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Frankenfoods hitch a ride through Congress — but you can help stop them

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Remember that one time? In Congress? When an anonymous group of House Republicans tried and failed to sneak a rider into the farm bill that would have exempted agribusiness from liability for biotech crops and all but eliminated the government’s power to regulate them? Good times.

Well, the implosion of the farm bill did nothing to stop Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, et al’s quest to insulate themselves from lawsuits. Maybe it has something to do with the rise of superweeds and superbugs resistant to their products and the fact that commodity farmers are just maybe starting to take a hard look at the costs versus the benefits of the current and coming crop of genetically modified seeds. Or perhaps it’s simply a desire to complete their dominance of U.S. agriculture.

Whatever the reason, the so-called “Monsanto rider” is back, this time thanks to an anonymous senator, or group of senators, who have attached it to the must-pass “Continuing Resolution” that will keep the government operating as of March 27. Let me just say that when it comes to Congress -- which is chockablock with men and women desperate for media attention -- whenever you hear the word “anonymous” attached to anything, you know you there’s something sketchy going on.

Tom Philpott at Mother Jones did the yeoman's service of digging out the exact language from the bill. Right after the section where Congress defunds the mohair subsidy program (you do know we have a mohair subsidy program, don’t you?), the draft legislation states that in the event that a court declares a genetically modified seed illegal, the U.S. Department of Agriculture can override the judge and allow farmers to keep planting, harvesting, and distributing it. Funny enough, this exact scenario occurred with Monsanto’s GMO sugar beets a couple years ago when a federal judge found that the USDA had violated the law in approving them. The department defied the court order and told farmers to keep planting anyway.

Read more: Food, Politics

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Corn free: Cutting back on our dominant crop is easier said than done

We just can't quit you, corn.
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We just can't quit you, corn.

We at Grist go on and on about corn -- how it’s far too dominant in the U.S. agricultural landscape, how it uses too much land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, and taxpayer dollars, and how it produces too little food. It’s a familiar refrain around here.

Last week, University of Minnesota agricultural scientist Jonathan Foley, author of peer-reviewed research into the global impacts of agriculture, took to the pages of Scientific American to declare that corn is far too dominant in the U.S. agricultural landscape, that it uses too much land, water, fertilizer, pesticides, and taxpayer dollars, and that it produces too little food. Foley goes so far as to use the language of the financial crisis to state plainly that:

The monolithic nature of corn production presents a systemic risk to America’s agriculture, with impacts ranging from food prices to feed prices and energy prices. It also presents a potential threat to our economy and to the taxpayers who end up footing the bill when things go sour. This isn’t rocket science: You wouldn’t invest in a mutual fund that was dominated by only one company, because it would be intolerably risky. But that’s what we’re doing with American agriculture. Simply put, too many of our agricultural eggs are in one basket. [emphasis added]

He sums up the argument against our over-reliance on corn elegantly.

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Sorry, Michelle, but cheerleading isn’t enough to make Big Food change

We'll need more than cheerleading to change our food system.
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Encouragement isn't enough -- we need laws.

Mrs. Obama -- can I call you Michelle? -- do you have a minute? I know you’re on tour right now, but I think you and I need to have a little chat.

First off, childhood obesity is a major crisis, and your Let’s Move! anti-obesity campaign is an important initiative. The report your Presidential Task Force on Childhood Obesity produced was a landmark document, and you’ve brought new and essential attention to the ways the nation must address the obesity and diabetes epidemic.

But your latest move? Expecting the processed-food companies and retail giants to spearhead the move to healthy eating? It’s just not going to happen. I hope that’s not too harsh, but I wanted to be straight with you after reading your recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, “The Business Case for Healthier Food.” In it, you declare that:

Every day, great American companies are achieving greater and greater success by creating and selling healthy products. In doing so, they are showing that what's good for kids and good for family budgets can also be good for business.

And then you laud Walmart and Walgreens for expanding their selection of fresh fruits and vegetables and Disney for “eliminating ads for junk foods from its children’s programming.”

Kudos to them, but that’s all about “selling.” What about “creating”? You give a nod to restaurants “cutting calories, fat and sodium from menus and offering healthier kids' meals.” Now, that’s not nothing: Americans spend 40 percent of our food budgets eating out. But the rest goes to food we eat at home, and of that, we spend over 20 percent on processed food, and about 8 percent on soda and other sweetened beverages. That’s a big chunk of our daily caloric intake, not to mention our paychecks. And it’s not something you can ignore when you’re talking about any business case involving food.

You did once call on food companies to improve their products. Do you remember that time you went in front of the Grocery Manufacturers Association and said this?

We need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children. ...

While decreasing fat is certainly a good thing, replacing it with sugar and salt isn’t. And it doesn’t mean compensating for high amounts of problematic ingredients with small amounts of beneficial ones — for example, adding a little bit of Vitamin C to a product with lots of sugar, or a gram of fiber to a product with tons of fat doesn’t suddenly make those products good for our kids ... This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy. As you know, it’s about producing products that actually are healthy — products that can help shape the health habits of an entire generation.

