist. Having forums like this, and seeing the interest of the audience, I see the beginning of the dialogue we need."

Ag Forum 2: The Business of Agriculture (March 2014)

Notes by Sally Hollemon

The March 26th forum was on The Business of Agriculture.

Stephanie Page, Oregon Department of Agriculture, explained that the Department's main efforts are

  • Promote and support the marketing of Oregon's agricultural products

  • Food safety, including inspecting processing facilities and checking that measurement devices (such as scales and gasoline pumps) are accurate

  • Protection of natural resources, including that chemicals are used correctly

Agriculture is 15% of Oregon's economy. 80% of Oregon's agricultural products are shipped out of state--half to U.S. markets and half to international markets.

Invasive species and pesticides--Farmers look for invasive plants and insects because it's easier to eradicate them if they are detected early, before they become widespread. Some tools are crop rotation, biological controls (for example, introducing an insect predator to eat scotch broom), weeding and similar mechanical methods. Chemicals are expensive and hold risk for the farm workers who apply them. Eradicating an invader is complex; each possible method has advantages and disadvantages. Thus, research is imperative to find the best eradication methods with the least use of chemicals.

Jim Bernau, founder and president of Willamette Valley Vineyards, said that wine, which is the 12th most valuable Oregon agricultural product--adding $2½ billion to the state's economy--is probably the most capital-intensive crop in Oregon. Wine sales continued to increase even during the Recession. There is still a lot of land suitable for growing grapes with many microclimates beneficial to various types of grapes, so wine can continue to increase as a share of Oregon's agricultural production.

Public policy issues--Mr. Bernau seconded Ms. Page's emphasis on the need for increased research to improve crops and deal with invasive plants and insects that will be an increasing problem as climate changes. The Agricultural Extension Program has a small-farm program to help new and small farms through classes as well as hands-on help. Extension Agents each have skills in specific areas; their knowledge is a great asset to agriculture. However, reduced funding in recent years has eroded that useful program. There are plans to put a measure on the ballot in a couple of years to establish stable funding for the Agricultural Extension Program.

  • More research into herbicides is needed because they are endocrine disruptors; perhaps herbicides may be the reason for increased autism.

  • State governmental regulations of agriculture are excessive. Mr. Bernau cited an instance in which the Bureau of Labor used the "hot goods" law to prevent a berry farmer from selling his crop during a labor dispute over wages paid to workers.

  • There is much pressure to change land-use laws that protect farmland from development, including pressure to allow rural housing. Land that is changed from farmland cannot be returned to farmland, so it's critical to protect the land to grow food in the future.

  • Mr. Bernau said that wineries are over-taxed, which can destroy an industry. The inheritance tax can cause the next generation to have to sell part of a farm to pay the taxes, and it's important to maintain farm size.

Karla Chambers, agricultural economist and co-owner with her husband of Stahlbush Island Farms, which produces a variety of products, some of which they market under their label and some of which they sell for use as ingredients in products. Ms. Chambers' presentation was given at an agricultural forum by the LWV of Portland, recorded by MetroEast Community Media from Gresham, and projected on a screen during our forum.

Ms. Chambers said they take all their agricultural waste and use it to produce electricity and fertilizer. They have pushed packagers to make bpa-free liners for their canned foods and biodegradable packaging for their frozen foods.

Technology must be the future for agriculture. Drones with sensors can tell farmers where more/less water is needed. Young people today don't want to pick crops and farmers can't import enough workers, so machinery has been developed that can do much of the work. Weeders work on pattern recognition. Harvesters gently shake berry vines so ripe fruit will fall; a harvester can work 24/7.

Q & A--Mr. Bernau said his winery uses natural cork because it is cut from the bark of cork trees and grows back in 9 years, so natural cork is sustainable. He also cleans equipment with ozone, which he mixes; it lasts only about 15 minutes, but in that time it kills bacteria and then it's gone, so it doesn't go into the groundwater.

Bees--There is much research going into how to protect both native bees and honey bees from pesticides. Fortunately, Oregon has suffered less decline in bees than have other parts of the U.S.; one reason is that we grow so many different crops. Young people should be encouraged to go into beekeeping to help expand the numbers of bees.

Animal feeding operations--Ms. Page said that animals are often confined during the winter to protect soggy pastures. However, a permit is needed; the permit requires a waste-management plan. Horse owners are required to manage their manure, too.

