Category Archives: Farm Policy

In the Bigger Picture…

6 Recommended Agricultural Links ○ ○ ○

1 . Conservation Stewardship Programs (CSP) have gained 9.5 million acres this year.

National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition

2 . There has been a lot in the news this month about how U.S. Ag policy works to promote larger and larger farms. I especially liked this.

by Traci Bruckner, Center for Rural Affairs

3 . … and this PDF document/study investigates the subject of farms getting bigger here in America.

By Daniel A. Sumner, Journal of Economic Perspectives

4 . Yes, you can make money with agroforestry in Iowa, especially if you grow Aronia berries, Christmas trees, chestnuts and elderberries.

From the Leopold Center at Iowa State

5 . Robotics continues to take over on farms, but it is a mystery to most of us. Here’s a quick look at a carrot harvester in action.

from Odd Simple American

6 . For those who would like an agricultural charitable gift idea, you might consider giving to Kiva. You can even start with a small donation and add to it monthly. This helps small global farmers who are struggling to pay for supplies like fertilizer, and 95% of the loans get paid back.

Thanks to reader “D” for submitting this idea.

These links were selected by Kay McDonald. For continually updated news about agriculture, please utilize the news feeds on the right sidebar here, and on the “Latest Ag News” tab above.

This Election from a Food and Agricultural Perspective

Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton

I don’t talk politics.

I don’t like politics.

So I never thought I’d be writing about the election today, but after seeing the results and a few of the headlines, I decided it would be appropriate. No, I’m not going to get into who won which race in which state and how that will influence Ag policy. This site is named “big picture” for a reason.

The big question journalists are trying to answer today is why voters are so dissatisfied. There was so much hope for change back when President Obama was elected six years ago.

That change never came. In agriculture, his appointment of former lawyer-politician, Tom Vilsack, as Secretary of Agriculture was pivotal in ensuring that corporate agriculture interests would prevail. In my opinion (I’ve said this before and I’m going to say it again) I think that Tom Vilsack will go down in history as one of the worst Secretaries of Agriculture that this nation has ever seen. Not since the days that led up to the dust bowl has our nation had such little respect for the soil, for wildlife, or for biodiversity. Under him we lost more than 10 million acres of Conservation Reserve Program acres (CRP) as we ploughed up the Dakota Prairie Pothole region to grow corn that we never needed.

And why? Where did that get us?

A few pockets got lined by taxpayers for a short while, but, by adding so many acres to monoculture crop growing, we ended up with today’s low commodity prices for Midwestern farmers which are below production costs. Today’s producer questions how to eke out a living next year. John Deere, ADM, and Monsanto did fine, however. Their sales have thrived over the past six years. The monarchs, the song birds, the honeybees, the soil, the Gulf Dead Zone, rural populations, rural main streets, rural vitality? Not so thriving. There is always a price to be paid.

Lord knows I’ve tried to explain ad nauseum why the most damaging and senseless policy here in the U.S. is the burning of our corn crop in our gasoline tanks. This policy is the root of the problem that has caused so much of the destruction we’ve seen these past six years. And the small sanely proposed reduction in the ethanol mandate by the EPA last year was never even acted upon, probably because no one wanted it to contribute to a loss of votes in yesterday’s election. Talk about ineffectual government, ineffectual leadership. They can’t even throw us a bone.

We have a population of thoughtful thinking voters who are opposed to corporate agriculture monoculture policies – policies which are financially backed by the tax payer. These voters are not happy.

We have the producers of these monoculture crops who are constantly struggling to pay for their input costs, battle their super weeds, and get the shaft from the public for their farming methods. They are not happy either for the box they’ve been backed into by today’s policy.

We’ve got a nation in which one-third of our adults is obese – at least in part, due to food policies. The fat unhealthy citizen feels helpless and is unhappy.

Thoughtful thinking voters are concerned about food policy and are trying to vote with their dollars to create the change they would like to see. They want to know where their food comes from and they’d like to eat local. I have watched over the past six years as media coverage of farming has exploded because the reader wants to know more. Most of us are concerned about food safety and quality. The foodie voters are unhappy, too.

We’ve got young people who would like to farm. But today’s mess, in part due to high land prices created by our farm bill and our mandated ethanol use, makes it nearly impossible economically for beginners to enter the field. And we sure could use those young farmers. These young would-be farmers aren’t happy with today’s system, either.

