Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Greenhouse Debate

Lately we've been studying about globalization, the type of integration that allows New Englanders to enjoy Mexican tomatoes in January. What about the type of globalization that allows New Englanders to grow these warm-climate fruits in the dark depths of winter? We've studied vertical and horizontal integration - but this can be considered as a sort of temporal integration. A year-round supply of locally grown tomatoes seems impossible, until we consider the greenhouse option. Of course, there is a lot to consider here.
  Stacy Cramp for the New York Times
The drawbacks of such a system are easy to see. Energy use is the biggest issue with greenhouses. Backyard Farms in Madison, Maine uses an amount of energy in 32 minutes that would equal the amount used by an American household in 1 year. Greenhouses are much more prolific, generating 700 metric tons per hectare to the field's 34. However, even this difference is not enough to offset operation costs. It is estimated that $1.25 million must be initially invested per hectare - excluding operation and harvest costs. When asked whether shipping tomatoes from Mexico to Maine is greener than his locally grown greenhouse tomatoes, the chief executive of Backyard farms put it simply: "We're redder." Clearly there's some information we've been spared here. I also can't help but question what we're doing to the land under these greenhouses, and if it's truly healthy. These aren't small greenhouses you can walk through in five minutes, Backyard Farms' building is the size of 32 football fields. A greenhouse in Leamington, Ontario, a world leader in greenhouse produce, covers roughly 1600 acres.
So how do the greenhouses justify themselves? They have some pretty convincing points. A greenhouse can keep income and jobs local year-round. The risk of weather-related crop damage is eliminated. Backyard Farms also boasts heat blankets, rainwater harvesting, biodegradable supports, recyclable packaging, etc. They've also brought in bees to do their pollinating, and wasps to keep the pests at bay. Greenhouse farming is also a much more traceable process, which is important for food safety concerns. It is a controlled and isolated environment (less contamination) and the tomatoes can usually be traced back specifically. This is the type of control, however, that would be appealing to large corporations. I believe it's only a matter of time before these greenhouses become exploited by the CR4 to be able to control more of the market. This is an example of horizontal integration, in that a company can have ownership over more types of food production. We can also see this as vertical integration. If Heinz can start growing tomatoes year-round right next to where it makes ketchup in Pittsburgh, this cuts enormous costs for them and increases production by a tremendous margin.
Stacey Cramp for The New York Times
A 2005 study found that there has been a 600 percent increase in North American greenhouse tomato area from the early 1990s to 2003. Consumer taste is mostly to blame for this enormous increase. Society has become so used to out-of-season produce, it demands it. Not only is it generally expected to have fresh, bright red tomatoes year round, but we also want to be able to choose which variety to purchase as well. Greenhouses allow growers to experiment with different types of produce because of the quick turnover time. Even within the tomato industry, new trends seem to enter the stores every few months. Recently it has been on-the-vine, next up are "cocktail tomatoes." An article in the New York Times likened these to "Tomato McNuggets" - an analogy that is very close to the roots of this trend. We're seeing McDonadization in yet another sector of society. We have variety, convenience, and nutrition in a neat little package - one that a corporation has designed for your business and its profits. Once again, we fall into the trap of romanticizing this illusion of choice and diversity.
From the research I've done, I'm convinced greenhouses are taking us down a slippery slope. The costs outweigh the benefits, and I feel that the current issues will only become larger and more complex in the coming years. I can wait until late summer for authentic tomatoes.
What do you think?

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the USDA’s NIFA is awarding $900,000 to the Wallace Center at Winrock International in Little Rock Arkansas to run the Healthy Urban Food Enterprise Development (HUFED) center ( This program is a development of the USDA’s ‘Know your Farmer, know your food’, a program designed to “develop local and regional food systems and spur economic opportunity” (USDA Release No. 0440.09). HUFED provides healthy, affordable food choices to underserved communities including locally produced agricultural products.

The HUFED center is “designed to respond to the need to redevelop a food enterprise structure in the United States to make more healthy, affordable food available in low-income areas; to improve access for small and mid-sized agricultural producers” ( This center could provide solutions to fundamental problems that exist in the food system today, including the concentration of power in a small number of food corporations and the amount of purchasing choices that low income families have for food.

In the chain that links the food we consume from the field to our plate, power is concentrated in very few hands. An analogy that illustrates this power distribution is the shape of an hourglass; the widened ends represent the farmer and the consumer, respectively, while the thinner segment connecting the two represents the small number of corporate buyers and sellers that control the system of distribution. "When the number of companies controlling the gateways from farmers to consumers is small, this gives them market power both over the people who grow the food and the people who eat it." (Patel pg. 12).

If the HUFED Center were to succeed, the connection between farmer and consumer would be renewed and unabated, leading to greater economic opportunities for farmers. These opportunities could allow the farmer to make greater profit by providing crops directly to consumers instead of corporate buyers. This increased income would also boost the farmer’s power as he or she would be less reliant on the whims of large corporate buyers to make money. In addition, the farmer could become more independent, growing multiple crops that consumers demand instead of growing large lots of a single crop, such as corn or soybeans, that corporate buyers demand for resale and further processing.

