December 29, 2009

Eating with the Seasons

Ezra Klein sees this elegant image from Good that depicts seasonal eating and he snarkily (though accurately) observes that it merely proves why locavorism is best left to Californians.

Me? I see this image and think: Boy, we sure could use more hoop houses and winter gardening in the rest of the country. And thanks to the USDA, we should soon find out how realistic a thought that is. My hope is that the USDA's study of hoop house growing will put to rest the persistent myth that a geographically diversified food production system is 1) impossible or 2) would require large-carbon-footprint greenhouses heated by anything other than sunlight or compost. We shall see...

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December 18, 2009

GMOs - Still Not Safe
There have indeed been studies that have indicated genetically engineered crops like corn and soy might negatively affect our health. Most of these studies conclude by saying "more study is needed" -- but further study never happens because Monsanto, which owns the patents of most GMO seeds simply won't give them to independent researchers for scientific use without onerous restrictions. The federal government has been no help because under industry pressure the EPA and the FDA ruled back in the 1990s that GMO crops are "substantially equivalent" to their conventional brethren and they have shown no interest in re-opening the GMO can of worms.

This regulatory end-around has been aided in part by the industry's successful campaign to convince the media and our representatives that genetic engineering is just a super-duper cool version of conventional breeding. That is a lie. Genetic engineering involves inserting a new piece of DNA code into a plant's own DNA -- which sounds straightforward except you have no idea where your piece will end up and what disturbances it might cause in the plant. You just have to grow the thing and find out.

What you might get is what's known as "insertional mutagenesis" and it can result in all sorts of bad things happening. One example might be that you engineer a plant to produce some new substance -- like a herbicide, a vitamin or a even a drug -- but it also produces a potent toxin to go along with it. Oops!

Insertional mutagenesis is why pretty much all of Monsanto's promised innovations are five or ten years away and it's also why GMOs can come with all sorts of nasty surprises. And because these are subtle changes to the genome, it shouldn't be surprising that any health effects it would cause in creatures that eat them might be subtle, too.

All of which brings me to the news (via Tom Philpott) that there is increasing evidence that GMOs can and do cause health problems:

And now comes this study by three French university researchers. It's a fascinating piece of work. The researchers analyzed data from tests done on rats by Monsanto and another biotech firm, Covance Laboratories, submitted to European government in 2000 and 2001. The firms conducted the tests to prove that their products were safe to eat; scrutinizing the same data, the researchers arrived at a different conclusion.

The three products in question are still quite relevant: one strain of Roundup Ready corn, engineered to withstand Monsanto's flagship herbicide; and two strands of Bt corn, engineered to contain the insect-killing gene from the BT bacteria. Roundup Ready and Bt products are ubiquitous in the U.S. seed supply, often "stacked" into the same seed.

The researchers also found "clear negative impact" on their livers of rats fed all three kinds of GMO corn.

They added that it's impossible to tell, based on the data, whether the damage was caused by the specific genes introduced to the corn, or -- more troubling still -- if the very process of genetic modification creates a toxic effect.
Firstly, let's be clear -- industry scientists got bad results, fudged the analysis and then figured no one would notice. Well, it took almost a decade, but these enterprising French scientists did notice. And that last bit about a toxic effect of genetic modification: That's got "insertional mutagenesis" written all over it, no? Philpott then explains why, though no one's arguing that GMOs cause "illness" per se, this isn't some kind of crank theory:
Nearly our entire corn and soy crops crops are genetically modified -- and have been for nearly a decade. Corn and soy course through the food system like blood in a body. If GMOs caused harm, wouldn't it be obvious by now?

Moreover, most corn and soy goes into animal feed. Last I checked, pigs, chickens, and cows on factory animal farms haven't been dropping dead en masse before their date with the executioner. Again, if GMOs were dangerous, why aren't factory animal farmers rejecting them?

This thinking, I think, represents educated opinion on GMOs. The logic would be persuasive, if scientists were claiming that GMOs caused spectacular, virulent illnesses, the kind associated with, say, E. coli O157 or salmonella. But instead, the evidence I'm referring to suggests that GMOs cause low-level, chronic damage.

