Posts Tagged ‘Food policy’


If you think that the pharmaceutical industry is lucrative, imagine taking those few regulations and safeguards of human health away. Hand over complete discretion to the profit-oriented corporations to conduct clinic trials to whatever extent they please; to market their products without any limitations; to “educate” consumers about various uses of their drugs before demonstrating effectiveness. There are often trade-offs between maximize health and maximizing profits; without any regulations, you can imagine which path shareholder-beholden companies take.

This essentially describes the livestock pharmaceutical industry. Without any regulations and no risk of lawsuits being filed by “patients,” livestock pharmaceutical companies take bold risks and make profit-maximizing decisions at the expense of both animal and (indirectly) human health. It is extremely lucrative.

So I am taking this small victory of the U.S. FDA’s requiring prescriptions for livestock as a chance to return from a blogging hiatus. It is a small step, but the situation without any regulatory framework has become so precarious for human health that not even the drug companies were willing to fight this battle:

Farmers and ranchers will for the first time be required to get a prescription from a veterinarian before using antibiotics in cattle, pigs, chickens and other animals, federal food regulators announced on Wednesday. Officials hope the move will slow the indiscriminate use of the drugs, which has made them increasingly ineffective in humans.

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A Fresh Idea

Nourish Farm-to-Family Philanthropy, based in Sheboygan, WI, brings local farmers, volunteers, struggling families, and professional chefs together to share meals made with fresh, local ingredients.

Christensen knew there had to be a way to get a steady supply of local produce to the neediest eaters, who survive largely on a diet of packaged pantry foods.

She pondered the dilemma for months until she came up with a plan for an innovative charity she calls Nourish Farms. For one afternoon each week, volunteers “tour” organic farms that operate as Community Supported Agriculture farms, or CSAs, and they assist in the harvest of whatever produce is ripe. Then, guided by a professional chef, the volunteers turn the harvested food into a meal to share with residents of local shelters.

Organic, farm-fresh foods are too expansive for lower income families to afford. Stuck eating junk, these populations are at greater risk to develop health complications associated with obesity, which impedes their productivity even more, putting them on a vicious downward spiral. A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that, in the USA, “Obesity Rates Keep Rising“:

Americans are continuing to get fatter and fatter, with obesity rates reaching 30 percent or more in nine states last year, as opposed to only three states in 2007, health officials reported on Tuesday.

The increases mean that 2.4 million more people became obese from 2007 to 2009, bringing the total to 72.5 million, or 26.7 percent of the population. The numbers are part of a continuing and ominous trend.

But the rates are probably underestimates because they are based on a phone survey in which 400,000 participants were asked their weight and height instead of having it measured by someone else, and people have a notorious tendency to describe themselves as taller and lighter than they really are.

The article, however, lacks any discussion of class and obesity. Poverty and health cannot be solved independently, as they are deeply intertwined.

Hopefully, charities such as Nurish improve the obesity trends by providing healthy food to those most in need of it and helping people rethink their relationship to food.

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Local Producers

Unity Gardens Inc.

Better known for bygone things, as the former home of Studebaker and now the former home of the College Football Hall of Fame, the city of South Bend, IN is looking towards the future in food. The efforts of local activists have recently put the city on the cutting edge of local, urban, and sustainable food movements.

The Unity Gardens, Inc. are hoping to build a community with fresh, locally sourced food widely available to all who need it. Founded just two years ago, the gardens promote neighborhood and community gardens throughout the city, on any open space that can be found including vacant lots and public spaces. You can follow the Unity Gardens on their blog, which claims that the Unity Gardens were founded to grow food and communities within a framework of sharing. As the motto states, “We are growing more than vegetables here!” Aside from providing food, they hope to bring together people from diverse backgrounds to build a stronger community and economy.

Closely related is South Bend’s Garden Farmers Market, which will be open in 2010 for the third summer in a row. There has been a growing popularity in farmers markets across the US in recent years, and this has been part of the reason the number of small scale farms has actually increased in 2009. The South Bend Market creates space for people to purchase food from and get to know their farmers. Knowing your farmer is one of the best ways to learn of the full impact of your decisions for the people who produce your food and the land it is produced on.

[This post is the fifth in a series that looks at six very different efforts to build a more sustainable food system in the United States. These efforts challenge us to think about food as not just a commodity, but more as a relationship with the Earth.]

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The dairy farmer


Organic Pastures Dairy Farm founder Mark McAfee invented and built North America’s first and only “mobile milk barn,” which allows dairy cows to graze and roam in pastures  without having to return to the barn for milking. This circumvents many of the problems associated with factory farming, for example there is no need for manure “lagoons” that contaminate water tables. And it provides milk that is completely organic and from grass fed cows.

