Tag Archives: Monsanto

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week

3 Feb

Quite a variety of happenings in the world of food this week.

The Good

An illuminating new report out by the cooking & nutrition charity Share Our Strength provides concrete evidence that low-income families do cook at home more often than they eat fast food, and would like to be able to do so even more. I like Marion Nestle’s coverage, as she’s not afraid to nod towards some of the corporate influence the report contains. Good news, nonetheless.

Colorado is considering a state-wide ban on trans-fats in school lunch programs. Colorado is also, interestingly, the least-obese state in the nation (you can’t really say “thinnest” in a country where obesity is over 30% across the board). Coincidence?

In more school lunch reform news, the USDA announced this week its new rules (yes, actual rules here) that will increase the amounts of fruits and vegetables, and eliminate some meat requirements in its school lunch program. As Mark Bittman says, imperfect as the new rules may be, 32 million kids are about to start eating better.

Jane Black has a nice piece in The Washington Post discussing the rise in flexible CSA options. While I think her editorial brushes off the consumer benefits of a regular CSA too dismissively, I’ve loved my past flexible CSAs for the access they provided someone who couldn’t afford a full share.

The Bad

This article isn’t bad so much as slightly annoying. A new study out of the Washington State University purports to help reform the beef industry’s image by claiming cattle ranches are significantly more environmentally-friendly than thirty years ago. File under — yes, and…?

I mentioned one lawsuit Monsanto is currently facing. Here is another! A class-action case that claims the company spread toxic substances all over a town in West Virginia in the course of producing a chemical component of Agent Orange. The toxic substances listed are mainly dioxins, which have been linked to cancer.

and the (very) Ugly

The Humane Society of the United States (which has, in the last few years, done a really impressive job ramping up its advocacy of livestock animals along with homeless pets) released a new undercover video documenting standard pork industry practice for raising pigs.

Graphic images included.

Tom Philpott’s analysis cuts to the core:

The remarkable thing…is how banal it is. What we have here is the everyday reality of pigs’ lives on a factory farm, without regulations flouted or spectacular violence committed. It is abuse routinized and regimented, honed into a profitable business model.

The video even got NYTimes sustainability blogger Andrew Revkin interested. He’s got a response from the Oklahoma Pork Council (which suggests that images were “taken out of context,” leaving me to ask — is there a context in which these practices are acceptable?) and takes the opportunity to wonder if this might continue to make the case for test-tube meat. Not if the omnivores here on We*Meat*Again have anything to say about it, right?

Happy Weekend, All!


What’s Conventional About This Agriculture?

2 Feb

About a year ago, Whole Foods Market announced its decision to end a nearly twelve-year battle against the contamination of organic crops by genetically-engineered crops. At the time, this was seen by many in the sustainable food community as a cave from a major player in the natural foods market to industry pressure.

But the reason this is news now is that on January 31, family farmers took part in the first phase of a court case filed to protect farmers from genetic trespass by Monsanto’s GMO seed, which contaminates organic and non-GMO farmer’s crops and opens them up to abusive lawsuits.

You can learn more about the problem of GMO-contaminated crops in this great article from TIME. But for now, I think that it’s important to see all the ways this particular conflict mirrors the bigger one, the enduring agricultural struggle of our time.

Big vs. small.

Many call this conventional vs. organic. But at a conference a few years ago, a fellow writer (and therefore, analyzer of words) commented to me how strange it was that organic — the natural process unimpeded by human-made chemicals — would be considered unconventional.

The question of Whole Foods not being able to protect organic farmers from Monsanto, to me, echoes the question that has been more recently explore by Tom Philpott and Andrew Revkin of whether Wal-Mart can play a role in the sustainability movement. Or the question of organic subsidary brands owned by multi-national food corporations.

The real question is: Can industrial and natural agricultural practices co-exist in the same food system? Or do we need a new one all together?

