Ag reps: Committee squeezing out meat, dairy
BALTIMORE — Two agricultural representatives accused a state committee this month of quietly working to slash the amount of beef, poultry, dairy and other animal products purchased by state agencies.
The Maryland Department of General Services started the Carbon-Intensive Foods Subcommittee in the spring to examine the state’s purchasing of foods whose production releases high amounts of greenhouse gases.
State officials said the 26-person committee is merely studying the issue, but two of its newest members — Colby Ferguson, government relations director at the Maryland Farm Bureau, and Scott Barao, executive vice president of the Maryland Cattlemen’s Association — said committee documents detail a more specific purpose to encourage state agencies, such as universities, hospitals and prisons, to buy less meat and other kinds of animal protein.
“It’s more just a push to get rid of animal agriculture,” Ferguson said.
A March 27 timeline issued to committee members spells out the group’s goals, including the development of best practices for “reducing the volume of carbon-intensive foods purchased by state agencies and universities.”
An intern working for the committee also created a draft list of carbon-intensive foods. The list includes beef, lamb, goat meat, butter, shellfish, cheese, pork, chicken, cream, eggs and milk as foods whose production emits high levels of greenhouse gases.
“Why did (they) produce the hit list of foods?” Barao said. “Why would you even produce that if you had no intention of carrying that to the next step of purchasing?”
State officials declined to speak in detail about the committee. Barao and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association sent a joint letter to Gov. Larry Hogan on July 12, asking him to disband the committee for operating with a “political agenda” rather than facts about the impact of cattle production on the environment.
Ellington E. Churchill Jr., general services department secretary, and Joe Bartenfelder, secretary of the state department of agriculture, responded on Hogan’s behalf in a joint letter four days later, denying that the committee is working to reduce the state’s animal protein consumption.
The agriculture department is co-chairing the committee.
“This non-legislative subcommittee has no preconceived goal or mission to prohibit or reduce the purchasing of beef or other protein by the state, and we apologize if that was not clear from the onset,” the department heads said. “The Department of General Services did not agree to any mandate requiring agencies to purchase or give preference to non-carbon intensive foods.”
The committee met for the first time in early July. Ferguson and Barao were added along with several other agricultural representatives earlier this month, though neither has attended a meeting yet.
“I’m just furious,” Barao said. “This is a precedent that would impact everybody. The grain producers, everybody up and down the food chain.”
The timeline also says the general services department should build a feature into an electronic purchasing system under development that would allow the department to track purchasing of carbon-intensive foods across state agencies. The committee is scheduled to meet monthly through November when it would submit the carbon-intensive foods list and best practices to the Green Purchasing Committee for formal adoption.
The Green Purchasing Committee, part of the general services department, was created in 2010 to develop environmentally sustainable purchasing policies and best practices for state agencies.
The committee’s motives can also be found in its legislative origins, Ferguson said. 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, the amount of carbon-intensive foods they purchase.”
Friends of the Earth, a Washington, D.C., environmental advocacy organization, assisted Gilchrist in crafting the bill.
The bill also 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 for that mandate, however.
Ferguson protested the bill before the House Health and Government Operations Committee on Feb. 19, claiming it was forcing a vegetarian diet on Marylanders through the state’s food procurement process. A month later, Gilchrist withdrew his bill.
Ferguson said he thought the issue was settled, but Gilchrist withdrew the bill with the understanding that the state’s general services department was already studying and would continue to study the state food purchasing.
Gilchrist and the bill’s supporters determined they didn’t need to work through the legislature, said Chloe Waterman, a senior food campaigner at Friends of the Earth.
“They already have the authority to do everything in that bill,” she said.
The general services department added Gilchrist and Waterman to the Carbon-Intensive Foods Subcommittee. Gilchrist did not respond to requests for an interview.
“The agenda that we have is to reduce Maryland’s greenhouse gas emissions,” Waterman said. “At this point, we need to do all that we can.”
Through lobbying and other efforts, Friends of the Earth seeks to reduce worldwide meat consumption dramatically, reform animal agriculture practices and promote pastured organic meat and dairy, which they say are raised more sustainably.
“Maryland is purchasing a lot of food,” Waterman said. “Yet the food we’re purchasing isn’t aligned with (worldwide) goals on climate.”
Barao said he disagrees with scientific information the committee has distributed to members.
He points to federal and state studies, including a recent report from the Environmental Protection Agency that said agriculture produced just 9 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. The transportation, electricity and industrial economic sectors contributed nearly 80 percent of all emissions.
In Maryland, agriculture’s share is smaller. The industry produced just 2 percent of the state’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2017, according to a 2018 report by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The committee is more interested in meat consumption than greenhouse gas, Barao said.
“There’s no good in this,” he said. “This is a calculated process to do away with meat at the request of Friends of the Earth.”
But food production, including transportation and land-use changes, account for a quarter of worldwide emissions, Waterman said — a statistic that’s been attributed to a 2018 University of Oxford study. Scientists believe a rising global concentration of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases, is warming the planet and creating climate change.
“We can’t afford not to address emissions from agriculture,” Waterman said.
The committee will produce best practices for state agencies, but they won’t be binding, Waterman said. Thomas Hickey, another committee member and head of procurement for the University System of Maryland, also said he doesn’t believe the committee plans to restrict the state.
“This is not that. At least, that’s my impression,” he said. “It’s not coming up with, ‘You cannot buy meat, you cannot buy dairy or you cannot buy shellfish.’”
Such restrictions would be difficult to enact, he said. Many state agencies hire contractors to manage dining services, and large food buyers such as the state’s public universities need to meet the needs of a diverse student body. Hickey also said he was skeptical of the committee’s goal to track carbon-intensive food purchases across the state with a new purchasing system.
“My general impression is that this (committee) is a benign endeavor,” he said.
The committee will hold its next meeting at the general services department’s office at 301 West Preston St., in Baltimore in the Olmsted Conference Room on Oct. 8 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
The majority of the committee’s members are state officials, including three from the agriculture department. Representatives from the Delmarva Poultry Industry Inc., the Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers Cooperative Association, Maryland Grain Producers and Maryland Pork Producers have also been added within the last several weeks.
Tal Petty, a St. Mary’s County oysterman, joined the group two weeks ago. He said he viewed the carbon-intensive foods list and was surprised to see shellfish on it.
“The committee had some one-sided representation, and I think it’s great that agricultural protein representatives are now included,” Petty said.
Ferguson said he remains wary.
“I don’t trust anybody at all with this right now,” Ferguson said. “That’s why I’m going to stay on top of it to make sure this isn’t getting shoved down our throats.”