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Tom Laskawy's Posts

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Will the farm bill prop up doomed crops in this extreme climate?

Photo by Tom Woodward.

Things are looking bleak for corn farmers in the Midwest. Drought conditions and above-average temperatures are likely to continue for some time and now even soybeans -- corn’s sister commodity -- are succumbing to the weather. The economic implications for the entire Midwest -- and not just farmers -- are dire.

Not that this is entirely unexpected. Experts have been warning commodity farmers for years that a changing climate will lead to exactly these kinds of devastating conditions in the nation’s heartland.

And, yes, I agree with David Roberts, who says it’s time to dispense with “climate disclaimers,” i.e. the “well, gee, we don’t really know” qualifications about the relationship between climate change and these kinds of weather events. After all, as Grist reported recently, the government’s National Climatic Data Center calculated that if the climate weren’t warming, we wouldn’t expect to see another period as hot as the last 13 months have been until the year 124,652. Does anyone really believe that we’re experiencing “100,000-year” warmth? Me neither.

There’s also the effect the heat and drought are having on food prices; Bloomberg Businessweek reports that prices on grocery store shelves are already on the rise:

In May, retail prices of boneless hams, ground beef and cheese in the U.S. were close to all-time highs set earlier this year, while chicken breast jumped more than 12 percent during the first five months of the year, government data show.

“When people look at rising prices for hamburger, butter, eggs and other protein sources from higher corn costs, that’s when more money ends up in the food basket,” said Minneapolis- based Michael Swanson, a senior agricultural economist at Wells Fargo & Co., the biggest U.S. farm lender. “We were hoping for a break, and we aren’t going to get it.”

But it’s also worth considering what’s going on in the Midwest in light of today’s markup of the House Agriculture Committee’s draft of the new farm bill. [Update: The House Agriculture Committee approved the bill on July 12. There is still no date set for a vote by the full House.] While I reported on the outrageous cuts to food stamps in the House version last week, I didn’t get a chance to review the equally outrageous, effectively unrestricted expansion of crop insurance included in the bill. As the Environmental Working Group summed it up, the committee draft “would give unlimited taxpayer dollars to farmers who are already making record profits and less support to hungry kids who depend on federal assistance for food.”

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Stamp of disapproval: House farm bill to gut nutrition program

Photo by Don O'Brien.

When the Senate passed its version of the farm bill, we at Grist had to admit that, for all the flaws, it “wasn’t all bad news.” Some of the worst aspects of the bill (like giveaways to the insurance industry and to big commodity farmers) were reined in by several late-breaking amendments, and federal nutrition programs (“food stamps”) were “only” cut by $4.5 billion over the next 10 years. That may not sound so great, but it’s all relative; farm bill analysts have been warning for months that the House version would be much worse.

In fact, later today, we’ll find out for sure just how much worse it can get. The House Agriculture Committee is scheduled to release its draft of the farm bill tonight -- and according to Politico’s David Rogers, the House GOP has indeed forced far deeper (you might even say extreme) cuts to food stamps as the price for passage. According to Rogers' sources, the House version of the farm bill will cut $16.5 billion over 10 years from food stamps alone.

(Update: Shortly after we published this post, the House released its draft. And that number was right.)

Read more: Farm Bill, Food

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Can ‘veggie prescriptions’ really make people healthier?

When it comes to the health of the nation, asparagus no expense.

With all the talk of taxing and banning the foods (and sodas) that are bad for us, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that doing the opposite can work, too. In fact, subsidies for healthy foods can be very effective at changing eating habits. And we’re learning even more about how well this approach can work from an innovative program designed by the nonprofit Wholesome Wave called Fruit and Vegetable Rx.

As the name might suggest, the program provides low-income people who don't have much access to healthy food a doctor’s “prescription” plus vouchers that can be used to buy fresh fruit and vegetables. Jane Black reports for the Washington Post on Washington, D.C.’s pilot project version of the program run by local nonprofits in conjunction with a health clinic:

On June 6, the clinic began writing “fruit and vegetable prescriptions” to help cover the cost of fresh produce. Thirty-five families will receive vouchers for $1 per family member per day -- $112 every four weeks for a family of four -- to spend at any of five District farmers markets ... The hope is that a medical endorsement of healthful eating, plus cash to buy ingredients, will help families make real changes to the way they shop and eat.

Early data suggests that such programs do exactly that. There’s also anecdotal evidence that these kinds of programs can lead to healthier lifestyles overall:

Read more: Food

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Pop goes the weasel: Will good deeds keep the soda industry super-sized?

Recent "cause marketing" from Pepsi Co. (Click to embiggen.)

The crackdown on super-sized sodas appears to be spreading. According to Businessweek, Cambridge, Mass., is now exploring the idea of limiting the portion size of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. This news comes just as several members of New York City’s Board of Health spoke out strongly in favor of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 16-ounce limit for soda sizes.

What will beverage companies will do in response? Well, let's just say they're a group that tends to play hardball. In fact, some public health advocates have compared soda companies’ recent marketing tactics and business strategies, developed in the wake of growing evidence linking sweetened beverage consumption and obesity, to those of tobacco companies. “Taking a page from tobacco’s playbook” is a phrase I’ve seen used more than once.

And while advocates stand by the comparison, there hasn’t been much rigorous analysis behind it to date. Trying to fill that gap, the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Medicine commissioned a series of reports to explore “the activities and influence of the food and beverage industry in the health arena.”

