October 30, 2009

Scientists: Bluefin Tuna Now Endangered
Things have gone from bad to worse for the bluefin tuna. And now scientists from the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT), the industry group charged with "managing" the bluefin tuna population say only a global fishing ban can save it:
ICCAT scientists estimated that the Atlantic bluefin tuna's spawning biomass is less than 15 percent of its original stock before industrial fishing. The decline is steep enough for the tuna to fall under Appendix 1 of Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). The scientists also stated that a total suspension of fishing is the only way for the species to no longer meet Appendix 1 of CITES in ten years time.
Of course, the ICCAT has a long history of ignoring its scientists. It was less than a year ago that marine biologist and tuna fishery expert Carl Safina scolded the ICCAT for once again setting quotas above sustainable levels:
What's really needed is a moratorium for bluefin, and I first said that in 1991. That's the bluefin situation. I must say that based on their whole history I would have been astounded if I.C.C.A.T. had set an eastern quota that complied with the science. I'm ashamed of what they do, but no longer surprised.
With ICCAT's own scientists calling for a total ban, it will be interesting to see if the ICCAT finally acknowleges reality. Either way, for those of you still eating Atlantic bluefin tuna should be aware that you're eating an endangered species.

Photo by adulau used under a CC license

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October 29, 2009

The Market Speaks But Collin Peterson Isn't Listening
Speaking of techno-fixes, I wonder how things are going on the next-generation, cellulosic ethanol front. According to the Des Moines Register, not well:

The Obama administration has issued just two conditional commitments for such guarantees, one for $80 million and another for $25 million.

"Very few credit providers even with loan guarantees are willing to take much risk at all," Dallas Tonsager, the Agriculture Department's under secretary for rural development, told the House Agriculture Committee.

Plants that would make fuel from crop residue and other sources of plant cellulose will cost far more to build than conventional corn ethanol plants. The capital costs on a traditional ethanol plant run about $2 to $2.50 per gallon of production capacity, while cellulosic facilities will cost "several multiples of that. You're taking larger risk on larger projects," said Tonsager.

The chairman of the committee, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said that criticism of corn ethanol and its impact on food supplies and greenhouse gas emissions is discouraging investment in next-generation fuels.

"It's no damn wonder that nobody's investing," Peterson said. "I wouldn't put money in with all this that's going on."

Wait, what? Cellulosic ethanol is so lame that even Collin Peterson wouldn't invest in it? Oh, the irony! Actually, I think he was really just cursing those meddling kids for ruining a good time.

Looks, here's how it works, Collin, my boy. Capital flows along the path of quickest profits for the lowest risk. Having stuck with a ten year time horizon for bringing cellulosic ethanol to market -- for the last twenty years, mind you -- the industry has done a pretty good job of scaring away potential investors. It might be different if anyone had actually managed to produce cellulosic ethanol on any scale. But, no. Nothing yet. Check back in five years!

I wonder if now would be the time to point out that hitching farmers' wagons to ethanol may have worked for a while but really wasn't such a good idea for the long term. In the event that ethanol really starts to founder (not that I'm holding my breath, of course), we can turn our attention to helping farmers truly adapt to climate change and even, dare I say it, reforming ag subsidies?

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October 27, 2009

NYC's Calorie Labeling Law DOES Work. Really.

Having posted on a study that showed NYC's fast-food calorie labeling law didn't have much effect on low-income consumers, I feel obligated to report on a new study by the NYC Department of Health that in fact showed a modest effect on consumer behavior in the broader population (via the LA Times):
The mean number of calories purchased per customer decreased at nine of 13 fast-food or coffee chains, according to a study presented today by researchers from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

...The study found that the decreases were statistically significant at four of the chains: McDonald's, KFC, Au Bon Pain and Starbucks. People purchased more at four other chains, but the study's authors said there was only one chain -- Subway -- where the increase was statistically significant.

Paying attention seems to be the biggest factor in whether people choose less caloric offerings. Customers who said they saw and acted on posted calorie information purchased 106 fewer calories than those who did not notice or did not use the information.

The city agency surveyed more than 10,000 customers at 275 locations of 13 different fast-food and coffee chains throughout the city in the spring of 2007 and over 12,000 in 2009, nearly a year after the requirements began.

The Subway outlier was likely a result of a "recession-inspired" marketing promotion that cut prices on larger sandwiches -- though I do wonder if these larger Subway sandwiches are always eaten all at once. Unlike just about every other fast-food product which really tastes lousy leftover, half a deli sandwich can be saved for later. But I digress.

