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All food politics is local: What’s next for the sustainable food movement?

farm city
Shutterstock

A generation ago a group of countercultural organic farmers kicked off a movement that has evolved into a $31.5 billion dollar industry. Now, as those back-to-the-landers from the '60s and '70s retire, they are asking what comes next.

I’m going to spend some time asking the same question. For my next deep dive (after looking at GMOs), I’m going to be trying to identify the next concrete steps that can be made toward the regional food systems of our dreams. Part of the problem, of course, is that we all dream of something slightly different. But there are some broad goals that we can probably all agree on:

Making farms more sustainable, beautiful, and biodiverse; allowing farmers and food workers to earn a decent middle-class income (currently, many of the former and most of the latter do not); connecting eaters to agriculture; and providing more healthy and delicious food.

Already there’s a hearty new generation of people who want to produce food this way, and an ever-growing base of people who want to buy and eat it. But now what? What are the barriers as we make our way down this road? Do we need different middlemen in the market? Different infrastructure? Different laws? Different technologies?

I’ll be talking with successful farmers and food producers to try and understand the conditions that have allowed them to succeed, and to suss out the snags that are still holding them back.

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Send up the white smoke — we have a farm bill!

farm-bill-plow-hplead

Negotiators from the House and Senate have agreed on the details of a new farm bill, more than two years late. Politicians have not voted on the bill yet, but if it passes, it's supposed to save $24 billion, with about a third of that coming from cuts in nutritional assistance food stamps.

This farm bill cuts $9 billion from food stamps over the next decade, which is much less than House Republicans wanted: The last farm bill to come out of the House cut $40 billion.

The other two-thirds of the cuts come primarily from changes in crop subsidies. Those savings, however, may be less than projected, because corn prices currently are tumbling.

Read more: Food, Politics

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OK, GMOs matter — but the noisy fight over them is a distraction

Farm
Espen Faugstad

I’m grateful for the responses from Tom Philpott and Ramez Naam to my final post -- they round out this series considerably.

I’ll confess to some sensationalism in claiming in the title of my last piece on the GMO controversy that “none of it matters.” Of course it does matter to some degree, and it matters very much to those who have dedicated their lives to the issue. It would have been more punctilious (and less fun) to instead title the piece: “The ferocity of the GMO debate makes it seem much more important than it really is.”

It’s not that we should all resign ourselves to apathy. I’m simply suggesting that -- whether your primary concern is the environment, or health, or poverty, or feeding the world -- heavy expenditure of political capital on GMOs isn’t going to move you all that far toward your goal.

Both Ramez Naam and Tom Philpott take me to task for underplaying the importance of GMOs, and I actually agree with almost all of what they’ve written here. I agree with Naam that we should be pursuing moonshot technologies like C4 and self-fertilization. But we shouldn’t be counting on those big breakthroughs to solve our problems: They may not ever come. I agree with Philpott that GMO crops have been overhyped and that discussion should stick to the facts on the ground.

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Nervous about MRSA? Us too — but here’s what we can do

hogcafo.JPG

We’ve been feeding sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to farm animals for a long time now. So what? Eventually germs will gain a resistance, but those are animal germs -- not people germs, right?

If only. There’s more and more evidence coming in each year that links drug-resistant human pathogens to agriculture. Now a study has found that people are nearly three times more likely to have MRSA (drug-resistant staph bacteria) living in their nostrils if they lived within a mile of a large pig confinement farm. Terrifying and gross.

Read more: Food

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Just add compost: How to turn your grassland ranch into a carbon sink

cows grazing
Shutterstock

When UC-Berkeley ecologist Whendee Silver first heard about the idea behind the Marin Carbon Project, she was pretty skeptical. The group wanted her to study the land they were ranching to see if putting compost on grasslands might stimulate the landscape to siphon carbon out of the atmosphere and incorporate it into the soil.

“I doubt I could measure it,” she told the group, which had assembled at Lawrence Berkeley Lab. “And you won’t like the results if I can.”

John Wick and Lynette Niebrugge, soil scientist for the Marin Resource Conservation District
John Wick and Lynette Niebrugge, soil scientist for the Marin Resource Conservation District.

For years, ranchers have been drawn by the prospect of using their rangelands to soak up carbon. That would mean more grass, richer soil, and less planetary catastrophe. But hard science to support the idea has been lacking. Some range scientists suggested the idea was bunk.

Silver agreed to take on the project. Now, after five years of collecting data, she has been surprised by the results.

