Lost in the Supermarket

Last year, it seemed, every book about food that crossed my desk — other than those about cooking, of course — seemed to have one of two titles: “How I Moved to Brooklyn and Became a Roof-Gardening Butcher” or “The Gluten-Free Diet Saved My Life, and It Can Save Yours.”

This year is different; the books are variations on the title “How Big Food Is Trying to Kill You.” We have “Salt Sugar Fat,” my Times colleague Michael Moss’s epic description of the manipulation of processed food to make it even more palatable and addictive tomorrow than it was yesterday, and how the industry is well aware of how destructive of public health this manipulation truly is. We have the excellent “Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America” by Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food and Water Watch, which details the takeover of our food system by that same crew of corporate cynics.

And we have the cleverly titled “Pandora’s Lunchbox,” by Melanie Warner, a freelance (and former Times) reporter, which is so much fun that you might forget how depressing it all is. This is in part thanks to Warner’s measured, almost dry but deceptively alluring reportorial style, but it’s also because the extent to which food is  manipulated – and therefore, consumers as well — is downright absurd . There are more Holy Cow! moments here than even someone who thinks he or she knows what’s going on in food production could predict.

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Posted in Farming, Food Politics

Lawns Into Gardens

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The seed catalogs have arrived, and for the roughly 15 percent of Americans who appreciate the joys and rewards of growing some of their own crops, this is a more encouraging sign than Groundhog Day or even the reporting of pitchers and catchers to spring training.

Yet several times a year we hear of a situation like the one in Orlando[1], where the mayor claims to be striving to make his city green while his city harasses homeowners like Jason and Jennifer Helvenston for planting vegetables in their front yard, threatening to fine them $500 a day — for gardening. The battle has been raging for months, and the city’s latest proposal is to allow no more than 25 percent of a homeowner’s front yard to be planted in fruits and vegetables.

As if gardens were somehow an official eyesore, or inappropriate. (Jason Helvenston, my hero, said: “You’ll take my house before you take my vegetable garden.”) If you want to plant a lawn, that’s fine, though it’s a waste of water and energy, both petrochemical and human. Nor are lawns simply benign: many common lawn chemicals are banned in other countries, because most if not all are toxic in a variety of ways. My guess is that 100 years from now, lawns will be about as common as Hummers.

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Posted in Farming

Pesticides: Now More Than Ever

How quickly we forget.

After the publication of “Silent Spring,” 50 years ago, we (scientists, environmental and health advocates, birdwatchers, citizens) managed to curb the use of pesticides[1] and our exposure to them — only to see their application grow and grow to the point where American agriculture uses more of them than ever before.

And the threat is more acute than ever. While Rachel Carson[2] focused on their effect on “nature,” it’s become obvious that farmworkers need protection from direct exposure while applying chemicals to crops[3] . Less well known are the recent studies showing that routine, casual, continuing — what you might call chronic — exposure to pesticides is damaging not only to flora but to all creatures, including the one that habitually considers itself above it all: us.

As usual, there are catalysts for this column; in this case they number three.

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Posted in Farming, Food Politics

Buying the Vote on G.M.O.’s

Supporters of ingredients derived from “genetically modified foods,” which hereafter I’ll call G.M.O.’s — genetically modified organisms — are mostly the chemical companies who make them or other people who make money from them. They assert that a) there’s no proof that G.M.O.’s are harmful to humans, and b) studies demonstrating that they might be are largely flawed [1]. Point B might even be true, although since the chemical companies largely control the research, it’s hard to tell.

But even if there were a way to guarantee that food produced with G.M.O. ingredients is not directly bad for you, it remains clear that such food is in general bad for all of us, based on the collateral damage from producing it.

What most genetically engineered crops have in common is that they’re bred to be super-resistant to chemical herbicides, chemicals that will kill pretty much everything except the specified crop. And as the weeds that those chemicals are meant to kill adapt and grow bigger and stronger, more and stronger chemicals are needed to try to deal with them.

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Posted in Farming, Food Politics

Everyone Eats There

California’s Central Valley is our greatest food resource. Why are we treating it so badly? 

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I left Los Angeles at 4 in the morning, long before first light, and made it to Bakersfield — the land of oil derricks, lowriders and truck stops with Punjabi food — by 6. Ten minutes later, I was in the land of carrots. 

 You know that huge pile of cello-wrapped carrots in your supermarket? Now imagine that the pile filled the entire supermarket. That’s how many carrots I saw upon my arrival at Bolthouse Farms. Something like 50 industrial trucks were filled to the top with carrots, all ready for processing. Bolthouse, along with another large producer, supplies an estimated 85 percent of the carrots eaten by Americans. There are many ways to put this in perspective, and they’re all pretty mind-blowing: Bolthouse processes six million pounds of carrots a day. If you took its yield from one week and stacked each carrot from end to end, you could circle the earth. If you took all the carrots the company grows in a year, they would double the weight of the Empire State Building. 

At Bolthouse’s complex, carrots whirl around on conveyor belts at up to 50 miles an hour en route to their future as juliennes, coins and stubs, or baby carrots, which the company popularized and which aren’t babies. Other carrots become freezer fare, concentrate, salad dressings and beverages. Fiber is separated for tomato sauce and hot dogs. Whatever’s left becomes cattle feed. For the entire article click here.

