by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Organics

Jun 16 2010

Bard College’s Prison Initiative: organic food politics!

Earlier this month, I went to New York State’s Woodbourne Correctional Facility to accept the John Dewey Award for Distinguished Public Service from Bard College and to deliver a brief commencement address to incarcerated graduates of the Bard Prison Initiative.

Bard’s program is one of the few privately supported prison education programs in the country (the New York Times recently discussed a similar program at Sing Sing).

Bard started the program after the government cut off funding for prison education programs in the mid-1990s.

Bard has awarded liberal arts associates’ and bachelors’ degrees to nearly 200 men and women inside three long-term maximum security prisons and two transitional, medium-security prisons (Woodbourne is medium security).

None of these graduates—not one—has returned to prison after being paroled.

Why me, why there, and why discuss it here?  Participants in this program started an organic garden and are growing food for the prison with the surplus going to local food banks.

In my speech, I said:

“John Dewey was a passionate champion of liberal democracy.”

“Dewey argued that education is good for individuals, but that it also has an important social purpose—that of encouraging students to become active and effective members of a democratic society….”

“In growing a garden and producing food for yourselves and for others under these particular and peculiar circumstances, you are carrying out John Dewey’s ideals better than he ever could have imagined.”

I was not kidding when I said that no award has ever meant so much to me.  It was a privilege to be there.

Jun 14 2010

USDA fires certifier of Chinese organics: conflicts of interest

In a move that should bring cheer to anyone who cares about the integrity of organic certification, the USDA has banned the Organic Crop Improvement Association (OCIA) from certifying foods from China as organic.  According to the accounts in today’s New York Times and the USDA’s enforcement announcement, OCIA used employees of a Chinese government agency to inspect state-controlled farms and food processing facilities.

Oops.  This is sending the fox out to guard the chickens (organic, hopefully).  The Chinese government has a vested interest in selling certified organic foods and can only be expected to be lenient in enforcing rules for organic production.

Honest, reliable, consistent inspection is the cornerstone of consumer trust in organics.  If producers aren’t following the rules to the letter (and, we wish, the spirit), why would anyone be willing to pay higher prices for organics?  Since it’s impossible to prove that organics are more nutritious than conventional foods, the entire system rests on trust.  And the value of trust rests with the inspectors.

Advocates of organics have been worried for ages about the credibility of organic foods from China and whether cheap organics produced according to high standards.  Now we know, and the answer is not pretty.  With respect to OCIA’s arrangement with Chinese government inspector, the New York Times explains:

The department objected to the arrangement after a 2007 audit, saying the partnership violated a rule barring certifiers from reviewing operations in which they held a commercial interest.  The department moved to revoke the association’s accreditation and the group filed an appeal. The department’s disciplinary process is conducted in secret, and negotiations often drag on. In O.C.I.A.’s case, it took nearly three years to resolve.

This cozy arrangement has been going on for at least the last three years?

It’s good that USDA is taking this on now.

But USDA really needs to take a hard look at conflicts of interest in organic certification, domestic as well as foreign.  Some USDA-authorized certifying agencies are much more lenient than others.  Witness: certification of fish and pet food as organic, despite the lack of final rules for such certification.  Some certifying agencies manage to find ways to do this; others refuse.

The organic industry ought to be pushing USDA as hard as it can to establish and enforce the highest possible standards for organic certification.  I’m looking forward to reading what the Organic Trade Association—and OCIA—have to say about all this.

May 29 2010

USDA’s latest collection of relevant reports

The USDA does terrific research on many useful topics.  Here is a sample of some just in.

STATE FACT SHEETS:  data on population, per-capita income, earnings per job, poverty rates, employment, unemployment, farm characteristics, farm financial characteristics, top agricultural and export commodities.

WIC PROGRAM: research, publications, and data related to WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). WIC served 9.1 million participants per month at a cost of $6.5 billion in 2009.

FEED GRAINS DATABASE: statistics on domestic corn, grain sorghum, barley, and oats; foreign grains plus rye, millet, and mixed grains. You can also get historical information through custom queries.

LIVESTOCK, DAIRY, AND POULTRY OUTLOOK:  current and forecast production, price, and trade statistics.

