Friday, January 30, 2015

History Lessons

stock image
There was a time, during the late sixties and early seventies, when food hit the top of the agenda in the US. Part of the reason was the politicization of a wide swath of the "Boomer" generation, and part of it was the "inside the beltway" work of Ralph Nader and his crusaders.
The underground press, in conjunction with political bookstores and health food stores, spread the word among the newly politicized public, while Nader's appearances in front of Congress put the word out in the above-ground media. What is appalling is how many of the issues raised then are the issues that are still being raised, as this short excerpt from Harvey Levenstein's Paradox of Plenty shows:
[The three major television networks] repeated charges such as that meat packers relied on the “4D' animals—dead, dying, diseased, and disabled—for processed meats. Realizing that public confidence in all of their products was being shaken, the large meat packers, some of whom owned intrastate packing companies, abandoned their opposition to the bill [to enable the USDA to enforce standards at state-level meat packing plants], enabling it to pass easily.

The quick victory amazed the reformers. Rarely had a bill shot though Congress in less than six months, particularly in the face of stiff opposition in the key committees responsible for it. It showed, some Naderites said, that American politics was not, as current intellectual fashion had it, based on irrational appeals; the public had been given the facts, and its representatives had been forced to respond. Yet in fact the critics soon began to use food issues for quite the opposite reason—their emotional punch. After all, the news that hot dogs contained rat hairs and that breast milk harbored DDT hardly provoked cool reasoning. The activists hoped that a public emotionally aroused by issues such as these would support their wider campaigns to protect the nation's health and welfare from the effects of business greed. Nader was rather rueful about the packers' quick cave-in. They had thereby managed, he said, to put the lid back on the Pandora's box of other issues—chemical adulteration of meat, microbiological contamination, misuse of hormones and antibiotics, pesticide residues, ingredient standards—that would have been useful in rallying the public to his larger crusade to curb corporate abuses.

But the food industries were hardly more successful than Pandora. After confidently announcing to a skeptical audience of newspaper editors in 1968 that food would become the top news story of the coming year, Nader recruited enthusiastic young law and college students to ferret through the food industries' dirty linen—combing the obscure reports of government agencies, analyzing lists of ingredients, asking chemists and biologists about their additives, assembling statistics to document the continuing concentration of economic power in fewer hands. By mid-1969 he was ready with enough evidence to begin the massive assault along the broad food-processing and agribusiness front he relished.

Appearing before the Senate's new Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs, he charged that the food industry was dominated by immensely powerful oligopolies who cared only about selling their products, not about their nutritive value. Their “manipulative strategies” bilked the consumer; “the silent violence of their harmful food products” caused “erosion of the bodily processes, shortening of life or sudden death.” Geneticists feared that “the river of chemicals

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Modern Farmer

via USDA Photo by by Keith Weller
 Modern Farmer has a great article on the diversity of potatoes and the efforts to expand the number of varieties being grown in the US. It's a great example of what I love about MF; an in-depth article about something not enough people know about, and, in this case, a great partnership. Written by Ferris Jabr, the article notes "This article was reported with support from the UC Berkeley-11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship." So, yay!
But, depressingly, the New York Times is reporting that this wonderful, quirky magazine may by about to disappear. Currently, the magazine part of the operation has suspended after the departure of the magazine’s founder, Ann Marie Gardner, followed by the remainder of the editorial staff. The editorial content has been left to two interns--and they're gone February 1st
Sadly, there is a Canadian connection to this story. The Times reports;
At the center of Modern Farmer’s collapse is the magazine’s financial performance. Mr. Giustra, who made money from mining interests, founded Lion’s Gate Entertainment and is a major contributor to the foundation headed by Bill Clinton, had been eager to move into food. He started an Italian olive oil company, invested in both industrial and small-scale farming operations and financed a specialty food company based in San Francisco.
Modern Farmer was part of that portfolio. But after a handful of issues, Mr. Giustra was disappointed in Ms. Gardner’s performance regarding early revenue figures and her ability to deliver additional investors. In the end, the chasm between the two became too wide to bridge and she left.
 Modern Farmer has been a great read. Mr. Giustra has said that the spring edition will be cancelled, but after some new hires, he plans a summer issue. I'll be surprised if he finds writers and editors who can catch that same quirky tone--ranging between global warming and chicken breeds with passion and good humour.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Talking About Food-- Nationally

