by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Climate change

Aug 5 2015

Obama’s Clean Power Plan will reduce methylmercury in seafood. Yes!

Earlier this week, President Obama announced a plan to reduce toxic emissions from coal-burning power plants.  The purpose of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan  is to reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

But from the standpoint of food politics, the new rules do something really important.  They will force coal-burning power plants to further reduce emissions of mercury.

In 2005, the EPA promulgated a rule to control mercury emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants under section 111(d): the Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR). The EPA established a nationwide cap-and-trade program that took effect in two phases: In 2010, the cap was set at 38 tons per year, and in 2018, the cap was lowered to 15 tons per year. The EPA expected, on the basis of modeling, that sources would achieve the second phase, 15-ton per year cap cost-effectively by choosing among a set of measures that included shifting generation to lower-emitting units.

Mercury from coal-burning power plants is the largest human-induced source of methymercury in the fish food chain, accounting for 40% of the amount that gets into oceans (most of the rest comes from underseas volcanos).  Mercury is converted to toxic methylmercury in seawater, and the toxin moves up the fish food chain as bigger fish eat smaller fish.  Methylmercury does very bad things to the nervous system of the growing fetus (recall the mass poisonings in Minamata, Japan in the 1950s and the shocking photos of the victims). 

Fish advisories

Large, predatory fish have the most methymercury and should not be eaten in large amounts, or at all by pregnant women.

Fish advisories expect pregnant women to know the kinds of fish they can and cannot eat, and how much.  This is not easy.

Wouldn’t it be better to prevent mercury from getting into seawater in the first place?

I like to use eliminating methylmercury as an example of why public health (“upstream”) approaches work better than personal responsibility (“downstream”) approaches.

An exceptionally clear example is how to avoid toxic levels of methylmercury in fish.   We can teach pregnant women to recognize which fish are high in methylmercury and hope this works well enough so they will avoid buying such fish (personal responsibility) or we could–as a society–require coal-burning power plants to scrub their emissions so mercury doesn’t get into ocean or lake waters in the first place (public health).

That’s what this rule does.

For explanations of how the Clean Power Plan will work, see the Union of Concerned Scientists’ review. explains:

The basics of the Clean Power Plan are fairly simple. The EPA is giving each state an individualized goal for reducing emissions from their electric power plants. States can then decide for themselves how to get there…. Power plant emissions have already dropped 15 percent between 2005 and 2013, thanks to a brutal recession, cheap natural gas pushing out coal, the rise of wind power, and improved efficiency. So with this new plan, EPA is expecting a further 20 percent cut in power-plant emissions from 2013 levels by 2030.

For what Obama stands to gain from this rule, see the New York Times.

But hold the celebration.  Politico Pro Energy reports that Republicans in Congress view the rule as a key component of the administration’s “war on coal” and will try to block it or sue to stop it.   The Supreme Court says that the EPA has the authority to issue this rule, but “Challengers are expected to argue that the rule is invalid because it exceeds EPA’s authority, contradicts a Clean Air Act provision meant to avoid duplicative rules, and violates the 5th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution.”   And, of course, a post-Obama president could undo the whole thing, as it is an executive branch action, not a law passed by Congress.

Yesterday’s New York Times had a front-page story on how coal lobbyists and corporate lawyers started organizing more than a year ago to fight this plan.

An important ally in the effort was the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative advocacy group that pushes policy through state legislatures. Typically, the council’s committees of corporate members will craft a model bill designed to push through policies it supports, such as rolling back environmental regulations.

The Clean Power Plan deserves massive support.

This may be a climate-change plan, but it is also a critically important public health measure.

Anyone who likes eating fish should do everything possible to support this measure.

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.


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.

2015-05-02 13.08.25

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.

2015-05-12 11.35.33

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.

Jun 3 2014

Dietary Guidelines Committee under attack for caring about how food is produced

I received an e-mail from the communications director of the Independent Women’s Forum, a group whose mission is to “improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty.”


The group and its friends have just sent a letter to USDA and HHS complaining that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) is exceeding its mandate.

Among our most acute concerns is the “mission creep” of the Committee, which has expanded to include non-dietary factors such as “carbon footprints,” “climate change,” “urban agriculture,” and “green cleaning and pest control practices.”

This likely reflects the composition of the Committee, which is nearly all epidemiologists from elite academic institutions with no direct experience in the practical realities of how food is produced and what average Americans may choose to eat.

We need only consider the strongly negative reaction to recent changes to the school lunch rules to understand what is at risk if this Committee attempts to dictate over-reaching changes to the American diet.

