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Top chefs go to ‘food policy boot camp’

Chef Andrea Reusing harvests produce at Blackberry Farm for a collaborative meal at the pilot food policy boot camp. (Photo by Beall + Thomas.)

Were you as disappointed as I was to see the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller flat-out reject his role as an influencer with power to change the food system recently? If so, this might give you hope.

This week, The James Beard Foundation (JBF) -- best known for its annual food industry awards -- sent 15 chefs to food policy boot camp. That’s right, the iconic culinary organization has partnered with Pew Charitable Trusts to actively encourage chefs to push for real, tangible change.

The intent, says JBF Vice President Mitchell Davis, is not to make all chefs advocates. But, he told the blog The Braiser, “increasingly, chefs are interested in these bigger issues, and increasingly they have some input that would help form some larger policy ... that certain set of values, beliefs, experience [that comes from] literally feeding people on the front line.”

The boot camp brought a mix of celebrity chefs -- from Top Chef MastersHugh Acheson and Top Chef’s Mike Isabella, to well-loved regional chefs like Michael Anthony of New York's Gramercy Tavern and Maria Hines from Seattle’s Tilth and Golden Beetle -- to Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm for three days of policy education. The group took a deep dive into antibiotic overuse in animals (and the link to antibiotic superbugs, as it relates to Pew’s Save Antibiotics campaign) and got a primer on the current farm bill.

They also had a chance to strategize more generally about how to work with NGOs and advocates, and how to introduce their (often sizable) social media followings to important, if less sexy, food issues. (The 15 chefs attending reach over 100,000 followers on Twitter alone.) They also cooked what looks like a delicious collaborative dinner together.

Read more: Food, Sustainable Food

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The latest New York Times exposé won’t stop me from eating organic

If you’re even remotely interested in food, there’s a very good chance you’ve seen the article that ran in Sunday’s New York Times called “Has ‘Organic’ Been Oversized?” We summarized it here, and it has been all over the web for the last few days.

Author Stephanie Strom profiled Michael Potter, the owner of Eden Foods, and one of a shrinking list of people who own large, independent companies producing organic food. She also spent a great deal of time detailing the consolidation of the organic industry (a fact many consumers were introduced to by these popular mind map-like charts from Michigan State University). Strom writes:

Bear Naked, Wholesome & Hearty, Kashi: all three and more actually belong to the cereals giant Kellogg. Naked Juice? That would be PepsiCo, of Pepsi and Fritos fame. And behind the pastoral-sounding Walnut Acres, Healthy Valley and Spectrum Organics is none other than Hain Celestial, once affiliated with Heinz, the grand old name in ketchup.

Strom names representatives from companies such as General Mills, Driscoll, Earthbound Farm, and Whole Foods who are currently (or recently) on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB). And while she acknowledges that only four of the current 15 seats are occupied by people representing corporations, she also points out that all four voted to approve several controversial additives in processed organic foods. (One additive is a synthetic form of the omega-3 fatty acid DHA made from algae oil, which the Cornucopia Institute, an advocacy organization, says is the subject of something they call “Organic Watergate”[PDF].)

It's chilling stuff, for sure. But is it enough to convince us that -- as Strom writes -- the organic industry is “mostly pure fantasy”?

Read more: Food, Organic Food

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Beyond red lists: The power of community-supported fisheries

Advocates of community-supported fisheries say eating locally caught fish from small boats might just be the best way to protect the oceans. See the seven principles.

Seafood lists, such as the popular one from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program, have been the subject of quite a bit of criticism lately. This spring, the lists came under fire by fishermen after Whole Foods pledged to stop selling "red-listed" fish. Then Ray Hilborn, professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington, and co-author of Overfishing: What Everyone Needs to Know, went on record implying the lists were too narrow, saying: "You can have fish that are overfished for decades but still be sustainable."

As I see it, seafood lists -- like many food labels -- have a clear, useful function. For the majority of the population, learning that a product is, say, certified organic or certified humane is an important first step. But more and more of us are choosing go deeper, and taking the time to learn about the farmers and ranchers who produce our food (asking them questions, visiting their farms, perhaps signing up for a share in their farm as part of a community-supported agriculture share, or CSA). Once you've started taking these extra steps (i.e. really geeking out), the labels carry much less weight on their own.

