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The Trump administration tried to bury a climate study on … rice?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is supposed to use the “latest available science” to help the nation’s farmers avoid risk, according to its own mission. So it was more than a little surprising when, last year, the agency decided not to promote an alarming study (that two of its employees had contributed to) that showed climate change could lessen the nutritional value of rice — a crop the agency says the U.S. is a “major exporter” of.

Here’s the gist of the research: Rice may not be super flavorful by itself, but for millions of people, particularly in Southeast Asia, it’s an important source of both protein and calories. Rice also contains a suite of B vitamins, iron, and zinc. But those nutrients appear to decrease if rice is grown in high ambient concentrations of CO2 — the kind that climate models are predicting for the end of the century. Scientists say that could exacerbate the incidence of illnesses like malaria and diarrheal disease in places that rely on the staple crop.

At first, the Agricultural Research Service, the USDA’s in-house research arm, seemed open to promoting the study. When Jeff Hodson, the director of communications at the University of Washington’s school of public health (from where two of the paper’s contributors hailed), reached out to the ARS about coordinating efforts to get the word out to journalists about the research, he was told the department had begun drafting a press release. But a week later he was notified the USDA had killed its promotional efforts around the study.

In an email explaining the decision to Hodson, a USDA spokesperson wrote, “The narrative really isn’t supported by the data in the paper.” She added: “Please let me know how you will proceed with your own press release.”

Questions about the muffling of the rice research were also circling within the USDA. Lewis Ziska, a 25-year veteran of the department who worked on the study told Grist the decision to keep the paper quiet was a departure from protocol. The highly unusual manner in which the ARS abruptly canceled the press release and the excuse the agency gave for doing so, he said, “indicated that it wasn’t a question of the science anymore, it was a question of the ideology.” He began to wonder if the study was being buried due, at least in part, to the Trump administration’s apparent indifference toward climate change.

“This is the first time that we’ve been told that the data don’t support the findings for any climate paper; that’s never happened before,” Ziska said.

But despite the USDA’s non-promotion, the paper did not quietly fade into academic obscurity. After checking with the interim head of the School of Public Health — who said in an email that the research seemed “straightforward” — Hodson decided to press on with promoting the paper. The university issued a press release that included a quote from Ziska, and they helped connect reporters with him as well as the school’s own scientists. The research garnered coverage in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Seattle Times, among other outlets.

Ziska and his team’s findings that protein, iron, and zinc levels decreased in rice grown in higher carbon dioxide concentrations verified the work of Samuel Myers, a research scientist at Harvard’s Center for the Environment who works closely on the human health impacts of climate change. To Myers, who examined this incident against the backdrop of the Trump administration’s war on climate science, it seemed to be part of a pattern.

“The USDA is part of a federal administration that can only be described in legal terms as ‘exhibiting depraved indifference to climate change,’” he said. Suppressing a study that highlighted the negative effects of global warming on a major food staple is, Myers added, “completely consistent with the way the federal administration has been acting for the past two and a half years.”

The Trump administration’s combative position on all things climate and environment has had a significant and lasting impact on multiple federal agencies. Earlier this month, Ziska decided to abandon his tenure at the USDA after securing a job at Columbia University. At the Environmental Protection Agency, employees say morale has plummeted as the agency continues to roll back key environmental and health regulations. Mentions of climate change have disappeared from government websites.

Rather than try to increase retention rates, some critics say these agencies are happy to lose some of their more seasoned officials. The Bureau of Land Management is planning to move its headquarters from Washington, D.C. to Colorado, in what at least one representative and multiple environment groups have called a scheme to shake its tenured policy officials. And in July, the USDA gave its D.C.-based employees a week to decide whether they would relocate to the department’s new headquarters in Kansas City. Administration officials said the move was aimed at cutting costs; critics said it was yet another attempt to bleed tenured talent.

In a statement to Grist, a USDA spokesperson pushed back on the idea that the agency is suppressing climate change research. “No one attempted to block the paper – it is freely available in the science literature,” the spokesperson wrote, adding that higher-ups at the agency disagreed with the paper’s conclusion that rising levels of CO2 would put 600 million people at risk of vitamin deficiency. “Issuing an ARS press release would have erroneously signified that ARS concurs with the nutrition-related claims,” the spokesperson noted.

“The notion that this is not of public health significance is just ridiculous,” said Harvard’s Myers, in response to the ARS’s position on the research. The controversial study just focused on rice, he added, but “every other food crop across the board is losing nutrients in response to CO2.”

A spokesperson for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes Science Advances, the journal where the rice article appeared, stood behind the research, saying that the study went through “rigorous peer review” before it was published.

