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Four important food and farm stories you may have missed

1.piggy FDA and antibiotics: If you’re confused, it’s not your fault

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, the courts have recently told the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) it has to regulate several commonly used antibiotics if they can’t be proven safe. The ruling was the result of a long-running lawsuit by a group of environmental and public health advocates lead by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and gave many in the food movement a reason to feel cautiously optimistic.

Meanwhile, the FDA has been moving at a glacial pace on its expressed intention to put a voluntary control on antibiotics in place. And this week it finally put the rubber to the road, in the form of a major press effort and the release of a new set of guidelines for cooperating companies. (The two events are supposedly unrelated, but it’s not hard to see how FDA may want to distract attention away from a court order that requires it to play the bad cop, if it can play up and formalize its role as good cop.)

The agency’s press release is even called "FDA takes steps to protect public health," and in it the agency promises to “promote the judicious use of medically important antibiotics in food-producing animals” [emphasis mine]. FDA also comes right out and acknowledges that “antimicrobial resistance occurs when bacteria or other microbes develop the ability to resist the effects of a drug. Once this occurs, a drug may no longer be as effective in treating various illnesses or infections.” In other words, the agency is talking. Whether it'll do any walking to go along with it is yet to be seen.

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Farm Bill 2012: ‘It’s a mess, but it’s our mess’

Daniel Imhoff began writing about the farm bill before today’s so-called Good Food Movement took hold. In 2007, in an effort to make accessible the giant piece of legislation that touches on everything from food stamps to farm subsidies, Imhoff wrote Food Fight: The Citizen’s Guide to the Next Food and Farm Bill. Then last year (after editing the influential CAFO Reader), Imhoff revised the book just in time for Congress to craft the 2012 Farm Bill, which narrowly escaped getting passed behind closed doors last fall but is nonetheless shaping up to be “the worst ever.”

Imhoff spoke with Grist recently about democracy, debate, and the multiple ways the farm bill resembles the Olympic Games.

Q. What is the most important thing you hope your readers will get from this edition of Food Fight?

A. That the farm bill is a really great privilege and opportunity. It’s our chance as a democracy to try to make things better in the food system -- to help people get something to eat, to help farmers get through the season, and to try to help protect the land and the resource base.

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Antibiotics in your meat? The ethanol industry might be partly to blame

Photo by USDA.

Last year, while touring a fairly small, pasture-based farmstead cheese company, I found myself in a giant feed barn with a group of curious foodies. It was one of the last stops before the cheese tasting, so no one wanted to linger. But I have a distinct memory of what it was like to stand there staring at the giant piles of grains, thinking: “The cows eat all this, on top of the grass?”

Like many dairies and livestock operations, the farm owners had been able to lower their feed costs by using the byproducts of industrial food and fuel production. Towering around us that day, we were told, were giant piles of canola pellets, cotton seeds, and soy hulls (from oil production), and dried distillers grains (from ethanol production).

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Graft punk: Breaking the law to help urban trees bear fruit

Tara Hui points out an "illegal" Asian pear she's grafted onto an ornamental pear tree.

Ornamental fruit trees are the worst idea ever. And I'd argue they say a lot about our culture. As we’ve built and expanded cities, and planted public trees, we've decided that local fruit -- fruit you could pick right on the street -- was too messy. We wanted our fruit imported, wrapped in plastic, and safely compartmentalized in the produce aisle. So we bred trees accordingly. Pear trees with no pears. Cherry trees with no cherries.

Now this San Francisco-based group called the Guerrilla Grafters is challenging the very notion of the ornamental fruit tree. And they're working outside the law (city officials don't like rotten fruit on the sidewalk, nor the liability it suggests). They’re covertly grafting -- a practice of connecting two branches in a way that will allow their vascular tissues to join together -- fruit tree limbs onto the trunks of ornamental cherry, plum, and pear trees. (We’ve highlighted them before on Grist, but since NPR covered their illegal work again this weekend, I thought it was worth another mention.)

Read more: Clean Air, Food, Smart Cities

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Michigan threatens small farms by calling heritage pigs ‘invasive’

Heritage pigs are common on small Michigan farms. (Photo by Danielle Harms.)

Things have been pretty tense on Michigan’s small pig farms over the past few days. Farmers who own rare heritage pigs in particular have been waiting anxiously, hoping the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) doesn't show up to arrest them -- or even kill their pigs.

As of April 1, the Michigan DNR was slated to start enforcing an order put in place last fall that classified wild boars as an invasive species. What does it have to do with farmers? It turns out the classification -- which is based on a set of physical characteristics, such as straight ears, dark snouts, and a tendency toward stripes in their young -- also includes many of the heritage animals kept on farms in the state. (Many farmers in the area raise an extra-fatty specialty breed called Mangalitsa, but they tend to cross them with heartier European hogs so they can withstand the cold Michigan winters).