Consumers would also benefit from this shift. For instance, low income families would have a greater range of healthier foods to choose from. Currently, these families are limited by price when shopping for food. Healthy foods, including vegetables and fruits, cost more than a meal at a fast food restaurant. As such, poorer families are often driven to purchase these fast food products, which are high in calories and low in nutrient value, because they cannot afford the alternative healthy foods. “A perversity of the way our food comes to us is that it's now possible for people who can't afford enough to eat to be obese." (Patel pg. 4). With increased consumption of cheap food like fast food or highly processed food, people’s health can start to deteriorate either through contracting diabetes or becoming obese. Obesity and diabetes have become more prevalent further down the lower end of the socioeconomic scale because “the industrial food chain has made energy-dense foods the cheapest in the market, when measured in terms of cost per calorie. …it makes good economic sense that people with limited money to spend on food would spend it on the cheapest calories they can find, especially when the cheapest can find-fats and sugars-are precisely the ones offering the biggest neurobiological reward.” (Pollan pg. 107-108).

The HUFED center offers an alternative food choice to the cheap caloric food containing large amount of fats and sugars. This alternative choice of healthy produce is a viable option for low income families because these foods are offered at a more affordable price. Consuming these fruits and vegetables will allow families to lead healthier lifestyles because the new, healthier foods will contain significantly lower levels of sugars, fats and calories then in fast food meals and cheap processed foods.

With the opening of the HUFED center, the farmer will be more connected with the consumer, giving the farmer more economic and decision making power. The center will also help low income families have more opportunities to eat a healthier, more balanced diet with fewer sugars, empty calories, and fats. By consuming these nutrient-rich foods, these families can decrease the chances of contracting diabetes or becoming obese- or reverse these trends already in progress and lose some of the weight that they have accumulated.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan
Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System by Raj Patel


The use of Genetically Modified Organisms in food production has sparked large controversy.

A Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) as defined by the EPA, “refers to plants that have had genes implanted to improve their performance by making them resistant to certain pesticides, diseases, or insects.” Supporters of GMO’s believe this to be a technological necessity, if we are to feed the growing world population. However, there are many concerns surrounding the use of GMO’s, which will be discussed in this blog.

The concerns surrounding GMO’s are health, societal, political, economical, and environmental related.

The first critique of GMO’s is that they won’t actually solve the world hunger crisis. Many people believe that there already exists more than enough food in the world to feed the current population, but that this food doesn’t reach poorer nations due to the current political issues surrounding food. For example, in the US, nearly 100 billion pounds of food is wasted each year. However, this excess food doesn’t reach poor nations, or even the poor of this nation due to political and cultural constraints.

The second issue is that GM crops increase the use of pesticides. GMO's reduce biodiversity of crops, this actually makes them more susceptible to disease and insects.

This segue's into the third issue concerning the corporations which produce the GMO's. These same few companies are also often responsible for producing and promoting pesticide products. This link makes many wary of trusting the seemingly profit hungry corporations.

Speaking of economics, the fourth issue concerns the farmer's and their ability to purchase the GM seeds from these billion dollar corporations. For many crops, seed prices have been increasing. This, coupled with the fact that farmer's can no longer save their seeds, as they have done so traditionally for hundreds of years (due to new patent laws which allow corporations to patent their GM seeds) have left many farmers too poor to even feed themselves.

This brings us to the fifth issue: GM and non-GM cannot co-exist. For example, imagine two adjacent fields, one planing GM corn and one planing non-GM corn. The pollen from the GM corn blows in the wind and pollinates the non-GM corn. This not only kills off the non-GM crop, it allows these big corporations to sue the farmer for patent violation.

The sixth issue is that GMO foods are non known 100% to be safe. The topic of safety itself is highly debated, but many people do not want to eat them.

This leads to the final issue, labeling. Many foods containing GMO's are already on our market shelves, none of which are required to be labeled.

One of the biggest concerns, which encompasses many of those already mentioned, are the long-term effects of GMO's. The long-term effects on our health and the environment are not known, and probably cannot be precisely predicted through research. This leads to the fear and concerns listed above.

So, should we be using GMO's?

I believe that given the number of concerns surrounding GMO's they should be well researched before being implemented. However, as we know, GMO's have already been implemented, and many questions are still surrounding them. At this point, I would suggest putting more research money and energy into other food production technologies, specifically ones which can be easily implemented in poor nations. Hopefully, out of this will arise a better solution than GMO's, so that they can be weaned out of the system before any irreversible damage is done (if it hasn't been already.)

What are your thoughts?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Vertical and Horizontal Integration in the Food Industry-Maybe a Good thing?

Introduction to Horizontal and Vertical Integration

The family farm is dead. The noble farmer being able to take care of his family and provide for his community is a thing of the past. Now, farmers are simply cogs in the great industrial wheel, being used and reused as cheap and dispensable labor for big business gain. As it was put by Heffernan in his portion of Hungry for Profit entitled Concentration of Ownership and Control in Agriculture, “the yeoman crop farmer will soon resemble the broiler grower,” as all realms of food production become subject to capital demands. Everything I read concerning the industrialization of food products seems to lament the loss of the agrarian America as championed by such leaders as Thomas Jefferson, and demonizes big business. It is easy to side with the nostalgic farmer squeezed out of existence by penny-pinching executives, but perhaps there are qualities in vertical and horizontal integration that make our current food model better than what it was.

