Bay Journal

EPA chief sees better food system helping environment

McCarthy says 'biggest challenge to our environment isn’t pollution, it’s poverty'

  • By Whitney Pipkin on October 21, 2016
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy talked food, farming and the environment at James Beard Foundation conference in New York. (Whitney Pipkin)

Gina McCarthy got more than one standing ovation when she spoke to a group of conference goers this week in New York City.

Granted, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was, in many ways, preaching to the choir when she told an audience of 250 at the James Beard Foundation conference that their fight for a better food system can do plenty to improve the environment.

“Really, the mission at EPA isn’t extraordinarily different from what you’re trying to achieve,” she said as the keynote speaker at the end of the two-day meeting. “In every program, we’re looking to help people lead healthier lives.”

The James Beard Foundation is a national nonprofit based in New York City that offers programs to educate chefs and the food industry and runs a prestigious awards program.   

The conference kicked off Monday with Tim Gunn, fashion luminary and host of the TV show, “Project Runway,” explaining what the so-called food movement can learn from fashion trends. Attendees, including chefs, nonprofit founders and journalists, heard for two days from industry, culture and political experts about how to advance the movement’s priorities of improving agricultural practices and giving more people access to good food, while understanding how people make their daily consumption decisions.

McCarthy had some words of caution, gleaned from her years of work with the environmental movement, for the group of enthusiasts.

“Anyone who thinks you can change culture overnight hasn’t studied what culture actually is. It is all designed toward stability. People hate change,” she said. “This is not a short-term effort you’re in.”

But McCarthy, in her down-home, Boston accent, offered plenty of encouragement to the group. She said their effort, which is shared with the EPA, to reduce food waste has the potential to chip away at dually vexing issues: environmental degradation and poverty.

A 2012 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that 40 percent of the food produced in the United States goes uneaten. The EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a goal last year to reduce food waste by 50 percent over the next 15 years.

“The biggest challenge to our environment isn’t pollution; it’s poverty,” McCarthy said. “If we can find a way to connect those who care about poverty with those who care about food, then we have ways to address numerous problems at once.” 

The EPA administrator said many Americans misunderstand where their food comes from, much as they don’t realize where drinking water comes from — and how their actions affect the sources of both. She said there are often strong links between environmental issues and food consumption. For example, researchers have found that good nutrition among children can reduce the impact of any lead they might be exposed to in urban areas or, in the case of Flint, MI, in their water source.

McCarthy didn’t get off easily, though, when the audience got a chance to question her. John Boyd Jr., founder and president of the National Black Farmers Association — and a recipient of one of the James Beard Foundation’s leadership awards — asked McCarthy how she would characterize the EPA’s relationship with agriculture and what’s being done to improve it.

There was knowing laughter in the audience as she paused, and then acknowledged, “I’m trying, but I’m not succeeding.”

“We just did a study and found that 40 to 50 percent of our rivers and streams don’t have healthy ecosystems,” McCarthy said, shifting the topic. “For the most part, it’s agricultural runoff and stormwater, both issues where there’s no bad guy but a lot of little things happening.”

She said programs to encourage farmers to voluntarily improve their practices and, by extension, water quality have had limited success. Meanwhile, she said, harmful algae blooms form in places like Lake Erie.

“There’s got to be some wakeup call where we figure out how agriculture can demand this of themselves,” McCarthy said.

For now, the EPA chief acknowledged that the USDA has a better relationship with the farming community than her agency and is better suited to approach farmers about improving practices.

When asked about the Farm Bill and whether it might include an incentive system for, say, farms that sequester carbon and reduce the impact of climate change, McCarthy demurred.

“Right now, I worry more about drinking water than I worry about climate change,” she said. “The high levels of nitrates in drinking water is fairly extraordinary. Agriculture responds to a collaborative effort more than a regulatory effort, but there are large industrial facilities that are hardly family farms that need to play by the rules.”

The EPA does oversee large farm animal flocks and herds, with the help of state regulators. “Concentrated animal feeding operations,” or CAFOs, must comply with discharge permits, much as factories or sewage plants do.  

Farmers in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, for example, get financial help via the Farm Bill to reduce their polluted runoff from their fields, feedlots and pastures by planting water-filtering buffers along streams. But McCarthy warned that there are limits to what taxpayers can pay, saying that “if every improvement at every farm requires resources, we don’t have that.”

About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin writes at the intersection of food, agriculture and the environment from her home base in Northern Virginia. Her work for the Bay Journal often focuses on the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, and she is a fellow of the Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin


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