National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

The Environmental Working Group wants the Specialty Crop Block Grant Program to straighten up and fly right.

At first blush, it may be difficult to ascertain why the EWG would publish a 41-page document  critiquing the finer points of the SCBGP. But the political agenda isn’t hard to uncover when you think about the connection between the block grant program and the Alliance for Food and Farming.

The alliance has been a bur in the saddle of the EWG for several year now, and the EWG has taken offense that any group – much less any group getting federal funding - would impinge its motives in publishing it infamous “Dirty Dozen” list of pesticide-laden produce.

That’s the real agenda of this report, though the point is buried in the group’s new release.

From the EWG:

OAKLAND, Calif. – An important farm bill program that provides valuable support for California’s growers and consumers of healthy fruits, vegetables and nuts would deliver greater all-around benefits if state officials address shortcomings in the process of awarding the federally-funded grants, an analysis by the Environmental Working Group shows.

The Specialty Crop Block Grant (SCBG) program, one of state’s most important sources of federal funding to expand and promote this $19 billion sector of California agriculture, delivers good value overall, EWG’s analysis found, but it falls short of its potential because grant awards don’t always target projects with the broadest payoff and sometimes don’t align with the state’s top policy priorities.

For example, more than half of the program’s funding is dedicated to research, leaving much less available to expand local and regional markets for growers or to increase access to and consumption of safe and healthy food. Both are key priorities for the state and generate immediate economic and public health benefits. The number of projects funded in these areas nearly doubled in 2011 under California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) Secretary Karen Ross, but EWG concluded that targeting more funding to developing local and regional food markets would deliver even higher returns to growers while boosting public access to healthy food.

“In an era of tight budgets, it is critical that we get this right,” said Kari Hamerschlag, EWG’s senior food policy expert and author of the report. “Spending more money on projects that can deliver direct economic benefits to growers, while improving the health of Californians, is a great way to achieve two important goals at the same time.”

 EWG reviewed the program’s track record over a three-year period to assess whether its funding projects were in line with the top 12 priorities outlined in “Ag Vision,” a strategic plan adopted in 2010 by the CDFA. The analysis showed that the specialty crop grants paid for dozens of worthwhile projects that did align with Ag Vision, particularly in environmental stewardship, food safety and pest prevention. But it also pointed out that several priorities were critically underfunded, including support for beginning and disadvantaged farmers, farm workers, outreach and information dissemination to growers, improving local and regional infrastructure and adaptation to climate change. Just 1 percent of the funding went towards organic agriculture, missing an important opportunity to help growers meet soaring consumer demand.

The report recommends increasing overall support for marketing but concludes that too much funding went to projects focused on image-building efforts that will have little impact on growers’ profitability or on improving Americans’ diets. The findings highlighted a number of questionable projects funded in 2009 and 2010, before Secretary Ross took office. These included a $180,000 grant to the Alliance for Food and Farming to support a controversial campaign that targeted EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, as well as two 2010 grants totaling $940,000, both managed by Western Growers on behalf of the California Specialty Crop Communications Alliance, that focused on social media and promotional campaigns. These and similar grants funded in 2009 supported the public relations efforts of a much broader agriculture industry coalition, the California Agriculture Communications Alliance, which is trying to promote a positive image to consumers increasingly concerned about agriculture’s negative impact on health and the environment.


TK: The EWG analysis may or may not be solid in the main, but the fact it singles out the Alliance for Food and Farming as a “questionable project” is a tip off that the EWG would like nothing more than to shout down any voice that is raised in opposition to its alarmist tactics to confuse consumers about the safety of fresh produce.