Tag Archives: Politics

Linking Dolphins & High Fructose Corn Syrup

Note: This summary is from a blog post at The Snap Blog, where I will be blogging going forward.

Immediately after watching The Cove, I needed to catch my breath after the final 10 heart-pounding minutes. Neither my 10-year-old son, who had been sitting closely by my side, especially during the final scenes, or I could find words right away.

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Guess Who’s Controlling Our Food Supply

It’s no secret that I have a difficult time accepting genetically modified (GM) foods at face value. My primary concerns have to do with what we know, and, more importantly don’t know about how this “promising” technology may or may not be impacting human health and our environment.

For those who prefer to avoid serving as human lab rats, myself included, our non-GM food options, according to advocates of GM food, boil down to eating USDA Certified Organic, which do not allow any genetically modified seed or crops to be used on such labeled food products. Their idea of severely limiting consumer choice, since they are adamantly opposed to “GMO Inside” labeling, goes against their own argument of freedom to choose, which also goes against the very fabric of what makes America’s version of capitalism work so well.

I couldn’t imagine the situation getting much worse, but it just did.

The latest issue of Scientific American Magazine includes the chilling article “Do Seed Companies Control GM Crop Research?” The magazine’s editors take readers beyond initial “government” approval of GM food, which reportedly utilized industry-sponsored research rather than independent government research, to the current state of independent research on genetically modified seeds and crops:

Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify that genetically modified crops perform as advertised. That is because agritech companies have given themselves veto power over the work of independent researchers.

It would be chilling enough if any other type of company were able to prevent independent researchers from testing its wares and reporting what they find—imagine car companies trying to quash head-to-head model comparisons done by Consumer Reports, for example. But when scientists are prevented from examining the raw ingredients in our nation’s food supply or from testing the plant material that covers a large portion of the country’s agricultural land, the restrictions on free inquiry become dangerous.

It is hard to understand how a handful of companies have amassed so much control over food ingredients found in an estimated 75 percent of processed foods in America’s supermarkets. Making matters worse, and as the Scientific American editors point out, we are talking about a basic physiological need – food, which joins water, shelter and a handful of other needs defined by Abraham Maslow in his hierarchy of needs.

Without extensive independent research on GM foods on how they impact human health and the environment, the distinct possibility exists that we’re setting ourselves up for significant and potentially irreversible problems down the line.

To keep the mainstream in check, we get slick multimillion dollar advertising campaigns from company’s like Monsanto claiming they have the solution to feed the estimated 9 billion people expected on the planet in the not to distant future, among other claims. Who cares if these claims have not been independently verified. Who cares if the Union of Concerned Scientists have released a report on GM crop yields debunking industry claims of significant yield improvements.

Despite 20 years of research and 13 years of commercialization, genetic engineering has failed to significantly increase U.S. crop yields.

The ongoing debate is not about stopping public relations (PR) efforts by these companies. Companies market products and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Nor is it about whether I or anyone else thinks GM foods are good or bad. Making such claims today are mostly opinion, since independent research is not available to properly inform discussions.

The debate needs to be about how our regulatory structure has sold out to industry, which is represented by a highly concentrated, centralized  power structure that controls our conventional food system. It needs to be about holding the food system and our government accountable. Most important, it needs to demand companies and the government do what is right, just and fair.

We are a long way from that, it would seem, which is why initiatives like Pro Food and Slow Money are gaining steam. These efforts actively engage everyday citizens in developing and supporting transparent sustainable food systems, building on unique competitive advantages in comparison with today’s industrial food system players.

Let’s just hope that a sustainable food economy is not far behind.

10 Questions For Farmers About Farms

Over the last six months, I’ve tried to learn as much as I could about our conventional food system and options to that system focused on sustainability. Many people from around the country (and world) have provided much insight, but also have shown me yet another polarizing issue in America.