Invasive wild boars have devastated many Southern states, so in a lot of ways the order has been an easy sell to some Michigan residents. Apparently 340 feral swine had been counted roaming in 72 of the state's 83 counties. But most of those are thought to have escaped from the state’s wild game ranches -- fenced-off areas populated with wild game for recreational hunting -- not small farms.

Read more: Food, Locavore

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Labor of love: Domestic fair trade grows

Lunch at Gathering Together Farm

At Gathering Together Farm, in Philomath, Ore., owners Sally Brewer and John Eveland sit down with all their employees three times a week for an all-farm lunch. At the height of the growing season, Gathering Together Farm employs as many as 100 people, so Brewer and Eveland bring in employees on those days especially to cook. It’s no small expense, but it’s a way to ensure that the field crew gets face time with the irrigation crew, the office employees, and the farmers market crew.

“It’s a huge meal, and it’s part of the benefits package,” says Rose Mahoney, who helps manage the farm. “It really has a family feeling.”

Read more: Food

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FDA on BPA: We need more time to think

Photo by Nerissa's Ring.

This week was packed with incriminating evidence linking the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA) to an array of health risks. As we reported last week, a new study found regular, low-dose exposure to BPA might be far more dangerous than previously believed. Meanwhile, a University of Missouri report added to the growing pile of evidence that fetal exposure to the chemical can increase one’s likelihood of obesity, while a UK-based nonprofit organization, CHEM Trust, released a report [PDF] that includes BPA with a whole list of chemicals it calls “environmental obesogens” and diabetogens, along with persistent organic pollutants (POPs), arsenic, flame retardants, and phlalates.

As it turns out, this avalanche of bad news about BPA was not a coincidence.  You see, last December, a federal judge ruled that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had been putting off responding to a 2008 petition by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to ban the plastic additive in food packaging for too long, and they had to respond by the end of March. So, in a move that won’t surprise anyone who watches the agency regularly, the FDA waited until the last Friday of the month to do so.

Read more: Food, Green Home, Living

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The woman who took on Koch Industries to save her farm

The Diffleys in the early days of Gardens of Eagan. (Photo by Helen De Michiel.)

Books written by farmers are rare -- and for good reason. Growing food takes a lot out of you, and most farmers have little or no time to reflect on their lives or package them up for an audience.

But the fact that it’s written by a veteran organic farmer is only part of what makes Atina Diffley’s book Turn Here Sweet Corn unique. Part memoir, part chronicle of the evolution of the upper Midwest organic movement and the corporate forces exerting pressure against it, the book also allows new farmers to hear from someone who has spent time in the trenches. Diffley, who co-founded the Gardens of Eagan, a successful Minnesota organic farm which has served the Twin Cities region for nearly three decades, comes across first and foremost as a survivor. She writes passionately about the years she and her husband Martin spent farming and raising a family, in the face of a seeming avalanche of challenges. Diffley takes readers along as they faced devastating droughts and hailstorms (with hailstones “as big as size-B potatoes”), razor-thin margins and near bankruptcy, and an unexpected eminent domain eviction from their first farm.

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Court orders FDA to regulate antibiotics in livestock

Photo by cistal.

Late in the day Thursday, a New York court passed a ruling that will require the FDA to get serious about antibiotics in meat.

The lawsuit, brought by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Animal Concerns Trust, Public Citizen, and Union of Concerned Scientists, is a pretty big deal. But to understand it, we must step back in time to 1977, when the FDA saw the first clear evidence that connected low doses of growth promoting antibiotics in animals to the existence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria capable of infecting people.

Since then, the agency has essentially sat on the information, while making vague claims about its intentions to regulate antibiotics, drafting a weak set of voluntary guidelines in 2010, and then formally declaring that it would end its attempt at any mandatory restrictions on the drugs late last year.

In his blog post on the NRDC website, lead attorney Avinash Kar explained that the judge determined that once the FDA discovered these drugs were unsafe for consumers or animals, the agency was obligated to withdraw approval for their use in animal feed. But they failed to do so. Kar writes:

Read more: Food

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recipe

This recipe could change the way you look at rice

Rice mixes well with a variety of grains, such as buckwheat, millet, and quinoa (pictured here).

I’m a big fan of what I like to call “the third option” in the kitchen. Case in point: You know you should eat brown rice but you don’t always find it very delicious, so you either 1) cook it occasionally and suffer through it, 2) cook white rice solely, and feel vaguely guilty about it. The third option might sound obvious, but I’m surprised by how few people have tried it: Go halfsies.

In addition to being higher in fiber and many vitamins, brown rice is also a much greener option (white rice requires about twice as much land, water, and nutrients to grow since around half the weight of the grain is lost in the processing). I was raised on brown rice (duh! Have you seen my name?), and I probably enjoy it more than most people -- but I’ll be honest; I don’t always feel motivated to make it.

Read more: Food