Archive for the ‘USDA’ Category

Save Our Citrus!

Photo by briweldon. Some rights reserved.

Photo by briweldon. Some rights reserved.

As a person who drinks at least one tall glass of orange or grapefruit juice every morning, this is VERY germane to my interests: citrus trees across America are in trouble, due to a bacterial virus known as Huanglongbing, Yellow Dragon disease, or citrus greening. Citrus greening, thought to have originated in China in the early 20th century, is a bacteria that has already done arboreal damage across the globe. Since August 2005, the Brazilian strand of the virus (one of three well-known strands) has been appearing in Florida, America’s citrus capital. The virus is carried primarily by two types of small plant lice, that carry the disease from tree to tree, causing leaves to wither or rot and yielding very little, if any, healthy fruit.

Luckily, as it so often does, science has stepped in. In a new USDA press release, details are rolled out on a new plan to combat citrus greening not by saving the trees exactly, but by freezing them. Yes, like Encino Man and Austin Powers before them, select citrus trees (of all genealogies and varieties) will have their small buds (where genetic material is stored) cryogenically frozen in what the USDA is calling a “genebank,” in case the virus (or natural disasters, fires, or any other insane, tree-eating disease: we’ve heard of others) wipes out our citrus population entirely. The press release refers to the bank as the “Fort Knox” of plant and animal germplasm, which is both reassuring and highly amusing. Read more about their storage techniques here, and for the sake of our 3.4 billion dollar citrus industry (and of my morning routine), let’s hope this works!

Land, Loans, But No Litigation

In a “streamlined alternative to litigation”, the USDA has established a claims process that will make more than $1 billion dollars available to women and Hispanic farmers found to have suffered discrimination by the USDA.

Specifically, farmers who submit timely claims alleging discrimination by the USDA in responding to their applications for farm loans or loan servicing during certain periods between 1981 and 2000 are eligible for awards of up to $250,000 in cash.

USDA Secretary Vilsack announced the program early last year, but has not yet opened the claims period. Interested persons can request a Claim Package, which will include forms and instructions for filing a claim, here. (The US Agricultural & Food Law and Policy Blog reports that an informational webinar for attorneys interested in assisting potential claimants will be held on September 13, 2012.)

The USDA’s history of discrimination is not pretty. Early on in his time at the USDA, Secretary Vilsack learned that “of the 14,000+ civil rights program complaints filed at USDA between 2001 and 2008, the Bush Administration [Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights] found merit to only one complaint of program discrimination.” According to the USDA, the Secretary has worked hard to undo the damage: the OASCR has a very comprehensive timeline of Vilsack’s “efforts to address discrimination” at the agency.

The Hispanic and women farmers claims process comes on the heels of the settlement of two other discrimination cases against the USDA: In February 2010, Secretary announced the Pigford II settlement with African-American farmers, and in October 2010 came the Keepseagle settlement with Native American farmers.

For an objective history of civil rights issues at the USDA, you can check out these related GAO reports:

  • GAO-09-650T (April 2009) – Recommendation and Options Available to the New Administration and Congress to Address Long-Standing Civil Rights Issues
  • GAO-09-62 (October 2008) – Recommendations and Options to Address Management Deficiencies in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights,
  • GAO-08-755T (May 2008) – Management of Civil Rights Efforts Continues to be Deficient Despite Years of Attention
  • GAO-03-96 (January 2003) – Department of Agriculture Performance and Accountability Series
  • GAO-02-1124T (September 2002)– Hispanic and Other Minority Farmers Would Benefit from Improvements in the Operations of the Civil Rights Program (testimony but no report/audit conducted).
  • GAO-02-942 (September 2002) Improvements in the Operations of the Civil Rights Program Would Benefit Hispanic and Other Minority Farmers
  • GAO-01-521R (April 2001) – U.S. Department of Agriculture: Resolution of Discrimination Complaints Involving Farm Credit and Payment Programs
  • GAO-01-242 (January 2001) – Major Management Challenges and Program Risks: Department of Agriculture
  • T-RCED-00-286 (September 2000) – U.S. Department of Agriculture: Problems in Processing Discrimination Complaints
  • RCED-99-38 (January 1999) – U.S. Department of Agriculture: Problems Continue to Hinder the Timely Processing of Discrimination Complaints

Monsanto’s Shiny New Corn, or, Losing Faith in the Democratic Process

Photo via Some rights reserved.

