Category Archives: Food Justice

Wishlist for a New Food System


The din around the fiscal cliff grows louder every day, perhaps it is time to raise our voices to ask an important question: what happened to the  Farm Bill?  There has been some debate about the food stamp program or debate on genetic modification of crops but what if we resolved to start over, from a blank sheet and set up the food system that would benefit both producers and consumers and be prepared for dealing with climate change. Here are some of the things on my wish list for a better food system:

1. Better food choices at home:  while the awareness about eating “local” is  laudable , everything cannot be grown locally so if we find ourselves buying “local” tomatoes while stocking up on snow shovels, it means that we are buying produce that requires greater resources  because it is being produced out of season. Instead, let us try to eat in season, experiment with produce that actually grows in this season and expand our culinary abilities. Also, if a food producer has to sell only locally they might either not be able to meet demand (in which case  we would have to go without) or is left with a surplus which does not sell and he cannot ship it elsewhere because of the insistence on local food. Most of us in the food debate consider the consumer’s point of view. Let us also hear what the farmer thinks.

2. Change agricultural practices: adapting to climate change is not just about producing food under a different set of weather conditions, it should also be about using better farm practices like growing trees on farms to prevent soil erosion and sequester carbon, preserving biodiversity, green manure among an array of  possibilities.

3. A  fair food system: let us recognize the hard work that goes into producing our food;  long hours in all kinds of inclement weather often involving hazardous chemicals and equipment. The number of people ready to do this is small and yet we do little to bring in those who are ready to work in this area. We need to provide a decent life and dignity of work for immigrant workers on American farms.

And when we go to a restaurant and are happy to see that the food is “local” and “sustainable” and the chef has so many stars, let us also think about the restaurant worker. If you want to know if your server or cook is being paid a fair wage or get paid sick leave, there is now an app for that!   

4. Renew rural life: when it is openly stated that there is a disconnect between urban and rural communities with the latter being isolated and cut off from the mainstream, it is crucial to take action. Farmers today are older and fewer in number than before and as they become less able to farm the land, farms may be sold off to urban property developers or be purchased by large farms. To create a vibrant farm sector, it should be made easier for younger people to farm, offering financial aid or improving infrastructure where needed.

5. Plate and Planet:  every time we make a food choice let us think not just of how it will be on our plate but how it will impact the planet.  A recent study shows how yields of major crops are falling, and preparedness to deal with climate change is hardly robust so when we push a certain technology or practice, let us consider the global situation as well. Changing tastes in America might lead to positive change here but global hunger and access to food should also be considered.

And, finally, in this, as in other debates, let us be civil with those who disagree. Perhaps this wish list will remain just that: wishes, but can we at least resolve to stop name calling on Internet discussion forums because someone disagrees with us on a point of policy? We are all people,  no one is a “shill”.

Why the Debate on Organic Food is Redundant

The debate on the organic food issue has recently intensified with a number of studies coming out, like the Stanford study which reported that there was not much gain in nutrition from eating organic foods, or the one from Oxford University on the environmental impact of growing produce with organic methods. With each new announcement the discussion gets shriller and, to the layperson, quite bewildering, so here is an attempt to sort out some of the issues involved.

Health Impact: Nutritionally, it is pointed out that there is not much difference between conventional and organic food. Proponents of organic food argue that the heavy use of pesticides in conventional farms is dangerous for health. While conventional farmers are required by law to maintain pesticide use within levels deemed acceptable for human consumption, organic farmers too use pesticides and anything that is used to kill pests cannot be totally benign. The organic pesticide rotenone has been associated with certain health risks as well. Consider the case, then, of crops that have been genetically modified to resist pests thereby lowering pesticide use by huge quantities. I understand that “genetic modification” often makes us imagine something from a sci-fi film gone bad. But over the millennia, farmers have tried to cross breed plants to get a hardier or tastier variety and doing so at the genetic level is actually more precise. After all, the non-invasive procedures used in major surgery today are preferred by patients to the past techniques of making a big incision for every procedure. And while there is consensus on the need to reduce antibiotic use in the meat and poultry industry, the organic standards actually require that sick animals not be treated with antibiotics which is of some concern.