The point is that calorie labeling did get the median numbers down by 100 calories -- which is a bit of a magic number for nutritionists. And calorie labeling may be forcing some chains to reformulate their offerings somewhat. So, no magic bullet for sure, but not something to be abandoned either.

Photo by Ken Yourdon used under a CC license

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October 26, 2009

Global Warming Passes Blind Taste Test
Via Earth to Philly, I learned that global warming took the Pepsi Challenge a "blind taste test." And it passed!
In a blind test, the AP gave temperature data to four independent statisticians and asked them to look for trends, without telling them what the numbers represented. The experts found no true temperature declines over time.

...The AP sent expert statisticians NOAA's year-to-year ground temperature changes over 130 years and the 30 years of satellite-measured temperatures preferred by skeptics and gathered by scientists at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Statisticians who analyzed the data found a distinct decades-long upward trend in the numbers, but could not find a significant drop in the past 10 years in either data set. The ups and downs during the last decade repeat random variability in data as far back as 1880.

Saying there's a downward trend since 1998 is not scientifically legitimate, said David Peterson, a retired Duke University statistics professor and one of those analyzing the numbers.

...[One of the statisticians] produced three charts to show how choosing a starting date can alter perceptions. Using the skeptics' satellite data beginning in 1998, there is a "mild downward trend," he said. But doing that is "deceptive."

The trend disappears if the analysis starts in 1997. And it trends upward if you begin in 1999, he said.

Note that the current "cooling trend" is entirely consistent with normal variation. In other words, the weather can be unpredictable in the short term, but the climate is showing a clear warming trend.

Fudging the numbers -- a favorite past-time deniers of all stripes... Still, it's always nice to see reality pass a reality-check.

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McDonald's to Iceland: Drop Dead!
You know things are bad in your country when:
Iceland's McDonald's Corp. restaurants will be closed at the end of the month after the collapse of the krona eroded profits at the fast-food chain, McDonald's franchise holder Lyst ehf said.

McDonald's in Iceland, which imports most of the ingredients it uses in its meals, will shut after costs doubled over the past year, Lyst said in an e-mailed statement today. The franchise holder said it doesn't expect the situation to change in the short term.

"We would have to raise our prices by 20 percent to get the margin needed on our products," Magnus Ogmundsson, Lyst chief executive officer, said in a phone interview. "That would have sent a Big Mac to 780 kronur" ($6.36), compared with the 650 kronur it costs today, he said.

Ah, well. But the really interesting bit is referenced above and repeated below by Ogmundsson to Bloomberg's Valdimarsson (okay, I'm just quoting him so I get to type those names...):

"Our competitors all use domestic meat and lettuce and so on, while we are flying in these materials, which is extremely expensive," Ogmundsson said.

Apparently, locally sourcing their meat and vegetables isn't an option -- instead they'll just close their doors. The obvious thing to say is that Icelandic meat is literally too good for McDonald's. They needed to fly in the cheap stuff from abroad -- and with currencies markets against them, the economics went to hell. That's a surprisingly fragile and inflexible supply chain. Granted Iceland is an extreme example, but it's still fascinating that McDonald's couldn't adapt.

h/t Free Exchange

Photo by Phil Dragash used under a CC license

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October 23, 2009

Slow-walking Food Safety Reform
For those imagining that the recent food safety scares might have lit a fire under the Senate to get going a fix our broken food safety system, yesterday's Senate HELP Committee hearing will set you straight. You can see for yourself, but the WSJ spells it out for us: FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg all but begged the committee to strengthen the Senate version of the food safety bill:

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that the agency wants the Senate bill to look more like legislation the House approved July. She noted that the House bill would give the FDA easy access to food-production records during routine inspections and would help fund the agency by charging food companies registration fees of $500 a year per facility.

"It is the case that our mandate and responsibilities have far outstripped our resources," Dr. Hamburg said. "We are concerned that the [Senate] bill does not provide a guaranteed consistent funding source to help FDA fulfill its new responsibilities."

The rest of the hearing involved the usual suspects, consumer advocate Caroline Smith DeWaal from the Center of Science in the Public Interest (and still in the running apparently for the top USDA food safety job -- I wonder if that fact affected her testimony? Hmmm...), two industry reps who are frequent testifiers on food safety and a state food safety commissioner.

