Maryland study group shut down
ANNAPOLIS, Md. — Two Maryland state departments dissolved a joint committee this month after agricultural representatives accused it of trying to slash the amount of beef, poultry, dairy and other animal food products purchased by state agencies.
The departments of agriculture and general services shut down the 26-member Carbon-Intensive Foods Subcommittee in late August, ending an endeavor that briefly pitted leaders of Maryland’s farming community against state officials and environmental interests hoping to reduce the government’s carbon footprint by discouraging the purchase of animal protein.
The committee was trying to solve “complicated issues that require solutions beyond the scope of the subcommittee,” said Agriculture Secretary Joe Bartenfelder and General Services Secretary Ellington E. Churchill Jr. in an Aug. 30 letter to Del. Shane Pendergrass, chair of the House Health and Government Operations Committee. Pendergrass, D-Montgomery County, directed the general services department to create the committee in the spring.
The committee’s goals were too similar to other state programs, and the state should be focused on reinforcing those efforts, the letter said.
Spokespeople for both departments declined to comment last week on the committee’s dissolution, saying the letter spoke for itself.
The letter highlighted programs and practices embraced by farmers to curb their environmental impact, including the state’s Soil Health Act, which has improved soil carbon sequestration. Farmers, it said, have also adhered to the federal government’s environmental goals for the Chesapeake Bay, which have boosted practices such as rotational grazing, cover crops and nutrient management that reduce greenhouse gases.
The letter also suggested the state encourage local food purchasing, which both departments are already examining in another study group.
Pendergrass criticized the committee’s cancelation last week, saying the departments were abandoning the project because “it involves work.”
“When something is controversial and details need to be worked out between competing interests, (state officials) sometimes lose interest,” she said. “I watch the choices in this administration, and sometimes I’m disappointed.”
After several meetings in the spring and early summer, the general services department began adding agricultural members in July. Several of them, including Colby Ferguson, government relations director at the Maryland Farm Bureau, and Scott Barao, executive vice president of the Maryland Cattlemen’s Association, quickly lambasted the committee, calling its work an attack on the state’s farming community.
Ferguson said he had mixed feelings about the committee’s dissolution. At its Aug. 8 meeting — the first with many new agricultural members — the committee discussed state agencies’ food waste and how limiting that could reduce greenhouse gas production.
“I think some positive things came out of it,” he said. “But at the same time I don’t think banning meat is the answer.. … They’re trying to fix a world problem by crucifying Maryland farmers.”
Several committee members said the state buys only a small percentage of its food from local farmers. But the farming community is trying to change that, said Ferguson, who is also a member of another state study group working to boost the amount of local food purchased by state agencies. A carbon-intensive foods list would hurt farmers who could sell more meat and other animal products to the state if it does increase the amount of local food it buys, he said.
The committee grew out of legislative efforts earlier this year. In February, Del. James Gilchrist, D-Montgomery County, submitted a bill to the General Assembly requiring the state’s Green Purchasing Committee to publish a list of carbon-intensive foods and establish best practices for state agencies to reduce, “to the maximum extent practicable,” purchasing of foods on that list.
The bill mandated that each state agency, including four-year colleges and universities, give preference to foods not on that list. It did not include any specific goals or enforcement standards, however.
Gilchrist eventually withdrew his bill, but work continued within the general services department, which launched the committee. Gilchrist was added as a member. A draft list of carbon-intensive foods provided to committee members included beef, lamb, goat meat, butter, shellfish, cheese, pork, chicken, cream, eggs and milk.
The committee added most of its ag members in July and was set to finalize the foods list at its Aug. 8 meeting. But after more than an hour of debate, Hans Schmidt, an assistant secretary in the agriculture department, said the committee would not approve the list.
“People should have the choice of what they want to eat, and we should be able to provide that choice, and we need to be very careful on the messaging that we’re putting out,” he told the committee.
Schmidt said he would discuss the committee’s future with Churchill. Three weeks later, Pendergrass received Bartenfelder and Churchill’s letter announcing the committee’s end.
Pendergrass said she plans to meet with Gilchrist and other interested parties to determine their next course of action. The meeting won’t include many committee members.
“I’m sure it’ll be a small meeting,” she said.