With that, I am asking anyone interested in food, but especially farmers, to consider 10 questions that continue getting in the way of constructive, innovative and action-oriented conversations on how to make our food system stronger.

So, here is an opportunity to enlighten me (and others reading this blog) by answering 10 questions. Just remember the one ground rule – civility. I will not publish comments that unnecessarily attack one side or the other of this debate.

  1. Do most federal subsidies go to larger farms?
  2. Are all federal subsidies granted to farms growing commodity crops (monoculture in many instances)?
  3. Given #1 and #2, are small farms growing specialty crops (e.g., human edible fruits & vegetables) at a considerable financial disadvantage in the marketplace?
  4. Do you believe that consumer demand for sustainable and organic specialty crops exceeds supply?
  5. Do you believe that the farm lobby has less money than environmental lobbyists targeting the food supply (as opposed to the overall environmental field, which covers a lot beyond food)?
  6. If a subsidized farm no longer wants subsidies, what options are available to move away from them? Do you have any examples of farms that have successfully abandoned subsidized operations?
  7. I don’t know anyone disputing jam-packed shelves in our supermarkets and cheap food. What I do hear is a rapidly growing concern that cheap and edible food-like substances (i.e., highly processed food) do not necessarily equate to healthy. In fact, some research shows that with the decline in food prices, we are seeing an opposite increase in health care costs. Does this make sense?
  8. Do you consider organic and sustainable food “movements” or a food category, e.g., produce?
  9. Should there be more small-to-medium sized farms free to grow what they want to serve local markets?
  10. Should the government shift subsidies to those farms to level the playing field? Or should the government scale back subsidies?

I look forward to any and all responses.

Follow me on Twitter: Jambutter

10 Reasons Why “Local” is Challenging Industrial Food

Over the last several months, I have noticed a change in tone in online conversations (i.e., Twitter, blogs, comments, etc.) regarding local food.  At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but then it became clear.  The “established” sustainable food online community was joined by people from the food industry (farmers, marketers, Monsanto, etc.), putting agendas, visions, and turf front-and-center.

Personally, I think this is a good thing, since I believe all sides need to be considered when initially trying to solve the complex problem of making our food supply sustainable.

Unfortunately, entrenched positions are difficult to get around. Industrial food appears to think that people advocating for sustainable food, whether large or small scale, local or national, are out to get them.  While at the same time, sustainable and/or local food advocates seem to believe that industrial food can’t or won’t change.

What we all need to try to understand is that sustainable food isn’t about industry and advocates.  It’s about consumers and communities. It’s about finding effective solutions to meet the needs of consumers based on where they live and what they value (see Pro Food Is post for list of core principles all interested parties can rally around).

In that spirit, I offer the following list of reasons why I believe “local” is making industrial food nervous. I strongly encourage readers to consider this any opening comment in what must be a constructive dialog. The objective is to get more people from all sides of the problem on the same page, so we can get to work on solving the problem.

