Tag Archives: food policy

The Tower of Label: What We Do Know

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This is a somewhat delayed post, and I almost did not write it, but then it sort of kept going around in my mind and I just had to put it down. It all started when I realized that it was the middle of December and my to do list to prepare for the holiday season was untouched. And though the chilly days were calling out for soup, the only thing that was likely to be simmering in my home, given the mountain of unfinished tasks, was me. So I ventured into the soup aisle to pick up a few options for back up.

Since I usually do not buy soup I was again amazed at the variety of options, somewhat overwhelming, really! Within moments, though, this became a real time experiment to see how much information is already on the cartons or cans and how much of it is accurate or, useful.I see so much about the labeling debate on social media, here was the opportunity to see it in action. Consider the first example, in the image above: it said, “natural” which, while vaguely comforting , does not give any real information at all. Although, some consumers might confuse this with “organic” or “sustainable” though there is no evidence that it si either of those things.

In the second category were the soups which came with volumes of information:

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“New”, “No GMO” (so, conventionally grown corn but not organic I suppose), “No MSG”, “All Natural” “Low in fat and calories” and “No Cholesterol”, that is quite a lot to, well, process! Pressed for time, surrounded by kids asking for treats, not many of the shoppers around me were actually reading the carton at all. “What soup do you want?” they would ask and into the cart would go the choices that were voiced. The one criterion that they did stop to consider? the price. “Let’s get one of those, they are on sale” was frequently heard. This was interesting to me and bore out what many believe: the push for labeling is less about information and more about marketing. Just as labeling spiked the prices of  GMO related products in Europe,  forcing them off the supermarket shelves, the same would be seen in the US were mandatory labeling to be introduced, and this would give a huge advantage to other players in the market notably the organic producers.

I was pleasantly surprised by the third category, the cartons with minimal information:

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“Gourmet Bisques” is all it said and named the soup. Just for that it did get my vote and, subsequently, came out at the top of the taste test of all the soups I got that day. When I ask around, most people say they pick the flavors they like and keep in mind the price, that is all. Of course, there are those who will not buy anything but organic ( and those soups were in the organic aisle, easily sorted for their convenience). Since that label already exists, it is hard to understand why another label needs to be added.

But, of course, one must consider the pro-label point of view. And that is where this piece  is so insightful. The writer believes in the “right to know” and sets out to research whether costs would really go up in a prohibitive way if labeling was mandatory. A survey of work in this area does support the position that costs would rise: to the farmer,  the state and of course, the consumer. Added to the dollars and cents price, there would be a larger price to pay. If rising costs lead to the substitution of GMO ingredients with non-GMO ones, there would be a decline in the research and development of GMO technology and this is crucial. GMO technology is not simply about yield or profits, it also offers the ability, for instance, to combat malnutrition by fortifying foods that people eat daily with essential nutrients. The most famous example of this is Golden Rice which can be used to prevent deaths from Vitamin A deficiency. Equally crucial is the potential of biotechnology in developing drought resistant or flood and salinity tolerant varieties of crops which would be able to combat the challenges of a changing climate. The choice of GMO  crops also has other environmental consequences which are often overlooked, discussed here.

Ultimately, the writer decides that the right to know, while important, has to be considered in conjunction with the realization that while some have the luxury of choice, for others, even the right to eat is an uncertain one. A show I was watching recently had the now familiar scene, where the server recites the provenance if each item in the menu to the diner. After describing in glowing terms the grass fed beef, the carrots and broccoli from the local farm “only x miles from here”, when the server kept it short with the “fresh asparagus”, the irritable diner snapped back “That’s it? You expect me to eat my dinner without any clue about the early life and upbringing of the asparagus?” Our world includes this diner and also the one who will go to bed hungry with no asparagus at all, and our policies need to work for both of them.

What if we were provided information like this: “This crop was grown using biotechnology which meant that less cropland was required to grow it and some land could be left for conservation. It  requires less pesticide use making it gentle on our planet and on our farm workers. This is a variety that was developed to grow with less water so we could conserve our shrinking water reserves. It is fortified with a nutrient that will prevent a common deficiency and ensure better health for children.”Now, that is a label which would have my support.