I don’t know the answer, but I’ve always sort of leaned towards revolution… What do you think?

Links Roundup & Food Rules Giveaway Winner!

27 Jan

First, your weekly dose of links from around the world of food…

Gary Hirshberg, CEO of organic pioneers Stonyfield Yogurt, announced this week he will be stepping down from that position to take full part in the new Just Label It! campaign to promote GMO-awareness.

On Mother Jones, Tom Philpott has two great articles detailing some of the momentous GMO-related announcements the USDA tried to sneak in before the new year (along with the earlier-reported cave on antibiotic regulation). One on how Dow Chemical is teaming up with Monsanto here, and another on Monsanto’s new GM-corn here. You can read the original USDA announcements here.

This one’s not current, but I just found it this week, and thought I’d share: Best Colleges Online has a list of the 10 Most Impressive Farm to School programs.

And along those lines, CBS This Morning had a great segment on the notion of “the nanny state” and the First Lady’s Let’s Move! campaign. Watch the whole segment for the amazing Chef Jose Andres and his eloquent, concise explanation of why the answer is yes, yes they should.

And finally, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The winner of We*Meat*Again’s first-ever giveaway, for a brand new copy of the illustrated edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules!

Our winner is #5: John!

When asked what his favorite food rule is, John wrote:

Buy local, fresh, *often*. Maybe daily.

A problem with buying real food — especially local organic food — can be the price, and the fact that the food goes bad in the fridge after a few days and you end up throwing half of it out. Well. If you can find a convenient place, especially on your way to/from work/school/whatever, just plan for the night’s meal en route and buy what you need for that day, that day. Making daily stops at the local grocer or co-op can be much more cost-effective than trying to work too far ahead, when it comes to fresh fruits and veggies.

Of course, We*Meat*Again LOVES John’s take on the food rules — words for us all to live by! Congratulations, John! I’ll be in touch regarding details of delivery soon.

In all seriousness, though, the giveaway was to celebrate the recent blog milestone of 10,000 site visits. I’m so thrilled and humbled that this little blog is worth that much attention. When I started it last May, I had no idea we’d be here — and I have all you to thank. So thank you for being a part of our We*Meat*Again community, come back often, and as always, let me know what you’re thinking, what you’re wondering, or what you’d like to see more of!

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week (1/19)

20 Jan

Some news from around the world of food this week…

Many of you may have already heard that Paula Deen has (SHOCKINGLY) revealed she has Type II Diabetes. Now, my little sister has been insulin-dependent with Type I Diabetes since just after her ninth birthday, so I will refrain from unleashing my vitriol at obesity-inflicted Type II Diabetes here. But here are some interesting observations about the Deen situation: how conveniently the announcement coincides with (rather than a change of heart or cooking style) Deen’s contract to shill for a new (and dubious) medication, and the mounting evidence correlating meat-eating habits with diabetes.

On a more creative note, my awesome writer-friend Amy Weldon has a really interesting essay up on her blog exploring the connections between food and Southern femininity.

The “Just Label It!” campaign against unknown genetically modified ingredients in our foods officially launched this week with a new video by Robert Kenner (director of Food, Inc.), and Ecocentric has a good blog post covering the basics of GMOs and the labeling campaign for those who want more information.

This is a bit of a food tangent, but some may have heard that Newt Gingrich is gaining ground in South Carolina with a new ad calling President Obama the “food stamp” president (accusing him of putting more people on food stamps — not because the economy has tanked — but because he just looooves government handouts to poor people, is my read). This reminds me of my recent post taking down Rick Santorum for similarly offensive racial/food political slurs.

The Daily Meal released its annual list of the 50 Most Powerful People in Food. If you click through from the bottom up, you’ll spend the first half cheering at the familiar food advocate faces (Bittman! Bourdain! Allen! Mahler!) and then notice a very distinct shift into the corporate world. Here’s hoping 2012 is the year the balance starts to shift

In good news along that front: Food Corps is open for applications for its next cycle, and is expanding this year after a successful pilot program. They need more people in more states, so if you’re interested in pursuing a career in agriculture, nutrition, education, cooking, gardening or advocacy, this is a great way to — literally — get your hands dirty.

