by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Jul 11 2014

Weekend reading: Grass (the green kind)

Courtney White, Grass, Soil, Hope: A Journey through Carbon Country.  Chelsea Green, 2014.

New Picture

 

Courtney White, whom I do not know but would like to, describes himself as a former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist who became a producer of grass-fed beef, thereby catching on to the importance of grass for restoring nutrients to soil, reducing climate change, and feeding the planet.  Carbon, he says, is key and we can achieve all this with low-tech methods.

He visits a bunch of “new agrarians” who are managing carbon-conserving agriculture, from farms to rooftops.

We’re all carbon.  We live in a carbon universe.  We breathe carbon, eat carbon, use carbon products, profit from the carbon cycle, and suffer from the carbon poisoning taking place in our atmosphere…We could, for example, find ways to support the 2 percent of Americans who actively manage the soil portion of the carbon cycle.  There are a million ways to help them, starting with the power of the purchasing dollar.  Seek out the new agrarians and buy their products.  Better yet, get involved yourself.

He writes well, and convincingly.

Jun 20 2014

New House Majority Leader represents Big Ag

I love reading Politico Pro Agriculture.  It comments this morning on the new Majority Leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who represents the San Joaquin Valley where Big Agriculture is worth $3 billion.  This comes from 16 commodities, among them cotton, garlic, cattle, tomatoes and wine grapes..

Pro Ag quotes Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif:

Majority Leader-elect McCarthy has provided critical leadership on a number of issues impacting the produce industry, including ensuring passage of a farm bill that recognizes the importance of fresh fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, ongoing work to negotiate a solution to our water crisis, and of course working to address the immigration needs of agriculture…We look forward to working this year with the new majority leader to bring relief to our drought stricken farmers and to finally fix our broken immigration system.

Pro Ag did some homework and checked the lobbying database on Open Secrets.

  • McCarthy’s 2013-14 campaign contributions from agribusiness PACs and individuals: $226,550.
  • McCarthy is third in rank among top House recipients of food and beverage contributions so far in 2014: $67,481.

As for what to expect from McCarthy?  Think Eric Cantor.

According to Vox‘s Ezra Klein,

It’s hard to come up with ways in which Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the California Republican who previously served as House Republican Whip, differs from Cantor. They both want to cut taxes. They both voted for the Ryan budget. They both want to repeal Obamacare. And, for all the talk of Cantor’s defeat being about immigration reform, McCarthy has basically the same position on immigration reform: he’s abstractly for immigration reform, but he’s not going to bring any solution to the problem up for a vote.

Business as usual, alas.

Nov 15 2013

Weekend viewing: new films in the making

I’ve gotten announcements about two films in the making.  Both are worth a look.

Gleason Ranch: Risking Everything.  This is about

a family struggling to salvage their relationships and their 150 year-old, 5th-generation family ranch in Bodega, California. The project began four years ago with the intention of documenting the everyday difficulties of maintaining a family farm. Now, however, it has turned into a much larger, much more personal story of loss, life, pain, and resilience.

What Does 48 Million Hungry People Look Like?

This is a 78-second animated video aimed at getting people energized about ending hunger in America.  It’s a follow-up to A Place at the Table and an introduction to the faces and stories of SNAP alumni.  I’m guessing a longer version will follow soon.  In the meantime, have a look.

Nov 11 2013

USDA asks for public input on how to communicate “agricultural coexistence”

I am indebted to Farm Futures for the heads up about the USDA’s just-published request for public input on what it calls “enhancing agricultural coexistence.”

Agricultural coexistence, the USDA says,

refers to the concurrent cultivation of crops produced through diverse agricultural systems, including traditionally produced, organic, identity preserved (IP), and genetically engineered crops.  As the complexity and diversity of U.S. agriculture increases, so does the importance of managing issues that affect agricultural coexistence, such as seed purity, gene flow, post-harvest mixing, identity testing, and market requirements.

My translation: The USDA wants producers of traditional crops and organic foods to stop complaining that GMOs are contaminating their crops, and producers of GMO crops to stop complaining that they get prosecuted if they try to save seeds from year to year.

The USDA explains that it is doing this in response to recommendations from its Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture.  This committee recommended actions to promote agricultural coexistence in five areas:

  1. Potential compensation mechanisms
  2. Stewardship
  3. Education and outreach
  4. Research
  5. Seed quality

How come the USDA is collecting input on #3 rather than the far-more-likely-to-be-controversial #1 and #2?

Early in 2011, I wrote about USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s use of Cold War rhetoric to promote détente between growers of organic and GMO foods.  I pointed out that while the USDA had no intention of backing down on support of GM agriculture, it was at least recognizing the threat to organic production.

I noted that the USDA was unlikely to get very far with this initiative because so many farm groups representing industrial agriculture so strongly objected to Vilsack’s coexistence proposal.  The groups argued that coexistence could “adversely impact all producers of biotech crops, as well as the integrity of the American agriculture system.”

If you can’t do anything about underlying structural problems, try communication.

Have something to say about what it will take to support all systems of agricultural production?  Now is a good time to weigh in.

 

Oct 16 2013

Today is World Food Day: Perspectives

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has organized a series of Perspectives on World Food Day.

Mine is titled “A Push for Sustainable Food Systems.”  It’s illustrated with cartoons from Eat, Drink, Vote.

Marion_Nestle_photo_2.jpg

From my perspective as a public health nutritionist, this year’s theme for World Food Day,Sustainable Food Systems for Food Security and Nutrition, seems especially appropriate.  Food insecurity and obesity are the most important nutrition problems in the world today.  Each affects roughly a billion people.  Each is a consequence of food system inequities.

Most countries produce or import enough food for the needs of their populations, but do not always ensure that it is equitably distributed.  Because many people lack resources to obtain adequate food on a reliable basis, hunger is a matter of politics.  Political conflict, insufficient responses to natural disasters, corrupt institutions, and inequalities in income and education constitute the “root” causes of malnutrition.  It’s not enough to distribute food to hungry people.  Governments should take actions to redress system inequities that lead to hunger in the first place.

Similarly, the causes of obesity go beyond the poor food choices of individuals.  Obesity is one result of an industrialized and unsustainable food system that treats agricultural products as commodities, uses most of these products  to feed animals or produce fuel for automobiles, provides little support to farmers who produce fruits and vegetables, and provides endless incentives for overproduction.

Marion_Nestle_photo_1.jpg

The result is an overabundant food system dependent on the sales of meat and obesity-promoting snack and beverage products, and on marketing such products to populations in low-income countries. Much evidence confirms that individuals find it difficult to resist food marketing pressures on their own.  If countries are to prevent rising rates of obesity, governments must intervene.

The extent to which governments should be involved in the food choices of individuals is a matter of debate.  Making sure people are fed is one function of government; another is promoting public health.  Because research demonstrates profound effects of food marketing on personal dietary choices, governments can set policies that make healthful choices the easier choices such as promoting fruit and vegetable production and setting limits on marketing practices, not least to reduce health care costs.

Whether the world can continue to produce enough food to meet growing population needs is questionable, but the need for sustainable food systems is not.  Governments must support food systems that provide farmers and workers with a reasonable standard of living, replenish soil nutrients, conserve natural resources, and minimize pollution and greenhouse gases—and promote health.  Governments and corporations must go beyond perceptions of food as a fungible commodity to understand food as an essential source of life, and firmly link agricultural policies to those for health, labor, and the environment. If politicians cannot commit to policies to reverse global warming, then ordinary citizens will have to take action.  And they are rising to the occasion, as exemplified by today’s burgeoning food movement.

Aug 8 2013

Agriculture policy needs to support health policy: Fruits and vegetables!

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a new report yesterday: “The $11 trillion reward: How simple dietary changes can save lives and money, and how we get there.”

Never mind the hype ($11 trillion?  That’s too big to understand).   Whatever the real number, the report makes one thing clear: if we don’t get healthier, health care costs will rise.  A lot.

To stay healthy, we need to eat more fruits and vegetables (F&V).  But that’s not  so easy.  They are relatively expensive, not always easy to deal with, and thoroughly unsupported by federal agricultural policy.

To fix that, UCS calls for federal policies to:

  • Increase research on F&V.
  • Remove planting restrictions that stop commodity farmers from growing F&V.
  • Make crop insurance available for F&V producers.
  • Make healthy, locally grown food more available and accessible.
  • Promote the growth of farmers markets, local food outlets.
  • Facilitate the use of SNAP benefits at local food markets.
  • Educate consumers about F&V and how to prepare them.

Here’s more on this report:

 

 

 

Jul 16 2013

Vilsack on the farm bill: “There ought to be outrage.”

Our dysfunctional Congress continues to dither over the farm bill.  Will the House send its SNAP-less, corporate-welfare bill to the Senate?  Will it do terrible things to SNAP first?  Or will it do nothing?

While waiting to find out, I want to mention a speech given by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack to the National Rural Assembly.   From the beginning, Secretary Vilsack said that his agenda for USDA was to revitalize rural America—a laudable goal.

Here he is last month calling for outrage over congressional failure to pass legislation in support of this goal.

What do we see from rural advocates? Utter disappointment. Are you kidding me? There ought to be outrage… “It is going to be important for groups like this to express more than extreme disappointment,.. Demand that they pass legislation that is supportive and not destructive. Demand appreciation for those in rural America.

How about that.  A call to action from the USDA!

Jun 20 2013

World Food Prize goes to Monsanto!

A reader, Leah Pressman, left this Feedback message this morning:

She sends a link to the story in the New York Times.

The world food prize foundation awarded [this year's prize] to several scientists on the teams working for Monsanto who figured out how to make genetically modified crops.

I am stunned by this and eagerly await your comments. The Times eventually mentions (see continuation) that “the foundation that administers the prize has received[...]a 5 million dollar contribution from Monsanto” among other corporations.

The World Food Prize is about agricultural productivity and has always favored industrial methods.  Monsanto produces by industrial methods.

As I keep saying, when it comes to food politics, you can’t make this stuff up.

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