by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Agriculture

Jun 15 2011

U.S. food politics in action

For an instant tutorial in U.S. food politics, take a look at this Washington Post map of where agricultural subsidies go.

Presidents have been trying to get rid of subsidies for decades, but they also want to be reelected.  Will Obama succeed where others have failed?  We shall soon see.

May 10 2011

Agronomic angst in Oakland, CA: fighting for the right to farm

You might think that turning a deserted and trash-filled empty lot into an urban farm would please city officials, but not in Oakland CA.

Yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle has a sobering article on the efforts of Novella Carpenter, author of the terrific Farm City (a book I use in my classes), to make her working farm legal.

To continue running her farm, Novella needed a conditional use permit which would cost about $2,500.  She got the money by raising it through her Ghost Farm blog.

The good news is that city officials are listening.

Oakland planning officials said they are about to embark on an ambitious plan  to revamp the zoning code to incorporate the increasing presence of agriculture  in the city.

The plan is to develop rules and conditions allowing anyone to grow  vegetables and sell produce from their property without a permit. The Oakland  plan would go beyond that of other cities, including San Francisco, because it  would also set up conditions for raising farm animals without a permit….Oakland’s rules have always allowed the growing of vegetables and raising  animals for personal use on residential property. But selling, bartering or  giving away what you grow is not legal without a permit. The new rules will  establish limits on distributing food, including food byproducts like jam,  without a permit.

Animals are likely to be the most contentious issue because neighbors tend to  be more bothered by bleating, honking, clucking and crowing. Complaints about  vegetables are rare.

I”m guessing other cities will have to start dealing with these issues if they haven’t done so already, not least because so many people want backyard chickens.

I’m growing salad and blueberries on my Manhattan terrace, but not enough to sell, alas.  Maybe next year!

May 3 2011

What’s going on with human height?

Robert Fogel, winner of a Nobel Prize in economics, has a new book coming out arguing, according to an account in the New York Times,  that gains in human height constitute “the most significant development in humanity’s long history.”

Fogel and his co-authors attribute the gain in height to gains in technology:

This “technophysio evolution,” powered by advances in food production and public health, has so outpaced traditional evolution, the authors argue, that people today stand apart not just from every other species, but from all previous generations of  Homo sapiens as well.

Here’s the evidence:

 

But I’m confused by this.  I thought people were taller before the agricultural revolution of 12,000 years ago or so, and that the recent gains were due to better nutrition and sanitation measures—not to gains in technology.

I’m particularly confused because of the recent study demonstrating reductions in height among women in 54 low-income countries.  This study concludes:

Socioeconomic inequalities in height remain persistent. Height has stagnated or declined over the last decades in low- to middle-income countries, particularly in Africa, suggesting worsening nutritional and environmental circumstances during childhood.

In other words, if you want to do something about height disparities, you have to fix income disparities and provide adequate food and clean drinking water.

 

 

 

Mar 15 2011

Don’t farmworkers’ kids deserve a break?

I’ve been mulling over the article in the New York Times (March 13) about the effects of an itinerant lifestyle and the threat of deportation on the children of farmworkers in California.  If ever there was an example of how the political gets personal, this is it.

The article focuses on a third-grade teacher, Oscar Ramos, who is on the front lines trying to give these kids a chance in life, let alone at the American dream.  It describes what he’s up against: nearly all his students are near the poverty line, and nearly 80% have limited English.  They move frequently and live under crowded conditions.

But the often disrupted lives of the children of migrants here is likely to grow still more complicated as the national debate over immigration grows sharper.

Efforts by lawmakers to rescind automatic citizenship for children born in the United States to illegal immigrants are already stoking fears among many agricultural workers, and that has consequences for their children.

Some parents, as they move with the crops, are already keeping their children out of school when they get to Arizona because they are worried about the bureaucracy and tougher restrictions in the state.

The article is long but well worth reading.  If nothing else, take a look at the photographs.

This is how our relatively inexpensive food gets to us.   The costs, as the economists tell us, are externalized.  Here is one of those externalized costs–the potential of those kids to become functioning citizens in our democratic society.

Jan 21 2011

Eating Liberally: What about those smarmy Monsanto ads?

Every now and then, Eating Liberally’s Kerry Trueman, aka kat, writes an “Ask Marion,” this one titled, “Let’s Ask Marion Nestle: Is Monsanto’s Warm & Fuzzy Farmer Campaign Just A Snow Job?”

2011-01-21-Farmer.jpg

KT: Now that the Supreme Court has declared that corporations are people, too (happy birthday, Citizens United!), Monsanto is apparently out to put a friendly, slightly weatherbeaten, gently grizzled face on industrial agriculture (see above photo, taken at a DC bus stop just outside USDA headquarters.)

This guy looks an awful lot like Henry Fonda playing Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, which seems only fitting since Agribiz may be helping to create a 21st century Dust Bowl.

After decades of boasting about how fossil-fuel intensive industrial agriculture has made it possible for far fewer farmers to produce way more food, Monsanto is now championing the power of farming to create jobs and preserve land. Does this attempt by a biotech behemoth to wrap itself in populist plaid flannel give you the warm and fuzzies, or just burn you up?

Dr. Nestle: This is not a new strategy for Monsanto. Half of my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (University of California Press, 2010), is devoted to the politics of food biotechnology. I illustrated it with a Monsanto advertisement (Figure 17, page 182). The caption may amuse you:

In 2001, the biotechnology industry’s public relations campaign featured the equivalent of the Marlboro Man. Rather than cigarettes, however, this advertisement promotes the industry’s view of the ecological advantages of transgenic crops (reduced pesticide use, soil conservation), and consequent benefits to society (farm preservation). In 2002, a series of elegant photographs promoted the benefits of genetically modified corn, soybeans, cotton, and papaya.