But the family owned and operated farm goes beyond organic: they sell their milk raw. That is, the milk is not pasteurized. I am not going to get too much into the debate over raw vs. pasteurized milk, but there do seem to be many people claiming benefits to the immune system because the bacteria promote biodiversity in the intestines. And studies show that 90% of lactose intolerant people can drink raw milk. (If this debate interests you, read more here or here or let me know what you think.)

Even if  you want to try raw milk, however, state laws make it very difficult as it is illegal to sell it in most states. In some, it can only be sold if labeled as pet food. Of course there are ways to circumvent those laws; since you can drink milk from your own cows, some people buy “cow shares” and purchase raw milk from local farmers. But perhaps in an attempt to protect the consumers, lawmakers have actually made or more difficult to stay healthy.

[This post is the fourth in a series that looks at six very different efforts to build a more sustainable food system in the United States. These efforts challenge us to think about food as not just a commodity, but more as a relationship with the Earth.]

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The chef

Image: Braise Culinary School

David Swanson, a chef who has worked in Chicago and Milwaukee for the past 20 years, is working to “reconnect people to their food.” He does this in two ways. Swanson teaches cooking courses, often on farms or in woods, that focus on preparing meals using locally available ingredients. Many of those who attend these classes are part of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, and want to learn how to prepare the food they receive each week.

You can also eat out at Swanson’s locally sourced restaurant in Milwaukee, Braise. Swanson started Wisconsin’s first Restaurant Supported Agriculture network, modeled off of the CSA’s programs that many people participate in. The locally sourced restaurant model is promoted as a savory way to support family farms and stewardship for the environment.

By offering classes and a locally sourced restaurant option, Swanson is encouraging a transformation of our agricultural system from one that is unhealthy and unsustainable to one that serves the interests of the producers, the consumers, and the land that we depend on.

[This post is the third in a series that looks at six very different efforts to build a more sustainable food system in the United States. These efforts challenge us to think about food as not just a commodity, but more as a relationship with the Earth.]

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the green horns

[This post is the second in a series that looks at six very different efforts to build a more sustainable food system in the United States. These efforts challenge us to think about food as not just a commodity, but more as a relationship with the Earth.]

The number of farmers in the United States has been plummeting since the 1950s, and the ones that still actively farm are getting closer to retirement. Here is a group that is trying to change that be recruiting young farmers. A ‘greenhorn’ is a new entrant into agriculture, and The Greenhorns is an organization run for and by young farmers that seeks to promote, recruit, and support young farmers in the US.

The organizations views small-scale, organic agriculture as a way to spread health to the farmers, the soil, and the social fabric of our society. They view farming as not just work, but as a service and a privilege, and a patriotic livelihood.   Their work is part of a wider campaign for agricultural reform to a food system that does not hurt some people so that others can make money, but instead one where everyone can benefit from.

Now boasting a network of over 3,000 young farmers between the coasts, The Greenhorns plans many events, provides information to farmers, and lobbies for a Farm Bill from Washington that is more friendly to family-farming agriculture. Find out more at their website: www.thegreenhorns.net

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In an attempt to protect the safety of consumers, the USDA is actually making things worse. Changes in food production in the United States, to large scale farming and feeding operations, have created new and formidable public health challenges. An E. coli outbreak, now more common due to the fast-paced and high volume slaughter houses, can spread across the country before it can be detected and traced to the source. In an attempt to protect consumers, the USDA has been piling on new layers of regulation. Ironically, this is only making it more difficult for small-scale farms and slaughter houses to survive. As Joe Cloud writes, [ht: Marion Nestle]

For small meat businesses in America, catastrophic events result from changes high up in the regulatory food chain that make it very difficult for small plants to adapt. The most recent extinction event occurred at the turn of the millennium, when small and very small USDA-inspected slaughter and processing plants were required to adopt the costly Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) food safety plan. It has been estimated that 20 percent of existing small plants, and perhaps more, went out of business at that time. Now, proposed changes to HACCP for small and very small USDA-inspected plants threaten to take down many of the ones that remain, making healthy, local meats a rare commodity.

These small scale operations, just like the ones that used to be common across the country, are the ones that are most resilient to outbreaks:

Small, local meat processors have always supported food safety. At our plant, we have had a functioning HACCP plan since 1999, and it works. We undergo extensive E. coli testing every year, and we have never had a positive result—ever.

To seriously deal with the issues surrounding food safety, the USDA needs to write rules that accommodate small scale operations. This involves distancing itself from the corporate influence of US agribusiness. Only then will small scale farmers be able to meet the growing demand for local, ecologically smart meat.

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According to the New York Times, farmers are now struggling to cope with Roundup-Resistant weeds. Some excerpts:

On a recent afternoon here, Mr. Anderson watched as tractors crisscrossed a rolling field — plowing and mixing herbicides into the soil to kill weeds where soybeans will soon be planted.

Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.

To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.

“We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years. “We’re trying to find out what works.”

Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.

“It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen,” said Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.