This would be funny if it weren’t part of the Republican agenda to roll back improvements in nutrition advice and practice aimed at preventing obesity and its related chronic diseases.

What the IWF is saying is that its members know better about what’s good for health than all those elite epidemiologists, scientists, and other experts on the committee who are worried about what climate change will do to our food supply.

Let’s hope the agencies ignore this letter.

Feb 3 2012

The U.K. food industry fights labeling efforts, successfully

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London, writes that the U.K. food industry is fighting back over initiatives to reduce calories and mitigate climate change.

He sends an article from the British trade publication, The Grocerabout how the U.K. government has reneged on its “responsibility deal” with industry to reduce calories in food products. 

The idea was to demand that food companies reformulate products, control portion size, and take “action to shift to lower calorie options.”

But now, in response to industry protests,  the U.K. Department of Health is simply inviting food companies to help in the development of calorie-reduction policies.

To this invitation to the fox to guard the chickens, professor Lang comments:

Those of us following the currently fashionable ‘nudge’ theory and other ‘Food Policy lite’ initiatives will note this leak about softening the Responsibility Deal on calorie reduction here in England with concern…Perish the thought that sections of the Food Industry might have lobbied hard to stop any efforts to reduce portion size. Perish, indeed.

Another article in The Grocer points out that Tesco, Britain’s leading food retailer, is pulling out of an agreement to put carbon labels on products becausedoing so is too much trouble.

Professor Lang writes:

Here is the world’s 3rd largest food retailer, Tesco, apparently saying that the carbon label (a weak system for changing behaviour in the first place, perhaps) takes too much time. Well, well, well.

If this is true…the implications are considerable, not least for the planet, given that a third of European (i.e., rich consumers) greenhouse gas emissions are due to food.

He gives as sources for that statement:

  • Tukker, A., et al., Environmental Impacts of Diet Changes in the EU. 2009, European Commission Joint Research Centre Institute for Prospective Technological Studies: Seville.
  • Tukker, A., et al., Environmental Impact of Products (EIPRO): Analysis of the life cycle environmental impacts related to the final consumption of the EU-25. EUR 22284 EN. 2006, European Commission Joint Research Centre.: Brussels.
  • Audsley, E., et al., How Low Can We Go? An assessment of greenhouse gas emissions from the UK food system and the scope for reduction by 2050 2010, FCRN and WWF: Godalming, Surrey.

So much for voluntary actions by industry.  Regulation anyone?

 This just in: The European Commission issued a statement of regret that the European Parliament vetoed its proposal to allow “percent less” health claims on food packages yesterday.  These are statements that a product contains 15% less sugar, for example.

The Commission thinks such claims will encourage reformulation of food products.  The Parliament believes that such claims are misleading and will promote sales of junk foods. 

Which is right? Who knows?

Dec 19 2011

Today’s oxymoron: a greener soda bottle

On the plastic bottle front, much is happening.

BPA plastics are banned from the European market, only to be replaced by other plastics that seem to have their own problems.  These are detailed in three articles in Food Additives and Contaminants dealing with the migration of chemicals from baby bottles.

  • Santillana et al.,  Migration of bisphenol A from polycarbonate baby bottles purchased in the Spanish market by liquid chromatography and fluorescence detection (2011); doi: 10.1080/19440049.2011.589036.
  • Simoneau, et al., Comparison of migration from polyethersulphone and polycarbonate baby bottles (2011) doi:10.1080/19440049.2011.604644.
  • Simoneau, et al.,  Identification and quantification of migration of chemicals from plastics baby bottles used as substitutes for polycarbonate, ( 2011); doi 10.1080/19440049.2011.644588.

In response to such concerns, soft drink companies are engaging in the latest form of “cola wars,” this time the race to greener bottles.  As the New York Times puts it,

Over their decades of competition, the battle between Coca-Cola and PepsiCo has taken on many colors — brown (cola), orange (juice), blue (sport drinks) and clear (water).

Now, they are fighting over green: The beverage rivals are racing to become the first to produce a plastic soda bottle made entirely from plants.

Coca-Cola has signed up with three biotechnology companies to produce materials for 100% plant-based bottles.  It already has some recyclable PlantBottles, but these are only 30% plant-based (mono-ethylene glycol, MEG).  The other 70% is purified terephthalic acid, PTA.  Coke says it will go to 100% plant-based by 2020.

PepsiCo says it is doing the same thing, only faster.

OK, plant-based.  But from what?

Coke says it is experimenting with Brazilian sugarcane, molasses, and other plant residue materials but might also use crops grown specifically for plastic production.  Pepsi says it will use agricultural waste products, such as corn husks, pine bark or orange peels.