For Ziska, the incident constituted an abdication of one of ARS’s responsibilities, which is working to solve climate change-related issues that farmers face. “It’s surreal to me,” he said.

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The Trump administration tried to bury a climate study on … rice?

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Nearly 100 percent of Trump funds designed to help farmers went to white farmers

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9 Plants to Grow that Repel Mosquitoes

You?ve likely experienced the disappointment of having an outdoor party, hike or other event ruined by a swarm of mosquitoes. If you?re looking for a natural way to get rid of these uninvited guests, try adding some mosquito-repelling plants to your garden this year.

Simply having these plants in your yard and outdoor living spaces can be helpful, but you?ll get the most benefit by crushing the leaves and flowers to release their pungent, bug-repelling essential oils. You can then rub the oils on your skin, clothing or outdoor furniture to deter mosquitoes. You can also cut and hang fresh cuttings around your home, or dry them to keep on hand for later use.

1. Basil

Scientific Name: Ocimum basilicum

Mosquito larvae are aquatic, living underwater until they mature and emerge as adult mosquitoes. A 2009 study found that basil extract was highly toxic to mosquito larvae. Planting basil near wet areas is unlikely to directly kill mosquito larvae, but the plants may ward off any approaching adults and convince them to lay their eggs elsewhere.

Basil is an easy-to-grow annual herb you can sow directly in the ground after the risk of frost has passed.

2. Bay Laurel

Scientific Name: Laurus nobilis

Bay laurel is the plant bay leaves are taken from. This commonly used herb has been shown to contain compounds that repel various insect pests, including mosquitoes. You can also use bay leaves to ward off ants, cockroaches, flies and wasps.

Bay laurel is hardy in USDA zones 8 and up, or it can be grown as a houseplant in colder climates. You can also easily buy bay leaves and place them around your home to deter mosquitoes and other pests.

3. Catnip

Scientific Name: Nepeta cataria

If you want to attract cats to your garden and beat bugs at the same time, catnip is a great choice. Catnip contains a compound called nepetalactone that gives the plant its distinct odor. Cats find the scent irresistible, but mosquitoes hate it. In fact, nepetalactone has been found to be about 10 times more effective than DEET in repelling mosquitoes.

Catnip is perennial in most regions. Just make sure you protect small plants so they can get established before your local cats devour them.

4. Citronella Grass

Scientific Name: Cymbopogon nardus

Citronella grass is the plant citronella oil is derived from, which is used in a variety of insect repelling products. Citronella oil has been proven to be more effective than DEET when it?s first applied to an area, but its mosquito-repelling power slowly decreases after one hour. To maintain citronella?s strength, reapply citronella oil or crush some fresh leaves against your skin or clothing every hour or two when you?re outside.

Citronella grass is native to tropical areas of Asia and is only hardy in USDA zones 10 to 12. It can be grown as an annual in colder regions. The plants are very attractive and can grow up to 6 feet (2 meters) tall.

5. Garlic

Scientific Name: Allium sativum

Research is limited so far, but the oil that?s released when you cut up garlic cloves has been reported by many to effectively repel mosquitoes. Garlic is also included in various commercial bug and mosquito repellants. The chemical compound that gives garlic its distinct smell is called allicin, which is likely what wards off bugs. If you eat garlic, the allicin will come through to your skin. This may also help prevent mosquito attacks.

Garlic grows as a perennial in USDA zones 3 to 8. You can simply grow it as an ornamental plant, or you can harvest it in early summer to eat and replant some of the bulbs for next year.

6. Lavender

Scientific Name: Lavandula species

Research has shown that lavender essential oil is as effective as the chemical bug repellant DEET for repelling a variety of bugs. This is a good thing, considering that DEET-based repellants have been linked to motor function impairment and nervous system damage in humans.

Lavender is a perennial in USDA zones 7 and up. It can be grown as an annual or indoor herb in colder climates. You can crush the leaves to rub on your skin and clothing to repel mosquitoes, as well as promote relaxation and calmness.

Related: 6 Natural Remedies for Mosquito Bites

7. Lemon Balm

Scientific Name: Melissa officinalis

Research has shown that lemon balm has a variety of natural compounds that can repel mosquitoes. In addition, researchers made an extract of basil and lemon balm that was toxic to adult mosquitoes, whether they inhaled it or came in contact with it.

Lemon balm is a hardy perennial, but it can be fairly invasive as it?s related to mint. Plant it in a container sunk in the ground to prevent spreading. It also makes a good indoor plant.

8. Marigolds

Scientific Name: Tagetes species

Marigolds produce what are known as allelochemicals, which are harmful to a range of insect pests, including mosquitoes. One study extracted these allelochemicals from the roots, leaves and flowers of different species of marigold plants. The researchers found that marigold flowers have the highest amounts of insecticidal allelochemicals. So, it would likely be most effective to use marigold flowers to repel mosquitoes by crushing them and distributing them around your home.

