I watched the GMO labeling debate closely in California and cheered when the proposition was defeated there. But when I read the arguments from the pro-labeling side,(based mostly on misinformation and unsubstantiated fears) I began to think that blocking labeling is perhaps not the best strategy. GMO foods, it has been proven, again and again, are safe for human consumption. The pro-label lobby has therefore, framed the debate in terms of the “consumer’s right to know what is in their food”. It is hard to make the case that the consumer should not know/does not need to know what is in their food and so, blocking labeling makes it seem like the producers of food containing GM ingredients are hiding something. One would like to ask the question: how would knowing this be useful to the consumer anyway? If they do not want to purchase GMO products, there is already a label for them: it says “organic” or that fascinating mystery term, “natural” which many seem to rely on.
It is important to remember that this debate is being played out in parts of the world that have the luxury to debate about food. In other areas, where people are going hungry every day, children are malnourished and suffering from dietary deficiencies, food on the table is a survival issue. Biotechnology offers a way to combat global hunger. By blocking labeling and letting the “there is something to hide” misinformation gain ground, we are denying choices precisely to those who are most vulnerable. If we continue to block labeling, the ultimate aim of the anti-GM lobby; to take biotechnology out of the options forever, would be achieved and this would be a disaster in the struggle to deal with hunger and malnutrition.
Instead, imagine a situation where the labeling issue is actively owned by those seeking to make sure the benefits of GM foods actually reach the public. Companies need to proactively steer the labeling issue in a positive direction: uniform labels for the whole country so that the same chaotic battles do not have to be fought over and over again in each state, providing more opportunities for spreading misinformation. The actual words on the label are crucial and that should not be dictated by the naysayers. Ideally, I would propose :”This product contains GM ingredients which have been more rigorously tested than most products in your grocery store. They are produced using less pesticides and so are better for the farmers who grow them and our planet. They are also fortified with Vitamin A (for example) which will prevent blindness and death in millions of children.” But that is a dream and in the real world, companies will have to work hard to merely ensure that negativity is minimized.
In purely economic terms, there is a far bigger market out there as measured by currently undernourished/malnourished people than the few who might switch from buying products post labeling. And, most important to remember, the one piece of information on the label which seals the deal for a consumer on a budget is the price.If there is an initial cost increase involved, companies need to refrain from passing that on immediately to the consumer. Instead, let them read the label, see the price, compare it to the high priced organic option and make their decision.
You can read more on both sides of this here and here.
Posted in Food Choices, Food Policy, Food Safety, Green, Hunger, Living, Nutrition
Tagged food decisions, Green, Hunger, Living, nutrition
The Mediterranean Diet, long known as the “ideal” diet to follow , is problematic for those who live in countries where some ingredients, olive oil for example, are not readily available. So, researchers in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland came up with a dietary regime based on local foods and tested the results on two groups of people: one of which was put on the local foods based diet with the added rule of no red meat and no sugar; and another which consumed red meat and white bread as is normally done in these countries. Not surprisingly, the people in the first group showed an improved good cholesterol/bad cholesterol ratio and also changes in a marker for inflammation.
The benefits of a diet based on local food are not only financial and environmental but are also reflected in improved health outcomes as we eat the diet best suited for the conditions in which we are living. But pursuing the goal of local eating alone is not enough, even better is to eat in season. When we explore, as this chef did, what is actually growing around us, we will discover foods we did not even know existed. Case in point: I could not have identified the greens in the image above last month but have just discovered how delicious these garlic scapes can be! This is the top part of the plant, we normally use the bulb, and; here is the best part: by using every bit of the plant we reduce food waste and crucially, a waste of the water that went into growing that plant.
