Tag Archives: science

How Far Should Food Industry Regulation Go?

7 Feb

For this week’s dialogue post, I’ve found a recent and particularly controversy-inspiring editorial from Raj Patel, writing in this case for The Atlantic. Patel makes the case we’ve heard before paralleling the food industry with the alcohol and tobacco industries to argue for the regulation of junk foods, but he goes one step further and wonders whether there isn’t a case for fully abolishing the food industry as we know it. If you can make the argument for tobacco, Patel says, food is close behind.

First up for conversation of course, is the validity of a parallel between tobacco and big food, which Patel supports with mounting evidence of the neurological addictive properties of sugar. A study released last week in the journal Nature provides the strongest case yet for significant and severe health consequences from sugar. The authors of the study advocate alcohol-like regulations as a result of their findings.

Second comes the matter for debate of whether tobacco and sugar are marketed in parallel ways. That is, do we have more of a choice when it comes to junk food than tobacco? I’ve discussed in a previous post the resemblances between old-school tobacco marketing towards children, and the food industry’s strategies, and Patel elaborates on this in the editorial. Recent evidence has demonstrated the overly-sugary properties of the foods marketed most heavily towards children.

Third, and finally, we have to ask ourselves whether moderate regulations are not sufficient to counter any of those dangers. We’ve explored here before individual municipal initiatives like the San Francisco Happy Meal toy ban, and cities across the country have tried similar sin-tax approaches to restricting the sale of soda, for example.

Of course, small government proponents aren’t fan of that idea, and economic research suggests the tax might best be targeted towards the producer, rather than the consumer, of the problem product.

For Patel, all of this points in one direction:

The breadth of products controlled by the food industry — amply toxic and less so — is itself a symptom of a deeper problem that has public health symptoms, but a political economic cause. The food industry is an oligopoly that has transformed not only what we eat but how we eat it, and what we think of food.

and thus, we could make a case for completely upending the system as we know it.

What do you think? Do we need complete, from-the-ground up reform, or should we try moderate regulation first (or at all)? Which, if any, of these individual claims would you dispute, or provide an alternate answer for? Leave a comment and join in our conversation!

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 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.

A Victory Against E.Coli

13 Sep

… and, I will add to the title of this post, against the industrial meat industry, who lobbied hard against this victory.

Yesterday, the USDA announced that as of next spring, six additional strains of E. coli will be illegal in meat. This means that selling meat tainted with these strains of E. coli would be a prosecutable offense (especially in the event of illness in a consumer).

I know it may seem difficult to believe that certain forms of E. coli, including the strain that caused the toxic outbreak in Europe this summer, could ever have been legal, but the increased use of antibiotics in meat has contributed to such rapid evolutionary development that it’s tricky for science, let alone government regulation, to keep up with these little buggers.

Which is exactly what makes this an enormous victory though, as Tom Laskawy of Grist points out, the battle against pathogens is far from over. For once, the federal government, and specifically, Dr. Elisabeth Hagen of the Agriculture Dept., are acting in advance of a crisis for the benefit for the public health. When the last E. coli regulations were put in place, it was only after the 1994 Jack in the Box outbreak that killed four children. But the time to make these decisions is before a crisis, as this summer’s European outbreak showed us — that toxic strain of E. coli had not even been documented by food processors until the crisis occurred (and isn’t, for the record, included in this expanded ban).

(Major credit should also, I believe, go to Bill Marler, an attorney whose crusade has been to pursue legal options for pressuring the government to work on food safety. He filed a petititon in June asking that the government move toward this ban by September, or face a suit. Coincidence? I think not.)

Of course, the meat industry is quite unhappy, but I covered why industry can’t be trusted to self-regulate last week. The response from the American Meat Institute (when they first got wind of this possibility) has again taken up two main points: that the regulations would cost industry money, and that they aren’t necessary to begin with, as no significant threat is posed by these new strains. How quickly they forget that the most costly expenditures they face come from crisis-driven national advisories against their product.