Recipe for a National Food Policy


 Recently, The Washington Post featured a piece calling for a national food policy. It started off with the statement that food impacts every sector of the economy and the lives of every person in the country and therefore it is essential that it be regulated by a national policy. The first idea we can agree with, regarding the second though, many may have reservations. The writers then go on to assert that the food system has caused “incalculable” harm to the health of people and the environment, and such harm would warrant waging a war in response, if it were the act of a foreign power. Yes, there us much that needs a strong effort: from the obesity crisis to hunger in our communities; fair working conditions for farm workers to the challenge of growing food while facing climate disruption but we could surely agree on ways to find solutions in a productive way without call to hostilities.
And exactly how would the national food policy tackle the situation (first step, of course, would be to nominate a Food Czar!)? The recommended objectives are:

  • to assure access to healthful food for all: no disagreement there although how the access would be ensured remains to be determined
  • support public health and environmental objectives: ditto
  • climate resilience: how? not discussed. Would the application of biotechnology be considered an option, for example?
  • care for livestock: agreed
  • “our food supply is free of toxic bacteria, chemicals and drugs” ,which looks very much like “organic or nothing”
  • “Food marketing sets children up for healthy lifestyles by instilling in them a habit of eating real food”: some confusion here, children acquire eating habits in the context of home and family. As a parent, I cannot imagine letting a corporation teach my children what to eat, that is my responsibility and most parents would agree.
  • Production and marketing are transparent and the food industry pays a fair wage: while laudable, this refers to the food processing stage, what about farmers and farm workers?
  • To increase carbon sequestration on farmland and reduce the food system’s carbon footprint: what changes or innovations this might require in agriculture are not discussed.

The first thing that stands out is the consumer centric nature of the demands.  It makes demands about how workers should be paid, livestock should be cared for and how agriculture should respond to climate change. What, one wonders, would those who grow food actually think about this? How would they define a food policy?

And there we come to a core question: what is a “food policy” anyway? The piece states that “an agriculture policy is not the same as a food policy” but then neither is a food consumption policy a true food policy. If we want to chart out the path ahead for the food system, we need to take into account both the growers and the consumers of food, and reconcile these interests instead of pitting them against each other. A long argument is made on how and why the government needs to put a policy in place but it mainly comes down to dismantling the “agricultural-industrial” complex. That is a good objective but that alone cannot fix the food system.

No industry can flourish if there is no demand for their products and that demand comes from the consumers. If there is a demand for mashed potatoes in a box, then that is what we will find on the shelves. Of course we should be boiling and mashing our own potatoes, but for that, deep rooted lifestyle changes are required, changes which cannot simply be mandated by policy, and changes which, if we are honest, we are rather reluctant to make. Getting back from work only to have to ferry the kids to classes and practice games or even to have to go to a second job to make ends meet leaves little time for cooking. We need a discussion and changes in why we are living this way and how we can make changes. You can mandate whatever food policy you like but the basic question is how do I find the time to cook? And I say this from the experience of someone who does cook everyday. It is hard, and it is exhausting, it is nothing like the cooking shows on TV, that is for sure. So blaming the food industry for all our problems is  not sufficient for change.

This gap in perceptions was highlighted at another event convened by the New York Times to discuss the future of food which initially had no farmer or rancher involved in the discussions! Once this was rectified, a participating farmer was able to urge the panelists, to involve farmers in the discussion on food, a sad disconnect! But it was encouraging to learn that there was at least an awareness of the need to work together. The food movement  seems to have fallen into an us vs the food companies pattern, but in reality any successful food movement would need to include everyone: those who grow, process and sell, and consume food. Yes, food impacts everyone and everything and it is precisely for that reason that there are no easy answers here, the solutions are complex and everyone has to make an effort.

