Friday, April 30, 2010

Food Labeling Fiasco; Organics and Nutrition

Amidst the resurgence of health conscious food and drinks, consumers are often quick to associate labels such as "organic," "natural" and "wholesome" with an actually healthy product. With the adoption of organic product lines by major food producers such, the marketing of these lines as healthy alternatives has allowed these false connotations to proliferate among consumers. Those who are reluctant to read cryptic nutritional information on packaging now turn to these vague symbols to guide their health choices.
Although these products may be made from organically prepared ingredients, organic junk foods are still junk foods. Currently these labels are seeing their way on products from potato chips to sweets. Meanwhile, the foods carrying the American Heart Association stamp have grown from 1-7%. As diabetes and obesity become increasingly serious threats to the American population, FDA funding and influence is being cut. The result is that food companies have been able to take advantage of consumers, lulling them into a false sense of nutritional security.
But, the blame does not lie solely with the manufacturers. Consumers have an obligation to educate themselves, just as the government has an obligation to provide common goods such as regulations requiring clear and concise food labeling. Consumers have a responsibility as responsible citizens to exercise their political rights to push for labeling reform. These three confounding factors have turned organics from healthy food choices into a mire for unwary consumers.

Source:

Pettitt, Jeniece. "FDA Seeks Consumers' Advice On Food Labeling - WSJ.com." Business News & Financial News - The Wall Street Journal - WSJ.com. Dow Jones & Company Inc., 30 Apr. 2010. Web. 30 Apr. 2010. .

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Interview with Anna Lappe

Recently we've talked about the current state of the food movement. Here is an interview discussing that with the author of one of our readings. In it Anna Lappe talks about how we used to say organic everything and now its getting to be more about local. She also talks about the signs of hope for the future that we mentioned in class.

http://www.grist.org/article/2010-04-28-ask-umbra-dishes-with-anna-lappe/

Monday, April 26, 2010

Sell Out or Opt Out

The last couple of readings have focused on different ways the terms sustainable and organic have been applied on small farms and large farms, organic and conventional, but another interesting dichotomy that kept being alluded to was “sell out” or “opt out.” The idea of “selling out” by compromising one’s integrity, morality, or principles in exchange for money, success, or mainstream appeal is a common accusation of musicians on their way up, but most people would laughingly dismiss the notion that yogurt could sell out. Gary Hirshberg, the “CE-Yo” of Stonyfield Farm, doesn’t take such criticisms lightly (and he’s heard them before). In a 40 minute interview (here on youtube) entitled, Selling Without Selling Out, he defends Stonyfield’s partnership with Wal-Mart and their purchase (or 85% ownership) by Groupe Danone, the French food giant. In his writing in Food, Inc. (excerpted from his book Stirring It Up: How to Make Money and Save the World), Hirshberg described his life-shaping realization that “[He had] to become Kraft” because only large powerful businesses with enough “cash and clout” could popularize sustainable and organic food. On the other hand, Joel Salatin, the lecturer, author, and farmer behind Polyface Farms, has a completely different philosophy. He sees Polyface as a true alternative farm for the consumer who chooses to “opt out” of a corrupt and unsustainable system. Joel is no more likely to sell to Wal-Mart than he was to FedEx as steak cross country to Michael Pollan (He is featured in The Omnivore’s Dilemma as well as Food, Inc.). So what does it mean to opt-out? Did Stonyfield sell out or just “opt-in,” and which approach is more successful in the long run?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

How sustainable is "Organic"


How sustainable is the term organic? Will the term still exist in the future; will it have the same meaning? Now there is much confusion between organic and sustainable agriculture, thus a new term should be devised which encompasses both of these principles.

In the 19th century, the term organic described the opposite of industry, yet now it is capable of acting as a marketing ploy geared toward elitists. Michael Pollan explains in the Omnivore’s Dileman how the word seems to have lost its meaning. Today, it is possible for microwavable TV dinners can be considered organic.

There is a difference between sustainable and organic, but do consumers recognizes this? According to sustainabletable.org, “Organic farming generally falls within the accepted definition of sustainable agriculture. However, it is important to distinguish between the two, since organic products can be (unsustainably) produced on large industrial farms, and farms that are not certified organic can produce food using methods that will sustain the farm's productivity for generations.”

The Organic label primarily focuses on the regulation of the inputs in a processed food an on the farm. It regulates the genetic modification of seeds and the use of chemical fertilizers. The label also insures that few chemical additives are applied to processed foods. It fails to integrate carbon footprint, level of processing, distance traveled, promotion of local agriculture, and sustainable practices. Thus, the organic label is one of many steps of many toward promoting healthier and more sustainable foods. In the Omnivores dilemma, Pollan brought up how term Organic is owned by the government (Pollan, pg 132). Surprisingly, the government permitted specific artificial additives are permissible in organic food (Pollan, pg 156).

Since the meaning of organic has evolved to encompass products which are not sustainable and do not promote community, will we need to create new terms to categorize our food? Should foods which are organic and unsustainable be privileged over those which or may violate a few of the governmental requirements of organic agriculture but produce a more sustainable and equitable systems of agriculture? I personally think that organic practices should integrate sustainability, and if they do not than a new term is necessary to describe products which integrate both organic and sustainable practices.