Read more: Food

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Line ‘em up, knock ‘em down: Senate plans 73 farm bill votes today

To farm bill or not to farm bill, that is the question. Or that's been the question occupying the Senate for the last week. The problem, as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition explains, is that while there is a complete farm bill draft awaiting a final vote in the Senate, senators have filed almost 300 amendments, several of them unrelated to the bill itself.

There isn’t enough time to consider all these amendments, so farm-state senators have worked furiously to pull off a deal involving votes on a package of amendments followed by a vote on the complete bill. It will all culminate today, in what's called a vote-o-rama: votes on 73 amendments in quick succession. (Here’s the guide to amendments to watch we published last week on Grist -- although several of the most reform-minded did not make the cut, nor did the amendment to ban battery cages in egg production. The GMO labeling amendment led by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) will get a vote, however.) While this process will only get the bill through the Senate (the House is another story completely), it looks like it’s the best hope we have this year.

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Vanguard state: California might just lead the way on GMO labeling

Europeans have been doing it since 1997. The Chinese saw fit to do it in 2004. And over a billion Indians will start doing it this January. Meanwhile about 95 percent of Americans want to do it at any given time -- but can’t. And, as with many past liberation movements, the Americans who get to do it first may very well be in California.

Of course, I’m talking about labeling genetically modified foods (GMOs). This is a timely topic because a GMO labeling proposition called "The Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act” has officially qualified for the November ballot in California. While it’s true that the California legislature has killed several earlier attempts to pass a GMO labeling law (as also happened in Washington, Connecticut, and Vermont), this version will be put directly in front of voters. And as Richard Schiffman, writing for the U.K. Guardian, observes, that matters. His post reads:

What makes the referendum in California different is that, for the first time, voters and not politicians will be the ones to decide. And this has the food industry worried. Understandably so, since only one in four Americans is convinced that GMOs are "basically safe," according to a survey conducted by the Mellman Group, and a big majority wants food containing GMOs to be labeled.

Read more: Food, Scary Food

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Food has gotten cheaper — but at what cost?

Photo by Nick Castonguay.

I’ve noticed that quite a few Grist readers have been struck by our coverage of shockingly high food prices in Inuit communities in Canada’s far north. It’s less a story of life in extreme lands than the culmination of a historical destruction of indigenous peoples’ traditional foodways combined with a conservative government’s unwillingness to help them adapt.

How appropriate then that NPR’s Planet Money, as part of its Graphing America series, should look at how America’s food spending has changed over the last 30 years. The headline figure -- the one Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack is proudest of -- is that we spend just under 9 percent of our income on food, about 30 percent less than we did in 1982.

Image courtesy of NPR.

Despite the drop, our shopping baskets have stayed more or less the same -- with one notable exception. Processed foods now take the lion’s share of our collective food spending -- their share has doubled in the last 30 years.

Read more: Factory Farms, Food

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Feds to farmers: Grow GMO beets or face sugar shortage

If you’re Monsanto, you’re probably really proud of your genetically modified (GMO) sugar beets. Introduced in 2008, the beets are the company’s most recent Roundup Ready product genetically engineered to withstand the direct application of the herbicide glyphosate. Immediately successful, they took over the sugar beet market within two years. By 2010, 95 percent of the sugar beets grown in the U.S. were Monsanto’s genetically modified variety.

This matters to us all because about 50 percent of white sugar sold here is made from sugar beets. In other words, unless that bag of sugar you just bought is labeled “Certified Organic” or “100 percent cane sugar,” it almost certainly contains sugar made from GMO crops.

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Why Bloomberg’s ‘Big Gulp ban’ could be good for New York City

Ironically, 7-Eleven stores are actually exempt from the ban. (Photo by Shelly Munkberg.)

If the food police has a chief, it may very well be New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. His battles with the food industry are quickly becoming the stuff of legend. And his latest gambit is his boldest yet: Bloomberg just announced a plan to ban the sale of any sweetened beverage over 16 ounces at all restaurants, delis, and sports arenas in New York City.

And just so the soda industry doesn’t feel singled out, this ban would apply to sports drinks and sweetened iced tea, along with pretty much anything with added sugars -- although the Starbucks Frappucino likely makes it through on a technicality; dairy products like it (as well as fruit juice, “diet” drinks, and booze) are exempted.

This latest move comes on the heels of the city’s successful (and much copied) trans fat ban, as well as its public media campaign against soda called “Don’t Drink Yourself Fat” -- not to mention its proposal to limit salt in processed food. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control confirmed recently that these and many other efforts may be starting to pay off for the Big Apple. The obesity rate in NYC among kids dropped 5 percent over the last five years.

So why enact an outright ban on large drinks when there’s evidence [PDF] that a penny-per-ounce soda tax would have cut consumption while generating needed revenue for the public coffers? Do you really have to ask?

Read more: Food, Scary Food

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File under bad idea: G8 asks Big Ag to take the lead in feeding the world

When President Obama announced a new program during the recent G8 summit to help bolster food and agriculture in developing nations through corporate “pledges,” I was most struck by his choice of partners in the effort. A Reuters report on the announcement read:

The initiative includes a new partnership with agribusiness giants such as DuPont, Monsanto and Cargill, along with smaller companies, including almost 20 from Africa, which will commit some $3 billion for projects to help farmers in the developing world build local markets and improve productivity.

Those three companies are the good food movement’s equivalent of the law firm Dewey, Cheatem & Howe -- not the folks it wants to see put in charge of anything, much less “feeding the world.” These companies believe that exporting western-style industrial agriculture to the developing world (Africa in particular) is key to ensuring enough food for a growing population. And they maintain this position despite the growing evidence that industrial agriculture can’t solve the problem.