Tuesday, December 18, 2007

More waiting for a Farm Bill

It's been delayed for a few years because the process is so time-consuming. It's been delayed this year because Congress and Bush can't agree on anything. Oh, wait, it's still going to be delayed, because whatever they turn out is going to be vetoed.

Well, that's legislation for you -- but the ag committee can't do much else until this goes through. That means delays in funding the USDA. The USDA does a number of important things (food inspection, WIC and food stamps, not to mention basic research like mine) that really shouldn't get put on the back burner for too long.

But I guess that's why the bill is so difficult -- it has to cover all these things, too, along with little stuff like subsidies.

Senate passes farm bill, moves to conference under veto threat
By Janie Gabbett on 12/17/2007 for Meatingplace.com

The Senate on Friday voted 79-14 to pass a version of the 2007 farm bill the White House has already threatened to veto, sending the legislation to the House-Senate conference committee to hash out differences and agree a bill that the White House will sign.

"This legislation is fundamentally flawed. Unless the House and Senate can come together and craft a measure that contains real reform, we are no closer to a good farm bill than we were before today's passage," Acting Secretary of Agriculture Chuck Conner said in a statement.

Conner acknowledged he was disappointed the Senate approved the bill by such a wide margin. Broadly, the Administration opposes the cost of the $286 billion farm bill, which it says includes $22 billion in unfunded commitments and includes $15 billion in new taxes, as well as the fact that it did not limit subsidies to wealthier farm owners as much as the Administration sought.

Packer livestock ownership

The Senate version of the bill includes a livestock title (Title X) that contains a provision that would only allow meatpackers to own livestock 14 days before slaughter.

"We have a number of concerns with key aspects of that whole competition title," Conner said, when asked on a teleconference with reporters if the Administration would seek changes in the packer livestock ownership provision.

"We're going to be working very closely with the conferees in both the House and Senate to address this issue very directly as we go into the conference," Mark Keenum, under secretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, told reporters, adding that the provision is, "impeding commerce and trade with a specific commodity, in this situation livestock, and that's a slippery slope."

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) praised the livestock title, saying in a statement, "The bill's livestock title will promote market opportunities for producers; it will protect animal health; and it will strengthen enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act."

COOL and state-inspected meat

Both House and Senate versions of the bill contain mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) provisions that meat industry groups have agreed they can live with.

The House version of the bill includes a provision that would allow some state-inspected meat to cross state lines.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Taking everything into account . . .

. . . you can't.

New research is saying that local foods don't necessarily have a lower carbon footprint. When you consider technical economies of scale (i.e. more efficient transport -- containers on trains instead of boxes in pickups), mass-produced fruits and vegetables shipped across the country use less gas than local ones from small farms. This is based on, for example, the gas per strawberry. Many strawberries makes light footprint.

There are other things the article didn't go into (machinery efficiency, farm supply shipping, etc.) that large monoculture farms have going for them as far as carbon footprint goes. With all of these things, I have to admit that buying all your groceries at Wal-Mart, especially with only one trip a week, uses the least carbon.

If that's your goal.

Me, I eat locally for other reasons. I want to support local farmers and local industry. I want the flavor of the heritage varieties (wonder why they taste better than the shipped ones? flavor and storage value are inversely related for most fruits and veggies). I want to know where my food came from.

Yes, I feel guilty when I drive my car all alone to the farmer's market, only to go to the grocery store once or twice a week on separate trips. I used to bike it, but that was when I lived in Kansas (ah, flatness; the prospect of hauling my shopping up two blocks at 40% grade or more is rather discouraging). I used to do all my shopping on Saturday morning, going without rather than doing quick runs for one ingredient. I need to get back into at least some of those good habits.

Still, I can't help thinking that basing a drastic shift in behaviors (an all-local diet, for example) on one good-hearted idea is dooming it to failure. As soon as you start bringing in other calculations, you'll run into complications, realize how complicated life is, and give up. Yes, we need to consider confounders. We still need to act, though, and it's up to you what confounders you use in your analysis.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Controlling(?) E. coli

Someone was telling me last night about her friend's revolutionary work on controlling pre-harvest E. coli in cattle by feeding hay for a few days. I had to break it to her that it's common knowledge, now, that that works. There are probably thousands of studies going on right now to figure out E. coli reduction in cattle.

With all this work, though, who do people trust? The activists.

Yes, the people (in some cases) who say raw milk is healthier than pasteurized, or veganism is healthier than carnivorism, or homeopathy works. I'll grant them homeopathy -- there is a documented placebo effect if people believe something will work. Still, less than half surveyed trust the government on food safety! That technically includes me right now: I work for a land-grant university, studying pre-harvest food safety. But government isn't looking out for us like the activists are . . . I'm just going to stop now . . .

Less than half Americans see meat safety regulations as adequate: survey
By Janie Gabbett on 12/6/2007 for Meatingplace.com
In the wake of this year's spike in ground beef recalls, fewer Americans are confident the government has adequate food safety regulations for meat and poultry, according to a new GfK Roper Public Affairs and Media survey.

The telephone survey, commissioned by The Worldcom Public Relations Group, showed only 46 percent of 1,009 adults polled were confident meat and poultry were adequately regulated, compared to 48 percent for seafood, 57 percent for dairy, 58 percent for fruits and vegetables and 65 percent for cereals and grains.

At an average of 50 percent, confidence in food regulation in general ranked below every other category polled, other than toys (37 percent).

Trusting activists

The survey also found that U.S. consumers have more faith in activists and retail grocers than either the government or food companies when it comes to providing information about food choices.

While 64 percent said advocates and activist groups have consumers' best interests in mind when providing information about food choices, 62 percent felt that way about grocers, 53 percent about food manufacturers, 47 percent about the U.S. government and 26 percent about fast food companies.

"These results support the idea that activists may have been successful in dominating discussions about food policy," said Bob Giblin, a senior public relations counselor and research director who tracks food and agricultural issues for Morgan&Myers.

Subsidies aren't bad?

Depends on who you are. If you're Malawi, it turned out to be the answer, the way out of the poverty trap.

The lesson here is not to ignore the experts, as the article's title says, but to work to your situation, not someone else's expectations and desires. Those experts Malawi was ignoring? The ones that said subsidies and big government would sink a poor country? They wanted Malawi to spend less of their (loaned) money. Most people could tell you, though, that sometimes a little more money spent is worth it in the long run.