Each speaker made a closing statement:

Trade policy--Mr. Bernau pointed out that people buy cheaper products that are imported from countries that don't have to follow the environmental-protection rules that U.S. farmers follow. Buying American products helps increase the agricultural segment of our economy.

Research--Ms. Page re-emphasized the importance of publicly-funded research, which has experienced reduced funding in recent years. For every $1 in research, we get $20 in value. She urged League members to ask Governor Kitzhaber to emphasize in his next budget the state's Agricultural Extension Program and agricultural research.

What's New in Oregon Agriculture (January 2014)

Adrienne Pauly, Focus Co-editor

Agriculture Department Oversees Complex Industry

Stephanie Page, Special Assistant to the Oregon Department of Agriculture, explained at a January 2014 Hot Topics session at the Salem Library that her agency is committed to three main goals: 1) to protect the state's natural resources, 2) to assure food safety, and 3) to promote the marketing of Oregon agricultural products at the local, domestic, and international levels. She then fielded a wide variety of questions from League participants.

She explained that 80 percent of Oregon's farm products are exported out of state. The Department regulates the use of pesticides and fertilizing products. Staff investigate both licensed and unlicensed products. They also check water quality at dairy and chicken farms and inspect the farms annually, and monitor water quality at all other farms. They check water use efficiency and insure quality for both agriculture and fish.

"We license many more products than just farm items," Page said. "We license any place that toxic materials are sold--gas stations, groceries, and Home Depot (they sell pesticides)." In all, the Department operates 36 separate programs. Despite its size, Page reports that "Our Department represents a small percent of the state budget." Following several years of budget cuts, the 2012 Legislature did increase the Department's funding for water quality issues.

A new trend within the agriculture industry is for multiple states to coordinate on issues of mutual interest. "We work a lot with Washington on food safety and marketing efforts," Page said. There is a national association of State Departments of Agriculture. One state's technical experts often share information with another state.

One serious problem facing agriculture is the aging of today's generation of farmers that threatens a future void in farm management. Oregon has a program that helps new farmers enter the specialty crops program and another farm intern program. Oregon State University has a small farm program.

Contamination is a broad issue, especially in Oregon's diverse agricultural environment. Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are reviewed and approved by the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) before they can be sold in Oregon.

Crop contamination is not confined to GMOs. A unique new system called Computer Aided Mapping has been developed to deal with the issue. Using computers to calculate the various timing for planting and or pollinating disparate crops so that one crop does not interfere with its neighbors, contamination can be avoided. The system requires computer expertise, but equally important it requires intense human communication and cooperation between the neighboring farmers.

Page recommended a website founded by former USDA Secretary Dan Glickman: http://www.foodandagpolicy.org/news. Called AGree: Transforming Food & Ag Policy, the site has articles from very diverse perspectives. For information on GMOs go to this website and enter GMO in the search space.

After the meeting, Stephanie sent the following by email:

  • Here is our home page where folks can learn about all of our programs:  
http://www.oregon.gov/oda/pages/index.aspx
 http://www.oregon.gov/ODA/PEST/pages/licensedescrip2.aspx

Economic Health of the Agricultural Sector (March 2014)

Farming is an inherently risky business. Some risk relates to decisions exclusively under the farmers' control--selecting the best seed for local conditions, deciding how much or which crops to plant, and correctly timing the need for pesticide application are all part of the calculus.

However, considerable risks fall outside the farmers' control--catastrophic weather events, the availability of farm labor at the appropriate time, prices offered by buyers (since farmers do not control the price they are paid for commodities traded on exchanges), and the price of energy (which affects the price of fertilizer and the cost to transport a crop to market).

The federal government supports the agricultural sector through a variety of direct and indirect subsidies. (Indirect subsidies for research and development of agriculture are in the article on Research below.)

Direct Subsidies are government payments to producers of agricultural products for the purpose of stabilizing food prices, ensuring plentiful food production, guaranteeing farmers' basic incomes and ability to continue farming, and generally strengthening the agricultural segment of the national economy. Among the programs are conservation measures, including various incentives for farmers to control supply, so prices do not go into a free-fall that increases Government's costs for price supports or, conversely, so prices do not rise rapidly such that products are unaffordable to the general consumer.

