Tag Archives: Food Justice

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 FreeDigitalPgotos.net)

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)

#Farming Friday 26: How Immigration Action Will Change the Life of Farm Workers


In advance of Friday, because it is so relevant right now: the frank account of the life of an undocumented farm worker and how her circumstances will change under the new immigration policy; the first steps toward a just food system begins with those who are integral to growing the food.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)

#Farming Friday 15: Land Grabs in Laos


This post in the Farming Friday series is delayed but the issue it highlights is crucial today as farmers are being displaced in many parts of the world as they lose their land to outside forces, sometimes government projects or corporate interests or urban expansion. This is the experience of specially of farmers from minority ethnic groups in Laos who are being deprived of their lands. While the framework to protect their rights does exist, it is not being put to use.

(Image Courtesy: freedigitalphotos.net)



#Farming Friday 11: Debt Main Cause of Indian Farmer Suicides


I have grown weary of reading the “Bt Cotton causes farmer suicides in India” story and attempting to refute it. However, refuting it is essential because it is not just untrue, but also used as a trump card in the anti-GMO narrative.  There are several studies which have examined this question and determined that there is no causal relationship between the use of biotechnology and farmer suicides. The adoption of Bt Cotton in India has actually resulted in gains. And the issue of farmer suicides is a growing concern in many parts of the world, including the USA.  

The Indian farmer has always had to deal with an overwhelming burden of debt because the debt passed on down the generations of farmer families. Long before biotechnology arrived on the field, this narrative could be found in academic texts and popular literature. Here is the study from the Lancet which again upholds the result that small holder farmers, faced with crushing debt sometimes can only see suicide as an option. When the next government takes over, will this change? We can only hope so.


Image Courtesy:freedigitalphotos.net

“I Have Measured Out My Life With Coffee Spoons”


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…

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.

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.

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.