Politics of the Plate

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By Barry Estabrook

Superherbicides vs. Superweeds

Last week I noted that agribusiness giant Monsanto was scaling back its profit projections in the face of generic competition for its weed killer Roundup. Now, it turns out that the popular herbicide is getting some stiff competition from the weeds themselves.

Monsanto has profited greatly from selling “Roundup Ready” seeds. These varieties have been genetically engineered (GE) to survive being slathered in the company’s pesticide, which kills competing weeds. For years environmentalists have warned that the near-universal use of the herbicide in corn, soybeans, and cotton would eventually give rise to races of superweeds that also could survive Roundup—call them “Roundup Resistant.” Sure enough, that now is happening all over the farm belt. Continue reading

Posted in Food Politics

Politics of the Plate

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By Barry Estabrook

Monsanto’s Last Roundup

In 2003, after losing nearly $2 billion the previous year, Monsanto bet its corporate life on a genetically modified future, much of which would be built on GM seeds for corn, soybeans, cotton, and other crops that could survive being sprayed with the company’s brand-name herbicide Roundup. It was a good bet. Between 2003 and the end of 2007, shares soared by more than 1000 percent by the end of 2007.

But it looks like the ride may be over. Last week, the gigantic seed and agricultural chemical company announced dramatically lower-than-predicted profit expectations, laying much of the blame on sluggish sales of Roundup. Its once high-flying shares are now down 40 percent from last year’s levels. Monsanto told Reuters that it would “drastically narrow” its Roundup portfolio, which alone brought in nearly $2 billion in profit in 2009. Continue reading

Posted in Farming, Food Politics

Foraging for Fritters

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By Barry Estabrook

We live at the end of a gravel road named, appropriately, Locust Lane in recognition of the ancient black locust trees that line it. The recent spate of unseasonal heat has brought them into full, fragrant bloom. They perfume our entire yard. Our noses tell us that  it is time to invite the neighbors over for the most fleeting foraged treat of the year, usually available for less than one week.

Sunday’s brunch: Locust fritters with perhaps a gargle of prosecco to wash them down. We always use the recipe Jacques Pépin included in his memoir, The Apprentice. Continue reading

Posted in Recipes

Politics of the Plate

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By Barry Estabrook

Sustainable Seafood Counters

A major supermarket chain has announced that it initiated a program to stop buying seafood that failed to meet sustainability standards.

Publix Supermarkets, Inc., whose stores are ubiquitous in Florida and much of the Southeast, will begin to rank the 300 seafood items it carries according to sustainability. The program will unfold over the next year, and will involve categorizing seafood into three groups: Sustainable, Needs Improvement, and Needs Major Improvement. Publix officials told the Tampa Tribune  that they intend to apply pressure on fisheries with poor rankings to improve. If there is no sign of improvement over time, the company will stop buying.

It’s an encouraging trend in Big Retail. In January, Target adopted similar policies on seafood, including the elimination of all farmed salmon from its stores. Continue reading

Posted in Food Politics, Seafood

Politics of the Plate

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By Barry Estabrook

Organic Economic Indicators

Looking for tangible signs that the recession is loosening its grip? Last week, major organic food producers, wholesalers, and retailers—who had taken hits during the meltdown as consumers lost their appetites for their pricey fare—announced heartening financial news.

A rundown:

United Natural Foods, Inc., a wholesaler of natural and organic foods, saw its share price hit its highest level in more than three years.

Whole Foods Market, Inc. reported that its earnings were the best “in several years” as sales for the quarter came in at more than twice what they were during the same period last year. Its stock is trading at nearly five times the 2008 low. Continue reading

Posted in Food Politics, Produce

Politics of the Plate

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By Barry Estabrook

[Barry’s weekly roundup of food news.]

Know Your Senator

Three prominent Republican United States senators sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently condemning the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program, introduced last fall to help strengthen local food systems.

John McCain (R-AZ), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), and Pat Roberts (R-KS) wrote that they had “serious misgivings” about Know Your Farmer. They asserted that the program is aimed at “small and organic producers” whose customers generally consist of “affluent patrons of urban farmers markets.” Continue reading

Posted in Farming, Food Politics

The Politics of the Plate

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By Barry Estabrook 

[Barry Estabrook, the former food and politics writer at Gourmet, blogs at www.politicsoftheplate.com. His story about the horrors of labor and Florida-grown tomatoes was among the best of 2009, and it isn't only me who thinks so - he won a Beard award last night. On Twitter, he regularly serves up snippets about food and politics @Barry_Estabrook. And here on markbittman.com, he will be contributing a weekly roundup on newsworthy food events. – mb]

Strike Three for Atlantic Bluefin

Endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna can’t seem to catch a break. Strike one came late last year when the International Commission on the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas voted to allow fishermen to take 13,500 metric tons of tuna this year, a number that the commission’s own scientists said left the majestic fish with only a 50-50 chance of avoiding extinction. Strike two was thrown in March by the Committee on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) when they buckled under Japanese lobbying and voted not to give the species protection.

 Last week, it was British Petroleum’s turn to deal a devastating blow to Atlantic bluefins with oil leaking from its sunken drilling platform off Louisiana. The Gulf of Mexico is one of only two spawning grounds for the fish and it happens that now is peak time for mating, said Chris Mann of the Pew Environmental Trust in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Fortunately, the heart of the breeding grounds lies southwest of the oil slick, but Mann worried that prevailing winds might blow bluefin eggs into the contaminated area.

Genetically Modified Justice a la Clarence Thomas

Last month, the Supreme Court began hearings on a case that could be pivotal to both sides of the GMO argument. In 2007, a lower court issued an injunction against planting genetically modified alfalfa produced by Monsanto after determining that the United States Department of Agriculture had approved its use without sufficient scrutiny. Monsanto is appealing the injunction. 

 Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer recused himself because his brother was a judge in the lower court case. Fair enough. But conservative judge Clarence Thomas, who did legal work for Monsanto back in the 1970s, declined to recuse himself. Oral arguments last week indicated that Clarence’s conservative colleagues on the bench were not buying the argument that the GM alfalfa could contaminate nearby non-GMO alfalfa. A decision is expected this summer.

Coke to Shareholder Group: Things Go Better with BPA

Last month 22 percent of Coca-Cola’s shareholders supported a resolution asking the soft drink company to disclose how it is dealing with concerns about the safety of bisphenol A, a plastic coating used to line the inside of cans. The company refused to provide the asked-for information, saying that it would not be “useful to our shareholders,” according to Food Quality News. The company said it would continue to take its guidance about the chemical’s safety from regulatory agencies. 

 Maybe the Coke execs should take a look at the latest information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which recently ordered new studies into the chemical’s safety. In a January update to on BPA, the FDA said that it shared “the perspective of the National Toxicology Program that recent studies provide reason for some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior, and prostate gland of fetuses, infants and children.”

It also said, “In addition, FDA is supporting reasonable steps to reduce human exposure to BPA, including actions by industry.”

Obama’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy on GMO Foods

An obscure unit of the United Nations called Codex begins meetings this week in Quebec City, and its deliberations could determine whether food processors who trade internationally will be permitted to say on labels that their products are free of GMO ingredients.

That’s right. The Obama administration is pushing a position first articulated by the Bush Whitehouse that foods sold internationally should not be labeled “No GMOs” even if the statement is true. The administration claims that telling the public the truth about GMOs is “false, misleading, or deceptive.” Their somewhat convoluted reasoning: there is no difference between GMO and non-GMO food and telling the truth might make consumers think there is. (Photograph by iStockphoto)

Posted in Food Politics, Seafood