Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jan 16 2015

Reading for the holiday weekend: agricultural controversies

Two new books deal with a range of issues under current debate: GMOs, pesticides, chemical fertilizers, farm subsidies, local food, livestock raising methods, organics, and what have you.

The first calls on good government to take action to resolve the controversies.   The second takes a cost/benefit approach and argues for technological change to settle the issues.

Singly or together, both should stimulate debate—in and out of the classroom.

F. Bailey Norwood, Pascal A. Oltenacu, Michelle S. Calvo-Lorenzo, and Sarach Lancaster.  Agricultural & Food Controversies: What Everyone Needs to Know.  Oxford University Press, 2015.

New Picture

 

Andrew Barkley and Paul W. Barkley.  Depolarizing Food and Agriculture: An Economic Approach.  Routledge, 2015.

The issues discussed in these books are not easy to resolve.  Research on them is limited and incomplete.  Viewpoints differ widely.  Depolarization—or detente, as USDA Secretary Vilsack called it last year—will not be easy.  It’s worth taking the trouble to understand the basis of the debates and these books are a good place to start.

Happy holiday.

Jan 14 2015

Institute of Medicine releases report: Framework for Assessing Food System Effects

The Institute of Medicine has just released A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System.

The report is enormous (my paper copy weighs more than 5 pounds) and it is about as wonky as these things get.

It’s underlying purpose is buried in the Preface.

The U.S. food system provides a remarkably varied food supply to the U.S. consumer at lower cost than nearly anywhere else in the world. Many are concerned, however, that the cost of food in the marketplace may not reflect its true cost. Some of the costs of food production and distribution are not reflected in the marketplace price of food but are “externalized,” borne by other aspects of the health, environmental, and social domains of our society.

This report is about how to establish a basis for calculating the true cost of industrial food production.

The committee did not actually calculate such costs.  The report just says what researchers need to consider when making such calculations.

Even without having done that work, the report is a fabulous resource for understanding the the effects of the US food system on health, economics, the environment, and society.

It establishes the framework and explains how to use it:

  • Recognize effects across the entire food system
  • Consider all effects
  • Account for complexities
  • Choose appropriate methods

Reading through this takes some doing.  Here, for example, is what it says about using the framework:

The framework provides a set of design considerations for planning an assessment of the food system across the domains of health, environmental, social, and economic effects. It invites the user to think explicitly about system boundaries, dynamics, heterogeneity across space and populations, and the range of driving forces that shape food system outcomes…What this framework suggests is that all else does not remain equal and that any meaningful assessment must consider the likely and unintended consequences of proposed change for the status quo when its performance is in question.

The report gives specific examples of how the framework works for examining the effects of advice about eating fish or fruits and vegetables or changing the way hens are caged.

An Epilogue has some concluding thoughts.  Some selected examples:

  • Comprehensive studies of food systems that use all principles of the committee’s framework are rare in published literature.
  • Policies or actions that aim for an outcome in one domain of the food system (e.g., health) can have consequences not only in the same domain, but also in other ones (e.g., environmental, social, and economic domains.
  • Even though major improvements in the U.S. food system have resulted in the past from the introduction of new technologies, needed future improvements in the system may not be achievable solely through technological innovation and may require more comprehensive approaches that incorporate non-technological factors to reach long-term solutions.

The report ends with some recommendations, among them:

  • The committee recommends that Congress and federal agencies continue funding and supporting the collection (and improvement) of federally supported datasets that can be used for food system assessment studies along with consideration to creating new data collection programs as priorities arise.
  • The committee also notes the need to build human capacity in the field of systems science research.
  • The committee intends the report to stimulate broad thinking about the consequences of food system policies and actions beyond a single dimension.

OK food system analysts: get to work.  Find out what industrial food production really costs—economically, socially, and environmentally.

Here are the documents:

Jan 13 2015

Another food safety scare: this time, crocodile bile?

Yesterday’s New York Times contained this remarkable news item from the Associated Press, reproduced here in its entirety (thanks to Maya Joseph for making sure I didn’t miss it):

Contaminated traditional beer has killed 56 people in Mozambique, health officials said Sunday. In addition, 49 people were admitted to hospitals in the Chitima and Songo districts in Tete Province, and 146 people have been examined for signs of the poisoning, a district health official, Alex Albertini, told Radio Mozambique. Those who drank the contaminated brew were attending a funeral in the region on Saturday, Mr. Albertini said. The authorities said they believed that the drink was poisoned with crocodile bile during the course of the funeral. The woman who brewed the beer is also among the dead.

A little checking around brought me to The Guardian, which explained:

When a crocodile is killed, its gallbladder must be immediately removed and buried in front of witnesses to stopped the bile being used as a poison, according to some African traditions.

But wait!

David Kroll writing in Forbes questions the accuracy of this report.  He did some homework and found an 1980s article from an African medical journal written by professor N.Z. Nyazema, a clinical pharmocologist at the University of Zimbabwe (whom Kroll is trying to track down).  Professor Nyazema says:

It is widely believed that the bile from the gall bladder of a crocodile is very poisonous. The bilenduru is used as poison which is added to beer or stiff porridge, sadza, of an unsuspecting victim. It is not easy to buy this poison neither is it easy for anyone to kill a crocodile solely for the purpose of obtaining the bile. But with a good fee one can obtain some of the poison from a special n’anga [a traditional healer of the Zimbabwean Shona tribe]…It is reported that the poisoning occurs at special occasions like beer drinking: The nduru is said to be introduced into the beer by dipping the finger or nail where a small amount is placed: This will suffice for the purpose.

Kroll sensibly asks: “In the current tragedy in Mozambique, I can’t imagine just how much bile would’ve had to be added to 210 liters of brew for so many deaths to occur.”

Good point.  He suspects digitalis from foxglove.

I’m crossing this one off my list of food ingredients to worry about.  Whew.

Jan 12 2015

Drink less soda? Coke cuts jobs.

That Coca-Cola is cutting between 1600 and 1800 jobs in the next few months, 500 of them in Atlanta (Coke’s home town), is big news.

Why is Coke doing this?  According to the New York Times, the company says:

  • “to streamline our business”
  • “to help fund the stepped-up marketing it believes is needed to drive up beverage sales”  (oh, great)

IBTimes offers another reason:

And as the Wall Street Journal explains, “Austerity is the new flavor at Coca-Cola”:

Atlanta-based Coke plans to ax at least 1,000 to 2,000 jobs globally in the coming weeks, the biggest thinning of its ranks in 15 years. It is also introducing stricter budgeting, telling executives to swap limousines for taxis, and dropped its lavish Christmas party for Wall Street analysts.  The moves are part of a $3 billion cost-cutting plan Coke announced in October after warning it would miss profit targets this year and next as consumers drink less soda, for decades its cash cow. The austerity push is a culture shock for a company that traditionally has grown, not shrunk, its way to prosperity.

The business press is much less interested in the health benefits that will accrue as a result.  These don’t count on Wall Street.

They should.

Jan 9 2015

Debra Eschmeyer replaces Sam Kass at Let’s Move!

I thought Sam Kass would be hard to replace as director of Let’s Move! but Debra Eschmeyer is a brilliant choice.

The White House announced her appointment yesterday.

She is best known as founder and director of Food Corps, the offshoot of AmeriCorps devoted to sending participants into schools to teach kids about food, cooking, and gardening.

Her appointment is an immense tribute to the work of Food Corps. It is also a tribute to Eschmeyer’s considerable political and social skills—these will serve Let’s Move! well as it attempts to consolidate its gains under Kass’s leadership.

One piece of evidence for her political skills is this section of the 2014 Farm Bill:

New Picture

Although Food Corps isn’t named in the bill, this section cannot possibly apply to anything else.   And although the funding didn’t make it through the Appropriations process, getting Food Corps into the Farm Bill at all is an impressive achievement.

She will have her work cut out for her during the next couple of years, but don’t underestimate her ability to deal with Congress about sticky issues.

She has my warmest, most enthusiastic congratulations for her willingness to take this on.

 

 

Jan 8 2015

Food politics, Indonesian style

Food Politics is back from vacation in Indonesia where its president, Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) made this announcement:

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His program particularly aims to support rice production, but also corn, soybeans, and sugar, all of which are currently imported.

Much Indonesian rice is still produced on small terraced farms, like this one on Bali.

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The government plans to distribute hand tractors and seeds to thousands of farmers across the various islands.

The Jakarta Post also ran a long story about a program promoting organic farming and seed-saving methods, particularly for rice.  Rice productivity has been falling as a result of over-fertilization and exhausted soils.

The food movement seems alive and well in Indonesia.  It has Slow Food chapters and Bali Buda restaurants (“real food by real people”) are multiplying.  Interest is starting early.

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This will  be fun to watch.

Dec 25 2014

Food Politics is on vacation until January 8. In the meantime, happy holidays!

Thanks to Dorothy Cann Hamilton’s International Culinary Center for sending this Christmas gift—how its students do gingerbread.

Enjoy!

Happy holidays.

See you in the new year.  May it be a good one for all.

 

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xxx

Dec 24 2014

Christmas health advocacy, Mexican style

Rebecca Berner of Mexico’s food advocacy coalition, Alianza por la Salud Alimentaria (Nutritional Health Alliance) sends this press release announcing her group’s new video ads to encourage you to take sodas off your holiday tables.

The Make Someone Happy” counter-commercial:  This ad satirizes Coca-Cola’s Christmas marketing campaign with global statistics on the burden of disease and death associated with sugary drink consumption.

 

Santa Claus resignsThis counter-ad shows Santa acknowledging his “karmic debt” for a lifetime of promoting soda.

Cheers for the holiday season!

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