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March 25, 2010

BPA Has Now Widely Contaminated the Ocean

It's looking more and more like the chemical industry's idea to make the endocrine-disrupting chemical bisphenol A ubiquitous in the environment was a terrible, and terribly dangerous, idea. Having successfully tainted the food supply with its presence, BPA has now has put the world's oceans at risk (via Science Daily):

Scientists have reported widespread global contamination of sea sand and sea water with the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA) and said that the BPA probably originated from a surprising source: Hard plastic trash discarded in the oceans and the epoxy plastic paint used to seal the hulls of ships. The team analyzed sand and seawater from more than 200 sites in 20 countries, mainly in Southeast Asia and North America. All contained what Saido described as a "significant" amount of BPA, ranging from 0.01 parts per million (ppm) to 50 ppm. They concluded that polycarbonates and epoxy resin coatings and paints were the main source.

One of the notable findings in this study is that in the ocean environment, "unbreakable" polycarbonate plastic... breaks down. And when the stuff breaks down, it releases a nasty set of toxins, including BPA.

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March 23, 2010

Proof that High Fructose Corn Syrup is Worse than Sugar

hfcsNo refined sugar is good for you--but HFCS seems to be significantly worse. Photo: Nafmo on FlickrThe long-running, contentious debate over the dangers of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) may be approaching a conclusive end -- one not likely to please those sensitive souls over at the Corn Refiners Association.

While there has been extensive evidence that fructose is harmful to human health and associated with metabolic diseases like diabetes and liver problems, the fact is that plain old table sugar is itself 50 percent fructose. HFCS does have a higher concentration of fructose at 55 percent but it's close enough to table sugar that most experts continue to dismiss claims that HFCS is on its own more dangerous. And certainly the claim that the introduction of HFCS in the '80s directly led to the current obesity epidemic continues to be a highly controversial view.

A massive missing piece in this debate has been an absence of research directly comparing the effects of HFCS and table sugar (as opposed to pure fructose and glucose sugars, which is typically how the research has been conducted). Thanks to a group of researchers at Princeton, however, that missing piece may just have been found (via Science Daily):

A Princeton University research team has demonstrated that all sweeteners are not equal when it comes to weight gain: Rats with access to high-fructose corn syrup gained significantly more weight than those with access to table sugar, even when their overall caloric intake was the same.

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March 15, 2010

Another Summer, Another Food Crisis?

Corn prices peaked during the run up to the 2008 economic crisis at $7.88 per bushel and as the prices of corn and other commodities rose we saw food riots worldwide. Commodity prices soon came back the earth -- corn is currently trading at about $4 a barrel. Given that we're in the middle of an anemic recovery, you'd think spiking food prices are thankfully the last thing we have to worry about.

Not so, say a pair of economists from University of Illinois (via Phil Brasher of the Des Moines Register). In an analysis of past growing seasons, they suggest that commodity corn prices could reach $7 by summer. The reason for the potential coming price spike? Would you believe ethanol?
Scott Irwin and Darrel Good modeled a good- and poor- scenario based on the five best and worst growing seasons since 1960 in the main corn-growing states. They then came up with average yields that could range from 134.5 to 172.5 bushels per acre. Because of the national biofuels mandates, which guarantee that a certain percentage of the corn crop will go into making ethanol, the average farmgate price of corn could be near $5.75 per bushel while daily highs in the cash price could reach the $7 level that occurred during the marketing year for the 2007 crop, the economists found.
Right now, the ethanol mandate is forcing us to take almost a third of the US corn harvest and burn it in our cars' fuel tanks. And unlike the economic bubble which helped power the last rise in commodities prices, the ethanol bubble still shows no sign of bursting. For better or for worse (well, okay, for worse) a significant chunk of the US food system relies on a low price of corn. If we don't lose our infatuation with food-for-fuel soon, we may be seeing a new plateau for commodity prices at what we used to consider crisis levels. And that ain't good.

Clearly, the administration's continued embrace of biofuels is looking plain idiotic at the moment. Sure, these economists' may turn out to be wrong, but if they're not we'll all pay the price -- literally.

The economists go on to suggest that policy makers prepare now for the possibility of price spikes. That they would do so is highly unlikely, however. If the USDA cared about price volitility, it would support re-instituting a grain reserve. With a reserve, the government buys grain from farmers when prices are low and sells it back into the market when prices are high.

One elegant aspect of a grain reserve is that it's a deficit-neutral -- in fact a cost neutral -- way of subsidizing farmers since the government is practicing the ultimate investing strategy of "buy low, sell high." Too bad USDA Chief Tom Vilsack (along with the entire food industry) is on the record opposing -- after all, its goal is to stabilize prices at reasonable levels. Did I mention that the US food system relies on cheap corn?