Pollan explains how some companies like Whole Foods seem to be depicting organic, as a “story” which convinces people to pay a grater price (Pollan, pg 135). In Newsweek, six experts debate the issue of whether or not Organic is in fact a marketing hype. Blake Hurst argues, "It affords a chance to enjoy a sense of superiority over the coupon-clipping bourgeoisie, to identify with beautiful actresses instead of old farmers in overalls. But mostly, organic food is marketing hype." The proliferation of organic food may be a marketing fad word to attract a specific customer base rather than a means of instilling positive long term practices.

Milk which is produced on factory farms, processed, and travels long distances to the consumer is still capable of being designated organic (Pollan, pg 139). Organic farming does not necessarily instill the sustainable agriculture practices or revolutionize the industry. “the same farmer who is applying toxic fumigants to fertilize the soil in one field is the in the next field applying compost to nurture the soil’s natural fertility” (Pollan, pg 158). It seems as if the government’s definition of organic contains many loopholes which permit unsustainable practices.

Yes, now there are degrees of organic, but these indicate the percentage of ingredients in a processed food which is organic, they do not indicate the integrity of the principles. They do not indicate the distance it has traveled, or how it is not associated from industry. I think there should be some way for the consumer to learn more about the vital parts of the food commodity chain from the labeling.

On a similar note to the reductionist ideas of the contemporary uses of the certification of or ganic is the LEED Certification of buildings. Yes in general LEED promotes sustainability, but it is possible to have an exemplary building design and not receive the designation "LEED Certified Building" just as it is possible to design a building which is inefficient in is energy usage but still receives the LEED Designation. Today, many homeowners are electing to participate in sustainable practices, but don’t want to pay for the paperwork. Both LEED and Oorganic Certification require lengthy checklists, and promote sustainable practices, however LEED promotes more flexibility. It is possible to petition individual points of LEED if you are proposing a more sustainable solution. I think this flexibility should be integrated into the Organic Certification process, however this flexibility may only be possible from the expensive application fee.

Some farmers are saying it is too expensive and too difficult to obtain certification. I was surprised to learn the following about the cost of becoming certified organic: “Producers who market less than $5,000 worth of organic products annually are not required to become certified, though they have the option of doing so. These operations must still adhere to the federal standards for organic production, product labeling, and handling.” What happens to the farmers who produce more than 5,000? It costs within the range of a few hundred dollars and a few thousand dollars depending on the scale of the farm.

However some farmers wish to abstain from the organic because the rigid regulations do not permit the most sustainable practices of local farming. “Then there is this further paradox: Polyface Farm is technically not an organic farm, though by any standard it is more “sustainable” than virtually any organic farm. Its example forces you to think a lot harder about what these words sustainable, organic, natural – really mean. “ (Pollan, pg 131) At Polyface farms, the farmers value supporting neighbors and a reduction of carbon emissions more important than the use of a minor pesticide.

Is it even necessary for farms with sustainable and organic practices to receive the designation of organic? Will the public recognize if a product lacks the label organic and does it necessarily mean that the product is worse than those which are produced on certified organic farms?


______________

According to Dictionary.com,

or·gan·ic 

–adjective

11. pertaining to, involving, or grown with fertilizers or pesticides of animal or vegetable origin, as distinguished from manufactured chemicals: organic farming; organic fruits.

sus·tain 

–verb (used with object)

5. to keep up or keep going, as an action or process: to sustain a conversation.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Morality of GMO's

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO's) are becoming a huge part in everyday life, or at least in our foods. For this discussion genetic engineering will be defined as alternating the DNA of a living organism. They have also stirred up a lot of controversy along with moral judgments, such as we should just leave mother nature alone and Gods creation alone.
GMOs include a variety of plants and animals that have been altered at the DNA level to try to bring out some quality that is desired, such as resistant to pesticides or adding a vitamin or mineral. Companies have then been able to patient their seeds and can only be used once, but is it really fair to patient living organisms? And then once these organisms are planted by farmers and grow and spread seeds, the companies that have patients on the seeds and what ever seed they breed with they own. So, is owning a seed ok? How about owning a gene sequence in an animal and owning everything it breads with? Or how about creating a baby by selecting the best genes from the mother and father and then owning that child? And if you think this hasn't been thought of, then watch then 1997 film Gattaca. So where do we draw the line of what type of life we can and cannot own. Like with plants we can't stop nature doing what nature does, so how can big business claim that it's the farmers fault when a GM seed is breed with a non GM seed. Its not like big business would try and claim that they own a human that they genetically alter, or would they? But lets say, and hope, they wouldn't, so then what makes it OK for them the say they own a seed. Why yes they put all the time and money into it, so therefore they own the gene sequence and such. By that means they'll be only ones able to produce and sell it. So from the aspect of owning the seed is there, but once it leaves the factory and purchased, the person who bought it owns it now right? Not according the patient laws that allows these big businesses to sue farmers for reusing the seed, even if the seed got mixed in with another farmers seed who didn't intend on using it.
But back to the morals concerning Genetic Engineering plants, how far are we to let this go. This could just be the frontal push for the public to come accustomed to genetic engineering. Politics use this principle of only showing a little bit of their big plan and after time show us a bit more and we become desensitized to what is really going on around us. If they just put their entire plan right in our lap we would have nothing to do with it and be done with the hole thing. So could genetically engineering plants just be the for front of us becoming desensitized to organizations and companies genetically engineering animals and babies. I believe that one day we will have a society much as the film Gattaca depicts, it'll just take time to desensitize the public eye.