Nothing of any interest happened here, though Committee Chairman Tom Harkin did suggest he may manage to get the bill out of committee before the end of the year -- whether it will be strengthened or weakened was left unsaid.

Of course, the 900 lb gorilla steer in the hearing room was the fact that neither the food safety bill under consideration in the Senate nor the one already passed by the House will deal in any meaningful way with meat. Beef may be "what's for dinner"®, but it's not on the legislative table.

It's true that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced a "supplement" to the food safety bill that would mandate ground beef testing, increase testing of imports and improve meat-related recalls. Still, even that modest reform proposal would have to make it through the Senate Agriculture Committee. And Ag Chair Sen. Blanche Lincoln isn't going to allow real reform to escape her committee alive. Nor will her counterpart in the House, Rep. Collin Peterson cooperate, by the way -- which is why there's no serious effort in that chamber and why most of the meat-related provisions were stripped out of the House-passed food safety bill in the first place. No one wanted to let Peterson get his hands on the bill. It's possible that one or another bit of reform will sneak into unrelated bills -- but wholesale fixes to our system of processing meat? Sorry. No can do.

The FDA-oriented version of the food safety bill which was the subject of yesterday's hearing will likely pass in some form -- and that would be an improvement, especially considering it would be the first overhaul of our food safety laws since the Great Depression.

But the failure of real reform to our livestock practices (not to mention the leadership vacuum at the USDA) will increase the likelihood that the meat industry gets to move forward with its own holy grail of food safety -- irradiation. There are a few kinks to work out, of course, like the changes to color, smell and taste of irradiated meat. But I'm sure they'll come up with some neat injections or chemical bath to fix that, too. And irradiated meat will "safely" stay on store shelves for weeks! Ain't technology grand?

Did I mention that irradiating industrially-produced meat will be a lot cheaper than actually keeping pathogens out in the first place? It must have slipped my mind. As a result, it's hard not to wonder if this slow-walking of reform is intentional. I'm sure it's probably maybe I hope not. Sigh.

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October 22, 2009

MSNNBC's Morning Meeting
Here I was on MSNBC's Morning Meeting talking about Michelle Obama and Big Food:

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October 21, 2009

Red Light: Stop, Green Light: Eat

Reports are flowing in that, in response to Big Food's attempt to make Froot Loops a "Smart Choice," the FDA is fast-tracking its own efforts to set groundrules for front-of-packaging nutrition labels. This in itself is a big deal. Avoiding FDA entanglements was the entire point of large food companies coalescing around the "Smart Choices" label. The problem for them is that any real nutrition label might actually depress sales on some products. That is not an option, and so we are given, in Lake Wobegon style ("where all children are above average"), a "healthy" label for which just about every product, no matter how sweet or salty, could qualify.

If you're a Big Food exec, this is bad enough. But, according to the NYT, things just got much worse. Buried in their article on the FDA announcement is this nugget:

Speaking in a telephone call with reporters, Dr. Hamburg said that she expected package-front labels would be required to include information on saturated fat, salt, added sugar and calories.

Dr. Hamburg repeatedly mentioned a package-front labeling program in Britain that uses red, yellow or green dots -- like traffic signals -- to indicate the relative amounts of important ingredients.

She said that could provide a model for the F.D.A. as it sought to find the best way to provide information to American consumers.

Uh oh. The industry-despised "traffic signals" label. The UK's version looks like this:

There are two problems with them from the industry's perspective. The first, of course, is that there will be red lights!! The supermarket will suddenly be filled with product after product covered in nasty little red dots that the government essentially says you shouldn't buy (except once in a while). Sales of products heavy in saturated fat, salt and added sugar will likely, dare I say it, fall.

The second problem is that, according to a study from Australia, where the system is also in place, traffic signal labels are really really effective...


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October 20, 2009

Global Cooling Got You Down? I Have Just the Charts For You

Climate denialism is once again making headlines with the release of a followup book by Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. They even inscribe "Global Cooling" into the sequel's subtitle. No beating around the bush for those two wacky contrarians.

The global cooling myth has unfortunately gotten new energy from the weather over the past couple of years -- it's been so cool, global warming must be a hoax! But I have two charts from Skeptical Science (an anti-denier site) that put things into perspective. The first is similar to a chart on long-term temperature trends that's often used to dispel the cooling myth. But this one uses moving averages (just like stock market and unemployment charts) which are useful for smoothing out short-term variations. It's mostly government data and pretty hard to ignore.