Marigolds are annuals that you can easily grow from seed or buy seedlings at most garden centers or nurseries in the spring. They come in a wide range of stunning colors and can handle a variety of growing conditions.

9. Peppermint

Scientific Name: Mentha x piperita

A study published in Bioresource Technology found that peppermint essential oil was toxic to mosquito larvae. Also, when peppermint oil was rubbed onto human skin, it repelled 92 percent of mosquitoes across a range of species.

Peppermint is hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8. The plants can be invasive, so try planting them in an unused corner of your garden or sinking a pot in the ground to contain the roots.

Related on Care2

Why You?re a Mosquito Magnet, According to Science
Foods You Can Eat to Repel Mosquitoes
8 Natural Mosquito Repellants

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2019′s Dirty Dozen: Which Foods Have the Most Pesticides?

Beware the ?Dirty Dozen.? The Environmental Working Group has released its annual list of fruits and vegetables most likely to be contaminated with pesticides, based on testing from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And this year?s Dirty Dozen ? as the produce is nicknamed ? has some unsettling surprises.

?Overall, the USDA found 225 different pesticides and pesticide breakdown products on popular fruits and vegetables Americans eat every day,? according to an Environmental Working Group news release. ?Before testing, all produce was washed and peeled, just as people would prepare food for themselves.? And the results for one particular trendy food were eye-opening. ?The most surprising news from the USDA tests reveals that the popular health food kale is among the most contaminated fruits and vegetables,? the news release says.

So which conventionally grown fruits and vegetables (as opposed to organic) should you avoid if you want to limit the pesticides in your diet? Here is 2019?s Dirty Dozen.

12. Potatoes

Credit: Diana Taliun/Getty Images

The Environmental Working Group does point out that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is critical for a healthy diet. But to make sure you?re maximizing the benefits, try to consume pesticide-free, organic varieties as often as possible. Potatoes, for instance, have numerous health benefits ? as long as you?re not solely consuming them in chip form. One baked potato has about 145 calories, 2 grams of fiber and 3 grams of protein. It also contains many vitamins and minerals ? including several B vitamins, 10 percent of the recommended daily intake of magnesium, 17 percent of potassium, 13 percent of manganese and 17 percent of copper.

11. Celery

Have you joined the celery juice bandwagon? If you don?t want to be sipping or crunching on pesticides, aim to go the organic route. One cup of chopped celery contains just 16 calories with 2 grams of fiber and a gram of protein. And it still offers a fair amount of nutrients ? including 9 percent of the recommended vitamin A intake, 37 percent of vitamin K, 9 percent of folate and 8 percent of potassium. Plus, according to Healthline, celery is full of antioxidants and can help reduce inflammation and aid digestion.

10. Tomatoes

Tomatoes are great to grow in your home garden, where you can prevent pesticides and other chemicals from coming in contact with your food. A cup of chopped tomatoes has only 32 calories with 2 grams of fiber and 2 grams of protein. Plus, the serving provides you with 30 percent of your daily vitamin A, 38 percent of vitamin C, 18 percent of vitamin K and 12 percent of potassium, among other nutrients. Tomatoes are especially known for their lycopene, which gives them their red pigment. ?Lycopene has been linked to health benefits ranging from heart health to protection against sunburns and certain types of cancers,? according to Healthline.

9. Pears

A medium pear is a substantial snack ? containing about 100 calories, 6 grams of fiber and a gram of protein. It also offers some vitamins and minerals, including 12 percent of the recommended vitamin C intake, 10 percent of vitamin K, 6 percent of potassium and 7 percent of copper. Still, even though a pear?s skin helps to make it a great source of fiber, it doesn?t keep the pesticides out. So make sure you?re consuming clean varieties of this fruit.

8. Cherries

Credit: dulezidar/Getty Images

More than 90 percent of the cherry samples the Environmental Working Group analyzed tested positive for two or more pesticides. So for the full health-boosting potential of this tart little fruit, go organic. A cup of cherries has about 87 calories, 3 grams of fiber and 1 gram of protein. It also gives you a good amount of vitamin C, B vitamins and several minerals. Plus, according to Healthline, cherries are full of antioxidants and phytochemicals that can protect your body against diseases and reduce inflammation.

7. Peaches

The thin skin of peaches doesn?t offer them much protection against pesticides. But it will contribute some fiber to your diet. One medium peach has about 60 calories, 2 grams of fiber and a gram of protein. It also contains several B vitamins, about 10 percent of the recommended vitamin A intake, 17 percent of vitamin C, 5 percent of vitamin K and 8 percent of potassium. And according to Healthline, peaches can be considered a low-sugar fruit with a little less than 13 grams of natural sugars.