How grocery stores influence consumers

Two main supermarkets, Coles and Woolsworth, make up the majority of grocery stores in Australia. According to Epoch Times, these stores sell a combined 75% of total packaged groceries in Australia. There is little room for third party competition in the grocery sector in Australia due to the almost complete market domination of these large companies. A study done by the University of Queensland (UQ) found that a correlation exists between the lack of retail competition in the grocery sector and public health-which illustrates how supermarkets have a profound influence on the consumer’s diet.

Since little to no competition exists in the grocery stores of Australia, the companies are not competing for the lowest price to lure consumers into their stores. The consumers then are not given a ‘level playing field’ when it comes to buying fresh fruits and vegetables (ABC News). Not only are the healthy foods like fruits and vegetables expensive, but there is also limited selection and accessibility. Lead researcher Jon Wardle, of UQ's School of Population Health states "The current situation has meant that prices are higher, choice is lower and it is harder to get to places that sell healthful foods. People generally want to eat healthier foods, but the current situation makes it harder for them to do so." (UQ News)

So how is this affecting consumers? Little nutrition exists in the consumer’s diet because of the low intake of healthy, fresh foods. According to Jon Wardle, the lack of nutrition may be implicated in 56% of all deaths in Queensland and 14% of the state hospital’s budget (UQ News).

"We need to look at not just what people are eating, but how it's getting to them in the first place. If we make it harder to access or afford good foods then obviously it's going to be harder to get people to eat well," says Jon Wardle (UQ News)

As Wardle states, supermarkets have a strong influence on the consumer and the consumer’s diet. Supermarkets’ general strategy to lure customers into their stores is to sell ‘a way of life’ which “provides a supportive context to the exchange of goods and services,” according to Jane Dixon (A Sociology of Food & Nutrition). This is done via a variety of practices, using particular language, marketing certain images, but above all, supermarkets want to appeal to the consumer’s lifestyle. For example, in the 1970s a social movement towards an increased concern with health and the environment spurred supermarkets to advertise goods that “had minimal contact with the industrial process and were ‘close to nature’” (Dixon pg. 112). The influential “cool chain,” a process that involves getting produce to stores in an unfrozen but chilled state, which is then ready for storage in supermarkets refrigerators, facilitated this movement of increased consumption of healthier foods because the chilled food seemed fresher (compared to frozen foods), and thus healthier.

The food retailers also influenced consumers’ diets by creating ‘meal solutions’ which solved consumers’ problems of time constraints for cooking a meal and the potential lack of food preparation skills. These meal solutions started with a ‘roto bird’ which was a rotisserie style cooked chickens with potatoes and coleslaw and was then replaced by frozen TV dinners in the 1960s. These meals appealed to consumers because they were fast and easy, but were considered to be a healthier alternative to fast food meals, which were similarly fast and easy.

Grocery markets have a profound influence on the consumer and the consumer diet, whether it be through increased production of ‘meal solutions’ to eliminate time intensive home cooked meals or limiting accessibility to healthful foods through high prices and limited choices. In Australia, lack of competition in the grocery sector has proven to have a severely negative influence on the consumer’s health. Changes are being made though to combat this problem, the ACCC (Australian competitor and consumer commission) has conducted an inquiry on the grocery sector and it was found that “grocery retailing is workably competitive, but there are a number of factors that currently limit the level of price competition.” (ACCC.gov) One of the regulatory measures passed in response to this inquiry is that Coles and Woolworths will no longer be able to demand that shopping centres not lease out space to competitors according to news.com. This will allow other companies with lower prices like Aldi, Franklins, Foodworks and IGA to open up stores adjacent to Woolworths and Coles which forces them to lower their prices to compete.

Out to Dry: Tracing Implications of Australia's Shifting Climate

As the debate presses on regarding the most efficient and effective methods of implementing a future of sustainable farming practices, we cannot neglect the crises that are shifting agricultural processes as we speak. Australia is currently riding out a major eight year drought that has left their agricultural economy out to dry. It is the worst drought in the country's 118 year history.

Water is life, and to the farmers who refuse to give up hope they are sacrificing their crops, their livestock, their contracts and their families in exchange for some glimmer of hope that the rains will soon return and replenish the lands that once yielded grounds for survival. Farms that lie below the Goyder Line are susceptible to insufficient rainfall for crops to grow and are therefore completely dependent on irrigation techniques to supply water to their farm. Such farms have been dependent on the great Murray River to supply their irrigation channels, paying a yearly fee that as of recent has suspended delivery to farms and instead giving utmost precedence to the southern city of Adelaide. The fury? Farmers are still paying under contract for water they are not even receiving. Similar to farmers in the U.S. cornbelt who are stranded at the mercy of the transnational corporation, Monsanto, options are slim to none while the bills escalate and the livestock that's left along with the family, struggle to survive. In a disclosed interview with a counselor, a farmer's wife "says she checks every couple of hours to make sure her husband is not lying in his orchard with a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his head. When the meeting is over, the counselor adds their names to a suicide watch list."1