Direct payments (paid at a set rate every year) are cash subsidies for producers of 10 crops: wheat, corn, sorghum, barley, oats, cotton, rice, soybeans, minor oilseeds, and peanuts. Payments were calculated based upon a farmer's past harvests; in the future the farmer could grow the same crops or different ones or none. Because recent analysis found that the program subsidized many farm owners who are not really farmers, the 2014 Farm Bill eliminated direct payments.

Counter-cyclical payments--triggered when market prices fall below certain thresholds.

Critics of farm programs that allow prices to fall below production costs and then pay farmers some of the difference with taxpayer dollars say the government is really subsidizing meat-packers, factory farms, and food processors.
Other critics say that, rather than (or in addition to) subsidizing commodity crops, small-scale farmers and producers of non-commodity and specialty crops (fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc., which are important in Oregon) should receive government support.
Still other critics say that the government should provide support to organic farmers and/or hydroponic operations and should encourage urban farming and other small-scale ways to raise food.

Marketing loans--offer favorable terms for buying or leasing a farm or ranch or for buying farm equipment

Disaster assistance programs--help a farmer recoup large losses due to natural phenomena if the farmer meets the program requirements.

Crop insurance subsidies--a reduction of calculated premium owed by a farmer for an insurance policy he or she voluntarily purchased. Federal crop insurance offers separate, tailored policies for more than 100 commodities, both conventional and organic. (So lettuce, for example, isn't covered.) Most commonly, the covered perils are drought, excessive moisture, plant disease, frost/freeze, and the results of such perils, such as excessive loss of crop quality, inability to plant, and the expense of replanting a crop. Many farmers also buy private crop insurance, primarily to cover hail damage.

A criticism is that current programs have encouraged farmers to plant on marginal and environmentally sensitive land. The 2014 Farm Bill links crop insurance to conservation compliance practices, so the government doesn't fund planting on wetlands, for example.

Anti-trust laws--three types of violations of the law that antitrust enforcement agencies can pursue:

  • Collusion: When separate firms agree among themselves not to compete with each other, but instead to join forces against consumers or suppliers, such as the Archer Daniel Midlands lysine price fixing case in 1996
  • Monopolization: When a firm monopolizes or attempts to monopolize a market Anti-competitive mergers: When a firm is likely to lessen competition in a market substantially by merging with or acquiring the assets of another firm
The antitrust laws focus on competition and the competitive process, and do not serve directly other policy goals like fairness, safety, promotion of foreign trade, and environmental welfare.

Because the structure of agricultural industries has become so complex and intertwined, it is not only difficult to determine if there is "too much" consolidation, but it is even more difficult to evaluate the impacts that the consolidation might be having on prices, the availability of goods and services, and competition.

Among those who believe that consolidation has accelerated during the recent past, many lay the blame on existing policies and the manner in which they are implemented. Among the culprits mentioned are patent law, agricultural subsidies that benefit multi-national agribusinesses more than farmers, weak antitrust laws and enforcement, and political influence.
Because the concentration of concern tends to be occurring either upstream from the farm (in the seed and fertilizer input sectors) or downstream (in the commodity trading, processing and retail sectors), it is difficult to view the issue as one that can be addressed through agricultural policy alone. Ultimately, some combination of reforms may be needed to fully address this issue.

[Information from Overview of Agricultural Subsidy, Animal Management, and Antitrust Enforcement, LWVUS website at http://www.lwv.org/search/content/agriculture%20study, as well as Economic Health of the Agricultural Sector, LWV of Montgomery County, MD]

Animal Management (March 2014)

Animal herd management and housing varies depending on climate, topography, the type of animal and the producers' interest and inclination. While some producers pasture their animals, which permits them to engage in natural behaviors such as rooting (hogs), scratching (chickens), and consuming forage and insects, other producers employ confined settings where the environment can be controlled so that the animals are not temperature-stressed, exposed to predators or disease vectors, and where product uniformity can be achieved through a prescribed diet. For these producers, technology has enabled them to raise more livestock with less labor on less land.

Almost all beef cattle are now being fattened on feedlots. While feedlots with less than 1,000 head of cattle are still in the majority, they "finish" only a small percentage of cattle. Lots with 1,000 head or more finish 80 to 90 percent of U.S. cattle, and the few feedlots with 32,000 head or more account for around 40 percent of cattle.