Right on!

Except that was three years ago, and you’ve said not a peep on that subject since then. Instead we get empty platitudes on how healthy food is good for business. Well, the processed-food industry knows that what’s really good for business is engineering food products that hit consumers’ “bliss point” of flavor and texture.

Read more: Food, Politics

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Miracle grow: Indian farmers smash crop yield records without GMOs

A woman
F. Fiondella / IRA, CCAFS
Gorita, Andhra Pradesh, India.

What if the agricultural revolution has already happened and we didn’t realize it? Essentially, that’s the idea in this report from the Guardian about a group of poverty-stricken Indian rice and potato farmers who harvested confirmed world-record yields of rice and potatoes. Best of all: They did it completely sans-GMOs or even chemicals of any kind.

[Sumant] Kumar, a shy young farmer in Nalanda district of India's poorest state Bihar, had -- using only farmyard manure and without any herbicides -- grown an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice on one hectare [~2.5 acres] of land. This was a world record and with rice the staple food of more than half the world's population of seven billion, big news.

It beat not just the 19.4 tonnes achieved by the "father of rice", the Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, but the World Bank-funded scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and anything achieved by the biggest European and American seed and GM companies. And it was not just Sumant Kumar. Krishna, Nitish, Sanjay and Bijay, his friends and rivals in Darveshpura, all recorded over 17 tonnes, and many others in the villages around claimed to have more than doubled their usual yields.

Another Bihar farmer broke India’s wheat-growing record the same year. They accomplished all this without GMOs or advanced seed hybrids, artificial fertilizer or herbicide. Instead, they used a technique called System of Rice [or root] Intensification (SRI). It’s a technique developed in Madagascar in the 1980s by a French Jesuit and then identified and promulgated by Cornell political scientist and international development specialist Norman Uphoff.

SRI for rice involves starting with fewer, more widely spaced plants; using less water; actively aerating the soil; and applying lots of organic fertilizer. According to Uphoff’s SRI Institute website [PDF], the farmers who use synthetic fertilizer with the technique get lower yields than those who farm organically. How’s that for pleasant irony?

Brothers Mohen Singh and Raj Narayin Singh in their wheat field in Bihar.
Petr Kosina / CIMMYT
Brothers Mohen Singh and Raj Narayin Singh in their wheat field in Bihar.

The breadth of the results in Bihar have gotten international attention. The Guardian reports that economist Joseph Stieglitz, a Nobel laureate and international development aficionado, visited the area last month. After seeing their amazing results, he declared the farmers “better than scientists.”

High praise aside, the technique is not without its detractors.

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GMO fail: Monsanto foiled by feds, Supreme Court, and science

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It's been a good week if you enjoy a little GMO schadenfreude. The FDA has reportedly bowed to public pressure to extend the comment period on its approval of genetically engineered salmon, and Illinois, Maryland, and Iowa are the latest states to buck GMOs by introducing labeling bills into state legislature.

Even the Supreme Court has an opportunity to take Monsanto down a peg. On Feb. 19, the court will hear arguments in a patent infringement case between an Indiana farmer and Monsanto (I covered it in detail here). If Monsanto prevails, it’ll move a few more paces towards agricultural monopoly; if it loses, the company will take a couple steps back. It’s encouraging that the Supreme Court chose to hear the case over the solicitor general’s urging to dismiss it, but Monsanto could have an inside man: As in other Monsanto-related cases, former Monsanto-lawyer-turned-Supreme-Court-Justice Clarence Thomas has no plans to recuse himself.

But GMOs took the biggest punch this week from academia: Tom Philpott highlights a USDA-funded study [PDF] by University of Wisconsin scientists who found that several types of GMO seeds (including Monsanto’s RoundUp Ready varieties) actually produce a lower yield than conventional seeds. Only one seed -- a corn that produces its own pesticide to combat the corn borer -- offers any significant yield benefit. In other words, planting most genetically modified seeds results in less harvest per acre than planting non-genetically modified seeds.

The researchers looked at 20 years of data from test plots in Wisconsin from 1990-2010, both on research plots and on plots in participating farmers’ fields. Philpott flags a key point from the study:

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Can USDA’s climate reality message take root with denialist farmers?

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As Grist reported earlier this week, the USDA released a massive report on climate change and U.S. agriculture. The report may represent the agency’s most decisive move to force farmers to face reality. The short version: Climate change is real, it’s here to stay, and farmers need to start adapting before the biggest effects hit.

And while this may not come as news to Grist readers, it’s worth highlighting the significance of this report. Big farm lobbying groups have been some of the most vocal critics of government action to address climate change, as well as of the very idea of anthropogenic (i.e. human-caused) climate change. A 2011 survey of Iowa farmers [PDF] found that while 68 percent believed the climate was changing, only 10 percent agree that it’s caused primarily by human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Many an article on the extreme weather in farm country contain quotes like this one from American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman:

“We are used to dealing with extreme weather variation,” he says, pointing out that his Texas farm has seen 20 inches of rain in a single day, in the middle of a drought. “We’ve learned to roll with those extremes. If it gets a little more extreme down the road, we can deal with it.”

