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App, crackle, pop: Junk food marketers target your kids online

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Just before Christmas, and ever so quietly, the Federal Trade Commission released a review [PDF] of corporate food marketing to kids. The FTC hasn’t examined this kind of data since 2006, so this was its chance to check up on the processed food and beverage industry’s much-ballyhooed self-regulation of food advertising aimed at young kids and teens. The data for the new report is from 2009. The upshot? Food marketing to kids totaled $1.79 billion and went down a skosh from 2006 levels.

Does this mean corporate self-regulation is working? Not at all. First off, in 2009 this country was in the teeth of the Great Recession, so all marketing spending was down. The good intentions of food companies may have had little to do with the drop. But what’s more interesting is the fact that food companies shifted spending away from television advertising and toward online and social media spending.

Food companies spent 19.5 percent less on television ads and 60 percent more online between 2006 and 2009. Because TV ads are so expensive, reducing them explains most of the overall drop in spending. But that doesn’t mean ads weren’t being seen; companies also get significant bang for the buck when they invest in online marketing -- and they spent $122 million online in 2009. One can only imagine what that number looked like in 2012.

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Don’t like today’s food monopolies? Blame Robert Bork

Robert Bork
Robert Bork.

Most people, if they think of the recently departed and extremely conservative Judge Robert Bork at all, think of his failed nomination by President Ronald Reagan to the Supreme Court (and maybe his natty facial hair). But Robert Bork deserves credit for more than just inspiring the term “Borked.” He actually deserves credit (or, more accurately, blame) for the domination of our food system by a handful of mammoth corporations. I’m talking about you, Monsanto, Cargill, Tyson, and Walmart.

As we noted last month, farmers feel the brunt of his legacy:

According to a 2007 study [PDF] from the University of Missouri, the four largest companies controlled 82 percent of the beef packing industry, 85 percent of soybean processing, 63 percent of pork packing, and 53 percent of broiler chicken processing. In fact, so much consolidation has taken place throughout the food chain that it can be difficult for any one person to fathom the true effects.

But consumers experience it, too. Walmart now earns one out of every $4 Americans spend on groceries and controls 50 percent of the grocery sales in some cities.

What exactly does Robert Bork have to do with any of this? According to an interview in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog with legal scholar Barak Orbach of the University of Arizona, Bork is considered the father of modern antitrust law, whose influence, Orbach says, he "cannot overstate." Orbach observes that it was Bork’s legal work in the 1960s that transformed the way the government looked at monopolies and mergers, and led directly to the rise of the mega-corporations that dominate industry after industry.

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What does obesity have to do with climate change? Plenty, say some scientists

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After a year filled with superstorms, droughts, floods, and wildfires, there’s little doubt that climate change is having a dramatic impact on our lives. But it also threatens to cause more subtle impacts on our health. And we’re just starting to get a handle on what they might be. The latest? It looks like climate change and its effect on food production might take the obesity crisis in the U.S. to a whole new level.

A series of letters in the current issue of the American Journal of Public Health -- all of which are highly speculative -- explores the relationship. The theory comes out of recent work on the links between food prices, “food insecurity,” and obesity.

For the record, food insecurity is distinct from hunger. The USDA defines it as “limited or uncertain access to adequate food” -- something experienced by almost 15 percent of American households at some point last year. It can result in hunger, which is considered a physiological condition, but it doesn’t always. Sometimes food insecurity has a greater psychological effect whereby people make poor decisions about what and how much to eat when the prospect of not enough food presents itself.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Food safety fail: Why isn’t the agency in charge of keeping us safe succeeding?

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If there’s an upshot to Barry Estabrook’s must-read piece on the critical failings of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) -- the agency charged with keeping most of our food safe -- it’s this: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

And no, I’m not exaggerating. As Estabrook reports, we’re in the midst of a food poisoning epidemic. "According to the CDC, there are about 48 million cases of food poisoning a year, leading to more than 128,000 hospitalizations and more than 3,000 deaths," he writes.

To put that last statistic in perspective, it’s the equivalent of a 9/11 tragedy every year. You’d think the government (and the American people) might want to do something to stop it.