Posted in Farming, Travel

McDonald’s to Phase Out Gestation Crates

There are more than a few improvements McDonald’s could make to better the treatment of its customers and workers, of the animals that provide the meat it sells and of the environment. On Monday, after years of internal and external pressure, the company announced a laudable course of action regarding the sows (female pigs) in their supply chain: McDonald’s is requiring, by May, that its suppliers of pork  provide plans for phasing out gestation crates. Once those plans are delivered, says Bob Langert, the company’s vice president of sustainability, McDonald’s will create a timetable to end the use of gestation crates in its supply chain. “Considering that 90 percent [of the pregnant sows] in the United States are in gestation stalls, this is a huge issue,” he says, and he’s right.

This is important for the animals and for the entire meat-selling industry. Let’s start with the sows: a gestation crate is an individual metal stall so small that the sow cannot turn around; most sows spend not only their pregnancies in crates, but most of their lives. For humans, this would qualify as “cruel and unusual punishment,” and even if you believe that pigs are somehow “inferior,” it’s hard to rationalize gestation crates once you see what they look like. (For the record, defenders of the system suggest that crates prevent sows from fighting in group pens. There’s no space to argue that here, but it’s nonsense.)

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Posted in Farming, Food Politics

The FDA’s Token Gesture

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My column last week described how the Food and Drug Administration is declining to regulate the use of antibiotics in animal agriculture. After withdrawing its own 34-year-old request/promise to restrict the routine use of penicillin and tetracyclines in farm animal feed, the F.D.A. made it crystal clear that, despite the increasingly common threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in supermarket meat, it would leave the regulating up to industry itself.

Yesterday, however, the following headline appeared in this paper: Citing Drug Resistance, U.S. Restricts More Antibiotics for Livestock. Did the F.D.A. make a new year’s resolution to get off the couch when it comes to curbing antibiotics in agriculture? Not really. In fact, this is a pathetic, token, and infuriating effort.

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Posted in Farming, Food Politics

How to Build a Local Food System

You might think it would be difficult to find a cheerful and optimistic farmer the year a hurricane wiped out most of the crop, but I did so in Burlington, Vt., the day after Thanksgiving. I was visiting the Intervale Center, a nonprofit that manages a 350-plus-acre flood plain not far from downtown.

The Intervale, which is on the Winooski River, has been farmland for nearly the entire time humans have lived in this region, not only because land that floods is especially fertile (think of the Nile), but because it isn’t much good for anything else. “The Intervale was always a smart place to grow food,” says Will Raap, the founder of Gardener’s Supply, headquartered in the Intervale. “It’s fertile and flat, and there’s plenty of water. And as Burlington grew it didn’t get developed because it floods.” Twenty-five years ago, part of it was planted in corn and much of the rest had become an informal dump.

Raap happened upon the land back then, saw its potential and teamed with Burlington Mayor Bernie Sanders (the now-heroic Vermont senator, with whom I was touring the Intervale Center) to begin seeding and incubating small businesses and farms in the Intervale. The Center’s goals are familiar ones, but worth repeating: to use the land responsibly and sustainably, to help farmers make a living, and to make needed connections among people, farms and food.

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Posted in Farming

The Secret Farm Bill

The Republican-manufactured budget crisis of this past summer — remember? — resulted in a “solution” that’s hijacking what little representative democratic process we have left. Equally sad is that the so-called supercommittee — charged with creating an outline for reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years — may preclude full discussion of the farm bill.

It’s the farm bill that largely shapes food and agriculture policy, and — though much of it finances good programs — ultimately supports the cynical, profit-at-any-cost food system that drives obesity, astronomical health care costs, ethanol-driven agriculture and more, creating further deficits while punishing the environment.

The farm bill is written every five years. Although the current one doesn’t expire until September, the next one may be all but wrapped up by your first bite of turkey, because the leaders of the House and Senate agriculture committees — a group of four, representing Oklahoma, Michigan, Minnesota and Kansas (do you see a pattern here?) — are working feverishly to draw up a proposal in time to submit it to the supercommittee before the Nov. 23 deadline.

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Posted in Farming, Food Politics

Local Food is Not Elitist. It’s American

I’m not a jingoist, but I’d prefer that more of my food came from America. It’d be even better, really, if most of it came from within a few hundred miles of where we live. We’d be more secure and better served, and our land would be better used. And I’d feel prouder, as if we had a food culture rather than a food fetish.

The Farm Bill [PDF], which is currently under negotiation for renewal — and is dangerously close to being pushed through without real debate — needs to address this issue head-on. But by subsidizing commodities, the existing bill (and food policy in general), pushes things in precisely the opposite direction. The vast majority of our farmland grows corn (we’re the world’s largest producer), soy and wheat, and these, along with meat and dairy, make us net exporters of foodstuffs.

Incredibly, however, we are net importers of fruits and vegetables, foods that our land is capable of growing in abundance and once did. Most of our imports are from Mexico, Chile and Canada, but fresh fruits and especially vegetables are shipped here from all over the world, with significant quantities coming from as far away as India, China and Thailand. And those imports are growing.

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Posted in Farming, Food Politics