Jeff Stier, Commentary: USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy & Promotion New Appointment

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stier_smJeff Stier is a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and heads its Risk Analysis Division. Mr. Stier is a frequent guest on CNBC, and has addressed health policy on CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, as well as network newscasts. He does over 100 radio shows a year, including on NPR and other nationally syndicated radio shows, as well as top-rated major market shows in cities including Boston, Philadelphia, and Dallas, plus regional broadcasts. Jeff’s National Center op-eds have been published in top outlets including The Los Angeles Times, The New York Post, Newsday, Forbes, The Washington Examiner, and National Review Online. Stier has testified at FDA scientific meetings, met with members of Congress and their staff about science policy, and has submitted testimony to state government legislative hearings. Mr. Stier worked both in the office of the Mayor and in Corporation Counsel’s office in the Giuliani administration in New York City. His responsibilities included planning environmental agency programs, legal analysis of proposed legislation, and health policy. Mr. Stier is Chairman of the board of the Jewish International Connection, NY. While earning his law degree at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Mr. Stier served two terms as Editor-In-Chief of the Cardozo Law Forum.

TRANSCRIPTION:

Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody. I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food here on July 22, 2014. All right, let’s move to the second part of the program. I’m really looking forward to this. We have one really brave person here in the studio. No, we have two brave people here in the studio. My next guest is Jeff Stier. He’s a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC and has its risk analysis division. He’s a frequent guest on CNBC and has addressed health policies on CNN Fox News Channel and [:35] NBC as well as network newscasts. A whole lot more. He’s got a law degree from Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and he’s the Chairman of the Board of the Jewish International Connection in New York. We’re going to be talking about a recent happening at the USDA. Welcome to It’s All About Food. Thanks for joining me Jeff.

Jeff Stier: Great to be with you Caryn.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, So. Now, your organization, The National Center for Public Policy Research is a conservative think tank and you’re here at the Progressive Radio Network.

Jeff Stier: One of the good things about it is that when I give talks at conservative radio talk shows I have to come in wearing a suit, so it’s nice to be dressed more comfortably.

Caryn Hartglass: That’s right. Especially on a hot day like today. So. Well, we appreciate you dressing appropriately.

Jeff Stier: Thank you.

Caryn Hartglass: So, what’s on your mind, Jeff?

Jeff Stier: I’ve been watching carefully what the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been doing as part of the dietary guidelines for Americans which as you know, is the Federal advice on nutrition on how we ought to eat. I think that advice ought to be…Congress says that the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services have to develop these recommendations and revise them every five years like they’re doing for 2015. Has to be providing good science and nutrition information, has to be based on health. And what the USDA I believe has been doing is shifting that debate…shifting the recommendations and the process about those recommendations to things other than nutrition which is statutorily what is required. And those types of things include things like sustainability. Things like Fair Trade coffee. Things like eating less meat, or if you are going to eat meat it should be free-range, grass-eating meat. So, I think the issue here is what is the basis for the USDA’s recommendation? Is it nutrition or is it some other agenda? I think you and I might agree that it should be based on nutrition. That’s what Congress said. If you want to argue about whether meat is sustainable or not, or whether we ought to be drinking fair-trade coffee, we can have that conversation. But the debate here and the conversation here is about whether advancing those agendas, as I believe the USDA has been doing is consistent with the law.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, the USDA has an interesting situation. It almost has a conflict of interest with itself where it’s responsible for nutrition but it’s also responsible for promoting agriculture. Sometimes those are not in sync with each other especially when it comes to the dairy industry when we learn that saturated fats aren’t healthy and then they start giving benefits to the dairy industry to promote their cheese and at the same time they tell us to eat less cheese. So there have been some conflicts of interest. And also, for a long time the people that have been on the dietary guidelines committee have come from the meat industry, the sugar industry, the dairy industry, and so those people are bringing their agenda to the table and not necessarily the best in science.

Jeff Stier: So, Caryn, give me an example how the USDA may not be using the best science to advance nutrition. I’ll give you an example from my perspective which I think many of your listeners may disagree with, but I think it may help you understand where I’m coming from on this particular issue. One of the conflicts of interest that I believe the USDA has is because part of its mission is to promote agriculture. The USDA spends a lot of tax dollar money encouraging people to eat organic food.

Caryn Hartglass: Not enough in my opinion.

Jeff Stier: Fair enough. But to push people….to move people to eating more organic food. I believe that the public health goal, based on the science that we know today, to encourage people to eat more fruits and vegetables and all the science we have so far suggests that the people who eat more fruits and vegetables tend to live longer lives. The data that I’m basing that on is based on 30, 40, 50 years. and that’s when people were shopping in the supermarkets, not at Whole Foods Markets. This is based on traditional agriculture.

Caryn Hartglass: Sure, but prior to World War II we didn’t need organic food, because we didn’t use pesticides and herbicides.

