July 28, 2010

Anti-smoking Spending is Down and Obesity Spending is Up. So?

Large woman smoking(toby_otter/Flickr)Obesity and smoking prevention campaigns are increasingly fighting over funding. The New York Times documents the drop in money from foundations, federal sources, and statehouses. According to one report, state-funded anti-smoking programs decreased from $717 million two years ago, to $567 million last year.

Well-known nutritionist Marion Nestle, who has been tracking this issue for some time, responded on her blog that "Health should not be a zero-sum game," and recommended cooperation between advocates of the two issues.

Much money is still being spent on smoking prevention, clearly, and anti-smoking laws and cigarette taxes keep the "price" of smoking high. Yet the national smoking rate appears to be stuck at 20%.

But pulling back on obesity prevention, and/or demanding funding equity for these two public health issues may not be the best course.

Political scientist (and, full disclosure, an old friend of mine) James Fowler of the University of California, San Diego has some interesting thoughts about all this. He and his Harvard Medical School collaborator, Dr. Nicholas Christakis, have published studies of both smoking [PDF] and obesity [PDF] from the perspective of social networks, i.e. how smokers' and the obese's social relationships interact. Their work resulted in the startling conclusion that obesity is "contagious."

The basis for their research is the Framingham Heart study, a dataset that tracked a large group of individuals' relationships and habits for more than 30 years. Fowler and Christakis found that people stopped smoking in groups, and then pushed smokers out to the edge of their networks.

As a result, smokers tend to cluster; i.e. they stop hanging out with non-smokers. This means that the social pressure on smokers dissipates -- and they can use their solidarity to withstand the outside pressure that does exist. As Fowler described the effect to NPR, using the metaphor of people at a party: "[B]y the end of the party, by the end of our 32-year study, the people in the center of the room are not smoking. And the people who continue to smoke have been literally pushed to the outside of the party, so that they're in places where they're only connected to one or two other people."

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July 27, 2010

House Ag Committee to USDA: Take your Reform and Shove It!

In June, the USDA released an update to the rules that govern how poultry are sold. It's complicated stuff, but the goal is to eliminate monopolistic practices among large processors and producers.

chickens(USDA photo)As USDA Chief Tom Vlisack commented at the time, the new rules are designed to create "a fair and more transparent relationship between the folks on the farm and the businesses that are packing and processing what’s raised on the farm."

An analysis [PDF] by the Organization for Competitive Markets, a group dedicated to reducing monopolistic practices in agriculture, claimed that the new rules were relatively simple, and at four pages blissfully short (at least by bureaucratic standards).

They mostly consist of requirements to use standard definitions in contracts. The updated rules would also allow growers to sue processors over unfair practices, without having to prove that the processors are stifling competition generally.

Naturally, industry groups have gone bananas at the idea that the playing field might be leveled for small producers. There has been a whirlwind of lobbying activity against the rules, which according to a Capitol Hill source, has simply not been matched by supporters of the new rules.

The agribusiness outrage culminated in a bizarre scene at a House Agriculture Subcommittee hearing yesterday, during which virtually every member -- Democrat and Republican -- eviscerated USDA Undersecretary Edward Avalos over the proposed rules. The Progressive Farmer Ag Policy editor Chris Clayton offered a taste (free sub req'd) of what he referred to as the "can of Whoop *&%" that was emptied on the head of poor Avalos, in particular by Livestock, Dairy, and Poulty Subcommittee Chair Democrat David Scott of Georgia:

Scott said USDA officials had "very, very seriously overstepped their boundaries ... " [and included] provisions ... that "were soundly rejected" by the House Agriculture Committee, the House, the Senate, and conference committee during the 2008 farm bill debate.

"And for you and the department to arbitrarily go against the wishes and the intent of Congress is a serious --- It is what Shakespeare said when he referred to, 'And to Brutus, yours was the meanest cut of all' --- that's what this has done. That's why you have heard the passion, the disappointment that was registered by both sides of the aisle against this proposed rule."

Scott said the least USDA could do is extend the comment period for the proposed rule another 60 days to 120 days "so we that know there is some discussion within the industry."

He wasn't alone. Rep. Jim Costa (D-Calif.) suggested that the new rule is "a lawyer's field day to sue." Rep. Jim Minnick (D-Idaho) simply called the proposed rule "silly."

For the record, the talk of extending the comment period on the rule has nothing to do with improving the rule and everything to do with giving industry more time to water down if not kill it. Ah, the House Ag Committee. Where reform goes to die.

Was there anyone who spoke out in favor of added protections for small farmers? Sort of. Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Iowa) meekly observed that he thought the USDA did at least have the authority to make a rule if it wanted to. Not exactly full-throated support for the little guy. Even pros like Clayton and the Des Moines Register's Phil Brasher, no strangers to the ways of Congress, expressed surprise via Twitter at the tone of the hearing.