Finally, a national food policy will find it increasingly constrained by outside factors. Climate disruption is impacting agriculture everywhere and lack of food is expected to spark social unrest and large scale migration of people from affected areas. The struggle for resources could lead to actual wars, not just ones that can be debated in newspaper columns. An effective food policy will build a path forward which is able to respond to climate change and achieve goals of conservation and food production for the planet’s inhabitants at the same time. So it might be tempting to reach for avocados for that healthy lunch salad but it is also important to remember that it embodies a cost in terms of depleting water resources in another country that has to be accounted for as we set policy goals.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

The Problem With Solutions to “Feed the World”


It seems like everywhere on social media there are pieces on meetings and  conferences to discuss the challenge of “feeding the world”. There are lots of lists of solutions, assertions that this innovative project from Country Y is the perfect answer, it just needs to be replicated across the globe and then objections that this would completely destroy the food heritage of Country Z and should be abandoned. At first, it appears to be just a muddle, but the debate is intense and sometimes severely combative: scientific research is targeted and destroyed and websites dedicated to scientific communication are hacked and prevented from functioning.

Perhaps it might be helpful to take a closer look at the question to begin with: at issue here is the intent to tackle global hunger and malnutrition, with population still rising and arable land in short supply, and all this in a time of probably the biggest challenge humans have faced: climate change. Often the aspects of the food system which get the most prominence in the media are those of individual consumers: so consumers in one part of the world might vote to ban GMO crops but how do we justify this to parents who are watching their children struggle and suffer from Vitamin A deficiency but have no access to Golden Rice. The food system debate touches everyone so solutions have to be evaluated in that context as well.

Sometimes we hear the argument that our ancestors did this/did not do that so we should continue to follow that path or return to it. Certainly we can carry forward the knowledge of the past but the future is not a replication of what we have lived through and needs different approaches. Small farms existed before the growth of agribusinesses but that should not preculde the idea that big farms as well as small ones can participate together in creating and being a part of a better food system. Faced with altered growing conditions, can we adopt ways to conserve water in rice farming as well a technique that can help plants process excess salt and flourish? There is no reason why we cannot do both, other than the desire to maintain entrenched positions.

Another source of controversy arises from viewing climate change as solely related to the environment, and the effort to nurture and conserve nature is in opposition to agriculture. Worsening air quality hurts our health but also impacts the productivity of our crops.  So cleaner air brings even more benefits than we might have considered earlier. Agriculture does not have to mean the end of habitats and indigenous plants. Conserving nature can work with the goal of sustaining people as these successful projects show.

That so many lists of solutions are available is great but we cannot stick to one or the other set of answers. The clock is running against us on climate change and we need to use the best tools possible.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

Climate Change and Food Security for All: Is it Possible?


This week most of us felt hopeful as we heard President Obama announce new measures to respond to climate disruption. Although we have been hearing the discussion on climate change for a while, most people think of it as something that might unfold in the future. The fact is that climate change is here and is already altering the world as we know it.

Consider the case of the puffin: parents of baby puffins are bringing in food for them that they are not physically capable of ingesting. Why? Because the fish they usually feed on, hake and herring, are no longer found in the waters around them: the water is simply too warm for the fish to survive. So fewer baby puffins are surviving into adulthood. Their life patterns are also changing and the are coming in late this year to their summer habitats.

Meanwhile, humans too are faced with the challenge of feeding 9 billion people in a time of uncertain climatic conditions. The melting ice in the Antarctic could raise sea levels to an extent where China, India,Bangladesh, and Vietnam would lose millions of hectares of arable land and food production would fall. At the other extreme, higher temperatures threaten crop yield in the USA. A warmer climate also means an increase in disease and pests. The cloud of grasshoppers gathering in New Mexico is not from some movie set in the future, but happening right now.

The challenge is not just to create a more productive, climate resilient agriculture sector but also to ensure that all of our food is produced in a way that reduces pressure on a planet where everything is interlinked. If we look at discrete solutions we risk generating more problems: the effort to limit over fishing in the ocean by raising fish in farms, for example, has resulted in the destruction of mangroves and zones algae blooms that suck up oxygen and kill the fish.

