Tom Laskawy

A 17-year veteran of both traditional and online media, Tom Laskawy is a founder and executive director of the Food & Environment Reporting Network and a contributing writer at Grist covering food and agricultural policy. Tom's long and winding road to food politics writing passed through New York, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, Florence, Italy, and Philadelphia (which has a vibrant progressive food politics and sustainable agriculture scene, thank you very much). In addition to Grist, his writing has appeared online in The American Prospect, Slate, The New York Times, and The New Republic. He is on record as believing that wrecking the planet is a bad idea. Follow him on Twitter.

Soda quota

Tax junk food, but also subidize veggies

Soda can … harm your health.The taxman cometh for soft drinks. Or so it appears these days. We already know they’re on the table as a possible funding source for Obama’s health care reform. And behind the scenes, the co-author of an influential paper on the potential positive effect of soda taxes, New York City’s Health Commissioner Tom Frieden, has just been named to run the Centers for Disease Control. And today David Leonhardt, one of the NYT’s top economics writers published a column praising the benefits of taxing soda in particular and calories in general. I even learned that …

Local yokels

Big Food’s ‘local’ push: what’s it really about?

Photo: TheTruthAbout…, via FlickrThe Ethicurean probably had it right when it declared yesterday that “local” jumped the shark. The shark in this case (or is it the jumper? I’m never sure which is which) is Frito-Lay and its Big Food brethren, which have embarked on marketing campaigns emphasizing the “local” producers who supply them. The NYT lays it out: Frito-Lay is one of several big companies that, along with some large-scale farming concerns, are embracing a broad interpretation of what eating locally means. This mission creep has the original locavores choking on their yerba mate. But food executives who measure …

Fox in the Henhouse

Close friend of Big Meat may be put in charge of food safety

USDA chief Tom Vilsack is once again on the verge of stepping in it regarding his pick for food safety czar, i.e. the head of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. Some may recall that back in March the Obama administration nearly appointed Dr. Michael Osterholm to the post only to back off when his views on meat irradation (aka “Zap the Crap”) proved too hot to handle. Ironically, Osterholm — who has ties to the meat industry, biotech heavyweight Monsanto and defense contractor 3M — is also a legitimate expert on pandemic preparedness, a skill which might’ve come …

the view from the blend wall

Resistance grows to increasing the amount of ethanol in gasoline

The ethanol lobby may still be reeling in the subsidies, but it doesn’t seem to be having any luck dealing with their other obsession, the so-called “blend wall,” i.e. the legally prescribed limit to the amount of ethanol that can be mixed into gasoline. The NYT has a nice summary of the mounting scientific and industry backlash against ethanol lobbyist Growth Energy’s EPA petition to raise the blend wall from 10% to 15%. The NYT lays out some of the objections this way: Approving E15 would have a huge impact on consumers, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center …

Change we can devour

Vilsack’s USDA shakes things up

I know some are still reeling from the recent Obama administration announcement on biofuels and its implication that it remains a bit too much in thrall to the concerns of Big Ag. And Tom Vilsack’s continued pimping for Monsanto and other biotech companies seems both unsustainable and uninformed. But a slew of positive decisions have come down from the USDA in recent days that merit attention and suggest that business is very much not as usual at ag’s end of the Mall. First up was USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan’s announcement of $50 million in funding from the USDA’s Environmental …

Ethanol's Big Day

Barack gives biofuels the big thumbs up

[Update: While some may think this decision was a win for corn ethanol, House Ag Committee Chair Collin Peterson clearly does not. In fact, he is seriously ticked off about it. According to CongressDaily, Peterson responded to the indirect land use ruling as follows:  "You are going to kill the biofuels industry. You are in bed with the oil industry. I won't support any climate change bill even if you fix it because I don't trust anybody," Peterson told administration witnesses at a House Agriculture subcommittee hearing on the renewable fuel standard's impact on land use. Ouch.] The Obama administration …

Yes, it's the CAFOs

Now is not the time for timidity

I agree with the calls for some amount of caution in the search for a smoking gun in the swine flu pandemic. There’s always the danger of over-reaching and turning your target into an object of sympathy. But really, the science IS behind us on this one. The head virologist of the CDC has indeed identified the core strain of this outbreak as one that arose in a North Carolina CAFO.  Meanwhile, another voice, this time Johann Hari of the London Independent (via HuffPo) convincingly touts the idea that our desire for cheap meat is a cause of the current …

Big Pork speaks

Smithfield is listening!

What’s that you say? Smithfield claims that they are awaiting the results of “additional” tests on the pigs at their Veracruz, Mexico, CAFO — the facility at the heart of speculation here on Grist and elsewhere as the source of the current swine flu outbreak — to determine if any pigs are infected. And just in case you were wondering, Smithfield is fully aware of who’s “driving” the CAFO/swine flu meme, if their CEO is to be believed (reg req’d): In a letter to employees, [CEO C. Larry] Pope wrote that the results of those independent laboratory tests will be …

CDC chief confirms U.S. origin of flu strain

H/t to Fair Food Fight for this one. In a Q&A with ScienceInsider, the CDC’s chief virologist Ruben Donis confirms what Columbia researchers declared: the current H1N1 swine flu virus is “all swine” in origin, the human and avian components present in the current virus date to the 1998 swine flu outbreak, and that this is not a recent triple reassortment of swine/human/avian, as has been reported: Q: How does it tie to the current outbreak? R.D.: Where does all this talk about avian and human genes come from? I was describing a fully swine virus. For [the] last 10 …