T.S.Elliot spoke for so many of us when he wrote that, but now, this warm indulgence so crucial in equipping us to fight the cruel world is under threat. Coffee plants in Central America face the possibility of being wiped out by a pathogen called Coffee Leaf Rust (Hemileia vastatrix). This pathogen was earlier responsible for the devastation of coffee plantations in Ceylon. Is there a way to avoid this? Yes, it can be dealt with by using a synthetic fungicide called Triazaline. The problem? Coffee drinkers in the US and other prosperous countries want their coffee to be organic. The organic fungicide that is used by farmers who grow organic coffee is copper based, much less effective and the run off from the plants poses environmental problems. Most of the organic coffee is grown by smallholder farmers who would lose their organic certification if they used the synthetic fungicide. However, if they had the option of using the synthetic fungicide solely in order to deal with this crisis, they could save their crop (coffee is grown from seeds which could be saved from the current year’s crop) and be re-certified after 3 years. But faced with the consistent insistence on the organic label, these smallholder farmers may have to lose their livelihood.
How important is the “organic” label anyway? We already know the organic fungicide is not a good option. For farmers to receive certification, they have to pay stiff fees which puts a huge burden on them. Unless the coffee is shade grown, it means forest cover has been cut down to make way for farms (even organic ones) which is not environmentally optimal. Often, middlemen buy from the poor, smallholder farmers paying them a fraction of what this coffee will eventually earn in a market driven by the drinking tastes of consumers who remain unaware of the ground reality of those who produce the coffee.
Colombian coffee growers with the help of their government were able to eradicate leaf rust. Could these results be replicated elsewhere? I am still trying to research what methods were used there. Accessible and detailed information on the leaf rust issue is here at Applied Mythology. Solutions are available, the outcome is not inevitable. In this as in so many problems with the food system today, two things are essential: first, the voice of the farmer has to be heard on par with the consumer; second, a pragmatic perspective that brings us a good outcome for all and not just a few privileged people. Otherwise those coffee spoons might just be left there, unused…
An interesting piece on the price we pay for our fears, in The European Magazine. This question is central today in much of the issues being debated in the food world. There is distrust of biotechnology because there is no way to prove that they are “completely” safe. If its not food, then its public health which is vulnerable to fear and distrust.The irrational (and, as proven recently,) baseless fear of vaccination is being blamed for a measles epidemic in Wales and also a persistent Pertussis outbreak in the US. Why have we become so fearful?
If our ancestors had not been adventurous and ready to take a risk, we would be living in a very different world. One where we would never have been to the Moon because no one could show conclusively that it was safe to travel there or even tried a fruit like the rambutan which, looks somewhat scary but is actually delicious.
When new seeds and fertilizers were introduced to the Indian farmer in 1963, they too may have been fearful but they adopted this technology thereby bringing in the Green revolution that ultimately saved so many from hunger, malnutrition and untimely death. Instead of obsessing about what is on my plate and in my food, can we agree to try something that might provide solutions for those who have nothing on their plates? At this point in the discussion usually some one jumps up to say that production alone cannot solve the problems of the food system. I could not agree more but I would point out that by spending all our time and energy talking about GM food/organic cultivation/local or not, we have little left to spend on enormously important matters like consumption patterns, food waste, or malnutrition, among others. That is also part of the price we pay for being fearful , we are left with less than optimal solutions because we did not use our time and resources wisely.
And we can start with baby steps, perhaps move on produce item from the organic to regular column on our grocery list and try that or trace a news report to the actual study they are talking about and decide for oneself what to believe. And if you should choose conventional watermelon instead of organic this week, you could also try out this watermelon stroller, bringing you portable and chilled watermelons just in time for picnic season!
Posted in Food Choices, food fun, Food Safety, Food Security, Green, Hunger, Living, Nutrition
Tagged food decisions, food fun, food policy, food safety, food security, Green, Hunger, Living
Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” was one of the first non-policy books on food that I found totally absorbing. It showed me food in a totally new light, never again would I look at corn the same way! So I look forward to reading his new book “Cooked” which is being released today. While the reviews at the New York Times, Washington Post or on NPR are generally warm, I am curious about some of the points that came up. I am a strong advocate for cooking at home. It is the healthier and cheaper option. But Mr. Pollan’s belief that people don’t cook because they are doing other things like surfing the Internet or watching TV is not a view I share. The pre-dinner hour is usually the craziest in a household with homework, piano lessons, soccer practice all converging and squeezing out cooking time. It is rarely a time to watch TV or surf the web, there are other factors at work here: lack of time, knowledge of basic cooking skills come to mind.
