Food

USDA fudging the numbers

A former USDA worker claims that small farm numbers may be overstated

Are there more small farms or not? Everyone from Reuters to the NYT has documented what appears to be an increase in the number of small farms in the U.S. But blogging ag economist and former USDA Economic Research Service researcher, Michael Roberts disagrees. According to him (h/t Ezra Klein), the supposed increase in small farms represents the USDA potentially fudging the numbers: USDA has also been working harder and harder to find and count hiding $1000 potential farms. Most of these guys don't know they're farms and so they can be hard to find and difficult to entice to return their census forms. So non-response rates are growing, mostly for tiny farms that probably don't realize they're farms in the first place. Non-response? No problem. USDA just uses weights to account for the non-response which boosts the officially reported number of farms. The important revelation here is that the USDA uses statistical weighting to arrive at the numbers for these micro-farms since many of these people don't even self-identify as farmers -- and so their precision is entirely a question of their methodology, i.e. how they decide to model the presence/frequency of these small operations. Census weighting is, of course, both controversial and necessary. Counting everything by hand can have a larger margin for error than rigorous statistical modeling. Indeed, this "controversy" is right now at the heart of a monumental battle between Democrats and Republicans over the U.S. Census (just ask Sen. Judd Gregg). That said, there is nothing inherently wrong with the practice. However, even if your overall approach is solid, if you then change your weighting techniques from year to year, comparing annual changes is all but impossible. And that appears to be exactly what the USDA is doing.

For a quick fix to school-lunch woes, pack an appealing salad and dip

On a recent morning, I heard a report on Morning Edition that jolted my attention from an extremely delicious cup of shade-grown fair-trade organic ultra-correct joe. (Public radio and fancy coffee: see Stuff White People Like.) The radio piece, by NPR correspondent Eleanor Beardsley, was called “In Paris, Culinary Education Starts in Day Care.” Now, as a group, Americans detest being told that any other country does any little thing better than we do here in the good old US of A. Not surprisingly, it is that very attitude that sometimes keeps us from being able to follow a good …

Out in the foodshed

NYC's Scott Stringer releases a plan for remaking the urban food system

For those of us wondering what it would take to "localize" urban food systems, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has some answers. In a just-released study called "Food in the Public Interest," Stringer's office analyzes the New York City "foodshed" (a term we'll be hearing a lot of in the future) and comes up with a lengthy set of recommendations. If it does anything, the report emphasizes just how daunting a task it will be to reform food policy in this county. Much of what Stringer hopes to accomplish (especially in the area of nutrition programs) will be handled at the federal level. Still, the report emphasizes the outsized impact on issues that involve land use and commercial development that the control over zoning and business licensing regulations gives to local authorities. Attempting to eliminate food deserts in low-income areas by creating "Food Enterprise Zones" and reducing red tape in the permitting of food processing companies is exactly the kind of thing that zoning and licensing reforms can address. Interestingly, the report's conclusions on food deserts align with a recent study by two SUNY-Buffalo researchers. They suggest the solution may lie in thinking small (increase the number of neighborhood grocery stores) rather than big (spending tax money on attracting chain supermarkets). Indeed, the same focus on local regulations applies to the expansion of urban agriculture (first step: overturn New York City's beekeeper ban!) and to the development of a wholesale farmers' market and food storage network (so that industrial and commercial buyers can better take advantage of local agricultural output).

Meat Wagon: Layoffs at the factory farm

Farmers take the hit as the CAFO model comes under pressure

In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries. ----- The industrial meat giants have entered a crisis phase. As I've reported before, the world's biggest chicken packer, Pilgrim's Pride, is languishing in bankruptcy, squeezed by high feed costs, its own addiction to cheap capital from Wall Street, now dried up, and ruthless competition from rival Tyson. Facing a similar situation, Smithfield Foods, the globe's biggest pork packer and hog producer, announced it's shuttering six plants and hacking away 1,800 jobs. Pilgrim's Pride has deftly used its bankruptcy to shunt much if the pain onto the backs of its farmer-suppliers, The Wall Street Journal reports (see extremely interesting related video). The article shows the massive risks required of the farmers who supply the nation with meat. Get this:

UN unveils ambitious ‘green’ food programme

NAIROBI — The UN Environment Programme has unveiled an ambitious seven-point plan to feed the world without polluting it further by making better use of resources and cutting down on massive waste. A survey of the current state of food production and consumption released to a forum of the Kenya-based UNEP and world environment ministers showed colossal waste but also came up with green solutions. “Over half of the food produced today is either lost, wasted or discarded as a result of inefficiency in the human-managed food chain,” UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said of a 104-page report released on …

The Mustache goes organic

Thomas Friedman enthuses over 'eco-friendly alternatives to fertilizers'

It was a Thomas Friedman column like so many others: the pundit careens through the roads of India, breathlessly marveling at the innovation he sees. Ain't globalization ... awesome? But this is Thomas Friedman 2.0, green version; this time, he's not being squired about by a loquacious and colorful local taxi driver, but rather by a pair of young Yalies in a "a plug-in electric car that is also powered by rooftop solar panels." And rather than gape slack-jawed at some software wizard's handiwork or a gleaming new factory, the pundit is bowled over by stuff like "organic farming in Andhra Pradesh, or using neem and garlic as pesticide." And that's not all. Friedman and his entourage visit a "local prince's palace to recharge their cars," and discover that his highness' business was "cultivating worms and selling them as eco-friendly alternatives to chemical fertilizers." Friedman once proclaimed that prospects for world peace hinged on dotting the globe with McDonald's franchises. Now he's blustering over organic farming. It's enough to make you gush about universal progress.

Doomsday seed vault’s stores are growing

CHICAGO — The stores of seeds in a “doomsday” vault in the Norwegian Arctic are growing as researchers rush to preserve 100,000 crop varieties from potential extinction. The imperiled seeds are going to be critical for protecting the global food supply against devastating crop losses as a result of climate change, said Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust. “These resources stand between us and catastrophic starvation,” Fowler said. “You can’t imagine a solution to climate change without crop diversity.” That’s because the crops currently being used by farmers will not be able to evolve quickly enough …

E.U. foiled in bid to force France, Greece to allow GM crop

BRUSSELS — The European Commission was foiled Monday in its bid to force France and Greece to allow genetically modified maize from U.S. biotech giant Monsanto to be grown in their fields. Food chain experts from the E.U. member states, meeting in Brussels, could not reach agreement on whether to back or oppose the French and Greek refusal to allow the maize, which has been given the green light to be grown in Europe. The standing committee on food chain and animal health “failed to reach a qualified majority in favour or against,” the commission said in a statement. Nine …

A plague of Wal-Marts

Until real middle-class wages start rising, we can't end agricultural subsidies

Watching this gripping animation (h/t Ezra Klein) that charts the spread of Wal-Marts across the country got me thinking. I felt like I was really watching the spread of wage stagnation across the country. I'm not suggesting there's any clarity as to which came first -- Wal-Mart or the grinding halt in middle-class wage growth. But Wal-Mart's accelerated growth in the 1980s matches this chart on wage inequality nicely (note the bottom two lines). It's a pointless chicken-and-egg debate at a certain level. You can't blame Sam Walton (much less Sebastian Kresge or James Sinegal) for the fact that discounters that thrive on downward price pressure represent the only means most Americans have of maintaining the illusion of a rising standard of living.

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