That said, it's much harder to get up close and personal with the people who bring us the fish we eat than, well, most other foods. For one, about 86 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported and comes to us through a nearly opaque system of production and trade. What is caught in the United States is generally made available through a series of middlemen and we have no idea who catches it, what their practices are, and whether or not they're able to make a living doing it.

That's why I was intrigued when I was handed a little card at a conference recently that read: "Who Fishes Matters." The card came from the folks at the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance (NAMA) -- an organization that helped launch the nation's burgeoning Community-Supported Fisheries (CSF) movement. That's right, we're talking CSAs for fish. And -- just like farm-based effort that took hold in the '90s -- CSFs might just be a game changer for both eaters and the environment.

Read more: Food

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The perfect Fourth of July side dish

It has been said that California cuisine isn’t so much about cooking as it is about shopping. In summertime, this rule applies just about everywhere. And while the original shopping-not-cooking comment was meant as an insult, I’ve found it to be a helpful framework on which to hang many a meal. Buy the best ingredients, subject them to just the right combination of salt, lemon, and olive oil, and it’s hard to go wrong.

This approach describes my favorite summer salad to a T. If you’re going to a potluck this Fourth of July, I promise it will be a hit. But only if the corn is super fresh, as in picked-two-days-ago fresh.

Read more: Food

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Parched Midwest could mean smaller Gulf dead zone

Here's last year's Gulf dead zone. How big will this year's be? (Photo courtesy of NOAA.)

If you’re an underwater creature living in the Gulf of Mexico, summer is not your friend. All spring long, rain falls on America’s farmland and floods the waterways around factory animal farms, creating a steady stream of nitrogen from excess fertilizer and animal waste that heads down the Mississippi River and out to the Gulf. These nutrients create algae that sinks, decomposes, and eats oxygen. The result is an oxygen-free area or underwater desert -- a dead zone.

This year, one study from the University of Michigan estimates the Gulf dead zone might be a lot smaller than it has been in recent years -- a mere 1,200 square miles, compared to 6,765 square miles in 2011.

If this turns out to be the case, it won’t be the result of improved agricultural practices, but rather the result of what Reuters calls the Corn Belt’s “driest season in 24 years.” The article continues:

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‘Monsanto Protection Act’ would keep GMO crops in the ground during legal battles

It's that exciting time of the year again when the Senate and House Appropriations Committees get together to hash out the annual agriculture budget. I know, right? Really fun stuff.

This year, in addition to the usual underfunding of legislation that could make the food system more sustainable, the appropriations process has become especially charged, thanks to a one-paragraph addition called the “farmer assurance provision.” The provision -- which the agriculture committee approved last week, but has yet to go to the full House -- would allow farmers to plant and grow GMO crops before they’ve been deemed safe. Or, more accurately, if it passes, farmers will be able to plant these crops while legal battles ensue over their safety.

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After the Rio Earth Summit: Will agriculture really get any greener?

If last week’s Rio+20 Earth Summit made anything clear to those of us at home, it's the degree to which the world’s developed nations have been sitting on their hands since the original Earth Summit 20 years ago. As Grist's Greg Hanscom reported from the summit, the "outcome document" was negotiated before the week started, and “the overwhelming feeling [there], even as world leaders and celebrities rolled in for the official pomp and circumstance, was that the summit was over even before it began.”

Meanwhile, Bill McKibben called the event a “formulaic bureaucracy-fest” wherein the only real excitement was a walkout staged by young activists.

So where was food and agriculture in all this? Food was one of seven “critical issues” identified by the U.N. before Rio+20 began, as population growth (we’ll have another 2 billion people on the planet by 2050) and climate change have put the question of food access into sharp focus. But a quick look at the “issue brief” prepared before the summit will tell you most of what you need to know about the vast chasm that exists between the kinds of goals articulated in meetings like this and the level of real change occurring on the ground. “Global delivery of the food security and sustainable agriculture-related commitments has been disappointing,” the brief reads. And it’s easy to see why; a table reporting on target goals set as early as 1995 is filled with stalled progress, lack of funding, and a general dearth of political will. Here are a few examples:

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Meatifest destiny: How Big Meat is taking over the Midwest

Photo courtesy of Save Family Farms.