Food Secure Canada is making it's bid to place a national food policy on the table as an issue in the nest federal election (expected this fall). According to a survey they've taken of their members, this is how the election issues shake out:

via Food Secure Canada

Their recent newsletter was pretty upfront about their push:

We are calling on politicians of all political parties to Step Up to the Plate!
We need a national food policy - a new vision for our food system that encompasses the goals of zero hunger, healthy and safe food, and a more sustainable food system.
We want the next Federal Government to be committed to our agenda. As New York Times columnist Mark Bittman so eloquently put it:

"You can’t address climate change without fixing agriculture, you can’t fix health without improving diet, you can’t improve diet without addressing income [...]. The production, marketing, and consumption of food is key to nearly everything."
The bottom line is that we need a national food policy that will eliminate hunger, ensure safe and healthy food for all, and set us in the direction of a more sustainable food system. Our ambitious vision is outlined in Resetting the Table: A People’s Food Policy for Canada.
In the past four years, we have witnessed increasing levels of food insecurity, an untreated epidemic of diet-related illnesses that costs billions, and an aging farming population that newcomers cannot afford to replace. The current government has not shown leadership on these issues. With a coordinated national campaign, we think the food movement can speak in a united voice. Strengthening our movement and building our membership goes hand in hand with advocacy.
FSC is a pretty good group. I recommend heading over to their website and signing up for their newsletter, or check them out on facebook. You can also tweet them  @FoodSecureCAN

Monday, January 26, 2015

That Crushing Sense of Doom

Welcome to a Monday morning--and some lovely news.
First, Grist has reported on the application of nanotechnology to the application of pesticides. It's felt that by creating these ultra-fine droplets (we're talking about sizes in the billionths of a metre), it will take far less volume to treat the same area. So join me in a (very) cautious "yay" (no exclamation point).
Of course, new technologies bring a host of potential problems with them. And in the case of nano-droplet pesticides, these concerns involve how the nano-particles will react with the macro-world. Tiny particles may allow broader contamination of groundwater, leading to higher levels food-chain concentration. Or new ways in which these pesticides might react with mammalian nervous systems (you know, like ours). Things act very differently in the nano-world.
This is, of course, part of the ongoing commodification of technology that Marx and Engels wrote about over a century ago. Research is only seen as valuable if it can be monetized. Ask our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper; he has stopped pretty much all research that is not in the service of capital. This commodification is one of the reasons that so little pure research is being conducted on Canada (as well as the rest of the developed world). It's all about engineering older discoveries into forms suitable for our commodity culture.

In different news, it looks like 2014 may be one of the top five hottest years on record. But of much more concern is the news, reported in the Guardian, that ocean temperatures are spiking so high that NOAA is having to re-calibrate their scales to accommodate the speed of temperature rise.
Ocean heat content data to a depth of 2,000 meters, from NOAA.
The ocean has been absorbing about 90 percent of global warming energy, so the atmosphere has warmed slower than might have been expected. Because global warming science looks at the amount of energy in the entire climate system, ocean temperatures are essential to understanding how rapid is the rise in global temperatures.
Denialists, by cherry picking atmospheric data, claim that either warming is not happening, or is happening at a much slower rate. The graph above shows the lie in that. So, yes, ocean populations are crashing; yes, we are in the late middle of the Sixth Extinction; and no, humans aren't going to make it. There's simply too many of us too invested in continuing the current system at the cost of everything else. Best case scenario? The koalas take over--all they want is to get stoned and sleep.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Halibut Is...