I wonder if they have a Plan B.

Photo credit: mfrascella

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March 12, 2010

Can the USDA Really Fight Industry Consolidation?

The first of the much anticipated agricultural competition workshops are underway right now in Iowa. Hosted jointly by the USDA and the Department of Justice, the workshops aim to explore the question of consolidation in agribusiness. The workshops themselves have already come under scrutiny for initially excluding actual farmers on the panels -- and have come in for continued criticism that the farmers who have been put on are more representatives of corporations than real farmers.

It's hard not to be somewhat cynical about our government's claim that they're shocked, shocked to discover there's anti-competitive behavior in agriculture. On the other hand, for the last twenty or so years, consolidation has been -- in Washington at least -- the crime that dare not speak its name. So the fact that it's the USDA and DOJ running these workshops is nothing short of astonishing.

And while the whole of the industry will get attention, much of the focus so far has been on Monsanto, which thanks to its aggressive practices -- along with support from the USDA -- now controls up to 90% of the seed business in some markets. It's to the point that in many parts of the country non-Monsanto (and thus non genetically engineered seed) are simply unavailable to farmers.

The Justice Department is already investigating the company and it will undoubtedly get a lot of attention during these workshops. But knowing the Obama administration's support for biotechnology generally and reading between the lines in this NY Times article on the issues involved with Monsanto, I'm starting to get concerned.

The way the article characterizes the debate, the goal appears to be to broaden access to Monsanto's intellectual property, i.e. the herbicide-tolerant genetic traits in its seeds, rather than to broaden access to conventional seeds:

Monsanto sells its own branded seed varieties, like Dekalb in corn and Asgrow in soybeans, to farmers. But it has expanded its influence and profits by licensing those traits to hundreds of small seed companies, allowing them to incorporate the traits in the seeds they sell. It has also granted licenses to the other large trait developers, allowing them to create combinations of engineered traits in a process known as stacking.

Monsanto says that its licensing shows it is the opposite of a monopolist, encouraging rather than hampering competition.

But critics say the licenses give Monsanto excessive control. Seed company executives said the licenses were sometimes worded in a way that compelled them to sell Monsanto traits over those of its competitors. Mr. Quarles denied that, saying the contracts contain sales incentives typical of the industry.

The rest of the article focuses on the legal battles between Monsanto and Dupont, another biotech giant, over access to Monsanto's patents. It may very well be that the anti-competitive behavior the government punishes is that which prevents even greater adoption of biotech seeds -- the opposite of what many progressives want out of anti-trust enforcement.

Until we can displace agricultural productivity as the only measure of success of government policy, even this new attention to anti-competitive practices is unlikely to lead to meaningful reform. To me the focus must be on finding ways to increase farmers' share of consumers' spending without threatening significant increases in food prices -- there is, after all, no government that likes to champion policies that increase the cost of food. Nothing puts a damper on electoral prospects like bread riots.

Keep in mind that a mere 7 cents of the consumer's food dollar gets to the farmer, while 73 cents goes to distribution costs. The only way we can get to a win-win -- and not be forced to choose between higher farmer income or higher retail prices -- is to let the middleman, i.e. the processors and yes, the retailers -- take the hit. Sadly, I don't think Walmart, Safeway or Whole Foods are on the agenda at the moment, even though some experts believe the real squeeze on farmers comes from them.

It's when we start having discussions like that and start recognizing that a relentless focus on agricultural production simply is not consistent with helping rural economies that I'll believe we might just be getting somewhere.

Photo credit: Farm Aid

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March 10, 2010

Spring Gleaning

There's a nice article in USA Today about a new generation of public urban orchards, ripe for the picking:
Fruit-picking opportunities... are becoming more common, as volunteers in cities including Boston, Detroit, Philadelphia and Madison, Wis., mobilize behind a goal of planting fruit trees on public land in city parks and neighborhoods.

"This is part of what's obviously been an explosion in interest in locally grown and organic food," said Janet Parker, a founding member of a group called Madison Fruits and Nuts. "I think we're coming to realize more and more that it doesn't make any sense, at this late date with climate change being what it is, to truck in so much of our food from California, in the cases of apples, sometimes New Zealand."

Free fruit also is available for picking in season on public land in Chicago, San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis and New York, according to neighborhoodfruit.com, a site that helps people track down available fruit.

One of the compelling points in Sharon Astyk's A Nation of Farmers involves her observation that we've been trained to see "free" food as having minimal actual value-- we're better off buying our fruit in the store than gleaning from what's available around us.

But that's why this urban orchard movement is so compelling -- it's another way to bring the reality of food production closer to home for millions of urban residents. Also, note the shout-out the article gives to the Philadelphia Orchard Project, which has started 17 orchards in the Philly area in the last 3 years.