First of all, America and capitalism are two sides of the same coin. The fact that such diverse, powerful and successful companies have managed to be born out of American soil and onto our tables acts as a testament to the opportunity presented by free enterprise. On the other hand, the small, local and family-owned companies that have been ground to dust in the industrial mill act as a grim reminder of capitalism’s downfall. As monopolies, horizontal integration, vertical integration and other capitalistic tactics take hold, smaller companies find themselves increasingly helpless and subject to the demands of a few mega–corporations. While the death of the independent farmer may seem disheartening, there are many positive aspects to having small farms absorbed into larger businesses.

The giants of the American food industry, such as Cargill, ConAgra, Tyson and many others as mentioned by Heffernan is his writing, have a reputation to maintain. In business competition, once a company loses its good name through contaminated food, immoral work practices or a variety of other downfalls, it is almost impossible to recover from the damage done. Though driven by monetary gain instead of honor or the desire to serve a good product, these big businesses are forced to comply with high standards of food safety as dictated by such organizations such as the USDA, FDA and by their competitors. Due to the international nature of the big food companies, there is an unprecedented amount of availability and diversity of food around the world, something that would not be possible with a world dependent on the local farm. This international stance also safeguards societies against crop failure. If a cluster of farms cannot produce food, there is a globe of other fields ready for harvest. The large companies also employ thousands and thousands of people in decent jobs with benefits, something a society of family owned farms could never facilitate.

In addition to all the benefits listed above, it IS still possible for farmers to have their own farms. Many times, farms are contracted by certain companies to produce a particular product as detailed by Heffernan. This way, a farmer can still practice his/her way of life while being a part of the greater industrial process. Also, there will ALWAYS be a market for locally grown, family owned farms. Now more than ever, people are recognizing the benefits of supporting their local agricultural community, and with the push for a greener, simpler, healthier world, this demand will only increase. There is even opportunity for scientific discovery in vertical integration. As companies absorb the components of their production line, seemingly unrelated businesses are in neighboring offices, such as biotechnology and farming. Great scientific discoveries are much more likely to be made with these unlikely fields juxtaposed.

To every statement made championing a big food industry, a counter argument can be made citing an instance where a large company has failed in that respect (example 1, example 2). While this is true, every industry is rife with problems which can be addressed and fixed. It is easy to complain about the loss of classic farming, but instead of dwelling on this loss, it is much more viable to embrace the change of society from small to large scale food production. There are many problems with the current food system, but by addressing these issues, and incorporating some of the values of the small, family owned farm back into these large companies the food industry can greatly improve. Many of the problems in the food industry, such as abuse of workers, unclean and unsafe working conditions, a general lack of pride and quality in the product among other problems are reminiscent to those faced during the Industrial Revolution. By learning from our past rather than dwelling on it, and working towards the future instead of giving up on it, unbelievable beneficial and novel ideas could be discovered in this vertically/horizontally integrated food system we have.

War on Drugs ≈ A War on Food ??

Many people complain that hamburgers, fries, hot dogs, pizza, candy, soda, cookies, potato chips, and other junk foods are 'addictive'. So despite knowing these foods are unhealthy to consume, many people would still eat them because of their 'comforting' effects. Some people have gone so far as to sue producers of these 'addictive' foods (i.e. lawsuits against McDonald's) for making them unhealthy and/or obese. Although it is well-known that industrial food companies have less-than-savory business models and produce obviously unhealthy foods, it is easy to dismiss these kinds of actions and chalk it up to a lack of personal responsibility on the part of the plaintiffs. But people can only be so responsible when most of the foods available to them are practically designed to make them sick. Complaints about 'addictive' foods may not be meant as serious and legitimate claims about the true nature of junk food, but scientific evidence recently reported by Sarah Klein at suggests that they might as well be.

Paul J. Kenny, Ph.D., an associate professor of molecular therapeutics at the Scripps Research Institute in Jupiter, Florida recently contributed to a study investigating the alleged addictive effects of foods high in energy from sugar and fat. Three experimental groups of rats were set up and examined over a period of 40 days: the first group was fed regular rat food, the second group was fed fattening and sugar-filled high-energy foods for one hour a day, and the third group was fed the same high-energy foods for twenty-three hours a day. The third group of rats quickly became obese and their mental triggers and consumption patterns became comparable to those of a drug addict using heroin or cocaine.

This particular scenario is recent but the idea of junk food's genuinely addictive nature is not an entirely new concept. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine hinted at the addictive qualities of fast food in the documentary "Super Size Me", released in 2004: "...It's not taste and mouth feel, it's a drug effect of the food within the brain that keeps us coming back again and again." Towards the end of the film, Spurlock asks, "Why not do away with your super-size options? Who needs 42 ounces of Coke? Who needs a half-pound of fries?" Well, when you consider the vicious cycle associated with drug addiction and the newly validated connection between junk food and addiction, the answer is simple. Addicts experience a high from their drug of choice and they eventually develop a tolerance which must be overcome by consuming ever-increasing amounts of the drug. Super-size options (on top of the outrageous amounts of inherently addictive sugar, fat, and caffeine within the food) do more than just rake in profit for fast food companies, they also encourage existing and potential addicts.

