Farmers vs. foodies

Inside the long-running tension between those who want to fix the food system and those who don’t think it’s broken. Why there are low expectations for the FDA foods review. USDA to launch nutrition initiative to support cancer ‘moonshot’

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Today, in Food Fix:

– Inside the long-running tension between those who want to fix the food system and those who don’t think it’s broken. 

– Why there are such low expectations for the FDA foods review 

– USDA to launch nutrition initiative to support cancer ‘moonshot’


Farmers vs. foodies

I get a lot of books about food and agriculture in the mail, mostly from publishers and sometimes from authors, and I hate to admit that I don’t read most of them. It’s not just that there isn’t time – have I mentioned I have a toddler? – but I already spend my days reading about these topics. I have stacks of wonderful books I might hope to read at some point, maybe.

When attorney Ray Starling, who served as chief of staff at USDA during the Trump administration, sent me his new self-published book about the “epic battle” between food reformers and the agriculture industry, I opened it immediately and read through most of it within a day or two, dog-earing pages as I went. 

Farmers versus foodies: A look at the outside forces forcing the future of farming and food,” doesn’t dish as much as I hoped it would about Starling’s time at USDA and the White House, where he served as a special assistant to the president on agriculture issues. There is a wild recounting of his and then-Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue’s role in persuading President Donald Trump to not abruptly withdraw from NAFTA – it involves the two of them showing up to the West Wing of the White House without an appointment and talking their way into the Oval Office (p. 147) – but the book isn’t really about what happened during the Trump era. It’s an agricultural lawyer’s take on the growing divide between people who believe the food system is deeply broken and the farmers who are genuinely confused about why consumers would want to upend the status quo during a time of unprecedented food abundance in the U.S.

“We have critics, as any major industry does, and many of them are bright, energetic and driven to create change,” Starling told me in an interview. “But at the end of the day, true leadership for the industry has to come from within it – from people who understand agriculture, who sometimes swell with pride about the nobility of the cause, and who also admit there are some things we can do better. The folks who want a ‘revolution’ concern me. And they appear to be the ones gaining ground.”

Starling comes from a decidedly pro-industry position, which will likely frustrate those who are working to reimagine the food system. But whether you agree with him or not, this strikes me as an important conversation that’s too often happening in one echo chamber or the other. I recently talked to Starling about the book.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Food Fix: In the opening of the book, you describe a ‘horrible’ meeting between Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and then-CEO of the Consumer Brands Association, Geoff Freeman. Perdue basically asked the group (which represents food companies) to help defend production agriculture to consumers, and Freeman straight-up declined, arguing that it’s not their role. Why did you start with that anecdote?

Starling: I was in a lot of meetings, and it was one of the most memorable – it ended as poorly as any meeting I’ve been in that was meant to be a ‘friendly.’ So I started with it because I think it tees up the notion that we as aggies, as producers – the farmer side – we don’t really understand what the other side doesn’t get. It frustrates us. We think they ought to help us and you know, [the Grocery Manufacturers Association], they have been through that – they know better. They were like, ‘no.’ [GMA renamed itself the Consumer Brands Association in 2020 after a mass exodus of members.]

I really thought the meeting summed up the tension well. For me, it was also the realization that the cavalry is not coming. We’re not going to be able to outsource influencing the future of farming and food. We’re going to have to do it ourselves. It was really an ‘aha’ moment for me.

I went and caught [Geoff] after the meeting. He was white in the face. He looked at me and said: ‘What did I do wrong?’ And, you know, the truth of the matter is that if that’s where his organization was, he didn’t do anything wrong – it’s just not what we were expecting.

You can certainly understand why food companies don’t see it as their role to defend agriculture, or to defend really any specific production practices, whether it’s GMOs, or pesticides, or whatever it is. They have to respond to changing consumer preferences and tastes, full stop, and fighting back against GMO labeling several years ago tore the industry apart. 

Yes. In that meeting, Geoff said, ‘We’re going to get out of this,’ and then he moved his hand up in the air and said, ‘We’re going to go here, and work on trucking and supply chain issues.’ It wasn’t particularly fun for Secretary Perdue to be told ‘no.’

I think the agriculture industry, probably more so than most other industries, really feels under siege. When I talk to farmers they often take criticisms of the food system very personally. The criticisms are not meant to be personal, but they take them personally. I think this comes out in your narrative in the book, too. You grew up on a farm and it’s clear you take some of this criticism personally. 

Yeah, absolutely. The interesting thing is that at the same time agriculture has that chip on their shoulder, simultaneously, we’ve also got just a copious amount of pride and belief, that God’s on our side, that we are saving the country – and I’m not belittling that. Some of that is actually true. I do think many of our advantages as a country are because we have such a reliable food source, no doubt about that. But isn’t it ironic that we seem to have that chip on our shoulder, in unison, but then we are also so proud? It’s almost like two different personalities. You either have a lot to be proud of or you have something to apologize for, and you can’t really do both at the same time.

We normally just get mad at the criticism and say we have to tell our story. It drives me crazy, the phrase ‘We just need to tell our story.’ If you’re not careful, you’re going to be over here talking to yourself and you’re not actually going to meet the criticism in the forums where it matters. [Starling points to various forums where foodies and reformers are gaining more influence, from banking and finance to the media and also internationally.]

If we keep having farm city week dinners and giving away the Farm Credit hats and just saying ‘Wasn’t that great?’, they’re going to run circles around us. I mean, they are running circles around us in those forums.

In the book, you don’t really get into the merits of the argument from the ‘foodie’ side, which contends that the current food system is simply unsustainable, built on exploited labor, fueling large-scale pollution and poor health outcomes, and so on. Is your aim to defend the farmer side, or more to make sure that farmers understand what they are up against?  

