Less is almost as much

Using less fertilizer has no meaningful effect on yield

Speaking of limiting the use of synthetic fertilizer, allow me to throw a little science your way courtesy of Science Daily and the USDA's Argriculural Research Service: From 1998 to 2008, the researchers evaluated and compared potential management strategies for reducing nitrogen and nitrate nitrogen levels in soil and groundwater. The first study showed that onions used only about 12 to 15 percent of the fertilizer nitrogen applied to the crop. Much of the remainder stayed in the top six feet of soil. The next year, Halvorson and his colleagues planted corn on the same land and found that it recovered about 24 percent of the fertilizer nitrogen that had been applied to the onion crop. Following that study, the scientists grew alfalfa on the land for five years, then followed it with a watermelon crop, followed by a corn crop. In the first year that the corn was grown, an unfertilized control plot yielded about 250 bushels of corn. By comparison, a plot fertilized with 250 pounds of nitrogen per acre yielded about 260 bushels, a small increase that required a significantly higher investment of time and money. Additional corn studies following onion in rotation showed corn was a good residual nitrogen scavenger crop.

Spoiled indeed

Paul Roberts' MoJo article on farming gets big idea right and details wrong

I like Paul Roberts. I liked his book The End of Food. But I must admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by his recent article on sustainable farming in Mother Jones, "Spoiled: Organic and Local Is So 2008." That's not to say there's nothing to recommend it. His central premise -- that we way we're farming today isn't sustainable and that no large-scale model of what sustainable agriculture would look like currently exists -- is valid and important (as anyone who hangs out around here is well aware). And any article that gets its money quote from sustainable ag guru Fred Kirschenmann is certainly on the right track. Said Kirschenmann, "We've come to see sustainability as some kind of fixed prescription -- if you just do these 10 things, you will be sustainable, and you won't need to worry about it anymore." Which isn't true, of course. But that title! Shouldn't it be "conventional agriculture" that's so 2008? Meanwhile, there were far too many straw men in the article for my tastes (ever eaten a straw man? Blech!) Take, for example, the thought experiment supplied by environmental scientist Vaclav Smil on the effect of totally eliminating the use of synthetic fertilizer: Such an expansion, Smil notes, "would require complete elimination of all tropical rainforests, conversion of a large part of tropical and subtropical grasslands to cropland, and the return of a substantial share of the labor force to field farming -- making this clearly only a theoretical notion." That's probably accurate as far as it goes. But it's unclear how he modeled this version of organic agriculture - at a minimum it appears to be a vast oversimplification. And his conclusion then becomes the basis upon which to reject the whole organic concept. Meanwhile, look at one of Smil's central assumptions -- that "dietary habits remain constant," i.e. in his experiment we're all eating as much meat, high-fructose corn syrup, and processed foods as we are now. Well, to take one example, you don't have to look far to find folks who will tell you that current meat consumption, especially red meat consumption, is the sine qua non of unsustainability -- Roberts himself held forth at length on that very point in his book. By holding that constant, you've just pre-determined the outcome of your thought experiment. And look at a crucial element in Smil's calculation -- that he's trying to determine "the extra land we'd need for cover crops or forage (to feed the animals to make the manure)." Now I don't know for sure if he presumes the forage will be pasture or cereal (aka corn), but either way that's a pretty high bar he's set.

Immokalee Diary, part I

The human cost of industrial tomatoes

Do you know who picks your tomatoes? As Tom Philpott discovers during a trip to Florida tomato country, farmworkers suffer low wages, squalid living conditions, and even slavery.

Food unsafety

Who put the food companies in charge of food safety? We did.