6. Grapes

If you take pesticides out of the equation, grapes can be a very healthy addition to your diet. A cup of red or green grapes has roughly 100 calories and a gram of fiber. And it provides you with 27 percent of the recommended vitamin C intake, 28 percent of vitamin K, 8 percent of potassium and 10 percent of copper, among other nutrients. According to Healthline, the potent antioxidants in grapes can help fight several diseases, such as diabetes and cancer. Plus, grapes also might help to improve heart health and lower cholesterol.

5. Apples

Just like with cherries, more than 90 percent of the apple samples carried two or more pesticides. ?Apples are generally near the top of EWG?s Dirty Dozen list because they contain an average of 4.4 pesticide residues, including some at high concentrations,? according to the Environmental Working Group. And there?s one chemical in particular that?s especially controversial. ?Most conventionally grown apples are drenched in diphenylamine, an antioxidant chemical treatment used to prevent the skin of apples in cold storage from developing brown or black patches,? the Environmental Working Group says. U.S. growers and regulators say the chemical poses no risk, but European regulators feel there isn?t enough evidence to prove its safety.

4. Nectarines

Credit: gresei/Getty Images

Nectarines also are among the fruits and vegetables that had more than 90 percent of their samples test positive for two or more pesticides. But sans pesticides, nectarines are a healthy way to get several nutrients. A medium nectarine has about 62 calories ? most of those coming from its natural sugars. Plus, it contains 2 grams of fiber and 2 grams of protein. It also offers multiple B vitamins, 9 percent of the recommended vitamin A intake, 13 percent of vitamin C, 8 percent of potassium and 6 percent of copper.

3. Kale

The Department of Agriculture hadn?t included kale in its pesticide tests since 2009. At that time, it ranked eighth on the Dirty Dozen list. But since its popularity has skyrocketed, so has the pesticide use. ?More than 92 percent of kale samples had two or more pesticide residues detected, and a single sample could contain up to 18 different residues,? according to the Environmental Working Group news release. Especially alarming was the presence of the pesticide DCPA, or Dacthal, which showed up in roughly 60 percent of the kale samples. Since 1995, the EPA has classified DCPA as a possible carcinogen ? specifically citing liver and thyroid tumors ? and the European Union banned it in 2009. Yet it?s still legal to use on U.S. crops ? including kale.

2. Spinach

?Federal data shows that conventionally grown spinach has more pesticide residues by weight than all other produce tested,? according to the Environmental Working Group. There were an average of 7.1 different pesticides on every spinach sample. And more than three-quarters of the samples contained one particularly scary ?neurotoxic bug killer? called permethrin. ?At high doses, permethrin overwhelms the nervous system and causes tremors and seizures,? the Environmental Working Group says. ?But several studies also found a link between lower-level exposure to permethrin-type insecticides and neurological effects in children.? Europe banned permethrin in 2000, but the EPA is still assessing its risks.

1. Strawberries

Credit: bee32/Getty Images

Sweet, juicy, pesticide-filled strawberries took the top spot on 2019?s Dirty Dozen. ?Conventionally grown strawberries ? contained an average of 7.8 different pesticides per sample, compared to 2.2 pesticides per sample for all other produce,? according to the Environmental Working Group. ?? What?s worse, strawberry growers use jaw-dropping volumes of poisonous gases to sterilize their fields before planting, killing every pest, weed and other living thing in the soil.? Of all the samples, 99 percent contained at least one pesticide ? and 30 percent had 10 or more pesticides. Some of these chemicals have been linked to cancer, reproductive issues, hormone disruption, neurological problems and more. So if you?re not keen on putting that in your body, stick to the organic varieties.

Bonus: Hot peppers

The Environmental Working Group expanded 2019?s Dirty Dozen to include hot peppers, which don?t meet its traditional ranking criteria but nonetheless should have their contaminants exposed. ?The USDA tests of 739 samples of hot peppers in 2010 and 2011 found residues of three highly toxic insecticides ? acephate, chlorpyrifos and oxamyl ? on a portion of sampled peppers at concentrations high enough to cause concern,? according to the Environmental Working Group news release. ?These insecticides are banned on some crops but still allowed on hot peppers.? So buy organic hot peppers whenever possible. But if you can?t, washing and cooking them can somewhat diminish the pesticide levels.

Main image credit: 4nadia/Getty Images

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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Should You Buy Organic Wine?

While organic produce may be increasing in popularity, it is surprising how many organic devotees give little thought to their wine. Wine is made from grapes, a highly pesticide-sprayed crop, which would lead many to believe that purchasing organic wine would be a top priority for health-conscious wine drinkers.

