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Q&A with Ferd Hoefner on the True Cost of Food: The Soil Health Revolution Is Here

By: Christine Grillo

BALTIMORE—Sept. 5, 2019. When Ferd Hoefner visited the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, we were able to chat with him about his 40+ years of experience working on agricultural policy on Capitol Hill. A founder and senior strategic adviser of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), and a recipient of the 2018 James Beard Leadership Award, he offered great insight into how to address the externalities of the current system, what’s gaining traction in Washington, and what words to use (and not use) in political circles. (Here’s the video.)

Q: What does the term externalities mean to you?

“Externality” refers to the costs of producing food that aren't accounted for in the marketplace—such that if you were doing full cost accounting, those costs would have to be paid for by consumers, or by taxpayers, or by the people causing the externality. I should add that externalities can also be positive, for example, farmers growing crops or trees that aid pollinators.

Q: What are some of the externalities related to the farming system?

I think the externalities that are probably most often spoken about are health care costs, either chronic diseases related to poor nutrition or obesity-related diseases related to overconsumption. And then the environmental externalities: the water quality problems, the air quality, the soil erosion, wide loss of wildlife species. But what gets less attention are the social costs involved. Chief among those are the cost to communities and economic development, particularly in rural America, where consolidation in the agriculture sector has meant rapid de-population and economic harm to communities across the country. Other examples of externalities are unfair farm labor practices, such as low wages or unsafe working conditions.

Q: In your political circles in Washington, do people talk about externalities?

Policymakers don't like to talk about externalities. It's not part of the normal conversation in federal policy circles. It’s almost a necessity, if you're going to become part of the agriculture committees on Capitol Hill, that you learn to say, "The US has the safest, most affordable, most abundant food supply in the world." It's like, if you don't say that, and don't say it multiple times a day, you're never going to be a card-carrying member of the agriculture committee.

Q: In agriculture, what are the nuances of incentives versus regulation?

There's a wide degree of acceptance in the environmental space of the “Polluter Pays” principle. That is definitely not true in agriculture. There are exemptions to most of the environmental laws for agriculture. And “Polluter Pays” is not politically popular whatsoever in ag policy. So in agriculture, the tendency is to provide incentives to try to get farmers to do the right thing. But it’s a much slower route, and unless there are real thresholds and goals and requirements, you're probably just going to be spinning wheels.

Q: Would you say that agriculture policy is not punitive enough?

It's definitely not regulatory enough. I think incentive-based approaches can work really well—if there's a threshold. But in agriculture, a lot of what you wind up doing is spending money to get bad actors to be not quite so bad. And you don't really make substantial progress doing that. It would be much better to have a baseline regulatory regime, and then pay farmers who are willing to go the extra distance.

Q: Would you say that climate change is one externality of our agricultural system?

Climate change is the result of environmental pollution— an externality— from various industries, and agriculture, like many others, does contribute to it. Agriculture, however, can also help mitigate climate change in a significant way. Farmers sit in an interesting position when it comes to climate change, because on one hand, they're in the frontlines of climate disruption and weather volatility, but at the same time, they can contribute to climate mitigation through their agricultural practices.

Q: What will bring us closer to carbon-neutral, or greenhouse gas-neutral, agriculture?

To get to carbon-neutral agriculture, there definitely needs to be a cultural shift and a philosophical shift. I think the good news there is it's beginning to happen. You see more and more of conventional agriculture really caring deeply about soil health in a way that it wasn't even part of the vocabulary two decades ago. And now it's pretty common—coffee shop discussion amongst farmers. As climate disruption affects and puts farmers into greater turmoil on a year-in-and-year-out basis, that will accelerate. I think that we need a price tag on carbon, we need a way to then use some of the resources that the government would take in from those taxes to really double-, triple-, quadruple-down on our conservation approaches. I think farmers could make a lot of progress, and it wouldn't be inconceivable to be carbon-neutral 15 years from now.

Q: I've noticed you use the terms “climate disruption” and “weather variability.” Is there a political reason that you're using these terms?