Now before you head off for the weekend, make sure to stop by last week’s post and leave a comment to enter for a chance to win a copy of the new, illustrated edition of Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, as We*Meat*Again celebrates our 10,000th site visit!

Do We Need a “Green Revolution” in the Global South?

15 Dec

First, a point of clarification. When I refer to the green revolution in the title here, I mean the commonplace thinking of the Borlaug-era use of agricultural technology like genetic modification to produce higher-yielding crops. As I’ve already expressed on the blog, I don’t actually believe the green revolution was all that green or productive–which is why I wanted to round up some information on a new series of debates being waged over what the “right” kind of agriculture to practice in developing nations will be to meet the needs of an increasing global population.

Last week, Andrew Revkin posted on his NYT blog about a disconnect over the proper use of patented seeds between farmers and city dwellers in Nepal, where Monsanto is making in-roads. It’s clear from the post that Revkin’s views are that modern technology will be necessary to feed the world.

This isn’t only happening in Asia. Monsanto is a global powerhouse, looking to market their seeds worldwide. They’ve gotten some help from the Gates Foundation in Africa, a program criticized this week on 60 Minutes by Howard Buffet (Warren’s son) as following in the mistaken footsteps of American agriculture.

There are several separate issues of concern when it comes to making use of high-tech ag solutions in developing nations. Tom Philpott has taken both the Gates Foundation and Howard Buffet to task in the past for this strategy, specifically for the “get big or get out” mentality behind scaling-up to be globally competitive, and for the devastating environmental effects high-yield agriculture is responsible for producing.

But there’s an issue of secondary concern here, which the original Revkin post ignored, in my opinion. Revkin posted in a follow-up comment a response from Matt Liebman, the H.A. Wallace Chair for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University (go Cyclones!) which addressing the issue head-on: how much corporate control do we want to encourage in the developing world?

In a time of growing poverty, in parts of the world that are the most vulnerable to the immediate negative impacts of climate change, I am deeply concerned about attempting to replicate American-style industrial agriculture around the world. Setting aside for a moment all that we know about the actual dangers of transgenic plants (the superweeds & superbugs modification produces) and their devastating environmental effects, and their carcinogenic properties, the real danger, as I see it, is the debt incurred by small farmers in developing nations who take out loans against their land to buy these patented seeds.

In 2008, more than 1,000 farmers in India committed suicide because these expensive crops failed to produce the yields promised, and left them with mountains of debt, facing the loss of all their land and livelihood. Monsanto sold them the seeds. THAT’s why it’s a problem.

Especially when faced with a growing body of evidence that organic, sustainable agriculture can actually feed the growing demands of our planet–can’t we now try to find a better way forward?

The Weird & Wacky World of Food Marketing & Policy

29 Nov

Sometimes, as a composition teacher, I get very sad at the world.

Sometimes I have to walk around in a world where many people speak, think and behave in the very ways I try to convince my students not to. They use flawed illogical assumptions. They repeat ideas without verification or citation. They trust a single source without questioning its authority or credibility. And they build their own knowledge base with this rotting foundation.

Nowhere is this more true than in the world of food policy.

This is a world where it makes more sense for the government to spend trillions of dollars we don’t have on direct subsidy payments to farmers to grow corn we don’t need, and allow corporations to profit by injecting this corn into every known food substance to the detriment of the nation’s health — rather than  to change the policy.

This is a world so upside-down-backwards-on-its-head that very little makes sense any more. And I think of this whenever I try to have a conversation with someone who hasn’t spent as much time in this world as I have, whenever people ask questions like “Why is it such a big deal for my vegetables to come from Mexico?” or “But isn’t corn-fed beef the best kind, you know, according to the USDA?