I, for one, am encouraged by the fact that the federal government no longer subscribes to the notion that deaths as a result of E. coli are more desirable than the up-front costs of testing for the bacteria, and see this as a sea change moment, when our government made up its mind to place our health and well-being above corporate profits.

The Myth of the Not-So-Green Revolution

30 Aug

There’s increasing evidence that genetically-modified, herbicide-resistant crop breeds are going down in flames, producing super-resistant weeds and insect species that are decimating crop yields and land. Add to that the fact that much of the industrially-produced crop in the world is commodity, not food crop, and the notion that the so-called “Green Revolution” which wasn’t so green, ever actual increased crop yields starts to fall apart.

But at that point, most people’s minds turn negative and imagine that, while increasing crop yields with industrial techniques might not be great for the planet or for our waistlines, there’s simply no way to feed more than six billion people (and growing) without those methods.

Luckily for us, there’s evidence to suggest that organic production, which tends to be an integrated system, can actually have higher yields per acre that industrial agriculture. And a U.N. special report earlier this year found that agro-ecology(that is, agricultural practices that work with, rather than against, the natural cycles of an ecological system) could actually double production on small-scale farms.

But that’s not all! Such methods would boost production, all while creating new jobs, preserving species’ biodiversity, protecting the global food supply from natural disasters by decentralizing production, and adapting well to drought-like and hot growing conditions. Of course, these are traits, both economic and environmental that make sense for the planet and the politics we now face.

Like it or not, we now live in the world after oil, and will not, for much longer, be able to rely either on fossil-fuel intensive growing methods, nor on practices that harm the planet and require oil-thirsty shipping practices. We need to find a way to grow food smaller and closer to home — so isn’t it great news that it’s this kind of farming that might best serve us?

Plus, we might even find ourselves enjoying it.

Nibbles: What We Didn’t Eat This Week

26 Aug

A very mixed and interesting bag in food news not covered this week. We’ve got…

The Good

The United States’ latest branch of AmeriCorp — Food Corps — is officially up and running a pilot program! Food Corps is a service program of the federal government which places workers in targeted schools and communities to help develop food education programs in the forms of gardens and classes. There’s already some great coverage on how promising a program this is. Mark Bittman’s column this week provides a great overview of the program, including how cheap it is compared to the massive costs of obesity and unhealthy eating in America. And Civil Eats has a great Q & A with one of the Food Corps’ co-founders and mentors, Will Allen (of Milwaukee’s famed Growing Power) on what the goals of the workers will be.

D.C. ‘s public city schools (which are some of the most segregated in the country) are often cited as a perfect demonstration of the parallels between racial disparity and the health costs of urban food deserts. But this week, they began taking steps in the right direction by adding salad bars full of real healthy produce (no iceberg lettuce here!) to 27 school cafeterias. The best part of this news is the photo in this blog post. Seriously — click through on the link even if you don’t read the piece. Kids super-psyched about veggies. Makes my heart sing.

The Bad

A study published in the scientific journal Nature this week demonstrates a clear link between El Nino climate cycles and the severe weather they produce and increased civil wars — in modern times. As several writers have pointed out, such a connection has been made to past societies (which are almost always referred to in these cases as empires, as if we have to convince ourselves they were different than us somehow), but this study shows the same pattern across the 20th century. This may not seem immediately related to food, but here’s why I think it is. Some of the beginning criticism of the study suggests the authors didn’t do enough to connect the two events. That is, they want to know why climate cycles seem to cause outbreaks in civil conflicts. My theory (supported by some of those ‘past empire’ studies) is that it stems from the tightening of natural resources that severe weather causes in already poverty-stricken locations. Specifically, shortages in water and crop failures. I think climate change –> increased drought/flooding/natural disasters –> shortages in food and water –> fighting over the last shreds of food and water.

I think that’s really, really scary.