Facebook, my email inbox, and the internet generally are awash today with pleas to “Tell Walmart to Reject Monsanto’s GE Sweet Corn!”

The questionable healthfulness of genetically engineered foods aside, this tactic made me a little sad. Despite 250 comments submitted directly to Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (part of the USDA), 229 of which begged the agency not to approve the corn, APHIS went ahead and granted Monsanto’s petition for nonregulated status for “MON 87460,” Corn Genetically Engineered for Drought Tolerance.

It’s sad, but true, I guess: the democratic process works most effectively when putting your money where your mouth is. “Whether you shop at Walmart or not, they are the largest U.S. food retailer, and if they won’t sell genetically engineered sweet corn, it’s likely that farmers won’t plant it,” points out Food & Water Watch, organizer of the most vocal campaign against the corn.

These kinds of campaigns use short, succinct summaries of the issues to grab attention and inform consumers, but if you’re interested in the details of process – how did we get here? – you can find a lot of the background information on Knowledge Mosaic.

A search for Monsanto corn on the Federal Register in Knowledge Mosaic’s Laws, Rules, and Agency Materials page gives you more than 100 documents to sift through. If you sort them to show the newest documents first, two parallel, but related, proceedings become clear.

The first is the aforementioned petition to grant MON 87460 nonregulated status: the initial notice of Monsanto’s petition came in early May of 2011, with a call for comments. It was seven months later that APHIS published their determination “that a corn line developed by the Monsanto Co. […], which has been genetically engineered for drought tolerance, is no longer considered a regulated article under our regulations .”

The second, perhaps scarier, thread shows how EPA regulations were changed to increase “the established tolerance for residues of glyphosate in or on corn.” Why? The Federal Register final rule says it plain as day: “Monsanto Company requested this tolerance under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.”

Are we, as consumers, not being loud enough, at the right time? If APHIS had received 62,364 comments expressing discontent (the number of e-signatures on Food & Water Watches petition at the time of writing) instead of only 229*, could we have nipped GE corn in the bud? APHIS did extend the comment period on the Monsanto petition, after all. Or does APHIS only answer to Monsanto?

Food for thought.


* To be fair: Three of the submitted comments opposing a determination of nonregulated status included electronic attachments that consisted either of: (1) A single letter signed by numerous people (6,335 signatures), (2) many letters containing identical material (16,742 letters), or (3) a consolidated document of comments (22,500 comments).

USDA Releases First Plant Hardiness Zone Map Since 1990

Photo by Jill Clardy. Some rights reserved.

Last week, the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, along with Oregon State University’s PRISM Climate Group, released a 2012 Plant Hardiness Zone Map, an interactive tool that displays (via colored zones) the average annual minimum winter temperature in any given area of the fifty states, using climate data collected from 1976 – 2005. With spring (well, almost) around the corner, the idea is to clue gardeners in to what plants and crops will grow most successfully in which areas of the U.S., but because this map has been long overdue (this 2012 edition is the first hardiness zone map released by the USDA since 1990), it also inadvertently makes some larger statements about climate change and the future of agriculture in our country.

The USDA press release, of course, is careful in how they point these issues out in their press release:

Compared to the 1990 version, zone boundaries in this edition of the map have shifted in many areas. The new map is generally one 5-degree Fahrenheit half-zone warmer than the previous map throughout much of the United States. This is mostly a result of using temperature data from a longer and more recent time period; the new map uses data measured at weather stations during the 30-year period 1976-2005. In contrast, the 1990 map was based on temperature data from only a 13-year period of 1974-1986.

