Tag Archives: USDA

From Fast Food Nation to Pro Food Ventures

In 2001, Houghton Mifflin Company published a book by Eric Schlosser titled Fast Food Nation –The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. Much like the work of Upton Sinclair in his 1906 title The Jungle, Mr. Schlosser, an award-winning investigative journalist exposed how the explosive growth of fast food in America had “hastened the malling of our landscape, widened the chasm between rich and poor, fueled an epidemic of obesity, and propelled American cultural imperialism abroad.”

For a handful of people, this book provided enough incentive to act, but nowhere near the critical mass needed to show up on most radar screens. That started to change with Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, published in 2006 and the 2009 release of Food, Inc., a food documentary incorporating much of the work of Schlosser and Pollan. Still, unless you were seeking out information on America’s industrial food system, and specifically how it was negatively impacting health, regional economies, and the environment or global trade, you probably had no idea that there were significant problems with America’s abundant food system.

TIME Magazine changed that with its August 21, 2009 cover story titled Getting Real About the High Price of Cheap Food. TIME brought the story of industrial food to mainstream America through its 40 million readers and Web users worldwide. As America’s most trusted new source, it shifted the balance of the debate about our need to reform our food system toward the sustainable food advocates that have been waging a noble, but slow campaign. Here are some highlights from TIME describing how ripe the time is for innovations in how we grow, sell and prepare food in America:

  • “…our energy-intensive food system uses 19% of U.S. fossil fuels, more than any other sector of the economy.”
  • “And perhaps worst of all, our food is increasingly bad for us, even dangerous.” • “…obesity adds $147 billion a year to our doctor bills.”
  • “With the exhaustion of the soil, the impact of global warming and the inevitably rising price of oil — which will affect everything from fertilizer to supermarket electricity bills — our industrial style of food production will end sooner or later.”
  • “…quantity of fertilizer is flat-out scary: more than 10 million tons for corn alone — and nearly 23 million for all crops.”
  • “…about 70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we’re breeding more of those deadly organisms every day.”

When you consider this was presented to at least 40 million Americans, a vast majority who don’t know where their food comes from, you get a sense of how this single article will likely impact the evolution of sustainable food. The TIME article’s author specifically states, “So what will it take for sustainable food production to spread? It’s clear that scaling up must begin with a sort of scaling down — a distributed system of many local or regional food producers as opposed to just a few massive ones.”

As sustainable food discussions move into the mainstream, so will the opportunities for entrepreneurs and existing companies to bring to market innovative approaches to selling higher quality, healthier foods to increasing percentages of consumers, businesses and institutions. As these companies grow, they have an increasingly realistic chance to break the near death grip that industrial food has put on America’s food system:

  • Seed Companies: What was once a highly diversified, regional industry is now controlled primarily by pharmaceutical and chemical companies, including Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta.
  • Farms: According to the USDA, “Small farms, while numerous, account for less than 2% of all U.S. farmland, while large farms account for 67%. Consequently, the growth in the number of large farms has increased the concentration of crop production.”
  • Meat Packers: According to Sustainable Table, four companies controlled processing of >80% of country’s beef and three of these same four companies joined a 4th in processing >60% of country’s pork. Four major companies in broiler chicken processing provide >50% of our chicken supply. Same for turkey meat.
  • Food Processors: The Top 50 U.S. processors accounted for $326 billion or ~25 percent of the global market. Add in European giants like Unilever, Nestle, Cadbury Schwebbs, Danone, etc., and you fast approach a majority of the market.
  • Food Retailers: Wal-Mart is at top of the heap with nearly $100 billion in food sales. The next 49 companies all report income over $1.0 billion dollars. On global scale, the USDA reports “Top 15 global supermarket companies account for >30% of sales.”

There are already examples of sustainable food innovations throughout the food chain, from Will Allen’s Growing Power to an alliance between Good Natured Family Farms and Ball Food Stores, to name a few. Early pioneers, with dirt on their hands, lessons learned and progress made, played a critical role in blazing trails for new ventures. Some of those companies have grown dramatically, e.g., Green Mountain Coffee Roasters (NASDAQ: GMCR; market cap of ~$2.5 billion). Others have been acquired by larger companies, e.g., Stonyfield Yogurt (acquired by Groupe Danone), Ben & Jerry’s (Unilever), Burt’s Bees (The Clorox Company). Still others have remained independent.