One detail of the CNN article alarmingly broadens the spectrum of foods in question. According to Dr. Gene-Jack Wang, cocaine and contemporary industrial foods are very similar in that they are 'purified', altered, or, in general, highly processed. Klein implies that consuming products such as white bread or foods containing corn syrup would be the rough food equivalent of injecting or smoking cocaine. Recent class discussions have dealt with the corn crop and the immeasurable influence it has had on modern food production. Many of the foods found in abundance at supermarkets contain ingredients resulting from the highly processed chemical decomposition of corn. Is a comparison to the decomposition of coca leaves to produce the cocaine narcotic too much of a stretch or does it at least reveal something about industrialized foods?

One idea drives home these uncomfortable thoughts and that is environment. "I believe we live in a toxic food and physical inactivity environment; that is, we live in an environment that almost guarantees we become sick," said Kelly Brownell, a professor at the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. Dr. Gene-Jack Wang reinforces this notion in the CNN article: "environmental factors...are involved in...[addictive] behaviors." Given these notions and the fact that our environment is laden with processed foods, a [metaphorical] war on food might be necessary to reclaim genuinely healthy and wholesome foods and integrity in their production, nutrition, and consumption.


CNNHealth > > "Do Fatty Foods Act Like Cocaine In The Brain?" By Sarah Klein, March 28, 2010

"Super Size Me" (Film), 2004

Friday, March 26, 2010

Globalization: For WHO?

What is behind the desire for variety and quantity over quality? Was this desire intentionally shaped? How has this contributed to world-wide poverty, climate change and loss of culture? Who really benefits from globalization? These questions relate to the ever-expanding global market where a small percentage of people benefit, while the majority is exploited. It is clear that the producers in the globalized economy, primarily in the global south, have experienced ecological destruction, loss of self-sufficiency and culture with complete reliance on the exports of the concentrated commodities they are producing. Although it can be argued that the ‘consumers’ of the developed world benefit from the commodities of globalization, it is evident that the resulting culture of disposability has been extremely inefficient, unhealthy and unsustainable. The unconscious and relentless consumer demand for a variety of commodities has strengthened the power of transnational corporations and their control over the producers and consumers of these commodities.

If the majority of people do not benefit from globalization in the long-run, why does this inefficient system continue to dominate and exploit the world? To understand this, we can first look at the illusions that are set up through marketing and societal standards. In “Development and Globalization,” McMichael describes how the media displays an illusion of the world’s diversity as a source of wealth which reduces it to a single, global entity. With this, consumers do not consider what globalization does to the people who do not benefit from the material and images of it and are increasingly disconnected from the origins of their commodities. This leads to further consumption; again, the beneficiary is the corporation. We can look at ancient Rome and find a similar model with the idea of “bread and circuses”. You provide people with food and entertainment and they will not pay attention to the decisions of the government. In ancient Rome, this system was a factor in the collapse of the empire as the price of imports could not be sustained[1]. Even then, about 90% of the population was still engaged with farming. This unregulated market through transnational corporations is becoming hard to sustain and generating tensions between the global north and south.

McMichael explains the tension between profits and meaning that arise from unregulated markets. For example, the stages of production for most products have been broken up around the globe where one producing community is only one step in the process. All of the community’s land and resources are used for a singular entity. The failure of this entity becomes catastrophic, not to mention the total reliance on the global market for a community’s survival as they are no longer able to produce self-sustaining food on their land. An example of this is yogurt in Germany. When taking into account its ingredients, we find that the strawberries, milk, and cardboard and ink for the carton travel more than 6000 miles to reach the market when it all could be produced within a 50 mile radius[2]. This cannot be beneficial from an environmental, cultural or social standpoint.

What is fueling globalization is the designed dependability of developing nations on the corporate market, the ignorance of consumers in their sources for consumption and the lack of alternatives for the consumer. The illusion of variety in the supermarket is illustrated by Michael Pollan in the Omnivore’s Dilemma where almost all food items are coming from the mass production of fewer and fewer ingredients and producers. So who is globalization really for? The answer is simple, not very many people!

[1] Geoff Tansey and Tony Worsley. “Modern Food: Where did it come from?” pp. 30
[2] Philip McMichael. Development and Social Change. Pp. 29.
Nutritionism is a paradigm that assumes that it is the scientifically identified nutrients in foods that determine the value of individual food stuffs in the diet In other words, it is the idea that the nutritional value of a food is the sum of all its individual nutrients, vitamins, and other components. Another aspect of the term is the implication that the only point of eating is to promote bodily health. The term is largely pejorative, implying that this way of viewing food is simplistic and harmful.

Nutritionism: The Numbers Game That Doesn’t Add Up To Good Health

April 8th, 2009 by kerry · 6 Comments

So Seinfeld alumna Julia Louis-Dreyfus has signed on to flog frozen dinners for processed food giant ConAgra, who’s shelling out an estimated $90-100 million dollars to “re-introduce” its Healthy Choice brand of convenience foods.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Or is there? The new campaign strives for Seinfeld-like irony by showing Louis-Dreyfus waffling about whether to endorse Healthy Choice. And Louis-Dreyfus should be ambivalent; after all, ConAgra has a pretty troubled track record on labor, food safety and environmental issues.