Last year, Monsanto placed ads that took its “we’re for farmers” stance to another level:

9 billion people to feed. A changing climate. NOW WHAT?
Producing more. Conserving more. Improving farmers’ lives.
That’s sustainable agriculture.
And that’s what Monsanto is all about.

That’s sustainable agriculture? I’ll bet you didn’t know that. Now take a look at the Monsanto website–really, you can’t make this stuff up:

If there were one word to explain what Monsanto is about, it would have to be farmers.

Billions of people depend upon what farmers do. And so will billions more. In the next few decades, farmers will have to grow as much food as they have in the past 10,000 years – combined.

It is our purpose to work alongside farmers to do exactly that.

To produce more food.

To produce more with less, conserving resources like soil and water.

And to improve lives.

We do this by selling seeds, traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

Face it. We have two agricultural systems in this country, both claiming to be good for farmers and both claiming to be sustainable. One focuses on local, seasonal, organic, and sustainable in the sense of replenishing what gets taken out of the soil. The other is Monsanto, for which sustainable means selling seeds (and not letting farmers save them), patented traits developed through biotechnology, and crop protection chemicals.

This is about who gets to control the food supply and who gets to choose. Too bad the Monsanto ads don’t explain that.

Jan 12 2011

Worldwatch issues report on nourishing the planet

The Worldwatch Institute, a group that conducts research on climate & energy, food & agriculture, and the green economy, has just released its 2011 State of the World Report, subtitled “Innovations that Nourish the Planet.”

By “innovations,” Worldwatch means agriculture-based methods that have been shown to prevent food waste, help resist climate change, and promote urban farming.  The report describes 15 such innovations, all of them environmentally sustainable.

As Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, writes in the introduction,

Increasing the production of food and eradicating hunger and malnutrition are two very different objectives—complementary perhaps, but not necessarily linked…Some clear conclusions are emerging from all this evidence.

We need to improve the resilience of countries—particularly poor, net food-importing countires—vis-à-vis increasingly high and volatile prices on the international markets.

We need to encourage modes of agricultural production that will be more resistant to climate change, which means that they will have to be more diversified and use more trees….

And we need to develop agriculture in ways that contribute to rural development by creating jobs both on farms and off them in the rural areas and by supporting decent revenues for farmers.

The report describes programs that do just those things.  Examples: breeding rice in Madagascar, trading grain in Zanzibar, using solar cookers in Senegal, and promoting safer wastewater irrigation in West Africa.

It’s always useful to have Worldwatch reports and this one is especially relevant to food, agriculture, and international development.

Nov 12 2010

“Climate-smart” agriculture: FAO report

The role of agriculture in causing and becoming affected by climate change is, to say the least, of much current interest.  The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO) has  a new report out on precisely this issue: “Climate-Smart” Agriculture: Policies, Practices and Financing for Food Security, Adaptation, and Mitigation.

The report focuses on agriculture in developing countries.  These must develop “climate-smart” approaches to cope with the challenge of feeding a warmer, more heavily populated world.

Climate change is expected to reduce agriculture productivity, stability and incomes in many areas that already experience high levels of food insecurity — yet world agriculture production will need to increase by 70 percent over the coming four decades in order to meet the food requirements of growing world population.

What needs to change?

  • Agriculture: must produce more food, waste less, and make it easier for farmers to get their produce to consumers.
  • Farming: must do a better job of managing natural resources like water, land and forests, soil nutrients and genetic resources to be more resilient to natural disasters.
  • Insurers: must do a better job of helping farmers cope with climate-related problems.
  • Agriculture: must find ways to reduce its environmental impacts — including lowering its own greenhouse gas emissions — without compromising food security and rural development.

This will take money, but from where?

The report gives examples of how farmers are already moving to tackle these issues and adopt new, climate-smart practices.

But how odd: how come FAO isn’t talking about agricultural practices in developed countries ?  Don’t we have some responsibility here?

Sep 29 2010

Colbert on farm workers

I would have loved to be in the room when Stephen Colbert testified before Congress a few days ago.

I’ve been to congressional hearings.  They are a peculiarly American form of Kabuki theater, full of posturing, entirely predictable script-following, and institutionalized rudeness.  Colbert, in character, took perfect advantage of the opportunity.

I thought his testimony was brilliantly funny.  But I can well understand why the members of Congress stuck with Kabuki rituals—stony silence and hiding behind their equivalents of fluttering fans–BlackBerries.

Mr. Colbert gave devastating testimony, well worth 5 minutes to watch.  One of the Times’ bloggers (Sept 24) made a point of what he said at the end when he went out of character:  “I like talking about people who don’t have any power, and it seems like one of the least powerful people in the United States are migrant workers who come and do our work but don’t have any rights themselves.”

In character, his testimony offered some ideas about how to stop undocumented farm labor: “The obvious answer is for all of us to stop eating fruits and vegetables–and if you look at the recent obesity statistics, you’ll see that many Americans have already started.”

He’s right on about that one.  Kim Severson of the New York Times reports:

Despite two decades of public health initiatives, stricter government guidelines, record growth of farmers’ markets and the east of products like salad in a bag, Americans still aren’t eating enough vegetables.

Quoting CDC statistics, she reports that “only 26 percent of the nation’s adults eat vegetables three or more times a day…and no, that does not include French fries.”  We do better with fruit: 33% of Americans eat 2 servings of fruit a day.

All of this is why concern about our food system and where our food comes from also must include concern about who works in the fields, raises the animals, and works in the slaughterhousese.  Immigration is a food issue, big time.

Thanks Colbert–in character and not–for taking this issue to our government.  May it do some good.

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