Even greater consolidation has taken place in the dairy sector. While the number of cows kept primarily for milking dropped from around 24 million in 1940 to about 9 million in 2000, milk production rose steadily as a result of more efficient milking technology, advances in animal nutrition and health, as well as biotechnological interventions in breeding and pharmacology. Similar consolidation has taken place in the management of hogs and of poultry.The EPA defined an AFO (animal feeding operation) as one in which the animals are confined and fed for 45 days or more in a year and the food for the animals is not grown on the site. The EPA defines a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) as an AFO with potential to impact water supply, either as a result of size (number of animals housed) and/or impact on proximate surface water.

The EPA estimates that there are about 450,000 AFOs in the U.S., with about 15% of those designated as CAFOs.

Production efficiencies realized in concentrated animal systems have increased the national supply of inexpensive, readily available meat. Efficiencies of scale, capital-intensive new technologies for breeding, feeding, and processing; pressure from global competition; and consumer demand for uniform, convenient, inexpensive meat products all point to the continuing need for concentrated, consolidated animal management. Biogas experimentation suggests that aggregated animal waste could be an important new source of biofuel, potentially adding more economic incentive to further consolidation.

Questions have been raised about the impact of CAFOs on local communities, specifically water and air pollution. A 2010 report funded by the National Association of Local Boards of Health found significant impacts on surface water (rivers, ponds, lakes), including "pathogens...growth hormones, antibiotics, chemicals used as additives to the manure or to clean equipment, animal blood" and more. The same study documented noxious odors and dramatic increases in air-borne insects (primarily flies and mosquitos). A Pew Trust review of CAFO community impacts cited higher incidence of asthma and neurobehavioral issues (from chronic exposure to air-borne compounds toxic to the nervous system) resulting in depression, anger, fatigue, confusion, etc.

It's not surprising that there is a reduction in property values near large-scale feeding operations. What may be surprising is that the income from large agricultural operations mostly leaves the local community while income from small farm operations tends to circulate money within the community.

[Information from Overview of Agricultural Subsidy, Animal Management, and Antitrust Enforcement, LWVUS website at http://www.lwv.org/search/content/agriculture%20study, as well as Economic Health of the Agricultural Sector, LWV of Montgomery County, MD]

Genetic Engineering--A Growing Industry (April 2014)

Adrienne Pauly

The issues surrounding genetic engineering (GE) are complex and overlapping, rendering most attempts to generalize about GE misleading. The most common definition, and the one used here, is: Genetic engineering is the manipulation of an organism's genes by introducing, eliminating, or rearranging specific genes using the methods of modern molecular biology, particularly those techniques referred to as recombinant DNA techniques.

Transgenesis/Recombinant DNA Technology involves the insertion of one or more individual genes into an organism/species to create a new organism. The resultant organism is "transgenic," otherwise known as a genetically modified organism (GMO).

These newer techniques generate higher crop yields; provide disease, insect or herbicide resistance; enhance nutritional value; improve plants' abilities to survive unfavorable growing conditions such as cold, drought or soil salinity; and increase pharmaceutical value more quickly and efficiently than traditional methods.

The earliest advances in GE were made in the pharmaceutical industry with an Insulin product marketed in 1978. Genetically modified rennet was approved for use in cheese in 1990, and in 1994 Calgene received FDA approval for the first GE food crop, the Flavr Savr tomato. A number of row crops followed quickly, and 1995 brought regulatory approval of the first "stacked" GE seed. Stacked seeds employ multiple genetically engineered genes that may combine one or more herbicide tolerant (Ht) and Bt (a bacterium) combinations that provide both resistance to multiple insects and at the same time provide tolerance to various herbicides. As of 2013, stacked crops accounted for more than half of all U.S. corn or cotton.

So far, the DFA reports having completed 98 reviews of GE crops or traits proposed for commercialization. Farmers have quickly adopted the new technologies, and by 2013 the Grocery Manufacturing Associations estimated that 70% to 80% of the food we eat in the United States contains ingredients that come from genetically modified crops. And this expansion is a worldwide phenomenon: in 2012 a record 170.3 million hectares of biotech crops were produced globally with adoption growing fastest in the developing countries.

The most widely used GE crops include a gene coding that creates herbicide tolerant crops (Ht crops) that can be sprayed without harm to the crops and is most commonly found in weed-killing products, such as Roundup.

Another common GE trait makes use of genetic material from a naturally occurring bacterium (Bt) and is often used by organic farmers to counter insect predation.

