SPOTLIGHT 2018: Stories to watch in food and agriculture

With Trump in the White House and politics decidedly fractious, we asked our writers at FERN to highlight key issues that will drive food and agriculture coverage this year. Politics remains in the foreground: The farm bill is up for renewal and the process promises to be contentious. But several other stories will vie for headlines, including the public-health ramifications of antibiotic-resistant infections, and the dispute over the health risks of Roundup, the world’s most popular weedkiller. The ongoing plight of pollinators and the fight to control seed technology also will demand attention — issues that draw on conflicts with agro-chemical companies. The bottom line: Expect to hear more about these 10 issues in the coming months.

Farm bill heating up (Chuck Abbott)
The chairmen of the House and Senate Agriculture committees hope to pass a bill as quickly and quietly as possible. But there’s sure to be a noisy brawl over food stamps and crop insurance, if nothing else. Conservative House Republicans are likely to repeat their 2013 attempt to impose the largest cuts in a generation on food stamps, and House Agriculture chairman Michael Conaway wants tougher rules requiring able-bodied adults to work or be part of job-training and workfare programs. Anti-hunger groups have vowed to vigorously resist any cuts. Meanwhile, budget hawks and farm-policy reformers will try to shrink federal subsidies of crop insurance, the principal farm support, while farm groups and Senate Agriculture chairman Pat Roberts say no way. The White House proposed a 36-percent cut in crop insurance last May, but in January President Trump did an about-face, telling farmers he supports the program. The 2018 farm bill, which determines five years worth of spending, would budget around $90 billion annually on farm subsidies, public nutrition, land stewardship, ag research, international food aid, export promotion, and a welter of other agricultural programs.

The battle against antibiotics in livestock (Maryn McKenna)
For a year now, U.S. farmers have had to comply with limitations on their routine use of antibiotics. It is the country’s first major effort to confront the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, caused by overuse of the drugs. Growth promoters, which cause animals to put on weight, were banned, and veterinarians are now required to supervise farmers and write drug prescriptions for any antibiotics intended to treat or prevent illness. Seems pretty clear-cut. But a year in, it’s time to assess whether the rules are working, and whether there has been cheating (as happened in Europe when similar rules were enacted). We’ll also be tracking whether the beef and pork industries will follow the poultry industry in reducing antibiotic use; and whether resistant bacteria generated in farming systems in other countries, with less regulation, are crossing U.S. borders. It happened in 2016, when bacteria from Chinese farms caused surprise infections here.

Nutritional spin (Liza Gross)
Nutrition science is notoriously messy. Studies offer conflicting results about the risks or benefits of popular foods and drinks, leaving many consumers unsure what to believe. That messiness has long been attributed to the evolving nature of science and the fact that studies can detect only correlations between diet and outcomes, not causation. It’s become increasingly clear, however, that some of the messiness has been manufactured by the food industry. Two years ago, we learned that the sugar industry paid scientists in the 1960s to cast doubt on the link between sugar and heart disease, and to shift the blame to fat. Not long after, public-health experts revealed that a study attacking recommendations to limit sugar intake was backed by the food and sugar industries. Most recently, scientists discovered that the sugar industry hid evidence from their own studies that linked sugar to heart disease and cancer. Decades of research on studies sponsored by the tobacco, chemical, and pharmaceutical industries established this funding effect. Investigations into bias in nutrition research have just started, but it’s a good bet we’ll see more evidence that the food industry has been sowing much of the confusion about the risks of its products.