Things wouldn’t have to be this way. When we saw an energy crunch back in 2005, we started getting appointed Secretaries of Energy who had PHD’s in physics, who understood the science behind energy.

We need look no further than the EU for a better food and agricultural value system. In the EU, the Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development has been led by Dacian Cioloş these past four years, a man trained in organic agriculture who values the soil, sustainable farming methods, and who was an advocate for preserving 7 percent of the EU’s farmland for environmental priority areas, areas which would be off-limits to the use of chemicals and high-tech farming methods. EU leaders and its citizens are willing to pay more for their food in order to preserve the smaller farms. They aren’t so interested in exporting agricultural products because they know that there are environmental costs to pay in doing so – which would make the nations there less secure in the future.

Here, it would seem, we try to export agricultural products to help make up for other bad economic choices we’ve made as a nation. Some of this is made possible only through the low wages paid to migrant laborers, another hot button in this election.

Where are we headed? Is there hope for real change in the future in the area of food and agriculture? Can we get Secretaries of Agriculture in the future who actually know the science of Agronomy before being awarded the keys to our agricultural department?

Only with… Hope and major changes.

Why Do We have Farm Program Welfare?

Iowa State’s Ag economist, Bruce Babcock, wrote an article for Choices Magazine following the 2014 passage of a new farm bill.

The section titled “Resiliency of Farm Programs” was a delight to read for its well expressed honesty. And, as I emphasized below, the real loss in this year’s bill is the fact that the funds could have been used in far better and more ethical, ways. (all emphasis mine)

Record crop income in recent years and subsequent record-high land prices make it absurd to argue that crop subsidies are needed to maintain agricultural production capabilities in the United States. And the argument that the food security of the United States depends on subsidizing production of crops is easily countered by the fact that 30% to 40% of U.S. corn production is diverted to produce ethanol while about 50% of U.S. wheat production is sold in export markets. Yet these two arguments continue to be the primary justifications put forth for crop subsidies.

The disconnect between a lack of an actual economic rationale for farm subsidies and their continued existence demonstrates that farm programs exist not because of a need to enhance social welfare but rather to meet the political objective of members of Congress to care for a constituency that lends them political support. Thus, it is not surprising that record farm income in the last five years had no real impact on the question of whether farm subsidies would continue. Farm income levels have no impact on the benefit of subsidies to farmers and, hence, they have no impact on the political benefits to members of Congress to provide the subsidies.

The outcome of the recent farm bill, in terms of what programs were adopted, coincides nicely with Becker’s theory of political competition with its focus on deadweight losses. The newly adopted programs will not lead to a significant misallocation of resources because program payments are decoupled from planted acreage. This attribute helped defuse opposition to the programs because, in one sense, they do no economic harm.

Unlike in some previous farm bills, the most important welfare costs of farm subsidies in the Agricultural Act of 2014 are not traditional deadweight losses, but rather the lost opportunity to use the funds for programs that unequivocally have the potential to increase social welfare. Examples include agricultural research, agricultural pollution prevention, invasive species control, transportation infrastructure investments, increased food quality and food safety inspections, and nutrition programs. But transferring funds from farm subsidies to these types of public goods will not happen without a dramatic increase in the political power of groups advocating for the public good, which is a daunting challenge, given the defuse nature of public good benefits and the highly targeted nature of the current subsidy programs to a relatively small number of farm households.

In another Choices Magazine farm bill passage article authored by Barry Goodwin and Vincent Smith, these key suggestions would help politicians vote for a better farm bill:

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has scored the 10-year cost of the legislation at nearly $1 trillion. However, those cost estimates are based on long-run price projections. If prices fall, as they have recently done, and remain at low levels, the actual cost of the legislation could be far more than what has been projected by CBO. The political dynamics underlying this rare example of bipartisan legislation are showing signs of changing and rhetorical arguments regarding the necessity of subsidies to “save the family farm” are wearing thin. House Republicans attempted bigger farm program spending cuts and proposed separating nutritional assistance from farm subsidies—a change that would make passage of such an immense bundle of subsidies much more difficult.

Yes, indeed. The farm bill needs to be separated from the food security programs and the politicians need to end the false outdated rhetoric telling us that the taxpayer money goes to saving family farms and stimulating rural development… false rhetorics that Tom Vilsack is frequently guilty of, I might add. Citizen apathy concerning legislation in flyover country helps them get away with it and the Iowa caucus helps motive them. It is time for change.