Globally-averaged annual mean temperature anomalies in degrees Celsius, together with 11-year unweighted moving averages (solid lines). Blue circles from the Hadley Centre (British). Red diamonds from NASA GISS. Green squares from NOAA NCDC. NASA GISS and NOAA NCDC are offset in vertical direction by increments of 0.5°C for visual clarity.

Think about it this way: if that was a stock chart and you bought in 1910 and sold in 2008, you'd be rich! When the market shows us trends like that we cheer (or freak out if it's unemployment). Yet because it's temperatures, we're supposed to ignore all the increase as so much random "noise."

But for me, the companion chart is far more compelling. It turns out that land and atmospheric warming is only one itty bitty part of global warming -- which explains why it's so easy to miss the big picture. The ocean sucks up the vast majority of the heat that all our carbon is trapping -- and it's a lot of heat. The following chart demonstrates this phenomenon in spades. And note that this is purely observational data -- it's simply looking at heat levels in the ocean over the last 50 years and does not involve climate models or carbon levels.

Total Earth Heat Content from 1950 (Murphy 2009). Ocean data taken from Domingues et al 2008. Land + Atmosphere includes the heat absorbed to melt ice.

As Skeptical Science put it:
[R]elatively small exchanges of heat between the atmosphere and ocean can cause significant changes in surface temperature... This internal variation where heat is shuffled around our climate is the reason why surface temperature is such a noisy signal.
And keep in mind the fact that if the ocean starts pumping out its heat at a higher rate (as it does during El Nino years), watch out. Things will heat up in a hurry.

Photo by milan.boers used under a CC license

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Goodbye, Smart Choices?
Is the FDA about to crack down on the sugary, misleading industry-funded Smart Choices label? It sure looks that way (via the AP):
Federal health officials say nutritional logos from food manufacturers may be misleading consumers about the actual health benefits of cereal, crackers and other processed foods.

The Food and Drug Administration issued a letter to companies that says the agency will begin cracking down on inaccurate food labeling.

U.S. manufacturers, including Kraft Foods and General Mills, rolled out their so-called Smart Choices program last year, amid growing concern about obesity rates. The green labels appear on the front of boxed foods that meet certain standards for calories per serving and number of servings.

But consumer advocates complain about lax standards for the program, with logos appearing on everything from frozen sweets to sugary cereals.

Stay tuned...

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October 14, 2009

Zero by 2050

There is much speculation as to why GOP Sen. Lindsay Graham has come out in full-throated support of the Senate climate change bill. Perhaps it's simply that he had what the Nation's Mark Herstgaard called (in a post for Grist, mind you) his "Oh, shit" moment. You know the one:
an instant when the full scientific implications become clear and [you] suddenly realize what a horrifically dangerous situation humanity has created for itself.
I had mine last year sometime from reading too much Joe Romm late at night. But a new report from climate scientists should do it for just about everyone else. Forget everything you think you know about addressing climate change. It's accelerating faster than anyone predicted and the changes are of greater intensity and variety.

According to Germany's chief climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber and his advisory council known as the WGBU, if we want to keep warming down to levels that can support human life, the US and must go carbon free by 2020, other industrialized nations must follow five to ten years later and China by 2035. By 2050 the world's net emissions must be zero.

Can I hear an "Oh, shit!"

The "good" news is that Schellnhuber endorsed some amount of emissions trading between the developed and developing world, so that the deadlines are somewhat fuzzy. But the hard line in the sand has been drawn. Zero by 2050.

And even that is just to give us favorable odds of success. As Hertzgaard says:
In fact, even the "brutal" timeline of the WBGU study, Schellnhuber cautioned, would not guarantee staying within the 2 C target. It would merely give humanity a two out of three chance of doing so--"worse odds than Russian roulette," he wryly noted. "But it is the best we can do." To have a three out of four chance, countries would have to quit carbon even sooner. Likewise, we could wait another decade or so to halt all greenhouse emissions, but this lowers the odds of hitting the 2 C target to fifty-fifty. "What kind of precautionary principle is that?" Schellnhuber asked.
I don't imagine we Americans are really up to the task. The spirit may be willing, yet the body politic is weak. But, hey, we do love to gamble, don't we? It's sort of the national past-time. And this time we're playing for the only marble that matters...