American fisheries in the deregulation crosshairs  (Ben Goldfarb)
What the farm bill is to agriculture, the Magnuson-Stevens Act is to fisheries — the law that dictates how America produces its seafood. First passed in 1976 to prevent foreign vessels from plundering American fish, the MSA has undergone a series of science-based revisions over the years to curtail overfishing, amendments that have helped recover depleted stocks like West Coast rockfish. Now, the MSA is again up for reauthorization, and the next iteration is unlikely to be so fish-friendly. Congressman Don Young, a Republican from Alaska, is leading the charge to overhaul MSA. His bill, HR 200, would relax many of the law’s toughest conservation-minded provisions, such as allowing regional fisheries-management councils to slow the recovery of overfished stocks when aggressive restrictions on fishing could cause “significant economic harm.” Young, and several commercial fishing groups that support the bill, say it will allow for more flexibility and help coastal communities. Conservation groups, which have dubbed Young’s bill the “Empty Oceans Act,” say it would increase the risk of overfishing, undermine the role of science in fisheries management, and ultimately destabilize the industry. HR 200 has passed the House Committee on Natural Resources, and will likely go to the floor early in 2018. (Sen. Dan Sullivan, also an Alaska Republican, is expected to introduce a parallel bill in the Senate.) Young’s last attempt to rewrite the MSA stalled under threat of veto from President Obama in 2015. With a deregulation-minded Republican in the White House this time around, the outcome could be very different — making the reauthorization of Magnuson-Stevens the most consequential American fisheries issue of the year.

Is the age of ‘public lands’ over? (Hal Herring)
Twice in the last year, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, his sons, and their associated militia members escaped federal prosecution on charges related to their occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, and to the April 2014 Bunkerville Standoff. In the latter incident, federal law enforcement officials and range managers from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rounded up over 300 head of Bundy cattle that had been illegally grazing federal public lands — which they had been doing since 1993, without paying any fees or complying with federal regulations that protect wildlife. The Bundys and their followers simply took the cattle back, in a show of armed rebellion. In the first trial, federal prosecutors were guilty of overreach; in the second, actual malfeasance (as were BLM officials). In a larger sense, the legitimacy of the federal government itself was on trial, and it lost. The Bundy cattle still roam the federal lands of the Bunkerville Allotment, which has been closed to grazing for decades to protect fragile desert ecosystems, the endangered desert tortoise, and myriad archeological sites. The state of Nevada could seize the cattle, but officials there never have and say they never will. What do the words “public lands” mean if private individuals are able to take them over with impunity? These lands in question were grazed to dust during the free-range years leading up to the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, and restored with public money. And they are now being grazed without regulation yet again.

The future of food waste (Elizabeth Royte)
In the last three years, food-scrap recovery in the U.S. has increased a remarkable 87 percent. Today, curbside programs serve more than 5 million households. Drop-off programs — in which citizens deliver scraps to farmers markets or other depots — bring the total to 6.7 million households, in 21 states. This will remain a high-profile sustainability story as public pressure mounts to avoid food waste and, where unavoidable, to keep it from dumps, where buried food generates greenhouse gases. As demand for natural fertilizers grows, so will the market for quality compost.  But this closed-loop cycle isn’t without friction, because of the smells large compost operations generate and the amount of food waste available (some 34 million tons a year). So expect to see growth in anaerobic digesters, which process food in enclosed vessels that generate biogas for fuel and heat. Biogas from food scraps counts as a renewable fuel, which means companies can sell credits they generate, as well as the energy and compost made in the process. There are a couple thousand anaerobic digesters across the country: most are wastewater treatment plants, some digest animal manures, and 38 are standalone food-waste processors. This number is expected to jump as curbside collection increases, more states enact bans on landfilling organics, and cities adopt zero-waste goals.

What budget cuts mean to bees  (Paige Embry)
As bees and other pollinators have been hit by a slew of problems in recent years, from mites and habitat loss to the deleterious effects of pesticides, the importance of scientific research into the problems has grown exponentially. Yet the Trump administration’s determination to undercut environmental and conservation measures has resulted in proposals for deep budget cuts in the very agencies doing that important research. The Agricultural Research Service (ARS), for instance, the research arm of the USDA, is tasked with finding “solutions to agricultural problems that affect Americans every day from field to table.” Toward that end, researchers there have found that a significant percentage of bees tend to fly away rather than pollinate particular fields. Scientists are developing methods to reduce this “absconding,” including a chemical “here’s your home” attractant. The administration has proposed cutting the ARS budget for 2018 by 22 percent, putting this kind of practical pollination research in jeopardy. And the cuts to agricultural research aren’t just at ARS. Budget cuts have been proposed for the National Science Foundation, which funds a lot of university grants, and states have been cutting funds to land grant universities for years. What effects will all these cuts have on how we grow our food and safeguard our agricultural land?

