Looking Forward: Top Food and Agriculture Stories for 2019
Is your head spinning from the past year? The daily news cycle moved at a frenetic pace, and food news was in the mix with headline-making reports linking climate change to industrial agriculture, romaine lettuce fears, the rise of the Impossible Burger and plastic-straw-ban water cooler talk. Which of those stories will remain important in the coming year? What’s on the horizon to fret about or celebrate? Our look ahead makes predictions for (some of) the top food and agriculture stories that will dominate your newsfeeds and your brain space.
Climate Change Will Disrupt the Food System
Unfortunately, we know that the climate will continue to change and that this will result in more tropical storms, stronger hurricanes and increasingly devastating wildfires. All of these weather events have terrible effects on food, farms and the people who live and work on them and near them. It’s heartbreaking to write this with such certainty but farming will become more challenging and precarious, and more CAFO manure lagoons will overflow into waterways and soil, more orchards and groves will burn to the ground and more humans will be forced to navigate contaminated soil, water and air as a result.
Concerned About Climate Change, People Will Be Eating Less Meat (and Hopefully Better Meat)
In October there was the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Climate Change Committee’s stomach-churning report that laid bare the catastrophic effects of climate change we can expect in our future. Then there was the federal government’s November report predicting “challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth” for US communities as a result. Recent polling shows that a majority of voters are worried.
Good News: The UN report suggested consumers do their part by reducing their meat intake and it seems like people are finally listening to that advice (though we will note personal consumption choices are but one piece in a larger industrial meat production system that needs to change). In 2019 eaters will continue to look for alternatives to a meat-centric diet. When they do eat meat we hope they will look for pasture-raised meat since healthy grasslands sequester carbon and can be part of the solution.
The Continued Rise of Fake Meat
It’s “fake meat,” it’s “clean meat,” it’s “lab-grown meat,” it’s “food produced using animal cell technology.” Confused yet? No matter what you call it, it’s designed to be an alternative to industrial, resource-intensive beef production systems, claiming to be a “cleaner” way to satisfy people’s love of meat. But is it cleaner? Is it safe? Or is it just a different kind of resource-intensive technology driven by investors? As we predicted at this time last year, 2018 was a buzz with conversations about products like the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger. It showed up on restaurant menus, occupied the FDA and USDA with regulatory — including naming — questions, and concerned many with its claims of being better for the environment. In 2019 “cultured meat” will head to the grocery aisles. The question is whether consumers will bite.
CAFO Neighbors Will Keep Saying “Enough”
Hog CAFOs (factory farms) dominate the landscape in parts of North Carolina and Iowa, ruining life for their neighbors, who experience everything from poor air quality to contaminated water, and the ill health effects that accompany them.
Good News: These neighbors began suing for damages this year through what are called “nuisance lawsuits,” and actually won. The latest win was in mid-December of 2018. While Smithfield and state legislatures have worked to cap those damages through local legislation, these rightfully angry neighbors are not going away. 2019 will see more nuisance lawsuits and presumably more wins. We look forward to seeing what the collective impact of these lawsuits will be, hopefully forcing Smithfield to change the way it does business.
More Preemption Laws: The Laws That Prevent Other Laws
Preemption laws — state level laws that prohibit cities, towns, counties or departments of health in that state from passing certain kinds of laws — are now being used to combat food and nutrition policy. This past November, Washington State succeeded in passing a preemption law on soda taxes, meaning cities like Seattle can’t impose a soda tax that has the potential to raise revenue of the city while also having population-level effects on obesity and diet-related disease. In Iowa, preemption laws are being used to fight city-level plastic bag bans as well any “local zoning ordinances related to farming,” i.e. attempts to regulate CAFOs or their emissions. As the American Public Health Association points out: “The legislative tool of preemption may stand in the way of progress that supports public health.” In 2019 there will be more preemption laws introduced (and if you’re interested in digging deeper, here’s a tool that tells you which states have what preemption laws) — but also increased grassroots activism to fight them.
Foodborne Illness Outbreaks Will Sicken and Possibly Kill People
Meat slaughter and processing became increasingly deregulated this fall, with chicken companies getting the green light from the Trump administration to move ahead with increasing the speed at which they slaughter their chickens, “processing” even more chickens per minute than they were before. At the same time, the Trump administration is also pushing for pork line speed limits to be eliminated entirely (in certain plants). This is terrible news for workers and their safety and also terrible news for people who eat food. Why? Because when line speeds increase, more workplace accidents happen and it’s often harder to keep dangerous pathogens out of meat.