Finally, I can’t conclude any better than the above-cited article concludes:

In summary, from a short-term and longer term economic welfare perspective, the 2014 Agricultural Act generally appears mainly to be focused on transferring income to relatively wealthy farm families as well as some non-farm entities such as the U.S. mercantile marine and private insurance and reinsurance companies. It does so at the expense of consumers and taxpayers, the long-run productivity of the agricultural sector, and efficiently and effectively meeting humanitarian needs through reasonable reforms to international food aid programs. … And the legislation is likely to have such adverse effects for consumers and taxpayers that, in the aggregate, it will almost certainly reduce the economic welfare of the average U.S. citizen.

Pretty sobering words, I would say. Agree? Is anybody paying attention? Does anybody care?


Sustainable Intensification in Farming

Readers, today’s post is republished by permission from ILRI, and the writing summarizes a Science Policy Forum article by Tara Garnett, of the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN), in the UK, and her team et al.

Banalata Das, a shrimp farmer feds her cow at the family home. Khulna, Bangladesh. Photo by Mike Lusmore, 2012

 Banalata Das, a dairy and shrimp farmer, feeds her cow in Khulna, Bangladesh . (photo credit: WorldFish/Mike Lusmore).

Ramadjita Tabo, a member of The Montpellier Panel and deputy executive director of the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), recently described the recent rather divisive nature of academic discussions on the viability of the ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture as follows.

Sustainable intensification, an agricultural development pathway that aims to reconcile food production and environmental protection, is a highly politicised term that divides academics and practitioners alike. Although, when first coined by Jules Pretty, the term was a way of bringing often divergent priorities such as addressing declines in land and agricultural productivity, pollution and food insecurity together under a new paradigm, it has been since accused of being a ruse for big, industrial agriculture. — Ramadjita Tabo, Sustainable intensification: A practical approach to meet Africa’s food and natural resource needs, Global Food Security blog, 18 Apr 2013

Now a team of diverse scientists and other experts, having broadened the concept, make a case in a new report published in the journal Science that sustainable intensification is absolutely central to our ability to meet increasing demands for food from our growing populations and finite farmlands.

Tara Garnett and Charles Godfray, the article’s lead authors, say that we can increase food production from existing farmland if we employ sustainable intensification practices and policies. These, they say, can help minimize already severe pressures on the environment, especially for more land, water, and energy, natural resources now commonly overexploited and used unsustainably.

The authors of this Science ’Policy Forum’ piece are researchers from leading universities and international organizations as well as policymakers from non-governmental organizations and the United Nations. One of the co-authors is Mario Herrero, an agricultural systems scientist who recently led a ‘livestock futures’ team at theInternational Livestock Research Institute (ILRI, a member of CGIAR), in Nairobi, Kenya, and who earlier this year moved to Brisbane, Australia, to take up the position of chief research scientist for food systems and the environment at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Another co-author is Philip Thornton, another ILRI systems scientist and a leader of a multi-institutional team and project in the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

The authors of this Science paper outline a new, more sophisticated account of how ‘sustainable intensification’ should work. They recognize that this policy has attracted criticism in some quarters as being either too narrowly focused on food production or as representing a contradiction in terms.

Why does articulating this new, more refined, account of sustainable intensification matter so much? ‘We often confuse sustainable intensification as synonymous with increases in productivity and resource use efficiency, but the picture is far more complex’, explains Herrero. ‘We attempted a balanced definition, one that encompasses all major perspectives.’ Such a new definition, Herrero says, can be telling. Take the pig and poultry sub-sectors, he says, which are commonly lauded for being more efficient than raising cattle, goats, sheep, water buffalo and other ruminant animals. ‘Well, that can be true. But not in large parts of Europe, for example, which import grain to feed their pigs and poultry, with one result being that Brazilian farmers are chopping down the rain forest to provide that feed to Europe’s livestock farmers. From this perspective, those “efficient” pig and poultry business are just not sustainable. In our endeavour to intensify’, Herrero continues, ‘we can overlook important aspects of agricultural intensification like ecosystems services, biodiversity and human health. Take the livestock sector, for example. With this sector so intimately connected to land management issues and with so many livestock-based livelihoods of poor people at stake, it’s essential that we don’t pay lip service to the ‘sustainability aspects’ of livestock intensification.