AGRICULTURAL OUTLOOK STATISTICAL INDICATORS: commodity and food prices, general economic indicators, government program expenditures, farm income estimates, and trade and export statistics.

ASPARAGUS STATISTICS: acreage, yield, production, price, crop value, and per capita use; also world area, production, and trade.

FOODBORNE ILLNESS COST CALCULATOR:   the cost of illness from specific foodborne pathogens, depending on the  annual number of cases, distribution of cases by severity,  use or costs of medical care, amount or value of time lost from work,  costs of premature death, and disutility costs for nonfatal cases.

ORGANIC FARMERS: explains why use of organic practices in U.S. lags behind other countries, differences and similarities between organic and conventional farmers, reduced consumer demand resulting from the weaker U.S. economy,  and potential competition from the “locally grown” label.

LOCAL FOOD SYSTEMS: defines local food,  market size and reach,  characteristics of local consumers and producers, and  economic and health impacts.  Addresses whether localization reduces energy use or greenhouse gas emissions (inconclusive).

BIOFUELS: Reaches 88 million gallons in 2010 as a result of one plant becoming commercially operational in 2010, using fat to produce diesel. Challenges include reducing high costs and overcoming the constraints of ethanol’s current 10-percent blending limit with gasoline.

Thanks to USDA for producing data that policy wonks like me just love to cite.

May 7 2010

Presidential panel says: choose organics!

Thanks to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times (“New alarm bells about chemicals and cancer“) for telling readers about a report on chemicals and cancer just released by the President’s Cancer Panel.

I had never heard of this panel – appointed during the Bush Administration, no less – and went right to its 2008-2009 annual report.

The Panel says that the “risk of environmentally induced cancer has been grossly underestimated,” that “nearly 80,000 chemicals [are] on the market in the United States, many of which are…un- or understudied and largely unregulated,” and that “the public remains unaware…that children are far more vulnerable to environmental toxins and radiation than adults.”

evidence suggests that some environmental agents may initiate or promote cancer by disrupting normal immune and endocrine system functions. The burgeoning number and complexity of known or suspected environmental carcinogens compel us to act to protect public health, even though we may lack irrefutable proof of harm.

I’m guessing this report will cause a furor.  Why?  “Lack irrefutable proof” means that the science isn’t there.  In this situation, the Panel advises precaution.  Check out these examples selected from the recommendations:

  • Parents and child care providers should choose foods, house and garden products, play spaces, toys, medicines, and medical tests that will minimize children’s exposure to toxics.  Ideally, both mothers and fathers should avoid exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
  • It is preferable to use filtered tap water instead of commercially bottled water.
  • Exposure to pesticides can be decreased by choosing…food grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers [translation: organics] and washing conventionally grown produce to remove residues.
  • Exposure to antibiotics, growth hormones, and toxic run-off from livestock feed lots can be minimized by eating free-range meat [translation: don’t eat feedlot meat].

Expect to hear an uproar from the industries that might be affected by this report.  The American Cancer Society (ACS) doesn’t like it either, since the report implies that the ACS hasn’t been doing enough to educate the public about this issue.  The ACS said:

Elements of this report are entirely consistent with the recently published “American Cancer Society Perspective on Environmental Factors and Cancer”…Unfortunately, the perspective of the report is unbalanced by its implication that pollution is the major cause of cancer, and by its dismissal of cancer prevention efforts aimed at the major known causes of cancer (tobacco, obesity, alcohol, infections, hormones, sunlight) as “focussed narrowly”…it would be unfortunate if the effect of this report were to trivialize the importance of other modifiable risk factors that, at present, offer the greatest opportunity in preventing cancer.

ACS says the Panel does not back up its recommendations with enough research [but see May 14th note below].  Maybe, but why isn’t ACS pushing for more and better research on these chemicals?   However small the risks – and we hardly know anything about them – these chemicals are unlikely to be good for human health.   Doesn’t precaution make sense?  I think so.

Addition, May 7: Here’s Denise Grady’s take on the report from the New York Times: “Cancer society criticizes federal panel as overstating risks.”