So, we’re sad to predict that we will continue to see foodborne illness outbreaks not just with meat, but from produce, too, since the poor regulation of manure can lead to outbreaks like the ones that affected romaine lettuce in late 2018. It’s also another good reason to go with pasture-based meat and dairy which tend to compost manure in the fields instead of confining animals with their waste, which makes for far riskier practices that can lead to foodborne illness.
Laws That Attempt to Legalize Industrial Open Water FinFish Farms
Maybe you’ve heard of factory farms. And maybe you’ve assumed they exist only on land. But there are factory farms for fish too, and if the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have their way, they will be free to expand finfish farming in US marine waters, like the Gulf of Mexico. The plan is to do this either through a new federal law or by sneaking it into the reauthorization of the Magnuson Act — our main federal law that manages wild fish and fishing. These highly problematic farms have some of the same detrimental effects as their landlubbing cousins — CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) — polluting surrounding waters and messing with marine life and human health. In 2019 the fight between the federal government and the many various groups that oppose such laws will likely continue on.
Good news: Grassroots activists are ON IT.
More Moves to Eliminate Single Use Plastics
Thanks to disturbing news like the fact that fish are full of microplastics and probably so are we, 127 countries looking to ban single use plastic, cities and companies are banning plastic straws, plastic bag prohibitions are proliferating, and companies are upping their eco-packaging game.
Good news: We are thrilled to predict — and eager to be correct — that 2019 will see more of these environmentally critical, forward-thinking laws, policies and innovations. Unfortunately, in what has become a typical push-pull these days, we might also see some backward-thinking pushes from the federal government to buildout petrochemical hubs, i.e. plastic production hubs.
Immigration Crackdowns Will Continue to Affect Our Food System
Our government continues to crack down on undocumented immigrants, deterring seasonal workers from coming to this country to harvest and process our food, and sending existing workers home. As a result, the food supply chain — from the fields to the slaughterhouses — is affected by labor shortages. One solution has been robots: machines to weed, harvest, wash and bag produce that used to be handled by humans. Another solution we like even more: companies raising wages to attract or retain the workers they have. These labor shortages will worsen in 2019, and as a result, we will continue to see industry modifications and hopefully continued wage increases that reflect the importance and value of food and farm work.
Trade Wars Leading to Higher Food Prices
There are costs to Trump’s trade war, and a lot of them might be felt in your pocket. The US’ attack on the global supply chain has resulted in imported goods, including food, that are more expensive for consumers. While the cost increases might seem trivial currently, they stand to increase as the trade war escalates.
The Farm Crisis Will Escalate and Devastate Regional Farmers
Consumers aren’t the only victims of the trade war. Farmers who rely on trade for their livelihoods and who were already struggling — especially many family dairy farmers to sell off their herds; in 2018, nearly 650 dairy farms went out of business in Wisconsin alone. The cows generally go to larger farm operations, resulting in fewer farmers stewarding the land, bigger factory farms and poorer rural communities — as well as . This story is, of course, the biggest on our list because, as Farm Aid’s farm advocate Joe Schroeder pointed out , “We’re heading to a place where we don’t have farmers; we just have food production.”and producers — are getting walloped on the international stage as importers abroad look elsewhere for their supply. Dairy farmers have been hit especially hard recently, as the price they receive for their milk has remained below their costs of production for several years. Low prices have forced
“Regenerative Organic” Agriculture Will Emerge
In 2018, following a dust-up in the organic community connected to the expansion of organic certification to include hydroponic farming, a few companies and organizations partnered to pilot a new certification focused on soil health, carbon sequestration and animal welfare: Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC). So far it is being used only on a few textiles, personal care products and cleaning ingredients. But it is slated to roll out for food next, and it will be building the regenerative concept on the shoulders of organic.
Good news: In 2019, we can be sure that the word and concept “regenerative” will be heard more and more. We’re committed to being a part of building literacy around this term.
TV Cooking Shows Will Be Better, More Diverse
Good news: We couldn’t leave it on such a down note. This year we all fell in love with “Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat,” and its winsome, wise host Samin Nosrat. The show broke new ground for a TV cooking/travel show by highlighting more diverse voices, putting women’s knowledge at the center and just keeping it real. And while there’s no news of a second season yet (“Salt II, Fat II, Acid II, Heat II?”), we know that it has paved the way for more shows like it that are a) not “about white male discovery…or white female domesticity” and b) that increase viewers’ food literacy, piquing their curiosity about different foods, without an imperialist lens.