Politically speaking on Capitol Hill, in ag circles, “climate change” does not get used much. The two terms that are most often used are “weather variability” or “soil health.” And obviously, climate change in agriculture is more than just soil health—but it is a key component. In the [Obama] administration, when we took a proposal on how to incentivize farmers to do climate change mitigation work, we were told by the USDA, “This department is never going to use the word ‘climate change,’ Go away.”

Q: How can farming practices address climate change?

Examples of where agriculture and forestry can operate side by side are some of the fastest, quickest, most achievable ways of reaching overall carbon neutrality as a country. It really makes sense to invest where there is low-hanging fruit, and I think that agroforestry is one of those areas.

Q: What are policymakers getting right or wrong?

There’s a lot of interest right now at the state level in passing soil health legislation. I think we're up above half the states in the country now that have either enacted soil health legislation, or have it under serious consideration. Whenever you have half of states doing anything, It's going to bubble up to the federal level.

Q: I keep hearing you use these terms “soil health” and “soil health legislation”—is soil health code for something?

“Soil health” is the more recent term; we always used to call it “soil quality.” But whatever, however, you want to refer to it, soil health seems to be the one that has attracted the most usage. So we're using it. Rather than saying, “carbon sequestration,” or “carbon sink” or “climate mitigation,” we find it's easier and more understandable for most audiences to say “soil health.” And it's not inaccurate to talk about soil health—because improving soil health, you use the same exact practices, by and large, that you do to protect water quality. The interesting thing about soil health is, for a long time, if you talked about conservation practices and federal conservation programs, it was always water conservation, soil conservation, water quality, and wildlife protection. Those were the biggies. And while we talked about water conservation and water quality, we generally did not talk about soil conservation and soil quality. So the “soil health revolution,” if I can call it that, is really bringing the quality of the soil, not just the loss of soil, into the equation. We like to think of it as not the most important resource concern, but the central, foundational resource concern. And that's why sustainable and organic farmers have always started from soil quality first, and then broadened out to all the other concerns.

Q: And the effect of soil health on nutrient quality?

Right. I should mention that. Yes, better soil health means better nutrient density, better food quality and better nutrition. From the food side, it's also really important.

Q: You use the word “anathema” to describe how people respond to the concept of supply management. What do you think about supply management or supply control?

Back in the 1930s, we had a massive overproduction problem. For decades, we had various supply management controls on that overproduction. Everything from quotas, to allotments, to set-asides, to grain reserves that would pull and hold supplies off the market until the market needed more supply. So we had a wide variety of tools. (I would note as a side note that we still have supply control on fruits and vegetables in this country through marketing agreements and marketing orders, so when a particular fruit or vegetable commodity is in oversupply, we have ways of eliminating the oversupply to maintain price. A classic example was 2018, when half the cranberry crop in the country was destroyed in order to not have the market crash.) But we've basically gotten rid of grain reserves, and we've gotten rid of all the set-aside and acreage reduction programs and quota programs of the past. And yet, we still have an oversupply problem.

Q: We still have an oversupply, or overproduction problem—why doesn’t it seem as dire as it has in the past?

Part of the problem has not seemed as severe because of the huge boom in ethanol production. The big question, going forward, is as we move to an electric car fleet, which is not that far away, the market for ethanol is going to shrink rather dramatically, rather quickly. And I hesitate to guess what's going to happen to export markets. Right now they're certainly in disarray for political reasons. [Editor’s note: Articles on US trade war with China, 1, 2] It's not clear we can solve overproduction through these various alternative markets. And I think that is going to put the whole issue of supply management back into the discussion of federal farm programs. People are looking for solutions and uncertain how they're going to stay in agriculture if prices remain low. And there's no way to deal with that surplus supply in our policy toolkit right now. I'm not going to make any predictions that change is going to happen anytime soon. But I think over the course of the next decade it's going to become more of a topic of conversation again. I don't think it necessarily means set-asides; I don't think it necessarily means quotas, or any of those things. I think there are 21st century ways to do it.

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