Photo by Broken Haiku used under a CC license

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October 13, 2009

Vilsack Thinks Weavers Way is Awesome
How do I know this? Well, Ag Sec Vilsack spoke today at the annual Community Food Security Conference in Des Moines, IA. The WHO Farm attended and twittered the following:
Vilsack: a Philly grocer helped local schoolkids grow tomatoes in school garden, then sold them @ grocery store. Economic stimulus!
I confirmed with the WHO Farm that Vilsack was indeed talking about Weavers Way school garden project with Martin Luther King Jr High School. As soon as I have exact quotes, I'll post them -- and I'd point out to Vilsack that the MLK garden project is very much in the present tense

Of course, I've been happily buying the fruits of their collective labor for a while -- but its nice to see the co-op's urban farming/school garden efforts getting attention from the nation's agriculture chief.

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October 9, 2009

Big Pork Loves Its... Pork
I was leafing through Pork Magazine the other day and came across this:

Members of the U.S. Congress have urged the USDA to lend assistance to the nation's pork producers to help them out of a two-year economic crisis, according to the National Pork Producers Council.

In separate letters sent to Tom Vilsack, USDA Secretary, 24 senators and 63 representatives have asked that USDA take the following actions to provide "much-needed emergency relief" to the U.S. pork industry:

- Purchase $100 million of pork with funds from the Section 32 program, which uses customs receipts to buy non-price-supported commodities for federal food-assistance programs.

- Collaborate with other federal agencies to help address swine disease surveillance on farms, related diagnostic and vaccine development and swine industry support.

- Work with the U.S. Trade Representative to open export markets to U.S. pork, particularly China, which continues to impose non-science-based restrictions on U.S. pork since the outbreak of H1N1.

The congressional efforts, led by Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) in the Senate and by Tim Walz (D-Minn.) and Steve King (R-Iowa) in the House, were made to help pork producers survive losses averaging $22.50 per hog since September 2007.

Nothing like Big Ag to show that bipartisanship (well, a certain breed of it anyway) is alive and well. The pork industry bailout has of course been going on for some time. Vilsack happily touts USDA purchases of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of pork for food banks and the school lunch program. And with all of it going to people in need, who's to argue?

Anyway, these purchases are, for lack of a better term, only one, um, chop, in a much larger loin. Another bailout happens behind the scenes -- but this one makes the overall problem worse. Food Democracy Now recently put out an email action (and a petition) alerting people as to where their tax dollars are going:

The drop in export markets of both pork and poultry is the result of years of irresponsible overproduction brought on by unfair government subsidies and loan programs that have created an unfair competitive advantage for family farmers.

Now that the good times have finally ended, the factory farm industry is receiving further handouts from the government after corporations have consolidated the market and driven family hog and chicken farmers permanently off the land.

In 2008 and 2009 alone, the USDA Farm Service Agency (FSA) handed out over $265 million of hard-earned taxpayer money to factory chicken and hog farmers in loan guarantees to build new factory farms that compete against family farmers who are raising their animals the right way.

FDN goes on to observe that in the past the FSA has refused to offer these kinds of loan guarantees in times of over-production. But not so anymore. What this means is that over the last year or so, factory farms have expanded or started up -- even as the industry screams about cliff-diving sales. There's a solution for this kind of thing -- and it's being discussed for dairy, though not for pork (or poultry) at the moment. It's called Supply Management.

Canada uses it for milk, poultry and egg production to keep prices steady and supplies lined up with demand. While the "free" market is supposed to magically keep supply and demand in sync, in agriculture it tends to lead to classic, and extreme, boom/bust cycles. Interestingly, despite all the "restrictions" to the Invisible Hand up North, you don't hear about Canadian farmers screaming for a bailout (or pouring milk down the drains, for that matter). The downside of Supply Management is that it tends to kill the sector's export business since production targets are set based on domestic needs. That doesn't matter to farmers, but it matters to behemoths like Smithfield and Tyson -- exports are a major part of their business. But let's keep in mind that their corporate interests have nothing to do with farmers' interests at this point. But we do remember who calls the shots in all this, don't we? So, since we live in Smithfield's world, taxpayer bailouts it is. Hey, it works for them! And that, apparently, is all that matters.