Addition, May 14: I received a note from Michael Thun,  retired Vice President for Edemiology & Survey Research of the American Cancer Society requesting a clarification of my statement.  He says:

I hope that you can correct your report to say that ACS actually is pushing for more and better research, and has never discouraged people who choose to eat organic food from doing this. The only thing we object to is unsupported claims that the effect of current level of pollution on cancer has been “grossly underestimated”.

In 1996, I chaired an ACS committee writing dietary guidelines for cancer prevention and worked with Dr. Thun on our report.  I’d take his word for this.

National Home Office | American Cancer Society, Inc.

 







May 5 2010

Oops. Weeds are developing resistance to Roundup

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article disclosing the rise and spread across the United States of “superweeds” that have developed resistant to the herbicide Roundup.  The article comes with a nifty interactive timeline map charting the spread of Roundup resistance into at least 10 species of weeds in 22 states.  Uh oh.

Roundup is Monsanto’s clever way to encourage use of genetically modified (GM) crops.  The company bioengineers the crops to resist Roundup.  Farmers can dump Roundup on the soil or plants.  In theory, only the GM crops will survive and farmers won’t have to use a lot of more toxic herbicides.  In practice, this won’t work if weeds develop Roundup resistance and flourish too.   Then farmers have to go back to conventional herbicides to kill the Roundup-resistant weeds.

In 1996, Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote “The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops” (based on a report they wrote in 1993).  In it, they predicted that widespread planting of GM crops would produce selection pressures for Roundup-resistant weeds.  These would be difficult and expensive to control.

At the time, and until very recently, Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, dismissed this idea as “hypothetical.”

I know this because in the mid-1990s, I traveled to Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis to talk to company scientists and officials about the need for transparent labeling of GM foods.  Officials told me that Roundup had been used on plants for 70 years with only minimal signs of resistance, and it was absurd to think that resistance would become a problem.  I pointed out that Roundup resistance is a “point” mutation, one that requires minimal changes in the genetic makeup of a weed.

As I explained later in my book, Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (the new edition arrives June 1):

From a biochemical standpoint, resistance to Roundup is not difficult to achieve.  Its active chemical, glyphosate, inhibits the action of an enzyme that makes three amino acids needed to construct plant proteins.  Plants cannot make the protein when the enzyme is blocked.  Bacteria, however, are well known to produce a mutant varient of this enzyme that is completely unaffected by glyphosate; they do so through “point” mutations (mutations that alter just one amino acid) or mutations that that cause the enzyme to be produced in such large amounts that glyphosate becomes ineffective.  Such mutations could occur in plants as well as in bacteria.  The transfer of Roundup resistance to weeks through pollination also is probable, and has already occurred.  The idea of widespread resistance to Roundup is not improbable, and it alarms the industry as well as environmentalists.  [Pages 183-184]

The Times article makes it sound like Roundup resistance is the end of the world.  It’s bad news for GM crops, but sure seems like another good reason why we need more acres planted in sustainable, organic agriculture.

Apr 30 2010

Food politics: our government at work (and play)

I’ve been collecting items sent to me this week about government actions at the local, state, and national level.  Here’s the weekend round up.

Santa Clara County, California, Board of Supervisors bans toys in kids meals: On April 27, the San Jose Mercury News announced that this county, clearly at the vanguard of actions to help prevent childhood obesity, passed a groundbreaking law banning toys in kids’ meals that do not meet minimal nutrition standards (the very ones I talked about in a previous post).  Companies can still give out toys in meals, as long as the meals meet those standards.  What an excellent idea.  Let’s hope this idea catches on in other communities.

Here’s the press release, a a fact sheet on childhood obesity, and remarks by the president of the board of supervisors, along with recommendations from the local public health agency.  Thanks to Michele Simon for the documents.

Connecticut state legislature plays computer games: This photo, attributed to the Associated Press, arrived from Michelle Futrell.  I worried that it might be Photoshopped.  Whether it is or not, it is flying around the Internet, in versions that clearly identify each of hard-at-play legislators.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) teaches kids about marketing: The FTC regulates advertising, including food advertising, and it must be getting increasingly concerned about the effects of marketing on kids.  To counter some of these effects, it has created a website, Admongo.gov, an interactive site to teach kids about advertising.  After playing these games, the FTC wants kids to be able to answer these questions:

  • Who is responsible for the ad?
  • What is the ad actually saying?
  • What does the ad want me to do?