The multi-generation Australian farmers have never seen a drought reach these extremes and attribute it to world climate change. Even the slightest increase in global temperatures have scientifically been attributed to altering the precipitation patterns that once nourished Australian grazing lands. Unable to turn back past events, farmers recognize the urgency to look at alternative options ranging from developing drought resistant crops to reducing the water supply to dairy farmers whose current use equals a thousand gallons of water for each gallon of milk produced to the construction of desalination plants near the major urban centers. While desalination plants would mean a drastic increase in energy bills, Monsanto is currently producing drought resistant crops for the future 2, an alternative that might leave farmers with no choice despite where their moral obligations fall... Government officials on the other hand are pressing for a major shift that encourages local farmers to find new work and leave the largest producing farms in operation.

It is impossible to wrap ones head around the magnitude of such a problem as this. We might start by tracing the problem back to its source which in this case might be two things: first is the elephant in the room, climate change. This is not something Australians have control over, however what they do control is the location of their farms and the regulation of resources. Perhaps the decision to permit farms to materialize south of the Goyder Line where the known rainfall amounts were already known to be much less than that needed to grow crops. In addition, the dependence on the irrigation systems creates a vulnerability that is currently being exploited at its worst. Farmers are paying for water that they are not receiving to grow their crops and irrigate the lands that feed their livestock. As a consequence they are paying upwards of $20,000 a month to import food for their animals and increasing their debt tenfold. Faced with having to sell their properties as a last resort, farmers are left in turmoil, begging the question in the end, who is responsible for this? Mother Earth's climate? The government? The farmers? Regardless of who is responsible, our footsteps have left imprints on a changing world that demand awareness and action.

In addition to what alternatives are available, the larger message extends beyond the future of Australia and to our planets future. Climate change is happening now and its consequences have begun to accumulate. When and who is next we may not know, but let Australia's drought serve both as a warning and more importantly as a model, for awareness is the first step towards implementing a future of greater sustainable farming practices.


1 http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/04/murray-darling/draper-text/1
2 http://www.monsanto.com/droughttolerantcorn/default.asp

Monday, April 19, 2010

Pop Culture References to the Food Industry

The relationship between the organic food market, commercial food industry and the consumer is a growingly complex and meaningful relationship. Intrigue in these topics is indicated by a growing number of popular culture references to the food industry. Following is a critique of one particular pop culture reference. Despite the fact of being a simple cartoon, this episode speaks inherent truths of the food industry, particularly its connection to the consumer.

“With great meat, son, comes great responsibility.”

The gravity of these words uttered by Hank Hill of King of the Hill (KOTH) as he gingerly grilled his steak rings truer than he originally intended. I was very surprised to be watching television last night, and a KOTH episode entitled “Raise the Steaks” was aired. In this episode 6 of season 12 from 2007, Hank is grilling some steaks from the local Mega-Lo Mart (similar to Walmart) only to discover they are tough and inedible. He then ventures to the nearby Co-Op for the first time and discovers the delicious, organic, locally produced food the store has to offer, despite his initial adversity to the hippie-like, earth-hugger atmosphere.

Hank then becomes enamored with the Co-Op after visiting the free-range farm where the meat cows are raised, and helps the store earn profit and attract new customers. When the store makes it first profit, the hippie store owners are appalled since they are a non-profit organization and believe money is evil. Hank then reminds the Co-Op members that they can use the money to improve the store and provide their quality food to more people. Due to the newly improved store, more members of the “establishment” come into the store which causes the hippie store volunteers to “lose their vibe.” Hank assumes the voice of reason by reminding them that these people simply want the good, wholesome, non-industrialized food they have to offer.

The new-age store owners then take Hank’s advice to the extreme and decide to sell the store to Mega-Lo Mart. As soon as the new ownership takes effect, the Co-Op’s food quality immediately plummets to that of industrialized food. Appalled by the food condition, Hank takes the animals from the Co-Op farm, and they are sent off to live permanently on a free-range farm.

“If this is food, what have we been eating?”

Peggy Hill, Hank’s wife, utters this statement after eating food from the Co-Op for the first time. Due to the heavy emphasis on livestock in this episode, the FAO-Livestock’s Long Shadow reading has a direct correlation to the condition in which cows are treated. The industrial food production process is rife with environmental concerns and problems. The sheer number of livestock that must be supported is confined to amicable climates, which causes severe environmental strain, degradation, and resource depletion. In addition to this, cows are substantial producers of several green house gases. These problems among many others plague industrial food production.

On the other hand, organic and free-range food production does not have these significant negative impacts. As mentioned in Food Inc., food produced in more natural ways do not have as many harmful microbes and do not have negative environmental effects. The episode focuses on the food industry’s relationship with the consumer, but scientific data and research confirms that free-range and organic food production is healthier for ourselves and the earth.