The Ugly (Beautiful)

Have I mentioned how much I love the infographics that Health & Fitness blog t The Greatist often makes in conjunction with Civil Eats? Here’s another one that’s visually impressive, but on a pretty ugly topic: Food Safety & Recalls!

Actually, as dire as the food safety situation is these days, the infographic has a concise explanation of how to shop for, clean, and store your food to best avoid contamination.

And a Bonus!

Roots of Change posted their summer reading list: The Top Five Sustainable Food Books. Here’s hoping I can make that list someday!

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these, or any topics. Feel free to leave a comment or drop me an email at marissa@wemeatagain.com, especially if there’s a topic you’d like to see covered here on the blog next week! Happy Weekend, all!

How Cow Farts Cause Global Warming

19 Jul

Since I spend so much time here talking about how I’m no longer a vegetarian, some people might be surprised to learn that I’m still a big advocate of eating less meat overall. But there’s an important case to be made for significantly reducing our (and by our, I mean Americans, who eat the vast majority of the world’s meat) meat intake. That case is front and center in the food world this week as the Environmental Working Group — the watchdog organization who also brings you that handy annual sunscreen guide, and GMO watch — released their first Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health.

Not everyone is aware of the link between meat production and climate change, so let’s break it down. Here are the highlights of the issue — more detail can be found by following the links embedded, or by reading the great EWG report, which is very accessible.

Food production contributes more to greenhouse gas emissions than transportation.

A recent study from Carnegie Mellon put it into these concrete terms. 83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food comes from growing and producing it. Transportation is only 11%.

Meat is the primary culprit of this.

The ways in which food production contributes to global warming can be both direct & indirect. Direct contributions include the burning of fossil fuels to fertilize and grow the massive quantities of corn required to feed livestock animals and methane gas emissions from cattle (yup, cow farts). Indirect contributions stem from what factory farms do to the land. Desertification, water pollution, deforestation, topsoil erosion, etc. All of these make our planet  less resilient to rising temperatures. And these animals require a LOT of land. About 30% 0f Earth’s ice-free land.

That is, industrial meat.

Since most of those negative consequences of meat production stem from grain feed, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and fuel for transporting all those things, this is a problem unique to factory-farmed meat. Take away those features, and sure, you’ve still got the cow farts to deal with, but they become a miniscule, if stinky, problem. But combined with a ravenous desire for meat growing globally, industrialized meat production is a huge problem.

Sustainable meat is a different beast.

If we changed our farming methods,  much of those  problems would be dramatically reduced — and some would even be reversed. If cattle were allowed to roam, they wouldn’t need grain-based feed, as they would eat their natural grass diet. This would also reduce their impact on the land. There’s a much longer chain reaction here, but the point is that raising livestock in a biodynamic cycle is better for them and better for the planet. The hitch? Meat doesn’t “grow” as quickly or in as great a number with those methods. Because it’s not supposed to.

Meat should be a minimal part of our diet.

Lisa Frack of EWG said it most concisely:

Eating meat in moderation can be a good source of complete protein and key vitamins and nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamins B-12, B-6, and niacin. That said, we eat far more protein than we need: Kids get three to four times the recommended amount and adult men get twice the amount they need. And, of course, the nutritional benefits of meats can be reaped from other, less environmentally damaging food sources.

Because it’s better for our health that way, too.

This one I can say briefly: over-eating red meat and/or industrially-processed meat significantly increases your risk of dying prematurely. Not to mention your risks for certain types of cancer, obesity, diabetes and heart diseases. Conversely, eating more vegetables is universally agreed upon by nutritionists to be the best dietary choice ever. No exaggeration here, and no surprise, I’m sure.

We don’t have to do without.

People! Bacon is my header. So before you think I’ve gone and jumped back on the vegetarian bandwagon, let me share with you a little environmental agriculture secret: livestock meat can actually, if done right, be a more efficient use of land. Scale is everything here. This sustainable system works great for everyone — if we do it small enough, and with the basic principles of a natural food cycle in mind.

