Food Politics

by Marion Nestle
Jun 21 2017

GMO propaganda film: Food Evolution

I have asked repeatedly to have my short interview clip removed from this film.  The director refuses.  He believes his film is fair and balanced.  I do not.

I am often interviewed (see Media) and hardly ever quoted incorrectly or out of context.  This film is one of those rare exceptions.

In my 10-second clip, I say that I am unaware of convincing evidence that eating GM foods is unsafe—this is what I said, but it is hugely out of context.

Safety is the industry’s talking point.  In the view of the GMO industry and this film, if GMOs are safe, they ought to be fully acceptable and nothing else is relevant.

I disagree.  I think there are plenty of issues about GMOs in addition to safety that deserve thoughtful consideration:  monoculture; the effects of industrial agriculture on the environment and climate change; the possible carcinogenicity of glyphosate (Roundup); this herbicide’s well documented induction of weed resistance; and the how aggressively this industry protects its self-interest and attacks critics, as this film demonstrates.

Food Evolution focuses exclusively on the safety of GMOs; it dismisses environmental issues out of hand.  It extols the benefits of the virus-resistant Hawaiian papaya and African banana but says next to nothing about corn and soybean monoculture and the resulting weed resistance, and it denies the increase in use of toxic herbicides now needed to deal with resistant weeds.  It says nothing about how this industry spends fortunes on lobbying and in fighting labeling transparency.

Instead, this film hammers hard on three out-of-context points:

  1. GMOs are safe.
  2. Anyone who thinks otherwise is anti-science, ignorant, and stupid.
  3. Organic foods are bad and proponents of organic foods are deceitful.

Its biases are apparent throughout but the bias against organics is particularly striking.

For example, in arguing that proponents of organic agriculture are paid by the organic industry, the film refers to an article on the front page of  the New York Times.  But most of that article was about how the GMO industry recruits and pays academic researchers to front for it.  The film fails to mention that.

The obvious question: Who paid for this film?

The official answer: The Institute for Food Technologists (IFT).

IFT is a professional association for food scientists and technologists involved in the processed food industry.  I have been a member of it for years; its journal, Food Technology is useful for keeping up with what the food industry is doing.

I had no idea that IFT sponsored films, let alone one that must have been very expensive to produce (on location in Hawaii and Uganda, among other places.)

I can’t help but think Monsanto or the Biotechnology Innovation Organization must have given IFT a grant for this purpose, but IFT takes complete responsibility for commissioning the film (if you have any information about this, please let me know).

Food Evolution is opening in New York on Friday this week.  I view it as a slick piece of GMO industry propaganda.

If you want a thoughtful discussion of the real issues raised by food biotechnology, you will need to look elsewhere.

Full disclosure: half of my book Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety deals with GMO issues.  These have not changed much since the book appeared in 2003 and in a revised edition in 2010.  The GMO industry’s defenses and attacks are much the same, just louder and more expensively produced.

Jun 20 2017

The administration’s war on food: summary by the Environmental Working Group

Scott Faber, Vice President of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group summarizes Trump’s Full-Scale War on Food.  Since taking office, he writes, Trump has:

  • Proposed to cut food safety funding for the Food and Drug Administration by $117 million.
  • Proposed to cut funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, by $193 billion – a 25 percent cut – and cut international food aid by $2 billion.
  • Delayed new labeling rules for menus and packaged foods that would give consumers more information about calories and added sugars, and so far failed to issue a draft rule to implement a new law on disclosing genetically modified ingredients in food.
  • Weakened new rules designed to drive junk food out of U.S. schools.
  • Proposed to eliminate several Department of Agriculture programs that helped farmers sell directly to local consumers.
  • Proposed to eliminate funding for an entire division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that works to reduce obesity.
  • Withdrawn new rules to protect drinking water supplies from polluters and proposed cutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31 percent.
  • Proposed to suspended two of the largest farmland stewardship programs and mothball others.
  • Postponed new rules designed to strengthen animal welfare standards on organic farms and proposed to eliminate funding for programs that help farmers switch to organic farming.
  • Reversed a ban on a pesticide linked to brain damage in kids and proposed cutting EPA funding for pesticide review programs by 20 percent.
  • Punted on new rules to protect farmworkers from pesticides, and proposed to eliminate a program to train migrant and seasonal farmworkers.
  • Mothballed new voluntary sodium guidelines that would drive reformulation of foods.
  • Called for so-called regulatory “reforms” that would block agencies like the FDA and USDA from adopting new rules designed to keep food safe, update food labels or provide students healthier meal options in schools.

This is an impressive list, calling for serious resistance.

How?  That’s the question….

 

Jun 19 2017

Corn: The crop that ate America

Bloomberg News has an interactive infographic on U.S. corn production.  Corn now accounts for 68 percent of US grain-and-oilseed production.

The USDA gives a bit of background on the corn economy.

Scientific American explains why growing all that corn is not such a great idea.

  • It’s mostly for feeding animals, not people
  • 40% of it goes to fuel for cars
  • It uses up lots of natural resources
  • It’s monoculture, and vulnerable
  • It’s taxpayer supported—at billions of dollars per year

Here’s how it is used.

Time to do some rethinking, no?

If you can find it, watch the film King Corn.  It’s a lot of fun and enormously revealing.

Jun 16 2017

Weekend viewing: Civil Eats’ Infographic on Meat

I love Civil Eats’ Infographic explaining the global meat situation.  Here’s how it begins.  Click on the link to see the rest of it.   Definitely worth a look.

Jun 14 2017

Sugar policy again: this time Mexico

I can’t believe that I am writing about sugar policy again.  The Trump Administration has just gotten a preliminary agreement with Mexico about the sugar it exports to us.

Mexico says OK, (1) it won’t make us pay as much for it, and (2) it will restrict how much refined (white) sugar it sends.

This is great for U.S. sugar processors who turn raw sugar into white.  They want Mexico to send raw sugar so U.S. processing plants stay busy.

But food and beverage companies making products will have to pay more for sugar.  They belong to the Coalition for Sugar Reform, which is not happy about the agreement.

Under NAFTA, Mexico could sell unlimited amounts of sugar to us.   But our domestic sugar producers complained the Mexicans were “dumping” subsidized sugar and undercutting their prices.  In retaliation,

  • We threatened to impose tariffs.
  • Mexico threatened to stop buying our high-fructose corn syrup (it currently buys 80% of our HFCS).

Three years ago, we got Mexico to agree to set minimum prices and limit the amount of sugar it sells to us.  The new arrangement confirms that deal, at least for the moment.

As for us public health types, sugar policy is endlessly weird.  Domestically, we don’t produce enough sugar to meet demands so we have to import sugar from other countries.  We keep domestic prices high through quotas, buy-backs and price-support loans.  This ought to discourage consumption, but does not.

How come?  Because the higher price, amounting to billions a year overall, works out to only about $10 per year per capita.

This is not high enough to:

  • Reduce sugar consumption
  • Improve health
  • Generate outrage

Want to read more about this?

 

Jun 13 2017

Pink Slime again: The lawsuit

Remember “pink slime” the pejorative name for what BPI (Beef Products International) much prefers to call “lean, finely textured beef (LFTB),” so much so that it is suing ABC News under South Dakota’s “disparagement of agriculture” or food libel law.

This is not a joke.  BPI is suing for $1.9 billion in damages and this could go to $5.7 billion under South Dakota’s Food Product Disparagement Act.

The New York Times recounts the history of pink slime and reminds us that Michael Moss won a won a Pulitzer Prize for an article in which he mentions it in 2010.

I am riveted by Dan Flynn’s account of the trial in Food Safety News.

May 30:  The trial opens, with ironic timing.

But the BPI vs. ABC lawsuit is going forward just as demand is also coming back for LFTB, two years after depiction of the product in the media as “pink slime” put consumer pressure on retailers and restaurants to pull the product.Now, however, many of those same restaurants and retailers fear losing their customers for beef patties because they cost too much. LFTB, produced by both BPI and Cargill, is in demand to keep hamburger prices down.

June 5:  The jury trial begins.

At issue is whether the the network and its reporter violated South Dakota’s Agriculture Food Product Disparagement Act. If it did, any award won at trial  could be tripled under the Act — to as much as $5.7 billion in this case. The jury will have to decide if the network and its reporter defamed the product known within the meat industry as lean finely textured beef by repeatedly referring to it as “pink slime” in numerous reports beginning in March 7, 2012.

June 8:  BPI’s chief witness testifies.  She is professor Mindy Brashears, director of the International Center for Food Industry Excellence at Texas Tech.

She told the jury that BPI’s lean finely textured beef (LFTB) is meat, is beef, is nutritious and is entirely safe to eat…In the past four years, Brashears said, she not only examined everything she could find about BPI, but also conducted her own studies. Her time on the project totaled 1,250 hours and BPI paid her a private consulting rate of $250 an hour for a total of about $335,000.

June 9:  ABC’s lawyer,  Dane Butswinkas, starts his cross-examination

Butswinkas did get the professor to admit BPI was suspended from the National School Lunch Program on multiple occasions in 2007 and 2008. Brashears said those suspensions were essentially voluntary actions by BPI taken after pathogens were discovered in its product by the lab working for the lunch program. She said the action was consistent with BPI’s food safety plan.

I have a long-standing interest in this case, dating back to 2009 when I first started writing about it.

I will continue to follow this trial with great interest.  Most lawyers I know think that food libel laws will not hold up in court.  Let’s see what this jury says.

Jun 12 2017

Food Navigator’s special edition on “clean” labels

This is one of Food Navigator’s collection of articles, videos, and podcasts on single topics, in this case “clean” labels, clearly a hot trend.

Special Edition: Where next for clean label?

How is the ‘clean-label’ trend evolving? Is it still about avoiding certain ‘artificial’ or ‘artificial-sounding’ ingredients, or is it now part of a broader conversation about GMOs, animal welfare, sustainability, and business ethics? What do consumers understand by ‘clean’ food? And how will they view innovations from monk fruit produced from microbes, to ‘meat’ and ‘milk’ made without raising animals?

To the casual observer, ‘cleaning up’ our food sounds like an eminently sensible thing to do. But where is the clean label trend going, and is ditching every ingredient you can’t pronounce really the key to fixing the ‘broken’ food system (as Panera implies in a recent ad) or improving the health of people and the planet? .. Read

Jun 9 2017

Weekend reading: budgetary effects on the farm bill and rural America

When the Administration’s released its “America First” budget, Senator Debbie Stabenow (Dem-MI) issued two Infographics

The first is on effects on the 2018 farm bill. 

 

The second is how the proposed budget will affect rural America.

Stabenow is the ranking member of the Senate Agricultural Committee.

Her Infographics are easy to read and worth a look.  They take vast amounts of complicated material and boil it down to key facts.  Their conclusions:

  • This budget leaves America’s small towns and rural communities behind.
  • This budget would make a 5-year farm bill impossible to pass.

I hope she is right about the second one.

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