“It’s not a crime to be a cow”

After seeing photos of the dreadful conditions and prison-like cells to which Mega-Lo Mart cows are subjected, one of the Co-Op volunteers gives this poignant statement and then helps Hank kidnap the livestock. Though the cartoon gives a comical insight to a small corner of the food industry, the episode speaks essential truths that industrial meats are of a lower quality than free-range, organic meats. The fact that cows are subjected to abominable conditions, and then we eat them is absolutely atrocious. As a result and as detailed in Fast Food Nation, food-borne illness outbreaks have become a part of society, enormous amounts of processed foods are produced in unethical ways and, in general, industrialized food production produces lower quality food.

It is documented knowledge that livestock production is not environmentally sound as mentioned in the FAO reading above, and the livestock trapped in the butchering process are treated inhumanely. The next question is, why don’t more people rebel against this unsound, unsafe, inhumane process? Small sects such as the volunteers running the Co-Op begin the process, and through their dedication, their wholesome products can become available to more people, as exemplified by Hank’s role in improving the Co-Op. The episode touched on all sects of food consumers. The volunteers were the organic/free-range proponents, Hank’s friends were the skeptical industrial consumers, and Hank was the undecided consumer who does not completely agree with the hippie-lifestyle but can appreciate good food made from well-treated animals.

The episode delved even deeper into the relationship between food production and consumer then just characterizing the various types of consumers. In the episode, the store volunteers are actually corrupted by money and greed. The Co-Op workers sold their humble store to Mega-Lo Mart since they would all receive a cut of the purchase money. The volunteers justified their actions by convincing themselves that their quality food will now be available to more people. The Co-Op suppliers then became subject to Mega-Lo Mart’s large-scale industrial process, causing the food quality to plummet. This situation brings to light the problem that simply consuming foods labeled as organic or free-range is not sufficient to be a responsible consumer. Actually going to the farm and seeing the animals, like Hank did in the episode, is the only definitive way to ensure food quality. The sheer scale of our current food industry makes such personal visitations impossible, but the example of the Co-Op is a viable place to start the process.

I was genuinely surprised to find such a thorough expose of the food industry in a cartoon show. The episode characterized the majority of consumers and their responses to free-range, organic food and typical industrial food. The episode then delved into the unacceptable conditions of the industrial food process and one honest man’s decision to not accept such atrocities. The episode also explored the fallacies of the organic food market and its susceptibilities to large chains and alluring profits. The fact that all of these complexities could be presented in a short show is a testament to the dynamic relationship between the food industry and consumers.

Extra

Example of livestock abuse



The organic, free-range option





Grass-fed beef standards





Social Implications of the Green Revolution


The Green Revolution was a period of technological innovation in agriculture between 1943 and the late 1970s. Many developing countries were exposed to the ideologies of the Green Revolution and it was deemed a success in many nations for the increased production of grains due to new irrigation techniques, fertilizers and seed technology. In our class we have already discussed the environmental consequences of the Green Revolution such as the loss of biological diversity, increased pollution, depletion of natural resources, loss of soil nutrition, erosion, deforestation, etc. Without a doubt there are many unsustainable effects from the Green Revolution but I would like to take the time to focus on the cultural effects of the Green Revolution, in particular the effect that the Green Revolution had on the peasant population in Malaysia.

In 1966 the World Bank introduced an irrigation project to the Kedah Plain of Malaysia to that was deemed a success because it allowed the peasant farmers to plant rice harvests twice a year that doubled production and reduced unemployment. The evidence of these ‘successes’ can be seen in the rural villages with new stores and buildings and the fact that fewer peasant lost their land. But with many of the world technological innovations and interventions with any positive change there are also costs attributed to it. In the case of the Kedah Plain, there was the obvious gap in the economic inequality in the farmer population and the traditional relationship between the poorer and the richer peasants were challenged.

Before the green revolution was introduced the peasants who owned farm land did not have the labor to farm it by themselves and would rent it out to the poorer farmers at prices determined after a harvest so that the rate could be set based on the quality of the harvest. The farmers would employ the poorer peasant to work their land for a small amount of money as well. Additionally, there was also the traditional gift giving and festival that the rich would hold for the poor in exchange for labor and loyalty in the following harvest.

The innovations of the Green Revolution disrupted this social relationship in the peasant population. The double harvest and increased yield in rice made land more valuable and the prior conditions of settling rent was pushed to the side because outsiders were more willing to pay more than the peasant could to rent the land. Additionally, rent was now demanded before the harvest and would not be adjusted for a poor harvest. The impact of this on the landless peasants was that they lost their access to farm land for their own profit. Another innovation was the technological innovations that used machines to replace manual labor: marginalizing the landless peasants even more. The final change seen was the end to the gift giving practice because they no longer needed the loyalty of the poorer peasant to works their fields

The landowning peasants cannot be blamed for these changes because they were simply playing their part in the capitalist market that is taking over the agricultural sector and were trying to increase their profits, the primary goal of capitalism. They took advantage of the new machines that cut costs and the increased value that came from owning land and lost sight of traditional obligations to the offense and further marginalization of the poorer peasant. They were many displays of protest to the modernization of the rice production some were more peaceful than other. Landless peasants used means of protest that included gossip, appealing to traditional values, theft, sabotage of machines, and strikes by females who were hired when the combines were not enough to transplant rice seedlings. The landless peasants were not upset that the farmers were making excessive profits only that they were violating traditional behaviors where they had exploited the peasants for their labor. Many protests that are arising from the technological innovations that are being introduced into the capitalist economy are that workers who were once exploited for their labor are now being completely eliminated from the equation. A recently fired American factory worker summed up the theme of these protests perfectly, “The only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited” (314).