But are wines often affected by pesticide and herbicide use? What are sulfites, and should you worry about their presence in your wine? And finally, is it really worth it to go organic when it comes to your vino?

Organic vs. Biodynamic

While grapes are indeed a highly sprayed crop, a USDA organic label may be slightly less meaningful in winemaking than it is in other areas of agriculture. To be certified organic in the United States, winemakers must not only avoid using pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals on their grapes, they must also steer clear of sulfites, which many winemakers prefer not to do ? wine lovers tend not to like the taste of sulfite-free wine. As a result, many of the highest-quality, top-rated wines out there do not apply for an organic label.

So how can you avoid pesticides and herbicides in your wine while and ensure you’re getting a high-quality vino without sacrificing flavor? Many wine lovers look instead for the word “biodynamic” in wines. Though not regulated by the USDA, this term is used by fine wine makers to refer to a synergistic growing process that encompasses natural, eco-friendly practices and the avoidance lack of chemicals and additives.

Sulfites in Wine

Okay, so you’re on the hunt for a naturally grown biodynamic vino that is?crafted in a rich environment and lovingly crafted by expert winemakers. Should you worry about sulfites?

The truth is, sulfites ? essentially, sulfur that is naturally occurring in wine and also added to wine as a preservative to keep its flavor stable ? aren’t a big deal for people who are not sensitive to them. According to Wine Folly, 5 to 10 percent of people have asthma sensitivities to sulfites, which can cause major health issues if sulfites are consumed in excess. For these people, sulfite-free wines are probably a must. But for everyone else, they’re probably not a huge deal. And furthermore, if you are concerned about reducing your sulfite exposure but feel that a high-quality, artisan wine is a treat you enjoy, you may be better served by giving up french fries or dried fruit, both of which contain much larger amounts of sulfites than wines.

Image via Wine Folly.

Where to Find High-Quality Wines

In case you haven’t already gathered, finding a high-quality, non-toxic wine can be difficult, because wine growers don’t tend to want to sacrifice the quality of their wine (which does happen when sulfites are removed) for an organic label. Here are some tips for finding safe, high-quality wines you can trust:

Ask the attendant at a small, locally owned wine store to point you in the direction of wines that are not sold and distributed by large, behemoth companies. Smaller distributors tend to carry wines that are made by true wine artisans and small vineyards.
Purchase your wine at a local vineyard to enjoy the specific terroir of your home region. Be sure to ask the vintner about their pesticide and herbicide use practices.
Look for wines labeled “biodynamic.”
Consider a subscription service such as Dry Farm Wines.
If you are vegan, be sure to look for wines that are labeled as “vegan,” as even USDA organic wines are allowed to filter their wines through animal-derived “fining agents,” according to Dr. Weil.

Related Articles:

Is Your Honey Loaded With Pesticides?
Are Pesticides Making You Sick and Fat?
How to Tell If Your Wine Habit is Healthy

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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Should You Buy Organic Wine?

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It’s Time to Stop Shaming Poor People for What They Buy With Food Stamps

Mother Jones

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Poor people who receive government food aid use it to load up on Coke. Or so The New York Times suggests. Under an image of a shopping cart stuffed with half-gallon jugs of soda, The Times’ Anahad O’Connor writes in a widely shared recent piece that the “No. 1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks.” SNAP refers to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known food stamps. By contrast, he writes, among non-SNAP households, “soft drinks ranked second on the list of food purchases, behind milk.”

SNAP is an important program in a society with a 13.5 percent poverty rate and growing inequality. According to a 2015 report from the White House Council of Economic Advisers the “large majority of households receiving SNAP include children, senior citizens, individuals with disabilities, and working adults,” and “two-thirds of SNAP benefits go to households with children.” Here’s more:

SNAP benefits lifted at least 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2014—including 2.1 million children. SNAP also lifted more than 1.3 million children out of deep poverty, or above half of the poverty line (for example, $11,925 for a family of four)

Unfortunately, as University of Minnesota public affairs professor Joe Soss argues on Jacobin, the O’Connor article presents a skewed picture of poor people engaging in tax-payer financed bad behavior. “The poors! They’re behaving badly! And government handouts paid for with your tax dollars are to blame,” Soss writes. Such an attitude about the safety net neatly mimics the ideology now ascendant in the GOP-controlled Congress, perfectly encapsulated by this infamous 2014 National Review article, “White Ghetto,” which depicts SNAP recipients using their benefits to buy soda by the case load and then trading it for cash, drugs, and even sex.

In that context, Soss is right to characterize the Times piece as a “political hack job against a program that helps millions of Americans feed themselves, and we should all be outraged that the New York Times has disguised it as a piece of factual news reporting on its front page.” I’m sympathetic to Soss’ view—I made a similar argument in this 2015 piece on SNAP.