And think of the U.S. diet. People here tend to survive on refined sugars and processed food, and are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals like BPA. Moreover, we have high and growing levels of chronic ailments. To me, it's highly plausible that yet more low-level toxins could enter the food stream without causing immediately identifiable trouble.

Yes, after the fiasco of bisphenol A -- whose safety had been "proven" by industry-conducted research accepted by a gullible FDA -- I think we can conceive of the possibility that GMOs, which have never even gone through a thorough environmental impact review, much less a full safety review, might, just might come with serious long-term risks attached. Maybe someone should ask the FDA what they think about GMOs now?

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2C Warming - That's Not So Bad

The Guardian provides a helpful guide to what all these global warming trends could mean for different parts of the planet by century's end. Please note: the relatively "small" increase of 2C in global temps that's considered "acceptable" by most governments and scientists is still really really bad:
2C -- The temperature limit the scientists want

The heatwaves seen in Europe during 2003, which killed tens of thousands of people, will come back every year with a 2C global average temperature rise. Southern England will regularly see temperatures around 40C in summer. The Amazon turns into desert and grasslands, while increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere make the world's oceans too acidic for remaining coral reefs and thousands of other marine lifeforms. More than 60 million people, mainly in Africa, would be exposed to higher rates of malaria. Agricultural yields around the world will drop and half a billion people will be at greater risk of starvation. The West Antarctic ice sheet collapses, the Greenland ice sheet melts and the world's sea level begins to rise by seven metres over the next few hundred years. Glaciers all over the world will recede, reducing the fresh water supply for major cities including Los Angeles. Coastal flooding affects more than 10 million extra people. A third of the world's species will become extinct as the 2C rise changes their habitats too quickly for them to adapt.

But don't fool yourself into thinking that any of the cuts the US (or anyone else) is talking about at the moment would limit warming to 2C. The best we can probably hope for with current emissions targets (the ones the House passed and the Senate is considering, for example) would be this:
3C -- Looking increasingly likely

After a 3C global temperature rise, global warming may run out of control and efforts to mitigate it may be in vain. Millions of square kilometres of Amazon rainforest could burn down, releasing carbon from the wood, leaves and soil and thus making the warming even worse, perhaps by another 1.5C. In southern Africa, Australia and the western US, deserts take over. Billions of people are forced to move from their traditional agricultural lands, in search of scarcer food and water. Around 30-50% less water is available in Africa and around the Mediterranean. In the UK, summers of droughts are followed by winter floods. Sea levels rise to engulf small islands and low-lying areas such as Florida, New York and London. The Gulf Stream, which warms the UK all year round, will decline and changes in weather patterns will lead to higher sea levels at the Atlantic coasts.

Note also the bit about the possibility for runaway warming if we reach a 3C increase -- somewhat concerning since we're heading for that neighborhood. Gee, kinda makes all this concern trolling about the near-term effect on the economy of cap-and-trade sorta, um, stupid. Good thing our fearless leaders have everything under control!

h/t Brad Plumer

Photo by flydime used under a CC license

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December 16, 2009

GMOs -- Still Not Delivering
Tom Philpott at Grist has a great post on Monsanto, its magic seeds and its monopoly status. In it, he reminds us that "climate change-ready" -- and non-existent -- drought tolerant GM seeds aren't the only false hopes currently being peddled by Monsanto:

Meanwhile, there also recently came a cold slap to one of Monsanto's most hyped promises: that it will soon deliver genetically engineered corn, rice, and wheat strains that demand much less nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen fertilizer is a major ecological liability of industrial agriculture--synthetic nitrogen pollutes streams and blots out fish life, destroys soil organic matter, and enters the atmosphere as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon.

In a recent report (PDF), the Union of Concerned Scientists' Doug Gurian-Sherman pointed out that thus far, the GM crop industry has had zero success at engineering crops with "complex traits" like improved nitrogen efficiency.