The Green Revolution can definitely be deemed a success in the eyes of a capitalist economy; it is increasing profit and growth which further spurs spending in our consumptive culture. However, the marginalization of the less privileged populations, in addition to the increased economic inequality will lead to an increase in protests in the periphery and they will not always be as peaceful as that in the Kedah Plains.

Robbins, Richard H. Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism. Pearson Education, Inc. 2008.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Biodiversity and Reciprocity


Although the global system for producing and distributing food accounts for 1/3 of the total anthropogenic global warming effect[1], modifying this system can greatly help to mitigate climate change and also to re-claim social and cultural relationships that have been diminished as a result of agribusiness. The CNN article, “Feeding the Future: Saving Agricultural Biodiversity,” discusses a $116 million dollar fund through the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) to preserve agricultural biodiversity. Among eleven other communities worldwide, the Quechua Indians in the high mountains of Peru are being funded to maintain their diverse collection of rare potatoes in return for ensuring that these species will be available when the world faces future food crises. The article goes on to discuss how biodiversity is essential to the natural world but also to the resilience of agriculture in the face of climate change. Humans went from reliance on over 10,000 different plant species for food to today’s 150 species where only 12 species provide 80% of our total food needs! Secretary of the Treaty, Dr. Shakeel Bhatti, states:
"From a food security point of view this makes the world's farmers much more vulnerable to pests... and increases the vulnerability of some poor countries to price shocks in global commodity markets."
The ITPGRFA initiative seeks to prevent the loss of underused crops and ensure that common crop species are maintained. The treaty has provisions in its contracts to ensure that countries harnessing diversity in their agricultural crops will benefit when the species are used commercially by richer nations. This treaty allows these communities to maintain their traditional lifestyle while so many other communities of the global south are forced into cash crop production because of its pitched economic benefits that do not last long for many. For me, this article demonstrates the reciprocity that needs to happen between the developed world and indigenous populations. In order to sustain basic survival resources and food supply the globalized market must adapt to mitigate the climate change it has helped create and work in conjunction with producing nations, not at their expense.
There has been an ongoing discussion this semester of the way in which new problems are rapidly created through industrialized farming and responses to these problems are not solutions at the source, but instead “masks.” An example of this can be seen with the way in which monoculture in the agribusiness has made cash crops vulnerable to diseases outbreaks, changes in climate and market swings. Instead of re-introducing biodiversity in farming, the solution has been to use biotechnology (GMO’s), pesticides and fertilizers that make plants resilient to poor soil conditions, pests, changes in climate etc. This does not fix the source of the issue and instead increases profits to companies like Monsanto for coming up with “solutions” when they are the same companies that helped cause the initial problem. The capitalistic economic model to maximize profits and minimize costs makes it very difficult to carry out real solutions in our expanding globalized food system[2]. In looking at the way agriculture practices effect climate change and vice versa, it is important that holistic solutions are sought out to reverse these backwards cycles.
[1] Anna Lappe, “The Climate Crisis at the End of Our Fork” in Food, Inc.
[2] Terry Leahy, “Unsustainable Food Production: It’s Social Origins and Alternatives” in A Sociology of Food.


[1] Anna Lappe, “The Climate Crisis at the End of Our Fork” in Food, Inc.[1] Terry Leahy, “Unsustainable Food Production: It’s Social Origins and Alternatives” in A Sociology of Food.

Industrial Agriculture

Over centuries agriculture has grown from an individual way of life to a part of the service industry. As technology booms, big companies who own the present day farms have changed the way crops are grown, the way food is distibuted, and the cost of food.

The advantage of having small, locally owned farms that grow natural, biodiverse crops is variety. There is a vast availability of genetic variation which allows the consumers to have choices. Technology has opened up some very surprising opporunities, where biologists can manipulate the genes of crops to make their own specific line that can now be patented. Genetically manipulated monocultures were made and companies came up with ways of controling the pest situation. Part of the way crops can be genetically altered is by providing them with resistances to certain pests and the continued use of pesticides. Of course this would fix all of the problems with the recent pest control problem, right? WRONG. Not only did pests continue to destroy crops, but they built up resistance to them and the pesticides. Not to mention, the pesticides are still poisoning the environment.

As we have discussed in class, the ruling of a few large companies over all aspects of the agriculture industry seems to have more cons than pros. The pros being cheap prices and the need to many employees. The cons being the low wages of these workers, the lack of genetic variation in crops, the continued use of unsustainable farming, and the growth of corporate greed and wealth of the large "agriculture tycoons". The cons double the weight of the pros which should tell us that something needs to change and soon.

Although I am a big believer that corporate greed is a Goliath that is difficult to destroy, it does not give Americans an excuse to sit back and do nothing. The first step is educating people about what's going on so they can decide if a change should be made. The next step is getting people to actually get involved and stand up for what they believe. If we aren't motivated enough to make a change, how can we expect anything to happen?