This means that gardeners that were already in the warmest climate zones in 1990 will now find themselves in one of two newly created zones (12 & 13) on the 2012 map, which reflect areas where the average minimum temperature rarely drops below 50 degrees F (these zones only apply to Hawaii and Puerto Rico). As Geek Mom points out in a highly worthwhile blog post, this incremental increase in temperatures across the board might encourage green thumbers to introduce more non-native plants to their gardens, which in turn could throw off the balance of local ecosystems. And though the contrast between the two maps shows what might seem like proof of global warming, the USDA understandably tip-toes around the issue:

Climate changes are usually based on trends in overall average temperatures recorded over 50-100 years. Because the USDA PHZM represents 30-year averages of what are essentially extreme weather events (the coldest temperature of the year), changes in zones are not reliable evidence of whether there has been global warming.”

Regardless, it’s worth it to look at the two maps side by side and make deductions for yourself (you can also check out a nifty side by side put together by, comparing the 1990 PHZM with one they put together themselves for 2006). Plus, the new 2012 map is interactive! Click through on any state to view it in more detail!

An Encouraging Spike in Local Food Sales

Photo by Corey Templeton. Some rights reserved.

Living in Seattle can sometimes skew one’s sense of where we are as a country. At least as far as access to quality local and organic foods, it’s always seemed to me that we have it better here than most. Our farmer’s markets are a sight to behold! And they’re in every neighborhood! However, I am aware that Seattle does not own the concept of quality local foods, and that an increased national awareness of the dangers of GMOs and pesticides found in big business produce as well as a rise of urban farms and local markets must have some positive effect on the way the rest of America has been shopping.

And lo and behold! A new USDA study analyzing the 2008 Agricultural Resource Management Survey (ARMS) to assess the role of the local food market in the larger financial picture found that sales of local foods were responsible for $4.8 billion in revenue in 2008, and that we’re on course for that figure to rise to $7 billion this year. This figure takes into account all sales to local restaurants and markets, as well as expansion through farmers markets and online sales, but nevertheless, it’s an encouraging positive trend for fans of good, local food that supports small, local farms (of course local doesn’t always mean better, and it certainly doesn’t mean organic, but that’s another matter). According to the study, small farms (those with less than $50,000 in gross annual sales) accounted for 81 percent of all farms reporting local food revenue in 2008, averaging $7,800 in sales per farm. It also shows that the number of farmers markets nationwide has nearly doubled in the last decade, from 2,756 in 1998 to 5,274 in 2009.

While this data isn’t a definitive statement that the sustainable foods movement is going to triumph over Monsanto and GMOs, it does show an encouraging positive trend in the amount of consumers going direct to the source for their meats and produce. One of the biggest complaints I hear from shoppers is that the organic foods at high quality stores like Whole Foods and PCC are so expensive, and as a twenty-something with a limited grocery budget, I can certainly see where they’re coming from. But by taking advantage of farmer’s markets and/or CSA boxes, we can get great food for much cheaper, and support local farms!



Follow That Beef!

Photo by pseudoplacebo. Some rights reserved.

Late last week the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced an extension of the comment period for the proposed rule on animal disease traceability.

What proposed rule on animal disease traceability, you might ask?

The USDA press release explains it so:

Under the proposed rule, unless specifically exempted, livestock moved interstate would have to be officially identified and accompanied by an interstate certificate of veterinary inspection or other documentation, such as owner-shipper statements or brand certificates.  The proposed rule encourages the use of low-cost technology and specifies approved forms of official identification for each species, such as metal eartags for cattle.

Animal disease traceability, or knowing where diseased and at-risk animals are, where they’ve been, and when, is very important to ensure there can be a rapid response when animal disease events take place.  An efficient and accurate animal disease traceability system helps reduce the number of animals involved in an investigation, reduces the time needed to respond, and decreases the cost to producers and the government.