Splicing in a gene that makes corn tolerate a certain herbicide is one thing; improving a highly complex, multi-gene, not-completely-understood process like nitrogen efficiency is completely different. Despite all the hype around nitrogen-efficient GM corn, the GM seed giants are conducting relatively few trials to test crops in the field, Gurian-Sherman reports.

"Although a few genes that appear promising for improving NUE [nitrogen-use efficiency] have been identified in the public literature, they have yet to demonstrate that they can improve consistently in various environments, and without significant undesirable side effects that could harm our agriculture, environment, or public health," Gurian-Sherman writes. Meanwhile, other methods of reducing nitrogen use, like traditional breeding and ecosystem approaches, have proven track records.

So, all together now, traditional breeding paired with agro-ecological techniques work better than Monsanto's over-hyped, overpriced, over-sprayed products. That's better.

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USDA Needs a New Climate Playbook
Paula Crossfield has an excellent piece in Civil Eats on food, agriculture and climate change:
Around one third of global greenhouse gas emissions come from the way we produce, process, distribute and consume the food we eat according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Meanwhile, farmers the world over will be the most affected by climate change, as higher carbon in the atmosphere and higher temperatures increase erratic weather patterns, pests, and disease occurrence, while decreasing water availability, disrupting relationships with pollinators and lowering yield and the efficacy of herbicides like glyphosate (aka Round-Up) -- all detailed in a revealing new report from the USDA called The Effects of Climate Change on U.S. Ecosystems [pdf].
She then goes on to observe that, for all the benefits of having the USDA 100% behind climate mitigation, the techniques USDA Chief Tom Vilsack endorsed during his speech in Copenhagen can be deeply problematic if incorrectly implemented.

Vilsack talked up no-till farming, carbon markets, genetically engineered crops and ethanol. All of these techniques are either of questionable value as climate mitigators or come with serious negative consequences for soil and water quality. Sadly, the USDA continues to ignore agro-ecological techniques for addressing climate change -- techniques with a proven ability to build soil quality and sequester carbon and which places like the Rodale Institute have spent decades perfecting and studying. Agribusiness has a stranglehold on the USDA for sure. But they don't have a stranglehold on the facts. It would be nice if Vilsack and other members of the administration finally recognized that.

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December 14, 2009

NYC's New Gross Out Anti-Soda Ad

Remember NYC's anti-soda campaign "Don't Drink Yourself Fat"? Well, prepare yourself. Because the NYC Department of Health has made themselves a YouTube Video. And it's a doozy:

I think I'm going to be sick -- which is, of course, the point. So, what do you think -- will it stop people from drinking soda or is it just a cheap gag? Get it? Gag?

h/t Eat Me Daily

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When Thinking about Saving the Future, Don't Forget about Family Planning
McClatchy has a big article on how the Bush administration extended its hostility to family planning to its massive multibillion dollar global anti-AIDS inititative:
On a continent where fewer than one in five married women use modern contraception, an explosion of unplanned pregnancies is threatening to bury Adongo's family and a generation of Africans under a mountain of poverty.

Promoting birth control in Africa faces a host of obstacles — patriarchal customs, religious taboos, ill-equipped public health systems — but experts also blame a powerful, more distant force: the U.S. government.

Under President George W. Bush, the United States withdrew from its decades-long role as a global leader in supporting family planning, driven by a conservative ideology that favored abstinence and shied away from providing contraceptive devices in developing countries, even to married women.

Bush's mammoth global anti-AIDS initiative, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, poured billions of dollars into Africa but prohibited groups from spending any of it on family planning services or counseling programs, whose budgets flat-lined.

The restrictions flew in the face of research by international aid agencies, the U.N. World Health Organization and the U.S. government's own experts, all of whom touted contraception as a crucial method of preventing births of babies being infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

The Bush program is widely hailed as a success, having supplied lifesaving anti-retroviral drugs to more than 2 million HIV patients worldwide.