If there's any good news in this embarrassing display of fealty to industrial agriculture by members of Congress, it's the indication that these reforms, simple as they in fact are, would be effective. It's also true that the Senate has expressed greater support for the new rules.

And while Senate Ag Committee Chair Blanche Lincoln, a grateful recipient of the largesse of the poultry giant Tyson Foods (which would be particularly affected by the new rules), is no fan, she is also over 20 points down in the polls. Assuming the Democrats retain the Senate, the far more progressive Debbie Stabenow of Michigan will take over the committee and perhaps will prove a better ally to reformers.

On the one hand, reformers do appear to be outgunned and outmatched on this issue as they are on so many. On the other, it appears we may be approaching an inflection point in food policy, where proposed reforms are starting to bite. Should Big Meat prevail and preserve the staus quo, it may be a long time before any administration attempts this sort of change again.

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July 26, 2010

"What Do We Eat in a Week"

North Carolina, US, total spent in a week: $341

Thanks to the joys of Twitter, I just ran across this fascinating set of photos from a couple years ago. It was posted by someone on a now defunct online community, but was been saved from oblivion by a blogger at Obvious Magazine. [Updated: These pics were from the book, What the World Eats by Peter Menzel and Faith D'Aluisio]

The pics are entitled "what do we eat in a week?" and they present families from Germany, the U.S., Poland, Mexico, Italy, Egypt, Ecuador, Bhutan, and Chad standing next to their total weekly food purchases.

It provides a wonderful (and somewhat depressing) snapshot of food choices around the world. While it's only one photo and obviously isn't representative of a nation's diet, what stands out most is the almost total absence of vegetables from the U.S. family's table and the almost total domination of its food dollars by packaged, processed food.

Germany, total spent in a week: $500

The German family is a close second in terms of processed food with lots of soda (but more wine and beer) and ample supplies of processed meat. But even they have a good selection of greens. Not so the U.S. family.

Italy, Total spent in a week: $214

The Italian family has virtually no processed food -- some canned products and a bit of soda. Otherwise it's bread, fruit and veg and meat. As you travel into the developing world, the piles of food get smaller, but the percentage of vegetables increases.

I think, for the most part, the images speak for themselves. But I do think it's worth ending with the family from Chad as a good excuse to think about what "sufficiency" means when it comes to food.

Chad, total spent in a week: $1

'nuff said, don't you think?

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July 20, 2010

Has Congress Run Out of Time for Food Bills?

U.S. capitolThe reauthorization of the Childhood Nutrition Act, which includes the National School Lunch Program, took a major step forward recently. The House Education and Labor Committee passed the Improving Nutrition for America’s Children Act, H.R. 5504, with a bipartisan vote of 32-13. The First Lady released a statement lauding "the successful bipartisan passage of a child nutrition reauthorization bill out of the Committee today ... I urge both the House and Senate to take their child nutrition bills to the floor and pass them without delay."

Advocates are thrilled that the bill is moving, but the legislative road for school lunch remains long. And it raises the question as to whether Congress will run out of time for it and for the other major food-related bill before it, dealing with food-safety reform.

For the most part the problem is -- surprise, surprise -- the Senate. It’s not simply that 60 votes are a de-facto requirement for final passage of a bill. The GOP now often requires the 60-vote threshold for even minor motions that typically are passed through "unanimous consent," i.e. the Senate version of a voice vote. Voting on every little motion takes forever, and before you know it, oops! it’s time to adjourn for the day.

Back in June, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid circulated a long list of legislative priorities to pass before the end of this current session, which technically occurs in December. Advocates were thrilled to see that food safety and school lunch were both listed -- it was the first time that those two bills were “officially” named as priorities.

Yet a lot remains to be done to get those bills to the president's desk. Neither the House nor the Senate have passed any version of the school lunch bill, while the Senate has not scheduled a vote on food safety at all. And should each chamber pass both bills, they then have to reconcile any differences and pass them again.

Remember the craziness and delays involved in reconciling the health care reform bill? Or the difficulties nailing down the last of the votes for the reconciled financial reform bill (referred to thrillingly as the "conference report")? Legislating is hard! There are theoretical shortcuts House and Senate leaders can take, but the clock ticks.

School lunch insiders say that the House waited until this week to try and pass the bill out of committee so that it could have "momentum" and zoom onto the floor, into conference committee, and thence back to the Senate and from there to the president’s desk. While that strategy comes chock full of PMA, it doesn't seem very realistic.