Louis-Dreyfus, meanwhile, has all the obligatory eco-chic credentials, from the solar powered Santa Barbara house featuring salvaged materials to her hybrid and biodiesel-fueled cars. She encourages everyone to use CFL bulbs and reusable shopping bags. And, as she told Shape magazine, whose April cover features her fabulously fit 48-year-old bod, Louis-Dreyfus is a big fan of organic and local food:

“…I buy organic foods whenever they’re available and shop at my local farmers’ market whenever I can. There’s something cozy about it. It’s a very friendly environment; you get to know the farmers. Plus, it’s better for the earth because the food is grown nearby, not flown in from some faraway place like South America.

I’m not out to mock Louis-Dreyfus’s apparent hypocrisy, here. What really galls me about Healthy Choice is what it represents: the triumph of “nutritionism,” that dubious dietary trend skewered by Michael Pollan in his bestseller In Defense of Food.

Nutritionism is the phenomenon that’s given us all kinds of super-duper enhanced foods: probiotic yogurts; whole grain cookies that are high in fiber; orange juice with added calcium, and so on. It’s a system of formulas, relying on various combinations of carbs, fats, proteins, minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients which–in the proper ratios–are supposed to be the key to good health.

And yet, all these numbers haven’t added up to a healthier nation–on the contrary.

So, on the 100th anniversary of our nation’s oldest nutrition program at Teachers College, Columbia University this past weekend, one of our foremost professors of nutrition, Joan Dye Gussow, stepped up to a podium to implore her fellow nutritionists to avoid what she called “the nutrient trap.”

Gussow, who’s taught nutritional ecology at Teachers College for nearly four decades,
recalled the gist of a conversation she’d had with a colleague back in 1969:

“You know, Ruthe, I was thinking about nutrition education; and I realized that it would take me about 20 minutes to teach ordinary people what they ought to eat if they wanted to be healthy. Less meat, less fat, lots of grains and fruits and vegetables, some dairy. The problem is that there are all those other things in the supermarket designed to seduce them.”

As Gussow noted, the end of World War II brought a flood of processed foods derived from new and novel ingredients:

“…the push to invent new products to maintain the growth of the food industry and the emergence of television for promoting these tempting objects directly to the public, came together to create accelerating change in the food supply…

…if we had known in 1940 what we know today about degenerative diseases in relation to the macronutrient composition of the diet, it would have been relatively simple to teach people how to choose their diets wisely from the foods then available in the marketplace…

…Instead, those of us trying to apply nutrition so as to improve human well-being, have for years found ourselves standing ankle-deep in a flood of new products, desperately seeking to keep abreast of the latest news about the latest combination of ingredients that will make us and those we counsel chronically healthy.

Nutritionists in recent decades have focused on individual nutrients in their attempts to identify beneficial ingredients. But Gussow pointed out the folly of fixating on, say, beta carotene’s potential to fight cancer when there are some 50 other carotenoids commonly found in fruits and vegetables. Since many of these carotenoids occur together, Gussow added, “It’s impossible to say when you’re looking at someone’s diet, which one–or several–of them might be helping protect against cancer.”

What we do know is that plant-based foods contain a wide range of micro and macro nutrients that foster good health. This is why Gussow and her fellow nutrition professor Marion Nestle–and Michael Pollan, who acknowledges his debt to both these women–are forever telling us to eat whole foods, especially fruits and vegetables. Packaged, processed “food-like substances” containing long lists of gobbledy-gook ingredients will never form the basis of a healthy diet, regardless of whether they’ve been “enhanced” with fiber, or omega 3 fatty acids, or antioxidants. As Gussow declared:

“…it is time for nutrition educators to start taking our own stand, insisting that whole foods not collections of nutrients must become the fundamental unit for eaters and educators as well as researchers.

In thinking how we might do that, I’ve personally had some success in suggesting that we use the term “indigenous” nutrients in our specifications which would mean they had to be there to start with and “nutrition” couldn’t be achieved by just dumping appropriate quantities of the most popular nutrients into any old mix of corn, soy and sugar. But we need to go further than that. We definitely need to push for food, food that comes fresh into homes and institutions and is cooked so that it tastes like actual food. Simple, good tasting food that eaters sometimes have a chance to handle raw…

…As the devastating statistics indicate–the rising rates of obesity and diabetes, the forecasts that our children will have lives shorter than ours–we are threatening ours and our children’s futures by how we feed them and allow them to be fed. We know just enough about the composition of food to know that, in seeking health, our only real choice is to eat actual traditional foods, not those collections of nutrients that the food industry will be happy to provide to us in a variety of forms, even as candy bars. And we know, therefore, that our most determined enemies in the attempt to improve diets will be the food companies that profit from selling all of us these unhealthy products.

ConAgra’s Healthy Choice website boasts that its new “all natural” entrees are high in fiber, contain antioxidants such as lycopene and vitamins A and C, are low in saturated fat and cholesterol, and free of preservatives or artificial flavors. To the average shopper, that all sounds reassuringly nutritious, no doubt.

And if you take a look at the nutritional information offered for each of Healthy Choice’s new entrees, you’ll see that the number of carbs, fats, etc. falls within the recommended range by our current nutritional standards. You’ll also get a brief, vague description of each dish–for example, the Sweet Asian Potstickers: “Get 6 grams of fiber from this delectable vegetable dish served on a healthy bed of whole-grain rice and covered with a sweet Asian-style sauce.”