...that millions of kilograms of halibut are being caught by the big boats while they're trying to catch other species. A problem called “bycatch”.
Pacific halibut from Cook's Inlet, Alaska.
Photo by Jlikes2Fish via Wikipedia

The problem on the west coast of North America is primarily in Alaska, where the rules state that all fish, bycatch or not, must be identified, measured, and sexed by below-deck observers. The process can take up to two hours, and even though part of that time is spent in fish tanks with some water, when they are finally returned to the ocean, most halibut don't make it alive.
Other jurisdictions, such as British Columbia, allow the fish to be sorted on deck, making for a quicker return of bycatch into the water. A practice that significantly lowers the mortality rate.
The head of Seattle's Groundfish Forum, Chris Woodley (representing five companies operating 14 factory fishing vessels in Alaskan waters), has said that trawlers have cut down bycatch, making flatfish only about 0.5 percent of current catch levels of flatfish.
This brings up the question “If 0.5 percent of the flatfish caught in the Bering Sea is millions of kilos, then how much is being caught overall?” It's no wonder that modern fisheries are unsustainable and our oceans are collapsing into nothing but jellyfish, krill, and plastics. Halibut, for example, can grow larger than 2.4 metres (~7 feet long) and weigh over 225 kilos (about 500 pounds). But they cannot grow that big overnight. Fish of that size are survivors, maximum breeders, and targeted by us. Fish that big don't get taken by canoes, dories, or small boats, leaving them plenty of opportunity to re-stock any volumes humans take. But the advent of trawlers and big factory ships meant that these big fish became prime targets.
Overfishing of all species has lead to a quota system, where boats are only allowed a set amount of a specific fish over a limited time. But by allowing the factory ships and their massive nets into productive waters has meant that while the ships might be limited in their catch size of a target fish, bycatch numbers have stayed very high. And this is a worldwide problem.
Current quota-based jurisdictions on the West Coast, other than Alaska, have also instituted a bycatch quota, meaning that vessels must stop fishing when they hit their bycatch limit. I won't say that this is best practice, but it is better than the unlimited bycatch allowed in Alaska.

This piece references Keven Drews' Canadian Press article printed in the Times-Colonist of 20 January, 2015.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Professor Elliot, Horsemeat, and the High Cost of Cheap

"Paardenrookvlees" by Takeaway - Own work.
Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Well, after many delays, concerns, and political panic attacks, the Elliot report (pdf), (precisely, the Elliott Review into the Integrity and Assurance of Food Supply Networks) has finally been released in the UK. Professor Elliot, a food safety academic from Queen's University in Belfast, chaired the committee, and the final report bears his name. Like the IPCC climate report, the final version has been subject to intense political negotiation by the affected parties before the report's release, which makes, like the IPCC report, the observations and recommendations pretty amazing. Professor Elliot, in the opening paragraphs of the report says:
I published my interim report in December 2013 which set out what should be done to address weaknesses in the system.Stakeholders welcomed the interim report and the opportunity to provide further feedback before I published this final report.I have since completed a further round of meetings and evidence gathering. Stakeholders felt that the final report should provide additional background about the recommendations and their implementation. Feedback has further shaped my recommendations and this, my final report, sets out the issues and the best way to tackle them in more detail.
 Had Professor Elliot been able to be a bit more frank, the passage might read "My preliminary report freaked out the government and food industry so much that they threatened me, my crew, and my university until I was forced to use much less dangerous political language--particularly that I should make it clear that it wasn't business' fault." You know, just like the IPCC.
The most media-friendly takeaway from the report seems to be that organized crime has a pretty big share of the UK food supply, and that it doesn't play by the rules. Which, to be fair, is pretty interesting. But the report also makes the point that the only way organized crime got a foothold in the food system is through 1) the complexity of the food supply chain, and 2) the concentration on price as the only significant driver on the food supply.
The report points out the difficulty of knowing how bad food fraud and food crime are in the UK:
[M]ore information about the extent of food crime was sought. The review contacted food businesses through trade associations and also territorial police forces. [...] Whilst it may appear from this feedback that food crime is not widespread in the UK, it is more likely that this confirms that evidence of food crime is not currently sought at the required level or with the necessary expertise. [....]
A total of 18 police forces responded to the request for information, 12 of which recorded no such cases [of food crime]. Several police forces highlighted a problem with extracting data on cases involving food crime as there is not currently a Home Office Crime Code for food contamination meaning it is not possible to search crime recording systems for food fraud. Food fraud may be costing UK food businesses a substantial amount of money and risks causing significant reputational damage. Importantly, some of the examples uncovered pose food safety risks. However, due to factors such as a lack of intelligence-based detection, the scale of the problem remains unknown. [sections 1.16 and 1.17]
 Nobody wants to know how extensive food fraud/food crime is in the UK. Food inspections agencies have seen their budgets cut (as had the CFIA in Canada) to the point where they are really just barely functioning fronts that perform minimal actual work. Food inspections have been off-loaded onto the companies producing the food, which have incentives for not finding any problems with the products flowing through the factory. The idea that the food industry needs impartial non-corporate oversight seems to have fallen out of favour with everyone except the public.
But the report also points out that:
Consumers have been accustomed to variety and access at low cost, and at marginal profit to suppliers. These factors have increased opportunities for food crime. [section 1.9]
 How do corporations maximize profit when they have trained consumers to concentrate on price over everything else? This is the Walmart principle of putting pressure on suppliers to lower costs to, quite frankly, levels that are impossible for manufacturers to survive on. They, in turn put pressure on their suppliers and workers to lower costs, or offshore to lower cost regimes. This system is detailed at length Ellen Ruppel Shell's book  Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