As the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition policy director Ferd Hoefner told Food Safety News in reference to the food safety bill, "Even if they pass the bill next week, I don't see how they finish ... I don't know that there is enough time to have a real conference."

Meanwhile, Sen. Reid just put out a new, much shorter list of priorities for the Senate between now and the August recess, after which very little will get done. Midterm elections, anyone?

There are three items on the list and they are: an extension of unemployment benefits, a small-business tax credit, and Wall Street reform. Not a food bill in sight. While leaders still want to pass both food-related bills, they are hunting bigger game at the moment. As such, the odds don't favor either school lunch or food safety during the remainder of this session. Should Congress adjourn without acting on them, they will have to start over in January -- with, I should note, a much more conservative Congress (hello, Speaker Boehner!).

If I had to guess -- and barring some miracle -- both school lunch and food safety, which are not nearly as politically contentious as other bills in legislative limbo such as climate change, will be passed during Congress’s so-called lame-duck session after the November elections.

The GOP will gnash its teeth no doubt at the thought of Democrats using the last of their majority power to pass major legislation. But feeding hungry kids and protecting consumers from contaminated foods aren’t exactly controversial. It’s precious little for food activists to hang their hats on and perhaps Pelosi and Reid will surprise us with quicker action. But with a long way to go and little time to get there, it may be the best hope left.

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July 9, 2010

Shipping Beats Trucking

As longtime readers of Beyond Green may remember, I wrote about the increasing popularity of shipping goods along the Erie Canal back in November 2008.

Now, Philip Longman has a fantastic piece in the Washington Monthly about the potential for nationwide shipping of goods as a real and hugely energy efficient alternative to long distance trucking:
Barges use just over a quarter as much diesel fuel as a semitruck in moving a ton of freight. If only 30 percent of the freight that currently goes by truck went by barge instead, it would result in a reduction in diesel fuel consumption of roughly 4.7 billion gallons. This is equivalent to conserving more than 6 percent of the total end-use energy consumed by U.S. households, including heating, cooling, and lighting. To put it another way, the energy savings would be equivalent to turning off every household appliance in the state of Texas. Yet no one would have to do so much as turn down the air conditioner, ride a bike, or even install a fluorescent bulb.

It gets better. A rebirth of domestic water transportation would roll back the nation’s reliance on trucks, the fastest growing source of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. That’s in addition to many incidental benefits, from boosting the Navy’s sealift capacity to improving rescue efforts for disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti. Moreover, by getting containers off trucks and onto a marine highway, it promises to make driving safer and faster for the rest of us, while also significantly reducing the need for highway repairs and new road construction.

I get excited about this stuff and then remember that the structural impediments to this kind of dead obvious reform are still too great to overcome. This is all about taking advantage of our natural and built-environment of waterways to rethink our approach to moving things around. And yet, we just get more roads. Still, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood -- ironically for a GOPer he comes off as one of the most progressive members of the Obama cabinet as far as policy positions go -- recently unveiled DOT's "Marine Highway Initiative" with a handful of stimulus dollars. But it will take a bit more than that to bring shipping back.

Perhaps some enterprising and ambitious legislators will take up the challenge? Do we have any of those left, I wonder?

Erie Canal photo credit: statPaige

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July 7, 2010

Gas Fracking Affects Cattle in PA

That didn't take long (via ProPublica):

Agriculture officials have quarantined 28 beef cattle on a Pennsylvania farm after wastewater from a nearby gas well leaked into a field and came in contact with the animals.

The state Department of Agriculture said the action was its first livestock quarantine related to pollution from natural gas drilling. Although the quarantine was ordered in May, it was announced Thursday.

A mere taste of what's to come from natural gas fracking, folks. We're setting ourselves up for an environmental disaster of epic proportions -- and much of it a result of an inability to develop rural economies. Folks in upstate New York and central Pennsylvania are desperate for income -- and the gas companies are happy to write checks for mineral rights. But nightmare scenarios abound, and this latest episode give little comfort to those who have to listen to industry assurances of safety.

My hope is that the tactics the energy industry have used to exploit natural resources to great success out West won't work back East where they are operating much close to media and population centers. But betting on the strength of politicians' spines to resist doing the bidding of the energy industry never made anyone any money...

Photo credit: arimoore

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July 2, 2010

Quote of the Day
Dave Roberts at describes the difficulty of debating policy with the likes of Newt Gringrich:
Gingrich is a paid advocate for corporate interests that benefit from the status quo. One doesn't really have an argument with a person like that. Arguments are based on principles and evidence. One simply beats, or is beaten by, such a person.
That observation sums up GOP Housemembers and Senators as well. And it suggests why the whole concept of bipartisanship is dead. And why a return of Republican governance will be a miserable experience.