Indeed, the O’Connor piece is based on this recent US Department of Agriculture study comparing the grocery purchases of SNAP and non-SNAP shoppers, tracked at a a “leading grocery retailer” over 2011. Its conclusions are quite different than those trumpeted by O’Connor. The report found that “There were no major differences in the expenditure patterns of SNAP and non-SNAP households, no matter how the data were categorized.” That conclusion comes on the heels of a 2014 USDA study finding that SNAP participants are no more likely to consumer sugary beverages than their non-SNAP peers.

As for O’Connor’s factoid about how SNAP households spend more on soft drinks than milk—while the opposite is true for non-SNAP household—that’s true, but the differences are tiny, the new USDA report shows. While SNAP shoppers devoted 5.44 percent of their expenditures to soft drinks, vs. 3.85 percent to milk, non-SNAPers divided their spending share on the products roughly equally: 4.01 percent on soda vs. 4.03 percent on milk. For a $100 trip to the supermarket, in other words, non-SNAP recipients allocated on average 18 cents more on milk than their non-SNAP peers. And they allocate just two cents more to milk than they do to soda.

O’Connor does acknowledge that SNAP-subsidized poor people aren’t making uniquely bad choices at the supermarket—but he buries that fact. In paragraph three, we get the dodgy soda-milk comparison. It isn’t until way down in paragraph seven that he hints at the USDA researchers’ “no major difference” conclusion.

Beyond the implicit poor-shaming—unfortunate, given that Speaker of the House Paul Ryan now has a GOP president in place to sign SNAP-cutting budget bills—the Times piece also muddies a legitimate debate about what sort of diets should be subsidized by food aid. The experts quoted by O’Connor, including New York University researcher Marion Nestle and the food industry critic Michele Simon, want the USDA to ban soda and other junk food from SNAP expenditures. On the other side, according to O’Connor, stands the soda industry, which lobbies against such limits.

But as Parke Wilde, an economist at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, notes, the debate is more complicated than that:

One would think from the NYT article that all the good folks favor the restrictions, and all the bad folks oppose. O’Connor didn’t say that the list of supporters for such proposals also includes conservative critics of SNAP, who sometimes include such proposals in an agenda that also has budget cuts, nor that the list of opponents includes anti-hunger organizations, who are concerned that the proposals would increase program stigma and food insecurity by discouraging participation among eligible people.

Wilde argues that soda restrictions in SNAP are worth considering—not in a knee-jerk way, but rather after seeing what happens in a carefully constructed pilot project. If the results suggest that soda restrictions end up reducing the quality of participants’ diets by driving them out of the SNAP program, the idea should be scrapped, he says. And if it results in people making healthier purchases, then restrictions make sense—especially if packaged with incentives to buy more vegetables and fruit. (Early evidence suggests that soda taxes, another policy tool for improving diets, might be effective as well.)

Such a dispassionate approach is difficult, he suggests, because of the “poisoned partisan struggle” over whether a robust safety net is worth having at all. And O’Connor’s piece, I fear, added more heat than light to the debate.

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Trump Eyes Ex-Agrichemical Exec to Fill His Final Cabinet Post

Mother Jones

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When Indiana’s then-governor Mike Pence needed to appoint a new director of his state’s agriculture department back in 2013, he dipped right into the corner offices of the global agrichemical industry. His pick, Ted McKinney, then the director of global corporate affairs for Elanco Animal Health, a division of pharma giant Eli Lilly, had previously been an executive on the government-affairs team for seed/pesticide giant Dow AgroSciences.

Now Pence is the vice president-elect for the incoming Trump administration, which sorely needs to appoint a secretary of the US Department of Agriculture, the only open cabinet slot. And McKinney, recently re-appointed as director of Indiana’s agriculture department, has emerged as the latest in a long line of contenders du jour for the job, Politico reports.

And now the USDA post is really open: Tom Vilsack, the outgoing USDA chief, abruptly quit Friday, informing employees in an email he had served his final day, ABC News reports. Vilsack added some damning commentary on Trump’s delay in choosing his successor: “When that individual is named, he or she will be at a tremendous disadvantage, in terms of getting up to speed on all this department does,” Vilsack said in a statement, according to ABC.

Will McKinney be the one Trump chooses for the burden? In his capacity as an Indiana government official, McKinney—who also serves as director of agribusiness development at the Indiana Economic Development Corporation—is perhaps best known for helping lead an ultimately unsuccessful but “very aggressive” effort to entice DowDuPont to choose Indianapolis as the corporate HQ of its agrichemical arm. McKinney has a well-earned perspective on the advantages of doing agribusiness in Indiana, which sits in the heart of the US corn belt. His most recent private-sector employer, Elanco, is headquartered in the state, as was Dow AgroSciences, until its parent company merged with DuPont last year.