  1. Alternative Food Systems: There is no question that local, organic and sustainable are here to stay. How much market share products in these categories will take away from existing food companies is a big question, which is likely one reason why players in the industrial food system are paying more attention.  If I were them, I would be looking for signs of real traction in regional food systems, which could move consumers to a “tipping point” that changes America’s food systems for good.
  2. Location, Location, Location: Given its size, industrial food can’t effectively scale down to meet the spirit of local, but this isn’t stopping it from trying. Consider the multi-million dollar budget and marketing campaign to position Lay’s as a local product. Never mind that Frito-Lay uses two billion pounds of potatoes every year. If it can redefine local, then it can slow or stop the threat.
  3. Values-Driven Movement: Consumers interested in local foods are looking for more than cheap, widely accessible food, whether processed or fast food. They want flavorful, nutritious foods that come from local farmers and processors. They want enriching food experiences. Some want to keep their dollars in the local community to build value, which will drive more local supply. Judging by some of industrial food’s recent actions, it may try to spin its way through this latest challenge. That might work, for a while, but not likely if the local movement stays on course.
  4. Brand Leadership: An important tenet of local is knowing where things come from. In the case of food this means that attribution goes to farms and farmers, not corporate brands. It’s hard for me to imagine how leading food brand companies could give up such recognition in an effort to be local. Consider Disney Garden, a full line of fruits and vegetables offered by Imagination Farms, which licenses the Disney name (see Disney Garden: A Figment of Our Imagination). The packaging is 100 percent dedicated to the Disney brand. If you want to know about the farmers, you have to visit the I-Farms web site and dig down a couple layers. It’s there, but clearly in a supporting role at best.
  5. Traceability: How will industrial food offer transparent traceability (i.e., publicly available information on food sources on demand) to its business?  Can it realistically trace where every item comes from that is used in their products?  As recent food safety scares have shown us, it is very difficult to trace commodity and large-scale food products given the number of hands that touch them between farm and plate, even after weeks or months of effort. In the case of local foods, consumers will easily know where food comes from, and in some cases will know farmers first-hand.
  6. Supply Constraints: Industrial food might have a point when it claims that local suppliers can’t meet potential consumer demands.  This is especially true in concentrated population centers, e.g., New York City, where it’s hard to envision enough local suppliers within 100 miles (often cited as meaning “local”) to feed NYC’s 8.2 million inhabitants.  At the same time, the amount of food being consumed from local suppliers is nowhere close to its potential.  The hard part for large food companies is envisioning how their products, dependent on commodity supplies and heavy processing can meet emerging consumer demand.
  7. Profit Margins: Over the last 25 years, the amount of every consumer dollar spent going to the “marketing bill” (beyond the farm) has substantially increased.  At the same time, farmers have seen their income drop over 40 percent (from $0.31 to $0.19) during that time period (see Is Industrial Food Stealing Farmers Lunch Money?).  There are lots of contributing factors in this shift, but one thing seems clear, reversing course will be very difficult for top-heavy food companies.  Part of the problem with “real food” is that it can’t be marked up much beyond the farm, since the value-add really happens in restaurant and home kitchens.  Perhaps some well-known global brands (e.g., Disney) might be able to pull off premium pricing without adding much value, but those will be exceptions, and may not be that for long.
  8. New Competition: While the market potential of local food sales may be limited by geography, demographics and supply chains, it still represents the type of competition that should make conventional food players nervous.  The development of local food retailers offering disproportionately local foods represents a beachhead for related products to thrive, e.g., sustainable, Fair Trade, etc. Over time, these competitors will be less reliant on the conventional food infrastructure to grow, which will likely result in a wave of “foodpreneurs” taking advantage of alternative food systems (see Slow Food with Entrepreneurial Twist and The Five Stones of Pro Food for more).
  9. Government Subsidies: While recent news regarding the USDA’s support of small and/or organic farms has been encouraging for local food advocates, the vast majority of federal funds in support of agriculture continue to go to commodity crops.  Industrial food producers wanting to shift toward local markets will therefore have to give up at least some of those subsidies when converting acreage to specialty crops (e.g., fruits, vegetables).  The financial impact of losing subsidies may prohibit many large-scale commodity farms from moving toward organic and/or local market supply.
  10. Consumer Demand: Possibly most important is the fact that consumers aren’t waiting for industrial food to “get it.”

One thing that should help industrial food sleep more comfortably at night is that developing regional food systems will not be easy work.  Government regulations continue to hamper local processing, thus impacting supply capacities.  Government subsidies are dominated by non-edible food commodity crops, although smaller amounts of money are being allocated to local, sustainable and organic farmers. And multinational food companies have the capability to saturate the airwaves and print with sophisticated marketing to shape perceptions and drive consumer behavior.

But all of that can, and likely will change over time. So, rather than fight what seems inevitable, it seems time for industry to embrace local, organic and sustainable foods, and work in concert with advocates and innovators to bring the right local, sustainable and other related products to market.