Regulation of GE products is based on the concept of substantial equivalence, wherein products are evaluated comparing them to conventional (non-GE) products or processes. Hence, if a new food is determined to be substantially equivalent in composition and nutritional characteristics to an existing food, it can be regarded as being as safe as the conventional food. This concept has been widely used by national and international agencies, but critics charge that this definition is far too vague and that, although it is useful to the industry, it is unacceptable to consumers.

The approval processes used by various agencies (FDA, USDA, EPA) vary, but all aim to eliminate or minimize potential harmful consequences when reviewing GE crops or processes. Before a transgenic crop can be grown outside a laboratory, it must receive approval from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS).

Although the first GE application in animals took place in 1974 to create a transgenic mouse, no animals have been approved for market release as human food. Forty different breeds of animals have been genetically engineered for research and medical purposes. Traits being developed include improved milk products and composition, increased growth rate, improved feed utilization, etc.

For more details on GE and GMOs, click on http://www.lwv.org/content/t3-genetic.

Ag Research and Development (April 2014)

Basic Research lays the foundation for advancements in knowledge that lead to applied gains later on. Agricultural research is conducted at the government and state levels, by corporations (both private and public) and at various universities. Many times these entities collaborate with each other. Genetic engineering (GE), nanotechnology, and transgenic procedures (combining different species) are newer technologies dating from the late 20th century. [ a), etc., relate to the consensus questions.]

a) Basic research--The term "genetic engineering" (GE) is sometimes used carelessly and too broadly. A full discussion of genetic engineering starts on Page 5 of this Focus.

b) Risk assessment--Government and private industry cooperate with some universities in developing new products. Due to the money involved, critics voice concern that academic departments risk being converted to pseudo-science laboratories for large corporations with commercial goals, thereby distorting pure science.

c) New technologies--Research to assess the impact of new technologies on human health and the environment would require expensive long-term research. Who would pay for it? Would such a requirement prevent the introduction of new products?

d) Diversified and sustainable agriculture--There is no reason to believe that agricultural research will not continue, perhaps at an even faster pace due to the new technologies. It is not widely known that farmers are among the earliest adapters of technology. How this research will be funded is not yet determined. Pure research, such as that performed at national agencies, can be very expensive and frequently does not result in a final, usable product. Very large corporations can invest in large research projects, but critics object that this can unbalance the market place, harming smaller farms, and, when large grants are given to universities to research specific projects, it bends the mission of academia to remain neutral.

e) Seed banking is done to preserve genetic diversity; pre-GE seeds are reserved (banked) to ensure earlier traits are not lost to the future. Stacked seeds employ multiple genetically engineered genes. Stacked seeds can provide resistance to multiple insects while at the same time tolerating various formulations of herbicide.

f) Transparency and intellectual property rights--Maintaining both transparency of research studies and criteria used for approval of new products and respect for intellectual property rights of private enterprises is a balancing act. Although various assessment processes are used by FDA, USDA, EPA, they all aim to eliminate or minimize potential harmful consequences. For example, before a transgenic crop can be grown outside a laboratory, it must receive Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) approval. However property rights involve patents, and some companies have used these patents to maintain a monopoly on some products. For example, Monsanto has patented some of its seeds that can only be purchased annually from Monsanto and cannot be reserved for planting the next crop. This has stirred strong controversy in the agriculture industry and may well result in changed patent law in the future. Anti-trust issues could be involved here, too.

g) Long-term effects--Perhaps the biggest obvious flaw in today's system of protecting the user from harmful effects of new crops or animals is the lack of information on what long-term effect these pesticides--and genetically engineered plants and animals--may have on humans and the environment. The pressure to bring new products and crops to market precludes any long-term study.

Follow-up studies over time have on occasion revealed harmful effects: some beneficial bugs have been killed by pesticides, and sometimes the pests have over time themselves mutated and become immune to the pesticides. These are called superbugs and cannot be destroyed by traditional means. When something like this goes wrong, it can take a long time before the problem is discovered and a solution worked out.

h) Conservation--It is in the self interest of farmers and ranchers to protect and conserve their properties--after all, their long-term survival depends of it. But because today's advances are so scientifically sophisticated and require so much research, it is unrealistic to assume individual farmers, or even modest-sized farms, can pursue new methods without receiving financing and expertise from either the government or private sources or both.

Food Safety (April 2014)

Food safety is the responsibility of several overlapping agencies--EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), FDA (Federal Department of Agriculture), the CDC (Center for Disease Control), and others. Each of these agencies has a separate function and to date no coordinated plan has been developed: there is no comprehensive picture of the government's performance on food safety. Each agency concentrates on its major interest--food content, food distribution, plant safety, animal protection, soil and water resources, etc.

