by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Feb 13 2016

Weekend Reading: Fed Up

Dale Finley Slongwhite.  Fed Up: The High Costs of Cheap Food.  University Press of Florida, 2014.

Yes, there’s a movie called Fed Up (in which I make a very brief appearance) but this book covers a quite different topic.  It takes a tough look at the impact of widespread pesticide use on farmworkers in the area around Lake Apopka in Central Florida.  Slongwhite tells the individual stories of these workers through oral histories, thereby putting a human face on callous disregard for people and the environment.

Dec 17 2015

House spending deal: food issues summarized

Thanks to Helena Bottemiller Evich of Politico Pro for doing the homework on food issues covered by the omnibus spending deal just agreed to by the House.  Here’s my quick summary of her summary.

  • GMO labels: the effort to preempt local and state GMO labeling initiatives failed as a result of the efforts of 30 representatives who opposed the measure.
  • Country of origin labels repealed: the meat industry scores a win in the House vote to repeal the measure.
  • Dietary guidelines: I discussed this one in yesterday’s post.  The House wants to block their release on the grounds that they are not sufficiently scientific (translation: the meat industry doesn’t like advice to eat less meat).
  • The Clean Water Act: it survives.
  • GMO salmon: it will have to be labeled.
  • Food safety funding: up more than $132 million to $2.72 billion in discretionary funding. This is a big win for the FDA. It also proposes $1 billion for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, also above the president’s request.
  • Trans fat ban”: delayed until FDA’s formal rules go into effect in June 2018.
  • School lunch flexibility: Riders allow schools to ignore whole grain requirements and block sodium restrictions pending further research.
  • Chinese chicken out of schools: Prohibits purchasing chicken that was processed in China for school meals or other federal nutrition programs.
  • More kitchen equipment: Schools get another $30 million for school equipment grants.
  • Horse slaughter: Banned.

Caveat: this is the House deal only.  The House has to vote on the actual bill, then the Senate.  Then the two bills need to be reconciled and the President needs to sign.  Until then, everything is up for grabs.

Jul 31 2015

Weekend reading: Food, Farms, and Community

Lisa Chase and Vern Grubinger.  Food, Farms, and Community: Exploring Food Systems.  University of New Hampshire Press, 2014.

Here’s my blurb for this excellent and most useful book:

If you haven’t a clue as to what’s meant by food systems, read Food, Farms, and Community right now.  The book covers the territory from farm to fork, clarifying the complexities and focusing on what’s really important: what to do to create food and farming systems that promote the health of people and the planet.

Enjoy the summer weekend!

Jul 3 2015

Weekend reading: Joel Bourne’s The End of Plenty

While celebrating the Fourth of July, why not take time for some thoughtful reading?

Joel K. Bourne, Jr.  The End of Plenty: The Race to Feed a Crowded World.  WW Norton, 2015.

Here’s my blurb for this one:

The End of Plenty takes a thoroughly researched and exceptionally thoughtful and balanced look at the consequences of industrial farming.  Joel Bourne’s courageous conclusion: to feed the world’s burgeoning population, agriculture must change and population increase must stop.  His book should convince every reader of the compelling need to address world food problems through more skillful and sustainable agronomy, but also through education, especially of women, and universal family planning.

Jul 1 2015

Small farms in Cuba: a brief report on my visit

As noted in an earlier post, I was offline from from June 13-20 on a visit to Cuba with a Food First group visiting small organic farms, rural and urban.

This was my third trip to Cuba.  I came with other groups in 1990 and 1992 at the beginning of what Cubans refer to as the “Special Period,” the economic disaster caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of its support for the 1959 Castro revolution, and the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba.

The embargo also required countries that trade with the U.S. to stop trading with Cuba.  For tourists like me, the lingering effects of the embargo are the travel restrictions, the failure of U.S. cell phones to work, and the scarce and slow Internet access.  Hence: Offline.

But change is imminent.  I heard many Cubans mention December 17, the day of President Obama’s 2014 announcement of resumption of relations with Cuba, as if it ought to be celebrated as a national holiday.

Our group traveled by charter flight from Miami.  My first surprise: We were not alone: The Miami airport devotes two entire concourses exclusively to Cuban charter flights.  As many as 20 flights every day are packed with people who have families in Cuba, business people, and tourists of one kind or another.

2015-06-13 06.05.39Our group was interested in Cuban agriculture and food systems.  This post deals with rural agricultural production.  In subsequent posts, I’ll talk about urban farming and what the Cuban food scene looks like.

The USDA provides useful background information and statistics on Cuban agriculture.

The 2015 report has this interesting tidbit: US agricultural exports to Cuba rose from $139.2 million in 1956-58 to $365.3 million in 2012-14.

This, however, does not break the embargo; it is classified as sales, not trade.  The Cubans buy agricultural products from us, mostly frozen chicken for people, and soybeans and soybean meal for animal feed.

We did not see much agriculture on this trip.  There is plenty of land, but gas, transportation, and tractors are extremely limited.  The highway between Havana and Pinar del Rio is well maintained but we saw few cars on it.  Horse-drawn carts, yes; cars and trucks, no.  And lots of land not in production.

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The reasons for this go beyond the embargo.  We heard repeatedly that Cubans don’t like doing agricultural labor: the population is highly educated, is 80% urban, the climate is hot and humid, and Cuban culture does not value that kind of work.

Much of Cuban food is imported.  How much?  Estimates range from 35% to 85% depending on whether whoever is doing the estimating is for or against the Cuban revolution.

An official of the agriculture ministry told us that Cuba is self-sufficient or nearly so in eggs, mangos, sugar, and tobacco.  I took this photo of mangos grown on the remarkable farm in Pinar del Rio established as a model for sustainability by Fernando Funes-Monzote.

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At present, food is grown in Cuba on large farms owned by the state or held by family-owned cooperatives of one kind or another, or on smaller farms that are owned by private individuals or families.  Only 70% or so of arable land is in production.  The state still has a million hectares to distribute, but has a hard time getting anyone to farm it.

Most production is organic, but not by choice.  The embargo makes agricultural inputs unavailable or prohibitively expensive. See, for example, Modern Farmer’s photo-essay on Cuban farming.  Rice and potatoes, however, are not organically grown, and neither is most tobacco.   We heard from farmers in the exceptionally beautiful Viñales region that tobacco is beginning to be grown organically.

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They are proud of their tobacco.  It is used for high-quality cigars and is a major cash crop.

The agricultural situation in Cuba, like much else about the country, is full of contradictions.

Tomorrow: urban farming.

Jun 5 2015

Weekend reading: Agricultural & Food Controversies

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

This book purports to take an objective look at “why equally smart and kind people can form vastly different opinions about food.”

Good luck with “objective.”

These authors are professors in agriculture departments in state universities (Oklahoma and Florida) who wish that controversial subjects in food and agriculture could be explored “while paying respect to the character and intellect of both sides.”

But then they take on liberals.

Liberals, they say, “have a negative view of big business, and…comprise the majority of food activists, and you have a story that can explain the rise of many agricultural controversies.”

With this established, they take on issues such as pesticides, fertilizers, carbon footprints, GMOs, farm subsidies, local food, and animal welfare.

Although the authors seem to be struggling to be fair to the positions of “liberal activists,” they tend to judge those positions as overly simplistic.

In the view of this liberal activist (I prefer advocate, however), this book ends up reflecting the authors’ strong ties to—and defense of—industrial agricultural models.

This is a good place to start to understand the non-liberal activist perspective.

May 29 2015

Weekend reading: Food Ethics for Everyone

Paul Thompson.  From Field to Fork: Food Ethics for Everyone.  Oxford University Press, 2015.

I was pleased to be asked to blurb this one:

From Field to Fork makes it clear that every food choice has ethical implications and that sorting out these implications from the science and politics of food is anything but simple.   The ethical issues discussed in this book are fascinatingly complex and deserve the serious debates they are sure to stimulate.  If ever a book provided food for thought, it’s this one.

May 14 2015

Milan Food Expo: A highly preliminary assessment

Throughout my travels in Italy the last couple of weeks, I was constantly asked for an assessment of the Milan Food Expo.

My answer: it’s too early to tell.  It’s only been open for two weeks and has lots more to do between now and the end of October.

In my posts on the Expo, I’ve talked about the logistics and a few of the pavilions.

But what about the overall content and take-home messages?  Expos are trade fairs, but this one is about feeding the planet—adequately and sustainably.

expo

The U.S. Pavilion carries out this theme:US

Most countries created exhibits based on these themes.  Many displayed vegetable gardens in raised beds or, in the case of the US pavilion, on a long, undulating wall.

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It’s useful to start with the United Nations’ Zero Hunger Pavilion.  Its gigantic ticker-tape display tells you the price of food commodities throughout the world in real time.

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The scrolling messages in English and Italian:

  • The food sector: reality vs. abstraction.
  • Extreme price volatility is a threat to food security.
  • The gap between supply and demand is mainly caused by increasing food consumption, climate variability, expansion of agro-energy production, and financial speculation.
  • Lack of transparency and profits for a few speculators intensify inequality in food distribution.
  • New rules are needed for agricultural governance.

Like most of the exhibits, this one states the problems and says what is needed to solve them.  But it leaves it up to you to figure out how to set or obtain the new rules for agricultural governance.

My view from this brief visit: The very existence of Milan Food Expo 2025 is a strong statement that food issues are worthy of serious public attention, worldwide.

For that alone, it succeeds magnificently.

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