Well, OK, but what are these Sweet Asian Potstickers actually made of? Who knows? The Healthy Choice website doesn’t bother to list the actual ingredients. Because it’s not really about the food–it’s all about the nutrients. The truly healthy choice is real food, not a brand in a box.



Thursday, March 25, 2010

AR4D global conference

Next week the first Global Conference on Agricultural research for development (AR4D) will meet to try and bring the successes of the green revolution to developing countries through a mixture of sustainable techniques, designing plans for the local environment, and increasing support in agricultural research in developing countries. According to the IRIN Global new article, the aim of AR4D is to

“achieve sustainable food and income security for all food producers and consumers, especially the poor, using the same resources – land, labour, water – available within the constraints of climate change and an expanding population.”

New agricultural development is needed; over 1 billion people are currently food insecure, and the population is expected to rise by three billion over the next forty years.

The Green Revolution occurred in the 1970’s and brought about an increase in development of agricultural research and technology. New high-yielding varieties of grains helped relieve hunger in developing nations such as India. However, many of these developments were made for general application; the high-yield crops that worked in Asia, where the land is irrigated, failed in Africa where most crops are rain fed. One of AR4D’s main points is to produce local food for the local growing population. In order for food aid and technological assistance to be helpful over the long term, it has to be designed for the local environmental conditions and has to be adopted by the country receiving aid. They have to take control make it their own project.

One of the main roadblocks to the Green Revolution and to AR4D is lack of political will in developing countries. Five countries account for over fifty percent of agricultural research and development in developing countries. Countries that take charge of their own agriculture can achieve results far above those of an outsider. India developed “200 rice varieties of its own” after outside agencies introduce a few high yielding varieties.

As we have discussed in class many of the problems with global food production, especially in developing countries, is that it tends towards increased production of a single cash crop and low prices of that crop. These lead to farmers developing unsustainable methods in order to increase their production by enough to make a livable income. As we learned in Raj Patel’s book, “Stuffed and Starved: The hidden battle for the world food system,” local, small scale agriculture have been shown to work in many countries where farmers are able to a measure of political influence. Organizations such as the Brazilian landless rural workers movement have improved conditions for farmers in Brazil and other countries. La Via Campesina is probably the largest of these organizations and includes 150 million members around the world.

AR4D addresses many of the problems with farming and agricultural practices today. It plans on using a bottom-up approach to involve the poor and disenfranchised, to create area specific plans to make agricultural and farming practices effective and sustainable, and to increase support of agricultural research and development in developing countries. If the support needed for this plan can be found, I think it has a decent chance of changing the world food system for the better. However, according to Uma Lele, “retired senior advisor to the World Bank and lead author of a comprehensive assessment report on AR4D,” “it will cost about $80 billion dollars a year to implement all the reforms needed to ensure food security for a rapidly growing world population,” which is double what is spent currently (VOA news).

The need for change is pressing, and as Lele says, "The situation will not change until every individual and institution starts taking responsibility. Research pays off only in 10 years or so; we have to start now."

Back to the Land

And the Pursuit of Happiness
by Maira Kalman

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Caveman Complex

Inside one of the chapters from the book to the left: “For perhaps 100,000 years Homo sapiens were successful hunters and gatherers, living in small bands, part of larger social and political alliances. Their material worlds were surely limited.... Then, between twenty thousand and ten thousand years ago, people began to organize their practical lives differently, sometimes exploiting plentiful food resources in a way that allowed less mobility, more stability, perhaps more possessions. Finally, from ten thousand years onward, food production – as against food gathering – became more common, villages sprang up, small towns, cities, city-states, and eventually nation states.” What this means is progress for human societies and culture! However, as humans have progressed there have been misguided attempts in food distribution. Particularly what I’m concerned about is food dependency and bioregionalism issues. One solution to both: be like a primitive human being – be a caveman.

I was inspired to write this blog after reading an article: “'Evolutionary Fitness' diet is so easy, even a caveman can do it.”
It can be summarized by the following comic:

What cavemen did and eat is most speculated or researched by specialists who “see” the diet in bone construction and tidbits of culture found throughout the ages, but another article [Geoff Tansey and Tony Worsley, “Modern Food: Where did it come from?”], as described by a classmate in an earlier blog entry [“How foods development has changed us” on Tuesday, March 23rd of 2010], creates a vision of the past. Our control of Mother Nature has resulted in a dependency on a specific food, as explained by a video also posted by a classmate in an earlier blog entry (Tuesday, March 16th of 2010).

Bioregionalism, on the other hand, is the ecological-social idea of sustainability. “Bioregionalism” was a term coined by Peter Berg in the 1970s to define “an environmental perspective that emphasizes action over protest, lifestyle over legislation.” His term was meant to educate folks that natural systems on Earth should be maintained and eventually restored to help repopulate natural species. Today, as indicated by the “Modern Food” article, humans have “gained control over the production of food” through multiple regimes that have resulted in a corporation regime where a few people have control of many food resources.

So consider: The “average plate of food travels about 1500 miles” and a “Hawaiian sugar packet – 10,000 miles (for packaging, despite the fact that sugar cane might be grown nearby).” [This information was provided by classmate’s presentation.] Bioregionalism raises awareness about the true cost of our food (GHG emissions on top of the cost you, as the consumer, pays for), whose responsibility it is to consider that cost (AKA the current food system), and to help promote change to humans don’t destroy the only world we have so far.