It won’t be easy, but what worth having ever is?

Follow me on Twitter: Jambutter

Can Farmers Markets & CSA Farms Really “Grow” Sustainable Food?

Like its cousin, community supported agriculture (CSA), farmers markets offer significant appeal to fans of local, sustainable and organic foods.  And with more than 4,600 such markets across America, along with over 12,500 CSA farms, the retail landscape is changing, if even just a little.

When considering all direct food sales, data released by the USDA Agricultural Census show such sales rose 49% to $1.2 billion in 2007 from $812 million in 2002, an inflation adjusted increase of just under 30 percent.  The number of farms selling direct also increased from 116,733 to 136,817 over the same period, a gain of 17%.  The USDA first began collecting direct sales data in 1997, when 110,630 farms had sales of $592 million.

And while this is impressive growth, the magnitude of direct food sales is still a drop in the bucket of overall farm commodity sales, representing 0.4% of the $300 billion of farm sales in 2007.  This leaves me with the nagging question of how much direct food sales can fundamentally affect the much-desired growth of sustainable food in our country.

Consider the USDA’s recently announced Farmers Market Promotion Program (FMPP), which allocates approximately $5 million for FMPP in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 and $10 million in fiscal years 2011 and 2012.  FMPP is designed to “help improve and expand domestic farmers markets, roadside stands, community-supported agriculture programs, agri-tourism activities, and other direct producer-to-consumer market opportunities.”

Sounds like a step in the right direction, right?  Yes, until you contrast it with U.S. farm subsidies, which the USDA is required by law to provide to over two dozen commodities, and which were budgeted to reach nearly $17.0 billion in 2006.  The $5-10 million for promoting direct food sales isn’t even in the noise level when compared to farm subsidies. For those wondering how much of that $17.0 billion in subsidies finds its way to specialty crops (e.g., edible fruits and vegetables), here is how the 2006 subsidies were expected to be distributed:

Commodity

US Dollars (in Millions)

Feed grains

$7,573

Soybeans

$3,249

Upland and EIS cotton

$2,636

Wheat

$2,319

Rice

$632

Dairy

$195

Peanuts

$290

Minor oilseeds

$85

Honey

$26

Vegetable oil

$16

Wool and mohair

$11

Other crops

$34

Source: USDA 2006 Fiscal Year Budget

One thing that jumps out is that each subsidized commodity crop was expected to receive more in government subsidies than the largest annual allocation to the FMPP, which clearly shows the entrenched financial interests that sustainable food champions are up against.

What is needed reminds me of a somewhat typical episode of Star Trek (for the record, I am not a Trekkie, so forgive me if I don’t get this just right).  The USS Enterprise has once again found itself in a battle against significant odds.  The ship is damaged and its destruction seems imminent.  Suddenly, Captain Kirk orders his crew to concentrate all the ship’s energy to the front deflector shields to stage a last, heroic counterattack.  It works (it always works) and the good guys win the day.

Sustainable food needs a similar concentrated strategy, one that catches the “enemy” off-guard and unprepared by not hitting them where they are strongest. For example, going after industrial food in the halls of the U.S. Congress plays into their hand, since significant energy will be required to make very little progress (see FMPP). And, rather than destroying the enemy (i.e., conventional and industrial food systems), one goal should be to convert them, thus accelerating progress toward a truly sustainable food system for all.

For me, such a strategy must center on consumers and how they shop for, cook and eat food.  By getting enough citizens (or voters) interested and committed to sustainable food in their everyday lives will be the most effective way to change policy, as well as entrenched corporate interests. The odds are great, but the determination is there to go where no food has gone before…or something like that.

Rob Smart is a food entrepreneur focusing on regional food systems and consumer retail experiences. He blogs on alternative food systems at Every Kitchen Table and Civil Eats (guest blogger), and micro-blogs on Twitter as Jambutter.