Liz M.



Source:
Miguel Altieri, "Ecological Impacts of Industrial Agriculture and the Possibilities for Truly Sustainable Farming"

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Ambiguous Implications of GM Crops

Genetically modified crops have a lot going for them. They provide higher yield, easier harvesting, increased pest resistance, and increased tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate  (Roundup). These are benefits that some farmers consider to outweigh the higher cost of seed. In the United States, over 80% of corn, soybean, and cotton crops are genetically engineered. On a global scale, we were the first to widely adopt these farming practices, and are now producing about 50% of GM crops worldwide. The technology is slowly being incorporated in other parts of the world, but is mostly eschewed in Europe.
(tomatoes from my garden)

On Tuesday, the National Research Council released a report entitled "Impact of Genetically Engineered Crops on Farm Sustainability in the United States." Academic scientists in the Committee on the Impact of Biotechnology on Farm-Level Economics and Sustainability compiled this lengthy (240 pages) report using the findings of peer-reviewed papers to generate a thorough analysis of what we know about the effects of genetically modified crops. What resulted was an exposure of the truth that genetically modified crops have generated an imperfect solution to age-old farming woes that may leave us with perpetual social, political, and economic issues in addition to the health and environmental problems that are more tangible.

Genetically engineered "Roundup-Ready" crops have a high tolerance for the use of this herbicide. However, when farmers use it excessively, the weeds can potentially develop resistance, thus requiring the use of stronger, more toxic herbicides. So while the goal of decreased use of toxic chemicals is initially achieved, in the long run we are creating a bigger problem. Not only is the use of these chemicals harmful to the crops and thus harmful to those who consume them, the treatment of soil is also compromised. In the Food, Inc. companion book, Anna Lappe discusses the risks of overuse of chemicals on soil. More sustainable soil treatment renders a farm more resilient to drought and flooding. During a Midwest flood in 2008, corn fields were completely obliterated while biodiverse organic farms survived unscathed.

We observed some of the social impacts of GM crops in the film Food, Inc. Moe Parr, an Indiana soybean seed cleaner, was pushed out of business because of Monsanto's lawsuits against him. Seed cleaning is a practice that has been employed for thousands of years. But to Monsanto, this was exploitation of copyrighted property. Mr. Parr hadn't grown Monsanto seed, but it was the risk of contamination by his neighbor's GM seed that upset the company. He was forced to settle and end his practices. This created major rifts between these neighboring farms.

Because the genes used in GM crops have been patented, the seeds are quite costly. The prohibitive prices have played a role in keeping universal adoption of GM crops at bay. However, Monsanto announced last week that it would decrease some of its prices because their sales are not meeting expectations. An investigation is being conducted by the Justice Department to determine whether Monsanto is violating antitrust laws. They have patented the "Roundup-Ready" system and have the power to unnecessarily increase prices and possibly hinder positive innovation. As a side note - shares of the company dropped 2% the day the National Research Council Report was issued.

The political implications of GM crops can be quite unsavory. We saw in the film Food, Inc. that executives of GM crop - producing companies now run important influential government agencies like the FDA and USDA. These companies also have enormous pull with politicians. Legal regulations can be utilized to prohibit the use of GM crops, but as of late, more and more GM crop use is being approved. Last month, genetically engineered sugar beets were permitted for harvesting in California. It was justified that this ruling would assist the economy, as the sugar beet accounts for a major percentage of the sugar source in the US. Even Europe, a bastion of non-GM crop purity, has recently cleared a genetically modified potato as well as three types of Monsanto corn. Unrelenting public opposition could not prevent these approvals. The floodgates for GM crop production in Europe have now been opened.

Speculation has been presented regarding the effects of GM food on consumer health. The modified gene in the potato approved in Europe, for example, has been linked to antibiotic resistance in humans. Europeans are fully aware of these risks, and express that vehemently in polls, but the European Commission has ulterior motives for growing GM crops. By producing their own, the EU could alleviate unfavorable trade relations with the US and bring down food prices, connecting a health issue with political and economic objectives.
(blueberries from my garden)

All of this only scratches the surface of the GM crop debate. Their implications penetrate far and wide into all aspects of society - even without considering the effects yet to be discovered. The benefits sound great, but we need to step back, study,  and ask, are we setting ourselves up for something extraordinarily tragic here?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Nanoparticles-Huge Implications?

Nano technologies are the hype of almost every major engineering and science field because of their theoretically endless applications. The food industry is no different, and many companies are working on uses for nanoparticles to enhance their own products. Nevertheless, with every new technology that is developed with all the best intentions, there is the chance for unseen consequences later down the road.

A great example that nanotechnology does not want to be like is genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their use in the food system. The public developed a very negative perspective of this technology after its introduction and it can be greatly attributed to the fact that it was not thoroughly researched and that he public was not properly informed of this technology.

The approach of researching a product to ensure there is no risk is known as practicing the precautionary principle, and I believe this to be the most responsible way for a company to introduce a new technology to the public. Through public education and thorough research a company can gain the trust of the public. With the public’s trust, a company can ensure the consumption of their product and profit from this technology. The problem is that research is an expensive venture, and most companies will not undergo this risk unless they are assured that conducting the research will give results that prove the safety of their product. This seems to present a conflict.