In terms of the food system, this manifests in adulteration of ingredients

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Things We Miss

Like the amazing amount of labour that goes into producing and distributing food so that we might eat.

I am so tired of royal purple heads of lettuce, tie-dye heirloom tomatoes, luscious ears of corn and speckled kabocha squash. Fan-like collard greens plague me and I do not want to discuss melon season. Every week during CSA season I haul 4,000 pounds of produce with my bare arms, and I’m seriously over it.

This is what life is like for a fruit and vegetable delivery girl in New York City.
I’m a small but very legitimate part of the invisible logistical web of our food system. I work for Katchkie Farm, an organic farm in the Hudson Valley with over 600 workplace Community Supported Agriculture members. These aren’t your average workplace CSA members, either. I deliver produce to the folks who more or less run the world at companies including WNYC, employees from the New York City government, NBC (I deliver to 30 Rock!), and a sprinkling of gigantic companies at the Empire State Building. In this way, I guess I play a small part in running the world, too.
Do check out the rest of the article, and the site as well.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Guest-Post Relationship

I doubt that anyone will get the reference to Laurie Anderson in the title, but I couldn't resist.
Back on December 20th, Valerie Leithoff wrote an op-ed piece in the Victoria Times-Colonist titled No Need to Fear Genetically Modified Crops. As usual, it puts forward the argument that GM crops are safe (the same conclusion reached by Nathanael Johnson at, and takes up the company line that only GM crops will save us in the uncertain future.
Local author and former organic farmer Paula Johanson  begs to differ in her response. She's also let me post that response here.

