FarmPolicy

December 15, 2019

Food Safety

I. Food Safety
II. Water Runoff
III. Ag Lending
IV. Disaster Aid
V. Livestock Report

I. Food Safety

Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar reported in Monday’s Los Angeles Times that, “Recurring outbreaks of food-borne illness from contaminated produce are ‘unacceptable’ in today’s society, the government says. But when it comes to preventing new occurrences, the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t done much of the basic research that would let it write regulations to fix the problem.

“Six years after the FDA first issued general guidance to the produce industry on how it might prevent contamination from microbes such as E. coli 0157:H7, experts say federal regulators still can’t answer key questions.


Associated Press Photo

“For example, does water used for irrigating crops have to be clean enough for people to drink? And since cow manure is a common source of E. coli, how far from a cow pasture does a spinach patch have to be? Across the road? A quarter-mile away? A mile?

“‘There are no specific criteria for producers to follow, no specific criteria that can be enforced,’ said Michael R. Taylor, who as head of the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service in 1995 launched a testing program for E. coli that led to major sanitary improvements at meatpacking plants.

“Without such specifics, FDA talk of regulations to protect consumers from more outbreaks like the recent ones involving fresh spinach and Taco Bell restaurants may be little more than bureaucratic saber-rattling.”

The L.A. Times also noted that, “‘The idea of sending inspectors out right away is fairly useless, because without the basic science to set workable standards, you can’t know what will work,’ said William Hubbard, a former FDA associate commissioner for policy, planning and legislation.

“One reason for the lack of data from the FDA seems to be that its funding has not kept up with increased responsibilities and the rising cost of maintaining its professional staff.”

Concluding, the article stated that, “The incoming Democratic chairwoman of the House committee that oversees FDA funding said she was baffled that the agency had not asked congressional budget writers for more money for food safety. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), said she planned to make food safety the topic of her first hearing next year.

“‘We have to find out where we are falling down here,’ said DeLauro. ‘Is it resources, is it management, is it a combination of the two?

“‘We have to be able to prevent these outbreaks,’ she added, ‘and not just have a good response when they occur.’”

II. Water Runoff

Bettina Boxall, writing last week at the Los Angeles Times, reported that, “A dozen wild bird eggs plucked from nests on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley show how easily things can go awry when trying to clean up the region’s tainted farm drainage.

“The eggs, collected last year in fields that are part of a treatment project, contained the same lethal levels of selenium that poisoned migrating waterfowl more than two decades ago at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge near Los Banos.

“The 2005 egg contamination was the worst detected in five years of monitoring at the project, which recycles selenium-laced agricultural drain water by using it to irrigate crops.

“The results, reported to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this summer, come at a time when the agency is considering greatly expanding such reuse areas as part of a massive proposed drainage program on the valley’s west side.”

The article also noted that, “The acreage devoted to such reuse areas could grow significantly under proposals in the final stages of review by the reclamation bureau.

“The agency is under court order in a long-standing lawsuit to solve the drainage problem on about 379,000 acres of west-side farmland with a high water table. The bureau, which supplies the area with federal irrigation water, was supposed to have made a final decision this summer on how to proceed. But negotiations to settle the case have left the matter up in the air.

“In documents released this year, the reclamation bureau outlined a variety of options, favoring a complex solution that would cost nearly $1 billion. It revolves around taking most of the poorly drained land out of irrigation and converting it to dryland farming or fallowing it, a step that could cost federal taxpayers more than $700 million.

“The proposal also calls for treating drainage from land remaining in irrigation through a combination of 7,500 acres of reuse areas, high-tech filtration and nearly 1,300 acres of selenium-spiked evaporation ponds.

“But it’s likely that either a settlement or the agency’s final decision would retire less land than the Los Angeles-size chunk the bureau has proposed. Most of the acreage lies in the huge, politically powerful Westlands Water District, which opposes extensive land retirement.”

And Kenneth R. Weiss reported in Monday’s Los Angeles Times that, “Urban runoff is the fastest-growing source of ocean pollution. The storm water discharge, combined with partially treated sewage, agricultural waste, and pollution from smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes, is changing the chemistry of the seas.

“Industrial civilization is overloading the oceans with nutrients — compounds of nitrogen, carbon, iron and phosphorous. Algae, jellyfish and other primitive life-forms are thriving in this new environment, while corals, marine mammals and many fish species are struggling.

“Scientists say society has only recently begun to grasp how what happens on land affects the sea. It has taken decades to get to this point, they say, and it could take just as long to reverse the trend.”

With a more specific look at agricultural production and water issues, the L.A. Times stated that, “Dykstra Dairy is in the vanguard of a movement to clean up waste from livestock compounds. The goal is to keep the nitrogen-rich waste out of creeks, rivers and ultimately oceans.

“It’s an unusual chore on a dairy farm otherwise preoccupied with maximizing milk production, said Lambooy, the co-owner. Nowadays, he said, ‘there is a lot more attention on the rear end of the cow.’