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Big Ag's Odd Obsession with You-Know-Who
I really really really didn't want to write another post on Michael Pollan. Don't get me wrong -- I'm a big fan. It's just that reducing the whole of the food movement to Pollan's work naturally ignores so much else that's going on. But don't blame me for this post. Blame Big Ag. These guys just can't leave him alone -- it's verging on an unhealthy obsession. They seem to think that if they can just share a stage with him wherever he pops up, they'll show him (and the audience) how wrong he really is. It's happening all over the country.

First came the brouhaha over Ominvore's Dilemma at Washington State University. Then it happened again at the Univesity of Wisconsin at Madison. In that case, the very presence of Pollan was enough to bring out hundreds of protesting farmers. Now we get word that an industrial livestock producer threatened to withdraw a $500,000 donation to Cal Poly until Pollan's speech to students was transformed into a panel discussion so Big Ag interests could respond.

Big Ag has clearly decided that Pollan is a latter-day Lenin (or perhaps Trotsky?) leading a cadre of food revolutionaries who threaten to overthrow its hard-fought hegemony -- rebut his arguments and perhaps the whole movement will collapse like a bad soufflé. All in reaction to a relatively unassuming guy who's written some articles and a few books. Isn't this all, like, a bit much?


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October 7, 2009

The Superweeds are Winning and Monsanto Blames Farmers
Tom Philpott has been tracking the rise of so-called "superweeds" -- i.e. herbicide-resistant weeds -- for a while now. He's talked about the chemical treadmill -- "the situation wherein weeds and other pests develop resistance to poisons, demanding ever higher doses of old poisons and constant development of novel ones."

Due in part to its reliance on genetically modified crops that are designed to be doused with Monsanto's Roundup herbicide, the South has to date faced the worst of this problem. And the struggle against these new superweeds, in particular against a new resistant form of pig weed, got the attention of ABC's World News Tonight recently. It's a struggle, by the way, that cotton farmers down there are losing:

Across the South, there's a weed that man can no longer kill. It's called the pig weed, and for decades farmers controlled it by spraying their fields with herbicides.

"I've never seen anything that had this major an impact on our agriculture in a short period of time," said Ken Smith, a weed scientist at the University of Arkansas.

This past summer, Pace Hindsely of Coffee Creek Farms and other farmers started noticing the chemicals they routinely used were no longer working.

"The last three years it's really just exploded. There is no rhyme or reason as to how we can control it," Hindsely said. "I am worried about the future or what these fields will look like next year and the year after if we don't control this weed."

The weeds have adapted, and this year they're choking more than a million acres of cotton and soybeans.

And, really for the first time, it appears that nothing in industrial ag's chemical arsenal can stop them. Most striking, however, was the reaction by Monsanto to this rapidly spreading failure of its cash cow combo Roundup Ready seed and Roundup herbicide: It's all the farmers fault!!


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Can the USDA really keep our food safe?

Having read and listened to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's attempts at ground beef-related damage control in the wake of the recent food safety revelations, I'm left to wonder if the USDA simply needs to get out of the food safety business entirely.

Vilsack himself -- in a Minnesota NPR radio interview where he defended the USDA's dual role as a marketing service and a food safety regulator, its recent shift towards more aggressive testing, and its ability to inspect foreign meat importers -- all but admitted that the USDA has fundamentally failed in its mission. How so? The interviewer asked him one final question:

Q: Can you assure ... our listeners that ground beef is safe?

A: I can assure you that we are doing everything we possibly can to make sure that that product is safe through our testing, through our inspectors ... I will say also that there is still work to be done to continue to improve what we do and until we get the number of food-borne illnesses down to zero and the number of hospitalizations down to zero and the number of death down to zero, we'll still have work to do.

Please note that he did not say "Yes, I can."


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October 6, 2009

Ignoring the Label

The NYT reports on a study looking at the effectiveness of New York City's new fast-food calorie labeling law. Results: not good.

The study, by several professors at New York University and Yale, tracked customers at four fast-food chains -- McDonald's, Wendy's, Burger King and Kentucky Fried Chicken -- in poor neighborhoods of New York City where there are high rates of obesity.

It found that about half the customers noticed the calorie counts, which were prominently posted on menu boards. About 28 percent of those who noticed them said the information had influenced their ordering, and 9 out of 10 of those said they had made healthier choices as a result.

But when the researchers checked receipts afterward, they found that people had, in fact, ordered slightly more calories than the typical customer had before the labeling law went into effect, in July 2008.
Whoops. This study is important for all sorts of reasons. But it's most significant for the fact that it looked at labeling's effect on low income consumers -- exactly the demographic that is both most price-sensitive and most likely to live in so-called "food swamps," neighborhoods with many unhealthy food options and few healthy ones. Calorie-labeling no doubt has a role to play. But if you need to fill your stomach and price is the only issue, a label is all too easy to ignore.