Here's my plan to reform the food safety system -- take the asylum keys away from the inmates. The New York Times documents the absolute unmitigated disaster of our privatized, volunteer food safety system. But the first three paragraphs sum up the entirety of the problem: When food industry giants like Kellogg want to ensure that American consumers are being protected from contaminated products, they rely on private inspectors like Eugene A. Hatfield. So last spring Mr. Hatfield headed to the Peanut Corporation of America plant in southwest Georgia to make sure its chopped nuts, paste and peanut butter were safe to use in everything from granola bars to ice cream.The peanut company, though, knew in advance that Mr. Hatfield was coming. He had less than a day to check the entire plant, which processed several million pounds of peanuts a month.Mr. Hatfield, 66, an expert in fresh produce, was not aware that peanuts were readily susceptible to salmonella poisoning -- which he was not required to test for anyway. And while Mr. Hatfield was inspecting the plant on behalf of Kellogg and other food companies, the Peanut Corporation was paying him for his efforts. 1) Where's the FDA in all this and 2) how many logical flaws can you find in this system? Nowhere and lots. Food inspections are just too darn expensive -- let's have the food companies take care of it for us. And make no mistake: our friends in the food industry really, really don't want the government snooping around. Even when mild reforms are proposed, like toughening audit standards and automatically alerting federal authorities when problems arise, the food industry screams bloody murder. Which is funny tragic when you think about it, given recent events. If you want detailed reform proposals, ask Bill Marler. But at the end of the day there are three things that will fix food safety. Cut red tape, spend lots more money, and de-privatize the food safety business. Luckily that's just the kind of reform we're good at. We are good at doing those sorts of things. Aren't we?

Spinning ag reform

Is a payment cut real reform or just tweaking with the numbers?

Tom Vilsack has certainly got farm-state legislators talking. The buzz generated by the Obama administration's proposal to cut "direct payments" to farmers continues to grow. Unfortunately, all the sturm and drang may be for naught. And not necessarily because the cut to this particular agricultural subsidy will fail, but because it's not really reform. The original budget language certainly seemed promising as it linked the cut in government subsidies to a new market in "ecological services." Farmers could use this new revenue to offset the losses from the subsidy cut (and would also have a new incentive to farm more sustainably). But based on recent comments from Vilsack, that whole angle seems to have gone out the window. Instead, Vilsack appears to have decided that the best course of action is to pit farmers against hungry kids. According to Reuters: U.S. lawmakers will need to choose between supporting rich farmers or feeding more hungry children amid a slumping economy and a surging deficit, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said on Monday.Vilsack said he already has heard concerns about the Obama administration's plan to redirect subsidy payments for large farmers into nutrition programs as a way to help end hunger by 2015 and stem the rising tide of childhood obesity."We will do our best to frame this discussion in that way, so that people understand: 30 million children, 90,000 farmers," Vilsack told Reuters after speaking to people who work with the nation's food banks and anti-poverty groups."It is a tough choice, but it's a choice that folks are going to have to make," he said. Leave aside the fact that the middle of a severe recession isn't the time to start getting stingy. More importantly, I didn't see anything in the budget that suggested the subsidy savings would go to nutrition -- the stated rationale for the cut was environmental. And it's surprising that Vilsack would go there in the first place. It's no accident that anti-hunger programs are legislated within the Farm Bill -- the better to balance demands from farm state and urban representatives. It's true that, as food writer Michael Pollan has long observed, this marriage of convenience helps perpetuate subsidies. But it's not at all clear that explicitly pitting farmers against hungry children is the way to go. While a cage match between 30 million children and 90,000 farmers would certainly meet the Hobbsian ideal (nasty, brutish, and short), the legislative process isn't about whose side enjoys a numerical advantage. The only measures of consequence in Congress are the size, strength, and acumen of your lobbying team -- and in that area Big Ag is hard to beat.