Now, it’s true that not all deaths from food poisoning can be prevented by government action. But as Estabrook explains, the FDA isn’t doing nearly enough to get that number down. He sums up the agency’s shortcomings like this:

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Are you a farmer worried about GMO contamination? USDA says ‘get insurance’

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One of the big debates in agriculture right now involves “coexistence” between farmers who use genetically modified or GMO seeds and those who don’t. This is far more than an academic debate; in question is the risk of “contamination” of conventional or organic crops by GMO crops. The wind, insects, and even the farmers themselves can inadvertently cause this type of cross-pollination, and it puts organic farms at risk of losing their organic status and conventional farmers at risk of losing sales to countries that don’t allow imports of GMO foods.

The risk of such “transgenic” contamination has grown along with the market share of biotech seeds developed by Monsanto and DuPont -- to the point that around 90 percent of corn, 90 percent of soy, and 80 percent of cotton grown in the U.S. is genetically modified.

Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is stepping in. Just before the Thanksgiving holiday, a USDA advisory board released a report [PDF] recommending that the government offer a special form of crop insurance for farmers concerned about GMO contamination.

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This holiday season, consider the farmers — and the corporations that control them

wtoc
Industrial chicken farmers are the most impacted by corporate consolidation.

When you sit down to your Thanksgiving dinner, I encourage you to give a thought to the people who grew the food on your table. Did they get a fair shake when they took their bounty to market? For the vast majority of Americans who shop at traditional grocery stores and supermarkets, which are supplied by large distributors and packers, the answer is probably no.

As we've noted in our coverage of the recent Food and Water Watch report on the consolidation of our food system, “The Cost of Monopolies” [PDF]:

According to a 2007 study [PDF] from the University of Missouri, the four largest companies controlled 82 percent of the beef packing industry, 85 percent of soybean processing, 63 percent of pork packing, and 53 percent of broiler chicken processing. In fact, so much consolidation has taken place throughout the food chain that it can be difficult for any one person to fathom the true effects.

The negative effects of this consolidation -- on the environment, jobs, and income -- in rural communities are tremendous. Yet for the last few decades, the government actively encouraged consolidation so that food production and distribution could benefit from economies of scale. Farmers complained about growing abuses from the handful of large companies that came to dominate food processing and distribution (and retailing) -- but never seemed to make headway with government regulators.

And that’s because low prices at the supermarket became the Holy Grail of federal policy. Nothing else mattered. We have a system designed to generate huge amounts of cheap food, no matter the collateral damage to the communities where this food is grown or processed.

This approach conveniently ignores the other side of the equation: food producers, who often can’t reach consumers directly and have a desperately hard time getting a fair price for their products when there are only one or two buyers. And those suffering producers are Americans, too, trying to make a living (so they can buy other Americans’ products and services).

Consumers have been pitted against producers. As a consequence, rising prices aren’t greeted as a sustainable development for producers, they’re treated as a symptom of a market that’s not “working.”

But in 2009, farmers finally caught the attention of the federal government when the Obama administration sent representatives from the Departments of Agriculture and Justice -- including Attorney General Eric Holder and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack themselves -- out into rural communities to register farmers' complaints. The blog Civil Eats described the struggles they voiced:

Across the country, the stories have been the same: grain prices so low they don’t cover the cost of [fertilizer and pesticides]. Milk prices so low they don’t cover feed costs. Non-genetically modified seed harder and harder for organic farmers to find. Families forced to sell their farms after generations on the land. Former farmers struggling with debt and unable to find work because they have no off-farm skills. Low-income consumers -- urban and rural -- with no access to fresh food.

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Will Obama’s second term bring food system wins — or more of the same?

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While Grist gamely speculated on what a Romney administration would have meant for food and farm policy (short answer: nothing good), we haven't spent all that much time considering what an Obama second term will look like. His win didn't exactly leave us shell-shocked, but even so, I best make up for lost time.

When Obama was first elected, food reformers dreamed big. As Michael Pollan wrote just after the 2008 election in his open letter to the next "Farmer-in-Chief," Obama had an opportunity to make agriculture less fossil-fuel dependent, re-localize food systems, and rebuild America’s food culture.