The next wave of ProFood start-ups will have the advantage of leveraging the many lessons learned by these pioneers. Unlike earlier sustainable food entrepreneurs, this next-generation will also have the benefit of a growing number of mission-driven investors showing up sustainable food conferences, e.g., Slow Money Alliance and New Seed Advisors, looking to drive sustainable food forward.

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Helping Solve A Meaty Problem

A great Pro Food friend, Neal Foley (a.k.a., @Podchef), has a problem.  Perhaps we can somehow help him, as well as others that might find themselves in similar predicaments.

Here’s a flavor of what’s happening in Neal’s world (link to entire blog post follows):

And there is the crux of the matter. As local meats gain popularity and as more people invest in raising some animals of their own the Custom Slaughter companies are no longer looking for work. The business I have been most happy with–after trying and rejecting several over the years–is also working at capacity, so much so that coming to the island for 7 pigs once a year isn’t worth the trouble for him. Usually there are other farms on the island who need to slaughter around the same time and the custom slaughter truck can make several stops, this allows the farms to share the cost of the ferry trip, making it more affordable for everyone. But the point is the good butcher shops are in demand on the mainland and they know it. They can afford to be a bit more choosy leaving the rest of us in the lurch. Read more.

The good news is that artisan and other sustainable-minded farmers and ranchers continue to see increasing demand for their products. Which is why I expect the required infrastructure to help their sales and profits grow will be soon to follow.

Please visit Neal’s blog and share your experiences, ideas and thoughts to help ensure that happens sooner than later.

The Evolution of Pro Food

Like most ideas, Pro Food didn’t just happen. It was the culmination of nearly a decade of thinking, reading and talking about food and related systems, especially over the last six months.

Pro Food’s timing had the good fortune of intersecting with several well established sustainable food movements, including organic food, school lunch programs, Slow Food and a series of thought-provoking food documentaries (e.g., Food Inc, FRESH and King Corn) and investigative books (e.g., Fast Food Nation, Omnivore’s Dilemma, The End of Food).

The following series of blog posts provide the reader with a sense of how Pro Food emerged over the last four months, including several posts that build on the core principles put forward in Pro Food Is, the defining post of the Pro Food idea.

Chronological List of Key Pro Food Posts:

  • Is Organic Food the Answer? (March 18, 2009) – This initial post on Every Kitchen Table frames the need for new food systems connecting more consumers with sustainably grown, processed and transported food. It highlights retail interfaces, sustainability labeling and narrow food product offerings. Read more.
  • Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough (March 27, 2009) – Much attention is being given to community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, but these programs are not a scalable solution in dealing with large-scale food system problems. The post provides lessons learned that can be applied to new, scalable solutions. Read more.
  • 10 Ways to Save Real Food (April 14, 2009) – This post offered the first comprehensive list of strategies for attacking what Michael Pollan refers to as “nutritionism”, an effective approach used by food manufacturers to make highly-processed “edible foodlike substances” appear to be on par with wholesome real foods. The list touched on labeling, marketing claims, access, school food and low-income programs, among others. Read more.
  • Can Farmers Markets & CSA Farms Really Grow Sustainable Food? (April 30, 2009) – Direct to consumer food sales are providing numerous valuable lessons for building regionally-focused sustainable food systems. Unfortunately, as this post spells out in detail, they are up against heavily subsidized programs for growing commodity crops as ingredients in highly-processed foods, which received nearly $17 billion in 2006. Read more.
  • 10 Reasons Why “Local”  is Challenging Industrial Food (May 14, 2009) – The sustainable food debate has tended to focus on industry and advocates.  This post begins moving toward the inclusive principle in Pro Food to find effective solutions to meet the needs of consumers based on where they live and what they value. It also introduces transparency and general themes on decentralized food. Read more.
  • Closing the Farm to Table Knowledge Gap (June 19, 2009) – One of the largest factors in allowing our food system to get to where it is today, a system too complex and concentrated for most people to understand, is the gap resulting from people trading our historic farming knowledge for cheap, convenient food. This post focuses on the impacts this is having on our health, the environment and our livelihoods. Read more.
  • Pro Food Is (June 30, 2009) – After six months of intensive focus on food systems and entrepreneurial approaches to helping improve markets for sustainable foods, seven core principles emerged in this landmark post. The intent of Pro Food is to drive these principles into mainstream entrepreneurship and accelerate the development of successful alternative food systems. Read more.
  • Building Out Pro Food (July 6, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: With the release of Pro Food Is, Zachary Cohen spells out how we can now move beyond the traditional language of American politics, e.g., us versus them, bad versus good, etc. Next up is how to most effectively build out Pro Food from a modest statement of principles into something greater. Read more.
  • Why Pro Food Will Succeed (July 7, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: Zachary explains how the sustainable food movement is at the point in its evolution where new leadership is needed to push things to the next level. It is at times like this that individuals/entrepreneurs seize the moment and use the tumult to their advantage, which is at the core of Pro Food’s mission. Read more.
  • The First Pro Food Product? (July 8, 2009) – From Fredo Martin’s ihatetomentionit blog: Fredo Martin asks what form Pro Food might take in his thought provoking post. At a minimum, it will be important to relate Pro Food to each stage of the food chain in order to propel alternative food systems forward. Read more.
  • Slow Food with Entrepreneurial Twist (July 8, 2009) – The Slow Food movement has done much to reestablish links between food and terrior (location-specific traits) around the globe. In the US, where the industrial system was already well established, the movement faced an entrenched, centralized infrastructure, unlike what is typical around the globe. Pro Food stands apart in its efforts to revitalize the entrepreneurial side of the American food system. Read more.
  • The Five Stones of Pro Food (July 23, 2009) – With the introduction of Pro Food and the foundation basically set, this post shifts gears by focusing on the things that make Pro Food business ventures unique in the food business landscape. Establishing such competitive advantages will be a key part of realizing the Pro Food vision. Read more.
  • The Pro Food Primer (August 4, 2009) – From Zachary Cohen’s Farm-to-Table blog: Zach offers up a great, more in-depth and narrative-based look at the history of Pro Food. Read more.

This posts provides a Pro Food reading list of sorts, but the idea of Pro Food is surely much greater than any one list or collection of people. Those of us working at the forefront of Pro Food look forward to many new voices joining our efforts. If you have a Pro Food blog post or article that you want us to help promote, please email me at robert.b.smart (at) gmail.com.

Every Kitchen Table and Pro Food are proud supporters of FoodRenegade’s Fight Back Fridays.

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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.

A Sustainable Recipe for America

It isn’t often that I read a review that makes me want to get up and buy a book, but I just read one of the exceptions.

Paula Crossfields’ Civil Eats review on Jill Richardson’s Recipe for America: Why Our Food System is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It describes an intelligent and informed investigation of why sustainable food should be everyone’s priority.

Review Excerpt: “Like a handbook for the sustainable advocate in training, Recipe for America feels like a one-on-one session with a pro in the trenches. It gives the reader the tools they need to be up-to-date on the state of the food movement, the pending legislation and state of the political process as it pertains to food. So pick up a copy, and join the ranks. The good food movement needs YOU!”

This call to action is not about joining yet another “movement.” To me, its about understanding the importance and impact of our everyday food decisions, which Recipe for America appears to spell out in compelling terms, e.g.,:

Book Excerpt: “In the end, the numerous problems in our food system — pollution, human rights abuses, poor food safety, the breakdown of rural communities, the decline in our health — are hardly random. Instead, they stem from a common thread of industrialization, which occurred primarily over the second half of the twentieth century.

The challenge of slowing, then reversing, industrial food’s death grip on American consumers becomes clear when you consider how American’s shifting calories to sustainable foods would impact bottom lines.

According to Paul Roberts in The End of Food, our food system was generating 4,000 calories per person in 2000 (expect it is even higher today), up from 3,100 calories in 1950, already more calories than what an average individual needs.  People are consuming too much food, especially highly-processed types. On that point, Mr. Roberts cites that for every 100 calorie reduction in the American diet, industrial food companies will lose over $30 billion dollars per year. If we were to reset calories at 1950 levels, industrial food would lose over a quarter trillion dollars every year. Throw on top of that a recommend shift toward sustainable foods (i.e., not manufactured, highly processed foodlike substances), and you can see a double whammy of historic proportions forming.

