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Tom Laskawy's Posts

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If they ban your super-sized soda, would you switch to diet?

Photo by Shutterstock.

Like the speakers at the ongoing Republican National Convention, I communicate the “hard truths.” Here’s one for today: No one likes a party pooper.

I’m inspired by a recent poll conducted by The New York Times which found 60 percent of New York City residents oppose Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on sodas larger than 16 ounces.

His constituents’ opposition, which other polls have documented at lower levels, isn’t stopping Bloomberg, however. It’s still full steam ahead on the ban, which only requires a vote by his handpicked Board of Health to become the law of the land.

Of course, as the Wall Street Journal reported in June, just because Bloomberg says it’s the law doesn’t necessarily mean it will stay the law. He’s out of office come January. According to the WSJ, one of the leading candidates for New York City mayor, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, is skeptical of the ban; she observed that a “future mayor ‘should certainly think about’ reversing the ban.” Her opposition is grounded in a misconception -- that the ban will somehow limit people’s right to drink as much soda as they want, when in fact anyone intent on drinking mass quantities of soda will be free to buy it.

Read more: Food

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Keeping it in the family: BPA’s effects might last in our bodies for generations

Image by Shutterstock.

Back in May, I pointed to a study on a farm chemical that was found to cause physiological and behavioral changes in rats. Worryingly, the effects persisted for generations after a single exposure (it was the first time this phenomenon was extensively documented in an industrial chemical). In an email at the time, one of the study authors said, “Many other environmental compounds promote these types of phenomena ... Future science and policy needs to consider such phenomena and mechanisms.”

It looks like he was right. Now, another study has found evidence of multi-generational effects of exposure -- in this case, to that ubiquitous endocrine disruptor you love to hate: bisphenol A (BPA). The research appears in the peer-reviewed journal Endocrinology and was conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Virginia. Its title says it all: "Gestational Exposure to Bisphenol A Produces Transgenerational Changes in Behaviors and Gene Expression."

There are several interesting (and ominous) aspects of this new research that should give us all pause. The first is that researchers looked specifically at genetic effects. The previous study I cited examined behavioral and physiological effects alone. And yes, the scientists found evidence of genetic alterations from BPA exposure. But the truly significant aspect of the study comes from the fact that the researchers replicated in mice the low-level, chronic exposure that humans experience in their day-to-day lives. It was this level of exposure that caused the genetic and behavioral changes they saw.

Try not to get scared. I dare you.

Read more: Food, Living

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Cuts to food stamps will hit red state residents hardest

Photo by USDA
While cutting food stamps remains atop the Republican agenda, a new Gallup poll reminds us that hunger continues to run rampant in America. The GOP (along with a pliant media) has spent a lot of time trying to connect the increase in food stamp spending to expanded eligibility, to wit: the slumming 20-something hipster who uses the benefit to bolster his shopping list.

But Gallup demonstrates that hunger is everywhere in the U.S. right now. According to the poll, over 18 percent of Americans “say there have been times when they could not afford the food they needed” during the last year. In 15 states, that figure jumps to one in five Americans.

There’s an odd political angle to this poll. The top-10 list for states with the highest hunger rates includes the GOP strongholds of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Louisiana. More than half of those states are as red as they come, i.e. even in a landslide these states wouldn’t back Obama.

But here's the kicker: Gallup mapped the percentage of people who "lacked money for food." What do you notice?

Red America suffers from the highest hunger rates generally -- the exception being the Plains states that have been enjoying, up until recently, an agriculture boom.

Read more: Food

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Lawyers go after processed food industry with tactics that worked on Big Tobacco

Photo by Shutterstock.

Unlike with Big Tobacco, which has been the target of several successful class action lawsuits, including one for $800 billion in 2008, the track record for lawyers and plaintiffs filing lawsuits against Big Food hasn’t been so good. Attempts to sue fast-food chains like McDonald’s for “causing” obesity in its customers haven't worked, although people do keep trying.

And then there’s the sine qua non of farcical, frivolous food company lawsuits -- the dude in California who sued PepsiCo over Cap’n Crunch’s Crunch Berries because the candy-in-a-cereal-box didn’t contain real berries. Not only does that one not pass the legal “reasonable person should know” test, it doesn’t pass the “idiot person” test (though in fairness it does probably pass the Upper Class Twit Test); the presiding judge summarily dismissed the suit as “nonsense.”

Food companies, of course, would like consumers (and judges) to think that all attempts to sue them for fraud or health-related liability are similarly misconceived. However, as Stephanie Strom reported in The New York Times over the weekend, a group of former anti-tobacco super-lawyers has set out to prove Big Food wrong. And these lawyers won’t go for the Crunch Berries gambit; they’re armed with battle-tested arguments that they know work with juries and judges and have allowed them to extract billions of dollars in settlements from tobacco companies.

Read more: Food

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Paul Ryan’s food and agriculture track record: Neither ‘refreshing’ nor ‘bold’

Photo by James Currie.

As members of Congress enjoy their August recess, big questions linger about whether we’ll have a new food and farm bill before the end of the year, let alone before the current bill expires Sept. 30. That might be part of why, earlier this week, President Obama at an Iowa campaign appearance implicated Mitt Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), in the current farm bill debacle, accusing Ryan of “standing in the way.”