The USDA would like you to look at a picture, Mr. Stallman.*

climate pic 2

That’s what will happen to summer temperatures by the end of the century if we don’t cut greenhouse gas emissions. Note that farm country will get hit particularly hard -- average temps will rise by about 10 degrees F. When you combine that with the increase in extreme weather events that the USDA assures farmers are baked in to the climate cake at this point, it becomes harder and harder to assume you can just “roll with it.” So sayeth the USDA:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Attack of the leafy greens: Is your lunch plotting against you?

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According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the single food most likely to make you sick isn't ground beef or ground turkey but rather ... leafy greens! In other words, the “good for you” stuff. Dang.

In the 10 years between 1998 and 2008, produce caused 42 percent of food-borne illnesses, according to the study, with leafy greens alone accounting for 23 percent. Most of the produce-related illness was norovirus, which for most people is a nasty, messy, but brief experience. Produce was also the cause of 41 percent of hospitalizations and 24 percent of the deaths from food-borne illness -- though as a group meat, dairy, and eggs were responsible for more of each.

But before you toss the contents of your produce drawer into the compost heap, let’s consider a few things.

Read more: Food

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Are Walmart and Big Food pushing for GMO labeling?

genetically modified food potato
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Since food companies collectively spent over $45 million to stop Prop 37, California’s GMO labeling law, it’s hard to believe that they -- and Walmart in particular -- would turn around and push for a federal GMO labeling standard. But a trickle of reports, aspects of which we've now confirmed, suggests just such a turnabout.

Playing a state-by-state game of whack-a-mole with grassroots groups trying to pass laws across the country (as is occurring in Washington state, Vermont, New Mexico, and Connecticut) may simply have become too exhausting and costly for these companies. If so, such an about-face would vindicate GMO opponents’ strategy of a direct appeal to consumers. GMO-labeling advocates may have succeeded in beginning to drive a wedge between biotechnology seed companies, like Monsanto and Syngenta, and the food companies that have to sell what’s produced with their wares.

That's because GMOs, for all the claims made on their behalf, actually provide very little benefit to consumers -- one of the strongest arguments against them. GMO innovations to date have simply allowed farmers to plant vast acreages of commodity crops like corn, soy, and cotton with less labor (but not, despite industry claims, with fewer chemicals). It’s on this basis, perhaps, that food companies felt like the fight wasn't really theirs.

I first learned of this possible labeling sea change through an article by Ronnie Cummins, head of the Organic Consumers Association, who caught wind of news that a group of food companies went into the FDA earlier this month to “lobby for a mandatory federal GMO labeling law.”

Cummins went on to speculate the following:

Is it possible that the threat posed by the growing grassroots GMO labeling movement has prompted a number of Fortune 500 corporations to abandon Monsanto and the biotech industry, and rethink the PR and bottom-line costs of clinging to their anti-right-to-know positions? After all, it’s not as if these companies are incapable of making GMO-free products. Though many Americans don’t know it, Walmart, General Mills, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nestle, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Starbucks -- even McDonald’s -- are GMO-free in Europe, thanks to strict GMO labeling laws.

I have been able to confirm through sources close to attendees that such a meeting did occur on Jan. 11. It did not take place at the FDA, however, though FDA representatives did reportedly attend. The meeting was "sponsored" by the AGree Foundation, which is a coalition of foundations active in agriculture and co-chaired by former Clinton Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman and Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Farm Organics.

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Coke ‘joins’ the anti-obesity fight — will fast food take note?

Coca-Cola is on the offensive with its new ad campaign entitled “It’s not our fault you’re fat” “Coming Together.” A two-minute web ad kicks off a marketing blitz designed to help address the problem of obesity … a problem caused in no small part by the company’s products. Apparently, the solution involves drinking a soda and going for a run. I hope Michelle Obama is taking notes. Watch:

Was that so hard? And you all thought obesity was a far-reaching, intractable issue with enormous social costs and no easy answers. Sillies!!

Of course, the new campaign is not without its critics. Grist contributor and author of Appetite for Profit Michele Simon put it to the New York Times this way:

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House GOP shafts rural America, still gets their votes

I know: You’re feeling a bit blue about that anti-reform farm bill extension that Congress snuck in to the fiscal cliff deal just before the new year -- the one that Grist skewered for its screwing over of sustainable farmers. You’re not alone -- the big subsidy reform groups like the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Environmental Working Group were bummed, too.

But with 2013 comes a new Congress, and some agriculture reformers are now moderating their fury. As NPR reports, the 2012 Farm Bill disaster now looks more like a “stalemate.” Yes, conservation programs, fruit and vegetable subsidies, and new farmer programs weren’t included in the extension. But a controversial, massive expansion of crop insurance or the proposed “shallow-loss” income insurance program for commodity crop farmers didn’t sneak in, either.

Read more: Food