The seed and pesticide industries would certainly have a major ally at the helm of the USDA if McKinney gets the nod. In addition to having worked for Dow for nearly two decades, Mckinney was a co-founder and served as interim executive director for the Council for Biotechnology Information, a group funded by BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta, to promote agriculture biotech. These companies need USDA approval to move novel genetically modified seeds from lab to market. And apparently they have Trump’s ear—on Wednesday, Bayer CEO Werner Baumann and his Monsanto counterpart Hugh Grant scored an audience with the incoming president to promote the pending merger, which will need to pass antitrust vetting from Trump’s justice department.

But McKinney isn’t purely an agri-tech nerd. In an address before an annual meeting of an Indiana pork industry group soon after taking the Indiana department of agriculture job, McKinney cited “divine intervention” as one of the main reasons for his move from the corner office to the state bureaucracy. After getting the call from Pence, he explained, “my wife and I prayed about it, it just seemed right. I took the plunge, and here we are…and I’m having a ball!”

Like former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, McKinney appeared on early versions of Trump’s USDA short list, disappeared from discussion for weeks, only to re-emerge with a headline-grabbing visit to Trump Tower, Politico reports.

Fun fact: McKinney’s son, Brad McKinney, works for Mike Torrey, the DC Big Food lobbyist who for a couple of weeks in November led Trump’s USDA transition. Torrey abruptly quit after Trump announced a ban on lobbyists serving in the transition.

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Trump Eyes Ex-Agrichemical Exec to Fill His Final Cabinet Post

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Fox News Screws Up Its Latest Lie

Mother Jones

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This post starts out in an all-too-familiar way: with a Fox News headline. Here it is:

Food Stamp Fraud at All-Time High: Is It Time to End the Program?

Now, the obvious response to this is twofold. First, they’re just lying, aren’t they? And second, this is like a headline that says, “Traffic Deaths at All-Time High: Should We Ban Cars?”

But at this point the story takes a strange turn. First, I have no idea where Fox’s $70 million figure comes from—and I looked pretty hard for it. The Fox graphic attributes it to “2016 USDA,” but as near as I can tell the USDA has no numbers for SNAP fraud more recent than 2011.1

But that’s not all: $70 million is a startlingly low figure. In the most recent fiscal year, SNAP cost $71 billion, which means that fraud accounted for a minuscule 0.098 percent of the program budget. Even if this is an all-time high, the Fox high command can’t believe this is anything but a spectacular bureaucratic success.

And it would be, if it were true. But it’s not. If you look at inaccurate SNAP payments to states, the error rate since 2005 has decreased from 6 percent of the budget to less than 4 percent. However, this isn’t fraud anyway: It’s just an error rate, and most of the errors are eventually corrected. SNAP “trafficking”—exchanging SNAP benefits for cash—is fraud, but it’s been declining steadily too, from 3.8 percent in 1993 to 1.3 percent in 2011 (the most recent year for which we have records):

So in any normal sense, the Fox story was a lie. SNAP fraud isn’t at an all-time high. It’s been declining for years. But here’s the thing: The fraud rate in 2011 may have been low, but this was in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when total SNAP payments were very high. So although the percentage is low, the dollar value of fraud clocked in at $988 million. Fox could have used this far higher number, which is, in fact, an all-time high. It’s only an all-time high because SNAP was helping far more people, but still. In the Fox newsroom, that would hardly matter.

Bottom line: Yes, Fox is lying in any ordinary sense of the word. But they’re also vastly understating the amount of SNAP fraud. Even when they’re trying to deceive their audience, it turns out, they’re also incompetent.

1SNAP = Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program = food stamps.

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Fox News Screws Up Its Latest Lie

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Tom Vilsack Is a Little Worried That Trump Forgot the USDA Exists

Mother Jones

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While writing this post about the chaos surrounding the US Department of Agriculture transition, I was tempted to title it, “What the hell is Trump getting up to at the USDA?” Apparently, outgoing USDA chief Tom Vilsack has the same question.

In its emailed morning news roundup for December 14—you can listen to the audio version here, starting at the 32 second mark—the trade journal Agri-Pulse reported on its recent exit interview with Vilsack. In it, he took a poke at the Trump transition team. The USDA chief expressed disappointment that Trump has yet to appoint his successor and complained that “we haven’t had much activity from the transition team,” even as his own staff has been developing materials to prep the new team for taking over the agency.

“I think we’ve had one person here for a few hours and then that person was told he couldn’t do the job,” Vilsack said, an apparent reference to Michael Torrey, the food industry lobbyist Trump tapped to lead the USDA transition a month ago. Torrey abruptly quit a week later after Trump announced a ban on lobbyists working in the transition.

“And then we had a second person and we’ve seen him like once, and that’s it,” Vilsack added. That would appear to be a reference to Joel Leftwich, who took over the role of USDA transition a few days after Torrey’s exit. In addition to his transition duties, Leftwich now works for the Senate Agriculture Committee, but he served as Pepsi’s top DC lobbyist from 2013 to 2015.

“It’s a little puzzling why, given the magnitude and the reach of this department, that people haven’t been more engaged, given the opportunity to learn,” Vilsack said.

Meanwhile, Trump isn’t close to deciding on who he’ll tap to take over from Vilsack, reports the trade journal Southeast Ag Net. Mounting speculation recently settled on Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) as the likely pick, but that crumbled Monday, with reports of dissension among Trump’s ag advisers and whispers that Heitkamp would decline the job anyway.

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Tom Vilsack Is a Little Worried That Trump Forgot the USDA Exists

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The One Thing Hillary Cares About Most—When It Comes to Food

Mother Jones

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If Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton wins in November, what kind of food and farm policy can we expect from her? Like most presidential campaign seasons, the current one has been lighter than a soufflé in terms of debate around food issues. Here’s what we know so far.

(1) The 2016 Democratic Party platform is mostly short on food policy details. Farm programs get all of two paragraphs, under the rubric of “Investing in Rural America.” The section nods to “promoting environmentally sustainable agricultural practices” and “expanding local food markets and regional food systems,” a likely reference to the Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program instituted under President Barack Obama. It also takes a stand on farm workers, advocating “stronger agricultural worker protections including regulation of work hours, elimination of child labor, ensuring adequate housing for migrant workers, and sanitary facilities in the field.”

In other notable sections, the platform mentions developing “science-based restrictions” to protect Alaska’s wild salmon fisheries from a controversial proposed mine, and it vows to enforce antitrust laws to “protect competition and prevent excessively consolidated economic and political power, which can be corrosive to a healthy democracy.” As I noted a few weeks ago, that section contains the first mention of antitrust policy in a Democratic Party presidential platform in three decades; and if a President Clinton were to make good on it, there could be profound implications for our highly concentrated food industry.

(2) …except one: Clinton will likely defend hunger programs. The platform bluntly promises to protect “proven programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—our nation’s most important anti-hunger program—that help struggling families put food on the table.” SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, has been in the Republican crosshairs for years. President Obama and Democrats in Congress fought off a GOP attempt to slash SNAP in 2013, and there’s no reason to think Clinton won’t hold the line.

(3) The State Department hotly promoted GMOs abroad under Clinton. Diplomatic cables dumped by WikiLeaks back in 2013 showed that Clinton’s State Department lobbied foreign governments to weaken regulation of GMOs, including food labels, and operated public relations campaigns to improve their popularity. (More here and here.) Back in 2012, Jack Bobo, then serving as senior adviser for biotechnology at the State Department, even lobbied me to take a less critical view of ag biotech. (Bobo is now the chief communications officer of a biotech company.)

(4) She showed signs of appreciating organic ag as first lady. In the 1990s, before organic food went mainstream, Clinton was a fan. Walter Scheib, whom the first lady hired as White House chef in 1994, later reminisced that the Clintons “dined regularly on organic foods” and favored “both wagyu and grass-fed beef.” He added that “nearly all the product used was obtained from local growers and suppliers.” While Michelle Obama is widely celebrated for her robust White House garden, Hillary Clinton kept a small one on the roof, Scheib noted.

(5) She’s tightly aligned with Tom Vilsack, Obama’s US Department of Agriculture chief. The two veteran pols go way back—Vilsack credits Hillary Clinton’s fundraising efforts on his behalf for boosting his successful run as Iowa governor back in 1998. A decade later, Vilsack endorsed Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary. Last year, Clinton put longtime Vilsack adviser Matt Paul in charge of her Iowa caucus campaign, plucking him from his post as the USDA’s director of communications. The Clinton team aggressively floated Vilsack as a contender for vice president before settling on Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine for the post. But despite his getting passed over, there was a Vilsack angle—the campaign quickly named Paul, Vilsack’s longtime right-hand man, as Kaine’s chief of staff. Two Washington insiders who declined to be quoted directly have told me that Vilsack is and will likely remain Clinton’s top ag adviser, on everything from policy details to choosing the next USDA chief. That tells me that if Clinton prevails, the next administration will look a lot like the current one on ag policy. Here’s my recent summary of Vilsack’s eight-year run as USDA chief.

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The One Thing Hillary Cares About Most—When It Comes to Food

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