Real Food: Not Just for Fancy People

In a recent cover story in the Atlantic, David Freedman scolds writers Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman for their misguided, faddish, foodie ways. Grist food writer Nathanael Johnson has already pointed out some of the weaknesses in Freedman’s argument that better junk food is the key to solving the obesity epidemic, but I wanted to spend some time focusing on this notion, forwarded by Freedman and others, that real food is just the latest yuppie health fad. Read more

Sustainable Food Loses Its Biggest Champion in Washington, D.C.

The Obama administration is losing its most powerful supporter of local and organic foods. Kathleen Merrigan, the No. 2 official at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, announced last week that she would be leaving her post as USDA’s deputy secretary. Sustainable agriculture groups responded with dismay and disappointment to what the Columbus Dispatch described as her “abrupt” departure. The food industry publication The Packer speculated that this could spell “the end of local food at USDA.” Read more

When it Comes to Food, How Does Your Lawmaker Stack Up?

Will the food movement ever really turn political? This question has been much discussed of late, thanks in part to Michael Pollan’s recent New York Times magazine op-ed on California’s GMO labeling referendum (which I discussed here).

And yes, as Pollan argued recently, whether or not California’s Prop 37 passes will be one sign that the movement has come of age (i.e., eaters “voting with votes, not just forks”). But winning one election in one state, however large and trend-setting, would be just the beginning. Every good political movement identifies its allies and its enemies in an attempt to breed more of the former and weed out the latter.

Now we’re seeing signs that the food movement may in fact be starting to grow up. And like learning how to balance a checkbook or making sure bills get paid on time, some of the most crucial rites of passage can seem more like chores than privileges.

So it is with a new organization called Food Policy Action, a lobbying group that intends to grade members of Congress on their voting records on food-related legislation. The group’s board of directors includes several big names in food: Stonyfield Farm’s co-founder Gary Hirshberg and the Humane Society of the United States’ CEO Wayne Pacelle, as well as leaders from Oxfam America, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Environmental Working Group—and lest I forget, Top Chef’s head judge Tom Colicchio. Read more

Seeding Justice: Monsanto vs. Soybean Farmer Case Hits the Supreme Court

Many farmers have ended up face-to-face with biotech giant Monsanto in court, but so far none of them have ever won. In fact, no farmer has challenged Monsanto in court without getting either 1) hammered financially like this farmer or 2) laughed out of court like these ones. But the company’s winning streak could soon come to an end.

Recently, the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal of a federal court ruling that Monsanto won against an Indiana soybean farmer. And while that’s no guarantee they’ll side with the farmer, I’ve often heard it said that the Supreme Court doesn’t take cases to pat the ruling judge on the back. Read more

Meet 2,4-D, a Pesticide Even Conventional Vegetable Farmers Fear

A new coalition is trying to throw sand in the gears of industrial agriculture’s chemical treadmill. And this one just may have what it takes to slow it down. I’m referring to the fight over USDA approval for Dow AgroScience’s new genetically modified corn seeds (brand name “Enlist”), which are resistant to the herbicide 2,4-D.

This is part of biotech’s “superweed” strategy, by which they hope to address the fact that farmers across the country are facing an onslaught of weeds impervious to the most popular herbicide in use, Monsanto’s glyphosate or RoundUp (and in some cases impervious to machetes as well!). Of course, this is a problem of the industry’s own making. It was overuse of glyphosate caused by the market dominance of Monsanto’s set of glyphosate-resistant genetically engineered seeds that put farmers in this fix in the first place. Read more

Monsanto’s New Seeds Could Be a Tech Dead End

When I wrote recently about the next generation of genetically engineered seeds, I was in truth referring to the next next generation. The fact is that the next actual generation of seeds is already out of the lab and poised for approval by the USDA.

And I’m not talking about Monsanto’s recently approved “drought-tolerant” seeds, which the USDA itself has observed are no more drought-tolerant than existing conventional hybrids.

No, the “exciting” new seeds are simply resistant to more than one kind of pesticide. Rather than resisting Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup alone, they will now also be resistant to Dow AgroScience’s pesticide 2,4-D.

“A new pesticide,“ you say. “How exciting!” Except 2,4-D, despite its catchy name, has been around since World War II. Not only is it one of the most commonly used pesticides in the world, but it came to further prominence in certain circles when it was incorporated as a main ingredient in Agent Orange. Read more

FDA Gives Up on Antibiotic Restrictions in Livestock

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) pulled a Scrooge move just before Christmas. The agency published an entry in the Federal Register declaring that it will end its attempt at mandatory restrictions on the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. The agency isn’t advertising the shift, though: This news would have remained a secret if not for Maryn McKenna’s Superbug blog over at Wired. McKenna, who specializes in writing about antibiotics and their link to pathogens, caught the Federal Register notice.

This is a sorry end to a process that began in 1977 (!), but McKenna created an excellent timeline that traces the history of the issue back to the 1950s. In 2009, the Obama administration breathed new life into a moribund process because the top two Obama appointees at the FDA, Commissioner Margaret Hamburg and her then-deputy Joshua Sharfstein, strongly supported restricting antibiotic use in agriculture.

But despite Hamburg and Sharfstein’s many supportive statements, the FDA has only produced a draft set of “voluntary” guidelines. And, with this latest announcement, it looks like that’s as far as they’re willing to go. Read more

Killing the Competition: Meat Industry Reform Takes a Blow

 

One of the least-discussed but most promising attempts at food system reform was dealt a serious blow the other day. The USDA itself eviscerated its proposed reform to a set of rules which would have given a government division with a wonky name–the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration (GIPSA)–authority to crack down on the way large corporate meatpackers wield power over small and mid-sized ranchers.

To say this was a lost opportunity is a vast understatement. After all, the top four companies control 90 percent of all beef processing. In the case of pork, four companies control 70 percent of the processing, while for poultry it’s nearly 60 percent. When you get that kind of market power,* abuse becomes rampant. Indeed, ranchers all around the country now agree that it’s impossible for them to get a fair price for livestock. Read more

Congress Contemplates Quick and Dirty Farm Bill

Last month, I wrote that prospects for reforming the Farm Bill were dim. My prior assessment is turning out to be outrageously optimistic.

Typically, passage of the Farm Bill occurs every five years and involves a lengthy process of hearings, constituent meetings, and (sad but true) many a high-priced meal on the tab of some lobbyist or other—followed by detailed negotiations between the House and Senate Agriculture Committees. It has also often been seen as an opportunity to—as one recent action alert put it—change the food system by supporting small farms, investing in rural economies, and “supporting more diversified farming and livestock systems, healthy food access, conservation, and research.”

The next reauthorization was not expected until late in 2012—if not 2013—but through an unexpected turn of events, it may be decided much faster, and with even less input from the good food movement than the last one. Read more