The study adds momentum to the idea that addressing the obesity epidemic will require other interventions like taxes, subsidies, zoning and regulations on nutritional content. These may all seem draconian and "un-American," but it's appearing likely that they'll be more effective in forcing people to change their behavior -- and that's the name of the game.

Photo by {Guerrilla Futures | Jason Tester} used under a CC license

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October 5, 2009

Ag Sec Vilsack on the E. coli Crisis
In the wake of the devastating NYT piece on E. coli in ground beef, USDA Chief put out a statement this evening:
"The story we learned about over the weekend is unacceptable and tragic. We all know we can and should do more to protect the safety of the American people and the story in this weekend's paper will continue to spur our efforts to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7. Over the last eight months since President Obama took office, USDA has been aggressive in its efforts to improve food safety, and has been an active partner in establishing and contributing to President Obama's Food Safety Working Group.
Bah, humbug. What's your plan, Tom?
  • Launched an initiative to cut down E. Coli contamination (including in particular contamination from E. Coli O157:H7) and as part of that initiative, stepped-up meat facility inspections involving greater use of sampling to monitor the products going into ground beef.
  • Appointed a chief medical officer within USDA's Food Safety Inspection Service to reaffirm its role as a public health agency.
  • Issued draft guidelines for industry to further reduce the risk of O157 contamination.
  • Started testing additional components of ground beef, including bench trim, and issuing new instructions to our employees asking that they verify that plants follow sanitary practices in processing beef carcasses.
  • Designed the Public Health Information System (PHIS) in response to lessons learned in past outbreaks.

"USDA is also looking at ways to enhance traceback methods and will initiate a rulemaking in the near future to require all grinders, including establishments and retail stores, to keep accurate records of the sources of each lot of ground beef."

Double "Bah, humbug." As I said on Twitter just now, this is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic sort of stuff. As long as the industry is able to set the terms of its own regulations and do things like maintain bizarro "trade secrets" protections on key elements of our food safety system (not to mention base their business on corn rather than grass), real reform is impossible. Back to the drawing board, Tom.

h/t Bill Marler

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Warning: This product may cause sickness, paralysis, and death

It's hard to draw any other conclusion from Michael Moss's New York Times blockbuster investigative piece on E. coli in industrial beef, which is centered on the plight of Stephanie Smith, a young dance instructor left comatose, near death and now paralyzed from eating a single Cargill hamburger. Of course, a "single hamburger" can include meat from hundreds, some would say thousands, of animals. As Moss puts it:

Ground beef is usually not simply a chunk of meat run through a grinder. Instead, records and interviews show, a single portion of hamburger meat is often an amalgam of various grades of meat from different parts of cows and even from different slaughterhouses. These cuts of meat are particularly vulnerable to E. coli contamination, food experts and officials say. Despite this, there is no federal requirement for grinders to test their ingredients for the pathogen.

This is why a food safety expert who helped develop tracking systems for E. coli in meat can declare that, "Ground beef is not a completely safe product." No kidding. The problem, however, is not with E. coli in general. The problem is that the particular strain of E. coli which infected Smith -- known as E. coli O157:H7 -- is virulent, deadly, persistent and endemic in industrial beef. How virulent, deadly and persistent? This much:

Food scientists have registered increasing concern about the virulence of this pathogen since only a few stray cells can make someone sick, and they warn that federal guidance to cook meat thoroughly and to wash up afterward is not sufficient. A test by The Times found that the safe handling instructions are not enough to prevent the bacteria from spreading in the kitchen.

In other words, if a piece of infected meat ends up in your kitchen, you are almost guaranteed exposure to it no matter how carefully you handle it.