What about corn?  Corn has already been used to produce plastics, but doing this is just like growing food crops for biofuels, causing land conversion, higher food prices, and heavy fertilizer use.

It will be good to get the harmful chemicals out of drink bottles.

But soft drinks are inherently wasteful of natural resources.  All the greenwashing in the world can’t hide that.

Oct 15 2011

Chocolate lovers: climate change affects you!

Every now and then something brings home what climate change could do to us: no chocolate!

Researchers in Colombia predict that the 1 degree rise in world temperatures expected by 2030 will hit small cocoa farmers in West Africa. particularly hard.  Farmers in Ghana and Cote d-Ivoire produce half the world’s cocoa.

The 2 degree rise expected by 2050 will make it impossible for them to grow the plants at current elevations.

Now that’s something to worry about over the weekend, no?

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?

Dec 22 2009

Eating Liberally: Are pets responsible for climate change?

It’s been quite a while since Eating Liberally’s kat had a question for me, but this one certainly got my attention.  My book about pet food with Malden Nesheim, Feed Your Pet Right, has just progressed past its second set of page-proof corrections and is slowly making its way to publication on May 11.  Here’s her question:

Let’s Ask Marion: Is Fido The New Hummer?

Submitted by KAT on Tue, 12/22/2009 – 8:13am.

(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Pet Food Politics, What to Eat and Food Politics.

Kat: Dog lovers are howling over a new book called Time to Eat the Dog: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living. The book claims that “the carbon pawprint of a pet dog is more than double that of a gas-guzzling sports utility vehicle,” according to a report from the Agence France Presse.

The book’s authors, Robert and Brenda Vale, sustainable living experts at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand, estimate that a medium-sized dog’s annual diet–about 360 pounds of meat and 200 pounds of grains–requires roughly double the resources it would take to drive an SUV 6,200 miles a year.

You’ve become an expert on the pet food industry in recent years with Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, and your upcoming book, Feed Your Pet Right. So, what’s your take on the Vales’ claims? Is Fido really the new Hummer?

Dr. Nestle: Since Mal Nesheim is my co-conspirator on Feed Your Pet Right, this response is from both of us. Hence, “we.”

We ordered this book through Amazon in the U.K. but it is taking its own sweet time getting here. So all we really know about what these authors say is what we read in the October 24 New Scientist, which not only reviewed the book (in an article titled, “How green is your pet”) but also ran an editorial that begins, “If you really want to make a sacrifice to sustainability, consider ditching your pet – its ecological footprint will shock you.”

Oh, please. We don’t think so for two reasons, one quantitative, one qualitative. First, the quantitative:

The New Scientist review says:

To measure the ecological paw, claw and fin-prints of the family pet, the Vales analysed the ingredients of common brands of pet food. They calculated, for example, that a medium-sized dog would consume 90 grams of meat and 156 grams of cereals daily in its recommended 300-gram portion of dried dog food. At its pre-dried weight, that equates to 450 grams of fresh meat and 260 grams of cereal. That means that over the course of a year, Fido wolfs down about 164 kilograms of meat and 95 kilograms of cereals.

We don’t really have all the facts at hand. We have not seen the book, we don’t know what assumptions the authors made, and we can’t be certain that the review quotes the book accurately. Still, we are puzzled by these figures.

By our estimates, an average dog does indeed need about 300 grams of dry dog food a day; this much provides close to 1,000 calories. Fresh meat supplies about 2 calories per gram, so 450 grams would yield about 900 calories. Cereals have less water so they are more caloric; they provide nearly 4 calories per gram. The 260 grams of cereals would provide nearly 1,000 calories. If New Scientist got it right, the authors of the book are overestimating the amount of food needed by dogs by a factor of two.

On the qualitative side: Most dogs don’t eat the same meat humans do. They eat meat by-products—the parts of food animals that we wouldn’t dream of eating. These are organs, intestines, scraps, cuttings, and other disgusting-to-humans animal parts.

We think pet food performs a huge public service. If pets didn’t eat all that stuff, we would have to find a means of getting rid of it: landfills, burning, fertilizer, or converting it to fuel, all of which have serious environmental consequences. If dogs and cats ate the same food we do, we estimate that just on the basis of calories, the 172 million dogs and cats in American would consume as much food as 42 million people.

But they don’t. They eat the by-products of human food production. If we want to do something to help reverse climate change, we should be worrying much more about the amount of meat that we ourselves are eating–and the amount of cereals we are growing to feed food animals–than blaming house pets for a problem that we created.

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