Further Reading:

The Rise and Fall of Nutritionism Ideology

We should have known we were in trouble regarding our food system when in 1973 the Food & Drug Administration repealed a section of the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938 that dealt with “imitation” foods.  According to Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food:

The 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act imposed strict rules requiring that the word “imitation” appear on any food product that was, well, an imitation.  Read today, the official rationale behind the imitation rule seems at once commonsensical and quaint: “…there are certain traditional foods that everyone knows, such as bread, milk and cheese, and that when consumers buy these foods, they should get the foods they are expecting…[and] if a food resembles a standardized food but does not comply with the standard, that food must be labeled as an ‘imitation.'”

Hard to argue with that…but the food industry did, strenuously for decades, and in 1973 it finally succeeded in getting the imitation rule tossed out, a little-notice but momentous step that helped speed America down the path of nutritionism.

There you have it.  This relatively simple change allowed Sara Lee’s engineered bread-like edible substance to compete with the freshly baked bread from your local baker (see ingredient comparison).  More important, it allowed manufactured foods to take on the “nutritional orthodoxy” of the day and compete effectively against traditional and real foods on the grounds of latest nutritional fad.  I highly recommend reading Pollan’s In Defense of Food to get a better understanding of the “Age of Nutritionism.”

While I may be stretching the importance of this single event,when combined with other forces you can see with near clarity how we got into our current mess.  Just consider this short list of things that have also been happening over the last 30 years:

  • Concentration of agriculture around large-scale feed and live stock (consolidation of acres and influence)
  • Proliferation of monoculture crops to serve as low-cost raw ingredients in food manufacturing (esp. sweeteners and oils; consumed acres)
  • Federal policies and regulatory frameworks that favored monoculture crops and large-scale food production (pushed small, specialty crop farms to edge)
  • Tens of billions of dollars spent annually on marketing by leading food companies, as well as millions more on lobbying (convinced consumers to buy fake food)
  • Nutrient-based research providing health claims for “imitation” food products and fad diets (kept consumers from easily understanding what they should eat)
  • Plus…those things highlighted in previous posts on unsustainable food and industrial food

What you end up with is concentrated power in agriculture and food, the rapid proliferation and marketing of “edible foodlike substances” (thanks Mr. Pollan), a confused consumer base, and a complex problem to solve.

The question is what can we do about what appears to be daunting odds.  Tomorrow, I will post 10 Ways to End the Ideology of Nutritionism, which I hope us test more boundries and identify where we can concentrate our energies to have the biggest positive impact.

Stay tuned…

 

Related Information and Links:

Food Renegade’s Local Food Pricing “Debate”

I have found Food Renegade’s Guest Post: Joel Salatin on Why Local Food Is More Expensive so interesting that I wanted to help expand the conversation to those following Every Kitchen Table.

In addition to being an enlightening post, the breadth of comments, some in direct conflict with Joel Salatin’s guest post, has made it especially intriguing.  There is a level of agreement that changing policy will be difficult, but I believe that as long as it doesn’t further tilt the balance of power toward large, industrial food companies, we know what we are up against and can get to work finding opportunities out of the challenges.

mobile-freezing-unitFor example, in Vermont and several other states, they have implemented mobile slaughterhouses that make it far easier and cheaper for small farms to process meat. I am also aware of one Vermont farm that is considering buying a small slaughterhouse and vertically integrating its operation. They have done the math and figured it will ultimately give them more control over their fate.  On a related note, Vermont has also launched a mobile freezing unit that can be used for on-farm quick-freezing of farm produce.

There are many more creative “work-arounds” throughout the land. What we need to do is bubble up the ones that are working, heavily promote them, and get more small farms on more stable ground.

Leaders are visionaries with a poorly developed sense of fear and no concept of the odds against them.” -Robert Jarvik (developed artificial heart)

Sounds about right! 

 

Related Information and Links: