Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

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.

Apr 29 2013

Happy 5th Birthday: Pew Commission

Five years ago today, The Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production released its report: Putting Meat on the Table: Industrial Farm Animal Production in America.

I was a member of the commission, put together by Pew  Charitable Trusts in partnership with the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and chaired by John Carlin, a former governor of Kansas.

The commission met for two years to investigate the effects of the current system of intensive animal production on public health, the environment, the communities housing confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and on the welfare of farm animals.

As a member, I had the opportunity to visit huge dairy farms, feedlots, pig farms, and facilities housing 1.2 million chickens.  This was, to say the least, quite an education.

The big issues? Overuse of antibiotics and the shocking environmental impact of vast amounts of animal waste.

The big surprise? Plenty of adequate laws exist to protect the environment and communities; they just aren’t being enforced.

A New York Times editorial noted that farm policies have turned “animal husbandry…into animal abuse,” and need rethinking and revision.

Indeed they did and do. 

As with all such reports, this one made too many recommendations but the most important ones had to do with the inappropriate use of antibiotics in farm animal production:

Restrict the use of antimicrobials in food animal production to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance to medically important antibiotics.

Another key recommendation:

Fully enforce current federal and state environmental exposure regulations and legislation, and increase monitoring  of the possible public health effects of IFAP [industrial farm animal production] on people who live and work in or near these operations.

And my sentimental favorite:

Create a Food Safety Administration that combines the food inspection and safety responsibilities of the federal government, USDA, FDA, EPA, and other federal agencies into one agency to improve the safety of the US food supply.

What good do reports like this do?

The report established a strong research basis for the need for policies to clean up industrial farm animal production and better protect the health and welfare of everyone and everything involved: workers, communities, the environment, and the animals themselves.

This is a good time to take another look at the report and consider how its basic—and absolutely necessary—recommendations can be put in place, and the sooner the better.

Apr 16 2013

Happy publication day: Farmacology

At your local bookstore now:

Daphne Miller, MD.  Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing.  William Morrow, 2013

 

I blurbed it:

Farmacology is an eloquent call for better systems of sustainable agriculture and humanistic health care.  In linking the two, Dr. Miller brings a physician’s critical eye and understanding to this lovely, touching, and sometimes quite funny account of what she learned about taking care of patients from visits to farmers who view growing food as part of an self-sustaining, integrated, natural cycle.  Her insight: both soil and people do better when treated as complex systems, not fragments.  This is a fresh, original, and utterly charming book that belongs on the shelves of everyone who loves food or thinks about health care.

Dr. Miller provides a link to a page on her website with more information on the book, reviews and her “official” Farmacology slide show.

Enjoy!

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