Category Archives: Food Policy

What Is Important In Iowa? Food!


With so much political noise coming from Iowa in the last few days, one curious bit of news went almost unnoticed: a Chinese citizen pleaded guilty to the charge of stealing corn seeds on behalf of a biotech company in Beijing. Why would corn seeds be of such interest to China?  The answer came from an article shared on Twitter.  This piece on the battle between China and the US to control the global food supply was a revelation.

It provides details of how the theft was uncovered and the offenders caught and also reveals what motivated this act :” Despite its remarkable landmass, China simply can’t grow enough food to feed itself, particularly now that the country’s burgeoning middle class has acquired an appetite for meat. (Most corn in China is used as feed for livestock.) Water shortages and lack of arable terrain have forced their government to buy between two and five million metric tons of American corn annually, approximately 94 percent of all corn imported into China each year.”  In its efforts to throw off their dependence on US food production, China is pursuing a plan to grow more at home, and a crucial tool in this effort is high yielding seeds, hence the interest in insect resistant bt corn.

Further, while the theft was set up by a Chinese company, it seems to have the tacit approval of the Chinese government. The matter was treated by the FBI as one of national security: “The federal government, thereby, has implicitly acknowledged that it considers agricultural products both an asset and a weapon in a long-range geopolitical chess match with China, a resource of near-military value and importance, one that must be protected by all available means. By that logic, those Chinese nationals stealing corn are spies, no different—and, indeed, perhaps more important—than those who swipe plans for a new weapons system.”

The place of corn as a weapon in international political strategy is not new, as we learn from the narrative; the development of hybrid seeds to maximize output was part of the strategy to outperform the collective farms of Russia and China. In a time of growing population and climate uncertainty impacting food production, the use of agricultural biotechnology to ensure food security remains crucial.

If international policy matters seem somewhat removed from our daily reality, there is another aspect which is easier to recognize: who is working in the fields to grow all this corn (among other crops)? It is usually an immigrant farm worker, perhaps living here without legal papers, filling in the vacuum of labor created by an ageing farming population and urban migration of young people. They are a crucial part of food production but how does the system treat them? Can we demand a just food system yet ignore farm workers? For while the candidates may talk about sending people back and local residents might resent the influence of a very different culture in their midst; they are both constrained by the need for labor to grow the crops which fill plates at home and in the world.

Food is not just about what we eat, it shapes the world in ways that might not always be evident. There are often no simple and easy solutions. All the more reason why we need to debate the issues with patience and honesty.

(Image Courtesy: “Fresh Corn Cobs” by foto76 at

Kenya, Scotland, India: GMO crops in the news


Big developments in the agricultural biotechnology world in the past few days:

First, Scotland announced it would ban the cultivation of GMO crops. This follows the recent EU policy change allowing member states to make their own decisions regarding the use of biotechnology. Given that no GMO crops are currently being grown in Scotland, this is symbolic. It would be interesting to know if they will stop importing GMO feed for livestock as well.

 Kenya announced that the ban on GMO crops would be lifted in two months. The ban was put in place in 2012 as a reaction to the now retracted Seralini study. Scientists had been pushing for the ban to be lifted, pointing to the potential benefits of biotechnology particularly in view of the disease affecting maize, the main crop.

In India, activists announced their decision to oppose the possible approval and introduction of GMO  mustard. Mustard oil is a traditional and healthy cooking medium. Currently, India is unable to meet consumer demand for mustard oil and has to import from abroad. The GMO mustard seeds are expected to increase yields and meet domestic demand, in the process farmers incomes would also rise. The research was funded by the government but approval is likely to be a slow process due to the unfounded fears surrounding this technology.

Interesting times ahead……

(Photo credit: Trains @Glance™ !!! / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA)

Discussing The Food System: Beyond GMOs


Lately it seems like every discussion in the food world  centers around GMOs/organic/local. It is all about what we see on the plate and getting caught up in it, I realized I was no longer paying attention to the journey of food from the fields to the fork as is the stated goal of my blog.

That got me thinking about the people who make this food journey possible: farmers and farm workers.  And around the globe, it would seem, crises are everywhere: in Mexico, farm workers are striking and stopping work to demand better wages and conditions; in Bangladesh farmers specially from minority groups are being forcibly dispossessed of their land, an issue which resonates next door in India as well; a theme that is echoed in Egypt. And in a closing of the circle, Chipotle says it is paying close attention to its customers and banning GMOs, but perhaps need to better care of their workers who bring the food to our plates.

(Image Courtesy: noppasinw at

The Tower of Label: What We Do Know

FullSizeRender (6)

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:

FullSizeRender (10)

“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:

FullSizeRender (9)

“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:

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:

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: