December 18, 2015

CLF Year in Review: Food Security, Climate Change, and Fond Farewell

Robert Lawrence, MD

Robert Lawrence, MD

Director Emeritus

Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future

Bob Lawrence at the helm on the Chesapeake Bay, June 2014.

Bob Lawrence at the helm on the Chesapeake Bay, June 2014.

As the year winds down, so does my tenure at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. It’s been an amazing 19 years for me, and I look forward to watching my successor, Anthony So, lead the Center even further in its mission over the next 19 years. We have an extraordinary staff who are deeply knowledgeable about the food system and passionate in their efforts to make our food system healthier, more sustainable, and more just. I am honored to have worked with all of them and step down from my post with gratitude and affection for a marvelous team.

It’s been a busy year—here are some highlights from the intersection of public health and food system thinking.

The Baltimore uprising and reflections on food environments. Perhaps the most profound event in Baltimore this year was the uprising that took place this spring after the funeral of Freddie Gray, a young man who died in police custody. The unrest told the story of racial inequality and persistent racism in this country, a problem that we’re still far from solving but is gaining more attention and stimulating some long overdue soul searching about our democracy. Another story that unraveled during this time is the precariousness of our food system in the city. We learned, for example, that some students were unable to eat when the schools closed on Tuesday, because they rely so heavily on the free meals program. In fact, more than 80 percent of Baltimore City students receive free meals, and a recent study by our mapping team shows that 30 percent of Baltimore school-aged children are food-insecure. These facts inspired us to think more about food system resilience in the city, and we discovered that even though the city has emergency plans for disasters, food access is not part of that plan. We will be working on that with the Office of Sustainability.

U.S. diet and sustainability. A lot of us—colleagues, friends, and CLF staff—put up a valiant fight to get a consideration of sustainability written into the 2015 Dietary Guidelines. (The guidelines are developed every five years by a USDA-HHS partnership.) The Science Advisory Committee’s recommendations were fairly simple: we should eat less meat, especially high-carbon footprint meat like beef and lamb, and more plants in order to preserve our ecosystems for future generations. Not surprisingly, the meat industry threw a fit. Ultimately, the recommendations for sustainability were stricken from the guidelines, but I’d like to think that the message resonated and will resurface in 2020.

Climate change and COP21. The news this year about climate change has been grim, as it has been for many years. We are closer than ever to the point of no return, and climate change—or weather extremes—is upon us. The impact on agriculture and food security could be devastating if we don’t mitigate and prepare. This month the 21st meeting of the Conference of Parties (COP) was held in Paris to reach an agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prevent a global rise in temperature above 2 degrees Celsius. Our own Roni Neff and Raychel Santo presented a paper illustrating why meat consumption must be part of the climate change conversation—a message still ignored by so many. Diet seems to be the elephant in the room. We all know that meat production accounts for nearly 15 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world, and that does not include the emissions from deforestation to make pasture, from growing feed for livestock, and other factors. Once you factor in those activities, the number is closer to 30 percent. (Here’s a report that explains in more detail.) Yet diet is not something that policymakers seem to want to talk about; there seems to be a perception that policies that would influence how people eat would be a third rail for politicians. Roni and Raychel will have blogposts this week about what they learned in Paris; here’s a post by Juliana Vigorito written before the conference.

UN Sustainable Development Summit. Just as the COP21 missed a critical mark on how we can mitigate the impact of climate change, the UN summit on sustainability (September, New York) neglected to address some key food system issues. Here’s a blogpost by CLF-Lerner Fellow Krycia Cowling that lists what the summit got right and where there’s still room for better thinking.

Trade agreements. Twenty-one years after NAFTA, which has been disastrous for so many reasons, we are keeping our eyes on two new trade deals. The Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a 12-nation agreement, reached in October after seven years of secretive negotiations, and includes tariff reductions, greater market access, streamlined sanitary rules; read this blogpost to find out why we are disappointed in the outcome and concerned about its impact on the food system. If you don’t have time to read the post, here’s why it’s a bad idea in a nutshell: the ultra-conservative, Big-Ag-friendly Farm Bureau supports it. It may not come up for a vote until the next administration. Still being negotiated is a trade agreement between North America and Europe, known both as TAFTA and TTIP. Read here and here to find out what worries us about it. Perhaps the biggest disappointment about these trade deals is how much is negotiated in total secrecy, especially since so much is at stake.

Enlist Duo. Most of the soy, corn, and cotton we grow in the U.S. is genetically modified—the crops, patented and manufactured by Monsanto, resist the herbicide glyphosate (also known as Roundup), which means that the growers can, and do, use a lot more of the herbicide than they would if they used non-GMO seeds. As the effectiveness of this herbicide wears thin because of superweeds, Dow Chemical has come up with a new product that resists not one, but two, herbicides: it’s known as Enlist Duo. After years of review, the EPA approved its use this fall—and then revoked the approval just before Thanksgiving. The battle will continue, and it will be interesting to see what measures Dow uses to prevail against the EPA.

Misuse of antibiotics on farms. The good news this year is that many restaurants and producers have promised to switch in the near future to meat raised without antibiotics. (Here’s a blogpost about that.) The not-so-good news is that our federal agencies are still dragging their feet on the issue of antibiotic misuse. The Interagency Task Force for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, for example, still has not addressed some key issues. Our Food System Policy team has analyzed data from ADUFA about use of drugs on farms in 2014, and the news is not good: despite federal guidances urging a decrease in use, the data show a notable increase. We’re hoping that we can at least get better data collection about drug use on farms in 2016; our own Claire Fitch wrote a blogpost about that.

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