Bad news for the Endangered Species Act, $25 million to Feed the Truth, and a SNAP hearing in the House

Heather Bell/USFWS

PSA: ESA may go AWOL. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Wednesday held a hearing to “modernize” the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Washington Post reports. The session was led by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), who argued against the law’s effectiveness with a simple metaphor: it’s like a doctor who saves only 3 out of 100 of his patients, he said, given that 97 percent of all species ever listed under the act remain endangered. Others argue in favor of looking at it another way: the ESA is like a hospital that saved more than 99 percent of its patients from succumbing to cancer. (Less than one half of one percent of listed species have gone extinctsince the law was passed in 1973.)

Though the hearing convened a number of different perspectives—a representative from the Farm Bureau said that the act keeps farmers from using their land efficiently, while the president of Defenders of Wildlife said that the act basically works as intended, but needs more funding—critics see the hearing as the latest sign that congressional Republicans seek to defang the act, or destroy it entirely. According to the Post, Barrasso said last month that his efforts would be geared towards “eliminating a lot of the red tape and the bureaucratic burdens that have been impacting our ability to create jobs.” And House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop recently told the Associated Press that the act had been “hijacked” and that he would do his best to “invalidate” it.

So: what does this have to do with food?

A lot, actually. As we reported in November, one of Obama’s last acts before he left office was to add the rusty patched bumble bee, an agricultural pollinator, to the official list of species protected by the ESA. And while congress debates the merits of the law, the executive order freezing all pending federal legislation has placed the bee’s endangered designation in doubt. It would be the first bumble bee to be placed on the list, and its placement there could impact agricultural policies in the Great Plains—its habitat—and the heart of industrial cropland.

“This bee is just one of many bees that are in trouble. And things that will help the rusty patched bumble bee recover, like expanding habitat, reducing pesticide use, and addressing pathogens will help other bee species,” says Rebecca Riley, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is suing the Trump administration for suspending the rule—illegally, in its view.

No one knows what the legal fate of the rusty patched will be. But I’d been watching this with interest even before Trump was elected. I anticipated a Hillary Clinton presidency, and wondered: Out in corn country, would the federal government starting forcing farmers to take steps to protect the rusty patched?

“The Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to look at all of the decisions it’s making and consider the impact on endangered species,” Riley says. “So that means that when EPA is reviewing pesticides, the neonicotinoids, which are the class of pesticides that are causing a problem for bees … if this is bee listed, they’ll have to look at the impact of those pesticides on the bee and take steps to try to minimize the impact.”

Could pollinator-friendly practices, from polyculture to pesticide reduction, be requirements for ESA compliance? And what would happen when a powerful regulation (the ESA) bumped up against against a politically powerful bloc (Big Ag)?

Now, with Trump as commander-in-chief, we may never know. Which reminds me—some sources are saying that, before the end of the week, Senate Republicans will move to confirm Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
—Joe Fassler

A Kind fund. Daniel Lubetzky, the CEO and founder of Kind Healthy Snacks (maker of KIND bars) announced on Wednesday the launch of Feed the Truth, a new advocacy organization that will “seek to improve public health by making truth, transparency and integrity the foremost values in today’s food system.”

Lubetsky announced an initial $5 million donation to the organization, which is seeking 501(c)3 status, and pledged to give $20 million more over the course of the next ten years. Feed the Truth will operate independently from Kind, and features some heavy-hitters on its board of directors—including nutritionist, author, and public health watchdog Marion Nestle and Michael Jacobson, co-Founder and president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“Feed the Truth will ensure science overrules special interests by revealing and counteracting the food industry’s undue influence in shaping nutrition policy and ability to disseminate biased science, among other activities that are detrimental to public health,” the company said, in a release. “While specific programming will be decided by an executive director that will be appointed by the Board of Directors, activities could potentially include grants to support investigative journalism, consumer education campaigns and educational briefings to policymakers and influencers.”
—Joe Fassler

SNAP chats. The House Agriculture Committee held a hearing Thursday morning on SNAP (formerly food stamps) and junk food purchases, Politico’s Morning Ag reports. The hearing revives a debate that’s surrounded the program since its inception in 1964: Should SNAP recipients be able to buy soda and junk food using federal funding?

Keep an eye out for our backgrounder on the history of this debate—It’s a fascinating one, with lots of side-switching and a surprise appearance by the Bush Jr. administration. But here’s what you need to know for now:

There are two ways junk food bans on SNAP dollars could happen. Both are unprecedented. The first would involve the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) granting waivers to individual states to implement piecemeal bans. Minnesota was the first to ask for one of these waivers back in 2003, and USDA refused to grant it. Other states (and New York City) have since tried, but USDA has always denied them (largely on claims that implementation would be burdensome).

A state-level SNAP policy could mean individual states have the ability to define what “junk food” is. Minnesota’s proposed ban was relatively permissive—you wouldn’t have been able to buy Hershey bars with government dollars, but you could’ve bought Kit Kats (Kit Kats contain flour, the thinking goes, so they’re exempt). Minnesota based its criteria on state tax law. Find a more thorough background from Think Progress here.

On the flip side, Arkansas made moves toward a much more restrictive ban in the early weeks of 2017. The bill died in Senate committee, but it would’ve based its definition of “healthy” on the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. The permitted foods list for that program varies somewhat by state, but basing a junk food ban off the “healthy” criteria would actually mean banning SNAP users from buying things like meat, ketchup, and Greek yogurt.

The other way SNAP spending could be limited would involve a junk food or soda ban at the federal level. That would require action from Congress and would likely come up in negotiations for the next farm bill. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service website refers to a 2007 agency report that advises against bans, adding that “several times in the history of SNAP, Congress had considered placing limits on the types of food that could be purchased with program benefits. However, they concluded that designating foods as luxury or non-nutritious would be administratively costly and burdensome.”

We’re now accepting bets on how long it’ll take that USDA report to disappear from its website. For now, you can find it here.
—Claire Brown

Plowing up old student loans. A bill reintroduced Wednesday in Congress, expected to enjoy bipartisan support, would add young farmers and ranchers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. If passed, the Young Farmer Success Act (H.R. 1060) would make farmers and ranchers eligible for student loan forgiveness after ten years of payment. This benefit is already enjoyed by nurses, teachers, and nonprofit and government employees.

Ever seen those “farming is public service” bumper stickers? Those come from the National Young Farmer Coalition, an advocacy group that’s been pushing for the addition. The Young Farmer Success Act (H.R. 2590) was introduced in Congress in 2015 but never made it to a vote.

Citing the average age of farming professionals (58) and the decline of new farmers entering the field (physically and figuratively), Representative Joe Courtney (D-CT) praised the bill in a press release: “The skyrocketing cost of higher education and the growing burden of student loan debt are presenting major obstacles for young farmers,” he said.
—Claire Brown