We just have to do less & better.

Yes, buying local, grass-fed, antibiotic-free organic meat is more expensive (for now). But if you’re buying less of it, you can balance that impact. And over time, you’ll be contributing to a better, healthier system for your body and for the planet.

Any questions? (No, really, ask away! Leave a comment and let me know what you think of the global warming/meat connection. How do you reduce your meat consumption? Share your meatless stories, recipes or conversions!)

If  you’re sold on all this but need ideas, check out my advice post on How to Eat Your Veggies, or these past We*Meat*Again vegetarian recipes:


Is There Any Good News?

11 Jul

Well, yes.

It can often seem, when you’re the kind of person who cares deeply about any issue, as if you’re caught in a big mess, a whirling chaos, and there’s no way out. At the end of last week’s post on the exploitation of immigrant labor in the food industry, I reminded everyone that pointing out the problems isn’t something I do just to complain. I believe that it’s only when we face and fully understand what’s wrong that we can do anything about it.

I thought I’d kick this week off then by sharing a few nods towards success and change in the food industry. We’ll get back to the dark and dreary later, but for now, reasons to be hopeful.

First, the Humane Society of the United States and the United Egg Producers have reached an agreement to lobby Congress for the passage of legislation changing the regulations for cage sizes for laying hens. While this might seem like a small thing, it’s actually very big for a few reasons:

1. Laying hens live in some of the worst factory farming conditions that exist. The current guidelines are a miniscule 67 square inches per bird. Check out this NYT infographic to see that in actual size. So, anything here would be an improvement.

2. The proposed legislation involves a progression of improvements over time, making the change more affordable for producers (and therefore for consumers as well) so we get healthier, more humane eggs without too much hassle at the store.

3. The Humane Society. And a factory-farming lobbying operation. Came to an agreement. Both this and the structure of the deal suggest what I think is a remarkable precendent for cooperation and compromise that could very well extend to other facets of the food industry. Which is, of course, why the United Pork Producers have actually spoken out against the agreement.

Now, the law has not been proposed or passed through Congress, and with opposition from other farm industry lobbyists, that might prove difficult. But the idea of these two groups being able to work together to affect positive change may well be the most encouraging part of this story. I’ll keep you all posted on this one.

Second, the Trust for America’s Health has released its most recent report on Obesity in America. The good news here is a little harder to find, as yes, obesity rates are on the rise. Twelve states now have obesity rates topping 30 percent. The state with the lowest obesity rate now would have been the highest in 1995. And a deeply troubling racial and economic divide persists when it comes to rates of childhood obesity and associate illness.

But a small sliver of silver lining can be found here as well. This year, only sixteen states reported obesity rate increases. Last year, the number of states with increased rates was 28.

While it’s too soon to rejoice, and while overall rates are still far too high, the study’s authors suggest that this might — might — indicate that obesity rates in the U.S. are leveling off. This may be a bit of a case of nowhere to go but down, but down is where we need to go, however we get there.

I choose to see both of these stories as stories of potential. Neither of these is an outright victory. The legislation proposed by the Humane Society will still have to be passed, and will take 18 years to take full effect. Obesity rates have not decreased in a single state in the last year. But in both cases, things that were true a year ago, things that were problematic yesterday, are no longer true. The Humane Society and the United Egg producers sat down at a table together to work. And people are — who knows? — watching enough Jamie Oliver or Michelle Obama to begin seriously thinking about what they’re eating.

We must do more, we must work harder and faster, to minimize suffering and loss along these lines as much as possible. But as Jeffrey Levi, executive director fo the Trust for America’s Health said:

You have to level off before you start declining, and we’re starting to see it.

Change like this happens incrementally, excruciatingly slow. We’re starting to see it.

Ok, have at it! Am I a hopeless Pollyanna for choosing to see these as victories? What more needs to be done to convince you that things are looking up? Any thoughts about why the sands of change might be shifting in the food movement? Leave a comment and let me know what you think!