It was meant more to be a wake up call – that you better be in the same rooms they’re in. Because it seems to me that the prevailing view from thought leaders is not that agriculture needs to be slightly improved or meticulously fine-tuned, it’s that we’ve got to start over. And that really is dangerous.

We have got to keep the 90 percent of ‘good’ elements we’ve got and fix the last 10 percent. The people that are lauding the loudest criticism have never fed anybody. I just think they’re being so much more strategic about how they push that narrative.

You write about the modern farm bill being the result of a ‘shotgun wedding’ between farm programs and food stamps (AKA the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). That marriage has been really tested over the years. Nutrition spending is now 85 percent of farm bill spending. How does the farm bill continue to work in this increasingly tense environment? 

I don’t know how you get a farm bill with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate. Frankly, even if Republicans were in charge of both, I don’t know how you’d get a farm bill next year. How in the world?


Low expectations for FDA foods review 

Key stakeholders are awaiting the release of the Reagan-Udall Foundation’s review of the FDA’s foods program – which is expected next week – but they’re not expecting the report to be especially hard-hitting. 

I moderated a panel on FDA, food safety and the new Congress this week hosted by Invariant, a government relations firm that does a lot of food and agriculture work, and the panelists were uniformly glum about what’s likely to come out of that report.

Here’s a quick sampling: 

Steven Mandernach, executive director of the Association of Food and Drug Officials: “We’re not expecting a lot… While I’m hoping it’s better than I expect, my expectation is that it’s going to be a little bit more like [the reality show] Trading Spaces. We might paint a few rooms, move some furniture around from another room, but we’re probably not going to move any walls or do the substantive changes we probably need in the organization.”

Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports: “It’s going to kind of address some issues around the fringes. We’re not going to be looking at wholesale changes… I would equate the Reagan-Udall report, to use a college sports analogy, as the booster club looking at the athletic program to find out if there’s any ethics violations. You know, we’ll pretend to take it seriously, but really, we’re not going to be looking at anything meaningful.”

Jennifer McEntire, chief food safety and regulatory officer at International Fresh Produce Association: “Hopefully this is a useful first step, but I think we’re all anticipating that we’re going to have to put more work into this process in order to help the agency help us and help consumers.”

Context: The foundation’s review comes as the agency has been under intense pressure to reform its food program, in part due to a months-long infant formula crisis and a lot of questions about dysfunction within the agency. Brush up on how Washington is getting brutally honest about what’s not working at FDA, and read more about the origin of the outside review here

The Reagan-Udall Foundation has said the review will offer recommendations to help “equip FDA to better carry out its regulatory responsibilities, strengthen its relationships with state and local governments, and secure the nation’s food supply for the future.” The report is expected on Dec. 6.


USDA to launch nutrition initiative to support cancer ‘moonshot’

USDA is planning a new research initiative to support the Biden administration’s cancer moonshot “to end cancer as we know it by accelerating the preventative science and research necessary to improve nutrition in support of better health outcomes for all Americans.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Chavonda Jacobs-Young, USDA’s chief scientist and undersecretary for research, education and economics, are formally announcing the initiative in a virtual event on Monday. 

The USDA notice for the event cites a World Cancer Research Fund estimate that between 30 and 50 percent of all cancer cases are “preventable by following a healthy diet and lifestyle.” 

As part of the event, a panel of food and nutrition security experts will discuss the role that nutrition plays in improving overall health and reducing risks for diet-related chronic diseases.

Tune in: The virtual event will be held Dec. 5 at 9 a.m. ET. You can sign up to attend here

Nutrition moonshot:  While we’re here, there’s a new op-ed this morning in STAT from Bill Frist and Dariush Mozaffarian calling for a “national nutrition science moonshot.”

“Despite this pressing need for more information, relative funding for nutrition research has remained flat for more than 40 years, even as diet-related diseases have skyrocketed,” they write.


What I’m reading

Freight rail strike averted, after frenzied negotiations (Politico). This mainbar lays out how Washington scrambled to get the House and Senate to intervene to avert a rail strike, which would have been extremely harmful for the food and agriculture sectors in particular. A bid to add paid sick leave to the package failed in the Senate.

Why America’s railroads refuse to give their workers paid leave (New York Magazine). This piece goes into depth on the question a lot of people have been asking lately: Wait, why is a dispute over a relatively small number of sick days threatening the entire U.S. economy? 

Biden state dinner serves up lobster à la controversy (NBC). The White House served Maine lobster at the French state dinner on Thursday night, a choice that raised eyebrows after two major seafood watchdog groups urged consumers to avoid the seafood over concerns about endangered right whales. Whole Foods recently announced it would stop selling the products. “The Office of the First Lady, which oversees the state dinner preparations, did not respond to a request for comment.”

Popeyes, Wingstop, others step up chicken offerings as poultry prices drop (Wall Street Journal). Chicken prices have dramatically declined in recent months, after major companies ramped up supply, and it’s led more restaurants to put more chicken products on their menus. 

Reckitt expects U.S. infant formula shortage until spring (Reuters). This piece cites a top infant formula executive from Reckitt who says they “suspect” that the disruption in the U.S. infant formula market will continue “to some degree until the spring resets.” The executive said Enfamil remains the No. 1 formula brand in the U.S., with just over 50 percent of market share, having overtaken longtime leader Similac (made by Abbott) after the latter company weathered a massive recall last year.


Who’s who

Gina Plata-Nino has been named the Food Research & Action Center’s deputy director for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Plata-Nino previously worked with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.


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