As I mentioned before my solution is to return back to the caveman. Though this article doesn’t mention it, there is another term for what cavemen used to do: “locavorism”. This means that a person eats within a 100 mile radius so that the money stays within the community and strengthens the bioregional community. Therefore, the money would go to the farmers in the region. This diet would mostly keep up with the seasons – so the consumer would eat foods that are fresh and not shipped from other climates – and would encourage a healthier diet that does not consist of mostly high fructose corn syrup.

One family has succeeded in following this diet! In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barabara Kingsolver farmed their own food and bought from 100 mi radius. (Though each family member had one “cheat” food.) Within this book she discusses several flaws to bioregionalism: that it wasn’t ideal to follow the localvorism diet in Virginia due to urban sprawl; that farming experience would be difficult for average population who would need to educate themselves prior to attempting this diet. [I would like to thank another classmate in part for using this as an example in his presentation for bioregionalism!]

So what’s the only other alternative? One classmate stated: there is “only change [when there’s] a complete disruption in the system.” The overhaul for the existing food system would be difficult, especially to implement another system since some regions cannot support a bioregionalism system. On top of that there’s no incentive to change.
With rising gas prices and increasing eco-social awareness the consumer can change the current food system to work for you, but first, we, as the consumer, need to not support the current system. Will you help the new movement grow in strength or should you?

Where's the beef?

With all the talk of subsidies and how they have revolutionized the face of international food cultures, I thought I would dig into more about what legal policies have been allowing for this trend. Food Inc. and Schwarz's "Paradox of Choice" all reference the rise of multinationals such as ConAgra, Cargill and Tyson and the control they wield over what is produced and how, but they don't really mention the government's support of these production techniques is what perpetuates the influence of multinational companies. Without subsidies, large companies would have much less reason to overproduce corn and raise livestock in such dangerous conditions. Moreover, GMO corporations like Monsato would have much less incentive to develop their product lines and discourage infringement of their patents. A disturbing trend has seen the spread of homogeneous GMOs have displaced the genetic diversity of traditional crops. The absence of subsidies would seriously disrupt the paradigm of multinational domination of the food industry.
However, the role of subsidies is not limited to empowering these multinational giants. The advent of processed foods have skewed the consumer market towards nutritionally hollow processed meat and corn derived products. Moreover, while less affluent families have certainly been hit hardest by the health risks posed by this growing segment of processed foods, processed corn is finding its way into a wide variety of other products that have not been associated with corn in the past in the form of corn syrups.
An indirect effect of the encroachment of processed corn upon diet has been the lack of farmers willing to produce largely unsubsidized foods such as green vegetables and fruits. Meanwhile, meats have taken up a significantly larger part of the diet than is advisable by Federal nutritional recommendations, further contributing to the nutritional debacle. In 2008, when Congress voted on the Fairness in Farm and Food Policy Amendment that would cut subsidies to the production of "unhealthy foods" (Good Medicine PCRM, 2007), it was handily defeated 117 to 309. This is not surprising the influence multinationals exercise in the form of former executives at the very regulatory agencies that are supposed to control these companies as well as campaign contributions and lobbyists that have given them a stranglehold over policies of food production.
Clearly, the only course of action that can address these issues is mass public intervention. But, against a food culture that has grown to accept and depend upon the products of multinationals and a largely disengaged government, this will prove monumentally difficult. Even so, awareness alone will give people the ability to make healthier choices both nutritionally and politically.

"Health Vs. Pork: Congress Debates the Farm Bill." Good Medicine 16.4 (2007). Good Medicine PCRM. Physician's Commitee for Responsible Medicine, 2007. Web. 18 Mar. 2010. .

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On Food and Cooking

This is not my blog post, but could be beneficial to anyone that's interested in getting ahead in their food commodity chain project.

Jasons says, "Best book he bought for himself ever!"

[For those who are just joining us, my class has been assigned a project to construct a food chain providing details about where two of the same products with at least one major difference derive from. For instance, my partner (Jason) and I are looking into micro- and macro-brewed beer, specifically Blue Moon and Otter Creek.]

How foods development has changed us

I believe one could argue that before agriculture came to be developed, we could be classified as an NEP or New Ecological Paradigm society. In regards to the fact that we saw ourselves as part of the ecological system on the planet. While we were in this paradigm, we were a society that was broken up into the hunters and gathers. In additional, we were a nomadic society in regards to the fact that we did not stay in any place an extended period of time for various reasons. Some of those reasons could be that we followed the various animals that we hunted. Another reason is that we had to move to a new location during changes in our environment.

However, once we learned the benefits of agriculture, human society has forever been changed to one that is HEP or Human Exemption Paradigm society. With the development of agriculture, we moved away from being a part of the ecological system. In addition, we were propelled to the top of the food chain which quite literally allowed us to take the controlling position away from mother nature. Prior to its development, the size of our society were extremely limited.

However thanks to the development of agriculture, we have become an every growing society. Since its discovery we have become a society with nearly 7 billion strong. It has allowed us to nearly domesticate most if not all the plants and animals around us. With agriculture we no longer have to move place to place based on the migrations of animals and/or changes in the seasons. Instead we find it more convenient to change nature itself than for us to change ourselves.