More concerning for me was his nostalgic call for a return to the “communal fire”. He posted this quote on Twitter: “The microwave is as anti-social as the cook fire is communal.” Food prepared in the microwave qualifies as “food” solely on technical points, I agree, but the communal fire is not the answer. There are many places in the world where even today, food is cooked over fire ( a real fire not the stove top familiar to us). This requires the women and young girls to walk miles in search of firewood, carry it back on their heads and then labor over starting and maintaining the fire to cook on, all the while inhaling huge amounts of smoke that is toxic for them and , indeed, for the entire household. So, for these women, an option to that fire is very welcome.
Mr. Pollan also makes the point that women left the kitchen to participate in the outer world but did not success in bringing men into the kitchen, other than in the form of the men who head the processed food companies. Well, if there is a movement on the part of men to occupy the kitchen, it has not hit my part of the world yet. The grim reality of home cooking is that it takes a whole lot of time: time to clean and prepare fresh produce/meat for cooking, the actual cooking time and then cleaning up afterwords and it is going to take more than one person to do all this so it requires a time commitment from everybody. And while watching amazing dishes come together on TV is mesmerizing, packing lunches and making dinner everyday is , to be honest, fairly tedious.Once we acknowledge this and also the fact that however boring and time consuming it may be, cooking at home is essential for a healthy society and for building family bonds we will be closer to working out a life pattern that works for everyone and still lets us eat home cooked food.
Apple and pear trees are apparently susceptible to an infection called fire blight which is capable of devastating entire orchards. To combat this, organic farms received an exemption which allowed them to use antibiotics (Streptomycin and Oxytetracycline) to combat the disease. This issue is in the news now, because the exemption is set to expire in 2014. It was hoped that by now other methods would have become available to treat this problem so that antibiotics would no longer be needed. While some progress has been made, more work is required before the use of antibiotics can be completely discontinued.
So, given the controversy over labeling and the consumers’ “right to know” it is a little disconcerting to find that this organic produce has no label disclosing antibiotic use. Even more interesting was the rationale offered for the use of antibiotics: they apparently leave little residue, not enough to be harmful to consumers, anyway. The same logic offered for conventional produce would be vilified as a conspiracy to “poison” consumers.
Does this mean we should support the continued use of antibiotics? Absolutely not. In fact, the article mentions that in addition to antibiotics better cultivation practices are being used to keep the healthy and this is the way to go:make use of all the knowledge and techniques that are available to achieve the common good.
A fascinating study out today compares the dinner time habits of American and Italian families and finds that a lot depends on what ”dinner at home” actually means. Is everybody at the table or are one or more of the kids lounging on the couch watching TV and eating dinner there? Is everyone eating the same meal? This leads to an interesting discovery about grocery shopping. American homes, equipped with bigger (and sometimes multiple ) refrigerators are loaded with packaged food which often come in single serve packages. So a family can sit around the table, each with their own choice of microwaved meal; while Italians who, with smaller refrigerators will shop more frequently , prepare one meal to be shared by the family.
It has been argued that the American dinner experience is a consequence of the pace of life. Packaged dinners are more convenient to prepare because they take less time. The study finds, however, that they reduce preparation time by only 10-12 minutes. Although I am no fan of packaged dinners (I was conferred the title of “meanest Mom ever” for refusing to buy something called “Kids Cuisine” from the freezer section, apparently all the rage in the kindergarten demographic), I have to add that this does not seem to take into account the cleaning time involved with preparing meals from scratch which would involve even more time in the kitchen. But the real surprise here was that only 22% of dinners are actually prepared from fresh or raw ingredients without any processed or packaged ingredients. I can understand using frozen or canned vegetables, or a base for sauces but seriously, how hard is it to use all of this to prepare a pasta dish while the chicken gets done in the oven?
How can we do this better? Perhaps we could follow the rule that eating is an activity for a certain time and place, that means an end to never ending single serve snacks that ruin dinner, and it also means eating at the table with everyone or not at all. Everybody helps to prepare dinner, if the adult cuts the vegetables the older kids get to clean them, early graders can lay and clear the table, and everyone tries to appreciate and value the effort put in by the cook. It’s not that hard at all, we should give it a try.