However, researchers, Africa experts and veteran U.S. health officials now think that PEPFAR also contributed to Africa's epidemic population growth by undermining efforts to help women in some of the world's poorest countries exercise greater control over their fertility.

With local economies and governments unable to absorb that kind of growth, this is a disaster in the making. While the article doesn't connect these dots, I'd point out that the debate over agricuture, GMOs, hunger -- over global warming itself -- comes down to various opinions on how to deal with a planetary population of 9 billion people by 2050.

Meanwhile, programs that focus on empowering women, including but not limited to giving them access to real family planning, could go a long way toward reducing that "Peak People" figure, which would make our goals that much more achievable. Those of us who spend a lot of time thinking and writing about food, ag and climate need to focus on the extent to which our future is linked to that of the developing world. Right now, there's a subtext of "better them than us" floating through much of the climate and food-related discourse. As a remedy, I feel compelled to paraphrase one of Bill Clinton's best lines from the 1992 campaign: when we're talking about the health of the plant there is no them -- there's only us.

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December 11, 2009

Is Walmart the Future of Local Food?

One of the most important historic developments in the food economy is embodied in this statistic: in 1900, 40 percent of every dollar spent on food went to the farmer or rancher while the rest was split between inputs and distribution. Now? 7 cents on the dollar goes to the producer and 73 cents goes just to distribution. That's worth keeping in mind when you read things like this:

... Walmart, now the nation's largest supermarket chain as well as retailer, has gotten into the local scene, embarking on an effort to procure more of its produce from local growers.

Uh, oh.

Now, there is an intriguing (and concerning) wrinkle to all this. As the St Louis Dispatch piece linked above observes (and as Tom Philpott and I have observed many times before), one of the big obstacles to expanding local food systems is the collapse of local distribution infrastructure. There are often no wholesalers to buy and store, and no delivery infrastructure to move, produce locally. Conveniently, Walmart has its own regional distribution system that rivals anything that ever existed before -- why reinvent the wheel (again). So, it's only natural for them jump in.


Photo by Koonisutra used under a CC license

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Same Sh*t, Different Administration
Things are not looking good on the agriculture front at the Copenhagen climate talks. According to a representative from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a group dedicated to sustainable agriculture and trade policy, American negotiators are being , um, less than productive:

Long, long meeting this afternoon (Dec. 10) on sectoral language for agriculture. First of all, there is confusion as to what the text will end up being -- part of a comprehensive Copenhagen agreement? A separate COP decision? Something else still? Everything seems pretty much up in the air on this topic as different countries hold very different views on this matter.

And then there is the U.S. position. Arguing that the language on agriculture needs to be short and very specific, and that it should avoid any mention of food security, or of linkages between mitigation and adaptation. Hard to believe. How does the U.S. government expect this to be acceptable to developing countries where agriculture is a source of livelihoods for large shares of their populations? And, more broadly, to all stakeholders involved in discussions about agriculture, food and climate change? It has become widely accepted that Copenhagen needs to open a space to deal with agriculture and food security concerns associated with climate change -- the U.S. cannot be serious!

We are Very Serious. Unfortunately, we are also very misguided.

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Americans need to 'raise their game' on climate change

Everyone should read this Matt Ygelsias post on the need for all of us to "step up our game" morally speaking as regards the climate. The climate change "debate" is a true gut check moment. And right now, we're failing:

CNN was running a climate change story yesterday with the chyron "Global Warming: Fact or Fiction." It's clearly not the case that that happened because no one at CNN is unaware that framing the story that way is nonsense. They just chose to let it happen. John McCain used to recognize the urgency of the climate threat and then, thanks to pique or something, he decided to become an opportunistic pollution-defender. Bob Corker recognizes the need to curb carbon emissions but insists that he’ll support a bill if and only if it meets his exact politically unrealistic expectations. And millions of Americans supported the ACES bill in the House but didn’t bother themselves to call their congressman about it, helping to create a situation in which phone traffic tilted heavily against the bill and progressives on the Hill now feel defensive.