Source: Modern Food Origins - Today's (3/23) class reading

Sunday, March 21, 2010

In a Pinch

Science is a tool, not a solution. Despite the advent of technology and industrial processes as positive contributors to our worlds civilizations, one of the trade offs has been the impending resignation as a species to our increasing dependence on science based foods.

In his book Stuffed and Starved, Raj Patel argues that there is enough food to feed the entire planet and targets the traders, processors and retailers at the pinch of the hourglass as responsible
for the estimated 800 million who are hungry and outweighed by the near 1 billion who are overweight. Thus if food availability is not the issue, why must we recruit science to provide for us? The November 2008 issue of Wired Magazine is an excellent study of this question and takes the position that we are faced with a global food crisis that is in demand of a new green revolution, one that looks to science to lead the way in the 21st century and beyond. (see link to read the fine print: ) Their overview targets traditional and conventional farming systems as inefficient and unprofitable and claims that "biotechnology and genetics can improve our productivity and profitability." This is the underlying manifesto of our hourglass pinchers - up the production to increase profit.

addition to reinforcing Patel's claim of the imbalance between the stuffed and the starved, Wired breaks down the inputs that go into the production of our food and displays the output results that leave the reader to consider the implications: energy costs, transportation distances, nutritional additives, material costs, etc. Their analysis of these implications has led them to provide future farming alternatives in addition to reinforcing their claim mentioned above that supports biotechnology and genetic dependence. One utilizes science as a tool, the other as a solution. The divide between the two is the blurred zone that is representative of our transition from independence to dependence. The 'Future Farming' spread notably exploits weaknesses in our traditional farming practices and offers suggestions as to how man in tandem with technology can target the inefficiencies and improve our crop yields. It is this position I support in opposition to the 'What's Next' spread that displays the world's country's who are actively pursuing genetically modified crops, those who are not, and Wired's support for the continued research initiatives. Unfortunately the increasing dependence on science to provide initiates a secondary dependence on the modified crop: our expectations of corn are exceeding that of ourselves! For if the day comes that our natural earth cannot provide for the growth of our crops, science will be there to pick up the slack. And until then we must continue to challenge the hourglass pinchers before our resignation becomes official.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Salmonella + HVP + Corn

What is common between Follow Your Heart Beef Au Jus, CVS Honey Mustard Pretzel Bites and ofTrader Joe’s Organic Creamy Ranch Dressing & Dip? All of these products contain hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP) which can be produced by boiling soy or corn, these products are among the10,000 other products that have been recalled in fear of the spread of salmonella through one step on the food commodity chain. Salmonella often starts off like a stomach flu, but can turn fatal.

For example, Trader Joe’s Organic Creamy Ranch Dressing Dip was recalled throughout their stores in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada due to fears of contaminated HVP. Where did this contamination originate, and how did the potentially infected disease spread to 10,000 different foods? After some research, I found it originated from the company Basic Food Flavors, which is located in North Las Vegas, Nevada.

The large impact of a single contaminated plant has a far reaching impact resulting from the complex food production practices of today. There are many ingredients which are needed to make a single make a single ingredient on the nutrient information label, and even more ingredients required to make the final product on the shelf. What may seem like a single ingredient, HVP on a food label, is rather a highly processed food additive. According to US Recall News, “HVP is made by first boiling corn, wheat or soy in hydrochloric acid. The solution that is produced from boiling the cereal or legume is then neutralized with sodium hydroxides, which causes the acid to breaks down or hydrolyze the protein in the cereal or legume into their individual amino acids."

Michael Pollan explains how corn is transformed in America into a large portion of the food products, wich Americans consume, and most of them do not even resemble corn.

“The longer the ingredient label on a food, the more fractions of corn and soybeans you will find in it. They sappily the essential building blocks, and from those two plants (plus a handful of synthetic additives) a food scientist can construct just about any processed food he or she can dream up.” Pg 91-92 in The Omnivores Dilemma

Since there are even more ingredients of food there are more steps on the commodity chain where something could go wrong. In this situation, the single Basic Food Flavors HVP plant caused a recall in a such a large number and wide variety of foods. On the company’s website, there were six pages worth of products and lot numbers of contaminated HVP. Had there been a simpler commodity chain it would have been easier to identify the specific items containing the salmonella.

Similar to the spinach example by Philip H. Howard from Michigan State University discussed in class, the implication of economic principle of horizontal integration in the production of corn into HVP meant that many diverse varieties of food could become contaminated. Since horizontal integration, means that a single company controls a large portion of a single step in in the production of a single product ( in this case HVP), the contaminated HVP had the potential to reach large numbers of citizens. Had the production of the food occurred at a smaller scale the scale of the recall would not have been as large.

However, this threat of contamination was not expressed on Basic Food Flavor’s website, rather the company desired growth and an even larger scale of production, “The addition of our spray dryer, continuous belt dryer, numerous pressure cookers, and our second continuous belt (to be online in 2009) provides our customers with the security of knowing their HVP will not be in short supply.”

All in all, what can be learned from this instance is how vulnerable our food system really is. If a single stage of the food production goes wrong, it has effects of reaching thousands of consumers.