Jeff Stier: I think you’ll find that the foods that we’ve been eating for the last 50 years…the people who eat more fruits and vegetables live longer and healthier lives. I think if we can agree and make some common ground, people eat more fruits and vegetables. Then we can have a discussion about the latest organic industry-funded study that said organic food is healthier. We can have those conversations, but I think we can agree that people who eat more fruits and vegetables, generally speaking, not just organic, tend to live longer and healthier lives. That is kind of a common ground in nutrition advice. Once we’ve got that from a….I know that progressives don’t always think like economists so that leads to poor communications, but from an economic perspective, the public health goal is to get people to eat more fruits and vegetables. People will eat more fruits and vegetables if those products come at a lower, not a higher price. Organic food across the board, maybe you could sight an exception, tends to be higher priced. So if that’s the case, if conventionally grown produce is less expensive and people eat more foods that are less expensive…we talk about how chips are cheap and vegetables are expensive, my goal from a public health perspective, as someone who thinks like an economist and has an understanding of agriculture, is across the board we should be encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables. The most effective way to do that is to encourage them to eat the fruits and vegetables that are less expensive. And the USDA by advancing an organic agenda is actually working at cross purposes with the public health goal of getting people to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Caryn Hartglass: So, Angela Tagtow was appointed recently to work on a committee with the USDA and you were against her appointment. I think she would agree that we want our country to eat more fruits and vegetables. But a couple of things…

Jeff Stier: I’ll disagree with you there actually. What she would want…and she was not appointed to an USDA committee she was actually appointed to be the executive director of the division at the USDA whose job it is to implement the dietary guidelines. And there’s been this kind of a debate over “Where are the dietary guidelines going?” There’s an advisory committee that just had its fourth set of meetings last week. There’s been a lot of talk about sustainability and some of those issues about how we ought to eat to affect climate change is a part of that. I and others have criticized the dietary guidelines advisory committee which is not the policy-making group, but they issue recommendations. I’ve criticized them for focusing on sustainability rather than nutrition. The USDA responded to that criticism and said that criticism is premature because we haven’t written policy yet. But now the USDA is essentially doubling down by appointing Angela Tagtow to the position as the USDA executive director of the department whose job it is to implement those new dietary guidelines. Her background is quite clear. She is an (and this is her own definition) an environmental nutritionist.

Caryn Hartglass: Okay. The last time I looked at where our food came from, it came from plants that grow in the soil take in the carbon dioxide that is put out into the atmosphere, they give off oxygen and those plants are either fed directly to people as food or they’re fed to animals and then people eat the animals. That’s plants growing in our environment and our current method of industrial plant agriculture is devastating on our environment. We’ve got soil degradation; we’re losing topsoil. Industrial agriculture would not take place if we didn’t have petrol chemical-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. This is not an infinite resource. We know what’s related to petrol chemicals. It’s a limited resource. It’s going to become more expensive and it’s devastating to the environment because of the greenhouses gases that they ultimately put out into the atmosphere. So using agriculture that’s based on petrol chemicals is not sustainable. Now, what we need to be doing is nourishing our soil and the only way to really do that is with a nature-based, organic production of plants that is not based on petrol chemicals. It’s based on planting plants that help each other, don’t fight against each other. Not this extensive mono-cropping and growing primarily foods to feed animals to feed people which is really, really inefficient. So, if we would focus, and I don’t think the USDA is really putting a lot of money into promoting organic agriculture. They’re promoting more meat and dairy and sugar and all the things that aren’t really healthy for us today. I’d love to see them promoting more organic agriculture. It’s quite simple that if we would focus more on plant foods, and if we get into economics of it, right now industrial agriculture really supports a very small amount of people growing what they consider efficient (and I’m using air quotes when I say efficient) because they’re growing a lot of the same foods (a lot of it to feed animals to feed people which isn’t efficient) and they’re doing it with a lot of high tech equipment (ah, that’s wonderful) but it’s not sustainable and we won’t be able to grow food, nutritious or otherwise, if we continue in this method.

Jeff Stier: So, I’ve got a surprise to you. I’m actually an environmentalist. I love hiking and…

Caryn Hartglass: Are you a vegan?

Jeff Stier: I love….

Caryn Hartglas: Are you a vegan?

Jeff Stier: I love eating vegetables.

Caryn Hartglass: No, but are you a vegan?

Jeff Stier: I’ve got a VitaMix.

Caryn Hartglass: Are you a vegan? Say yes or no. The answer is yes or no. You are a lawyer.

Jeff Stier: I love red meat.

Caryn Hartglass: So you’re not a vegan.

Jeff Stier: No, absolutely not.

Caryn Hartglass: So, I think anybody that says they’re an environmentalist, if they’re not a vegan, they’re not really an environmentalist. But you continue.