This is a guarded, cautiously optimistic thumps up, mind you.
Join Grist for an exploration of recent climate wins. This is a guarded, cautiously optimistic thumbs up, mind you.

“It was quite possible that we might have found that you can’t sequester carbon in the soil. But we saw that you can,” she said. “And we could have found that trying to measure carbon captured in the soil could have been like looking for needles in a haystack. But it’s more like looking for bricks in a haystack.”

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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What I learned from six months of GMO research: None of it matters

gmo-arcimboldo
Grist / Shutterstock / Giuseppe Arcimboldo

About a third of the way through this series on GMOs, after a particularly angry conflagration broke out on Twitter, I asked my wife, Beth, if I could tell her what had happened. I was hoping to exorcise those digital voices from my head. Someone had probably accused me of crimes against humanity, shoddy journalism, and stealing teddy bears from children -- I forget the details, thank goodness. But I remember Beth’s response.

“No offense,” she said, “but who cares?”

It’s a little awkward to admit this, after devoting so much time to this project, but I think Beth was right. The most astonishing thing about the vicious public brawl over GMOs is that the stakes are so low.

I know that to those embroiled in the controversy this will seem preposterous. Let me try to explain.

Let’s start off with a thought experiment: Imagine two alternate futures, one in which genetically modified food has been utterly banned, and another in which all resistance to genetic engineering has ceased. In other words, imagine what would happen if either side “won” the debate.

Read more: Food, Living

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Looney tuna: Did anyone really pay $2 million for a fish?

tuna
Dennis Tang

Last year, a restaurateur bid nearly $2 million to buy the first tuna auctioned off at Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market. It made for a great story: Southern bluefin tuna are critically endangered, and there’s something grimly fascinating about watching humans hand over great wads of cash to eat a creature they’ve driven to the brink of extinction.

All that press increased demand. “People were lined up down the block and around the corner to get a taste of the million dollar tuna,” said Andrew David Thaler, a deep-sea biologist who blogs at Southern Fried Science. The story was perhaps a little too good to be true. After the first tuna is auctioned off, the rest sell for orders of magnitude less. Danny Bloom, a journalist who has worked in Japan, wrote that no money actually changed hands. He said this was what the Japanese call yarase: an entirely manufactured PR stunt.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Food industry’s secret plan for a GMO (non)-labeling law

GMO label sign
CT Senate Democrats

The captains of the food industry have decided it's time for a federal GMO-labeling law. Specifically, they're aiming for a labeling law that doesn't actually require labeling at all -- but does pre-empt all of the more stringent labeling laws now making their way through state legislatures. In other words, they want a voluntary-labeling law that stops states from enacting anything else. (Yes, food makers can already voluntarily label their products as non-GM.)

This story comes from Politico, where Jenny Hopkinson and Helena Bottemiller Evich got their hands on a leaked description of the proposed law.

This isn't exactly a surprise -- it's precisely what the Grocery Manufacturing Association had planned to do. And there's no telling yet whether politicians have an appetite for this law.

Read more: Food

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The dirt on the “Agent Orange” GMOs you’ve been hearing so much about

herbicide
Wikipedia

On Friday, the USDA recommended the approval of new, herbicide-resistant, genetically engineered corn and soybeans. A lot of the journalism covering this news focused on concerns that it would be an environmental catastrophe, and dwelled on the ominous-sounding fact that the herbicide in question, 2,4-D, was an ingredient in the Vietnam War defoliant Agent Orange. Here’s what you should know about this news:

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Cereal numbers: Will GMO-free Cheerios capture a new market?

cheerios
Y'amal

Back in October, I listened in on a press conference in which activists announced that they were going to hammer on General Mills until the company agreed to label Cheerios as non-GMO. I have to admit, I thought nothing would come of it. The participants were asserting way too many dodgy claims for real journalists to take them seriously (you can listen here). I hung up part way through and I didn't see any coverage come from the event. But apparently someone more important than me was paying attention: General Mills just announced that it will guarantee its original Cheerios don't have any genetically engineered ingredients.

The company said it's not responding to pressure; rather, it's interested in the possibility that customers might "embrace" (i.e. buy more) GM-free Cheerios. Even if that's true, activists may have rallied enough interest to get General Mills' attention, and I suspect that the company wants to try labeling as an experiment. Will a non-GM label increase sales? Will customers pay a higher price? The answers to these questions will be valuable to the company in planning for the possibility of labeling laws.

Read more: Food