And while Obama was oversimplifying the issue -- as often happens in election season -- it’s worth taking a closer look at the role Ryan has played in this year farm bill process.

Read more: Food

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Pesticide-resistant insects add insult to drought injury

The Western corn rootworm in its adult stage. (Photo courtesy of the USDA.)

Last winter, I wrote about evidence that one of Monsanto’s flagship GMO product lines -- seeds engineered to produce the pesticide Bt -- was succumbing to corn rootworms, the exact insects it was designed to kill. The evidence was somewhat thin -- the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) received reports from several states that indicated a problem -- and certainly not decisive enough to prevent Monsanto from issuing an outright denial.

But now comes a report from Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) on the damage rootworms are doing to the current corn crop and the very real concern farmers have that Monsanto’s seeds are no longer helping them control pests. The EPA is treating these latest reports seriously; according to the article, EPA officials visited some “problem fields” to observe possible evidence of resistance while awaiting results from Monsanto’s own scientists.

One pest expert MPR interviewed, Bruce Potter of the University of Minnesota, spoke more directly about the threat posed by rootworms, which appeared to have been held at bay by GMO corn until now. "We're not going to make this go away ... We're stuck with managing this problem," he told MPR. The report continues:

Potter has seen what he calls a "ridiculous" increase in rootworms apparently unfazed by the usually deadly protein [in GMO Bt seeds] in southern and western Minnesota this summer.

Potter also spoke at a workshop held on a farm experiencing rootworm resistance, where he said that Monsanto Bt seeds are “basically backfiring.”

"Instead of making things easier, we've just made corn rootworm management harder and a heck of a lot more expensive," Potter said.

Read more: Food

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GMO sugar beets get the green light

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ruled once and for all to allow unrestricted planting of Monsanto’s GMO sugar beets. This announcement puts an end to a long court battle to force the USDA to uphold the law -- a battle that some anti-GMO advocates might call Pyrrhic.

We covered the GMO sugar fracas extensively last month, but here’s a quickie review: The USDA was forced to perform a court-ordered environmental review of the GMO sugar beet seed and to restrict planting by farmers until the review was finished. As it happens, this was a review that the USDA had failed to complete back in 2008 when it had allowed farmers to begin using the seed. This failure was in violation of law and was the grounds for the court’s intervention after several consumer groups filed suit. And though the agency flouted a court-ordered halt to planting out of concern about a sugar shortage, they did ultimately comply with the judge’s order to finish a full review.

The ruling came out of the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), the division in charge of regulating genetically modified food. And, as if to stress the fact that the process is complete and GMO sugar beets are totally in the clear, the USDA declared in the announcement that “this is APHIS’ final regulatory determination in this matter.” So back off, people!

The review was released last month so there was little that was surprising in the final announcement. But the language that APHIS used this week explains a lot about federal policy on GMOs. As the agency put it:

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Mapping the government’s local food work as a way to keep it alive

Click to explore the map of the USDA's efforts to boost local food systems.

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released what it’s calling the “2.0 version” of its Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food Compass. For those not in the know, the Compass is a map of all of the local food projects -- including farmers markets, food hubs, infrastructure, and producers -- the USDA funds.

The Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food (KYF) initiative itself is the brainchild of USDA Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan -- possibly the highest ranking supporter of sustainable agriculture we’ve ever had at USDA -- as a way to highlight efforts to aid local foods.

I’m a big fan of mapping as a visualization tool and the Compass certainly provides lots of data. That said, it’s not really much of a consumer-focused tool compared with private efforts like RealTimeFarms.com, which not only maps farmers markets and farms, but also shows the links between particular restaurants and their local artisanal and farm suppliers.

Read more: Food, Locavore

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New report: The Farm Bureau not a true friend to farmers

The cover of a Farm Bureau brochure. The subtitle reads: The voice of agriculture.

The Washington Post says that the current drought is the worst in a half-century and the corn harvest will likely be even smaller than the USDA’s recently downsized estimates. The wacky weather in the heart of commodity agriculture country reminds me of something Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), said a few years ago in a Newsweek interview about farmers' attitudes toward climate change. It read:

Stallman says most farmers aren’t worried. “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.”

Yeah. Well, I don’t know how many farmers want to “roll with” this drought. Mr. Stallman, would you like to revise those remarks?

I’m guessing no. After all, the AFBF was instrumental in exempting agriculture from the ill-fated climate bill back in 2009 and Stallman has shown no interest in revisiting the issue. There remains no mention of climate change on the AFBF website.

Read more: Factory Farms, Food

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Insult to injury: How the House snuck protection for GMOs into its farm bill

shhhApparently it wasn’t quite enough for the House Agriculture Committee to pass a version of the farm bill that made over $16 billion in cuts to food stamps and allowed for an open-ended expansion of crop insurance for Big Ag.

No, the members of the committee also felt the need to sneak something in to help out those poor struggling biotechnology behemoths in their attempts to win approval for new genetically engineered seed. Since we all know genetically modified seeds never win approval. I’m sorry. Did I say never? I meant always.

But apparently an unending winning streak isn’t enough for the biotech industry. It wants to make sure that the U.S. Department of Agriculture approves its new seeds with minimal study, and loses the ability to withdraw them from the market should they prove harmful. To top it off, biotech companies want to ensure that anyone harmed by these seeds will have no recourse for damages.*

Read more: Farm Bill, Food