Potential battles over seed technologies (Lisa M. Hamilton)
Watch for the continued development and application of synthetic biology techniques (e.g. gene editing), which will usher in a new wave of seeds. By altering existing DNA or adding novel strands to existing organisms, gene editing can go far beyond any concept of conventional breeding; at the same time, they can’t easily fit into the definition for GMOs, in which genes from one organism are inserted into another. Because existing regulations and public discussion are based on the model of transgenes, these new seeds are raising a whole range of issues and questions. The widespread public rejection of GMOs has been a cautionary tale for the private sector and researchers alike. Proponents of synthetic biology are trying to avoid that debate by rolling out gene editing technology with careful, targeted messaging. And it seems to be working: Already this year, high-level decisions in the EU and Australia point toward these news seeds having legal status different from transgenes. Hand in hand with synthetic biology comes the continued debate about whether farmers challenged by climate chaos should move toward specialized “climate-smart” seed varieties or find resilience in genetic diversity by rediscovering, conserving, and planting traditional, locally-adapted seed varieties. This conversation becomes especially relevant every time there is an extreme weather event that causes crop failure and potential food shortages — something that will almost certainly take place in 2018.

Ag consolidation rolls on (Leah Douglas)
In 2017, mergers in the food and agriculture sector were, atypically, in the news. Anheuser-Busch InBev bought South African Breweries. Dow and DuPont merged. Amazon bought Whole Foods. And countless smaller rollups continued to concentrate control of the food system into the hands of just a few corporations. Heading into 2018, the outlook is much the same. The most important and largest deal hovering in the farm sector is Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto, which would shrink the number of global agrochemical and seed producers to just three. Farmers have fought the deal, which awaits approval from U.S. regulators, fearing price hikes and fewer options. Elsewhere in the industry, despite growing awareness of the dangers of concentrated market power, consolidation continues apace. Mergers of beer and alcohol distributors, private equity buy-ups of snack companies and fast-food chains, and legal battles to fight the political power of agribusiness are already underway. All eyes will be on antitrust regulators, who could decide to intervene in some of the biggest deals ever made in agriculture — or not.

Weedkiller remains mired in legal minefield (Rene Ebersole)
Glyphosate, the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup, promises to remain in the news in 2018 as court battles over the world’s most popular weedkiller unfold. The impetus for the lawsuits was the 2015 hazard assessment by the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer, that said glyphosate is a probable carcinogen. Since then, more than 200 consumers have joined a federal suit claiming that Roundup causes non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The judge overseeing those proceedings is scheduled to review the science and live testimony in March, and decide whether the case will move forward. More than 2,000 people have filed similar lawsuits in state courts in California, Delaware, Missouri, Nebraska, and elsewhere. The first of those suits is scheduled for court in June. Two key regulatory decisions in late 2017 loom large in the ongoing legal battles over whether glyphosate represents a serious public-health hazard. In November, the European Union voted to extend its authorization of glyphosate for an abbreviated period of five years, rather than 15. Less than three weeks after the EU decision, the EPA announced a long-awaited draft risk assessment that concluded that glyphosate is not carcinogenic. Meanwhile, Monsanto, now joined by nearly a dozen state and national farm groups, continues to try to overturn a 2017 California ruling that will soon require glyphosate manufacturers to label the herbicide as a potential carcinogen, in accordance with a clean-water mandate based on IARC listings.

Photograph by Julia Robinson.