One point that gets lost in the cacophony is the potential for biofortification that we can use to combat malnutrition and improve other health outcomes. Rice that is fortified with Vitamin A would help people who suffer from this deficiency (and this is widespread in many areas of the world). We all know about the benefits of eating bananas? So should we try out some techniques to protect it from being wiped out by blight and disease? We can try, with conventional breeding programs as well as with genetic modification.

Environmental Impact: Organic food has been presented as good for us and, also, good for the planet. While it is true that organic farming practices do benefit the area they are grown in, they have a larger carbon footprint than conventional methods. Since more land is required to grow organic crops than the same quantity of conventional crops, more forest cover and open land has to be cleared for farming instead.

If one were to stick to an all-organic diet throughout the year, it would mean that organic lettuce in December, for example, would have to be shipped from overseas to the northern parts of the world, and the environmental impact of this would be huge. Eating conventional crops grown locally and in season is the greener option.

Organic farms do protect biodiversity but GM crops are not the devastating force they are often made out to be. In fact, a study has shown that they can actually promote the growth of secondary pests (which would have been the prey of primary pests) and add to biodiversity.

The biggest crisis looming over us today is the one posed by climate change. Even for those who do not believe in that term, the weird weather and crippling drought this past summer must be of concern. As the weather becomes unstable, our ability to produce food to feed the entire population of the planet is going to be affected. The effort to mitigate this by developing crops that are drought and flood resistant can be pursued by organic methods and biotechnology and it is critical that both are employed or food scarcity and rising prices will be a reality in the coming years. Also, conventional farming is able to achieve higher yields for grains, which are a part of staple diets worldwide, and opting for organic would further exacerbate grain shortages.

Economic Issues: The first thing that strikes anyone comparing the prices of conventional and organic produce at the grocery store is the big jump in prices of organic produce. Working on a median income budget, one is forced to pick a few items that we can buy from the organic section while settling for the conventional option for others. For a family, organic milk may be bought for the children alone because buying it for the whole family makes a gaping hole in the weekly food budget. A study found that buying an all-organic diet involves paying a 49% premium and the food share of the budget rises from 11 to 18%. These are not trivial numbers and younger families on starting incomes with small children and potential mothers might be greatly impacted by this. If this cost differential means that we forego buying or eating fruits and vegetables because they are not labeled organic, this involves a serious nutritional cost in terms of health outcomes for children in their growing years and also in maternal nutritional standards.

I am surprised when people say they will not buy conventional or GM foods because of their opposition to “Big Ag”. If the concentration of market power is a concern, there are other, legal, ways of dealing with it than throwing out options that would enable us to feed more people. By opting for a method of cultivation that has lower yields we are impacting our ability to feed all the people on the planet. The cost of yield forgone is also a cost, even though we do not see it listed on our check out receipt. And if is big corporations that one objects to, perhaps it is important to know which companies actually own the organic brands we see on the shelves: Kashi is owned by Kellogg, Horizon by Dean Foods (the J.M. Smucker Company), Honest Tea by Coca Cola, Naked Juice by Pepsi, Cascadian farms by general Mills, the list goes on.

And then are those who say that the only solution is to grow your own food. If you were to grow everything needed to feed a family of four, including grains and raising livestock, then that is pretty much all you could do. Farming is hard work and we need to respect those who grow our food. It is not about tending a community garden or backyard alone because that will not meet all the needs of a family. It is also less efficient on a social level. Conceptually, if everyone does what they are best at, we have the best food from farmers who know their work, good instruction from teachers who are trained for that, can build the best rocket designed by people who are skilled in that area and so on. If instead, everyone spent their time growing their food, we would have to live at a subsistence level.

We need a food system that is efficient, green and fair to its workers. To achieve this in the context of a population heading towards 9 billion and changing climatic conditions we need to exercise all options: use good farm practices like crop rotation, reduced tillage, planting perennials with seasonal crops, reducing pesticide and antibiotic use and also exploring the potential of new technology wherever it is possible. Organizations like the WHO and the National Academy of Sciences endorse the view that GM foods are safe for consumption. In Europe, where labeling already exists and which has seen some of the strongest opposition to GM, a recent report based on a decade long research effort also concluded that there is no negative health impact from GM foods.

Too often, we get overwhelmed by competing messages in the media, by the variety of policy challenges that political leaders seem ready to ignore and retreat from the discussion. This is not the time to do so, both for our families and for our planet. Partisan battles on this or that technique are a waste of crucial time; we need to make use of all the tools and knowledge we have to the benefit of our families and our planet.