Resistant weeds are just the expected evolutionary consequence of the herbicides, highlighting once again the tenuous nature of US agricultural production. Of course, the agribusiness industry will look to “innovate” the solution in the form of a new pill or the next herbicide. Until that again fails.

The alternative, of course, is to go back to sustainable, earth-friendly, smaller-scale and less profitable growing techniques that integrate the farm to form a closed, no-waste system. Advocates of this system are not against innovation, but are concerned with what kind of “innovation” the system promotes. The level of technology should not be thought of as a neutral, linearly increasing pile of knowledge. There are different types of innovation and we should be able to discuss, as a society, which forms will make us best off and encourage those.

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I just read Michael Pollan’s cover story for NYT magazine, expecting a light and enjoyable read (and it is), given that it started with a discussion of Julia Child. However, he snuck a fair amount of the political economy of food in there:

Those corporations have been trying to persuade Americans to let them do the cooking since long before large numbers of women entered the work force…The same process of peacetime conversion that industrialized our farming, giving us synthetic fertilizers made from munitions and new pesticides developed from nerve gas, also industrialized our eating.

Shapiro shows that the shift toward industrial cookery began not in response to a demand from women entering the work force but as a supply-driven phenomenon. In fact, for many years American women, whether they worked or not, resisted processed foods, regarding them as a dereliction of their “moral obligation to cook,” something they believed to be a parental responsibility on par with child care. It took years of clever, dedicated marketing to break down this resistance and persuade Americans that opening a can or cooking from a mix really was cooking. Honest. In the 1950s, just-add-water cake mixes languished in the supermarket until the marketers figured out that if you left at least something for the “baker” to do — specifically, crack open an egg — she could take ownership of the cake. Over the years, the food scientists have gotten better and better at simulating real food, keeping it looking attractive and seemingly fresh, and the rapid acceptance of microwave ovens — which went from being in only 8 percent of American households in 1978 to 90 percent today — opened up vast new horizons of home-meal replacement.

Harry Balzer’s research suggests that the corporate project of redefining what it means to cook and serve a meal has succeeded beyond the industry’s wildest expectations. People think nothing of buying frozen peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches for their children’s lunchboxes. (Now how much of a timesaver can that be?) “We’ve had a hundred years of packaged foods,” Balzer told me, “and now we’re going to have a hundred years of packaged meals.” Already today, 80 percent of the cost of food eaten in the home goes to someone other than a farmer, which is to say to industrial cooking and packaging and marketing. Balzer is unsentimental about this development: “Do you miss sewing or darning socks? I don’t think so.”

So, what are the important implications of this shift?

For [anthropologist Claude] Lévi-Strauss, cooking is a metaphor for the human transformation of nature into culture, but in the years since “The Raw and the Cooked,” other anthropologists have begun to take quite literally the idea that cooking is the key to our humanity…

If cooking is as central to human identity and culture as [Harvard anthropologist] Wrangham believes, it stands to reason that the decline of cooking in our time would have a profound effect on modern life…

And indeed, cooking has become more of a spectator sport, as the rest of the article goes to lengths to show. However, there is a more insidious side effect:

A 2003 study by a group of Harvard economists led by David Cutler found that the rise of food preparation outside the home could explain most of the increase in obesity in America. Mass production has driven down the cost of many foods, not only in terms of price but also in the amount of time required to obtain them…

Cutler and his colleagues demonstrate that as the “time cost” of food preparation has fallen, calorie consumption has gone up, particularly consumption of the sort of snack and convenience foods that are typically cooked outside the home. They found that when we don’t have to cook meals, we eat more of them…

When we let corporations do the cooking, they’re bound to go heavy on sugar, fat and salt; these are three tastes we’re hard-wired to like, which happen to be dirt cheap to add and do a good job masking the shortcomings of processed food. And if you make special-occasion foods cheap and easy enough to eat every day, we will eat them every day.

Can we go back? Harry Balzer, a food industry marketer quoted earlier, has a negative view:

“Not going to happen,” he told me. “Why? Because we’re basically cheap and lazy. And besides, the skills are already lost. Who is going to teach the next generation to cook? I don’t see it.

Sort of depressing.

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French conservatism

France is overhauling its ag policies big time.

Paris announced that from next year it would confiscate over 20 per cent of the billions of euros of European taxpayers’ money paid to its ranch-like cereals farms and divert the cash to hill farmers, grazing land, shepherds and organic agriculture.

The announcement brings to an end almost half-a-century of official hypocrisy in which French governments have talked about protecting “family farms” and “quality food” but allowed the bulk of European largesse to flow to chemical-assisted, hedge-free, cereals-ranching in northern, central and eastern France.

Obviously the free market types will decry any subsidies, but I think there is a good argument that the same policy should be executed in the US. I think it goes something like, small farms have a positive externality, so we should subsidize them. Anyways, time for Tom Vilsack to step up. Yesterday’s news was a good sign.

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