So I have a brief policy roundup for you all today, to use as fodder whenever you are up against opposition that’s so dramatically different from your world view you don’t know where to start. Because we have to start. It’s up to all of us who care about food to have those tough conversations, and to have them with compassion, not condescension. The education has to begin by explaining just how weird food policy becomes when Big Ag marketing strategies and lobbying budgets get involved:

  • The Freakonomics blog calls a relocalized food system “inefficient” in comparison to modern industrial agricultural systems. Nevermind that industrial ag grows corn that becomes steak or salad dressing emulsifier or bread-browning agent or gas that costs more to make than its worth, whereas locally grown produce becomes, you know, food. That would be inefficient. (Anne Lappe has a great take-down of the Freakonomics post featuring actual economics, here.)
  • Congress failed to pass new regulations mandating certain amounts of certain types of actual vegetables in school lunches (considering the existing standards adhere to federal dietary suggestions from 1989, and include items you may have seen in headlines like the tomato pasta in pizza sauce) in a patently obvious fold to industry pressure. The frozen food industry didn’t want to have to repackage their meals to be “less palatable” to children, so instead our children get to eat whatever the frozen food industry can produce cheap and easy (see above. Corn is a vegetable, right?). This is where all those “Pizza is a vegetable” headlines are coming from.
  • A national marketing strategy document for the innocuously-named “Center for Food Integrity,” (sponsored by, among others, Monsanto and Smithfield) suggests the following for responding to consumer trends towards more sustainable farming methods:

As consumer values change, the food system needs to evaluate and potentially modify current practices and fundamentally change the way it communicates in order to maintain consumer trust.

See the rest of the document yourself to decide whether you think the CFI is looking to modify its practices or just to change communication strategies to make themselves sound more sustainable. See Tom Philpott’s coverage of a Sara Lee rebranding plan for Hillshire Farms to see proof of these communication strategies in action.

My point here is that the modern agricultural industry is an industry. I do not believe everyone who works for Monsanto is evil, nor do I believe that large corporations have no place in a new food system. I don’t think there is a giant, nation-wide conspiracy to force-feed us all corn (well, I kinda do). But industries behave like industries. The job is a CEO is to turn a profit, and he will do this with a billion dollar lobbying budget, campaign financing, public relations and marketing strategists and any other tool at his disposal.

So when we hear information on food policy, even from the federal government, we must trace that information back to its source and run a credibility check. If the author of a marketing memo stands to turn a profit from getting his audience to believe that “corn sugar is just sugar,” perhaps we should find out whether “our body can’t tell the difference” from a medical, rather than a marketing, expert.

Reading & Writing The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat

9 Nov

I promised you all another video post, and finally I am able to deliver. Thanks to the benefits of having a full-time media staff available at my university, I have a video of a lecture I gave on campus this past week titled “We Meat Again: Activist Writing & Becoming Un-Vegetarian”. The lecture focused on the genesis of the project, the process of writing it, and in particular the blend of the personal and political that made me want to tackle food as a subject for my first book.

It’s quite long, and since I know we don’t all have time to sit and watch a 50 minute lecture, I’ll probably skip a post tomorrow and let everyone have some time to look it over and let me know what you think.

Or, in case you only want to watch bits and pieces, here are some of the things covered.

Up to minute 8: I introduce the project and specifically my desire to write as a form of social action. Through this, I discuss how and why food was the subject I chose to write about.

Between minutes 8-28: I read four short excerpts from the book, and after each, discuss a challenge or technique in constructing a personal political narrative. This is the section to check out if you’re interested in hearing more of the book itself.