Feeding the Starving World

30 Jun

First, allow me to apologize for the brevity of this week’s posts. I’m traveling for job interviews (fingers crossed!) and so finding the free time for posting is more of a challenge. But I would never abandon you! I just have to find ways to be more concise — not one of my fortes.

For today, then, I wanted to share with you all a few interesting media projects focusing on equal access to sustainable food. I haven’t written as much yet as I’d like to about food justice. I’ve mentioned before that for me, being a foodie isn’t a snobbish, elitist position — it’s actually a commitment to activism.

When you begin digging into the inequities of the food system, it’s impossible to ignore the reality of how few people in the world have the luxury of choosing their diet the way we in the upper middle-class, industrialized world do. From that perspective, it feels insulting to overindulge, to consume processed junk food, or to eat at some ridiculously overpriced, over-portioned megachain, to support a corporation like Hormel that so mistreats its workers.

From that perspective, then, it’s inspiring to see projects like these unfold, wherein the people who are most forgotten by the current global food system — specifically the poor of developing nations — are taking charge, creating a sustainable food system of their own.

The problems with food in the developing world are so vastly different from those needed to reform the industrialized system. This video, the first full episode of Stove Man! a documentary television initiative of the Paradigm Project, begins to demonstrate this. Stove Man! follows two entrepreneurs on their mission to raise funds to provide cooking stoves for women in rural Kenya. In this episode,  as the businessmen travel to Kenya to follow the women on their daily journeys to collect enough fuel for a cooking fire.

And then, in this month’s Orion, a great photo and text feature on the ways in which the poor are taking charge of their own food systems. The feature focuses on a peasant-owned garden cooperative based in Port-Au-Prince, which has become both a source of food for the poor, and an arm of political leverage for the community.

Food prices are rising sharply globally, a fact we may forget here in the developed world, where we are still somewhat cushioned from that reality (though we won’t be for long). We still live in a world in which starvation and poverty are the norm for children in certain regions. In the face of all this, we need to dramatically rethink how we provide food for ourselves. New ideas are needed, especially on a global scale, both to reform the existing industrialized food system, but also to build a sustainable food system for the developing world that does not prevent growth, but doesn’t tred in our same errant path.

There are more and many ideas there, all kinds of models for urban farming that are both scalable and sustainable. But the free market doesn’t always favor these logical, compassionate solutions. It takes a village of peasants to stand up and take the land into their own hands and grow with it.

Eat Less to Lose Weight — Or Is It That Simple?

27 Jun

A new study out this week in The New England Journal of Medicine is making waves in the waters of food and nutrition policy. The study, which measured weight gain and chronic disease development in more than 120,000 men and women over several 20 year intervals, seems to suggest that gaining or maintaining weight over a long period of time might be linked to specific dietary choices, rather than such weight gain simply being a result of sheer caloric intake.

There’s a lot to unpack here, and the experts have mixed interpretations. Some major news outlets are fixating on one of the examples that the study provides of high calorie foods: potatoes.

Nutritionist Andy Bellatti has a  more nuanced view of these dietary culprits, suggesting that we need to examine the quality of the carbohydrates (and refined sugars) that are increasing our waistlines.

Similarly, food policy guru Marion Nestle urges us to look beyond the headlines and question what other unhealthy choices might contribute to weight gain in a person who eats more French fries than the average.

In general, this study seems a perfect example of the “learn what’s behind the label” principle. Michael Pollan’s twitter summary of the TIME coverage of the study was spot on:

Quality of food may affect weight more than quantity.

I think this study is telling us what we already know (or are learning): the healthiest diet is one that consists mostly of whole, unrefined foods as much as possible. So, yes, it really is that simple.

Do you keep track of calories, or measure with other nutritional yardsticks, or just eat what you want and hope for the best? Am I just using a ‘go with the flow’ argument here to justify my love of potatoes? Leave a comment or drop me an email to let us know what you think!


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