When the Des Moines Register ran a front-page story last week calling into question the growth of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in the state, it wasn’t environmentalists or animal rights activists who went on record against the facilities. No, the article featured ex-hog farmers who have been vocal in opposing new factory farms, as well as several Iowans who don’t want to see huge facilities -- nor the “poo lagoons” that go along with them -- take over the landscape.

Some 19.7 million pigs are raised in Iowa CAFOs every year, and that number is likely to keep climbing. A chart of livestock construction permits that ran with the Register story certainly projects growth. It reads:

2006...............310
2007.............. 252
2008.............. 218
2009................ 60
2010................. 62
2011................ 132
2012 (by 6/07).. 91

That’s right, after a "slump" in 2009 and 2010, the industry is back to its CAFO-building ways, with 91 permits issued so far this year. And remember, these are not small facilities; according to the Register, each facility contains around 4,400 hogs in two buildings.

Click to embiggen.

Looking at these numbers, it's easy to wonder: How much longer can the state (or the region for that matter) handle this kind of growth? When the nonprofit advocacy group Food and Water Watch created this Factory Farm Map back in 2007, Iowa was already one of the states most saturated with CAFOs (see image). According to the chart above, over 500 CAFOs may have been built since then. Of course not all that growth has to mean new operations -- some permits may be for the expansion of preexisting buildings -- but if even half that number resulted in new facilities, it's a cause for concern.

Read more: Factory Farms, Food

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Your meat on drugs: Will grocery stores cut out antibiotics?

A still from a new video about antibiotics in farm animals from FixFood. Click or scroll down to watch.

Despite a high-profile lawsuit, a recent court order, and a much-hyped set of voluntary rules, it’s still not clear that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) plans to do anything of substance to stop meat producers from using antibiotics on a massive -- and massively destructive -- scale. It has been three decades since the FDA first identified the use of these drugs in livestock production as a problem. But they’re still mulling it over, apparently. Thinking long and hard.

While they think, 80 percent of all the antibiotics sold in the U.S. are being used on animals to spur growth and compensate for crowded, dirty conditions. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria or “superbugs” continue to show up in food and cause infections in tens of thousands of people every year (99,000 people died of hospital-acquired infections in 2002, the most recent year for which data are available).

It’s no coincidence then that Meat Without Drugs, the campaign launched today by Consumers Union, doesn’t target the FDA or any government agency, for that matter. Instead, the advocacy group, which has been pushing for a ban on antibiotics in agriculture since the late 1970s, is targeting grocery stores.

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Shopper’s delight: Here’s what to buy organic

The Dirty Dozen list includes the produce with the most pesticide residue. Click to download the full guide.

Every year, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) releases a new version of its Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides just as I start gearing up to fill my gullet with watermelon, peaches, and tomatoes.

That’s right, it’s peak produce season, and -- unless you eat everything 100 percent organic all the time -- pesticide residue is a valid concern. What's more, not all conventionally grown fruits and vegetables pose the same risk. The EWG site ranks 45 foods and pulls out the best and worst on the list. “The Dirty Dozen” are the foods most likely to be coated with pesticide residue (peaches happen to be No. 4 on the list, while apples have earned the No. 1 spot for several years running). “The Clean 15” are the foods (including onions, corn, and avocados) that are safest for consumers.

Of course, as I’ve written before, this list doesn’t necessarily correspond to the amount of pesticides used to grow the food. Many of the crops on the Clean 15 list still require a hefty dose of toxic chemicals, which still have an impact on the soil, groundwater, and wildlife around them -- not to mention the people who work on farms and live in the surrounding communities. Those chemicals just don’t make it to your plate as readily, for a variety of reasons.

Read more: Food