Post minute 28: The massive question & answer session! Lots of people had lots of questions and I had a lot of fun trying to answer them all. It was really illuminating for me, since I’m still such a novice in the field of food — and am really only an expert in food writing – to see what people care about, what they need to know more about, and where their interests lie. This Q&A covered everything from my diet and weight, urban gardening, Monsanto State University, the unending process of cutting/rewriting/cutting some more that entails writing a book, and a list of some of the other boycotts I’ve personally enacted.

Anyway, hope you all find something useful and/or enjoyable in here, whether from the writing itself, the personal political writing process or the food and dietary questions. Watch and enjoy and share widely as you like, and feel free to ask any questions you would have wanted to in the comments section, or via email!

The Secret Farm Bill

7 Nov

Seems like it’s been too long since I’ve addressed any food policy here on We*Meat*Again, and here’s a doozy for us to get angry over together: the imminent passing/announcement of a “secret” farm bill, likely to become public this week. I’ll let the experts explain what this is, and why it’s troubling.

Normally, the U.S. Congress must renew Farm Bill legislation every five years to designate the budget for agricultural programs such as direct payment subsidies, nutritional programs (like Food Stamps and WIC) and conservation easements. As the food movement heats up, the Farm Bill has become a more and more controversial piece of legislation, as it largely dictates the financial direction of federal food policy into large-scale industrial agriculture.

So this year, to avoid that public debate, agricultural lobbyists in conjunction with representatives from Midwestern farming states are using the deficit-reducing “supercommittee” (created last summer because Congress couldn’t get it together to raise the debt ceiling) to write the 2012 Farm Bill behind closed doors.

Writing the Farm Bill in this way pre-empts any chance at reform. If representatives whose campaigns are paid for by Big Ag outfits write legislation, we’re unlikely to see a shift in food policy. Proposals currently being considered focus the spending cuts mostly on nutrition, conservation and environmental protection policies.

But setting aside for a moment what may or may not actually become legislative reality, the real egregiousness of this choice comes from the complete absence of any public debate. Anyone without a voice on this committee has no say in this important legislation. The San Francisco Gate has observed that this approach excludes the entire state of California, the country’s single largest agricultural producer, but on an even more fundamental level, it simply does not include “we the people” at all.

This OxFam editorial summarizes the problem best, by explaining how we all — Republicans, Democrats, etc. — should be able to come together to protest this end-run around democracy:

If you’re a Tea Party supporter, you probably shouldn’t like this deal because:

1. It is a back room deal negotiated without any public scrutiny.
2. It cuts less wasteful spending than other proposals.
3. The $23 billion in proposed cuts could shrink dramatically if the volatile agriculture markets or increasingly volatile weather swings production or prices in a new direction.
4. It authorizes the government to pick certain industries/commodities as winners over others.

If you’re an #OWS supporter, you shouldn’t like this deal because:
1. It was negotiated to satisfy high powered industry lobbies that pay lots of money to influence the Ag Committee.
2. It’s a giveaway to big industrial farms at the expense of family farmers.
3. It promotes unhealthy, unsustainable farming practices at the expense of sustainable farming.
4. It targets conservation and nutrition programs for cuts disproportionately.

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat this Week

21 Oct

This week was a tough one for me from an activist perspective. A few major things happened that brought to life connections I knew (abstractly) existed between corporate system control, climate change and the devastation of our food system. And side-by-side with those events, a few news items about those corporations clinging desperately to the old world order, refusing to acknowledge that anything has to change.

Let’s use links to walk through some of this together…

It all started when the island nation of Tuvalu ran out of water. We officially live in the post-climate change world, folks. An entire nation is currently surviving off of emergency aid water. Sure, it will be awhile before these kinds of consequences reach the soils of industrialized nations, but it’s coming.

The consequences of global climate devastation we’re already beginning to see hit our food and water supplies first, and hardest. For the full connection between food and geopolitics explained, check out Lester Brown’s great article from this summer’s Foreign Policy food issue.

Then, you can read Frederick Kaufman’s accompanying article to learn how speculative commodities trading led directly to the current food crisis, banging its head up against climate change in what will — I’m not being hyperbolic at all here — be a global disaster of magnitude.