The LWVUS Consensus Questions ask which of the following should government perform or fund:

a) Clarify and enforce pre-market testing requirements for new foods and food additives developed using any new technology. Research on these new products is performed by both public and private entities. Often a third-party is asked to review and determine the safety of the new product. Sometimes, however, the product's manufacturer is asked to verify its safety and this is criticized by some as vulnerable to distortion due to self-interest. However, all new products must be approved by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) before release to the commercial market.

b) Require developers to monitor all food products developed using any new technology after releasing to the market. To date this has not been required of producers and has been left to the government to oversee marketplace results. To impose this task on developers would undoubtedly raise prices and could forestall product innovation. It would also inevitably result in higher prices for consumers.

In 2012 The Food Safety Modernization Act called for the FDA to prevent rather than just respond to food contamination. This Act has been hailed as "the most important change in food safety legislation in 70 years." It focuses on salmonella and e-coli pathogens. It will cost $1.4 billion over the next few years, but Congress has so far only approved $50 million for the project.

c) Withdraw market approval if products are shown to be unsafe. The federal government's food safety program remains on the General Accountability Office's High Risk list because a government­wide performance plan for food safety that includes results-oriented goals and performance measures and information about resources has not yet been developed. Without a government-wide plan, decision makers do not have a comprehensive picture of the government's performance on food safety.

d) Require post-market monitoring of approved pharmaceutical applications in animal production for human health and environmental impacts. There are gaps in scientists` understanding of gene sequencing and interrelationships and their understanding of how genetic expression is turned on and off; this has led to research on methods for assessing the risk from complex exposures that might include GE foods, animal antibiotics and hormones, pesticide residues, nanomaterials, and novel food processing materials in addition to a myriad of other factors.

e) Require developer of new products to provide data and other materials to independent third parties (such as academic institutions) for pre- and post-market safety assessment as appropriate. Manufacturers naturally want to protect confidential business information from competitors, and the U.S. Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) may not have the power to decrease the unwarranted use of confidential business information. In answering this question one must try to imagine how manufacturers might react.

f) Limit use of antibiotics in animal production to treat and control disease. Of concern is the administration of antimicrobials to conventionally raised livestock in non-therapeutic doses for disease prevention. Many of the antibiotics used in animals are the same as those administered in humans. Others, like ionophores, have been developed for exclusive use in animals. Widespread use of antimicrobials in animal feed is linked to antibiotic resistant bacteria.

According to the Animal Health Institute, which represents animal health drug sponsors, animal antibiotics make our food supply safer and people healthier. Antibiotics are a critical tool to prevent, control and treat disease in animals. In doing so, they also reduce the chance of bacterial transmission from animals to humans.

g) Fund independent third-party (such as academic institutions) risk assessment of long-term and multiple exposures from foods on human health and the environment. Some people think government should have laboratories to do such research; others think government should pay commercial or academic institutions to do the research. Cost, expertise, protection of confidential business information, and oversight are among the factors to be weighed.

h) Promote crop management practices that decrease dependency on added chemicals (pesticides, herbicides, and synthetic fertilizers.) Examples of agricultural practices that promote sustainable agriculture vary depending on regional soil conditions and weather conditions. In general they include crop rotation and tillage practices, use of cover crops, soil enrichment through plant and livestock inputs, use of natural pest predators, and bio-intensified integrated pest management as well as use of energy conservation technology and renewable energy sources.

i) Fund, train, and add personnel of assessment and compliance functions of regulatory agencies. Actual food safety budgets and personnel do not always appear to be well calibrated with responsibilities. USDA, for example, has 7800 inspectors for 6800 facilities while FDA has 2000 inspectors for more than 130,000 facilities. Part of the reason for this disparity is the USDA mandate to inspect virtually all meat products while FDA uses much smaller samples for products under its responsibility. In 1972 the FDA drug and food budgets were about equal, yet in 2011, the Drug Center staff was more than 3 times greater than that of the Food Center staff (3097 vs. 871 people). The latest challenge is the estimated cost for the Food Safety Modernization Act (2011 law) of $1.4 billion over 5 years, coupled with a Congressional authorization of only a $50 million boost in the 2012 FDA appropriation.