The need is to consider the whole problem: whether we live in the Maldives or Mexico, on a farm or in the city, our lives are about to go in a direction different from what we known for centuries and the solutions we devise must take into account the needs of all the whole planet; humans, puffins and all.

And all this, without some coffee to help us along, because that too is likely to disappear as the climate changes.

(Image Courtest: Freedigitalphotos.net)

Will There Be A Second Green Revolution?


Last week, The Economist published a piece on the possibility of a second Green Revolution on rice fields in Asia and Africa. The possibilities outlined in it make one hopeful for the future, at a time when stasis on climate change and polarization among the players in the food system usually make for a grim outlook.

The second revolution, if it comes, will be crucial in feeding the growing population as current yields are dropping off from previous levels. And what is remarkable is that the increase in yield required to meet demand can be obtained almost entirely from areas missed by the first Green Revolution. This is because, the green revolution took off in irrigated areas while passing by the rain dependent regions. These areas fall in the marginal category where harvests are often disrupted by drought or floods. Now, the International Rice Research Institute is  offering farmers a rice variety that stays dormant during long periods of flooding and then resumes growth. This would be an invaluable trait for dealing with the possibility of increased rainfall and  flooding due to climate disruption. And, because this offers the possibility of increased production on marginal lands, the impact in terms of greater income would go to the most vulnerable sections of the rural poor whose impoverishment is a result of their dependence on unproductive land.

But how was this new strain of rice developed? The scientists at IRRI had identified a rice strain from Odisha, in eastern India, as having a high flood tolerance. This was then crossed with other rice varieties but the experiments were not successful. Finally, the scientists identified the gene that enabled flood tolerance, and spliced into other rice varieties, to achieve more than a dozen varieties of rice , all flood tolerant and collectively known as “Sub 1″.This is what was so striking for me: decades of traditional breeding saw no success, yet once the genetic sequence of the rice from Odisha was marked, it took only four years for flood tolerant seeds to be produced!

This presents a promising option for making agriculture resilient to future climatic uncertainties in a short period of time, in addition to increasing production on marginal lands and providing income opportunities for the rural poor. This would be a revolution indeed! The article is here and an interesting account of the farmers growing Sub 1 rice in Odisha is here.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)


Food Prices on the Rise



So food prices are on the rise …again! And it looks like they might continue on that path given the pessimistic outlook for wheat in the US given the dry growing conditions. In addition, the situation in Ukraine spells uncertainly for the world wheat market. As I read more about this I also discovered the interesting fact that farmers in Ukraine have apparently breached a ban on GMOs and are growing GM soy and corn in response to market demand!

How Math Predicts Revolutions Based on Food Prices


The point about rising food prices being a factor in social unrest has been explored before but now there is a model that can predict when and where revolutions will occur based on food prices. According to this, when the FAO food price index reaches 210, social unrest is triggered. Among the list of countries are some where this has happened on a large scale(Venezuela is a current example), some where it is still contained (India) and also some surprises (Sweden?!). The author of the study, Prof. Yaneer Bar-Yam of the New England Complex Systems Institute , points to two major causes for rising food prices: the rise of biofuels and speculation in commodities. And what happens to these two variables will determine if prices will be lower this year. Ethanol mandates are being debated in the US and EU, but speculation is another matter. It is spoken of much less than labeling, or any other food issue of the day.

Consider, also, the impact of climate change. (This was an important factor in the case of Syria, for instance.) Unpredictable weather events, a sudden drought or flood may result in a below average harvest; but higher prices in the global market (fueled by speculation) provide an incentive for exporting most of the crop. This would mean less is available for domestic consumption and  prices would rise for whatever is on the market. If prices were to rise to critical levels, as predicted by this model, social unrest would follow. 

What are the chances of regulating commodity speculation, proposing , for example, some limits for trading? It is difficult, perhaps, to be optimistic on this issue but it has to be highlighted in any conversation on the food system.  Food is a commodity, yes, but it is not like any other commodity. If trading in future, hypothetical, stocks of grain  means people are starving in the present then that is not an acceptable situation and efforts to correct it should not be blocked by purely financial interests.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)