But those pleasant dreams dissolved in January 2009’s cold winter light. First came Tom Vilsack as Obama’s choice for agriculture secretary -- not a disastrous pick, but disappointing for many critics of agribusiness. And then, after unsourced reports held that sustainable agriculture leader Chuck Hassebrook’s selection as Vilsack’s deputy had been quashed by unhappy farm-state senators, president-elect Obama seemed to respond by putting forward one traditional agribusiness nominee after another to populate food and farm positions in the administration.

This clutch of appointments -- which included former pesticide lobbyist Islam Siddiqui to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, former Monsanto executive Mike Taylor as the FDA’s food safety czar, and biotech proponents Roger Beachy and Rajiv Shah as the USDA’s research chief and head of the State Department's international development agency, respectively -- still grates on food and farm activists' nerves. One notable exception -- indeed the great triumph of reform -- remains the appointment of sustainable agriculture advocate and experienced D.C. bureaucrat Kathleen Merrigan as Vilsack’s second-in-command.

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What we can learn from California’s attempt to label GMOs

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On possibly the greatest night progressive politics has seen in a long time (not to mention a great night for weed), the food movement experienced a stinging defeat in California. The statewide GMO labeling initiative (a.k.a. Prop 37) went down in convincing defeat (as did the city of Richmond’s proposed soda tax).

The group behind the initiative, California Right to Know, put a brave face on defeat and touted the more than 4 million votes the initiative received in its 53-to-47-percent loss. And that’s certainly not nothing. The odds of success were long. Even California Right to Know co-chair and Food Democracy Now founder Dave Murphy admitted that the group had taken on “an impossible task.”

In Mother Jones, Tom Philpott agreed that the GMO labeling effort represented a swing for the fences in picking a fight with not one but two of the most formidable industries on the planet -- agribusiness and processed food.

Yes on 37 forces were outspent 5 to 1, and that money advantage was put to good use through a clearly potent ad campaign that was decried for its deceptiveness and false claims. And, of course, the losses may point to weaknesses in the political abilities of the food movement. But the ultimate truth about the Prop 37 campaign is this: The California initiative process is a flawed, unproductive way to make policy. This has been true for decades. And while I speak from personal experience -- I was a registered California voter for seven years -- there are few serious political analysts who view the state’s initiative process in a positive light.

Read more: Food, Politics

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Corn maze: There is no ‘simple fix’ for commodity farming

Michael Patterson

I’ve been thinking lately about monoculture. It’s a term that’s familiar to those interested in food and agriculture and typically refers to the reliance on vast plantings of a single crop, such as corn or soy.

But monoculture isn’t just about what you plant. It’s also about how you plant and what you use to keep your plants alive. And while we can all share the goal of turning Big Ag into Better Ag, as the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sasha Lyutse put it, many of the obstacles aren’t purely economic or scientific, they’re cultural.

Take the Marsden Farm Study that Mark Bittman has brought to national attention as a potential model for future farmers. In it, a team of U.S. Department of Agriculture and Iowa State University researchers embarked on a 10-year study that compared conventional “two-year” rotations of corn and soy (the dominant form of commodity growing) with three- and four-year rotations that mixed in other grains, alfalfa, and -- in the case of the four-year rotation -- livestock to provide manure fertilizer. As Bittman observed:

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When it comes to food, how does your lawmaker stack up?

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Will the food movement ever really turn political? This question has been much discussed of late, thanks in part to Michael Pollan’s recent New York Times Magazine op-ed on California’s GMO labeling referendum (which I discussed here).

And yes, as Pollan argued recently, whether or not California’s Prop 37 passes will be one sign that the movement has come of age (i.e. eaters “voting with votes, not just forks”). But winning one election in one state, however large and trendsetting, would be just the beginning. Every good political movement identifies its allies and its enemies in an attempt to breed more of the former and weed out the latter.

Today -- on Food Day -- we’re seeing signs that the food movement may in fact be starting to grow up. And like learning how to balance a checkbook or making sure bills get paid on time, some of the most crucial rites of passage can seem more like chores than privileges.

Read more: Food, Politics