The fact is that many of the largest food companies have added a new dimension to their vertical integration of their respective food industries by developing their own nano-labs instead of contracting an outside source. This research is however focused on the uses of nanoparticles and not its affect from human consumption. Many applications that have either been developed or in the process of being developed are presented in the chart below:

I think that nanoparticles have very good uses and that they can possible be used in the food industry for many beneficial reasons. However, the appropriate research needs to be conducted to ensure product safety for human consumption. Should the government step in and mandate that companies conduct this research? Should companies be left to regulate themselves on product safety? (We have read how effective companies are at this!)

It would be a real waste if this technology gets blacklisted by the public because one company causes a public scene due to rushing a product into the market before adequate research. All we need is to see such blacklisting images as these on every product that contains nanoparticles:


News articles on nanotechnology in food:
Regulated or Not, Nano-Foods Coming to a Store Near You
Why Nanotech Hasn't (Yet) Triggered 'the Yuck Factor'

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Monsanto and the National Academy of Science...Questionable ?


Isn’t it Ironic that the day we analyze Hungry for Profit; the agribuisness threat to farmers, food and the environment by Michael Alteri, I find an article written about the benefits of Genetically modified crops for American farmers? The article comments on a study made by the National research council , which is the first complete analysis on the effect of Genitically modified crops since their introduction to agriculture in 1996. It’s interesting to me that in 2000 Altieri comments that biotechnology has the potential to improve agriculture through making it environmentally more friendly and more profitable, but that under the control of multinational corporations that are creating it that it will most likely not happen. In fact he says that “under the control of multinational corporations it more likely that the results will be environmental harm, the further industrialization of agriculture, and the intrusion of private interests too far into public interest sector research.”(Alteri 86) He also talks about predictions for environmental risks associated with the release of genetically engineered crops, namely that genetic uniformity will be created in rural landscapes, genetic diversity will be decreased, super weeds will be created and that yields from genetically modified crops will not be significantly larger than normal crops. It’s shocking to me that these predictions were made and seem to be true today, yet the National Academy of Sciences has written a 200 page paper on the BENEFITS of genetically modified crops. Something seems off.

The times article starts off talking enthusiastically about the gains that genetically engineered crops (GEC)have provided to farmers, which was a little surprising to me given the extreme negative tone with which Alteiri used when talking about GEC. Unfortunately, excessive use of these crops has gotten in the way of their effectiveness and as more are planted, weeds are becoming resistant to the pesticide and others are having to be used, some which are more toxic than the original pesticide. A host of other problems are listed from a myriad of sources, many of which are repeated in Alteri’s work.

The article also comments that Monsanto is under scrutiny from the Justice Department because of it’s potential violations of antitrust laws. This doesn’t make sense to me, as a huge 200 page paper has been released on how their product is beneficial to farmers! It would be interesting to look up the people who conducted the study and see if they have any affiliation with Monsanto..I wouldn’t be surprised to find out they did.

Urban Farming


Given the issues surrounding contemporary mega-farms, is it plausible to suggest reverting back to local farming practices?



The idea of creating urban farming structures which incorporate green sources of energy which allow them to not only self-sustain as structures but which also sustain surrounding communities through their outputs is an interesting topic both on a theoretical level and on the design front.

According to The Vertical Farm Project, "By the year 2050, nearly 80% of the earth's population will reside in urban centers."

There are several advantages to urban farming listed by The Vertical Farm Project:

· Year-round crop production; 1 indoor acre is equivalent to 4-6 outdoor acres or more, depending upon the crop (e.g., strawberries: 1 indoor acre = 30 outdoor acres)


· No weather-related crop failures due to droughts, floods, pests


· All VF food is grown organically: no herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers


· VF virtually eliminates agricultural runoff by recycling black water


· VF returns farmland to nature, restoring ecosystem functions and services


· VF greatly reduces the incidence of many infectious diseases that are acquired at the agricultural interface


· VF converts black and gray water into potable water by collecting the water of
evapotranspiration


· VF adds energy back to the grid via methane generation from composting non-edible
parts of plants and animals


· VF dramatically reduces fossil fuel use (no tractors, plows, shipping.)


· VF converts abandoned urban properties into food production centers


· VF creates sustainable environments for urban centers


· VF creates new employment opportunities


· We cannot go to the moon, Mars, or beyond without first learning to farm indoors on
earth


· VF may prove to be useful for integrating into refugee camps


· VF offers the promise of measurable economic improvement for tropical and subtropical
LDCs. If this should prove to be the case, then VF may be a catalyst in helping to reduce or even reverse the population growth of LDCs as they adopt urban agriculture as a strategy for sustainable food production.


· VF could reduce the incidence of armed conflict over natural resources, such as water
and land for agriculture

Though there are many possibly benefits to urban agriculture, there are some possible set backs as well. Can urban agriculture sustain society to the level it currently does; or is this intended as an addition to our current system? How does meat production fit into urban farming? How would vertical farming change the current social-economic-political structure of agriculture?

There are many things to consider when discussing urban farming. However, I believe it is a plausible solution to many problems associated with our current system of food production.