Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 12 2011

Worldwatch issues report on nourishing the planet

The Worldwatch Institute, a group that conducts research on climate & energy, food & agriculture, and the green economy, has just released its 2011 State of the World Report, subtitled “Innovations that Nourish the Planet.”

By “innovations,” Worldwatch means agriculture-based methods that have been shown to prevent food waste, help resist climate change, and promote urban farming.  The report describes 15 such innovations, all of them environmentally sustainable.

As Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, writes in the introduction,

Increasing the production of food and eradicating hunger and malnutrition are two very different objectives—complementary perhaps, but not necessarily linked…Some clear conclusions are emerging from all this evidence.

We need to improve the resilience of countries—particularly poor, net food-importing countires—vis-à-vis increasingly high and volatile prices on the international markets.

We need to encourage modes of agricultural production that will be more resistant to climate change, which means that they will have to be more diversified and use more trees….

And we need to develop agriculture in ways that contribute to rural development by creating jobs both on farms and off them in the rural areas and by supporting decent revenues for farmers.

The report describes programs that do just those things.  Examples: breeding rice in Madagascar, trading grain in Zanzibar, using solar cookers in Senegal, and promoting safer wastewater irrigation in West Africa.

It’s always useful to have Worldwatch reports and this one is especially relevant to food, agriculture, and international development.

Jan 11 2011

Is GM alfalfa the new Cold War? USDA urges peaceful coexistence.

The USDA seems to be paving the way for approval of genetically modified (GM) alfalfa with pleas for coexistence and cooperation. These will be needed.  Organic alfalfa is the mainstay of organic animal feed.  Organic standards exclude GM.  But pollen from GM alfalfa transmits GM genes to organic alfalfa.

In releasing the Environmental Impact Statement on GM alfalfa, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack used Cold War rhetoric:

We have seen rapid adoption of biotechnology in agriculture, along with the rise of organic and non-genetically engineered sectors over the last several decades… While the growth in all these areas is great for agriculture, it has also led, at times, to conflict or, at best, an uneasy coexistence between the different ways of growing crops. We need to address these challenges and develop a sensible path forward for strengthening coexistence of all segments of agriculture in our country.

USDA is working hard on this one.  It held a stakeholders meeting to discuss the issues.  Secretary Vilsack also wrote an open letter to stakeholders pressing the need for coexistence:

The rapid adoption of GE crops has clashed with the rapid expansion of demand for organic and other non-GE products. This clash led to litigation and uncertainty. Such litigation will potentially lead to the courts deciding who gets to farm their way and who will be prevented from doing so.

Regrettably, what the criticism we have received on our GE alfalfa approach suggests, is how comfortable we have become with litigation – with one side winning and one side losing – and how difficult it is to pursue compromise. Surely, there is a better way, a solution that acknowledges agriculture’s complexity, while celebrating and promoting its diversity.

By continuing to bring stakeholders together in an attempt to find common ground where the balanced interests of all sides could be advanced, we at USDA are striving to lead an effort to forge a new paradigm based on coexistence and cooperation. If successful, this effort can ensure that all forms of agriculture thrive so that food can remain abundant, affordable, and safe.

The USDA is not going to back down on GM.  But I see real progress here.  At least—and at last—USDA recognizes the threat of GM agriculture to organic production.

We have an obligation to carefully consider…the potential of cross-fertilization to non-GE alfalfa from GE alfalfa – a significant concern for farmers who produce for non-GE markets at home and abroad.

I’m guessing USDA will approve GM alfalfa.  Will approval include mandatory—and enforceable—safeguards to protect organic production?  Let’s hope.

Addition: Guess what.  Farm groups supporting GM alfalfa strongly object to Vilsack’s “coexistence” initiative.   In a  letter, the groups argue that the coexistence policy could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

Noting that USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded that RR alfalfa does not pose a plant pest risk, the groups accuse the Department of using motives beyond science to impose “unprecedented” conditions on alfalfa growers that they say may include isolation distances and geographic planting restrictions.

By “alfalfa growers,” they do not mean organic. Here’s who signed the letter:

  • American Farm Bureau Federation
  • American Soybean Association
  • National Cotton Council
  • National Association of Wheat Growers
  • National Council of Farmer Cooperatives
  • USA Rice Federation
Jan 10 2011

Harvard Forum: Who decides what your children eat?

When San Francisco voted to eliminate toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals, the Forum at the Harvard School of Public Health invited comments on this issue.  Here’s what I had to say about it:

I’m surprised at the mayor’s comment that “parents, not politicians, should decide what their children eat,” because the San Francisco ordinance is not about the food. It’s about the toys.

Nobody is stopping parents from ordering Happy Meals for their kids. But as everyone knows, kids only want Happy Meals because of the toys.

The idea that government has no role in food choice is ludicrous. The government is intimately involved in food choices through policies that make the cost of some foods—those containing subsidized corn or soybeans, for example—cheaper than others.

It is not an accident that five dollars at McDonald’s will buy you five hamburgers or only one salad. It is not an accident that the indexed price of fruits and vegetables has increased by 40% since the early 1980s, whereas the indexed price of sodas has decreased by 30%. Right now, agricultural policies support our present industrialized food system and strongly discourage innovation and consumption of relatively unprocessed foods.

Agricultural policies are the results of political decisions that can be changed by political will. If we want agricultural policies aligned with health policies—and I certainly do—we need to exercise our democratic rights as citizens and push for changes that are healthier for people and the planet.

Yes, individuals are the ultimate arbiters of food choice.

But our present food system makes unhealthful eating the default. We need to be working for government policies that make healthy eating the default. The San Francisco ordinance is a small step in that direction.

Jan 9 2011

Census Bureau releases food statistics

Thanks to the New York Times for telling us about the Census Bureau’s release of the 2011 Statistical Abstract of the U.S.  This is lots of fun and the Times’ account picked out a few highlights of what has changed since 2000:

  • The meat industry is contracting? Red meat consumption is 108.3 pounds per capita, down 5.4 pounds.
  • Nutritionists!  Uh oh: Vegetable consumption is 392.7 pounds per capita, down a shocking 30 pounds.
  • The wine industry must be happy: Wine consumption is 2.5 gallons per capita, up by half a gallon.
  • The establishment of organic standards in 2002 is working: Organic farmland covers 4.8 million acres, a 170% increase.
  • Hold your nose: Five states—Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, North Carolina, and South Dakota—have more pigs than people.

You can pick out your own favorite food and nutrition factoids by taking a look at the health and nutrition and the Agriculture statistical tables.  Fisheries has a section of its own.  Enjoy!

Jan 8 2011

Darya Pino’s guide to supermarket navigation

This diagram is flying all over the Internet and has been sent to me by so many people (thanks to all) that I’m eager to share it.

I particularly like it because it’s just what I used to say in lectures after What to Eat came out in 2006.  My What to Eat rules say never to eat a food with:

  • More than five ingredients (too processed)
  • An ingredient you can’t pronounce (ditto)
  • Anything artificial (ditto)
  • A health claim on the front (these are always about marketing, not health)
  • A cartoon on the package (it’s being marketed to kids)

Much praise and many thanks to the designer, Darya Pino (of Summer Tomato):

Jan 7 2011

Bad news on food prices: up, up, and away

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. has just released its 2010 food price index.  Compared to 2002-2004, commodity food prices sharply increased, especially those of sugars and fats.

The new index is higher than in 2008 when people throughout the world rioted in protest.  It is also at the highest level recorded since the index began in 1990.

What’s going on?  In 2008, FAO explained the crisis as the result of the combined effects of:

  • Competition for cropland from the growth in biofuels
  • Low cereal stocks
  • High oil prices
  • Speculation in food markets
  • Extreme weather events

I’ve discussed other possible explanations I’ve collected in previous posts.

This time, supply problems in grains, sugars, and meat are making the problemworse.  FAO experts are predicting that prices will go even higher this year.

High food prices are a disaster for the poor and are also a ticket to social disorder.   World leaders: get to work!

Added clarifications: It turns out that the FAO food price index is not inflation-adjusted.  Oops.  This means that the prices are not necessarily higher than they were in 2008. Nevertheless, food riots are already happening.  Ben Grossman-Cohen of Oxfam sends this report of such disturbances in Algeria, for example.

Jan 6 2011

Wikileaks plays food politics: US vs. EU agbiotech policies

I’m still catching up on what happened during the weeks I was out of Internet contact, so I’ve only just heard about the Wikileaked diplomatic cable about U.S. food biotechnology policies.

In December 2007, the U.S. Ambassador to France, Craig Robert Stapleton, wrote the White House to demand retaliation against European Union countries that refused to allow import of genetically modified (GM) corn from the United States.

Ambassador Stapleton’s confidential memo of December 14, 2007  explained that the French government was attempting to

circumvent science-based decisions in favor of an assessment of the “common interest”…. Moving to retaliation will make clear that the current path has real costs to EU interests and could help strengthen European pro-biotech voices.  In fact, the pro-biotech side in France — including within the farm union — have told us retaliation is the only way to begin to begin to turn this issue in France.

…France’s new “High Authority” on agricultural biotech is designed to roll back established science-based decision making….The draft biotech law submitted to the National Assembly and
the Senate for urgent consideration…would make farmers and seed companies legally liable for pollen drift and sets the stage for inordinately large cropping distances. The publication of a registry identifying cultivation of GMOs at the parcel level may be the most significant measure given the propensity for activists to destroy GMO crops in the field.

The Ambassador’s recommendation?

Country team Paris recommends that we calibrate a target retaliation list that causes some pain across the EU….

Retaliation?  Against friends?  Even the Bush administration knew better.  The Obama administration also has not taken this advice.

The product at issue was a variety of Monsanto’s GM corn.   Could Monsanto have had anything to do with the Ambassador’s pointed interest in this matter?  Wikileaks: any chance for more documents on this matter?

Jan 5 2011

Pepsi’s answer to “eat natural”: snackify beverages and drinkify snacks

Over the holidays, Pepsi announced two changes to its products.

“All Natural” Frito-Lay: First, the company announced that half its Frito-Lay chips would now be made with “all natural” ingredients.

“Natural,” you may recall, has no regulatory meaning.  Companies pretty much get to define for themselves what the word means, provided what they say is “truthful and not misleading.”

By “natural,” Pepsi means removing MSG, artificial colors, and other chemical additives from some—but by no means all—chips and other snacks.  This is a good start, but Cheetos and Doritos?  Not a chance.

As to worries that the word “natural” is a calorie distractor and might encourage overeating, a Pepsi spokesperson said: “It’s meant to say: made with natural ingredients….It’s not meant to say: eat more.”  Really?  I’m not convinced.

Tropolis Squeezable Fruit: Next, Pepsi announced the latest innovation in kids’ products: Tropolis pouches of squeezable fruit.

I learned about Tropolis from a reporter at the Wall Street Journal, Valerie Bauerlein, who forwarded Pepsi’s press release:

Each fun-flavored 3.17 fl oz (90g) pouch provides a smooth blend of real squeezable fruit, is a good source of fiber, and offers 100 percent of the recommended daily value of vitamin C – all for less than 100 calories.

Tropicana Tropolis is made with no added sugars, artificial sweeteners or high fructose corn syrup; and no artificial flavors, colors or preservatives.

“Fun-flavored” is a euphemism for sugar.  The press release explains what’s not in the product.  So, what does it contain? It took some doing to find out, but it arrived eventually along with some further background information from Pepsi:

The issue is kids aren’t getting enough fruit, so Tropicana Tropolis is trying to help solve that problem in a fun, nutritious way…Studies show that families are not getting enough fruit and vegetables in their diets, and the health experts we talked to (registered dietitians and pediatricians) when developing Tropolis also raised this issue.

As you might imagine, I was not one of the experts they talked to.  Here are the ingredients:

  • Grape World: Apple puree, filtered water, banana puree concentrate, fibersol-2 fiber (maltodextrin), grape juice concentrate, apple juice concentrate, lemon juice concentrate, natural flavor and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).
  • Cherry World: Apple puree, filtered water, banana puree concentrate, fibersol-2 fiber (maltodextrin), apple juice concentrate, cherry juice concentrate, lemon juice concentrate, natural flavor and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).
  • Apple World: Apple puree, filtered water, banana puree concentrate, fibersol-2 fiber (maltodextrin), apple juice concentrate, lemon juice concentrate, natural flavor and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

Translation: “Juice concentrates” is another euphemism for sugar.  You don’t believe me?  See the list of sugar euphemisms in the 2005 Dietary Guidelines (Table 14).

My translation: this is watery apple and banana sauce, artificially thickened, sweetened with fruit sugars, flavored with additives, and with added vitamin C.

As Valerie Bauerlein’s Wall Street Journal account explains,  this product is about expanding Pepsi’s profits in the “better-for-you” category as captured in a quotation that is sure to become a classic.

Ms. Nooyi [Pepsi’s CEO] has said she wants to build the nutrition business to $30 billion from $10 billion by 2020.…We see the emerging opportunity to ‘snackify’ beverages and ‘drinkify’ snacks as the next frontier in food and beverage convenience,” Ms. Nooyi said.

I ’m also quoted in her article (I did the interview while stranded in Miami trying to get back to snowbound New York):

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, said that the fruit concentrates are simply sugar. “They start out with real food, so let’s give them credit for applesauce and mashed-up bananas,” but “the rest of it is sugar,” she said. “Kids would be better off eating an apple or a banana.”

PepsiCo said Tropolis should get kids to eat more fruit, which is what’s most important.

Tropolis raises my favorite food philosophy question: Is a “better-for-you” product necessarily a good choice?  Is this a good way to get kids to eat more fruit?

You decide.

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