Atlantic Food Summit Today

I will be attending the Atlantic Food Summit today, eager to hear the discussion on childhood nutrition, obesity and most important, how to feed 9 billion people sustainably. I will be sharing  and posting on all of that in detail and for the first time, will also attempt to tweet as it happens! Please follow @thegreenfork for updates. Martha Stewart and Mario Batali will be participating, among others, so it should be a good thing….

Eat Healthy, Spend Less

How’s that for a new year’s resolution? We knew this time would come: time to put away the cookies and reach for the kale, time to start paying off the holiday bills and trying to stick to a budget. It’s not difficult if we make good choices, such as the helpful tips posted by Chef Marcus Samuelsson . He lists healthy choices like oatmeal and beans which are big on nutrition and easy on the budget. Sometimes, though, we face time constraints and instant oatmeal or a frozen entrée seems to be the only option. In such a case, one can adopt a middle path: beans yes, but canned ones which have been thoroughly rinsed or we could still use the dried beans but cook them in a  pressure cooker. If you have never used a pressure cooker before, please do try one. They cook food in far less time than the stove top so that you save money on utilities as well. And as always, eating fresh produce that is in season means you spend less since the food is not processed and has not been transported over a long distance. And with all that healthy stuff inside us, we will be ready to tackle the tough issues: school lunch, Farm Bill, climate change, food justice, it is a long list!

Change Comes to Retail Food Industry in India

Most Indians have always bought their fruits and vegetables at the stall at the corner of the road, or the nice store that would deliver even a bunch of cilantro or a bunch of carrots to your home if you were in a fix. The supply chain that brought this produce to the market was haphazard at best. Now, all that is set to change, with the Indian government deciding to allow foreign investment in the retail sector, upto 51% for multi-brand retailers like Walmart and Carrefour. There will be various conditions that they will have to satisfy, such as a minimum amount invested in 5 years, support for rural infrastructure and jobs etc. How all these plans work out remains to be seen but the retail scene for food will change drastically. The new policy is expected to dampen inflation, bring in more efficiency and productivity and reduce wastage. Matthew Yglesias pointed out that it will probably result in the top 1% getting extremely rich but so along as the families around the median and the extremely vulnerable are not squeezed, the policy should be a positive one. I am not so sure ,mostly for the food sector. All the people involved in growing, transporting and bringing this food to the family table ( and they number in the millions)will be affected as this policy is put in place. In time, they may benefit but the initial impact will be hard. At a time when there is mounting hunger , malnutrition and concerns about the impact of climate change on agricultural productivity ( specially in South Asia), this new policy will add another variable to an already volatile situation. Caution and a long term perspective should be the way to go in this regard.

The Real Farm Subsidy Story

The Environmental Working Group has just published its report on farm subsidies in the US based on data from the year 2009. Before getting to the analysis itself, it is important to note that the report is based on 2009 numbers because the USDA demonstrates a troubling lack of transparency when it comes to giving out information. What emerges is a clear picture of a subsidy program gone astray. First off, the recipients of these payments are not required to even work on or won a farm. Indeed, the biggest beneficiaries of a program intended to help farmers are actually big agribusinesses, particularly in the south. How uneven is the distribution of this pie? The top 10% of the beneficiaries of this program received 55% of the total payments. Even this cursory reading will reinforce what we know already: small farms which are more vulnerable to the vagaries of prices and weather are not befitting from direct payments at all. This program is merely handing out cash to big players in crops like corn, wheat and soy. Remember that fruits and vegetables are not even covered by this program. So if we are looking to overhaul the food system, eliminate junk and encourage healthy eating, subsidy reform seems like a really good place to start. The EWG data presentation is detailed, fascinating and even available by state here.

Stop! before you eat that tomato….

…read this book: “Tomatoland” by Barry Estabrook  lifts the veil on the ugly truth behind the juicy tomatoes you may see around you. This is an industry based on the inhuman treatment of migrant workers or illegal immigrants. This situation is made possible by a system which demands that everything be available all the time so you can walk into your grocery store from a snowstorm and buy tomatoes and lettuce. This is not only unnecessary, it has also created a disconnect between people and the planet. Eating in season may be a new mantra but it is actually old wisdom. Our food system must be fair to the people who work in it and the planet that sustains us and we need to reëxamine what we demand from it.