And yet… a new report by Food & Water Watch this week demonstrates that, rather than federal subsidies, the deregulation of commodities markets leads to an overproduction of “junk food” crops.

And a consumer advocacy group filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission over PepsiCo & Frito-Lay’s use of “deceptive and unfair digital marketing tactics” to promote junk food to kids in direct violation of the FTC Act.

And Monsanto is selling an 1950s-era pesticide, rife with dioxin, to farmers whose superweeds can no longer be defeated with RoundUp.

All of which makes me want to scream: A country ran out of water on our watch this week, people! This is no longer business-as-usual.

What’s so Scary About GMOs?

11 Oct

A coalition of environmental and agricultural interest groups launched this week a new initiative to flood the government with public comments to pressure federal mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods. This is a complex issue, and one many people don’t see as directly related to the pursuit of healthier and more sustainable food systems. so I thought I’d provide some background on how it is related, and on why GMOs aren’t as harmless as people believe.

What is a GMO?

A GMO or genetically modified organism is anything altered at the molecular level in ways that could not happen naturally. This means plants and animals have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs.

In the world of food, the most commonly recognizable GMOs are herbicide or insecticide resistant corn and soy crops. But our livestock animals also usually eat genetically modified grains, and biotechnology corporations have recently developed many GMO foods including produce, hogs and salmon.

What are the consequences?

There are several issues of concern with GMOs. First, there are potential health risks from human consumption. While no evidence exists to conclusively prove a serious health risk, that’s largely because little to no research has been done on these products, and much of the existing science comes from the biotechnology companies themselves. However, preliminary researches have found significant degradation to kidney and liver function from a diet high in gentically-modified corn, which is pretty much the standard American diet.

Many of the health consequences of GMOs, however, are indirect, results of the environmental degradation of genetic modification. What we know for certain about GMOs is that they significantly alter the agricultural landscape. Most organisms are modified to be resistant to insecticides or herbicides, so that the plants can withstand a constant spraying of those products, which should theoretically increase the crops’ yields. What we know this does for sure is lead to a development of so-called superweeds and superbugs — weeds and pests that are resistant to the chemical compounds sprayed to kill them. Plants and insects work on a very small evolutionary time scale, so they quickly develop the traits to combat the chemicals designed to kill them.

This, predictably, leads to an increased use of the chemicals. Which leads to more powerful super-pests. Which leads to more chemicals. Etc. The results of this endless cycle is a world of agriculture so completely doused in chemical that even free-growing wild weeds are now sprouting up with GMO traits such as pest resistance.

And all those chemicals are in our air, our water, our soil and our food. Which means they are also in our bodies. And we know for sure that it’s unhealthy for humans to consume RoundUp, which has been found in umbilical cord blood and the bloodstreams of average Americans, and has serious developmental consequences in vitro.

But don’t the benefits of GMOs outweigh those risks?

In a word, no. Comprehensive, comparative, long-term studies have shown that, due to the environmental degradation that these chemicals cause to soil and water, as well as the increased risk of pest exposures, GMO crops do not yield significantly more than conventional. And in fact, the report also concludes that organic methodology has a more significant increase on crop yields.

They are bad for the environment, certainly. They are bad for our health, maybe. (Since I’ve read all of Sandra Steingraber’s work, I’m not trusting anybody with chemicals in my body. So I say, likely.)

And all we are asking is that we be informed of their existance.

The campaign I mentioned above is simply asking that the federal government mandate labelling of genetically-modified foods. Nothing more. Currently, no laws exist regarding the presence of GMOs on food products, and this prevents a perfectly natural, reasonable option of consumer choice. People may have mixed feelings about the safety of GMOs, but we’re pretty certain we should have the right to make up our own minds.

And you know who once agreed with us? Candidate Obama. Let’s hold him to this promise.


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