“A great deal more attention is being paid to all types of agricultural runoff. That includes the stuff that washes out of feedlots in rainstorms and off farms.

“One of the toughest tasks has been to discourage the excessive use of cheap chemical fertilizer, which is manufactured by stripping nitrogen out of the air and altering its chemistry.

“Although such fertilizer has brought America an unprecedented bounty of corn and other crops, it has also caused serious damage to the oceans by creating ‘dead zones.’”

And with respect to Midwestern grain production, the article indicated that, “Midwestern farmers worry that springtime conditions may be too wet to allow them to apply fertilizer and work the land.

“Farmers know that too little fertilizer — just like too little water — can limit the growth of their crops. To reduce their risk of decreased corn yields, they apply more fertilizer than crops need. That increases the amount of nitrogen that comes off their land.

“None of this is a surprise to the EPA, which spent four years developing a plan to shrink the ‘dead zone.’ The plan was finished in 2001. But little progress has been made putting it into action.

“The EPA has the power under the Clean Water Act to mandate reductions in agricultural and urban waste entering the Mississippi — something it has been reluctant to do.”

Near the end of the article, Mr. Weiss linked up the environmental concerns with the debate of U.S. domestic farm policy, explaining that, “One way to ease the effect of agricultural waste on the oceans would be to restore some of the millions of acres of marshes and streamside forests that absorbed and recycled nitrogen before the land was cleared for farms.

“Scientists in Ohio and Louisiana estimated that if just 2% of strategically located farmland in the Mississippi drainage basin were returned to wetlands, it would significantly reduce the nitrogen that races into the Gulf of Mexico.

“The U.S. Department of Agriculture encourages such restoration, and the idea has proved popular with farmers. Yet thousands of those willing to set aside wetlands or plant buffers of grass and trees are turned away each year because of a shortage of funds.”

III. Ag Lending

Steve Jordan reported in Tuesday’s Omaha World-Herald that, “The American division of a Dutch banking cooperative tried to take a giant step into the Midwestern agriculture market two years ago, without success.

“Since then, Rabobank Group has quietly built a force of 30 loan officers in Nebraska and Iowa. Its corporate lenders seek out large agribusinesses, including ConAgra Foods and Valmont Industries in Omaha. Its California bank is equipping some Midlands farmsteads with electronic banking devices.

“And the company, which bills itself as the premier U.S. agriculture bank, keeps its wallet open in case an attractive farm-oriented bank comes up for sale in the agriculture-rich region that stretches from Texas to the Dakotas.

“‘Every banker wants to do business with Midwestern farmers,’ said Cor Broekhuyse, head of U.S. operations for Rabobank. ‘They’re very good operators. They have nice balance sheets.

“‘In the long term, we believe in agriculture in the Midwest.’”

Mr. Jordan also noted that, “Broekhuyse isn’t negotiating to buy a Midwestern bank and has no timetable or geographic target for a purchase. In California’s agricultural areas, by contrast, Rabobank has acquired two banks since 2002 and has another pending.

“‘You always look at Iowa, you look at Nebraska, Missouri, that area,’ Broekhuyse said. ‘But we have a lot of Texas clients as well. It’s a bit hard to say.’

“For other banks, a retail Rabobank in the Midlands would simply add to the competitive agricultural market, said Mark Hesser, president of the Midlands’ largest ag-specialty bank, Pinnacle Bank of Papillion.

“‘Pinnacle always welcomes smart competition,’ Hesser said. ‘We’d welcome Rabobank to the market, as they have a respected operation. I have no fears, I have no reservations, that would result from Rabobank acquiring a bank that’s already in our market.’”

IV. Disaster Aid

On December 22, Senator Ben Nelson (D-Nebraska) posted an update at The Hill Blog, where he stated that, “Establishing a system to mitigate the damage of drought is an exciting step forward for our farmers and ranchers. Unfortunately, the past damage of this drought still lingers in many areas of the country and I will renew my efforts to pass a needed multi-billion dollar emergency drought assistance package in the upcoming 110th Congress.”

V. Livestock Report

The editorial board at The New York Times noted yesterday that, “When you think about the growth of human population over the last century or so, it is all too easy to imagine it merely as an increase in the number of humans. But as we multiply, so do all the things associated with us, including our livestock. At present, there are about 1.5 billion cattle and domestic buffalo and about 1.7 billion sheep and goats. With pigs and poultry, they form a critical part of our enormous biological footprint upon this planet.

“Just how enormous was not really apparent until the publication of a new report, called ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow,’ by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“Consider these numbers. Global livestock grazing and feed production use ‘30 percent of the land surface of the planet.’ Livestock — which consume more food than they yield — also compete directly with humans for water. And the drive to expand grazing land destroys more biologically sensitive terrain, rain forests especially, than anything else.”

Concluding, the Times stated that, “There are no easy trade-offs when it comes to global warming — such as cutting back on cattle to make room for cars. The human passion for meat is certainly not about to end anytime soon. As ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ makes clear, our health and the health of the planet depend on pushing livestock production in more sustainable directions.”

-Keith Good

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