Clearly, industrial food will not change on its own. It can’t afford to if it wants to survive as is.  Therefore, America’s consumers need to follow Ms. Richardson’s sound advice to help force the necessary changes:

Review Excerpt: But the greatest barrier of all, she writes, may be the lack of recognition on the part of the government that sustainable agriculture practices are superior to industrial agriculture, and for that to change, we need public outcry.

Each one of us can get a great jump on doing that by reading Recipe for America, becoming informed and knowledgeable, and crying out for change!

In the meantime, do what you can to vote with your dollars. Buy sustainable. Buy organic. Buy local/regional.

COOL-ing Down Monsanto

I have to hand it to Monsanto.

A company representative on Twitter recently engaged me in a dialog about whether labeling products containing GMO food would do any harm, and, if so, to whom.

While the dialog felt like another cut-and-paste debate between me and previously published Monsanto paraphernalia, it offered just enough information about how Monsanto defends against mandatory GMO labeling. Clearly, anyone informed about consumer sentiments regarding GMO food knows that such labeling would devastate Monsanto and other GM seed companies’ bottom line. Which explains the vigorous, even suffocating effort by Monsanto to control the conversation.

The specific question I asked on Twitter was:  Dear Monsanto, What would be the harm in labeling GMO foods, regardless of whether same as non-GMO food?

I didn’t send the tweet to a specific person, so anyone was welcome to jump in. Thankfully, @Mica_MonsantoCo (Twitter name of Mica Veihman, Monsanto Public Affairs) decided to take a crack at answering my question. Some of her responses included:

  • “U.S. labeling laws are based on health & safety, not choice.”
  • “Harm is having mandated labeling of something that doesn’t have a scientific reason for it.”
  • “I don’t want food companies passing along cost of labeling to me for something they say has no bearing on my health or safety.”
  • “No it [organic] doesn’t have a scientific reason, that’s why organic is a marketing program.”
  • “Harm is making people think there is health or safety problem with their food.”
  • “We do not support a government-mandated label which is reserved for health or safety issues.”

Do you see a pattern? Visit the Monsanto link Mica provided during our chat and you will see the theme continued:

Some might ask what the harm would be in requiring the labeling of products. U.S. labeling laws are based on health and safety. Requiring labeling for ingredients that don’t pose a health issue would undermine both our labeling laws and consumer confidence. Ensuring that such labeling is accurate would also put a huge burden on regulatory agencies.

Again and again, Monsanto stresses that mandatory labeling for foods containing GMOs would undermine the U.S. labeling system. At first, it seemed like Monsanto might have a point. After all, “Certified Organic” is not mandatory, nor is “Non-GMO,” since neither relates to health or safety,  at least not from the industrial food system’s perspective.

Then I remembered the recently launched USDA Country of Origin Label (COOL) program, mandated by Congress through the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills.

The 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills amended the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require retailers to notify their customers of the country of origin of muscle cut and ground meats including beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, and goat meat; wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish; perishable agricultural commodities (fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables); peanut, pecans, and macadamia nuts; and ginseng.

Did Congress implement this law because of health and safety concerns? No. It did so to assist U.S. food producers in establishing competitive advantage based on the assumption that U.S. consumers, if given country of origin information, would buy U.S. products over imported ones. No mention of health. No mention of safety. Nor have I read anywhere how COOL has undermined our country’s labeling laws or consumer confidence.

Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, summed COOL up nicely: “I strongly support Country of Origin Labeling—it’s a critical step toward providing consumers with additional information about the origin of their food.

Did you catch that? The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture highlighted consumer choice as the reason for a mandatory food labeling program. Given that 95 percent of U.S. consumers surveyed want GMO labeling, incidentally the same percentage that favor country of origin labeling, doesn’t it seem like leaders in Washington should step up for consumer choice again?

A less important, but still interesting question is how Monsanto can make supposedly definitive statements over and over again that  are factually incorrect and misleading?

That’s the Monsanto way.

Related Posts:

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.

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