Atop news that consolidation was occurring in the ethanol-refining business, as two Nebraska ethanol plants went on the block as part of bankruptcy proceedings against Abengoa Bioenergy, Investor's Business Daily marked the 11th anniversary of the federal Renewable Fuel Standard with an editorial from the oil industry demanding its end. Signed into law by President George W. Bush as part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, the Renewable Fuel Standard requires refiners to blend increasing amounts of biofuels into new options for consumers at the pump. Despite sparking billions of dollars in U.S. investments and helping reduce dependence on foreign oil, the RFS remains an obviously complex and contentious issue, as the IBD editorial testifies. Clarity around RFS is important to retailers not only because of the implications for grocer's food costs, but also because of questions of whether ethanol mandates increase or decrease the cost of the gasoline most grocers now rely upon for sales or rewards programs.
Passage by both houses of Congress this month of the first nationwide law to require foods containing genetically modified ingredients to be labeled was supposed to quell the anti-GMO "food transparency" voices and pre-empt the feared financial disaster that patchwork state-to-state labeling laws could bring with it.
Yet the ink had hardly dried on the 63-to-30 Senate bill, which split Nebraska’s U.S. Senators who argued in voting both for and against that they were doing so to protect farmers, before critics complained it didn't go far enough to guard against the "unknown dangers" of genetic modification. Their issue now? "Genetic editing." It turns out this more-promising form of biotechnology, known as "genetically edited organisms," likely won't fall under the requirements of the new federal legislation.
Here's the difference:
Genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are organisms that have had their genetic material altered by artifically inserting genes from a different species into them. The most famous (or infamous, depending on your stance) example—now shown to be mostly urban myth—was Monsanto's reported attempt to insert genetic material from flounder into tomatoes in order to increase their frost tolerance. That's the kind of shock value biotechnology opponents built into the term "GMO" in order to further their demands for labeling legislation and other regulatory controls.
GEOs are organisms that have had a portion of their DNA altered without including foreign genetics. Made possible by the modern ability to "map" all genes in an organism and identify which of those control both negative and positive traits, genetic editing has proven itself in research and human medicine. Now, aided by easy and cheap technology like the most common, known as Crispr-Cas9, GEO is now being tested in agriculture to precisely edit plant and animal genes to control pests, improve important production traits, and even improve environmental impact.
Unlike past technology that often inserted entire genes or long DNA strands into organisms, Cirspr-Cas9 uses special protein enzymes to snip out only the specific DNA segment that controls the trait in question, replacing it with "knockouts" that repair the DNA minus the specific segment, causing it to either nullify unwanted traits or express desired ones. For instance, phytate is a compound common in corn that reduces a pig's ability to absorb the mineral phosphorus. As a result, much of the phosphorus in pig feed passes through the animal without being used, ending up as a potential pollutant in streams and lakes. Using genetic editing, researchers have been able to snip out the specific gene that causes the final step in phytate production in corn, interrupting the process and creating a corn that will improve phosphorus use and therefore reduce phosphorus pollution.
A recent commentary in the journal Nature Genetics by molecular geneticists from China's Agricultural Genomics Institute argues important differences between GMO and GEO technology mean they should not be regulated the same. As the journal's editors point out in an editorial in the same issue, "A distinction must be established, particularly in the public sphere, between [the two]."
"There is no reason to regulate [GEO]s with gene knockouts or nucleotide variants that either have been documented to exist within crop species or closely related wild species or that can reasonably be expected to arise by spontaneous mutation," the Chinese researchers write. "Because such genetic stocks could in principle...be generated by conventional breeding or random mutagenesis, they should be considered the same as those used in conventional breeding, which are not regulated."
"The potential benefits of [GEO]s should not be impeded as a result of misinformation, so disclosure and education are the best ways to promote sound policies," the journal editors urge. "Scientists will be more trusted if we deploy technology where it is most needed."
In late June, more than 100 Nobel laureates went even further, publishing a letter reprinted by the Washington Post extolling the benefits of biotechnology, demanding Greenpeace end its campaign targeting biotechnology, and calling it a "crime against humanity" to stand in the way of GMOs needed in agriculture to prevent global starvation.
“The scientific consensus," the laureates' letter in the Post said, "is that gene editing in a laboratory is not more hazardous than modifications through traditional breeding and that engineered plants potentially have environmental or health benefits, such as cutting down on the need for pesticides."
But the kind of concensus the scientists call for remains elusive, if comments on the House floor from Representative Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) during debate on the new labeling legislation are any indication. McGovern argued the law is “not what’s in the interest of the American consumer, but what a few special interests want. Every American has a fundamental right to know what’s in the food they eat.”
The Huffington Post echoed the theme, saying the labeling law "is likely to only breed more consumer skepticism about GMOs" because it doesn't simply say whether or not a food is “made with genetic engineering.”
“It's very simple," Representative McGovern argued in his floor speech. "The best approach would be a clear and easy-to-understand label or symbol, not some crazy QR code that only creates more hassle and confusion.”
But as Farmer Goes to Market has reported before, this latest confusion over terminology regarding biotechnology is no less nonsensical than the entire broad-brush "GMO" term. An Oklahoma State survey, for instance, showed that more than 80 percent of Americans support mandatory labels on "foods containing DNA.” All foods, except perhaps bottled water, contain DNA. Similar work by the same researchers found consumers were nearly equal in their desire for GMO labeling as they were for labeling fruit ripened by the process of using atmospheric ethylene, the common and completely safe ripening process using the same effect you take advantage of when you put a banana in a paper bag to ripen it quicker. Their conclusion? When you start including vague terms on a label, it introduces a level of concern that may have little or nothing to do with the real risks of the process or ingredient being labeled.
The legislation now sits on President Obama's desk. Obama is expected to sign it.
Bloomberg Politics reports in early June several sources within the nation's dairy industry are fearful that presumed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's promise to build an immigration-tight wall between Mexico and the southern United States would cause the nation's milk-producing farms in particular to suffer.
Trump’s immigration stance “scares the hell out me,” Wisconsin farmer and president of the state's Dairy Business Association Gordon Speirs told Bloomberg.
The fact our state is better known for beef cattle masks the reality that some 55,000 dairy cows generate more than 100 million gallons of milk and roughly $275 million a year in economic activity. How vulnerable would those Nebraska dairies be to a potential loss of migrant labor? A 2015 study by Texas A&M pointed how reliant the dairy industry is on immigrant labor, which is often here off the books:
In addition to those direct losses, indirect productivity losses also can be assumed. Although dairy farm workers on average are paid well above minimum wage--one study showed average annual equivalent compensation of $34,443--and dairy farms that hire immigrant labor pay higher average wages than farms that do not hire immigrants, the reality that those illegal immigrant workers often work in the shadows causes productivity losses. One study, reported by Farmer Goes to Market here, suggested farm employers often avoid issues caused by facing a worker deportation, by refraining from promoting immigrant workers into more advanced and publicly visible positions. They also typically refrain from training and granting responsibilities to unauthorized immigrant workers or promote them to positions that require them to have insurance for fear they might lose that investment if the workers were arrested for immigration violations.
Whether Trump's plan to wall off Mexican immigration comes to fruition or not, the labor outlook for America's farms doesn't look good, according to an analysis by University of California Davis, titled The End of Farm Labor Abundance. In it, the ag economists suggest demographic data from rural Mexico shows the same shift out of farm work that occurred in U.S. labor history is well underway in Mexico. At the same time, demand for agricultural labor in Mexico is also rising. That means U.S. agriculture will compete with Mexican farms for a dwindling supply of farm labor. The decline in foreign labor available to man U.S. farms will ultimately drive them to find ways to save labor and switch to less labor-intensive crops and technologies--all as they pay higher costs.
Promises by former Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman in 2010 to "kick their butt out of Nebraska" notwithstanding, the Washington, D.C., animal-rights group Humane Society of the United States is back in the state, and back big. And its appearance is building some friction between farmers here.
HSUS chose Lincoln to announce in early May it was forming a national agriculture advisory council, to create an umbrella group for its 11 similar state agriculture advisory councils. Small boards of farmers from within the state whose members "share the principles" of the organization, the state councils are made up of "farmers, producers and agriculture professionals who believe in compassionate, responsible farming," according to the society. The councils are centered in midwestern farm states where HSUS has attempted to influence legislation and place ballot initiatives to force changes in animal agriculture over the last decade.
HSUS' new national council will be headed by Litchfield organic farmer Kevin Fulton, who said through an HSUS press release, "We are fully committed to working with The HSUS to improve the welfare of farm animals in a way that benefits not only the animals, but the family farmer, the consumer and our environment.”
“I think a lot of us [farmers] have common ground and common values with the organization,” Fulton told WNAX radio in Yankton.
But Fulton's fellow farmers in Nebraska are skeptical.
"Our coalition was formed actually to combat the Humane Society of the United States and organizations like [it]," said Ansley Mick, Executive Director of We Support Agriculture, a Nebraska coalition of the livestock-producer groups in the state. "Most growers would agree they represent the No. 1 threat to animal agriculture in Nebraska and, frankly, in the U.S." With $135.5 million in revenue and $214 million in assets, HSUS has very deep pockets, Mick told Nebraska Rural Radio Network, and they have shadowy ties to misinformation campaigns about animal agriculture and more radical animal-rights groups, including those that create inflammatory "undercover" cruelty videos aimed at giving animal production a black eye.
"We've been telling people all along this is not the organization you think it is. Their actual goal here is to end animal agriculture. Their forming councils like this sort of solidifies our argument."
Not so, says the Nebraska state director for HSUS, Jocelyn Nickerson. "I want to set the record straight," she writes in a letter to the Lincoln Journal Star. " The Humane Society of the United States wants more traditional farmers on the land, not fewer." Nickerson argues the "industrial factory farming processors" have caused a 96 percent drop in the number of Nebraska pig farms in the last 50 years.
"Maybe it's time for a different approach—one that puts our farmers, our communities, the land, the environment and the concerns of our customers first for a change," she writes.
But the new conciliation likely marks only a change in strategy for the long-time advocate for reducing consumption of meat, milk, eggs, leather, commercially bred pets and other products of animal agriculture. When controversial HSUS head Wayne Pacelle last publicly appeared in Nebraska in 2013, he signaled a similar change in direction for the organization, from pushing legislation to end objectionable farming practices like the use of gestation crates that pig farmers typically use to manage pregnant animals toward high-visibility PR shaming campaigns to force big food manufacturers and retailers to do it for them. "[Legislation] is entirely unnecessary,” he assured the Lincoln Journal Star at the time, “because the market atmosphere has overtaken gestation crate issues.”
Despite an absence of any meaningful research that demonstrates real consumer demand for an end to the practice—except that research created by the association in order to support its mission—retailers do appear to be proving Pacelle correct: The market may be changing to favor the HSUS position that many mainline farm organizations continue to see as simply the first shot in further restrictions on agriculture. Agriculture interests consider such "market driven" tactics as simply another means by which HSUS hopes to make animal farming so financially burdensome as to make it ultimately unsustainable in present form.
Groups like Nebraska's We Support Agriculture argue that despite what HSUS and Pacelle say, they see collaboration by retailers and fringe farm groups like the Nebraska Farmers Union as an unhealthy alliance that will ultimately damage the financial viability of Nebraska's food system, not just for the large farms Nickerson and HSUS in general currently uses as a whipping boy, but for small farms and other chain members, as well.
“If the HSUS is really intent on working with farmers," writes a San Antonio lawyer who advocates for animal-use freedom in horse issues, Randy Janssen, in a Facebook post, "the first thing it should do is get rid of [avowed vegan HSUS spokesmen Pacelle and Paul Shapiro]. These men destroy any credibility the HSUS has with meat producers. Then the HSUS should disavow Meatless Monday. If the HSUS does not, then it truly is just a vegan cult that wants to shut down animal production in the US."
Two related legislative actions this session attemped to get their hands around the issue of "food deserts" in Nebraska, those areas the U.S. Department of Agriculture has deemed are under-served by retail outlets capable of providing healthy, affordable food, leaving residents there at higher risk of obesity and other diet-related health problems. Lincoln Senator Matt Hansen's LB 945 would have directed $150,000 annually for the next two years toward economic-development grants aimed not only grocery stores, but also farmers’ markets, food cooperatives and community gardens. LB 945 stalled in committee, based on the objections of, among others, NGIA Executive Secretary Kathy Siefken, who argued the bill could actually exacerbate the problem it was meant to solve. Funding food cooperatives or farmers’ markets that compete with small rural grocery stores operating on already thin margins, she said, could drive even more retail outlets out of business.
Hansen followed up with another resolution, minus the pricetage, calling for the legislature's ag committee to study the issue and report back to the legislature along with recommendations. The study would look at existing scientific literature and consult with experts to identify factors that limit access to healthy, affordable food, look for public and private initiatives that can stimulate private investment in grocery and "other food-sourcing enterprises," inventory public and private money to combat the problem, and examine the role of public and private stakeholders in the issue.
The idea of food deserts, as Farmer Goes to Market has reported before, has an intuitive attraction, according to University of Arkansas ag economist Di Zeng. With a supermarket difficult to get to in those areas, residents presumably obtain and consume more energy-dense, unhealthy foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants, resulting in poorer diet quality and more obesity. It's a narrative that's become conventional wisdom in the new food movement and was reflected in Hansen's comments in support of the initial funding bill. USDA says millions of Americans now live within one of these low-income pockets of limited food access, and Hansen claims 325,000 Nebraskans live in such food deserts, disproportionately affecting low-income and minority communities.
But how certain are those numbers?
An extensive review of the literature in the May 2015 issue of the journal Applied Economic Perspectives and Policy attempts a more exhaustive examination of the reasons why nobody has yet successfully established a meaningful definition of food deserts nor even how to measure one. Even the definition of what it means to lack access to healthy food remains elusive. In the review, a team of economists from USDA argue too much of the focus has been placed on the amount of distance between healthy food sources and low-income citizens, and too much attention has been paid to the resources consumers have to get to stores and buy once there. Their list of what's wrong with measuring food deserts includes these holes:
Focusing only on low-income areas and neighborhoods implies that everyone in the same area has the same access to healthy food, which isn't necessarily true. And because results can be easily changed by the way the geographic data is sliced, it's often too easy to juggle the numbers to correlate with the outcome you want, the researchers say. Although some individual-level measures of food access like Gallup Polls have been tried and "are a step in the right direction," the need for more individualized data about food access is still lacking.
Although the intentions may be good in targeting public dollars to areas that may have high concentrations of individuals who face food access barriers, the poverty level of a neighborhood doesn't always accurately predict supermarket proximity. In fact, the review authors note, because higher-income areas are typically less population-dense than low-income ones, poorer residents within those higher-income blocks could be more likely to be too far from a healthy food retail outlet. Using some of the current estimates, in fact, of the estimated 2.3 million households that are located more than one mile from a supermarket and do not have a vehicle to get there, 1.4 million live in moderate- and higher-income areas, while only 900,000 are in low-income areas
One of the most important holes in the research that leads to criticism of food-desert definitions is the uncertainty whether relatively poorer access to healthy food sources really translates into inadequate access. For example, one relative measure of poor food access compares the relative square footage of grocery retail space per person in a neighborhood against with the average square footage of grocery retail space per person for a whole city. In order to justify such a relative measure of access as meaingful, you have to assume that having relatively unequal access to healthy food means anything in terms of absolute deprivation of access to healthy foods. We really don't know whether those two follow, the researchers argue.
Over-generalized and sweeping definitions of poor food access by geography brush aside vast differences across the country in factors we know affect food access: factors like population density, vehicle availability, natural and man-made barriers to access and availability of roads, sidewalks and public transportation, to name only a few. For example, under USDA's original definition of food desert, people in rural areas must be 10 miles from a store before they are considered low-access, while in urban areas the distance is only 1 mile. Rural populations as a whole may have greater access to vehicles, but USDA's measure does not consider vehicle availability. Obviously, any household in a rural area without a vehicle and located more than one mile from a store would likely have just as much trouble accessing food as their urban counterpart, yet they would not be considered in a food desert by that definition.
One of the common food-desert measurements, square footage of grocery per capita in an area--typically less than 3 square feet of grocery retail per person--may be one of the most meaningless. It assumes availability of healthy food falls when square footage falls, which is not a safe assumption, they argue. What if store space grows for a region, for example, but more space is devoted to non-grocery goods or larger-sized products? In fact, according to one study they cite, that 3-square-feet food-desert threshold would mean the entire city of New York qualifies as food desert.
Methods of measuring food deserts that compare estimated demand within an area against actual grocery sales are likely to underestimate the real need in some areas even while overestimating the need in others.
To be useful in making policy decisions, food-desert distinctions have to eventually be turned into actionable numbers, they note. Yet how the meaningful numbers are distinguished from the trivial ones are "not always obvious." Distinctions like distance from a store and vehicle availability "may be reaonsable from an empirical standpoint," they write, "may have precedent in literature, and may be conceptually straightforward; but they are, ultimately, judgments."
Attempts to gauge the level and importance of food deserts are hampered by general limitations like availability of accurated lists of stores in an area, vast differences in food offerings across stores, presence of non-traditional outlets like dollar stores and pharmacies, and the reality that low-income shoppers in low-access areas may be just like all other consumers--they may shop where food is cheapest and not where the analysis says they should. All those factors confound attempts to easily define a food desert and its meaning.