Alice under fire

Alice Waters' move into the political sphere is hitting some bumps

I'm hesitant to step in the middle of any debate over Alice Waters' contributions to food policy. But suffice it to say that, as she moves more and more aggressively into politics, she is taking some hits. Ezra Klein sums up the Alice Waters paradox this way: Good food -- the sort Waters features at her restaurant -- is considered a luxury of the rich rather than a social justice issue. As Waters frequently argues, no one is worse served by our current food policy than a low-income family using food stamps to purchase rotted produce at the marked-up convenience store. Her vision is classically populist: It democratizes the concrete advantages -- health, pleasure, nutrition -- that our current food system gives mainly to the wealthy. But her language is suffused with the values and the symbols of, well, the sort of people who already eat at Waters' restaurant. Thus, in promoting an agenda that benefits poor people with little access to fresh food, Waters tends to communicate mainly with rich people interested in fine dining. She's been fighting the elitist tag for some time -- as well as a reputation for being a bit, well, overbearing. According to a recent article in Gourmet, she overwhelmed even former President Clinton years ago with her passion over a White House vegetable garden. After receiving a letter from the Clintons suggesting that a front-lawn vegetable garden wasn't in keeping with the formal landscaping of the White House, Waters couldn't restrain herself: [S]he fired off another letter. Apologizing for "being so insistent," she begged to differ, reminding him that "L'Enfant's original plan for the capital city was inspired by the layout of Versailles, and at Versailles the royal kitchen garden is itself a national monument: historically accurate, productive, and breathtakingly beautiful throughout the year." It was the end of their correspondence. Ouch. And the Obamas, while unfailingly polite in person, have so far resisted Waters' attempts to be pulled into their circle of informal advisors. Having nothing to do with Waters, it's well-known that hobnobbing with aesthetes can be dangerous to your electoral prospects and the fact remains that Waters is, at heart, just that.

Off to Immokalee

Checking out the scene in the nation's industrial-tomato capital

Tomorrow, I'm heading down to Immokalee, Florida, to check out conditions in our nation's tomato basket. During the growing season -- between December and May -- something like 90 percent of tomatoes consumed in the U.S. come from the area in south Florida anchored by Immokalee. I'm going as part of a delegation of food-oriented writers and activists including authors Frances Moore Lappé and Raj Patel, Slow Food USA president Josh Viertel, and others. For decades, working conditions in South Florida's prodigious tomato fields have ranged from ruthlessly exploitative to outright slavery. Even under the best conditions, wages are stagnant and workers live in poverty. Yet workers in the area, represented by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, have made headlines in recent years by forcing gigantic tomato buyers like Taco Bell and Burger King to pony up an extra penny a pound -- which would cost fast-food companies a tiny sliver of profit, but represent the first substantial wage gain for pickers in decades. There's a catch: the state's growers cooperative, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, refuses to pass on the raise to workers. Thus workers still get 45 cents for every 32-pound basket they fill -- a wage that hasn't budged in years, eroded by steady inflation. Immokalee is one of the hotspots of of a globalized, industrial food system. The plight of its workers -- many of them refugees from small farms in Mexico and Central America that have collapsed under the weight of that same system -- represents just another externalized cost of stocking supermarkets, fast-food outlets, and school cafeterias with "cheap" food. For a great brief backgrounder on the Immokalee situation, check out Barry Estabrook's piece in the current Gourmet. Look for a wrap-up of my Immokalee trip on Friday.

Switching subsidies

The president's budget hints at a coming battle over one kind of ag subsidy

When President Barack Obama said during his recent address to Congress that "in this budget, we will... end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them," he set off a firestorm of speculation. Now that the budget outline has been published, we finally have an understanding of what he meant. Yes, as we suspected, he was indeed referring to a specific subsidy program called "direct payments." Jill Richardson explains: Direct payments are a result of the 1996 farm bill. Prior to that, subsidies were given based on need. If you couldn't sell your crops at a price the government thought was fair, you got a subsidy to make up the difference...If you own land where commodities were grown (by you or someone else) in the past, you get a direct payment whether you grow anything or not. You could do nothing, potentially, and still receive a direct payment. Does that sound stupid? I think so too. Your direct payment is calculated on your "base acres." They keep a running average of how much you grew on your land (or how much somebody grew on your land if it wasn't you), and that yield determines how much you get in government cash. During the past farm bill debate, grain prices were high and farmers were doing well, but the direct payments kept flowing in. Meanwhile, the budget language looks like this [PDF]: As part of an effort to transition large farms from direct payments provided to owners of base acres to increased income from revenue derived from emerging markets for environmental services, the President's Budget phases out direct payments over three years to farmers with sales revenue of more than $500,000 annually... Large farmers are well positioned to replace those payments with alternate sources of income from emerging markets for environmental services, such as carbon sequestration, renewable energy production, and providing clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat.

Lunchroom brawl!

For the first time in decades, a healthy school-lunch debate opens

First it was the 2008 (nee 2007) Farm Bill. Then it was Obama’s choices for the top USDA posts. Now it’s the National School Lunch …