All this -- and more -- is carried out by free moral agents on a daily basis. And this is simply not an issue you can solve without people raising their game, morally speaking. That means politicians, and activists, and ordinary citizens and business elites and media figures and all the rest. We've developed a public culture in the United States in which it's regarded as grossly naive to suggest that a Senator or an executive ought to do the right thing simply because it's the right thing. But if you think of any major problem this country has ever solved -- the Civil War, women's suffrage, defeating Nazism, Civil Rights -- it's always required not just smart tactics, but moral behavior, people willing to cast risky votes, people willing to risk physical harm in combat or non-violent resistance. It's been the same all around the world throughout history. If people don’t want to do the right thing, the right thing doesn't get done. On climate, in particular, a huge swathe of the American elite has simply refused to acknowledge any sort of duty or obligation.

Addressing climate change -- not Iraq, not Afghanistan, not health care reform, not even torture -- is the true moral challenge of this generation. And at the moment, the other side is succeeding in dismissing the entire enterprise as The Greatest Hoax of All Time. Societies do fail "to do the right thing" when faced with great moral decision -- and it never ends well. Indeed, we're threatening to follow in some pretty awful footsteps. What do we have to do to get this whole negotiation to "Yes"?

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December 8, 2009

FDA Moving to Reform Nutrition Labels

Still smarting over the industry's shenanigans over the "Smart Choices" label, the FDA has decided to pick up the pace of change. Marion Nestle dug up a set of proposed new front of package nutrition labels that the FDA is studying and one of which may ultimately get the agency's final approval. Here they are:



My faves are the "Nutrition Tips" label with colors and the last one, dubbed "Waitrose," with the stop light label -- they actually present meaningful information. The others just focus on calories, which is not necessarily even the most important piece of nutrition information. If I had to bet, I'd suggest that the industry will push hard against any label that tries to characterize the nutrients levels as too high. But we'll see. What do you all think? Don't just tell me! Click here to write an email to the FDA (with the recipient, subject, and required header for your message all filled out for you -- they want your feedback.

At the same time as they're working on the front of package label, the FDA is also now accepting comments on its initiative to remake the existing side-panel nutrition labels. And the suggestions are starting to roll in. A good example comes from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, shown at right. In some ways, it's got a bit of a behavioral economics, "Nudge"-y style to it -- small changes that alter the way you look at the label and possibly the way you think about the product.

I like how the red text used for nutrients that exceed the recommended daily amount as well as the increased font size for calories draw the eye. Breaking out the amount of added sugars into its own category also represents a helpful improvement. Also, note the idea of classing all the sugars together in the ingredients list, which specifically defeats food companies' technique of using a half dozen forms of sugar to hide the fact that it's often the number one ingredient by weight.

But admiring CSPI's work isn't the end of it. The FDA wants to hear from you. Go here and tell them what you think. If you want a helpful cheat sheet, check out Fooducate's 7 suggestions for labeling improvements.

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December 4, 2009

Is "ClimateGate" Only the Beginning?
Over at Grist, I riffed on Ezra Klein's point about our government's "overwhelming bias toward inaction." But while Congress embodies inertia, corporations and their agents are full of kinetic energy when it comes to stopping reform. Their latest reform-killing initiative: Covert operations! First came the much-reported (and overblown) "ClimateGate" theft of climate scientists' emails in East Anglia. And now, via the Wonk Room, comes this:

It has now been reported that the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Center is not the only victim of such a criminal invasion: burglars and hackers have also attacked the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria in British Columbia:

Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria scientist and key contributor to the Nobel prize-winning work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says there have been a number of attempted breaches in recent months, including two successful break-ins at his campus office in which a dead computer was stolen and papers were rummaged through.

These attacks go beyond simple burglary. University of Victoria spokeswoman Patty Pitts told the National Post "there have also been attempts to hack into climate scientists' computers, as well as incidents in which people impersonated network technicians to try to gain access to campus offices and data."

Things are getting scary out there. The other side plays by different rules, or rather, by no rules at all. You have been warned.

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