Oh, and for the rest of you wanting to find your nearest gleaning opportunity, there's an app for that.

Photo credit: Muffet

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March 9, 2010

Heirloom Apples to the Rescue!

Here's another example of the power of diversity over monocultures in agriculture. Writer Gary Nabhan has a great piece at Grist on how heirloom apples may save US apple growers from the risks of climate change:

Recent studies have suggested that orchard keepers face a new challenge to supplying a variety of apples to their customers. Shifts in weather patterns may be reducing the number of winter chill hours that apple and other trees require in order to bear abundant fruit. If trends continue as predicted, most California orchards are expected to receive less than 500 chill hours per winter by the end of the 21st century. Most apple varieties require 1,000 chill hours per winter to yield harvests large enough to keep orchards economically viable, although some require as little as 800 hours and a few can get by on just 500 chill hours.

In its "high emissions scenario" for climate change, the Union of Concerned Scientists has predicted that orchards in southeastern Pennsylvania will receive 1,000 or more chill hours in just 50 to 60 percent of winters. Because Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest remaining producer of apples in this country, and because much of its $60 million annual crop comes from the southeastern region, these predictions have generated considerable anxiety among orchard keepers. But no one knows how many of the varieties currently being grown there can actually tolerate fewer than 1,000 chill hours -- the meteorological projections have not yet been tangibly related to the specific responses of particular varieties. And of course, no one knows for sure how much of the perceived weather shifts are due to global warming or to more localized urban heat-island effects of changing land uses.

As Gary mentions, this is of particular concern in Pennsylvania. But farmers like Nick Botner in Oregon are doing their part to fill in some of the blanks on which varieties will thrive in the new conditions. Botner may be in his eighties, but he's not slowing down -- he's testing 3,000 heirloom varieties to see which will grow best in our changing climate. Will apples disappear from store shelves? Not if we remember that there are plenty of apples in the sea tree.

Photo credit: Amanda "Bake it Pretty"

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March 5, 2010

Philly Proposes a Big Soda Tax

Music to my ears (via the Inquirer):

Mayor Nutter wants to treat the city's weight and wallet problems in his 2010-11 budget with the same remedy: the nation's highest tax on all sweetened beverages including soda, energy drinks, ice tea, even chocolate milk.

Nutter's plan would put Philadelphia at the front of the movement to tax sweet drinks, an effort that the beverage industry already opposes and that could encounter resistance in City Council.

The tax rate would be 2 cents per ounce, 40 cents on a 20-ounce bottle of soda. The levy would cover fountain-drink syrups and powders, based on the number of liquid ounces they produce. Diet drinks without added sugar and baby formula would be excluded.

City officials said they could raise $77 million a year. Health Commissioner Donald F. Schwarz estimated that a typical city resident drinks a half-liter of sweet beverages a day.

Not mentioned above, but confirmed is that the tax would also apply to flavored, sweetened milk. At 2 cents an ounce, it's about double the most commonly discussed tax and would add $1.34 to the price of a two-liter bottle of soda. If enacted, there's no question it will affect consumption.

Look, nobody likes taxes, but Philly already consumes above average amounts of soda and has high rates of obesity. Plus, for any arguments about regressivity of a soda tax (since it would theoretically hit low-income folks harder), it's important to remember that this is all about preserving services that help those low-income folks the most. I don't agree that a reduction in soda consumption because of price is on par with that same person losing access to vital city services -- we need to have some sense of perspective.

It will be very interesting to see if this tax can make it into law. Meanwhile, Democrats everywhere could learn something from Mayor Michael Nutter. Even if the City Council halves his tax to a penny per ounce, it's still going to be effective. Somehow, Dems seem to think that negotiating with oneself is the best strategy. Nuttter seems to be coming in high to make sure he gets something meaningful out of it. Anyway, stay tuned. The fight over this will no doubt be something to see.

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GMOs as Big Ag's Version of "Financial Innovation"

Slot machine in droughty field(Photoillustration by Grist)Financial blogger Felix Salmon has an essay in Foreign Policy called "How Locavores Can Save the World" -- expanded, by the way, from a wonderful blog post he wrote after attending a panel discussion on world hunger at the Davos World Economic Forum in the company of Blue Hill Farm's Dan Barber. Salmon usually focuses on issues involving economic crises, monetary policy, complex derivatives, macro-economics and governmental oversight of the financial markets, but here he's talking monocultures, sustainable agriculture, and transgenic seeds. Tom Philpott has in the past opined on the similarities between financial and food crises, so I suppose this turn of events is not too surprising.