Jeff Stier: So we have kind of a different view. Kind of at the crux of your argument is this two ways of looking at the world and it goes back for many years and that is we’re running out of resources and we ought to just hunker down. There are probably too many people that are eating too much food or there’s kind of this more I think optimistic view of abundance. I would say that one of my mentors was a man named Dr. Norman Borlaug. Dr Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing the Green Revolution.

Caryn Hartglass: Oh, that.

Jeff Stier: And I would imagine that people like Dr. Borlaug, in your view, are people who destroyed the earth, who caused more people to eat more food which is bad because it’s bad for the earth. My view is that we live in a world with more and more people. The world is not getting any bigger. The one resource that is not growing is the size of the earth. the question is how do we use that earth most efficiently to provide for people. And before Dr. Borlaug passed away, he encouraged me (I’ll always remember this) to continue fighting for the safe and efficient use of technology that will improve the human condition. And that’s what I do every day. We may have different approaches to how to feed people. I can understand why…and I heard your arguments…it might sound like a good idea to just have everybody eating natural foods that grow out in nature. We’ll just pick them without disturbing the earth. And that sounds good. But in the world we live in today where the population is only going to grow unless you’re going to establish some population controls, I think we ought to make the best use of the resources we have to grow, what I believe, sustainable food to give people the nutrition that they need, and I’ve got to say, in ways that they

enjoy which can appropriately. A lot of cultures use meat in their diet, and I think that’s appropriate. I’m a fan of Temple Grandin. I think we ought to farm efficiently. I think we ought to farm humanely. But I don’t think it is necessary to cut out food.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, there a couple of things…when you’re talking about farming efficiently, one is, “Who is benefitting from that efficiency?” We see more and more small family farmers going out of business because they cannot compete with the giant agri-business. And there are a lot of places that call themselves family farms and they are not family farms. They’re big businesses. I believe we need to get away from the big businesses. The efficiency is not really efficient. It’s efficient for a small few to make a lot of money. Sometimes we have to put efficiency aside. If we can improve the economy by putting more people to work and more people actually farming, looking at their food, looking at their produce, knowing when there are bugs around that they can actually take care of without pouring tons of toxic herbicides and pesticides into the ground.

Jeff Stier: I got to disagree with that.

Caryn Hartglass: People are doing it and doing it well and yielding well. If we weren’t eating so much meat, we’d have a lot of land left over to be maybe less efficient, but we could also put our technology toward making organic plant production more efficient.

Jeff Stier: Caryn, it’s called Integrated Pest Management. I’m not in favor of recklessly pouring chemicals onto the earth to kill everything. I believe in Integrated Pest Management which includes the safe use of pesticides.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, I don’t know if there is a safe use, but…

Jeff Stier: I’m just trying to draw attention to some of the rhetoric that is used talking about pouring killer chemicals on food, when in fact I think responsible farmers are trying to get the most out of their land efficiently to supply healthy foods to their customers so that those farms, whether they’re family farms or big business, I think all of those farms ought to be sustainably efficient by using technology appropriately.

Caryn Hartglass: I love technology, but I don’t like damaging the planet and I really think that is the direction we’re going in. It’s really dangerous because it’s polluting our air, polluting our water, causing climate change. We need some dramatic action and I’m actually glad that they’re considering the environment when they’re considering nutrition, because the two go hand in hand.

Jeff Stier: Is it possible in your almost hypothetical world view to actually have food that’s unhealthy that’s good for the environment. Or conversely, to have healthy food that’s bad for the environment.

Caryn Hartglass: Well, I think that organic plant production is really an ideal situation because it puts out negligible greenhouse gases and even conventional plant production causes a certain amount of greenhouse gases because of the petrol chemicals that it uses. I believe that we can have a balance in our environment. Of course, it’s to be seen but if we’re working towards organic plants, I think we could be really gentle on the environment.

Jeff Stier: We’re going to have to cut down a lot of trees to do that.

Caryn Hartglass: We’ve really gone overtime and we really need to stop, but I don’t agree with that at all. We have plowed so many trees today in order to allow for grazing, allow for growing food to feed animals to feed people. We would need to grow a lot less food if we were growing it to just feed people. That’s where the animals (other than the fact that I believe in Thou shalt not kill and we shouldn’t be killing animals and certainly not intensifying by putting them in these factory farms) but we would have a lot more land for wildlife preservation, for growing organic food if we weren’t growing food to feed animals to feed people. It’s very simple. So, Jeff we need to continue this conversation, because I’ve got another guest coming on.

Jeff Stier: That was fun. Thank you.

Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, thanks for coming and thanks for being so brave.

Jeff Stier: My pleasure.

Caryn Hartglass: Let’s take a quick break and we’ll be back with Frederic Mülln. We’re going to talk about what’s going on in Germany with factory farm investigations.

Transcribed by Sharon Engel 9/3/2014

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