We need to  come up with suitable practical indicators of just what is sustainable, and the fact is that we’ll sometimes need to reduce intensification, as in places where additional increases in yields or efficiencies could place too much pressure on other facets of food systems. — Mario Herrero, agricultural systems scientist, CSIRO (formerly of ILRI)

Herrero’s colleague, Philip Thornton, agrees. And he reminds us of the ‘multi-functionality’ of agricultural production systems in developing countries, particularly livestock systems in sub-Saharan Africa. ‘These ‘multifunctions’ (such as keeping cows for household milk, and/or to generate a daily household dairy income, and/or to produce manure to fertilize croplands, and/or to transport produce to markets, and/or or to build household assets) differ by place and context, and our interventions aiming to enhance them need to differ accordingly, Thornton says. No ‘silver bullets’ or ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, he says, is going to work in these varied smallholder production system contexts.

‘As usual, it’s a matter of scale, with landscape or regional approaches expected to become critical to success. To achieve our desired development outcomes, we’re going to have to “intensify” small-scale livestock, mixed crop-livestock and other agricultural production systems where intensification can be done viably, and we’re going to have to ‘extensify’ these smallholder systems elsewhere in the landscape, where intensification is just not viable.

The main reason for producing this Science paper was to try to wrest the concept of ‘sustainable agricultural intensification’ back from those driving specific agendas. (We may well have to try to do the same for ‘climate-smart agriculture’, but that’s another story.) — Philip Thornton, ILRI and CCAFS

Similar arguments were published in a previous article in Science by Herrero, Thornton and their colleagues (Smart investments in sustainable food production: Revisiting mixed crop-livestock systemsScience, 12 Feb 2010, DOI: 10.1126/science.1183725). This new investigation, Herrero says, is something of a follow-up to that earlier paper. The new Science article stresses that while farmers in many regions of the world need to produce more food, it is equally urgent that policymakers act on diets, waste and how the food system is governed. The authors say we must produce more food on existing rather than new farmland; converting uncultivated land, they say, will lead to greater emissions of greenhouse gases, which are causing global warming, and greater losses of biodiversity.

The authors make a strong case for sustainable intensification being the only policy on the table that could generate ways of producing enough food for all without destroying our environment.

But, warns Charles Godfray, of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, sustainable intensification should be only one part of an agricultural and development policy portfolio. ’Sustainable intensification is necessary’, he says, ‘but not sufficient’.

Achieving a sustainable food system will require changes in agricultural production, changes in diet so people eat less meat and waste less food, and regulatory changes to improve the efficiency and resilience of the food system. Producing more food is important but it is only one of a number of policies that we must pursue together. — Charles Godfray, Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food

Increasing productivity does not always mean using more fertilizers and agrochemicals, which frequently carry unacceptable environmental costs, argue the authors. They say that a range of techniques, both old and new, should be employed to develop ways of farming that keep environmental damage to a minimum.

The authors of the paper accept that the intensification of agriculture will directly as well as indirectly impact other important policy goals, such as preserving biodiversity, improving human nutrition and animal welfare, protecting rural economies and sustaining development generally in poor countries and communities. Policymakers will need to find ways to navigate conflicting priorities, they say, which is where research can help.

Lead author Tara Garnett, from the Food Climate Research Network at the Oxford Martin School, says that food security is about more than just more calories. Better nutrition also matters, she says.

Some two billion people worldwide are thought to be deficient in micronutrients. We need to intensify the quality of the food we produce in ways that improve the nutritional value of people’s diets, preferably through diversifying the range of foods produced and available to people but also, in the short term, by improving the nutrient content of crops now commonly produced. — Tara Garnett, Food Climate Research Network

Michael Appleby, of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, says that ‘Attention to livestock welfare is both necessary and beneficial for sustainability. Policies to achieve the right balance between animal and crop production will benefit animals, people and the planet.’

Agriculture is a potent sector for economic growth and rural development in many countries across Africa, Asia and South America, says co-author Sonja Vermeulen, of CCAFS.

Sustainable intensification can provide the best rewards for small-scale farmers and their heritage of natural resources. What policymakers can provide are the strategic finance as well as institutions needed to support sustainable and equitable pathways rather than quick profits gained through depletion. — Sonja Vermeulen, CCAFS

Get the paper: Sustainable intensification in agriculture: Premises and policies, by T Garnett, MC Appleby, A Balmford, IJ Bateman, TG Benton, P Bloomer, B Burlingame, M Dawkins, L Dolan, D Fraser, M Herrero, I Hoffmann, P Smith, PK Thornton, C Toulmin, SJ Vermeulen, HCJ Godfray, Science, vol. 341, 5 Jul 2013.