“But land is land, and it’s safer than the stocks and bonds of Wall Street swindlers.” —- Eugene O’Neill, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night
Today, though, land is not safe anymore as the increasing population, volatility of food prices and leveling off of yield is leading to a global rush to grab farmland before it runs out. Investors, agribusinesses and governments are buying up land mostly in less developed areas where the population can be easily displaced as land records are not easily available. Some of these may be communal lands , held in trust over centuries so when they are taken over, the community is displaced and scattered and deprived of a livelihood.
Recent reports show that approximately 203 million acres of land has been acquired and the top land grabbers include the UK, the USA, China and Saudi Arabia. In Cambodia, about 55% of the arable land is now under the control of agribusiness and foreign investors. The investors who make these deals often make promises about providing employment to local workers or introducing new technology but these are seldom fulfilled. And what about the actual crop that is grown? Chances are it would not be the traditional crop but one that is destined solely for export. In one case, Saudi Arabia decided to grow sorghum in Sudan, not for the Sudanese market where it is a food item, but for consumption by camels in their own country. As the decisions regarding crop choices changes, this might take food choices out of the market and exacerbate the problem of hunger in already vulnerable populations.
Last year’s drought in the US brought home the importance of water, a fact that will only become more evident as we deal with the impact of climate change. Land grabs also put this resource out of the public domain and into the hands of private investors. This presents a daunting challenge for poor rural populations depending on farming for a living. In future, they might have to pay extra for drinking and irrigation water.
How did we get here? Perhaps the first step was the morphing of agriculture into big business, the disconnect between profit and the provision of food on the table, and the second was the sad collusion of corrupt governments and predatory investors.This trend toward land grabs poses a grave challenge to food and livelihood security in the countries and communities where it occurs and also impacts what people elsewhere can put on their plates and how much they have to pay for it.
Posted in Climate Change, Farm Technology, Food Choices, Food Justice, Food Policy, Food Security, Green, Hunger, Living
Tagged climate change, Farming Technology, food decisions, food policy, food security, Green, Hunger, Living
Is anyone surprised by the news that Coca Cola’s Simply Orange product is somewhat different from slicing an orange and squeezing it? It seems that Coca Cola uses an algorithm (apparently also used by Delta to balance its books!) to prepare the juice, blending different batches to ensure uniformity of taste. The whole process is described as efficient and of course, for the consumer, very convenient.
Why is this story deemed unusual? Was anyone really expecting that what comes out of the carton is not subject to any processing at all? That is only possible if we prepare the juice ourselves by simply slicing and squeezing. This is the lack of clarity on the consumption side that I find mystifying. If we want convenience from a carton and we want it to be at a low price, then we will get processed juice. It is not exactly the same that we would get at home where the fresh burst of citrus flavor hits you as lift the glass to drink, but that would take some planning to ensure we have oranges to hand and a few more seconds to prepare than it takes to open a carton. We make our choice: time or convenience, both together are not possible and demanding that is unrealistic.
This much I can say, once you start with freshly squeezes juice, you will not want to pick up that carton! For this who have never tried it, this is how easy it is:
In keeping with my resolution to cook and eat in season, I have been trying to limit my tomato purchases. Still, I find myself gazing longingly at the piles of tomatoes at the grocery store. The price sticker shows the same price as it did over the summer. This puzzles me: should they not cost more as they are not in season? What determines the price of tomatoes anyway? It would include the cost of resources: seeds, water, fertilizers, labor, to start with. If any of these sees a rise in prices, tomatoes will cost more as well. So far land and water have not been an issue in the Unites States but with rising population and climate change these resources are the source of tension in many parts of the world. Farmland grabbing is now a major phenomenon on several continents.
Cheap labor has also helped to keep food prices low but as countries like Mexico improve the standards of living, the flow of migrant labor will slow down. Will there be enough people to meet the demand for farm labor in America? Farm work is hard and the wages are very low. One way to resolve this would be to ensure a fair wage for farm workers, this might induce some current unemployed workers to move into this sector. This would make the food system better by ensuring that it is just and that we are not in the position of watching fruit rot on trees as there is no labor to harvest them while children go to bed hungry.