Photo by ILoveButter used under a CC license

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October 2, 2009

Say Goodbye to "The Big Three"

Can't say as I ever expected to link to an inflight magazine article. But it's by the WaPo's food writer Jane Black and it's got an awesome chart. Oh, and it's about sustainable sushi. And it finds the good news in the bad news regarding "the Big Three" fish that are both the most popular and the most threatened sushi ingredients: salmon, eel and bluefin tuna. Like the song says, there are indeed other fish in the sea:
Sustainable alternatives to the Big Three are getting easier to find--and tastier. At Moshi Moshi, a chain of sushi bars in London, diners can opt for eco-dishes like seabass sashimi and prawn nigiri. At San Francisco's Tataki Sushi & Sake Bar, patrons stand in line for as long as two hours for the restaurant's famous "faux-nagi," sablefish seared and brushed with a sweet, sultry sauce that mimics the taste of the ever-popular (but unsustainable) unagi, or eel. In Portland, Oregon, Bamboo Sushi serves fish with a Marine Stewardship Council stamp of approval. The council okays sea creatures including haddock, halibut, hake and herring (and that's just the H's).
And as for that awesome (and depressing and -- at least it should be -- behavior changing) chart? Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the noble bluefin tuna's great and tragic disappearing act.

Not much room left on the y-axis, folks. If that won't stop you from eating bluefin tuna, I can't imagine what will.

Photo by adactio used under a CC license

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Let Them Use A/C!

The US Chamber of Commerce, clearly attempting to prove there's no such thing as too big or too stupid, has most definitely jumped the shark. Major corporations like Nike, PG&E and Exelon (the last two are energy companies!) have already made their displeasure known over the Chamber's strategy of climate denial and opposition to any attempts to address climate change. Now, thanks to Kate Sheppard, who uncovered a recent filing by the Chamber to the EPA, we learn that, in fact, the Chamber has a plan to address global warming:
Humans have become less susceptible to the effects of heat due to a combination of adaptations, particularly air conditioning. The availability of air conditioning is expected to continue to increase.
How positively Marie Antoinettean of them! Global temperatures rising? No problemo -- just crank up the A/C. And why exactly is everyone so worried about it anyway? Everyone knows that:
[T]he scientific evidence is clear that cold is a more potent hazard than heat.
The number one reason the Chamber thinks we don't need to worry about global warming?
It's a dry heat.*
Sheesh. What innovations in inanity will the captains of American industry think up next?

*Yeah, I made that up. But you know they're thinking it.

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October 1, 2009

Dept. of Outrage, Military-Industrial Complex Division
Most advocates of school lunch reform, including the White House, agree that the program needs at least $1 billion dollars in additional money to make school meals healthier and more accessible. This observation is of course immediately shot down by most pundits and politicians as unreasonable in an age of trillion dollar debt -- we just can't afford to spend that kind of money. So what exactly, are we to make of this:
The Senate voted Wednesday to spend $2.5 billion on 10 military cargo jets that the Obama administration does not want.

The 64-34 vote came on an amendment to the defense appropriations bill. The House has already approved a defense appropriations bill that includes money for the C-17s.
You must be frakking kidding me. $2.5 billion on jets the administration doesn't even want?! And yet trying to feed kids in school, which leads to better health, better performance in school, better lives, is unrealistic. I understand the love for all things military among our representatives, but come on. I do hope advocates of school lunch reform remember who voted for this military jet boondoggle -- it says everything you need to know about our ability -- or lack thereof -- to fix any of the problems we face.

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Believe the Danes -- Our Hogs Will Be Fine
According to the meat industry, the debate over legislation pending in the House that would ban the use of sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics comes down to a simple "fact": hog-farming on any scale without sub-therapeutic use of antibiotics is impossible. The National Pork Producers Council says so. The American Veterinary Medical Associate says so. Heck, even GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa says so.

For the record, these folks also say that livestock producers don't really use 70% of all antibiotics distributed in the US as the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates. And you know what, we have no idea if they're right. What many people don't realize is that antibiotic use by American livestock producers is one of the best kept secrets on the planet. The UCS had to deduce that number based on US sales of antibiotics combined with data from a country that does publish figures on antibiotics use in livestock: Canada. That's right. No one in the US, not the government, not industry -- no one -- has any responsibility to tell Americans how much antibiotics is actually in their meat. We're just to supposed to Take Industry's Word For It that everything's peachy.

Which is why the Danes insistence on being a part of this debate is so important. Denmark is the largest hog producer in Europe and, realizing the threat to public health posed by routinely feeding healthy livestock antibiotics, they stopped doing it. Over a decade ago. To listen to the AVMA and Chuck Grassley describe Denmark's experience, you'd think that Denmark's hog industry went the way of New York Harbor's oyster beds -- a happy, productive industry destroyed by mismanagement. Except, insist the Danes, that just isn't so.


Photo by The Pug Father used under a CC license

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