Food Labeling (April 2014)

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is tasked with ensuring the safety of domestically consumed foods (whether produced domestically or internationally), except for meat and poultry, which are regulated by the Department of Agriculture (USDA).

A food label must include the name of the product, a list of ingredients, nutritional information, the net quantity, allergy information, and contact information (manufacturer, packer, and/or distributor). The FDA does not pre-approve food labels. Rather, it establishes requirements for mandated food label attributes. One loophole is that there is no requirement that a picture on the label depict the food accurately. The USDA does pre-approve labels for meat and poultry.

Food labels are supposed to provide accurate nutritional information useful to consumers, protect them from unfounded health claims, and identify any protein known to cause a large majority of food allergies--peanuts, soybeans, cow's milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, and wheat. Proposed new labels (sample at right) would include calories in large type and serving sizes that people actually eat; currently serving sizes are often unrealistically small to make the calorie count appear low. Another proposal is to group fats, sodium, and sugars under the title Avoid too much and group fiber, Vitamin D, calcium, iron, and potassium under the title Get enough.

A number of public interest groups are pushing for legislation regarding perceived health and environmental issues. For example, should bioengineered foods (also called GMOs and GEs) be identified on labels? The FDA's resistance to calls for mandatory labeling of foods derived from genetic engineering is due to the process vs. product distinction for food labels; if the product of genetic engineering is not different from a non-GMO product, there is no need for a different label.

Draft FDA guidelines for GMO food labeling include:

  • If the resulting food is significantly different from its traditional counterpart, give it a new name.
  • If the new food has significantly different nutritional property, its label must reflect the difference.
  • If the new food includes an allergen that consumers would not expect, the label must say so.

The FDA has developed several categories into which health claims for food may fall, including: Health Claim--There must be scientific evidence to support it. (e.g., A diet low in sodium may reduce the risk of high blood pressure.)

  • Structure/Function--Claims that a food affects the Structure/Function of the body (e.g., Builds immunity) but do not refer to a disease are not pre-reviewed or authorized by the FDA. Therefore, companies frequently pursue structure/function claims because the burden of proof is on the FDA, which (1) has inadequate funding to inspect the various claims and (2) doesn't have the legal authority to require companies to provide proof of such claims. Nutrient Claims (e.g., 50 percent less fat) may be based on an authoritative statement by a scientific body of the U.S. government or the National Academy of Sciences.

USDA: Organic Program and Safety of Meat, Poultry, Eggs

USDA Organic --The USDA has sole authority over the certification, accreditation, compliance and enforcement of the National Organic Program.

The USDA has defined terms that may be used to label meat and poultry, such as cage free, free range or free roaming, certified (has been officially evaluated for grade or other quality characteristics), and grass-fed. Other terms are hard to verify; for example the claim that animals were treated humanely, so there are several USDA programs with various definitions of humanely.

Natural is another vague term applied to meat, poultry, and eggs; the label natural does not include any standards regarding farm practices. For other foods, there are no standards regarding natural except that there must be a term of explanation (e.g., no artificial ingredients).

The USDA allows beef to claim no hormones or no antibiotics provided sufficient documentation is provided to the Agency. However, no hormones may not be claimed for pork, poultry or goat unless the label also states: Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.

Consumer groups, the health industry, and niche agricultural groups are mounting pressure on the FDA as well as on state legislatures to bring a clearer, less-confusing, labeling system to the nation's food supply.

[Info from Food Labeling: FDA and USDA on the LWVUS website, Statesman Journal 2/28/14]

Agriculture Articles & Videos

LWV papers

There are 23 resource papers posted on the LWVUS website at http://www.lwv.org/member-resources/agriculture-update.

Non-LWV papers

Challenges and Opportunities in U.S. Agriculture (From the Economic Report of the President--2013) http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/granule/ERP-2013/ERP-2013-chapter8/content-detail.html

The Healthy Farm: A Vision for U.S. Agriculture from the Union of Concerned Scientists http://www.ucsusa.org/assets/documents/food_and_agriculture/The-Healthy-Farm-A-Vision-for-US-Agriculture.pdf

"Will Organic Fail to Feed the World?" from Scientific American http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=organic-farming-yields-and-feeding-the-world-under-climate-change&page=2

To watch videos on aspects of this study check the LWVUS website at: http://www.lwv.org/content/agricultural-update-multimedia-resources-background-information. There are some additional articles linked to this LWVUS website.