Paula Johanson
By permission of the author

In response to Valerie Leithoff’s commentary (“No need to fear genetically modified crops,” Dec. 20), it is more correct to say Canada is going to need thorough testing of genetically modified organisms in the future.
The typical public response to GMOs can only be characterized as “generally strong, negative, passionate and extreme” when people become aware of unlabelled, incompletely tested GMOs in the food industry.
Leithoff is accurate when she admits people “distrust or fear the unnatural essence of GMOs, and transferring genes from unrelated species is comprehended as a Frankenstein-type experiment” and “when people don’t understand things, there is a natural tendency to fear them.” It is not things I don’t understand that cause me to distrust GMOs: it is things I do understand that cause me to call for more thorough testing and for labels on any resulting food products.
I write on science and health for educational publishers. For 15 years as a market gardener, I sold produce at farmers’ markets. As well, for eight years, I wrote columns for a newspaper in a farming community. I have studied considerably to find out what the scientific community is actually saying about GMOs. There is no need to fear genetically modified crops simply because they exist, but there are plenty of reasons for distrusting the motivations of chemical engineering companies that produce GMOs and market products such as terminator seeds.
It’s not only GMOs that need to be more thoroughly tested, but the results of how GMO crops are grown in field conditions. Leithoff states: “Farmers growing GMO crops that contain biological insecticide have greatly reduced their use of highly poisonous chemical insecticides, cutting their costs and harmful effects.”
Rather than using fewer chemicals because of growing GMO crops containing biological insecticide, factory farms commonly grow GMO crops such as Monsanto’s own Roundup Ready canola that survive being sprayed with glyphosate (sold by Monsanto as Roundup) not only after planting, but close to harvest. The result is the presence in the food-processing industry of wheat, canola and corn that contain residues of pesticides. New studies are being done to measure the effects of pesticide residues in GMOs on animal and human health.
New and long-term studies are needed, because the papers Leithoff mentions as showing no evidence of dangers were for short-term testing in which laboratory animals were fed GMOs for 12 to 20 weeks. Some of these tests have been discredited after independent analysis. New studies are being done in which animals fed GMOs with pesticide residues show sharply increasing health effects after six months to a year.
Leithoff mentions the future of climate change, saying “the use of GMOs will allow us to adapt to the sudden, unpredictable changes [in climates], since new varieties can be created quicky.” She states: “Conventional crop breeding can take up to 15 years to establish a new crop variation, but with genetic engineering we can establish a new GMO variation in less than six months.”
Though our farmers will need to adapt to the reality of climate change, Leithoff is in error: New GMO varieties cannot be produced and come to market in six months or less. Wilhelm Peekhaus, in his book Resistance is Fertile: Canadian Struggles on the BioCommons, says:
“While traditionally bred varieties typically come in under US$1 million, Monsanto has stated that a genetically engineered variety requires at least 10 years to develop at a cost of between $100 million and $150 million.
“By comparison, conventional breeders, assuming they had access to sufficient research and development funds, could introduce between 100 and 150 new varieties in less time.
“Despite claims advanced by the biotechnology industry, intrinsic yield increases, as well as disease resistance, grain size, maturation period, and responses to biotic and abiotic stresses, are attributable largely to the robustness of the traditionally bred germ plasm rather than to the one or more genetically engineered traits inserted into the seed.”
Many B.C. scientists are speaking about GMOs. Marine biologist Alexandra Morton has written about GMO salmon. Herb Barbolet works in food security and sustainable community development at Simon Fraser University. The University of British Columbia’s faculty of land and food systems conducts careful studies on some GMOs.
While it is refreshing to read an opinion from a local undergraduate student of geography, it would be better to read an informed opinion from a working scientist in an appropriate discipline.
Paula Johanson of Saanich is a University of Victoria graduate student, and the author of several books on food and sustainability.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Will the Soil Save Us?

The model projected changes (above) in
global soil carbon as a result of root-soil interactions,
with blue indicating a greater loss of soil carbon to the atmosphere.
Courtesy: Benjamin Sulman, Princeton Environmental Institute

Conventional projections of global carbon dioxide emissions suggest that enhanced plant growth may help to sequester more soil organic carbon (SOC)--particularly in our soils. Under this scenario, Canada comes out a winner in Global Climate Change (GCC), with the prairie provinces expected to grow a wider range of crops with a lengthened growing season.
But, as with every aspect of GCC, this may not be the case. The paper Microbe-driven turnover offsets mineral-mediated storage of soil carbon under elevated CO2 in Nature Climate Change suggests that this is only partly true. Morgan Kelly's piece for Reporting Climate Science says:
Researchers based at Princeton University report...that the carbon in soil — which contains twice the amount of carbon in all plants and Earth’s atmosphere combined — could become increasingly volatile as people add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, largely because of increased plant growth. The researchers developed the first computer model to show at a global scale the complex interaction between carbon, plants and soil, which includes numerous bacteria, fungi, minerals and carbon compounds that respond in complex ways to temperature, moisture and the carbon that plants contribute to soil.
The study in NCC suggests that SOC sequestration increases under rising atmospheric carbon--but only in stabilization of ‘new’ carbon in protected SOC pools which may equal or exceed microbial priming of ‘old’ SOC in ecosystems with readily decomposable litter and high clay content (emphasis mine). However, carbon losses induced through accelerated decomposition dominate the net SOC response in ecosystems with more resistant litters and lower clay content.
So, little from column A, little from column B. An undisturbed deciduous  forest with readily composting leaves and grasses might sequester more SOC than, say, a coniferous forest. And there's no guarantee that farmland will sequester more SOC.