The New York Times concludes: “Perhaps the effort comes not a moment too soon. Adweek devotes this week’s issue to “Kids” and “How the industry is striving to conquer this coveted market.” Thanks to Lisa Young for sending the links.

The FDA asks for comments on front-of-package (FOP) labeling: Patricia Kuntze, a consumer affairs advisor at the FDA sends the April 28 press release and the April 29 Federal Register notice announcing the FDA’s call for public comment on this topic.  The agency particularly wants data on:

  • The extent to which consumers notice, use, and understand FOP nutrition symbols or shelf tags
  • Results of research examining the effectiveness of various FOP approaches
  • Graphic design, marketing, and advertising that will help consumers understand nutrition information
  • The extent to which FOP labeling influences food manufacturers’ decisions about the contents of their products

The goal, says the FDA, is to make “calorie and nutrition information available to consumers in ways that will help them choose foods for more healthful diets – an effort that has taken on special importance, given the prevalence of obesity and diet-related diseases in the U.S. and of increasingly busy lifestyles that demand quick, nutritious food.”

Here is a speech on the topic by FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.  For information about how to submit comments, click here. To submit comments, refer to docket FDA-2010-N-0210 and click here. You have until July 28 to do it.

Public comment, of course, includes the food industry and a FoodNavigator call for industry comment cites my recent commentary in JAMA with David Ludwig.  I’m glad food industry people are reading it and I hope the FDA does too.

The White House equivocates on organics: What’s going on with the White House garden?  Is it organic or not?   Michael Pollan forwards this item from the Associated Press:

Assistant White House Chef Sam Kass, an old friend of President Barack Obama’s who oversees the garden, says labeling the crops “organic” isn’t the point, even though the White House only uses natural, not synthetic, fertilizers and pesticides.

“To come out and say (organic) is the one and only way, which is how this would be interpreted, doesn’t make any sense,” Kass said Monday as he walked among the garden’s newly planted broccoli, rhubarb, carrots and spinach. “This is not about getting into all that. This is about kids.”

Uh oh.  Has “Organic” become the new O-word?  Surely, the White House is not secretly pouring herbicides and pesticides over its garden vegetables.  If not, are we hearing a small indication of big agribusiness pushback?

Apr 2 2010

The latest on organic production

For all the complaints about organics, production and sales are booming.  USDA economists in the Economic Research Service (ERS) keep track of such things and have just produced tables that display the growth in organic production from 1992 to 2008.  Organic crop and pasture lands still comprise less than 1% of the total in the U.S., but this will surely increase.

USDA/ERS compiles all of its information on organics in a briefing room that links to recommended readings and handy maps and images.

I think it’s interesting that the ERS sites do not link to the National Organic Program (NOP) itself.  This is, no doubt, because the NOP  is housed in a different part of USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Service.  Whether any of that makes sense is something one hopes will be considered in the next Farm Bill.

And here’s a link to the European Union’s organic site.  The EU ran a competition to create a new organic logo, and this one is the winner.

Mar 20 2010

Auditors find flaws in USDA’s oversight of organic standards

The USDA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report last week criticizing the agency’s oversight of the National Organic Program (NOP). The OIG said the USDA had followed some of the recommendations in its previous report (in 2005), but by no means all.

This report is a sharp critique of the last administration’s ambiguous enforcement of organic standards.  This new administration recruited Kathleen Merrigan to get the program back in shape and the agency says it is totally committed to doing so.

But the administrator of the program responded to the OIG audit with this comment: “The integrity of the organic label depends largely upon effective enforcement and oversight of the many accredited certifying agents responsible for reviewing organic operations.”

Largely?  I would say entirely.

USDA is an uncomfortable home for organics because its main goal is to support industrial agriculture.  For years, the NOP home page carried a statement that organic foods were not better than industrial foods.  I am happy to see that the statement is no longer there, but I’m guessing some old attitudes still remain.

USDA delegates organic oversight to certified inspection agencies.  These vary in diligence.  I constantly hear suspicions of fraud in the organic enterprise.  USDA needs to do everything it can to put those suspicions to rest.

Otherwise, why pay more for organic foods?

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