But the bit I found most striking was how Salmon characterized Big Ag's claim that genetically modified organisms are an "answer" to the problem of world hunger:

[It] is the agricultural equivalent of creating triple-A-rated mortgage bonds, fabricated precisely to prevent the problem of credit risk. It doesn't make the problem go away: It just makes the problem rarer and much more dangerous when it does occur because no one is -- or even can be -- prepared for such a high-impact, low-probability event.

Well, hey. That's a new one. GMOs as CDOs...

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March 1, 2010

Junk Food Taxes May Be Better than Healthy Food Subsidies

An interesting new study was just published in Psychological Science, about a lab experiment at SUNY Buffalo that suggests junk-food taxes increase the overall nutritional quality of a shopping trip, while subsidies on healthy foods actually decrease the nutritionally quality (via Science Daily).

[Study author and clinical psychologist Dr. Leonard] Epstein and colleagues simulated a grocery store, "stocked" with images of everything from bananas and whole wheat bread to Dr. Pepper and nachos. A group of volunteers -- all mothers -- were given laboratory "money" to shop for a week's groceries for the family. Each food item was priced the same as groceries at a real grocery nearby, and each food came with basic nutritional information.

The mother-volunteers went shopping several times in the simulated grocery. First they shopped with the regular prices, but afterward the researchers imposed either taxes or subsidies on the foods. That is, they either raised the prices of unhealthy foods by 12.5 percent, and then by 25 percent; or they discounted the price of healthy foods comparably. Then they watched what the mothers purchased.

Potato chipsThe study authors separated food into two categories, "high calorie for nutrient" food and "low calorie for nutrient" food -- i.e. junk food and healthy food. They did this so that they could specifically measure the effect pricing changes had on the nutritional content of a participant's shopping basket. As you might expect, taxing junk food reduced junk food purchases, and subsidizing healthy food increased healthy food purchases. But the story does not end there. The researchers discovered that taxing the bad stuff was far more effective from a nutritional standpoint than subsidizing the good stuff -- and not just because prices affected sales.

The junk food taxes caused a real shift in nutritional quality because the money saved on junk food was spent on healthy food, which has more nutrients per calories. However, when the researchers subsidized healthy food in their test, many participants spent the savings on -- wait for it -- junk food. A subsidy for health foods actually increased the amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrates from that simulated shopping trip by about 10 percent each.

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Who Needs Clean Water Anyway?
Another entry in the New York Times fantastic "Toxic Waters" series came out Sunday. This latest one is about the slow but tragically effective weakening of the Clean Water Act:
Thousands of the nation's largest water polluters are outside the Clean Water Act's reach because the Supreme Court has left uncertain which waterways are protected by that law, according to interviews with regulators.

As a result, some businesses are declaring that the law no longer applies to them. And pollution rates are rising.

Companies that have spilled oil, carcinogens and dangerous bacteria into lakes, rivers and other waters are not being prosecuted, according to Environmental Protection Agency regulators working on those cases, who estimate that more than 1,500 major pollution investigations have been discontinued or shelved in the last four years.

The Clean Water Act was intended to end dangerous water pollution by regulating every major polluter. But today, regulators may be unable to prosecute as many as half of the nation's largest known polluters because officials lack jurisdiction or because proving jurisdiction would be overwhelmingly difficult or time consuming, according to midlevel officials.

"We are, in essence, shutting down our Clean Water programs in some states," said Douglas F. Mundrick, an E.P.A. lawyer in Atlanta. "This is a huge step backward. When companies figure out the cops can’t operate, they start remembering how much cheaper it is to just dump stuff in a nearby creek."

"This is a huge deal," James M. Tierney, the New York State assistant commissioner for water resources, said of the new constraints. "There are whole watersheds that feed into New York's drinking water supply that are, as of now, unprotected."

All this despite the dangerous rise in pollutants in our drinking water. Meanwhile, Congress has been trying to engineer a fix in the form of the Clean Water Restoration Act, specifically by removing the word "navigable" from a description of waterways subject to regulation under the CWA. But guess who is among the lobbying groups leading the charge against reform? Our good friends in industrial agriculture, the American Farm Bureau. They are lobbying directly and through corporate front groups like the perniciously named Waters Advocacy Coalition. And here's what an AFB spokesman had to say to the New York Times:

"If you erase the word 'navigable' from the law, it erases any limitation on the federal government's reach," said Mr. Parrish of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "It could be a gutter, a roadside ditch or a rain puddle. But under the new law, the government gets control over it."

The article also suggests that EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson could issue a ruling that would clear up some of the confusion regarding the EPA's jurisdiction. She has so far refused, preferring to wait for Congress to act. But with the GOP doing an awesome impersonation of a brick wall, it's hard to see the legislation moving forward any time soon. Perhaps Ms. Jackson might reconsider. It's only our water, after all.

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