The comment period was extended to “allow interested persons additional time to prepare and submit comments.” However, the earlier comment deadline didn’t stop many interested persons from submitting feedback. On there are already 425 comments on the proposed rule.

Most are from farmers, like Lisa D’Alia, who share a similar sentiment:

“This id tracking regulation for livestock is unnecessary and puts an extreme burden of regulatory intrusion onto the farmer, especially in tour [sic] economic environment today.”

A handwritten and colorful note from Kerry Byme, the owner and operator of Hat Butte Ranch can be almost be deciphered to read:

“Please note that this proposed rule completely disregards U.S. livestock industry input and interests […] Your Gestapo tactics remove choice from our business and is [sic] highly reprehensible.”

At least one (self-identified) “private citizen,” Margaret Boyd, finds the regulation unnecessary:

“It is not needed as proved recently by the outbreak in the Cutting Horse world was traced easily and a country wide voluntary quarantine was handled by private citizens. It worked well as the spread was stopped.”

Another – at first glance – worries how the cost of compliance will affect her grocery bill:

“I am a local foods consumer. I am very concerned that the proposed rule will impose costs on my farmers that will then be passed on to me.”

However, the specifics of her demands suggest she does more than just shop for meat:

“Apply the requirements to breeding-age cattle only and exempt feeder cattle from all new requirements. Exempt all direct-to-slaughter cattle, both for custom and for retail sales. Recognize the brand as “official identification” among and between all states that currently have official state brand programs and “official supplementary identification” for all other states. Do not impose any new requirements for identifying poultry. There has simply been no showing that imposing new requirements on small-scale poultry operations is needed, while it will definitely cause significant harm. Provide that a physical description qualifies as an official identification method for horses without having to be approved by the health officials in the receiving State or Tribe.”

Funny that another “Local foods consumer,” Jennifer Hascall, had the exact same suggestions. In fact, a search in the comments for the exact (and ostensibly unique) phrase “Provide that a physical description qualifies as an official identification method” returns 81 distinct comments. Comment padding, anyone?

Should you like to offer some truly unique feedback, you now have until December 9, 2011, to do so.

Peak Meat

Photo by I M A U-M-N-B-N!. Some rights reserved.

“Firstly, per capita US meat consumption appears to have peaked.”

So begin the conclusions of Rabobank International Food & Agribusiness Research and Advisory (FAR) group in their recent report on meat production in the US. The accompanying graphic shows our national consumption of meat (beef, pork, and poultry) at an all time high around 2007, declining slowly in the years since.

But that’s just us. While US consumption may be declining (thanks, recession!), in other parts of the world where GDP is growing, demand for meat protein is rising. So much so that, overall, meat demand is rising globally.

The other half of the equation is production. While the report – likely commissioned for a client in the biz – focuses a bit heavily on the production outlook of specific meats for my taste (did you know breast meat inventories hit record levels in the summer of 2011?), the general conclusions are worth noting: The outlook for meat production is grim for the next year or so (which is about as far as Rabobank dares forecast), and the USDA seems to agree.

Meat production is decelerating – “implying tight supplies and high prices.”

The main offender? An increase in feed costs, due to “some of the tightest corn supplies in history.” High feed costs lead to low profitability, which in turn can lead to production cutbacks. Thus the tight supplies and high prices.

Unprecedented droughts all over the country are impacting not only the supply and price of corn, but also make watering livestock increasingly difficult. Texas (which is home to about 25 percent of the US beef cows) is experiencing “its worst drought in history.”

The report stays away from naming climate change or global warming as culprits, but, for most of us, it’s impossible not to see some sort of correlation. At least the USDA isn’t shying away from such speculation.

Given all this, one might see the decrease in US consumption as small sliver of hope: for once, could the US be a leader in something other than gross consumerism? Meat eaters, maybe it’s time to jump ship!

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